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       Light, p.15

           Adrienne Woods
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  I moved a few paces forward, leaving the stranger behind.

  “Wait,” he said. “You won’t get anywhere at that pace.” He lowered his hood and stretched out his hand for me to shake.

  I froze as I stared at his face.

  “Leigh?” I finally asked.

  “Ashton. It’s nice to meet you, Leigh,” he said.

  I blinked a few times. He was the spitting image of Leigh—well, except for his long hair and messy clothes. “No, I’m not Leigh. I’m Chastity, but everyone calls me Chas,” I said the last part very softly.

  “Like a Chastity belt?” Hearing those words coming from his mouth instilled a sense of déjà vu in me, and I laughed for the first time in ages

  “Yeah, that Chastity. But Chas is fine.”

  He tilted his head, studying me. “Then who is Leigh?”

  “It doesn’t matter. Just someone I used to know. You look a lot like him. My mistake.”

  He huffed. His gaze shifted to the Shadow Hound. “Okay, Chas. Stay here, and whatever you do, don’t let anyone find you. I’ll be back shortly.”

  Before I could protest, he was sprinting down the alley.

  I weighed my options. I had no strength to move the Hound, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave her. I had no idea if I could trust this guy, but he had saved me once. I nodded once to myself, decided. I pushed the Shadow Hound back to our hiding spot and waited for him to come back.

  No more than fifteen minutes passed before Ashton came back, dragging a bigger object behind him.

  It was hard to make out what it was in the dark, but as he neared, I heard the squeak of wheels and made out the silhouette of a large cart.

  He moved the cart next to the crate and lifted the Shadow Hound onto the platform with ease.

  He was extremely strong.

  He covered her with a big sheet, then proceeded to stack some of the trash that surrounded us onto the cart around her still form.

  “Why are you—”

  “As I said before,” he interrupted, “if they find the two of you, you’ll wish you weren’t a Shadow Caster.”

  I’m not, I wanted to say, but kept my mouth shut. No way he knew I was the girl on the wanted posters. And no way was I telling him.

  He nodded his head, signaling for me to walk ahead of him. As I did, I could him pushing the cart behind me.

  One wheel was making a chirping noise. It pierced the quiet night air. I was petrified that someone was going to see us.

  I led him out of the alley, praying we’d make it to the cabin without someone spotting us.

  When we reached the road at the edge of the woods, my fear lessened, and I could breathe again. I inhaled and wrinkled my nose at the stink wafting from the trash bags.

  As if Ashton could read my mind, he unloaded the trash, piling it next to the cart on the road. He spoke to me for the first time since we’d started moving. “You can push from the back. Otherwise we’re never going to make it.”

  I glanced at the steep hill that lay before us and moved around to the back, pushing as he pulled.

  My entire body waned. My arms and legs shook. I needed energy. I needed food. My traitor body was giving up on me again.

  I pushed my own needs to the back of my mind as I replayed what the Shadow Hound had been through. She was worse off than I was, so I pushed on.

  He was quiet again, his only sounds puffs of breath.

  I was bursting with questions. Questions I didn’t know how to ask. How was it that he was the spitting image of someone Selene claimed was a figment of her imagination?

  Could she have been lying about that? Even though I knew she had lied about so much, I had clung to the notion that Leigh wasn’t real because otherwise, why had he stopped visiting me in my dreams? The answer was too painful to consider.

  The boy in the Hound’s memories must have been Ashton, not Leigh like I had initially thought. She knew him, needed him. I sighed. At least I had an answer to one of my questions.

  “Thanks for saving me the other day.”

  He didn’t say anything at first. Just sighed. And then… “I wasn’t there for you. I was there for someone else.” His disappointment radiated off him.

  “Sorry I disappointed you.”

  He huffed again, but remained silent, tugging the cart with remarkable strength.

  We’d been walking forever. I wished the cabin would just come into view. I was on my last legs.

  “You want me to pull for a while?” I asked out of pure politeness, but I was hoping he wouldn’t give me the reins. I was beat.

