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       Light, p.16

           Adrienne Woods
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  I sat with her the entire day, trying to figure out what he could have been talking about. Where had he gone?

  My mind swirled with scenarios. My mother had had a gentle Shadow Hound. I wondered if Ashton’s family had cured hers.

  It was a strange name to call the process that made them. As I looked at the Hound lying in front of me, I wondered about the process. Ashton had compared it to baking a cake. What ingredients did they use to create these creatures?

  Night fell. I picked up the matches and some of the wood Ash had conjured and started another fire. When it finally took, I plopped back down on the couch.

  I wanted to bathe. I wanted to be clean. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had had the luxury of cleaning myself properly. I’d used the rain water to rinse off my body parts, but it wasn’t enough—I missed being clean.

  Damn it! I hated this place. I was certain the only reason I liked Ashton was because I was lonely. I hadn’t had any conversation, any contact with another being, since Max and Mr. Grey had left. I longed for Mr. Grey’s voice to pop up in my head. I longed for his sarcasm and his company.

  The cabin door flew open and I started.

  My stomach flipped as Ash walked in with another bag filled with medicine.

  “I didn’t think you were going to come back.” I smiled.

  “Yeah, but somehow I’m a sucker for Shadow Hounds, especially ones that are injured.”

  For some reason, it felt like there was a hidden meaning in his words, that he hadn’t just returned for the Shadow Hound, but for me as well. Though it was possible I was just reading too much into his words out of my desperation.

  He handed me a spoon and another container filled with food. I opened the container and peered down at the contents, amazed at the bluish color of what seemed to be some sort of grain, with white meat and sauce spooned over the top.

  “Thank you,” I said.

  “Dig in,” he said.

  I took the spoon and ate. It was delicious, or maybe it was just because, barring the food he had brought me the previous night, I hadn’t had a decent meal in over two months. The gruel definitely didn’t count.

  He put a pot of water on the fire to boil.

  When my meal was almost finished, he took the pot off the fire, and one again wet a cloth and cleaned the Hound’s wounds.

  I looked at him in awe. He was so gentle with her, cleaning her face, her horns, her bruised cheek and torso. Even her stumps that hung behind her body.

  I truly hoped she’d make it.

  Each morning, Ashton left the cabin, and each night, he returned with new supplies—antibiotics, ointments, stuff for the fireplace, food, and water. He was a godsend.

  The Shadow Hound hadn’t shown any progress. No sign of waking up. Every night, I asked him whether we should try the other the other option he had mentioned, and each time, he told me to forget that he had ever mentioned it, to erase it from my memory.

  Then, one night, he didn’t return.

  I was worried someone had caught him leaving with medicine. I wasn’t really sure where he got it, but probably wasn’t supposed to just help himself to whatever he wanted.

  When the gray sheen of morning lit up the cabin, I put my blanket over the Hound and grabbed the hoodie Ashton had brought me on the third night. I pulled it over my head and tried to conceal my face with it as I left.

  I had to find him. I needed to make sure he was okay.

  I had no idea where he lived or hung out, or even where they cured Shadow Hounds, but I knew I had to find him. I felt trepidatious about leaving the Shadow Hound all alone, but without him, I wouldn’t be able to save her.

  As I started out, my mind turned to his mother. What was she like? Was she kind? Would she understand that we couldn’t let the Shadow Hound die?

  What had happened last night that had prevented him from coming back to us?

  I walked through the entire village. Making my through alley after alley. I couldn’t ask where the next cure shop was. I didn’t even know if that was the correct term and one slip-up could land me back in a dungeon.

  Plus, there was still a price on my head, and I couldn’t risk striking up a conversation with anyone because of that.

  The day was almost over, and I decided to head back to the cabin. I was sure Ashton was fine.

  He had to be.

  The cabin was freezing when I entered. Nothing was out of place. The Hound was still lying lifeless in front of the now-dead fireplace.

  I packed some more wood into the fireplace and lit another match. I didn’t have much to work with, but what I had was enough. The fire sputtered to life.

