“For the last time, stop. Moving.”
The hands clasping his shoulders grew tighter, pushing his knees slightly into the waterlogged earth below him.
He immediately ignored the directive given as his entire body spasmed, hacking up clods of soil.
The owner of the voice behind him grunted before slamming him down into the mud, one hand now on his back and the other on the ropes keeping his hands held together. A shock ran through his jaw as it hit the ground, and his mouth began to fill with a coppery taste as his teeth pierced his tongue from the impact.
“Now, now, I don’t believe all that is quite necessary.”
A different voice this time, more feminine sounding. A hand lifted his chin, delicate yet firm, and an abyss of pure yellow met his eyes, nearly glowing in the darkness.
“I thought that our agreement was that you would never come back here.” Her mouth turned up in a cool grin, a sliver of pointed teeth visible between her lips. “Imagine my surprise when I learned that you had returned, not once, but twice, and left the same way each time.” She glanced up and nodded at the other person behind him, before meeting his gaze again. “You will not be escaping me again. Death would be too good for you, Lucien.”
And before she could do anything, he wrenched his chin from her grip and clamped his fangs down on her hand, crystals of ice forming as his own blood mingled with hers.
The woman yelped and fell back into the mud, her nearly ankle-length hair tangling with her legs. He immediately jolted up and ran as fast as he could—which wasn’t very fast at all, honestly, since he felt as wobbly as a newborn fawn.
He stumbled through the half-melted banks of muddy snow, hands still bound at his back, aiming his weak legs towards the woods. He heard faint shouts behind him—”Go, you fool, follow him!”
A freezing rain began as he reached the forest and he breathed out a frantic laugh, grateful for the cover it gave him. He weaved through the trees, tripping on roots half-hidden in the snow as shouts and rapid footsteps echoed trailed him. Suddenly, in the inky darkness of the moonless night, a void opened up as the ground dropped out at what appeared to be a steep hill. He stumbled to a halt, nearly pitching over the edge in his haste.
His mind raced for a plan, anything to get away—but before any coherent thoughts could surface, a click rang out behind him.
Then a bang.
And he tipped over the precipice as a bullet pierced through the back of his shoulder.
He let out a yelp as the rocky slope battered his already sore body, the new wound searing with a burning pain. He tumbled head over heels, unable to gain any purchase with his hands bound.
Eventually, the earth seemed to stop beneath him as he tumbled to a halt, facedown on the flat ground. He lay still for a moment, panting and trying to stifle the whimpers of agony as pain radiated from his entire being.
“You complete Dummkopf, you lost him!”
“Lost him? I shot him right in the back! He’d be lucky to be alive after that, plus that fall!”
“Were you not paying attention to anything I hired you for? I wanted him alive! Why do you think I had him resurrected?”
“Enough of this. Go retrieve him, and if you are lucky, you will not find yourself in that hole you dug him out of.”
Resurrected, she had said, the word piercing through the fog of pain. He had only a moment to think before he needed to keep moving, but that moment was all he needed for everything to click in his head.
He was back. He was himself, not Lucien, not some empty, terrified amnesiac. His life was his own again.
He was Mollymauk Tealeaf, and he was alive.
For now, at least.
Yasha had drifted away from the Mighty Nein some weeks ago.
It wasn't a permanent absence, certainly. They were her friends, maybe even family, and she treasured the time she was able to spend with them. But the Stormlord called, and anyway, she found it more difficult to stay after—
The group wasn't the same. It was still good, by all means, but it was different. It was as if someone had taken her treasured book of pressed flowers and plucked a few of the delicate blossoms. Most were still there, and they were beautiful, but she could see an outline on the paper where something that was once there was there no longer. And she ached with the knowledge that it would not return.
So she found herself wandering, following the path the Stormlord laid out for her. She didn’t have to think, didn’t have to constantly pore over her grief, when she simply walked where she was told to. The sound of thunder became a constant in her life, the cold rain soaking her clothes as familiar as the feeling of air on her skin. She didn't mind. It meant that her god was looking out for her.
She wasn’t entirely sure where in Wildemount she was, having avoided most roads and towns. She could tell from the occasional glimpses of sun behind the dark, rain-heavy clouds that she had been steadily heading east, but where exactly, she was uncertain.
It didn’t really matter to her anyway. Until one day, the innate pull towards the eastern horizon became... desperate.
The storm clouds were more intense than usual, thunder crackling almost constantly in the distance. A sharp wind had begun to blow, pushing her towards the tempest.
As the wind grew stronger, her surroundings began to grow familiar. Yasha hadn’t gotten as good a look at Shady Creek Run as the others, having been bound or asleep most of her time there, but she would recognize the rolling hills where she lost her dearest friend anywhere.
She shivered, but it wasn’t from the cold.
Suddenly, she flinched slightly as a crack of lightning struck the ground near her, illuminating the night through the thick cords of rain. Then she squinted as she noticed something at the base of a hill, previously invisible through the downpour. Or someone, she realized as the image became clearer.
She ran towards the fallen form, the wind at her back and slid to a stop. All of the vibrant colors were muted with blood and muck, but it was unequivocally Molly, facedown in the mud with his hands bound at his back. She dropped into a crouch and immediately began sawing at the ropes with her greatsword.
As soon as the severed pieces of rope hit the ground, she sprinted in front of him, her sword squelching into the mud as she kneeled in front of him. She gently rolled him over and placed his head in her lap and began feeling for a pulse. It was slow and faint, but she breathed out an immense sigh of relief as she confirmed it was there.
“Alright,” she said quietly, the gale nearly drowning out her words. Her hands began faintly glowing with a soft golden light as she wiped some of the blood off of his cheeks. “You probably don’t remember who I am, and that’s fine. I understand. But I need you to know that I’m your best friend, and I’m here to help you.”
A moment passed, the only sound coming from the buffering winds and the cold rain. Then Molly’s eyes cracked open and he grinned, mouthing one word: Yasha.
All of the grief and anger of the last few months flooded out from her as she smiled back. Not only was her best friend alive again, but he remembered her. She laughed and tilted forward, touching her forehead to his. His horns were a bit in the way, but she barely even noticed.
“This really is touching, but I do have to ask you to step out of the way immediately.”
Even before turning around, Yasha’s hand whipped out and wrapped around the jolt of her sword. Then she whipped around, planting her feet protectively in front of her friend.
Neither of the two of them had ever really met Ophelia Mardun, but Yasha had learned enough about her from the rest of the Mighty Nein to recognize her instantly. There was another man standing next to her, too, shivering slightly in the rain, with a weapon similar to the one Nott had stolen in Hupperdook trained directly at Yasha.
Yasha’s eyes narrowed. “And what exactly makes you think I’ll do that?” She had gone this long without her friend, and she could feel the embers of rage starting to smolder at the very thought of having to lose him again.
Ophelia smirked, her eyes trained distastefully at Molly, who had managed to sit vaguely upright behind Yasha. “You do not know what that man is capable of. Lucien has eluded me for this long, and now that I have him in my sights, I will not allow him to escape me again.”
Everyone but Yasha jumped as lightning struck again in the vicinity, the man with the firearm letting out a surprised yelp. In the split second of illumination, a pair of skeletal wings curled out behind her.
“This is not Lucien. This one has never been Lucien. This is Mollymauk Tealeaf, my first and best friend, and I will be taking him with me.”
A third flash of lightning, this time striking directly in front of the aasimar. Ophelia and her companion both jumped back, ears ringing.
And once they blinked the afterimage of the light away, the aasimar and the tiefling had vanished.