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I’d seen the list, I already knew that Blake and his posse were going to Las Vegas. I mean, Blake was the only person besides me who wasn’t an A Hunter or higher — it was pretty obvious to pick him out when I looked at the list. I could understand why Price, Mark, and Penny were on the list. They were all A’s, so it made sense. I knew from experience that Penny was good value, though her ability to notice me when I was in Stealth was a little concerning. Mark and President Price — they must be good too since the Stone Mace continued to rise on the Guild list. As for why Blake was here, I could only assume he cried to his cousin to come. For that matter, I’d never actually seen Blake in action. It was always his higher leveled party that followed his beck and call.

Since I had no say on who could and could not come on the expedition, I had been trying to ignore the fact that that group of people existed. They sat in the back of the bus, I sat in the front. With so many people between us, they were nothing but a figment of my imagination.

I sighed and shifted a little, putting Kesstel between me and them so that I didn’t have to look at Blake anymore. Blood Sword wanted everyone to be friends, but when had that shithead Blake ever left me alone?

Blood Sword kept talking. “The team leads have talked, and it has been decided that as the largest team, the Eden party will take the middle section of Las Vegas.” He motioned to the middle section that followed the interstate through the city, which also included most of the old and new Strips on the southern half of the interstate. “According to the detectors, more monsters are concentrated in this area, so a larger party should be given that job. We don’t know the ranks, and just because there are more monsters, it doesn’t mean that the Portal is in this section. Monsters spread and claim domains, as you all know.” The map disappeared and Blood Sword looked around, meeting everyone’s eyes. “It’s our job to claim it back.”

Ben Saito stepped forward and spoke in a deep voice. “There are still a couple miles before we get to the drop-off point. Once there, teams will go to their designated areas. The drop-off point is going to be the rendezvous location, at the I15 and 573 Junction. Tomorrow, that rendezvous point is going to be I15 and 574 Junction. Please be sure to have your section cleared off by then. Even though that is the rendezvous point, teams have decided that for the most part, we will be camping separately.” He glanced at the leads around him. “I think that’s everything I need to share with you. Details will be taken care of by your team leads.” He clapped his hands. “Let’s break.”

Since time was an issue, the Hunters didn’t go back to the kills to salvage the sellables. A second team would be following after us in a couple days, when that area was safe, to take care of the carcasses. The money from that would go toward funding the expedition and paying the Hunters who went.

However, that didn’t make a lick of difference to my Drop Item orbs. The glowing white balls hovered on the ground like little ghosts, completely unaffected by the Hunters walking through them as everyone walked back to the buses.

I shifted around the group, bending awkwardly so I could reach down to the ground. To the people watching me, it looked like I was picking through the red rocks on the ground, finding ones that weren’t bloody. In actuality, I was touching the Drop obs as I picked half-heartedly through the rocks. Soon enough there was just me and Kesstel, waiting on the side, and one other person.

I looked over at Jonovan, standing very naturally next to Kesstel, watching me with a patient smile.

I glanced at Kesstel and noticed that his body wasn’t ridgid at all. Were they friends? I focused on the Healer. “Afternoon, Healer Jonovan. I haven’t had the chance to talk to you yet.”

He was another man on the list that I knew. Unfortunately, he’d been sitting with the S Ranked Healers and President Price has been hovering over the S’s this whole time. And where Price was, Blake was too, like a turd tail on a fish. Kesstel was the only exception, and that was because Kesstel wouldn’t let Price get near him. As soon as he tried, Kesstel would release a very focused aura assault on him. The last one made Price’s leg give out, and Mark’s quick reflexes were the only reason the president didn’t eat dirt.

The whole event caused most people to steer clear of Kesstel. The other S’s that knew him took it in stride, but it drew a lot of confused looks from everyone else. On top of the already strange looks people gave me. As such, I wasn’t able to greet Jonovan with more than a passing smile since we’d started the trip.

Jonovan glanced at my hip satchel as I slipped another rock into the bag, his face curious. “Afternoon, Miss Jyn. I noticed you haven't been helped by a Healer yet.”

I glanced at the cut on my arm. I was so used to getting injured and waiting for the pain to go away with Regen, I’d gotten used to ignoring the pain. “It’s okay.”

He smiled gently and walked up. “But it would be better if I took it away.”

When I opened my mouth to object, Kesstel spoke up. “Just let him. It’s one less thing to worry about.”

I pinched my mouth together but stuck out my arm anyway.

Jonovan’s fingers started to glow faintly with gold magic as he reached out. His fingers ghosted over my skin and the warm magic seeped into my cut. In seconds, the cut was gone. “You’ve gotten so much stronger,” he said quietly. Kesstel could hear him, but it was doubtful that the Hunters in the buses could, even with their amazing hearing. “That’s a good thing. I hated seeing you always so beat up.” Jonovan’s soft brown eyes locked with mine. “But we are still going to a very dangerous place. Be sure to stay by Kesstel and your guards, do you understand?”

I blinked at him. “My guards? What does that mean?”

The golden light disappeared from Jonovan’s fingers and he drew back. “I thought you knew? Two men on your team are to act as your guard first and Hunters second, when Kesstel isn’t around. Since they haven’t already, I assume they’ll introduce themselves later.” Jonovan glanced at Kesstel. “Though they might wait until Kesstel steps away first.”

