Shade stopped when Vayle did. They were in one of the few areas devoid of any trees. Vayle considered the forest’s chaos and then turned his glowing eyes to Shade.
“We should clear this space and rest a couple of hours, then we’ll continue.”
Shade nodded. A thin yellow smoke floated around their feet. Shade put hands to the smoke. It enveloped her hand in warmth. Branches shook and brushed together. In the distance, leaves rustled. Shade opened her senses. It was the wind. They were the only living beings here.
But, they weren’t.
The Darkness was more responsive than Shade had ever felt it. She didn’t need to call the energy to her. It knew what she was and gathered itself inside her. It coddled her insides and settled in her limbs.
The immense trees in this area looked no different from those they’d passed. The thick branches on top didn’t have any leaves. They held many green plants wrapped around their trunks like garments. She felt eyes on her. They studied her. They didn’t see a half-breed. They didn’t wish to remove her from their presence. The branches wrapped in Darkness rocked until the trees held hands with their neighbors. The night curled into this nature-made shelter and stroked her skin with fervid fingers.
Vayle paid no attention to the smoke or the Bria. Dropping his bag, he lifted branches and thin sticks, piling them near the base of one of the trees. Shade watched him. The scene released her. She helped. It took them no time to make the area decent to sleep on.
With the last branch cleared, Vayle went to his oversized bag and removed a large twilight-colored comforter and a thin, light blue blanket.
They laid out the comforter on the cleared forest ground and then placed the thinner blanket on top. How had Vayle fit this in his bag along with enough clothes for a month? Shade grabbed his bag, stowing her own beside her, and settled on the blanket. Vayle, in turn, grabbed hers and pulled out the water bottles. He handed one to her and opened the other before draining the bottle in less than ten seconds.
Shade opened her bottle and sipped. He had less clothing than she did but more water. Also, in plastic bags and brightly colored clear wrapping was an assortment of meats from the Butcher. He had maybe five pairs of pant and several pullover shirts.
“I didn’t know you owned any shirts like these,” Shade said as she pulled them out.
“You haven’t seen my whole wardrobe.”
“But, you’ve never worn them.” She held up the bright red shirt with a white frowning skull on the chest.
“Well, I cannot wear this around the village.” He pulled out another red shirt from the pile. “Charlotte would turn my apartment inside out looking for them every chance she got. Jon would—” Vayle cleared his throat. “He wouldn’t be happy either.”
If he didn’t like his parents, why did he care so much about what would make them happy? Most times, he didn’t care about their opinion.
She had given up trying to understand Vayle’s relationship with his parents.
The red shirt said, “With a shirt like this, who needs pants?” m white letters.
“I think it would be fun to walk around in that just to see what Del’Praeli would do.” Shade smiled as she eyed another lewd shirt.
“You would. Lafeyette likes to steal them and wear them under his button-ups.” Vayle reached in his bag and pulled out several blocks of meat.
He ripped the plastic with his teeth, pulled out a slab of meat and handed it to her. Shade place it on her leg and continued exploring his bag.
She stopped to uproot a large silver dish from her own. Wraith, who had been wandering the clearing making sure it was absent of life, bolted to the blanket as she poured water into his dish.
“I thought you of all people would have packed your entire closet,” she said watching Wraith lap up his water.
Then, Shade resumed her excavation of Vayle’s bag.
“I tried to. It wouldn’t fit. I guess for a while I’ll have to repeat clothes. These things are going to be so lifeless by the time we return.”
“One wash and they’d be just like new. Now who’s the baby?” She reached the bottom of his bag. “You didn’t pack yourself a toothbrush, or soap or a wash cloth.”
“If you had thoroughly checked your bag as you are doing mine" —He bit into the meat— “you would’ve noticed yours has two of each.” He burrowed into Shade’s bag and pulled out two black toothbrushes and two wash cloths.
“Why didn’t you just keep our stuff separate?”
“Even after so long, we still don’t keep our belongings in separate apartments,” he chuckled.
Shade refolded his shirt and repacked them.
“Where did you get these from, anyway? Would the Merchant even order shirts like these?”
“I saw them in one of the Merchant’s books and tried to order them. He refused and then told Jon and Charlotte about my desire. They sat me down for an hour-long lecture about our stature and how those shirts would upset the balance.” He rolled his eyes. “One day while I was waiting for you to finish your work-day, Sadie gave me kroll to get me out of the house. I went shopping.” He tore a piece of meat off and handed it to Wraith.
Then, he put the rest in a new plastic bag.
Shade started on her own piece.
“You actually went out and mingled with the humans,” she said through chews.
“I wasn’t going to sit around all day waiting for you to return.”
Shade put the last of the shirts back and then settled on her hands to watch Vayle, who seemed intent on not looking at her. She smiled and took another bite.
“How was it?”
“It was fine.”
She stiffened her mouth and finished the meat.
“Just fine? I think you actually had fun.”
“Fun is a strong word.” He smiled. “What have you planned for our month of merriment.”
“You didn’t have to come with me. I’m sure your family would’ve picked a much more comfortable spot than this.” Shade indicated the desolate forest.
“They probably did, but I can’t let you have all the fun.”
