No, he couldn’t ignore the soul. Not this time. The outcome. Important. Victoria. Hate him. Love him. The words sliced through the bloodlust and Aden jolted upright, warmth fizzing over him as if he were showering in soda. Already his wounds were knitting back together. He reached out to Junior, but the little guy snarled at him before shaking Sorin’s neck like a dog with a bone.

You’ll have to wrestle him.

Great. Another fight. Aden dove for him, knocking him down, away from the body and the blood. Wings flapped frantically, and those saber teeth made a play for his face.

A few of Sorin’s warriors rushed forward, clearly intending to help their lord, who lay on his back, as motionless as the dead. “Don’t,” Aden shouted as he struggled to subdue the creature, and they froze. “Leave, everyone leave.” Last thing he needed was for Junior to hurt someone else. Or to be hurt. “And no fighting, or I swear I’ll release this one and end you all. You’ll wait inside.”

Several pounding heartbeats of time passed before footsteps reverberated. Murmurs echoed. Then, only the three of them were left. Sorin, the struggling Junior and Aden. He was surprised at how easily the vampires and wolves had obeyed.

A long while passed like that, so long that the rain stopped. So long that Sorin healed enough to awaken and sit up.

The warrior shook his head, as if clearing cobwebs from his thoughts, then zeroed in on Aden. He could have stood and attacked, but he didn’t. He’d lost. He knew it. Everyone knew it. He watched Aden through narrowed eyes.

“Not anymore. Hell, maybe not ever.” Along with a beast of his own, he now had the vampire voice and skin. Made him wonder what else had changed—what else he could do.

Miracle of miracles, Junior stilled. He was panting through thick, black nostrils. Aden continued to hold him, cooing soothingly. His eyelids gradually closed, and surprise surprise, Junior had long, curling eyelashes. He appeared almost…cuddly.

Soon his big body went lax, and the panting became snoring. Still Aden held on, not knowing what else to do, knowing only that the beast could awaken any second, start combating him again, and if he wasn’t prepared, he’d be blood-buttered toast.

Then Junior’s body began to fade, fade, until Aden was utterly saturated by the same sizzling black mist that had left him earlier. He sat up, the mist seeping into his pores, his bones, heating him into a high output furnace.

Weirdest. Thing. Ever. His brain basically scrambled with bewilderment. That was…that had been…he had no words.

Sorin was unfazed. “By the way, my beast is bigger than yours.”

“Not for long. Did you see the size of my guy’s feet?”

Massive arms crossed over a massive chest. “Forget the beasts. I’ve got a few things on my mind, Haden Stone.”

Hearing his full name always gave him pause. “Like the fact that you want another go at me? Well, come on. Let’s get this over with. Because I am not going to let you come back for seconds at a later date. You either serve me now, or you die now. Those are your only two options.”

“I wasn’t thinking of attacking,” the warrior said, standing carefully. He wobbled on his feet, walked over and held out a hand. “I was thinking I will never live this down. I was thinking we should have fought with swords. I was thinking…I want to help you up. King.” O-kay. This was officially the weirdest thing. A turn of events he never could have predicted. A turn of events Elijah hadn’t predicted. Made him terribly uneasy, but he was too fatigued to argue.

“Thanks.” Aden didn’t trust the man, but he slapped their palms together anyway.

THE VICTORY CELEBRATION was in full swing before Aden and Sorin entered the house. Goblets of blood had been given to each of the vampires, and glasses of wine to each of the wolves and humans. Laughter abounded. The king had proven his strength and cunning, after all, and the people here had followed him wisely.

Whispered theories abounded, too, everyone wondering how a human had finally turned into a vampire, and if other humans could now be turned.

“We haven’t tried a turning in so long, the circumstances that prevented our success could have altered.”

“But what were those circumstances? We’ve never known.”

“Could have been our blood. Or theirs.”

“I’d love to run some tests and find out.”

“Yes, but will the new king allow it?”

No one seemed to mind their cold, wet robe or sopping hair, yet Victoria couldn’t stop shivering. Her teeth were chattering so vigorously, she feared everyone in the massive ballroom could hear them over the angelic hum of the harp.

As she claimed a goblet of blood for herself, determined to feed the still-weakening Chompers even if the thought of drinking blood currently upset her stomach anew, she panned her surroundings. The marbled floor, the glass walls, the columns stretching to a web of crystals on the ceiling.

