Chapter 4:

the mall

Aboard the Winnow

Lili’s not sure if she’s ready to see the visceral mess of bygone cities and desolate roads she assumes that the Hive will be, but when she tries looking out of the ship she’s actually pleasantly surprised. The roads leading to the Hive are completely intact. Instead, it’s a factory that’s been taken down and repurposed into three sky-scraping spires. The two leftmost spires look like they’ve seen better days—exposed beams of steel spike out in haphazard directions up along the shaft like an agitated hedgehog. The third tower has clearly had more maintenance done to it. Bookmark here

What really interests her is the initial lack of a real hangar. As the ship swerves around towards the third spire, it’s only then does she spot exactly where Ysh’vanna is supposed to dock: a small, jutting platform that leads into a domed alcove.Bookmark here

“The way the Hive works,” Avett says as he slides on his leather gloves, “is that the third spire’s for off-landers. The first and second… ” He gives Lili a wary look before casting his vision aside again. Bookmark here

“Full of humans?” she finishes. Bookmark here

Avett doesn’t say anything. “They don’t like off-landers. We do our business in the third spire, they do their ‘best’ to stay out of it. I just stay onboard.”Bookmark here

“The Hive’s third spire is safer than what Avett,” Auren says as he shoots a passing glance over to his frontliner, “would make it out to be. I invite you to disembark the ship and draw your own conclusions.”Bookmark here

Lili has a feeling that her own conclusion won’t exactly be the most informed, so she doesn’t answer. Instead, she turns her attention to Ysh’vanna’s flurry of hands as she lurches the ship into a stomach-dropping dip. She plays chicken with the shifting view for a bit before she forces herself to leave the room. Bookmark here

A few minutes later and she’s down in the Hive along with Ysh’vanna in a room that barely has any air ventilation; the only mercy is that the place is completely devoid of anyone else. They’re observing a mission board that flashes—presumably refreshing itself—every minute. It’s about as wide as the wall that it’s mounted on. Multiple text boxes litter the board. When Lili taps on one of them, the box expands and a short descriptor of the mission displays itself alongside a prompt for the ship’s card to be placed on the screen.Bookmark here

“We’ll pick something easy for now, hm?” Ysh’vanna has a hand on her hip as she walks across to the other side of the board. “B rank… how about this?”Bookmark here

She flicks her wrist, and the box slides its way across to Lili. Her eyes immediately lock on to the reward money that’s being offered. “Artifact recovery?” Bookmark here

“Don’t let the recompense money fool you. This stuff is painfully easy. Normally these types of missions are snatched up the moment the Inter-Realm Concern uploads them, but since it’s the Hive…” Ysh’vanna folds her arms. “Pretty easy to grab whatever when the only other ship operating in the Hive wilds only has a C rank authorisation.”Bookmark here

Lili turns her attention back to the text box. That ship would have easily been them, had the test not played out the way it had. “What exactly is an artifact?” Bookmark here

“S ranked targets passively create a reality altering field around them. A ranked too—though to a lesser degree. You have to have special clearance to even be in the same area as one, and that’s only after they’ve done extensive research through the artifacts that they leave behind. Similarly, it’s why we also hunt certain B and C ranked dragons who look like they have the aptitude to become A ranks.” Ysh’vanna shrugs. “It’ll be around forty years, maybe even more from now—but the moment the IRC elites eliminate the last S or A ranked dragon, we win. The realms go back to normal, the IRC gets to assimilate Earth into the family of discovered realms, and they get to rename themselves to The 5th Consortium or something.”Bookmark here

This sounds like a recipe for disaster to Lili. She’s about to voice her concerns when Ysh’vanna strolls right back over to her and slaps her back. “Chill out, hm? We wouldn’t even be allowed to enter if it hadn’t left a long time ago.” She slaps her card onto the screen, and a circular bar quickly wraps itself around it. “All we have to do is dive into some ruins, get the artifact, then we leave. Very small chance of encounter. You wanna grab a snack before we head off?”Bookmark here