  He shook his head, not making a sound. He wasn’t much of a talker, but then again, he wasn’t someone Selene’s imagination had conjured up.

  Who exactly was Ashton? He didn’t seem as hostile as any of the other Shadow Casters I had encountered. Where did he fit in? And with their similarities, was it possible he knew Leigh?

  Although, if he did know Leigh, wouldn’t he have questioned me about Leigh when I’d mentioned that they looked alike?

  As we neared the cabin, the last stretch of terrain became a bit bumpier, but we succeeded in getting the cart over the small hill and to the cabin.

  “Thank you. I don’t know what I would’ve—”

  “Don’t thank me yet.” He sounded exactly like Leigh when he said that. “We’re not out of the woods. Figuratively, as we are in the woods.” Though his voice was still stern, I heard a hint of laughter. “We have a very long night ahead of us. That’s if he pulls through.”

  “She.”

  He gave me a puzzled look.

  “The Hound is female,” I pointed out. “And what do you mean by ‘we’?”

  “The Hound needs medicine—ointments, antibiotics—you have those in there?” He nodded toward the cabin.

  I shook my head.

  “I didn’t think so,” he said gravely. “You can be glad my mother is one of the few conjurers the Oblivion has; otherwise the Hound wouldn’t have any hope.”

  Something told me he didn’t believe the Shadow Hound was female. I brushed it off, and frowned at the description of his mother. The title he gave to her couldn’t have meant what it sounded like. “Conjuror?”

  Ashton stopped. “Yeah, Shadow Hound Conjurors. How do you not know this?”

  I swallowed hard. I’d slipped up. He’d figured me out. Every Shadow Caster probably know what a Conjuror was. There was no way I could lie myself out of this one, so I opted for the truth.

  “Please don’t call the authorities. I’m not from here. I was banished out of Revera.”

  Ashton stared at me with huge eyes. And then he ran.

  “Please, don’t!” I yelled after him. I said the first thing that popped into my head. “I won’t hurt you.”

  Why had I said that?

  He stopped.

  I added, “She has no chance without you.”

  He slowly turned around, his eyes trained on me. He looked down at the ground for a moment, and then aimed for something on his hip. “What were you doing in that building?”

  “Escaping. I was with a friend who had been kidnapped. And my cat. They made it out. I didn’t.”

  “Why didn’t you?”

  “The Celestial didn’t want me to.”

  He frowned.

  “The super-bright orbs that transport you from place to place.”

  He nodded. “Your sand?”

  “Very little. It doesn’t work in the Oblivion.”

  He frowned. “You still have golden sand?”

  I nodded.

  “Then why the hell are you in the Oblivion?”

  I shrugged. “Well, to me, my sand is more of a shimmering gray. Which is why I’m in the Oblivion. I can’t see color.”

  “That’s it?”

  I nodded again. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. I just… Now, I just want to save her, make sure she is okay.”

  “Why?” he asked. “Your kind kills them on a daily basis.”

  I scowled. “My
kind?”

  “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Light Casters kill them on a daily basis.”

  “I’m not like them. Please, just help her.”

  He seemed to think it over for a few seconds. “Fine, I’ll help you. But I swear: one wrong move, lie, or—”

  “What, you’ll kill me?” I rolled my eyes. “Deal. I really don’t want to spend the rest of my existence in this dreary place.”

  He stared at me until I broke our gaze, then he walked closer, grabbed the cart, and pushed open the cabin door. He put her in front of the fireplace, then conjured a fire with his black sand.

  The heat emanating from it felt good. Better than anything had felt in days, maybe weeks. My skeleton ached to collapse on the sofa right then and there.

  “I don’t have antibiotics here, and,” he looked around, “from the look of this place, I guess there’s no running water either.”

  I shook my head.

  “I’ll be back. Just stay with her. If she makes it until I’m back, it’s a start.”

  “A start to what?”

  His face, so like Leigh’s, was serious. “Her recovery.”

  “She might still die?”

  “Isn’t it obvious?” he muttered over his shoulder as he left.

