The Darkness That Hunts

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Chapter 22

She lies on a bloody slab of limestone with red candles surrounding her like a crown. Her body has been torn apart and half her face is missing. I find I cannot look at the bloody mass of flesh, but the rest of the room is little better. Cadavers both human and Aterian cover similar stone slabs. A pair of men work at the bodies, cutting them open . . . harvesting.

The guys look as sick as I feel. Even our guards hang back in a shuffle of feet and uncomfortable coughs. Only Risa seems to be unfazed by the scene.

“Scalpel.”

A head I hadn’t noticed before lifts above the mauled woman. He’s surprisingly young. I’d give him twenty years or so. Sorrow lines the rough planes of his face. Fuzz from a dark beard scratches his chin. His left eye is huge and black, framed by wild, caterpillar-like eyebrows. His right eye is an empty socket. He doesn’t bother to use an eye patch to mask the deformity choosing instead to expose his mass of ruined flesh with a certain macabre pride.

A scalpel dangles from a rope at his neck, its dull tip crusted in old blood. It clanks against a second necklace with its vial of poison as Scalpel leans forward, pressing a kiss to a mass of dark hair. He reaches out and caresses what’s left of the dead woman’s face. When he pulls his fingers away, they are damp and red. His gaze jumps to Dace.

“So we meet again.”

I recognize his voice from my dream. His accent marks him as Middle Eastern. His dark hair, thick and curly, glistens with some kind of oil and it sways against his bearded jaw as he stands. He is as tall as Zakk but as athletic as Kamiron. A simple sweater that has been stitched together from several types of black cloth swells across his broad chest and disappears into the hem of his matching pants. Twin axes dangle from a leather belt at his waist.

“I’m relieved your friend is well.”

His hostile tone expresses anything but relief.

“Let me do the talking,” Dace mutters from the corner of his mouth. To Scalpel, he says, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“You should be,” Scalpel snarls, “She died to save you!”

Risa touches his elbow. His jaw clenches and for a long moment he stares at the dead woman as if waiting for her to speak. “Forgive me,” he grimaces. “I loved her.”

He suddenly turns to the men working on the other bodies.

“Salvage what you can of her, but her meat is tainted.”

I recoil. “You’re eating dead people?” I hadn’t meant to blurt that out, much less with such disgust, but I can’t take it back.

Scalpel’s expression shuts down. “What would you suggest we eat? I have nearly fifty mouths to feed. Nothing grows down here, nothing grows up there. Tell me, did you pass by one of your fast food restaurants on the way here?”

I shake my head. “But--”

“We do what we must to survive. We eat those who die as long as they are untainted, and we harvest what we can from their bodies--whether for weapons and tools, or supplies. We are efficient. Do you have a better suggestion?”

I stare at my shoes. “No.”

“Then shut up, little girl.”

Kamiron bristles. “Hey, you can’t just--”

But Dace interrupts him, his tone even and diplomatic. “We’re new to your ways and Shari meant no disrespect. Now,” Dace glances about the morgue. “Are we going to negotiate safe passage here, or . . .?”

I feel Scalpel’s glare like a hot iron on my neck but finally he nods to the door. “Of course not. To my rooms.” To Risa, he orders, “Gather a scouting party.”

She inclines her head and glides away. I follow Scalpel back down the stairs and into a room on the right. It seems to be a parlor. Incense that smell of Arabian spices and hot desert winds billow from iron carafes. Glass votives the same color as the candles outside poke out of the cracks and fissures marring the wall and splash the room in a ruby haze. A heavy wooden stool and tattered pillows line the floor. Scalpel plants himself on the stool like a fabled raja and we take to the floor. Dace in front, Kamiron, Zakk and I in a line behind. Our guards fan out to form a loose crescent.

Scalpel crosses his legs, ankle to knee. “Why are you here?”

“We were crossing the Hallow Wastes when we ran into--”

“This I know,” Scalpel cuts off impatiently. “Why are you here in Ater? You don’t bear the mark of The Darkness-That-Hunts. You carry weapons the likes of which I have not seen and you,” his chin juts out at Zakk, “Look like The Darkness-That-Hunts’ sniveling druid.”

Zakk’s hazel eyes narrow but he says nothing. Dace sneaks me a questioning glance and I answer with a shallow nod.

“We came to stop The Darkness-That-Hunts.”

