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Descent (MC:SM)

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Jesse came to the conclusion the world wasn't fair too early.

It was dark and stuffy under the blanket, but it muffled the sounds of his mom and the man who was currently staying with them well enough. He wanted all of it to stop: the father figures he thought he could trust before leaving him and his mom in a lost heap, the shouting, watching her cry for hours one day and being too loud the next, staring at the red cuts on her arms, being treated like a nuisance because nobody wanted Natalie's kid, just her, and that ended after some time, so much more.

Nobody wanted the kid who couldn't speak English, much less talk in general, and cried when the noise level got too high, not the kid who had nightmares way too often and sat by himself too much and freaked out when he made a mistake.

It was dark and stuffy under the blanket, but Jesse had Reuben, a fuzzy pink bundle in his lap among all the pain in his broken world. The one constant thing he could rely on, nuzzling into the crook of his arm at night and munching on potatoes right out of his palms and playfully nibbling at him when Jesse cried, trotting at his ankles wherever he went.

Reuben had been the center of his life apart from his mom for a long time, and Jesse felt like he'd been hit with an anvil when he died. Without his pig the loneliness as a child would've been unbearable, and with him gone Jesse felt as though a small portion of him was missing. A year later, he still missed Reuben, still wanted him lying at his feet in the morning, missed the sound of his hooves thumping on the ground beside him.

Jesse had wondered if everything was his fault-- his mom, the pain of the people around him, and as he experienced more what happened to his team during the Portal Hallway, all the deaths since the Witherstorm, and still did.

None of it was fair, the world wasn't fair, what he had to continuously go through wasn't fair, but he had to keep going. For his mom and Olivia, then his sisters and brother, then for Axel and everyone who counted on him to step up and be responsible, to support and be someone who could always support others.

After giving up once and failing, he couldn't let that happen again, no matter how much he wanted to stop, no matter what he needed in the moment. Recently it had started to get worse-- the depression and mania, feeling anxious and PTSD attacks. But Jesse ignored it all, focusing on the needs of those around him, leaving his unstable mental state to fester like a wound.

As if that wasn't enough, Beacontown was rapidly increasing in size and population, and Jesse helped more and more often to cope with what he didn't want to think about. There was also the problem of who would take charge, who would make the decisions for the city as a unit, and he felt very pressured to fill the role more than he unintentionally did. With Beacontown growing in status, more people moved: more arguments he had to settle, more chaos, more projects, more conversations with the mayors of other towns, more work, more problems, more responsibility.

It was getting to be too much to handle. Jesse didn't sleep regularly anymore, maybe eating a snack twice a day, lying awake for hours when he did get a chance to rest, waking up at dawn and returning late in the night. The Order rarely saw him at all, and he backed out of their requests to spend time together.

Ivor and Lukas were the first to notice the major change in behavior. They prodded at him a little, asked what he was doing, but didn't take pressuring him very far.

Axel and Petra weren't very good at reading people, usually tending to be blunt and straightforward. They refused to sugarcoat anything unless absolutely necessary. Olivia was often caught up in undertakings of hers she all-nighted to build in relative peace and quiet. The group hadn't done anything as a team in weeks.

Jesse didn't really understand that-- why they didn't just do things on their own, he certainly wasn't in charge of what they did or where they went. He usually messed up missions and adventures anyways, there wasn't a point in him going.

"Hey, Jesse," Olivia appeared at his side, frowning at the disorganized mess that was the top of his desk. She pulled off her red powdered gloves and stuck them in her back pocket. "You've been cooped up in here for hours. Everything okay?"

"Yeah, I'm doing fine. Got this letter to finish, though. Some mayor's having a water crisis and can't come up with a solution as of now, and the neighboring county won't help out, so I have to--"

Olivia laughed, nudging his shoulder."It's alright, I understand. Maybe we can go visit your mom later if you're feeling up to it. Just don't overwork yourself."

Whatever this mental funk was-- it wasn't a priority.

He could handle it.

"I won't. Promise."

***

"You know, I'm thinking we should go exploring again, even if for only a few days. Nothing too big, make an expedition, go camping. We haven't done something like that in ages."

Petra stared at him, stopping mid-bite. "Hold up. You, Lukas, are suggesting we go out adventuring. Are you listening to yourself?"

Lukas rolled his eyes, setting his fork onto his plate of eggs as she finished crunching down on her toast. "I'm not saying we should dash blindly through the Portal Hallway, all I'm saying is we should go somewhere as a team."

"Because you have definitely made efforts to do so by spending all day in your room writing, not bothering to say hi, shoved in all those musty history books you like to zone out in. I just wasn't expecting you to mention it when you said we should 'do more things' and go to breakfast, which is ridiculous because I'm always out and doing stuff and none of you apart from Axel want to join. Besides, you're. . . not exactly the adventurous type."

"Maybe I'm not a total restless outdoor person like you, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy a change of scenery now and then. And it doesn't have to specifically be an adventure, I could set up a game night--"

Petra grinned. "Adventure it is."

Lukas sighed, knowing he wasn't going to win the argument. He blew on the top of his coffee, hoping it was no longer hot, and took a drink, gazing out at the roads and city squares beginning to become busy with opening shops and people. It was the start of the weekend, meaning local street markets would be running until Sunday evening. He'd been lucky to catch Petra. What she said was true, about her always being somewhere. Trying to track her down had been like trying to catch a firefly with his hands: first she was here, then she was there, then she wasn't even in town and the next day she'd be home again.

The sun was just rising over the tops of homes and buildings, painting everything in a soft gold glow, setting light apart from the shadows. He loved mornings. "Where, though? Most untouched places are super far south or north now, we've been doing a pretty good job of filling out maps. It's made a huge difference."

Petra stabbed her second piece of toast viciously with a butterknife a couple of times. "Don't get mad, but listen. I know this guy--"

He groaned. "Not again--"

"No, shut your trap and let me finish before you start whining. Anyways, I know this guy in possession of old maps and the like, some rare artifacts and antiques. We go way back. He trades a lot of cool shit, travels around but he's usually here on the weekend markets. That's where Axel and I grabbed those explosive fireworks."

"What? That was you? I spent a whole day trying to find who set those off!"

"They were just fireworks--"

"They were a very dangerous fire hazard!"

"You heard nothing. Never speak of this again and you keep your fingers."

"We're talking about the fireworks later."

". . . Fine. Whatever. So back to this guy. Last time I saw him, he mentioned he'd discovered a bunch of old papers and a map in a chest during a trek to the desert surrounding Boomtown. Had to break the lock to get in, it was wrapped up in a bunch of chains. Weird-looking piece of junk, the papers had a bunch of runes on them. Most are damaged beyond repair, but there's two or three preserved enough to read. He doesn't want them. Says they freak him out. You see where I'm going?"

Lukas picked at the grains in the table surface, unsure. "Are you sure this is something we want to have?"

"You're seriously not saying you feel threatened by a piece of paper. It's all superstition; the guy believes in mood rings and tea bags saying when you'll die. For all we know the map gives good luck. Since the trader's here, I could go find him and be back this afternoon. I think I should at least see it once."

Lukas scratched his throat, feeling his stomach knot up in a twinge of discomfort. He didn't like to call himself "superstitious," because he didn't believe in ghosts, or demons, or spirits, and found the whole notion surrounding them existing bizarre, but some sort of gut instinct told him taking the papers wasn't the wisest action.

Normally he didn't rely on instinct and thought that idea was a little bizarre, too. He liked to thoroughly study whatever he was up against before coming up with the best tactic to take them down, get as much information as possible before making a move. He liked things that could be explained by logic, scientifically proven, and were always able to be relied on to produce the best result.

Gut instinct did not fall into the completely logical category. Lukas left that to people like Petra and Jesse, who shot first and asked questions later.

However, whether he believed in gut instinct and hunches or not, part of his conscious mind told him this wasn't a good idea. And even though it might be better to leave the aged parchments where they belonged, Lukas found himself wanting to know more, curiosity piqued. After spending a quiet minute to think his decision over, he reluctantly agreed to have Petra visit the trader. Knowing Jesse, he would be just as excited as Petra was.

Now alone at the table, Lukas frowned at the thought of his friend.

Jesse had grown increasingly distant over the past two months or so, almost as if avoiding the rest of the group. He hardly talked, and it was getting worse by the week, never being home for more than a couple hours, keeping himself busy nearly all of the time. Lukas had tried speaking to him about his recent behavior several times, prying, but Jesse was a tough nut to crack when he closed himself off and Lukas couldn't reach past his stubborn attitude, any attempt to wring out how he was really doing shut down, Jesse's response polite but firm. At that point Lukas would quit asking, not wanting to upset him.

He'd run out of options. It hurt, so bad when Jesse turned him away. All Lukas wanted to do was make sure he was happy and safe, and the situation created a problem where Lukas thought he was always doing something wrong, he wasn't doing enough.

And Jesse. . . well, Jesse honestly didn't feel like merely a friend to Lukas anymore.

Even Ivor, who could normally work his way in easily with some well-placed inquisitive comments (Lukas thought this was mostly because Ivor acted like an overprotective dad), was considering he might have to give up trying to learn what Jesse felt. Considering. Lukas knew he wouldn't stop until he was no longer concerned for Jesse's well-being.

"Sir, are you done with that?" He'd spent so much time lingering over his thoughts his coffee had turned cold. He looked at the waiter, flushed, a little embarrassed at being caught in the middle of spacing out. And maybe at the fact the employee standing at his table was cute, freckled and smiling. "Yes, thank you." He coughed awkwardly, paying for his meal and hoping the other boy wouldn't notice his face.

He left a tip, then headed home. To avoid unwanted attention, he took the long way back, relying on well-known side streets, detours, and the sheer amount of people to keep him undercover-- he'd left his iconic leather jacket at home as well. The crowds had become so pushy during the first months the Order had resorted to wearing small disguises to leave town, or even to accomplish small tasks, although now people were beginning to get used to seeing them out and about, doing normal things.

The first month had been the worst. News about "The New Order" had spread like wildfire, bringing people from as far off as Redstonia to see the young upstarts. Many were supportive, merely glad to have a group of heroes after the previous Order had broken up so many years ago.

Others were not, claiming they were too inexperienced to handle the main, heavy responsibility of saving and assisting lives whenever it was needed, that the Witherstorm had been trouble enough. Surely people could wait some more years until they were ready to handle the challenge. But Gabriel had persisted, saying Lukas and the rest of the team were, in fact, more than capable, and none of them really knew what to say or how to handle the situation.

Although he'd been nervous, Lukas remembered how proud he'd been watching Gabriel hand the amulet to Jesse on that stage, in the midst of the crowd unaware of his presence. The four had looked so happy, if a bit unsure, and while he felt a small amount of sadness in not being able to share that moment with them the way he'd wanted, he was content to stand back.

Two weeks later, Gabriel had come up with the idea of officially reinstating them as the New Order at a late summer festival. Jesse turned down the offer at first, but the active older warrior insisted, saying it would boost morale after the Witherstorm had destroyed so many lives. People needed and wanted hope. It would take a long time to repair all the damage the storm had inflicted.

Jesse made sure Lukas was onstage that time.

The night had ended up being almost stupidly fun. Axel didn't hate him for once, though still poking fun. Eventually, he would learn Lukas was genuine and not as arrogant as he originally thought and tried his best to mend their relationship once Jesse had gotten fed up with their rivalry.

Olivia had nagged Petra and Jesse throughout the evening for not dressing properly-- Petra had donned a tie and called it adequate, while Jesse's red button up was alright (Okay so what if Jesse looked good in red it wasn't like it meant anything concrete), if not as proper as the occasion called for-- Olivia found out later he actually didn't own anything appropriate enough to wear to something so formal. And Axel had been. . . decent.

Lukas remembered reveling in the fact that there had been so many people occupying the streets and stands selling everything you could ask for nobody recognized them. One of Lukas' favorite authors signed his novel, Axel meeting up with Magnus and setting off robust fireworks everyone loved. Olivia won every carnival game she set her hands on while Jesse and Petra were too busy competing with each other, seeing who could spin the longest and not feel dizzy, who could balance an egg better, who could run the fastest.

Lukas didn't want to admit it, but he sometimes envied how easy the relationship between them was, even if they all knew it was strictly platonic. And sure, Jesse and Petra had their troubles, although Lukas wished how great they got along together and how easy their conversations came could be how it was between him and Jesse too, and Jesse's recent behavior hadn't helped that at all.

The one task they'd all teamed up for during the festival was a fish toss, which as exactly as it sounded. Near midnight the five had returned home and played cards, elated and exhausted from the day's efforts.

Yet Lukas couldn't help but wonder what it would be like if Jesse hadn't succumbed to the pressure.

They would most likely still be a team; before killing the Witherstorm he'd put his trust in Lukas and said he wouldn't be left behind. Petra was a different story. Lukas wasn't sure which path she would've taken.

He wouldn't have to deal with all the fans, wouldn't have to try to live up to the high expectations set out for him to fill. He could always go for a walk without being bothered. Maybe they wouldn't have found the glowing flint and steel that had the ability to open portals, thus counteracting the Portal Hallway adventures.

Lukas would have never gotten chipped and controlled, forced to fight his best friend, the person he cared about most.

Would've never witnessed murders and be falsely accused of being the murderer. He wouldn't have been killed in the Games.

Would never have had to spend weeks searching through unfamiliar universes, scared he would never make it home, or that he would die before he got the chance.

He would've never been kicked off of Sky City.

Lukas shuddered at the unconscious mention of the last one. He had known he was going to die, falling off the edge barely seeing Jesse's grief-stricken face, and had come to terms with his death right before hitting the water, the cold filling his lungs, the sheer impact distorting his sense of up and down.

He'd almost drowned, spent hours staring up at the stars and the city on fire in the distance, wondering if his friends and the citizens were going to come out alive.

If none of those things had ever happened, he would sleep better at night, only haunted by images of the Witherstorm.

But he, Jesse, Petra, and Ivor would've never grown strong as a team. Lukas recalled the good times they had: snowball fights, sleeping under the stars, Jesse finding a world full of fluffy little creatures and wanting to take one home, Petra showing them how to make homemade fireworks, pranking Ivor, listening to the older man's stories about his experiences.

Aside from him, Lukas didn't hold much respect for the Old Order apart from maybe Gabriel. He knew Magnus was trying, and he and the rest of the current Order appreciated his efforts, but Soren hadn't been seen since the Witherstorm incident, although it wasn't exactly like anyone had gone out looking for him, either.

They would've never seen all those amazing worlds, each with their own inhabitants and laws of physics, probably wouldn't have gone on more adventures with Axel and Olivia.

Clearing his head, Lukas opened the front doors to the Order hall, the building they all shared as a home-- the actual front doors were on the side, but they'd decided as a group something as shallow as a trophy room wasn't of importance and renovated the rest of the two main rooms and other rooms so it would serve just fine as a home.

He took a seat at the table where Axel and Olivia were immersed in a violent game of chess, observing how they played.

"I genuinely don't understand this game."

"It might seem complicated at first, but if you paid attention to strategy it wouldn't be so hard to best me."

"Uh, no way it's not complicated. There's like a hundred guys I all control, and half of them move in all these crazy ways, and this one only makes straight lines--"

"There are not a hundred pieces--"

"And the horse dude can only make L's? What the hell? Why do they all move differently? It's too much to handle."

"Checkmate."

"What? Wait, back up, how did you do that?"

Lukas didn't feel like refereeing Axel and Olivia's game of chess anymore and went to option B, which was always Where's Jesse? He knew he'd get the usual answer of "I don't know," but it couldn't hurt to ask.

"Hey, do you know where Jesse is?"

Olivia set up the chess pieces again and they quickly exchanged four moves, Olivia taking two pawns from Axel with her bishop. "For once, yes. He's in the west countryside, examining reports of an animal eating livestock. He left about twenty minutes ago. If you hurry, you might catch him. And checkmate. You're stuck."

Smiling and shaking his head, Lukas ran out to the stables in a hurry. At first, he hadn't seen the need for a horse, but as more adventures came up his mind changed. Walking on foot was not the most efficient form of travel. They each owned one now, and had built a stable on the left of the Order Hall, near one of the entrances letting people in and out. As time went by, he'd grown attached to Finch. Ivor made fun of him for naming his horse after a bird, purposefully mistaking it for Flash or Ranch.

Even Petra had become emotionally attached. Axel did care, but Jesse stopped him from naming his horse Destroyer the First as he'd intended to.

