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       Light, p.13

           Adrienne Woods
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  Mr. Grey yowled loudly.

  “Is he going to be okay?” Max asked.

  “Believe me, he’s more worried about you than himself. He always pulls through. But the Oblivion is not a good place for him.”

  “The Oblivion isn’t a good place for anything light.”

  I didn’t like the way he said that—as if he was better and higher up than the Shadow Casters. Before I could stop myself, I countered, “I doubt it’s a good place for any living being.”

  “You seriously don’t think they belong here?”

  “Not all of them deserve this. Just because the ones you’ve dealt with have been horrible, it doesn’t mean all of them are.” My mother’s image hovered in my thoughts.

  “Chas, do you even hear yourself sometimes?” Max looked confused and surprised.

  “Believe me,” I huffed. “This sort of torture exists in Revera too.”

  He didn’t reply. It was probably too hard for him to imagine the torture I’d gone through could even take place in the realm he loved.

  We finally reached an old, abandoned, and ruined theme park and decided to spend the night in one of the rides.

  Halfway thought the night, Max started burning up. His body trembled as his fever heightened. Mr. Grey clambered on top of Max and settled on his stomach, hoping to lend him some warmth.

  The temperature dropped below freezing. Our clothes were tattered. My midriff was bare where I’d ripped it to use for Max’s wound. I had no idea how we’d make it through the night in the cold. The wind was frigid and the only thing shielding us from it was the low barrier of the ride. I huddled close to Max for heat for the duration of the night. I barely slept, only drifting off for a few minutes at a time. Max and Mr. Grey needed their rest, and one of needed to be awake in case someone came across us.

  When morning finally dawned, I checked on Max. His pulse was weak. He barely managed to open his eyes. A small consolation was that Mr. Grey seemed to be doing somewhat better. Gray clouds lightened the sky, and the suns seemed to be fighting to push through the dense clouds. A few rays managed to escape for mere seconds before they disappeared, leaving the surroundings dreary. The harsh wind slammed against us. I dreaded pushing on, especially with Max barely able to move.

  It was just as horrible as my initiation dream. The only difference was that this was no dream. This was real.

  We’re almost there, Chas. I’m going to see if I can find something so we can pull Max the rest of the way. There’s no way he can walk, and you’re not strong enough to carry him anymore, Mr. Grey said.

  I nodded my assent and put a hand on Max’s forehead. He was still feverish.

  Mr. Grey came back after a while, luckily with some good news. Chas, there’s a storage cart in one of the empty houses. I saw some sheets, too; they might come in handy.

  I made a mental note to get new strips of cloth for Max’s wound. I left Max in the carnival ride, curled up against the rusted wall, and rushed to the house. Glad that I hadn’t run into more trouble, I found both the cart and the sheets without any effort and hurried back to Max.

  The kitchen island worked out great; it was a medium-sized cart that contained mechanical odds and ends that I had to dump out. I was able to maneuver Max onto it from the elevated ride platform, then tied him to it. He looked bizarrely like a sacrifice in a cheesy horror movie. I shook away the thought.

  Thus situated, I followed Mr. Grey’s instructions toward whatever safe haven it was he knew. All I knew was there was a Celestial waiting for us.

  The hope of escape was the only thing that kept my emaciated, sleep-deprived, tortured body moving. I couldn’t wait to feel warmth again, to be around people who didn’t want to hurt me. I just wanted to feel safe.

  Max gasped for breath, wheezing with each bump in the path.

  Halfway up one street, Mr. Grey jumped off Max’s body. His paw seemed to have healed quite significantly—one of the mysteries of the Anitules. He rushed up what I assumed used to be the steps of a magnificent building.

  How the fuck were we going to get Max up there?

  The walls of the first three floors were shattered. That the building was standing at all was a miracle. We couldn’t possibly follow Mr. Grey. He’d have to bring the Celestial to us.

  “Chas,” Max croaked. His eyes rolled in their sockets.

  I squeezed his arm. “I’m not leaving you.”