  I wished my sand worked down here. It would have made everything so much easier.

  I curled up on the couch, spreading the blanket over me, and watched the Hound with concern. Why wasn’t she healing? Had I been too late when I’d found her? Had Ashton wasted all the medicine on a lost cause?

  Surely if she was going to recover, she must have shown some sign of healing by now.

  Her Shadow, as Ash called it—the smoke that always followed them—was still gone, which left her vulnerable. It was weird how lumpy they were from behind. How important the Shadow was to them. It supported them. Without it, they were basically paralyzed.

  I stared at her small, underdeveloped excuses for hind legs. They were so tiny and skinny compared to her front legs.

  As I gazed at her, I concluded that Shadow Hounds weren’t so scary after all.

  The cabin door rattled.

  I froze. The only thing I had that would pass as a weapon was the pot Ashton had left. I didn’t think twice; I grabbed it when I jumped off the couch.

  The rattling continued. I was grateful Ash had fixed the door.

  The door opened and I swung the pot wildly in the direction of the intruder.

  Ashton ducked as I gasped.

  “It’s just me!”

  “Ash! I’m sorry! I didn’t know it was you,” I screamed.

  The blood that had frozen in my veins from fear rushed through me from adrenaline. I sucked in breath after breath, and my heart rejoiced. Ash was safe.

  But he wasn’t alone. There was someone else with him.

  My eyes shifted from Ash’s face to the woman standing next to him.

  She had light brown hair and bright blue eyes. Something about her demeanor told me she wasn’t happy with the situation presented to her. No, not even close.

  And the look she aimed in my direction… Well, it was downright pissed-off.

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  The Long Wait

  The woman didn’t take her eyes off me.

  “Mom, please. The Hound.”

  “Who is she?”

  “It doesn’t matter. She tried to save the Hound all by herself.” His tone seemed rote, as if the two of them had already had this exact same conversation, maybe on their way to my cabin.

  His mother looked at me with judgmental eyes, studying me, her gaze moving up and down my body. She scoffed and approached the Hound. Her face was momentarily horrorstruck, then she shook her head, her expression morphing into an one of compassion.

  “So this is where all my antibiotics have been disappearing to.”

  Ash looked sheepish. “I had to do something.”

  “Ash, it was foolish. You know why this dog is dying.”

  “I know.”

  She sighed. “You’re just like your father. Too good for this hellhole.” She kneeled next to the Hound.

  Ash moved over to me.

  Why? I mouthed.

  “She wasn’t healing, Chas,” He said, not meeting my eyes. “I had no choice.”

  “I need silence if I’m even going to try to do this,” his mother snapped, her back still turned toward us.

  A smile spread on his face. “You mean you’ll try?”

  “I’ll try. It’s going to be hard because I’m not the Hound’s curer.”

  Ash nodded.

  “I nee
d silence.”

  “We’ll be as quiet as mice.” He grinned and pulled me down next to him on the couch.

  We stared at his mother as she worked on the Hound. She inspected every inch of the creature, every bruise and swollen part.

  “Do you know what gender it is?” Ash asked.

  “Female. Be quiet.”

  I shrugged and smirked as he shook his head at me.

  His mother gasped. “No, no, no, no,” she whispered.

  “Mom, what is it?”

  “I know who she is.”

  “She’s one of yours?” Ash asked.

  His mother looked over her shoulder with tear-filled eyes and nodded. “She was created with the same ingredients as Kaleido. She’s his twin.”

  “His twin?”

  “He was created for someone else, and then…”

  “That someone didn’t make it.”

  She nodded, tears flowing down her face. “Lord Crane came and he wanted her for his grandson.”

  “She was Briggs’ Hound?” Ash bellowed. “Mom, he has Kaleido. He said he would…” Ash’s words died out. He grimaced.