  I didn’t want her to die, but there was nothing I could do to make her feel better.

  “Please,” I begged. “Don’t die. Not yet.”

  I curled up on the rundown couch as I waited for him to return, staring at the Hound and the fire that burned brightly behind her.

  Why were these Shadow Casters so cruel? Beating up a Shadow Hound, leaving her to die. It was inhumane.

  I pulled what was left of the blanket up to my chin and closed my eyes.

  A shuffling sound woke me, and when I opened my eyes, Ashton was back, attending to her wounds.

  I sat up straight.

  He glanced at me. “Did I wake you?”

  I shook my head. “So, I take it as a good sign that you are here working on her?”

  “She’s still alive, but barely.”

  He opened his bag and took out a couple of round bottles. He unscrewed the lid of one, and rubbed whatever was in it all over her. A salve or something. He unscrewed another and repeated the same action. He took out water, medicine, herbs, and even a blanket.

  I could do with a bag like that.

  His movement were gentle, tentative.

  “There’s some stew in the kitchen. I thought you might be hungry.”

  I pinched myself, certain I was dreaming. He brought me food? I got up and rushed to kitchen.

  A container stood on the counter and as I opened it, the enticing scent of stew wafted out. “You sure?” I asked through a mouthful of food, my hunger winning out over my manners.

  “It’s all yours.”

  My hero.

  I was surprised when he took out more food from his bag. The stew came with three slices of bread. Soft, white bread and not the rock hard mounds the market tried to pass off as bread.

  I ate like I haven’t eaten for weeks, which was pretty accurate. I scarfed the delicious, savory stew like a cavewoman. Slurping and spilling and not caring one whit how I looked.

  I looked up as he plopped the wonder bag on the wooden countertop.

  He took out a flask and handed it to me. “Drink,” he said and looked over his shoulder. His eyebrows were slightly furrowed and his jaw set in a rigid line.

  “Is she going to make it?”

  He shook his head, annoyance on his face. “How do you know it’s a she?”

  “The sex.”

  He laughed. “Shadow Hounds don’t show their sex to just anyone, Chas.”

  I put another spoonful of stew in my mouth and shrugged.

  “You guessed?”

  “It looked like a she to me. I don’t know.” I tried to play it cool. Telling him she’d spoken to me, shared her thoughts with me, was probably crazy even in the Oblivion.

  I dug into my food again, wolfing down the rest. I looked up at Ashton, who was looking down at me with an arched eyebrow. I blushed.

  “When was the last time you ate?”

  “Four, maybe five days ago, I think. Could be a week,” I mumbled with my mouth full.

  His face morphed into something I couldn’t read, then he went back to the hound and continued treating her wounds.

  “Do you know her?” I asked.

  “No, I don’t know it,” he said and I rolled my eyes. “It doesn’t look familiar.

  I wanted to tell him Briggs had done this to her, but that would lead to more questions, and I wouldn’t be able to answer. “Is she going to be okay?”

  “We’ll have to wait and see, Chas.” He soaked a cloth into the pot of hot water he had removed from the fire a few minutes before and cleaned her face gently.

  “So, this is what they look like without the smoke?” I asked, fascinated. “Why did her smoke disappear?”

  The side of his lips curved barely. “You always ask this many questions?”

  “Sorry, I just never met one that needed my help.”

  “Yeah, you should’ve let it die. It was in that alley for a reason. Treason, if you ask me. For that they are punishable by death.”

  I grimaced. “A bit harsh, don’t you think?”

  “It’s a Shadow Hound. They can be unpredictable.”

  “I don’t understand.” She hadn’t sounded like an unpredictable creature.

  “It’s all in the cure.”

  I gave him my signature raised-eyebrow look that I used when something didn’t make sense.

  “The cure.” He sounded annoyed. “It’s the term we use when we create them.”

  I shook my head. It still sounded Greek to me.

  “It’s like baking a cake. You have the ingredients, and then you have the process. How long it needs to bake, and how high your oven has to be.”