Scalpel’s head tilts back and he guffaws, startling the guards. Zakk, Kam and I exchange curious looks.

Scalpel drags his hand down his face. “What is it you Americans say? You’ve got balls.”

Dace snorts and continues. “We were on our way to the . . .” Another look my way.

“Sepulcher,” I supply.

“Sepulcher,” he resumes, “when we were ambushed. We want safe passage through your tunnels to the marshlands.”

“Say such a tunnel exists, what would you give me in return?”

“How about the head of The Darkness-That-Hunts?”

“You’ll be dead long before you reach him.” Scalpel waves off the offer. “I prefer something more practical.”

I clench my hands into fists. We don’t have time for games.

What other choice do you have? He holds power among the refugees. You must come to an arrangement.

Are you me? I growl, or am I talking to myself without solicitation?

A laugh like wind before a thunderstorm. You do talk to yourself. It’s amusing, but I am no more you than you are me. At least for now.

I tuck that information away for later. Fine. Who are you?

A hesitation, and then: You may call me Vayu-Vaata, or just Vayu.

Why, I demand, are you in my head, Vayu?

Why, he shoots back, are you not paying attention to them negotiating away your map?

I jolt back to the scene unfolding before me. Scalpel holds my pack in his hand. Most of my things rest on the floor except for my map which balances across his lap.

“No!” I shout, startling everyone. It takes all my willpower not to crawl over to Scalpel and snatch my map from his slimy paws. “You can’t have that.” I turn to Dace. “He can’t have that.”

“Shari, it’s the only thing of ours that he values. It’s our bargaining chip.”

“It’s not for barter,” I snarl. How do they expect me to find the tethers if I don’t know where I’m going? That map is my only concrete clue.

Scalpel’s lips curve in amusement. “Then what do you offer in its place, little girl?”

“My name is Shari, not little girl,” I snap. “There is nothing ‘little’ about me.” Scalpel’s eyebrows raise and the guys stare at me as if I’m embarrassing them, like I’m some hysterical woman on her period. “We’re here to help you--”

“Here to help, you say?” Scalpel interrupts, his voice slow and lazy. “Funny, because to me it seems you didn’t even know our colony existed until a few hours ago. How, then, were you going to ‘help?’”

I ignore his sensible question. “Look, if you’re just going to exploit us then we don’t need your help. Dump us out in your tunnels and we’ll find our own way.”

Humor flees Scalpel’s expression and his gaze turns to chips of granite. “And risk you blundering into an Aterian’s hands and blabbing about our colony to save your own skin?”

“I’d never do that--”

His fist slams against his knee with an audible crack. He doesn’t even wince. “You’ll be surprised what they can make you do.”

We glower at one another and I think I catch a flash of budding respect in his night-black eye before it rolls towards the ceiling and he emits a long-suffering sigh.

“I am not unreasonable. We can help one another. Your map is the most detailed rendering of Aterian regions that I have seen. It can help our scouts to gather supplies, hunt, and forage. In return, you get safe passage--not to the Sepulcher. I can’t spare anyone for that long a journey, but you may accompany Risa and her scouts. They will take you on their usual route, and you can find your way from there.”

“It’s a fair trade, Shari,” Dace implores. I shake my head.

“I can’t find--” I scoot closer to the guys and lower my voice though I know Scalpel is listening hard, “the tethers without a map.”

“The ability is in you, not some paper,” Zakk counters, and then shoots us a knowing look. “Besides, I’ve been trying to make him more agreeable with my clairsentience but he’s exceptionally resistant. Looks like this is a good as it gets.”

Kamiron takes my hands, forcing me to unclench my fingers. “We know this sucks, but there’s no other way. You’re going to have to sacrifice your map.”

I want to rail against them, but I known they’re right. Despair and defeat wash over me. “Fine, but I need to see it again. For the . . . locations.”

Understanding flares behind Dace’s scratched lenses and he turns back to Scalpel. The leader of the refugees wears a smug smile. The bastard.

“We agree to your terms but only if Shari can first view the map for a few moments.”

He runs a hand along his scrap of beard. “Three minutes, not a second more.”

“Agreed,” Dace answers before I can argue. Scalpel tosses him the map. Dace turns, spreading it on the floor between the four of us. My heart races as I stare at Ater’s regions, trying to commit them to memory. I feel like I’m trying to cram during the last few seconds before finals. What hope do I have of recalling this information later?

