As he’d stood there, watching them, listening to their idle chatter, he’d found his hunger actually dwindling. Even though the scent of their blood, the drum-loud beat of their hearts, had tantalized him. He’d left.

On his way to the throne room, where he’d sat and thought in private, again he’d been more interested in the blood of the vampires he’d passed, his hunger returning with a vengeance. Yet he’d opted not to partake, wondering whether he’d spend the next day seeing the world through their eyes rather than his own.

He’d almost hunted Victoria down, almost asked her to feed him. But still he’d avoided her. For all his other reasons and one more. Well, many more, but this one was the most important. She didn’t want to feed him. The knowledge tore him up inside, even if the fault lay entirely with him. After the way he’d treated her…

An animalistic cry reverberated in the back of his mind. One he’d heard before, one he ignored.

He hadn’t gotten to tell Victoria about his encounter with her mother, the dancing woman. He was now certain that was who he’d seen, that he’d watched one of Victoria’s memories come to life. A memory of her mother trying to abscond with her, of Vlad catching them. Of Vlad punishing Victoria while her mother watched. A whipping, each of the cat-o’-nine tails laced with the same liquid in his ring.

By the time her father had finished, her back had reminded him of tattered Christmas ribbons. Vlad would pay for that.

And Aden would be the one to kill him, for real this time. Soon. He just had to take care of Sorin first.

I’m sorry, but I only just realized. Only just saw. You need to take your pills. Okay? Please.

Just take your pills. As you know, I’ve seen this fight end with several different outcomes and each one was worse than the last. Well, I just saw another outcome. The images were disjointed and distorted, and I’m not sure I saw things in the proper order, but I think you will walk away from this if you take the pills.

How could that be? “I don’t have them with me.” If he failed to take them, would he have a vision of Victoria’s past, midpunch? Would the souls distract him too much? “Besides, I need your ability.” He needed to know what Sorin planned to do to him before the bastard actually did it. Sorin was going for his head, no question.

Just…send Victoria to get them.

I told you. There’s a very high chance you won’t walk away without them.

Okay, let’s look at this from a different angle. You know how cold you’ve been?

Well, that’s actually been a lifesaver for you. Right now, strong emotion is your enemy. The pills will help you remain unemotional.

Yeah, me either, Caleb said.

Just take the pills, Aden, Elijah insisted again. Trust me, emotion is not your friend.

Was anything, anymore? “All right.” Elijah was never wrong. Or rarely wrong, he guessed he had to say now. If Aden needed the pills, he needed the pills. “I’ll—”

Sorin materialized at the edge of the clearing, already marching forward, two of his men holding a banner that stretched over their heads, the rest holding torches of their own. Torches the rain did not affect. They were a collage of shadows and light, menace and redemption.

The wind kicked up, whistling…closer and closer…footsteps…

“It’s too late. I can’t send her now.” He would appear weak. Vulnerable. To vampires, appearance was everything, and if he appeared weak and vulnerable, he would lose this fight even if he won. “We’ll have to find another way to bring home the victory.” Elijah groaned. I was afraid that would happen. Just try to stay calm. No matter what. Okay?

“Okay.” Easily said. Probably impossible to do.

Then Sorin and his men were there, standing just inside the ward, and Aden could see each face clearly—as well as the faces of Seth, Shannon and Ryder, his human friends. They were bound with rope. Prisoners.

To their credit, they didn’t appear to be scared. Seth, with his red-and-black hair dripping into his scowl, just looked pissed. Shannon’s darker skin blended into the shadows, but his eyes…his eyes were so green they glowed. And they were narrowed on Sorin, throwing daggers of hate. Ryder was the calmest of the three. Maybe because he looked shocked to his marrow.

First things first. “Let them go,” Aden demanded. “Now.”

The rain slowed to an icy trickle. Sorin nodded, as if happy to oblige. “Of course I’ll let them go. Their freedom in exchange for the crown. Simple, easy, and you don’t have to die.”

He could accept, but as the new king, Sorin could later kill the boys anyway, and there would be nothing Aden could do to stop him. “Only a coward would offer such a bargain.”

