Chapter 1:

the stranger

Aboard the Winnow

It seems that even without being a confrontational person, Lili still manages to find a way to have a gun shoved down her throat. One second, she’s peering around the doorway with her caster’s wings outspread and ready. The next—dazed and pinned to the ground… with the aforementioned icy brush of a barrel against her tonsils. Bookmark here

Maybe she’d been a little hasty putting on the wings. When she first heard the rustle of footsteps against the unkempt grass on her front lawn, she’d expected wolves, or rabbits, or worse: a dragon. It’d have to be an infantile, tiny thing to make it past her front gates, let alone to fit in her garden at all. But in the wilds, everything is worthy of her attention. Especially the stranger now leaning over her, who she’d seen only the briefest glimpse of before she raised one of her hands in greeting and suffered the consequences for it. Bookmark here

Lili sees the error of her ways. She should’ve raised both hands instead.Bookmark here

It hasn’t been more than five seconds since that particular someone’s knocked her onto her ass. This strange man has stared her down for far too long, his breath hot and heavy despite the lack of fight she’d put up earlier. It’s getting awkward. All fights are, really. Remove the passion, strip away the thrill, and it’s like watching a movie without the soundtrack. Or maybe it’s just been too damn long since Lili’s seen another person. She tries to count the years, but the numbers escape her. Bookmark here

“A single spell out of you,” the stranger hisses—she finds the voice harshly soft, like he’s trying to scold someone but there’s a wad of gum in the way of his tongue, “and you’re tasting battery.”Bookmark here

She feels her ether revolt inside of her, but she pushes it down. The wings at her back give a half-hearted shutter before dimming to a lame teal entirely, returning to their sheathed state and folding themselves down the small of her back.Bookmark here

Several beats of silence pass. The stranger dislodges his gun from her mouth and stands up when he’s satisfied with her compliance. His pants are coated in dust. Lili should really try to clean her house more often.Bookmark here

They regard each other cautiously, as one does when they’ve just left a potentially life-threatening encounter. As he pats himself down, Lili notices the unique… adornments on his head and back. The cat ears and tail certainly don’t make him a part of this world, and she hasn’t even started on the stripes at his eyes, nor the way his pupils slit like a cat’s. He seems to be around the same height as her, if not a little shorter, which is not surprising—most men of her age and ethnicity tend to end up meeting her eyes while standing upright. His hair is black, like hers, and he carries it in a ponytail that dips just below the shoulders. On his back is a metallic slew of pipes and hand grips—no doubt a weapon of some sort. She’s just lucky he’s not pointing that at her instead. Bookmark here

This man is not Human, but he’s not animal either. Her only references are the corpses in the abandoned airship she and Ava had found early into the initial years of the apocalypse. Some bodies had dark, burgundy skin; others had beast-like appendages. She hadn’t exactly scrutinised their features during the moment. The blood had been wet and bright red—new. They’d left quickly with their spoils, and the next week, the ship had vanished entirely. All that remained was a blackened smear in the grass.Bookmark here

The stranger looks like he wants to say something, but he scrubs at the barrel of his gun with a swatch of silk instead. To call it a gun doesn’t do it justice because it looks more like a revolver—but rather than having the eponymous revolving chamber, there’s a faint, blue battery in its place. Bookmark here

He gives her a narrow glance; the stripes at the corners of his eyes wrinkle too. “I’ve just spared your life, but keep looking at me like that, and I’ll reconsider real soon.”Bookmark here

Lili opens her mouth, but she finds her tongue unwilling. Not even years of talking to plants have prepared her for the joys of socialisation. Bookmark here

Luckily, she doesn’t have to. Two more figures—one male, the other female—are hovering near the gate to her garden, and the difference in their heights is almost comedic. One looks like he might have trouble walking through her front door, and the other just reaches the first man’s shoulders. The shorter one has a long shock of unnaturally white hair and bright, slitted eyes; the other has green skin. Both of these people are not Human, and judging from her assaulter’s reaction, they’re already well acquainted. Bookmark here

“Avett, really?” The shorter girl rushes ahead. “I heard a crash, I thought you’d somehow gotten into trouble, but…” She motions to Lili. Point taken—with her perpetual ten-degree slouch and a blank expression, she hardly looks threatening at all. Bookmark here

She thinks about raising a hand in greeting again, but then she reconsiders and wills her tongue into action. “H-hey.”Bookmark here

