• The thick shaft of light through the rafters was the only indication Ellie had of the time. Despite the fiery aching in her limbs, she sat up, arms shaking with the effort. Once upon a time Ellie would have scorned such a poor excuse for accommodation; long weeks on the run had made her thankful for any sort of shelter. For a roof. She laughed; hollow, empty, and a parody of what it once was. An echo of the rundown shack Max and Logan had found for them. Although she couldn't articulate it, Ellie was grateful for being picked up by the group. As twisted as the thought was, it was nice to find some people in a situation as messed up as her own.

    Ellie finally convinced her body to cooperate; to move faster than a crawl. Shuffling towards the gaping, jagged hole that served as a door, she grabbed what was left of the luggage. The midday sun was somewhat blinding, but it only served to sharpen her ears to the tail end of one of the conversations outside. They had let her sleep in. Again. It stung Ellie to think that, even after all this time, she couldn't keep up with everyone else. She had never liked incompetence, her father had always frowned upon it, and it was a slap to the face to find such a poor quality in herself. Ellie knew that Maxie was the only one defending her case to stay; it was lucky that Anne valued his opinion so highly. Max's kindness could only stretch so far though; she would have to keep to the schedule, or she would have leave, lest she do any more damage.

    She turned to Anne, the unspoken leader of the faction, to voice her thoughts. "Listen Anne, I know we haven't gotten along so far and that's mostly my fault. But I realise what you've all sacrificed to let me join you, and I've learned a lot these past few weeks," Ellie mumbled; she wasn't used to speaking in such a humble tone, and it shook her to think of the aloof person she'd been back in Wakefield North. "I'd never forgive myself if the Trackers caught up with us because of my inability to handle the situation. Don't treat me differently from the others because Max feels sorry for me, or for whatever reason he wants me to stay...What I'm trying to say is that you shouldn't hesitate if you ever need to leave me behind. I'll be alright on my own; most likely I can make it to where Aria's team is going; it's about a four or five day run from here to the Eastern Base. And even if I get caught, Tobias won't kill me yet; he still needs me alive to bargain with my brother. On the other hand, Logan's already injured; he won't be able to hold anyone off in a fight."

    Her voice had gained conviction towards the end of her speech, but it had done nothing to mask the weariness, nor the raspy quality associated with one too many nightmares and too few meals. "Just do what you have to as leader of this faction."

    Anne laughed, much in the way that she normally did. Though it's usual cruel undertone had all but vanished. Hard times had obviously created hard people. She shifted her bag before answering.

    "I'm not going to pretend to like you darling, but I know that you're not the same person you were when we first met. Max thinks that you staying with us is for the best, and I'm not going to argue with him about it; he has the best intuition of anyone I know and he's a good judge of character. Try your best to keep up with us, and I'll have no problems. You may not be able to see it but you've become a part of this group, and this group always protects it's own. If the Trackers want to try something, we'll give 'em a real taste of what we're made of!"

    Anne swiftly tied up her short brown hair and jumped up onto a large rock in front of the faction before Ellie had a chance to reply. Though Ellie had no idea how she would have answered anyway. In all honestly, she'd expected Anne to throw her out the second she had proved herself willing. Filing the thought away to reflect on later, she turned with the others to listen to Anne.

    "Now that we're all here, it's time to get moving again. I hope you're all well rested because there will be no breaks today. In a few hours we'll have to cross the border into Asher territory. Although it's something we've been trying to avoid, it's time to face the inevitable. Dante and Bailey have gone ahead to scout for a safe path, but still keep your eyes and ears open at all times. And make sure to stick close to someone who can mask magical signatures; I want us noticed by as few people as possible!"

    Satisfied with the few nods and approving calls, Anne stepped down from her makeshift podium, breaking into a sudden run (as was her nature to do). The group, used to such behavior, followed without hesitation. As she took off, Ellie found herself surrounded by Max, Valentio and Luria. She suppressed a small smile; at least her magical proficiency was a valuable asset to the group.

    ...Perhaps it was the fatigue of almost two months of travel, or maybe it was the anxiety of passing through the most high risk area in the western quadrant, but not one person noticed how unusually quiet the forest was. How the birds failed to sing, how the leaves failed to lift with the wind, and the stale air that wrapped around them.

    What a grave mistake.