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The Darkness That Hunts

By ObsidianFae All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Chapter 29

The air smells crisp and clean, like how it gets right at the end of summer just before the temperature drops with autumn’s arrival. A pristine garden unfurls around me, a monument to aesthetic perfection. Everything has its place. A narrow brook winds through a rock garden raked in geometric circles around stubby azalea shrubs. An elegant wooden bridge arcs over the rushing brook and transforms into a flagstone pathway that meanders through neatly trimmed hedges and up to a cozy single-story house.

Idyllic.

Too idyllic.

I move--or try to, but I’m stuck. I glance down to find my body partially submerged in the trunk of a tree. What in the world? I strain, trying to free my foot. It feels like it’s attached by sticky sap but at last the resistance gives way. I pry myself from the trunk and gaze down at my bizarre body. I’m part plant. A carapace of bark crisscrosses my torso, shoulders, and thighs. My feet remain bare, though vines lace up my ankles and calves while others tangle around my wrists like organic bracelets.

I turn from the house towards a cultivated grove of Japanese cherry trees. Their blossoms are startlingly pink against a deep azure sky. A breeze makes the branches shiver and fresh petals fall like fuchsia raindrops. Voices, one male, one female, echo between the swaying branches.

I find Kamiron leaning against a massive tree. Dressed in a yukata of muted color and design with a pale gray obi about his waist. His head is tilted back and he gazes at a low branch that dangles just within arm’s reach.

“This feels like a dream, doesn’t it?” he whispers.

“But it isn’t. I’m so glad I’ve gotten the chance to meet your family and surprise them with our engagement.”

My heart plummets. Sandra. Of course Apaosha would don her form to poison Kamiron. I creep closer and find her snuggled against Kam’s side. She wears an elegant yukata that looks as if it was designed for a princess; splashes of giant black fans and pink flowers break up the rice-paper white fabric, and an elaborate obi of the palest gold cinches her tiny waist. Her hair, expertly piled atop her head, is laden with a string of pearls woven around fragrant azaleas. Loose strawberry-gold strands shift like streamers in the gentle breezes.

So this is how Kam views her? Damn. She truly is like a goddess. I retreat inward, seeking out Gaian. What should I do?

Gaian shifts just above my left temple. His presence feels like a meadow in summer. Vayu has always felt like an autumn zephyr. You first must make him see and hear you.

Sunlight sparks off the gold band of Sandra’s modest engagement ring as I step into view. Neither takes note of me. Yeah, that’ll be a cakewalk.

They kiss on a blanket, the picture-perfect scene of lovers picnicking under the cherry trees on a lazy afternoon. I make it up to Kamiron’s sandaled feet before Sandra spots me. Her too-large, blue and green eyes rake over me but unlike in life, I sense no malice from her, just a mild distaste.

“Who are you?”

I ignore her and the inexplicable envy of seeing Kam’s lips on her neck. “Kamiron, we need to go.”

Startled, he pulls away from Sandra. “Do I know you?” He stares at me for a long moment but like with Sandra, there is no recognition. “And why are you dressed like a sakura?”

My hand flies up to my coarse hair. It is made of cherry blossoms and branches. A few petals drift past my shoulders, skim my elbows and waft away towards the house. My bare feet dig into the soft soil and I take a deep breath to focus. “Nevermind that. We need to go.”

Kamiron rises and helps Sandra to her feet. Their fingers intertwine and they put their backs to me. Kamiron doesn’t bother to look over his shoulder when he speaks. “I’m sorry but I don’t know you, and this is private property. You should leave now.”

Cheeks flaming, I watch as the couple stroll down the path towards the house. I have been dismissed--politely, I’ll admit--but dismissed nonetheless. Gaian, I don’t know--

Get his attention in any way you can, he repeats.

I have to jog to catch up to them, but when I do, I grab Kamiron’s wide sleeve and tug, forcing him to stop. “You do know me.”

This isn’t real, Shari, I coax myself. I step close to Kamiron so that I can feel the outline of his muscles against my skin. My hand circles his neck, guiding his face towards mine. Here goes nothing.

I kiss him.

Kamiron’s lips are as decadent as I’ve always imagined they’d be, but the kiss is brief and clumsy. I’ve never kissed a boy, after all. “You know me,” I whisper against his ear. The heat of his skin radiates against my cheek. “You know me so well you chose to be imprisoned with me. I could have turned into a werewolf at any time and killed you, but you refused to leave me.”