The girl whips around to face the catboy—who Lili now knows as Avett. “You pointed a gun at her?” She throws an apologetic glance at Lili not a second later. “Sorry.”Bookmark here

It’s funny watching her chew out Avett because she can’t be older than sixteen. When she turns to the side again, Lili catches the faintest glimmer of vividly green webbings behind each ear. Bookmark here

“Ok, rag on me all you like, go on.” Avett throws his hands into the air. “Doesn’t change the fact she was running at me, wings out, probably wanted me dead too if I hadn’t—”Bookmark here

The taller man steps forward, but the girl thrusts out an arm in front of him and says, “Avett. Look at her. You can’t be serious.”Bookmark here

Lili feels like she’s caught between an unstoppable force and an unmovable object. Then she remembers—the tea she’d left to boil on the stove in her pilfered tin teapot is now bubbling over. She knows she should probably care more about the matter at hand, but she sidles behind Avett and takes the pot off the rack, wincing at the way the boiling metal bites into her skin and subsequently dropping it onto the counter. Some of the liquid splashes out, but there’s still a good half-full pot of over-brewed tea in there. Bookmark here

Over the sounds of distant arguing, she catches the voice of the taller man. He’s right next to her. “Is it customary on Earth to boil the leaves along with the water?” he asks. Bookmark here

“No, not—not really.” Lili’s face flushes. She’d done it to speed things up, but she’s sure that she’s done something completely stupid. “I like it this way,” she lies. Save face, not values. Bookmark here

He nods slowly. “I’ve never enjoyed tea in such a manner. Perhaps we could settle down in your front yard over a cup or two, Miss…”Bookmark here

“Lilith, but most people call me Lili,” she says, then she remembers that honorifics are meant to preface surnames, so she hastily adds, “Wang-Rosales.” Bookmark here

“Auren Draksparrow, a Gallian, ex-forger and current backline caster of the Winnow.” Once outside and seated in her moss-covered iron chairs, he lifts the teapot in both hands and says, “We have similar contraptions on our home realm as well.”Bookmark here

“Ah.” She watches Auren pour her cup first before his own. She thought they’d be vastly different, both in customs, language, and mannerisms, but it seems that they’re very similar. Almost too similar. Lili doesn’t know what to make of it.Bookmark here

“How long have you been living in the wilds, Lili?” he asks.Bookmark here

“Six.”Bookmark here

“Years?”Bookmark here

She nods, mostly to herself. Bookmark here

Auren swirls his tea around in his cup. If he feels even an ounce of pity, he doesn’t show it. “Not alone, I hope?”Bookmark here

She shakes her head. “Not for the first three.”Bookmark here

“My condolences.”Bookmark here

“It’s ok.”Bookmark here

Auren takes his first sip. The way he holds his chin—not jutted out, but upwards, as if he’s about to toast to the heavens—reminds Lili of the modern depiction of fae folk, their bodies draped in finery as they maneuver through the webs of political intrigue. He looks like one, too; his hair is long and golden, secured in place at his nape by a satin ribbon. Specks of light occasionally flicker behind his eyes.Bookmark here

Behind the walls of her beaten-down lodgings, Avett and the girl continue to argue.Bookmark here

“Lili, I apologise on behalf of my team for assaulting you in your own home. Mindless violence is far from what we represent—as such, I hope we can move past our rocky first impressions.” He sips again, this time taking his time with the near-scalding beverage. “I should introduce you to our team proper; the young woman is Ysh’vanna O’Raal, our captain, and a Draconian. The brash Kattish man over there is Avett Ironsturm, an arms specialist most days, I suppose.” Auren taps his fingers against his teacup, his lips as narrow as a pencil as he appraises the disturbance indoors. Bookmark here

“Avett sounds like a handful,” she says, to garner approval from this man, if anything. Then, realising she doesn’t really get what he’s saying at all, she says, “What are you guys?”Bookmark here

Auren’s reply is curt. “Off-landers.” His teacup clacks down against the tempered-glass table. “Not of your realm—you could consider us as Humans from an alternate reality. Similar to those of Earth, yet different in subtle ways. We hail from a multitude of realms from which we call the Known Collective, though most of us reside in the realm of Therius.” Bookmark here

She thinks of the creatures that had descended upon their homeland all of those years ago. How they’d been warned of overhead planes and bullets raining hellfire upon cities in the event of a war, but nothing had prepared them for the fantastical terror of dragonkind. Bookmark here

