I hear the sound of footsteps coming down the corridor. I have to blink hard, clearing my vision when I see the Reaper lord enter the room.
“Are you ready to return home?” he asks.
I give him a wary nod, uneasy about all of this. It could all be some trick.
“Good,” he says, reaching a hand through the bars toward me.
I look at his open hand with fear and I can see his features shift to a look of growing annoyance at my hesitation. Finally, I slip my hand into his.
A shock rolls through my body like an electrical current. My heartbeat speeds up and I am certain he can probably hear it. My skin tingles all over and I part my lips in surprise. I meet his eyes to find a similar look of surprise on his face. There is no time to address it now. He closes his fingers around my own and I fight hard not to pull away when the dark mist swirls around him and then begins to engulf my hand.
It feels nice, I realize, like the cooling mist blowing off of the ocean. It’s calming and I feel my worries begin to slip away. I’m suddenly caged in darkness, unable to see anything, but my hand, still in Ash’s, keeps me grounded. I cannot tell how much time has passed before I am thrust back into daylight. Ash stands by my side, still gripping my hand tightly.
We stand at the edge of the forest. I look at him with curiosity and disbelief.
“How? What was that?” I ask in astonishment.
He ignores my questions, “These woods will take you directly over the border into Medeor. You must move quickly and stay hidden,” he says.
“Thank you for helping me, Ash, I mean, Lord Sebastian,” I tell him, correcting myself to address him properly “I will never understand it, but I will never forget it.”
“Just Ash is fine,” he says, “Now go, before they realize you’re missing.”
Before I can think better of it, I lean up on my toes and press my lips to his cold cheek. He looks shocked, but not disgusted.
“Stay safe, Lark Kravinoff,” he says, “No one can know that I helped you, is that understood?”
His face is grim as he awaits my response. I nod in understanding. I step into the forest, looking back at him only once. A look of regret mars his handsome features and I cannot bare to look at him longer. I move further into the trees before climbing up and taking to the tree tops for cover.
It takes me three days to make the journey home. The entire time, I ponder why the Reaper had helped me and questioning whether what we thought of the Nokturns might not be completely accurate. I’m also plagued with the memories of the alarming voice I’ve been hearing in my head. It’s unsettling and I don’t even know how to begin to process it. I spend the rest of my time thinking about how to handle Elliot once I arrive back home. I still don’t have an answer for any of those problems as I step into the familiar tavern back home.
Taron’s eyes widen in shock when he spots me. I know I look terrible. I haven’t eaten in days, my hair is tangled with leaves, and mud smudges my face and arms.
“Lark?” he says in disbelief, causing my father and Garrison to turn. They leap from their seats and hurry toward me. I collapse into my father’s arms, exhausted.
They help me to a seat and the bar keep brings me water and a loaf of bread. I eat it greedily. They allow it, watching me closely. I know they are eager to ask their questions. I slow my pace and look at them.
“What happened?” Taron asks, before my father can speak, “Why were you even in the square when the Choosing happened?”
“I wanted to see Elliot one last time before he volunteered,” I admit, feeling so betrayed by him that it physically hurts.
“And he didn’t,” Garrison says with frustration.
I shake my head, “Then, it was just bad luck I suppose. They selected me and that was that.”
“You obviously survived the Arena,” my father says, a hint of pride in his tone.
I give him a weak smile, “Yes, I did.”
“Then, why aren’t you holed up somewhere, slave to one of the Nokturns?” Taron asks, arching one perfect brow.
“I escaped. There was an explosion on the night of the ceremony to celebrate my winning,” I explain, “It was a perfect distraction and I was able to escape.”
Garrison eyes me skeptically, not fully believing my story, but I’ve given him no reason to think I would lie.
“An explosion?” my father questions, “By whom?”
“I have no idea,” I admit, “I wasn’t trying to stick around to find out.”
He nods in understanding, “You’re back now. We will not let anything like that happen again. And Elliot will be dealt with.”
“I would like to speak with him,” I say, “If that’s alright.”
Garrison nods and motions for Taron to escort me. We stand and I walk with my brother out of the tavern.
“You’re hiding something,” he accuses as we walk toward the tree houses.
“What are you talking about?” I ask.
“Lark, I’m your brother,” he reminds me, “Your twin brother. I can tell when you’re lying.”
“Yeah?” I challenge, “Enlighten me, Brother.”
He smirks, “I don’t know specifically,” he shrugs, “But I know there’s something you aren’t telling us.”