“Cover me.” Ignoring the feeling that my efforts are futile, I tug out Gjinna’s chain and place the pendant on the map. Blood Shield locations bubble up to the surface like blisters and I memorize as may safehouses as I can.

“A blood shield. Clever,” Scalpel whispers over my shoulder. I didn’t hear him approach, and I yank the pendant away but I know I’m too late. How much does he know about the Blood Shield?

He reaches over me and taps the mountain range that dominates Ater’s northern tip. “These are the Blood Shield Mountains.”

A realization clicks inside. The Resistance calls itself Blood Shield. I’d never given much thought to the name before, but that explains how they can hide in plain sight. If anyone overheard talk of the Blood Shield, they’d assume the mountain range.

And it could be the base of their headquarters, Vayu-Vaata adds.

“I couldn’t help but notice your Blood Shield pendant,” Scalpel continues pleasantly. “I’m going to need that as well.” He glances at Zakk and his smile fails to light his eye. “Unless your mage friend wants to claim that it, too, is enchanted and any who touch it will die . . .?”

His tone expresses that Zakk’s trick most certainly won’t work again.

“That wasn’t part of the deal,” Dace objects.

“Deals change.”

I stiffen. “You’ve got the map. My necklace stays with me.”

He tilts his head and a guard steps forward, weapon angled at my throat. “I saw what it does. It’s as much a part of the map as the map itself. Now, will you hand it over or shall I be forced to take it?”

“For someone with only one eye, you sure manage to see a lot.”

Scalpel’s grin widens at the insult. His amiable expression clashes with my scowl as his gaze roams my face.

“Your eyes are beautiful.” Scalpel strokes the blade at his neck. Unlike Risa, he has all his fingers. “This is what The Darkness-That-Hunts would tell me while I was in his care.” Scalpel runs his thumb over the dull, stained blade with the utmost tenderness. “‘Your eyes are beautiful, pet’ he said, and then he took this scalpel and buried its blade deep into my right eye.”

I wince, wanting to turn away but Scalpel forces me to stare at the mangle deformity that is his right eye socket.

“The pain was incredible but I eventually managed to remove the scalpel. By then it was infected. I found myself using this same blade to cut out my ruined eye.”

What he doesn’t say, but what I infer is, I will not hesitate to cut out yours.

“Your necklace, please.”

The chain scratches my skin as I lift it over my head. My neck feels barren without its familiar weight. “This belonged to my friend. It is the only thing I have of her.” I drop Gjinna’s necklace in his outstretched palm. He stares at it for a moment no doubt noticing the flecks of blood choking the copper links.

“I will treat it with respect.”

Yeah, right.

Scalpel retrieves the map and nods towards the door. “You’ll find food in the great hall. Risa will get you when it’s time to leave.” He grants us a shallow bow. His smile is nearly feral. “A pleasure doing business with you.”

I’m on my feet like I’ve seen a hairy, fat tarantula. Kamiron reaches for my wrist but I slap his hand away. I snatch up my longbow and stomp out of Scalpel’s parlor.


The great hall, with its conical pillars and patchwork blue tapestries, is packed with hungry refugees. It seems the entire colony huddles around the limestone tables. Unlike my first encounter with them, here they are noisy and vibrant, laughing and chatting as they eat from tin bowls. It appears to be a stew that looks like chili and smells divine. My stomach growls and I take four steps towards a table laden with food, drink, and utensils before I remember the morgue upstairs.

My stomach curdles. What poor victim is part of tonight’s feast? I picture them gnawing on fingers, sucking on toes and biting into a leg like it’s chicken. I shudder and suddenly the atmosphere doesn’t seem so festive and carefree. I keep my head low and head out into the main cavern. The aroma of slow cooked (human) meat isn’t so pervasive out here and my rioting appetite settles.

Guards eye me and my longbow warily, but make no move to stop me from exploring. I make sure to keep my hands visible, my movements slow, and my expression open. Just as if I were perusing one of Buckhead’s high-end boutiques. Sure, I could never have afforded anything in those shops, but what’s the harm in looking? I decide remaining in the main cavern is my safest bet, and I finally discover a semi-enclosed nook just beyond the dungeons where we’d been held. A bench carved of stone sits next to a stagnant pool that smells heavily of minerals. Florescent lichen grows in clusters along the surface of the wall and small rivulets of water drizzle down between the cracks in the bulging stone and drip lazily into the brackish pool below.

