I so didn’t have time for this.
“Go away,” I urged. “I don’t want any of what you’re offering.”
They stopped, misty heads tipped to the side, except the original shade. It became thicker and more solid as the seconds past, body solidifying. Specks of ash began to fall from the sky, landing on my hands and in my hair, smelling of burnt flesh and evil.
“But we have time for you,” it said in a hoarse voice. “We know what you seek.”
Every instinct in me screamed to get away from these things, but I held my ground. “You do?”
The shade nodded and smoke wafted into the air. “You seek the Lilin but you do not seek it in the right place.”
“Gee, thanks for the clarification.”
It laughed and the sound shook the windows of the building behind us. “You seek too far. You need to look closer. Closer,” it cajoled. “The truth is far stranger than your wildest imaginings.”
Against my will, I leaned in, drawn by the smoky voice.
The misty face before me took form, two eyes burning red. A face full of squirming, round little things appeared. Maggots.
Screaming, I jerked back and then took off, my feet pounding along the sidewalk. The shades gave chase, running alongside me, laughing as I desperately tried to put distance between us. I could see street people, homeless who’d probably seen just about everything, scuttle back against the walls and the building, trying to make themselves as small as possible.
The shade with the maggot face pulled back, spinning into the sky above me. Air rushed over me as another shot forth. In the center of a smoky face, features melted together as though the face had been made out of dripping candle wax. They kept switching out, each reveal more disturbing than the last until the one who was nearly solid looked back at me with my own face.
I stumbled to a stop.
My own round eyes stared back at me, but they were different. The gray was split down the middle, like a cat’s eye—like my eyes did when I had shifted. My face hissed at me, revealing a mouth with no teeth, just maggots—more maggots.
Horrified, I couldn’t look away.
The maggots wiggled free, hitting the pavement with small little smacks. The shade with my face spoke. “In time you’ll see, you’re just like us, and we will all be free.”
The shade with my face floated back and I snapped out of it. Turning, I ran as fast I could.
The streets were empty. I darted across, daring a look back.
I slowed down, turning around. Sweat poured off me, stinging in the damp, cold air and my stomach twisted. There were no dancing shades. I looked down at my hand. Ash covered it.
Hastily, I wiped it off on my jeans as I lifted my gaze.
The shade had shown my face.
Pressure clamped down on my chest as I drew in a deep breath and flagged down an approaching white taxi.
I yanked open the back door, sparing the streets one more glance as I slid into the seat.
“Where to?” the cabbie asked.
I looked up, catching his reflection in the rearview mirror. Sleep pulled at his eyes and placed several deep wrinkles in his skin. “Dunmore Lane.”
He nodded, turning back to the road. “That’s a decent trip from here. You look a little young to be—”
A Warden dropped from the sky, landing in front of the taxi.
“Oh no,” I whispered.
The impact shook the cab and added another pothole to the street. His wings were unfurled, spanning several feet on either side. The broad chest, the color of granite, was smooth. I didn’t even have to look at the face to know who it was.
“Jesus!” the cabbie gasped, pressing a hand against his chest. Humans were well aware of Wardens, but I seriously doubted any of them expected to see one drop out of the sky in the middle of the night. “Where did he come from?”
Zayne placed one clawed hand on the hood of the taxi, tipping the car up onto two wheels. The cabbie clutched the steering wheel while I pushed against the back of the seat in front of me.
“Get out of the car now,” Zayne ordered, slowly setting the cab back on four wheels as his piercing gaze landed on me.
The cabbie twisted around in his seat. “He’s talking to you?”
“Then get out,” he said, pointing at the door. “I don’t want no trouble with them. He wants you out of this cab, you get out of this cab.”
I frowned, wanting to point out that I could be an innocent girl in need of help, but that wasn’t the case and I didn’t want to drag someone who was innocent into the middle of this.
Opening the door, I stepped out. The moment I closed it behind me, the cab peeled off, burning rubber as it flew down the avenue.
“You’ve been with him.”
My heart turned over heavily as I forced my eyes to meet his. In his true form, Zayne was an intimidating mass of granite.
“You smell like him, so don’t even try to lie.”
“I wasn’t going to. I swear.” I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Zayne—”
“I’ve spent all evening and all night looking for you,” he said, taking a step forward. His head was dipped low. “I stopped by his place. I couldn’t get in, but he met me on the roof. He said you weren’t with him.”
He said what? That had to have been when I was asleep, but why would Roth lie? Probably because I’d fed off a soul and he didn’t know if I was still high as kite.
“He lied obviously,” Zayne snarled. “I can’t say I’m surprised by that, but from you?” The anger seemed to seep out of him as he took a step back. His shoulders slumped as he dragged in a deep breath. “You spent the night with him.”
The statement, not so much of a question, broke me. “No—no! It’s not like that. I didn’t go with him because of something like that.”
He turned his head and the light from the lamppost reflected off the shiny, black horns. The fact he was still in his gargoyle form in front of me was testament to how upset he was. There used to be a time when he hid what he looked like in his true form from me.
“I skipped lunch with him. That’s all! I know it doesn’t seem like that, but that’s why I left school with him.” My backpack dropped to the ground. “I was upset today over what happened last night with Abbot and I just...I just needed to get away.”
His head swung back to me. “Get away with him?”
“I didn’t mean it like that.” I squeezed my eyes shut, knowing what I was about to admit was going to be far worse than anything Zayne thought. “We went to this place and there was this woman there and I...”
I opened my eyes and saw again what that shade had shown me—my face. “There was this woman and I...I fed off her.”