We reach the steps leading up to Elliot’s small tree home. It’s rickety to say the least, but it’s sturdy enough. I climb up carefully, Taron on my heels. I knock tentatively on the door and I hear shuffling from inside. The door swings open a moment later and Elliot instantly pales at the sight of me.
“Hello, Elliot,” I say, trying to keep the venom from my voice.
I know I look terrible, with mud smeared on my cheeks and dirt and dried blood staining my clothes. I can’t find it in me to care.
“L-L-Lark?” he sputters in disbelief, “What are you doing here?”
“That’s beside the point,” I wave off his question, “A better question is why you’re here, Elliot. Why didn’t you volunteer?”
“I’m sorry, Lark,” he shakes his head, “I just chickened out.”
“And why didn’t you speak up when I was chosen? Why didn’t you go get my father or Garrison or Taron?” I ask, stepping forward with aggression, “Why didn’t you volunteer for Benji when they chose him? He was only twelve, Elliot! I watched him kill himself in the Arena even when I tried to stop it!”
“I don’t know what to say, Lark!” Elliot yells back, growing angry, “You think it feels good to realize everyone thinks I’m a coward? That they are right?”
“Don’t yell at her,” Taron warns Elliot.
They are best friends and the last thing I want is to come between them, but I know that Taron will always put me first as I will him.
I sigh, “I need some air,” I tell them, “I’m going for a walk. I’ll see you at supper, Taron.”
He nods in understanding, a look of sadness in his eyes as he watches me go. Halfway down the steps, I hear Taron lecturing Elliot. I hurry the rest of the way to the ground, not wanting to witness the destruction of their friendship.
I stop by the town bathhouse and scrub my face and arms. I brush out my hair and then knot it loosely at the nape of my neck. Afterwards, I walk deeper and deeper into the woods until I reach the clearing where the old grist mill stands. I sit down, leaning my back against the thick trunk of a tall pine tree. Everything is such a mess now. I tilt my head back, fighting the tears that are threatening to spill over onto my cheeks. When one finally breaks free and burns a hot trail down my skin, I feel a cool touch swipe it away.
My eyelids flutter open and I see Lord Sebastian, the Reaper, kneeling before me. I look around in alarm.
“Are you frightened of me?” he asks, looking offended.
“What if someone sees you?” I ask, pushing up from the ground and taking his hand, pulling him toward the mill.
“You’re worried someone will see me?” he asks in confusion.
“Of course, I am!” I say once inside the mill, “You helped me escape. Everyone would want to kill you if they found out. Plus, humans this far into Medeor don’t really take to Nokturns so well. You would have an angry mob after you in a second, Ash.”
“I do love hearing my name on your lips,” he says, reaching up and brushing his thumb across my bottom lip.
I heat with embarrassment as my heart begins racing. How does he make me feel this way, and why? It’s not right. I cannot have a crush on a Reaper. I refused to let myself do that.
“What are you doing here, Ash?” I ask him, determined to stay on track.
“I needed to see you,” he says, “I wanted to make sure that you were safe.”
“I am perfectly well,” I tell him, “You need to go before you’re discovered.”
“I’ve never met a human willing to protect me as you are,” he says with fascination.
“And I’ve never met a Nokturn who would help a human escape from imprisonment,” I counter.
He smirks in amusement, “Can I see you tomorrow?” he asks, taking me by surprise.
“What? Tomorrow? Why?” I ask, confused by his request.
“Because, I don’t think I will be able to stay away from you,” he admits.
Rustling leaves outside draw my attention to the small window. Taron steps out into the clearing, looking around, looking for me.
“Oh, no,” I whisper, causing Ash to follow my gaze, “I’ll distract my brother. You get out of here.”
“What about tomorrow?” he asks, unconcerned by my brother’s presence.
“We don’t have time for this,” I insist.
“Tell me you’ll see me tomorrow,” he presses, “The waterfalls, just north of here.”
I nod, “Fine. I’ll be there after nightfall,” I tell him.
He flashes a smile and I move to walk past him before Taron approaches the mill. Ash’s cool fingers encircle my wrist, and he pulls me back to him so that I am pressed against his muscled chest. His other arm snakes around my waist. He stares at me for a moment with a look of disbelief on his face. He drops his head and presses his lips to the top of my head. It’s a tremendously tender gesture, one that I didn’t think Reapers capable of. It makes me question all over again how wrong we might be about the Nokturns. Maybe they aren’t all bad.
I pull away from him breathlessly and step out of the mill, running over to Taron. I force myself not to look back as my brother slings an arm around my shoulders and we walk home together.