Somehow, Lili has a feeling that the Hive is going to have a very small selection of food compared to that of the Afflatus’ smorgasbord of cultures. Maybe Avett’s influence is finally serving it’s toll, or maybe she’s just not a big fan of how this place feels like an undersea tuna can despite being elevated one hundred metres in the air, but she refuses Ysh’vanna’s offer. They’ve just had lunch anyway.Bookmark here

When the two of them arrive back on the Winnow, Lili heads for the bathroom to refresh herself. She spots Avett lying against the floor in the sleeping quarters on her way there. He’s holding what looks to be a transparent phone screen above his head, and there’s a slight grin on his face.Bookmark here

She splashes water onto her face from the sink. Her first mission. Maybe it won’t go as badly as her last encounter. Or maybe it will. Because she’s not actually that great at making informed decisions in the heat of the moment, and when it comes to dealing with larger-than-life dragons, it seems that everything she knows about defending herself is only secondary to her ability to determine the best course of action in any given moment. Bookmark here

The water drips down her chin. She wipes at it desperately with her sleeve. A wet sleeve, she thinks, is far better than a soaked collar. Then she looks at herself in the mirror.Bookmark here

Never had she ever envisioned herself wearing the same casters’ gear as Auren. However, instead of her tunic being burgundy-red, her attire is a dull teal. It’s a perfect fit on her, but somehow, she just can’t seem to wrap her head around the fact that it’s on her body. Or that it’s even meant to be on her body. The cloth seems too new, too unworn—though that’s a descriptor she knows is going to change pretty soon. Bookmark here

“You know you don’t have to wear the whole thing. Most people don’t.” Bookmark here

Lili spots Avett leaning against the doorway. He’s in an unbuttoned jacket and a black tank top. Definitely not the usual mechanic jumpsuit that he’s in. “Auren does,” she replies.Bookmark here

“Auren’s a prude.”Bookmark here

She winces. “I don’t have anything that’s field-appropriate.” Besides, she’s not sure what’s wrong with her gear, aside from the weird shade of teal. It’s comfortable, it doesn’t scratch her when she bends her elbows, and it has way too many pockets running down the side of her pants. Bookmark here

“Fine, fine. You win.” Bookmark here

She braces her arms against the sink counter. It’s obvious that he’s not just here to bash on her fashion senses. “Is… is there anything else you want to say?” she tests. Bookmark here

Avett brings himself upright again. “I really don’t know what Ysh’ told you, but you should probably relax. Artifact recovery’s one the easiest jobs we could’ve gotten. You literally walk in, grab the thing, walk out, get paid.”Bookmark here

Something catches in her throat. “Walk into what?”Bookmark here

Thirty minutes later, and she’s standing outside in front of what used to be the Baywaters shopping mall. She has been here at least once or twice, back when she considered store-bought Pak’n Save chicken roasts to be the pinnacle of western dining. She was fifteen. Now she’s back, and all that’s left for her as she stands in the carpark are half-rusted signs and crumbling walls of concrete. Bookmark here

“Ruins, princess.” Avett straps into his messenger bag. “We’re going ruin diving.”Bookmark here

Lili presses her lips together into a grimace. She eyes the glint of the exposed iron framework as it pierces through the pillars like a broken bone. Someone could impale themselves on that if they fell directly onto it from ten metres up. The thought of that happening doesn’t help the roiling wave of dread that’s settling over her body like a fine coating of dust. Bookmark here

“Great,” she mumbles. It’s in her best interests to streamline this job as much as possible, so she adds, “How do we know what the artifact looks like?”Bookmark here

“Beats me. You’ll probably feel it before it shows up on my GlassLink.” He waves his phone in the air briefly. “The real, organic deal’s way better than this cheap old thing.”Bookmark here

She can see his hand vaguely through the glass, which is a deep shade of grey. There’s no way that that’s what’s considered cheap and old in Therius, but if it is, it doesn’t surprise her. The guy in front of her is holding two state-of-the-art blasters—capable of taking down dragons, allegedly. Though now that she’s gotten a better look at them and seen what his crossbow is capable of, they seem more suited to giving mild headaches rather than inflicting skull-blasting finishers. Bookmark here