Kamiron jerks away and after a moment where my spirit feels as if it will shatter, recognition lights deep in his gray eyes. “Shari.”

Sandra shoves me away and I stumble back a couple feet. “Exactly what are you doing to my fiancé?”

My heart is still sputtering from the kiss and takes a moment to right itself. For a moment I sensed the true Kamiron, buried deep in this dreamscape. This is his manifestation of a life he’d always hoped to have. Returning to Japan with his fiancée and introducing her to his mother’s side of the family . . . that’s how Apaosha is gaining access to Kamiron’s soul.

I meet Sandra’s demanding glare. Fierce gusts of wind blow her impossibly long hair around her impossibly perfect face and I grit my teeth. It’s time to destroy this delusion. I beat the Steel Fang once, I can do it again.

“Kamiron!” a woman calls from the vicinity of the house. “Come inside! It’s going to storm!”

Sure enough, clouds roll across the once pristine sky and moisture and ozone infiltrate the air. The cherry blossoms boil around us as the wind picks up. Kamiron takes Sandra’s hand and I follow them onto the back porch where they slip off their getas and step into slippers before entering the house.

The furniture inside is sparse, wooden, and low to the ground. The bamboo floors give the space a light, airy feel that is compounded by the lack of clutter. Like the outside garden, everything has its precise spot and is arranged to elegant perfection. Silk scrolls with stark characters printed on them dangle from neutral toned walls. The stalk of an iris mimics the delicate curve of its alcove.

We pass from the main living room into the dining room where I find several pillows arranged around a cedar table so low it only comes to my knee. Grey tatami mats with black borders line the floor and give the space a traditional air. Skylights in the ceiling spread muted light across the feast arranged artfully across the table on neat square plates. I find rice balls, sushi with pink tuna, earthen bowls of soup with square tofu floating inside. It’s an impressive spread, a culinary masterpiece as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the stomach.

Do not be deceived, Shari, Gaian hisses and in the next blink, I see the meal for what it really is.

Maggots rolled into balls, scorpions draped atop mounds of packed dirt. A giant cockroach climbs out of the earthen bowls of millipedes and beetles. I clutch my stomach and look away as Sandra and Kamiron eagerly sit on the pillows by the table.

“Sandra-chan, is green tea all . . .” a small, regal Japanese woman pauses in the doorway. Black hair, secured by a jade pin, sweeps back from her round face. Dark eyes, the same almond shape as Kamiron’s but with lines of age creasing their edges, lands on me with unbridled disbelief. Her skin, pale like milk tinged with honey, blushes prettily.

Gaian gives me a mental nudge and the façade falls from Kamiron’s mother like glass shards. Dry, pallid skin clings to a narrow skull. Where before I’d seen shiny hair black as a raven’s wing now becomes a succession of moths that crawl around a bald head. White eyes, clouded with death, peer at me in sinister calculation.

Apaosha.

“I’m sure tea will be fine, ’kaasan.” Kamiron hustles up to his mother and takes the wooden tea tray from her bony hands. He plants a kiss on her temple and does not seem aware of the moth that crawls into his mouth.

“Who is this?” I feel her anger though her tone is mild.

“A friend. Shari.”

“Isn’t it rude of you to invite another woman to our private celebration of your engagement? Did you even think of how that would make Sandra feel?”

A blush creeps over Kamiron’s cheeks. Sandra looks smug.

“She was just . . . leaving.”

His mother inclines her head. A moth drops to her shoulder. “That’s better.”

You cannot leave. If you step outside this house, Apaosha will destroy you, Gaian warns. Above us, rain darkens the skylights as it pelts the roof. I glance out the windows and watch balls of hail bounce off the porch.

“This looks like a wonderful dinner. Your mother is a fantastic cook.” The lie passes easily enough.

“She’s always loved cooking.” Kamiron beams with pride. “Look, it’s really coming down outside. Maybe you should wait out the storm, and have dinner with--”

Kamiron!” Despite his mother’s soft voice, I detect Apaosha’s fury behind the words. It echoes like a deep, heavy drum. The lights flicker and a jagged crack scratches down the wall to our left. Only I seem to notice it. “I will not have you embarrassing this family. I send you to America and you see fit to associate with any common . . .” her expression turns scornful as she takes in my trendy plant-chic attire, “riffraff?”