  “I don’t want to die. Help me get up.” The words left him haltingly, his breath ragged after each word.

  I untied the sheet and helped him sit up properly, then draped his arm across my shoulders. Gingerly, I wrapped an arm around his waist, careful not to jostle his wound too much. I inhaled deeply, my glutes straining against the squat with the added weight, and pushed away from the cart. Max swayed against me. I tightened my grip around his waist and the arm draped across my shoulders.

  Holy shit, he was heavy. Extremely heavy.

  I ignored the screaming of my muscles and pushed forward.

  What could be worse than the Oblivion? Nothing.

  I shifted under Max’s weight. The wound in his side was worsening. Fresh blood stained the makeshift bandage. He’d already lost a lot of blood. He urgently needed help. I didn’t want to lose him.

  With each step we took, loose grit and pebbles rolled off the steps.

  I had a funny feeling that the building was going to collapse at any moment. But as we went higher and further into the building, the structure seemed stronger. It didn’t make a lick of sense, but then, nothing in the Dream World made much sense to begin with.

  After what felt like an eternity, we found Mr. Grey sitting in front of a closed a door. I released my hold on Max’s arm, leaning him against the wall, and reached out to open the door.

  The first thing I saw was a glowing light bouncing off the walls. It was a Celestial, all right. It was different from the ones I was used to; I wondered if it had been tampered with so it could remain open longer.

  “Max, go first.” I shoved Max into the portal.

  He fell into the blinding orb of light and disappeared.

  Mr. Grey was also in bad shape. The Oblivion’s air seemed to be suffocating him. I picked him up and gently pushed him into the portal.

  As I made to step into the light, a noise startled me, and I jumped back a step.

  There was someone else was here. Whoever it was must have felt the Celestial’s signal. It was now or never. I prayed we would be safe on the other side.

  I took a step toward the light, but an invisible force slammed into me, blocking my access to the Celestial.

  I fell backward, smashing into the floor. The light of the Celestial grew smaller and smaller with each breath I took.

  I crawled forward.

  “No, no, no,” I muttered. Just as I was about to touch it, the light faded completely.

  A cry left my mouth.

  I was stuck in the Oblivion and there was nothing I could do to get out of here.

  The door shattered, swinging off its hinges.

  I turned to see who had followed us. It took a moment for my mind to register the familiarity of the face staring down at me. It was the guy I had seen on the podium with Lord Crane, the one who looked around my age, with the same blond hair my mother had. His eyes were dark, the evil shining out of them. His Shadow Hound stood next to him, growling. The man’s lips thinned into a sneer, his teeth set in a straight line.

  I stared up at him, unable to muster the strength to fight. His Shadow Hound was going to rip me into pieces.

  At least Max and Mr. Grey was safe.

  The Hound took a few steps closer to me. He was big and vicious, drool pouring out of his mouth like a rabid dog. He was ready for this kill, but he waited for the command from his owner.

  The man remained silent, glaring down at me with that sneer plastered on his face.

  The dog crept toward me slowly, growling.

  I pushed myself up, staggering as I got to my feet.<
br />
  Don’t show fear. They live on fear. These animals are misunderstood.

  I inched toward the back of the room, trying to put as much distance between the Hound and myself, but it was of no use.

  The room wasn’t that big to start with.

  My back collided with the wall, the Shadow Hound’s face only inches from mine.

  Suddenly, the Hound ceased growling and backed away, his demeanor changing into that of a puppy. He turned around and bounded back to his owner, who stood ramrod straight, frozen on the spot.

  It was only then that I saw the blade underneath his chin.

  The blade glinted in a firm grip of a hand, its wrist adorned with a bracelet. The owner of both knife and wrist was behind the blond guy, and I couldn’t make out the face of the figure, obscured underneath a dark, hooded cloak.

  The blond guy barked, “I will have your head for this!”

  “No, you won’t.” I recognized the voice of the hooded man. It can’t be. “You wouldn’t even go to Pappi. He’d see you for the weakling you are, getting ambushed by a mere Hound trainer.”

