“Let’s just hope it’s not other competitors.”
“I can kill them easily enough,” he says with a shrug.
A yawn escapes me as I start leaning on him a little. Talking about killing apparently bores me. Maybe I’m the psychopath after all.
His hold tightens, and once again he kisses the top of my head.
I’m going to have to get some sleep to have enough strength to go phantom for the last day. I need to be my strongest. We’ve already survived longer than any of them anticipated.
“It’s not mood swings,” he tells me randomly, drawing me out of my tired reverie. Clearing his throat when I peer up at him curiously, he adds, “When we get angry and pull back, it’s us reining in emotions we haven’t been forced to feel in such extremes in quite some time. You aren’t seeing a shift in moods; you’re seeing us force ourselves to take a step back and search for rational answers as to why you’re penetrating our shields so effortlessly.”
“Because I’m awesome and my ass looks good in lace?” I guess.
He bursts out laughing, and I hear three groans from the distance. I stiffen, but Gage drags me in the direction the groans came from.
“Always the vanity,” I hear Ezekiel say.
My eyes scan the area, but I don’t see them immediately. Finally, I catch sight of a flickering flame inside a cave, and the closer we get, the more distinctly I can make out three figures sitting or lying near it.
“About damn time you two found us,” Kai drawls, his eyes drifting over the way Gage is still holding me to him as we near. “I’m guessing you’re her favorite now?”
Jude glares at me like I’ve tarnished yet another one of them, as Gage smirks. “It’ll be hard to take my place right now,” Gage boasts.
Kai laughs under his breath. Ezekiel grins and shakes his head before stretching out and lying down. Jude looks away from me.
“What are you wearing?” Ezekiel groans.
I shrug a bare shoulder in my strapless black corset, idly glancing down at my really slinky attire. I’m also in a black top hat, and since we’re still in hell, I’m also wearing phantom-made body paint that makes me look like the walking dead.
“Admit it. This is the sexiest I’ve been yet.”
I swear, it’s like pulling teeth to get a compliment. All I get are more groans.
Here they are bitching about my attire, and they’re all still in boxers or naked—like Jude. I’m trying not to be distracted, because I have no idea how to leash my emotions like they do, and yet I’m surrounded by a lot of bare skin.
“The clothes haven’t dried?” I ask, even though I distinctly remember Gage leaving his own clothes behind.
“Black ice on clothes is a bad idea. It’s the reason it has time to penetrate the skin before our natural body heat can melt it back. The fabric gives it time to be absorbed instead of instantly evaporating. It’s actually safer to go naked,” Ezekiel says as he winks at me.
“So you’re all going to be naked or mostly naked for the remainder of this trial?” I muse, my lips curling into a grin, eliciting more groans. “This is going to be interesting.” It makes it sound less genuine when I yawn directly after saying it’d be interesting.
“She needs rest. She’s strained herself too much these past two days. Her new form is a lot more demanding,” Gage says, pushing me toward Ezekiel.
I stumble sleepily toward him, and Ezekiel snatches my hand, tugging me down on top of him. My breath catches when I’m mid-fall, but he quickly grabs my waist and easily—and gently—pulls me against his side.
I practically moan at how comfortable it is to be pressed down the side of his body without worrying he might kill me.
My head settles on his bare chest as my eyelids start fluttering shut.
“I’ll take first watch for two hours. I’m still a little wired,” Gage says. “The three of you should sleep. Near her. Get the best rest you can, because tomorrow we do the impossible and beat these fucking trials or get lost in here forever.”
“Wired from what exactly?” Kai asks with a taunting smirk.
Gage winks at me, flips Kai off, and walks out as Ezekiel and Kai laugh lightly.
“I’m sure none of you will regret those decisions,” Jude states dryly, ever the Scrooge.
He lies down and closes his eyes, staying far away from me.
“Just remember you would have died if that black ice had spread all over you,” Ezekiel tells him like he’s defending me.
I pat his chest even as I yawn again, and his arms tighten around me as I snuggle closer.
