Harlequin Nocturne | Share
by Macy Pearson
The out of balance world requires a physical embodiment of light and dark. Raised in the woods by her guardian, the only thing Mila knew about her other, darker half, Ashton, was that he wanted her powers badly enough to kill her.
That is, until they meet: nothing goes as planned, and they’re inexplicably drawn to each other, in every sense. Mila is learning she won’t get rid of Ashton so easily, nor is he the real enemy. She’ll have to find another way to achieve harmony for the world—and it looks like the solution resides in Ashton.
Mila felt the eyes on her back as clearly as she felt the moonlight.
The moon shone full above her, reflecting on the surface of the pond she stood in the middle of. Water lapped around her waist, drowning out any sound of approaching footsteps. In-between the ripples, Mila caught glimpses of the woods behind her; even with the illumination of the moon, she couldn’t find the lurking creature.
Wrapping her arms around herself, Mila turned in a leisurely circle.
Anything could be out in the woods. Having grown up in the woods, Mila was no stranger to the normal signs of life: rustling foliage, buzzing insects, prowling animals. With the land around the earthen hut she called home always densely overgrown from Mila’s powers, she’d seen her fair share of wildlife.
When animals grazed around her, though, she normally didn’t feel watched like this.
She’d sensed the watchful eyes a few nights ago. With each passing night, they got closer. Another turn in the water, relying on all her senses, and Mila still couldn’t detect what watched her. It could be a lost hunter, or one of the many men Anna, her guardian, had introduced Mila to in the past few days.
From her earliest memories, Mila knew two things: one, Anna lived to guide and train Mila to best handle her immortality and powers. Two, one day a man would come to kill Mila, and she had to end him first. The two were closely related, with all of Anna’s actions working toward keeping Mila alive.
Speaking of Anna… Mila could shout. Anna would be in the woods somewhere, probably foraging.
Mila opted for silence. Calling her human guardian felt cowardly.
If she could draw the moon into the sky and make plants grow, surely she could confront something in the woods. Most likely one of the men from the nearby town had gotten lost. Drawing from what she’d been practicing the past few days, Mila called out, “Hello?”
When she met men at the edge of the woods, they usually didn’t answer back, too afraid. Then they’d ask a round of predetermined questions, meant to try and seduce her into letting her guard down. She answered no—every single time, no matter the question—just like Anna wanted. Because in Anna’s mind, the man that would come for her would try to charm her with his mysterious air, and then slaughter her.
No one responded to her call.
Sinking deeper into the water, Mila whistled low.
Hoofbeats sounded not a moment later, one of her white horses nodding into view. This one, Doll, stopped at the edge of the pond, giant neck bending to nibble at Mila’s hair. She allowed it, and moved closer to whisper, “Do you sense anything?”
Knowing Doll couldn’t verbally respond, Mila watched her ears. They perked in response to Mila’s voice, facing forward. And then one swiveled to the left.
Gaze following, Mila stared down a patch of bushes. “There?” she asked. Sinking until the water reached just under her nose, Mila drifted to the other end of the pond, for a closer look. Doll nickered, and Mila silenced her with a look.
“Mila!” Anna, on the other hand, could not be silenced so easily. Mostly because she was blind—meaning looks were lost on her—and also because she was one of the most determined people Mila knew. Not that Mila knew many people—
“Mila!” Anna repeated, making Doll flinch and Mila pop out of the water. Mila’s heart raced, and she realized if someone waited for her in the bush, this would be a great time to ambush her.
Like the other nights, nothing moved. Whatever watched her was biding its time.
With a sigh, Mila climbed out of the pond and dripped her way to Anna, who struck her usual pose on the rocks: legs spread, arms crossed, face unimpressed. The only thing missing from the look was the intensity of Anna’s gaze, which had settled somewhere past Mila. “What were you doing?” she asked when she heard Mila approach.
In response, Mila wrung out the wet part of her long hair.
“Hm.” Anna dropped the stance of her legs to take two steps forward. “I heard you—”
Leaves rustled behind Mila, drowning out the rest of Anna’s sentence. Mila whipped around, dirt sticking to her wet feet and water chilling her skin in the night air; she felt unprepared. The sound had been too faint, too fast. Like moments ago, she looked to Doll for answers; the horse peered into the water curiously, unaware of Mila’s distress. Vain beast.
“What’s this all about, Mila?” Anna sighed. She moved to stand beside Mila, sightless eyes scanning the woods in front of them. “I don’t hear—”
Anna stopped, head tilting. The motion drew strands of light brown hair into her eyes, but that didn’t stop her from striding forward. “Wait,” Mila hissed, hurrying behind her. Neither of them knew what lurked: the man? An army? Something worse?
Moments before Anna reached the bush that Mila had suspicions about, the scene exploded into motion. Something lunged, and, sightless, Anna was doomed. “No!” Mila cried, jumping for her. Her arms enveloped Anna from the side. Mila had meant to get in front to protect Anna from a hit, but the suddenness left her no other option: she tackled Anna to the ground, to safety.
Mila could feel her form slipping with her panic, and she knew Anna would, too. “Keep it together,” Anna snapped. Anna hated when Mila let any form of weakness show, especially when she changed forms: most often, Mila reverted to looking like a further incompetent adolescent.
“Listen,” Anna instructed, pushing Mila off so she could sit up.
Mila looked instead, watching a small tail—most likely belonging to a bunny—whip behind another curtain of plants. Not the man coming to kill her. Relief brought back Mila’s normal form: her height shifted, her hair grew, and she felt more… herself. “I’m sorry,” Mila said. She was sorry she’d reverted to a little girl in the panic, sorry she’d worried over a bunny—
“A bunny, Mila?” Anna asked. She kept her tone light—she knew from her years of rearing that Mila was as sensitive as a sprouting plant—but the truth couldn’t be softened. “You have the power to control the moon, to grow plants, and you can’t take on a bunny?”
Twisting her hands, Mila tried to get out of what came next. “I was getting there—”
“You ran to me,” Anna chided, which was unfair. Mila had called for her horse: Anna had happened to show up and take the lead. “What are you going to do when the man comes? Are you going to call for me, too, so I can find your dead body?”
Shaking her head, Mila denied the words as much as the scene. “I’ll know when it’s the man. I’ll stop him before he gets to me.”
“I hope so.” Anna stood, ignoring the dirt that had collected on her. “And what if he wants to introduce himself, shake your hand, maybe even hug you?”
“I decline,” Mila said. As an afterthought, she added, “And keep my distance.”
“What if you can’t, because he approaches anyway?”
They’d never practiced that. When they went to the edge of the woods, Mila dealt with terrified men that walked away from her, not toward her. Uncertainty had her form slipping, her face rounding out and her hair shortening. “I—I don’t—”
Hands found her changing face. “Mila, you know this. We haven’t practiced everything that might happen, but you know this.”
She felt the tears coming, another weakness Anna hated. That knowledge only aided the tightening in Mila’s chest. “I stop him.” Her voice was higher from her new youth, masking the rawness in her throat. The tears threatened to spill over, but Mila tipped her head as far as she could in Anna’s grasp, trying to hold them at bay.
“You don’t even have to wait that long,” Anna said. “Before he even says hello, you can—” A tear finally tracked down to Anna’s hand, silencing her. “Why are you crying?” she asked.
Apologies wouldn’t mean anything: Anna only wanted the problem, so they could work on solving it. “I’m scared,” Mila admitted. “I wish I was strong like you.” She’d never met another human until Anna started the training near town almost a week ago. And after all this time living in the woods, Mila had spooked at a bunny.
For an immortal with powers, she was pathetic.
Anna had raised her. Anna was human, powerless—sightless—and still had more guts when it came to confrontation. Sometimes Mila wondered why Anna hadn’t inherited the powers, as she seemed to have the backbone for the man coming after Mila.
“You are strong,” Anna insisted. Her fingers dug into Mila’s cheekbones. “I know it.”
“Even like this?” Mila finally looked into Anna’s murky gaze, seeing the tears in her own eyes reflecting back at her. She looked infinitely younger.
“Stand with me,” Anna answered. She drew them both up; she turned Mila around. Normally Anna was only an inch taller than her, but with Mila’s younger form, it felt like half a foot. Anna knocked one of Mila’s legs forward with her own. Anna’s hands lifted Mila’s by the wrist, guarding her face. “See how ready you are?”
Mila felt her old form coming back in flickers, but only to express her remaining uncertainty.
“Look,” Anna insisted. Curling Mila’s hands into fists, Anna stepped back. “You could level a town like that.”
Unsure, Mila turned to look at Anna over her shoulder. They’d never gone over anything like this; did she need to worry about a town as well as the man, now? The tears rose again. “I can’t—”
Anna grabbed her wrists again, forcing one of her arms straight out in front of her. A few feet away, a tree fell over. “You can,” Anna said, letting go of her again. Now waves of embarrassment crashed over Mila. “You’re better than me, even.” The words did little to soothe Mila’s disappointment that she couldn’t figure something so simple out on her own.
Clapping Mila on the back, Anna said, “Now get it together and go do immortal things.”
She walked away without waiting to see if Mila agreed. Slowly, Mila felt her hair lengthening, her chin sharpening, the ease settling over her as she found herself again.
She could do this.
When Anna had suggested she go do “immortal things” she’d probably meant tending to the plants in the woods, like Mila usually did. The foliage flourished under her attentive eye. Tonight, Mila took it one step further, testing her strength as she went. After she’d regrown part of the tree she and Anna had felled, she took another crack at it, satisfied when she could do it without guidance.
Of course, moments later regret filled her, and she regrew the tree from the bottom up. With the tree fixed—and apologized to—Mila continued.
Doll plodded after her in the woods, a welcome companion. Mila’s fingertips trailed against the foliage on either side of her. Plants sprouted and grew in her wake. Doll yanked fresh leaves from one of the growing bushes, grinding them up loudly.
As Mila wound her way back to the hut after making her rounds, she found Doll still following her. “What?” she asked, spinning to place her hands on her sides. Normally Doll only followed when she could get something out of it—namely, food. By now she should have gone away to wherever she went when she left Mila.
Doll blinked in answer.
Three days later, and Mila still didn’t know why she couldn’t get rid of Doll. She wasn’t sick: Mila would have felt the difference in energy. She wasn’t hungry: she chowed down on everything Mila grew, even the flowers on her dress. Mila had few things to focus on in the woods uninhabited by speaking creatures, so Doll’s attention really stood out.
“Maybe she’s lonely,” Anna offered when Mila brought up the fact that she couldn’t shake the horse. Mila rested on the ground, Anna sat at the table, and Doll stuck her head in through the open window of the hut, highlighting Mila’s problem.
“She has a brother,” Mila said. Absently, she rose to stand by Doll at the window; Mila scratched Doll’s velvety nose. Slowly, she realized she hadn’t seen Ghost in several days. Hand stilling, Mila looked into Doll’s eyes and asked, “Is your brother missing?”
Doll’s long lashes dusted against her pale face as she blinked in response.
“You don’t think he’s in town, do you?” Mila asked.
She’d known better than to ask, but she couldn’t take the words back. To appear less than interested she kept her attention on Doll. Though, it was obvious who Mila intended to draw a response from: the hut only held two people capable of speaking.
“Doll’s not concerned,” Anna snorted. At Mila’s silence, she sighed. “What does it matter, Mila? You couldn’t go into town to look for him, anyway.”
Closing her eyes, Mila searched the woods with her senses. She could sense all kinds of things—plants, water, animals—up until about a mile out. She neglected mentioning that when she told Anna, “I don’t sense him around.”
“You can’t go look in town.”
Mila had known stern Anna wouldn’t cave easily. “But—”
“You can’t put yourself in that kind of danger,” Anna insisted. “You’d be walking right into his lair.”
When Anna spoke of the man, it was usually only to say to kill him first. Mila never heard what he looked like, where he lived, or anything other than how he threatened her survival. “He lives in town?” Without warning, Mila felt a pang of jealousy that the man got to live in town while she was isolated in the woods.
She liked the woods, of course, but she’d known them her whole life. At best, she could talk to Anna and her horses for social interaction. From what she knew of the town—from the men she’d met during her training—there was so much more to learn, to experience.
“It doesn’t matter,” Anna said tersely.
Mila sensed she’d struck a sore spot without meaning to. She knew very little about Anna, except that she’d given up everything else to raise Mila. In fact, Mila didn’t even know how Anna had lost her sight; she imagined it had happened at birth, only because Anna had never asked Mila to heal her eyes.
Dragging her fingertips against Doll’s face, Mila pressed her lips into a thin line. Any second now, Anna would walk out, ending the conversation.
She stood, but didn’t walk away. “Give it a day,” she said softly. “Go look for him tonight, and if he’s not back, I’ll see what I can do. Okay?” Anna pitched it like a compromise that pained her, but Mila really had no other options.
“Okay.” She felt like she’d agreed to sticking her hand into a thorn bush.
“Oh, and good job on your training,” Anna said. Her praise left Mila feeling unduly warm: meeting with the men the past three days had passed in a daze, Mila’s mind stuck on the feeling of being watched. “You’ve gotten really good at throwing punches.”
Realizing she’d thought of the wrong thing, Mila asked, “You knew about that?”
“Excellent hearing,” Anna reminded Mila with a wry smile and a tap to her ears. With that she left, heading off behind the hut to do… something. Mila always thought she foraged—she had to eat, while Mila did not—but she didn’t know for sure.
“Let’s go, then,” Mila said to Doll through the window. They moved at the same time, so that when Mila exited the hut, Doll stood at the ready.
She jumped the distance to Doll’s back, hands settling in her white mane. Reaching around, Doll attempted to nibble at the flowers on the hem of Mila’s dress, closest to her ankle. One disapproving look from Mila and Doll fixed her gaze ahead, starting a walk into the deeper woods.
All the while, Mila kept her senses open. An elk stood off in the distance, similar to Ghost’s shape to her senses, but not the same. Everything else around her was too small. They circled the backwoods without luck, and continued to follow the river until they approached the edge of the woods where Mila went to meet men for training. Doll threw her ears back: apparently she knew Mila wasn’t supposed to go near town.
“I won’t go in,” Mila soothed, pressing her heels into Doll’s sides so she continued walking. As a peace offering, she made the trees around them sprout and bloom, plenty for Doll’s taking.
Surprisingly, Doll stopped.
Doll never spooked: she’d seen Mila do too many strange things with her powers to care.
Mila slipped off of Doll’s back.
The rest of the walk consisted of Mila looking back over her shoulder curiously, and Doll plodding along behind her. She hadn’t spooked again, but Mila didn’t want to take any chances; she continued searching for Ghost on her own two feet, even away from the town.
When they neared the hut, Mila could tell that Anna hadn’t returned: she had a distinct energy that was absent at the moment. Heading for the pond, Mila made the lilies in the water bloom, turning to Doll expectantly. If her powers were the cause of Doll’s unease, they would find out now.
Doll’s ears flicked back.
“I’m just wading,” Mila muttered, slipping into the water and pushing out into the middle. Doll paced the sides of the pond once before heading back into the woods.
Admittedly, Mila had a better relationship with plants than she did animals, but she’d still expected to get along with her own horse a little better. And she’d officially lost Ghost. Mila stared into the calming water, wondering if another try with her senses—
Someone was watching her.
This was nothing new, but Mila still recoiled from the force of the gaze as though hit, and pressed a hand to her racing heart. Tentatively, she called out, “Doll?”
The horse whinnied from off in the distance, but the lack of hoofbeats said she didn’t intend on coming any closer. Nor was she the source of the eyes. With dread, Mila tried, “Anna?” even though she knew better.
Anna’s sightless gaze would never feel like this.
Everything quieted, even the crickets. Wrapping her arms around herself, Mila turned in a slow circle; her senses picked up on everything and nothing at once. It’s only a bunny, she told herself. And this time, she wouldn’t need Anna. She’d been practicing, and whatever waited—
Standing blatantly in front of her was a man. She could only make out his shadow from this distance, but it was… impressive.
Anna had set her up to train with weaker men, apparently. This man’s silhouette looked like he tackled bears for fun. She felt her form flicker nervously, and ducked under the water in an attempt to hide it. When she resurfaced, she expected to find the shadowed figure either gone or closer, but he looked like he hadn’t moved.
Was he even real?
“Are you lost?” Mila managed to ask. She knew if this was the man sent for her, she had to kill him, but what if he wasn’t? Healing an innocent human probably wouldn’t work out like mending the trees she’d practiced on.
“In your eyes.”
His voice sent a shock through her before she could register his words. He sounded nothing like the quavering, high-pitched men she’d dealt with for training. His voice was smooth, deep, reminding her much of the pond she currently drifted in.
And then his words… “You can’t see them from here,” Mila accused. If he could, then he definitely was the man, and she needed to strike—
He laughed once, indulging her. “Maybe not.”
Curiosity burned through her until she moved to the edge of the pond. Boldly, she demanded, “Come closer.”
While he didn’t tense in preparation for an attack, Mila worried anyway: she knew nothing about him. When he stepped into one of the rays of moonlight, she held up a hand. “Stop there,” she warned. In the beam of moonlight, she couldn’t miss the lift of his brow at her words.
Or the horns on his head. Or the fact that his looks were making her blush.
She should kill him, not study him, but she couldn’t stop her eyes from drinking him in: she rarely saw other people. The horns started above his ear and curled back around them, like a smaller version of a ram’s. His hair was black, long enough to run her hands through. Gray eyes watched her, but from a shade darker than her own. Studying the short beard and mustache along his face led to the discovery of him smiling, and it was too much.
Before she could evaluate further, she jerked her gaze away.
In the moonlight, from twenty feet away, having only perused his face, she knew he was the loveliest man she’d ever seen—and probably would ever see.
And she had to kill him.
“Why are you crying?” he asked, crouching closer to her level.
Nothing he did mattered, nothing she said would matter, but she answered him anyway. “I know what you’re here for.” Absently, she caught the next tear threatening to roll down her cheek on her index finger. When she drew her hand away, casting the tear to the side, she seized the man with her power and threw him as well.
He had no chance, just like Anna had always wanted.
Slowly, Mila climbed back onto the earth, tense to her toes as she made her way to the fallen man. Blackness encroached on her vision, something she’d never experienced before. Through the spots she found that as she’d suspected, there was no way to fix him, like she had with the trees. Blood leaked from his head.
He didn’t lift his head from the rock she’d thrown him into. Some of his blood had seeped into the soil. Finding confidence in his prone position, Mila took a step closer, until she could see every detail of the scene.
Knowing this would be her last chance to study him, Mila’s gaze started at his feet and drifted upward. He wore cloth pants like the other humans in town. His shirt had torn partway down the middle, revealing that hair covered his muscled chest. Surprisingly, she wanted to touch him: this would probably be her last encounter with a man. She had no need for training now, because…
She’d killed him. The tightening in her chest was a constant reminder of the unpleasant act. Shaking her head, Mila steeled herself to look at his face, survey the damage, deal with him, and then report to Anna.
His eyes were wide open.
Crouching like he had just moments before, Mila ignored the darkness throbbing on the edges of her vision and brushed her hand along his forehead, moving for his eyelids. This, at least, she could fix for him.
He blinked, making her falter.
With effort, his lips moved: the words, if any, came out incoherent. Mila leaned in, her nearly-white hair making a cocoon around their faces. Anna would kill her for risking getting so close to him.
She jerked back in enough time to see his eyes close, his thin lips upturned into a knowing smirk; moments later, an unwelcome blackness fell upon her gaze as well.
Mila sensed someone above her before realizing she was awake. Memories of the horned man, the woods, his death—they jumbled in her mind, making her heart hammer and her palms clench. Of course the man leaning above her would be poised to strike: she’d tried to kill him!
Hands curled into fists, Mila knew she had one chance to make the killing blow. The real one.
But like before, she couldn’t commit until she knew she had the right target. She opened her eyes and raised her fist at the same moment.
She stopped before she punched Anna in the nose. Anna tilted her head, unaware or uncaring. “You’re awake.”
“Where am I?” Mila maneuvered her way around Anna’s head as she sat up, finding herself in the familiar surroundings of the hut, complete with earthen walls and a domed ceiling leaking roots. A cursory glance told her she hadn’t been injured, though the horned man must have done something to make her pass out. Another sweep of the hut said the man hadn’t come back with her.
“What happened?” Anna asked.
Mila… had no idea. “Where did you find me?” she asked, moving for the window. The moon still shone brilliantly overhead, confusing her. Had she only been out mere minutes? She didn’t ask about the time only to avoid a snarky response about being blind from Anna.
“You were just past the pond. Why?” Anna approached her at the window, resting a hand against Mila’s shoulder blade. “Mila, what’s wrong?”
For the first time in her life, Mila didn’t know if she should tell her guardian, her best friend—her only friend—the truth. Rushing from the hut, Mila checked for an enraged, horned man charging at her. If she was awake, he had to be, too.
Rustling sounded on the right, Doll and Ghost plodding toward the pond. Mila had no time to scold Ghost for his absence: she crept around the edge of the pond, trying to find the place she had fallen.
The bloody rock told her she hadn’t imagined things, but the man was gone. His absence left her feeling dizzy, struggling to process everything that had happened. She’d flung him; he’d bled; they’d both apparently passed out. Mila pressed her hand against the rock and the ground surrounding, searching for any remnants of heat or other clues.
“You’re scaring me.”
Mila started at Anna’s voice, wondering who was really more scared in this situation. Anna moved forward so she stood in Mila’s peripheral vision.
“Let’s talk through this,” Anna said. “Last I knew, you were looking for Ghost. I found him while I was out, brought him back, and found you lying right there.” She nodded her head toward the rock.
Rolling the words around in her mouth, aware of the implications, Mila asked, “Alone?”
Anna stiffened. “Were you with someone else?”
The blood said yes, but without another pair of eyes to confirm it, Mila didn’t know. Maybe the man had tricked her. “Someone was watching me,” Mila decided. A partial truth would test out Anna’s waters before diving in.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a bunny?” Anna asked, completely serious.
That man was no bunny: Mila couldn’t even fathom going along with that joke. He’d been half a foot taller than her, his arms triple her size, and the horns sprouting from his head made him look like a predator in his home territory. How had someone so different from anything she’d seen disappeared into the night?
And without Anna hearing?
“Something bigger,” Mila continued, feeling chills running down her spine. If Anna hadn’t encountered him—and she would have definitely done something, not just dragged Mila away—then he’d woken before Mila.
And strangely, he’d left without harming her, even after she’d cracked his head on the rock.
“You were alone, unless you count me,” Anna insisted on a shrug. “I dragged you all the way back: you’re not as light as you look.”
Nervous energy sang through Mila. Laughter bubbled from her lips, unbidden and unfamiliar. She had no time to think of the trouble Anna had gone through to drag her into the hut when a man had disappeared into thin air.
She’d handed him a reason to kill her on a silver platter.
“Mila?” Anna asked after a beat.
“I’m fine,” she said automatically. The laughter had probably tipped Anna off most: she was sensitive to Mila’s normal vocal tones. Mila didn’t know what to say. What was worse, saying the man meant to kill her had lain right there and Anna had maybe almost been too late, or Mila had done her best to kill him and he’d still walked away?
Her form started slipping, but she felt like she… aged. The veins in her hands bulged, her skin dried, and a quick hand against her face found new wrinkles.
She burst into tears at the added problem.
“Did you gain new powers?” Anna asked, an odd note in her voice. Mila turned, wondering how she’d sensed Mila had gained years, not lost them. One look in Anna’s direction, though, and she had a feeling they were aware of different things.
The plants were… dying.
“No,” Mila said, to both Anna and the scene in front of her. Bending down to press her palms flat again the dead blades of grass, Mila thought of summertime, of abundance. Normally it only took a touch, not a projection, but she was desperate. No grass tickled her palm despite her efforts, forcing her to sit down and survey the damage.
Ten feet in every direction, everything had decayed and crumpled in on itself, like a year of drought had passed through in this one spot. As much as Mila wanted to blame the horned man, she would’ve noticed this sooner if it was his doing.
Maybe she had gained new powers.
“It’s okay if you did,” Anna said, misunderstanding. “I just didn’t expect to feel that.”
Mila looked to Anna’s toes curled into the ground. That’s why she’d sounded so worried: she felt it happening. Taking a deep breath instead of answering, Mila focused on getting her emotions under control. Maybe her aging had caused this problem.
While her skin smoothed out, the grass underneath her feet remained dead.
“I have no idea what happened,” Mila said honestly. Already she worked on ways to get out of the conversation. She’d come to a conclusion—one Anna wouldn’t like—that involved finding the horned man before he found her again.
That meant going into town.
“Maybe you should stick close to the house,” Anna said, completely going against Mila’s current –unvoiced—plan. “If you pass out in the middle of the woods, I’m leaving you.”
Anna knocked an elbow into her side. “I’m kidding: I’ll get one of the horses to drag you back.” A breeze swung her light brown hair into her gaze, obscuring most of her face. “Are you sure you’re okay? You’ve never passed out before.”
Mila had never met a horned man or killed someone before, either. A night of terrifying firsts. “Guess I needed a nap,” she tried to joke. She rarely slept, something that puzzled Anna.
“I warned you even immortals need rest,” Anna said. “Speaking of which, it feels like bedtime.” Mila’s mouth gaped, her eyes shooting to the moon in the middle of the sky. Anna only slept during the daylight hours, but she also ran on an internal clock, not an external one, so Mila chose not to start an argument she couldn’t win. “I’ll be in the hut if you need me.”
Watching her walk away, Mila forced herself not to panic. She had to focus on the plan, and then she could panic. When Anna was hopefully out of earshot, Mila whistled for the horses on the other side of the pond. To her surprise both came over without a second call, nuzzling into her hair.
“Where were you?” she asked Ghost, guiding his head to the side so she could stare into his left eye.
For the smallest moment, she thought she saw an answer there. Whatever connection they’d started to make disappeared when Doll started to eat at Mila’s dress. Considering Mila currently couldn’t grow plants, this was an actual hazard.
“Not you, then,” Mila said, moving so she hid behind Ghost. With what felt like a small hop she’d slid onto Ghost’s back and redirected him for the town.
No sign of the horned man on the way. As possible as it was that his body had decayed in a matter of seconds, Mila imagined he was better at being prey than she was hunter. He’d probably covered his tracks, if he’d even come this way. Mila glanced back toward the hut, hoping he and Anna didn’t stumble across each other: Mila couldn’t picture that ending well.
The edge of the woods appeared before she’d formed a proper plan. “Want to come with me?” she asked Ghost without much hope. She didn’t know how to navigate between the buildings of the town by herself, let alone with a horse in tow.
Sliding off his back, she ran her fingers underneath his chin. “Wait here, please,” she said. For the first time she doubted bringing him: he’d disappeared recently, and was more likely to do it again, leaving her to get back on her own.
Unlike Doll, he didn’t try to stop her from entering the town, so that put him back in favorable light, at least.
She remembered this part of the town from her frequent visits. The only thing missing was the trembling boy in front of her and a watchful Anna behind her. And, of course, the questions.
When she reached the spot where grass gave way to stone, she paused. Trash and forgotten items littered the ground around her. It seemed when humans were confronted with the woods, they dropped everything and ran the other way.
Mila hoped she would not feel the same need to abandon and bail, walking into the unknown town. Out of habit her feet followed the patches of moss growing between the cracks in the pavement. Her hand trailed against the damp wood buildings, noting the way they caught moss as well. She paused at the end of the street, glancing back to Ghost for reassurance.
And then, she stepped into town.
Into the homes, more likely. The familiar scent of earth receded almost immediately, replaced with something she couldn’t place: humans? Keeping to the shadows, Mila surveyed the circular area just beyond the street, and the houses lining the sides. These were made of stone, somehow, and looked a lot more durable than her hut built from mud and twigs and her power.
A man in a long shirt strode past, oblivious to her presence in the shadows. Even so, she wished she had an outfit more like his: her flower dress was practical in the woods, but strange in a world of linen. Someone huddled along the side of the path in blankets, and Mila wished she had one to cover her face.
To deflect as much undue attention as possible, Mila waited for someone she knew to walk past her spot. A redheaded boy she’d talked to earlier in the week walked briskly, an obvious destination in mind. Mila only just managed to catch the back of his arm, forcing him to slow.
“Hi,” she said to his surprised eyes. Instead of asking if he remembered her, she asked, “Have you seen a man with horns?”
His brilliant blue eyes widened further, if possible, and he said nothing. In fact, his lips pressed into a firm line, as though she’d have to torture the information out of him. When she looked around for someone else, he took the moment to slip away.
Despite the increase in her heart rate, Mila approached an older stranger next, hoping he’d have better speaking skills. “Hi,” Mila said again, pretending she didn’t see the scowl the man graced her with as he looked up from his papers. His thick eyebrows hid most of his eyes from her. She repeated her question, keeping her gaze steadily on his in hopes he’d do the same.
He rolled the papers up in his hand until they looked like a club. “What do you want with him?”
“Just to know if he exists,” Mila said. A partial truth, like what she’d told Anna before. The people in town might be hiding him; it seemed safer to admit curiosity rather than her quest in killing the horned man.
Apparently not to this man, though. One side of his mouth clenched. “And then what do you intend to do with that knowledge?” He didn’t look like anyone in charge—he was dressed in linen just like anyone else—but maybe she’d stumbled across the one man who had to ask questions for his job. Maybe he was their leader?
Though no one had walked by, Mila found herself looking around for anyone else to ask. The man took this as a sign of weakness, stepping forward.
This was Mila’s second worst nightmare: the humans hating her.
Suddenly the paper club looked like a formidable weapon. “Never mind,” Mila said, backing away from him in a hurry. But where did she go? If she fled down the street she’d entered on, she could lead them straight to her place in the woods. And if she continued down the street, who knew where she’d end up? What if he still followed her?
Retreat became the only option as he advanced far enough to block her entrance. Lifting her dress at her hips so she didn’t trip, Mila made her way down the street, listening for the man’s heavy footfalls behind her.
He stopped at a house with barrels in front. The second she felt his gaze leave she ducked into the nearest alcove, fearing more cold receptions.
Not that she could blame them.
“The crops are going to wilt,” a gruff old man said to another as they lumbered past her. She stuck her head out to follow their conversation.
“Well, very little grows in the moonlight,” the second man said.
They both made noises in the back of their throat that held no significance to her. Her gaze wandered to the sky, remembering how she’d expected to see the sun by now. Maybe the feeling wasn’t a result of her losing time during her black out, but a reality.
She huddled back into her alcove, waiting for the next conversation to eavesdrop on.
Most people talked in hushed tones, like they knew someone lie in wait. Every once in a while she caught a snippet—usually a complaining child—about it being night all the time. Most adults grumbled about the crops. Though Mila didn’t know how long she’d stayed passed out, she knew one thing: by now, the moon should have at least moved in the sky.
The feeling of dread creeping up from the base of her spine had her ready to leave.
As a last effort, Mila closed her eyes and sought out the horned man by checking the energies around her. Only humans surrounded her, unfortunately. On that scary note, Mila pushed out of her hiding place and all but sprinted to the exit she knew, sliding into the shadows again gratefully.
Another wave of relief washed over her at finding Ghost still waiting, but was quickly gone when she felt the moonlight on her like a pull.
“I think something bad happened.”
Mila only remembered feeling like this one other time: when she’d accidentally created a wall of thorns around the entirety of the woods and Anna had walked into them. Already, Mila twisted her hands around, dreading Anna’s oncoming ire. Hours ago Anna had praised her on her training; now that meant nothing.
“Did you hurt a bunny?” Anna smirked. By the time Mila made it back to the hut, she found Anna in the hut, lying on the bundle of blankets that served as her bed. Arms propping her head up, Anna stared at the ceiling in bemusement.
The fact that she couldn’t take this seriously almost made Mila feel better. Almost. “My powers aren’t right,” Mila protested.
Mila almost told her to watch as she tried to grow flowers on her dress and failed, and then remembered Anna’s lack of sight. How could she prove her powers had changed, when she didn’t even know how? “I can’t move the moon,” she decided on, checking out the window for the fiftieth time. The giant orb still hung there, mocking her now.
Slowly, Anna sat up, resting her back against the wall. “Are you sure?”
“I’m moving my arms!” Mila sounded more desperate than she meant to, crossing her hands every which way in the air. The moon didn’t budge, which she should expect after the first hundred or so failures.
Fingers drumming on her knee, Anna said nothing.
“I also… aged.” At least, that’s what she thought: she hadn’t been close enough to the pond to study her reflection.
Anna’s hands opened in a silent request. Mila obliged, dropping to her knees and leaning forward until she felt Anna’s fingers ghosting around her face. “I don’t feel anything.” Anna’s hands dropped, but the crease between her brows remained.
Cautiously, Mila placed her hands over Anna’s, drawing them back toward her. When Anna reached for her there was no issue, but when Mila guided her, sometimes Anna turned angry for reasons she wouldn’t explain. Mila placed Anna’s hands on the patch of dress above her knee, waiting for the flinch that usually happened.
When Anna didn’t react, Mila said, “I’m missing flowers in my dress. I can’t grow them back.” That was the only way she could think to show Anna; if she didn’t believe Mila…
Shaking her head, Anna pulled her hands away again, pressing them into the sides of her face. Her hands slid down, dragging her skin, making her pale eyes look even more ominous. “What happened to you? You were fine…”
Unless something had happened when she passed out. “I think it might have been the man.” Mila knew what she risked, and held her breath.
“Why would you think that?” Anna pulled her knees up, creating a divide between them whether intentional or not.
Mila had to come clean: she’d been surprised that she’d held out as long as she had, choosing to search for him instead of consulting with her guardian first. “I think I saw him.” She held her breath again, expecting Anna to start ranting.
“You would know,” Anna said firmly. “This is something else.”
For less than a second, Mila felt herself grow younger. Flames of anger returned her normal form. “I know it was him. He found me in the pond—”
“Hunters walk through here all the time, you know that.”
“—and he had that feeling you warned me about—”
Anna said over her, “That’s vague. And all men can be charming, when they want to be. I’ve told you—”
“Listen,” Mila demanded, cutting her off this time. “He had horns.” Satisfaction flowed through her when Anna didn’t immediately dismiss her newest information. Of course, if Anna had known he had horns, she could have mentioned that to help Mila identify him.
In a low voice, Anna asked, “And what did you do?”
Mila explained tossing him with a shrug of her shoulders. “Then I blacked out, and you were there, and he was gone.” She sucked her lower lip in nervously, knowing at any second Anna could start berating her for not saying something earlier.
“Then it wasn’t him.”
Opening her mouth in shock, Mila tried to process that… and couldn’t.
“Honestly, Mila,” Anna said, sliding her legs out again. “If you’d killed him, you would have all sorts of powers. You’re probably blocked from guilt at killing the wrong person.”
So many things about that struck Mila as wrong. Firstly, that she’d hit the wrong target: she’d studied him for that exact purpose and never felt that connection with a mere human before. Secondly, that whatever guilt she felt was a minor inconvenience—for an innocent person, no less—or something to set aside until a better time.
“That’s not—” One look at Anna’s resting face, and Mila knew it wouldn’t matter what she said. “Just tell me where I can find him.”
Nostrils flaring, Anna asked, “So this is what it’s all about?”
In disbelief, Mila reminded her, “The moon has been in the sky for over a day. That’s what this is about!”
“I get that you want to go into town and find him,” Anna said, though her cross tone implied otherwise. “But with your powers messed up—apparently—it’s especially not going to happen. You know it’s too risky.”
Mila knew better than to point out she’d been there less than an hour ago.
“Give it some time,” Anna said. Immediately Mila flashed back to when Anna told her to wait on finding Ghost. That had worked out well, at least. “We’ll talk about our options if it gets severe, okay?” She closed her eyes, effectively ending the conversation because Mila wouldn’t interrupt her even knowing she wasn’t asleep that quickly.
Only Anna wouldn’t find a lack of sun a severe problem.
Mila left the hut only so she could feel like she, at least, wanted to do something. Going to Anna had been her big move, so as it was, she fell onto her back, gazing up at the sky. She closed one eye and tried to knock the moon out of the sky with a swing of her head: no luck. No results with the other eye, either.
Why was this so hard? Normally the process came to her as easily as breathing. Her body tingled around the same time every night, and she knew to wave her hand, pulling the moon into position in a matter of seconds.
And now her guardian didn’t even believe her.
Mila tried everything she could think of. She rode on her horses and searched the woods for the horned man. She tried to convince a wolf to help her track the horned man—which hadn’t worked at all—and the only progress she’d made was tearing a path through the woods with her destructive powers. Despite all her efforts, she was only getting worse.
Mila lie on the ground, arms folded over her chest. Officially, she’d given up: there seemed to be no end in sight, and she wouldn’t be responsible for any more damage. Hands safely tucked away, she’d decided to stay in one spot… possibly forever.
Her other plans hadn’t worked. She couldn’t find the man on her own. Anna wasn’t going to help.
And, with the new fear that her powers of death might start taking animal and human lives, Mila couldn’t even retry the above options.
Mila watched the moon stoically. She’d never imagined she would get tired of seeing the beauty, but she felt close. Without the sun to blemish the sky, the moon just didn’t have the same hold. Like many times before, Mila focused on the sky and tried to pull the moon down, but nothing happened.
She knew better than to try waving her hands at the sky: she’d pulverized a tree last time.
Warm breath blew strands of hair into her eyes, and Mila muttered, “Go away, Doll.” Ghost nosed at her ankle, unwisely. “I could hurt both of you!”
Her protests had no effect on the curious horses.
“Are you dead?” Anna approached until she was close enough to nudge her foot into Mila’s side. At her approach, the horses backed away: at least Anna could control them.
Wary of her powers, Mila rolled away from Anna’s testing.
“Then why are you lying here?” Anna asked, taking a step back so Mila could rest comfortably on her back again. “Powers still out?”
“They’re worse.” Mila couldn’t hold back her pout. The rest of her energy went to holding off the tantrum she felt like throwing at the mess she’d found herself in. “The moon’s still here.” And if Anna was up, that probably meant two days had passed by now.
Finally, Anna’s forehead wrinkled, her first sign she believed Mila.
Curling her fingers into her skin, Mila continued, “And I’m killing plants. I…” She trailed off, her shifting form taking the words from her. She couldn’t voice her fears of hurting animals, or Anna; she tightened her grip on her chest until her skin started to break.
Anna shushed her, kneeling on the ground. Her thumb smoothed under Mila’s cheek, though tears hadn’t started yet.
“Don’t,” Mila murmured, pulling away from her grasp.
“Mila, nothing is going to happen to me,” Anna said, drawing Mila’s back. “If you were such a risk, the horses wouldn’t be around you. Besides, this is just… different. Something you have to learn to control.”
Anna sighed, drawing her hand back into her lap. Her gaze lifted unseeingly to the sky. “I hardly knew how to teach you about your former powers.” As in, she didn’t even know where to start with these.
As her resolve strengthened, Mila felt her normal age come back. Not that Anna could see it: she’d hear it, though, when Mila made her plea. “Tell me where he lives.” Surely Anna wouldn’t say no now, with everything out of balance.
Emotions swirled through Mila, too fast for her to identify. She closed her eyes, trying to gain her control before she slipped forms again.
Anna said something, but Mila drowned her out. She’d said to wait, and Mila had. How much longer was she supposed to go on like this? Maybe she needed to tell Anna more details about meeting the horned man.
Mila didn’t answer, debating how much trouble she would be in for withholding the details of her moment with the horned man for so long. But with Anna not believing her, there really hadn’t been a good time—
“Mila!” Anna repeated, but this time, her hand connected with Mila’s cheek.
She flinched hard enough to hurt her spine. Anna rarely hit her, but when she did, it was usually forceful and because Mila had really messed up. An apology rose in her throat, but Anna’s words drowned it out.
“You’re doing something.”
Mila opened her eyes to find Anna’s wide, which meant she was listening with all her might, trying to figure out the threat. Sitting up to look beyond them, Mila soon discovered what Anna had meant: everything within about twenty feet of them had disappeared.
Or at least, died. The ground consisted of only dirt, the trees were gone without a trace of their roots, and Mila knew a boulder had sat near them the last time she checked.
The only one who could have done it was her.
“See what I mean?” Mila asked, forcing herself to stand. “I’m ruining everything.” She couldn’t even fix the damage, because she’d lost that part of her power. For years she’d have to look at the emptiness, a constant reminder of this horrible time.
“You just need to learn how to control it,” Anna said. “I know you can.”
What did Anna think Mila had done the past day, sit around? Mila had tried and tried again with no different results. If anything, the powers were more out of her control than when she’d noticed something amiss.
“This is why I need to find the man,” Mila said, pacing in front of Anna’s spot on the ground.
“If he really is the cause of this,” Anna began, “talking to him might help.”
Relieved, Mila dropped to the ground, watching Anna closely. “Then tell me where I can find him. If his powers are off, too, I’m sure he’ll want to fix—”
Blood roared in Mila’s ears, and in the distance, she heard a tree fall. She knew Anna heard it too—she heard everything—but neither commented. Coincidence, probably. “Mila, his way of fixing things is going to be killing you. Is that what you want?”
If it meant getting rid of these harmful powers?
“Mila,” Anna gritted out.
“I didn’t say anything,” Mila denied. “And, there’s a chance he’s like me now, and doesn’t know how to use his powers.”
Anna turned her head away. “I doubt that.”
“Is nothing going to change your mind?” Mila asked, rising to stand again. “How much of the woods do I have to kill before you tell me where to find him?”
The planes of Anna’s face sharpened, her back straightening. “You think I haven’t told you just because I don’t believe you? Believe in you?” Mila knew what was coming and started to walk away, but Anna’s words still found her. “Are you making your powers worse on purpose?”
“No!” To her relief, nothing in the woods broke and shattered at the force of her yell.
They were both breathing loudly, waiting on the other to make the next move. “I haven’t told you because I didn’t think it mattered. It’s too late now.”
Fear felt like ice in Mila’s veins. “What?” Did she mean too late for Mila? Was she stuck like this?
“If he really is the man—”
“He is,” Mila insisted. Horns and danger and loveliness and all.
“—then he’ll be finding you, any second now.” At Mila’s silence, Anna prompted, “He found you before, didn’t he?”
Had this been Anna’s plan all along? That seemed so unlike her, not suggesting Mila charge into action. “What if he’s mad?”
“I’m sure he will be.”
Mila stomped her foot, a compromise given she couldn’t glare at Anna and get a meaning across.
“You said you wanted to see him,” Anna reminded her, a little too smugly. “Don’t lose your courage just because it’s not on your terms.”
Anger simmered at Anna’s words, but Mila didn’t say anything: she’d save her energy for the man, if Anna was right. “What are you going to do?” Last time she’d been out of earshot in the woods, unaware. Would she lie in wait this time, ready to step in if things got out of hand?
“I’ll wait in the hut,” Anna said with a shrug. “I won’t be able to tell it’s him anyway.”
Mila remembered the moment he’d fallen, still enough against the rock that she could study him. If she could restrain him for long enough again—without blacking out, especially—she could show him to Anna. Then, at least, she’d have a confirmation that he was the man.
Though Mila didn’t know how many other horned men could come after her and not be the one. “Okay,” Mila said, thoughts racing. How to restrain him, when she didn’t even understand her powers?
And what about when he undoubtedly tried to kill her?
“Yell if you need me,” Anna said. Mila hardly heard her words, staring at the palms of her hands. She heard Anna’s retreat, as well as the hut door open and shut. Slowly, Mila turned, looking at all the places a man could hide.
She didn’t feel his eyes on her yet. She might never again, if she’d really killed him.
Anna probably expected her to just sit and wait. As appealing as her pond looked, Mila had no interest in a reenactment. She’d head for the edge of town, in hopes of meeting him halfway and finding answers sooner.
Intent on following, Doll and Ghost moved closer.
“You two are safer here,” she said, raising her hand. Safer from her and the horned man.
Thankfully they didn’t follow, letting her enter the woods on her own. Branches and leaves still melted away at her touch, aiding her path and making her feel all the more destructive. Every few minutes she stopped, scanning the area around her.
So far, no horned man.
Though Anna suspected she hadn’t killed him, Mila began to wonder otherwise. Wouldn’t he have done something in those first moments of waking up, if she hadn’t killed him? Why would he wait almost two days with the moon in the sky to find her again?
Nothing added up, unless she considered him really dead.
Something moved to her left. Without concern, she listened to tiny feet approach, revealing a squirrel in her path. They made eye contact for all of two seconds before the squirrel moved on.
When the air whistled around her, she expected to see the squirrel jumping for a tree. Instead, she felt a tug on her hair. She turned, ready to scold Doll and Ghost for following, and found an arrow half sunken into the tree behind her. The flower previously wound into her hair had been speared straight through the middle.
She tried not to panic, but everything inside her screamed to run. Breathing deeply, she reached out with her senses, only aware something stood on the fringe. Almost like they knew her limits. Eyes on the arrow, Mila wondered if whoever shot had a wider range of sensing than her.
“Hello?” she called. If the person was a mile out, she couldn’t be sure they would hear her. Stepping forward cautiously, Mila tried to place the shooter within her range.
The next arrow landed before her outstretched foot.
Taking the hint, Mila took a step back. She felt cornered, and tried to find a way to reverse the situation. She could only think of one: run.
Waiting until the last minute to tense, Mila ran back the way she’d started from. Whether the shooter followed or not, she couldn’t be sure. Carefully, she started working her way to the left, intent on circling back around and cornering the archer.
Even running in circles, the shooter managed to stay out of her senses’ grasp. Every time she’d think she had them caught, one foot away from stepping into her perimeter of senses, they disappeared completely.
She couldn’t fathom why. The only thing she’d be able to tell was what they looked and felt like: she couldn’t use her powers from here. Couldn’t use her powers at all, actually, but the person didn’t know that. Mila switched to a different tactic: trying to close the gap between them, so maybe she’d get one good look in passing.
This involved a lot of stopping and turning and basically twisting over herself. Running had never been anything she spent time on, and now she felt it.
Sides aching, Mila doubled back again, hoping the shooter might not notice and run smack into her. No luck: an arrow missed her arm by inches and had her spinning back around, running another way.
She felt herded, which didn’t make any sense. The archer only had to keep shooting, and with his aim only off slightly, he could have her down in seconds. Why bother leading her somewhere?
Without thought, she found the path she’d created earlier. Though that helped her worry less about the foliage she smashed through during her run, she also realized where they were headed: the hut. The only thing waiting back there was Anna.
At the thought, Mila drew up short.
Predictably, an arrow loosed, landing underneath her poised foot. If she set her heel down, she’d feel the stem of the arrow. Instead she turned, sidestepping; her movement took her out of the path of another arrow, which led into her call quite well. “I’m not moving anywhere else until you show yourself.” The words came out strong, completely unlike how she felt.
Like before, she didn’t know that they would hear. This time, she didn’t really care.
The urge to flatten the foliage between them for a good look at the enemy rose, but she resisted. She didn’t even know if her powers would obey the thought. Besides, she’d already caused enough damage.
“Let’s just talk,” Mila said into the silence, sliding her foot forward. No arrow. A quick sweep told her the figure still stood outside her senses. She started walking forward, amused when she found the archer on retreat: so that was how to turn the tables.
Arrows clipped against her upper arms, warnings. But that was all they were: warnings. And that was all the archer ever shot.
Mila kept walking, wondering how close she could get before the archer chose to retreat instead of shoot. The distance between them felt like a strange dance, one she hadn’t asked to take part of. On that thought, Mila broke into a run.
Five arrows flew at her, forcing her to brace, but none struck. Her lungs struggled to pull in enough air, but eventually she made it to the spot she remembered the archer standing at last.
She couldn’t even sense the person anymore. They’d either decided to keep farther out of her way, or they’d left.