In the center of that web was a glittering chandelier in the shape of a spider, eight legs seeming to move from one corner of the room to another. A lovely space, if you liked a darker, almost gothic atmosphere. She preferred colors and always had. Pink, yellow, blue. Even white. Anything but the black her father had always insisted upon.

Perpetuate the myths, he’d said, and the humans will never take you seriously. They will always underestimate your strength.

She had been half awed and half horrified by her father. But she’d always assumed Sorin adored him utterly. Why hadn’t—didn’t—he?

Sorin. He was a puzzle to her, the pieces so scattered she wasn’t sure she would ever be able to find them and put them together. And Aden, well, he had won a fight against a seasoned warrior.

Even more shocking, no one here had hindered him or helped Sorin—if she didn’t count Lauren and Stephanie, who were watching the doors for Sorin, and after yesterday, she didn’t count them. More than that, Aden had a beast and the skin of a vampire. Her skin.

How much more had they traded?

She’d lost her ability to compel humans with her voice. She’d lost her ability to teleport. Aden could do one, which meant he could probably do the other. And what about her lightning quick speed? He’d moved so swiftly in that ring. Swifter than ever before. What about her strength? Only weeks ago, she had jerked a tree out of the ground with her bare hands, roots and all.

Just then, she wasn’t sure she was capable of lifting her hair out of her face.

Would she still have saved Aden if she’d known this would happen?

The answer came in an instant. Yes. Yes, she would have. She would have given up more.

You just might have to, she thought.

Her hand shook as she brought her goblet to her lips and sipped. The blood was thick, cooling and had a metallic taste that left her grimacing. Ick. What she wouldn’t give for a…sandwich. Yes, that’s what those things were called. Thin slices of meat stuffed between bread and slathered with something thick and white. Her mouth watered at the same time her stomach growled.

Soon she would have to sneak back to the slave quarters. Very, very soon.

She spun, and there, in the far corner, was Shannon, the speaker, with Seth and Ryder beside him. Two of her brother’s soldiers were perched at their sides, expressions foreboding.

How could she have forgotten that the boys had been taken, bound?

She placed her goblet on a passing tray and stalked forward.

“V-Victoria,” Shannon said again, his stutter more pronounced than usual. “Do s-something. P-please.”

Their gazes met for the briefest of moments, the green of his eyes almost fever bright. His mocha skin had dulled, yet he was no less beautiful. More so than even a lot of the vampires here. He was tall and naturally strong, and when he smiled, his straight white teeth on display, he was a diamond among zirconium. She’d always liked him.

He was in the center of the group, and though he stood straight and proud, his pinky was curled into Ryder’s, as if the other boy was his rock, his comfort. Or perhaps he was Ryder’s rock, as the usually tanned boy was currently colored a faint shade of green.

Seth was waving and grinning at someone over Victoria’s shoulder. He even did the universal sign for call me.

Victoria looked the guards over, taking their measure. They lost their air of menace and smiled at her. Well, their version of a smile, anyway. They bared their fangs, their lips peeling back so much that she saw gums.

Both had razored haircuts and thin scars on their cheeks. Scars. How novel. How had they gotten them? The same way Riley had gotten the bump in his nose? Through repeated injury? And would she soon be covered in scars? If so, would Aden still think her beautiful?

Don’t worry about that right now. She might fall into a spiral of depression. But then again, depression might help her feel normal again.

Concentrate. Right. Despite the “smiles,” the one on the right looked like he enjoyed shards of glass and kittens for breakfast. The one on the left looked like he enjoyed just the glass shards, so she’d take her chances with him.

“You’re in good spirits, considering your leader just lost his chance to rule,” she announced.

One of his brows arched, nearly knitting into his hairline. “Who said he lost?”

An unexpected response. “Me. Aden, I’m sure. Everyone here, definitely. You did notice the party, didn’t you?”

He shook his head, a little shell-shocked, as if her literal interpretation of his question threw him for a loop. He shared a glance with his friend before saying, “No, I mean, perhaps he only wished to test your Aden’s mettle.”

Oh, please. “What a wonderful way to cover the sting of a loss.”

A shrug of wide shoulders, reminding her very much of her brother. How long had the warriors been together? “Think whatever you wish. It will not change the facts.”