“Those monsters,” she says. The words are like rocks in her mouth. “Are they… they can’t be like us, right?”Bookmark here

Auren waves a hand. “If they had an ounce of our intelligence, we would be negotiating with them instead. They are like endemic species, surviving purely out of biological need. And every hundred or so years, they migrate to a new world—we follow them.” Bookmark here

Lili is silent for a while. Then, feeling the lull in the conversation, she says, “That’s cool, I think.” She considers her answer for a moment before adding a tentative, “Maybe.”Bookmark here

He bobs his head in apprehension. Lili rocks on her seat for a bit.Bookmark here

Finally, after some thought, he begins to talk again. “Do you enjoy living here?”Bookmark here

“Here?” she echoes.Bookmark here

“In the wilderness, I suppose, there is no one to bother you.” He swirls his tea; the sweet fumes have long since left the surface of his drink. “But do you enjoy this? Are you content with your current lifestyle?” Bookmark here

She gulps. Even after Ava’s death, her friend’s timeless ‘wisdom’ has stuck with her throughout the years. Lili’s never strayed too far from the house; she wouldn’t dare. If she had even an ounce of what these off-landers had—whether it was bravery, confidence, or sheer force of will—she would leave this wretched shack behind. It’s her sanctuary, but she’s come to loathe and see it as a testament to her lack of resolve.Bookmark here

So no, not really. She’s not content at all.Bookmark here

The sounds of the Earth skate past; her ears fill briefly with the white noise of the prairie winds. Lili takes her first taste of unsweetened, over-boiled tea and finds that it has gone cold.Bookmark here

“I mean,” she starts, her tongue loose and floppy in her mouth, “I don’t not like it here. I don’t mind it at all.”Bookmark here

Auren stands to his feet, his cup in his hand. “I may have crossed a line asking you such questions. Once again, I apologise.”Bookmark here

Lili is about to stand up and vehemently refuse his apologies when the Draconian girl—Ysh’vanna—stumbles back into the yard, Avett trailing her with a scowl plastered onto his features. That might be the only emotion he’s capable of, Lili thinks.Bookmark here

“It wasn’t a fluke,” Ysh’vanna says.Bookmark here

“Of course it wasn’t a fluke, Ysh’, since when has our equipment ever crapped out on us?” Avett is tapping his foot against the ground; his arms folded loosely against his body. “Never happens. Not like stone-age Human technology. Half of the things inside her house, I swear, belong in a museum. It’s like you guys were just asking for a dragon invasion—”Bookmark here

One word from Auren is all it takes to shut him up. “Avett.” Bookmark here

It feels like Lili’s just swallowed a boulder. “What’s happening?”Bookmark here

“We are mercenaries first, Lili. I do not mean to alarm you, but we traced an abnormally large ethereal reading to this location. When we saw no sign of the beast, we assumed the best.” Auren’s back straightens as he tugs at his pale ribbon, unravelling his hair and allowing it to fan down to his waist like a cape. It gives him a ghostly presence, one that makes Lili almost want to cower away into the folds of her hoodie. She soon realises that it’s his ether that she’s sensing. He’s a caster, just like her, but his Gallian heritage means that he doesn’t need wings to cast at all. Bookmark here

Ysh’vanna turns to Avett. “Your call. You still prepped?”Bookmark here

With a lazy roll of his shoulders, Avett swings his weapon around to his side. There’s a belt of bolts hanging extravagantly from one of the lower pipes, and tipping the end of the device are several barrels that are arranged into a circle. The only way Lili can describe it is as an automatic crossbow.Bookmark here

“You will be fine on your lonesome, yes?” Auren’s focus is on the wards, but he manages to toss a glance towards Avett.Bookmark here

Avett’s silence speaks more than just volumes. Coupled with the way he’s pulling the carry straps taut against his body, he might as well have recited an entire bible in the lines of his scowl alone.Bookmark here

“I’ll be off.” He easily steps past Auren and Lili, not even bothering with giving a passing glance to the latter. Bookmark here

Lili blinks. He’s already several metres out from her front gate when she throws a look of incredulousness at Ysh’vanna. “Wait—you two aren’t going to help him?”Bookmark here

The Draconian girl shrugs as she recoils. “Hey, don’t look at me. I’m just the gal who pilots the ship.”Bookmark here