Mila turned, looking for clues. No footprints in the dirt: they must have gone barefoot, or known to step lightly. Counting in her head, she waited for the next arrow to try and guide her away.
Again, Mila didn’t know what to do. Continue heading toward the edge of town, hoping to intercept the horned man? She had suspicions he was the archer, but surely he wouldn’t hide like that, if he was.
Maybe she should sit and wait.
With some disappointment at not catching the shooter, Mila followed her own trail back. At the closest arrow she found, she yanked until it came free, and then studied the tip.
Rock, from the looks of it, and sharp. Everything about the arrow seemed human made: she could practically see where something rougher had worn down the wood, had shaped the arrowhead. She dropped the arrow into the grass, letting nature have it.
When she found the first arrow, though, her hands curled into fists. While the flowers making up her dress and adorning her hair hadn’t died—thankfully—she couldn’t grow any more. The archer might not know, but seeing one of her flowers pinned like that… Mila pried the arrow out of the tree, using one finger to steady the flower so it didn’t rip.
Her fingers clenched on the arrow until it snapped.
Letting the flower fall into her hand, Mila tried to arrange the petals out, like how it had sat in her hair. The huge hole ripping through half made it nearly impossible. Gently, Mila wound a strand of hair through the hole and tied a knot.
It would work until she hopefully got her powers back.
She continued on her path, wondering if she should tell Anna about the archer. Probably: what if Anna was out foraging and they happened across each other? She needed to stay to the back of the hut, at least until Mila knew if the person planned on coming back.
The second her foot touched dirt, devoid of any life, she knew she’d reached home. The empty clearing felt as she’d expected: a painful reminder.
Maybe she and Anna could plant some seeds here. She crouched, touching the dirt even though she knew better. At least things couldn’t get worse: she’d already killed everything within twenty feet. Dirt clung to her fingers, and she imagined what she would plant. Maybe berries, so Anna wouldn’t have to forage as far.
Doll’s panicked cry drew Mila out of her daze.
Doll and Ghost stood right where she’d left them: between the pond and the hut. Ghost had spooked, the back half of him cutting around a tree as he sped into darkness. Doll reared, what sounded like a scream leaving her mouth.
No injuries on her, thankfully. Mila processed this in less than a second and turned, expecting to see some predator about to pounce. Her hand rose to stop the threat, only to find the threat was waiting on her to do just that.
Firstly, she noticed the bare feet. Her gaze traveled up and took in the bow, and then the horns. The man had found her, after all, and was the archer. How he’d managed to sneak up on her, she didn’t know. His bow was trained on her, his eyes taking in her every movement. In the distance, Doll whinnied, the sound still panicked.
“It’s fine,” Mila said, glancing in Doll’s direction. With a nod of her head, she urged Doll to follow her brother out of sight. Her gaze strayed to the hut: she hoped Anna didn’t come out to investigate.
She’d let the horned man get close to her and everything she cared about. Again.
“Don’t move,” he said. Already, her neck ached from turning to watch the horses while her body faced him, but she held. “I’ll shoot.”
You already have, she wanted to say. Instead, she said, “I tried to find you.”
“Looks like I win.” His words sent a thrill through her. They’d had two conversations, and she already knew he talked differently than she and Anna. Every word was laced with confidence, every sentence perfectly delivered for the best impact, like his arrows.
She hated herself for wanting to hear more of his voice. He’d done something to her powers, chased her through the woods, yet her anger was minimal.
Frowning, Mila tried to hold onto everything bad that had happened in the past day. She had to retaliate before he did. In his orders to not move, he’d allowed her outstretched hand to remain. If she could figure out her powers…
“Don’t move,” he repeated.
What was the point, if they were just going to watch each other? Mila couldn’t discuss things half-turned on the ground like this, and he couldn’t want to help her with his arrow at the ready. Knowing the risk, she tried to copy the wry smirk he’d given her before they’d passed out last time.
He shot with deadly accuracy.
She came to consciousness without opening her eyes. Someone hovered above her: Anna? Mila’s chest ached, each breath painful. Trying not to raise suspicion, her hand crept upward, pressing into her ribs. Something wooden started to slip off her side, and her fingers trapped it.
The person above her hadn’t moved, and Mila now remembered everything. The horned man had found her, as Anna predicted, and shot her.
Her hand clutched the arrow shot at her heart.
Knowing who stood over her, Mila sat up with more force than necessary, swinging her hand with the arrow wide and raising her free arm to form a fist.
“Wait a second,” the horned man said as he wisely stepped away from her. After deciding he’d backed away far enough, Mila inspected herself for injuries. Dried blood trickled down her chest before trailing to the ground, the only sign the arrow had hit.
Face flaming, Mila realized if she could see blood, that meant she could see skin… Flowers sprouted, vines curling all the way down to her wrists, providing protection from his gaze.
Oh, how it felt to understand her powers again.
She glanced to the sky, noted the luminous sun cresting the horizon, and then returned her gaze to the horned man. He looked exactly the same from earlier. With all the pressing matters settled—the sun, her powers, covering up—she dealt with the threat at hand. “You shot me,” she accused, hand closing over where she imagined the wound would be.
“And you killed me earlier. We’re even.”
Fury sang through her veins, a welcome warmth. “Even?” she asked, sizing him up. He might look like he could tear her in half, but with her powers back, she had little interest in that. He’d never touch her.
He read her intentions before she moved. “Don’t try anything,” he warned. “We just—”
“There is no ‘we’!” Mila said, letting her temper take over. The barren earth he stood on became a startlingly green, the new sprouts snaking their way around his legs. The foliage kept going, twisting to restrain him up until his neck.
“Adorable,” the horned man said, dark gaze watching a white flower blooming on his upper arm. When his gaze turned to her, it felt icy. “Haven’t you figured out this won’t work?”
She did know they’d tried to kill each other twice to no avail, but she didn’t see the harm in trying again while she had him defenseless. “Stay there,” Mila said, spinning on the spot to search for a weapon. Should she use the arrow still clutched in her hand? Or maybe a rock off to the right?
“I’ll make myself comfortable,” the horned man said dryly.
Mila never minded being wrapped in a cocoon of foliage, but imagined being trapped did feel stifling. With that in mind she settled on the arrow in her hand, hoping to end this quickly. It’s what she would want, in his situation.
His eyes narrowed at her approach, but he showed no signs of fear. Even when she held out the arrow, directed for his neck, he kept his cool.
“Brave girl,” he praised, the attention making her feel too aware of what she intended to do. “Here, I’ll help.” He tilted his head back against the hold of the plants—which maybe wasn’t as strong as she’d suspected—and exposed his neck further. This close, she could see his Adam’s apple, hear his loud pulse against his stretched skin.
Long moments passed, and he rolled his head so he could meet her gaze. Whatever he saw there made him smile tightly. “You don’t hunt.”
It wasn’t a question, but she felt compelled to answer. “No.” She tensed her arm, prepared to give it a second try, and still couldn’t seem to puncture his neck.
“It’s bad practice to draw it out like this.” His voice was coaxing her toward something, but she didn’t know what. Before she knew it, the hand holding the arrow trembled, as though his patience, his waiting, had torn through her resolve.
The tears that always followed stung behind her eyelids. With a frustrated noise, Mila dropped the arrow and turned away. “Just go.” Though she’d been trained better, she let the vines holding him recede until he could stand on his own. Wrapping her arms around her chest, she waited for his next move only to check he didn’t rush toward the hut.
He stepped toward her.
Closing her eyes, she waited for the killing blow. Would he go for her neck, like she’d tried moments ago? Would this be the end?
His hand found her shoulder, making her tense. Through the flowers she could feel the warmth of his palm, the pressure he exerted as he turned her to face him. She opened her eyes to find he gazed down at her without the cruelty she’d expected. He seemed almost… thoughtful.
“What are these for?” he asked softly, his thumb trailing up her cheek. One of her tears had apparently slipped out while she’d awaited her death.
She tore her gaze away from his, moving out from under his hand. “I said go.” Still looking at the ground, she summoned all the conviction she could to say, “Before I change my mind and end you. Forever.”
The sound made so little sense she had to look at him again. A dimple had formed in his left cheek, his brows drawn up as his laughter faded into chuckles. “Forever,” he repeated. “How do you figure?”
Once again her gaze found the ground, her cheeks burning. So she’d had an unsuccessful streak of attempts on his life. That didn’t mean she couldn’t ever put him permanently in the ground. His doubt riled her, as did the remnants of his smile. “Last chance.” She pulled her arm back exactly how Anna had taught her and thought of all the trees she’d felled.
He hadn’t hesitated to shoot. She wouldn’t hesitate now.
“Will it make you feel better?”
It might, but why did he care? Once again she’d lost her nerve with his calm questioning, and let her arm fall back to her side. In the silence, she realized what would make her feel better: understanding why he wouldn’t leave. Was he playing with her, dragging it out like he’d advised her against? Or was he waiting for something? “What do you want?”
“To talk.” He gave a surprisingly charming smile, with the dimple included, but the force of his words sounded more like, “To learn your weaknesses.” She was not convinced, and let the arch of her eyebrow tell him so.
How strange that she could finally talk to someone that would catch her facial expressions. Immediately she felt guilty—Anna couldn’t help being blind—and wanted to be far away from him. “About what?” she asked, watching him while wanting to gaze at the hut longingly and make him take a hint. With each passing second of silence, she stepped further away from him.
“Maybe how we aren’t able to kill each other?”
Something about his words struck her the wrong way, and she felt her form flicker as she imagined sinking into the ground, away from the situation. “I don’t think there’s much to say.”
His head tilted as he took her in, which did nothing to help her shifting form. “What do you know about me?”
“I know you’re here to kill me,” she spat. That, at least, managed to bring her normal form back. She twirled a finger through her hair, catching one of the flowers to study it, avoiding his gaze. Whatever he thought about her getting younger, she didn’t want to know.
“But do you know my name?” he asked. She looked up in disbelief to find he’d taken a step closer, hands behind his back, approaching her like she was a wild animal that might bolt. He would be the wild animal about to attack, with his horns. She scowled at the thought and his approach, sliding one leg back in case she needed to run.
If he noticed, it didn’t stop his path. “Do you know my background, my powers?” Each step closer sent warnings through her body. “Don’t you want to know what I know about you?”
“We’re not friends,” she said stiffly. She might not know a lot about human interactions, but enemies probably didn’t discuss these things. Acquaintances probably didn’t, either. The idea that he had another motive allowed her to finally take a step back, officially putting her in retreat.
The crease in his cheek deepened. “Who says we can’t be?”
She found him more frustrating than she’d ever predicted. Then again, she’d thought she’d see him once and then one of them would be dead. “You killed me,” she reminded him. When that had no effect, she added, “And I killed you. There’s no way—”
“What are you so afraid of?” he interrupted. He said the words so lazily, head tilted to the side as he watched her continually avoiding him and his questions. The upward lift to his eyebrows was another annoying giveaway that he found this amusing.
How she longed to find this situation funny as well. She looked away from him, trying to figure out an answer. When Anna had asked several days ago, she’d answered honestly. Now, she shaved off the extra details. “You.”
“It’s not a compliment.”
He reached arm’s length and continued closer as though she hadn’t said anything. “I haven’t really killed you. You’ve subdued me with plants.” He smiled to himself, stepping close enough that she could see the giant muscles in his torso and arms. “So what’s so scary about me?”
“What isn’t?” she whispered, eyes finding their way to his horns.
Misreading her gaze, the horned man bent until he almost bowed to her. “Do you want to touch them?”
His question was insane, as was her urge to take him up on the offer. “I don’t see the point,” she admitted. Curling her hands into fists, she managed to keep them by her sides until he straightened, the amusement back in his gaze.
“I want to get to know you.”
“I don’t see the point in that, either,” Mila said, glaring at him through her lashes. When the smile dropped from his face she wondered if she’d pushed him too far.
“So what’s your plan?” he asked, crowding her by standing close enough that their chests were inches apart. “Keep killing me—and yourself—because you know nothing else and won’t listen to anyone else?”
Despite the irritation lacing his words, she found herself intrigued by his conviction. She glanced to him and away, her tongue rolling in her mouth as she thought of the right way to respond.
“You didn’t know we both die?” he asked, looking her over like that might explain something.
She bristled under his gaze and was glad the flowers had grown back, at least, to save her from blushing. “Killing you didn’t come with instructions.” Anna had trained her and told her what had to be done, but even she hadn’t expected this aftermath. Hesitantly, Mila asked, “Did you know?”
Given her lack of cooperation she’d expected him not to answer; she wished he hadn’t answered when he arched a brow at her. He probably thought he knew everything. “Why go through it a second time, then?” she asked.
“I told you not to move.”
He flashed his teeth at her. When she didn’t smile back, he nodded his head skyward in a real answer: one that made no sense. Mila’s brow creased as she tried to figure out the puzzle.
His gaze turned concerned as she came up with nothing. “You don’t know about that, either?”
“What?” she asked, stepping back so she could cross her arms over her chest. She didn’t have time for his games. At any moment Anna might walk out of the hut and unknowingly stumble across their standoff.
“We don’t just die together, we switch powers each time,” he said, like he talked about a simple fact. Like leaves were green, or wolves howled; when they died, they switched powers. Mila’s mind couldn’t process the words, trying to connect the meaning with the past couple of hellish days. “I thought you knew—”
“You’re crazy,” Mila decided as she interrupted him. Maybe Anna was right, and he wasn’t the right man. She struggled to find the words that would refute his claims but could think of none. All she knew was that her powers had changed with her guilt, like Anna said.
He was trying to trick her.
“Enough talking,” Mila said briskly. After a moment of hovering her hands in the air, she firmly placed them against his chest and shoved him back, toward the edge of the woods. Toward town. Far away from her. “I want you gone.”
“Oh?” he asked, not bothering to take the hint and walk away on his own. He let her struggle, fighting to move him back an inch at a time. “I’m far from done.”
When he’d moved less than a foot, Mila forced herself to step back and stop wasting her energy. “And I don’t care.” She met his gaze, staring into the dark gray of his eyes that seemed to reflect the clouded sky back at her. She tilted her chin up to show she stood firm. In reality, if he didn’t leave on his own, she really had no idea how to get rid of him.
“There’s so much you don’t—” He cut himself off, looking down at her bitterly. After a long study he jerked his gaze away. “I get it.”
She didn’t dare ask what, for fear of prolonging the conversation.
Leaning closer to her, the depth of his gaze threatened to drown her. “But know that just because I’m leaving now doesn’t mean we’re done.”
“I still have to kill you,” Mila agreed.
His hand gripped her chin, the heat searing her. “You’ve got a lot to learn,” he informed her. The words sounded more like a threat than hers had. He trailed one of his knuckles over her lips. “Think about your questions. I’ll find you tomorrow. Maybe then you’ll be more cooperative.” The look he gave her would have made her cower if his hand hadn’t frozen her in place.
The weight of his disapproval remained even after he stepped away, which made no sense. Why did it matter if her enemy was disappointed she didn’t want to talk?
Twining hair around her fingers, Mila watched him walk away into the woods, out of sight. He moved fast, reaching the edge of her senses in no time. So far, he seemed to really head toward the town.
With him gone, Mila practically ran to the hut.
“Well that didn’t take long,” Anna commented after the door to the hut hit the wall. She sat up against the wall as Mila flopped down on the floor. “So?”
Where to begin? For once Mila wished Anna had been there, simply so they could start discussing things without delay. “I didn’t get a chance to pin him down for you,” Mila said. “But that’s partly because he said we die together.”
Anna laughed, which actually warmed Mila’s heart. “What does that even mean?”
“He’s crazy.” Mila shrugged. Then she filled her guardian in on his biggest reveal about them switching powers, and how he planned on finding her again. At the end of it all she waited for Anna to laugh and give her advice. Anna’s silence made her antsy, until she pleaded, “Say something.”
“You think he’s the man you originally killed?” Anna asked, voice hesitant.
Nodding, Mila added, “I know he is.”
“And he found you,” Anna said, mostly under her breath. Louder, she said, “Without touching him, or being near him, I have no way of knowing if he’s really the man. I don’t know what to tell you.”
Exasperated, Mila said, “He really is the man. I swear.”
“And he’s saying there’s no way around you both dying?”
Mila fell silent, realizing she had very little to work off of. “We didn’t get around to that. I didn’t believe him.” Didn’t think Anna would believe him, either. How was Mila supposed to stop him from hurting the things she cared about when they couldn’t kill each other? “I can ask tomorrow, if he shows up.”
“He will,” Anna said with more conviction than she’d offered anything else in the conversation. “I can think of a few others you should ask.”
Before asking what, Mila had to sigh loudly. “Why bother? I still have to kill him, right? This is just prolonging the inevitable.”
“Mila,” Anna said gently, scrubbing her hands down her face. “I’m only human. I help you where I can, but…” She trailed off into uncertainty, so unlike her that Mila felt fear. Her form slipped, going unannounced to Anna’s sightless gaze. “You might have to play along.”
“What?” Mila squeaked.
“Not now,” Anna sighed, crawling along the floor until she could rest a hand on Mila’s knee through her dress. “I hope you didn’t act like this with him around.”
She decided against telling Anna about the few slip ups. “I don’t have any training for playing along with him!” she protested, her voice breaking. “I hardly knew how to kill him. And now you want me to stay in his presence, to listen to him?”
“We practiced talking with guys,” Anna reminded her. Her hand rubbed circles on the top of Mila’s knee, doing nothing to soothe her.
Shivering, Mila said, “You haven’t met him. You don’t get it.” Even she didn’t get it. She couldn’t explain why, but the idea of having to see him tomorrow, knowing she depended on his answers, left her feeling too vulnerable.
“I warned you he’d be charming,” Anna said, misreading her.
He was charming, but it was the threat he posed that made her skin prickle with unease. “I can’t—”
“You can,” Anna said, gripping Mila’s knee. She’d given up trying to soothe and turned demanding, nails puncturing the dress and threatening to break Mila’s skin. “And you will. You will listen to him until you find out his weaknesses and can exploit them.”
Doubt swirled through Mila.
“You won’t give anything about yourself away,” Anna added. “Because if you do, I’ve got a backup plan. And you’re going to hate it.”
Hating anything more than spending time with her enemy seemed impossible, but Mila knew Anna. She only spoke the truth, which meant whatever she’d come up with would probably bring Mila to tears.
“Okay,” she sniffed. Anna pulled her hand back but stayed close. Gradually, Mila felt her form come back.
So she couldn’t kill her enemy like she’d always trained for.
So they both died at the same time and swapped powers.
So she had to spend time with him against her will.
Everything would work out fine, or Anna would put her through something worse. With dread, Mila asked, “What are my questions for him?”
Every few seconds Mila scanned the area around her, searching to see if the man had come back. Anna couldn’t have known that’s what Mila was doing, but she laughed aloud, making Mila pause. “What’s funny?” she asked, keeping close.
Anna moved around a tree like she could see it. Her hand trailed along the bark, dropping to pat a leafy bush and stop, inspecting the roots with deft fingers. Her eyes remained fixed at the space in front of her. “You act like someone’s courting you.”
“You know, pursuing you,” Anna continued, grinning.
Puzzled, Mila said, “Well, he is.” And it wasn’t very funny to be shot at as she ran through the woods. Anna’s giggle, repressed at the last second, didn’t seem to understand that.
“Did you change your dress?”
Studying the flowers that wound all the way up to her shoulders, Mila shrugged. “Yesterday.” The new look didn’t bother her, and she didn’t feel like picking the flowers off, now that she’d lost her decaying powers. “But why do you ask?” Anna wouldn’t be able to see it, after all.
For whatever reason, Anna laughed again. “It was a joke.”
This new Anna scared Mila. She talked about things Mila didn’t understand, made jokes at things that weren’t funny. Mila wound a loop of hair around her finger, wondering if this was Anna’s way of coping, now that everything she’d trained Mila for had fallen apart.
Or at least, had been postponed.
“What if he doesn’t come?” Mila asked aloud. The moon shone bright in the sky, just like the other nights he’d found her. The only difference was Mila followed Anna like a dog would its master, like that would stop the inevitable.
“He’s a gentleman, he won’t stand you up,” Anna said. She didn’t laugh, which meant she was trying to be reassuring. Mila waited for actual words of wisdom, but they didn’t come.
Mila wound her hair to fall over her right shoulder, shielding half of her face from the woods. “Mila,” Anna said, drawing her from her thoughts. Looking up, she waited for Anna to settle her nerves with firm words. Anna nodded her head at something behind Mila.
Spinning, she expected to see the horned man. Instead, Anna breezed past her. “Honestly, if you’re going to forage with me, be useful.”
With a sigh, Mila stood further off to the side while Anna found a dark green plant and began picking berries off of it. Mila had learned long ago not to question how Anna knew which were poisonous and which were safe, but she still wondered: Anna had no concept of color. Mila moved closer, wondering if she should point out the dark hue.
“Won’t you be late?” Anna said, stopping Mila before she got too close.
Leaning forward to watch Anna’s hands work, Mila said, “He didn’t give a time.” Worried, she looked to the moon, almost hoping the sun would rise and take away her problems. “And he might not come.”
“Hiding from him won’t help.”
“I’m not going to stand in the middle of the clearing all night, either,” Mila protested. Sure, she could walk to the edge of the woods in hopes of meeting him halfway, but that hadn’t gone well either time she’d tried previously.
The bushes rustled, forcing both of them to listen. Mila relaxed first, sensing a rabbit. Anna waited to hear it move away before going back to picking. “Do you hunt?” Mila asked. She never saw Anna with injuries from such a thing, but if she stuck to smaller prey…
“You’re supposed to ask him questions, not me.” Anna’s jaw clenched tight, her cheekbones sharpening. Mila had said something wrong.
Glancing to where the bunny hid for a distraction, Mila said, “I didn’t mean… I’m sorry.”
“Go,” Anna said. Mila hesitated, wanting to apologize until she could tell that Anna felt better. “Don’t make him wait.” Anna’s hands continued, giving Mila no room to interrupt.
She backed away at first before turning and heading for the hut. Later, after she talked with the horned man, she’d apologize again. Her heels kicked into the dirt with each slow step as she prolonged the short walk.
The pond seemed to mock her. Anna probably wanted her wading in the water like some kind of offering for the man.
Folding her arms, Mila looked around. Maybe he wouldn’t even show, and then she’d feel dumb, avoiding the pond just because of him. She spotted a doe creeping forward, ears pricked in her direction. Mila didn’t move, knowing she would just scare it off.
The doe stopped at the edge of the pond, bending to lap at the water. Mila looked around, deciding if the water was good enough for the doe, it couldn’t hurt her. She waited a full minute before walking forward: as expected, the doe loped off into the night. At least that meant if the horned man was anywhere near the doe would’ve alerted her before now.
Dipping her legs into the water, Mila watched the bottom of her dress float up, the flowers resting on the surface of the water. She’d give him an hour, and then she’d carry on with her life, refusing to acknowledge him if he did show up.
Her pale reflection shone back at her like a sliver of the moon. With one swing of her legs she ruined the image, letting her focus on just the water.
Anna sometimes joked Mila should have control of the water, not the moon, for how it fascinated her. She dropped her hands to her sides, wondering how upset Anna really was. Mila had probably messed up in asking about hunting, but she never thought about what Anna couldn’t do, only what she could.
Tipping her head back, Mila let her hair tickle the backs of her arms. With each exhale she let power leak out of her, flowers sprouting beneath her fingertips. She plucked the first fully grown plant from the ground.
In her hand, the roots continued to grow, running along her palm. She smiled at the feel, plucking one delicate pink petal out. Her presence meant another petal began to grow as a replacement. She moved to the next petal, deciding she’d wait for the horned man until the entire flower grew back.
“Pretty sight.” His words made her fingers pause on the second petal. Once again he’d snuck up on her, when she’d felt sure he wouldn’t show.
Sliding the flower back into the grass, Mila placed her hands in her lap and forced herself to meet his gaze. He stood near the closest trees, but at her movement, started walking toward her. He looked the same, except he wore a tighter shirt. He’d brought his bow.
She drew her legs out from the water and under her, ready to flee if he notched an arrow.
“Don’t,” he said, slow and steady, like she sometimes spoke to her horses. With that image in her mind she felt like prey, quickly being cornered. Her eyes darted to the right, wondering how far she could make it before he inevitably shot.
“That’s far enough,” she said, eyes snapping back to his. They were a dark gray, especially in the moonlight. His irises appeared to lighten at her words, his brows lifting in amusement like when he’d first met her.
She was getting tired of everyone finding her amusing while she got stuck with confusion.
“It might be easier to talk if we’re closer,” the horned man said, looking to the pond between them.
“My hearing is excellent.” Mila smiled.
He gave a half smile, making her feel warm. How was she supposed to get answers out of him when she just wanted to blush and disappear? “Sure,” he said, which made her think of him sneaking up on her. That, at least, helped her face cool: she needed to remain wary around him. “Did you think of some questions?”
“Yes.” Mila lifted her head, feeling much more in her element. She could get the information from him, make him leave, and form a plan with Anna. “Why do we—?”
“Maybe I have questions,” he interrupted, tilting his head at her. He managed to make her feel guilty for jumping right into things, for wanting nothing more than to get back to Anna. “How about a trade?”
He hadn’t mentioned that the night before. Anna hadn’t mentioned if Mila should make deals. Mila’s hands curled into the thick grass that had grown around her, once again debating an escape. “I don’t know anything of value,” she decided, casting her gaze to the water. Without her swinging feet to interrupt, her reflection had returned.
Her cheekbones had softened in her uncertainty, but otherwise, she’d held her form: sloping nose, lips with a slight crease in the middle, pointed chin and all.
“I don’t think that’s true,” he said. She felt his gaze narrowing on her. “You know these woods.”
That wasn’t something she could teach him about, though. She frowned at him, and his lips pulled down into a firm line: maybe he understood there was no fair trade. Before he decided he was better off killing her, Mila stood.
“You don’t have to go,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. As much as he looked planted to the spot, she knew he’d followed if she left now.
“I think I do,” she said, wondering why she fought the need to apologize. “I didn’t really have questions, anyway.” Her heart hammered, wondering what she’d gotten herself into. “We can just go our separate ways.”
He smiled, even as she took a step away from him. “You think I can stay away now that I’ve found you?”
His words thrilled her before she reminded herself he probably meant he had to keep hunting her. “You said we were even,” Mila challenged, taking another step away. The muscles in his arms tensed, and she knew in her next step she’d need to run.
“Don’t make me chase you through the woods,” he said, smile gone.
“I’m not.” She bolted, pushing hair out of her face from the sudden turn. Moments ago he’d said she knew the woods, as though he didn’t, and she hoped that was true: she might have a chance. He pursued her loudly, with no attempts to hide his footfalls or the way he shoved through plants. He hadn’t resorted to arrows yet, but she wound through the tree trunks for good measure.
She steered clear of where she’d last seen Anna. Last time she’d run from the man, it had been for her life. Now she paced herself, hoping to lose him in the woods she’d grown up in.
Curses came from behind her, but she didn’t look back. Only when she heard cracking did she glance over her shoulder to see a tree tipping. She moved in time to watch the spectacular fall and feel the ground shake under her feet, dirt scattering into the air.
The silence afterward was deafening. Cautiously, she crept toward the felled tree, keeping her senses open for the horned man, who seemed to have disappeared. She looked past the tree, expecting to see him come barreling out, and realized he had few places to hide: he’d killed most of the surrounding plants in running after her.
She decided to wonder about that later. Skimming her palm along the bark of the tree, she worked her way to the point of impact. A chunk was missing, which had sent the whole thing splintering—and then crashing.
Not even the insects buzzed, perhaps stunned by the burst of noise. Mila would hear the man approaching. Trusting her senses, she placed her palm against the splintered trunk of the tree.
The inside grew first, stretching up and up until she had to crane her neck. Following soon after, the bark climbed until it reached the tall branches that had started to sprout leaves. Satisfied, Mila pulled her hands away. One half of the tree still lay on the ground—nothing she could do about that—but she felt better for giving the tree a second chance.
“Interesting.” She stilled at hearing the words that had echoed in her head moments ago. With dread, she looked over to find the horned man sitting in the branches of the felled tree like a throne, studying her.
How predictable that she’d rushed to the tree’s aid and overlooked him, falling right into his trap. Even more predictably, she could feel the tears beginning. Before she looked away she noted he still had his bow looped over his shoulder; she wouldn’t be able to dodge an arrow this close.
“Am I that ugly?” he asked.
A silly question, coming from someone with looks like his. She didn’t have to look at him to know he’d smiled with one side of his mouth, showing off the dimple. He probably meant to make her smile, but she still felt trapped, stupid for giving in so easily. The tears rolled, and she swiped at them.
Seeing his humor had failed, his voice softened. “Maybe one day I’ll be able to talk to you without making you cry.”
“It’s not because of you,” she said, thankful that her tears seemed over for the moment. “I think it’s sad you couldn’t even catch me without resorting to tricks.” She looked up, settling her gaze safely near his ear so she could still read his body.
She’d expected him to tense or lunge in anger. Instead, he smirked. “I guess you’re right.” He stretched his long arms above his head, muscles tensing, and then fell flat back onto the branches. No matter how nonthreatening he tried to look, Mila didn’t take the bait to approach. “Well, what would the winner like as her prize?” he asked to the sky.
“Winner?” she repeated softly. He had a strange concept of winning, but she went with it. “Tell me how we permanently die.”
“Hm? I can’t hear you from all the way over there.”
Doubtful, she looked from her spot near the tree trunk to his spot on the branches. Twenty feet between them, maximum. She’d known he wouldn’t answer immediately—even if he’d offered her a prize—but now he was trying to trick her. Again.
Raising her voice, Mila said, “Tell me how—”
“Are you saying something?” He placed his arms behind his head and propped himself up. “Your hearing might be good,” he said, punctuating his words with an arched brow like they’d shared some kind of joke, “but mine…” He lifted his shoulders.
Stiffly, Mila moved two steps closer.
“Maybe you don’t want a prize?” He looked her over from head to toe and let his head drop down, apparently unimpressed with what he saw.
His dismissal gave her the confidence to move close enough that if she reached out, she could touch his feet. She hoped she wouldn’t have to. As much as she wanted to sarcastically ask if she was close enough, she knew better—he’d probably answer no. “Tell me how we permanently die,” she said for hopefully the last time.
“Waste of a prize,” he said, crossing his legs at the knees.
She’d shied away at the motion and forced herself closer before he noticed. “Like you would ask for something better?”
Twisting his torso so he could see her without sitting up, he said, “I know exactly what I would ask for.” He looked to her lips unhurriedly before catching her gaze again. “And it would be worthy.”
“This is what I want,” she said. Nothing wrong with reminding him who’d won.
Sighing, he looked skyward again. “Okay. You won.” His chest expanded like he had to prepare himself. “We can’t permanently die. Not yet, anyway.”
“You’re lying,” Mila accused.
“Just because you don’t like the answer…” He sat up, his eyes hard. “I have no reason to lie to you.”
Unless he wanted her powers and needed a while to take them. Something in his gaze changed before she’d even taken a step away. Her heel hit the ground around the time his fingers caught her wrist. She flinched more from not seeing him move than his touch, though his hold was near scalding.
“I mean it.” He searched her face and said, “We are the embodiment of light and dark until the world doesn’t need us anymore. That’s the only way out.”
He looked—and sounded—sincere, but she really caved only so she could get back to Anna. “Fine,” she said. She pulled at his hold, expecting him to let her go now that he’d made his point. Instead, his grip tightened.
Unapologetic, he looked to her captured wrist and said, “So, I think I’m the winner now.”
“Is this all a game to you?” she asked, attempting to wrench her arm back. He followed the movement so she didn’t hurt herself and then tugged her forward. “Hey!” She continued to struggle, but found herself dragged to stand before his knees.
“Hi,” he grinned, again acting like they’d shared some kind of joke. She ceased her struggles only in hopes his prize would end quicker. Letting go of her wrist, his hands moved to the backs of her thighs. No pulling yet, but she imagined that would come soon.
Tucking her shoulders in and trying to make herself as small as possible, Mila prompted, “Well?”
His thumbs brushed over her skin, making his silence all the more ominous.
“What are you going to ask?” Mila demanded. She was about to jump out of her skin if he made another move this close to her. His gaze was trained on her lips, and she looked away, over his head. “I have to go—” she tried.
“Hm?” he asked. His hands had begun to scorch the backs of her legs. “I can’t hear you from all the way over there.”
Nervously, Mila pointed out, “But I’m right in front of you.”
“Try closer to my ear,” he suggested, turning to give her a view of his profile, and one of his horns. Twisting her fingers in her hand, Mila leaned forward, careful not to get any closer to him than she had to. At this distance, he could easily snap her neck, or toss her around. Not that he couldn’t do those things earlier, too.
He did nothing. With dread, she asked into his ear, “What’s your question?”
Without warning he turned, placing their faces inches apart. She knew she should fight his hands and move away, but she got distracted by his stubble as she imagined running her palms against it. And then there were his eyes, watching her with an intensity that made her warm all over. And his lips, though thin, were breathing in the same air as her; that was enough.
She leaned in until their lips actually touched. Hers remained parted, and she trailed over to his cheek and down so that when she did close her mouth, she could kiss his stubble.
“Sweet,” he praised, making his jaw grate against her lips. “Want me to return the favor?”
His words were drowned out by his head tilting away from her to kiss her throat. His breath ghosted over her neck before he kissed her left collarbone. Somehow, her brain worked past the image of him moving lower so she could say, “I thought you wanted…”
When he met the top of her flower dress, she thought he would stop. Instead, he exhaled, and they both watched the flowers wilt away, exposing the swell of her breast. “I never said,” he murmured against her skin, his tongue slipping out.
“What?” Her hands wound into his hair, but the traitors held him instead of pushing him away.
“You kissed me,” he laughed, making her shiver at the rush of air against her skin. But his pulling away to speak allowed her to think over his words.
He was saying she’d done this… on her own? Finally, her fingers curled, moving his head away from her chest. He watched her dress grow back languidly, not at all afraid of the anger she could feel sweeping through her. “How dare you,” she hissed, stepping as far away from him as she could with his hands still locked on her legs.
“Like you’re the victim,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I was just sitting here until you kissed me.”
What she’d done—hardly a kiss—and what he’d done—a lot more than a kiss—did not equal out, but she knew she couldn’t reason with him. “Let me go,” she demanded, bending to snatch at his wrists.
Practically leaning into his face, Mila had a feeling he only looked up at her eyes was because her chest was covered again. “I haven’t asked my question yet.”
“I owe you nothing.”
His eyes widened. “I was only going to ask your name, moonlight.”
Now her eyes widened at his attempt at giving her a nickname. She’d never had a nickname, not even from Anna: did she want one from this man? She didn’t correct him only because she didn’t want more of a fight. “Mila.”
“Pretty. Short for anything?”
“A flower that grows in the moonlight that you wouldn’t be able to pronounce,” she said, tilting her chin up proudly.
He laughed. “Mila it is.” Dropping his hands, he let her step back; she nearly lost her balance without his support. “I’m Ashton.”
“Is that short for anything?” she managed to mock. She should’ve just run.
“Thankfully, no.” He stood to his full height, a head taller than her. Standing in front of her, he blocked part of the moon, casting him into shadow. Anymore jokes at his expense dried in her mouth, faced with his brawn. “Can I walk you back?”
He looked stronger than her, but had he forgotten she was an immortal with powers as well? She didn’t dignify his question with a verbal response, giving him a glare that dared him to try. “Have a good life,” she said acidly, walking away before he could stop her. “I know I will.”
“I’ll give you a day’s head start, moonlight,” he called to her back. “See how far you get.”
His earlier words kept ringing through her head, but she ignored his most recent challenge. They had nothing more to offer each other except peace. Apart, they weren’t at risking for killing each other, even temporarily: this was how things had to be.
Yet she kept remembering him saying: “You think I can stay away now that I’ve found you?”
By the time Mila made it back to the hut, grumbling to herself, the sun had risen and Anna was asleep, or at least pretending to rest. Mila sat against the wall, arms folded, and tried to forget most of what had happened.
She sincerely hoped Ashton wouldn’t be back.
Shadows crept along the floor until she felt the pull of the moon. Without thought, she lifted her arm, watching as everything grew dark except for where the moonlight reached. A patch of light from the window landed on her foot, and another spot found Anna’s face. It did nothing to wake her, and so, Mila continued waiting.
The moonlight had shifted to the middle of the room when Anna rolled to her other side.
“I can hear you thinking,” Anna muttered to the wall.
“Good, you’re up,” Mila said, unpeeling herself from her spot. She’d begun to worry she would start sprouting roots if she sat there any longer. “I asked him about how we permanently die, and he answered.”
Yawning, Anna managed, “Oh?” and turned so she faced Mila.
Briefly, Mila hesitated, wondering if she’d jumped into things too soon. Deciding she’d waited long enough—all day, really—she happily informed Anna, “There’s none. Not until there’s balance between light and dark or something, anyway.”
And everything else that had happened really didn’t need to be talked about. Mila would strive to forget him entirely. Feeling lighter, Mila stood and stretched. “Now that we can’t kill each other, I’m thinking maybe he won’t come back.”
“Wait,” Anna said on an exhale. “You believed him?” She started laughing, the sound throaty from her vocal cords still waking up.
Arms in the air, Mila looked down to Anna, chuckling on the floor. “He said he had no reason to lie,” Mila said softly, lowering her arms. He’d seemed honest at the time, but then, he was confident and self-assured where she was not; it was easy to believe him.
“Except that he wants to take your powers first,” Anna argued. She sighed and Mila lowered her gaze, knowing what followed. “He’s hiding something. Is that all you talked about?”
“Basically.” Mila was glad Anna couldn’t see how her face probably pinked. Try as she might, she needed more time to get the memory of yesterday out of her head. In case Anna could sense temperature spikes, Mila took a step away.
Whether Anna noticed or not, her suspicions had been raised. “You were gone for a while. What else did you do, then?”
“Oh, well,” Mila faltered. “I, uh, ran.”
Anna’s right hand pressed into her temple like she had a headache. “Mila—” She cut herself off. “Never mind. What matters is that when you see him again, you get the truth from him. And I don’t care how.”
He’d implied he would come back, but Mila still hoped he’d see reason. “I don’t think he’ll see me again,” Mila tried, examining the ends of her hair.
“Mila, I’m not going to argue,” Anna said firmly. “You need that information.”
“Right,” Mila said automatically, knowing that’s what Anna wanted to hear. After silence had fallen, she asked, “How, exactly?”
Disappointment radiated off of Anna. “I’ve been training you for situations like this.” Mila remembered nothing about if he kissed her, but didn’t say so. “Get creative: threaten the town.” At Mila’s audible gasp, Anna amended, “Or torture him. Whatever.”
“Torture him?” Mila sputtered. “If he dies—”
“I didn’t say to kill him, though you could,” Anna said, sounding too thoughtful for Mila’s sanity. “You can cut him up a little, leave him wounded. Maybe even threaten to kill him, so he spills what he knows.”
The idea made Mila queasy. “But what do I do when he’s already told the truth?” She could only torture him and hear the same answer for so many times.
“Don’t be weak,” Anna reprimanded. “That’s a defeated mindset. You’ve got to go into this knowing you’re right and he’s wrong. He’s lying to you, trying to kill you. Do you want to die?”
“No,” she said out of habit. Anna’s accusation didn’t line up, though. If Ashton knew how to kill her, he would’ve done it, she felt. Or at least she’d be able to sense something off about him, hopefully. But would she really know? Woefully, she looked to the window.
As though she sensed Mila’s inner struggle, Anna snapped, “Mila.” Mila turned to look at her, not that Anna would know she had. “I know you. You’ll want to find an easy way out, but you can do this. Think of how far you’ve come already.” Anna allowed the brief moment of praise to sink in. “Don’t come back unless you’ve found out the truth.”
Eyes widening, Mila asked, “Are you serious?” No matter how she’d failed in her training, Anna had never gone that far.
“If that’s what it takes,” Anna said grimly.
Mila had a feeling she would end up lying to her, or coming up with some half-truth. Telling her that plan would only prolong the lecture, so she looked to the window again. At the very least, for Anna, she would try to get the information from Ashton.
Maybe he would surprise her by admitting to lying and making things easier.
“What if he doesn’t come back?” Mila blurted. “Am I allowed back home?”
Exasperated, Anna didn’t answer the second question. “You know he’s always going to find you.”
Moving one shoulder up, Anna said, “Ask him when you see him today.”
“Tonight,” Mila corrected, moving her gaze from the window. Her heart threatened to race as each second brought her closer to possibly seeing Ashton again. She tamped down the dread with slow breaths.
“Do you want any pointers?” Anna asked.
Mila didn’t want to think about what she might have to do to Ashton, let alone what Anna considered acceptable. “I think I’m good,” she said as confidently as she could.
That was unlike her—and she obviously needed the help—but Anna didn’t say anything.
“I’ll see you soon,” Mila said, mostly to steel her nerves as she headed out the hut. Anna wouldn’t really make her leave the hut forever… right? But she’d never gone back on her word before. Mila moved to pace around the pond, wondering what she should hope for. Lies? Him not even showing up?
Thankfully, Ghost and Doll moved from the other end of the pond during her pacing, giving her something else to focus on than the passing time. She greeted them both by scratching at the sides of their faces. Absently, she started to braid Doll’s mane while Ghost started nibbling at the grass and flowers she’d grown the night before.
For once when Ashton got within a mile of her, she could sense it. Her hand stilled in Doll’s mane, but she refused to run—or think of what she had to do.
“Were you waiting on me, moonlight?”
“You know my name,” she reminded him, watching Doll. Given the last time they’d met Doll had let out a warning scream, Mila had expected more of a reaction. This time, Doll’s ears pricked forward but she didn’t bolt. Neither did Ghost. “I told you not to come back.”
“I told you I couldn’t stay away.”
Slowly, she moved away from Doll, knowing she’d have to face him eventually. He’d forgone his bow for this meeting—and his shirt. Her gaze flicked away from his broad chest to his face but found his dark eyes no safer. Settling her eyes on the moon, Mila said, “If you keep coming after me, I’ll have to hurt you.”
She wanted him to run, so she didn’t have to worry about torturing him. But even she didn’t fear the threat she’d just issued: she had no intensity, no bloodlust. Only a quiet resignation that summoned up pity more than anything else.
Even looking away, she knew he’d shifted closer. “You know it won’t do any good. We can’t die.”
“I’ll count to three,” Mila decided. If only she could summon the anger she’d felt from their first few meetings and actually scare him off. “One.” When Anna counted, Mila always caved: though, Mila usually caved without counting anyway.
Ashton did not look impressed. In fact, his gaze had darkened like an approaching storm. “I thought we were friends, after yesterday.” His arms crossed over his chest.
“Two,” she said, instead of scoffing at his words.
Ashton waited for the final count.
“Two and a half,” Mila muttered.
Letting his arms fall to his sides, he strode to her, stopping way too close. “Go on.” His eyes swept over her, trying to dare the word from her lips. She wished she knew when he’d suddenly become the one in control.
He trapped her chin between his fingers. “That’s three.”
“Last chance,” she whispered. She didn’t know what she would do if he didn’t run. Only a dull hum echoed in her mind, erasing all thoughts until she only cared about how gently he held her chin, even as he challenged her.
Looking anything but, Ashton said, “I’m so scared.” He tipped her head back so she looked him in the eyes and asked, “What’s this all about?”
She’d warned him. “I want the truth about how I can kill you,” she said. Part of her wanted to add, “Even if it means you make something up.” Deep down, she had no interest in hurting him: seeing him hit the rock and bleed that first time had been enough.
“Are we back on that?” His brow furrowed. “I already told you. We can’t.”
“Everything can die,” she said, pulling out of his grasp. “You just don’t want to tell me. You’re afraid I’ll get to you first.”
Anger tightened his eyes, but he forced a loose shrug. “I have nothing else to say.”
Just as Mila had feared. Anna had suggested threatening him next. “Maybe someone in town will know,” Mila offered, letting her gaze roam.
“They won’t,” Ashton assured her, stepping into her line of vision. “Because no one does.”
She’d really run out of options now. How long did she keep drawing this out? Until she could think of a lie for Anna?
“Why do you look ready to cry?” Ashton asked.
The welling tears hadn’t bothered her until he mentioned them. Closing her eyes, Mila said, “I’m not weak.” She let the statement fuel her, and in a move that would have made Anna proud, she caught Ashton’s arm and tossed him into the pond.
He cursed, acting like she’d thrown him in a pit of snakes. “I don’t swim,” he informed her as he found his footing, able to stand well above the water. The glare he threw her said he still didn’t appreciate his position.
“That’s fine,” she said. She was using her powers to keep him sunken and powerless beneath the water, anyway, not in there for a leisurely swim. “Tell me the truth.”
The anger in his eyes felt strong enough to burn her skin. At his lack of an answer, she let the water pull him down further. Every minute he still refused to answer she pulled, until he’d had to tilt his head back to keep his chin above the water. “Tell you what,” he murmured. “You let me out, and I’ll answer.”
“Answer, or I’ll dunk you.”
Every muscle in his body tensed, and she thought for a moment she could feel his power stirring, about to fight hers and allow him out of the water. As quickly as she’d felt his determination, it fled: he sat resigned in the water.
Sighing, Mila let him out of the water, but on her own terms. She willed him up and out of the pond so that he stood before her, held by her power, droplets running down his chest. Against better judgment, her gaze tracked a lone drop racing—or caressing, from how the water hugged every dip and curve—down his abdomen.
“You’re playing a game you can’t win,” he informed her tonelessly.
His eyes held a warning. Already she feared his retaliation, and she hadn’t even drawn blood. “You promised you’d answer,” Mila reminded him.
“I don’t know of any way we can die,” Ashton said. “And that’s the truth.”
Catching his emphasis, Mila asked, “But you know someone who does?” He’d said there was no one moments ago. At his silence she walked around him, holding him in place. “I have no problem destroying the town to find out,” she offered idly. She had many problems with that, but he didn’t have to know.
“This is very unlike you.”
He hadn’t tried fighting her powers holding him in place, which puzzled her. “You don’t know me,” Mila said absently, running a finger down his spine. She had a feeling his skin would have normally jumped at her touch. “I wish you’d tell the truth.”
She closed her eyes and wished he would answer. When he didn’t, she lifted her hand, using her power and her nail to draw one long scratch down his back. Blood welled up a moment later.
“Interesting,” Ashton said softly. She was glad she didn’t have to see his face. “Every time I don’t answer I get cut, is that it?” There was no trying to escape her hold: he broke through her power to roll his shoulders, helping the blood trickle out of the wound. “Planning on sending a message?”
Her hand had frozen. She’d expected him to at least curse at her, or finally spit some half-answer out. Now she knew from his angry words that he’d retaliate, and she didn’t want to know how. Maybe she should kill him and walk away before things got worse. She’d lie to Anna and maybe—
Unfamiliar power seized her hand and she found herself tracing along his back, making new cuts. Shocked, she watched words form. An M, an I—her name. The cuts were jagged, not in her handwriting; blood leaked freely.
“Now what?” he asked, turning so she viewed his unmarred chest instead. She couldn’t think. It was one thing when she cut him up to get answers, but he’d willingly dished out his own pain. He was right: she was playing a game she couldn’t win. He was too much for her. Clutching her hands against her chest, she backed away.
He might not know her, but she definitely didn’t know him.
“Don’t leave me like this,” he muttered, his eyes catching hers and holding them. The combination of his dark gaze and his suddenly calm words had her hesitating. He took a step forward. “I was so close to telling you everything.”