Lukas approached the dappled gray gelding carefully, rubbing his velvety nose, leading him out of the stall and saddling him with practiced ease. He and Jesse had taught Olivia how to ride, which was a funny memory for everyone but her. Olivia was nervous around horses.

He remembered Petra and Axel laughing, as the horse Olivia was introduced to was skittish as well, and the two wouldn't touch each other for the first day. Jesse, who had infinite patience for these types of things, helped her work over her fear. He could be very patient, sometimes, but couldn't focus for a full minute anywhere else.

Swinging his foot into the stirrup, Lukas pulled himself onto Finch's back and tapped his heels against his horse's flanks, hastily cantering through the gate, determined to see Jesse.

Chapter Text

Outside of the city, Lukas felt kind of. . . free. The main road normally consisted of travelers, but the dirt lanes leading to the farms of people who didn't want the chaos that came with lodging in Beacontown's walls-- or made a living with ranching and crops-- were long, mostly empty stretches of pathway between fields of wheat and cotton, orchards, streams, glades, and patches of wildflowers. The middle of summer was passing quickly and most plants were in bloom.

Fall would be busy: the festival, harvests, people coming down from more northern cities before snow blocked their way, some from farther south before the annual rains began.

Finch trotted smoothly, ears pricked, occasionally swiveling as herding dogs guarding flocks of cattle and sheep barked at horse and rider. It had been a while since Lukas had been out on his own. He stayed alert, remembering what Olivia said about an animal eating livestock.

Of course, there'd been cases like this before-- thin, mangy wolves becoming so desperate as to raid farms, killing chickens and goats, but they could be dangerous after going without food for so long, especially in packs. There had even been a few cases of larger timber wolves, sometimes bears, if hungry enough, ending up too far south while scavenging for food once their hibernation was over.

Lukas spotted a farmhouse on his left and urged Finch into a canter. The faster he reached Jesse, the better. There was no telling what he'd get himself into.

A brunette woman building what seemed to be a shed on the side of her home raised a hand in greeting, dropped her tools, and walked towards him, growing excited as she realized who it was. Lukas politely asked if she'd seen Jesse pass this way, and where he went.

She pointed farther down the road and gave him directions, waving as he set off again, nudging Finch into a gallop this time. Apparently some miles down, maybe fifteen minutes if he kept a fast pace, a family was having trouble with an animal killing chickens, goats, rabbits, and trying to infiltrate the house. They'd tried everything they could think of to get rid of the thing with no success so far. It evaded all traps, left barely any tracks, and was incredibly elusive. Stumped, they'd sent for Jesse, seeing as he could solve any problem in their eyes.

Lukas slowed to a halt as he approached the path leading through tall oak trees to the family's home. The gate locked by a simple latch, he passed easily. The fenced-in area was huge, and cows blinked at him from under the shade, lowing and swinging their tails. He observed more as the trees leveled out to a rolling plain, green with rich summer grass.

Lukas dismounted and led Finch to the porch, where four people dressed in dusty clothes were sitting playing a game of cards. The oldest, probably the grandfather, stood to shake his hand, a little awed. "The more the merrier, I always say. Thanks for your help, Lukas. Really appreciate it."

"No problem," Lukas hitched his horse to a post, leaving enough rein for him to graze freely. Jesse's was there, too: a smaller, stocky paint mare he named Cisco after taking her in from a rancher. She tossed her head and whickered, baring her flat teeth and making funny faces.

Jesse had left his sword in its sheath strapped to the saddle. Lukas figured he would keep his bow, in case he needed it, and slung it behind him along with a full quiver of arrows.

Jesse had a soft spot for animals-- he'd wanted to get a pet many times in the past but was always turned down. They simply didn't have enough time to take care of dogs, cats, or fish or pigs or whatever he wanted when they were so busy already, plus the horses. Lukas also worried about the danger any animal companions would face if they joined the team on an adventure.

The farmer, named David, led him around the edge of the farmhouse, towards a barn. The wooden fence continued on his left, circling the home, barn, and a garden filled with growing vegetables. Lukas could barely see the end of the pasture it was so big. To his left stood a chicken coop and animal pens containing goats and rabbits, and a large shed sitting next to the trees. From there on the undergrowth grew until it appeared impossible to break through.

Jesse was kneeling next to the goat pen, examining a hole dug under the fence. He picked up a few pieces of hay from the ground and fed it to a bouncing kid poking its nose out, free hand lightly dragging over the faint prints stamped into the dry mud.

Lukas stopped in his tracks.

He honestly couldn't remember the last time he'd seen the shorter boy like this: not stressed, perhaps even carefree and cheerful. He couldn't even think for a few seconds.

Jesse was wearing a lightweight jacket over a plain black shirt and jeans, the ringlets of his hair curling over his forehead, behind his ears and along the back of his neck, freckles highlighted in the morning light. Once he composed himself, Lukas shook hands with David again, then moved to sit by Jesse, not sure whether he should say something. The scar along his jaw was distracting, and so were his eyes, and his long dark lashes fluttering every time he blinked-- "Hey, good morning."

Jesse looked at him out of the corner of his vision, mouth quirking up into a smile. "You didn't have to come, you know, especially if you were doing something of your own just now."

"You know I had to, and I came looking also because I wanted to see you." Lukas cleared his throat and prodded at the wire fence. "To help. Have you figured out what happened here yet?"

Jesse shrugged. "Got a little lost in thought, mostly about goats. It'd be nice to get one," he added wistfully.

Lukas rose to his feet, thinking if he was going to get Jesse motivated, he shouldn't be sitting around, either. "We better get started then. Do you think it's another wolf?"

"It's possible. I tried to figure out what the paws actually look like and filled all the niches, but whatever is digging these things is pretty big and doesn't leave good enough tracks behind to follow." He followed Lukas' example and stood, dusting his pants off.

"To be killing animals at this rate and traveling so far between kills each night, it needs a lot of food, which points to a lot of energy consumption. This is one of the largest farms, but over a dozen animals have been half or fully eaten."

Lukas unconsciously reached behind him for his bow, fingers brushing the wooden frame. "A large food source would be nearby its home, to travel back and forth faster. How much do you want to bet the troublemaker has a den set up in the woods? The forest is so thick and continues for miles on the other side, it would make perfect sense. Closer to the other farms, too. An animal the size we're thinking of shouldn't be that hard to find."

Jesse agreed, and the pair spent the next hour searching for evidence a large carnivore occupied the space in the trees.

What Lukas had mentioned was an understatement-- just finding a way to enter had taken them twenty minutes to accomplish, as if the woods didn't want them inside, and moving the brush away was no easy feat. Jesse was lucky. Being taller, Lukas was constantly smacked by thin branches and having to duck to continue.

A small voice in the back of his mind told him something was off.

The forest seemed. . . dead. All the plants were green and healthy, sure, but it was utterly silent apart from his and Jesse's footsteps. No birds. No creatures. Poison ivy snaked along the ground, threatening to trip them, and it smelled bad. A stench to the forest, as though it concealed long dead, decaying things in its thick darkness.

They kept moving. Lukas was on edge; every rustle of leaves, every slightly wavering shadow fraying his nerves. People still didn't understand everything about the world they lived in and Lukas was hoping they didn't bump into a deadly undiscovered species.

"What's that?" Jesse paused, stepping up onto a mossy tree trunk to climb a short, steep bank covered in ferns, scrambling quickly to the other side before Lukas had a chance to call for him to wait. Lukas went after him, snagging his sleeve on a twisting sprig of a birch. By the time he'd freed himself, Jesse was already jogging around a crumbling structure, likely searching for a way in. Lukas frowned at the idea.

It was obviously a house at some point, the crumbling stone walls arranged into three small rooms around a central living space, the rotting floor streaked with scorch marks. Peering over the wall, he could make out a rusty wood stove and the decaying remnants of a table. The most concerning matter, however, was the dozens of tracks imprinted into the damp earth, ringed by bits of fur, bone, and feathers, and the red circle-ish symbol painted onto the wall furthest from him. He accidentally stepped on a goat skull and squeezed his eyes shut. Many of the muscles were still intact.

Either Jesse didn't care for the bits of animal corpses littering the surrounding area or he was too interested in the hollow dug under the rock foundation to notice. Ignoring the bloodstains, Lukas crinkled his nose and got down on one knee beside him. The bones were more prominent here, as were the feathers. They were strewn along the opening like a chaotic, gruesome offering.

"Would you mind going back and getting a lantern? A rope and shovels, too, just in case."

Lukas narrowed his eyes, remembering the unknown symbol on the wall. "Jesse, you are not going in there. The structure is unstable, and it could crush you, not to mention whatever's eating the livestock is most likely down there and you could be seriously hurt--"

"Too late. Expedition Scary Thing is a go." By that time he was pushing himself sideways, crawling on his elbows. Muttering under his breath, Lukas wheeled the other way and ran as fast as he could, trying to pick the clearest path and memorize the way back. Jesse was so ignorant when it came to his own safety. He knew why, because Jesse was impulsive and animated and owned a lack of self-respect, and it stressed Lukas out and made him frustrated. Too much of one thing was bad.

Jesse was a mix of changing emotions. He wasn't consistent, insanely productive one day, too depressed and anxious to eat the next week. Lukas also knew why those changes happened, but Jesse was also so insecure and charming and bold and demonstrative with his feelings all at once, and it fascinated Lukas more than it confused him.

It was why Jesse retreating into a shell was so distressing. Lukas knew closed off and completely quiet wasn't how he usually acted.

Luck was on his side that day. The residents had a rope and shovels to spare and when Lukas returned, the sun had climbed a fraction further above the horizon, bringing the start of summer heat with it and the promise of a warm afternoon. He was glad to be back in the shade, knowing him Lukas would probably get a sunburn.

The way back to Jesse was slower than he wanted it to be, thanks to the weight of the requested items. As he reached the ruined house, he saw Jesse was sitting cross-legged next to the burrow, shaking his hand. Lukas realized he was bloody and rushed over, nearly dropping the light source.

He set the rope down and took a hold of Jesse's arm, inspecting the bite, ignoring his small complaints in protest. The wound wasn't serious, very shallow, and had quit bleeding, but it worried him anyways. "What happened?!"

Jesse looked at him, then the hole, shrugging the injury off. "I went down there-- it's completely dark-- and found the edge of a pit. Stuck my hand down to see if a bottom existed and it snapped at my hand." Lukas mentally slapped himself for not bringing his bag of medical supplies.

Holding up the lantern, he stared down the hollow. Whatever had bitten Jesse's hand had dug under the stone, opening a short, wide path to the underground basement. Jesse brightened. "Great! You have a rope. Okay, hold it, and I'm going to see what I can find." Now that he had an actual task to finish, he seemed much more excitable than before.

Lukas watched him go, nervous, fingers digging into the length of rope. An aggressive animal was not to be messed with. The pit didn't sound good, either: it may very well likely be a sinkhole, and those had huge limits on how deep they sunk into the ground once triggered.

"LUKAS!"

"What?"

"IT'S A DOG!" Jesse yelled.

"A dog? Are you sure?" Lukas scooted to the side, attempting to get a better view. Jesse's silhouette was barely visible, beyond that it morphed into blurry shadows. "No regular dog could be that big, it's gotta be a wolf, maybe an unnaturally large wolverine at best."

"Well, it's a dog, and I can't change that. Come see for yourself."

Lukas cautiously slid on his back, traveling the steep few feet of terrain leading to the basement, making sure not to snuff out the lantern's flame and leaving the rope tied around a thick oak. Jesse was right about the pit-- a circular, ragged indentation in the ground occupied most of the room. He spotted Jesse kneeling over, talking to something inside. He put the lantern in the dirt and blinked in surprise. "What do you say, it is a dog. How'd it get stuck?"

Jesse shook his head. "I don't know."

Lukas began to put two and two together. "When was the last time the farmer reported an incident with his animals being eaten?"

Jesse patted the earth and whistled softly. The dog didn't respond. "Yesterday. Before you say whether this is or isn't the animal we're looking for, I'm going to jump down for a closer look. I don't think a dog could eat and kill so much, and she seems to be sick. Maybe she's been down here for a few days."

"I'm not sure if that's the best action to take."

Jesse grinned at him. "When has 'the best action' ever gotten us anywhere? Besides, I seriously think she is sick, watch her for a moment: dogs are usually territorial and she hasn't moved, hasn't barked."

Lukas realized what he was thinking and gave him the rope, ready to pull Jesse out at any given time, hoping he was doing the right thing. Jesse tossed it over the edge and his feet hit the ground a few moments later. "It might've run away from home or could be a feral; there's a lot of them here," Lukas said, keeping an eye on both Jesse and the dog's movements.

With Jesse in possession of the lantern, Lukas was able to see without squinting. The hole was easily 8 feet (2.4 meters) deep, dirt damp and deteriorating from the moisture. Eventually, the place would crumble entirely and create a sinkhole.

"Lukas, can you see any sort of exit we might be able to use to get her out?" Jesse called, carefully approaching the dog. She snarled, ears flattening, then gave up as he put a hand on her back.

The scratched places where she'd tried to climb out to no avail were clear. The dog was big, bigger than most dogs Lukas had seen, splotched black, sable brown, and tan ran along her stomach and ringed her neck. A long, bloody cut partly spanned the length of her side, and from the expression on Jesse's face, he'd noticed it as well.

He took it slow, letting her smell his hand, then reaching out to smooth her frazzled fur again. "Lukas, if we don't get her out of here. . ."

Lukas exhaled, stressed. This was not part of the original plan. Now he knew the dog wasn't responsible for the kills-- the slight protruding bones and hollow eyes told him the dog hadn't eaten in days, and now they had two problems to deal with. "I know, I know. I'm thinking." What could they do? Pulling the dog out by the rope was an option, the downside being it could tear her wound open even more. He couldn't haul Jesse and the dog simultaneously-- it could risk the same thing, and the dog was almost three-quarters of Jesse's size.

His eyes wandered to the shovels. They could dig, make an earth ramp, slide Jesse's jacket under her and carry her up. He explained his idea to Jesse.

The next few hours consisted of them working together to excavate a mostly solid path to the cellar top. Once that was finished, he dug into the shallow tunnel to the surface while Jesse slid his jacket under the dog. Lukas ached by the end of it. Both were sweaty and weary and Jesse was covered in dirt from knees to elbows, his face streaked with dark earth in some places.

After the period of hard work, Lukas could finally reach the bottom, and if his shoes sunk into the dirt a few inches that was fine. The dog was in worse shape than he'd originally anticipated.

Ribs poking against her dirty coat, literally wasting away. The fur around the gash was stained crimson, and while the cut itself wasn't terribly deep, by that time there was a very good chance it was infected. The dog was starting to trust Jesse; she let him secure his jacket around her, tail thumping weakly on the ground once. Aside from tiny, involuntary movements she stayed utterly still, and Lukas felt a twinge of panic as he saw how much blood stained the ground beneath her.

He needed to close the wound as fast as possible, disinfect it, and let her rest. Lukas wasn't sure if she'd live through the day at her current state.

He kept his mouth shut. He wouldn't think about the negative side, for Jesse's sake.

With a lot of coaxing on Jesse's part, they were able to move her out of the basement and gently set her down outside, the sun beating down hard through the foliage. Lukas realized the dog wasn't black, but a dark brown, like the bark of oak trees after a thorough rain. He also realized she was close to dying. Her breathing was uneven and shallow.

If they were going to save her, Lukas needed his medical pack, and he needed to return home immediately. He would never convince Jesse to do otherwise. Ivor kept spare healing potions in his hideout. Surely he wouldn't mind giving one or two up, especially for Jesse.

As the dog would only stay awake for him, Lukas made yet another trip to bring Cisco to the site.

Jesse nestled the dog in the saddle, Cisco disdainfully sniffing her before allowing it to be held on her withers. During the return trip to the farmhouse, Jesse crooned to the dog in Spanish, rubbing her face and doing his best to keep her from falling into unconsciousness. When that happened they would lose her. Lukas caught a few phrases but didn't understand them and they passed over his head as he'd never learned the language-- in somewhere like Beacontown it wasn't really a necessity.

From a distance, David was evidently pleased to see them, though as the duo neared his house his smile faded into a grim line. He examined the dog and confirmed she wasn't what had been eating his livestock, growing concerned.

"It's great that you saved her. . . just she doesn't fit the description my son told me. He witnessed the thing on his own one night. I'm sorry, I should've told you before you set off."

Lukas looked to Jesse, leaning with one arm around the umber and white mare's neck, his darker skin a warm tawny brown under the sun. He patted her neck, then Jesse glanced at David curiously. "What did the creature look like, then?"