Sighing, I reach up to stroke Gjinna’s pendant, needing its comfort but when the pads of my fingers only touch bare skin, I remember it’s no longer there.

Scalpel. Right. And the guys did nothing to stop him. They just rolled over and let him take what he damn well wanted. I try not to think of the problem that Scalpel and his colony poses. If we succeed and destroy the tethers, we’ll be trapping any survivors here--essentially dooming innocent people. My teeth tug on my lower lip. We have to find a way to save them. But how could we get survivors out before the bridge linking Earth to Ater collapses?

“So is it true?”

Risa is kind enough to ignore my startled gasp. She squats beside me and watches as a droplet of water splashes into the pool and creates a series of circular ripples.

“Is what true?”

“You trying to take on The Darkness-That-Hunts.”

“That’s why we came here.”

“What makes you think you’ll succeed?”

I shrug. “There are no promises, but we have . . . unique abilities.”

“I saw your handiwork. The flame wall.” Risa gives me an appraising look. “It was impressive.”

I feel a stab of pride, but force myself to keep my expression neutral. I don’t want to like anyone who follows Scalpel. Risa rises from her squat and joins me on the bench. The glow of the lichen makes her dark skin look faintly green.

“There were others like you who were going to face The Darkness-That-Hunts.”

I tense at that. “You met them?”

“No, that was before I came here . . . was brought here. Scalpel used to mention it. Used their story to teach us to keep a low profile. To survive.”

“They didn’t make it.”

“He says one fell to the lobisomem. The others to the undead near the Lost.”

I fight back a sigh. “Well, we’re not like them. I’ve been here before and we have . . . help.”

Risa studies me for a long moment. She really is quite pretty. I feel a pang of guilt for holding a grudge against her because of what Scalpel did to me. It’s not her fault. She didn’t ask to be abducted and brought here. I wonder what her life was like, before. Did she used to be happy? Did she have friends? Where was she from?

But I don’t ask her any of this. It seems wrong to pry into the life she lost.

If Risa guessed my line of thinking, she doesn’t show it. Instead she reaches around to one of her pouches and removes a cloth bag before untying the drawstring and passing it to me.

I peek inside to find what looks like thinly sliced, gray potato chips.

“I know you aren’t into our . . . style of food. I was like that too, when I first got here. This is an alternative.”

I sniff them. Smells like soil. “What is it?”

“Some kind of root that grows out in one of the tunnels here.”

I take a test bite and mull over the odd mix of flavors. “Tastes like deep fried mushrooms with a hint of garlic and rubber tire.”

Risa chuckles and grabs a handful from the bag I set between us. “They taste better if you roast them over a flame. It gets rid of the rubber tire aftertaste.”

I grunt and for a moment we eat in silence until she whispers, “Samoa.”

I must have had a crazy expression on my face because she laughs. “Earlier, you looked like you wanted to ask me where I was from--you know, Before. It’s Samoa. Do you know where that is?”

Like any good American, I suck at geography, but I have a general guess. “The Pacific Ocean somewhere.”

She gives a small nod and chews on another chip. “Near New Zealand. South of Hawai’i.” She runs her hand through her short bob. “Yes, I had a family, and we were quite wealthy. Nothing by American standards, of course but I was happy. My parents had even arranged for me to marry a handsome government official.” She seems to note my frown with an offhand shrug. “It’s not an unusual thing, and it was someone I’d had a crush on for a long time. But then . . .”

Her expression darkens and tears form in her eyes. She rapidly blinks them away and her full mouth forms a grim line. “Our village was hit by a deadly typhoon. And that is when The Darkness-That-Hunts took me.”

I wait for her to continue, but she doesn’t. “So your family thinks you died in the typhoon?”

I wish I had died in the typhoon,” she states bluntly. We sit in awkward silence and I force myself to swallow another handful of chips to cover my discomfort.

“He isn’t so bad, you know,” she ventures. “Scalpel, I mean.”

I glare at her but she ignores it and continues. “You’ve got to understand, he just lost his twin sister because of you.”