Swallowing hard, Mila searched for a way out. “I’m sorry,” she breathed.
“I’ll need more than that,” he said, eyebrow arching.
Her spine went rigid: would he expect blood for blood, or would an explanation suffice? “I had no choice. If I didn’t get the information from you, I…” she shrugged, trying to keep Anna as much of a secret as possible. “I’m sorry.”
“Then why are you stopping?” His comment surprised her. “There’s still about an hour before the sun. Maybe I’ll tell you a few things.”
Shaking her head, Mila said, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“So try something else.” His gaze roamed the area around them conspiratorially. He’d freed himself from her power minutes ago, yet he made no move to leave. Truly, she didn’t understand him.
Or trust him.
Fearing a trap, Mila set one tentative hand on his chest. His flesh seared. Watching him for any hint of motion, she placed her other hand down, over his pounding heart.
“Now there’s a start,” he murmured.
She froze, expecting him to do something. When he continued to hold still, she stared at her hand on his damp chest, wondering what she was supposed to do with them. She had no interest in drawing more blood, so she let her hands slide down harmlessly, like the water drops from earlier.
Lightly, she moved so she could trace his ribs with her thumbs. His sides jumped away from her touch, but when he inhaled, she felt his skin again.
If she looked up at him, she’d lose her nerve. Even though she had no idea what she was doing, her hands strayed lower, until they rested on his sides, above where the muscle cut away and led between his legs. Reflexively, her hands clenched into his sides, restraining herself from going further. Her eyes, though, had a mind of their own.
He had nice legs. He also had a bulge between them that made her pulse soar. She knew the basics of male anatomy from Anna’s explicit teachings, but she’d never seen a naked man to know anything visually. Moments before she wisely pulled away, he said, “I could answer so many questions.”
He was baiting her; she couldn’t find the strength to care. She’d forgotten she was supposed to ask him things. “How do you find me?” The words came out breathier than she’d meant, doing nothing to help her blush that kept darkening. She still didn’t look up at him, afraid of what she’d find.
“The moonlight always shines on you.”
The conviction behind his words almost made her look up. With one answer out in the open, she asked, “Do you want to steal my powers?”
His silence made her worry, until she realized he toyed with her. “I’ll need more convincing before I confess,” he confirmed. She could imagine the wry smile twisting his lips. She wanted to smile back until she noticed her hands really had nowhere to go.
She had no experience with touching a man. While she knew the sight of him pleased her—even when she knew better—she had no idea how to make him answer with her hands on him.
Uncertainly, she grabbed his hands clenched tightly by his sides. He’d seemed drawn to her chest yesterday, and so Mila decided to see if that would work. His breathing caught when she lifted his hands; the second his palms touched her chest, the flowers withered away. Easily, his hands covered her breasts. “So pretty,” he muttered under his breath. He rolled his thumbs over her nipples, sending heat all the way to the base of her spine.
She leaned into his palms, wanting him to relieve an ache she didn’t understand. His hands found her back, pulling her flush against him. Thoughts of overheating raced through her brain. Not knowing where to settle her hands, they roamed, cupping the bulge he’d pressed along her hip.
The next thing she knew, he was tipping her head back, his lips on hers. She gasped into the kiss and his tongue slipped in, stroking over hers. Shamelessly, she pressed into him, trying to get as close as possible to him and the kiss. She wanted his hands on her, his mouth to keep kissing her, to feel more of him—
She pulled away first to breathe. Ashton traced a line of kisses down her neck. His head lowered, bringing Mila back to the present: Doll stood behind him, ears pricked in their direction. Mila wasn’t alone, and now definitely wasn’t the time for this. What if Anna found them? This was about as far from what Anna had suggested as Mila could get.
Pushing away, Mila felt off balance, uncertain. She fixed her dress and found she couldn’t look at him, so she ran.
“Don’t,” Ashton called.
Doll stood closer than Ghost, so Mila hid behind her, like that would really help. Her heart raced, and she wondered what she’d been thinking, letting it go that far. Until a month ago, she hadn’t even spoken to a man!
“I shouldn’t have done that,” Mila whispered, knowing he would hear. She hoped he would leave so she could hide in the hut and wallow in her embarrassment.
He approached, seeming to have no plans on leaving her alone. Doll shifted at his approach, but didn’t bolt. In fact, he did something that made Doll lean into him. Mila peeked over Doll’s back to see Ashton winning both horses over: Ghost nosed into his hair while Doll let him scratch her neck.
Having won their trust, Ashton had no problem stepping around Doll so that he stood in front of Mila. “Don’t run,” he said softly, reaching out for her face. His fingers ghosted over her skin, applying only enough pressure to draw her gaze to his.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Mila admitted, hating the hitch in her voice. Frustrated tears welled in her eyes.
“I don’t know what I’m doing either.” The way his gaze held hers, she believed him. “But I know I want to see you again.”
Running her thumb under her eye to try and wipe away a tear before it fell, Mila said, “I don’t know what you want from me.” Or how to handle his comments. She should threaten him, tell him this could never go anywhere, but she couldn’t.
“Nothing,” he said. He grinned, a break from the somber tone. “That’s not true. I want one more kiss, to prove we’re okay.”
She stood on her toes to oblige, though she knew better. Against all her training, she wanted them to be okay, like he’d said. His kiss was firm, but he pulled away quickly, like he didn’t want to spook her. Placing her hand behind his head, she brought him back to her level, licking at his lips.
They kissed for one more second before he released her. Slowly, her hand let go of her hold on his head and she touched her tingling lips. All of her tingled.
Brow furrowing the longer he watched her, Ashton looked perplexed at how she tried to collect her thoughts. Though she didn’t owe him an explanation, she said, “I’m feeling dizzy.” Once the words left, she realized they were true. If she moved, she had a feeling it would be to stumble and eventually fall.
“I’m flattered,” Ashton teased. His smile faded as he watched her. “Mila?”
The tingles turned to black spots on her vision and she swayed before dropping toward the ground.
Firstly, Mila felt a scraping along her back. The blood had drained from her arms, so it took her a moment to understand that someone—or something—pulled her across the ground. Her dress caught and tore, whatever it was cutting into her skin, leaving another long gash along her back.
Blinking to clear the darkness from her gaze, Mila looked to her dragging legs and then up to her captured hands. “Anna?” she asked in confusion.
Their progress stopped; Anna kept a grip on Mila’s wrists only to set her in a sitting position. “I didn’t know how long you’d be out,” she said, releasing Mila. Mila placed her hands in her lap, waiting until she felt steady enough to stand.
She stood and expected to see the hut close by—she’d met him by the pond, after all—but they were out in the thicker part of the woods. Following the trail she’d left against the ground with her eyes, Mila couldn’t find evidence of Ashton. Anna remained behind her, forcing Mila to turn. “Was I alone again?” She couldn’t remember if he’d fallen with her.
Mila waited for more. Anna stared over Mila’s head, mind seemingly elsewhere. “He left me alone?” Mila prompted. Or like last time, had he woken up first and disappeared?
“I dealt with him.”
No matter how many scenarios Mile ran through in her head, that didn’t end well. Anna couldn’t see and anticipate his attacks, and Ashton didn’t know Anna… “What do you mean?” she asked, hating how her voice hitched. She moved closer to better watch Anna’s stoic face.
With a faint smile, Anna said, “You don’t have to worry about him anymore.”
“What did you do?” Mila’s heart clenched in her chest, dread filling her. The grass underneath her feet turned to dirt, a warning, but she couldn’t stop the panic. “He said we couldn’t die. I tortured him, like you said—”
“He lied, like I said,” Anna dismissed. “I killed him quite easily.”
Lightning struck a tree not ten feet away. While Mila hardly noticed, her thoughts a constant hum, Anna flinched. “A storm?” she asked, reaching her hands out in a bid to catch rain.
“He’s probably woken up,” Mila said, trying to think. If she’d woken up, he should be doing the same. “Where did you find him?”
Anna’s hand found her shoulder. “Mila…” Shrugging her off, Mila waited, even if she wouldn’t like the answer. “You’re not going to be able to find him. He’s not going to wake up, either.” Mila exhaled and felt the beginnings of rain on her skin. Lips pressing into a thin line, Anna asked, “Did your powers change again?”
While her mind raced like she had to beat a countdown, she forced herself to think. “He said that would happen, when we kill each other. Our powers switched.” She had no time to test: she had to find him and ask what happened. She only remembered kissing…
“But if he’s dead, then you have both,” Anna pointed out, breaking Mila from her memory. “It’s just what we wanted!” She sounded more enthusiastic than Mila had ever heard, and it sickened her. Nothing about the situation felt right. Her body shook, the rain picking up, and Anna smiled. “Those are his powers, right?”
Struggling for the words to make Anna understand, Mila tried, “But he’ll have mine.”
Anna’s head tipped back, catching the rain on her face. “Except he’s dead. So you have both.” Wiping a hand down her face, Anna said, “There’s an outcropping this way. Let’s get there before the rain really picks up.”
She started walking, thinking Mila would blindly follow.
Mila had many points to protest, and the easiest one seemed to be her powers. Flexing her fingers, she looked at the ground, waiting to see the beginnings of grass. Like before when she’d died, she’d lost her powers to grow plants. All around her, everything had decayed. “He’s not dead,” Mila declared. “I don’t have both powers.”
Momentarily, Anna paused. Then she doubled back to snatch Mila’s wrist and begin pulling her deeper into the woods. “You’re still in shock. They’ll come to you.”
“Where are we going?” Mila demanded, trying to pull away and stumbling instead. She’d never seen anything remotely promising for hiding in the rain out here. As they passed the rocks that normally marked where a pack of wolves lounged, she still wondered how she’d gotten so far away.
“It’s just up here.”
Lightning struck, making Mila’s point before she’d thought to voice it. “No,” she said, finally wrenching herself free from Anna’s grasp. “I want to find Ashton.”
Rigid, Anna turned slowly, disapproval etched into her face. “I already told you—”
“Then tell me where,” she said, ready to walk back the way they’d come. The coolness accompanying the rain made her shiver and wish she could grow more flowers for coverage. If she found Ashton, she could fix this. “Anna.”
“His body or his head?”
The next chills running up her spine were not from the rain. “Both.” Or neither: she couldn’t make up her mind. She couldn’t wrap her thoughts around the idea of him being split in two, nor could she imagine him being truly gone.
In her last memories he’d been so alive.
“Mila, you’re not thinking straight,” Anna said, stepping closer, arms spread. “You’re shaken from the power shift, from his death. You’re the only one that matters now. Don’t do this to yourself: trust that I’ve taken care of it, like I’ve taken care of you.” Her head tilted, like she judged if she’d made progress in swaying Mila. “Come out of the rain.”
If Mila had created the rain from Ashton’s powers, it would only follow her. Plucking a flower from her dress, Mila held it in one palm. “Trust me,” Mila said, stepping close enough that she could take Anna’s hand and place it in hers. “This isn’t right.”
Warmth flashed through her skin, and she knew the flower had wilted: she only hoped Anna had felt it.
“Okay,” Anna finally said. “I’ll show you.”
The rain followed, as Mila had expected. Mud made the trek harder, especially on Anna. With Mila’s arm supporting Anna up against the constant slip and slide of the unstable ground, Mila followed Anna’s directions to head toward Ashton.
She marveled again at how far they’d gone. Where had Anna planned on taking her?
“How did you find me?” she asked, swiping a chunk of wet hair out of her face. Again, she wished she had her powers to create a vine to tie her hair back—or to create clearer skies.
“I followed you.”
Mila slid on her next step, thinking of everything embarrassingly inappropriate that had happened. Anna had taught her the basics about men—what it meant to be with one, how having a child worked—but not so she could pursue those options with the man she’d needed to kill. Anna would be so disappointed.
Unless she’d really killed Ashton.
“Not close enough to hear anything, but to make sure you were okay,” Anna clarified, tightening her grip on Mila’s arm before relaxing as she found steady ground. “Can’t you stop this rain?”
While she felt more at peace knowing Anna had followed to protect her, Mila couldn’t calm her inner turmoil. She had no other name for her feelings than wrongness. Whatever had happened to Ashton, she wanted—no, needed—to fix it.
Casting a glance at Anna, Mila wondered if she’d possibly upset the balance unknowingly. Would that cause Mila to feel so upset?
Anna wouldn’t handle that well. Instead of killing Ashton, they’d have to protect him, so Mila didn’t flood the world. Remembering Anna had asked a question, Mila said, “I’m not controlling it.” Nor had she thought to ask Ashton how his powers worked: did he even control the rain? He didn’t seem to like water much.
“That’d be too easy,” Anna muttered under her breath, so low Mila almost didn’t catch it. Anna’s steps slowed until she brought them to a stop. “Well, it was around here.”
Dropping her arm from Anna’s waist, Mila took a step forward and looked through the rain. Any traces of a struggle had been washed away with the rain. She didn’t see any signs of a shallow grave. As she exhaled she reached for him with her senses and found nothing.
Anna must have sensed her disappointment. “He probably returned to the earth. I told you he was gone, Mila.”
Wrapping her arms around her chest, Mila fought how to explain what she felt. He was alive: she knew that much. “And I told you, the powers are all wrong.” She glanced to the sky, noting the sun hadn’t yet risen: it probably wouldn’t until their powers switched back.
“I hoped bringing you here would make the rain stop,” Anna admitted, wringing out her hair more for drama than practicality.
Anger prickled along the backs of Mila’s arms for reasons she couldn’t understand. “The rain won’t stop until I find him.” Her gaze surveyed the area around them again, thinking maybe she’d overlooked something. Anything.
“There’s nothing to find.”
Last time, he’d disappeared into the town. Mila’s gaze roamed to where she knew the edge of the woods lay, debating the chances he’d woken and made it that far. Could he wake from a severed head? Thunder boomed across the sky, the sound rolling out.
“I’d almost think you cared about him,” Anna said, and Mila felt Anna’s suspicion like eyes on her back. “Have you forgotten your goal?”
How could Mila think of anything else, when she’d had to torture information out of him, even briefly? Every time she told Anna about a meeting, Anna reminded her he couldn’t be trusted. Even now, when Anna believed he’d perished, she had to remind Mila of the enemy.
Mila was tired of hearing it.
“This isn’t going to help,” Anna sighed. “Let’s go back to the hut. Maybe your powers will settle in.” Again she started to walk away, assuming Mila would follow.
The words left her mouth before she’d thought them through. “I’ll meet you back there.” Unknowingly, she’d switched to her instincts, which demanded she find Ashton. The only thing going back to the hut would accomplish was flooding her pond and making the town suffer eternal night.
“What will you do?” Anna puzzled. “There’s nothing here.”
Carefully, Mila said, “Some time alone, to process, might help.”
She had a feeling no matter how she’d phrased it, Anna would have reacted the same. “You’re acting like you lost a lover,” Anna accused. “What time do you need? You met him some three days ago.” She seized Mila’s wrist hard enough that Mila flinched. “You’re being childish.”
Lightning flashed a warning in the distance, the effect lost on Anna.
“You can’t deny he was the other half of me,” Mila protested. “We were light and dark, meant to balance each other out.”
“Is that what he told you?” Anna sneered. “Poetic. But you only need yourself to balance.”
Fed up, Mila couldn’t help what happened. Power rolled through her like a surge, sending some kind of shock all through her veins. Nothing happened to Anna externally, like Mila feared, but Anna must have felt something: she removed her hand. “This isn’t like you.”
Mila said nothing, letting Anna make her own conclusions. Apologies could wait until later.
“Fine,” Anna said stiffly. “If you think you know what’s best, then.” Without offering anything else—like where to find her, even though she had few places to go—Anna turned and slipped her way toward the hut. Guilt struck for a mere moment before Mila focused on walking the opposite direction: town.
Hardly anything processed except her sweeping senses and her drive to find him. The rain had turned her skin cold, numbing her. Her fingers found the moss-covered walls of the wooden buildings closest to the woods and slipped away, leaving a trail of destruction in their path. After seeing his powers in action, she tried to reach out only when she lost her balance.
Unlike the first time she’d looked for him, she didn’t fear the people in the town. She felt their gazes on her as she walked on the flat stone path between the houses. Distantly, she imagined their judgment: her torn dress, already so unlike their clothes. The way she dripped water like she’d climbed out of the pond instead of walked through the rain. In her current state they might even think her some kind of spirit.
No one hindered her progress. In fact, few people remained on the streets to stand in her way. Mostly curious eyes peered at her from under the eaves pouring off water.
She didn’t think, just walked. She’d never walked all the way through the town but took little notice until she reached a strangely tall building tucked in the back. Her senses couldn’t find Ashton within, but something compelled her to look inside, and she obeyed.
A double check of her senses told her no one was in the tower—human or animal—so she skipped knocking on the wooden front door. She stepped into darkness.
Water dripped from the wall somewhere, and a puddle quickly formed under her feet. After blinking a few times her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting and with one hand on the wall she made her way up the winding stairs.
She stopped at the landing, surveying the scene before her.
Someone lived here: she recognized the bed and table set up from the hut that she attributed to all human homes in her mind. This space looked completely different from Anna’s, with strange patterns covering most everything in sight. There were enough chairs to seat half the town as well.
Unfortunately, there was no Ashton.
Mila remained on the landing, trying to process why she’d come here of all places. Nothing about this place matched Ashton: he seemed like he would live in a hut like hers. Or at least somewhere with animal skins, or discarded arrows.
Tucking her wet hair behind her ear, Mila tapped into the energy around her. If he didn’t live here, he’d visited often, enough that his energy had pulled her in like his presence. He’d still managed to trick her, even when he’d possibly died. Mila’s smile was small and unwelcome; she exited the tower, having nothing else to look at in the room.
She refused to believe he’d disappeared. If Mila couldn’t kill him, no way Anna could; right?
Unless he’d lied. Or never known if it was possible. Mila could never really kill him because they died at the same time; could Anna have found him at the right moment and made it permanent, unaffected by the curse on them?
Shivering against the rain, Mila felt lucky she hadn’t found him. The people in town might have rushed to his aid, leaving her like Ashton: in two pieces.
How would she even heal from something like that? She had no answer, and as her mind roamed, so did her feet. The town passed by in a blur until she felt dirt. Any blades of grass she encountered wilted immediately. She’d probably reached the point where her powers got worse.
What would she do, if she couldn’t switch with Ashton?
She tried not to think, but feel. Nothing looked familiar with the overcast night sky and the damp surroundings. She thought she passed the place Anna had brought her back to, but she couldn’t be sure.
Plants died when she brushed past them. She found herself in a small clearing, absent of trees, and stopped. At first she felt nothing, and then she sensed Ashton.
Turning, her heart pounding, she expected to see him whole and sneaking up on her, as usual. A thick sheet of rain greeted her instead. She scanned all around, even in the trees, and couldn’t find him. Only when she thoroughly studied the ground did she understand: Anna had buried him.
She knew this from the pale flash of skin against the dirt.
Fear replaced the instinct previously guiding her. She didn’t want to know what he looked like, split in two; what part of him did she even look at now? She hoped she looked at his elbow, but she couldn’t be sure. Taking cautious steps forward, Mila waved her hand through the air, trying to displace the soil on top of him. Some had obviously washed away with the rain already.
Nothing happened, because her new powers wouldn’t let her catch a break, even for Ashton.
Resigned, Mila tried not to think as she went to her hands and knees and sunk into the dirt. This was, literally, for the greater good—she hoped.
“Please don’t be dead,” she muttered aloud before she started feeling around in the dirt. The mud sucked her under, making her wonder if she’d even be able to pull him out. She started at the exposed part of skin and discovered an elbow, thankfully. Following the curve of the arm, Mila felt her way up the mud until she reached a shoulder.
That, at least, seemed to be a good sign.
Maybe Anna had lied. After all, she couldn’t exactly see: she could have chopped off an arm and thought she’d done the job. Mila held that hope in her head as she pulled with all her might, upsetting her balance in the process.
The mud sunk Ashton’s body under and started to take her down as well. She fought, used both hands to grip his body this time, and kept her balance as she pulled him free.
Even with a thick coating of mud, she knew the obvious: his body was not whole.
The rain worked quickly to leave little to the imagination. Her hand gripped into his skin in fear. She knew the rain revealed the damage from top to bottom, but she only focused on the shoulders up. His spinal cord led to a skull that lacked a bottom jaw.
Almost like he’d started to regenerate.
Blackness plagued her vision to the point she thought she’d drop his body back in the mud. She didn’t know what this meant. Had Anna succeeded, or was he regenerating? More importantly, what did she do?
The numbness creeping over her senses made it easier to pull his body fully from the mud and take him to a tree that held off some of the rain. She chose not to look for his missing head, if it existed.
It wasn’t much of a choice, though, given the numbness had crept completely over her vision in the form of darkness. She had no idea what would happen, but she closed her eyes, welcoming the blankness that claimed her consciousness.
For once, Mila woke to silence. No one leaned over her, checking she still lived, and no one dragged her away into the woods. Her memory came back slowly, so that when she heard someone else breathing a millisecond slower than her, she sat up in a rush.
With his eyes closed and his head tipped back against the tree, he looked to be sleeping. The moon still shone above them, completing the scene. Mila traced a finger along the skin of his neck, finding no obvious seams. Almost like she’d never seen his skull—or that she’d imagined it. Delicately she pulled his eyelid back, revealing his dark gray iris.
“Ashton?” she whispered. No movement, not even from the eye she stared at. She only moved her hand away because she could see the steady rise and fall of his chest.
Until he woke up, there wasn’t much she could do. She took the time to study herself, grimacing at her muddied and missing flowers. A mere thought later and they’d grown back: she had her powers again. Vines crept down her arms, tickling her, while she pressed a hand against her chest and neck, searching for a wound. For some reason, she’d blacked out too.
She couldn’t feel any injuries, but didn’t dismiss someone sneaking up on her. At the thought her gaze roamed across the strangely peaceful area around them. The rain had stopped, and the ground around them, at least, had dried.
How long had they been out?
“Ashton,” Mila said again, giving his shoulder a shake. He moved, warm and pliable beneath her, but remained unconscious.
Shakily, she stood. She should leave before he woke, so she didn’t have to lie—or suffer retaliation. Unfortunately, her feet wouldn’t move. Part of her needed to see him up and living, one last time; another part of her didn’t want to see Anna.
Avoiding her guardian, the person who had raised her, was an absurd idea. But the memory of being dragged through the woods into the unknown stuck with her, as did something else: Anna had lied. About him being dead, Mila didn’t mind: Anna didn’t know how to tell these things. But lying about where she’d buried the body?
Why had it mattered?
Mila looked down at Ashton’s slumbering form and sat, knowing she wouldn’t leave until he stirred. She couldn’t leave him vulnerable in the woods: what if a predator came across him? Or a hunter?
Drawing her knees up under her chin, Mila gazed out into the distance.
She’d have to go back to Anna eventually, but hadn’t figured out what to say. Did she say she’d never found the body, and believed him dead? That would take Anna’s bloodlust out of the equation, but Mila could never prove she’d gotten his powers.
She could tell the truth, but she knew Anna would be unreceptive, even with proof. And then Anna would chastise her for staying with Ashton, knowing the threat he posed when he woke. Mila turned her head to study his relaxed, unaware face. Either Anna would insist on finding him and trying to kill him again, or she’d keep sending Mila.
In that case, Mila would lie for him. Keep him safe as long as she could, though in the end, Anna would get her way.
“You shouldn’t have come,” Mila decided softly. If he’d never found her at the pond, she wouldn’t have gone looking for him. They could have existed in different worlds—him in the town, her in the woods—and never been placed in this situation.
If she walked away now, could they go back to that?
He stirred as though in response to her thoughts. On a long exhale, his arm fell to the side, his head turning the other way. Mila unfolded from her spot and started to move around the closest tree, in case she needed to hide.
When he stilled, so did she.
After a minute of his steady breathing, she dared to come closer again. From here she couldn’t see his face, but imagined if he’d woken, he would be sitting up. Again she sat next to him, waiting, unsure what to do.
What would he think of her when he woke? Mila had no idea when he’d passed out: maybe he thought she’d woken first and hurt him. Or he might remember Anna and think the two were working together—which wasn’t untrue. As much as she worried about how to protect him from Anna’s end goals, she might need to focus on protecting herself.
Absently, Mila looked to the barren ground around him. In a matter of seconds blades of grass began to poke out, leading to longer stems of flowers. His powers made no move to counter, even when vines began to creep over him.
She watched his jaw, the only part of his face she could see with him turned away. He didn’t even twitch when vines reached his limbs and twined, holding him down.
Especially with his powers, he’d be able to break free. She only hoped in the groggy moments when he first woke, the plants would restrain him long enough that she could run. He’d proven himself a worthy enemy, and she had no interest in losing her powers again so soon.
A single pale flower bloomed from the plants covering his shoulder. Mila reached for it instinctively, and then let it be.
Out of habit she looked to the sky for the time, but knew the current moon was unreliable. Lifting her hand, Mila trailed her fingers through the air and watched the moon set. Triumph flared through her until she realized now she looked only at a completely dark sky. There would be no sun until Ashton woke.
To amuse herself, Mila brought the moon into the sky and took it away, back and forth, like a game. Imagining the people in the town watching made her giggle. How would they explain it?
She wondered if the few people that had seen her—maybe even twice now—would tell Ashton. Looking at the side of his face, she couldn’t fathom what he’d make of that. Would he think she’d gone to tear the town down, like she’d threatened?
Mila couldn’t think of a greater mess.
Sighing something, Ashton turned so he faced her. Mila stood, ready to escape, before realizing once again he only tossed and turned. The words kept coming, so she knelt, bringing her ear as close to his lips as she dared.
He fell silent.
Instinct guided her hand to his chest, his beating heart proving he still lived. Relief flooded through her, and she kept her hand there, reassuring herself.
She knew better—she really, really did—but with his horns so close, she couldn’t help herself: she touched.
They gave off no heat, which surprised her, given how warm he usually felt. Her fingers caught on the ridges and traced all the way to the tip, under his ear. Tapping the top of his horn twice, Mila watched him for any sign of acknowledgement. He’d invited her to touch them before, but she had no idea if he could actually feel them.
Passed out, he didn’t seem to mind.
She promised herself that trailing her fingers into his hair was only meant to test for a reaction, nothing more. When she left the thick locks to trace his concerned brows, she told herself the same thing. Not even his skin twitched under her hand. Again she lifted his eyelid to check the pupil and monitored his breathing.
How much longer could he really stay passed out?
His pupil gazed out at her but looked through her, a look she knew well from Anna. Mila leaned closer, studying the dark strands of gray that made up his irises. His pupil didn’t even react at her nearness, and with reluctance, she let his eye close again.
She left him alone for all of two seconds. When she ran a finger down the strong slope of his nose, Mila had to admit she’d just started entertaining herself now. Depending on how he felt when he woke up, this might be her last opportunity to remember him. She tapped his nose, checking he still remained unaware, and trailed her hand to his jaw.
Something about his stubble amused her. She ran her palm against his chin before moving lower, feeling the pulse of his jugular. Memorizing his broad shoulders came next, and then his wide chest.
There, she paused. Experimentally, she ran her hands down his sternum, checking for a reaction. His breathing remained steady, prompting Mila to move to a riskier target: his nipples. She ran a finger over one flat disc and looked to him expectantly. If he was going to wake up to something, she imagined this was it.
Nothing. She pinched until the nipple rose: no reaction.
“Are you dead?” she whispered. He didn’t answer aloud, but his breathing remained constant below her. When she listened closer, she could hear his heart.
Her fingers trailed down the indents of his abs, pausing at the beginnings of dark hair that led lower. While she debated on how far to take her study she tapped her fingers against his skin. His head turning cut her thoughts off.
Snatching her hands away, Mila stood, ready to run and hide. He exhaled raggedly and said something she didn’t catch.
“Ashton?” she asked, taking a step back. He muttered something again, his head turning toward her, though his eyes remained closed. Instinct told Mila to make her escape, if she was going to, but she found herself getting closer.
Like before, even with her ear right next to his lips, she couldn’t understand anything he said. Her hair fell around them, and she sat up, staring down at him.
His breathing stopped.
The silence felt deafening, and she pressed her ear against his chest to check. His heart still beat, but his chest had stopped moving. She had no idea what that meant, or what to do. Trailing her hands over his chest, she sought a safe place to check him, to do something. Maybe she could heal him.
Loudly, he inhaled.
“If I didn’t know better,” Mila said, glaring at him. “I would think that was for attention.”
She expected him to smile and admit defeat, but he didn’t move. Still concerned, Mila moved to sit above his hips so she could lie over his chest and listen to his heart. His head turned the other way, restless, and Mila had a feeling he would have rolled without the plants holding him down.
His arms strained first, and then she felt his chest tense as he fought the hold of the plants. He had to be waking up. Bracing against his chest to help herself stand up and leave, Mila froze when she heard him say, “Damn.”
Considering he’d muttered a few things without waking up, she didn’t think much of it. When she looked up, she saw his gray eyes, half-lidded, watching her.
She immediately blushed. When she tried to get up a second time, his hand found her: he’d had no difficulty in breaking through the plants, which didn’t bode well for her escape. “Stay,” Ashton muttered, closing his eyes. “We can talk.”
“I can talk without… sitting like this.” Talking on top of him was actually the miracle, with his warm hand shackling her and his appealing body underneath her.
He grinned, showing off the dimple she hadn’t been able to study. “This is nice, though.” He removed his hand, trusting her to stay, and placed it underneath his head. He opened his eyes and quirked his eyebrow at the plants otherwise covering him. “This, though…”
“Precaution,” Mila whispered.
“You think I’d hurt you?” Some emotion flickered in his eyes, quickly covered up. He contemplated the plants holding his other arm down and after deliberation left them alone. “What happened?”
After all her time to think, Mila hadn’t come up with the best answer: she probably should have spent less time studying him. “I don’t know,” she evaded, attempting to slip off of him before he started to piece things together.
“Not so fast,” he drawled, moving his hand to rest on her thigh and steady her. Uneasy, she shifted, hoping that would be enough to move his hand. She only succeeded in moving against his abs and making him lift his brow further. “Lower would work even better.”
Instead of continuing her shifting—which had been working her dangerously lower—she went completely still. He exhaled a laugh and looked over her face. “Are you okay?”
“Are you?” she asked, voice unusually thin.
His free hand cupped her cheek, no doubt waiting for the tears that seemed to follow him. “What did you see?” he asked, rubbing his thumb soothingly over her skin.
As much as she wanted to lean into his hand, she remained frozen in place. “I don’t know.”
The brief tick in his jaw said he knew there was more than that, but he didn’t push her. “I saw you fall,” Ashton said, watching her for a reaction. “I caught you before you hit the ground. Not long after, I was out, too.” He perused her torso. “Were you injured earlier?”
Her head turned in remembrance of the scratches along her back, but those had come later. “I don’t know why I fainted,” she said with a shrug. “Maybe it was your kiss.”
“Let’s test it, then.” He grinned again, though his head fell back to look at the sky. She knew his confusion without being able to see his face. “It’s still night?”
“I don’t know how to control the sun.” Mila expected him to raise his hand and correct the situation immediately, but he kept a hold on her. When he seemed unconcerned with the night plaguing the town, Mila asked, “Aren’t you going to do something?”
His fingers tapped against her leg in time with his words. “I don’t want you to wilt.”
She laughed at the idea before she could stop herself. Then, remembering the town, she pressed, “Won’t the humans be confused?”
“They can stand a little more moonlight.” His hand moved up to grip the hem of her dress. She expected him to push it back further to reveal her thighs, but he only caught one of the flowers. “These are the moonflowers you’re named after, aren’t they?”
“Probably.” They’d gotten off topic enough, and Mila no longer felt comfortable with his scrutiny. “I have to go.”
He tilted his head to study her; the movement made his eyes narrow. “Why do I feel like I slept wrong?”
Innocently, Mila said, “Well, you did spend the night with a tree for a pillow.”
“Who’s fault is that?” he asked. “If I’d picked, you would have been my pillow.” His fingers trailed up her arms, drawing her forward. They circled over her shoulder blades and skated down her back. She tensed too late: he ghosted over the scratches on her back.
They felt scabbed, nearly healed, but Ashton stopped like he’d touched bone.
She held her breath, hoping he wouldn’t say anything. But of course, his gaze hardened, and he tried to turn her around. When she resisted he broke his other arm free from the plants and spun her around in earnest. At another time she might’ve blushed at the new position; now she thought only of not moving under his studious gaze.
“You should’ve healed,” Ashton murmured, almost to himself. “How long have you been awake?”
The question is how long were you out?, she wanted to correct. Wisely, she withheld her words, leaning away from his hands. “It’s nothing. Injuries from moving your lazy self.” When his hands stilled she realized she’d said the wrong thing.
When he joked everything was fine, but it never worked for her.
“Where are we?” he asked. His muscles moved underneath her as he looked around them. With ease he turned her to face him again. “What happened?”
The genuine concern on his face told her everything: he would never hurt her, no matter how she answered. She also knew that she would keep hurting him, so long as she remained in his life. “Don’t make me answer.” In earnest, she fought his hold.
“Did I do that?” he asked, finally releasing her at the idea he’d caused the pain to her back. Why the scratches meant more to him than the time he’d shot her in the heart, she didn’t know.
Wondering why she hadn’t done so sooner, she grew flowers to cover her back, so that he couldn’t keep focusing on the scabs. “It wasn’t you,” she assured. She wished she hadn’t, because she was trying to convince him to stay away, in the end. “I believe you. I know we can’t kill each other.”
“But?” Ashton asked. He freed himself from the plants holding his legs down and stood, folding his arms over his chest.
“We can’t keep doing this.” She looked away, wondering if she was supposed to disappear before he could get in another word. With her luck, he’d just follow her.
“What?” he challenged, stepping closer. “You rubbing on me while I regenerate?” At her wide eyes he tipped his head up. “Yeah, I was conscious.” He took another step forward, looking like he would reach for her at any moment. “Or do you mean yesterday’s kiss?”
Stepping away from his reaching hand, Mila hissed, “All of it.”
“You want me to listen to you, when you haven’t even told me what happened?” he asked, disbelief clear in his voice.
Mila wouldn’t give herself or Anna away, but she spoke as sincerely as she could. “Bad things are happening when you show up.” Some of the regenerations were her fault, but she pinned them on him for now. “If you keep finding me, you’re going to get hurt.”
He’d listened calmly until the last bit. “Are you threatening me?”
“No!” She took a step back, afraid he’d advance on her. When he didn’t, she explained, “I just have a bad feeling.” That, at least, was true. They couldn’t continue as they were, or Ashton would end up in the ground more than not.
“You want things like before.” His words sounded like a challenge, like he already knew the answer and didn’t like it.
Hoping this would make him leave, Mila agreed.
“We are two halves of a whole,” Ashton said. “I thought you understood that.” Mila looked away, not wanting to lie, and he took the opportunity to clasp her hand in his. “And you just want to walk away?”
“You’re not safe.”
He looked ready to laugh, but schooled his expression into something more serious. “If that’s what you’re worried about—”
“I’m not safe.”
That, at least, seemed to hit him. Mila couldn’t tell the whole truth, so she decided to bend it a little. “Hunters came by,” she said, looking out into the woods to avoid his prying gaze. “They hurt my back. I think they would’ve done worse, if I hadn’t hidden us.” The words felt like tree bark on her tongue, but she wouldn’t take them back.
“Do you remember what they looked like?”
She faced him in shock. He was serious: his jaw was set, his eyes determined. If she made up someone’s looks, he would hunt them down. “Stop.” She pulled her hand from his. “This has to stop. We’re in danger when we spend time together.” Taking a breath, she added, “And this way, we shouldn’t have problems with our powers.”
Silence met her words, and from the look on his face, she expected him to argue and rant until she caved into seeing him again. To her surprise, he said, “Okay.”
“Really?” she asked without thinking.
He leaned in for what she assumed would be their last kiss. Closing her eyes, she prepared herself to memorize the feel of his lips, the way he made her blood rush. His breath ghosted over her parted lips and she waited.
“When you’re ready to tell me what happened that scared you,” he said, lips less than an inch from hers, “let me know.” Without a single touch, he pulled away from her personal space and stepped around her, heading for the town.
“You can’t see me again,” Mila told his retreating back once she’d recovered. She couldn’t tell if his words were an agreement or not.
He offered her nothing else—not a promise, acknowledgement, or curse—which left her insides feeling like the cold mud at the bottom of her pond. She knew not seeing him was for the best: they’d both be able to live this way. Her heart was not as easily convinced, every beat making her feel wretched for not explaining things, for lying and turning him so cold toward her.
The only thing that told her he wasn’t completely freezing her out was when the sun rose well after she’d made it to the hut.
Even when she’d obviously hurt him, he didn’t want to hurt her.
Mila had no idea what to tell Anna, so it worked out that the hut was empty when she reached it. The rising sun meant nothing to Anna’s internal clock, so Mila paced the inside, walking circles around the table until she grew tired and sat in the lone chair.
With Ashton, the answer had been obvious: she had to protect him, even from herself. In getting Ashton out of the picture, Mila had protected Anna from retaliation.
Now she had to figure out how best to stop Anna’s pursuit.
Footsteps crunched through grass on the other side of the cutout that served as a window, and Mila looked out to find Anna approaching. “I thought I heard you come back,” Anna said without turning her head as she passed.
Mila turned in the chair she occupied by the window to face Anna as she came in. Her woven basket was full of roots and berries; she placed them down on the table. Out of habit Mila moved out of the chair, thinking maybe Anna wanted to sit or otherwise have the space. Anna remained at the end of the table, seeming intent to sort the basket contents while standing.
She also seemed to have nothing else to say.
“I think he’s gone,” Mila said, testing the waters. Anna didn’t look mad, but she could show her true feelings in a matter of seconds.
Sorting the berries into a pile on the table, Anna didn’t immediately offer her thoughts. When Mila said nothing else, Anna said, “You were gone for a while.” Steel edged her voice, the threat of something worse if Mila didn’t answer correctly.
“I passed out,” she admitted. “How long—?” She caught herself before finishing the question and fell silent.
That, at least, got Anna’s attention. Her hands paused in their progress and her head turned. “How is that possible, if he’s gone?” Anna’s eyes narrowed; her hands stopped moving. “Did someone from the town come after you?”
“I don’t know,” Mila said honestly, rubbing the side of her arm. “But I have my powers back.” She waited for Anna to cut in. “Things can be like they were, before.” As hard as she tried to enthuse happiness into her tone, her efforts fell short. The wry smile she managed didn’t help.
“I doubt that,” Anna said with an uncharacteristic snort. Mila shrunk over to the wall, unsure what Anna meant. “You have his powers now, don’t you?”
She’d forgotten that part of the lie in her consideration. “Not yet,” she said evasively. This, she knew, would upset Anna. “I think they’re taking a while to come in.” Feeling the light on her back, Mila rushed, “I can control the sun.”
The storm brewing in Anna subsided. “Well, that’s a start.”
Silently, Mila exhaled in relief. Her back leaned into the wall for support. At least she’d chosen something Anna didn’t really have a way of testing.
“How do you feel, knowing it’s over?” Anna asked, smiling. She’d gone back to sorting the berries. One rolled off the table. Mila plucked it up from the floor and set it down in the pile with the others. To Anna, it was like nothing had happened.
Mila wanted to answer truthfully and say she felt terrible about lying to the only two people she had any interactions with. She wanted to say Anna’s satisfaction felt wrong: Ashton didn’t want to hurt Mila. From the way he looked at her, she knew that, and it made Anna’s contempt harder to stomach.
No point trying to reason with her now, though. “I don’t really know where to go from here,” Mila admitted. “That’s all I was trained for.”
“We’ll have to work on your new powers, of course,” Anna said, tucking her hair behind her ear.
“What then?” Mila asked.
Anna’s light gaze pinned her, made her feel like a child. “Don’t sulk,” she chided. “We’ll tackle one thing at a time.” She brushed her hands off above the table and headed for her bed in the corner. “And we’ll start tomorrow.”
Mila accepted the dismissal so she could be alone with her thoughts. Normally she stayed inside with Anna during the sunny hours, but now she ventured out, stopping short of the pond.
What did she have to look forward to now? Anna might be excited about training, but she didn’t have to lie or come up with excuses. Mila could never see Ashton again, a blessing and a curse. With him supposedly dead, she’d have no reason to patrol the woods or ask to scope out the town.
Besides, even if she managed to trick Anna, training wouldn’t take years. Anna couldn’t admit it, but Mila could: she had nothing anymore.
For the first time since seeing Ashton reform she wondered if she’d made a mistake. If she’d tried harder to kill him—and succeeded—she wouldn’t have to lie about the powers. She would hold the balance to the world inside her, and wouldn’t that make life more exciting?
“Doesn’t matter,” Mila told her reflection in the water. She was a faint outline against the bottom of the pond, thanks to the sun beaming down.
She whistled low, waiting for Doll and Ghost to come keep her company. At least she didn’t have to lie to them. When Doll nudged into her back, Mila turned and started undoing the braids in her mane from earlier.
“I hope you didn’t like him, because he’s gone forever,” Mila informed the both of them. Their ears twitched toward her and then away, to the woods. Mila listened, but whatever they’d heard was small, none of her concern. For one brief moment she’d hoped to hear Ashton coming through the woods.
Selfish. Her hands clenched in Doll’s mane for long seconds before she eased. “I’m doing the right thing,” she told Doll in explanation. Doll’s inky black eye blinked at her in response.
Mila knew she’d read into it, imagined it, but Doll seemed to be asking, “Are you?”
“I’m trying.” The words came out as a whisper. She didn’t mind that doing the right thing involved a lot of obstacles and trials: she just wished she could get some sign that in the end, she’d chosen correctly. That her sacrifice would be noted.
When night came, Anna’s enthusiasm for training Mila hadn’t diminished. “Have you tried using them at all?” Anna asked, clasping her hands behind her back.
They stood in a clearing not far from the hut. “They’re still missing,” Mila lied. “I should probably wait—”
“And get weak?” Anna scoffed.
“There’s not exactly a threat,” Mila muttered. As expected, Anna came closer to place a hand on Mila’s shoulder. Not in a reassuring way, but in a grip that meant Anna would lead and Mila would follow—without complaint.
“What about whoever got you earlier?” Anna asked. “And the people that will come after you for your powers?”
But I can’t die, Mila wanted to say. Grudgingly, she managed, “Okay. Where do we start?”
“His powers should be the opposite of yours,” Anna said, patting Mila’s shoulder once before moving away to pace. “You’ve already got the sun under control.” Mila’s gaze flicked to the moon on instinct. “I believe he’s got better control of the weather. We’ll start there.”
Unless Anna wanted clear skies, there wasn’t much Mila could do. “Maybe we should start on something a little easier,” she said, winding a strand of hair around her finger.
“Everyone has to start somewhere.” Anna gestured at the space around them. “Try visualizing a rainstorm. See if you can isolate it to us.”
Creating a rainstorm was one thing: containing it was another. Mila had a feeling she could summon clouds and pull down the rain if needed—she’d always been good with water—but she didn’t want to waste all her tricks.
So Anna would feel the displacement of air, Mila moved her hands above her head. She felt the urge to chant and bit her lips to stop herself from laughing.
“Focus,” Anna said.
Mila examined her nails for a minute until she could safely say, “I don’t feel anything. I think it’s too soon.”
“Then we’ll try something else.”
In reality Anna didn’t even know the full extent of Ashton’s powers: they could try many things and still never have Mila fully trained. Mila didn’t voice the futility of the exercises, though, staring blankly into space after Anna commanded—or, guided—her to calling the animals around them closer.
“Maybe he lures them with food,” Mila suggested when nothing happened. She tucked the idea into her brain for when she had to trick Anna. She could only whistle for Doll and Ghost and count them toward her animal friend powers so many times before Anna got suspicious.
“Don’t be dumb,” Anna snapped. Mila knew she’d expected faster results. The only reason Mila didn’t burst into tears from Anna’s disappointment was because there was nothing she could do, anyway.
The fact that Anna could fuss all she wanted and for once Mila only felt detachment was satisfying.
Things didn’t get any better, no matter what Anna tried. Mila couldn’t wilt flowers or catch anything on fire, which Anna seemed to think was one of Ashton’s powers. At this point Mila imagined Anna had become desperate.
“It’s too soon,” Mila said in the silence between them. “I should have waited.”
Anna shook her head. “I don’t know what we’re doing wrong. Right after you woke, you created a storm: you have to have his powers by now.” Her index finger rubbed against her lips while she thought.
“Maybe I was in shock,” Mila said. When Anna didn’t answer Mila remained silent, knowing better than to keep contributing. She’d back herself into a hole soon. She was surprised Anna hadn’t asked how Mila seemed to know so much. “I’ll keep practicing,” Mila said, trying to end their session for the day.
Given she had nothing else to occupy her time, she meant it. Whether she would make progress, though…
“You’re right, it’s late,” Anna said. The hair hanging in her face made her look defeated. They fell into step to walk the short distance back together. “Do you think archery is one of his powers, or a skill he picked up?”
Knowing she risked Anna’s ire, Mila asked, “How did you know he was an archer?”
“Didn’t you tell me he shot you?”
Tracing a hand over her chest, Mila said, “Yeah.” She’d forgotten, but Anna would never believe that. “I think he learned it.”
“We should try that tomorrow, just in case.” Mila knew better than to disagree. The hut came into sight, as did a pile of white to the left. At first Mila thought she looked at Doll, but the shape was all wrong. Anna kept walking, but Mila strayed.
“Everything okay?” Anna asked.
Mila started walking in a new direction so Anna wouldn’t think anything wrong. “I was just going to keep practicing,” she lied. If Anna could see, she would’ve noticed the pile of white and wanted to investigate too. As it was, Mila studied the pile of what looked like flowers by herself.
“Don’t tire yourself out.” Anna headed away, none the wiser.
At least flowers weren’t a dangerous thing to hide from Anna: Mila had enough secrets already. She moved closer to the pile, expecting something to jump out at any minute. Her senses told her nothing lurked: even Doll and Ghost had left the area. Mila plucked a scrap of parchment from the top of the pile.
Immediately, Mila dropped the paper and looked around in earnest for a threat. Someone had come this close to their hut, knowing where they lived, to deliver these. As much as Mila wanted to believe Anna had obtained a secret admirer, she knew better. She also knew enough to piece together who these must be from.
The only other person who would pick the moonflowers she was so fond of was Anna, and they’d been together all day. That left Ashton.
Mila looked over the note again, wondering what that meant. A reminder that he still lived, that he could find her if he wanted to? With his powers, she would expect a pile of dead flowers. Where had he found so many, anyway?
Better yet, what was Mila supposed to do with them?
With her luck, Anna would haplessly step into the pile if Mila didn’t move it. She rolled the note into a tiny tube and tied it into a strand of her hair, like she did most of her flowers. There wasn’t anywhere else she could safely hide it, and she didn’t want to destroy the message yet.
Armful by armful she moved the flowers to scatter around her pond, some even falling in. This way, if Anna happened across them, Mila could say she’d grown a couple—hundred—on accident. She didn’t worry about the flowers on the bottom of the pile, knowing they’d scatter or otherwise give Anna no reason to pause.
When she’d finished, the night stood too still around her. Something was missing.
Wrapping her arms around herself, Mila looked out into the trees, waiting. If Ashton planned on making an appearance, this would be the time.
Apparently true to his word, he never showed, making his flower delivery more puzzling.
For the first time in her life, the night didn’t hold the same appeal. Her pond was plain, the trees strangers, the woods so quiet she was stuck within her own thoughts. Unwilling to feel like an outcast in her home, Mila returned to the hut to stare blankly at the ceiling until Anna woke.