Another body slithers up to my other side, and a set of lips graze over my shoulder.
“Sleep, little spirit. We find out our fate tomorrow, and it seems you’ll be stuck with whatever decision is made,” Kai says against my ear.
“As long as you four are still safe,” I say in a sleepy rumble, not really stringing together the sentence I mean to.
Just before I fall asleep, I feel a gentle, almost ghost of a touch at my ankle, but I can’t open my eyes to see who it is.
For the first time, I allow them be the ones to look over me while I sleep.
“Goodnight,” someone whispers close to my ear.
The loud pattering of rain is what wakes me up, and I lift my head, peering over at the cave entrance where Ezekiel is staring out at the black rain pummeling way harder than it was the last time I saw it.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been asleep, but Gage is where Kai was, and Kai is now where Ezekiel was, his arms wrapped loosely around me as he sleeps peacefully.
I’m assuming that means I’ve slept six hours, which would be three guard-duty rotations, but I’m not certain if Jude has taken a shift. I’m currently smirking at him as he lies at my feet, his arm draped loosely over my ankles as he sleeps hard.
That small touch on my ankle before I drifted off must have been him, and he subconsciously got even closer in his sleep.
He’s going to be so mad that I saw it.
A huge grin splits my face, and I carefully go phantom, letting all their touches pass through me as I stand without disturbing them and go whole on my way to Ezekiel.
I blame the extreme circumstances for my questionable comfort level with Ezekiel when my hand travels over his shoulder, and I step into his side.
He looks down at me, a heavy expression on his face.
“Sorry,” I say, withdrawing my hand.
His lips twitch, and his arm goes around my shoulders, drawing me against his side. Happily, my arms slide around his waist, all domestic-like. We could be mistaken for a couple instead of just a creepy stalker girl chasing after a crush.
“There’s someone watching us,” he says quietly when his lips touch the top of my head. “Don’t change forms yet.”
“Why?” I whisper.
“Because they’ve seen you already, and they don’t know you can vanish. It could be a very important weapon when they finally make their move. Just act casual and calm.”
Did they see me vanish to get out of the sleep pile?
My breath comes out shakily, because what if it’s the Devil watching us? What if he’s studying us the way I used to study my quad?
“It’s not Lucifer,” he tells me like he’s in my head.
“How do you know?” I ask, confused.
“Because there’s no light shrouding you.”
“That makes no sense.”
“I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s the blind tribe. They’re rumored to stalk these woods for food. And we might just be on the menu,” he says instead of explaining the light.
“Lovely,” I state dryly. “At least they’re blind. I’m assuming they can hear every word we’re saying, though.”
“They actually see things in signatures. Hell’s belly, as you’ve noticed, is very fucking hot. They see cooler signatures instead of heat signatures,” he goes on. “And they don’t exactly speak English. They speak the language of the damned.”
“Is comoara trădătoare a damned language phrase?” I ask idly, looking out on the very neon blue forest, and wondering where this blind tribe is hiding.
“No, that’s Romanian,” Ezekiel states as though it should be obvious.
“Why do you think it’s them?” I ask quietly. “The blind tribe, I mean.”
“Because I’ve seen glimpse of a couple of humanoid figures since the lights came on, and the only humanoid figures down here would be competitors or tribesmen. We’ve managed to avoid the other tribes. They prefer to feed on the monsters and stray from any interlopers. But the blind tribe—”
“Are savage, hungry, fearless, cannibalistic barbarians in the mood for some flesh. Got it. I take it they’re immune to black ice?” I interject.
He nods, his eyes still on the land in front of him. “Another reason I’m certain it’s not the other competitors. They’ve been in the storm for the past hour at least.”
“Just fucking great,” Kai says around a yawn, drawing my attention back to him.
Gage and Jude are already awake, and Gage is stretching, looking well-rested.
Jude avoids my eyes.
“How’d you sleep, Death Punch?” I drawl, grinning like the cat who ate the canary.
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