Fine then, Auren, at least. But when Lili looks back at Auren, he’s already radiating with the telltale scent of ether. He smells like the sun—powerful and like burning hydrogen. Lili’s ether feels like Mercury in comparison, a speck smaller than the sunspots themselves. Translucent disks appear at the sides of her vision, and when she dares to turn and observe the exterior of her house again, she realises that he’s warded it—all of it, actually. Lili can hardly manifest more than two at once.Bookmark here

Once he’s finished with his work, his hair returns to its limp form. “A backline caster does not belong on the field, Lili.” Bookmark here

She presses her lips together. Bookmark here

“…But I suppose Avett has been in dire need of a frontline partner, and perhaps he could be overwhelmed by the beast on his lonesome.” Bookmark here

“Ok, ok, slow down.” Ysh’vanna steps in between the two, her hands splayed out in front of her. “I know what you’re getting at here, and I’m not liking it one bit.”Bookmark here

Auren doesn’t budge. “If Lili deems herself unfit for the occasion, I trust in her judgement to refrain from engaging the enemy with Avett.” His attention falls back to Lili. “What will you do? Or rather—what are you capable of?” Bookmark here

Lili feels her ether spike in her stomach. It’s a challenge, one that might just change her life’s course for the better. Her wings—she’d forgotten to take them off earlier, she guesses—give a slight lift before relaxing again, their crystalline feathers tinkling against one another as they sway from the leather straps at her shoulders. She feels them stiffen against her back afterwards. She could do it if she wanted to. She’s seen worse, encountered the unsurvivable—she ran away from most, of course, but she’s had her fair share of kills with the smaller fry. She could do it.Bookmark here

Ysh’vanna looks like she’s about to vocally and loudly disagree with her taller colleague when Lili clenches her hands into tight coils and says, “I’ll do it.”Bookmark here

It doesn’t come as a surprise to her when Auren gives Ysh’vanna a perfectly symmetrical, lowered smile. It’s clear who’s won the battle of wits here.Bookmark here

Pushing past the rickety garden gate and stepping onto the shattered road feels unbelievably liberating. Lili’s gone outside of the old house plenty of times, sure, but she’s never to seek trouble purposefully—and trouble, she realises, is but a dot on the horizon. Far enough for its features to be unrecognisable, but close enough to strike bolts of fear into Lili’s nervous system. The beast had been this close to the shack. What would she have done had the off-landers not arrived?Bookmark here

With her jacket halfway on and her wings standing half-up, she’s next to Avett in a heartbeat. There’s just the barest hint of relief on his face when he sees her by his side, but it’s quickly obscured by immense disgust and—not surprisingly—anger.Bookmark here

“Go back to the others. I work alone,” is all that he offers.Bookmark here

No way. Lili’s future dangerously teeters between two branching paths, and she’s going to do everything in her power to make sure she’s getting out of here. Bookmark here

“It’s my house too,” she settles on saying, not like she’ll give a crap if Ava’s hard-earned sanctuary burns to the ground along with her belongings. Bookmark here

He grits his teeth. “It’s not a matter of values; if you mess up, I’m gonna be the one to have to drag your ass out of danger, and I just can’t afford to do that right now—uh…”Bookmark here

Lili coughs. “I’m Lilith, but most people call me—”Bookmark here

“Lilith.” He nearly spits out the word. “No. You’re going back. Come on.”Bookmark here

With her eyes still trained onto Avett’s, she raises a hand to the side, ether pumping through her body as her wings harden and spread to their full length. A translucent circle shimmers into existence at her fingertips, and when the roiling ball of fire collides with her makeshift shield, she can actually feel its heat through her gauzy walls. Bookmark here

She stumbles back a bit; her dominant arm is sent flying from the recoil. Her barrier shatters, and they’re safe, but Lili’s hands quiver in the air anyway. They won’t stop shaking. There’s another projectile headed straight for them, but Lili’s still teetering on her feet, and there’s no way she’s getting out of the way in time, no way at all— Bookmark here

Avett grabs her shoulder and throws both of them to the ground. Lili lands uncomfortably on her knees. Behind them, the earth has burst into flames. Bookmark here

He scrambles to his feet and lifts her by the literal scuff of her neck. “We gotta move,” he says. Bookmark here

She searches for the dragon, but she finds that it’s still a moderately sized blob in the distance. It appears to have pearly, reflective skin. “We could stand our ground—”Bookmark here

“We’re not going to win when we’re this far from it.” He straps his crossbow to his back. “You don’t want to be fighting against it with those projectiles in the way—that’s his game. And you always, always play by your own rules.” Bookmark here