“Are you sure you practiced?” Anna said. Her tone made it sound like she’d asked fifty times before.
“His powers are so different from mine,” Mila explained. At the beginning of the session she’d included dramatics—raising her voice, whining about how hard she tried—and now she’d given up. Mila almost wanted the lie to fail so she could come clean and stop practicing for something that would never happen.
With a shake of her head, Anna said, “It’s been two days. Something should have happened by now.” Tilting her head at the woods, Anna asked, “Do you think it’s because you passed out a second time?”
“What are you suggesting?” Mila didn’t have to fake raising her voice for this one. “Are you going to kill me?”
Anna turned so her eyes bored into her. “It’s only temporary, Mila,” she said. Mila wanted to protest—Anna would never know how it felt, as a mortal—but held her tongue. “And no, I don’t want to risk making things worse.”
Trying to turn things into a positive, Mila pointed out, “I still have my powers.”
“But you need both.” Anna smacked the side of her hand into her palm. “You can’t properly balance the world without both. We’ll fall to chaos if we don’t control this in time.”
If this were a real scenario, Mila would start crying right about now. Good thing Ashton still had his powers: Mila would have hated this pressure, and potentially failed the world. She let a sliver of fear slip in so her voice sounded choked when she said, “I’m trying.”
“I know,” Anna soothed at the sound of her tone. “I’m trying, too.” Her mouth opened and closed, letting silence fall.
“What?” Mila asked when Anna didn’t move from her spot.
Tilting her head, Anna said, “I thought I heard something.”
A sweep of Mila’s senses provided nothing out of the ordinary, which she told Anna. Anna was unconvinced. “Do you want to go look?” Mila asked. Anything to get out of the training session.
“Only because it’s near the hut,” Anna allowed.
At that, Mila actually felt her first inkling of worry. If a hunter happened upon them, she didn’t know what would happen. When she walked into town they generally avoided her, but out here, where they came to hunt? They might look at her as fair game.
Anna picked each step against the ground carefully, feeling for anything that might give her away. Mila lifted the hem of her dress to better follow behind her, wondering why they needed to sneak up on their own home. The question remained when they broke through the trees and Mila found no one in sight.
“There’s no one,” Mila said when Anna didn’t relax her guard.
“I could have sworn—” Anna stopped, turning her head. “It was your horse,” she said, sounding appalled at either the sound she’d heard or being tricked. Doll plodded out from the trees not moments later, as though summoned.
Whistling for Doll to walk over, Mila asked, “What did you think?”
“I can’t explain it,” Anna said stiffly. “Is it Doll? Does she look okay?”
Unsure what Anna had imagined, Mila ran a hand along Doll’s neck as she approached. “She’s fine.” Maybe Anna had heard a predator sneaking up, or Doll trampling over some small animal, which happened occasionally. Doll nuzzled into her hair and Mila added, “And friendly.”
Anna’s lips set into a line. “Something’s still not right.”
“I don’t sense anything,” Mila said softly, gently guiding Doll’s head away after being bumped into. She hoped Anna would get the point: if Mila, with her immortal senses, couldn’t find anything, the woods were probably empty.
Though she’d been wrong before… her hand found the note tied in her hair and played with it, wondering if Ashton lurked on the edges of her senses.
“We’re done for now,” Anna decided. Without another word she turned for the hut.
Mila hadn’t planned on following, but Doll’s next nudge to her back ensured she didn’t. “What’s your problem?” Mila asked, reaching to Doll’s neck to keep her balance.
Something golden glinted between Doll’s long teeth. Mila didn’t know how she’d missed it before, but her stomach turned to lead. “Spit it out,” Mila demanded, pointing her finger at the ground. “That’s not food, whatever it is.” When Doll didn’t move, Mila sighed, “Look, I don’t want you to get sick. Please.”
Doll adjusted her hold on the gold object instead of letting it go.
“Fine,” Mila said, unsure why she’d thought she could reason with a horse in the first place. Grabbing as much of the object as she could, Mila started leaning back, trying to tug it free. “I said drop—”
Doll let go like all she’d wanted was for Mila to take ownership.
“—it,” Mila finished on an exhale. Throwing Doll a withering glare, Mila walked to the pond to rinse the horse saliva off her hand and the piece of gold. She’d never seen anything like it, but had memories of Anna telling her about something similar. A bracelet, maybe?
The gold felt warm to the touch, completely smooth and circular. There were etchings on the inside she couldn’t quite make out. Cautiously, Mila stuck her hand into the bracelet, waiting to see if her hand would fall off from some trap. Nothing happened, and she turned her wrist around, watching the shadows in the gold dance.
Eyes narrowed, Mila asked Doll, “Where did you find this?”
Doll didn’t answer. While it was possible Doll had cornered a lost person from town and stolen their jewelry, she imagined someone who already knew Doll had stopped by, knowing it would get back to Mila. Flowers swirled on the surface of her pond, disturbing the reflection of her studying the bracelet.
Another present from Ashton. Another secret from Anna.
Mila knew something would have to change, and soon. Anna’s frustration at their lack of progress after a week was palpable: if Mila didn’t know better, she’d think the darkening sky was Anna’s doing.
The bracelet started to slip down her arm and Mila pushed it back to just above her elbow, where she felt Anna wouldn’t find it. Her collection of gifts had grown over the past few days, but thankfully not in terms of more jewelry. Ashton had left her a carving of a stag, which she’d dragged deep into the woods. The note accompanying it had been tucked into her hair.
Everything else he’d sent was smaller, trinkets from town, she assumed. A pretty gem, some kind of elaborate doll, and a piece of cloth that Doll had nearly eaten. Every item had found a place with the stag statue. All of them were topped with notes, the most recent of which repeated the words he’d last said to her.
“When you’re ready to tell me what happened that scared you, let me know.”
“Are you paying attention?” Anna asked, interrupting Mila’s thoughts.
She hadn’t paid attention since day one. Yesterday they’d worked on creating fire with absolutely no progress. Today they were back to weather, which Mila thought she’d luck out on, with the approaching cloud.
“There’s a cloud,” Mila said with false enthusiasm. “I’m trying to send it this way.”
This appeased Anna for the moment.
Mila knew she hadn’t created the cloud, simply because she could envision the process. Siphoning water from the area around her, binding it together, mixing the air around… she’d done none of that. Anna didn’t need to know that, though.
While Anna allowed her to concentrate, Mila looked down at the bracelet again. The gold always felt warm, alive. Mila looked up to the trees around them, wondering if Ashton was somewhere near. He usually dropped the gifts off while Mila and Anna went to train. Whether he knew it or not, that made getting the gifts more difficult.
Unfortunately, she had no way to tell him so.
Running her finger along the band of gold, Mila wondered when he would give up. She hadn’t sent him anything or responded to his notes. For all he knew, she hadn’t received any of them.
Except she knew the feeling of eyes on her, and she knew he watched. Whether from the trees or from the cusp of her senses, he was there. Aware of her. That’s how he got away with giving her gifts so close to the hut.
“Well?” Anna prompted.
“Nothing yet.” She kept expecting Anna to hear Ashton in the process of leaving a gift one time, but so far he’d kept his distance. Probably for the best.
Loudly, Anna sighed and stalked to where she’d set the bow and arrows down on the ground. “Don’t waste any more time. Let’s try shooting.”
When she’d suggested it the first time Mila had thought it was a joke. Obviously Ashton had learned his archery skills through time, like how Mila had learned to swim. Every day after training Anna had whittled, until Mila realized she was serious.
Serious enough to place the bow in her hands. “Uh,” Mila said, accepting an arrow into her other hand.
“Well if it’s part of his powers, you don’t have it,” Anna muttered as she stepped behind Mila. The gold band seemed to heat and glow on Mila’s arm, about to give her away at any second. Thankfully, Anna’s grip went to the bow, holding it upright. “Hands here.”
Anna repositioned her with surprising efficiency. Mila had to ask: “You shoot?” Mila wondered why Anna didn’t still hunt with a bow: her hearing was good enough.
“I learned when I was little.”
In the rough timeline Mila had created, that meant Anna’s eyesight had faded sometime after birth, unlike what Mila originally thought. Again her curiosity got the best of her. “Before you were blind?”
Anna’s grip on the bow became nonexistent, making Mila tense so she didn’t drop everything. “I wish you’d let me try to heal them,” Mila said, watching Anna’s face.
Truthfully, Mila had little experience with healing. She’d practiced on the injured creatures in the woods until Anna had told her to stop messing with the circle of life. Occasionally she healed a bad scrape for Anna, but she’d never gone near her eyes.
“Focus,” Anna barked, making Mila jump. Anna’s hand corrected with a new intensity, straightening and tightening and aiming. “We’re here to train you, not me.”
“Sorry.” Mila meant it. Anna was so sensitive about her eyesight, even when Mila only wanted to help. Trying to get back in her good graces, Mila pulled an arrow back like Anna had demonstrated and asked, “Like this?”
Removing her hands, Anna gave a curt nod. “Shoot.”
Mila knew even if she asked Anna for a target they wouldn’t find one. She let the arrow sail into a tree trunk, hearing the thwack when it hit.
“Did you aim?” Anna asked.
“There’s nothing to aim at,” Mila said. After a moment she realized she might need to explain to Anna. “We’re standing in a clearing full of trees. There isn’t—”
“You can’t just let the arrow fly,” Anna said, moving one of Mila’s hands into position again. “I don’t care if it’s a tree, but you’ve got to look at something. How else will you know if you have his skills?”
With ease, Mila admitted, “I don’t.” The dark cloud had come closer, and she asked, “Want to switch back to trying to bring rain?”
“One more shot,” Anna said, stepping back. “And try.”
Mila aimed high, at where she could see a pinecone hanging from the tall branches. She waited for her body to tell her when she’d hit the right position, but there was no previous knowledge to work from. Appropriately, the arrow fell short, missing even the trunk of the tree.
Lowering her arm, Mila repeated, “I don’t.”
“That’s fine,” Anna said, though it obviously wasn’t. “We’ll just try again later.” She took the bow from Mila and set it on the ground, staring out at nothing like the world had personally affronted her.
Knowing the risk, Mila asked, “What’s wrong?”
Anna shook her head. Mila breathed a sigh of relief, but that was too easy: “We’re nowhere near where we should be in your training.” Anna kept shaking her head. “I’m starting to think something’s not right. You should have at least one thing by now.”
Lightning flashed in the distance, giving Mila hope. “It took years to learn my normal powers,” Mila offered.
“That’s the other thing,” Anna said, turning to face Mila. “You’re completely unconcerned with not having his powers. Do you not want to balance the world?”
Normally when she asked questions like that, it was to break Mila down until she pleaded that she was with Anna all the way. Now, the question sounded like there was a right and wrong answer. Unsure what to make of that, Mila said, “I just know getting upset won’t help.”
“I’ve tried to teach you that for years, and you learn now?” Anna asked. Her head tilted to the sky.
“Well, what do you think is wrong?” Mila asked cautiously.
She expected Anna to say Mila wasn’t applying herself, or that she’d done something wrong with the powers. She didn’t expect her to say: “Maybe he’s not dead.”
Dread washed through Mila’s veins like ice. “You took off his head,” she choked out. “And I couldn’t find him.” Her thoughts circled for the right words to make Anna drop the subject. “And, he hasn’t found me this whole time. Wouldn’t he, if he were alive?”
“That’s what I don’t get,” Anna agreed. “But I’ve felt…”
They frequently stopped their training sessions when Anna’s paranoia peaked and she had to go check by the pond. Given that’s where either gifts or Doll waited, she probably was hearing Ashton’s comings and goings. Mila didn’t know why she hadn’t made the connection, but it made it easier to claim Mila hadn’t sensed Ashton.
“I feel like we’re being watched,” Anna continued. Her sightless gaze dropped to the trees like she’d pin the lurker to them. “And I can’t think of who else would do it.”
“Someone alive?” Mila offered. “A hunter?”
Ignoring her, Anna said, “Maybe he was right, and you can’t die. Or there’s a specific way to do it. Maybe I only slowed him down.”
“But we haven’t seen him,” Mila cut in, sounding desperate.
“What doesn’t add up,” Anna continued, “is that you don’t have his powers.” Mila started to protest but Anna talked over her. “If he were dead, you would be swamped with them and having no problems with this training.”
Grasping at any excuse, Mila said, “I went into shock the first time I killed him, maybe my powers are in shock now, right?”
With a firm shake of her head, Anna said, “No, I don’t think he’s dead. That’s why—”
A raindrop fell, landing directly on Anna’s forehead. Mila looked up to the sky and exhaled heavily. That had been a close one. “You still think so?” Mila asked when the rain started coming down steadily, making them both damp.
“This is a good start,” Anna agreed grudgingly. “Let’s get out of the rain.” In a mischievous tone, Anna sked, “Unless you can make it stop?”
“One trick per day.” Mila picked up the bow and arrows and followed Anna’s quick steps to the hut. No present in sight, thankfully. As such, Mila saw no need to stay out in the rain and followed Anna inside.
She stood far enough from the window to see out without the rain hitting her. Finally, it seemed she’d found Ashton’s limit: a week of gifts, and he’d gotten the message.
An ache formed in her chest, surprising her. She’d expected to feel relief that hiding his gifts was over, that she didn’t have to worry about Anna accidentally finding them. But no, she selfishly wanted proof that he still thought about her like she thought about him.
She combed her fingers through her hair, stopping at the notes. One of them was damp enough that the ink had probably bled. She let her hair fall down her back and watched the rain, grateful again for the timing.
In the far shadows, something moved. Mila craned her neck, expecting to see Doll winding through the trees, looking for shelter. Instead she saw a man.
Her heart tripped, and she knew it was Ashton. He didn’t come any closer, didn’t put down any presents, but he stood there, long enough that she knew it was on purpose. He wanted her to know he was there.
A call to action swelled within her. She wanted to tell him to run, because she might not be able to protect him any longer. She couldn’t do so without tipping Anna off, so she settled against the wall in resignation. He stood there a moment longer before turning and walking toward where the rain obscured his path.
Moments later she felt like cursing at herself. She should’ve told him to stop bringing gifts and risking himself. One look at Anna, and Mila could tell she’d heard or sensed something: Anna sat up against the wall, head tilted.
Mila was wrong: Ashton had left her a gift, despite the rain. Under her bare feet, grass blades tickled her skin, and possibly Anna’s. An inch beyond their toes, the earth around them had been drained of all life, obviously by Ashton.
Now she knew exactly where he’d been yesterday: listening in. He knew she needed a way to fake his powers.
Her plan was going to be pulling a flower out of her hair and crushing the petals. Asking Anna to step onto dirt and touch barren trees would work a lot better. “Where do you want to start?” Mila asked, eager for once.
“See if you can call back the rain,” Anna said.
Mila hid her disappointment. “Won’t that mean we have to go back to the hut, though?”
“You have to test yourself on what you know,” Anna said, her hand hitting her palm. “You’ve made rain before, now make it again. Repetition.”
Swallowing back her protests, Mila took her time studying the sky. Not a single cloud in sight, she saw no way of faking this one. Trying to actually create rain would take much too long, especially when she didn’t know if it would work or not. “I don’t feel a connection,” Mila said.
She did, long enough that she started wondering if she needed to ask to train for something else herself. Thankfully, Anna’s sigh—disapproving as it was—told her enough time had passed. “It’s so strange your powers are so spotty,” she said. “I just think—”
“Give me another test,” Mila demanded, not wanting to go back to yesterday’s too real accusations of Ashton being alive.
“If you could show me you know how to use any of his powers I’d be happy,” Anna said.
Gladly, Mila closed her eyes, ready to put on the theatrics. She let her hands sift aimlessly through the air, careful not to accidentally grow something all the while. Finally, she gripped Anna’s hand and pulled her forward, onto the dirt. “I think I did it.”
Anna’s feet splayed as she felt the immediate difference. Where Mila stepped grass blades already poked through, so Mila was careful to guide Anna in the other direction. “The trees died, too.”
“This is a good sign,” Anna acknowledged. “How did you do it?”
“Normally I feel my energy flow out,” Mila said, which was true enough. “So this time, I just drew it… in.” Anna nodded like she’d actually needed that information, like she might test herself one day. With that in mind, Mila asked, “Why?”
Anna didn’t answer immediately. “It could help with the other missing powers.”
Or Mila could wait until Ashton left traces of his power so she could keep the lie going. Her mind wandered as Anna investigated Mila’s handiwork. Would Ashton be able to start a fire for her? Coax an animal into following her around for a day?
“What else do you have?” Anna asked, clapping her hands together.
“One trick per day,” Mila tried, taking her words from yesterday. Except yesterday she’d had the rain to drive Anna off. Today, there was only a clear sky and a lot of time before them. “I’m kind of tired…”
Exasperated, Anna threw her hands out. “Is a hunter chasing you going to care if you’re tired?”
Mila knew the answer but refused to voice it. “I don’t feel any of the other powers yet,” she said truthfully. “But Doll has been all over me, so maybe I’m closer with animals,” she tried.
Anna waved her last comment away. “Doll doesn’t count. Has to be wild animals.”
Sweeping the area with her senses, Mila wondered if she could convince the bunny some fifty feet away to join them in the clearing. If she could sneak away and pick it up…
“Do you hear that?” Anna asked.
“It’s a bunny,” Mila revealed glumly. Of course she couldn’t get away with sneaking an animal over: Anna’s hearing was too good.
Holding up a hand, Anna said, “Not that.”
Mila only heard the normal sounds, like insects and humming and the bunny nibbling nearby. Careful not to step too loudly, Mila turned on the spot, trying to find what Anna heard. She didn’t sense anything, but they’d been in this exact situation before.
Ashton had probably come to visit.
“It’s never anything,” Mila said, trying to shift Anna’s attention. “Remember? We go back and it’s empty.”
“I can’t explain it,” Anna said. “But I know someone’s there.” Shaking her head, Anna said, “You’re right, we should focus. Envision your energy flowing in as you bring a storm toward us.” Mila obeyed if only for the subject change.
Ashton had finally gone too far. Some kind of giant cat sat outside the hut, watching her with open interest. Not in a hungry way, but still predatory.
“I only needed a bunny,” Mila hissed into the air, knowing Ashton would hear her. He had to be somewhere. With unease, Mila approached the giant cat—from the tufted ears and ringed tail she imagined cougar, but she’d never seen one so close. “Are you friendly?”
The cougar leaned back from her hand but remained seated. She sincerely hoped it wouldn’t attack.
Movement on her left made her turn to see Ashton standing off in the distance, like the last time. Except this time, she didn’t have Anna holding her back. With a quick glance at the cougar, Mila gathered her dress in her hands and started forward. As much as he helped, she had to tell him to stop, before he got in trouble.
Anna’s voice made her freeze, torn between the two people she’d lied to. She didn’t want Ashton to know about Anna in case he turned on her, but she needed to tell him to leave, also. Anna couldn’t know that Ashton was still alive, period. Despite how much she wanted to warn Ashton away, she forced herself to turn around and face Anna.
“Are you ready to train?” Anna asked. If she’d noticed the cougar prowling behind Mila, she didn’t say anything. Mila cast another wary glance to the cougar, wondering if she could introduce it before Anna heard it.
“Lead the way,” she said, trailing behind to keep an eye on the cat. The cougar moved with easy grace, big paws absorbing any sound it made, but just in case, Mila stomped on every twig she could find. She was so absorbed in making sure the cougar didn’t make noise and didn’t attack that she paid little attention to where they walked.
Only when she recognized a patch of aspen trees—unlike the pine trees they normally went to—did Mila pause. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“I was hoping you could tell me.” Anna’s voice was too stern to mean she’d simply gotten lost: she had something to show Mila. Mila wondered how to dismiss the cougar, as obviously they wouldn’t be training. She tried waving the cougar away to no avail. When she looked up, Anna stood in front of the stag statue Ashton had gifted her.
Along with all the other trinkets sprinkled on the ground around it.
Anna said, running a light hand over the horns of the stag. “What’s all this?”
Mila didn’t panic immediately, because she still thought she could explain her way out if it. “Looks like someone left it here,” she said innocently, stepping closer. “Maybe someone brought it here from the town.”
“Here, though?” Anna asked, bending to pick up the gem. “This is so close to the hut.” She weighed the gem in her palm. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t understand humans,” Mila dismissed. “They probably saw us, got scared, and dropped everything.” Anna’s hand lingered on the statue, the one that made Mila’s claim hardest to sell. “Maybe that’s what you’ve been hearing,” Mila said, hoping she wasn’t getting too close to the truth.
Nodding, Anna looked like she bought it. “I have sensed someone around here.”
Silence fell while Anna thought and Mila bounced on her toes nervously. The cougar sat not far away, watching her.
“Should we go train?” Mila asked. She didn’t want to push and seem suspicious, but the longer they stood here, the more her nerves frayed. She should’ve taken the time to move the gifts further out of Anna’s way.
Of course she would be the one to blow the secret, not Ashton, who kept standing not a hundred feet from them.
“I thought this would be enough.”
Thinking of training, Mila said, “Did you want to use these for target practice?”
Anna turned to face her. The tight lines of her face darkened the mood like the sky darkened at night. “Why have you been lying?”
Mila’s pulse sounded loud in her ears as she fought to push past the rising panic. “I don’t know what you mean.” The notes in her hair suddenly seemed extra condemning, and she wound her hair to her shoulder furthest from Anna.
“I know you come out here,” Anna said. Her lips lifted like they thought of smiling and gave up, making a half-snarl. “These are your things.”
Mila couldn’t see a way out—Anna had exceptional hearing and rarely lied, after all—and so she said, “Yes.”
Nodding, Anna looked unsurprised. “So you’ve been going into town?”
“No!” Mila said before she could stop herself. Slowly but surely, she felt like she had weeks ago: a huge disappointment to Anna. How had she thought she could pull off lying? Already she wanted to cave and say she’d gone nowhere near the town, like Anna asked.
Except that opened another question—”Where did this stuff come from, Mila?”—so Mila backtracked. “Yes!”
“Which is it?” Anna snapped.
“Just once,” Mila decided.
Sweeping her hand, Anna asked, “And you bought all of this and carried it here. In one go.”
Mila had a feeling she should say no, but she’d boxed herself in. “Yes.”
Now Mila knew to say nothing. She turned to see if she could dismiss the cougar in the moment of silence and found the animal had already run off, probably after they’d raised their voices. If only she could flee as well.
Placing her hands over her face and speaking through them, Anna asked, “Why did you get these things?”
“I thought they would be good for target practice.”
“Okay, I can’t keep doing this,” Anna said, dragging her hands down her face. The skin below her eyes pulled away, revealing shiny red muscle that made her foggy eyes pop crazily. “Drop the story, the excuses. What are you hiding?”
Mila tried to think her way out of the situation, and short of running away, came up with nothing. “I’m not,” she said desperately, backing away.
To stop her escape, Anna gripped her arm and held. “You have none of his powers,” Anna accused. If the cougar had stayed, this would have been a great introduction time. “And these things are showing up here, when you’re not going into town.”
“Just say it,” Mila said softly. No matter how many excuses she made, Anna wouldn’t be satisfied. Best to know what she’d come up with and control the damage from there.
“That man isn’t dead, and you’re covering for him.” Lip curling in disgust, Anna dropped her arm. “Or maybe you’re even seeing him.”
Mila didn’t have to lie for the last one. “I’m not.” She’d planned on telling him to stop giving gifts—which she apparently should’ve done a while ago—until Anna interrupted, but that could hardly count. “He’s been gone. I told you.”
“If you can prove your powers to me, I’ll believe that.” Anna folded her hands together in front of her body, waiting expectantly.
Mila looked for the cougar, now long gone. While she could try the flower trick, she knew it wouldn’t be enough. She’d have to control the weather, archery, and whatever else Anna came up with. Nothing would be enough.
“That’s what I thought,” Anna said coolly. “So the question is: Why have you been lying to me?”
“I didn’t know,” Mila said, placing a hand over her racing heart. “I thought you killed him.”
Anna’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Did you? You never really applied yourself to training. Is that why?”
Digging her fingers into her dress, Mila said, “No. I tried—”
“So he’s alive, he’s either been leaving you things or you’ve been meeting him here, and you’ve lied during your training. Am I missing anything?” Anna had never sounded so stern, and Mila actually feared what she might do for punishment.
“I lied to protect you,” Mila whispered. “I didn’t want you hurt.”
She’d expected Anna to bristle, but calm some: Mila always did stupid things to protect her. This time, Anna’s anger grew even further. “Mila,” she snapped. Mila’s back tensed, but her answer didn’t change, forcing Anna to continue. “What does he give you that I don’t?” Anna asked, crossing her arms over her chest. She looked like she wanted a serious answer.
“Don’t,” Mila breathed. “It’s not like that.”
Inclining her head, Anna said, “It has to be like something. Otherwise, why would you choose him over me?”
“I’m here with you,” Mila protested.
“Physically,” Anna more or less agreed, waving her hand in Mila’s direction. “But mentally?” Her hand fell to her side. “You haven’t been with me for a while. When did he start to mean so much to you?”
Swallowing past the lump in her throat, Mila reminded her, “I grew up knowing I’d have to kill him—”
“Spare me,” Anna bit out. “You’ve been protecting him, lying for him, meeting him behind my back.” Looking away, Anna asked, “What haven’t you two done?”
Desperately, Mila insisted, “I was protecting you.”
“Protecting me would’ve meant telling the truth,” Anna said, hands curling to form fists. “Protecting me would’ve meant killing him when I couldn’t.” Mila started to protest she didn’t know how, but Anna pressed on. “He’s turned you to his side, just like I feared.”
“That’s not true,” Mila whispered. Anna had started Mila’s training with males to avoid situations like that, sure, but Ashton was genuine, not as cruelly manipulative as Anna had thought. “I told him to stay away. I’m still with you.”
Shaking her head once, Anna folded her arms. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“How many times do I have to repeat myself?”
“You don’t.” Anna rolled her shoulders back. “Are you going to make me guess, or tell the truth?”
Pushing strands of hair out of her face, Mila didn’t immediately answer. She had a feeling she knew what Anna wanted to hear, but Mila had kept her in the dark in several areas. She wouldn’t condemn herself if she didn’t have to.
Anna exhaled through her nose. “Like that, is it?”
Wind blew through the clearing, and Mila wished they were in the other area, practicing. Anything other than this interrogation. Straightening her back, Mila prepared herself for whatever Anna would ask: she’d known deep down the secrets wouldn’t last forever.
She just hoped Anna wouldn’t be too mad.
“Has he kissed you?”
Mila looked away, rolling her tongue over her teeth while she thought of the answer.
“I don’t enjoy asking,” Anna assured her. A reminder that she’d given Mila the chance to come clean without the awkward questions.
This wouldn’t be easy on either of them. “I don’t see how it matters,” Mila said, settling her arms over her chest. “It’s not like his kisses emit poison.”
“Well you would know, wouldn’t you?”
The words stung more than Mila had anticipated. “It’s none of your concern—”
Anna laughed, cutting her off. “Do you remember anything I say about him? About how he’ll try to charm you? Of course I’m concerned. He doesn’t kiss as some weird way of saying hello: this is how he’s brainwashing you.”
“Brainwashing me?” Mila’s head snapped back as though Anna had struck her. “I told him not to see me again. I walked away.”
“Not far enough,” Anna said darkly. “How else has he manipulated you? Has he sucked on your tits? Has he—?”
For the first time this week, Mila felt her form slipping. Hands on her enflamed cheeks, Mila begged, “Anna, please.” The ends of her hair drew up, the planes of her face softening and rounding out under her fingers.
Like she’d said nothing, Anna pressed, “—gone lower? Had sex with you?”
“No!” Mila gasped out.
“How can I trust you?” Anna asked, lifting one shoulder sadly. “Am I supposed to check your virginity myself?”
Mila’s arms clenched tight around her ribcage. “You wouldn’t.” The fear at Anna doing just that gave way to anger, sharpening her features and allowing her to stand at full height again. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. It won’t affect my powers.” In all of their training, that had never been one of Anna’s warnings.
Laughter escaped Anna’s lips, high and cruel. Mila wanted to sink into the ground, even knowing she still wouldn’t be safe. “You are light,” Anna stated, walking a slow circle around her. “Pure. Did you think that was just for show? It’s meant to apply to all of you.”
Refusing to believe her, Mila protested, “Then that would mean Ashton is impure, that he had to have sex or he couldn’t use his powers.” Anna’s shrug was unnerving, but Mila pressed on. “And if you expect me to take on his powers, I’d have to lose my virginity, anyway.” If she’d known Anna believed Mila’s powers stemmed from her purity, she could’ve used that as an excuse for not understanding Ashton’s powers.
Too bad they’d missed that opportunity a long time ago.
“That’s why he’s been seducing you,” Anna said, walking around Mila. “He’s trying to coax the purity out of you. To take your powers away.”
“That’s not a thing,” Mila whispered. But how could she know?
Turning her gaze away, Anna said, “I’m so glad I can’t see the look on your face right now. You’re lucky you got away before it got worse, and that your impure thoughts haven’t condemned you.”
“I don’t believe you.” Except, Mila did. She just didn’t understand why Anna had never said anything before. A few raindrops fell, and Mila looked to the foreboding sky above them. She didn’t think it was her doing, but how much did she really know?
“Why don’t you try it, then?” Anna asked softly. A drop of water hit her eyebrow as she took a calculated step forward. “Why don’t you ride his cock—?”
Clasping her hands over her ears, Mila said, “Anna, please!”
“Don’t pretend you haven’t thought about it,” she snarled. “If you’re so sure nothing will happen, that he’s worth it, then… go. Do it.” She stepped to the side, as though giving Mila permission to go and try right this moment. “Or you can fight your attraction to him before he succeeds in ruining you.”
Tears ran down her cheeks. The grass blades around her lengthened into thorns, biting into the skin of Anna’s feet. Anna merely flattened her lips in response to the pinpricks of pain.
“You’re no good to me like this.” Anna closed her eyes. “Get over your lust for him, and then we’ll look at our options.”
Ashton cared past sex, and Mila didn’t know how to make Anna see that. “He’s not—”
“Either realize he’s manipulating you into what he wants and you need to kill him, or go let him rut you like some kind of animal.” Turning on her heel, Anna snapped, “Make a choice.”
Mila hadn’t thought she could move after Anna’s cruel words, but she could: before Anna walked away, Mila fled. She pulled at the bracelet on her arm, wanting nothing to do with it; it dropped to the ground. She ran through the trees blindly, ignoring the steadily increasing raindrops. Everything crashed in her brain like thunder: Anna’s disapproval, her horrible words, her unbending will—
Her shoulder glanced against something. She thought she’d bumped into a tree until she realized the tree was reaching for her; hands grasped her upper arms, steadying her.
Through wet lashes, Mila made out Ashton’s blurry, concerned face. “Not you,” she gasped, trying to back out of his hold.
“I need to be alone,” Mila said, shoving her hands against his arms. This was exactly what Anna had probably imagined: Mila running straight into his arms to prove her right. Mila wanted to get as far away from the image as possible, and that meant running from Ashton. Now.
His arms locked, ignoring her words. “Tell me why you’re crying and I’ll think about it.” His lazy tone didn’t fool her: she felt the intensity of his gaze, knew he searched for signs of injury.
“It’s the rain.” Blinking the tears out of her vision, she said, “Didn’t I say I didn’t want to see you?”
“The deal is void if you’re upset.”
“The deal?” Mila echoed. He had some nerve—
He leaned until his back hit a tree, making himself comfortable. “You want me to guess what’s wrong?” he asked, one brow lifting. The creases in his forehead hadn’t left, and might not, even if she told him what Anna had said.
His words were similar to Anna’s earlier ones, and she shook her head. That had ended poorly.
“Is it your training?” he asked anyway. “I appreciate you trying to pretend you have my powers, but if it’s upsetting you this much—”
Mila slapped her hand over his mouth before he went further in the wrong direction. Both of his eyebrows rose. “Okay,” he said around her fingers. Giving him a long look, Mila removed her hand, hoping he would stay quiet.
And, before she lost her nerve, she asked, “Are you a virgin?”
Time stood still for one second. In the next, he laughed on an exhale, making Mila’s cheeks flame. She shouldn’t have asked. Of course he wasn’t: he seemed to know what he was doing. Feeling stupid, Mila relied on her power to muscle her way out of Ashton’s arms.
At least now she knew the truth.
“Mila, wait,” Ashton said when he’d gotten out the last few chuckles. She stopped but ignored the hand he’d stretched out to her. “Yes, I am.”
“What?” Mila couldn’t have heard him right.
With a shrug magnified by the situation, he said, “I’m a virgin.”
The words still didn’t make sense. “And you can still use your powers?” she asked. She held all of her disbelief in her eyes as she swept her gaze over him.
“Yeah.” He looked at her like she’d suggested cutting off his arm. “How does that…?” He didn’t finish the question, and Mila didn’t bother helping him finish. She’d embarrassed herself enough for one night—maybe even one year. To her further mortification, his eyes widened and he said, “Oh. That’s what this is about?”
“This is about nothing.” Mila turned on her heel and then paused, spinning to face him again. “Actually, I just wanted to tell you to stop with the gifts.”
Lifting one brow, he asked, “That’s all?”
Against her better judgment, she asked, “What else would there be?”
He rose to the challenge. “This.” Before she could think of running, he had her face in his hands, his lips on hers. She opened her mouth to tell him this was the last thing she needed, but his tongue slipped in, stealing her words. When he pulled away, she thought he would release her. He turned her in his arms instead.
His hands trailed down, brushing the flowers aside so he could cup her breasts. “You think your powers are linked to your virginity?” She leaned her head back onto his shoulder, relaxing into his hold; he placed a kiss onto her forehead. He pinched her nipples, reminding her he’d asked something.
One of his hands trailed down her belly, tracing lazy swirls into her newly exposed skin. “You think I’m trying to seduce you into losing your powers?”
“Aren’t you?” she whispered.
To her surprise, he pressed another kiss to her forehead. His hand slid lower, stopping right above where she’d begun to pulse. “Are you expecting to become another person when you lose your virginity?”
He’d said too many words. “What?”
His hand went to her hip, making her whimper in protest. “Why would losing your virginity change anything?” He rolled his thumb over her nipple. “You’re still you.”
“There’s no way to know until it’s too late.” She turned her head away.
“Good thing there’s no rush, then.” He moved the hand from her hip to turn her face back to his. “I’m not interested in your powers. I’m interested in you.” At her concerned look, he added, “And you keeping them.”
As much as she wanted to believe him, she couldn’t get Anna’s words out of her head. What if this was all part of his elaborate plan?
“Think about it,” he said, running his hands down her sides. “If this was going to be your downfall, would it feel so good?”
“Is that a trick question?”
He chuckled against her hair. “Maybe you need more proof.” The next kiss landed on the side of her neck.
“More what?” She realized she sounded dumb, unable to follow his sentences, but her attention had shifted to his wandering hands. He’d hardly touched her, but she could sense how much he wanted her, and that was enough. She felt like she’d slowly started to burn from the inside; soon flames would lick over her skin.
He turned her to face him and then sank to his knees. Mila could only watch in wonder as he lifted her dress and kissed her inner thigh. He said something against her skin.
“What?” she breathed out.
“Can you stand on your own?” he asked. His eyes were so dark they almost looked black. He grinned, and she realized she’d never answered. That seemed enough for him: he nudged her toward the tree until her back pressed against it.
Then he let her dress fall over him and his hands gripped the backs of her thighs, pulling her close. His tongue licked up the side of her thigh.
“Um,” she managed. Her hands gripped the tree behind her.
His breath hit her… there. It felt even stranger without being able to see him. He licked right over her slit and she sucked in a breath. He started slow, as though warming her up, and then he started licking her in earnest, to the point her thoughts fled.
Her entire body felt on fire, but especially where he touched her. She felt alternately that if he kept going she’d combust, and if he stopped she’d explode as well—of frustration. Her fingers clenched as she fought the tightening in her abdomen.
Spots appeared on her vision, her breath coming in pants. “I feel like I might faint,” she managed.
He pulled his head back and set her dress down, though the wild look in his eyes said he hadn’t wanted to. “That’s flattering,” he told her with a grin. She’d heard those words before. “And totally normal. Just wait.” His hands started to lift her dress but Mila shook her head.
She wanted his mouth back there, definitely, but something felt off.
Whatever he saw in her face wiped the smile from his face. “Mila,” he said, standing up. That was good, because she pitched forward into his arms, blackness taking over her vision. Just like that, the weird death that seemed to happen every time they were around each other stole her first orgasm from her.
Mila woke to the sound of a strong heartbeat. Not her own. Sitting up, Mila turned to find she’d used Ashton’s chest as a pillow. A glance at the sky didn’t reveal for how long, but the crick in her neck told her long enough.
To her surprise, Ashton’s dark gray eyes watched her.
She looked at his lips and blushed. “If that wasn’t a sign my virginity matters, I don’t know what is,” Mila muttered, standing and stretching her arms over her head.
“Your virginity was hardly in danger.” Ashton tucked his arms behind his head and studied her from his spot on the ground. “But my sanity might be.”
He eyed her breasts like they were the answer to all his questions. Turning from his gaze, Mila watched as—nothing happened. Flowers should have laced across to fill the gaping hole down the front he’d created, but nothing grew. Mila stared at her skin in disbelief before everything clicked.
One hand pressed over her chest, Mila whirled to Ashton. “You have my powers.” When he didn’t disagree, she gave him a nod. “Fix my dress.”
He took her demand as a request and laughed it away. “Why would I?” he asked, studying her leisurely. As her gaze darkened, he changed his answer. “I wouldn’t even know how to grow something.” He spread his palms wide. “That’s not really my thing.”
“So do you want me to kill you, or would you prefer to kill me?”
“What’s your rush?” he asked, lifting himself up on one arm. “Besides, we seem to switch powers just by being around each other. No death needed.”
When she saw he was serious about not fixing her dress, she turned away from him again and pulled her hair over both shoulders so it more or less covered her breasts. “It’s not like we permanently die, anyway,” she told him over her shoulder.
“I wouldn’t call it pleasant, though.”
“What would you call it?” Her hands hovered over her chest, afraid to turn and face him as she was. In a fluid motion she sat, crossing and folding her legs until she felt covered.
Silence had descended while she adjusted, forcing her to carefully turn halfway until she sat facing him. His expression had darkened into something contemplative, his eyes studying the woods beyond her. He didn’t even look upset that she’d covered herself.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“That’s not an answer.” Taking a calming breath, Mila rephrased to, “Try me.”
He traced a circle in the dirt. Blades of grass sprouted up until he moved his hand back to his chest. “I think this is happening… because of love.”
Like he’d predicted, she didn’t believe them.
“Because of if being right, then,” he rushed at her speculative expression. “We’re two halves of a whole. We’re meant to be together. I think our powers switch because eventually, it’s supposed to be flawless. We should essentially be able to function as one.”
He wasn’t kissing and touching her anymore to fog her brain, but she still found his words hard to process. “That sounds a lot like how one of us dies. Forever,” she said softly.
In all the stories Anna told, that’s how it had to be. They could both exist, but it would always be a fight: the moon or the sun? Growth or death? Light or dark? Even their powers seemed to realize that their presence together was toxic, knocking them out and giving one person a chance. Whoever woke first with their normal powers would win.
“We weren’t made to have a corporeal form forever,” Ashton said.
She wanted to believe him, but it was hard when there was no way to test what he said. At least, not without permanent consequences. “Or this is a sign we can’t be around each other,” Mila pointed out. “I don’t pass out when we’re apart.” She had nothing to do, either, but he didn’t need to know that.
“Back at this again?” Ashton asked, closing his eyes. “You know it won’t work.”
Frowning at his relaxed expression, Mila said, “It worked last time.” She, at least, hadn’t passed out. Only when she’d run into him had the cycle started over, at the most inconvenient time.
“You’ll have to go back to hunting me, won’t you?”
She stiffened. He still hadn’t opened his eyes, looking peaceful despite the implications. “Neither of you talk quietly.” Her mind raced for what to say, but he beat her to it. “I had to check up on you, try to help.”
“You had to stay away,” she reminded him bitterly. Considering how close he’d probably been during training, she was lucky she hadn’t passed out once over the week. “What did you hear?”
Now he took his time, weighing his words. That confirmed Mila’s fears: he knew too much. Obviously he knew about Anna now, and he might strike out, even if he didn’t know she’d tried to kill him. He’d probably heard Anna’s rant, too, so he’d known exactly what to say to assuage Mila’s worries.
Her jaw clenched. Of course he hadn’t thought to mention that when he’d found her: he’d just started manipulating her, like Anna had warned.
“What are you thinking?” he whispered. Thunder rolled overhead, and she tried to control her emotions. The struggle only caused lightning to streak through the sky, which finally made Ashton open his eyes. “I know you’re with a woman, probably your guardian,” he said, finally answering her question. The clouds rumbled again as Mila wondered what to do.
She’d tried to keep him away before he knew Anna. Now he’d heard her, probably seen her, and she didn’t know what to do.
“I have a guardian too,” he said. Her hands dug into the tops of her knees, nails biting in. Seconds later, she could breathe easier: he hadn’t needed to tell her, but he had. Evening out the playing field. Or manipulating her. The storm above their heads couldn’t quiet with her indecision. “I think mine is nicer than yours.”
“Excuse you?” Mila asked.
He shrugged, ignoring the impending storm over his head. “Yours yells at you. She doesn’t trust you. She’s made you cry, made you run away.” He flicked a gaze over her sitting form. “And she tried to shame you for something natural.”
“So you heard?” she whispered in response to the last part.
With a shake of his head, he said, “I wasn’t near you. But it’s not hard to figure out, after everything else.”
And she’d confirmed it for him. Knots had formed in her stomach, and she had the urge to defend her guardian. “She’s just frustrated I didn’t make any progress,” Mila explained. “She’s normally… happier.” When Anna had thought Ashton dead she’d been ecstatic, but Mila didn’t want to use that example.
Looking at her from the sides of his eyes, Ashton said, “And now she knows I’m not dead. So, like I said, you won’t be able to stay away.”
“I can,” Mila insisted. “She won’t follow me. I can hang out in the woods for a couple of hours and then head back. Eventually I’ll pretend you’ve died—”
“Again,” Ashton interrupted.
“—and I’ll find a way to fake yours powers—”
Breaking off her sentence, Mila asked, “What’s your point?”
“You’ve tried this. It hasn’t worked.” He scratched absently at his chest. “Your guardian doesn’t sound like an idiot.” His eyes narrowed the tiniest amount, pinning her. “Does she hurt you?”
Mila rolled her eyes, but the answer didn’t come immediately. Of course, she didn’t: Mila was an immortal, someone who couldn’t really be hurt. Did Anna try? Sure. Did she shred Mila’s emotions? Yes. But the core of the answer was, “No.”
“If you lie again, she might,” Ashton said. He wouldn’t stop looking at her like he expected her to reveal everything, and she turned away.
Like she’d thought moments ago, Mila pointed out, “I’m immortal.” Forcing a wry smile onto her face, she met his gaze again. “She can try, but she knows it won’t do any good.” At least, Mila hoped: Anna had never outright attacked her.
“Immortal doesn’t mean impervious, unless you’ve figured out something I haven’t.” His fingers strayed to Mila’s closest ankle, tracing her skin. A thin vine circled around her, leaves blooming a second later. “If she hurts you…” He pulled his hand away, contemplating what he’d created.
“What?” Mila pressed. He wanted to offer advice against her guardian?
“Nothing.” His gaze never left the vine around her ankle. “I think I’ve got another solution, though.”
Mila lifted her chin in interest, urging him to continue.
“I think we should learn to control each other’s powers.”
Immediately Mila thought of Anna’s training and how Ashton thought there should only be one of them at the end. Did he think she wouldn’t notice that learning each other’s powers would set them up even better when one of them died? “You’re crazy,” she bit out, standing.
“You’re defenseless right now, not knowing how to use my powers.”
Irked, Mila pointed out, “So are you.” She took a small step back, letting him know she intended to leave as soon as he stopped talking. She’d spent too much time with him already: Anna would be unhappy, no matter the story Mila concocted.
“There’s nothing to lose,” he said. “If you really want to lie to Anna, this will make it easier, too.”
That, at least, intrigued her. Tipping her head back to the moon, Mila admitted she wouldn’t mind being able to control the sun if needed. She loved the moon, but she felt disoriented knowing the sun should be up and not knowing what to do about it.
But what if he lied? He could be using his intense eyes to persuade her into revealing all her secrets. He’d probably reward her with a kiss at the end of it all, and it wouldn’t stop there. He’d have her trembling, defenses down, and then use her powers against her. Maybe he even knew how to permanently end her, and he just needed her knowledge of her powers before he did it.
“I wouldn’t hurt you,” he said, either reading her thoughts or the look on her face. “If you don’t trust me, you can walk away.”
He said that, but she knew how strong his grip was when she’d tried to leave before. While his arms rested in the grass, unassuming, she didn’t doubt he could jump up in a second. Though the fact that he’d offered her an escape had to mean something, right?
Unfortunately, she realized she did trust him. Knowing it would probably be her downfall, she took a step closer to him. “This first,” she said, waving a hand over her dress.
“I was thinking we’d start with the sun,” Ashton joked with a smile. He pushed himself up to stand, looking at her expectantly. When she didn’t move, he extended his hands out, palms up; waiting for direction.
Suddenly, she had no idea what to say. Anna usually did the teaching. “Uh,” she said, looking at his broad fingers.
“I won’t bite.”
Giving him a withering look, Mila said, “I’m not scared.” Tossing her hair over her shoulder to fully reveal her chest, she said, “Now, think of the vine around my ankle. Think of growing vines over my skin, and then flowers should follow.”
He gazed intently at her chest, but nothing happened.
Suspicious, she asked, “Are you even trying?”
Clapping her hands on top of his, Mila said, “Hey!” His gaze snapped to her eyes, though he still didn’t seem focused. “You did this earlier. You can do it again.”
He looked down at his palms. “Well, I had to touch you to create the vine.” His dark gray eyes widened and looked down at her expectantly, trying to appear innocent. She didn’t trust the look on his face for one second.
Unfortunately, she had little choice. “Don’t try anything else,” she warned him, taking one of his hands. She placed his palm on the safer area of her sternum, hoping it would be enough. “Think of the vine.”
Before she’d finished speaking, green started racing away from his hand, linking onto the vines that already created the rest of her dress. Ashton shifted under her hand but she held him there, watching as leaves and then, finally, flowers appeared. Mila touched the white petal of one, noting that though they were white, they were a different kind than the moonflowers she wore.
Underneath her finger, the flower wilted.
“I just made that,” Ashton said in mock exasperation. “If you didn’t like my work…”
His hand slid down an inch, dragging his fingers against the dress. She could still feel his heat on her skin. Pushing his hand away, Mila said, “I don’t know how to control it.” She gave him a look that had him arching a brow.
Lifting his hand, he stared at his palm until a flower grew. He offered it to her and said, “I think you already know. Touch and wilt.”
She did remember telling Anna it felt a lot like drawing the energy back into herself. She accepted the flower from his palm and within seconds she had the petals curling in, darkening, until the flower turned into dust. She overturned her palm so it dropped to the dirt.
“Quick learner,” he noted. “Let’s see how you feel about the sun.”
“I might wither,” she reminded Ashton with some acid. “Maybe we should save that for last.” Actually, he’d psyched her out with his words: was it harder than wilting the flower in her hand?
He smiled at her. “With our powers reversed, I’m actually more likely to burn.” The dimple in his cheek appeared. “I’m willing to take the risk for you.” She rolled her eyes at his gallantry and stretched her hands out like he’d done earlier.
