Chapter 16

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The winter air nips my cheeks and threatens to freeze my eyeballs

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The winter air nips my cheeks and threatens to freeze my eyeballs. My breath comes out in fogs against the bowstring and arrow ready to be released. My wound throbs with each stretch of my muscles, but it's a pain I'm slowly growing used to.

Neon pink ribbons hang dull off their daggers, surrounding me in a cage I made for my target practice. Steadying my breath one last time, I release the arrow. It stabs straight under the dagger and into the twisted tree branch, adding to the ten I've shot off since I've been out here in this overgrown forest.

Two more, then three more arrows. I'm running on automatic. My boots crunch the snow, making impressions everywhere I turn and strike. The faster I go, the clearer my mind becomes. It dwells away from the gods. Away from the black rabbit and reaper. Away from Marc's bouquet of roses and Mika's hurt expression.

I aim for the sky. The leaves rustle in a slight breeze from outside my cocoon, waving about like they're cheering me on. I let the arrow sore and grab for the next one behind my back. Like all the rest, it's wooden base fits differently between my fingers. It's nothing like the arrows I use with my weapon. These are solid.

"You will make your wound worse if you keep straining it."

Startled, the arrow slips from my fingers. Darious catches it, the tip inches from his neck.

I'm awestruck. He's not affected by it at all—not afraid I almost killed him. He's too calm and collected, and just as stuck up as usual. Yet, it still sends an odd prickling sensation across my skin from this dark feeling inside my gut. One day, I will fight this man and see how strong he really is.

He twirls the arrow between his fingers before presenting it to me. I don't put it back in its quiver, instead, prepare for the next attack.

"Did you not hear what I said?" he asks.

"Oh, I heard you loud and clear." I pull the string back tighter out of spite.

From the corner of my eye, I catch him staring me down. It's been a long time since I've had someone watch me while I'm doing archery. It adds stress to my mind and weight on my shoulders. I pull the string tighter. The muscle pops around my wound and I end up releasing the arrow into the forest. It hits a branch nearby but is nowhere close to any of my daggers.

I grasp my upper arm and clench my teeth. It aches and burns and feels like it will never stop. Darious grabs me and starts unzipping my coat. I pull away from him. "What are you doing?"

He tells me to take my arm out of the sleeve and does it himself when I resist. My skin freezes up immediately against the October air, shaking my whole body to the core. It makes him move faster. Before I know it, he's drawing a koto spell on my arm.

His writing comes out haphazardly like the writing in the koto books back at the Capitol. The Ama character for numb flashes over my elastic band, instantly ridding me of the smoldering pain and leaving me with his cold touch.

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