A/N: Hello all! Welcome back to the next chapter! I have an update on myself and what has kept me busy these past few weeks, but I'll explain that in ending notes.

As usual, if there are any grammatical, spelling, or continuity errors then please feel free to let me know.

Chapter 30

Mary Jane Sanderson scoped the area around herself, listening in to make sure no one was around. After a full minute of silence save for the gathering wind, she sighed and moved forward. She was sure that she'd heard someone else speak, but now it seemed that she had been wrong.

Frowning, MJ kept her submachine gun at the ready, hoping it would act as a deterrent if anyone saw her. She eased out of the animal trail she had been following, instead choosing to skulk through the underbrush, knowing it would be harder for anyone to follow her there, unless they could see her from above.

She hadn't seen anyone since Ben and had done everything in her power to ignore thinking about him. Darren's speech had taken that idea away from her, crushing her the moment he dared implicate her in the attack. It was true that he would never have died if she hadn't of been there, but he also wouldn't have died if she hadn't been forced to use him to get to Joshua. MJ didn't want to bother questioning whether or not she had killed him because of his past choices or whether she had just listed him off as an acceptable casualty. She had more pressing concerns.

Hanako was dead. He was alone. He needed someone by his side to help him through this. He was in anguish. With every moment that passed she felt his agony, his hurt at the loss. It made locating him harder. She couldn't hone in on his presence, too distracted by his feelings of suffering to track it down.

Every now and then an agitating trickle of negative energy seemed to run through her mind, allowing her to sense his pain. It was hard to focus whenever this happened and she had learned to stay low to the ground in case a sharper thought entered her mind, for fear of hitting something in front of her.

Joshua had never been this hurt before. No physical pain he had endured through his countless years of training could ever compare to this continuous tidal wave of true agony. It made her shiver just to think about it after she was done feeling it.

Gathering her will, MJ ignored the psychic pain, knowing she had to stay focused if she wanted to reach him. Clenching her fists, she punched a nearby tree and let the physical pain drown out the psychic noise in her mind. A small trickle of blood fell from her knuckles, but she disregarded it.

How could this have happened? Hanako was with Joshua. He would have done everything in his power to save her. Had he slipped up? Made a mistake? That wasn't like him. Something had to have prevented him from saving her. He wasn't to blame. He couldn't be. Hanako didn't deserve to die.

No matter how much MJ had hated her decision to push the two of them together, she had never harbored any hatred for Hanako for loving Joshua, save for the occasional uncontrollable thought. Hanako was kind, loving, and caring, everything someone like Joshua needed to keep him in check. And if Hanako and MJ could work together to help him, then that was fine with her.

But still there was some resentment. No matter how many times she had begged for forgiveness, it always returned. She had wrestled with her sin for months, knowing that she was disobeying God by not giving up her attachment to Joshua in favor of following Him, but she could never gain the strength to offer it to Him. Instead she had found distractions through serving others to make up for it, knowing that this was not the price she had to pay. Was this her punishment? Had God decided to exact justice on her for failing to follow Him? No, she was simply hurting herself because of her refusal to listen to Him. He was ultimately involved in what occurred in her life, but she needed to accept the responsibility of her actions.

MJ cringed, knowing what she had to do.

I'm so sorry, she thought, looking up. I'm a failure. For months You have told me what to do while I spat in Your face. You deserve better than me. But still You offer me what I don't deserve. I know what I have done is wrong and that it has taken me staring at my own death to let go of my sin, but I want to ask for forgiveness. If that is my last act on this Earth, then I do it with no worry and no pain. I am Yours. Amen.

MJ looked around. There was no mighty tempest or lightning crackling through the sky ready to answer her prayer. She nodded. She didn't need a grandiose answer to know she had been forgiven. She had to find Joshua.

But then, just as she was about to start off, she felt a question stirring in the back of her mind.

Why wasn't she focused on saving herself?

MJ stopped. What about herself? Ever since she had come to the island she had only thought of Joshua. Why had she never spared a moment to ask what she could've done to help protect herself? Was it because of his abilities? Was he overriding her own thoughts to only think of defending him?

MJ laughed. Joshua would never do that. As stupid as he could be, he'd never do that to her. He knew she'd never forgive him for it.

But why then had she single-mindedly sought his safety? Didn't she care about herself? That wasn't inherently a sin, so it would not have been wrong to do so, yet she hadn't spared her mortality a passing thought.

