“You’re being hooked to your realm’s Grid.”
Grid? “I think something’s wrong with the connection.” I manage to push the words past the barbed lump growing in my throat.
“Nothing’s wrong.” He draws me against him, caresses the ridges of my spine, offering comfort. “Everyone goes through this. Even Myriadians.”
I rest my head on his shoulder, breathing in and out with purpose. Despite our efforts, I feel as if I’m trapped inside a never-ending pit, falling into one sword after another while taking an endless rain of bullets to the brain and torso.
Kill me! Let me die.
But...the pain is fading just as swiftly as it began.
Warmth envelops me, sinks into me and shines...shines so brightly that emotions I’d hidden in dark corners long ago are suddenly exposed. Those emotions scramble in every direction like tiny bugs. Hatred for my father. Rage for circumstances beyond my control. Sorrow over the loss of my mother and little brother.
Nothing can hide. I hiss and sob in unison. The sound a wounded animal must make.
“You’re strong. You’re brave,” Killian tells me. “You’ve got this, lass.”
As the warmth gathers in three distinct places—both hands and an arm—I squeeze him so tightly, I’m sure I bruise him. He never once complains. The warmth...it burns now. I think I’m being...marked?
In the center of each palm, a circle with three leaves appears. The Troikan symbol. They are pale at first but gradually darken. Along my right arm, three sets of numbers emerge.
“Spiritual brands,” Killian says, passing his thumb over one of the symbols without actually touching me. “An outward sign of your inward loyalty.”
Finally, blessedly, the remaining pain subsides, and I whimper with relief.
“A Key.” Killian moves his attention—and his phantom-touch—to the numbers. “I’d heard rumors Troika forces their new recruits to work for their rewards, but no one has confirmed or denied.”
“A Key?” When his thumb strokes my skin, I’m hit with a punch of cold. My jaw clenches, and my teeth chatter.
Fury contorts his features, startling me as much as the punch. He releases me and steps back, increasing the distance between us.
I’m not yet ready to part with him. Lifting my chin, I step toward him and flatten my hand over his precious heart. Another blast of cold hits, this one stronger, unbearable.
“Zero!” My favorite curse escapes, and I jump back. In a blink, the horrible cold vanishes.
“I tried to warn you,” he grates.
As I gaze into his siren-eyes, the truth becomes clear. Physically, our bodies will forever reject each other. Darkness and Light cannot coexist. One will always chase the other away.
By siding with Troika, I doomed our relationship.
Tears well. “Killian,” I say. He did try to warn me. I convinced myself we’d find a way to be together, not yet comprehending the obstacles we’d have to face.
“What’s done is done.” He gives an almost imperceptible shake of his head as he backs away from me. “If I fight for you, I help my realm lose the war. If I fight against you, I lose you. There’s no middle ground. Not with us. Like you, I have to choose.”
chapter two (#u4ec5c551-db0a-522b-9758-918687dc1c8b)
“Tribulation merely proves you lack a protector. Let us protect you.”
Killian’s words echo inside my mind. If I fight for you, I help my realm lose the war. If I fight against you, I lose you.
No middle ground.
My tears—such silly, useless tears—spill over my cheeks, leaving hot, stinging tracks in their wake. I thought I was prepared to give up everything for my new home. I thought I could live with any consequences.
But the cost is already too high.
What am I supposed to do? Killian is more than the object of my fascination. He’s my best friend. The only one I have left. Archer, a boy I loved like a brother, died trying to save my Firstlife. He died today. Worse, he died for nothing!
Grief rips through me. It grips me in a stranglehold and kicks me in the stomach. It whispers, There’s nothing you can do.
Sorrow and helplessness join the pity party, and I despise both. These emotions are not innocent, but deadly. They devoured my past, eating at my happiness until nothing remained; I can’t cede my present or my future, too.
I speak the promise burning a hole in my heart. “You matter to me, Killian. I’ll fix this.”
“Do I?” The rough disbelief in his tone guts me. “Will you?”
I’ve never ascribed to the notion that words are enough, and I’ve never trusted those who huff and puff, furious when someone dares to question another’s claim of affection. I won’t pretend otherwise just because a spotlight now shines on me.
My actions can make or break us.
“You do, and I will,” I say, lifting my chin. “I’ll prove it.”
He gives a hard shake of his head. “Don’t be putting yerself in danger on my behalf, lass. I’d rather you hate me and live than lo—like me and die. Deacon,” he calls. “She’s ready.”
Deacon appears at my side. “Time to go.” He takes my hand, and my spirit welcomes the connection, Light always a complement to Light. I warm rather than freeze—the way I should have done with Killian. The way I used to do with Killian.
What have I done?
Deacon appears to be my age, though he’s infinitely older. He’s black and beautiful, his dark hair shorn to his scalp, his green eyes pulsing with the very heartbeat of summer. His nose is a smidge too long and his mouth a smidge too thin, but neither matters. He looks like the bad boy he likes to accuse Killian of being: rough, tough and totally buff.
He’s wearing a black leather vest with small silver blades pretending to be buttons. His matching leather pants have five zippers on each leg.
5 + 5 = 10
Wait. I saw him only minutes before I died, and he was wearing a white robe with white trim. My brow furrows with confusion. Changing clothes during the heat of battle isn’t impossible, but also isn’t likely.
The answer rides a newly installed train track through my mind—the mysterious Grid, I suspect—and I rub my temples. His spirit was encased in a Shell that he has since shed.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” he says, “we’re in the middle of a combat zone. You are weak, vulnerable. We need to get you to safety now.”
Leave? I shake my head. He wants to separate me from Killian.
Good idea. Sworn enemy, remember?