Apaosha sits at the head of the table and folds his legs under himself. The mask is once again firmly in place but the Japanese woman’s dark eyes cannot hide what’s there. I feel Apaosha’s baleful force stabbing at me, seeking weaknesses, hunting for a way inside. It makes me as sick as the stagnant water masquerading as tea. Sandra pours the congealed grey sludge, full of trapped flies, into a delicate ceramic cup. My stomach roils as it slops inside. The gossamer wings of a fly twitches. Its thin legs thrash with its effort to free itself from the cup.

“’Kaasan.” For a brief moment, indignation flares across Kamiron’s features. “Now who’s being rude?”

Sandra catches Apaosha’s eye and something passes between the two of them. Sandra then touches Kamiron’s sleeve and passes him the fly-tea. Kamiron takes an absentminded sip before I think to stop him. Flies bump against his teeth; riding an errant drop of sludge, one fly escapes and crawls across the corner of Kamiron’s mouth before his tongue darts out, catching it and dragging between his lips. Sandra kisses his cheek.

“It’s alright, babe. If she is a friend of yours, then she is a friend of mine, and I’d be honored if she joined us,” Sandra replies, all sweetness and light. Kamiron melts for her, but it’s all I can do not to wrinkle my nose.

Apaosha and Sandra are up to something, but what?

Kamiron’s mother grants me a shallow bow. “Forgive me, Shari-san.” She motions towards the feast. “I have shamed myself. Please join us for dinner.”

A pressure that burns my neck latches hold of me and drags me to the table before I can protest. It shoves me down opposite Kamiron and Sandra and within arm’s reach of Apaosha. A plate filled with food that should be considered art materializes before me. It looks normal--delicious, even--but I know the truth.

“Let’s eat,” Kamiron announces and digs in with lacquered wooden chopsticks. His mother does not eat. Neither does Sandra. Both of them stare at me.

Against my will, my hand curls around my own chopsticks and dives for a piece of sushi.

Gaian and I realize their plan a half-second too late.

Do not eat his food! He will gain access to you! Gaian’s shout is like an earthquake between my temples.

Don’t you think I’m trying? Panic makes me grimace. Apaosha’s matronly glamour wavers and cloudy eyes widen in unbridled glee. I fight against the force dragging a scorpion towards my mouth. Its black stinger, swollen with venom, lashes at the air.

Don't eat it!

I ignore Gaian’s growl and focus all my will on combating the pressure guiding my hand. I think of Camp Genki. Of how Sandra tried to invade my mind using a psychic attack. Vayu interceding, ordering me to push her out. My wrist shakes. My fingers grow numb. Sandra laughs at something Kamiron says. Apaosha’s eyes narrow and the pressure doubles. I feel the displacement of air against my lips as the scorpion wiggles closer. I try to push him out, but the demon is too strong and I’m drowning in his malice.

“I’d like to go now!” I shriek. The force shatters and I fling the chopsticks and scorpion away from me. Kamiron stares at me in disbelief that quickly morphs into affronted anger.

“I’ll see you out,” Apaosha offers, pleased.

I rise and blink back the tears that sting my eyes. I’ve failed Kam. Foolish of me to believe I could make a difference.

Do not give up, Shari, Gaian soothes and it feels like fronds of soft petals nuzzling my cheek. You cannot confront Apaosha directly. He wields too much power here and Kamichirō will never side with you against what appears to be his mother and his beloved. But you are just as cunning. You have a way to make him remember who he is.

Something about what Gaian says strikes a chord with me but just as the solution is about to present itself, my neck prickles with danger. Apaosha is a few inches from touching me. I skitter away and into a Western-style living room complete with oversized leather furniture, a flat screen television, and a glass coffee table. I don’t remember the living room looking this way, but I’m grateful that I can use the couch as a feeble barrier between myself and Apaosha.

“Don’t touch me, demon.”

Apaosha laughs. The costume of a Japanese woman remains intact but her voice is no longer soft and cultured.

“He is mine, Child of Air,” Apaosha brags. His voice hurts my ears--like subsonic music. “And when I return to the physical plane, I will devour all your friends like I’m about to devour you. Shall we go outside now?”

The front door clatters open and rain, hail, and biting wind rush into the room, snatching the silk scrolls from the wall. The last piece falls into place and I know how to make Kamiron remember himself.

“Kam, I just realized something!”

Apaosha frowns and in a rustle of cloth and slippered feet as Kamiron pads into the living room. Finding the front door open, he closes it. I park myself on the leather sofa and cross my legs, ignoring the chafe of the bark covering my thighs.