  The blond guy laughed. A rush of fear swirled through my core.

  “Galam Ihed,” muttered the hooded man in a language I was unfamiliar with. The Hound lay down flat on his stomach and closed his eyes.

  The blond guy glared at me with wild eyes and cackled. “You can’t save him, you know. When you leave, I’ll beat every ounce of love this creature has for you out of this bod—”

  The blade pressed harder into the skin of his neck. His words had struck a nerve with the hooded stranger, though I had a feeling he wasn’t a stranger at all.

  “Mark my words, I will kill you, Briggs, one of these days.”

  Briggs—the evil-looking blond who shared a table with Lord Crane—laughed. He wasn’t scared of the hooded man.

  “Why are you still here?” the hooded man barked at me. “Leave!”

  I looked at the Hound, who was still sleeping across the room from me.

  “Are you deaf? Scram!”

  I pushed myself away from the wall and ran.

  I rushed down the stairs and flung myself out the entryway. I ran to nowhere, trying to as far away from that building as possible. I ran until my lungs burned, up some hills, through trees, and deeper into what I prayed to be safety.

  Why had the Celestial failed me?

  Why had that force slammed me back, and what was it?

  I was a Light Caster, like Max. I belonged with Mr. Grey. We shared a bond. Why hadn’t I gone through?

  I let out a scream. I was angry at my fate. Furious that no matter what my mother’s intentions had been, her biggest fear had come true.

  I’d ended up here no matter what my father was. No matter what color my sand was. The Oblivion was my destiny. It was what my dream had showed me, and it was where I was going to stay.

  I could either give up or see the silver lining and try to make peace with it.

  The man who had saved me had such a familiar voice. It had made me feel safe.

  He’d sounded just like Leigh, though that was impossible. Leigh wasn’t real.

  Even if it had been Leigh, he would have called my name. He would’ve told me where to wait for him. He would’ve known who I was.

  It wasn’t Leigh.

  I missed him with every fiber of my being.

  Tears streamed down my face.

  Whether he was real or not, I missed his face. I missed his smell, his laugh, his way of saying things, the way his smile made my stomach flip. And the way Leigh looked at me… it made me feel as if I could fly.

  I didn’t care if he was real or not… the connection we had was real to me.

  I wiped away my tears and looked around.

  It was no use sitting here and blubbering. My mom hadn’t raised a quitter. I imagined her voice egging me on. We are fighters, Chas. You get it from both sides.

  Fighters till the end.

  I found a cabin in the woods. It looked vacant, but one could never be sure in the Oblivion. When I opened the door, a foul odor wafted out. I crept inside and searched the interior. The source of the stench was in the bathroom.

  I clenched my jaw and covered my nose as I stared at a decomposing corpse. I gagged and swallowed down the bile rushing up my throat. My last taste of gruel was already a distant memory, but my nausea didn’t care.

  There was no choice if I wanted to stay here even temporarily while I worked out a new plan to get back to Revera. I pulled the corpse out of the bath. Rotten flesh dangled from the protruding bones.

  I pushed away the disgust. A twinge of sadness settled in my heart. A rusty razor blade fell out of his decaying fingers. Suicide. He had done this to himself. This man must have lost all hope.

  I gave him a proper burial, but the ground was hard from last night’s freeze. The slushy rain didn’t help much either. When I finally managed to cover his body with the sludge, I found a bucket to catch the precipitation to drink it later.

  Man, the Oblivion was such a miserable place. The sun never shone. Ever.

  After drinking my fill, I tried to clean up the bathroom with the collected rainwater, but the odor still lingered. I gave it up as a bad job and cleaned the rest of the house as best I could. There was a fireplace, which probably hadn’t been used in years. There was also an upstairs loft, but the staircase was so rickety, I didn’t want to risk going up.

  The wind howled and sang around the corners of the cabin. Shivering from the cold, I found an old rag that used to be a blanket, lying on something that used to be a sofa.