The crumbling exterior of the mall gives way to—unsurprisingly—an open air roof. The once stalwart pillars that held the ceiling have long since toppled here, and if Lili walks over all of the chunks and leftovers of what used to be flooring, she can see ugly, blackened welts—scarred into the concrete like a brand. Burn marks. Bookmark here

Unease drips into her like a broken tap. Maybe she shouldn’t be looking at this so soon.Bookmark here

Avett occasionally checks in on his GlassLink as the two of them traverse deeper into the abandoned mall. The odd, uncovered spike of metal here and there keeps Lili on her toes. She just hopes that she’ll start feeling whatever Avett wants her to feel when they approach the artifact. It’s a silly comparison, but the whole thing makes her feel like she’s a TV receptor. At least she’s useful to him.Bookmark here

Soon, the roof starts coming back together, kind of like icicles freezing over a pane of glass in winter, but she’s not quite feeling safe yet; there’s a crack that’s running down the length of the ceiling, and she’s worried that the glass dome that’s directly above them might rain down on them if they aren’t careful. The whole place is giving her just a terrible time, and the deeper they go, the worse her dread gets. It’s awful. She looks over to Avett, and he just seems to be having a swell old time. Artifact recovery beats hunting dragons anyday, of course. It’s just a shame that they’re in a mall that Lili recognises and knows all too well. She can see the old doughnut store that she used to eye up constantly until her mum caved and bought her a takeaway box of six tiny, cream-filled, doughy balls. Bookmark here

She fixes her eyes in front of her.Bookmark here

“So.” Avett holds up his GlassLink for Lili to see—there’s nothing on his radar. Not even a hint of where the artifact might be. “You feeling anything yet, princess?”Bookmark here

“Not really.” She shuffles from foot to foot. “This place—something’s off. You’re sure that nothing’s here?”Bookmark here

Her line of sight falls onto his blasters and crossbow. He covers them with a hand. “Look, I’m sure it looks like I came prepared for a fight, but the toughest thing that could possibly fit in here probably’s a baby—hardly worth your time, but still need a few blasts to put them down. B ranks prefer the outdoors.” Bookmark here

“You’d shoot a baby?”Bookmark here

Avett narrows his eyes, draws his blaster, and fires a round into the ground near Lili’s foot. A jolt of pure adrenaline shoots right up her leg and into her head as she jerks herself away. Bookmark here

The shot leaves the ground vaguely smoking. And the report of that one, presumably innocuous shot’s just echoing, echoing away into the rest of the mall. Bookmark here

“Only big babies,” he answers. Bookmark here

Lili can still hear the gunshot. And it’s not just her imagination. The echo really does just go on for way too long. She’s so busy focusing on the sound that she almost misses something else—the sound of rocks cracking under the pressure of one another. Bookmark here

“Avett—” she starts. The cracking is loudest directly above them. Whatever Lili has to do, she has to do it now. Her legs scream to life as she pumps ether through every single one of her limbs before throwing herself into Avett.Bookmark here

A shot goes off. It hits another part of the broken ceiling—Lili watches the bright blue spark pop against the concrete, watches another crack form, its reach spreading like a web. As they tumble to the floor, the torso-sized chunk thuds to the ground behind them. The crater that it makes upon landing is enough to make Lili immediately grip Avett’s—strangely limber—shoulders. He has a blaster in one hand. Bookmark here

She looks back just in time to catch another chunk thudding to the ground behind them, sending microscopic flecks of asphalt up into the air. The ceiling is collapsing fast. She’s thankful for the rubbery soles of her combat boots as she pulls Avett upright, her adrenaline bursting into her anew—but even then, the ground seems like a shitfest to sprint across. Bookmark here

“You useless—” Avett’s tail wavers behind him, no doubt correcting his balance. He spares a glance behind him. “Fuck. Talk later. Fuck. Fuck!”Bookmark here

