Chapter Seventeen

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I waited for death to come.

Except, it never came.

Or maybe this was just what death felt like. Absolutely nothing. It was possible that I'd been killed so fast that I had barely noticed it.

But were there freezing winds in the afterlife?

I opened my eyes, and saw the sky once more, sparkling stars above me. Nothing else. No hovering figure holding a sharp blade above my neck about to come down and slit my throat so that my blood could spurt out and mingle with that of the boy's next to me, and of whoever was to follow. My muscles relaxed. The world seemed quiet for a moment, the air smelling like ash from the fire. It nearly lulled me to sleep.

Until a loud crack erupted into the night sky. I jerked my body upward, feeling the zip tie rub against my wrists to try and see what was going on. A couple feet away from my legs was the leader in his dark gray suit. There was something on top of him. An animal?

The firelight struck the pair and my eyes widened as I realized what - no who - it was that had tackled the man to the ground. The man who'd nearly slit my throat. I wasn't dead. I knew that now.

Dark red hair whipped through the air as the man's assaulter slammed her fist into his face. All I saw of the melee were flashes of bright skin between splotches of red. As I looked on, the man's face slowly transformed from clean to a bloody mess.

I stood up, my eyes locked on the fight. The soft tread of my feet upon the snow was silent compared to the cracks of each punch into bone. The fire continued shedding light onto the two, as I began to make my way towards them, not sure what I was planning on doing. It was obvious by now that it wasn't really a fight at all, the figure just kept punching and punching, as the man did nothing to move against his abuser.

After a minute or so, I realized the man wasn't moving because he was dead. It was impossible to even see his face underneath all the blood.

As the girl pulled her arm back to throw another punch, I decided I couldn't watch this. "Stop!" I shouted, wanting to grab her. I couldn't with my wrists still tied. Her arm relaxed, as she whipped her head in my direction. Her hair was hanging around her face. A trickle of blood leaked from her chin. I began to imagine that the blood had marred her and turned her hair the deep red shade it was now.

I knew her.

Jadyn stared at me, her hazel eyes wide. Neither of us spoke, just stared at each other in mild confusion.

She was nothing like the girl I'd met at the store where she had come close to being sold.

"Jadyn!" Axel's voice cried out, breaking the stalemate between us. I looked up at the familiar boy, my mouth slightly agape. Was it coincidental that they were here, too? Axel walked towards the two of us, not even acknowledging me as he bent down by his sister's side and stared into her eyes. "Hey...come on...let's get up...."

He put a hand on her shoulder, but she immediately pulled away, standing up on her own without his help. She then shook her head slightly, seeming to wake up from a trance. "I'm fine." She looked over at me then, her face looking less intimidating than it had seconds earlier. "Calestia?" she asked, looking just as confused as I was.

"Yea...I...," I whispered before being abruptly cut off.

"Jadyn! Axel!" Mace seemed to emerge out of nowhere and engulfed the two in a hug. I took a sudden step back, feeling a bit awkward. A light snow was falling upon the ground, and I stared up at the clouds that were beginning to return overhead. In the middle of my near-death experience, I hadn't put together that it'd stopped snowing once more. If this kept happening, would the snow eventually stop completely? I could only hope.

Yet even if it did stop, where would that leave me? The world was a mess and anarchy would rule. Right now, it was already bad, but if the snow stopped falling, those holed up in their homes could come out. If they all weren't already dead.

My attention returned to the three who were now conversing excitedly. Even Jadyn was talking like she and Mace were old friends. Her entire disposition had changed, and the feral girl I'd seen seconds ago was gone. The bloody body lie at the feet of their reunion. It felt out of place, such happiness next to such lifelessness. But that was just the world we lived in.

They seemed to remember me after a couple minutes, and Mace was the first to turn in my direction. "What happened?" he asked, looking me up and down to see if I'd been injured.

"I....that man...he tried to kill me...he killed......," I mumbled, but Mace had already noticed the dead body that had been moved to the other side of the fire. He sprinted in its direction, no longer listening to me. I didn't even stop him to question how he'd gotten free of his own zip ties.

Jadyn looked up at me again and gave me a grim smile. "I'm guessing you'd prefer to be able to use your hands?" she said with a smirk and raised eyebrows. She walked behind me and I felt cool metal against my skin as she cut through the zip ties. The plastic fell off and into the snow.

"Thanks," I replied, rubbing my bloodless wrists.

"No problem." Jadyn crossed her arms and smiled as Axel finally looked at me. There was suspicion in his gaze.

"How did you get here?" Axel asked coldly.

"Asten and I met Mace in the woods. He allowed us into his compound," I responded simply. Jadyn looked annoyed by her brother's harsh treatment towards me, but didn't comment on it. "They sent people out to find their missing search party and we got caught. How do you know Mace?"

Jadyn glanced at Axel before deciding to be the one to reply. "We are the missing search party. At least, part of it. We were off hunting when we got captured, and then when we came back to meet up with everyone else, they were gone."

"We've known Mace for a while," Axel added dryly.

I took in this new information. The twins were already a part of the compound. It seemed like it should've been unlikely, and I was bothered by it. But I couldn't complain. They'd helped get us out of danger.

Mace walked towards us, dragging behind him the body of the boy who'd been killed. The expression on his face was darker than I'd ever seen it. He was staring at the snow, not daring to look up at anyone. "Leo is dead," he stated bluntly, before letting go of the boy's body so it fell back in the snow. "We need to go back to the compound. We'll bury him there with the rest." The joy from his reunion with the twins had disappeared completely.

Axel nodded sharply and walked towards the body, grabbing its hands and taking up what Mace had been doing. I watched as he pulled him away from the fire and towards some unknown destination.

Then Mace turned his dark gaze on me, and I wanted to shrink back into myself. I was only used to seeing him calm and reassuring, never like this. It was shocking, especially since his anger was directed at me. I could tell by his tense posture.

"We need to talk."

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