It wasn't him. He did it like a child babbling the words of its parents, trying to construct their own language through what meager means that they had. She didn't even know if he understood what he was doing. That was how she knew he didn't affect her the same way. Perhaps it was because of their proximity together that she was immune to his abilities. Others wouldn't know what to expect. It was hard not to like him. He shined. Not physically, but his very nature attracted others to listen to him. It was spiritual, not quantifiable in the words she could use. This was why Sister Grace had invested more time with him than his other brothers. He was the best. He was Joshua.

But he was no saint, no matter how much he'd done to present himself as such, whether he realized that or not. He had killed before Chase, he had lied, gotten jealous, stolen, ruined lives, and blasphemed against his Creator. No one else knew him like she had. Every mistake, every sin had impacted him more than anyone could know, even Hanako. It had hurt MJ to know she knew more than her, but she had known him for longer than others. She had seen his strengths, his faults, and his attempts to overcome. No one else could understand how he struggled with his mission, that nameless quest that would never end, that he had been groomed for his entire life. How could he understand who he was if he didn't even know what he was supposed to do with his life? After every member of his family had told him about his future greatness, and how others would look to him as a paragon of faithfulness to God? Any lesser man would have broken by now, but he had held on, focusing on the race with no finish line in sight yet.

MJ paused. She was too focused on him again. She couldn't begin to think about saving him without first saving herself.

I never cared about them. They were just stepping stones. I needed them to find my place. I'm better than all of them.

MJ paused. Was that Joshua's voice in her mind? Was she close to him? But why was he talking like that? That couldn't be right. Those thoughts weren't his.

Pressing forward, MJ kept a wary eye out for danger, but was too distracted by her own thoughts to truly pay attention.

Was it possible that after all these years she had been wrong about him? Had he deluded her into seeing this false perception of himself? Did he even realize what he was doing? No. Joshua cared about other people. She had seen it. But why then would he think of his fellow humans as beneath him? Out of anguish? It didn't seem to be. These thoughts were clearly deep-rooted in his mind. How long had he had them without her knowledge? Or had she just suppressed thinking about them if she had ever traced a hint of them in his thoughts? What could have made him this way?

Pain, she thought. Not understanding. He's been so lost for so long. Now knowing what to do with his life. And it all culminates here? After Chase? After Hanako? Of course he's upset. Joshua, you idiot, I'm coming for you.

So tired… Joshua's voice said, trailing off.

Perking up, MJ realized she was getting closer. It wasn't something she could qualify to a bystander, but she knew he was near her position. Even in this weakened state his presence was hard to deny to her mind. She closed her eyes and focused on his voice. It was far stronger than before. So close. If she kept moving forward she would find him in no time.

Movement ahead of her caused her to freeze in place. MJ listened in, hearing the distinctive voices of Ryan Gomez and DeQuan Anderson.

"Where the hell is he?" Ryan asked.

"Calm down," DeQuan said. "We'll find him."

Ryan punched something, probably a tree and growled. "Damn it! Look what he made me do!"

"Because Joshua's responsible for every action you make."

"I'll kill him. I'll gut him for what he did to Chase!"

DeQuan said something quietly, but MJ wasn't paying attention to them. They were hunting him and he had no clue. He was too weak to fight back against them. Not now, not while she was so close. MJ clenched her fists and eased forward through the underbrush until she could see them.

Ryan was flustered, waving around a CAR-15 like a madman. DeQuan watched him warily, and then politely told him to keep his finger away from the trigger. Ryan glared at him for a moment, but loosened up and let the weapon point toward the ground instead.

"Fine," he said. "I gotta take a piss. Stay here and watch the stuff."

"Of course," DeQuan said.

MJ watched Ryan leave him behind. No, none of this was good. Ryan hated Joshua. The experiment was only an excuse to get rid of him. But why would DeQuan join him? He had always been nice. How he had ever been friends with Ryan had always been a mystery to her. What had he seen in him? He would never kill someone.

But Chase's death could've changed that. They didn't understand—they couldn't see how merciful it had been. But how could they? They didn't know Joshua like she did. Ryan would look for any excuse he could to justify it, but DeQuan had needed that extra push to make the decision to kill Joshua. It made perfect sense.

Now what was she going to do about it?

DeQuan had his back to her, gazing at their equipment. It would be so easy. He wouldn't even see it coming. MJ primed her MP5 and aimed at the back of his head.

Joshua wouldn't shoot them in the back. He was too noble and stupid to do something that heinous.

She was not Joshua. She was the paragon of pragmatism. She didn't care what people would think about her if she survived the experiment. She would protect the man she loved.

Taking a deep breath, MJ prepared to fire, but heard movement to her right and barely avoided the brass knuckles on Ryan's fists when she dodged to her left. Grabbing a clump of dust, she flung it at him, but it barely managed to slow him down. Ryan came at her for another strike, his hand clutching the CAR-15.