Every step she takes feels like she’s skidding on ice, even though she knows it’s just the copious amounts of rubble. As the two of them vault over the old shop counters and slip by glass displays, it occurs to Lili that the sensation of crushing dread is just getting worse by the minute. Adrenaline is a potent drug, but whatever this is… it’s weighing her legs down, making her lungs wheeze like an overheated kettle. Her muscles have been replaced with lead.Bookmark here

“Lilith—Lilith, no,” Avett manages to pull her forward. She must’ve faltered a bit. “Come on. We’re almost out. Fuck—how long is this ceiling going to—?”Bookmark here

He’s right. The ceiling’s been falling on them for way too long. But she can hardly think, hardly follow any line of thought to its conclusion—it’s all a faint pulse against the voracious heat of dread, now sinking and clawing into her skull like it’s a parasite inside of her, itching and worming its way through her head. All of this, just to survive.Bookmark here

Lili bites down on the insides of her cheeks. Hard. The sharp bolt of pain is enough for her own thoughts to come slamming back into her. She grabs Avett’s arm and pulls him to the side into a small shop that she’s not sure she’s seen before. It must be new.Bookmark here

The ceiling continues to rain down outside. But the store stays intact. Bookmark here

It’s not over yet. She has to do something. If she stays still, stays complicit for even a second too long, she’ll start feeling it again—the sensation of being gnawed alive. It feels like it’s right next to her. Like if she turns back slowly, she’ll see the gaping, salivating maw of a certain dragon from a few days ago.Bookmark here

Lili groans and clutches her head. It’s here. She kneels over and starts clawing at the rubble beneath her feet. She doesn’t care that her fingernails are chipping or that she looks like a maniac. She just needs to free it. Every second she spends in close proximity to this thing is an eternity spent in damnation. Bookmark here

Her hands close around something. Something scalding to the touch. It’s a glassy sphere, probably an ornament of some sort. She wrenches it free from the rocks. As soon as she does, her mind rams into that sweet, ecstatic pause of thought, and for a minute she actually considers embracing this silence wholly. It’s a sweet mercy compared to the whirlwind of emotion she had subjected herself to for the past hour. Why shouldn’t she?Bookmark here

Her eyelids start fluttering against her will. The glass now only feels mildly warm, as if someone’s been lovingly embracing it with their body. Bookmark here

“Fuck—Lilith.”Bookmark here

Something—someone, actually—strong pinches her cheeks and stretches them apart. And then Lili is awake again. Far too awake. Bookmark here

She splutters and nearly drops the damn thing. Bookmark here

“Uh.” Avett plucks the object from her hands. “Maybe I should hold that. You alright, by the way, princess?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, but ceilings,” she says, a pant wrenching through her body mid-sentence, “they’re not supposed to fall like that.”Bookmark here

“Artifact might’ve been sending this entire place into overdrive. They’ve got a mind of their own—though never to this extent.” Avett turns on his phone and peers at the bauble through its transparent screen. Lili almost wants to strangle him for even daring to check that yes—this is the thing that drove her crazy, and that it is in fact the artifact that they’ve been looking for. “Never really sure what they’ll do, but they don’t usually try to kill you.”Bookmark here

She gulps down air and slumps onto her back, rubble and dirt be damned. “You didn’t feel it? Not a thing?”Bookmark here

He shoves his phone back into his front pocket. “Nope. Didn’t even scratch my balls. Seemed to be turning you inside out though. Kind of glad I’m an arms specialist now.”Bookmark here

She looks back at the artifact Wet flakes of glittery snow swirl around inside the dome and come to rest atop a plastic cabin. A tiny pine tree stands next to it, and underneath that’s a poorly-built snowman. His carrot’s been stuck in the wrong way.Bookmark here

Before she can pick her—now stiffening—body up off the ground, Avett pins her right back down with a dirty look. “You know, I had the situation under control. You were the one who knocked me over and set the whole ceiling off.” Bookmark here