Zayne stared at me, eyes widening. “No.”
The word sounded tortured and damn, that hurt deep. “I didn’t mean to and I know that’s no excuse.” It didn’t matter that Sucky and Inky had had something to do with it. Blaming them was pointless. “I didn’t kill her. She was okay, but I did it and I got...”
My cheeks burned with humiliation. “Yes.”
“Let me get this straight. You left because you were upset over what happened last night with Maddox, who, by the way, is awake and has confirmed that you didn’t push him.” Before I could say that the confirmation probably did little to change what his father thought, he continued. “So you run off today with a demon and do exactly what my father was accusing of you doing?” He started to pace before me, agitated. “How in the Hell does that make any sense.”
I ran my hands through my hair. “It doesn’t, and I know I screwed up—”
“It’s because you were with him.”
I shook my head, knowing he hadn’t even heard the worst part yet and I had to tell him. “It’s not because I was with him. He didn’t force me to do anything.”
Zayne opened his mouth and then pain flashed across his face. He took a step back and his skin lightened until he was standing before me in his human form. Wearing only low- slung leather pants, he looked no less intimidating.
But the look on his face, those piercing blue eyes, hit me in the chest. He thrust a finger through his loose hair and then dropped his hand. “What...what did you do?”
“I...I kissed Roth,” I said, forcing myself not to look away and to own up to what I’d done. “I was kind of out of it and—”
“Basically it’s like getting drunk and hooking up with someone?” He laughed, but there was no humor. “Is that supposed to make it better?”
“No. It’s not, but I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been out of my head.” A little voice inside of me disagreed but I shut that bitch up right quick. “It was a mistake,” I whispered. “I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t change anything or make it better, but I’m so sorry.”
He gave a little shake of his head. “I don’t even know what to say, Layla. I know you.” He gripped my shoulders as he lowered his head. “I know you, but sometimes, you are a complete stranger to me. You do things that will only hurt you in the end and you don’t even know why.”
“I just...” I squeezed my eyes shut. I just what? Did I know why I did the things I did sometimes? The answer seemed too simple. It was in my nature. That wasn’t an excuse. Not feeding wasn’t in my nature. But none of that mattered right now, because when I opened my eyes, I saw only Zayne’s hurt. “I’m sorry.”
His hands slid down my arms and then dropped away as he straightened. “When I said that we should give this—this between us—a chance, I didn’t think this would happen.”
My insides twisted into even more intricate, painful knots. This was it. Whatever was between us was over before it even got started. Maybe it was for the best. A relationship was impossible and it would drive a wedge between him and his father. Even though I told myself that, tears slipped down my throat, burning the back of my eyes.
“There’s no chance now, is there?” I asked, my voice cracking.
He didn’t answer for a long moment. “I really don’t know.”
My chin dropped as I drew in a ragged breath. It was better than I expected, but it did nothing to ease the guilt crawling over my skin.
After a few seconds, he said, “I covered for you.”
I lifted my head and when I saw that he was speaking the truth, I wanted to cut my tongue out of my mouth. “How?”
“Somehow I knew you were...okay,” he said, running the palm of his hand across his jaw. “Didn’t stop me from spending hours looking for you, but it wasn’t hard to cover for you.”
I felt about two feet tall.
“This afternoon we received word while you were out doing...doing whatever. Dean McDaniel passed away.”
My hand flew to my mouth and everything else was forgotten. “Oh my God.”
“You know what that means.”
Besides that a life had been taken too young? I lowered my hand. “It means that he’s become a wraith.”
Bad news traveled fast.
By the start of school the following morning, it seemed that everyone had heard of Dean’s passing. While he hadn’t been popular and most people had only become of aware of him after he’d gotten into the fight in bio, there was a pall over the crowded halls. No one smiled or laughed. The low thrum of excitement over the approaching Thanksgiving break was muted. Dean’s death affected all of us. Perhaps it served as a painful, dreaded reminder that even the young could perish at a moment’s notice.
“Someone said it was a heart attack,” Stacey said as we made our way to class. “But how does a seventeen-year-old just have a heart attack?”
I shook my head. It was the best I could muster given what happened last night and early this morning. Oddly enough, the withdrawals that occurred after feeding, like when an addict comes down off a high, still hadn’t hit me.
I knew from what Zayne had told me this morning that Dean’s death had been ruled as due to natural causes, but it was far from normal.
Dean was dead, but he was most certainly not at peace.
That cloud of evil, the thick, almost suffocating blanket brimming just beneath the surface that I’d felt at Dean’s house, was present at school today. It was like a shadow hiding in every corner, an invisible stalker waiting to pounce.
“Maybe it was drugs,” a girl next to us said, and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember her name. “He could’ve overdosed and they’re saying it was a heart attack.”
Speculation continued until the bell rang, signaling the start of class. I tensed as Roth strolled in at the last second. Hair damp and curling from a recent shower, he looked as tired as I felt. Humming softly, he took his seat in front of us and glanced over his shoulder at me. There was a wealth of secrecy in his questioning stare that I ignored as Mr. Tucker—who I was guessing was going to permanently replace Mrs. Cleo—moved to stand in front of the classroom, hands folded over the transparent slides.
My eyes met Roth’s for a moment and then I focused on Mr. Tucker. I was too tired to be embarrassed over what I’d done yesterday, but I didn’t know what to say to Roth. Apologize for molesting him? Sounded like fun. I could feel his gaze linger on me for a few more moments before he faced the front of the classroom.
“What’s up with you two?” Stacey asked in a low voice that I knew Roth could definitely hear.