Lacing his fingers in hers, Ashton moved to stand behind her. She stiffened and he said, “It’ll be easier to explain this way.” He lifted one of her hands until it lined up with the moon.
They moved at the same time. While the moon sunk in the sky—he apparently had no trouble with that part of her powers—the sun didn’t follow. “Think about light,” he tried, bringing her arm back down. Again, their arms swept through the sky. “Sunshine.”
“That’s the moon for me,” she reminded him.
“So think of the sun,” he told her. “We can wave our arms around all day, but if you’re not picturing the right thing, we’ll be doing it for nothing.”
She realized getting frustrated over not doing it right away would only hurt her. If she didn’t learn, that didn’t affect Ashton: it only complicated her mastery of his powers. Taking in a deep breath, she tried to picture the sun, though it went against her instinct.
Nothing happened, but she felt close. She imagined light, like he’d said, and tried to think positively. She imagined plants growing and thriving in the sunlight, about how happy the people in the town would be now that they didn’t have to worry about the sun never returning. When Ashton moved her arm again, the sun came with it.
“Whoa,” she said when it set fully in the sky. The light was blinding, especially from such a quick change from night. Though she didn’t find the light as harsh as normal—usually when the sun came up she ran for shade—she didn’t imagine she’d want to stand under it long.
“Let’s turn it down a notch,” Ashton agreed, guiding her hand back. The sun sank down to a more pleasant morning glow.
With interest, she realized he controlled whether they had a lovely sunrise in the morning or went straight to day without in-betweens. She wondered what helped him decide, so she mentioned, “It doesn’t usually look like that.”
“Our powers are currently at odds,” Ashton said, unlinking their hands and stepping away. “You rule the sky, then I rule the sky. Day and night, no middle.” He lifted his hand. “That’s the middle.”
Mila thought about that for a moment and then asked, “Are you blaming me?”
From behind her, she felt him shake his head. “Just showing you what it could be like, if we understood each other better.”
“You mean, understood our powers better,” Mila corrected. The faint glow in the sky hadn’t come from talking about their feelings: Ashton had showed her how to do that with his powers. Mila wondered if she could do anything special with the moon.
“Sure,” Ashton agreed easily. “What next?”
She took him to the stream, which made him tense slightly, like he feared she’d push him in. Not that the two feet of water would do much to him. Mila had picked the water because she’d wanted a little payback after her difficulty with the sun.
“Look into the water,” she instructed, crouching so she could see the rocks at the bottom. Though weak, her shadowed self reflected back. She blinked, thinking she’d seen a trick of the light, and then looked at Ashton in shock. He only noticed she looked to him, expecting a response, when she made a strangled noise.
“What?” he asked, touching her calf. “Are you okay?”
Running her hand along her scalp like she’d be able to feel it, Mila lamented, “My hair.”
Ashton looked up, then back to her gaze. “What about it?” he asked cautiously.
“It’s streaked!” She lowered her head and looked into the water, trying to understand the damage. Radiating from her roots were rings of dark hair. The color of his hair, actually, she noticed with a glare. The pattern went from her white blond to the dark, back to the blond then the dark, until her current roots remained on the darker hair color.
“That’s what you’re worried about?” Ashton asked dryly.
Mila had comebacks, but she couldn’t think past the strange pattern in her hair. “I’ve never had a physical change like this,” Mila said, checking the ends of her hair for the same streaks and finding none.
“It’s probably the shift in powers,” Ashton said with a shrug.
Quickly, Mila swept her gaze over him. He didn’t look any worse for the wear. Without asking permission she stood on her knees and brought his head forward so she could run her fingers through his hair, looking for the same discoloration.
Ashton patiently waited until her fingers stopped searching. “Well?” he asked.
“Your roots are blond,” she said. He didn’t snap back to look at her in horror, like she’d immediately felt. “But it’s not so weird looking as mine.” She wanted to sulk at the unfairness.
“Short hair,” he shrugged, smoothing down a part Mila had mussed. His hand reminded her she still sat close to him, and she pulled away, settling her hands into her lap. She felt his eyes on her as he asked, “Does it really bother you that much?”
She didn’t know how to explain, but she tried. “It just shows me another way that this is wrong.” Seeing the darker hair made her feel like she was losing herself. To remove some of his scrutiny, she fired the question back at him, “Why doesn’t it bother you?”
“I don’t mind proof that we can work together.”
Mila pointed to the top of her head. “This is not working together.”
He shook his head at her. “What do you want me to say? I think this is the balance, and I don’t mind it.”
Silence followed, and Mila remembered what he’d said earlier. “You think it’s love,” she corrected him. Unless he’d said it earlier to try and trick her. She’d forgotten she was supposed to be on her guard, and her gaze slid to the water.
His watery reflection tilted his head at her. “I do.”
“I’m incapable of love,” Mila said. She knew wants and needs, but love had no real definition. Anna had been very clear that as an immortal, Mila couldn’t ever love: everything she cared about would eventually end. Ashton was included—possibly by her hands—which meant she especially couldn’t love him.
She was prepared to explain all of this to him—though his guardian should have said the same—but he nodded to the water.
After Mila had—more or less—taught Ashton how to control the stream, she wiped drops of water from her face. “I should head back.”
He fell back onto his elbows in the water, having fallen in long ago. Mila had only suggested he dip his hands in to better feel a connection, but he’d flopped right in. Not that it had done much good: like she’d had an aversion to the sun, he had an aversion to water. Except this was worse, because he’d only managed to create tiny waves.
Practice would help, though, and he didn’t need her around for that. At least a day had passed by now, if not more, and Mila wanted to go and apologize to Anna. She hoped with her new powers it would be enough.
“Why?” Ashton asked. He lifted his hand from the water, looking ready to splash her. She gave him a warning look.
“You have a guardian too, don’t you?” Mila asked in means of answer. Ashton nodded, hand still poised. Stepping back—not that it would help much—Mila continued, “She takes care of me. She’ll worry if I’m gone too long. Won’t yours?”
His hand lifted to scratch at his stubbly jaw. “No.” At Mila’s tangible disbelief, he added, “She trusts me.”
“It’s not about trust,” Mila said, exasperated. Anna trusted her too, though maybe not as much now that she knew about Mila’s impure thoughts toward Ashton. “We like being around each other, knowing we’re okay.”
“You mean checking that I haven’t killed you.”
Normally that was something Mila would say. She gave him a long look, trying to see past the icy exterior he’d summoned up to understand what he really wanted to say. “I can’t stay here,” she said, looking down the stream until she could see no further. “I belong with my guardian.”
No simple answer came to mind, which frustrated Mila. “It doesn’t work that way.”
He drew his knees up and set his arms on top. “Why not?”
“We have different lives,” Mila reminded him. “Your guardian might not want to see you, but mine wants to see me, and I want to see her, so I’ll go back.”
Extending his hands, Ashton said, “Our lives aren’t so different anymore.” He folded his hands together, making something in Mila’s stomach tighten. “We still have a lot more to learn. Do you really want to go back to the guardian that yelled at you?”
“Like your guardian’s never yelled,” Mila huffed, combing her fingers through her hair to try and work some of the water out.
“Only when I was little.”
Mila paused before realizing it didn’t really matter. “This is exactly what my guardian warned me against.”
“No,” Ashton said, standing. Water dripped off of him and into the river and grass as he crossed the distance to her. “This is.” His kiss was quick and fierce, his stubble scratching against her skin. “Stay, and we can learn more.” His lips moved to her cheek, close to her ear. “Take some time. When you go back, you’ll be able to show off your new skills.”
Mila told herself she only caved because Anna’s anger had been fierce, and probably hadn’t quelled. Going back now, with nothing to offer, would only make matters worse. Ashton’s lips kissing her pulse under her jaw didn’t hurt the decision process either.
“You know she’ll expect me to kill you,” Mila warned him. Her hands found his shoulders and smoothed over his skin.
“But you can’t.” He shrugged underneath her grip.
Fingers tightening until they pulled at his skin, Mila told him, “She’ll want me to torture you again.”
“Your technique improved,” Ashton grinned, flashing that dimple at her. “I can only imagine if you tried again.” One of his hands reached to her clenching fingers and pried at them until she released. He kissed her fingertips, holding her gaze all the while.
Mila wished he would take this seriously. “She might come after you,” Mila said.
Light reflected in his eyes as he widened them, mocking her. “A human?” he murmured against her fingers. She pulled and he let her hand fall back to his shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I won’t be able to stop her.” Ashton’s chest expanded, undoubtedly to say he could, and Mila stopped him. “And you can’t, either. I don’t want her dead.”
His gaze settled on her chest. “You have a big heart.”
Blushing, Mila said, “You wouldn’t want me to kill your guardian.”
Eyes snapping back to her face, Ashton agreed, “No, I wouldn’t.” His fingers followed the line of her arms to her wrists, hovering there. “If you have to go back to your guardian, I want you to be prepared.”
“She’s not that bad,” Mila said, but she could tell Ashton wasn’t listening. Whatever he’d seen or heard during training had convinced him otherwise. Or maybe he didn’t like that Mila still chose her guardian over him. Regardless, Mila had to ask, “What’s in it for you?”
His answer was immediate: “You.”
The first two days, Mila couldn’t stop thinking she’d made a mistake. She did her best to smile when Ashton looked at her and she really tried to learn everything he taught her. But in the moments of silence, or when her thoughts drifted, she wondered what Anna was doing.
Did Anna think she’d been abandoned? That Mila had made the choice to stay with Ashton?
Like the past few times she and Ashton had gotten too close, they switched powers every so often. It didn’t seem to matter if he was kissing her or teaching her, the blackness swept over her vision without warning. And she was always first down.
The third day she woke to his fingers combing through her hair, moving strands away from her face. The colors near her scalp probably looked even worse now. Briefly, Mila absorbed the moment, and then she opened her eyes.
“You don’t have to stay,” Ashton said softly. The admission looked like it pained him, but his hand continued moving through her hair. “I promised.”
Trees swayed far above her, and she looked at the dark, moonless sky. Under her watchful eye the sun rose, telling her she’d switched to his powers again. She left the sun hovering on the edge of the horizon and thought over his words.
Of course he knew she’d been distant, spacey. “I just worry,” she said, and stopped there.
“If she’s really your guardian, she’ll understand.”
“Not when she thinks you’re ruining me,” Mila said. His hand paused and then resumed in soothing her. “You don’t get it. I’m all she has.” Tears pricked behind her eyelids and she turned her head, which only removed his face from her vision. His chest was her pillow, and she pressed her cheek into his warm skin.
He didn’t turn her back to face him, but his thumb trailed under her eye, as though he sensed the tears waiting to fall. “I wondered why you didn’t live in the town.”
Shock coursed through Mila. “With you living so close?” She turned to search his face for some kind of trap. When she saw none, she asked, “Why did you get to live in the town?” He seemed as part of the woods as she did.
“I’m told your guardian’s family was asked to leave, and they made a home in the woods.” His gaze settled on the sky. “I was found in the woods and brought back, because that’s where my guardian lived. She didn’t know how to raise me in the wilderness.” He sighed. “She probably would have raised you, too, if we’d been found together.”
Mila couldn’t even picture that. How would a human have handled two children dying and misunderstanding their powers all the time? Decidedly, Mila said, “I’m glad she didn’t.”
Shrugging, Ashton’s entire body shifted under her.
“I always thought it was you living in the town that stopped her from returning,” Mila said, thinking. “I wasn’t even allowed to go in to see what it was like.” She knew Anna had gone before: she’d offered as much when Ghost had vanished. If she’d been banished, Mila probably would’ve heard about it.
“Do you want to see it?”
Shaking her head, Mila said, “I’ve already been.” She left out the part where she looked for him and possibly found where he lived. The memories of all those people dressed strangely and watching her with mistrust would suffice for hopefully her lifetime. The town held nothing for her, unlike her home in the woods.
A question danced around in her mind. She wondered how to ask and finally blurted, “Do you know why my guardian’s blind?”
“I’ve never met her.”
Mila didn’t appreciate his evasive answer and told him so by pinching at his side. His muscles twitched under her grip and he caught her hand in his. “You knew her family was exiled,” Mila pointed out.
Sighing like she’d asked him to go hunt a bear, Ashton asked, “What’s her name? This was a long time ago. The family had a mom and three sisters.”
“Three?” Mila asked in disbelief. “There’s only Anna.”
She tried to picture a whole family raising her and failed. Actually, she’d never met a family: she knew about them from Anna’s teachings, but it was only ever the two of them. When she’d trained with the men, they never came with their families.
What had Anna’s sisters been like, and why had she never mentioned them? “What happened to them?”
“I thought they lived with you,” Ashton said. “And just one of them trained you.”
Mila turned her hand so she could curl her fingers inside Ashton’s palm. “The others were gone before I met them.” Remembering her earlier question, she repeated, “When did Anna go blind?”
“They all looked the same,” Ashton begrudged, closing his eyes as though to better visualize. “What color are her eyes?”
“A bluish white?” Mila tried. Ashton lifted his head to look at her, seeing if she joked. She didn’t. “I never knew her original eye color. I thought maybe she’d been born blind.” Mila traced the fingers of her free hand against the dirt. “You’ve seen her, I think.”
His chest froze. As Mila turned to see what his problem was, he gave a small smile. “I remember now. She wasn’t blind before. Must have happened in the woods.” He gave a helpless shrug and leaned his head back, out of her line of sight. Something about his tone said there was more, but his words had given away nothing.
“The mystery continues,” Mila said lightly.
“Speaking of which,” Ashton said, drumming his fingers along her shoulder. “We should start training again, while our powers are switched.” He let Mila sit up first so he didn’t push her to the ground, and then they both stood.
Mila felt a little better after talking, but she was still distracted, wondering what Ashton had to hide. He made it sound like Anna had disappeared into the woods, never to be heard from again, yet he hadn’t told the full story.
He guided her through the woods, teaching her how to track animals. Mila was a second late to pick up on everything he pointed out, lost in her thoughts, but he didn’t say anything. When she found and coaxed a deer out of the foliage he smiled in approval. Still, she was thinking about Anna even more now.
“What do you have for me?” he asked, rubbing his hands together in expectation.
“I can teach you how to scare away animals,” Mila said with a wry smile. She took a step back, so Ashton stood closer to the deer. The deer took one long-legged step back. Mila almost felt bad, except this had happened to her many times.
Ashton breathed out and the deer fled. “Strange, that animals don’t like you,” he noted.
“My horses are fine,” Mila shrugged. That’s what really mattered. On that thought she turned to look off into the woods where she imagined the hut to be, wondering about them. Did Doll and Ghost think she’d abandoned them, too?
“You don’t have to stay,” Ashton reminded her.
With determination, she said, “No, I want to.” She reached over to clasp his hand and led him over to a tree so she could show him how to split one in half and mend it.
The next few days passed by much the same. When they switched powers, they trained and taught each other what they knew. When they had their usual powers, they mostly talked. Mila learned about how he’d been found, how much he cared about his guardian and his town. He told most of the stories, as Mila had few.
She’d lived in the woods and trained to kill him. That was it.
He, on the other hand, had run around with other children, playing games. For a little bit he’d gone to school with them, until his ability to learn surpassed the others and he’d grown bored. With a smug smile he retold the pranks he’d played on people in the town in his boredom, acting out certain parts.
Jealously took hold of her, knowing what she’d missed out on. But, she felt happy for him. She was happier still that she got to hear all of his stories, got to watch him without wondering if he would attack. The week that she’d offered to give him would end in a matter of hours, and the reprieve from Anna’s murderous intentions was nice.
Because as soon as she got back on Anna’s good side, that’s all Mila would hear. Where to find Ashton, how to lure him, questions to ask him, how to kill him…
“You don’t have to go back.”
Mila wondered what kind of face she’d made for him to say that, after he’d been saying the opposite up until now. “I have to. It’s been a week.” She rolled over onto her stomach to look at him lying back in the grass. “What will you do?”
“Visit you at night.” At Mila’s level gaze he added, “I’ll go back to see my guardian. Wait for you to come kill me. The usual.”
“I’m sorry it’s like this,” Mila said, working past the knots in her stomach. “You’re really nice.”
“Nice,” Ashton repeated.
He’d said it tonelessly, but Mila felt like she’d said something wrong. “I never expected to actually like you,” she continued, rolling onto her back. She thought about the first time she’d seen him, thinking he was the loveliest man she’d met. That still held true.
At his continued silence, Mila pressed, “What?”
“Nothing.” He moved, and his face hovered above her. His lips slanted over hers, unhurried. His tongue tasted at her lips, then the inside of her mouth, before trailing lower.
Her hands found his hair. She had no idea if she’d meant to hold him closer or push him away, but she managed to say, “Wait.” He paused on his path to her breasts and pulled back so he could look down at her. “I shouldn’t.” She felt like Anna would know.
“Okay.” Ashton didn’t move.
Mila used his patience to rise up and press him down, so that she could have control. He watched her with fascination until she settled on top of his hips—then he looked at her hungrily.
Clenching her hands in his hair, Mila guided his head up and kissed him again. Forget Anna. If Mila wasn’t going to see Ashton like this for a while, she would get her fill of him—short of potentially ruining her powers, of course.
Mila approached the hut uncertainly. For once she’d woken from the power switch before Ashton, making the goodbye easier: she walked away. Coming back into Anna’s life wouldn’t be as easy, she feared.
For about the fifth time during her walk back, she wondered if she should’ve waited until she had Ashton’s powers.
Too late now, she thought as Anna approached from the back of the woods. Mila spoke out, unsure if Anna had heard her footsteps already. “I made my choice,” she tried. Every muscle she had tensed, prepared for Anna’s snappy answer to leave.
“Where did you go?” Anna asked, not stopping in her path to the hut. Mila followed, pausing in the doorway.
“I trained.” For full disclosure, she added, “With Ashton.” Anna tilted her head, listening. “I know how to use his powers now,” Mila finished.
Nodding her head slightly, Anna said, “That will help.”
“We also talked.” Mila couldn’t stop herself from telling Anna, “He’s a virgin.” She’d wanted to prove that her powers would be fine if she lost her virginity, but she had a feeling she’d proved the opposite.
Anna laughed in sputters. “Oh, Mila,” she said. Mila alternately hated that she felt five years younger but enjoyed that Anna seemed to have forgiven her. “There’s no way.”
“That’s what he said,” Mila insisted.
“Then he told you what you wanted to hear.” Anna shook her head. “I’ve heard too many stories from town to believe that. The women treat him like some kind of sex god.”
Mila hardly heard the last part, remembering what Ashton had claimed: Anna had been kicked out of the town. One of them had to be lying. Trying to decide who to believe, Mila asked, “When did you go into town?”
“While you were away,” Anna said. Relieved—Ashton couldn’t have been with other girls when they were training together—Mila nodded. But Anna wasn’t done. “It’s practically all they talk about, is who he brings up into his tower next. He’s gone through all the eligible girls in the town at least once.” Anna frowned. “And he’s ruined countless marriages.”
As much as Mila didn’t want to believe it, she’d seen the tower he stayed in. Anna couldn’t have known that without hearing it from someone else. “Why would he lie?” Mila asked.
“It’s all part of his act.” Anna enfolded Mila into an embrace she hadn’t known she needed. She sank into Anna, letting her head fall to her bony shoulder. “I told you he would be a very charming man. He has no problem using his body to get his way.” Anna’s hand smoothed down Mila’s hair. “Mila, you couldn’t have known.”
They stayed like that, Mila fighting the betrayal only so her powers didn’t lash out.
“You didn’t do anything regrettable, did you?” Anna asked, hand pausing.
Mila shook her head gratefully.
“Then don’t worry about it,” Anna coaxed. “You’re back, and that’s what matters. We’ll rest, and now that you know his powers, we can figure this out. Get him back. Maybe we can’t kill him, but we can stop him from hurting you more.”
The anger currently swirling through her made Mila completely agree with the idea. The part of her that still believed in him asked, “But what if—?”
“Think about how he acts,” Anna said softly. “And think about how you feel, how you act. Do those two add up?”
No, they didn’t, Mila realized with a blush. He acted too sure, seemed to know what he wanted from her as well as what to offer. Mila was tentative, unsure, often blushing—just like now. Mila didn’t remember what question she’d started to ask, but Anna’s answer had been enough.
She couldn’t believe her pleasant week had ended like this.
Tears ran down onto Anna’s shoulder before she could stop them. Thankfully, Anna didn’t pull away; she’d become strangely affectionate in Mila’s absence. “You’re okay,” she shushed. “You’re with me.” More tears fell, and Anna promised, “We’ll make this right.”
Mila found herself at the pond the next night not in order to see Ashton, but to tell him off. She hadn’t told Anna, only because she had no intentions of doing something Anna wouldn’t.
The water in the pond lapped at the edges, providing gentle background noise to contrast her angry thoughts. She had a dozen things she wanted to say in hopes of hurting him, but if she knew anything about this manipulative game he’d started, it was that he was impervious.
When he appeared in the distance, he either didn’t notice her anger, or he ignored it. The closer he got the more she could see: his lovely chest, broad shoulders, the strong jaw and sloped nose… she hated how much she appreciated the view, even now.
“Mila,” he greeted. Even his voice sent thrills through her.
“I don’t ever want to see you again.” She didn’t tell him what Anna had said, didn’t give him a chance to come up with some excuse. He and Anna had both told different stories, and she knew exactly who had lied.
His dark eyes, darker in the moonlight, looked to the hut. “Did she tell you to say that?”
“This is coming from me,” Mila said, leaving the emotion out of her tone. She crossed her arms over her chest. “The game’s over. You lose.”
“What game?” he asked. He had the nerve to sound genuinely confused, like he hadn’t tricked her a hundred different ways.
She wasn’t going to waste time elaborating, or opening herself up to the pain of his fake interest in her. “I’m sure you can figure it out.” Dropping her arms, Mila said, “Don’t come back.” She turned and stalked toward the hut.
“Mila, come on.”
To her relief, only his voice followed her. He remained where he was, watching until she disappeared inside the hut. Even then she felt his gaze through the wooden door, imploring her to walk back outside.
The next time she went back to him, it would be to carry out Anna’s plan.
Sliding down the wall until she could sit, Mila wondered why she felt so miserable after that. Shouldn’t she feel some kind of closure, some relief that she’d gotten away unharmed? She looked to Anna, sleeping peacefully, and wished she could do the same.
The next morning, Anna found her in the pond. “Did you stay here all night?” Anna asked, drawing Mila from the half-sleep she’d settled into.
Her skin had pruned as though she had, but she told Anna, “No.” She’d wandered out to see her horses and then ended up staying most of the night. Rubbing her fists into her eyelids, Mila asked, “So, what’s the plan?”
“Walk with me,” Anna offered.
They went to the clearing where they’d tried training with Ashton’s powers. “I don’t have them right now,” Mila said, before they went any further.
Anna waved her words away, picking her way over a branch carefully. “We’re just talking.” She stopped, prompting Mila to pause as well. “I’m assuming while you talked you didn’t learn the truth about killing him?”
Forgetting who she was with, Mila shook her head; after a week of being with someone who could see, she’d have to change her ways of answering. As an afterthought, she said, “No.”
“So, we’re going to have to come up with something intricate, foolproof.” Anna’s expression was more determined than Mila had ever seen it. “We need to lure him here.” Mila didn’t think that would be too difficult. “Then we need a way to hold him.” That could prove problematic. “And finally, a way to get the information.”
“Don’t make that face at me,” Anna said, though she couldn’t know. “I just need you to cover the first two. I’ll handle the last one.”
Normally Mila would panic and think of ways to protect him. This time, she didn’t care: he could be at the mercy of Anna. So long as he didn’t manage to hurt Anna, they wouldn’t have a problem. On that note, Mila knew she would find a way to restrain him that wouldn’t risk Anna in any way.
“What are you thinking?” she prompted.
“I think creating something to hold him will be the biggest problem,” Anna confirmed. “What’s the strongest thing you can grow?”
Mila almost said thorns and vines, but noticed the trees around her. “Trees?” Remembering he could just chop them in half of make them decay, Mila shook her head. “That won’t be enough. It can’t be living.”
Thoughtfully, Anna walked a few paces to the right. “Rocks?”
Taking her time, Mila walked past Anna’s spot until she found a boulder. She practiced punching like she did with the trees and cracks appeared. A few more swings and the entire boulder crumbled. “It won’t hold.”
Anna threw answers at her at random, some Mila could test, and others she could dismiss. Like Anna’s plan to have a pack of wolves corner him. “Wolves don’t even like me,” Mila protested.
“What if you had his powers?”
At that, Mila paused. “With my powers, he’d have more trouble escaping from living matter.” He could punch his way through, of course, but if they made the boundary thick enough, he might tire out before making progress.
“I like him being at a disadvantage,” Anna agreed. “But I want you at your best, too.” Mila felt warmth through her at the words: she felt like a trusted ally.
This had to go well. She didn’t want Anna to look at her with disappointment ever again. “We could use water,” Mila said after a moment. “He knows how to control it somewhat—” she left out the part where she’d taught him, “—but he can’t swim.”
Anna’s milky gaze met hers. “That’s good.”
Even though Anna couldn’t see it, Mila smiled. She wished she’d thought of it sooner, but now Anna paced around the clearing, making more plans. “We’ll have to build a new pond. Do you think you can create a rainstorm to fill it?”
Without his powers, probably not. “I can get water from the river, if not.”
Anna nodded. “And then I want to place rocks all around it. We’ll pile them high and add a few smaller ones that we can climb. Around them, we’ll do a ring of trees.” Mila started to say it wouldn’t matter, but Anna decided, “If he makes it that far, we can only hope to slow him down a little.”
“This will take time,” Mila said.
“Which I think we have plenty of.” Anna clapped her hands together. “Let’s start.”
Her enthusiasm continued as Mila tried to cut into the earth without Ashton’s powers and struggled. Eventually she took to punching chunks of dirt out of the way. In all her training she’d never had to punch for so long, and she tired quickly, even with Anna’s words of encouragement.
“I guess that’s good for now,” Anna said when Mila had to catch her breath. “Let’s look for boulders.”
They wandered the woods, mapping out the boulders they wanted to move. If Mila had Ashton’s powers she’d be able to form one out of the dirt, but she didn’t mention that. She’d rather not kill herself for his powers until a more desperate time.
Moving the rocks came down to Mila again. They couldn’t start until Mila had rested, forcing them to call it for the night. “I’m glad you’re here,” Anna said.
“Me too.” Anna really had become more affectionate—and more open about her feelings—since Mila came back. It hadn’t even been a day. Anna must have thought Mila had left her for good, which made Mila feel guilty.
When they broke through the trees and Mila spotted the pond, she froze.
“What’s wrong?” Anna asked, foot stopping an inch above the ground. Anna’s head tilted, but she wouldn’t be able to hear this.
“Nothing.” Except the fact that Mila felt like she’d been through this exact scene before. A gift sat some twenty feet off with something scrawled in the dirt. Ashton had to be nearby, the obvious culprit, and Anna knew nothing.
Anna shrugged it off and kept walking. Mila fumed: she’d specifically told Ashton no, and what did he do? Ignore her.
Stalking to the gift on the ground, Mila picked up a gold bracelet. The one she’d worn on her arm until the night she’d run into Ashton, to be exact. Did he really think she would wear it now? Without looking, she tossed the band over her shoulder, hearing it break the surface of the pond and sink.
The note scrawled into the dirt didn’t make her feel any better.
“I’m sorry. I would never hurt you.”
Did he think she would fall for that, after everything she’d learned? With her foot, she spread the dirt around until the words disappeared.
To the silent, dark night, Mila said, “This stops now.”
She hadn’t expected a verbal agreement, but maybe to at least sense Ashton, to know he’d heard her. The insects in the trees quieted at the sound of her voice before starting up again, leaving her certain he would ignore her.
Aside from the gifts, everything went according to plan, albeit slowly. Anna supervised more than helped, mostly because they needed Mila’s immortal perks for the plan. The pit was finally deep enough to contain Ashton, so Anna started the long process of getting water from the river while Mila attempted to move boulders.
She imagined bringing water at least felt more productive. The boulders moved a few feet at most, draining her power. With the smaller stones—which were the few that would go toward making up the steps leading to the pit walls—she could physically roll them.
When she’d wrangled one boulder over to the nonexistent pile, she took a break, leaning over the rock. Anna stopped by not much later, pouring water into the pit.
Mila went to study Anna’s handiwork. They both had a tough job: Anna could only carry so much water, and Mila could only move boulders so far. The bottom of the pit was damp, the dirt soaking up most of the water Anna had managed to dump in.
This was going to take a while.
Twice more Anna returned with water. On her third trip she paused, holding a bucket in each hand, and asked, “Having second thoughts?”
“No,” Mila said immediately, moving to find another boulder.
The pattern continued until morning. At that point, Anna went to rest, and Mila, not needing sleep, continued her rolling. Her thoughts had drifted elsewhere a long time ago, to the point she hardly noticed what she rolled or where.
Depending on how they counted, they might have had some ten boulders.
Mila peered into the pit again, wishing she could get water for a change. If she redirected the river to flow this way, that would fill it; then Anna wouldn’t be able to help, which would drive her insane. Resigned, Mila let them continue in their roles.
The next time she counted, she had twenty boulders.
She thought nothing of the number until she hefted another boulder to the clearing and counted thirty. Eyes narrowed, she double counted, tapping each boulder once for confirmation. Either she’d miscounted the first time, or…
“Ashton,” she snarled.
He couldn’t be far, if he’d managed to roll—or create—ten boulders in the time it took for her to get one. Mila opened her senses, expecting to find him five feet away, hiding behind a tree. As usual, he’d somehow cloaked himself, an ability he’d never bothered to teach her.
Probably because he was only concerned with himself.
“I know you’re there,” Mila said to the woods around her. “You think this will make me grateful?” She waved her hand at the boulders and waited for a response.
Up until now the gifts had only included more gems and more notes. The day before he’d left an apology and asked to see her. Apparently it didn’t matter that she scrubbed away his messages: he was going to see her, whether she wanted him to or not.
She had no interest in his help. “Do you even know what you’re doing?” she asked. “This is being created to trap you!” To make sure he understood, she continued, “You’re aiding your demise!”
The buzzing insects quieted at her loud words.
Running her tongue over her suddenly dry lips, Mila finished, “Stop. I’m not interested.” She wanted to add she wouldn’t forgive him for lying to her, but that seemed like overkill. A rustling in the bushes made her jump a foot, thinking he’d heard her after all. She brought her fist up, ready to fight, and realized it was only Doll.
“Don’t scare me like that,” she scolded her horse. Doll nibbled at the top of her head, uncaring of the strange discoloration.
Shoving Doll’s face away, Mila groused, “I see you.” She stroked a hand down Doll’s stark white nose and watched her for any signs that someone eavesdropped. Doll seemed concerned with nothing but Mila’s attention.
When Anna woke, Mila would see if Doll could help carry the water. Mila trailed a finger down Doll’s side, wondering if she’d be good: she tended to get skittish around Anna.
“If only you took commands,” Mila mused. Or if Mila had Ashton’s powers.
Mila let Doll wander away while she continued to move boulders. She paused only to let the moon rise high in the sky. She couldn’t help but wonder if Ashton fought her during the process, trying to allow a sunset.
Not that it mattered.
An hour passed, and Anna didn’t show. Doll looked curiously into the pit on Mila’s next stop, and Mila asked, “Where’s Anna?”
Naturally, Doll did nothing but flick an ear back. As clearly as she could, Mila said, “Go find Anna.” Doll walked away in the right direction, but Mila didn’t know if she’d just responded to the word “Go.”
Weakness surged through her, forcing her to sit down. She rested on top of one of the rocks, letting the surface cool her warm skin. Black spots danced on the outside of her vision, a warning she hadn’t forgotten. “Not now,” Mila muttered, pressing a hand to her forehead.
She breathed through her nose in long draws, keeping the panic at bay. Relaxing and thinking of anything other than work, Mila tried to push off the temporary death shadowing her. Why hadn’t she practiced that in her time with Ashton?
Her entire body ached from fighting the sluggishness invading her body. She tipped back, noting she aimed straight for the pit and unable to do anything about it.
And then, even with Ashton nowhere near her, she died.
She woke to the strange sound of fluid in her ears, like she stood inside her heart. Water doused her forehead and she spluttered to a sitting position, wiping water out of her face.
“Mila?” Anna asked from far, far above her.
Memories of falling came back to her. “That’s me,” she said grudgingly, taking in her new surroundings. Mud suctioned her fingers like quicksand if she put her hands down. The dirt walls were slick where she could reach, crumbling where she couldn’t. The water would hardly make it past her knees when she stood.
Anna hesitated and then her face appeared over the side of the pit wall. “What are you doing down there?”
“Testing it out,” Mila joked, though she still shook. Her adrenaline was fading, and the water didn’t help fight the chill. “Looks inescapable.”
“Mila,” Anna scolded. No one ever appreciated Mila’s humor. “Can you get out?”
Mila looked around again, though she didn’t think she’d missed anything in the span of a minute. “I’ll try,” she said. Standing up, she wiped her hands off on her dress. “You can keep getting water.”
“Not while you’re down there.”
With a shrug, Mila said, “It will only help.” At that Anna disappeared from the side, possibly gone to get more water. Rubbing her hands together, Mila wondered about her best plan of attack. The problem was, if she could get out, so could Ashton.
The other problem was so long as she stayed in, Ashton couldn’t get trapped.
Speaking of Ashton, she had his powers now. Mila pressed her hands into the soil, testing it, and found she sank in, just as expected. No way could the walls support her weight for climbing. With that in mind, she closed her eyes and thought of everything he’d told her about creating a rainstorm.
The memory of his hands on hers, his dimpled smile when she got something right, made her angry, and that only helped. Even in the pit she felt the winds picking up.
Raindrops touched her face and she smiled.
Anna appeared again, eyes wide. “Are you doing this?” Her hair whipped around her face, obscuring her eyes in the next second.
“I can only get out when the water is tall enough,” Mila decided. If she killed herself she’d be able to manipulate the water at about waist level. The rain began to fall, and Mila realized this would be unpleasant.
She blamed Ashton entirely.
“If you don’t hear me, don’t worry,” she told Anna.
“What are you going to do?” Anna asked. She had to almost shout over the wind. Mila hoped the rain continued after she was passed out, or this would be for nothing.
Running a hand through her damp hair, Mila said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be up soon.” Telling Anna would only lead to an argument with other options. Maybe they could throw a rope down, maybe a giant bird could swoop down and pull her up. Mila didn’t feel she had time for maybes when she had guarantees with her normal powers.
She looked down at the shallow water slowly rising around her legs. Down here, her reflection didn’t stare solemnly back at her. She couldn’t see the discoloration of her hair, or how much she’d changed in the short time since meeting Ashton.
Absurdly, she sucked in a breath of air. She laughed it out and stuck her head under the water. Instinct and the low water level made it too easy to lift her head to oxygen, so she dug her hands into the mud at the bottom of the pit.
“Mila?” she heard Anna ask.
inhaled water. The calming blackness left her choking and fighting too long,
but eventually, it came.
She woke to the sound of her name, or something similar. Water flooded her ears, her eyes, her lungs—
Managing to turn on the unstable ground she rested on, Mila coughed, feeling water pour out of her mouth. Tremors ran up her spine at the feeling, but she felt ten times better with the water out. She reached a hand up to push her damp hair out of her face and found she sank a few inches.
She was swimming.
Dying twice in one day apparently hurt her memory. She took too long to remember she’d done this on purpose in hopes of getting out of the pit.
She had heard her name, then. Lifting her gaze up, she saw Anna’s pale face closer to her than she’d expected. “I’m alive,” she said hoarsely. She cleared her throat moments after and looked around at the pit. The water was high enough that she needed to tread water.
That would make getting out a lot easier. Instead of coaxing the water into growing waves that would splash her out, Mila relied on what she knew: plants.
Vines grew from her hands and raced up the side of the pit, unconcerned with the unstable walls. They continued out of sight and Mila waited until she saw flowers start blooming, the sign they’d anchored on something.
She pulled herself out of the water the first foot.
“Can you make it?” Anna asked.
Mila didn’t answer, concentrating on her task instead. The distance to the top was just past jumping reach, forcing her to keep climbing. Her arms protested, already weak from rolling the boulders earlier.
Still, she managed her way up the wall. When she could reach up, she felt Anna grab her hand.
Having dragged her around before, Anna had little trouble in pulling her over the edge. “What happened?” she asked as soon as Mila was on ground level.
Mila took the time to crawl a few feet away, in case she passed out again. “I fell.” She didn’t want to elaborate further, afraid of what Anna would say. She certainly wouldn’t agree to what Mila planned to do in a few minutes.
“I’d like to rest,” Mila lied. The weariness in her voice was real, brought on by her coughing spell and physical exertion. She stood, looking down at Anna’s concerned face. For one second Mila almost wanted to explain things so Anna didn’t look so uncertain.
The second passed.
“Sure,” Anna agreed, moving aside. “I’ll keep working. We should be done soon, with the help of the rain.”
“Great,” Mila said, stepping away before she got stuck in conversation. She took measured steps until she was out of Anna’s hearing range, and then she broke into a brisker pace. When they were so close to finishing, Mila didn’t have time to black out because of Ashton; she headed toward town, intent on finding him and seeing what had happened.
She wished she didn’t feel concern, but she was too nice, as Anna had pointed out before. Her thoughts flashed through scenes that could kill Ashton. Had the town turned against him? Had he fought a bear and lost? For some reason, the idea of him dying not at her hands seemed scarier: he seemed more mortal.
Maybe she’d kill him as punishment for getting her stuck in the pit.
She didn’t have time to meditate over her revenge plan because he met her halfway, as though expecting her. Drawing to a stop before she got too close, Mila gave him a cursory once over. He didn’t look injured—yet. “What happened?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
Arching a brow, Mila said, “I don’t have time for games. What made you die?”
He shook his head in answer. As Mila worked toward anger, he asked, “What made you die?”
“Fixing your mess,” she snapped. Flicking her hair over her shoulder, she said, “If there’s no threat and you can keep yourself together, I’m leaving.”
She knew what she would see if she looked at his face: a hardened jaw and lips pressed thin with determination, his dark eyes stormy and intense as they tried to convince her to walk to him. To counter that, she stared at his torso instead. “We’re done,” she told his abs.
“What did I do?”
Mila hadn’t thought anything could be more irritating than his playing her, but lying to her face topped it all. “I didn’t come here to talk,” she reminded him, turning on her heel.
Like so many times before, he reached out and caught her arm, forcing her to a stop. Unlike the times before, Mila could imagine who else those hands had touched in such a way. “Don’t touch me,” she hissed, pulling at his hold. When he didn’t let go she elbowed him, satisfied at his grunt when she connected with his ribs.
“At least tell me what she said,” Ashton pressed, his free hand moving to grip her other arm, trapping her further.
“Who?” Mila bit out, still struggling. “I hear you have a couple.”
Ashton didn’t respond, confirming her fears. Keeping his grip firm on her twisting form, he managed to turn her so they faced each other. Ashton looked grim as he said, “What did your guardian tell you?”
Pressing her lips together, Mila lifted her chin at him in defiance.
“I’m not letting you go until we have it out,” Ashton informed her. “This is ridiculous.”
“You can’t—” she cut herself off from saying he didn’t control these things. “You’ll have to torture it out of me,” she said, and then froze.
Something in his eyes changed. “Is that what you want?”
Worried he would follow through, Mila felt the grass under her feet growing, winding up her legs. If he moved the wrong way, she wouldn’t hesitate to turn everything around them to thorns until she drew his blood.
“What would you prefer?” he asked. He didn’t quite enter the iciness Anna took on which she disciplined Mila, but his tone was indifferent. “You want me to draw blood?” Her legs tensed and she strained against his hold. “Or pleasure?”
The second was preferable, but not by much, knowing how he’d gotten so good at it. “Let me go,” she said through clenched teeth. She alternately felt cornered enough to bite, but tired enough to dissolve into a sobbing mess.
She knew which way he’d push her. “Mila,” he said softly. His arms pulled back, tugging her closer even as her heels dug into the ground. He pressed his lips to her forehead, which she allowed. When he moved lower, she turned her head.
Undeterred, his mouth trailed open-mouthed kisses against her neck, each collarbone, and finally lower. When his lips came dangerously close to the swell of a breast, she broke. “You lied,” she said, entire body tense as she waited for him to make contact. The only touch she felt was her tears after they rolled off of her cheeks.
She couldn’t meet his searching gaze. “So you admit it.”
“No,” he said, giving her a slight shake so she looked to him. “But we talked about a lot of things. What does your guardian think I’ve done?”
It’s not just her that thinks you’ve lied, Mila wanted to say. Wishing she could dry her face, Mila managed, “You’re not a virgin.” He didn’t move, spurring her to snarl, “You’ve been with women. A lot of them.” Her back felt like it might snap when she demanded, “Now let me go.”
“Mila.” He let one of her arms go to reach for her face, giving her enough room to swing away in his grasp. “Come here.” She leaned as far as she could from the hold on her arm, believing at any second he’d let go. Sure, she’d drop on her ass, but she didn’t expect a lot of chivalry from him at this point.
He let her go only to fall with her, pinning her down with his larger presence. His arms managed to keep hers still while staying close enough that he could reach her face.
“You’re intolerable,” she told him, whipping her head left and right so she didn’t have to look at him. “Insufferable.” She wished she could remember Anna’s favorite curse words.
“And you’re crazy,” he said, placing a hand on either side of her face. She closed her eyes and he sighed. “Mila, your guardian made that up so we would end up fighting exactly like this.” She kept her eyes shut, wishing she could cover her ears against his second sigh. “Mila, I’m a virgin. I wouldn’t lie about that.”
Working her jaw, Mila pointed out, “You can’t exactly prove it, either.”
For one moment Ashton went so still above her she thought she’d finally gotten through to him. There was no trust between them, no matter how long he pinned her down and made them talk.
“Actually, I can.” That made her eyes snap open, glaring at his confident gaze. “You want to ask the town?”
“They’d lie for you?” Mila asked in a falsely sweet voice.
Refusing to rise to the bait, Ashton said, “I wouldn’t have to be there. You could ask them as a stranger, and they’d all tell you the same thing. My guardian knows everything about me, and she’d tell you I’ve never been with a woman.”
“Well, my guardian says she heard about it from the town.” She waited for him to retract his offer in fear he’d get caught.
“She was banished from town,” Ashton said, sticking to his lie.
With some satisfaction, Mila relaxed in his hold. “Actually, she wasn’t. She went back almost two weeks ago and overheard people.”
His brow furrowed. “Two weeks ago you and I were together.” Mila said nothing. “I couldn’t have been with anyone,” he pointed out, which Mila had realized the first time Anna brought it up.
“She heard it’s been going on for years.”
“She hasn’t been in town since I was little,” Ashton said firmly. “Too young to even know what sex was. Mila, I know this is hard, but she’s been lying, not me.”
“You have no proof.” But slowly, her contempt toward him was fading. She knew Anna disappeared, but not where to, and Anna never talked about anyone she knew in the town. The first time she’d seemed to have connections with anyone in town was during training at the edge of the woods, and those men had acted afraid of both of them.
“Say the word, and you can question the town.” Ashton met her gaze steadily, as though showing he had nothing to hide.
Though she had no interest in going back to the town where people stared at her, she didn’t want him to think she believed things without proof. “Let’s go, then,” she agreed, waiting for him to back out.
He stood and opened his hand to help her up. Ignoring the offer, Mila brushed dirt off her dress with quick pats, growing back the parts he’d messed up.
“Your town, you lead,” she said when he didn’t move.
His hand started to reach for hers before wisely falling to his side. They moved through the woods as one, with her following his steps exactly so she didn’t have to fight her way around large or prickly plants.
“They may be asleep,” he offered as Mila saw the top of the one of the buildings.
He made no other excuses. Unlike when she visited, he walked straight through the alleys and into the main area of the town. Mila wanted to duck into the shadows and watch from afar but forced herself to stay right on his heels.
No one stared at him: all their gazes fixed on her, the unwelcome woman following behind him. Every single one of them looked unfriendly, and Ashton turned, ready to throw her to them. “Ask any of them,” he said with a shrug. None of them looked like willing participants. “I’ll be over here, when you’re done.” He gestured to a side alley before leaving her alone.
She wished his word had been good enough.
Two men and a woman stood closest, watching her with open mistrust and interest. She might have seen them before: all the humans looking at her strangely blended after a while. Steeling her nerves, she walked over to the first man with a red face and scruffy beard.
“You know Ashton?” she prompted.
If possible, his face darkened to a deeper red. She felt a blush creeping on her own face from the stupid question: of course he did, Ashton had stood not five feet from him two seconds ago. “Is he…” Her next obstacle became how to ask the question. “Is he with anyone?” she tried.
By now the other man and woman had gathered closer, so she caught their gazes as well in case they wanted to answer.
“Like who?” the red-faced man asked. Her heart felt like sinking: they were off to a poor start. Why had Ashton offered this if he was only going to get caught?
“Like, intimately,” Mila said, pressing her lips into a tight line afterward.
The two men scoffed while the lady let out a strange gasping noise. “Don’t be absurd,” the red-faced man said.
Mila had no idea what category of answer that fell into. She looked to the other two humans for clarification. “He would never,” the woman said adamantly, her chest puffing up. “Certainly not with our sweet girls.”
Because she didn’t want to find herself here ever again, Mila forced herself to ask, “So you’re positive he’s a virgin?”
“Who raised you?” the second man barked. The woman placed a hand on his shoulder.
The red-faced man had taken on a pinched look, but that didn’t stop him from answering. “I’m as sure that he’s a virgin as I am that the moon’s in the sky.” The man didn’t look up, but Mila did, just to check.
“Thanks,” she told all three of them. Uncertain what else to say, she left, aware of their gazes on her back. When she got to Ashton’s hiding spot she pressed her back against the wall and allowed herself a moment of quiet. Either he’d brainwashed those three people and was a convincing liar, or he was actually a virgin. A skilled one, at that.
“Who next?” Ashton asked, inconsiderate of her moment.
Closing her eyes, Mila said, “I think that’s enough.”
“If you’re sure,” Ashton asked, doubt in his tone. “You’re free to ask anyone you want. Maybe avoid the children, though.”
His joke attempted to put them back on better terms, but Mila couldn’t go back to friends that fast. Mostly, she wanted to apologize to him. She knew better, though: so long as he lived they would keep running into this issue where Anna said one thing and he said another. Maybe it was good they planned on putting him in a pit soon.
“I believe you,” she said to his elbow. “But it doesn’t change anything. I have to go.”
“You mean you have to run away.”
Slowly, she worked her way up to his eyes. He looked like he’d just issued a dare he fully expected her to take. “You don’t want to make me angry,” she said coolly. “You know what we’re building.”
“And I know it’s nothing that can hold me forever.”
Considering the effort it had taken her to get out, she imagined he’d have an even harder time. His confidence couldn’t hurt, though. “I came to make sure you weren’t getting attacked, and you aren’t. If you’re smart, you’ll hide now.”
“When did you become so cold?” he asked, taking a step closer. “Not a week ago you were writhing on top of me, blushing when I touched you.”
Mila didn’t answer.
“You’re trying to distance yourself,” Ashton said, lifting his shoulders. “I get it.”
“And you should do the same.”
He gave a tight smile that narrowed his eyes. In a move she couldn’t track, he grabbed her hand and enfolded it in his. “That’s where we’re different. You’re afraid of being hurt. I’ve been hurt, and it’s often worth it.” Her eyes widened at his insanity. “Mila, if I knew the answer to how we permanently die, I would give it to you, just to see you happy.”
The last words he’d spoken made her tingle uncomfortably, so she ignored them. “You have to be afraid of something,” she said, looking at her captured hand.
