“Let’s go back to my question about love,” Paimon said, coming to stand behind the Rack demons that held Roth and Zayne. “Do you love them? What if I wanted you to take the Warden’s soul?”
A low buzzing picked up in my ears as I met the blatant cruelty in Paimon’s eyes. “No.”
“I didn’t think you would agree so easily.” Paimon watched Naberius walk around Roth. His dark head was bowed and his shoulders barely moving. There wasn’t even a reaction as Naberius slipped the knife under Roth’s still chin. “They caught him coming to the Warden’s rescue. How utterly ridiculous is that? A demon helping out a Warden? Then again, he was probably coming to save you.”
I pulled on the ropes until my skin and muscles burned. “Let them go.”
“Oh, I plan to.” Paimon smiled. “If you don’t take the Warden’s soul, then Naberius here will gladly cut the Crown Prince’s head right off.”
“And I really, really want to do that,” Naberius added.
A pounding heart joined the buzzing in my ears. Horror poured into me. “No. You can’t—you can’t do this.”
Paimon laughed. “I can and I will. Either you take the Warden’s soul or I kill Roth. Now, I know how incredibly naive and stupid teenage girls are. But surely you’re not going to want to watch your first get beheaded, are you?”
Roth wasn’t my first—no one was my first, but that didn’t mean I could allow this to happen. Potent, helpless fury rolled through me, stretching my skin tight.
“And he won’t just die,” Paimon continued. “Oh, he’ll feel it.” Moving lightning quick, he grabbed a handful of Roth’s hair and yanked his head back. “Won’t you, Your Highness?”
A shudder rolled through Roth’s body and his eyes opened. “Screw you,” he spat.
“How terribly boring.” Paimon let go of Roth’s head, but it didn’t fall back. His eyes met mine. They were surprisingly alert for someone who looked like he was in such bad shape. Paimon glanced at Zayne. “Roth will end up in the fiery pits, which is worse than death.”
Terror formed painful knots in my stomach. I couldn’t take Zayne’s soul and watch him turn into the monster that Petr had. And I couldn’t let them kill Roth.
“What is your answer, Layla?”
A low, terrible rumble came from Roth’s chest. “Layla...”
My gaze swung back to him. His eyes were dilated, glowing. “I can’t.”
“Don’t,” he growled. “Don’t do—” The knife moved in, pressing against his neck until fresh blood welled up.
“Stop!” I screamed. My hands tried to curl into fists, but I couldn’t make them move. “Just stop!”
Paimon raised a hand and Naberius backed up. “Yes?”
“Layla, don’t say another word! You—” Naberius’s fist silenced Roth.
“I don’t need to take his soul,” I gasped out. “I’ve already taken a soul—a pure soul.”
Paimon stared at me for a moment and then he barked out a loud laugh. “Well, well. This is an interesting development.”
“Yes. Yes! It was a Warden. I took his soul.” My breath was coming out too fast and in a strange pattern. One breath in. Two breaths out.
“Huh. I didn’t see that one coming.” He looked perplexed, and I wondered if that was the taint he’d sensed and mistaken for the whole carnal-activity thing. It didn’t matter, though. He snapped his fingers.
The Rack demons dropped Zayne on the floor and he lay there, an unmoving lump of flesh and bone. A second later, Naberius was behind him and had grabbed a handful of blond hair and yanked Zayne’s head back, exposing his throat.
“Well, even with all that said and done, you know what they say about Wardens?” Paimon’s slow smile stretched across his face. “The only good one...”
Naberius waved the wicked-looking dagger, placing the deadly sharp edge to Zayne’s throat. “Is a dead one,” the other demon finished.
“No!” I screamed, and my back bowed.
Zayne’s bloodshot eyes opened into thin slits.
I threw my head back and my own scream deafened me. So many images flickered through my mind like a photo album, coming together and crashing gloriously in a moment of raw pain greater than any I’d known.
The rage unlocked the demon inside me.
As I wrenched forward, the ropes around my arms stretched. Thread unraveled, splitting at the ends, and then the twine broke. My legs were freed next. Seconds later, I was standing. Air didn’t pass through my throat. Fire did, scorching my insides and spilling through my veins. I was burning from the inside out. Muscles tightened. Hands curved into claws. My vision sharpened and tinted the world in red. Bones broke in a burst of pain and then fused back together. Static clung to skin that felt stretched too thin. Pieces of clothing tore as my body shifted, expanded with ropy muscles and grew. My sneakers split wide open and fell to the side.
Tiny strands of hair rose all around my head. Pain exploded along my back, but it was the good kind of pain—the kind that brought sweet relief as my wings unfurled, arcing high in the air above me.
As I lifted my hands, shock fluttered through me. My skin was black and gray, marbleized in a shifting blend of both species. A beautiful mixture of the Warden and the demon long since buried deep inside me.
“Get her!” screamed Paimon.
The Rack demons that had been holding Zayne shot toward me just as Roth reared back, breaking free of the demons holding him.
On autopilot, controlled by something innate and binding, I didn’t even think. Raising my head, I bared my teeth and hissed.
I caught the first Rack demon by the throat, digging my claws in. There was a satisfying crack and I dropped it. The second Rack demon I toyed with, catching it by the neck and lifting it into the air. The hoarse, piglike squealing brought a toothy smile to my face. Wheeling around, I tossed it through the wall above the bleachers.
Stepping out over the candles, I stretched out my wings.
Bloodied and beat up like no tomorrow, Roth grinned at me as he dropped one of the Rack demons. “You’re still hot as a stone freak.” His gaze dropped. “Maybe even hotter. Damn.”
“Get them!” Paimon roared. “Kill them! Do something!”
My head swung toward where he stood beside Zayne. Launching off the floor, I landed in front of the demon. Swinging my arm around, I backhanded him, throwing him into the air and spinning him around.
I knelt beside Zayne, gingerly rolling him onto his back. “Zayne?”
His eyes were open, blinking furiously. “I’m okay. The cut’s not deep at all.” He folded his hand around mine—his human hand over mine. The contrast was all the more startling because of our role reversal. His gaze traveled up my arm, where the sleeves of my sweater had split at the seams. His lips parted as he got a good eyeful. “You’re...”
“Layla!” Roth yelled.
Twisting at the waist, I swiped out at the Rack demon gunning for me. The thing went down, but there were dozens, if not hundreds, more. The whole gymnasium was full of them. And behind them, bigger and hairier creatures roared.