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Chapter 22

Mia woke with a sharp gasp, her body arching off the ground. Blinding pain exploded in her head as it connected with something hard and unexpected.

“Ow!” Mia exclaimed, her hand going to her forehead.

A low grunt sounded from directly in front of her. Mia flinched and dropped her hand, revealing his face. She choked on a scream. Mia flew into motion, trailing blankets as she scooted out from under Kairos and she came up hard against a tree. Terror had her chest seizing and her blood roaring in her ears. It warped her vision so badly that it was a full five seconds of panic before Mia realized that it was not Kairos but Orden, now standing a safe distance away, a look of horror mingling with shock and concern on his face.

Their eyes met, his so clearly grey even in the dark, not blue, that Mia started to shake. Relief came with all the symptoms of a panic attack. There was nothing Mia could do to hide the way she started coming apart. Her breath hitched and came fast. One second she was chilled to the bone, the next she was unbearably hot. Mia hugged her knees to her chest in an attempt to suffocate the sick, uncomfortable feeling of weightlessness residing in her gut.

She forgot about Orden.

In the time it took Mia to wrestle herself back into control, she had lost all track of him. Until he reminded her of his presence with a quiet clearing of his throat.

Mia lifted her head from her knees to blink at the cup of steaming peppermint tea Orden held out to her. She glanced past the cup, meeting Orden’s steady gaze. Mia sniffed and looked away, cheeks heating as she wiped at her damp face and took the offered cup.

“Thanks,” she said, her voice sounding thin and clogged.

Orden grunted in response.

Mia brought the cup to her mouth and took a shaky sip of its contents while she pretended not to notice as Orden settled himself on the ground beside her. A knot of muscle ached between Mia’s shoulder blades, stiff with tension. A coil winding tighter with every second they spent in silence. Mia waiting for Orden to ask the question.

“What did you dream of?”

The coil snapped and Mia blew out all of her pent up breath. She shook her head and met Orden’s gaze out of the corner of her eye. A sardonic smile twisted her lip, “Do you really have to ask?” When Orden said nothing, Mia dropped the smile and looked down at the cup in her hands. “The others,” she said, “Kairos. You know, the usual.”

“You dream of them often.” It wasn’t a question but Mia found herself nodding anyway. There was a familiar rasping sound as Orden scratched his beard. Then he said, “So do I.”

Mia pressed her thumb into the fleshy space between her other thumb and first finger, pinching the skin against the cup. Before she could talk herself out of it, like the coward she was, Mia said, “Tell me how they died.”

Nothing but the far off call of a hunting owl met her quiet plea.

Orden cleared his throat but nothing could mask the sudden thickness in his voice. “You’ve heard their stories before.”

“I know,” Mia said, burying her thumbnail in her skin with enough pressure to bring tears to her eyes. She dared to meet Orden’s eye, “But tell me again. Please.”

It was difficult not to look away.

Pain and regret. Hesitation. Mia read them in Orden’s face as easily as if they were words on a page. She saw them in his movements as he rose from his seat and walked, stiff-backed to the fire. Mia watched as Orden picked up a thin branch poke the end of it into the coals. She should never have asked. Why did she have to ask? She knew how much pain it caused him.

“I’m sorry,” Mia blurted, “You don’t have to—”

“I assume you have a reason for asking this of me,” said Orden, fixing Mia with a look over one hunched shoulder.

Mia pressed her lips together. It was either that or spill her most secret and desperate thoughts. She had to know. She had to find some reason, some hugely significant, somehow overlooked detail, that would explain how the others had failed.

How they had died and left Mia and Vander to face Kairos alone. A muscle jumped in Orden’s cheek as he regarded her. Mia swallowed, hoping that her thoughts weren’t written all over her face.

Orden nodded. “Very well.”

She didn’t dare say a word, not when the wrong thing might change his mind. Orden held her gaze a moment longer, then he turned back to the fire. Just as Mia was beginning to think that he had changed his mind after all, Orden spoke. “Everything I know about their deaths came to me second-hand. I cannot say how reliable tavern gossip may be, we must assume that certain details were lost in the retelling, but alas, it is all we have.”

The gentle rustling of wind blown leaves filled the quiet as Orden paused for a long moment. When he turned and faced her fully, Mia noticed the faint edge of determination that hardened the lines of his face and set his eyes aglow. “I will tell you how they died, though you know the pain it causes me to do so.” Mia dropped her gaze. “But,” Orden said and Mia peeked up at him again. “I wish to share with you first how they lived. That, at least, I know to be a full and accurate account.”

Orden stopped again, this time he watched her as if waiting for her to say something. To argue, or agree? Mia wasn’t sure what Orden expected but she was not about to deny his one condition. Not when she could see the pain he tried to hide behind his hard exterior. She sat up a little straighter and lifted her chin. In a quiet but steady voice Mia said, “Please.... and thank you.”

“My only hope is that you find whatever it is you’re looking for.”

Mia blinked. “So do I.”

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