Lili thinks back to the stray shot that started this whole mess in the first place. Had it hit its mark—the initial boulder—none of this would have happened. Her cheeks pink in embarrassment. “Sorry.”Bookmark here

Something ticks in his jaw. He opens his mouth to say something, closes it, then turns his attention to the entrance. Despite the fact that he’s not facing her, Lili can tell something is amiss—he’s gone completely still. Even his tail isn’t moving. When she stands and pats down her thighs, she can immediately see why.Bookmark here

The ceiling is completely intact, as if it had never collapsed at all. And all she can see is the darkness of the abandoned mall, its seemingly infinite hallways beckoning them like a stranger in the moonlight.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

“Captain O-Raal, this is frontliner Ironsturm radioing in to perform a status update. I’d just like to say, if you two just aren’t picking up because you’re off canoodling somewhere, you can suck my Kattish dick until it prunes.” Bookmark here

For every off-brand ice cream stall that they’ve passed, Lili is sure that Avett has left at least a hundred more voice messages on his GlassLink for their cheery captain, though if any of those messages actually end up going through, she probably won’t be cheery for long. Nevermind the fact that dicks can’t prune. It’s not her place to correct him, though. His rage is secondary to the mess they’re in; the mall stretches on for eons, its corridors blurring into a fine mist of shadow when Lili tries to look any further from the dimly lit area that they’re in now. They’re not in the Baywaters department store anymore, but everything inside—from the layout to the actual stalls—seem almost the same, keeping their resemblance to the original mall in broad strokes, like a poorly filled out stencil.Bookmark here

As far as they’re concerned, there’s no exit. Bookmark here

The sensation of entrapment in such a foreign, yet familiar world only plays second fiddle to the soul-crushing dread Lili had experienced earlier. She doesn’t know how Avett is holding up. Maybe he’s the same, in a different sense. He’s got his rage to fill in the gaps that his fear has left for him, like a pot that’s been broken and remade with gold far too many times. Or maybe he’s just used to having his life threatened. Lili’s too tired to feel anything other than a gentle defeat; she’d be lying down and halfway off to slumberland if it weren’t for the insistence of this uppity catboy. He’d made her use a vast majority of her ether in an attempt to escape already, leaving her in a barely conscious state. She hadn’t even left a mark.Bookmark here

Five minutes later and they pass yet another off-brand ice cream stall. It’s got the same baby blue and muted white colour scheme, and on the side there’s a round, pudgy mascot hugging a waffle cone. It’s the same design. But it’s not the same stand. Lili knows because Avett has kicked over every mascot out of pure frustration, and each time they happen upon another off-brand ice cream stall, the mascot is standing upright again.Bookmark here

Speaking of, Avett strides up to the counter and rears his leg back before sending it careening towards the mascot’s round head. Either he’s finally ready to kiss his last, sane brain cell behind, or he’s actually bothering to use his full strength now—but the moment his foot makes contact with the head, it cracks and gives way. Enough to stop his momentum and to keep him trapped in the hollowed-out head by the ankle.Bookmark here

Lili doesn’t bother with helping Avett as he hops around on one foot. He doesn’t need it, right? He can handle himself.Bookmark here

“Fuck—piece of shit, I swear.” With conviction, he whirls his leg into the counter, and the mascot’s skull shatters into a million white shards. She doesn’t point out that, where the mascot had latched onto his ankle, are several wounds that look like they need attention. In fact, she’s keeping herself several metres away from this man. Avett winces the moment he tries to walk away from the scene of the crime.Bookmark here

“Maybe we could take a break,” she offers.Bookmark here

He shoots her a death glare, his jaw muscles clenched in a grimace. Bookmark here

Lili shrinks back. “Sorry.”Bookmark here

After what seems to be an eternity, Avett finally decides that it’s in his best interests to sit down and tend to himself. It seems that he’s also interested in keeping his distance from Lili, because he chooses to seat himself next to the statue. Bookmark here