  “That was Kaleido? That was your Shadow Hound?” I thought of the way the Shadow Hound had almost devoured me after the Celestial rejected me—up until Ash had entered the room. Ash nodded. “Lord Crane told everyone Kiara was missing and that Briggs needed a new Hound. He’d taken a liking to Kaleido, so I had no choice but to hand Kaleido over.”

  “Isn’t it against the law or something?”

  “Here, Lord Crane and his family are the law.”

  “That’s not fair.”

  Ash stamped the floor with his shoe. “Nothing is fair in the Oblivion, not when it comes to Lord Crane and his family.”

  “So, Briggs can just do whatever he wants?”

  Ash nodded.

  “I need silence.” Ash’s mother’s voice cracked.

  We kept quiet and let her do her work. I couldn’t imagine what Ash had to be feeling. Knowing that this Shadow Hound had been Briggs’s, that she’d been beaten to within an inch of death, and then to know the same thing could happen to Kaleido.

  If Shadow Hounds were like Anitules, if he felt about Kaleido the way I felt about Mr. Grey…? Well, it was tragic.

  I could see it ate at him; it was written all over his face.

  If I was Ash, I’d have killed Briggs.

  My gaze shifted back to the Hound and Ash’s mother.

  Kiara.

  Kaleido and Kiara.

  Whom had she been made for?

  Twins.

  Kiara had been cured for someone who hadn’t survived. Had Ash had a twin?

  If so, had it been Leigh? It would certainly explain a multitude of things—the similarities between Ashton and Leigh, the reason why he lived only in the Virtual Realm.

  It seemed plausible.

  I was glad that Ash’s mother was Kiara’s original curer. It seemed she could help in a way that no-one else could. Her hands glided over Kiara’s body in a continuous motion. She kept it up for hours.

  At long last, she said, “I need hot water.” I poured water into the pot I had almost knocked Ash out with, and he placed it on the fire.

  Ash’s mom was grinding some herbs and I wondered if it was simply an herbal healing poultice, or if it was part of the ingredients Ash had spoken of, part of what made Shadow Hounds exist.

  Kiara still looked the same. No better, no worse. What if Ash’s mother had been too late to save her?

  I could see the guilt weighing heavily on Ash’s shoulders. Having learned that the injured Hound was Kaleido’s twin, he was probably thinking he should have gone to fetch his mother earlier. I could see the torment on his face; he had to be thinking of Kaleido’s fate.

  That alone told me my mother was right about the Hounds. They were badly misunderstood. Ash was proof. He was just a boy missing his best friend.

  Briggs. What a cruel and sadistic asshole!

  I didn’t like Briggs.

  I didn’t care if the same bloodline flowed through our veins. It didn’t make us family. If Lord Crane’s family ruled here, then maybe… No, it wouldn’t work. He wouldn’t believe me. Besides, I’d never give up my mother. Not for a Hound.

  Ash slumped forward, his eyes unmoving, fixed on the ground.

  When the water reached a full rolling boil, Ash’s mom filled a small cup halfway and mixed in the crushed herbs.

  She set the bowl down on the floor beside her, then turned her piercing eyes on me.

  “What’s your name, girl?”

  “Chastity. Chastity Blake.”

  “Why did you help this Shadow Hound?” Her voice was stern.

  I felt compelled to answer her—fast, and honestly. “I couldn’t leave her.”

  “That’s not a good enough answer.”

  “It’s the only answer I can give you.” I couldn’t tell her Kiara had shown her thoughts to me, had spoken to me. She’d think I was crazy.

  “Ash tells me you’re the girl who came from Revera.” She glanced at my scarred wrists. “Your sand is still golden?”

  I wrapped my arms around my midsection self-consciously. “Yes, but I don’t know why.”

  “Why did Selene throw you out?”

  “Because I can’t see color.”

  She huffed.

  “What is it, Mom?”

  “Nothing. When this Shadow Hound is healed, I do not want you coming here again, Ash. It’s too dangerous.”

  “Mom,” he grumbled.