Even though she knew better, Mila looked up into his eyes. As she’d already known, he watched her, smiling faintly. “I’m afraid of losing you.”
Gently, Mila attempted to extract her hand before he started saying more things that made her insides feel funny. “You never had me,” she informed him when her attempts at freeing herself failed.
“Then I cherish the times you’ve allowed me in your presence.”
“This isn’t funny,” she bit out when he pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “You’ve only known me for a month.”
Solemnly, Ashton said, “But I’ve known about you my whole life. I knew we complemented each other in every way, and one day, I would find you.” His thumb brushed over the back of her palm. “Mila, no matter what you put me through, I will always be here for you.” With a wry smile, he asked, “Can you say the same about your guardian?”
Surprisingly, she felt no fear from his vague threat. Instead, a strange understanding dawned on her, so that when he dropped her hand she didn’t move. “What happened, earlier?”
He didn’t play coy. “I killed myself.”
A bitter burst of laughter escaped her lips. His answer was so simple, so immature: he’d gone to desperate measures to get her attention. But it had worked.
Sadness settled over her that even when she’d left him alone, nothing had changed.
“I don’t think I can stop Anna,” she told him. “You’ll have to run.”
“I can’t leave you.”
Mila closed her eyes. “You’ll only get hurt.” She didn’t have to open her eyes to know the look on his face. He’d said as much not moments ago: he found the pain worth it.
“You’ll make it better.”
He didn’t ask for anything, but she gave. She hadn’t realized how much she missed him, how much being angry at him had hurt until she found herself in his arms again. He held her like he wouldn’t let go, and she stood on her toes so she could kiss him again and again, forgetting anything other than this moment.
By the time she got back to the hut—after prying herself away from Ashton’s amazing lips—Anna waited for her. “Tell me all about what he said this time,” Anna invited as she pulled out a chair for Mila.
Uncharacteristically, Anna tripped over the object she’d just moved. Her hands clung to Mila’s neck, ghosting over her skin as she fought to right herself. Mila had slipped an arm around Anna’s waist to hold her up when Anna’s fingers traced deliberately over a spot below Mila’s ear again and again. “Is that a hickey?”
“I don’t know what that means.” Mila knew Ashton’s lips had been there not even an hour ago, though. As well as a few other places.
“I do,” Anna said ominously, drawing her hand back like it’d been burnt. Instead of explaining, she guided Mila to the chair. She grabbed something from the counter that Mila couldn’t see, making her pulse quicken. “Looks like it’s time to put our plan into motion.”
“We’re killing two birds with one stone, Mila. Just sit still.”
Mila tried, but she couldn’t stop her next flinch. Somehow, Anna knew that Mila and Ashton had more or less made up, and at least had another heated moment. Anna seemed to take that knowledge personally in the punishment she currently delivered.
Anywhere he touched would bring Mila pain. In fact, walking back to find him in the woods would probably cause her pain, which Anna counted on.
Anna still thought Ashton lied, that he knew exactly how they could die permanently. “If he cares as much as you think he does,” Anna said, making a quick line up Mila’s leg. “Then this should bring the truth out once and for all.”
“He doesn’t know,” Mila said through clenched teeth.
“Doesn’t hurt to check before we move to the final stage.”
Maybe it didn’t hurt Anna, but Mila felt plenty of pain. Her nails bit into the skin of her palms as she tried to breathe through Anna’s next mark. A droplet of blood hit the floor. Mila hadn’t looked since the first slice, so she didn’t know where the blood came from.
“Can you lure him to the pit?” Anna asked, dragging the knife across Mila’s stomach.
Mila hissed out a breath before she could answer. “Yes.” He would walk there willingly, if she asked, which Anna didn’t understand and Mila was only just starting to grasp. He said he would always be there for her.
She was about to put that to the test.
“He’s not that bad,” Mila tried, fingers curling as Anna cut again. “I don’t think he’s a threat.”
The next cut crossed her ribs and nicked the underside of her breast, making her wince. Anna had put all of her feelings toward Mila’s words in that cut. “I know exactly what you think of him,” she swore, slicing into Mila’s other breast. “Are you even a virgin anymore?”
Mila decided to suffer in silence after that.
The knife blade cut into her skin easily, but Anna’s probing, searching for untouched skin with firm fingers, drew out the process. She traced lines up Mila’s neck and then stopped, as though to leave Mila’s face alone. Mila exhaled through her mouth in relief, which brought a new wave of pain.
“I don’t want him to notice anything at first,” Anna said, twirling the knife handle in her hands. “We’ll see how serious he is about not hurting you, that way.”
Mila had a hard enough time keeping her breathing shallow to least disturb the cuts, so she didn’t protest the unfairness. When Anna’s fingers found her lips, however, Mila asked, “Won’t that make it too difficult for me to ask him questions?”
Her finger traced the shape of Mila’s lips, the knife following behind. “This way, he can’t even seduce you with a kiss.”
Even with her lips closed, Mila tasted copper. The knife moved away and she held still, knowing Anna wasn’t finished. If there was any possibility Ashton could place a hand on her safely, Anna hadn’t accomplished her mission of physically placing her will on Mila’s. Sure enough, the knife drifted to her forehead.
“Last one,” Anna muttered. She started where Mila’s hair parted and swept down, ear to ear.
Mila had questions, but that required moving her bleeding lips, so she waited.
Grabbing the edge of her shirt, Anna started roughly dabbing at Mila’s face to remove the welling blood. “Grow new flowers to hide the rest,” she instructed. “And then you should be good to go.”
Even if there was humor in the idea of walking through the woods all cut up, Mila had no muscles to laugh with. Keeping still—as still as she could, with Anna pushing against her face—Mila closed up the flowers on her dress and imagined new ones replacing them. The cuts on her neck kept her from looking down to check her handiwork.
“Cover your arms and neck, too.”
Mila didn’t want to know what would happen if she disobeyed. Vines ran over her skin, stinging when they encountered cuts. Flower petals brushed against her chin and jaw, almost comforting, if she didn’t know the damage underneath.
Not only was she injured, but she was up to her neck in thick flowers, meant to hide said injuries.
“Do you feel ready?”
Peeling her lips away from the dried blood cementing them together, Mila managed, “Yes.” She had half a mind to go to the pit and drown herself again to regenerate.
As though reading her thoughts, Anna said, “I’ll walk you.”
“You shouldn’t,” Mila said, and meant it. Ashton would probably focus on Mila first, but if he did decide to turn on Anna, Mila had a lesser chance of properly defending her. Anna would probably want to eavesdrop, too, which would also heighten the chances of Ashton hurting her.
Anna’s hand caught Mila under the arms and started to lift. “Stand up.”
Mila stifled a pained whimper and stood, ignoring the way that placed a new burn on her legs. “I can’t have you backing out,” Anna explained as she led Mila to the door. “As soon as you tell me he’s in range, I’ll go.” Anna couldn’t disguise the smugness in her voice that even when she left, nothing inappropriate would happen.
“Can’t always sense him,” Mila said, the syllables stiff through her cracked lips.
“You’ll just have to try harder today then, won’t you?”
Mila complied, focusing on finding him rather than the pain she felt with each step. She had to admit at a certain point she became numb: the cuts on her legs stopped burning the further she walked into the woods.
With every creature she sensed, Mila wished to be them, able to flee.
Eventually, close to the spot where she’d left him—which didn’t make much sense—Mila thought she recognized Ashton. “Here,” she whispered.
“It’s almost over,” Anna soothed as she took her hands away. Mila couldn’t tell if she wobbled from the loss of support or from some of her injuries getting brushed against in the process. True to her earlier words, Anna left back toward the hut.
Mila thought of following. So far Ashton hadn’t noticed her presence, which meant she could find a way to kill herself and end the pain without hurting him like Anna wanted.
Before she’d followed through with her plan, Ashton got too close. He crossed the distance to her like it was nothing. “You’re back?” he asked, striding forward. “Are you okay?”
Smiling as well as she could against the pain, Mila lied, “I’m fine.” Despite the words, she took a giant step back when Ashton got within arm’s reach.
“Did you talk with your guardian?” he asked, searching her face. His dark gray eyes held concern, which she felt undeserving of under the circumstances. She gazed in the direction Anna had left, debating her chances of walking away without him noticing anything.
In answer, Mila said, “She thinks you’re lying.”
Nothing new. At least this time Mila knew better than to believe Anna.
“I wouldn’t,” he swore, reaching for her face.
Even though ducking from him twisted the cuts on her neck, Mila avoided his hand by inches. The hurt on his face almost made the dodge not worth it.
“What have I done now?” he asked, expressionless again.
Mila turned her head away.
“We were doing so well,” he continued. “Have you forgotten that, in less than a day?”
A lot could change in less than a day. In one of those moves Mila couldn’t follow, Ashton reached forward to grab her hand. Flowers covered the cuts on the back of her hand, but if he turned her hand over he’d see the marks on her palms. He squeezed her hand—trying to bring back her memories of their amazing kiss together, no doubt—and she tensed against the pain.
“Mila,” he coaxed softly. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
She’d been around him long enough to know what came next. Silently, she watched him lift her hand to his lips—sending pain up her entire arm and into her ribs in the process—and dust the decaying flowers away on an exhale.
For once, she didn’t look away. His eyes widened at the trail of red, and he went completely still, possibly thinking he’d done it. Trying to help, Mila offered, “It wasn’t you.”
“Mila.” Her name was a jagged exhale from his lips. She opened her mouth to respond and he shook his head, eyes wild and so uncharacteristically lost. He leaned forward, dabbing his thumb against the edge of her lips, probably to collect a bead of blood. “Your lips.”
His fingers only disturbed the flowers at her neck, avoiding her skin. She knew he’d seen the jagged cuts against her neck when he closed his eyes. “How far does it go?”
Tears welled in her eyes, surprising her. She’d thought she would have started crying the second they started walking. She only minded the tears when they dripped off her jaw and onto her neck, searing into the cuts there.
“Mila,” Ashton repeated, opening his eyes and looking at her in horror. “Why didn’t you heal?”
The cuts were too deep, too long. She usually only healed small hindrances. Normally her fingers tingled with some kind of readiness, and now, she felt nothing: the damage was too severe, at least until their next switch of powers.
“Don’t.” He cut her off with a shake of his head. “You let the tears out, and I’ll take care of this.”
Watching him reach for her arm, Mila asked, “How?”
Apparently serious about her not talking, Ashton didn’t respond. His fingers tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and he grimaced at the beginning of the line he found. Unlike Anna’s ghost of a touch, he made no actual contact with her skin, saving her more pain.
“I need to die,” she told him. “It’ll keep hurting.”
The flowers slid away from her arms and dropped onto the ground. “If you won’t keep quiet,” he said softly, looking only to the wounds, “then tell me who did this.”
Her loyalty disgusted her, but Mila couldn’t say anything against her guardian. Even in making her bleed, her guardian had tried to do the best for Mila: keep Ashton’s seductive charm away, and use his weakness—her, supposedly—against him. If there were another option, Mila believed Anna would have taken it.
“Your guardian,” Ashton surmised, peeling the flowers away from her chest. Considering Mila only really knew two people, it wasn’t a hard guess. “Why?”
She didn’t think telling him the plan would go against Anna’s loyalty, but she waited. If she didn’t choose her words correctly he might lie, or find some loophole. So long as she believed he still knew the truth about their deaths, anyway.
The low noise Ashton made in his throat cut off any response she’d started. His gaze was on her cut up breasts, his hands sliding down to hover over her ribs, finding the deep gashes there.
He dropped to his knees, facing her shallow breaths fully. Snarling a word she didn’t know, his hands smoothed from her hips to her legs, wasting no time in revealing the rest of her. The bottoms of her feet were untouched, but showing him would cause more pain than help, she felt.
Distress and pain that were not her own felt tangible in the air around them, prompting Mila to rest a hand on the top of Ashton’s head. “I’ll heal.” Eventually. “Let me die.”
“She made you untouchable,” he said, like Mila hadn’t spoken. His head tilted back, shifting her arm away to fall to her side. “And you’ll still go back to her.”
The disbelief in his gaze was hard to stomach. “I have to. She’s my guardian.”
“You’re not going back to her like this.” His hands clenched into fists that he pressed against his sides. “And you’re not leaving yourself in danger with her while you regenerate.”
Stay with him? Mila only kept her head still so she didn’t hurt her neck. “I don’t have time.”
He waved a hand at her bloodied body. “Where are you going like this, except to see me?” Not a second later, his eyes widened. Mila knew what came next. “She did all of this because she thinks I’m lying?” he asked, searching Mila’s apologetic eyes.
“Are you?” Mila whispered.
He closed his eyes, remaining frozen to the spot for so long Mila wondered if he’d stopped breathing. “No. But I’ll tell you a lie.” His hand lifted as though to settle on her thigh before he thought better of it. “If I don’t, I might see you like this again.” He opened his eyes, the intensity chilling her to the bone. “I can’t see you like this again.”
“You promised—” Mila started.
“Not to hurt her,” he agreed, saving her the pain of forming the words. His fingers finally traced a path on her unblemished skin, sending whispers of sensation that numbed the pain slightly. “But that’s when I thought—when you said—she wasn’t hurting you.”
He said the words too neutrally for them to be an accusation, but Mila took them like one anyway. “You can’t,” she pleaded. “She knew this would—”
His lips pressed against clear skin on her thigh, silencing her. “But she didn’t care the cost,” he said against her. When he looked back up at her he’d worked his face into an unreadable mask. “You’re supposed to lure me, aren’t you? That’s why you don’t have time to regenerate.”
“You know I would have followed you if you’d asked,” he said, rising to his full height.
To her surprise, the faintest smile crossed his lips. “Then I’m going to heal you, and we’ll go back together.”
Mila knew there would only be pain if he followed her back. “It’s a trap.”
“And if it keeps her from hurting you…” He pressed a kiss to her forehead, which alternately made her feel cherished and brought a question to the front of her mind.
“You don’t have healing powers.”
She’d taught him the basics of using her powers, but they hadn’t switched again. His hand found her palm and lifted it for his scrutiny. When he flipped her hand around for her, the dried blood and cut were gone.
His thumbs smoothing across her lips stopped her question.
“Never got around to teaching you,” he said. “But I don’t know that I could have explained it, anyway.”
Mila’s best explanation of her healing powers had been her fingertips tingling, so she understood. His thumbs slid up past her ears, tracing the cut that ran along her hairline. “I can help,” she said, relieved when the skin around her mouth didn’t pull anymore. If she could find her powers and they both worked on healing her, maybe she wouldn’t have to regenerate.
Blinking at him in surprise, Mila studied the determination on his face as he cupped his hands around her neck and held, warming and healing her.
“Let me do this.”
She was tired of fighting him, so she yielded to his capable hands. His hands roamed across her skin, shoulders to hands, pausing at the worst of the cuts that took more of his concentration. He skimmed down her breasts and kept his hands on her ribs for so long she worried he’d forgotten what he worked on.
When she successfully pulled in a large breath of air, he moved lower. He dropped to his knees again, pressing a kiss against her freshly healed hip while his hands worked lower.
The slices on her calves drew most of his attention, and then he lifted one foot to inspect her sole. “They’re fine,” she informed him.
“Small miracles,” Ashton muttered. He checked her other foot anyway, and she swayed, placing her hands on his head to steady herself. Satisfied that he’d healed her, he started to stand, but she applied pressure so he stayed down.
He patiently waited for an explanation.
“You can’t come back with me.”
His patience gave way to agitation. “I’m not negotiating with you. Do you know how badly she cut you? You could hardly talk, damn it.”
“Of course I know,” she said, waiting for her words to sink in. She knew they had when his eyes softened into something closer to sympathy, which she could work with. “If you tell me the truth, I think that will be enough, for now.” Reading the look on his face, she added, “Or the lie.”
“And then two days later you’ll be all cut up again to lure me.” He shook his head. “I’d rather get this over with.”
She wound her fingers into his hair firmly, as though that would show how strongly she felt about him staying out of Anna’s way. “You won’t have much time, after she finds out. I need to fix the pit so that you can escape.”
Lifting a brow, Ashton clarified, “Mila, you know what I’ll tell you is a lie, right? My escape won’t matter: I can’t die.”
Mila sucked in a breath, wondering how to make him understand.
“We’ll make a deal,” Ashton decided, seeing she meant her words. When he pushed to stand again she let him, hands falling to her sides. She knew only too well how his deals worked, and she eyed his lips suspiciously. For safety, she also grew herself a new dress; she was impressed he hadn’t gotten distracted after healing her.
“You know what I want,” Mila dismissed when he waited on her.
“I’ll give you a lie and not go back with you,” he agreed, pausing to see if she’d add anything. When she didn’t, he said, “If you’ll ask her how she went blind.”
She could have agreed and walked away, but she felt compelled to inform him, “I’ve asked before. She won’t answer.”
“Then come up with something to make her say it.”
A strange look had crossed his face, one that unsettled Mila more than his request. “Why?” she asked.
“Do you trust me?”
“Yes.” Mila wished she had hesitated, but curiosity got the better of her. She’d asked Ashton about how Anna had lost her sight before, and he’d evaded the question. Was there a reason?
His head nodded over his shoulder, to the town. “Anna’s family used you to try to get back into the town. The people refused, but said you could stay. For whatever reason, they decided to continue living with you in the woods.”
As interesting—and strange—as the story was, Mila asked, “How does that relate?”
“My guardian checked on you the first few years,” Ashton continued, ignoring her. “She’d heard some of the family had died, so she went to see you. She’d tell the story better than me, but basically… Anna was trying to be more than your guardian.”
“Like a mother?” Mila tried. He’d yet to say one word about Anna’s eyes, dragging out the suspense.
With an apologetic shake of his head, Ashton said, “Like a lover.”
Flinching back, Mila said, “You’re wrong.”
“She’s wrong.” Pacing away from him and then rounding back, Mila snapped, “I asked you to tell me about her blindness, not some awful rumor.” Lies spilled from his lips: Mila didn’t have a single memory of Anna ever pursuing her like that. Half the time Anna shied away from Mila’s touch, making his claims impossible.
“I wasn’t done,” Ashton said. He didn’t continue until she’d stopped pacing, either. “My guardian doesn’t know how it happened, but you—your powers, I think—defended yourself, because somehow you knew it wasn’t right with her. You blinded her.”
Mila’s mouth opened but no words came out. “What a horrible thing to say,” she snapped.
“But you can see why the cuts didn’t surprise me.”
And maybe why he’d been reluctant to discuss details in the first place. Mila tried not to focus on how he might be right, because she couldn’t stomach that. “I wish you hadn’t made that up. You could have told me you didn’t know.”
“But I do.”
Shuddering, Mila said, “I’m not asking her.”
Ashton placed a hand under her chin, tilting her head to look up at him. “I told you because I know you’re strong enough to hear it,” he said. “And you don’t have to tell her what you know. All I want is for you to ask her, to see what she says.”
“She’ll tell me something much more believable.”
“Maybe,” Ashton said, lifting one shoulder. He didn’t sound like he believed that for a second. Dropping his hand from her face, he asked, “Will you do it?”
Mila didn’t see the point—or how it benefited him, if he already knew the truth—but she nodded anyway. His lips brushed against the corner of her mouth, his sign of agreement. “Now tell me the lie,” she said, folding her arms over her chest. After what he’d come up with for Anna’s blindness, she expected something good.
He obliged, sparing no detail.
Mila had the entire walk back to collect her thoughts before facing Anna, but she hadn’t made any progress by the time she reached the pond. Passing her favorite spot up, she wandered into the woods, where they’d made the pit.
Even if Ashton had her powers, the water would be his downfall. Mila regretted not teaching him how to swim in the week they’d spent together.
Moving anything now would risk Anna stumbling right into the pit. Knowing that, Mila still shoved one row of the boulders into the water. At his height, he might be able to stand on them, even with the water level displacing. If he couldn’t, he might be able to reach the free spot in the ledge, now.
In the hut, Anna stirred. Mila’s senses were hyperaware of her now, a combination of the cuts and Ashton’s story.
She held her ground as Anna approached, probably hearing the shifting boulders. “Be careful,” Mila called out when she was close enough. “There’s a gap.”
“He must have found out.”
Mila let the absent Ashton take the fall for her handiwork.
“Speaking of, where is he?” Mila turned to take in Anna, standing with her legs splayed and her arms crossed, looking like she owned the place. “Did you not manage to get him back?”
“He must have known,” Mila shrugged.
Anna’s hair fell into her eyes. “You were gone for a while.”
Last time Anna had noticed how long Mila had been gone, she’d ranted about Mila’s impurity. To end that topic before it began, Mila offered, “He told me everything.” Knowing how Anna would puff up, Mila added, “You were right.”
Genuine glee spread over Anna’s face, even partially obscured by her hair. She swept the strands away, smiling as she came closer to Mila. “Of course I was. What did he say?”
“We can only really die when there’s a full moon exactly at the middle of the sky.” Mila struggled to remember everything else he’d come up with. “We have to be kept on dirt without a hint of foliage. Then, all of our blood has to spill into the earth.”
“There’s no incantation?” Anna asked.
Mila couldn’t tell if she joked or not, so she made something up. “You have to bask in the moonlight and ask it for the powers to flow into your body.”
Nodding, Anna said, “That sounds about right.” Her smile grew wider, if possible. “I can’t believe the day’s finally come.”
She reached for Mila’s shoulders in excitement. If she’d forgotten the damage she’d dealt to Mila, she remembered the second her hand landed on smooth skin. Mila knew because the pads of her fingers skimmed in a circle, searching. “What’s this?”
“I healed myself after,” Mila lied.
“You’ve gotten stronger.” There was an edge to Anna’s voice that Mila couldn’t quite place. “How did he get away from you?”
Trying to think of an easy story, Mila said, “I wasn’t healed in time. He ran, and I couldn’t chase.” She tried to speak as neutrally as Ashton had when discussing Anna, but a part of her hoped enough bitterness leaked through that Anna might apologize.
Of course, she didn’t. “That gives us time to fix the pit, at least,” Anna said, pulling away from Mila to rub her hands together. “Then we’ll cut you up a little and send you back out.”
Mila had known it was a possibility if Anna thought it the best way, but she thought Ashton escaping from her weakened state might change something. Or that maybe Anna would understand Mila didn’t enjoy getting cut up every day.
Smile fading, Anna said, “Mila, don’t wimp out now. We know it’s effective.”
Mila also knew there was no point arguing. She watched Anna nod in the direction of the pit. “How soon can you fix it?”
“Now.” Because she’d only roll boulders to the side to fake Anna into believing she’d fixed it.
“We’ve got to move fast, before he plans a counterattack,” Anna said. She turned for the hut, probably to go get the knife. While Mila fixed the pit Anna probably hoped to cut Mila up, multitasking.
Before she left, Mila called, “Anna.”
Her name held too much weight, and Mila almost lost her nerve. Having promised Ashton she would ask, she steeled herself. He’d held up his end of the bargain, as far as she could sense. “If we’re going to corner Ashton…”
“When,” Anna corrected, spirits lifted.
Mila didn’t want to be there when her mood crashed. But if Ashton had lied, everything should be fine. “I was thinking, maybe I should heal your sight.”
To her credit, Anna didn’t immediately react. First her smile drooped at the corners, and she exhaled slowly, a sign of her disappointment in Mila. “That’s nice,” she said without conviction. “But you don’t have the power for that.”
Before she could walk away, Mila pressed, “You just said I’m more powerful.”
Smile fully disappearing, Anna said, “That’s not why I said it.”
“Why won’t you let me try?” Mila asked. She took a step forward, watching as Anna tensed, like she might run. Normally it was the other way around, with Mila wanting to flee. The situation felt wrong, but Mila persevered.
“Why do you care?” Anna stood straighter, finding her backbone. “Where is this coming from?”
Mila would probably regret asking, but the words fell out. “I want to know what happened to your sight.”
“Mila,” Anna scolded. But that was Anna’s mistake: she’d taught Mila that no question was ever too far. Whatever she wanted to know, she could pursue until she found out.
Folding her arms over her chest, Mila waited for the answer. “I think I deserve to know.”
“Do you?” Anna challenged. Her hand lifted as though to strike Mila. “Why now?”
Thinking the mention of Ashton’s name might spur her into answering, Mila told part of the truth. “Ashton told me a story.”
Carefully, Anna said, “Only a story, I’m sure.”
Though she’d taken care with her words, Mila heard the note of fear. She wanted to know what Ashton had said as much as Mila wanted to know the truth. “I’ll let you know.”
“It was an accident with the fire,” Anna said. “Happy now?”
The anger she infused in her voice was meant to make Mila feel guilty, to cower, apologize, and—most of all—drop it. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Anna had to be lying, because if the answer was that simple, she would’ve said something sooner. She would’ve warned Mila against building fires, surely. As it was, the explanation didn’t add up.
“It’s not important.”
Laughing before she could stop herself, Mila said, “It isn’t? We’re talking about your sight.” Knowing it was a low blow, Mila said, “If it’s not a disease, I know I can heal it.”
Mila didn’t recognize the person she’d become, advancing on her guardian with questions. “Don’t you want to be able to see the look on Ashton’s face when we catch him?” She took a step closer. “Don’t you want to see where you’re going, to not worry about the noises in the woods?”
“This is why I didn’t tell you,” Anna said, voice rising. “I knew you’d push.”
Laughter bubbled up and died on Mila’s lips. Anna was lying so clearly that Mila could practically see the truth behind it: Anna was scared. No, normally Mila would apologize and walk away. Mila hadn’t been a pusher until she’d learned how much people enjoyed lying to her, at the potential cost of her life.
And it seemed her guardian was the worst culprit.
“I know you miss seeing my face,” Mila said, trying to soften her method of attack. “Just let me help you. I know I can do this.”
“Haven’t you done enough?” Anna shrieked.
She’d officially snapped. The angles of her face sharpened, pulled by her wide, fearful eyes. The strands of hair that fell into her face made her look all the more crazed. Mila couldn’t tell if she looked ready to pounce or flee. Anna probably didn’t know, either.
If indirectly, Anna’s words blamed Mila for what had happened, just like Ashton’s story. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, Mila dropped her voice to ask, “How?”
Though she’d spoken only above a whisper, Anna shook like Mila had yelled at her.
“It’s okay,” Mila said, walking close enough to rest a hand on Anna’s bony shoulder. If Ashton was wrong, Mila would feel like the worst person. And even if he was right, why would Anna admit something like that and threaten everything they’d worked toward? Anna had obviously tried to make up for her past behavior.
With that in mind, Mila dropped her hand. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, you—” Anna didn’t finish, turning on her heel and running blindly. Mila could have followed easily, but she let her go to the safety of the hut.
While she had no official answer, but she’d already decided to forgive Anna, even if what Ashton had claimed was true. Mila didn’t know the whole story, and maybe she never would. Anna had probably been lonely, after losing her family: she’d had no one to turn to but Mila. Mila’s hindsight made her regret pushing so hard, and she headed after Anna with the intention of apologizing.
From the clearing she knew the hut was empty, but she looked through the window anyway. The inside was undisturbed to the point Anna might not have entered at all. Mila looked to Doll and Ghost standing in their usual place by the pond.
“Which way did she go?” she asked them.
Both horses looked in different directions among the trees. “Great,” Mila said. She wasn’t really upset, though: she traveled as close to the middle of their paths as she could, patting them on the neck as she passed. She kept her senses open for Anna, knowing she couldn’t have run far.
Anna didn’t weigh enough to leave traceable footprints, so Mila found herself wandering in circles. The area around the pit was empty, the place where she normally picked berries didn’t hide her, and another cursory check at the hut said she hadn’t returned. Mila skipped asking the horses for directions again, as that had ended horribly.
Following the path toward the river, Mila called, “Anna!”
No response, but then, she didn’t sense anyone around her. She pressed on, calling Anna’s name again. “I’m sorry!” she tacked on this time. She didn’t know what else to offer: they could resume with their plan to trap Ashton? Mila wouldn’t ask about her eyesight again?
Someone human—or close enough in shape—appeared to her right. They felt larger than Anna, but Mila walked closer, footsteps careful. Anna would hear her and probably run again if Mila made too much noise.
Grass blades sprouted, cushioning her steps.
She’d known she would be spotted, but the deep voice was completely out of place. Circling the tree in her path, Mila found Ashton standing there. And that’s why she’d sensed someone much bigger than Anna.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked, skipping a greeting.
He navigated his way around a rotting tree stump and spread his arms. “I should ask you the same.” At her irritated look he nodded his head left, telling her to look; she’d worked her way to almost the edge of town.
Given she’d left him hours ago, she still found her question valid. “Shouldn’t you be back with your guardian?” she asked. She checked behind him to make sure Anna hadn’t snuck up on them. Briefly, she wondered if Ashton had heard or seen Anna in the woods, but she wasn’t about to involve him.
“Mila,” he said, exasperated. “What’s going on?” When she didn’t immediately answer he took a step forward. “Are you hurt?”
“No.” And if she wanted to find Anna, she couldn’t be anywhere near him. “I’ve got to go,” she told him, striding forward with the intention of breezing past him. He would never let her go so simply: he reached out, catching her arm as she tried to walk away.
Her struggle was brief, more dramatic than anything. When she’d calmed—reluctantly—he asked, “Did you ask her?”
Mila didn’t sense Anna, but if she’d hidden nearby, Mila didn’t want to upset her further. “It doesn’t matter.” She looked pointedly at his restraining hand. In response he guided her to stand in front of him, even more of an obstacle to her search.
“Did our stories match up?”
Resigned to the fact that they’d stand there as long as Ashton wanted, Mila said, “She said it was from the fire.” Fixing a glare on Ashton’s too handsome face, she added, “And then she ran.”
He didn’t flinch at the accusation in her words or gaze. “You believe her?”
“No,” Mila admitted. She’d thought she was still on the fence, finding both sides plausible, but with such a simple question, she didn’t have to think twice. Ashton’s story explained more than Anna’s did, though that meant little if she never saw Anna again. “But I forgive her,” Mila said, giving him a long look. If he’d planned on turning her against her guardian, he’d failed.
He smiled in a way that made her feel predictable. “That’s not why I told you,” he said, as though he’d read her thoughts. “I just thought you should know.”
“The only reason you’d tell me is to try and change my mind about her.” Mila wasn’t dumb.
He started to say something and then shrugged. “Everyone thought she was trying to get close enough to you to steal your powers. I don’t know about that, but I know she’s blind and obsessed with taking me down so you have everything.”
Sincerely hoping Anna wasn’t eavesdropping, Mila defended, “So I could live the best life possible.”
“And so she could,” he said, like he stated the color of the grass.
Mila didn’t want to fight, and so with great effort, she put her excuses aside. “Thank you for telling me.” Given she’d mentioned Anna had run, Mila felt comfortable telling him, “I’m looking for Anna.”
His head tilted to the side in acknowledgement, like he’d suspected as much. “She’d come all the way out here?”
“I don’t know where she’d go.” When Mila normally upset Anna, she was asked to leave while Anna stayed. Aside from the hut, Mila couldn’t think of any place Anna called her own. “You haven’t seen her, right?”
His gaze appeared to darken, but Mila must have imagined it, because after she blinked he looked completely relaxed. “I haven’t been out here long,” he said, scratching at his shoulder. “But no. Haven’t sensed her, either.”
Suspicious, Mila asked, “Why were you out here?” Folding her arms over her chest, she looked him over once. “You weren’t going back on the deal, were you?”
“Did you want me to?” He stepped forward, winding his hands around her lower back to pull her forward. Her arms ended up trapped against their bodies, so that her palm rested against his beating heart.
While her body tingled in complete happiness with the distraction, Mila’s mind knew she had other priorities. Leaning as far from him as she could, Mila said, “No. And you probably shouldn’t be out here. She was pretty upset.” Ashton arched a brow, and Mila clarified, “Think like a cornered animal. I have an apology: you’re a threat.”
Ashton shrugged, lifting her heels off the ground as he did. “Do you want me to help you look?”
“Did you not just hear what I said?” Mila felt confident that she could coax Anna to come back, but just as easily pictured her going for Ashton’s jugular, even if she couldn’t see it. “You should go into town.”
“And leave you with a cornered animal?”
Mila pushed against his hold and he released her, knowing he’d lost this argument. “You’ll let me know if she’s in town?”
Ashton’s face echoed Mila’s doubts for that one: Anna wouldn’t go somewhere she’d been banned. “Sure,” he agreed. They each waited for the other to leave. Ashton moved first for the town, and Mila walked in the opposite direction, trusting him not to follow.
Her relief grew the further she walked: Anna hadn’t eavesdropped, then. “I’m really sorry,” Mila tried again into the trees. The buzzing of insects drowned out some of the tinier noises in the woods, like a squirrel in the bushes. When the animal skittered across the ground for a tree Mila squealed and jumped like she’d encountered a snake instead.
Heart racing, she continued on.
Mila risked walking in circles again without any sign of her guardian. Closing her eyes, Mila tried to imagine where she’d go if she’d been betrayed. The answer was easy: up. Mila opened her eyes and tilted her head back, looking into the branches.
The trees were too tall, and Anna most likely too blind unless she’d practiced.
Another bush rustled and Mila turned, fully expecting the squirrel had returned to scare her. The sight of Anna, hands clawing into the bark of a tree and hair obscuring her face, was much more frightening.
“Anna?” Mila asked.
Her head turned at her name, moving some of her hair out of the way. The milky white hue of Anna’s eyes seemed to reflect the moonlight, making her no less creepy. In the span of an hour, she’d turned into a completely different person.
Remembering her analogy, Mila placed her hands out in defense. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry.” When that had no effect, Mila stressed, “I don’t care what happened. You’re my guardian.”
Anna took a step forward, keeping her hand on the tree.
Unsure if Anna had forgiven her yet, Mila took a step backward. A branch stabbed into the back of her foot and she shifted to a safer area. “I’m worried,” Mila tried. If she could make Anna feel in control again, she might snap back into the guardian Mila recognized.
“You should be.”
Mila couldn’t believe the gravelly words had come from Anna. “Why would you say something like that?” Stupidly, tears rose in her eyes. She blinked and tipped her head back, trying to keep her vision clear.
“Didn’t he tell you?” Anna sneered. Her hand slipped lower on the tree, compromising her balance for a moment. “I killed my family to get them out of the way.”
Real fear made Mila’s blood pump faster, wondering if she’d gotten in over her head.
“I tried to love you—to force you to love me—and I got hurt.”
As discretely as she could, Mila took a step away. She’d think over Anna’s words later, at a safer time. “That’s in the past,” Mila tried. “And you stayed to raise me, even after that.”
“And I did a horrible job, if you’re so sympathetic for someone who tried to ruin you.”
Mila didn’t care about that, but wondered if that’s what had started Anna’s strange obsession with her purity. “That’s all in the past.” And still would be, if Mila had shut up. She couldn’t decide if she appreciated knowing the truth—knowing how dangerous Anna could be—or if she wanted to go back to believing her guardian might have been born blind.
The bushes rustled in the wind, causing Anna’s head to jerk to the side. “Is he around?”
Mila knew exactly who she meant. “It’s just you and me,” she reassured.
Apparently that was the wrong thing to say, because Anna lunged. Mila had enough time to let out a short scream before she hit the ground, knocking the air out of her. Anna wasted no time in moving behind Mila and locking her legs around her throat. With her lungs already depleted, Mila had no real chance of struggling.
Thorns emerged from the grass and cut into both of them, but it wasn’t enough: Mila saw spots seconds before she ran out of air.
Mila woke on uncertain terms. The first thing she knew was that she was alone: not even an earthworm crawled near her. On her next exhale, Mila realized plain dirt rested under her back, meaning she’d switched powers with Ashton.
Sitting up, Mila pressed a hand to her head, dizzy. Normally when she regenerated she woke refreshed, but she felt like she’d gotten up too soon. She made a point to stand slowly, trying to piece her memories together. She could see signs of a struggle on the ground, where she’d fallen and Anna had choked her.
Anna was nowhere in sight.
Looking to the sky, Mila nearly swore at the moon that didn’t tell her how much time had passed. There were no footprints in the dirt, no sign where Anna had gone. Mila almost turned for the hut before she remembered Anna’s question.
Is he with you?
Anna’s confession had made it seem like she wanted Mila’s powers, but apparently she’d been after Ashton the whole time. That probably meant something important—like she still wanted to be with Mila, as she put it, in an “impure way”—but Mila couldn’t think about that with her head pounding. Besides, she needed to find Ashton.
If he’d gotten out of the woods he might be okay. Otherwise, Mila’s suffocation had probably doomed him.
The woods looked unfamiliar as she stumbled through them. Ashton could be anywhere. At risk for attracting Anna, Mila didn’t call out, heading toward where she hoped was the town.
She stumbled right into the wolves.
Her senses tipped her off right as she felt fur brush against her hand. She’d never felt so disoriented before, and hastily stepped back until she flattened against a tree. Maybe if she didn’t move, the wolves would forget about her.
“Easy,” she whispered to the wolf she’d bumped into, which snapped at its friend. All the wolves chimed in, biting and snarling. They focused on each other, but they could turn at any minute.
Their noises settled into a growl, and the wolves looked to her expectantly. “I’m leaving,” she assured them. Warning heard, loud and clear: they didn’t want her around and she didn’t want to be around. She inched by the nearest tree, planning on hiding behind it until she felt confident she could run.
She recognized the wolf that pushed forward to nose into her hand. The black wolf she’d tried—and failed—to convince to track Ashton before.
Feeling unduly hopeful, Mila asked, “Can you take me to Ashton?”
Though there was a language barrier between them, she swore the wolf dipped its head in understanding. She chalked it up to Ashton’s powers and took a step away from the tree, making the wolves in the back rearrange. “Show me.”
She had no explanation except that they included her into their pack, for the time being. The wolf from before loped off into the distance, one wolf fell into step with her, and the other two took their spots at the back, making her feel like she had a place among them.
The only problem was, she was not a wolf, and even on her best day, she couldn’t run like one. With her head pounding, she ran for about five steps before she had to stop.
Noses pressed into the backs of her knees and hands, either trying to diagnose her problems or urge her on. “I can’t keep up,” she said, looking at the lead wolf, already so far in the distance. Not a second after she’d spoken the words, she heard the distinct gait of a hooved creature approaching.
“Doll,” Mila exhaled, breaking into a smile. She felt like laughing at her luck.
Mila tried to jump onto Doll’s back and fell about a foot short, stumbling back. Without prompting, Doll kneeled so that Mila could climb on with less difficulty. She wound her hands into Doll’s mane and hoped she’d be able to hold on.
She also hoped the wolves knew where they were going. The lead wolf disappeared as soon as Mila was seated. Doll started at a walk and transitioned into a canter that jarred Mila’s head.
Closing her eyes, Mila followed Doll’s body, tucking tight and leaning when they turned. At the rate they travelled, they’d be halfway across the woods already. Her senses tunneled in and out, making her feel surrounded and alone all at once.
The wolf flanking her peeled away first, and she opened her eyes to watch it go. Immediately she wished she hadn’t, feeling like she might puke.
Thankfully, Doll curbed her speed to an easy walk. “Thanks,” she told the leaving wolves. Closer to Doll’s ear, she asked, “Do you know where he is?” Either the wolves had gotten her close, or taken her on a wild chase.
Doll’s ear flicked back in response. Oak branches hung low, threatening to unseat Mila. She peered into the darkness, thinking she saw someone on the ground.
Her depleted senses offered nothing. Doll steadily approached, coming to a stop when Mila tightened her grip in Doll’s mane. At first, the scene in front of her didn’t make any sense. The ground was too dark, the person’s head turned at a strange angle.
“Ashton,” she realized. She tried to slide off of Doll’s back at the same time Doll sidestepped, successfully ending the attempt.
She could only see the back of his head; the front of his face was pressed into the dirt. From here, she couldn’t hear a heartbeat. Scanning his body, Mila found multiple cuts and understood the strange coloring of the dirt: it had blood all over it.
Shock had Mila numbly looking to the full moon in the sky. Somehow, Anna had gone through with Ashton’s lie.
“You should be feeling the effects about now.”
Mila twisted her torso to see Anna leaning against a tree behind her. She tried to turn Doll, who had suddenly become noncompliant. “What have you done?” Mila asked, even though the obvious answer was right in front of her.
With a nod in Ashton’s direction, Anna said, “I drained the power from him. I sent it to you, though.”
Except the chant wouldn’t do anything. Mila studied Ashton’s fallen form, wondering why he looked so dead if none of his explanation was real. “I thought you’d want it for yourself,” Mila said, trying to stall. She needed a way to lure Anna away from Ashton’s body.
Anna’s lips curled in a terrifying way. “I didn’t think you’d wake up.”
Uncertainly, Mila did a cursory check for cuts. She was untouched, as she’d thought. “Because of Ashton?” she asked. That might explain her general weakness: their power was off balance, Mila walking around while Ashton struggled to regenerate. Mila had no idea how long it would take for him to create all of his blood again.
Without answering, Anna stepped forward. “Good girl.”
Until Doll wheeled away, Mila thought Anna had spoken to her. Her arms felt numb, but she managed to hold onto Doll, who looked poised to bite Anna. As Mila thought to stop the attack, a wave of dizziness passed over her.
Anna was coming for her. Doll spun, trying to keep Mila seated and Anna at bay, which did nothing to help Mila’s head.
She had no idea if Anna planned on helping or hurting her, but she knew from the black spots that she wouldn’t be awake much longer. “Go,” she told Doll weakly. When she succumbed to the darkness she’d slip off, but she could put distance between herself and Anna in the meantime.
“Easy,” Anna said, grabbing a handful of Doll’s mane.
Anchored, Doll couldn’t obey Mila’s orders to run. Mila tried to lean in the opposite direction of Anna, but it wouldn’t matter. Her grip loosened first, and then she felt herself slide off of Doll’s back. She felt nothing before she hit the ground.
She’d thought waking up the first time had been torture, but this certainly won. Someone moved around her with loud, confident steps. Keeping her breathing even, Mila tried to collect her thoughts before she tackled whatever problem awaited her.
By her quick attempt at math, she had her powers of growth again. From the barren dirt under her hands—and no grass blades tickling her arm—she didn’t. Her forehead wrinkled as she tried to make something grow and nothing happened. One of the flowers on her dress tickled her arm, and she tried to wilt it with no results either.
Somehow, she had no powers.
Her muscles relaxed the second she gave up on making anything happen. Cool dirt pressed against her back—
And stung her.
Eyes still closed, Mila tried to understand what she felt. The sensation was similar to when Anna had cut her up. Preparing herself for whatever Anna had done, Mila opened her eyes and looked down at her chest. Whatever cuts ached at the dirt seemed to be out of sight. She tried to sit up and found herself restrained by thick rope.
“Struggling won’t help,” Anna said before she’d even tried.
Mila couldn’t help attempting to lift her arms and legs anyway. Nothing budged: her heightened strength had deserted her as well. Turning her head to the side, Mila noted the arrows deeply rooted into the ground, holding the ropes in place.
When she strained against the bindings again, she felt blood ooze out of cuts on the backs of her arms and legs. Then, her knuckles.
Mila stopped moving.
Unaware of Mila’s panic, Anna added another layer of rope over Mila’s stomach and speared the arrow into the ground, through the rope. Afraid of what she’d see, Mila lifted her hand best she could, twisting her neck to better evaluate.
Up to the knuckle, her fingers were gone.
A strangled whimper left her lips. She couldn’t tear her gaze away, and now that she knew, the pain seemed to multiply. The cuts she couldn’t see meant nothing now: she could only look at her dirt-covered, bleeding, chopped hands.
“Hm?” Anna never glanced her way. “Oh, you kept growing things.”
Mila had no response. Her powers ran through her, not just her fingertips, but they’d deserted her now. None of this made sense. As gently as she could, Mila set her hand back down, trying not to wince at the feel of the dirt against her fresh wounds.
“You could’ve taken Ashton’s powers,” Mila said. In that scenario she and Anna would have fought, and Mila would have won, as their powers couldn’t actually be transferred.
“I had to get you while you were weak.” Anna tested one of the ropes across Mila’s collarbones and shoulders. “And what would I do with his powers? I don’t know how to use them.”
Licking her dry lips, Mila said, “I could teach you.”
“It’s too late for that.” Anna moved somewhere past Mila’s head.
Having nothing to lose, Mila decided to tell the truth in hopes of swaying Anna. “He made it up so you wouldn’t hurt me,” she said, closing her eyes. “We can’t actually die, or transfer our powers.”
“Then how come it’s worked so far?”
Again, Mila tried to wilt the flowers on her dress to no avail. “I promise, it’s not.”
Anna laughed, completely unconvinced by Mila’s words. “Where is he, then?” Anna walked to where Mila could see her. “If Ashton’s not really dead, I would have seen him by now.” Crouching closer to Mila’s face, she added. “He had no heartbeat.”
From the brief time Mila had stood in his presence, she’d noticed that too. Even when he’d regrown his head, he’d had a heartbeat.
Anna took Mila’s silence as a victory. “I can’t do anything until the moon moves, so you let me know when you’re ready,” she said, sitting back. She drew a knife from somewhere behind her. “I’ll try to make it quick.”
Even knowing she couldn’t die, panic raced through Mila. When Anna didn’t get her powers, who knew what she would do? Mila wouldn’t, because she’d be dead, exposed to any punishment Anna wanted to deal in her rage. Pressing her hand flat against the ground despite the pain, Mila tried to grow anything at all.
“Any night now, Mila.”
Did she really think Mila would help with her own death, even temporarily? Experimentally, Mila lifted her gaze to the sky and tried to move the moon—toward the horizon, of course—with a jerk of her chin. Nothing happened, but for once, she felt relief.
“Something’s wrong with my powers,” she told Anna. “I can’t move the moon.”
“Can you reverse time?” Anna asked with a trace of sarcasm.
Mila chose not to respond. If she could get an arm free, she might be able to hit one of the trees around them just right so that it crushed Anna, or at least moved her away. “Why did we build the pit?” she asked as she noted the gnarled trees surrounding her.
“If you hadn’t gotten so friendly with him, I would have used it.”
Refusing to find fault in herself, Mila turned her head away from Anna and the conversation. There wasn’t anything else to focus on, though, and so she turned back. “What did I do wrong?” she asked.
With obvious disgust, Anna’s lips curled back to reveal her teeth in a grimace. “That.”
When Mila didn’t react how Anna expected, she sighed. “You’re too weak. You sympathize and apologize and give up. I thought when Ashton told you the truth you might act out, and so I ran. But no.” She paused. “You forgave me.”
“That’s not what you wanted?”
“I tried to get you on my side early on,” Anna said, ignoring her. “I thought I’d be able to control your powers through you. You were too weak, though.”
Tingling had returned to Mila’s chest, but she didn’t try to do anything with her powers yet. “And?”
“And now I’m going to take your powers and use them properly.” Anna tossed the knife from hand to hand confidently. “As soon as you fix the moon.”
Channeling some of the hardness Anna apparently found more desirable, Mila said clearly, “No.”
Anna’s hands stilled, blade glinting in Mila’s direction. “I can make this painful,” Anna informed her coolly. “I’m not like you: I won’t feel guilty at all.” And that’s why she thought she deserved the powers.
Not too long ago, Mila had thought Anna deserved the powers, too.
Trying to shift against the ropes, Mila got nowhere. “What will you do?”
“What won’t I?”
Mila tried not to read into the happiness in Anna’s tone at the prospect. “Revenge, then?” Mila asked, looking up to the sky. She still couldn’t move the moon, but she definitely felt the beginnings of her powers swirling inside her.
They must be really off balance for her powers to be this out of reach. Mila feared for Ashton.
