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Chapter 24

Mia leaned against the trunk of a spruce tree, hiding amongst its fragrant needles. She stared out across the barren plain. Nothing but dry grass stretched between the forest’s edge and the sea cliffs where the ruins of Perilea sat. The setting sun casting its buttery light upon the crumbling white stones.

The cry of gulls and distant crashing waves came to her on the back of the relentless wind that had blown since their arrival. The smell of salt strong enough to taste.

She didn’t know how long she’d been standing there. They arrived sometime in the afternoon when the sun was at its highest, the sky a shocking shade of blue above them. Now it was time to wait. Until nightfall when they could sneak across the open plain without detection.

Her leg cramped. Mia shifted her weight the other leg, frowning at the new and heavy weight of the sword belted about her waist. Orden had given it to her that morning before they’d mounted up. A sword and a very long list of commands. Warnings about the dangers that awaited them on the other side of the ward. What Orden neglected to tell her—what she had pieced together on her own since passing through that invisible shield of air that had felt like him—was that the ward was bound to him. Sustained by his Power.

Today, it would seem, was a day for uncovering secrets.

It was ridiculous how much sense it made. Mia snuck a glance over her shoulder to where Orden sat on a fallen log, a knife in one hand and a piece of wood in the other. Mia’s eyes narrowed. He looked at ease, untroubled, in a way that she had never seen before, and yet—There! The small blink-and-you’ll-miss-it grimace. The blanching of tan skin. He hid his tells well, but they were all Mia could see now. Tiny indicators of the constant pain he was in. What he must experience at all hours of the day and night. And had for twelve years. Mia shuddered and turned away.

Mia’s mouth was bone dry. Her stomach fluttered painfully as she and Orden led the horses across the open plain. It was so dark that she struggled to see more than five feet ahead of her.

Clouds heavy with rain had rolled in off the sea an hour before sunset. They draped the sky in a blanket so dense that it now blotted out the moon and all her stars. Hiding their progress. The weather was on their side, and yet Mia couldn’t help shooting quick glances upwards. She wished for Orden’s Power—or even hers—to shield them from the silvery light that would condemn them.

But that had been one of Orden’s rules. No Power. Not unless they wanted to call Kairos—or any creature with a kernel of Power—down on them with the magnetic pull that accompanied every use. Mia trained her gaze on the smudge of white on the not so distant cliffs and prayed for the first time in months.

They had done what they could to conceal themselves. Mia and Orden both wore cloaks, with hoods drawn up to hide their faces. Their blankets they’d wrapped around pots and other supplies to mute the din of jostling metal. There was nothing to stop the dry crunch of grass beneath feet and hooves. Each step was like the crack of a whip to Mia’s ears.

The sound was likely lost in the thunderous crashing of waves against stone. Getting louder as they neared the massive shape of the ruined city. But Mia couldn’t relax. Couldn’t stop herself from listening for the sound of wings. She wondered if it would sound the way it did in movies—and decided that she could wait a thousand years to find out.

Mia had hoped that when they finally reached the city, it would be with some sense of relief—of safety. But as she and Orden slipped between monstrous pieces of rubble that made her think of wooden building blocks discarded in an abandoned playroom, Mia felt every hair on her body rise.

The temperature dropped with each step that carried them deeper into the ruined city, quiet as a tomb. They kept to the shadows. Creeping along the remains of the once proud buildings that lined the wide streets. The air itself felt heavy and stale, edged with the faint smell of burnt things. It left a bitter taste in Mia’s mouth as she tried to breathe past the fear squatting on her chest.

Open windows and empty doorways beckoned to her on all sides. They urged her to look into the deep blackness that waited beyond them. Mia wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Too afraid of what she might see. The eyes of lost souls bore into her from every direction, their gaze like tiny pinpricks upon her skin. Mia kept her head down and followed Orden as closely as she dared.

She tried not to balk when he led her into a massive courtyard. High sandstone walls pocked with doors and windows made up the circumference. A lonely fountain stood at its center. The figurine was so damaged that Mia couldn’t tell what it depicted as they crept past on near-silent feet.

They stopped in front of a set of cracked, slanted steps that led up to the only doorway with an actual door still hanging from its hinges. All the others having burned or rotted away.

Orden’s mind brushed against hers, and Mia nearly jumped out of her skin. He turned to look at her, impatience mingling with concern at the sound she’d made. She shot him a dirty look in return. Her heart continued to race as she relaxed her defenses. Allowing a channel to open between their minds.

“What do you sense?”

“Nothing. You scared me.”

“No,” Orden shook his head, “in there,” he rolled his brows toward the crooked door. “What do you sense in there? Is it safe?”

Mia looked past Orden and scanned the cracked face of the courtyard wall. Windows yawned, wide, and depthless in the pale stone. Beneath them, small rectangular lumps protruded, cracked off here and there. Flower beds, Mia realized with a shock of recognition. Mia glanced to the left, then to the right, finding similar landmarks to either side. Homes. These derelict buildings had once been homes. They were set into slabs of sandstone, no clear distinction between where one ended, and the other began. Mia thought of the brownstones that lined the streets of Manhattan. An uncomfortable feeling settled in Mia’s stomach.