I groaned and rolled my eyes. Damn it!

Kesstel didn’t look the least bit guilty. “If they have a job to do, they should do it. Regardless of who is around.”

“Kesstel, this is a team endeavor,” Jonovan reminded him. “Please play nice.” It was debatable who was actually older between Kesstel and Jonovan, but since Kesstel only looked like he was in early twenties and Jonovan looked about fifteen years older, it didn’t seem out of place for Jonovan to admonish him.

Kesstel simply gave a lordly I-don’t-give-a-damn smile back. But he still didn’t get angry. “I’m aware of the situation, Jonovan.”

Jonovan gave a short laugh and shook his head. “Well, shall we go? The buses are waiting.” He nodded toward the vehicles, where dozens of eyes were staring at us.

Kesstel glanced at me.

I reached out and picked up one more rock, brushing against the last Drop orb as I did. “Yep, all done.”

“What exactly are you doing?” Jonovan asked as we walked back to the bus.

“Collecting rocks for my sister,” I lied right to his face. “She has a thing for rocks, and I thought it would be cool to get some from Vegas. It’s not like it’s easy to come here, you know. It’s just hard finding ones that aren’t covered in blood or other stuff, you know?”

Sorry, Aliya, I thought. Hopefully Jonovan forgot this before they met. If he asked her about rocks, that might be very embarrassing.

Jonovan hummed in interest. “You’re a dedicated sister.”

A true smile softened my face. “She’s my reason for living.”

Kesstel turned his head and looked at me. It was impossible to guess what he was thinking behind his blank mask. I’d gotten used to figuring out his emotions at least, but not this time.

Since Jonovan was seated in the back, he got on the bus first. I went next and Kesstel followed after. It wasn’t until I got to my seat that I stopped. Oh, right. My seat got ruined. Where was I going to sit? All the other seats in this bus were full.

Kesstel grabbed my shoulder and pushed me into his spot. “Sit here.” Then he reached up and rested his hand on the rail that ran along the luggage compartment. Was he really planning on standing the rest of the trip?

I wasn’t the only person staring at him. After all, he was the only one standing in the whole bus.

“Um, Kesstel?” I asked.

He cut me off. “It’s fine.” Then he glanced at the bus driver. “Let’s go.”

The bus driver jumped like a frightened cat. Then he started the bus and quickly caught up to the first bus.

Kesstel leaned casually on his hip, completely unaffected by the moving vehicle. He lifted his hand and his Guide screen popped up. His fingers danced over the blue screen then he paused.

A Partner Message (PM) popped up in front of me. I blinked at the teal Guide screen then glanced at Kesstel. There was only one person who could give me a PM.

He stared down at me, expecting.

Lips pursed, I opened my first ever PM.

Kesstel: [What were you actually doing out there? It wasn’t just picking rocks.]

I bit my lips. How much was I allowed to tell him? I slowly pressed Reply. I wasn’t used to this function on the Guide and I didn’t quite know what to say, so my typing was a lot slower than Kesstel’s. [When I kill a monster, I can collect the sellable parts without having to do the work of taking apart the monster. That’s what I was doing. But it only applies to the monsters that I kill myself.]

Kesstel focused on the screen, obviously reading my message. His brows lifted. [I see.] He paused and tapped out another message and sent it over. [If this Portal isn’t the one we need, I was planning on leaving from here. Since we now have visas, we can go anywhere we want.]

I bit my lips. [Leave without going back to Eden?]

[Yes.] He looked down, taking in my expression. [Is there a problem with that?]

[I …] I stopped typing and paused, staring at the blinking line, waiting for the rest of my response.

Technically no. There wasn’t a problem. At the same time, there was. I had a lot of responsibility right now — even more than I did half a year ago. I couldn’t just up and leave. How would my family cope? Financially, I could transfer the money I got from this expedition to them and that would hold them over until I came back. In theory.

But my family meant more than a financial obligation to me. They meant everything. It was hard enough walking out of Garden City’s front gate, knowing I was leaving them behind for hopefully less than a couple weeks.

At the same time, this was the end result. Me and Kesstel going on this expedition to fast track getting our passports and being able to leave Eden. In other words, we were planning on leaving anyway. I just wasn’t expecting to leave so fast without talking to my family about it. And there was no phone service in this area, so I couldn’t even call them.

The sooner we found the Portal to the parasitic planet, the better. Still, now that I found myself at this point, I was unnerved. My tiny world was suddenly growing so quickly I felt whiplashed.

Before I could finish putting my thoughts together, Kesstel sent another PM. [Think about it.]

I pressed my lips together and nodded.

*****

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About the author

MichelleRReid

Bio: I am an author, mother, wife, and jack of all trades. I mean, every mom is, but I’ve found that through my research for different stories, I’ve picked up a lot of random (and sometimes actually useful) knowledge and skills.
I’ve had a vivid imagination since I was a child. And as much as I wish I could actually live in the worlds in my head, the closest I can get is with the words I put on the page. These characters are like real people to me. The funny lines they say, their emotions that make my heart bleed, the amazing things they can do that I physically can’t, the adventures and sights that I can see in my head. I love sharing those things with my readers and hope that they can feel at least a part of what I do.
I do have other works that are published through Amazon. They are not LitPRG, but I'm still really proud of them. Check them out if you have the chance.

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