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Chapter 21

When she opened them again, it was morning—the start of another day of arduous travel.

The silence of the previous day went interrupted as Mia and Orden first shared a simple breakfast of bread and cheese, and then as they packed up their small camp. It wasn’t long before Mia found herself back in the saddle, her inner thighs already beginning to chafe despite the blanket that had been thrown over the hard leather for her comfort. She didn’t thank Orden, not for this, and not for the blanket she’d woken to find tucked around her shoulders that morning. Mia was grateful. Truly grateful and relieved to know that Orden didn’t hate her entirely. But each small kindness he showed her felt like a kick to the gut. A harsh reminder that she didn’t deserve it.

Guilt remained her constant companion as they wove their way between the trees, following a trail only Orden knew was there. It ate at her so relentlessly that Mia found herself wishing desperately for the fog of hangover to return. She wanted nothing more than to lose herself in that mind-numbing haze and would suffer the nausea again if only to escape the thoughts that waged war within her head. Thoughts of Nethea, the world she was meant to save but had doomed instead. Thoughts of people she didn’t know, countless souls that would suffer as a result of her cowardice.

Vander would save them, Mia told herself. Vander was strong, he was a Dragon for God’s sake... what could Mia do that he couldn’t? She was weak, frail...inept. Vander was better off without her. Nethea was better off. These silent reassurances brought Mia peace, but only for a short while. They seemed to lose their effectiveness with each repetition, becoming hollow and insubstantial until there was no relief left to be had in them.

You were Chosen for a reason, echoed another voice, a braver voice, as it rammed into the high walls of fear that surrounded Mia’s heart.

I’ll die! Mia screamed back.

You don’t know that.

But she did. Oh God, she did. Mia knew it with a certainty she’d seldom felt in her life. I'll die and then it won't matter anyway.

So you'll hide? Let Vander do the job on his own while you wait around for what exactly? Peace? That’s unlikely. Kairos already killed two Guardians, what’s to stop him from killing Vander? And then finding you and killing you too?

I’m dead either way.

What would mom and dad think?

The cruel twist of her thoughts left Mia chilled to the bone despite the heat of the day, and breathless. That’s not fair.

Do you think they would be proud? What do you think they'd say if they knew you didn’t even try to get home to them? What would Jake say?

Mia blinked back tears and sniffed wetly. She let her head fall back, eyes closed against sunlight that trickled through the thick canopy of spruce and poplar. I already made up my mind.

No, you haven’t.

Mia was just about ready to pitch sideways out of the saddle when Orden finally called a halt.

“We’ll stop here for the night.”

Mia managed a grunt in acknowledgment and cast her tired eyes around the spot. Everything was either grey or black, the small clearing leached of color without the sun. Fat buoyant leaves stood on thin stems, casting the ground beneath them in deep shadows and few poplars growing there were young and far between. Like white pillars or tent posts. All around them the taller, older trees stood blocked out what was left of the vanishing light.

Orden dismounted in a chorus of creaking leather. Mia hurried to do the same, swinging her leg over her mare’s back in a movement that was starting to feel more natural after a few stops throughout the day. Mia’s knees knocked together as her ankles, shrieking in protest, gave out beneath her weight. She leaned against the mare’s warm body for the moment it took to collect herself. Then she helped Orden set up camp.

Mia used her teeth to tear a strip from the piece of dried deer meat she’d been gnawing on for the past half-hour and chewed slowly as she stared into bright coals at the center of the fire. Sitting on the opposite side of the flames, Orden took a long pull from his water skin.

She watched from beneath her brows as Orden’s throat bobbed once, twice—and quickly averted her gaze when he finished.

“I am not angry with you.”

Mia was slow to meet his eye over the flames.

Orden cleared his throat. “You keep looking at me the way you do when you’ve done something wrong.”

“No I don’t,” Mia said, but there was no feeling behind it. A weak denial.

“You are,” said Orden, “and I’m not. Angry with you I mean.”

“You haven’t talked to me in two days,” Mia said, her throat constricting.

There was a loud crack as something in the fire popped and a spray of embers shot into the air. Neither Mia nor Orden flinched.

Orden grunted, a pained expression darkening his face. He rubbed a hand over his head, cupping the back of his neck. “I didn’t know what to say.”

Mia stared at him. She took a deep breath, in through her nose and out through her mouth. Mia sat a little straighter, a weight suddenly lifting from her shoulders and said, “Yeah well—same.”

Sleep did not come as easily as it had the night before.

After their brief conversation had ended, Mia had crept beneath the itchy, woolen blanket of her bedroll and turned her back to the fire. She had half expected to fall asleep the minute her head touched the thin mattress, drained as she was, but that didn’t happen. It was like; now that the tension had eased up some between her and Orden, Mia’s mind was free to hunt for something new to latch onto. Like the fact that she was lying in a bedroll, out in the open—in a forest.

The whispering of the leaves was a bear sneaking into their camp. The rustling in the branches was a cougar preparing to pounce from above. Mia’s eyes had begun to sting with exhaustion, her lids heavy and drooping when the wolves struck up their eerie call and response. When sleep finally found her in the early hours of the morning, utterly exhausted and aching from tension, Mia dreamt of wolves.

Big shaggy beasts with gaping maws dripping with saliva snapped at Mia’s heels as she ran through a densely treed forest. She wasn’t alone. Others ran with her, their panting breaths and hers punctuated with the snarls and yips of the pack. Mia knew, with the certainty that only comes from dreaming, that she and the other Guardians were running for their lives.

Aida went down first, screaming for Euan as a wolf tore at her exposed throat. Euan was too late. He and Reiner died next. Then Nymal, until only Mia and Vander were left. Bloody from scratches left by thorny branches.

Sweat ran into Mia’s eyes, blinding her so that she didn’t see the root she tripped on. She flew through the air, arms flung out to stop her fall. The taste of dirt was surprisingly vivid for a dream. Vander grabbed Mia by the shoulders. He was shouting at her to get up but all the urgency in the world couldn’t get Mia on her feet. She kept slipping, her legs giving out from under her. Incapable of finding purchase among the dead leaves.

The air filled with the crunching of leaves under multiple paws. Sharp yaps and snapping teeth. Mia rolled onto her back, making eye contact with Vander on his knees in front of her, a second before the wolves attacked. Her scream was swallowed by Vander’s furious roar of pain as the wolves dragged him away from Mia. She couldn’t look away. She watched Vander die and was overcome with a terrible feeling of helplessness when the wolves turned their attention to her.

Mia’s bone liquified and turned to ice all at once. Eight pairs of piercing blue eyes pinned her to the blood-soaked forest floor. The wolves moved as one, each step eerily in sync. Fluid and deadly. Blood dripped from open mouths, the air was thick with the smell of it. Mia could taste it on her tongue.

A pitiful whimper slipped past Mia’s trembling lips.

The wolves were changing in front of her eyes, morphing into each other until only one remained. Mia shrank back, her heart beating at an alarming rate. The wolf stopped when they were practically face to face, and looked down its long nose at her. It grinned and Mia screamed.

Kairos’ wicked smile widened.

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