“And then some,” Anna agreed. “I’ll make the world mine.”
Before Mila could figure out a comeback or another question, Anna shifted. “I’m going to count,” she said, resting the blade against Mila’s cheek. “One.”
Mila tried pushing her power to do anything: throw Anna across the clearing, dissolve the ropes holding her, topple a tree, split the ground—Mila wasn’t picky. Clouds circled overhead, not helpful in the least.
The knife moved to her chin, the point digging in hard enough to draw a drop of blood. As Anna opened her mouth to finish the count, thunder sounded overhead, making both of them pause.
“Three,” Anna finished, unimpressed by the storm. She made a shallow cut across Mila’s throat, so that Mila swore she tasted blood but knew nothing important had severed. Lightning flashed, striking a nearby tree.
Anna wiped the blade against Mila’s shoulder. “Do I need to count again?” she asked.
“It’s in position,” Mila gasped, wondering why she hadn’t thought of that earlier. The second the words left her lips, she remembered: she didn’t want to die.
For a moment she thought Anna wouldn’t believe her, which would be fine. Anna smiled and pressed the knife against her neck again. “You should hope it is,” she said softly. “Because otherwise, you’re going to keep dying.”
Another bolt of lightning seared through the sky.
Mila had expected nothing less and chose not to change her answer. Even if she moved the moon, this would never work. The blade pressed into her skin, and she knew the next cut would be deep enough that she would probably choke on her own blood.
In a flurry of motion, Anna dropped the knife. Dropped, not sliced: the flat part of the blade fell harmlessly—if disturbingly—onto Mila’s neck. Anna gasped out, tipping forward so that she nearly smacked into Mila, before reeling back. “Damn you,” Anna snarled. Mila wondered if a lightning bolt had struck her, from the way Anna clutched her arm.
Surely that would have fried the both of them, though.
With an anguished cry, Anna pulled something from her arm: an arrow. Instinctively Mila looked up as far as she could, knowing only exactly one archer.
The knife dug into the underside of Mila’s jaw before she could flinch. Another cry from Anna and the knife dropped again. The arrow had caught Anna straight through her hand, so that she couldn’t easily remove it.
“Don’t move,” Ashton warned.
Mila had more or less been in Anna’s place, and she knew how much Ashton meant his words. Except Anna was mortal, and she wouldn’t heal.
“You can’t,” Mila coughed. “She’s just scared.”
Somewhere deep down, Anna had to still care about Mila. They’d spent too much time together for anything else. While Anna couldn’t see past her hatred toward everything she’d been through, Mila wasn’t going to turn her back on her guardian.
Ashton said nothing.
“You are pathetic,” Anna snarled down at Mila. She struggled to get the arrow out of her hand.
“If you move, he’ll kill you,” Mila stressed. “Stay still.”
Anna gave up on her hand, cradling it against her side. Ashton took a step forward, feet crushing against the dirt, and both Anna and Mila looked to him. “Don’t,” Mila pleaded as soon as she saw him. This was her guardian, the only person she’d known for over two decades of her life.
Solemnly, Ashton lifted his readied bow.
“Untie me,” Mila said to Anna in a voice stronger than she felt. If she could get Anna to do something good, maybe Ashton would lower his bow. Maybe Anna would see that they were still on the same side, that Mila truly believed past actions could stay in the past.
Anna moved for one of Mila’s hands.
“The knot’s right there,” Mila encouraged. She only watched Anna’s vacant gaze, trying to see when the guardian she knew came back.
Cautiously, Anna poked at Mila’s hand, finding the knot at her wrist. Ashton hadn’t fired yet, also a good sign. Mila breathed out, thinking everyone might get out of the situation alive—
They might have, if Mila didn’t scream. Or, if Anna hadn’t twisted Mila’s wrist around, probably breaking it. Mila had no time to urge Ashton to stand down: by the time the tears had cleared from her eyes, she knew Anna had gone too far.
She’d moved, and Ashton had shot with deadly accuracy.
The arrow hit Anna square in her chest.
She fell onto Mila, her heart beating a few seconds after she’d stopped drawing in air. Her weight on top of Mila’s wounds wasn’t what hurt: it was her death. Even as Ashton hauled Anna to the side, Mila found herself straining not to be free, but to go to Anna.
From a young age, Mila had known she wouldn’t die and Anna would. She’d thought they had more years, though, and more recently, time for Mila to turn Anna around. Maybe Ashton saw a troubled person, but Mila saw the woman who had tried to kill her and take her powers… who would always be her guardian.
“Hang on,” Ashton said, though Mila hadn’t struggled. Her gaze locked on Anna, trying to forget the past few days. Trying to remember when even at her angriest, Anna was on Mila’s side.
The ropes slackened as Ashton burnt through them. Briefly, Mila catalogued the information that he did control fire. Without the restraints, Mila rolled to her side and brought her knees in to stretch her way to Anna’s fallen form. Hands captured her shoulders, stopping her, and a warm shoulder blocked her view.
“You’ll be okay.”
Ashton’s words sounded like an echo, a memory. Futilely, Mila stretched against his hold, trying to find her way to Anna. He cradled her in his arms, checking her for injuries.
The tears hadn’t fallen yet, but she knew when they did, she wouldn’t be able to speak. “Let me see her.”
“Don’t do this to yourself,” Ashton whispered. He stood, taking her with him. The movement made her dizzy, and her limbs felt like lead where Ashton didn’t support them. With her head lolled back, she could see Anna, though.
Ashton tightened his hold on her, and Mila knew he was going to take her away. “Please,” she begged, hand reaching behind him.
In refusing to look at his face she couldn’t figure out why he continued to hold her after her request. With obvious reluctance, he lowered her to the ground, about a foot away from Anna. “Don’t hurt yourself,” he said, placing a hand on Mila’s back when she immediately sat up.
Trying to keep herself calm, she ignored him. She’d deal with his broken promise later. Pressing her palms into the dirt, Mila dragged herself closer. Anna’s cheeks looked pale already. Mila started to reach for her chest, to pull the arrow out, and remembered her missing fingers. Using the power she’d started to feel stirring, she yanked the arrow out.
“Easy,” Ashton said.
Mila wished he would stop talking. Next she removed the arrow from Anna’s hand, not that it would bother her now. Placing her palm over the wound on Anna’s chest that had stopped bleeding, Mila wished there was something else she could do.
Ashton must have noticed her missing fingers—or just decided they were a problem—because he said, “Why don’t we heal you?”
Fatigue swamped Mila and everything ached, but she was immortal: these pains meant nothing. Anna lay dead, and that meant everything. She pressed her hand firmly against Anna, trying to transfer some of her heat.
“Let’s leave,” Ashton encouraged.
“Stop.” Mila didn’t know what his rush was, but if he wanted to leave, fine: she would stay until she felt she’d properly atoned for Anna’s death. If she’d tried to hide better from Ashton, if she’d never gotten so involved… Sure enough, the tears bloomed.
Unaware he was the source of her problems, Ashton said, “You’re hurting. Let’s—”
“I said stop!” Her voice cracked at the end and lightning forked from the sky, but at least he’d shut up. “You can leave.”
She’d known he would stand there, but his silence irritated her. “You’re badly hurt,” he gave as his explanation for hovering.
And Anna was dead. “I’ll manage,” she lied, letting the tears drop onto her chest instead of moving her hands from Anna. Without a guardian she actually didn’t know what she’d do: she didn’t need the hut, or rest. She would live alone in the woods, reminded of Anna’s absence with every breath.
“I’m not leaving you.”
They would see if he meant that, now that Mila had nothing interesting about her.
Ashton’s hands grabbed Mila under her arms, applying enough pressure that she began to lift. “No,” she cried, lunging forward to attach to Anna despite the pain. The ragged remains of her fingers dug into the dirt and Anna’s clothing in all the wrong ways.
Unwilling to lift the both of them, Ashton backed off.
Pressed so close, Mila was acutely aware of Anna’s lack of heartbeat, the way she didn’t feel like a person anymore. Physically, Mila felt prepared to fall into a deep sleep at best. On the inside, though, her power swirled at the ready.
She didn’t know why it had abandoned her when she could’ve saved Anna—could have stopped the arrow—but her hands tingled now, and that’s what counted. With her hands tucked on the other side of Anna, Mila knew Ashton wouldn’t be able to see the red glow spreading along Anna’s skin, or sense the way Mila’s hands heated.
The power was unfamiliar but trustworthy, coursing out of her like when she grew plants. As more of the power fed into Anna, the storm above their heads dissipated.
“You’re pale,” Ashton said.
She was always pale, a piece of the moonlight incarnate, Anna said. Keeping the thoughts to herself, Mila continued guiding the power into Anna. There were no black spots dancing on her vision, but at any moment she felt she might slump to the side, exhausted.
“Something’s wrong,” Ashton decided, and his hands returned, trying to take her away. She tried to cling to Anna, but without her fingertips the effort fell short, causing more pain than it was worth. Mila’s weight was hardly an obstacle for Ashton, and he had her pulled away in a matter of short seconds.
He pulled down the skin under one of her eyelids, gazing into her eyes intently. Unsure what he looked for and why it mattered to her, Mila looked away.
His hands lifted hers by the palm, reminding her that one of her wrists had broken. Letting out a hiss, Mila drew the injured hand away, back to the safety of her lap. The remaining hand was inspected with great care, trapped between his hands.
“I don’t need your help,” Mila bit out.
Ashton said nothing, nor did he let her go.
Meeting his gaze—hollow, worried, his eyes appearing sunken in—Mila said, “If you’re going to heal me, do it.”
His response was cut off by the sound of a faint heartbeat. Someone with normal hearing wouldn’t have caught it, but both immortals did, their heads turning at the same time. As Mila scrabbled forward, pain aside, Ashton picked her up and set her down behind him protectively.
Irritated by his actions, Mila protested, “That’s my guardian.” She had a right to be by her side, especially if she was going to come back to life like them.
“What have you done?” Ashton asked, making no effort to hide the horror in his voice. He looked down at her with wide eyes that made him look panicked, like he’d do something reckless. Anna shifted on the ground, drawing both of their gazes.
Mila hadn’t known what the power going into Anna would do, but she’d hoped. She’d hoped to see her guardian again.
Now, Anna pushed herself into a sitting position.
“Anna,” Mila breathed out, wondering what would happen. Was Anna immortal now, like them? Did she feel the same way when Mila woke up, disoriented? When Anna got her memories back, the last person she would want to see would be Ashton. Bumping into his side to get his attention, she said, “You should go.”
He stood his ground.
Anna rose up onto her knees. Pushing Mila back, Ashton drew his bow over his head, pulled an arrow from the bag on his back, and readied for a shot.
“No!” Mila said, using the elbow of her good arm to try and throw his aim off. “I just got her back.”
With a ferocity Mila hadn’t expected, Ashton turned to look at her, bow never wavering. “Does that look like a human?” he snarled. Mila didn’t see why he reacted so extremely: Anna had a beating heart, she’d started to stand, and most of all, she looked like Anna. She hadn’t spoken or acted like she recognized them, sure, but Mila took a while to wake up after dying too.
“Wait,” Mila pleaded, staring at Anna. Anna’s sightless gaze would never land on them, so Mila had to wait on her to speak. “Anna, how do you feel?”
In front of her, Ashton was a ball of tension. “That’s not Anna.”
She brushed away his negativity. Mila willed Anna to take a step forward, to show Mila that everything could be okay again. Shakily, Anna rose to her full height; Ashton’s arrow adjusted accordingly.
Moving around Ashton, Mila took a step toward Anna. “Can you talk?” she asked. She wanted to hear Anna speak again so badly, so she could convince Ashton to lower his bow.
Her voice came out reedy, absent of something. Mila chalked it up to dying and took another step forward. “How do you feel?”
“Don’t move closer,” Ashton warned.
Both of the girls stopped, which was certainly unlike Anna.
“Say your goodbyes,” Ashton demanded next, like he’d created this meeting.
Tearing her gaze from Anna, Mila protested, “I’m not killing her again. She was a good guardian before all this happened, and she can be that way again: I know it.”
Stone-faced, Ashton nodded toward Anna. “That’s a shell, a moving body. There’s no redeeming it.”
“Don’t talk to her like that,” Mila snapped. She’d expected that kind of behavior from Anna—she was always explicit, rude—but Ashton tended to run more mild mannered, the type to mutter under his breath. “If you can’t get over the past, walk away.”
They held each other’s gazes for long moments while Anna stood in the background, waiting. “If I can prove it’s not her,” Ashton said slowly, like Mila might not hear him properly. “Will you walk away?”
Narrowing her eyes, Mila asked, “You mean, let you kill her again?”
He shook his head. “It’s not her—”
“Good luck,” Mila said, gesturing him forward. He remained on the spot, poised to loose an arrow, and Mila wondered if she’d been tricked. In the next second, Anna staggered forward, seemingly coming for Mila’s neck.
“This isn’t you,” Mila said to Anna, stepping out of the way of her hands. “You can be more than your revenge.”
Anna reeled back and began doing something Mila never expected to see: dancing. Turning on her heel, Anna’s arms rose above her head, completing the move. To make things even stranger, she held her position and blinked rapidly in succession.
This really wasn’t Anna.
“What are you doing to her?” Mila demanded, rounding on Ashton. Mila swayed and caught her balance before he could intervene.
“You brought her body back, but she’s mindless.” Ashton urged Mila to turn and watch Anna. Her mouth moved in time to his next words. “She’s influenced by power, and nothing more.”
Disbelief flooded through Mila. How could Anna look so real, seem so like herself, but still be gone? Looking at her mangled hands, Mila wondered how her powers had gone so awry. “Maybe I can fix her,” Mila decided. A little more power, or some time getting her memories back—
“If you use any more power, you’ll collapse,” Ashton warned. “It’s time to let go.”
Frustrated, Mila rounded on him. “You don’t understand.” This was a second chance, one she never thought she’d get, when the time came. “You didn’t lose your guardian.”
The skin around his eyes tightened. “No, but I’d know the dead should stay dead.” Holding Mila’s widening gaze, he informed her, “This is not what your powers are for. This is an atrocity to nature.” His words cut deeper than she’d expected, making her feel like she was five years old and being disciplined by Anna again.
Wordlessly, Ashton released the arrow.
Mila’s gaze followed its path without thought. Struck between her eyes, Anna remained standing for a second that felt like an eternity. Finally, she fell over, onto her back. Her heartbeat faded, even as her eyes remained open.
Mila turned on her heel, prepared to berate him, and stumbled into him instead. He caught her in his free arm, keeping his bow tucked to his side. Wrapping an arm around her shoulders, he started to lead her away.
“No,” Mila protested, digging her heels into the ground. She couldn’t leave yet.
Patiently, Ashton said, “There’s nothing left for you here.” He was basically supporting her weight now, placing his bow over his back so that he could rest another hand on her side.
“I want to say goodbye.”
“You’re not getting anywhere near her,” Ashton said, steel in his tone. He let her get as far as a foot away from him before he tightened his grip like a leash. “You can say goodbye from here.” And from the tone in his voice, she should’ve said goodbye when he told her to earlier.
Finding his intervention unnecessary, Mila attempted to shrug him off. “She’s my guardian.”
“I’m fully aware you resurrected her,” Ashton said, an undercurrent of anger hidden in his words. “I don’t plan on doing this all night.” Punctuating his words, he wrapped an arm under her shoulders and lifted her up into the air. “We need to heal you.”
“She needs a proper burial,” Mila insisted. She couldn’t feel her dangling feet.
Without a second thought, Ashton denied her request. “We need to heal you.”
Trying to slip out of his hold, Mila said, “Then do it.” When Ashton didn’t answer immediately she twisted her head around to see him best she could, eyes landing on his clenched, stubble-ridden jaw. “What?”
“I don’t even know how you’re standing.”
“I’m not,” Mila pointed out, only able to wiggle her toes for emphasis. “Is it that bad?” She could only move her head, which gave her little opportunity to survey the damage Ashton apparently saw.
He crushed her closer to his side so one hand could cup under her jaw, tilting her head back to look at him. “Don’t look.”
Mila wanted to protest she had a right to know what had happened to her, but remembered the immediate pain upon seeing her chopped off fingers. “Okay,” she whispered.
For her agreement—or because he’d planned on doing it all along—Ashton sunk a rectangle of the earth into itself, creating a grave. “Can you stand?” he asked, placing Mila on her feet. She had absolutely no feeling anywhere, but she didn’t tip, so she nodded.
He crouched next to Anna, hand hovering over her face, and looked to Mila for permission. With her nodded blessing, Ashton closed Anna’s eyelids and removed the arrow from her head. Picking her up bridal style, he carried Anna the short distance to the grave, which meant more to Mila than she could tell him, when he could have rolled her into the ground.
From the edge of the hole, he lowered her into the shadows. Mila dropped soon after, legs curling under her body. Surprisingly, her weight put no additional pain on the cuts. “Keep going,” she told Ashton when he looked up.
“Do you want to say something?” he asked, standing up and dusting his hands off.
She didn’t have the strength to get closer. Considering her words carefully, from her spot on the ground Mila said, “I’m sorry.”
Expressionless, Ashton moved his hand in front of him, so that dirt filled the hole. Mila wasn’t aware she’d decided to grow anything—or that she had the powers for it—but grass sprouted, making the spot appear untouched. Flowers appeared next, wild blooms of all colors.
“That’s enough,” Ashton said softly. Mila had blinked and suddenly his hand was on her arm, helping her up.
Mila hoped he was right. “I wish you hadn’t killed her,” Mila whispered into his shoulder.
He exhaled heavily, tightening his hold on her. “You can yell at me later.” Like when he’d studied her the first time, his hands found hers and lifted them to inspect the damage. Mila noted that despite the awful bruising on her wrist, it really didn’t hurt anymore. Neither did her fingertips. “These will be a bitch,” Ashton muttered, looking at her missing fingers.
“They can wait.” Mila offered him her wrist instead.
Nothing happened. Her skin remained mottled, the bone jutting against the skin too thinly. No warmth spread through her, and she watched Ashton. “What’s wrong?” He’d healed her before, even without her powers.
“Everything is out of balance,” Ashton muttered. “I can’t do anything.”
Nodding, Mila said, “When I’m too badly injured, I can’t use my powers. It’s like they know it’s not worth it.” Silence followed her words, and Mila gave a small smile. “It’s that bad.”
“No,” Ashton lied. He picked her up much like he had for Anna and started walking.
“What now?” she asked. She hoped he headed for town and not the hut: she didn’t want to face the loneliness yet.
Navigating around a stump in the way, Ashton said, “I’ll take you back and figure something out.” He didn’t say that he was taking her to his guardian, but she caught the implication. He didn’t know what to do, and hoped she would.
She must really look bad.
“I’m going to look,” she told Ashton. His arms didn’t yield, but she found ways to work around them, turning her head this way and that. If she focused hard enough she could move her legs to better survey them.
The sight made the air freeze in her lungs. On a rushed exhale, she forced herself to look at everything clinically. What she’d thought was a simple cut along the backside of her leg turned out to be the length of her calf split open, chunks of muscle removed. Something white peeked through, possibly bone. The slit along her thigh was tinier but deep, appearing black on the inside.
Turning her arm, Mila looked to the deep cut running against her skin, also appearing black where red blood should leak. “Wow,” Mila breathed. Her arms—even including her missing fingers and broken wrist—didn’t compare to the atrocity of her legs.
She understood why he’d wondered how she still stood.
Even though she knew better, Mila couldn’t stop looking at her legs, wondering the same. She hadn’t even felt a pinch or pull from the freshly exposed muscles, or noticed any missing.
Settling her head against Ashton’s chest to calm her dizziness, Mila realized she shouldn’t have looked. Ashton walked at a steady pace, careful not to jostle her, but even that was hard to watch. She closed her eyes against the passing foliage.
“Hm?” She kept her eyes closed, finding the darkness safer.
“You stopped breathing.” She couldn’t hear the sounds of motion around her, which meant he’d probably come to a stop.
Trying to get through the fog in her mind, Mila said, “I’m probably trying to regenerate.” That would be the only way to deal with the damage, if both of their powers found the injuries too extensive. Mila relaxed into Ashton’s hold, knowing the dark would come for her soon.
Ashton cursed and sat down, still holding her.
“That’s what happens,” she reminded him softly. She didn’t see why he’d gotten so worked up: surely he didn’t want her to keep walking around like this?
“The process would have started already.” Mila didn’t understand what that meant, but Ashton didn’t make it sound good. He stretched, jostling her enough that she opened her eyes.
She wished she hadn’t, because she’d seen enough death for one day. “What are you doing?” she whispered as he held an arrow to his throat. Her hand lifted to reach for him before she remembered her missing fingers; she placed her hand on her chest. “Just wait it out.”
With a determined shake of his head, he shoved the arrow through his throat. Mila felt tears well at the sight of his blood spilling. Before she could cry in earnest, she died too.
Mila took a long time to wake up. She knew this the same way she knew she was breathing, that the world went on around her. Coming to consciousness felt like sitting up in slow motion, trying to exist in a space she couldn’t quite understand.
When she finally managed to lift her heavy eyelids, she saw the face of an older woman she didn’t recognize.
Crow’s feet branched from the woman’s eyes, combining with the lines around her mouth to make her look overly concerned. Despite her age—obvious from the gray hair—her brown eyes were sharp, alert, jumping to various parts of Mila’s face.
“She’s up.” The woman’s lips never moved, but she had to be the one speaking. Her head turned, looking for someone or something else. Mila’s head turned to look with her and found a pillow close to her face. She lay on top of a mattress of some kind, with a familiar blanket covering her up to her waist.
Though the flickering light from the candles around the room felt too bright, Mila surveyed the scene. She noted the quilts, the way every surface had a homemade touch.
She’d been here before.
She turned her head back to see that Ashton had replaced the old woman. Rolling her thick tongue in her mouth, Mila tried to form a question.
“It’s okay,” Ashton said, sitting on the bed with her. The mattress dipped with his weight. “You don’t have to speak.” She wanted to, but her jaw felt like an unused muscle. “You can keep resting, if you want.”
After working her mouth around, Mila managed, “How long was I out?”
The woman muttered something, making Ashton turn away. A stab of jealousy shot through Mila, and when Ashton returned his attention to her, Mila had settled her gaze beyond him. Obviously she’d intruded on the relationship between them.
“Don’t worry about that,” Ashton said. He pulled the blanket up to her chin, stifling her. “How do you feel?”
Like she didn’t want the blanket so high up. Her arm moved to pull the cover down, and his arm moved up to stop her. The old woman appeared, placing something cool on Mila’s forehead. All at once, it clicked: this was Ashton’s place, and the old woman must be his guardian.
Mila rolled her head away from the woman. She didn’t want to focus on what she couldn’t have.
The old woman paused at her bedside before moving off into the back. Another exclusionary conversation was held outside of her hearing. Closing her eyes, Mila wondered if she stayed still enough if she could slip back into oblivion.
“Just rest some more,” Ashton said, his hand smoothing against her hair.
His touch felt good, soothing. She leaned into his hand, strangely glad to have his company, even if she felt like an intruder on his life as it was. The older woman said something in the background again, reinforcing the fact.
Mila had never needed to sleep, but the wave of exhaustion washing over her didn’t feel like when she died. Though she had no idea what was happening, she didn’t fight the tide pulling her in.
Before she got swept under, though, she made out the old woman’s words: “I’m not sure it’s going to help.”
The next time she woke, she was alone. Without opening her eyes she determined she was in new surroundings, as well: the scent of woods surrounded her, like she’d slept under trees. Cautiously Mila opened her eyes, wondering if she’d been abandoned in the woods.
Abandoned, yes, but in the hut.
The accommodations were sparse compared to the warm room she’d stayed in previously, but all of them reminded Mila of Anna. These were all her things—the chair, the makeshift bed, the table—that allowed her to comfortably live with Mila in the woods. Without Anna, the arrangements meant nothing: Mila only needed her powers.
Pushing against her spot on the floor, Mila attempted to sit up only to find herself pinned down by one of the blankets from Ashton’s place. The corners had been tucked underneath her body so that she weighed herself down.
Mila wrestled one shouldeer free in time for Ashton to appear. “You’re awake,” he said. Mila couldn’t tell how he felt about that.
Again, she asked, “How long have I been out?”
“As long as you needed,” he answered, settling back against the table. He watched her leisurely, like he had all the time in the world. Considering they couldn’t die, Mila supposed he did.
Temporarily abandoning her struggle to be free, Mila asked, “You moved me?”
Ashton looked away. “I thought familiar surroundings might help.”
They mostly hurt, but Mila didn’t need to tell him that. Ashton continued looking out the window of the hut at something Mila couldn’t see. Is this what they had to look forward to until Mila healed?
Noting the darkness in the room, Mila groaned, “The sun.” She couldn’t tell if she had the power to bring it into the sky or him: she was oddly devoid of any pull.
“Don’t worry about that,” Ashton said, moving closer. Apparently it was within her power right now. “Focus on healing.” He dropped to a crouch before fully seating himself on the floor next to her, sticking his legs straight out. The sight of him sprawled lazily almost distracted her.
Almost. “Shouldn’t I be done?” she asked, struggling to pull the blanket off of her. Ashton made no move to help. She felt sore, but after dying once already—and either dying again or sleeping—she should be close to normal. Completely unhelpful, Ashton placed one of his large hands on her ankle, pinning the blanket further.
“Everything’s out of balance,” Ashton dismissed. “Soon as it’s sorted out, you’ll be fine.”
Which implied she wasn’t fine now. Narrowing her eyes at him, Mila asked, “Is it because I brought Anna back?” Because that placed the blame squarely on Ashton, who had shot her and started the chain of events for that. If she went even farther back she still blamed him: she’d minded her own business in the pond before he showed up and changed everything.
He pretended not to notice her glare. “Mila, I know as much as you. All I can tell is the balance is off, and there are consequences for that.”
“We weren’t balanced to begin with,” Mila protested. “Or we wouldn’t exist.” When he said nothing she continued, “That was your whole point, wasn’t it?” Unless he’d said the things about them being together just to sound poetic.
Lowering his voice, he said, “I don’t know, Mila.”
Intentional or not, he made her feel like a burden. “You don’t have to stay,” she said, and meant it. If all she had to look forward to was lying around until the balance came back, he didn’t need to be here for it.
She also didn’t realize how much she missed his attention until it wasn’t on her. His charm made it hard not to like him, but she’d started to believe there was something past that connecting them. After the past few events, she’d probably pushed him too far. This, definitely, seemed to have put distance between them, as he rested a hand only on her leg.
In her injured state, she didn’t expect him to seduce her. She had thought he’d seem like his normal, joking self, teasing a smile out of her, though.
“I’m not leaving you.”
Mila knew what it meant to stick by someone’s side, even after they’d done awful things. As she lie trapped in bed, she also knew how painful that could be. “I mean it,” Mila said softly. The next words took longer to come up with, because she wanted to get them right.
“We’re different in just about every way. We spent a lot of time together because we had to. Now… we don’t.” Sucking in a deep breath, Mila got to the painful part. “I shouldn’t have brought Anna back, or fought you about it.” She couldn’t wipe the scared look in his eyes from her mind. “You know who I am now.” An immortal who shifted their powers out of balance completely. “I’m probably not the girl you imagined.”
She certainly didn’t feel anything like the girl that had cried upon seeing him for the first time. Silence followed her words, and she finished up with, “Just, if you were feeling guilty about wanting to go… don’t.”
Like a thick fog, the silence continued, slowly pressing down on Mila. She’d thought not having his attention was bad, but this felt akin to rejection.
Turning her head to the other side of the pillow so she didn’t have to look at him, Mila fought the tears. She’d just thought about how far she’d come, how she’d cried less and less over their time together. Thankfully, the tears were silent, going unnoticed.
Or so she thought, until Ashton shifted.
“Maybe one day I’ll be able to talk to you without making you cry,” Ashton said softly, repeating the words he’d said during one of their first meetings. He leaned over her, lifting one hand to wipe away a tear.
“It’s not you,” Mila said, keeping half of her face pressed into the pillow. Less tears for him to see that way. “I’ve been hurting you. You can’t let me keep doing it.”
He sank onto his side, fitting against her back. The hand wiping away her tears moved to her hair, combing gently through the strands. “Why don’t you let me decide when it’s too painful?” He wound her hair into a single twist and laid it down her back, out of the way like she preferred.
“Because I’m afraid you won’t.” She felt close to losing him now, with his gaze distant and their powers making no sense. The second she’d tapped into that and tried to let him go, here he was, acting a semblance closer to normal.
If he was unhappy, he deserved a chance to get away, now that she had no pressure to capture or kill him.
“Would you walk away?” he asked, his hand moving to rest on her upper arm.
He exhaled a chuckle into her hair. “From me.”
From a young age, Mila had pictured herself roaming the woods alone as her future to look forward to. She could do it, but she realized it wasn’t something she looked forward to. Having no concept of what a life with Ashton would entail, Mila found she couldn’t really make a decision, though her gut said, “No.”
“How badly are you injured?” Mila asked, rolling her shoulder into his chest so she could look up at him better.
His expression was guarded. “Does it matter?”
Trying to keep the tone lighter, Mila let a faint smile cross her lips. “It might. I’m not a fan of lost causes.” In reality she knew she’d have no problem nursing him back to health: it was the natural inclination of her powers, when she had them available.
“Good thing everything is fine,” Ashton smiled. The smile went nowhere near his eyes.
Dropping her smile so he took her seriously, Mila asked, “How bad am I?”
“Definitely not a lost cause.”
She wiggled against the hold the blanket had on her. When she’d bumped him enough times he reluctantly helped, pulling the covers down so that she could get an arm free. She studied the back of her arm first, noting the jagged, puckered line there.
“We scar?” Mila asked. Ashton had been beheaded and didn’t have the slightest line to prove it: Mila got bled out by a knife and the wound looked hours old instead of days.
A flash of white caught her attention, and she realized she looked down at her hand. Bony skeletal fingers danced as she attempted to wiggle her fingertips. The scene reminded her once again of Ashton’s beheading. “That’s different,” she managed, placing her hand on top of the blanket. “Is that why I’m covered?”
Ashton said nothing.
Taking his silence as permission to figure things out on her own, Mila peeled the blanket away and looked down. Her skeletal fingers felt nothing, to the point she hardly noticed she gripped the fabric at all. One-handed, she started working the cover lower in an attempt to reveal her legs.
“Why don’t you rest?” Ashton interjected, diminishing her hard work by easily pulling the blanket up around her. “That’s the only way you’ll heal.”
“I thought I could only heal when we balanced our powers,” Mila asked suspiciously.
His answer was to press the sheet into her sides, pinning her again. “Ashton,” she reprimanded. “I have a right to look.” Her legs kicked out under the covers as she tried to roll into a better position: at least she could feel her legs now.
And nothing could be worse than how they’d looked right after, missing chunks of muscle and revealing the bone beneath.
Surprisingly, Ashton didn’t continue fighting her. Gently, he peeled the entire blanket away from her and stood at the end of the bed as though to fold it. When he stood there, waiting for Mila’s reaction, she looked down.
Her legs weren’t worse, but only because they looked exactly the same as when she’d last checked on them. Streaks of blood colored the blankets bundled underneath her, making her wonder how she’d missed the pain. “How long has it been?” she whispered, trying to keep still now that she knew the damage.
“It’s really nothing to worry about.” No matter how he’d answered Mila would have known the truth: by now, at least some of her muscle should have grown back. “Your fingers are growing in,” Ashton reminded her, like that was something to cheer about.
Ashton had regrown his entire head in less than a day—two days at most, if she’d counted wrong—and she struggled to grow her fingers.
Curse words came to Mila’s mind, but none of them slipped out. She was too stunned, unable to look away from her legs. Ashton had said she wasn’t a lost cause, but she wasn’t sure anymore. “Am I going to die?” she asked in disbelief. All this talk about how it wasn’t possible, and now she might prove them wrong.
“Mila,” Ashton said, drawing her gaze to his face. He fanned the blanket over her, blocking her mangled legs from sight. “You know we can’t die.”
Even without seeing her legs, Mila remembered what they looked like, how they bled even now. “I can’t move,” she whispered. The idea of the pain in her head seemed so real she didn’t want to risk it. In fact, she thought she could feel blood leaking out of her legs in time with her pulse.
A lone tear slipped out of her eye, and she pressed her head into the pillow to trap it.
“You’re okay,” Ashton soothed, sitting beside her again. He kept talking, but she couldn’t focus on his words. All she could focus on was the fact that she hadn’t healed, that she couldn’t sense her powers anywhere. Worst, neither of them had any idea what to do except be miserable together.
She cried herself into numbness.
The next time she woke, she couldn’t be certain she had. Darkness surrounded everything, and she didn’t remember passing out in the first place. She heard someone breathing to her right, the only sign she did exist in the real world.
“What’s going on?” she asked into the darkness. Could she be losing her sight now, after everything else?
“You’re fine.” She recognized Ashton’s voice as well as his hands, pressing into the side of her face. Where his skin didn’t meet hers she pieced together that there was fabric of some kind obscuring her vision. Her hand lifted to remove it, and he countered the action just as quick. “I didn’t want the sun to wake you.”
Small rays of hope filled her at the thought. “The sun’s back?” she asked. No matter who’d put the sun in the sky, that was at least a sign that their powers were becoming balanced.
“Bright as ever,” Ashton said. “I’m sure the people in town are glad.”
Mila nodded in agreement and waited for him to take the blindfold off. Instead, he traced circles down one of her thighs. “Do you want to practice your powers?”
Unsure why she had to keep the blindfold on to do so, Mila lifted her eyebrows. She didn’t know if he’d noticed her incredulous look or if the fabric covering her eyes hid it. “I can try,” she agreed, though she’d do a better job with all of her senses available.
Ashton’s hand moved to hers and cradled it. Something soft was placed into her palm.
“Try to wilt it.”
“I’m not as good with your powers,” Mila said, in case she failed. Ashton didn’t acknowledge her excuse, holding their hands steady. Curling her fingers around the flower, Mila noted she could only feel it on the skin of her palm, nowhere else.
She waited for the surge of power to flow from the flower and into her, but nothing happened. In case he’d somehow forgotten they’d switched powers, Mila tried to grow a new petal on the flower. The rush of power never came, leaving her feeling empty. If she couldn’t do this, everything else would be impossible as well.
“My powers are tough,” Ashton said, curling his fingers over hers so that they crushed the flower. “We’ll keep working on it.”
That might make her feel better, if she hadn’t spent a week learning how to use his powers already. Instead of angrily telling him she couldn’t feel anything, she allowed him to take the wrinkled petals from her hand. She couldn’t fault him for wanting to help; the results weren’t anything he could fix, either.
“I’m tired,” Mila lied.
“I shouldn’t have pushed you so soon,” Ashton apologized. He, at least, sounded sincere. Mila could hear the rustling as he moved away from her, apparently giving her space to sleep.
The new silence told her he’d settled somewhere against the far wall. “Will you come here?” she asked. Not being able to see him somehow made it easier to ask, like the rejection would be softened by the dark.
“Of course.” He came back, stretching out beside her. His elbow briefly jostled her shoulder as he adjusted to rest his hands under his head.
Mila knew she’d be able to sleep soon, but her mind needed at least one answer to her many buzzing questions first. “What’s the plan?” she asked him, trying to keep her tone light. He’d put so much effort into testing her powers without worrying her that she wanted to play along, though her insides tightened with worry.
“Simple: we’ll keep trying.”
“Concentrate a little harder,” Ashton suggested as he tried to help Mila grow grass.
“This might be easier if I could see,” Mila said, taking her frustration out on him. In the darkness she had little concept of time, and he refused to tell her how long the recovery was taking. Every time she’d woken up he’d given her a different task, trying to coax her powers into the open.
She didn’t know why it mattered. Growing a tree wouldn’t help her heal, nor did worrying if she could lift the moon into the sky or not.
So far she’d been able to control the moon and nothing else. Her toes wiggled against the dirt below her, seeking out any blades of grass. Once again she’d made no progress. “Are you sure I don’t have your powers?” she asked.
Taking a step back, she found a patch of grass and practiced everything he’d told her: visualizing decay, sucking the power in.
“I think I’d know,” he said, his tone light like he’d shared a joke with her.
Mila couldn’t joke about her lack of progress. “How long do I keep trying?” she asked, wishing she could see him to better gauge how futile this was. Was he killing time until she died? “And why am I still blindfolded?”
“The sun would hurt your eyes,” Ashton said. That was his typical excuse, which made no sense because Mila had dealt with the sun plenty of times before.
Thinking over his words, Mila said, “I thought you said the moon was out.”
Ashton said nothing, using the blindfold against her. In a move that reminded her of Anna, Mila tilted her head, trying to listen for his breathing. She hadn’t been able to sense him in some time, but it hadn’t mattered because he never went far.
“There is no sun,” Mila guessed at his silence. He’d lied to make her feel better.
Her fingers fumbled with the strip of cloth around her eyes, unable to make purchase for some reason. Ashton sighed like he would protest, but in the end, he didn’t stop her. Thumb hooked underneath the fabric, Mila pulled it over her eyes, squinting as she prepared to be blinded.
The moonlight greeted her.
“I knew it,” Mila huffed, rounding on Ashton. When he’d said she could control the moon she’d believed him because she couldn’t see. To test for herself, Mila lifted her hand and lined up with the giant orb in the sky—
Skeletal fingers framed a shadow on the moon.
“Oh,” Mila exhaled.
“Don’t panic,” Ashton whispered. He sounded so lost that Mila had to look at him, to be sure the same man that had confidently led her through futile examples of her power stood before her.
Flexing her fingers, Mila asked, “How long has it been?”
She appreciated that he didn’t lie, but she also couldn’t believe it had been that long. “You kept me blindfolded for three days?” Her concept of time was foggy, only knowing when she was awake and when she’d been asleep.
Hand resting below his lips, Ashton explained, “You lost it every time you saw your injuries.”
Mila remembered when she’d woken in the hut and moved around freely until she knew how badly her legs were damaged. He was tricky, but she’d known that from the start. His hand slid down, revealing a thick beard had started to emerge in their time together.
With something to prove, Mila gazed down at her legs.
Nothing looked different. She didn’t have to check the backs of her arms to know the same would be true. Striving for calm, Mila said, “This is bad.” Her voice cracked, betraying her true emotions. She didn’t panic, though: three days was long enough to build up to this unveiling. Ashton’s efforts wouldn’t be in vain.
“It’s not good,” Ashton admitted.
“What does this mean?” Mila asked. She twisted her leg around to better inspect her calf, feeling nausea writhe in her stomach at her contracting muscles and shiny bone. Before she made herself sick, Mila focused on Ashton again.
His hand went back to his chin, rubbing over the hair there. “Something is still off, obviously.”
Sizing him up, Mila asked, “Do you have your powers?”
In response he let the grass around him wilt, creating a circle of barren dirt around him. Mila felt like his showing off hadn’t been necessary, but at least he’d answered her question. Dreading the answer, Mila asked, “Do you have my powers?”
Mila didn’t know whether to feel relief or disappointment. “What were you planning on trying next?” she asked, pressing a hand to her forehead. If they kept trying, something had to work.
“I hadn’t gotten that far yet,” he admitted.
She could do this. “Picture balance,” Mila demanded.
For a moment he just blinked at her, and then he understood. “Symmetry, couples, the sun and the moon, squares…” he trailed off, looking to his surroundings for inspiration. Mila had started nodding as soon as he said couples.
“Think of something shocking, that could put something into motion,” Mila tried next. She wished she could pace, but she didn’t trust her legs, now that she knew nothing had changed.
“Lightning?” Ashton faltered. “I’m not sure what you’re asking.”
Lightning could work, but for the plan she’d devised in her head, she had a specific shock in mind. The kind that would have Anna keeling over, if she were alive. Mila had no idea if it would be enough, but they had to start somewhere.
“I think we need to focus on us,” Mila stated, hoping he’d get it. Ashton’s arched brow said he did not. “You know, two halves becoming whole,” she said, fighting to calm the blush staining her cheeks. When Ashton had talked about it before Mila always found the expression metaphorical, but there could be something behind it.
Eyes widening, Ashton asked, “Are you seducing me?” He took in her blushing face and shook his head. “You’re hurt. Badly. We can’t even think—”
Mila’s skeletal fingertips seemed like too much of a reminder of her injuries, so Mila used her mouth to shut him up. Placing a kiss directly onto his chest, she ran her tongue along his skin and smiled up at him. “I can’t use my hands.”
He’d gone ramrod straight, like they’d decided to use the aforementioned lightning after all and he’d been struck.
Working her way up his chest, she paused briefly at his nipple. His warm skin jumped away from her tongue and she continued up until she could press kisses against his jaw, waiting for him to lower his mouth to hers.
His resistance was apparently iron. “I don’t want to hurt you.” His hands lifted only to hover inches from her shoulders, unsure.
She wished she could take his hand in hers and make him do something, but she stuck to her kisses, attempting to crumble his resolve. “Why don’t you let me decide?” she asked, echoing his earlier words. She nipped at his jaw.
Too slowly for her liking, he tilted his head down so he could fully kiss her.
The kiss started slow, his lips firmly closed against hers. Feeling like she really might have to seduce him, she licked at the seam of his lips until he caved. She whimpered into his mouth when she couldn’t bury her hands into his hair and hold him where she wanted him.
His hands locked underneath her bottom and lifted her up against him so the angle was slightly better. Any pain running through her body was the last thing on her mind: she focused only on him, on the both of them being together. She pulled away to breathe and he kissed his way to her suddenly heavy breasts, parting her dress with ease.
He teased, running his tongue all the way around her nipple and nibbling at the underside of her breasts until her nipples hardened and ached. Eyes on her, he finally covered one of the nipples with his mouth, pinching the other between his fingers.
Again, she let out a frustrated sound that she had to keep her arms behind her back.
Making matters worse, he only chuckled at her predicament. He sucked her nipple into his mouth, laving with his tongue, which stole any caustic response she might have given. He switched sides, giving each nipple equal attention.
He dropped to his knees, pressing an open-mouthed kiss to her stomach. The flowers withered away, and he placed a kiss to her actual skin.
While he looked like he knew exactly what he was doing, his hands had tightened around their safe place on her unharmed sides. He seemed reluctant to go further, where she knew the scars on the back of her legs began.
“How far did you plan on taking this?” he asked against her skin.
Another time she might have thought she’d teased him too far, with the bulge visible in his pants and his eyes watching her intensely. She faltered, unsure herself. To truly be connected to him, they’d have to… have sex. Her blush must have revealed her thoughts, because he smiled and pressed another kiss into her hip.
“Not tonight, moonlight.” The heat coursing through her cooled at his rejection, and she attempted to step out of his arms. “No matter how gentle I was, your legs…” He shook his head.
“They don’t hurt now,” she pointed out.
He stood, further dousing her plan. “Call me overly protective, but I want you fully healed before anything like that.” Briefly Mila wondered if this was because she looked so terrible right now, or if he would have really gone through with it otherwise.
What if he didn’t want to have sex with her?
Nervously, she sank to her knees. He thought she’d fallen and gripped her shoulder. The second she placed her mouth on top of his bulge, through his pants, his fingers dug into her skin.
He made no move to take things further, and she knew licking at the bulge through his pants wouldn’t be enough. Without thinking, she moved her hands, fumbling with the strings. The linen was hard to get a hold of without her skin, but eventually, she did.
Anna had explained—in explicit detail—what a male would look like between his legs, but she hadn’t covered exactly how angry a cock would look. Flushed bright red, punching straight up toward his stomach, the head weeping. She’d never seen one this close, but already, she pictured the things she wanted to do to it.
“Hands behind your back,” Ashton murmured.
She didn’t feel quite as crippled when he said it like that, hunger in his voice. She licked her dry lips and leaned in, aiming for the vein running along—
“Are your legs hurting?”
She glared at him with all the anger she felt at being interrupted. His hands on her shoulders had started to lift, bringing her up as well, as though to take some of her weight off. With how she kneeled, her broken skin really touched nothing but air.
Instead of responding verbally, she chose to continue where she’d left off before being rudely interrupted. She tongued the thick vein running along the underside of his shaft. From the corners of her eyes she watched Ashton’s legs tense in response. Curious, Mila placed her mouth on him, tasting. Very… male.
She licked her way up to the head, making him fist a hand into her hair. For the time being she ignored his hold, but wondered if she should tell him to keep his hands behind his back, too. She placed a kiss to the head before eyeing the bead of liquid at the top.
Again, she tasted. Mostly she had an impression of warmth. She flicked her tongue at the head before moving back down to the shaft, curling her tongue so that she almost touched the side closest to his body, where she couldn’t reach as easily. He’d hardly moved after placing his hand in her hair, so Mila took a moment to check on him while she kissed one of his balls.
His eyes were on fire, the lines in his face drawn so tight he almost looked angry, if he wasn’t watching her so hungrily.
Mila knew she didn’t have to go any further, but she also knew she wanted to. Finding his balls safest to experiment with—they were easier to reach, at least—she kept her eyes on him as she sucked one into her mouth.
His jaw clenched.
Mila sucked until the sack pulled taut, and then she released her prize and did the same to the other side. When his tension hadn’t faded, Mila asked as innocently as she could, “Are your legs hurting?”
He didn’t look fooled for one second, eyes narrowing on her smile immediately. “Can’t even feel them.” Mila slid her tongue up the length of his shaft as she worked toward the head, preparing to see if she could take that part into her mouth as well. Her knees moved closer together to give her more height, and Ashton asked, “Your legs okay?”
At least this time he hadn’t interrupted her. She still pouted that he could be so focused on the legs that weren’t even hurting yet when she was trying to… appeal to him, she guessed.
His thumb trailed over her cheek, probably where she’d blushed.
Regaining her composure, Mila ordered, “Hands behind your back.” He took his time moving his hand away, showing he did so by choice, not her orders. She didn’t really care so long as he kept out of her way and stopped asking questions.
When he’d tucked his hands behind his back, Mila placed her mouth over the head of his cock. The tip was big, swollen, and she ran her tongue around the edge to test how much room she had. Ashton let out a groan from above her.
Taking that as a sign of encouragement, she continued working her tongue along how much she’d taken into her mouth and attempted to take more. She wasn’t short by any means, but on her knees, she could only get to so much before she felt like they were at conflicting angles. She wanted to use her hands for better leverage but knew better.
His hand naturally clasped the base of his shaft and pulled the head closer to her lips. She accepted the help and managed to suck in another inch or so.
“Mila,” he rasped.
She liked her name coming from his lips like that. Glancing up at him through her lashes, Mila saw every muscle in chest tensed, like this was the most strenuous activity. She kept her smile to herself best she could, lips wrapped around his cock as it was.
“Watch the teeth,” Ashton muttered as she tried to find the best position for him in her mouth. At his words her mouth relaxed until she was sure nothing but her tongue touched him. That opened up a world of possible motions, and Mila pulled her mouth back, watching him. He followed her actions with rapt attention. She sank her mouth down onto his shaft, feeling the thick vein against her tongue pulse. From the look on his face she’d done something right.
She was proud of herself for figuring it out. With the boost to her confidence she worked at picking up speed. She’d just established a good rhythm when he took a step away, slipping from her mouth.
“Hey,” she protested, attention fixated on his glistening cock. His hand stroked up the length leisurely, and with effort she looked to his eyes for an explanation.
“That’s enough,” he said. The hand moving over his shaft said otherwise. Mila didn’t know why, but she felt something akin to rejection, that he’d ended it so quickly. Maybe he really didn’t want to have sex with her.
Those thoughts circled in her head as he asked, “Can you be still?”
“Sure,” Mila whispered. Anything to get his cock near her, to keep building the slow warmth that started in her stomach and radiated out.