“That woman on the slab was his twin? But they don’t--”

“They weren’t identical, but they were twins nonetheless. The Darkness-That-Hunts wanted them, and so he took them.” Risa folds up the empty bag and then hands me a flask of cool water. “Until yesterday, Yaminah was our leader. It was with her guidance that we set up regular patrols to search for survivors. That we learned to use all of the resources available to us no matter how scarce. Yaminah and Scalpel have been here longer than any of us. The Darkness-That-Hunts snatched them from Bahrain when they were eight and they’ve been fixtures in this colony since they were ten.”

“Then Scalpel cut out his own eye and survived the hunt when he was only ten years old?”

Risa nods. “This is all he knows. He’s brutal, but he looks out for us. He protects us. Sometimes he can come across as a bit chauvinistic but once you get to know him better . . .”

I fail to see the appeal of getting of know him. In fact meeting him once was already one time too many in my book. “Guess I’ll just have to take your word for it.” I take a deep swig of the waterskin wishing it were something much stronger. Not that I’ve ever had a drink in my life, but given the current situation, it couldn’t hurt to have a little escape.

“The blond one that talks a lot--”

“Dace?”

“Yes.” Risa hesitates a moment. “What’s his deal? He always like that?”

“Obnoxious?” I snort. “Yeah, but you get used to it. And as you’ve seen, he’s always assigning people nicknames. He calls The Darkness-That-Hunts ‘Andy.’”

Risa laughs. “Andy? How American.”

I’m not sure what to make of that, but it’s oddly nice to hear her laugh.

“I find Dace . . . endearing.”

My look of disbelief causes her to blush and stare at the pool of water lapping against the stones at our feet. “I just mean he’s . . . different from anyone I know. People here are very grim and scared. He possesses a lightness about him, almost like a mischievous child, but he is observant and sharp. Dexterous.” At my open-mouthed stare she leaps to her feet and brushes the crumbs from her lap. “I just think he’s interesting and would have made a great recruit for my scouts. Come, we will be leaving soon.”

I bite my lip to hide my smile. Risa has a crush on Dace. Who would have thought?


I trail Risa back to the great hall and meet up with the guys as they dump their empty tin bowls into a wooden bin. I lower my gaze, unable to believe they had just eaten a person.

You told them not to question, to eat when they can because they’ll never known when another meal will present itself, Vayu reminds. I can feel his amusement like soft summer breezes wafting over a field.

I didn’t mean people!

Laughter.

“Are you okay?” Kamiron asks, falling into stride with me. Once again we head upstairs but instead of the morgue we enter one of the storage rooms where six hardened scouts, each of them dressed in black and gray and wielding a variety of clubs, flails, and pikes, greet us. They look thin with hunger, but no less lethal. At a nod from Risa, they hand us our packs. I don’t bother to look inside mine. No need to discover what else Scalpel has confiscated.

“I’ll be fine.”

Kamiron shakes his head at the sharp bitterness of my answer. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

I watch Risa and three scouts unloop a black cloth from their wrists. “We can’t risk any of you learning the location of the colony,” Risa explains. “We’ll take the blindfolds off once we’re far enough away.”

I don’t relish the idea of being blindfolded, but I can’t begrudge them their caution. The fabric itches as it engulfs my eyes, smothering my vision. To keep myself from the temptation of yanking it off, I grip Kamiron’s hand. His palms are sweaty. He gives my fingers a gentle squeeze before the butt of a weapon nudges my shoulder blade and I stumble forward. I try to keep count of our footfalls but I lose track after three hundred. Twists and turns, spiral declines and stairs, we walk for what seems like years. Kamiron doesn’t release my hand, but neither does he talk.

At last we come to a stop and the cloth falls from my face. I blink several times to let my vision adjust. We stand at a convergence of twelve tunnels. Above us, impossibly thin stalagmites dangle from the ceiling like a thousand spear points. A few of the scouts clutch torches that smell odd and cast shadows into the depths of the tunnel openings.

“They burn some kind of weed harvested from the Hallow Wastes,” whispers Zakk, noticing my wrinkled nose. “They believe it will keep The Darkness-That-Hunts’ hounds at bay.”

“Does it?”

He shrugs.

Risa props her hands on her hips and squints down the circle of tunnels around us. She then lectures us on the essentials of maintaining a level head, sticking together, and keeping our voices low to eliminate any echoing. The scouts will take us south of The Darkness-That-Hunts’ estates before they brave their usual tunnels in search of escapees and resources.