David crossed his arms anxiously. "Smaller, darker, bright yellow eyes. He couldn't make out much other than that. I don't believe any dog, even the smartest one, could tease us like whatever this is has."

Lukas paid attention to the way Jesse sighed, one foot digging into the ground-- a sign of many that he was stressed. He almost wanted to reach over and take his hand, if only to assure him they were now in this together and would solve the situation, but that was ridiculous thinking.

Jesse met his eyes once he'd finished pondering over something going on in his constantly-moving head, then turned to David, smiling. "We'll be back tomorrow or the day after to do everything we can, I understand if we leave this be it may spiral out of control. Send a notice if you need anything, alright?"

***

Lukas wasn't comfortable. It wasn't the malnourished, potentially dangerous dog curled up on top of Cisco, or even the fact that Jesse was beginning to doze off behind him, waking himself up to check on her, one arm wrapped around Lukas' waist-- and that definitely should've made him nervous, although he noticed his face felt much warmer than usual.

The dog, the symbol, the blood and dirt staining their clothes and the bones littering the damaged home-- all of this should've made him suspicious. Wary. Real things in real life that could reliably happen, real things he could hear, see, and touch.

However, the thought of something else being out there, something besides the dog, something capable of what he perceived the canine had done kept him on edge the whole ride.

The dog-- Jesse really needed to name her properly, he would get sick of continually referring to her as 'the dog'-- was easily crossed off the list of potential suspects. After hearing what David had to say about the traps he set up, and how they'd been creatively destroyed, Lukas was no longer thinking what they were dealing with was merely an animal. To dig under a fence was one thing. Disabling a wire snare cleverly hidden by a trapper was another.

He held a deep uneasiness about the dog's condition. He and Jesse had come up with the conclusion that she was covered in dirt and bruised because she'd jumped to bite his hand, reopening the wound.

Jesse felt terrible, even though at this point they were lucky just to have found her alive. The dog was a persistent survivor. Maybe even a miracle.

Lukas wanted to check on him, but the more he thought about the outcome the more he thought it might be better to leave him alone. Jesse looked tired and stressed, and Lukas knew this was probably the closest thing to a break he'd gotten in days. He kept his gaze fixed on the land rolling downhill, the gates of Beacontown wide open. Secretly, Lukas wished the task had lasted longer. He missed going on outings with Jesse, like hanging out in the evenings and talking about what they would do in the future.

Lukas? He was almost certain he was going to become a writer. Making stories come to life with words was what he enjoyed; he couldn't imagine a lifestyle where he wasn't able to write. Already he'd created several drafts for later on, the foremost one being a book on the Order's adventures-- from the Witherstorm to the Portal Hallway. Recently there had been nothing to add to the draft for the secondary book of stories. Maybe adventure wasn't Lukas' middle name, but with the right people it could be something that made him happy.

Jesse had confessed he didn't know what to do with his life. He felt there were so many paths for him he could choose from, and he would never be sure whether he made the right choice. He wanted to do a lot of things: travel, return to the Portal Hallway for a while, maybe pursue his art, but also wanted to be there for his friends and family-- stuck between what he wished to do, what others expected of him, and the opportunities he had to make others happy in his life.

The rest of the Order didn't feel that sense of responsibility. Not like he felt it.

"What have you guys been up to lately?"

Lukas fumbled with Finch's reins, the leather straps suddenly slipping through his hands. "Nothing important. Ivor's been on a lot of trips-- in fact, he left for the Nether yesterday to retrieve more glowstone. We haven't seen much of him, honestly. Axel and Petra have small, ordinary adventures of their own. I see Olivia the most. She's usually home, engineering and working on her projects."

"You writing any more books?" Jesse teased. Lukas wasn't in the mood, Jesse's absence unspoken but acknowledged. He wasn't sure why it made him so upset.

"One or two, yeah. Nothing big. Mostly scribbling down drafts, helping Olivia, assisting with a few smaller construction projects, talking to Petra and Axel when they're available."

"No adventures?"

Lukas took a deep breath in. He knew this would be brought up at some point, making preparing for the conversation all the more difficult. Keeping his emotions reined in was going to be tough, for once. "Hard to do that when your leader avoids you all the time."

Jesse stiffened uncomfortably behind him. "You say that like it's not because there's something going on with me, it's because I'm being an ass. Nice of you to assume."

"I'm assuming? Seriously?" Lukas abruptly turned around in his saddle. "None of us have had an actual good relationship with you in months. Every time I've tried to start a conversation that lasts more than three sentences with you, you either back away or give me the silent treatment. Nobody knows where you are, what you're doing, or when you'll be back, and it hurts, like you don't give a shit anymore. And I don't know, maybe if you didn't leave us all the time I'd think you cared more."

"I do care," Jesse's voice was tense. "You have no idea how much, it's. . . just been pretty hard lately with some stuff going on."

"How can you expect me to not get upset when I want to help and you close yourself off? It puts a strain on everyone, to remove yourself from the team so suddenly. Don't we mean anything to you? Are we supposed to try and try and look at our efforts to make sure you're okay and think it's all worth nothing?

"Jesse-- that's the message you're sending. That's how we're feeling. That's how I'm feeling. We may not be on some perilous expedition into the unknown, but that doesn't give you a right to leave us behind. You were the one who convinced us to stay together in the beginning, if you don't want it now, then leave. Make things easier for everyone else."

Lukas swiveled in his seat to face forwards, heart racing. What did he just do?

Part of him felt lighter after telling Jesse how he felt, the thoughts had been weighing him down for weeks. He always tried to avoid confrontation. If him being polite and careful wouldn't get to Jesse, maybe bringing to him straight would, even if it hurt Lukas the longer the silence stretched and Jesse had no response for him, running through all the heartbreaking ways Jesse would react.

Oh god, Lukas prayed to the goddamn universe that Jesse didn't decide to leave. He didn't know what he would do with himself.

He expected Jesse to be mad at him. Most people would. Lukas expected him to snap back, make a smartass comment, perhaps even get off Finch and walk home alone.

Lukas did not expect the silent treatment.

The rest of the way home, Jesse didn't say a word. He avoided all eye contact. He wouldn't acknowledge anything Lukas did, would flinch if he touched him, and, after enough time, Lukas wished Jesse had blown up instead. Being given the cold shoulder hurt more than anything he could've said.

Bottling up anger, or any intense emotion, was a dangerous thing to do. The feelings tore at you on the inside, and once it went on long enough people did stupid shit to cope. Lukas had seen it happen to Aiden. Whatever Jesse was bottling up-- it scared him, to think there was a possibility he'd hurt himself in trying to deal with what was going on in his life or mind, and fear turned into defense.

He knew he had a right to feel mad with Jesse. He also knew that he should've waited until they were in a better situation, but the conversation of dumped feelings had already happened and Lukas couldn't turn back time to edit what he'd said, so he stayed quiet and hoped Jesse would forgive him sooner than he forgave himself.

Chapter Text

By the time the pair reached home, the sun was high in the sky and glaring down between clumps of slate clouds. Jesse slid off of Finch the first opportunity he got and went to check on the dog.

Lukas watched from a distance, untacking Finch and making sure he was watered and fed before helping Jesse lift the dog from the saddle and set her in an empty stall. Jesse took care of his horse, then stood beside the open stall the dog laid in.

"Where are we going to put her?"

"Inside," Jesse replied shortly. "I'm not letting her stay out here."

Lukas was reminded of Olivia's anxiety near large creatures and decided she would be fine. They carried the dog around to the back door of the Order hall to draw less attention. Lukas delicately brought his foot up and knocked on the doorframe, shifting the dog's weight in his arms.

Olivia answered as he expected, lazily dressed in a grungy work shirt stained with oil and redstone and black leggings. Her eyes went wide as she detected the huge dog held by both of them.

Jesse managed an awkward smile. "We've got a dog. Surprise."

She apprehensively ran a hand through her frizzy curls. ". . .You know, I'll ask later."

Jesse quickly asked for towels and medical supplies, pushing back the dog's fur to expose the gaping wound for emphasis. She moved back and ran down the hall to grab what they needed, and Lukas helped Jesse navigate the dog past the table and to a space of empty floor near a window gazing out at the small square of land behind the Hall.

Olivia threw several older towels on the floor, arranging them in a nest shape. "Put her here. I found out Ivor took most of his healing potions when I checked today, but I think there's one left in the cellar. We can dilute it or something. Lukas, if you can go get what you need, I'll see what else he has we can use."

Lukas nodded and found the hall closet. He kept all the medical necessities in a lidded wooden container on the bottom shelf. He didn't know how to do a whole lot: just stitch up cuts, aid burns, reverse the effects of a few non-lethal poisons, although he was learning. He did a lot of reading on the subjects, but had no one to actually teach him how to properly do them. Olivia was better in certain areas, and Petra was resourceful, having been experienced or second-hand experienced many of the predicaments herself.

Olivia was examining the laceration with Jesse when he returned, eyebrows drawn together in concern. The dog was lying on her side, one brown eye open and attentive. Lukas started to kneel between them, then thought better of it and knelt so Olivia sat between him and Jesse. A good barrier so they wouldn't have to talk.

"What was the cut caused by?"

Lukas sighed, sitting back against the kitchen counter. "Judging by the unevenness, some type of animal, maybe, unless someone was really bad with a spear or sword. Claws usually make jagged lines."

Olivia rubbed her face. "Okay, okay. Jesse, get a pot of hot salt water going. Lukas has that numbing salve, so after he stitches the wound up we'll be able to heal the rest of her injuries with a potion." Lukas saw Jesse hide his bitten hand. He rolled his eyes, making a mental note to treat it later since Jesse wouldn't, not correctly.

Jesse's fingers drummed on the floor. He was always moving, or had to be fidgeting with something. "Why can't we heal it all now? I don't see why not."

She tenderly began to smooth the bloody, matted fur. The dog whined under her touch. "Healing potions only do so much, and a large dose isn't good for anybody. Your body goes haywire. We can give her a little more since she's big, but not much. To be safe, we'll do a small amount at a time: heal any internal injuries and work our way up. Now go get salt water-- both of you wash your hands, too. You're filthy."

Lukas did as she said. "What happened to you two?"

"We went to investigate the kills, and it turned into a rescue mission. Turns out the dog isn't the culprit." He briefly explained what had taken place at David's farm, the old house, the cellar, the mark, how they'd found the dog and the fact she wasn't what had been eating the animals, according to someone's account.

Jesse placed the bowl of water on the floor and sat cross-legged beside her head, stroking her ears.

Lukas winced as he flushed the wound out with the water, feeling the dog's thin frame under his fingers. Olivia searched for any type of infection or disease. "How long did you say she was down there for? Five days?"

"Most likely."

"With this deep of a cut, she should be dead."

"I know."

She washed the damaged area again, then smeared a small amount of the potion on top using a rag. Over the course of several minutes, she repeated the process until it no longer bled, and the red muscle underneath had vanished underneath healthy tissue. Once that was done, Lukas spread the ointment-- a simple mixture of painkilling herbs-- along the cut, looped a thin, flexible thread through a clean needle, and efficiently drew the lips of the gash together with as few stitches as possible.

The dog squirmed momentarily in Jesse's arms as she felt the sensation of the needle, then lay still and allowed him to continue.

Another smudge of healing potion, and he was done. The stitches would come out in a few days, when he was sure everything had healed. In the meantime, hydrating and feeding her was the best they could do.

Olivia sat back and pinned her hair away from her face. She switched her gaze to Jesse, whose full attention was on the dog. "Have either of you named her yet?"

Lukas blinked. 'You want to keep her?"

"I didn't say that, although she is a very beautiful dog. Depends on what we decide as a group and whether she has an owner. Was there a collar? Lots of people here have herding dogs to keep their flocks from being scattered or attacked."

"No. Until someone reports a missing dog, she's ours, I suppose."

"Eli."

Olivia swiveled to the side. Jesse hadn't uttered a word the whole time. "What?"

"Eli. Short for Elvira. That's what I'm naming her." He stood, grabbed the half-empty basin, and dumped the tainted contents in the sink. "She can stay out here while I make lunch, or dinner depending on if you're hungry. Is that okay?"

Olivia looked bewildered at his tone of voice. "Of course, thank you." The gears in her mind seemed to turn, then she gripped Lukas' arm with more force than necessary and hauled him towards the front doors, calm expression morphing into a dissatisfied glower. "Actually, Lukas and I are going to talk, give you some space."

Jesse hummed a response, opening a lower cabinet to pull out a metal pot. Lukas was pulled outside, a warm curtain of air hitting his face as they walked through the door. If Petra hadn't come home already with the map, she would soon. Olivia turned to face him once she was sure Jesse wouldn't hear their conversation, irritated.

"Okay, what the hell happened between you and Jesse on that trip? He's talking in very short sentences, which only happens when he's sad or pissed."

"How would you know that?"

"Because I've known him longer than all of you, Lukas, and have literally lived with him and Axel. I just want to know what happened, Jesse's been pretty closed off to me too but I can't try to talk to him if I don't know what went on."

Lukas hunched his shoulders, wishing he had his jacket to disappear in. "I don't know, I got mad on the way home, and when he asked what we'd been up to lately I kind of snapped, told him straight how I was feeling. I wasn't thinking, told him to leave if he didn't care and that he was acting like he didn't give a shit about us--" He tersely ran his fingers through his hair, glancing longingly at the entrance. "I shouldn't have told him, but he won't respond to me so I felt like I had to take drastic measures. I wasn't planning on telling him that much, it just came out--"

Olivia pinched the bridge of her nose and let out a deep breath. ". . .Alright. I understand your reasoning, but I still didn't expect you of all people to snap at Jesse like that."

Lukas scraped his foot against the wooden planks of the porch, nervous. "Do you think Jesse is going to stay upset with me for a while? I want to say sorry, but I'm not sure how to approach him."

Olivia patted his shoulder in a gesture that Lukas felt was half encouraging and half you need to fix this. "Apologize tonight, and be honest. That's really all the advice I can give you. Again, not like Jesse's been super open with me recently, either." The slight smile on her face was mischievous. "And hey, after you heal your friendship, maybe you can, I don't know, confess your long-time crush to him--"

"Olivia!" Lukas felt his face go through several stages of red in a state of panic. "I don't-- how did you--"

"Lukas, you're not as discreet as you think. You can't keep your eyes off him," she snickered. "It's kind of funny if I'm being honest. Don't worry, I won't disclose your terribly obvious secret to anyone else," Olivia winked. "Although I can't say the same for people like Petra-- here she comes."

Before Lukas could react, he spotted Petra running towards them. She bounded up the steps, short hair windblown and dark brown eyes glinting with excitement. "Sorry, you weren't here when I got back, so I took a walk. Good news: I got the maps. Bad news: I can't read shit. I don't even know if this is an actual language." She held up her prize: a roll of yellowed papers.

Olivia pulled herself up onto the porch railing beside Petra and pried the maps from her hands, feet dangling. "God, you guys need to stop bringing surprises, I have no idea what's going on. Where did you get these? They're so ancient they look like they came out of the back of Ivor's closet."

"You would slap me if I told you."

Scratching her cheek, Olivia said, "Believable." She peeked through the folds, a small section of the corner crumbling into tiny pieces, making her mouth turn in a grimace. Lukas hesitated to explain. "Petra and I came up with the idea of going on another adventure. We've been so split up lately, Jesse with work, you with projects, me with my writing. I really want us to be a proper team again."

Petra swung her legs over the ledge next to Olivia, lightheartedly tapping her foot with her own and leaning in. "We thought it'd be good for you to focus on something other than your projects, and pull Jesse back into the group. Lukas had the original idea, I just spiced it up a bit." Olivia quickly returned her gaze to the map, and Lukas could've sworn he saw a blush creep up on her ears. Ironic of her to tease him for having a crush.

Olivia handed the bundle of papers to Petra with a rustle, saying they'd have another look at them later. "Alright, so now that that's out of the way, try to get Jesse to open up today but don't pressure him. Be careful."

Petra's gaze switched between the two of them, back and forth. "Hold up. Did I miss something?"

"Lukas screwed up a little and said some bad things to Jesse, but it'll be fine."

Lukas immediately noticed the sentence had clicked Petra's "protective" button. "Lukas, what the actual fuck?"

He shot a glare at Petra, reminded that she'd done the exact same thing a few times in the past. "Brave of you to say that when you said a similar thing to Jesse last week."

"What, I can't be mad at him for ditching us too?" she snapped, pointing a finger at him. "Axel and I have been trying for weeks but all you and Olivia do is shut yourselves in, so great of you to be a hypocrite to Jesse. This morning was the first time I've had an actual conversation with you in who knows how long."