  She smacked the sofa so hard, a tiny cloud of dust rose into the air. “Ashton, I mean it. Lord Crane is still searching for her, and he won’t stop until he finds her. Which makes her dangerous. I’m not going to lose you.” She touched his face as her eyes glistened with tears.

  She looked away, taking a huge syringe from her pocket, and picked up the cup with the herbal remedy.

  She pulled the green liquid into the syringe.

  “Open her mouth,” she ordered.

  Ash obeyed.

  She squirted the liquid into Kiara’s mouth and closed her mouth.

  The medicine must have worked, because a few short moments later, Kiara started transforming.

  She started growing. Her bruises disappeared. The swelling vanished. Her crushed ribcage knit itself together before my eyes. Horns popped out of her skull and all over her face. A shield grew around her, one that seemed like thick, leathery skin. More horns popped into place. The shield ran through her chest and down her paws up to her hind legs.

  It stopped.

  Her rear end didn’t change from the magic this woman wielded.

  Kiara no longer looked like the fragile victim that had nearly been beaten to death. She looked like a Shadow Hound sleeping.

  “Her Shadow?” Ash spoke.

  “Will appear when she wakes up. It’s time for us to leave.”

  “Mom, please.”

  “I said it’s time to leave, Ash.”

  “I have to wait and see if she’ll be okay.”

  They glared at each other, their gazes unwavering.

  She looked down, her arms fisted on her hips. By her posture, I could tell she wasn’t happy with what her son wanted.

  “Fine. When she wakes up, you come home. Do I make myself clear?”

  “Crystal,” he grumbled.

  Without another glance at me, his mother left. She didn’t even give me chance to thank her.

  “Your mother doesn’t like me much, does she?”

  He grunted noncommittally. “She’s not a bad person, She just has a lot of issues.”

  “No, she’s amazing. What she did for Kiara…”

  “Yeah.” His lips curved into a hint of a smile. “I hope one day I’d be able to do that too.”

  “I thought you said your family was one of the few that could…”

  “I haven’t received the gift yet.”

  I didn’t know what to say to that, so I kept quiet.

  “Kiara will be oka
y, Chas. You’ll see. My mother is one of the best curers out there.”

  I nodded.

  “Why did she make a twin for Kaleido? Who was Kiara made for?”

  He shrugged. “I wish I knew, but something tells me my mother would never talk about it.”

  He settled on the couch beside me to wait. “So, what’s Revera like?”

  I told Ash everything I knew about Revera. I even told him about Leigh, but I didn’t say he was his spitting image. He struggled with the concept of Leigh, and that of the Virtual Realm. It was hard to explain.

  Ash knew about the Outer. He’d learned about it in what sounded like homeschool. He’d never been there, because only Level Three Shadow Casters—and the Cranes—traveled to the Outer.

  We ended up speaking about my mother, but I lied and said I had no idea who my father was.

  Ash must have assumed my father was a Shadow Caster. If he knew I was Lord Crane’s granddaughter, he would probably kill me right here, or try to exchange me for Kaleido.

  He could still do it.

  We stayed up until the early hours of the morning. Ash told me about his father, who had died when he was four. He didn’t know how his father had died, and it wasn’t something his mother liked to speak about.

  But the way Ash spoke about him, I could tell he had lost a big part of himself the day his father died.

  Though no one knew for sure how he had died, they knew he hadn’t died alone. His maternal uncle had been with his father that day. Ash seemed to revere his uncle as well. He’d been some sort of cartographer and he had known the Oblivion better than anyone else.

  After his father’s and uncle’s deaths, his mother had never been the same. It had only been the two of them ever since. His mother ran the curing shop. He helped wherever he could.

  He sounded like a nice guy, especially for someone who grew up in the Oblivion. He wasn’t violent but he could handle a sword, though he didn’t tell me who had trained him.

  Up until Lord Crane had commanded Ash to hand Kaleido over, it had been the two of them. Kaleido still listened to Ash whenever they crossed paths, but Briggs would always take Kaleido away. And now Ash had nothing. The best he could do was try to help Kiara.

 
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