Can you do it? I ask Gaian and show him my plan. He smiles and it feels like finding an oasis in the middle of an arid desert.

I have that much power left, at least.

“You promised you’d make something for me.”

“I . . . did?” His brows furrow. Purple-black bruises stain his eyesockets and make him look like little more than a skeleton. His golden skin looks so translucent that I can even see the outline of blue veins and bone. I have to hurry.

Pretending he doesn’t look like a corpse, I force myself to smile. To keep his attention. That’s right, Kam. Keep looking at me. Try to remember. “It’s a simple thing. We were speaking of calligraphy and you said you’d make a scroll with a character--um . . .”

Kanji, Gaian supplies.

“Using kanji,” I explain, struggling only a bit with the unfamiliar pronunciation. “Just a couple since I found them so beautiful.”

Kamiron’s eyes don’t leave mine and it breaks my heart to see how pale and watery they’ve become. He struggles to recall what I’m talking about though I’ve only recently made it up.

Trust me, Kam, please--for both our sakes.

He sniffs. “I . . . remember, I think.” He wipes at his nose, and doesn’t seem to notice the smear of blood that now stains the back of his index finger. “I can do that, but--”

“But we don’t have ink, I’m afraid,” Apaosha cuts in. His attention jumps from me to Kamiron.

Sandra hurries from the dining room and hooks her arm around Kamiron’s. “Looks like the storm’s finally let up. Shari should probably get going now before it returns. Right, babe?”

Of course the storm’s let up. I glance out the window to find sunlight sparking off wet grass and rock. How convenient.

Still, I don’t stand. Instead I gesture towards the glass coffee table at a pot of ink and a small ivory sheet of rice paper. Resting across the paper is a beautiful calligraphy brush of elegant bamboo and expensive horsehair bristles that taper to a delicate point.

Go Gaian.

Apaosha and Sandra both hiss. The air thickens and the sudden heat of Apaosha’s anger makes me sweat. I sense the demon’s uncertainty. He knows I am up to something. I need to keep him guessing just a little longer.

Coughing, Kamiron kneels at the table and takes up the calligraphy brush. He flexes his wrist. “What would you like?”

“Oh, nothing elaborate.” It takes work to keep my tone light and casual. To bury my apprehension deep. Almost there, Shari. “You mentioned that the kanji for ‘beauty or ‘love’ is popular. How about something like that?”

Apaosha relaxes and the heat prickling the back of my neck abates. Kamiron coughs again and his chin dips in a brief nod. I lean close and force myself to ignore the blood staining the corners of his mouth. Instead I watch as he dips the brush’s stiff bristles into the impossibly black ink and prepares to write the character for ‘love.’

“Actually, I’ve changed my mind,” I whisper, low enough that only he can hear me. “Write your name instead. Your real name--Kamichirō.”

He hesitates and my heart sinks. If he doesn’t write it, if he questions why the sudden change, why the name he dislikes then Apaosha will figure it out. The demon will win and Kamiron will be lost.

The ink-laden brush glides across the rice paper as Kamiron begins the assorted strokes. His arm moves expertly, his wrist curving left and right as if he is guiding a beautiful dancer across a ballroom floor. The edges of the pictographs shimmer emerald as they emerge and I wish I understood what they meant.

See what I see, Gaian offers and a veil lifts from my consciousness.

Spirit.

Earth.

Son.

Earth spirit’s son.

Oh my God.

Tears spring into my eyes at the beauty and power of Kamiron’s true name. His eyes widen and he gazes up at me with wonder, then recognition, and finally alarm. He clamors to his feet, staring around and seeing things as they are for the first time.

At last it registers to Apaosha that I have outmaneuvered him and he stares at me with pure vitriol. At Kamiron’s side, Sandra mutates into a hoary garden snake that slithers up the wide sleeves of Apaosha’s yukata. The glamour of an orderly Japanese home deteriorates into a featureless beige-gray desert. Where once stood an immaculate garden of cherry trees and fragrant foliage, now sand dunes crowd an endless horizon. Overhead a bleak sky thick with clouds roils like simmering water. Only Apaosha remains, the apparition of Kamiron’s mother, but a dead thing. A husk.

Kamiron sees the moths crawling across his mother’s skull and he doubles over, clawing at his stomach.

Leave him be, Gaian instructs when I take a step forward. He has to purge. Protect him.