He smirked, the dimple appearing in his cheek. Releasing his cock from the chokehold he’d placed on it, he kneeled behind her. He took great care in adjusting her closer to the ground, switching her head to his thighs and then finally the earth, which left her exasperated. She could’ve laid down on her own, and had no idea how this got her closer to anything she wanted.
When he leaned over to capture her right nipple between his teeth, she was much happier. She arched her back, trying to find more of the sensation.
“Don’t move,” he told her, pulling away. Her back fell flat onto the ground, but his attentions didn’t return. She felt punished until she realized he’d moved around to her legs, carefully finding safe places to grip and moving them out. When he’d positioned her so that none of her wounds touched the ground, he ran a hand down the insides of her thighs.
She whimpered when he lifted her dress over her stomach and placed a kiss at her mound. The dress obscured him from her vision, though she felt the heat of his gaze. In the next second he’d disintegrated the dress into nothing so he had a full view of her.
His tongue gave a slow lick up her entire slit, doing nothing to ease the ache inside. She rocked toward him for more and he chided, “Mila.”
To her, the warning sounded more like pure sex, completely inviting. She did her best to keep still as he buried his face between her legs, nose bumping her clit and tongue darting inside to taste her. She wished she could spread her legs further, or otherwise do something to create more of the pleasure.
His fingers spread her lips apart and his tongue lashed at her like he intended to make her his meal. She felt on fire, her breath threatening to come out in pants. Her head rolled back as she alternately fought to get closer to him and not to move.
“No hands,” Ashton said sternly. She hadn’t realized her hands had moved on their own accord until she looked down to see she’d gripped his horns, intent on directing his actions.
Immediately she released him. He didn’t move until she’d placed her hands back by her sides. In reward, he went back to his work like he’d never paused, bringing her back to a writhing mess in no time at all. His mouth moved higher, and she missed his tongue for all of two seconds until he sucked her clit into his mouth.
“Don’t move,” Ashton said, his words close to a growl. How could he be angry—or expect her not to lift her hips to his face—at a time like this? She whimpered again but kept her hips flat against the gnawing need to get his tongue to press deeper.
He could sate the ache, she felt, if he just went a little… His finger pressed into her clit the same time his tongue found the exact spot she wanted, and she clenched her thighs around his face, attempting to hold him there forever, or at least until she found relief. She realized a second too late that the hands on her thighs were not there to sooth her, put to pull her legs apart.
Afraid she’d choked him, Mila almost apologized until she saw the look on his face. “If you can’t be still…” he said, and she knew he was perfectly fine.
She nodded her head. She would have agreed to anything if it put his mouth back. Her thighs wanted to rub together at his absence, to create the friction needed. Gazing at her legs, moving as they were, his mouth pressed into a firm line.
The ground sank from under her hands and feet. She let out a startled noise that shifted into a moan when Ashton pressed against her clit again. She wanted to understand why he’d trapped her hands, why no amount of pulling would free her, but she couldn’t focus on anything other than the pleasure he was bringing her.
It was almost too much.
Now her thighs attempted to clench in a bid to drive him away, because she was headed into unknown territory. Everything inside her tightened dangerously, to the point she held her breath, unsure what to expect.
Ashton’s hands ran along her ribs, down her sides, before clenching on her hips. He seemed okay with whatever was about to happen, if he even knew.
Something stirred in her abdomen, and Mila wondered if her plan was working. “I think my powers are back,” she managed to pant through the actions of his devious tongue. Her words made him pause for all of two seconds, as though debating if he should stop and test them out or keep going.
He chose keep going, which was fine with her. Her brain couldn’t process where he touched, how he stroked, but she knew the coil in her lower body was twisted tight. She felt his finger push in and how he gently nipped her clit, and she felt everything but her muscles release.
No, her muscles contracted, leaving her feeling pleasantly worked over. She felt her vagina spasm around Ashton’s finger, and she was glad not to feel emptiness. Warmth spread everywhere, and she felt sated long before her insides had stopped fluttering.
Ashton pressed a kiss to her thigh and slid his finger out when she’d finished milking it. Mila felt boneless, and a little bit like she could do anything.
Her first orgasm had been spectacular.
“You said your powers were back?” Ashton asked gently, placing a palm on her sweaty forehead. The warmth from his hand didn’t help, but she took comfort in his touch.
The tightening at her core had disappeared after the orgasm. One look at his cock, hanging nearly within reach, and she felt the need stirring again. His finger had felt nice: what would something bigger feel like? She intended to clasp her hand around his shaft but found the ground stopping her efforts.
Ashton tucked himself back into his pants, not helping matters, either.
“You’d leave me like this?” Mila said, pouting.
Without sympathy, Ashton shook his head. “You just came all over my face: I’m not leaving you like anything.” She arched her back appealingly, and he looked skyward. “No way you’d stay still for sex.”
Why would she want to? “Just restrain me,” she offered, pulling uselessly against the ground. “Or let me be on top.” She could picture it already: it wouldn’t hurt her legs at all.
He looked interested, from the way he’d focused on her breasts, but his less fun senses won out. “You did this for a reason,” Ashton reminded her. “Did it work?”
She felt nothing, and the lack of power combined with his not agreeing to her demands made her respond childishly, “Maybe it wasn’t shocking enough.” She certainly felt rocked, but maybe her powers needed more encouragement.
Lazily, Ashton traced his finger along her collarbone. “Mila.”
“I don’t have my powers,” she said grudgingly, turning away from him. His hand continued to dance along her skin.
She turned back to watch his face, wondering what they were supposed to do now.
Ashton didn’t know the answer to her question, either. Mila wondered how on earth they were supposed to figure this out, not even knowing the extent of their powers.
“And you won’t have sex,” Mila frowned.
“Not right now,” Ashton said, unconcerned at the glare she sent his way. His fingers stopped tracing her shoulder to move down to her arm, almost tickling her. “When we have sex, I don’t want it to be like this.”
Arching a brow at his confidence, Mila begrudgingly admitted she understood. She would kind of be using him in an attempt to get her powers back, no matter how much she’d enjoy the process. And she wouldn’t be able to touch him like she wanted, or wrap her legs around him, because he’d be trying to keep her from injuring herself.
Fine, they were on the same page. “Can I have my hands back?” she asked.
Ashton hardly blinked and the ground rose, placing her palms on the surface. The same happened to the soles of her feet. Looking at the dirt between her bony fingers, Mila surveyed the damage to her legs, reinforcing that she hadn’t healed. Things couldn’t continue this way. “What are you thinking?” she asked Ashton.
“You might need to regenerate.”
“Haven’t I been dying?” she puzzled. She remembered periods of blackness where she’d assumed she’d gone into that state. Without any powers she had a harder time of knowing when she’d actually died, though.
He shook his head. “You slept. I know the difference.”
Having never slept in her life, Mila felt concerned. What if… “Am I human?” she gasped out, looking to Ashton. What if Anna had managed to take her powers away, after all? What if she’d abused them in bringing Anna back, and so now she was only mortal as punishment? Everything started to fall in place, that her injuries would be so bad.
Smiling to the point his cheek creased and revealed his dimple, Ashton said, “Not with how you gripped me with your thighs.”
“Seriously,” Mila said, though she couldn’t help the blush spreading over her face.
“You’re just weak,” Ashton excused. His hand stopped moving along her skin. “But we’ll keep that in mind, just in case.”
The words made her want to panic, but his tone said he had a plan. “What are you thinking?” Mila asked again, afraid of his answer. If he thought it would work—or if it was something simple—he wouldn’t look so resigned, eyebrows drawn low.
“I think we should see if you’ll regenerate.”
“I could die—”
Kissing her forehead, Ashton interrupted, “That’s why I’ll kill myself. Just in case.” Mila looked at him in disbelief—had he forgotten their powers were linked?—and he smiled grimly. “If you’re human, your connection to me is severed. Nothing will happen.”
She would just watch as he regenerated for her sake and she continued to have no improvement. “I don’t like this plan.”
“It’s not as good as your other,” Ashton admitted. She would have smacked him if she didn’t find it so endearing that he had enjoyed the moment as much as she, even given the circumstances. “But I think we need to try.”
He strode into the hut. Mila wondered why until he returned, holding his bow and an arrow. Offering it to Mila, he asked, “Would you like to do the honors?”
Essentially, he offered revenge for Anna’s death, if Mila wanted it. While she still loved the guardian she’d grown up with, she’d turned bitter toward the newer Anna that had left her suffering. During the shift in feelings, she’d completely gotten over Ashton’s actions.
As always, he’d only tried to protect her.
With a shake of her head, Mila let him hold onto the arrow. She looked away as he pressed the tip into his neck. Even then she heard the arrow pierce flesh, heard his ragged inhale, and felt the ground jolt as he slumped to the side, away from her. Every time his heart beat and he drew in another breath while she experienced no dizziness, no blackness, she worried.
After about thirty seconds, his breathing stopped.
Her rising panic didn’t last long, only because she fell on top of him, suddenly winded and exhausted.
When she resurfaced, she realized she had been sleeping all those other times: the grogginess she felt then was nothing like when she died. Her memory came back first, telling her that the person moving around the room had to be Ashton. Next she could feel her limbs again, so that she felt capable of moving.
Mila waited until after she’d opened her eyes to move her hand. The skeletal fingers mocked her, especially when she turned her hand and made them curl.
“We have a problem.”
I’m looking at it, Mila thought as she continued to study her hand. If the bones hadn’t healed, she doubted anything had happened with her legs. Refusing to look at them and scare herself into not walking, Mila pushed herself into a sitting position and waited for Ashton to elaborate.
He stood by the window, looking out into the sun.
Spreading her arms to balance, Mila made her way over and looked outside for whatever he focused on. Her horses were nowhere in sight—she hoped they were okay—and nothing looked out of place, except him being here in the hut and Anna dead.
“You raised the sun,” Ashton finally elaborated.
“I couldn’t have.” Mila searched for the familiar coursing of power through her veins and still felt nothing: the regeneration hadn’t worked. “That’s your power, anyway.”
Adamantly, Ashton shook his head. “I have your powers. You must have managed to do it while you were passed out.” That made no sense to Mila—she had no control over herself when she died—but Ashton acted like it was the only explanation.
“If you’ve got my powers, put the moon in the sky,” Mila said. They had bigger problems to deal with, like her lack of healing.
Instead of arguing, Ashton folded his arms and watched her face. Mila looked away, and in doing so discovered that’s what he wanted: the moon sailed through the daytime sky, completely out of place. “Oh,” Mila said, knowing without a doubt that wouldn’t work.
He let the moon fall back under the horizon. “Can you fix the sun?”
Given she hadn’t been the one to put it up there in the first place, probably not. Mila rolled her shoulders back and squinted against the harsh light of the sun, trying to will it out of the sky with a nod of her head. Nothing. She brought her hands into the mix, letting desperation fuel her, and felt no stirrings of the slightest power.
“We’ll just switch again,” Mila decided. If the moon stayed in the sky all the time the crops might suffer, but the town would live. If the sun stayed in the sky, Mila feared they’d all burn, if they found it as overbearing as she did.
He’d clenched his jaw, the sign he stood firm about his point. Mila noted the way he wouldn’t look at her, how it seemed like the intimacy they’d shared a day ago had disappeared. Unless, of course, it hadn’t happened a day ago. “What aren’t you telling me?” When Ashton didn’t answer, Mila chose a more direct question: “How long was I out?”
“A week?” she repeated loudly. “You let the sun stay in the sky for a week?”
Still avoiding her gaze, he asked, “Did you expect me to risk your current regeneration with another? To possibly double your time?”
Mila thought of the dead crops, the people stuck in the heat. “Is anyone dead?” she asked. She would never forgive herself if while her powers suffered, she’d failed the entire town. If she couldn’t handle her powers, what was the point in having them?
Except she didn’t have powers anymore.
“They’re fine,” Ashton said quickly. Darkness fell over Mila, and she looked out the window in surprise. The moon was back, obscuring most of the sun. “I found a way to make clouds, too,” Ashton explained.
Impressed by his resourcefulness—Mila probably would have just panicked—Mila asked, “But if this is under control, why not let me die again?”
“You know it didn’t work.”
Eventually, something would have to. “Maybe I have to switch into my powers for something to happen.” Thinking over her selfish decision to raise Anna from the dead and defy nature, Mila guessed, “Or maybe I have to kill myself. A sacrifice.”
“I don’t want to guess anymore.”
Mila tipped her head back until she viewed the roof of the hut in exasperation. Did he think she found this fun, unable to control her powers, unable to feel them? If she’d known the answer, she would have said so. “I’m trying—”
“That’s not what I meant.” He leaned into her line of vision, hands cradling her cheeks. “I want you to meet my guardian.”
Truly, Mila didn’t feel any lingering bitterness toward him about killing Anna. The idea of seeing another guardian, though, felt stifling. And a little bit dishonest, like if Anna knew, she would be hurt. Instead of voicing the concerns that made no sense, she asked, “Didn’t I already meet her?” She remembered an older woman’s face above her own.
“Officially, I mean.”
“I don’t think I have a choice,” Mila admitted. They couldn’t stay in the hut forever, making no progress. Ashton didn’t try to cheer up her resigned tone, moving instead to grab his bow, lift it over his head and right arm, and let it rest against his back.
He strode to her swiftly, intentions clear. “You’re not carrying me all the way back.” Mila took a step into the wall, ending her retreat.
Unnecessarily, he gestured to her legs. “Do you think you can walk?”
“I’ve been doing fine.” She’d swayed in standing up and had walked maybe five steps, but surely so long as she didn’t think of her legs, they would work. The option of stumbling through the woods seemed better than being carried like a child.
If she didn’t put her foot down somewhere, she’d start to forget that she was a powerful immortal at all.
Ashton glanced out the window, then back to her. Scooping an arm under her bottom, he pressed a hand against her back to balance her as he carried her outside. “Hey,” Mila protested weakly. She didn’t push against his hold only because she feared dropping to the ground.
To her surprise, he set her down. If only all of her protests ended with her getting her way.
He whistled low, looking out into the trees.
“Is that going to work, without your powers?” Mila asked skeptically. She couldn’t tell if her horses had actually liked him or been charmed by his natural charisma with animals.
“You being here should be enough.” Sure enough, Mila watched Doll pick through the trees first, followed by a more cautious Ghost. Ghost came around to greet Mila, exhaling loudly into her hair, while Doll examined Ashton, the one who’d called them.
With dramatic flair, he gestured to the horses. “Is this better?”
Mila wanted to say yes, but with her legs… she didn’t know. The cuts didn’t hurt for the moment, but pressed against a jostling horse, they might. And she’d never make it onto their backs without help, which she didn’t want to ask from Ashton.
As she slowly wimped out on the idea of leaving the hut, Ashton grabbed her around the ribs and set her on top of Doll.
Braced against his hold, Mila didn’t immediately relax. When she felt sure he wouldn’t pick her up again, she slowly let her legs fall to either side of Doll, waiting for the pain to start. So far, nothing had happened.
Ashton rubbed his palm down Doll’s neck and then swung himself onto her back.
“You’re too heavy,” Mila said immediately when he pressed against her. Doll hadn’t collapsed, but she’d never had to carry anyone other than Mila, either.
“And you’re light,” Ashton said. “It’ll work.”
Without any prodding on their part, Doll started into motion. Ghost followed close behind, perhaps sensing Mila’s distrust that they could continue like this on one horse. Doll was a big, hearty, healthy creature, sure, but every animal had their limits.
And so did Mila’s injuries. When she tried to hold her legs still her muscles ached and burned, but when she rested her legs loosely, they swung too much, the sides of the wound feeling reopened.
She dealt with her discomfort for another minute before Ashton guided one of her legs to the other side, so she looked ready to slide off. Her arms clutched around his neck anxiously, waiting for him to fix the position.
When he didn’t, she said, “I’ll fall.”
He had the nerve to laugh at her. “You’re fine.” Apparently he saw no problem in her legs dangling off the side of Doll’s back. He probably just enjoyed the death grip she’d looped around his neck. Knowing that, she still couldn’t convince her arms to release.
It took time, but they made it to the edge of the woods. Mila didn’t want to let go of him for the two seconds it would take for him to get ready to carry her, but she did, imagining she was an unshakeable rock. She thought he’d make her jump to him—some strange trust exercise—but he lifted her bridal style, easing her worries.
“Thank you,” she told Doll and Ghost.
“You’re welcome,” Ashton responded. She didn’t correct him because he had been pretty helpful, when she thought about it. The closer they got to people the more uncomfortable Mila became with being held. She felt vines tickling her skin and realized Ashton had covered her; she’d completely forgotten her naked state, so focused on her legs.
Burying her head into his shoulder, she tried to imagine they strolled through the woods, that she didn’t hear whispers around her. “They only care that you’re hurt,” Ashton said.
He couldn’t know that. They probably blamed her for the strange combination of the moon and the sun in the sky; they probably wondered what kind of immortal clung to someone else. Even with those thoughts in her head, Mila couldn’t find the strength to protest the safety of Ashton’s arms.
When he opened a door and walked into darkness she lifted her head. “I can walk,” she said immediately when she saw the stairs to the tower.
“We’re almost there.” He hadn’t started on the stairs, but he made it clear he wasn’t going to put her down for this. Mila fidgeted, calculating the chances of him dropping her. If he took a wrong step, she would go flying. If she became too heavy, they could both topple down the stairs. His arms didn’t shake in the least, but he could be hiding his fatigue.
By the time she’d concluded there was a ten percent chance he’d drop her, they made it to the top. As she stretched out her legs, thinking he’d set her down, he strode into the room.
Mila had never intended to meet his guardian. The first time had been bad enough, with her hovering so soon after Anna died. This second time was worse, because Mila awkwardly fought her way out of Ashton’s hold. He’d presented her like some trophy, his prize catch from the woods. “Set me down,” she hissed at him.
He obeyed in time for her to feel somewhat in control when the older woman approached. “I’m Elaine,” she said, extending her hand.
“Mila,” she said, keeping her hands firmly planted at her sides. His guardian had probably seen some strange things, but there was no need to freak her out with Mila’s skeletal fingers so soon. Elaine took the failed handshake well, gesturing to the seats around them.
Mila sank into the plush couch while Ashton moved to stand behind her. Her head tipped back to look at him: he’d come up with this plan, not her, so he needed to ask the questions.
“She’s not healing,” Ashton said. He bent to rest his forearms on the back of the couch, so he spoke close to Mila’s head. “It’s been too long. We’ve tried everything we can think of.” Almost everything, Mila wanted to correct.
“I thought as much, when I saw the sky,” Elaine mused. Even expressionless, she had wrinkles in her face. “May I look at her?”
Mila froze around the same time Ashton nodded. They looked to each other, confused by their opposite reactions. “I don’t know her,” Mila ground out in a low tone. And, though petty, Mila added, “The last guardian that touched me did this.”
“She’s not like Anna,” he said with enough force she almost cowered. “She’s a sweet old lady who raised me.”
Minus the old, that’s what Mila had thought of Anna. She made no protest as Elaine approached, standing close enough that Mila could see the slight film developing over her pupils. Aside from the dark brown color, Elaine’s gaze reminded her a little too much of Anna’s. She put those thoughts aside as Elaine knelt, placing a hand on Mila’s ankle.
She turned her leg around and made a noise in the back of her throat. She took Mila’s good wrist and examined the skeletal fingers, poking one of them.
Mila looked to Ashton to see if this was really happening. The hand to her neck came as a surprise, but she felt no anger coming from Elaine to make her panic. Elaine’s hand slid lower, to rest near her heart. “Hm,” she said.
Sitting back in her chair, Elaine looked at Ashton alone. “She’s lost a lot of her life force.”
“I’m immortal,” Mila blurted. “How is that possible?”
“You’re not impervious to injuries,” Elaine said, shaking her head like Mila should have known better. “The wounds are deep. Deep enough that your powers have given up on you completely.”
Trying to catch the subtext, Mila asked, “So I’m dying? Permanently?”
“Your current form is, yes.”
Elaine spoke so casually she could have offered Mila a drink. While Mila reeled, Ashton asked, “How does she get better?”
The rest of the conversation went over her head as she pictured the last month or so of her life. Things had been fine until she met Ashton. Anna had said he would kill her, if she didn’t get to him first, and now it seemed true, in a twisted way.
Ignoring their argument, Mila realized she was okay with death. She didn’t have much to look forward to, anyway: roaming the woods and changing the sky. Without Anna’s plans and conversation, she would have lived a lonely life in the woods. Even if Ashton had stopped by sometimes, Mila didn’t feel she’d have continued in a fruitful life.
“It’s okay,” she interrupted as Ashton’s voice rose. She wanted to hold his jaw to soothe him, but her bony fingers were a miserable substitute for comfort. “I lived a good life.”
She could have died in the woods as a child and never even made it this far.
“That’s not what she’s saying,” Ashton said, cupping his hands around her face while she couldn’t reciprocate. “You’ll live, but…”
Elaine finished for him. “You’ll need to let go of your form for a century or so to recover.”
Looking at the pain in Ashton’s eyes, Mila’s repeated, “A century?” That wasn’t so bad, though she imagined there was something else, if he looked at her like that. Maybe it was a century of pain, or she came back a different person.
“Or two. Or three, or four, or five…”
Mila tuned Elaine out, feeling sick as the numbers grew higher. “But that’s it?” she asked, pulling away from Ashton’s grasp to search Elaine’s face. She looked honest, like she had no reason to lie.
“That’s it?” Ashton snarled. Mila didn’t understand why he was so upset: wasn’t he glad she wouldn’t permanently die? “That’s over a century that we’re without each other.”
Glib, Mila said, “You’ve already done it for a quarter of one, at least.”
“Think of how out of balance the world will be,” Ashton continued like she hadn’t said anything. He pulled away from the couch to pace, shaking his head. So the issue really wasn’t her, it was the fact that she’d shirk her immortal duties in dying for over a century.
At least she knew how he really felt about her. Ignoring the path he attempted to wear through the floor in his pacing, Mila focused on Elaine, who at least looked at this rationally. “How do I do it?”
“It’s really quite simple,” Elaine provided, even as Ashton continued muttering no under his breath. “Ashton takes the remains of your powers, and you cease to exist.”
Mila wasn’t sure how simple that actually was, considering she had no powers at the moment.
“No,” Ashton repeated, louder this time.
Finally addressing him again, Mila sighed, bringing his pacing and muttering to an end. “I can’t stay like this,” she said, gesturing to her torn legs with her skeletal fingers. “You can’t think that.” He’d said he wanted to stay by her side, but surely he knew when it was better to let go.
Shaking his head again, Ashton said, “There has to be a way to heal her.”
“Sure,” Elaine said easily. Mila had her first shred of doubt: could Elaine really be trusted if she changed her answers so quickly? “But she wouldn’t get her powers back, and the world would continue being out of balance.”
As though they bartered in the market, Ashton said, “I’ll take it.”
“This is a choice for two people,” Mila reminded him. “You said it earlier, the world will suffer without our powers being in balance. Maybe you could heal me and I could live, but at what cost?” Crossing her arms over her chest, Mila said, “I want to regenerate.”
Exhaling loudly, Elaine rose from her seat. “I’ll let you two talk,” she decided. “Nice meeting you,” she offered to Mila in passing. She swept into a room on the side and closed the door.
Unexpectedly, Mila felt worse without the guardian there. Maybe because she’d thought Elaine would have a better chance at changing Ashton’s mind. So far, Mila had only managed to do it a handful of times, and ended up dragging along behind him the others.
“We have a duty to the world before we have a duty to each other,” Mila reminded him.
“Do you not want to stay with me?”
He didn’t look at her, as though afraid of the answer. “I do,” Mila admitted, finding it hard to look at him too. Anna had told her not to care so much about one person, and this seemed like the perfect example: she wouldn’t see him for at least a century. “But I know the world will dissolve into chaos if I don’t go.”
Moving so that he stood at her knees, Ashton towered over her. “And you think one person can handle both of the powers and not run the world into chaos?”
“That’s what I was trained for,” Mila reminded him. If not trained, at least raised.
And they’d practiced using each other’s powers for a whole week: Ashton should have no problem taking over both.
He kneeled, placing his hands on her knees. Her dress did nothing to stop the heat of his palms from reaching her skin. “Let’s heal you first,” he said. “And then we’ll see how you feel.”
“We’ve already tried this,” Mila said, attempting to dislodge his hand by jostling her knee. While she focused on something else he reached for one of her hands, ignoring her words. He closed his eyes, probably drawing on his power.
A thin line of red traced around her fingertips, and she thought he’d made things worse. She felt no pain, so she held out a little longer.
Flesh laced around the bone, skin knitting over as though nothing had happened. Ashton opened his eyes in time to see her fingernail form, and he smiled. At Mila’s look of wonder—and suspicion as to why he hadn’t done something sooner—Ashton said, “It hadn’t occurred to me to feed my power into you.”
Mila could picture nothing else than a wilted flower coaxed into a bloom. She stretched her newly fixed fingers and tried to feel the stirrings of power as Ashton placed a hand on her calf and started to knit her skin back together.
Nothing. He had literally pushed power into her, and she couldn’t feel any remnants of it to use. She looked down to find smooth skin on her previously ragged legs.
“Do you feel okay?” she asked, worried he might drain all of his powers, like Elaine said, and die for a century instead of her.
He brushed her concern away with a laugh. “I’m great.” He rocked onto his heels to stand and noticed her bad wrist. “Almost forgot.” Between his fingers, Mila’s wrist bone drifted into place. She was grateful not to feel it, because the audible pop made it sound like it would have hurt. “How do you feel?” he asked, standing to his full height.
“Fine?” He probably wanted her to say she didn’t want to regenerate, now, but the world hadn’t fallen into chaos yet. At Ashton’s urging she stood, admittedly finding it easier. “I feel normal.”
“Powers?” he asked.
She’d known they were gone, but she tried again, thinking with everything fixed it might return. Unfortunately, she was hollow, abandoned. Elaine was right, her life force was drained, and her spiritual being would continue to reflect that.
Mila shook her head.
“We can work on that,” Ashton dismissed. His grin was infectious, and he swooped in for a kiss. “I’m glad you’re better.”
She accepted the kiss, but her worries couldn’t be dismissed. What good was she to the world without her powers? How could she perform the duties she’d been born with when she was practically a human now?
“Should we tell Elaine?” Mila asked when the kiss ended.
Smiling with his teeth, Ashton went and opened the door she’d walked through, revealing a tiny bedroom. Ashton stepped aside, so that Mila was essentially framed in the doorway. If she lived, she would have to talk to him about how he presented her to his guardian: she felt awkward, studied, the natural opposite to Ashton on display.
The thin smile Elaine gave in return was not reassuring. “I don’t know how long this will last, but believe me when I say it won’t.”
“Elaine,” Ashton reprimanded.
Guardians always seemed to know more about balance than the two of them, so Mila believed her. When Elaine strode to the largest window in the room, Mila waited for her to make a stronger point and convince Ashton.
Drawing the thick, patterned curtains back, Elaine said, “Look at the woods.”
Both immortals moved forward. Ashton let Mila peer out first, as he could see well enough from behind her. Mila spotted the disturbance immediately: an entire section of the woods looked dead, the trees gnarled and lifeless.
“That’s probably from where we trained,” Ashton dismissed. At Elaine’s solemn look, he added, “We can fix it.”
“As long as you have my powers,” Mila pointed out softly. And how long could he run around the woods, fixing the damage, until it became too much? Mila turned away, not needing to see anything else. She had a feeling the view outside would only get worse.
Nodding to the street below them, Elaine pointed out, “The pavement’s already cracking.”
“I didn’t do that,” Ashton said, staring at his hands like he’d find answers there.
“The earth is rebelling,” Elaine said, throwing up her hands. “How many times do I have to tell you that?” She glanced to Mila and then glared at Ashton. “You’re making me look bad. I raised you to act smarter than this.”
Instantly he turned repentant. “I’m sorry, Elaine.”
“I’ll go tell everyone you chose to save the girl instead of the world, so they should say their goodbyes,” she continued, smoothing out her long cotton dress. She stalked away from the window as though to do just that; even stranger, Ashton let her go.
Mila heard her feet on the steps, growing distant. “Will she really say that?”
For some reason, Ashton seemed unconcerned with Elaine’s sensible words. Ashton could only choose to save the world, because without the people in it, they weren’t necessary. No one needed a sun and a moon and a balance of nature when there were no more humans.
Mila let her unwavering gaze draw his attention. “You don’t believe her, do you?” he asked.
“I believe this.” She inclined her head to the window, where she swore the spot of darkness in the woods had grown. “This is our home. This is why we’re here.” Lifting her hand, Mila relished in the fact she could finally hold his face, feel his stubble against her palm. “It’s only a century.”
His gaze unfocused. “Or two. Or three.”
Stopping him with a finger over his lips, Mila realized she might have to exaggerate her feelings a little. “I don’t feel right.” Immediately he attempted to check her for injuries, but she stepped out of his reach. “You know how when Anna came back, you knew she wasn’t the same?” He nodded. “I know I’m not right without my powers.”
“Give it time—”
“We don’t have time,” Mila argued. “I’m okay with this. I just need you to be, because it’s a two person job.”
Ashton ran his hand over his chin and then around his neck. “Of course I’m not.”
Now Mila saw the disadvantages of having someone who cared as much as he did. “I thought you would do anything for me,” she said, knowing it was a low blow. Something had to get through to him, though, before someone innocent died.
Silence stretched between them until Ashton reached for her. His mouth went straight for hers, kissing her like he might never get another chance. Mila met the kiss with equal passion, just in case he decided to drain her of her powers at that moment.
His hand pressed into the small of her back, drawing her close enough to feel his warmth. He walked her back to the bed she remembered waking up on the first time.
“Wait,” she said as her knees hit the mattress. Her hands flew to his chest, momentarily distracting her. She could feel his skin again, relish in his strength. Remembering she felt weird wanting him so badly in a house that wasn’t hers, Mila asked, “Should we do this here?”
“Elaine won’t come back,” he vowed, his hands running up and down her back. “And if she did, I wouldn’t care.”
“I would,” Mila protested. His hands pushed at her shoulders until she fell back onto the bed, hair splaying around her. She tried to scoot up, to center herself better so he could join, but he gripped her legs and pulled her bottom to the edge. “Uh,” she managed as he knelt, placing a kiss on her ankle.
His hands held her thighs open, and she understood what he intended. “Now?” she asked in disbelief. Sure, she was healed, but the woods were dying and the streets cracking—
“I’ll multitask,” he muttered against her thigh. His tongue tasted her skin. “And you were the one who said we didn’t have time.”
Normally she had a hard time meeting his gaze, but she found him distracting for more reasons now. His mouth inched closer to the spot between her legs, and his words echoed in her head. “You’re going to go through with it,” she realized. She’d thought he planned on distracting her until the world collapsed.
He smiled against her thigh, his short beard scraping her skin, and then his breath touched her mound. He licked her once straight over her slit before diving in further.
Mila’s hands clenched in the sheets. He sucked on her like it was his sole mission, and she panted, wondering if she could keep up. His hands crept up her ribcage until they found her breasts and his thumbs could rub over her aching nipples.
Too soon, his hands moved away. She ground into his face and clenched her thighs around his head, enjoying the fact that she could this time. Her hands wound down to clutch at his hair, his horns, anything she could get ahold of to keep his mouth where she liked it. His tongue flicked over her clit and she pushed her hips toward him.
She could have sworn she felt him smile against her skin.
His finger pushed into her opening and she rocked against him. Last time that had helped throw her over the edge. When a second finger pushed against her opening she squirmed, unsure about the tightness but wanting to continue the pleasure.
His lips suctioning on her clit made the decision for her. Effortlessly, he worked both fingers in, making her abdomen tighten and coil with the need for something more.
Now that she knew what it felt like before she orgasmed, she didn’t fight it. Her fingers curled in his hair, finding his scalp, and she gasped out as he found all her sweet spots with a roll of his tongue. He gave her what she needed, striking a vicious rhythm with his fingers and flicking his tongue against her clit.
She came apart on a cry, squeezing her legs together so hard she almost worried about Ashton. His slowly laving tongue assured her he’d survived. Her entire body relaxed, allowing him out of the death trap of her thighs.
Though her arms felt like noodles, she propped herself up on her elbows. The bulge in his pants was hard to miss, and she shifted forward so that she could undo his pants. Her attention didn’t care about anything other than his cock, so he worked his pants off his hips while her hands wrapped around him.
Now that she had a better idea of what to do, she wasted no time in getting him inside her mouth. His hips punched up to her and she smiled at the fact she could use her hands this time.
One hand drifted to cup his ball sack and the other pumped along his shaft like he’d done before. She tongued the head, tasting the beaded liquid that had collected at the top, and worked him deeper. His hands wove into her hair, she assumed in encouragement.
All too soon, he was pulling her away. “Did I mess up?” she asked.
“No.” Ashton pushed her back onto the bed, except this time he followed. “You were great.” He pressed open-mouthed kisses down the column of her neck, heading for her nipples. She hadn’t thought she could still want him after already orgasming, but she did, and clenched her thighs together when he drew a nipple into his mouth.
His cock rocked against her hip, compelling her hand to slide down and grasp him again. He bit out an oath and ground into her hand once before pulling away.
The head glistened and lined up almost exactly with her entrance. Immediately she felt a rush of heat at the sight of him ready to take her; her muscles clenched, thinking of how he would feel sliding between her. Feeling dazed, she looked up to Ashton.
“Do you want to be on top?” he asked, bracing himself above her.
She wanted to feel his weight on top of her as she clutched at his back. Blushing at the image, Mila said, “Not at first.” Her blush only deepened at her words, knowing what would come next.
“You don’t have to be shy with me,” he murmured, placing a quick kiss on her lips. His hips came closer to hers, his hand reaching down to help position himself. The tip of his cock bumped against her entrance and she held her breath.
With a gentle stroke, he slipped in. Having aligned himself, he pulled his legs closer to her, stretched out so that their chests touched. Her nipples rasped against his skin every time she inhaled, and she liked the way it felt. She’d like it better if he moved again. Like she’d imagined, her hands moved up along his shoulders, getting a good grip.
His hips moved tentatively at first, parting her with a careful touch. Considering his cock was bigger than the two fingers he’d used earlier, she appreciated that. The barrier that determined her virginity broke away easily; she winced only when he seated himself to the hilt in the next thrust.
The world didn’t explode. The universe didn’t reprimand her for being impure. Ashton didn’t begin laughing and glowing with power. Mila hadn’t known she’d clung to those worries, but she exhaled in relief.
“You okay?” Ashton asked, pulling back to look down at her. He held himself completely still, maybe thinking he’d hurt her.
He would hurt her if he didn’t keep moving, if he didn’t bank the fires that he’d started up again. Lifting her hips against him, Mila nodded. His lips found hers and he started thrusting again, picking up the pace until she had to wrap her legs around his waist. She broke away from the kiss to keep her breath, nipping at his shoulder when he started to slow again.
The next few strokes filled her completely. She whimpered, and found herself rolling, suddenly on top of him.
She’d said she wanted this, right? Mila sat up, muscles clenching around the cock inside her. Her hands fanned over his chest, wondering if she could actually be on top. Unlike him, she had no idea what to do. His hips lifted into her once, his hands finding her nipples and working them between his fingers.
Following her gut—which said to ride him until she was numb between her legs—Mila sank to the hilt. She let out a small groan at the sensation and quickly lifted herself until only the tip remained, so she could breathe again.
When she took him to the hilt again she moaned at the same time he hissed out a breath. “If it hurts, don’t do it,” he murmured, eyes fixated on where they were joined.
Mila sank onto him fully to show it didn’t. There was no pain in any of this, just… fullness. She leaned forward and discovered she could grind herself onto him better that way. She rode him as fast as she could, closing her eyes. When she opened them again, his normally tan skin looked pale, alarming her enough that she stopped, thinking something had gone wrong.
“Did I hurt you?” she asked, resting the back of her hand to his forehead. He felt cold, for him.
“You’re hurting me now,” he grunted. He punctuated his words with a thrust of his hips and placed a hand on her back to bring her closer. Her breasts practically swung in his face in the position, and he nipped and sucked at them between their thrusts.
She whimpered as the need grew and she couldn’t find the right pace to ease it.
Ashton chuckled. She’d expected him to hold himself over her again, but he turned so that they lay on their sides, facing each other. His hands locked onto her hips, pulling her down onto his thrusts, hitting a spot that made her toes curl.
First her arms wrapped around his neck in a chokehold, and then her whole body followed until she clung to him, coiled tight as she waited for her release. “Will you…?” she tried uncertainly.
Thankfully, he knew what she meant. “You first.”
If he hadn’t kept hitting the spot that made her want to moan, she might have come up with some argument that she’d orgasmed first last time. As it was, she cried out into the space between his neck and shoulder, feeling her muscles tighten almost painfully around his still thrusting cock. True to his word, he found his release soon after, which seemed to draw the aftershocks of her orgasm out.
Mila felt like she’d found peace, and she didn’t want to move. The conversation they’d had about being two halves made for each other seemed especially true now. “I love you,” she decided.
She knew she shouldn’t, given she’d die in the next few hours. She didn’t know the next time she’d see him, or if she ever would. Against all her training, she’d grown attached to him, and she gave in to her need to say the words. She didn’t regret them at all.
“I love you.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead as he slid out from between her legs. He smiled, the truth in his gaze almost distracting her from his pale face. She felt like she glowed, but he looked worn out.
A blanket fell over her, making her eyelids suddenly heavy. “I don’t sleep,” she told Ashton in confusion. His dark eyes watched her solemnly, reflecting parts of her face back at her. Against the exhaustion settling in, Mila asked, “What if Elaine walks in?” She started to roll away from him, like she had the strength to leave the bed.
“She won’t.” His arms anchored around her chest, dragging her back to him. He placed his chin on top of her head, breathing slow and easy. It was the sound of his breathing that drew her into sleep: the one she wouldn’t wake from.
She could think of nothing better than slipping away in the warmth and strength of his arms after such a wonderful time.
A gentle hand shook her awake, which was the last gentle thing about her life in the absence of Ashton.
Mila sensed Elaine and rolled, trying to curl tighter into Ashton so he would deal with exactly what he’d said wouldn’t happen. She felt only coolness against her skin, the bed empty where Ashton should have slept.
In a trance, Mila looked at Elaine and saw they both understood the same thing: he’d sacrificed himself for her.
Tears flowed freely down her cheeks, and ominous thunder sounded above their heads. “None of that, now,” Elaine said, pulling the covers back. “Let’s get up.” Mila huddled into a ball, trying to protect herself from everything she felt, and Elaine said, “I’ve seen it all before.”
Despite her age, Elaine somehow managed to haul Mila out of bed and into the tiny bedroom on the side. Inside the room led to another door that hid a huge stone bathtub. Unceremoniously, Elaine dumped her in and started running the water.
Mila couldn’t believe he was… gone.
The water rose to her neck before Elaine turned the tap off. Submerged, Mila felt marginally better, imagining her pond by the hut. The brief calm gave way to guilt: Ashton was gone, and she was thinking about her pond?
Thunder rumbled again. “You’ve got to be careful,” Elaine chided. “You have both powers, now.”
“I didn’t want this.” Mila rested the side of her face against the cool back of the tub. Her tears were warm and unwelcome. Dying for centuries hadn’t seemed like a problem until it was Ashton and she didn’t know when she’d see him again.
She loved him.
“Didn’t you tell him this is what you’d trained for?”
Mila shook her head against the words, though she remembered them clearly. That didn’t give him the right to change the plan without her knowing. “How did he do it?” she whispered. “I was supposed to die.” His pale face flashed before her eyes: he’d multitasked, just like he’d promised her.
“He gave everything to you. It drained him dry and was enough to replenish your life force.” Elaine saw the expression—or lack thereof—on Mila’s face and said, “He wanted you to live. You have to live for him.”
“I will,” Mila whispered. “Just not today.”
Elaine turned out to be a much better guardian than Anna. She had a motherly aspect about her, possibly because she had kids—and grandkids—of her own. Mila already knew how to control the powers from her time training with Ashton, but Elaine was ready to issue advice: without yelling or getting upset.
The days passed much in the same way. Mila looked longingly out the window for any sign of Ashton, though it was too soon, and Elaine talked enough for the both of them. Every other day a different set of grandkids stopped by.
Gazing out the window, Mila paid no attention. Sometimes she thought she saw her horses through the trees, and guilt swept her at abandoning them. Once Elaine had followed her gaze and assured her the circle of life would do its job: like that was reassuring.
A child climbed into Mila’s lap and played with her hair, drawing her attention from the window briefly.
“Don’t bother her, Elyssia,” Elaine warned.
The little girl had jet black hair, brown eyes, and a proud nose. Even though it was impossible, Mila imagined she sort of looked like Ashton, as his cousin of sorts. “She’s fine,” Mila said, looking out the window again.
“Why are you always so sad?” Elyssia asked from her spot on the rug.
Her parents had died in an accidental fire, which Mila had grown agitated over: she should have sensed something and used her powers to make it stop. Regardless, she’d been unable, and Elyssia now lived with Mila and Elaine. Mila had offered to move back into her hut, but Elaine didn’t even acknowledge the idea.
Why aren’t you sad? Mila wanted to ask the orphan.
“The love of her life abandoned her for the woods,” Elaine said, not a trace of humor in her voice. Mila looked to her in confusion.
“Ashton?” Elyssia asked. His name tore a new cut into Mila’s wounded heart. “That’s not very nice of him.” Elyssia rolled onto her back, looking to see if Elaine would continue. Elyssia had long legs for a kid, and Mila wondered if she would be good at hunting like Ashton.
After coughing into her hand, Elaine said, “But they’ll see each other again.”
Mila had stopped listening, sizing Elaine up. She probably didn’t have much longer to live, even if Mila healed her. Half a decade had passed, leaving Mila untouched and Elaine changed dramatically. Age spots marked her skin, her wrinkles multiplied.
“Or three,” Elaine said as Mila tuned back into the conversation. “Or four.”
Intentional or not, she’d delivered a painful reminder that not even one quarter of a century had passed. Wishing she hadn’t paid attention at all, Mila returned her gaze to the window.
Elaine beat Mila’s expectations by a decade. She died peacefully in her sleep: Mila watched to make sure she didn’t suffer.
Now a young adult, Elyssia decided to stay in the house and take over Elaine’s spot. She hadn’t even cried at the news of her grandmother’s passing, which actually made it easier on Mila. Slowly the decorations changed from homemade to wood crafted, until the space was officially Elyssia’s.
“I can go,” Mila told her. She’d seen Elyssia out with boys, knew she probably wanted to start a family.
“You’re hardly here anyway.”
Two years later Elyssia married. The husband moved into the tower, which seemed to bother no one except Mila. A lot of time passed before Elyssia birthed their first—and only—child. Though Mila took away all of Elyssia’s pain and fed her as much power as she could, Elyssia died soon after the child’s birth.
When the mourning period had ended and the husband had settled into his widowed lifestyle, Mila said, “I can leave.”
“I’d rather you didn’t,” he answered, rocking the baby in his arms. Mila didn’t understand his words: she was only in the way, taking up space, unable to even help raise the child. She’d given up on voicing any of her questions long ago.
She gazed out the window, listening to the distant sounds of the baby murmuring.
The husband and daughter waved to her from their place on the street. Mila did not wave back. For the first time in a long time she sat completely alone at the window.
Splotches of white drew her attention to the woods. The tops of the trees were paling at random spots. Mila’s power was under careful control, which meant something bad was happening. Mila stood, wondering when to step in.
The blooms formed a heart.
She sat back down, feeling like she’d drawn in breath for the first time in her life. Ashton was always around, even if she couldn’t see him.
For the first time in forever, Mila smiled.
The husband had died in a robbery, forcing Mila to learn the daughter’s name: and take care of her. Rose was a reckless child, running circles around the room until Mila finally caved and left the tower for the first time in at least a decade.
Rose darted off into the woods ahead of Mila.
Mila couldn’t bring herself to fear anything in the woods, as she controlled both powers at the moment. She did worry about Rose, though, because it seemed the humans around her kept dying. “Don’t go far,” she called, coming to a stop.
Inside the woods, she felt like she could sense Ashton, like he might step from behind a tree at any moment.
“Look,” Rose shouted, breaking Mila’s moment of peace. Rose ran toward her at full speed, dumping berries into the air before Mila had even agreed to take them. Without waiting for a reaction Rose ran away again.
Mila let the berries fall through her fingers: she could always grow some more back at the tower.
The bushes rustled but Mila paid no mind, knowing how much noise Rose liked to make. Another time she might’ve looked for her horses: they’d passed away long ago, however. With another rustle, a creature broke through the foliage, standing just below Mila’s height. She felt no fear as she turned.
A stag stood in front of her, head held high. Every point on the antlers oddly curved back. Odder still was the fact that the stag seemed immune to her normal charm on animals, keeping an exact distance. Extending her hand out, Mila waited for the animal to come closer or bolt.
The stag bowed.
“Ashton,” Mila breathed in a rush of air. Her heart swelled to the point she thought it might burst. He kept getting stronger, able to appear to her in forms closer to his true one. “Don’t hurt yourself,” she told the stag. “If it takes three centuries—”
Footsteps had both of them focusing on Rose. Rose dropped the berries in her hand, staring at the stag in stunned silence: for once.
“This is my husband,” Mila said with a smile. It was close enough to the truth.
“Ew,” Rose grinned, looking to the stag and then back to her. “That’s weird.”
She saw signs of Ashton in the world around her, and they gave her hope. Generations passed. With each new offspring she felt sure one would kick her out of the tower that had become her home, but so far she remained in her place at the window.
The town had changed, the population expanding so that part of the woods had been built into again. Mila studied the new edge of town as a child nearly ran into the window.
Elly—name Elaine after her grandmother so far back Mila didn’t even remember how many greats to include—pressed her palms to the glass, leaving smudges. Even though the bloodline was so diluted it was impossible, Mila saw traces of Elaine inside of her. In the way her eyes creased when she smiled, how she acted like an old, gentle soul, even as a child.
For whatever reason, Elly liked helping Mila look through the window. Sometimes she pointed out strange patterns in the trees, or colorful things that caught her interest.
“He’s come for you.”
She rarely spoke, making Mila lean forward in her seat. Elly pointed to the edge of the woods Mila had just started to study. Even with her heightened eyesight, Mila had to squint to see the shadowed form of a man.
“He’s come for you,” Elly repeated. When she turned, Mila swore it was Elaine looking at her.
The trip down the tower stairs happened in a daze, a glide of her hurried feet. She tried not to get her hopes up: they were just shy of two centuries for Ashton’s regeneration.
Mila had no worries about what she’d find: he was always Ashton, always hers. Mila stepped into the grass and picked her way toward the trees where she’d seen the figure from the window.
She could sense his approach, but laughed aloud in surprise anyway when he picked her up from behind and spun her around. “The moonlight still shines on you,” he said in her ear. His voice sounded the same, even after so many years, like the woods around them: familiar.
The sky exploded into a sunset of color: his powers were back, and working with hers.
“Let me see you,” she said, fighting the tears that threatened to spill. Ashton released her so that she could turn and study him. Her heart tripped in her chest at seeing his face. He was still the loveliest man she’d ever seen.
Wiping away the tears trailing down her cheeks, Ashton said, “Maybe one day I’ll be able to talk to you without making you cry.”
She laughed through her tears and threw her arms around him. They kissed, and Mila wondered if she would ever get enough to make up for the time she’d had to wait. Two halves of a whole should never be split for so long. Resting her head against his steadily beating heart, Mila sighed, “Ashton.”[candidate-vote-button button_text=”Vote for ‘Duality’!”]