He winked as he laid on his back with his hand behind his head.
“You call this fun?”
“This forest is pleasant. Isn’t it?”
The yellow smoke was eye level. Shade inhaled the smell of the nothingness and the energy. She grabbed a dead leaf and crushed it. The Lifeblood it held warmed her hand.
“This place is kind of nice.”
“We are Del’Praeli. Why do you starve yourself in that human city if you can survive on the raw meat in their stores?”
Shade too leaned back on the blanket. It was the most comfortable piece of fabric she had ever laid on.
“Because enough of their raw food to satisfy me makes me sick.”
“They must process their food. Where do we get ours?” Vayle asked.
“The hunting party makes regular trips to this forest.”
Vayle was on speaking terms with the Hunters.
Why would he ask that ridiculous question?
“But, we’ve been traveling for hours and I haven’t seen any animals.”
“Maybe they got them all.”
“Then the village should be running out of food. I don’t smell anything here other than us.”
Though the power in the forest was heavy, it opened itself to them. Shade didn’t think there had ever been animals here.
“You ever wonder why they wrapped the bodies so thoroughly in linen and plastic so that not even the smell of the beast escapes?” Vayle said. “We eat raw meat. We don’t recoil at the sight of death.”
It was a good observation. Shade didn’t have an answer.
“We should get some sleep,” she said.
She pulled off her pant and crawled under the thin blanket. Shade folded her clothes and placed them near the bottom of her bag. Vayle did the same.
Wraith curled between them. The Darkness unfurled under her blanket, slithered under her fingernails and into her hands.
Vayle and Wraith weren’t behind her when Shade opened her eyes to the sunlight. She sat up and inhaled the air. They weren’t far. It smelled about mid-day. She slept longer than planned.
Vayle and Wraith appeared from behind a large tree. Vayle still wore only his underwear. He must’ve just gotten up.
“What’ve you been doing?” Shade called as he came near the blanket.
“I had to pee.”
Vayle’s use of the word “pee" assaulted her ears. Why would he say it like that?
She crawled from under the blanket, stood and stretched her muscles. She stopped mid-stretch to listen to her body.
“Feels strange,” Vayle said as he grabbed the end of the blanket.
It did. Her body felt as if the night had cleared out the years of baggage. She bounced on the balls of her feet. Her legs took her higher than she had ever been able to jump. Shade stretched her right arm across her chest and did the same for her left. She had never felt so cleaned out or so agile. Her Lifeblood was swooning. The depths of the forest gave it strength to reach out and lap at the Darkness.
Was the Darkness here different because the forest protected it and Del’Praeli didn’t venture near it? The Darkness called nature its master.
Sleeping under the night had been delicious.
“Shade, help me with this.”
She didn’t want to move, not yet.
Vayle shoved her. The force behind that gentle push caused Shade to fall, landing on the one rock they’d neglected to move.
Vayle smiled. “I need some help, Shade.”
Vayle was already stronger than most Del’Praeli. Shade wasn’t looking forward to him getting used to his new strength. The last time he went through this, he broke almost everything he touched, including some Del’Praeli.
“I did that on purpose, Shade. I know how to control it.”
Sure he did. She grabbed the end of the comforter. He pulled at it to knock off the dirt. This slight shake lurched Shade forward. She ate dirt to the sound of Vayle’s laughter and Wraith’s happy bark. Shade stood, wiping grit from her face as Vayle doubled over. She ran at him and beat his exposed body with her fist. He laughed harder as his slim fingers found her waist and pushed her backwards. Wraith jumped around their feet. Vayle’s leg knocked Shade’s from under her. She fell on her back. He put too much power behind that kick. She felt the pain in her bones. Vayle sat on her stomach.
He smiled. She beat his chest while trying to move away from Wraith’s excited tongue. Vayle shook from laughter.
“Get off of me.”
“You are so much fun to play with, Baby Shadey.”
“Don’t start calling me that again.”
With her free hand, Shade drove Wraith back.
“You used to like it when I called you that.”
“I was a darkling then.”
“Compared to me, you still are a darkling.”
She tried to twist from under Vayle. “Get off me.”
He kissed her forehead then stood and walked to the blanket they’d left in a lump on the ground.
Shade rubbed her skin as she stood.
“Why do you do that?”
He was in her face before Shade knew he’d moved. He was a lot faster than he used to be. Vayle grabbed Shade’s head in his left hand, turned it and planted a big wet kiss on her cheek. He sucked her face for a good minute before Shade pried him off. She wiped the spit off with the back of her hand.
“Stop doing that.”
“What, this?” He leaned in. She dodged it.
He laughed as he folded both blankets and packed them. He removed a pair of pants and a pullover and got dressed. Shade grabbed her bag and did the same. She still felt his lips on her cheek and forehead. She rubbed them both with the back of her hand.
Vayle used to kiss her all the time when they were darklings. He stopped doing it when Del’Praeli got the wrong idea. Apparently, his parents still had the wrong idea. Come to think of it, he rarely treated her as an adult. She was always his baby sister. He draped his large bag over his shoulder. Shade grabbed hers.
It felt like an eternity since she had been with Vayle like this, relaxed and simply enjoying each other’s company.
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