"Of course it's encouraging when you fly off the handle every single time a topic like this is mentioned because you can't control yourself!" Olivia retorted. "Instead of blowing up, maybe you could talk to the team like a normal person." Over the months she'd grown emotionally, now having the confidence to stick up for herself and others, and speak out. Unfortunately, this resulted in more intense arguments between everyone.

"We're not even a fucking team anymore, I don't know why I would talk to you," Petra growled, sliding off the ledge and moving so they all faced each other. "The only thing we have in common is that we live under the same roof. What's actually keeping us together at this point? We're all too scared to split up? I don't even think I know you."

"And whose fault is that?"

Olivia ran both hands through her hair, then took a moment to cool down while Lukas and Petra continued to argue, probably realizing the fight would continue to become worse until someone stopped it. "Okay, look. People go down different paths as time passes, and right now is not a good time to be fighting. We're making this a bigger deal than it actually is. We have an injured dog-- I'll explain, Petra-- and an upset Jesse to handle. Just. . . let's get through today. Please."

"Fine," Petra muttered. She went back inside, handing the papers to Lukas.

He gazed uneasily at them. Sure, they'd all gotten increasingly distant as the effects of the Witherstorm were washed away, but he couldn't remember there being a literal argument concerning the new Order separating, not this soon.

The bad feeling that had arisen when Petra was talking about the map earlier that day resurfaced, and he rolled it open, eyeing the inked runes and images on the first page suspiciously. He would need more evidence to prove the bundle of paper was causing all the tension, and that was a stretch on its own.

Olivia walked over and pushed the top of the map downwards so she could look at him sincerely. "Sorry for snapping. I should've been thinking before I said anything."

Lukas exhaled slowly in a sigh. "No, I caused this. I shouldn't have talked to Jesse like that in the first place. There's still unresolved issues we all haven't shared yet."

"Do you still want to be a team?"

"I do," he admitted after a few seconds. "But I've been thinking about the speech Gabriel gave about us being the future after the Witherstorm, and it made me question what I want to do in life. I guess I got wrapped up with being a writer and all instead of focusing on the present. The Portal Hallway was a big step, too. Maybe I should take a break."

Lukas spread the map over his upturned palms. "Does this make you feel. . . scared, or nervous?"

Olivia stared at him skeptically. "It doesn't appear to be cursed or enchanted. Those sorts of items tend to have an instant impact on their surroundings, or have an altered appearance. Like the portal flint and steel."

She scrutinized it for the second time. "I can't be fully sure. Keep an eye on it for the next few days and see if anything changes."

"There already has been a change. This is the worst argument we've had for months."

"Coincidence. Plus, the stressful event of you and Jesse bringing home Eli, and you and Petra hiding this planned trip from him puts tension on everyone. It's natural to bring up the most upsetting things first when you talk to people you haven't seen in a while."

She glanced at the door. "Petra's upset we're splitting up, but that doesn't mean we don't care for each other. I, for one, believe this adventure project of yours is a good idea. I can't wait to get in nature, the last time was a hike with Petra and you can guess how that went for someone like me."

Lukas rolled up the bundle and gently stuck it under his arm, not satisfied with Olivia's theory. He would watch the thing like a hawk. Maybe Ivor, with his knowledge of artifacts, would be able to identify what the papers were when he returned. "Since you've known Jesse for so long, do you know what's going on?"

Olivia rubbed her eyes. "I would tell you, but I don't think it's my place to say. You'll have to ask him yourself if you want your questions answered. All I'll say is that he's been visiting his family more often-- he only saw them once between Endercon and going after Aiden, and his mom was worried sick during the Portal Hallway fiasco."

Lukas fell silent, thinking of his own parents and his visits to them once a month, when he could. "Oh. I didn't--"

"Tell you? No, he didn't. It was for a good cause-- he still wanted you to feel like he cared, and he does, but seeing his family came first. He obviously failed at the first part, which made him retreat further, but he tried. He's been trying so hard. Do you understand why I'm mad?"

"Yeah. . . I do. I'll talk to him."

"Good, because you're going to give that dog a bath later today, when she's up for the task. And keep watch for Axel? He ran off to the markets after you left and didn't notify me of when he'd be back."

Lukas nodded, and she went inside, pulling her work gloves out of her back pocket and putting them on. He vaguely heard her ask Petra to pull weeds and do a once-over of the back garden with her before the door swung shut.

He stayed for a couple of extra minutes, working up the courage to talk to Jesse. Jesse wasn't a hard person to talk to, but Lukas was nervous, afraid of being overly blunt like he was before. Right as he was about to head to the kitchen he heard hoofbeats and noticed Jesse leading Cisco away, the horse saddled and ready to go. Lukas jogged over, and he stopped, fixing his foot in the stirrup.

"Where are you going?"

"Oh," Jesse's hand was messily bandaged. "So I was going to make soup-- you know, the pozole, I think I've made it once or twice-- but we don't have any hominy, so I was going to stop by my mom's to get some. Well, I thought I had hominy somewhere but I guess I don't. We need eggs anyways, my mom always has a surplus."

Lukas raised his eyebrows. "Eggs?"

"Chickens." Jesse averted his eyes, dark green flickering gold in the sun. He seemed to be unsure of what to do around Lukas, although in a better attitude as he smiled, and Lukas thought his knees might go weak. "Do you want to come with me? My mom really likes to have visitors, all she normally gets is me and Olivia's family, sometimes a few of my aunts and uncles."

"I-- Yeah, sure. Sounds nice. I'll go with you." Lukas' heart was beating fast in his chest as Jesse offered a hand and pulled him on Cisco's back, spurring her towards the south, on the main roads so people would watch out, the horse's hooves clattering on the cobblestone streets. Lukas hung onto Jesse with one arm, the other pressed against Cisco's powerfully moving haunches so he wouldn't fall off.

As soon as they hit empty road she rocketed forwards, Lukas yelping and hanging on tighter to Jesse's waist. Jesse was laughing and god was he gorgeous when he laughed. He patted Lukas' arm as an apology and told him to not fall off Cisco's ass.

Lukas had no idea the little barrel-chested horse could go so fast, dirt and grass flying by under his feet, heading far out from the city. She wasn't a pony by any means, but still small for a horse. He kind of recognized the land, all green fields and glades of deciduous trees like the rest of the land around Beacontown, but as they turned sharply onto a less traveled, beaten road he became unsure.

Lukas didn't think he'd ever met Jesse's mom.

Nobody really talked about their home life, especially Petra and Axel, and it had never seemed important when compared to the grand scheme of things. Lukas wasn't exactly the type to push, either, and didn't feel comfortable asking about Jesse's family and past unprompted. He remembered Jesse waving to someone when they'd been put in place as the Order, stepping aside to go on his own for a while at the festival that followed, but that was it, unless it was obvious and Lukas just hadn't put the pieces together.

Whatever the case, this was new. Discovering a part of Jesse he'd never known about was kind of thrilling.

They continued for what Lukas estimated to be an hour and a half, Cisco slowing from a gallop to a fast trot, Jesse lightly pulling on the reins. They reached an area holding glades full of smaller, thinner trees speckled with oaks, the trail dappled in sunlight when it ran under branches and marked with many horseshoe prints. Otherwise, the land was still hilly and grassy, and Lukas saw two creeks winding their way among the hills and banks.

"Almost there," Jesse assured him. "It's kind of a long way, partly why I'm out all day sometimes." Lukas nodded, trying his best not to stare at the tiny scar that marred the corner of his mouth.

The land veered downwards a little, and the trail ended at a clearing with a fixed-up adobe house. Lukas understood why: the trees were thinly grouped together, and because of the lower altitude it was hotter, and a wooden one was less conservative with heat and cool air.

A pen contained two donkeys and a goat, grazing on the vegetation under the shade of a birch tree. Two kids were playing out front, jumping on and off the front wooden porch and throwing clumps of grass at each other, going from hiding in the bushes to behind structures made of sticks that reminded Lukas of when he was a kid. He could already sense that this was the type of home belonging to a part of a big family, one you'd always want to go back to.

The boy detected Jesse and shouted, barreling towards him in bare feet and Jesse caught him halfway in his arms, grinning.

"Hey! I thought you said you went home yesterday!" The kid's complexion was olive, too, but darker than Jesse and without freckles. He had a bandaid on his forehead. Jesse brushed the grass out of his hair, holding him against his side. "Just stopping by to get some things. I see Sofia, where's Andi?"

"Out by the pond, I think she's collecting rocks again. Boorring. All she does is collect rocks and flowers, all the time." Jesse set the boy down, and he dashed off towards the house beside the girl, shouting "Mamá, Jesse's back! With a new guy!"

"That's my brother," Jesse said, seeing the slightly confused expression on Lukas' face. "They're adopted but all related to me, Rico and Sofia are biological siblings. It's kind of a long story," he added, tying Cisco to the pen with the donkeys. "Andi's fourteen and kind of an ass, but she's alright. She loves nature and stuff, goes out every Wednesday to collect rocks. Her room looks like a nursery." He paused in front of the porch, one foot on the first step.

"Also, uh, just go outside if it's too chaotic for you. My mom's a huge joker, she doesn't save the teasing for family, and it can get pretty loud."

Lukas smiled, opening the door and heading in after him, porch boards creaking beneath his feet. If Jesse was anything like his family, he would have no problem getting along.

Lukas had grown up in a decidedly "normal" home, with two adoptive parents that looked way different from him, in a decent part of town, in a usually stable home. They handled arguments in a way that didn't involve Lukas, made more mature and uneasy topics known to him when he was ready. They both pushed him to do his best as an only child, kept his environment safe, and lived well-organized, mostly calm lives, and he knew he was lucky. Everything was thought through, everything had a place, and Lukas liked the lack of chaos.

Lukas had the exact opposite vibe stepping into Jesse's home.

You could clearly tell three kids were living there, not including Jesse. Many of the walls had messily colored pictures pinned to them, the floor worn from years of running inside, and a couple pairs of dirty shoes were hastily thrown by the door. It was warm and inviting and well-lived in, like you could have been from anywhere, done anything, be away for your whole life and you would still be welcomed.

Lukas saw Jesse's name scribbled on some of the pictures and felt his chest warm. There was so much history to unpack, from scratches on the floor to a bumped-in section of the wall. Rico and Sofia tore down a short hall to his left, attempting to tackle each other to the floor.

Jesse's mom was even shorter than Jesse was.

"Back so soon-- oh, is this your boyfriend, mijo?"

Jesse's face went bright red. "No! No, mamá, of course not. This is Lukas, you might've seen him at the festival where we were reinstated. He was on the stage with Olivia and I. Lukas, this is my mom, Natalie."

Lukas waved, unsure of what to say.

Natalie was cleaning dishes at the sink, sleeves rolled up to her arms. She dried them off and moved around the corner of the counter to shake Lukas' hand, grip strong. "Nice to meet you, Lukas." Her shirt was stained with faint flour spots, deep cutting scars laced her forearms, and the way she smiled at Lukas made him want to hug her. She pushed a piece of long dark curly hair back into her bun and stood on tiptoe to kiss Jesse's forehead. "Nice to have you back. Do you need anything?"

Jesse nodded, motioning for Lukas to sit down at the table. He was completely at ease in his home, and Lukas wished he was that happy all the time. "Actually, yes. Are there extra eggs and hominy? It's okay if there isn't--"

She shoved a basket in his arms, waving his question off. "Yes, mijo, you're fine. I haven't checked the chickens yet, go outside, and if there isn't enough I have plenty in the icebox. Hominy's in a bag above the stove." When he waited, unconvinced it was okay for him to take food, she swatted him with the nearest kitchen towel. "¡Ve allá! Los pollos te extrañan."

Jesse went at her request, the kids running in and attaching themselves to his legs, shrieking with laughter, making him drag them through the back door. Again, Lukas felt that pang of bittersweetness in his chest, like he'd do anything to make Jesse was happy as he was right then. Through the window, Lukas could see a chicken coop, a garden surrounded by chicken wire, and clothes hanging on a line strung from one tree to another.

He studied the rest of the house from his vantage point at the table, not sure as to whether he should talk to Natalie. To his left was the kitchen and a hall with three probably smaller rooms attached, to his right another door. The environment was different than what he'd grown up in, chaotic and unplanned. Lots of old books, many picture ones, stacked on makeshift shelves, frayed rugs and blankets made differently than any Lukas had seen covering a portion of the floor and the chairs and couch. Small potted plants, even a few succulents, decorated the windowsills. An older guitar and another instrument that looked like one leaned on the wall.

Natalie gave him a glass of water and slid into the seat adjacent to him, setting a plate of brown, pig-shaped cookies on the table. When he reached for one and stopped, she chuckled. "They're just cochitos, take as many as you like. The kids eat too many."

Lukas bit into one and sighed, cinnamon and molasses assaulting his senses. Where had these cookies been all his life?

"You know," she said, "Jesse talks a lot about you."

Lukas nearly choked on his food.

Natalie raised her eyebrows, amused. "So forgive me if I thought you were boyfriends at first glance. I can never be sure, as Jesse could bring anybody-- boy, girl, another identity-- home as a partner." Her words were tinged with an accent, as of she'd been speaking mainly one language for most of her life-- like Jesse when something irritated him or he became really upset. Lukas felt that his own voice sounded strange, in this home that wasn't his own. It wasn't weird at all, just new. Beacontown was a mix of people, but most came from northern and western counties, where the language was the same.

A teenage girl in a yellow jacket opened the door as they chatted about small things and Natalie revealing funny stories of Jesse as a kid, her pockets bulging with rocks. She stared at Lukas, then looked at Jesse coming into the house at the other side. "Pendejo! You didn't say you were bringing Lukas to the house!"

"Was I supposed to send a letter on the way here?"

She took in a sharp breath, rapidly wiping the traces of sand on her. "A little warning would've been nice! Dios mío, the house is a mess, I just got back--"

"Andi, mija, stop worrying so much." Natalie gently whacked her arm, reaching over the back of the chair and comforting her. "Lukas doesn't mind."

"But Lukas is part of the Order! He--"

Jesse raised his hand. He was ridiculous, saying "Um, I'm the leader of the Order and you're not treating me like I'm important" holding a basket of chicken eggs, knees still dirty and two giggling children hanging onto his lower legs, sitting on his feet.

Andi snorted. "You're my brother. That doesn't count, puto."

"Don't call Jesse a bitch unless he deserves it--"

Lukas' gaze was traveling from one person to the other. He tried not to grin at the obvious display of affection intertwined into the argument. "I don't know, Jesse might deserve it."

"You're supposed to be on my side!" Jesse whined, wildly waving a hand towards Lukas.

"You stole my socks," Andi accused, putting a hand on her hip. "Three pairs."

"They were mine in the first place!"

"Finders keepers."

Natalie sighed, throwing a this is what I have to live with look at Lukas before telling Andi to put her rock collection away. "Niños, go wash up. You're helping with dinner again." Sofia and Rico complained heartily, but released Jesse, sulking down the hall. "And mijo, it's getting late, if you don't leave soon it might get dark when you get home."

Lukas glanced over his shoulder at the window. Sure enough, the sun was hanging above the tops of the trees. He couldn't believe the day had gone by so fast.

He helped Jesse pack the eggs into a spare cardboard box, layering the empty spaces with old newspapers and paper bags so they wouldn't crack, insisting on washing his cup and plate before leaving. Natalie laughed, letting him have the sink until they were done and gifting Jesse with yet another bag of things. Lukas leaned in an inch. He didn't recognize most of the items in there.

"Mamá, creo que eso es demasiado-- That's too much--"

Natalie rolled her eyes, as brown as the coffee grounds in a jar on a shelf beside the sink. "Nonsense, mijo, there's five other people living in the same place as you. I will not have you leading hungry young adults on adventures." She called behind her, "Niños, Jesse's leaving! Get over here if you want to say bye!"

The two younger siblings, Rico and Sofia-- Jesse had notified him Sofia was older by three years-- skidded into the room. Jesse picked both of them up, kissing the top of their curly heads before setting their feet back onto the ground.

"Can't you stay longer?" Sofia tugged at the edge of his shirt and gave him big puppy eyes.

Jesse let a rueful smile take over his expression. "I'm sorry, hermanita, I've got work to do. I'll be back soon, okay?"

She sniffed, pouting. "Okay." Rico grabbed the smaller instrument beside the guitar and lifted it over his head, running to Jesse. "Chaparro, you forgot your bandolón! We forgot to give it to you last time." It resembled a flatback mandolin: 18 strings, arranged in 6 courses, most likely played with a pick. The outside was painted red, orange, blue, and brown, alternating in patterns.

