Then he heard a little whoosh of noise, the only precursor to the sudden boom as the world slammed back into focus. He heard, he knew, he saw, but there was no time to react. Sorin was on him, fists pummeling like a jackhammer, over and over again, raining down, never stopping.

Come on, come on. Get in this thing. Using all of his strength, Aden kneed him in the balls. And if Sorin had still possessed his beast, the creature would have come roaring out at exactly that moment in a bid to protect Aden from further damage, because Sorin hunched over and screamed with unholy rage.

The down and dirty action gave Aden a necessary reprieve—and time to jerk his knee up, slamming Sorin under his chin, sending him soaring to his back.

Aden raced to him, intending to pin the guy’s shoulders with his knees and just start whaling, but Sorin pulled up his legs, rolling with Aden’s weight before kicking. This time, Aden was the one to soar to his back. A blink of his swelling eyes, and Sorin was on him.

Punch, punch, punch. “Any time you want to give up, all you have to do is kneel before me and proclaim your loyalty.”

Punch, punch. Several of the bones in his face shattered. His nose might have snapped in half; some of the cartilage definitely shifted to one side. Adrenaline shot through his veins as if he’d injected it, warming him up, strengthening him. But was it enough?

Calm. You have to stay calm.

With a roar that matched the one in his head, the one growing, growing, growing in volume, Aden threw a punch of his own. Then another and another and another, until Sorin stopped hitting him to save his own face from a battering. A golden opportunity. Aden reached up, grabbed him under the arms and shoved, flipping the warrior over him. He didn’t release his hold, but allowed himself to flip, as well, so that he was finally the one on top.

He spit blood and what looked to be a Chiclet—a tooth! Then he held Sorin’s face with one hand and rained down the fury with the other. Boom, boom, boom, so fast he couldn’t see even the blur. Or maybe his eyesight was too cloudy, his lids desperate to glue together and (hopefully) heal.

To Elijah’s delight, every punch calmed him.

But Sorin didn’t stay down for long and gave another kick. They were thrust apart. Aden slammed into the wall of spectators. Some fell with him, others pushed at him, but he felt the desires of their beasts. The desire to emerge and save him.

They obeyed, none slipping from their hosts and solidifying. How much time before they forgot his command and did as they wished? Probably not much. End this, he had to end this.

Sorin must have felt the same, because they leaped at each other, rolling together, throwing elbows and knees, going for soft spots—nose, throat and groin. Every new punch Aden threw would have fortified the calm, if every punch he received hadn’t fanned the flames back up.

Soon blood was flowing from a gaping cut across Sorin’s hairline. Blood that snared Aden’s attention. Maybe because it was a vampire’s blood. Maybe because it had the same sweet, dark scent as Victoria’s.

As distracted as he was, Sorin managed to knock him sideways. He stumbled into the spectators, and this time he could hear their beasts. Roars, so many roars. Still they remained in their cages, but just barely.

Would have served Sorin right to lose that way. To be humbled by the very beasts he’d mocked Aden for taming. But Aden had a point to prove, or Victoria’s brother would never take him seriously.

Wait. You’re going to let him live? He’d decided to end him, hadn’t he?

Aden shoved from the crowd and dove for Sorin. Again they rolled, again they twisted and fought like animals.

“I didn’t want it to end this way, but I’m glad it did.” Sorin bared his fangs and swooped down to bite Aden’s neck.

Only, he couldn’t. His fangs wouldn’t pierce the skin. The warrior was shocked, yes, but reacted as if he’d trained for such a thing. Before Aden could extract himself, Sorin raised his hand and removed the covering of a ring very similar to the one Aden wore. He dribbled the contents over Aden’s neck. The burn was instantaneous, sweeping through his entire body in seconds and engulfing him with flames. Felt like it, anyway.

His throat clogged up, cutting off his air supply. His fury was joined by fear and pain, all three consuming him.

With a snarl, Sorin pinned him, his fangs drilling deep into the wound. Suction. So much suction. Taking the flames and replacing them with ice. No matter how much Aden struggled, he couldn’t dislodge those teeth.

When his struggles slowed, stopped, he knew. He was going to die.

The roaring inside his head increased so much, became so loud, it was all Aden could hear. Roaring, roaring, roaring—quieting now. No, not quieting, he realized hazily. Leaving him. Ripping at his insides. Rising from his head, something sharp shooting from his back. Soon a creature was hovering over him, moving beside him. A black mist, taking shape. A snout, wings, claws. Roaring, roaring, roaring, blending with gasps of terror.