Kamiron vomits maggots and scorpions. Roaches and soil. Congealed fly-sludge and spiders. Using my body to shield him, I face Apaosha. The demon riots and the desert riots with him. Dunes bubble like tumultuous waves. Geysers spew sand into the air as gray-green storm clouds whirlpool above us like a coalescing twister. I use my forearm to shield my eyes and nose as best I can from the sandstorm that whips around the demon.

Cloudy eyes rake me. “Do you know what I am?” Apaosha sneers. His jaws unhinge like a serpent. “I am eternal!”

Like in his horse form, toxins spew from his mouth, only this time the poisons manifest on a deeper, metaphysical level. They become the fundamentals of Thought, the abstractions that language struggles to define.

Lack. Scarcity. Aridity. Dearth. Deficiency.

Each abstract concept takes a physical form, congealing into rotten disci that smash into me like Kamiron’s sledgehammer. Aridity burrows into my flesh, turning it dry and dull. My skin cracks and blood wells from boils and blisters. Deficiency scrapes against my bones and leeches all nutrients. As a result, two now brittle ribs snap. I scream. More abstracts rip me apart at the molecular level until even screaming becomes impossible. The pain is so absolute, so overwhelming that it is all I know. All I have ever known. It takes sheer determination to move beyond the pain long enough to realize that Gaian is speaking to me, and a further exertion of raw will to decipher his frantic command.

Quickly, write this Word!

With weak, cracked fingers I sketch the kanji in the air as soon as Gaian shows me how.

Zyuuitsu. Abundance.

Like an emerald shield, the pictograph wavers in the air between the demon and myself. The pain disappears. My ribs are no longer broken, my skin returns to normal.

And then a redwood elbows its way into the middle of Apaosha’s desert.

Green, alive, massive. The tree sprouts from the character with a stretch of its leafy arms and it shields us from Apaosha’s fury. The redwood’s roots plummet deep into the soil, holding still the sand and thwarting Apaosha’s sandstorm. Kamiron steps beside me, the bamboo calligraphy brush in hand. He draws other characters that shimmer in the air before us like miniature galaxies.

Zyouyokin, Surplus.

Nobi, Growth.

Houfu, Plenty.

Deep green grass spurts between our toes and swells in a circle, eating away Apaosha’s colorless desert. A geyser of water bubbles up from the crown of a dune and spills into a river complete with fish and lizards. Flowers bloom. Bees and crickets lend their power, buzzing and singing to restore harmony, to call down the sun.

When sunlight begins to burn away his storm clouds, Apaosha lashes out in blind fury. A mustard cloud deluge of noxious fumes destroys the grass, kills the bees and crickets, and withers the flowers on their stalks. Kamiron steps in front of me, and then Gaian towers before us both. The sides of his head are shaved but his mossy hair is gathered into an elaborate, braided topknot complete with pine needles and pinecones. It curls over massive shoulders. His skin is as dark as mine and looks like the bark of an oak tree. One massive, thick-fingered hand waves and the gas clouds disperse like leaves falling in autumn. In the blighted spots, grass regrows, flowers again blossom and the bees and crickets are joined by birds and squirrels.

Gaian turns his head to glance back at us. With a chiseled face, full lips and eyes shaped like Kamiron’s, Gaian is at once beautiful and terrible. A force of creation, worshipped for eons. The deva of Earth, of living things. Eternal and unwavering.

Catching me gawking at his irises, which are made up of English ivy that coils in circles like snakes in a pit, Gaian winks before focusing on Kam. “Ima, Kamichirō.” Now.

Kamiron stares at his mother’s decayed form, her yukata now in tatters. I feel his tightly leashed fury that Apaosha would dare to pervert her form with his imitation. The bamboo brush slices through the air like a naked blade, cleaving characters from the last of Apaosha’s blight.

Hitei,” he spits.

Negation.

The Word dons a cloak of power and the Japanese characters sear themselves into Apaosha’s body. The demon screams, an ear-shattering, pain-filled shriek that is brutally choked off. Black smoke erupts from Kamiron’s mother and the demon shrinks, folding in on himself like an origami crane. Apaosha winks into inexistence.

Around us, the world exhales. The horizon ripples like gelatin, exorcising the demon’s taint. The sun chases away the straggling clouds and though I continue to sense his presence, Gaian retreats. With his departure, everything falls reverently still.