  I nodded.

  “That, the process, is what Conjurors call the cure.”

  “Creation?” I asked.

  “Exactly,” he said.

  “You could’ve just said creation,” I teased.

  He seemed to take it the wrong way. Man, he was uptight.

  “I was only teasing,” I said. “When I said creation.”

  He shook his head in what seemed like exasperation and tended to the Hound again.

  “There aren’t many families in the Oblivion that can cure a Shadow Hound. My mother and my father could, then Dad died when I was four. Mom’s Hounds are gentle, but that’s not to say that the other families out there cure gentle Hounds. Maverick’s Hounds are vicious and curious. Kaleido got into a fight with one of his Hounds long ago and he almost died.”

  “Who’s Kaleido?” I asked and my words caused Ashton to shut down. He simply stared at the Hound in front of him, ignoring my question. Obviously, Kaleido had to have been his Hound, and clearly he didn’t exist anymore.

  “I’m sorry,” I said.

  “It’s not your fault.” He sighed. “It’s just that I can do nothing about that situation.”

  “What situation?”

  “It doesn’t matter.” He continued wiping at the Hound’s injuries. “Let’s just concentrate on this one.”

  This Hound knew Ashton. Was her name Kaleido? Did she belong to Ash? But I’d seen Briggs in her memories, seen his gleaming white hair and the cruel smile on his face.

  She definitely knew Ashton. But in her memories, he looked different, cleaner. Maybe the situation with this Kaleido he spoke of had made him give up on his appearance? I knew people kind of stopped caring about themselves after losing someone they loved dearly.

  It saddened me to think of it. What had happened to Kaleido? If the Hound here wasn’t the same one, then something must have happened to it. What was the situation he couldn’t change? Had Kaleido been captured? Had Kaleido also been sentenced to death?

  That would explain the sadness emanating from Ashton. He’d wanted to kill Briggs that day he’d saved me
. Briggs must have had something to do with it.

  Although this pondering distracted me from all the other questions in my mind, it was driving me insane not knowing.

  We sat with the Hound for almost the entire night and before I knew it, the gray sheen of morning shone through the window.

  Ashton was sleeping on the floor. The ointment he’d used on the Hound reeked, but she was still unconscious.

  I hoped she’d make it.

  The fire was almost dead. There only small dots of red-hot coals shimmering in the fireplace. The blanket he had taken out of his bag covered me.

  Ashton’s chest rose and fell softly, evenly. He was still sleeping. He wasn’t like the others. He was kind. This man didn’t deserve to be in the Oblivion.

  Fox had told me that everyone was wrong about Shadow Casters. For the first time, I seriously pondered her words. She might have just said that because she’d been scared when I’d showed her my sand and she’d found out who I was. But perhaps she had been telling the truth.

  I lifted my arms above my head and stretched the muscles in my back out. This had been the first night of truly good sleep I’d had since Selene had imprisoned me, and it felt good.

  I’d never thought I would use that word in the Oblivion. Good and Oblivion didn’t go hand-in-hand.

  I got up, trying to make as little noise as possible so as not to disturb Ashton.

  The Hound still looked the same. She was badly injured. I hoped she wouldn’t die without knowing a bit of kindness first. I refused to believe that she was a dark one. She sounded kind. If she had anything to do with Briggs, she wasn’t in a good place. That much I knew.

  I hope she wakes up, and hopefully she won’t kill me when she does.

  Ashton stirred, and then his eyes flew open. The first thing he did was look at the Hound. He scowled, his eyes roving over her injuries. I wanted to tell him she’d been beaten, but I had a feeling he already knew.

  He let out a huge breath.

  “Please don’t say it,” I begged. She had to wake up.

  “It doesn’t look good, Chas.” He met my eyes briefly. “She would’ve shown some sort of sign that the treatment was working.”

  “There has to be another way.”

  “There isn’t, not one that’s safe.”

  I frowned. “Safe?”

  “Stop asking so many damn questions.” He got up. He muttered something under his breath as he strode to the door and left.

 
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