  I set out my bucket. Maybe in the morning I could find a way to warm up water enough to risk a bath. My skin crawled with disgust after going so long without a shower.

  One side of the sofa still had a cushion, so I settled down and covered myself with the dirty rag, trying to warm up as much as possible and get some sleep.

  I woke up with a start as the door banged open. For a split second, I thought someone had opened the door, but there was no one there. Just the wind, the icy rain, and the loneliness that was my fate. The loneliness that hurt worse than all my cuts and scrapes and bruises, more than all the wounds inflicted over days of torture and illness and combat, more than the yawning hunger in my belly.

  I pushed the sofa in front of the doorway and struggled to fall asleep, images of the decaying corpse playing through my head.

  How bad did the world have to be for someone to take their own life?

  How brave did someone have to be to do that?

  Sure, people said only cowards took their own lives, but to actually go and do it… it took guts to pull it off.

  My train of thought went to my own life. I wasn’t so far from the same fate. I kept wishing for death. But it was ingrained in me to keep fighting.

  Part of me wanted to die. But another didn’t.

  Somehow, something always worked out to snatch me from death’s embrace. Today, it had been the person who had saved me when the Celestial had failed. The one who looked like… like Leigh. I wanted to know who he was, why he’d come to my rescue, and how he’d even known I’d been there.

  And the Hound’s strange behavior… what had that been about? One second, the thing was ready to rip me to pieces, and the next he was a damn puppy, not obeying his master.

  What was it the hooded man had told Briggs? Something about a mere Hound trainer. He’d seemed to have some kind of connection with Briggs’s Hound. I hadn’t missed how upset he’d seemed when Briggs had mentioned beating the creature’s love for him out of it.

  Briggs had such similar features to my mother, I couldn’t help but think we were related. A cousin maybe? Ugh, I couldn’t fathom being related to him. He was cruel and sadistic. He could’ve killed me and I feared worse had been waiting for me if it hadn’t been for the hooded stranger.

  My mind spiraled all the way to my mom and the dream I’d had of her. Why had she been alone? Was she still okay?

  CHAPTER FOURTEE
N

  Thiefs got to eat too

  I spent the next morning scouting the surrounding areas. I could see a small village from a hilltop not far from my cabin, but since I wasn’t familiar with the Oblivion’s geography, I had no idea which.

  I hoped Max and Mr. Grey were safe, that they’d both healed. I wondered if the Celestial had taken them to the Hether—and then I wondered what the Hether was.

  Reeves had said it was in the Outer, but Max had said many compounds had been destroyed. Surely the people in the Hether would have stopped such destruction? They would have known if they’d been invaded.

  It didn’t make much sense, not one bit. And what was my part in this? Why did everyone seem to think I was important? That I was a Milleu? And what on earth was a Milleu?

  My stomach growled. The hunger pangs had turned into cramping. I had to get something in my system. My energy was already drained. I would never get strong enough to figure out a way out of here if I didn’t find sustenance.

  I had to eat.

  And if stealing food was the only way to do it, then so be it.

  I took a very uncomfortable bath using the collected rainwater. I cupped the icy water in my palms and painstakingly washed every inch of my body, gasping from the cold. It took over an hour to slough off the dried blood and filth from my skin. I scrubbed and scrubbed, as if the water could wash away the memories of the past few weeks. It didn’t.

  Afterward, I tried to wash the old blanket with rain water, but the unbearable stench refused to dissipate. Resigned, I let it partially dry in the incessant wind. I covered my head with the blanket and twisted the rest around my body so it looked like a hoodie. I could hide food between the layers of the blanket.

  The nearby village had a market inside one of the factories. I hadn’t been in there to see what they sold, but from my hilltop, I’d seen people entering and leaving with big shopping sacks building with purchases.

  Hopefully, the market had food.

  I pulled the blanket tighter around my head and picked up my pace. I knotted the blanket to form a pocket that I hoped I could stash food in quickly without being seen. I didn’t want to get caught. I didn’t want to get thrown back into a cell. I couldn’t.

 
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