Jesse's face lit up like a candlelight lantern. "I was wondering where I left it! Thanks, Rico."

Natalie and Andi walked them onto the porch, Andi shuddering slightly in the breeze without her jacket. She paused by Lukas, still awed. "Jesse's talked about you guys and stuff, but I never thought-- I really liked your writing, I read that book all the time--"

Lukas remembered he'd given the first copy of the book about the Witherstorm to Jesse. He hadn't published it yet, it was just a draft.

Jesse eyed him out of the corner of his vision, smiling softly, the bandolón tucked under one arm.

Lukas had met other fans, sure, but this was Jesse's family, and Andi was so enthusiastic he felt amazed anyone would ever think of him as being great. He briefly wondered what it would be like to live here, in a crowded house that smelled like cloth and warm meals and spices and chiles. "I'm super happy you liked it, maybe I can send Jesse with some other drafts the next time he comes."

Andi went still like she was going to chatter, but Natalie ushered her back inside to begin dinner before she could talk her mouth off. Lukas put the small box inside the bag and carried it over to Cisco, sensing Jesse and his mom needed a moment alone, although their voices carried anyways.

"Qué lástima él no es tu novio, mijo, es lindo." At the edge of his vision, Jesse flushed again.

"Él es sólo un amigo, mamá, nada más."

This seemed to crack Natalie up. "Okay, mijo. I'll see you later, okay? Stay safe." She kissed his cheek. "Te quiero."

"Love you too. I'll be fine, I'll probably stop by sometime next week or when I need it." Jesse hugged her, then sprinted over to Lukas, mounting Cisco in front of him. As they trotted out of earshot, Lukas tapped Jesse's shoulder. He turned in the saddle. "Yeah?"

"Hey, I-- I wanted to apologize for earlier. I think some things needed to be said, but I shouldn't have talked to you like that. I'm sorry."

The tension that had been bothering him for most of the day split and fell apart. Jesse gazed at the horizon, a gust of wind ruffling his clothes. "It's okay, I get it. I kept hiding from you and pushing you away and it's frustrating to deal with for so long. I've been trying to figure out how to tell you what's been going on. . . it's just a process. We can talk later, once we eat and give Eli a bath."

Lukas' shoulders relaxed. "Thank god. I thought you were going to be pissed at me forever."

Jesse laughed, loud and clear in the early evening air.

Once he completely talked things out between him and Jesse, it would be okay. But this was a good start.

Chapter Text

Petra greeted them when they returned. When Jesse asked where the others were, she explained Olivia was taking Axel to a doctor after he'd broken his nose (again) during some playful wrestling in a match at the market, which was apparently a thing in the side streets.

The dog was doing better, eyes brighter, and she pricked her ears as Jesse approached, the bag from his mom in one arm and the bandolón in the other. "We need to feed you, don't we? Let's put this stuff down and Lukas and I will make something."

Petra continued working in the back garden, repairing part of the fence that had broken, the wood deteriorated until it couldn't stand. Jesse taught Lukas how to make pozole, a soup he had all the time at home. They worked side by side, comfortable with each other once more, Lukas taking care of the meat and hominy-- he learned it was a food produced from dried corn-- while Jesse showed him the steps to the red sauce, which included a lot of chiles, garlic cloves, onions, and a little salt.

Lukas felt his nose and eyes burn but said nothing. He was far from an expert in spicy foods.

While the beef simmered in a pot for three hours, Jesse made a broth with some fresh leftover chicken and sat beside Eli as she ate, rubbing her back. She was a messy eater. Already the cut had begun to heal, the potion bringing the inflammation down to a minimum-- she could now stand and followed Jesse as he did minimal chores with Lukas around the hall: sweeping the floors, trying to organize Ivor's basement residence and putting the dry laundry away.

Petra finished and Olivia walked in with Axel, a large bandage taped across his nose, just as Jesse was finishing up. Axel and Olivia hugged him, glad to see Jesse out and about. Axel was so excited about the dog-- he scratched her behind the ears, saying, "We are keeping her."

Lukas rolled his eyes. He would only agree to have Eli if Jesse was still set on having her once she healed.

They ate as a group for the first time in weeks, Axel cracking jokes and telling them how he'd broken his nose for the second time, plus an additional story about his trip to Boomtown the previous week. "Some engineer from Redstonia was there and he teamed up with one of the best griefers, and for the festival they'd created these fireworks that smoke," he said enthusiastically. "In color! It was amazing, I'd never seen anything like it. Plus, it's great to use for flares during the day-- they're still working the kinks out so the smoke disperses properly, and hopefully during the next few months they're going to start producing just the red ones to use as flares."

Jesse watched them talk, a content smile on his face. Lukas's complexion went a little red from the spice, but the soup was really good so he kept eating, listening to Axel finish his story.

"Jesse, Lukas," Axel started, "What's the story about Eli? I know you went out today to investigate something, but that's all."

Lukas scraped the bottom of his bowl with his spoon. "An animal, I believe, has been killing more livestock than normal, so Jesse went to find out what was happening and I followed." He recounted the same tale he'd told Olivia, and Axel and Petra listened with interest, Jesse filling the details he didn't say.

Axel lifted his hands. "I'm no magic-y person, but I think you should talk to Ivor about this when he gets back. It sounds magic-y. At least we've got a dog, though, right?"

Eli barked, thumping her tail against the floor.

Next to him, Petra nudged his shoulder, mildly startling him. The papers, she mouthed. Should I bring them out?

Lukas gave an affirmative, and Petra rose to fetch the maps she'd acquired that day. She stood at the head of the table and cleared her throat. Jesse set his spoon down, looking curious. "Okay, so, announcement. Lukas and I decided we wanted to go on another adventure as a team, and I guy I knew had these maps he didn't want, so I took them. It's got a clear enough layout of the northeast of Boomtown's desert-- the Badlands, I know it's not the greatest place-- and Jesse, Lukas, you're wrapped up in the whole animal-killing thing, but. . . I don't know, it'd just be nice to do something together, I guess."

Lukas unconsciously looked to Jesse. He was deep in thought, stirring the remnants of his pozole with the end of his utensil. Finally, he said, "Yeah, I'll go. Sounds interesting." Lukas' heart leaped in his chest, watching him peer over at the maps, running a scarred finger over the edge. Jesse actually wanted to go, he was actually being a part of the team.

"Maybe whatever we find at the site can help us decipher all these symbols, if Ivor doesn't have a book to help us in his cellar. I feel good enough to go tomorrow if you want. I'll leave a note for Em and Nell to contact us if something bad happens with the killed livestock, and another one for Ivor telling him where we've gone in case he returns sooner than we do."

"We shouldn't be gone long," Petra noted. "There's a big bridge over the river and the land is mostly plains, rocks, and sand. There's an easy pass into the valley as well, we'll be able to go in and out. Depending on what we find, we should be back in a day or so."

Olivia clapped her hands together, giving Jesse an affectionate look similar to the look you'd give a sibling. "Great! Petra and I will search downstairs to see what we can find in Ivor's hideout pertaining to the map, Axel, if you could write a note to Nell and Em and give it to them sometime this year that'd be nice, and Jesse-- please wash that dog, she stinks."

Axel let out an overdramatic sigh. "Fine, I'll go tonight, no need to tease me." He rinsed his bowl in the sink, then dug through a shelf for a piece of paper to write on.

Petra stared at Olivia for a few seconds. Lukas was unable to understand what she was feeling, as Petra was a tough person to read and he didn't know how she felt being paired up with Olivia-- of course, they'd become good friends like everyone else, and their relationship was none of Lukas' business. "You want me to go with you?"

"Yes, I do. Is that bad?"

"No, no, I just--"

"And you're better company than Axel." Olivia grinned, and Lukas wanted to decipher what that meant but he had his own problems to deal with Once they finished eating, the two disappeared downstairs, snickering about something Petra had said. Axel grabbed his note and rushed out the door, saying he wanted to catch up with Em, who had moved with Nell to Beacontown from their world a few months prior.

Speaking of his problems, Lukas was now alone with Jesse again.

They cleaned up the dishes, silent, then Jesse moved by Eli and rubbed her head. "Let's get you in the bath, pobrecita, you're a mess." Eli licked the underside of his hand.

There was a large basin in the shed made of metal that was the perfect size to bathe her in. Lukas ran and bought soap made for dogs in the general store just before it closed while Jesse coaxed Eli into the yard. Lukas entered the garden after his evening shopping expedition and helped Jesse pick out the right horse brushes to comb her thick fur with, then they filled the basin with cold water from the water pump outside.

Olivia and Ivor would be beside themselves if they bathed Eli inside, and Lukas didn't feel like mopping the floors after a wet dog rolled all over them. Eli was loping around the backyard, and as Jesse patted the basin she leaped in, splashing him and Lukas with water.

Once the healing potion wore off she would be tired and aching again. Knowing this, Lukas was gentle around her sides, scratching her hide, Jesse washing her feet and face. Eli obviously enjoyed the attention-- she leaned her head up and her tail wouldn't stop wagging, tapping the edge of the basin.

"You said you wanted to talk?"

Jesse dunked Eli's sodden paw, up to his elbows in the soap and water. He scratched the back of his neck. He went quiet, collecting his thoughts, then said: "Okay, so you remember I'm bipolar, right? It's more depression than mania, and usually the swings aren't that severe, although they're unpredictable."

"Yeah, I remember." He knew what Jesse dealt with, and it didn't change Lukas' perception of him. When he first found out he read all he could about the disorder-- which wasn't much, studying mental illness was very new-- to learn what he could do to help. It'd been manageable, if more intense after the Witherstorm and Portal Hallway, but Jesse wasn't fragile and they'd set up a system where he knew he could ask for help if he needed it.

He tucked a piece of curly brown hair behind his ear, the color of tilled earth. "It's been hitting super hard, and I didn't know what to do about it, so naturally I did everything I could to keep myself distracted. It's never been this bad before. Going between constantly working and visiting my mom, who's also bipolar and has dealt with it for longer than I have, was the only way I thought I could suppress it. I kept being overly sad and then too hyper and I didn't want you guys to see any of that, to make you uncomfortable, and I guess I've been a little scared of being helped, too. I'm not used to it, having support."

He continued, Lukas listening intently. "There's also all the stress with Beacontown wanting authority and me to do everything, so while working so I didn't have to face what I felt, and that's what I did. Does that make sense?"

Lukas almost laughed, realizing that they had, in fact, been making a mountain out of a molehill with Jesse's distance from them. He kept himself from chuckling, though, because this was not the right time to so. Jesse needed to be supported, and Lukas was more than happy to do so. "Jesse, you could've just asked, or told us you needed space. It's not a big deal."

"That's the thing, though. It would've been the opposite," he muttered. "Like asking to stay in rooms when the depression got really bad, to ask Axel to please keep his voice down because it makes me really anxious-- stuff in that sense."

"Not a problem to do," Lukas gently patted his hand. "We're here for you, you know. We're a team, and that means we support each other. You shouldn't be afraid to ask for help. We all need help at some point, and you won't hurt anyone by needing someone to recognize your needs and help you with them, or to be comforted. You can ask me anytime if you need anything, always."

Jesse switched his attention from the dog to Lukas, open and honest. "Thank you. . . again, I'm trying to get comfortable with being taken care of at times, and working on self-care and all that. It's good to be reminded. Thanks for talking to me about it." He held up his palm awkwardly. "To being friends?"

Lukas high-fived him, just happy to have the Jesse he knew back. He would deal with all his heartache another time, alone; Jesse needed him. "Definitely."

Friends.

***

Lukas wasn't a total canine person, but Eli, after the bath, was a beautiful dog. Her muddy legs had been washed, revealing tan paws and lower legs speckled with dark brown, like her face, smelling of rosemary and white vinegar.

Jesse grabbed the towels on the floor from inside and rubbed Eli down, trying not to get her feet dirty again. She practically glowed in the darkness.

"What do you think about keeping her?"

Lukas slowly dumped the remaining water into the garden, careful to not wet his shoes. "As long as she makes you happy, I don't have a problem. She seems to get along well with people. Did you find out if she's trained?"

Jesse glanced at the dog. "Let's find out." He led her inside. Lukas watched from the half-open door, the wet towel bundle in his arms. He would wash and hang them up after Jesse was done.

"Sit."

Eli sat.

Jesse clicked and snapped his fingers at his feet. Eli flattened to the floor instantly. "Stay." She kept her exact position as Jesse walked outside and then back inside, her eyes the only things noticeably moving.

He patted his thigh and she rose, playfully biting at his wrist. "Well, I guess we've answered that question," Jesse remarked, grinning. "I'm going to go check on Olivia and Petra and see what they've found, wash all this dirt off and then go to bed. God I'm exhausted." They parted ways, Lukas washing the towels and hanging them up under the stars, going through the events of the day in his head.

The symbol on the wall, back where he and Jesse had discovered Eli. Two moons, one bigger than the other facing each other inside a circle hovering just over a line. He didn't know what it meant, but Eli certainly wasn't the cause of the red paint and the maroon stains on the ground.

If she wasn't, then who was? The symbols all grouped with each other reminded him of the demon summoning circles young teens challenged each other to create when he was that age.

The thought haunted him, but demons didn't exist and the designs were nothing but drawings. It was nothing to get worked up about.

Thinking about Jesse took the images away.

He'd learned so much about him in one day, and Lukas had thought he'd known almost all there was to know. It pained him: this irrational want to be part of Jesse's life, to do anything for him and do everything with him and make him happy when he knew it was a far-fetched wish-- a selfish one at that, to want someone to himself.

Lukas couldn't remember the exact moment where he'd gone: Shit, I'm in love with him, after months of being confused about his feelings and whether it was a temporary crush, though he knew it'd happened early in the year.

He couldn't help it. Jesse was funny and tried to make the best out of situations, wasn't afraid to open up and stupidly brave and kind and watching him develop into someone who could also stand up for himself had been some of the best times of Lukas' life so far. He had the best smiles and made mistakes and stayed up late painting and gave the best hugs and Lukas had no words to describe what he felt.

The next few events passed in a fast haze for him, Jesse and the superstitions clouding his head like a rainy day in the fog. Axel returned with the news Nell and Em were engaged and going to be wed that winter. Olivia and Petra hadn't found anything worth reading into, nothing similar to the map, and since it was late all three headed off to bed to get up early.

The news about Nell and Em was fantastic, and Lukas was happy for them, but he was still hung up on trying to figure out what was out there.

Lukas sat with Jesse in his room with Eli later that night, Eli laying on the bed with her paws off the edge. They'd both taken showers to rinse off all the dirt from that morning. Lukas was flipping through books of animal species he'd found in the library of information and stories the previous Order had accumulated over the years, Jesse focusing on a medium-sized painting until he was relaxed enough to sleep. He had a lot of those: taped to the walls and stacked on one side of his desk along with the dozens of other papers scattered around his room. Lukas switched between watching Jesse and making notes on the different carnivores and partially proven myths explained on the pages.

None of them added up to what he knew so far. Maybe a mountain lion or rabid wolf could explain the kills, but the way the traps had been sidestepped and destroyed wasn't possible unless something intelligent was working with them, or a dangerous combination of both.

Lukas stared at his notes, the top one words about what the farmer's son had said. Black body, bright yellow eyes. A panther? Those were never found this far north. Some sort of reptile? No lizard that big existed, as far as he knew, and one large enough wouldn't move fast enough to not have been caught yet.

There was one more book he'd been considering looking through, half for laughs and half for honest curiosity: Demons and Spirits: The Complete Literary Work. He thought he might've been able to find the symbol that frayed his nerves so much somewhere inside, not that it had done anything real.

He'd found it in a dusty chest behind a bunch of history books under a table. It was full of scribbled notes in more than one language as far as Lukas could tell, the pages yellowed and cracking, ink stains blotting the images and letters. He could barely get through the first two pages. The book was in terrible condition. A scorch mark on the side made him think someone had tried to burn it, at least once.

"Sorry if I'm bothering you," he said, tearing his eyes away from the pages. "Just wanted to see how you were doing, after the talk and everything. Opening up about those things isn't a walk in the park."

"Nah, it's alright. I needed to talk anyway, maybe I'll share more later once I'm ready."

Jesse was standing in bare feet on a small old sheet, work gloves like Olivia's on his hands so he wouldn't have to wash them again. They were covered in paint smudges. He wasn't painting anything big, only messing around with some warmer colors.