“So what’s with the scribblings?” Dace squints at tiny graffiti-like markings marring some of the stalactites. The phosphorescent chalk is the white-green color of mint chips buried in snow.

“Guides. Lets us know which tunnels are safe.” Risa follows him to a tunnel entrance and crouches beside a rounded stalactite. “For instance this route is dangerous. Creatures have been sighted somewhere down that way.”

Dace squats beside her and pushes up his glasses. “Wait a second . . . ‘And I’m going down,’” he reads, “‘All the way. I’m on the highway to hell.’ Hey, I recognize this--these are lyrics,” he sputters, startled. “AC/DC.”

Incredulous, Zakk, Kam and I fan out, searching for the phosphorescent markers. ‘Help me if you can, I’m feeling down / And I do appreciate you being ’round / Help me get my feet back on the ground / Won’t you please, please help me’ the lyrics nearest to me read.

“Classic Beatles,” Zakk supplies over my shoulder. “I guess that tunnel leads to where they consistently find people.”

“Boyz II Men over here,” Kamiron announces and then softly sings the chorus to “Water Runs Dry”: “‘Let’s don’t wait till the water runs dry/ We might watch our whole lives pass us by/ Let’s don’t wait till the water runs dry/ We’ll make the biggest mistake of our lives/ Don’t do it, baby.”

I can’t hide my astonishment that Boyz II Men lyrics lurk in the bowels of Ater, much less that Kamiron is familiar with an R&B group from the ’90’s, and can actually sing very well.

Risa smiles at my bewilderment. “Breaks the monotony doesn’t it? It’s terrifying down here so we need something to distract us and settle our nerves. American music is well known across the world so even people like me who have never been to America can use it to communicate. This way.”

Risa and her scouts usher us down another tunnel. The light from their torches glosses over sloppy writing that curls down the edge of the tunnel wall. ‘Mother,’ the lyrics caution, ‘tell your children not to walk my way . . .’

Each tunnel Risa slips down displays messages of warning in the code of song lyrics. Sometimes old songs and lullabies, other times showtunes and contemporary music, even the occasional Disney song. Some lyrics I recognize--Prince, Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash, Madonna--others I have no clue (Zakk helps me with those: Dio, Counting Crows, Nirvana, Carrie Underwood). I find myself looking forward to see what song I’ll encounter next and I find the melodies of the songs I know playing in my head as we navigate the dark abyss with Risa choosing increasingly dangerous routes. Finally she and the scouts stop at three diverging tunnels, one with lyrics from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, the second with Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up”.

“Follow that corridor to the surface.” She motions her people down the third tunnel with Black Sabbath lyrics crawling down its wall but she doesn’t immediately follow. The flames of her torch streak her black hair with gold. “I don’t know how successful you’ll be with your task and you can’t count on the colony to support you, but . . .” She hesitates and her tongue darts out over her lower lip. She nods as if coming to a decision. “If you find yourselves down here again, follow the Disney lyrics. They’ll bring you back to that first cavern with all the tunnels. I’ll have someone stationed there to wait for you incase . . .”

Zakk, Dace, Kamiron and I exchange long glances and I’m relieved that they feel as I do. If we can stop The Darkness-That-Hunts, maybe we can get word to the colony and save them before we break the final tether and seal this place away.

“We’ll send a message when everything’s ready,” Dace promises.

Risa turns to him and gives him a long, hard stare as if committing him to memory. I can’t read the emotions that she tries hard to bury, but I have a guess.

“Risa,” one of her guards hisses.

Risa straightens her shoulders and in two strides she’s standing before Dace. He’s taller than her, so she has to stand on her toes to press her lips against his. It’s a deep kiss, one of lingering promise and then she hurries off.

Stunned, Dace stares after Risa’s fading torchlight, his mouth agape and eyes half-hooded. The pads of his fingers drift up to his lips and his disbelief shifts to speculation.

Zakk conjures a wisp of light and a teasing smile curves the corner of his mouth, stretching one of the tattoos along his cheek. “Never seen Dace at a loss for words before. It’s a nice change, don’t you think?”

“Maybe we ought to call him Casanova,” I grin.

Dace’s face turns bright red but he doesn’t look away from the tunnel Risa entered until the darkness swallows the last of her torchlight.

“Alright, Casanova,” Kamiron gives Dace’s shoulder a playful shove. “Let’s go find this tether.”
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