Sorin was torn from him, fangs practically taking Aden’s trachea with them. He lay there a moment, panting, sweating but cold. He could still win this, he thought. He hadn’t admitted defeat, and he wasn’t yet dead. How could he be, when every muscle and bone he possessed ached? First, though, he had to ensure Victoria’s safety.

Gingerly he sat up, the wound in his neck pulling, stinging. Blood poured down him, washing away in the steady drizzle of rain. Dizziness was a bitch, and a while passed before he could focus. When he did, he saw Victoria, her face pale, her cheeks wet with rain—and tears? Her chin was still trembling. She was no longer on her knees, but her brother’s warrior was still beside her.

Relief speared him. She was okay.

“Aden,” she said, both dazed and frightened. “Your beast.”

Something whizzed through his line of vision, breaking their connection. He looked—and nearly choked on his own tongue. A baby beast, monster, whatever was chasing Sorin around the circle, nipping at him with saber teeth.

Your beast, Victoria had said. That’s what the mist had been. And it had risen from him. The rending of his insides, the sharp sting at his back…yeah, it had come from him.

The beast was smaller than any of the others Aden had seen, but no less fierce. Those wings stretched into razor sharp points. His scales were a glossy gray, like smoked, polished glass. His arms were short and thin but tipped with ivory claws. His hoofed and clawed feet slammed into the ground, disrupting grass and rattling metal.

He’s mine, Aden thought, dazed all over again. He actually came from me.

And he’s what I didn’t want to happen, what I didn’t want any of you to know about, Elijah said on a sigh. He’s been growing inside of you since that last day in the cave. He’s who looked through Victoria’s eyes before slamming into you and rendering you unconscious.

“How?” he managed to say despite his wound, having held the torn skin together.

He was birthed to life inside you with the first blood exchange, then entered Victoria’s mind when we did, growing all the while, then finally stopping the switching altogether.

“Why keep him secret?” Good. His words were getting stronger, clearer.

I didn’t want you or the dynamic duo to panic. Strong emotion was the only thing that could push him out, and yes, I’m purposefully using birthing language because that’s basically what happened, and he wasn’t ready to be pushed out. He’s now, well, a preemie.

Hungry. He’s very hungry, very determined, and will never be easily controlled. I didn’t want to tell you, but you’ve been battling his nature, as well as Victoria’s. You were doing an excellent job, too. Until this.

So what does this crap mean for us? Caleb asked.

Elijah sighed. The little guy’s had a taste of freedom now. He will never be happy caged.

At least Aden survived the fight, Julian pointed out. You said he’d die without the pills.

No, I said he could die. There’s a difference. A lot of new mothers die giving birth too soon, and that’s what I saw.

Caleb snickered despite the severity of the circumstances. Congrats, Ad. You’re a mom. Why don’t you breast-feed the little guy?

Finally the “little guy” captured Sorin and forced him to the ground, holding him by the stomach. And the funny thing: his own beast could have helped him, but he’d come to this fight without the creature.

Now go finish this fight, Elijah said. You’ve been given a golden opportunity. Let’s use it and end this the right way.

Aden stood. Almost fell, but managed to limp over. Grinning, he opened his ring. “Payback.” Je la nune spilled over Sorin’s neck, and his skin sizzled open, blood welling. Aden was careful not to splash the baby beast, who was watching him through starving, savage eyes.

While Sorin grunted from pain, Aden reached out and petted the—his—beast. “Good boy,” he said, scrambling for a name. Chompers Jr., maybe. Junior for short. Yeah, that worked.

Lips pulled back from sharpened teeth as the creature growled at him. Chompers and the others purred when he petted them. Oh, well. At least Junior didn’t release Sorin and snap at Aden.

Aden turned his attention to his opponent and bit hard, sucking back mouthful after mouthful of blood and loving every moment of it. Tasted just like Victoria’s, just as he’d suspected it would. He might never stop, might take every drop, needed every drop. And wouldn’t you know it, his beast purred about that, as if he could taste the blood, too.

Maybe he could. Junior released Sorin and joined Aden, drinking at Sorin’s neck. Sorin bucked once, twice, before stilling.

We have to stop. If we don’t, Sorin will die. He doesn’t need to die. You’ve won.