When he missed, he stood up, as MJ kept the MP5 by her side, ready to lift it and fire the moment he made a move for his gun. They were barely five feet away from each other, any attempt to shoot could easily cause the other to have a chance to run forward and disarm their opponent before they could fire a bullet.

"Knew someone was here," Ryan said, smiling. "Thought it'd be him, but I found his bitch instead."

MJ honed herself, ignoring the comment. If she waited too long she'd have to deal with not only him, but DeQuan as well. She needed an exit strategy, one that would send them in the opposite direction of where she had felt Joshua's presence.

"So he is nearby?" Ryan asked. "Heard that this is near where Hanako was killed. Did you do it together?"

"Joshua did not kill Hanako!" MJ shouted, rushing him before Ryan could react, slamming him into the nearest tree.

Before he could react, MJ slammed her right elbow into his throat, forcing him to gag. As she was about to bring out her gun, a shot rang out and a bullet entered a tree two inches away from her face. Hastily turning her head, MJ watched DeQuan aiming at her with his sniper rifle, and ducked just in time to avoid the next shot. Clearly he'd never been taught how to shoot it. MJ smirked. She had. And she also knew how to avoid them.

Keeping her head low, she brought her leg out to kick Ryan in the groin and would have shot him if DeQuan hadn't emerged from out of the brush. Firing a blind volley to distract him, MJ leaped into the undergrowth and rushed forward, hoping it would conceal her enough so that his random firing would be the only thing she had to worry about.

Heading east, she made sure to keep plenty of distance between them to have them just close enough to keep them on her, but far enough to avoid getting hit. Ryan fired madly in the grass, hitting everything but her. MJ kept running, zigzagging to make her harder to aim at. She heard the grass crunching behind her and pressed herself to go faster. She wasn't a track runner like Joshua, but she had trained extensively for her cheerleading routines and aikido by running for long distances with very few stops in-between. If she wanted to, she could keep them pursuing her for about an hour before she got tired.

But Joshua came first. The sooner she got to him, the better.

But how to go about it?

It was when she returned to the path she had made in the underbrush before that she understood what to do. It was far too simple, but they wouldn't know any better. They would follow it for miles, not even knowing they were following where she had been hours before. Taking shelter behind a log, MJ waited behind it, careful not to leave any sign of her presence besides what had already been made.

Ryan and DeQuan passed by her without even knowing it and before she could get in position to shoot them. Taking the consolation prize of escaping, MJ waited for five minutes before she dared to go back to where they had started this pursuit, knowing she would be close to Joshua. She made sure to check that no one followed her as she skulked through the area, hearing the soft running of a creek nearby. MJ approached the noise, feeling Joshua's agony grow in her mind with every step she took until she came upon where it seemed to feel the strongest.

A small creek that led into a larger stream was in front of her. A large patch of mud surrounded the area, with footprints riddling the ground beside it. Two backpacks lay side-by-side with no owners in sight. Nearby them was a katana that stood in the muck, its blade situated in the ground, marking some spot of importance. Joshua would never throw away a weapon like that so needlessly. There had to be a reason.

Holding the submachine gun out in front of herself, MJ scanned the area, waiting for any sign of his presence. Then, suddenly, a figure moved out of the mud, completely covered in it. MJ held her finger near the trigger, ready to fire, but then saw the mud-washed face of Joshua looking back at her.

"Joshua, it's me!" she said, her words quivering, her excitement barely contained.

She raced forward, but stopped quickly when she felt another wave of emotional sorrow fill her mind. She stared at him, unsure what to do.

"Go ahead and kill me, MJ," he said. "You've done it before. You can do it again, can't you?"

16 students left

A/N: So long story short I have moved several times these past few weeks. I left the city I had been based in for a while to come back home temporarily. I was offered a chance to go to Tennessee to live with family to have a chance to get a job as an editor there. It is not a guarantee, but it is much more than I've had these past two years. Failing this, I'll be moving to Georgia, where I have been guaranteed a job working for a church thanks to another relative.

But I also have some exciting news! I am on Patreon now. My novel To Hell With the Devil is being released there chapter by chapter. The link is here: (with slight changes because Fictionpress seems to hate links to other sites for whatever arbitrary reason. https : [two backslashes] [three w] patreon .com [one backslash] user?u=663883&ty=h

If you have trouble with the link then you can find me at M.C. Ashley on Patreon or google it. This is a tremendous opportunity for me and I would like for you to share the ride with me. I have provided the first chapter for free, so that you can judge whether or not you think it is worth spending money on.

Thanks in advance!

Until next time...