"I fucked it up a bit here," Jesse pointed to the corner. "Everything's been off lately, all I do is draw scribbles that look like literal depression-- art's bipolar as I am. I was thinking of creating some dragons and whatnot again but after today. . ." He looked over his shoulder. "Maybe you can be my art muse, huh?" Eli stared up at him with adoring eyes.

Lukas picked up his books and stood by the door when Jesse was done, taking his gloves off and washing the brush in a cup of water. Lukas had seen so many genuine smiles on him that day, and this one was no different. It was fantastic, even if the circumstances were far less than ideal.

"Jesse--"

He turned, looking stunning in the soft shadows. His hair was soaked and weighed down, reaching his shoulders in the back. Lukas wondered what it would be like to kiss the freckles on the back of his neck, one by one, then quickly pushed the thought out of his mind.

"Yeah?"

"I--" Lukas opened his mouth, then shut it. "Never mind. It can wait until later. It's just. . . good to see you happy."

Jesse grinned. "Me too. Feels nice." Then he moved backwards and sat cross-legged on the bed, an emotion on his face Lukas couldn't identify. Eli nosed his palm, and he stroked the fur on her head. "Okay, sleep well. 'Night."

"See you tomorrow."

Lukas closed the door behind him, then leaned against the wall and put his head in his hands.

***

The group set off before dawn the next morning.

Lukas was still half-asleep, switching from dozing while walking to jolting awake. The morning air was cool and clean and made goosebumps rise on the exposed skin of his arms and neck. Beacontown in the distance was hazy with the last shroud of nighttime.

"God you guys, keep up. All of you are slow as fuck." Petra took the lead, slowing so Olivia could catch up, Axel trailing right behind them. Lukas and Jesse brought up the rear, side by side. Lukas had the map spread before him in his hands, the symbols on the paper bold and inked black in the sunlight.

Lukas had never been a fan of the Nether. It was hot and dangerous and he never brought enough water to keep himself from becoming parched at the end of an outing. Lukas already despised blazing and humid weather, and having to endure it along with various creatures and a chaotic landscape was a complete nightmare. Nobody as far as he knew, even Petra, truly enjoyed spending time in the Nether.

But it was also the fastest form of travel, or one of the fastest: faster than horses, definitely faster than walking, faster than wagons and bikes. A bigger version of a minecart train was being worked on in Redstonia, but as for travel his world didn't have many options.

"When do you think we'll get there?"

Lukas carefully rolled up the map and placed it in his backpack. His jacket with all the iron plates was heavier than a regular shirt, but he wasn't taking any chances. Olivia and Axel were dressed out, apart from Petra who didn't want to carry the weight and opted for wearing hardened leather strapped over durable clothes like Jesse did. Elleguaard's armor was falling apart and needed to be fixed, and until he could find a suitable armorer it would stay unworn.

"In an hour or so. It should be appearing pretty soon."

Jesse adjusted the guards on his forearms, then gripped the straps of his backpack and continued to walk without speaking, observing the landscape. It was too beautiful of a day to be heading into the Nether.

Over the past year the Order and other people had been working together to make more minecart tracks going throughout the Nether to connect more cities. It'd been hard work in the sweltering heat, but the end result was definitely worth the effort. A trio from Redstonia checked on the tracks every two months for repairs. Several outposts were built to accommodate portals so people could easily travel over long stretches of land if they were up to the task of traveling through the hellish landscape.

One of the biggest outposts was a small way out from Beacontown. Lukas could see it: A large brick building with a sloping roof, two horses already tied out front, their owners most likely going to Fletcher, a city a half day away.

Petra opened the door and they followed him inside. His gender identity had taken a while to get used to since it was as changeable as his moods, but it didn't matter to Lukas and Petra was clearly happy presenting as what he felt, when he felt. Lukas usually just guessed as what to call Petra because pronouns weren't of any importance, and it was hard to tell because Petra didn't exactly dress differently depending on whether being a boy or a girl made him happiest at the time. The changes lasted over a week so Lukas didn't have to worry about constant switches.

He ran a hand through his dark ginger hair, stopping as Lukas scanned the signs above the fourteen Nether portals that made a half-circle along the inside walls of the room.

Springfield was the closest town to where the map was suggesting they go. Lukas found the right portal, and gathered the courage to walk through when Petra and Jesse ran in shouting. Axel was next, then Olivia gave him a shrug and they walked in as a pair.

God, saying it was hot was an understatement. The atmosphere was blistering and dry as Lukas ended up on a Netherrack platform alongside a steep hill, a pond of lava surrounded by soul sand at the bottom. In the distance he could hear the wail of a ghast, and a group of pigmen were wandering around on a piece of flat land.

Petra grabbed the edge of the nearest cart and pushed it before jumping in, Axel right behind him. They were both comfortable, if a little worried according to the slightly strained tone of Axel's voice. Olivia yelled for them to slow down, then got her own cart and sent a look at Lukas before following Petra and Axel's example, shooting on top the tracks as she hit a redstone-powered section.

Jesse seemed to sense his anxiety. Lukas hated any sort of traveling by minecart.

Jesse gestured towards the next cart, completely serious. He combed his fingers through his hair and pulled the top part back into a small ponytail, bangs falling back into his face. Lukas' throat went dry and it wasn't just the temperature. "We could share one if you're really nervous about traveling. I don't mind."

It wasn't a big deal, they were close to each other all the time, it wasn't a big deal-- still, it sent his chest fluttering like a moth as Jesse sat behind him, their shoulders just brushing. Lukas had to bring his knees to his chest to fit his long legs fully inside the minecart. They chatted along the way to distract Lukas from the large drops and seas of magma and the occasional ghast that thankfully didn't spot them, about childhood stories and stories about Jesse's family. Several times they passed by huge chunks of glowstone. Briefly, before they entered a plummeting drop, Lukas thought of where Ivor was.

"How are you holding up?" Jesse was looking at him with concern, both framed in orange light from the liquid fire below. Lukas tried his hardest not to look down, his knuckles white on the sides of the cart. "Not good, but not horrible."

"Alright. Hang in there, the end's just over the hill I think."

When the minecart finally stopped, Lukas practically leaped out. The Nether almost made him sick, and he was anxious to leave. Petra was waiting for them by the exit portal. Jesse grabbed both their arms, grinning, and they jumped into the wall of shimmering purple.

Lukas came to in another outpost, this one much smaller. Jesse released his and Petra's arms and they joined Axel and Olivia outside.

"Can you bring the map out?" Olivia tugged at the pair of goggles loosely hanging around her neck. Lukas pulled the map out again and they examined it as a group, taking a drink of water from his canteen.

"If we follow this river here, we should end up in a clearing. The site's there. If the town's there. . ." He judged which way was east, noticed the homes of Springfield not far off, and pointed to his left, towards a thin grove of semi arid desert trees and foliage. The land was drastically different than Beacontown. He was standing on top of sandy dirt and clumps of yellow grass, the city and them in between two mountain ranges.

Jesse studied the map again, then pointed where Lukas was anticipating they'd needed to go. "About there? The map's not exact."

The hour after that sentence was spent picking the way down the slope, and as the Order neared the location Lukas dreaded it more. The trees and bushes gave way to an open desert full of sand, split apart by pointed, grooved hills of rock, cacti, and the odd wildflower. The river they were following ended abruptly, and the sun beat down on the back of his neck, making it hot to the touch.

Lukas knew the valley had a name, but he couldn't quite remember what it was.

Jesse spotted something and called behind him to the rest, Lukas unable to make out the words. He jogged to catch up, reaching him before Petra, Axel, and Olivia, and a chill went down his spine at the sight for a reason he was unsure of.

The ruins were made up of sandstone pillars around two crumbling smaller buildings on either side of a bigger one, a tall structure with windows looking into the room above the door, blocks of stone with carved symbols randomly scattered on the sand with no apparent purpose. Lukas saw they seemed similar to the ones on the map he held. The entrance was dark, and dead animal skeletons littered the place. Lukas was reminded of the old abandoned house where Eli had been found. The dog was at home, Nell and Em taking care of her as a favor.

Jesse glanced at the ruins, then him, and smiled broadly. "Well, I guess we're here."

Chapter Text

Jesse entered first.

Lukas was right behind him, lighting the torch in his hand with a flint. Light flared up and casted the inside room with a glow, highlighting the creepy statutes that stared down at them with hollow eyes. He heard the rest of the Order's ringing footsteps follow.

"Wow," Axel whispered. "Whoever built this place clearly didn't want to tone down the scary."

Olivia elbowed him in the side.

Lukas ignored him, glancing up at the carved stone images. Most weren't human, or looked a mix of human and something else, unnatural: a wolf with a serpent's tail, a huge dragon-looking creature on two legs with antlers, a woman with long hair and horns, a three-headed dog, a tall dark frame with arms that hung at its knees.

Above him, the roof was vaulted and arched, a mural long lost and faded to time painted on the ceiling. Jesse slowed slightly to walk beside him, and as they passed a bull with feathered wings the old torches in brackets on the wall sparked and caught fire, the ones in a line on each side of the room lighting up in a quick rhythm without a visible reason.

Jesse continued moving, his face a little unsure now.

Lukas didn't say a word, the gears in his mind turning to find an answer as they found themselves deeper and deeper in the temple, looking more like a shrine to the statues that stood on marble pedestals engraved with the same symbols on the map. The answer was simple: no magic involved, to do that all someone had to do was lay down a pressure plate with redstone or wire leading to dispensers or something created a spark right behind the brackets, so that when the spark happened it lit the fuel-- probably slow-burning wood doused in gasoline.

That was the explanation. No magic. When he looked over his shoulder at the others, Olivia's expression told him she'd come to the same conclusion. Axel seemed a bit worried, Petra not fazed at all.

He sped up to catch up with Jesse again, then stopped as they reached a fork in the road. Specifically, three passageways going straight, left, and right. Jesse rubbed his face with the back of his hand, thinking, then turned around. "We should split up, cover more ground that way. Since this looks like a temple, there's a possibility we might find books somewhere. Take what you can get, search for something that can translate the language. Petra, you good with going alone?"

Petra rolled his shoulders, grinning. "You know I can handle it."

"Okay, just shout if you need anything. That goes for you too," he added, pointing to Axel and Olivia. "Regroup back here in three hours. If any of us are missing we'll go back and check it out."

They went off in different directions, Petra down the middle, Axel and Olivia to the right, Lukas and Jesse to the left. The skull of a much too big viper hung above Lukas and Jesse's pathway. The lit torches continued down the hallway, too-- although with a dimmer, reddish glow to them. Lukas gazed at the barely discernible murals portraying pictures of death tearing the world apart, causing droughts and executions.

He shuddered, choosing instead to focus on Jesse walking in front of him, outlined in crimson. Lukas sometimes wished he could be as brave, as self-assured, or at least have the outward appearance Jesse did when it came to dangerous and uncertain situations. Lukas knew he was probably more nervous than he let on, but he hid it all behind humor, self-deprecating jokes, stupid smiles.

The corridor twisted and turned, random flights of stairs with steps at different heights breaking up the floor. Eventually it gave way to a medium sized room with six panels on the left wall, a closed door ahead of them. Lukas cautiously edged his foot onto the floor. Nothing happened, so he walked over to the panels and pieced together in his mind what they were for.

"A puzzle." Jesse finished his thought. "Any idea how we solve it? Something tells me we won't exactly get a gentle reprimand to a wrong answer."

Lukas examined the room for a few minutes before noticing the floor was made up of pristine gray slabs of stone, six by six exactly. Each row all contained darker colored slabs numbering one through six, although the pattern was different depending on whether you saw it horizontally or vertically. It was the only thing in the room, as far as he could see-- unless the code had something to do with the images in the hallway, which Lukas didn't think was true-- that pointed to some sort of answer.

He told Jesse what he'd found before putting the horizontal code in. The panels clicked, one by one, but the door didn't budge. Jesse frowned, confused. "Maybe if--"

The floor disappeared underneath Lukas, and he fell.

For the split second where he was in open air Lukas was in a total panic, unable to form a coherent thought about what he needed to do to survive. All he could think about was Sky City and falling in the dark and alone and falling and falling and falling--

Lukas was snapped back to reality when Jesse lunged forwards and caught his hand, the momentum nearly carrying him along as well. The tips of his fingers hit the edge and Lukas slammed the bottom of his shoes against the flat wall in an attempt to stop himself from going down any further, hanging over the void.

Jesse looked terrified, his face several shades paler than what it normally was, all humor gone. Lukas watched him breathe in shakily, grabbed his other hand. "Is there anything you can use-- ledges, openings--"

Lukas swallowed and then glanced under him at the pit. He could faintly hear the sound of running water. He felt as though he was attached to the darkness below, as though there was a string tugging at his feet, trying to draw him in. "No, there's not."

Jesse's arms were trembling, either from the stress or the strain or both. Lukas almost slipped, and Jesse caught him again, sliding a fraction further. "It's-- it's okay, I got you. I promise, just gotta figure something out--"

Lukas could feel his chest tightening with every breath, the pain in his shoulders, the worn leather material of Jesse's gloves. He couldn't reach for his bow, they had nothing to use.

"Jump."

"What?"

Jesse gently squeezed his arms. "I got you, remember? Use your feet, jump up and I'll pull at the same time. It'll work, but you'll probably hit your stomach."

Lukas let out a hoarse laugh, steadying his feet on the wall. "You're worried about me getting hurt right now?" Countless scenarios ran through his head, mostly of Jesse slipping and potentially dying too instead of only him. Lukas wouldn't be able to live with the guilt, if he lived at all.

Jesse smiled tensely. "Not being hurt is always better than being hurt. On three, okay? One. . . two. . . three."

Lukas straightened his legs out and tried his best to jump as Jesse yanked him upwards, surprisingly strong despite his height, reminding him yet again that Jesse was far from fragile. He suddenly felt stupid for doubting him. Jesse had gotten him out of much more dangerous situations before.

His waist hit the edge, and Jesse helped him over it, pulling him up from under his arms. Lukas stood there for a minute or so, slightly leaning down to press against Jesse's shoulder in a somewhat uncomfortable position. He was too out of it to care. Jesse was warm and lightly trembling and patting his back and saying it was okay, he was safe. "You doing alright?"

Lukas quickly released the hug, stepping away faster than what was necessary. "Yeah, yeah I'm fine. A little shaken up, reminded me of Sky City and all that."

Jesse studied his face with eyes the color of late summer oak leaves and shamrocks and winter holly, dark green and beautiful. "Okay, but we can go back anytime. Not like the temple can walk away." Lukas punched in the other pattern, and the door opened.

The corridor continued in a straight slope. It eventually ended in a basement-looking place, and Lukas picked up a torch from one of the brackets on the wall. Even with the fire, he couldn't see past more than a couple feet in front of him. The dark was heavy, almost tangible on his back and shoulders, like it was attempting to push him against the ground and drag him back into the pit. He couldn't sense where the ceiling ended, and by the sound of the echoes his steps made the room was huge. The ground was inlaid with cracked and dusty tile.

Lukas heard a noise to his left, low and rattling. He whirled around, instantly reaching for the bow on his back, but there was nothing but shadows to hit.

"Uh, Jesse? Did you hear something?"

"No," Jesse answered ahead of him. "Why?"

"I thought-- never mind, it's nothing." He shook his head. It was nothing, his brain was just playing tricks on him.

A faint glow began to emit from ahead of Jesse and there was a sudden ramp downwards onto a circle engraved into the floor the width of a playing field. Lukas stared at his feet and realized the light was spilling from the geometric lines that intersected the area like a confused spiderweb. It probably made some sort of pattern or image but Lukas wasn't up high enough to see the full picture.

A scale-like material brushed against the back of his ankles. Lukas stopped, freezing up. Dust. Just dust, there was probably an air draft here somewhere.

While Jesse was being fascinated with the place-- which looked a little too much like a gladiator pit for Lukas' liking-- his eyes caught a shape in the distance, low and slinking, and every hair on the back of his neck stood on end. His feet stopped of their own accord, and Lukas felt like panicking, not in control of his own body, and everything was PAMA all over again, sweltering and dry. His vision tunneled and somewhere the idea of snapping himself out of it was there, but forming comprehensible thoughts felt impossible when his brain was screaming DANGER over and over again like a broken record player.

DANGER.

One move forwards.

DANGER.

He swore it smiled, scarily humanlike.

DANGER.

Lukas was broken out of his trance by Jesse calling, "Hey, come look at this!" The pressure instantly retreated like it'd never been there.

Blood rushed back to his tingling palms and Lukas jogged over, nearly stumbling over the pins and needles that struck his feet. When he glanced behind him the creature was (thankfully) gone, and he noticed the circle was set deep into the floor, making the actual surface of the cavern much too high to reach once you reached the lower level.