“Is this the part where I erupt into a rage and attack you? Sorry, no rage from me. Call me whatever you like. It doesn’t matter. Very soon everyone here will call me King.”

“Confident. But all right. You don’t wish to save your friends. I understand. Callous of you, but let’s see if you’ll relinquish the crown to save your girlfriend.”

During Sorin’s speech, one of his men had snuck through the crowd and closed in on Victoria, grabbing her by the back of the neck and forcing her to her knees. She tried to fight, but her strength was clearly no match for his.

“Before you ask, she can’t teleport away,” Sorin said. “She came to see me last night, and I drugged her drink.”

Victoria trembled and gave her brother a look of cutting betrayal. Aden felt a twinge of betrayal himself. She’d left him and gone to see her brother, might have even told him secrets about Aden.

After the way you treated her, could you blame her? Elijah said.

Way to help me remain calm, he thought darkly. Not that the souls could hear him. “How can you treat her that way?” he asked Sorin. “She’s your sister.”

A negligent shrug. “One thing I’ve learned over the centuries. Everyone is expendable.”

Victoria’s chin trembled, and Aden knew she was fighting tears. He stiffened. No matter what she’d done, no matter what had gone down, he hated the thought of her upset. Strong emotion? Yeah, if anything could cause it, he realized, she could.

Any questions he might have had about his feelings for her were answered in that moment. Aden didn’t just like her, he loved her, and he would do anything to protect her. More than that, he trusted her. She might have gone to see her brother, but she wouldn’t have done anything to jeopardize Aden’s health. Just as, even at his worst, he had not jeopardized hers.

“No,” he said. No more distractions.

“He’s without his beast,” Victoria called, the last word emerging on a cry of pain. The man must have increased the pressure on her neck.

Elijah cursed as fury sparked to sizzling life inside his chest. In the back of his mind, he heard the plaintive cry of a newborn. Just like before. Only stronger this time, and as angry as he was. The souls began to argue, Caleb and Julian demanding answers, Elijah refusing to give them.

Aden tuned them out as best he could and focused on Sorin. He would pay for Victoria’s pain. In blood. “Swords?” he asked, because that was the method the warrior had chosen in every vision Aden had had of this fight.

A moment passed as Sorin unraveled the meaning of his question. There would be no surrender. They would fight. Surprised flickered in those blue eyes before smoothing into eagerness. “Let’s make it sort of fair. Hand to hand.”

Aden nodded, surprise flooding him. Nothing was happening as he’d seen. What did that mean? What had caused things to change? The fact that he hadn’t taken the pills?

“If anything happens to Victoria or my humans, I’ll kill your men when I’m done with you,” Aden said to Sorin. And he meant it.

“I want your vow. No harm will come to them. Now, during or after. No question, no matter the outcome.”

The ease with which he offered the concession made Aden think he’d never planned to hurt the foursome. That wasn’t going to save him, not now, but it did defuse the hottest threads of Aden’s fury.

With a shrug, the black robe draping Sorin’s shoulders fell to the ground, leaving him as bare-chested as Aden. Difference was, Sorin’s torso was covered in fresh wards. There was not an inch of pale skin visible. Only black ink on top of black ink, circles on top of circles. Aden briefly wondered what the guy was warded against before clearing his mind. He had to concentrate.

Together they approached the center of the metal ring, then stopped, only a whisper away from each other. Aden had been in more fistfights than he could count, but they’d always been spur-of-the-moment, his mind lost to whatever emotion or insult that had brought him to that point. He’d never coldly, calculatingly planned to brawl like this.

“I think I would have liked you in other circumstances,” Sorin said. Just before drilling his knuckles into Aden’s eye socket.

His arm moved so quickly, Aden registered only a blur before tumbling backward, pain exploding through his head. He managed to remain on his feet as the entire world went silent, black. There was no rain, no crowd, no souls. No…anything. Not even time. He was deaf, dumb and blind, his brain completely shut down.

Aden just stood there, lost, barely breathing, until he saw a sudden flash of white. A return to black. Another flash of white, one that lasted a little longer. Black. White. Black, white, as if someone were playing with a light switch inside his head.