“So what do we do now?” Lili asks, her shoes pounding against soft grass as she tries her best to keep up with Avett’s inhuman physique. Her ether is already pounding into her legs so hard that it almost hurts. Bookmark here

“Run.” He’s hardly panting at all. “We need to get closer, so we’ll split up and take turns distracting it. I’m heading left. Work your magic or something, I don’t know.”Bookmark here

Which means she’s headed right. And as she’s running, she needs to think of something, fast. Bookmark here

Forming and gathering the ether at her hands is the least of her concerns. It’s an act she’s well acquainted with already, considering that she pumps her muscles with the stuff on the regular. The issue is propulsion—aim is also a big damn problem, but all she needs to do for now is to focus on her projectile’s path. If it doesn’t land far enough from her position, she’ll probably blow herself up in the resultant explosion, which comes with its own complications. Bookmark here

Using her momentum, she takes a leap, whirls, and physically hurls her ethereally-charged incendiary. Lili’s projectile doesn’t hit its mark, but it doesn’t need to—large chunks of dirt fly up from where it lands, and the distant dot swivels on the spot to face the proof of her destruction. The skin of her heart freezes over, and for a moment, it feels like she’s pumping ice through her veins instead of blood. Bookmark here

It must be looking at her.Bookmark here

She knows because the ground behind her burst into flames just a millisecond ago, and the only reason she realised is that she’s been knocked slightly forward. Not enough to completely send her flying but enough to make her stumble again.Bookmark here

I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing at all, she realises.Bookmark here

The field below her feet is a blur of greens and browns as she sprints across the plains, vaulting over the stray juts of concrete and trying her best to redirect the fire from the houses that still stand. There are things in those houses—dusty collectibles, cracked paintings, homely televisions and untouched dinner plates—that belong to the dead, and using them as cover feels wrong. Bookmark here

They’re closer now. Lili catches the dragon’s quadrupedal build, how it arches its long neck over the ground like a snake. It almost looks like someone’s ripped it right out of a classic fantasy novel… almost. There’s something wrong with the shape of its head. It’s too wide, too circular—but Lili isn’t close enough to see exactly what it is. Bookmark here

There’s another searing ball of fire hurtling towards her. Lili has been running for so long to the point where she can’t feel her legs, though that’s probably a mercy in hindsight. Her lungs burn, her eyes strain against the wobbling landscape as she pumps in more ether into her legs like a drug. The wings at her back shake in the air, the plumes of blue crystal hotter than lava, but she keeps running and running, running and… Bookmark here

Just as she’s about to collapse, Avett sends out a few warning shots with the very same weapon he’d used against Lili in the house. The odd one clips the beast’s girthy body, but the rest miss—it’s evident to her now why Avett had chosen to stick the barrel right down her throat. Bookmark here

Another shot. The bullets he fires are neon blue and soundless. He hits his mark this time; the beast lets out a growl of pure annoyance as it turns towards Avett, head finally pointed away from Lili. She releases an exhale and slows to a gentle jog, basking in the afterglow that comes with using ether. She’s done her part.Bookmark here

Resting her back against a weatherboarded house that’s missing a roof, she fans herself. Adrenaline leaks from every pore in her body, and she finds herself expending more of her ether just to stay upright. She wonders if the stranger can handle himself—and for a moment, she thinks her questions are answered with a feral screech that oscillates rapidly through the air. Lili inches towards the corner and peeks over, her breaths shallow against the silence that follows.Bookmark here

No—it’s not all silent. Lili catches the tail end of another explosion. It hits the ground with such force that it leaves a smouldering crater behind, and when the dust settles, she sees the stranger again, his balance disturbed but not lost. The dragon has him on his toes; every opening it offers to him is a feint for a deadly counterattack. This is what it looks like to Lili, at least. She doubts that it has any intelligence beyond its instinctual habits.Bookmark here

A lump of air slides down her throat. Avett stays on the defensive, taking potshots wherever he can, none of which manage to connect. It’s all a pointless back-and-forth scuffle—but Avett has a plan, she realises, and all of it hinges on a single shot from the automatic crossbow at his back. Why else would he have brought it out if not to use it now?Bookmark here

Lili slinks back and grabs the edge of the house so tightly that it turns her knuckles white. Lactic acid sours her legs at the thought of having to run again, but the stranger needs an opening. When she dares to peek around the corner, Avett is leaping back again, his footwork sagging from dark desperation. Bookmark here