Beside her, Orden grunted. “Well?”

Mia frowned. Putting that disturbing thought aside. She slid a sideways glance at Orden. The Olu had likely already swept the interior of the house, and all the others in the courtyard. Orden caught the look and held it. Challenging her to say something.

Testing her.

Not a test of Power. Not when what he wanted required no more than using her heightened senses. This was a test of hearing. Of smelling out whatever dangers might lurk within those crumbling walls. A test, but also a chance. For Mia to prove to the only person who mattered—herself—that she wasn’t as useless as she felt.

It surprised her to find that there was still some small, hidden kernel of herself that wanted that chance.

Mia held Orden’s stare for a long moment. She let him see the flicker of gratitude that she wouldn’t put into words—not now. Orden dipped his head in acknowledgment. They both turned their attention back to the ruin before them.

Already the familiar queasiness took root. Mia closed her eyes, her hands forming into tight fists at her sides as, and took a steadying breath. She’d done this enough times in training sessions with Orden—and Vander—to know what to expect the moment she lifted the many dampers on her senses. The breath still went out of her as the millions of sounds and smells she usually blocked out hit her at once. Like a baseball bat to the face.

She actually rocked back on her heels with the force of it. The terrible crash of waves, each booming impact a cataclysmic event to shake the heavens. The whine and moan of the summer wind, cold and sharp off the sea, breathing through the empty streets. Through cracked stone and gaping doorways. Mia almost gagged on the coarse, salty air. The horrible, acrid scent of scorched stone. And beneath it all, still lingering after all this time, the coppery smell of blood.

Mia shook from struggling to remain on her feet as she fought the senses that tried to drive her to her knees. Pain flared in both of her palms, where her fingernails had gouged the flesh. Her breath was a sharp hiss through her teeth.

“Focus, Mia.”

The words were like a lifeline bobbing among waves of a tumultuous sea. Mia grabbed hold of it, let it ground her. Focus, Mia told herself, repeating Orden’s command. Absorb it all and let it flow through, that was what she had to do. The words were like a lifeline bobbing among waves of a tumultuous sea. Mia grabbed hold of it, let it ground her. Focus, she told herself, repeating Orden’s command. Absorb it all, feel it, and let it flow through. That was what she had to do.

Mia swallowed the sour-tasting bile that rose in her throat and unclenched her fists, flexing her fingers. She winced as the brisk air caressed her wounds. With each breath, Mia willed the tension from her body. Forced open the channels that would allow it to flow through and out.

“Good,” Orden said, the word infused with approval, and maybe just a little bit of relief.

Mia stood unmoving amongst the crumbling remains of the courtyard and started to sort through the many sounds and smells vying for her attention. The smell of horse, most pressing, and overwhelming in its proximity. Leather, and the foods hiding among their belongings. The lavender that still clung to their clothes--and the less pleasant aroma of neglected hygiene. Mia quickly dismissed everything that belonged to their small party and moved on to the unfamiliar. Searching for threats.

The courtyard yielded nothing that might raise suspicion. With a little more confidence, Mia turned her attention to the building before her. Brows drawn together in a grimace of concentration, Mia extended herself toward the porous face of the building. It was easy to imagine her senses as smoky tendrils branching out from her. Insubstantial arms that flowed over the building’s front. Up and over to its roof, in through cracks and open windows, doorways.

The air within was stale and musty. Mia could smell the dust, knew that it coated every surface in a thick layer. She picked up other smells. Straw and mud, which meant that there were likely a few swallow nests cemented to the walls. And ammonia, sharp and pungent, which might indicate mice. The rapid scurry of tiny feet a moment later confirmed Mia’s suspicions. She pushed onward. Mia investigated every room. Every nook, and hollow until she could describe the full layout of both floors. The make and material of each piece of furniture. Then she did it again, just to be sure before pooling back into herself.

“I think it’s safe.” Her voice was a raspy whisper. Intrusive after being so immersed in her surroundings.

“You think, or you know?”

Mia cracked her eyes open. “I know.” She met Orden’s gaze, blinking as she adjusted to the sharp clarity of her vision. “No one’s been in here for a very long time.” Mia refused to second guess herself beneath the scrutiny of Orden’s stare.

He nodded, “Good.”

His horse snorted when Orden tugged gently on the reins, leading it to the door. Rusty hinges squealed as he shouldered his way into the house. Mia hissed through her teeth as the sound wreaked havoc on her sensitive ears. She stood in the empty courtyard, alone save for her horse. It was amazing how different everything looked. Sharper and brighter, as if she now saw everything through new eyes, which Mia supposed, she was.

Her mare stomped a hoof, impatient to follow after the others. Mia winced. She could feel a headache starting behind her eyes, and her ears were ringing faintly. Mia felt raw and exposed, and yet, she resisted the urge to close herself off again. Deciding to keep the dampers she’d had in place for months, off.

She followed Orden inside, and when her horse was safely through, Mia closed the door of the abandoned house.

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