“We’ll think this through before we do it,” Aden said.
Mary Ann was shaking her head before he finished. “No. We’ll do it. Here, now. Before we leave this place.”
Aden, too, glanced at Riley, his expression more what’s-going-on than help-me-make-her-see-reason. “What happened to our sweet Mary Ann who rarely argues?”
Riley shrugged, offering nothing else, and for some reason, that upset her as much as when he’d pulled away from her. “You told us what you learned this past week. Now it’s our turn to tell you what we learned.”
Another half hour ticked by as Riley explained Mary Ann’s search for the identity of the souls, her success, her search for Aden’s parents, and what they assumed was her success.
Aden listened, paling, stiffening. His eyes were changing colors so rapidly they were like a spinning kaleidoscope. Blue, gold, green, black. Violet. Such a glittering violet. The souls must be going crazy inside his head.
By the time Riley finished, the oppressive silence had made another appearance.
Aden propped his head on the back of the chair and stared up at the ceiling. “I don’t know how to react to this. I need time. Like a year, maybe. Or two.” He rubbed his temples, as if battling a persistent ache. “But you know what I hate most of all? That we’ve been running around reacting to everything, but not causing anything.”
“We’ve been letting Vlad pull our strings. He hides in the shadows, forcing people to hurt us, and we do nothing to stop him. We wait, we take it, we react, bumbling around without any planning, without delivering any retribution. He has no fear of us because we never strike first. Why haven’t we struck first?”
“What do you have in mind?” Riley asked, hard tone laced with the kind of eagerness you might hear from a prisoner on death row who had nothing to lose.
“I’ll talk to Tonya Smart myself. I’ll visit…my parents, if that’s who they are. I’ll find out as much as I can about myself and the souls. Because in the end, I need to be at my best if I’m to have any hope of defeating Vlad. And I can’t be at my best if I’m pulled in a thousand different directions.”
He paused, eyeing everyone to make sure they were listening. When no one offered a reply, he went on, “You two aren’t ready to leave yet, you’re both still pretty weak, and to be honest, so am I. So rest up. When the sun sets, we’re rolling out and cutting some of those strings.”
MARY ANN COULDN’T REST. Shock and medication were wearing off, and emotions were slogging through her with the force of a battering ram. Aden and Victoria had left over an hour ago, staying in the room next door, but she couldn’t even close her eyes. Riley was still beside her, quiet, motionless. So quiet her ears were ringing. So motionless he could have been dead.
Like Shannon was destined to be, all over again.
The only way to kill a zombie was to cut off its head. Thinking of her friend ending up that way, of never seeing or speaking to him again, she wept for endless minutes—hours? Wept until there was nothing left inside her. Until her eyes were swollen and burning, her nose clogged up. At some point, Riley gathered her in his arms, those strong, beloved arms, and held her tight.
When her body stopped shaking, she released a shuddering sigh. If only that were the end of her misery, but her mind still refused to quiet. Tucker would have to be dealt with, too. Even though she hadn’t truly trusted him, even though she’d known what he was capable of, she hadn’t expected this.
“You good?” Riley asked gruffly. His arms fell away from her.
She rolled to her side, peering over at him. He was on his back, staring up at the ceiling, reminding her of Aden as he’d searched his mind for answers. “I don’t want to vomit out my guts, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Yes, if that’s what you still want. I’ll fix the one that was damaged and give you a new one to prevent you from taking energy from others.”
“Thank you.” But why was he so willing? Because he no longer cared if she lived or died?
“No reason to wait, then, is there?” He threw his legs over the side of the bed, and she saw the wound scabbing over on his calf. Raw, red, angry. He must have been in serious pain.
She reached out and grabbed his arm, preventing him from standing. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” he said, and shook off her hold.
As she watched, upset all over again, he dug through the bag his brother had left behind. When he had everything he needed, he set up shop at her side.
She obeyed. He didn’t speak as he pulled at the hospital gown she still wore, the material draping down her shoulder. Fixing the ward on her back stung, the needle running over fresh scabs and healing flesh.
By the time he finished, she was a trembling, sweating mess.
“Where do you want the new one?”
There was a chance she would be human again. Normal. And that meant there was a chance she’d get to see her dad again. He’d flip when he saw the tattoos on her arms. No reason to add to those, thereby adding to his flip out.
Her back was throbbing, so she didn’t attempt to lie flat. She just propped herself up on a pillow and extended one leg.
Riley slid the gown over her knee, and for a moment, he didn’t move. Just looked down at her, expression…heated?
Her voice jolted him from whatever thoughts he’d been entertaining. Scowling, he got back to work. After the other one, this tattoo barely registered. But, wow, it was big, stretching from just under her knee to her ankle.
The gun’s motor shut down, and Riley cleared everything away, then dabbed at her bleeding calf with a towel from the bathroom. “Victoria was wrong. You won’t die if this doesn’t work.”
“If you start to weaken, or can’t eat regular food anymore, I can close the ward and you’ll return to nor—yourself.”
He’d stopped himself from saying “normal” self. But the gist was, she’d become a drainer again if he closed that ward. On one hand, she knew that meant he still cared about whether she lived or died. On the other, he’d just closed the door on a relationship, hadn’t he?
“No matter what, I want it open,” she said. “Working.”
“No. So I need you to give me another ward.”
His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t protest. She knew him, though, and knew he was thinking he’d do whatever the heck he wanted. “For what?”
“You know for what. I want one like Aden’s. One that prevents anyone from being able to close my wards ever again.”
He was shaking his head before she finished.
“Admit it. The witches wouldn’t have attempted to poke a hole in the ward preventing my death by physical injury if I’d had one.” Witches could sense wards and exactly what they meant.
“Yes, but what will you do if you’re captured? What will you do if a ward you don’t want is added to your body?”
“So give me a ward that prevents me from getting any more wards.”
“No one in their right mind ever allows themselves to acquire that ward. You’ll leave yourself open to too many other spells.”
“I want the ward, Riley. The first one I mentioned.”
“And it’s worth the risk with him. Too many people are drawn to him, want to use him, control him, hurt him.”
“News flash. People want to hurt me, too.” In fact, everyone Riley knew wanted to kill her. Even his brothers. Was she the only one who remembered the way they’d looked at her the night she’d slain those witches and fairies? With horror, disgust and fury. The only reason they’d gone to so much trouble to save her today was because Riley loved her. Or used to love her.
“With an unbreakable ward preventing death by physical injury, how do you think the witches will go about killing you next time?” he growled. “And they will try to kill you again. You’ll be blamed for the Red Robed Massacre.”
He didn’t let her finish. “In case you can’t figure it out, let me explain. They will lock you away, starve you and torture you without killing you, keeping you in that state until you die of simple old age.”
Impossible. “That could be decades from now.”
She was letting him scare her, she realized. “Give me the ward.” She’d already decided: she would rather die herself, painfully, torturously, than cause anyone else to die because she was hungry. He wasn’t going to change her mind.
“Yes, and it’s so hard to dig it back out.”
“I don’t want to be a danger to you anymore.”
“Oh, and what’s changed?” she asked as casually as she was able. Finally she would know what was driving him to act this way.
He ran his tongue over his teeth, his eyes glittering with a familiar green fire. Not of desire, but of fury. Something he’d never truly flashed her way. “I can’t shift anymore.”
“I can’t shift. I’ve tried. Multiple times since leaving the hospital. I just…can’t.”