The wings against her back are warm as she taps into the world’s pockets of ether, her body burning in waves of heat as she forms a crude incendiary in her right hand again. If she manages to make the throw to its right, she’ll provide Avett with a much-needed opportunity. If she misses, she’ll just have to try again.Bookmark here

Stepping out, she hurls her ether out into the open. Between the dragon and Lili’s position, it lands somewhere in the middle, dislodging dirt from the field and into the air in response. Not far enough. Not far enough at all.Bookmark here

She’s sprinting along the field again, her body screaming in protest as it contests against the sudden onset of exertion. The way Avett is fighting now means he’s prone to mistakes—he can’t keep this up forever. Whatever she’s doing, she has to do it now. Bookmark here

Another bomb. The dragon hardly turns. Each misaimed strike sends bolts of shivers down Lili’s spine, signifying that she’s nearing the bottom of her well of ether. It’s like she’s ripping chunks of her innards out at this point, but she keeps her eyes narrowed against the prize. Another. Another. A blade of light stretches out from her hand, a weapon she’s honed to perfection while lounging around in the house—it’s high time she put it to use. Bookmark here

Grass floats around her like gentle rain; curbs from a bygone era shatter and smoke as she does anything, anything to regain its attention. Her vision wavers, her head’s swirling with air, but she goes through the blows, bomb by bomb, ether by ether. By the time she’s gotten the beast to turn its mutated head, she’s already out of juice—and she’s in an incredibly undesirable position.Bookmark here

The dragon is far, far more enormous than she’d ever imagined. It’s towering above her like a god staring down from the heavens. Close doesn’t even begin to describe her proximity to this thing right now. Fucked up, she realises—she’s fucked up. Bookmark here

Lili’s lungs beat at her ribcage for air, but she feels like she’s hardly breathing at all. With her head raised to the skies, all she can see is the whirling neck of the beast as it coils around to meet the source of its annoyances. Bookmark here

“If you run out of range from the house, you know I can’t save you.” Ava flicks at an invisible speck of dirt on her shoulder in her memories. “So don’t go any further than the gates if I’m not with you. Else it’s all on you. Lord knows you’d find a way to kill yourself out there.”Bookmark here

As the beast drags its hulking mass across the grass, Lili can’t find it in her to move. Its neck is so long that it almost carries its head like a weighted flail. The head—its head is nothing like the elongated maws and reptilian jaws she’d read described in novels. Its head has widened into six sharp flaps of skin, revealing misaligned rows of tiny teeth on each ‘petal.’ The flesh inside is a dark, bloody pink, ridged with bumpy throat ringlets, disfigured by stained dead skin. Saliva hangs from the topmost tooth to the lowest flap in sticky strands. Bookmark here

She is going to be eaten. She has made a mistake.Bookmark here

“You’re—fucking—useless!”Bookmark here

Or maybe not. A black blur of motion whizzes through the air, and before she knows it, Avett is on the head of the dragon, his legs landing forcibly enough to send it wobbling off balance. His crossbow is loaded, and he’s ready to fire all of his ammunition point-blank into its ear.Bookmark here

A metallic click. A bang of iron sliding against iron and colliding with bone and flesh.Bookmark here

It’s over before the dragon’s gigantic body even slumps to the ground. Bookmark here

It’s over.Bookmark here

Lili scrambles backward on her hands and legs as its brutalised head comes crashing down to the grass. As if there’s a chance that it’ll pick itself right up again and start blasting. She doesn’t forget the rows upon rows of glinting, yellowed teeth, nor the way its jaw had just… flowered like that, akin to a rafflesia— Bookmark here

“And that’s why,” Avett says, his features perfectly smug yet unsmiling, “I work alone.”Bookmark here

Blank shock turns to flaming anger in the blink of an eye. “I—I distracted it for you—” Lili starts.Bookmark here

“By completely going out of your depth?” He doesn’t even bother looking at her. She can tell that he’s fuming anyway—his ears are visibly bristling on the spot. “You were completely overwhelmed. You nearly died today. Should’ve stayed back with Auren.”Bookmark here

Lili opens her mouth to retort but finds herself gaping like a fish out of water. As he saunters off with his crossbow resting on his shoulder, there’s only one angry, smouldering thought in her head right now. It’s the first time she’s been this mad about someone else—someone that wasn’t herself—in her life.Bookmark here

With her hands clenched to the point of white-hot pain, she storms after him. This guy is a complete and utter asshole.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.