“I don’t give a damn how sorry you are,” he replies.Bookmark here

Here it comes, Lili thinks. She forces her mind into a sea of obsidian, wills her emotions into a dull grey as she sits down and prepares herself for the verbal beating she knows he’s been holding in this entire time.Bookmark here

Avett strips out of all his equipment—automatic crossbow, blasters, messenger bags—and tosses them unceremoniously to the floor. “We’re fucked. We’re tits-deep in shit, Lilith, and sorry doesn’t cut it. I don’t know how we got here, but I know we wouldn’t be if you weren’t on this fucking crew.”Bookmark here

Lili is far enough to not be in his immediate vision, but close enough to watch him dress up the scrapes on his leg with his first aid kit. She’s nibbling at her hardtack like she’s a Victorian-era orphan that’s just been offered a roll of bread by the local mafia. Like their situation can’t get anymore depressing than that. “I’m sorry,” she blurts out again.Bookmark here

Avett is mid-way through a wonky loop of bandaging, but he stops tending to his leg and lets out a noisy sigh all the same. “Again, stop that. Stop fucking saying sorry. Please.”Bookmark here

“I’m sorry for—” She stops herself, then bites into her hardtack. Not with the intention of eating it; she just wants something to hold on to as she adds, “You can hit me if you want.”Bookmark here

He actually stops to think about her offer—actually steps over all of the rubble and stray metal foundations to stand in front of her with his hands balled into angry fists. He kneels, draws his arm back. Lili tenses her body.Bookmark here

Smack. Bookmark here

His fist slams into the wall next to her head, where he holds it there as he leans over her. “You may have blown this entire mission, but it is not fucking worth it.” Rage—wholly controlled, contained rage—eddies in his eyes, like smoke from a smouldering wick. “Don’t ever ask someone to punch you ever again.” Bookmark here

Then he gets up, flexes his fingers, and goes back to his corner of the abandoned mall. The drunken confession that she’d drawn out of him only a few days ago now seems like a distant dream. Bookmark here

She sighs, and then shoves the rest of the hardtack into her mouth. Bookmark here

Bookmark here

“Captain O-Raal, this is frontliner Ironsturm radioing in to perform a status update. I’d just like to say, if you two just aren’t picking up because you’re off canoodling somewhere, you can suck my Kattish dick until it prunes.”

Click. Ysh’vanna leans into the ship’s microphone.Bookmark here

“Captain O-Raal to frontliner Ironsturm,” she says, making sure to punctuate every consonant with a sharp tap of her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Not cool. I’m gonna be deducting this from your share.”

This back and forth exchange has happened at least ten times over the course of an hour. Ysh’vanna and Auren are both fully aware that, while they can hear Avett’s charming little messages, he cannot receive any of theirs, rendering their communications unusable. Something has happened to their frontliners, and yet all Auren can do is sit back and do nothing.Bookmark here

“Startin’ to feel useless.” His captain drums against the counter. Her eyes do not leave the message interface for a second. Perhaps she believes that to look away would be to seal their fates within the ruins. Bookmark here

Auren changes the subject. “It has been a while since our last airborne encounter, no?”Bookmark here

“Don’t jinx it.” Bookmark here

The silence before the next notification is deafening. Ysh’vanna taps on the screen immediately. Avett’s voice rolls in as a hushed whisper.Bookmark here

“Why’d we have to hire Little Miss Sheltered-and-Naive again? I can’t work with her without wanting to commit several felonies. Fuck. I’m going to lose it. I shouldn’t. I’m too hard on her. I’m pretty sure the artifact had some sort of allergic reaction to her, and that’s why we’re trapped in this hellhole. This never happens when I’m on the field by myself. Some fucky things, yeah, but this? Give me a second.”Bookmark here

Auren winces as he hears Avett grunt in exertion. The hollow thunk of plastic against wood follows not soon after. The message ends.