“What did you do?” I whisper, though I’m not sure why. It feels like Kamiron’s dreamscape is . . . waiting.

“I named him,” Kam answers, his voice just as soft. He drags his palms down his face, fatigued. “When you wrote zyuuitsu, you exposed the link and allowed me to name the demon’s essence.”

I frown. I did all that? “You’re saying the link Apaosha guarded was the Essence of Abundance?”

We inspect the spot where Apaosha disappeared. Kam kneels and rustles around in the grass until he finds what he’s looking for. He holds up a wooden figurine of a deer with a dried grass wreath tied around its neck. “Yes. Abundance was the link, Negation, the tether. I was able to break the Tether of Negation.” We both stare at the figurine in his palm, unsure of what it represents. I wait for it to speak, to move, to do something but it only lies there.

“So one of the links that binds Ater to Earth is now gone?”

“According to your druid friend.” Kamiron’s shoulder rises and falls. “One down, three to go.”

I’m not sure what I am supposed to feel at the destruction of a tether. I expected a sense of liberation. Maybe roses saturate the air with their powerful fragrance. Hell, even a glowing beam of light from on high that proclaims, “You have vanquished the enemy!” would have been nice.

Instead we have . . . a deer.

The figurine begins to crumble, turning into white ash that drifts up into the sky in an iridescent plume. The change is instantaneous. A slick, oily feeling of contamination circles in my stomach and I stagger backwards. Something’s wrong. Terribly wrong. I know it with every fiber of my being. I double over, panting as an unknown layer peels away from my soul and shatters.

Apaosha, the Negation, is gone. Kamiron’s safe. One less link binds Ater to Earth. We’re one step closer to avenging Melissa and saving Hamilton from the Darkness-That-Hunts. So why am I feeling this way?

“Shari?”

I brush aside his help and focus on taking air into my lungs until the sensation recedes. “Didn’t you feel that?”

Kamiron claps the ash from his hands and looks around at the beautiful rolling hills; a frown turns down the corners of his mouth. “I felt odd for a second but it’s gone now. What do you think it was?”

I shrug. My stomach settles down, but the nagging misgiving persists. Kamiron rubs my back, not seeming to notice that it’s covered by a carapace of bark. His gaze lingers on the fir and evergreen that sprouts along the horizon. The river has turned into a lake now and shimmers like gemstones. The sound of birds soothes us and when Kamiron turns to me, the haunted look has gone.

“Know where we are?”

I shake my head.

“My soul. My essence.” He gestures around him and our surroundings transform, rippling like water does after stone has been cast into a pool. The landscape becomes no less serene or beautiful. We are once again in a grove of cherry trees that stretch out in orderly lines for eternity. Pink blossoms flutter against an indigo sky of stars and moonlight. “You returned peace to my soul, Shari. Thank you.”

To my surprise, Kamiron kneels before me. His forehead nearly touches the ground as he genuflects and I can’t help but feel like an elegant queen standing before her gallant, handsome knight. My heart flutters and it takes a moment to force my voice to work.

“It was nothing, really. You did all the work, breaking one of the tethers.” I resist the urge to dig my fingers into the soft black hair at the nape of his neck. Instead I tug him to his feet. “Are you alright? I know earlier, in the house--”

He cuts me off with a wave. “I understand it wasn’t real. I know Sandra’s gone, and my mother . . .” he sighs. “Well, for one, she’s never called me Kamiron. It’s always Kamichirō or Kamichi-chan.” He looks embarrassed by this last confession and offers a small smile at my confusion. “It’s like calling me ‘Kammy,’” he clarifies.

I laugh, imagining his irritation at such a cute nickname.

He gives me a mock glare. “That stays between us. The last thing I need is Dace adding that little gem to his repertoire. ‘Chameleon’ is bad enough.”

I pantomime zipping my lips and tilt my head back to stare at the impossibly bright moonlight weaving through pink-white petals. “Your soul is beautiful, Kamiron. I now understand why uncorrupted souls are the only ones that can break the tethers.”

I turn to find him watching at me through hooded lids. I cannot read his expression. But my breath hitches, getting caught on a rib and my knees turn to water. I clear my throat and glance down at my dirty toes as they curl into the warm dirt. “So . . . how do we get back?”

Kamiron takes my chin into his hand. My cherry blossom hair brushes against his knuckles. He leans down, his lips edging near mine. His eyes, storm grey, reflect only determination and a flicker of need.

“This way.”

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