"There's murals here too, and some sort of small platform in the middle. I'm going to check it out, see if anything's there." Lukas scanned the pictures, similar to the ones in the corridor: death, all death, just death. He shuddered, still preoccupied with visions of red eyes and slamming Jesse into the glass against his will under the gaze of a giant machine. Everything, even the images his consciousness conjured felt too real as though they'd come to life at any given point in time. "I'll walk over there with you, I don't trust this place."

The echo of their footsteps sounded deafening in the lack of noise. "Lukas, when you said you heard something, did you see anything as well?"

He hesitated to explain. "Again, it was probably a trick of the shadows or a small animal."

Jesse didn't seem entirely convinced.

He raised his hands. "Okay, I'm pretty sure I did, to the left and out a ways. I don't know what it was-- maybe a snake? But those don't live in cold areas, maybe a mammal got stuck here or something."

Jesse pulled out his sword from where it hung at his hip, faintly glowing with light blue in the darkness. The hue intermingled with the light emanating from the floor, green and blue mixing as they walked forwards, cautious. On the pedestal stood a small statue half the size of Lukas' hand: a coiled reptile with the head of a goat, a snake, and a type of bird.

Lukas held out a hand to stop him, but Jesse was already there and picked the figurine up before all six of its eyes flashed and he dropped it without warning.

The sound of it hitting the floor reverberated throughout the cavern, and Lukas heard Jesse hiss "Fuck!" before everything was blocked out and he clutched at his ears, Jesse hunched over shaking his hand and probably swearing. Every single one of the lights set into the floor flickered and the floor tilted and groaned, tiles shifting and melting into each other. Lukas clutched at Jesse's shoulder to steady himself but was knocked back when the stone rose in front of him like a wave, shattering. He slid backwards, the now uneven floor grating against his elbows.

A hiss not unlike a creeper replaced the horrible grating noise. It was a snake, bigger than two houses combined and covered in ridged scales that seemed to flow with the patterns on the ground, winding around the arena over and under itself. He couldn't tell where it ended and where it began.

Lukas got to his feet, wild-eyed and on edge. Jesse was on the opposite side of the ring, the small statue in one hand and his sword in the other, staring at something invisible in front of him. Even from a distance Lukas could tell he was trembling.

"Jesse!" No response. Lukas would need to get to him.

The winds of serpent behind Lukas began to move, and he grabbed his bow, aiming for the sloped head that rose behind him.

The first arrow bounced harmlessly off the snake's scaled hide. Lukas panicked, grabbing another arrow from the quiver on his back and searching for a bare or vulnerable area to try to hit. The piece of equipment fit neatly against his fingers and Lukas pulled the string back, thumb barely brushing his mouth, before letting the arrow fly. Nostril. Bingo.

A coil struck him from the side. His vision was obscured for a few moments while he tumbled, arms over his head. The snake was angry, now: slithering back and forth across the ring so fast Lukas' eyes had trouble following it, slithering in knots.

Lying on his stomach, he pushed himself up and quickly found his bow, attention never straying away from where the serpent's body was moving. If it managed to bite or begin to constrict him it was over, he would be done for. But there was a problem. Jesse was gone from his spot.

The snake jerked behind him, and Lukas swung his bow around just in time for it to snag Jesse's sword in the corner.

A foot was planted firmly against his chest and Lukas was shoved back, pulling Jesse with him. Lukas wanted to yell What's wrong with you? but he knew better, and this was not Jesse pushing even harder in retaliation. Nothing about his appearance seemed to be particularly off-- his eyes were green, but not summer oak leaves and holly; instead the gray-green of the ocean during a hurricane, beating against the rocks and tearing boats apart, the surge of water that flooded shores and drowned those unlucky enough to be caught in the tide.

For the first time Lukas fully realized Jesse was, in fact, a lot stronger than him, pushing him backwards relentlessly until his shoulders struck rough scales. Lukas didn't know what to do. Fighting back would mean hurting Jesse, and there was still the issue of the serpent still twisted around them.

Jesse untangled his sword from Lukas' bow and shoved him back another time just as the snake moved, sending him straight to the floor. The bow was kicked out of reach and Lukas felt cold metal under his chin.

"What-- what are you doing?"

Jesse rolled his eyes. "All you mortals are so pathetic. One hit and you're down. But I guess you're useful for something, otherwise I wouldn't be here." He shook the figurine in one hand and grinned a little too wide. "Thanks for that, Lukas, but unfortunately I'm done with you."

Lukas found himself unable to speak. "Stop," he croaked. "Leave Jesse alone."

Jesse studied his hands like he was discovering them for the first time. "A little on the emotional side, but he'll do-- oh Lukas, no no no." Jesse-- no, not Jesse anymore, some other entity that had possessed him-- flexed his fingers happily and tightened his grip on the sword. "I like this mortal. He'll do just fine."

Lukas went pale.

"I would thank you for bringing him here but it was all too easy. Amazing what you can do shoved inside a little prison for thousands of years, huh?" He frowned. "I'm getting too chatty and your friend here is very annoying, maybe your death will shut him up. I'd hate to go around with a migraine. Best regards, Lukas. Say hi to the gatekeeper for me."

The snake was behind him, coiled up to strike.

"Mortals are dust, and to dust they shall return."

Jesse raised his sword.

***

Lukas woke to a world of silence.

His eyes fluttered open first, face pressed against the now dull swirling patterns on the floor, casting barely enough light to see. He staggered to his feet, dark spots dancing across his field of vision. Every single one of his bones felt heavy as if he'd been woken from a deep sleep, and judging by the pain that flared when he touched the side of his head he had been knocked unconscious.

The last thing Lukas remembered was Jesse towered above him, looking unnatural and even hellish in the wake of shadows painting his face.

Jesse.

God, where was he? What happened? What seemed to be possession-- although that shouldn't be possible-- the figurine, the giant serpent-- it all made Lukas' head hurt more than it already did. Shakily he stood up, wincing as he felt the bump underneath his hair and picking up his bow before spotting a crumpled heap of something across the arena and running towards it.

He stumbled once, then hit the floor on his knees and carefully turned Jesse over on his side, the color draining from his face as he noticed the twin trails of red running from his nose. Patches of his armor and the clothes underneath were stained with blood that could only be his, but what worried Lukas most were the two large puncture holes on his right arm, running straight through the leather on top.

Lukas shook him, gently, patting the side of his face. "Jesse." His voice came out hoarse and not as confident as he wanted it to. "Jesse, please. We need to leave."

After a moment Jesse groaned and shifted slightly, eyes cracking open, back to the calm green of the sea on a clear day. He gave Lukas a small, exhausted grin despite his obvious condition. "Hey."

"Hey yourself," Lukas said softly. "Can you remember what happened?"

Jesse's face twisted in worry. "Not a whole lot, just. . . touching the statue-- there was a snake, right?" He put his head back down and wiped his face with the back of his hand, smearing the blood across his chin. Lukas wanted to say something but kept silent. "I-- and then I pushed you or something, right?"

"Or something. We can talk once we get out of here." Lukas caught his forearm and helped him up, Jesse wincing. "God, your hand--" The obsidian of the sculpture had burned right through his glove, searing an image of two connected crescent moons facing each other onto his palm in black. "And the statue did that?"

Jesse grimaced. "I think so. My hand burned when I touched it." He briefly looked around and then picked up the thing from where it lay on the ground, beady black eyes glinting maliciously. "I don't want to, but we should take it with us. Find out more. Ivor may know something." He glanced upwards. "And if there are any more of these places, we need to seal them off." A sudden realization struck him. "The snake--"

"Gone, so we shouldn't worry about it for now. We need to focus on getting you home, you're not exactly in the best shape to go giant serpent hunting."

Jesse cracked a smile. "That's what you're planning? Giant serpent hunting?"

They began walking in the direction they came from, Jesse's sword, even in its sheath, still offering a small amount of light, enough to see where Lukas was putting his feet. "It's possible. A giant serpent near Beacontown and Boomtown is not good."

The door opening up to the chamber with the pit was closed, but when Jesse leaned on it with his marked palm on the stone it swung open easily. Lukas wasn't completely surprised, but did make a mental note.

The pair carefully scooted around the abyss and made the trip up the long, long flight of stairs. This time, the murals seemed to try to jump out at him when he wasn't looking, as though the depictions of death ached for someone to free them from their confines. Lukas kept walking. Jesse was clearly worn-out so Lukas mulled over his thoughts rather than voicing them out loud.

There had to be some logical reason for all this. Whether it had all been a caused hallucination or a set-up-- Lukas would not accept the supernatural as a reasonable explanation. He could come back, find the snake, gather information and try to understand as much as possible about the cause. Maybe discovering more about whatever the place was would help them out in the long run, and Lukas knew for a fact the whole of their world was far from being fully discovered, much less understood.

Petra was waiting for them.

He sat against the far wall under a statue twice his size, absolutely covered in small nicks and scratches like he'd jumped through a glass window. His dark brown eyes flitted back and forth between them anxiously as he stood, favoring one ankle. Olivia and Axel were nowhere to be seen.

He scanned them both, the small figurine in Jesse's pocket, the blood on his face. Pulled himself up.

"What happened to you guys?"

"What happened to you?"

Alarm flickered across his features. "The corridor-- I just had trouble figuring out what was happening, Lukas. That's all. Stumbled into some stuff." Liar.

Petra was one of the most fearless people Lukas knew. If he was nervous about that particular hallway, Lukas wouldn't be going anywhere near it. "Back to what I asked. What went on down there?"

Jesse glanced at him briefly. Lukas fidgeted with the feathered tips of arrows behind him. "A lot went on. I think," he said slowly, "It would be better if I shared another time. I'm still trying to find an answer, and Jesse should go home to rest."

Jesse raised the hand that wasn't burned. "I'm fine, I can stay." His attention snapped to the last corridor. "Where--"

Petra scowled. "No, you're clearly not. Go home with Lukas. Axel and Olivia-- when they return, and if they don't soon I will go after them, don't worry-- and I can handle what comes if needed. We can take care of ourselves."

"But--"

"Go home. You have blood all over your face, Jesse."

He touched his fingers to his lips and looked at them. "Oh. Sorry."

Lukas would've laughed if it hadn't been so morbid, taking his arm and carefully tugging him in the direction of the exit. "Petra's right. Let's go." After a few more tugs Jesse followed him out, feet lightly dragging and half leaning on him. He inspected the statue another time, turning it over and watching how the sun glinted off its edges. The weather was even hotter in the late afternoon, cicadas buzzing in the trees as they left the ruins and picked the best path to the Nether portal, Lukas' hand always near his bow in case any monsters decided to show up.

A few times Jesse had to sit down, feeling dizzy. Lukas took this as a sign he was definitely not okay and needed to be looked at as soon as possible. The serpent could've been poisonous, and Lukas himself probably needed to affirm he didn't have a concussion.

The route from outpost to outpost passed quickly while Lukas was so preoccupied. They shared the same minecart like the previous trip, Jesse leaning on his back with a hazed look to his eyes, his complexion gradually turning sickly as time passed.

He tripped several times during the walk to Beacontown although he waved it off, assuring he was okay and didn't require assistance. Lukas tried not to attract an audience by taking lesser-known streets but people were concerned and everywhere, and while Lukas appreciated their sympathy and willingness to help, being crowded would not help Jesse and he shooed most of them off with a few well-put phrases. They had a right to ask questions since Jesse was in a partial position of authority (what the Order was exactly was being figured out) but could wait until later to be answered.

Jesse seemed as relieved as Lukas was when he finally shut the Order Hall door behind them. He pulled out a chair and collapsed on it, setting his head against the table. In an environment where nobody apart from Lukas was watching, he had an easier time showing he did need help. Lukas had recognized the behavior over months and months.

Lukas laid a palm on his back. "Don't fall asleep on me." He should've known better, should've known the outcome wouldn't have been good. Now, on top of everything else, Jesse was injured and had been controlled by something.

Lukas was such a good friend.

Jesse turned his head to look at him. "I would if I could. Everything hurts too much." He shifted and released a deep breath. "I don't know, about the snake and whatever that thing was, but. . . don't blame yourself about the map. We made a group decision, and I was the one who was impulsive and touched this," he set the carving on the table. "Not you."

Lukas started to respond, but before he could the front door slammed open. Jesse flinched, then smiled.

"FRIENDS!" Ivor boomed.

Lukas sighed.

Chapter Text

Ivor was a mystery to Lukas, in all aspects.

He did not know where he was from, his past apart from the Old Order, didn't know simple things about him that friends should know: his favorite color, what he liked to do, his favorite book. He trusted him wholeheartedly as Jesse did, because Ivor was a good man, but the mystery surrounding him made Lukas curious.

He'd been steadily opening up as he gained a stronger relationship with the rest of the current Order (Although Ivor and Petra frequently clashed), but seemed content to only have that deeper connection with Jesse. Lukas had often heard them talk through the night, seen Jesse go to him for advice and comfort.

However, it was still jarring to see Ivor fuss over Jesse like a mother hen.

They were in the basement under the Order Hall rather than Ivor's own house-- Jesse couldn't make it that far, he'd taken six steps and then collapsed, much to Ivor's distress. Ivor kept most of his potion supplies there anyways; he had taken to spending equal time in both establishments.

So there Lukas was, forced to sit back on a nearby chest while Ivor poked and prodded at Jesse, wincing every time Jesse winced.

"Ivor-- ow-- that hurts--" Jesse was too much in a haze to do a whole lot more than mumble protests with closed eyes. His legs dangled off the edge of the counter that lined the back of the room, holding himself up with his arms.

The older man sniffed. "That's what you get for being reckless, boy. Shirt off, there was blood all over the flimsy stuff you were wearing as armor. Now Lukas, you need to tell me what happened while I take care of this mess."

Jesse's sickly complexion paled, and as his gaze flicked to Lukas his ears began to flush.

"I won't look," Lukas promised, turning away. Jesse was insecure, and that was fine. He told the story from start to finish while Ivor tended to the various cuts and scrapes with a cloth dipped in a jar half full of a mix of healing potion and probably a few other things Lukas couldn't name. The smaller wounds would take just a few hours to disappear, days to a week for the larger ones although from what he'd seen Lukas knew a few were going to scar. Healing potions couldn't fix that-- Ivor explained the mechanics to him a while ago: healing only reacted to raw tissue, blood, and small bones, not scar tissue or old wounds. Regeneration just helped the healing process go even quicker.

When he finished Ivor stared him down, the shadows dark on his angular face. Lukas was taller than him, but that didn't make Ivor any less imposing when his eyes darkened and he scowled. For a solid minute Lukas thought Ivor was going to cuss him out, then he sighed and glanced worriedly at the puncture marks on Jesse's upper arm.

A tiny vial of blood sat on the counter. He'd taken a sample, which told Lukas the venom was unknown, dangerous enough to be harmful, or both.

"You kids, always scaring the Nether out of me. I'll be right back, need to figure out the basis of the antivenom. Lukas, keep an eye on him, note any changes in behavior, breathing, slurred words, you know the drill." He vanished behind the various bookshelves standing in rows along the basement with a small whirl of his green outer robe.

Jesse was hunched over, arms crossed and turned away from him.

"Are you worried?" Lukas asked softly.

Jesse shifted at the sound of his voice. "I mean, I guess. Giant snakes are new, but apart from feeling a little tired and dizzy I don't exactly feel poisoned. It's not like this is the worst thing we've ever faced."

Lukas had the growing fear that it was, but not for the whole team. Just for Jesse.

He knew he shouldn't underestimate Jesse-- he'd learned his lesson during the Witherstorm adventure, which was a whole other story to think about-- but he also knew Jesse could only handle so much before he broke. So far he'd stayed resilient past the point Lukas thought was possible, but how much more could he take? How many adventures, how many life-threatening situations and how much emotional pain could he handle before he eventually. . . shattered.

Lukas had seen people completely broken by pain and trauma, their spirits gone. He would lose himself if Jesse was turned into one of them.

"It's still stressful, and probably the most intense adventure we've had yet so far since the Portal Hallway."

Jesse nodded, still turned away from him.

"Is this about you attacking me back there?"

Jesse's gaze shot towards him. "What? I remember I pushed you, but. . . I attacked you?" It was clear he was upset, even more upset about the event than Lukas was. "Did I hurt you? What did I do? Was--"

Lukas waved him off. "I'll be fine, it was more of a scare than anything else." He didn't mention the possession or the fact Jesse would've killed him if the serpent hadn't intervened when it did. Those conversations would happen soon enough. Jesse didn't need to hear them while he was poisoned and tired.