Ysh’vanna presses her lips together. Bookmark here

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Something is wrong with this dream.Bookmark here

Lili can feel every breath that she takes in from her lungs. She feels heavy. She’s in a room that she doesn’t recognise, and there’s a sense of impending dread—or excitement, she can’t tell—that’s settled in her chest like dust on an abandoned piano.Bookmark here

The thing that she’s lying against seems to engulf her. Everything feels terrible. If this is how it feels to die, then she might not mind it. She’d always assumed that it’d be a horrific experience, one involving a sensation not unlike sleep paralysis as her lungs slowly fill with water, or catch on fire, or whatever it is that’s happening to her.Bookmark here

Then it dawns on her. She is dying. She can’t breathe, and this will be her final minute of being alive. She’s had plenty of dreams like this, of being lulled into a violent rest by a feral dragon, but never like this. This feels like she might be bleeding out.Bookmark here

Disastrous. Lili looks to the sky. It’s offensively sunny today, and when she tries to turn her head she feels thousands of grass blades scratch against her cheek. It occurs to her that her brain might be remembering that time she’d defected from Ava and laid in the field, somewhere between a slab of cement and a weatherboarded house.Bookmark here

“Lilith.”Bookmark here

She blinks. A familiar voice—but it isn’t Ava’s, nor is it from any of her old friends. Lili racks her head for who it might be, but she’s always been terrible with voices. It’s soft, but it’s not like it’s weak. Gentle, yet defiant.Bookmark here

Why the hell would Avett, of all people, be in her dream about dying?Bookmark here

Before she can even attempt to choke herself back into consciousness, Avett’s face comes into her line of sight. He’s been crying—Lili can tell from the way his lower eyelid shines in the sunlight.Bookmark here

He cups his hand against her cheek, and all of a sudden, Lili feels like she’s wasted her entire life.Bookmark here

“You should’ve let me love you.”Bookmark here

She inhales. Consciousness smacks into her like someone’s introduced a baseball bat to her face. Sweat stains the back of her casters’ tunic. When had she fallen asleep? She reaches over and grasps the artifact shakily, like she’s holding a wasp’s nest. The glass dome feels hot underneath her fingers. Disproportionately hot, as if such an object could blush out of shame.Bookmark here

This object simply should not be allowed to exist.Bookmark here

Lili leaps to her feet and poises to smash it against the floor, her face flushed in embarrassment as her mind recalls the world this—deranged artifact had so carefully crafted for her. “Fuck!” she spits. “Fucking fuck—fucked up, this thing is fucked—”Bookmark here

“Don’t fucking throw that!” Avett grabs her wrist. His touch feels like hot embers at her skin. She jerks her hand back. He’s right. They have to bring this damnable thing all the way back to the Hive, or this mission—their current circumstances—will all have been for nothing. Bookmark here

Lili breathes. Her shock and disgust ebbs away to a slow, hollow feeling in her chest. She slumps back against the wall and hands the artifact over to Avett, making sure to intentionally miss any attempt at eye contact.Bookmark here

He takes it. “Never heard you sing like that, princess. Feels like you used up your entire year’s allotment of swears the moment you woke up.”Bookmark here

She buries her head in her hands. At least he’s calling her ‘princess’ again, instead of her full name. “Circumstances called for it. I… think I’ve slept enough.”Bookmark here

“In case you missed it,” he says, his voice testing, yet firm, “that was your chance to start talking about your nightmare.” Bookmark here

Lili’s mind sputters. She thinks back to events of last night, how he’d slammed his fist into the wall behind her, how his rage had swirled like molten copper. Well, maybe it’s time she straightened her back and gave him a little piece of how she feels about him.

“Don’t pretend that you still care about me,” she answers.Bookmark here

The hurt that briefly flashes across his eyes brings about a sense of guilt-laced satisfaction in her. No, she shouldn’t feel bad. Not after that deluge of verbal abuse he’d thrown at her. Besides, Avett is the last person she wants to be talking to right now. She runs a hand through her hair and prepares herself for the trip ahead. Bookmark here

The snowglobe faintly pulsates in Avett’s hand, as if shaking its head in disappointment.Bookmark here

Yuck. Moving on.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.