"Do you want to show Ivor the artifact when he gets back?"

Jesse took it out of his back pocket, rubbing his thumb over the sharp edges. "No, not yet. He may have answers, but I need to hear what happened at the temple first, need to try and make sense of it. Plus I need to bring Eli home from Nell and Em's place, talk to a group of neighbors about a land dispute with a well, the jail captain wants to talk to me about the consequences for a teen, that place is unorganized and in need of structure so we can have some sort of. . . protection in place as Beacontown's always been so small there's only been two deputies in charge besides us, and before that Gabriel--"

He was spouting out a hundred words a minute and Lukas had trouble keeping up with his pace of mind. "Woah, hang on! That's a lot of things to do."

Jesse raised his eyebrows. "It's my job. I do this stuff daily. I'm on my feet pretty much all the time."

Lukas didn't know much about Jesse's daily going-ons. He knew Jesse was in some sort of awkward half-mayor stage, but wasn't completely sure how it worked, or what it entailed. He'd never asked since Jesse was gone much of the time, Lukas caught up in his own things, and he was starting to realize being mad at Jesse for being gone was becoming a stupid thing to get mad at with what Lukas was learning about his schedule.

"Oh."

He tried to think of something else to say to keep the conversation going, Jesse still turned away from him, facing the wall with his arms around his knees.

"Are you sure that's all that's bothering you?"

Jesse was completely silent for almost a full minute. All Lukas heard was the humming of redstone lamps on the ceiling, Jesse's feet tapping the counter still. Then he said: "Lukas, do you remember the Games?"

Lukas felt a chill go down his spine.

Yes. Yes, he did. Of course he did.

Screaming and death and the pain, the instant scorching pain of every single one of his bones being shattered and crushed before he died. He would have nightmares about it for the rest of his life.

"I know none of us got away unscathed mentally, but. . . not all of us got away physically unscathed, either." He slid off the counter and stood in front of Lukas, letting his arms rest at his sides, the top of his head barely reaching Lukas' nose. It took Lukas a moment to fully grasp what he was seeing.

Twin scars each the width of Lukas' thumb ran down the right side of his chest, directly opposite his heart, shaky and slightly jagged lines several shades paler than the rest of his skin. They began right at his collarbones and ended halfway down his stomach.

Lukas would've been extremely flustered in any other circumstance-- Jesse was never weak to begin with, from all the hours of work, but he'd filled out a little more in the past year or so and-- Lukas made himself not go into further detail. But the sudden reignited anger at the Old Builders made it hard to be embarrassed.

Lukas didn't have any scars from that experience. He supposed being crushed was a one-way ticket, while. . . being axed in the chest was something the laws of logic could pinpoint a little more. Thinking about how the "respawn" concept worked hurt his head.

Jesse shivered. "It hurt. Still does, sometimes, out of nowhere. Like phantom pains." He leaned back and rested his elbows on the counter, a half laugh escaping him as Lukas continued to be at a loss for words. "They're ugly, I know."

Lukas stared. "No! Jesse, no, they're not ugly. The fact that you lived when you should've died is why they're there, that's all. I think you still look. . . uh. . ."

Handsome? Beautiful? Extremely attractive?

"Nice."

Jesse smiled at him. "Thanks, Lukas."

Lukas felt his face heat but said nothing other than, "Can I see the mark on your palm?"

Jesse held his hand out for him to look. It was pure black, as though drawn in coal, the skin around it burned bright red and shiny. He could tell it stung when he touched it. Lukas turned his hand over. Nothing but freckles and a few scars; the mark (thankfully) hadn't burned through.

The mark itself was two moons facing each other, connected by a cross, two circles at the tip of each perpendicular end. Lukas didn't like looking at it, curious as he was; it gave him what was best described as a "bad feeling," like so many others he'd felt recently. Something horrible was going to come of it, he knew. Somehow. Without proof yet. Before Jesse took his hand back Lukas grabbed a pencil and a piece of paper to scribble down a quick likeness and folded it to put in his back pocket.

Ivor's voice cut through his incoming thoughts. "Got it!"

Lukas turned. "The antivenom? That fast?"

"Well, it's the closest to an antivenom we're going to get. For an actual one I'd need a potent sample of the snake's venom, do weeks of testing--"

"Alright, I understand. What can we do for Jesse right now?"

Ivor tugged at his beard a little, in deep thought. "Give the potions we can, as I said, keep an eye on him and take note of anything odd. Snake venom is tricky. Keep him resting. I'm going to speak with a local farmer to see if I can get a team to start working on the antivenom, we're going to need animals for testing. It won't be a great antivenom, but I can work with what I have, try to separate the blood from the poison"

Jesse frowned. "Ivor. . ."

"I'll only be injecting a small amount of the venom into animals; they're supposed to build up a resistance. I'm not going to be slaughtering them. I'm doing this for you."

Jesse closed his eyes for a moment. "Okay, but I don't like the idea of animals being tested on for one person's sake. Try to keep the damage to a minimum as much as possible, please." He carefully stood, leaning on the counter for a few seconds, then sucked in a breath and straightened. Lukas and Ivor watched his every move like hawks, searching for any sign of being unwell.

Jesse huffed. "Don't stand over me like that, I am going to be fine."

He walked past Lukas and Ivor with a slight assuredness in his step. The pair watched him leave the basement, then exchanged worried looks. Ivor's gaze sharpened on Lukas. "Make sure nothing bad happens to him."

Lukas gazed at the stairs where Jesse had been mere seconds ago. "I'd die before I'd let anything even touch him."

***

Em and Nell's home was small, but not plain.

The front yard was decorated with oceanside plants that would grow in the surrounding climate, and oddly colored rocks, some glittering. It was two story, painted blue and yellow-- funky colors-- and stood out against the rest of the homes on the street. A huge brown pitbull lounged on the wooden porch underneath a hammock, a Beware of Dog sign hanging on the front gate.

Unusually, the dog only opened one dark eye as Lukas stepped onto the front porch and knocked on the door. Nell opened it, her hair out of its regular braids and in an unruly bun, an orange shirt with the lettering Far Out reaching past her knees.

Her eyes widened as she recognized him. "Lukas! Dude, it's been a while!"

She gestured for him to come inside. Lukas wiped the dirt off his feet on the welcome mat and went into the living room, which also held a beautiful array of shells, rocks, and other little knickknacks from nature on wood shelves. "Good to see you too, Nell. Is Jesse here?"

"Yeah! He's in the kitchen with Em makin' dinner, come on!" Nell led him through the living room, past a flight of curving stairs and an empty fireplace. They rounded a corner and were met with Em, her hair longer and her aura calmer, and Jesse at the counter mixing something in a bowl with Eli laid faithfully at his bare feet.

He seemed surprised to see Lukas. "I was hoping you wouldn't find me."

"I think we both know at this point I know you well enough." He moved to stand behind Jesse, leaning on his chair. "What are you guys cooking up?"

Nell stood on her tiptoes to kiss her wife's cheek. "I believe biscuits and stew." She washed her hands at the sink, then started helping Em cut vegetables. Lukas began looking around for something to do, and Nell assured him he was fine and that he needed a break, which, after the violent fiasco he'd just been through, he supposed was true.

"You ran off on me. Please don't do that again, especially not right now." he said quietly, so only Jesse could hear him.

Jesse did not look at him. "I can try, but no promises."

Lukas sighed. Maybe Jesse really did need some alone time, to process and make sense of everything, but he could put it off for a little bit, until the poison effects-- whatever they might be-- wore off. Lukas wasn't going to take any chances with him. Not this time.

Em asked him how the past few weeks had been and the four people fell into easy conversation, mostly about Em and Nell as Jesse and Lukas made a silent agreement to avoid lingering too long on the topic of Eli and what they'd found, as well as Jesse's clear wounds. Nell was a definite talker and although Lukas appreciated her as a friend, sometimes she was unsure what was best left unsaid, and the public didn't need to be thrown into a panic about whether Jesse was going to be okay, or whether there was another big danger at hand.

There was a lot left to uncover before Jesse would consider letting the city in on what was going on, and Lukas agreed.

"Also, Stella stopped by. She said she already dropped off the letter in your mailbox, but told us to tell you her situation was real urgent. I don't know what's going on, but it's got to be something bad if she hates you so much," Nell said, glancing across the small table at Jesse.

Stella was the current mayor of a neighboring town called Champion City; small at the moment but quickly gaining population and awareness. She had this rivalry complex with Jesse Lukas didn't understand; and it just seemed to be getting worse. Nell was right-- if she herself had come to Beacontown in need, the situation was probably serious.

Jesse stirred his soup, thinking. "I'll check it out as soon as I get back."

They continued chatting through a quick dinner, until the sun began to draw close to the horizon. Jesse and Lukas thanked Em and Nell for watching Eli and their company and food, then left with Eli trotting at Jesse's heels, the pair watching them go with Em's arm around Nell's waist. The happiness and relationship that they held made Lukas ache for something similar, a little bit.

Lukas and Jesse hadn't walked ten feet when the first person stopped them. Lukas realized he was the jail captain, as Jesse had mentioned earlier.

"Jesse, we have to talk about security--"

Jesse let out a sigh. "Yes, I understand, however we have some urgent matters to attend to, can this wait for a few more days?"

The man nodded curtly, annoyed, and walked away. Lukas watched him go, wary, then followed Jesse back to the Order Hall, being stopped several times by other people with needs, wants to build, problems. Each bringing of news seemed to weigh even heavier on Jesse; he grew increasingly irritable although to most others it wouldn't be noticeable-- it was in his posture, the slight shift in the tone of his voice.

But there were good parts, ones that lifted his spirits once everyone that wanted to let him know something was going wrong had their fill. A small girl with pigtails offered Jesse a handful of uprooted dandelions, which he gently stored in his back pocket. A group of men greeted him enthusiastically and invited him in for a drink, which Jesse politely declined to. Most people said hello or at least waved.

The townspeople really did love Jesse, Lukas realized.

He took care of them, helped them solve their problems, kept them as safe as he could, was eternally patient with them in a way he wasn't with people he'd gotten to know better.

Up until now Lukas hadn't understood how important this town actually was to Jesse, and he better comprehended why Jesse worked all the time, even if it wasn't in his best interests. He felt a unique responsibility to them, and wouldn't abandon them. Lukas admired him for that.

Jesse picked up the letter from his mailbox on the way, and he opened the door to a world of chaos.

Axel, Olivia, and Petra all stood around the largest table-- covered in books and papers of all sizes-- talking with grim expressions on their faces. Ivor was nowhere to be seen. All three were dirty and covered in minor scrapes and cuts.

Olivia beamed at Jesse when she'd noticed him. "Don't worry about us; we're okay. Just a small zombie ambush, nothing we couldn't handle. And look!" She held up an old-looking leather-bound book. "We found all this!"

"It's all in the same language as the map," Petra added. "So they're not of much use unless we can crack the language code."

"With this much information we might be able to," Lukas said, examining the contents laid on the wood surface. "It'll take a while, but if we can find a pattern-- and that's if Ivor doesn't know, because he might-- we can start taking this apart piece by piece."

Jesse nodded thoughtfully. "Okay. Axel, unless you're seriously hurt, could you go find Ivor? He's got to be in the city somewhere by now, maybe at his lava house."

Axel saluted with one hand. "Aye-aye, captain." He set down the paper he was holding, put on his shoes, and vanished through the doorway.

"Olivia, you, me, and Petra will--"

Petra put a hand on his hip. "What makes you think you're doing anything? Nuh-uh. You're going to bed and getting plenty of rest, I see those bandages." Olivia swiveled her head towards Petra. "He's right. Jesse, what happened to you? You look awful, no offense."

Jesse grumbled something about "full offense taken" but briefly explained what he and Lukas had found at the end of the pathway. When he couldn't remember the events, Lukas took over, and Jesse's face went ashen as Lukas explained how something other had appeared to be in control of him. "All I remember was that you were about to stab me, but then the snake must've bit you? Something stopped you, otherwise I wouldn't be here."

Jesse sat down, eyes wide. "I was. . . possessed. But--"

"Only the dead get possessed, that's how we get zombies and husks," Olivia said. "You need to rest, Jesse. You've been through a lot in the past day. Lukas and I will sort all this stuff through in the library; let us do the worrying for right now. You need sleep, especially after that snake bite. It's just coursing through your system more if you stay active. Petra, will you make sure he gets to sleep?"

Petra grinned and helped Jesse up. "Of course. Come on, big hero, I gotta tuck you into bed."

Jesse groaned but got up anyways, giving Lukas one last look before going into his room, Petra right on his heels, saying things like "You have 10 minutes to get your ass into that bed" and "I don't wanna hear a single peep out of you."

Lukas shook his head, trying not to laugh. Olivia started gathering up the papers and books and he followed her lead, exchanging light conversation with her on the way to the Old Order's library, which was huge and would take Lukas at least another few months to filter through. A second story walkway ran along the circumference of the room so you could reach the higher shelves of books, and tables littered the center.

They sorted the papers and books by size, taking quick glances at the pages. It was all scribbled confusion, Lukas couldn't make heads or tails of it. Maybe Ivor would know at least something, or possibly Soren, though Lukas didn't look forwards to seeing him again if he had to.

Once the duo was done they headed to Jesse's room to see if he was resting, and were met with a surprise.

Petra was laying beside him, barely touching, Jesse's breathing even and deep. He was nested in several blankets and pillows, Petra gently patting his back. Petra looked up to greet them, hushing Lukas and Olivia before they could say anything too loud.

"You guys should join us." He winked.

Lukas stared. "No. Petra, uh. . . what are you doing?"

Petra rolled his eyes. "It's just cuddling between best friends, Lukas, is your masculinity so fragile you can't cuddle with your buds?"

"No, it's just-- hell, why are you so cool with it? You rarely like to be hugged."

"1. It's a little different with close friends, 2. Jesse needs some solace right now and I'm here, and 3. You're changing the subject. Get over here, blondie. You're better at comforting than I am anyways."

The thought of cuddling Jesse made his ears burn. "I actually have writing to do--"

Olivia saved him by saying, "Petra, Lukas and I found a few books on languages and things of the like that we're going to look through. Maybe--"

"Bullshit. Get over here, Lukas. We can switch places; you cuddle Jesse while I go through some musty old books with a pretty girl." He felt Petra pull him by the arm and he fell onto the bed, bumping into Jesse, who hardly budged. Petra propped himself up on his arm and looked over him, gesturing for Lukas to get comfy. He clearly wasn't going anywhere, but with Jesse curled up so close Lukas didn't want to.

Olivia shrugged, as if to say Well, I tried. "We'll stay in the room. I don't like the idea of leaving Jesse."

Lukas turned onto his back and stared up at the ceiling, which Jesse had painted constellations on a few months prior. He recognized a few of them, although some of them seemed to be entirely made-up. "Olivia, are you superstitious?"

"I'd like to call myself open-minded. Why do you ask?"

"The symbol on Jesse's hand and the snake and the ghost-possessor-thing. . . it doesn't add up. Maybe that's the sort of thing we're looking for. Doesn't mean it's real, but. . . I don't know. It's worth checking out. There's a book all about it on Jesse's desk that I left there last time I was in here." Lukas didn't mention how he'd seen a symbol in the book that looked the same as the one on the house wall where he and Jesse had found Eli.

The dog was laying at the foot of the bed, eyes open and attentive. Petra reached over to scratch her behind the ears. "It's worth a shot at this point."

Lukas heard the sound of Olivia flipping through the pages. "What does the symbol on Jesse's hand look like?"

Rather than disturb Jesse, Lukas took the paper he'd scribbled on out of his jeans and passed it to her. Olivia opened it up, then sat down and slid the book onto her lap, beginning to flip through the many yellowed pages.

Petra, at the edge of the bed, patted his foot. "You should sleep, Lukas. You got battered around too."

Too exhausted to argue with him, Lukas laid his head down, his hand way too close to Jesse's, and closed his eyes.

He was soon shaken awake by Olivia, her face glowing in the lamp light and her eyes alight with alarm. It took a few seconds to understand that Jesse had turned around and was sleeping with one leg thrown around Lukas' knee, his body pressed up against Lukas' back.

Lukas sat up-- or tried to. "What's going on?"

"The symbol," Olivia whispered. Lukas had only seen her in such fear only a few times. He lowered his voice as well. "What does it mean?"

Olivia showed him where she was at in the book, her hands shaking as she held it.

"Stygal. He Who Brings Death."