Or something I would make.
“I really wish I was going in there,” Zayne said, pulling his hands off the steering wheel. “I don’t like you going in there alone.”
“She’s with me.” Roth grinned as he leaned into the window. “She’s not alone.”
“You don’t count.”
It was so past the time for me to get out of the car. I started to open the door, but Zayne caught my hand. “Be careful,” he said.
“I will.” I hesitated, feeling as though I should kiss him goodbye, but I couldn’t with the one-man peanut gallery staring at us.
“How cute.” Roth pushed back from the car, his tone light, but his expression was sharp. “Don’t worry, Stony. She’s in good, capable hands. I think you know just how good and capable, right?”
Zayne drew back, anger flashing across his features. “Yeah, go screw yourself.”
He grinned. “Well, about that—”
“Don’t even finish that sentence,” I snapped, slamming the door shut. His eyes met mine over the roof of the Impala. “Seriously.”
Roth arched a brow and then wiggled his fingers at Zayne. Turning away, I headed toward the sidewalk. He was beside me in an instant.
* * *
“That wasn’t necessary,” I said.
Roth’s shoulders were tense. “Whatever. It’s not what we need to focus on right now.”
“Focusing on that or not isn’t the point.” We crossed the virtually empty street, which was strange considering it was only around eight in the evening. “There’s no reason for you to say stuff like that to him.”
He looked at me as he reached for the door. “There isn’t, Layla?”
For a moment, our gazes locked and it was as though his shields were down. Anger. Disappointment. Yearning. Helplessness. It all came through those amber-colored eyes. And then he turned, motioning me into the lobby. “Let’s get this over with.”
Taking a deep breath at the harshness in his tone, I shook off whatever was going on with him and went in. The hotel was nice and new. Silver ceiling lamps cast light across the main floor, but it was as though the building reached out to us, as if it was seeking comfort and light. The hairs on the back of my neck rose.
I followed Roth to the elevator and we rode it up to the thirteenth floor in silence.
I was all nerves as we stepped into a long hallway. Not just because we were about to be surrounded by a slew of witches of the unfriendly kind. A seedling of hope was burning bright in my chest. Maybe the crone would tell us something that changed what I believed and proved that Zayne was right.
Just as I was about to ask if we had the right place, we turned a corner and a restaurant or club came into view. The windows were tinted bronze, but I could make out several human forms sitting at tables. There was the loopy design above the double doors.
“You ready for this?” Roth asked.
He looked doubtful as he opened the doors and we stepped inside. The first thing I noticed was how normal everything was. Like totally human normal. We were stopped right in front of a hostess station. Couples sat at tables, laughing and talking. A stocked bar ran along the back, packed with people sitting and standing. Light jazz played from overhead speakers. These people didn’t look as though they’d stepped off the Goth train. I actually blended it.
“What were you expecting?” He chuckled in my ear, and I wondered if I’d spoken out loud or not.
“Haven’t you ever heard of not judging a book by its cover?” He reached down and took my hand in his and when I got all what the Hell is up with that, he tightened his grip. “Like I said, shortie. Don’t judge a book by its cover. I need you to stay close to me.”
A slender woman appeared, her hands clasped together. She wore a simple black dress cut above the knees and her hair was pulled back in an elegant chignon. “I’m sorry. We do reservations only.”
Roth smiled. “How do you know we don’t have reservations?” He glanced over at the hostess station. There was no book. “You don’t know our names.”
“I know you don’t have reservations.” Her chin rose as her cool gaze centered on us. “And I also know what both of you are. So if you want to leave this building without so much bad luck it would make the Titanic look like a Disney cruise, I suggest you leave before—”
“Rowena,” the man who came up behind her said. “They are expected. Let them through.”
We were? I glanced at Roth, but his expression was unreadable.
The woman didn’t look happy about it, but she stepped to the side. The man nodded. “Follow me. She is waiting for you.”
Well, this was only a little creepy. As we followed the man, who looked as if he was in his forties, the people—er, witches—sitting at the tables stopped what they were doing and stared. Some had forkfuls of food halfway to their mouths. Others turned around in their chairs. Out of all of their hard faces and distrusting eyes, none of them looked happy.
Suddenly Roth holding my hand wasn’t such a bad thing. Even if it made me feel like a bit of a wussy. I was trained in hand-to-hand combat—not to ward off spells and charms.
The man led us around the bar, to an area of the club that was somewhat secluded. There was only one table back here, surrounded by a large crescent-shaped couch. Several women rose from where they were sitting. Each of the women, a total of six, passed by without looking at us.
Not odd or anything.
The couch looked empty until we moved to the area that was open. Then I saw her and, holy crap, I thought the crypt keeper was sitting before us. The woman was old—like, I wasn’t quite sure how she was still alive and breathing.
Patches of snow-white hair fell down her tiny, frail shoulders. Deep wrinkles creased her face and her eyes...they were milky-white. The whole eye.
The old woman smiled and her faced was so crinkled I thought it would collapse into itself. “What did you expect?” For such an old woman, her voice was strong. “A young woman? You seek the crone, do you not?”
I found my voice. “Yes.”
“A crone is someone who is old and wise...or just old. Either way, I’ve walked this Earth for many years,” she said, lifting a small white hand, motioning us to sit down. “And this is the first time I’ve seen a Crown Prince.”
Roth sat, tugging me down beside him. “It is an honor, crone.”
She tipped her chin up. “I’ve also never thought I’d live to see a child of a Warden and our true mother, but here you are, Lilith’s own flesh and blood.”
I really had no idea what to say to that.
The crone leaned forward and I was worried she’d tip over and shatter right in front of us. Her heavily wrinkled face seemed to age even more, as though she would turn into dust at any moment. “What you fear, child, is wrong. Some evil, my children, is necessary.”
Roth slid me a look, as if he was saying I told you so. I wisely kept my mouth shut.
“I know why you two are here.” Her laugh rattled like dry bones. “I know you are here to find the Lilin.”
My heart jumped and I figured it would be best for us to be honest. “Yes. We need to find the Lilin.”
“Like, yesterday,” Roth added. “I know ya’ll love you some Lilith, but you know the chain reaction the Lilin will cause.”
“Ah, yes, the Alphas.” She waved her hands. “I’m surprised they haven’t already arrived with their mighty swords, cutting through all things they feel are not worthy of this Earth. Have you ever seen an Alpha, children?”
I shook my head. “No. I’ve been...near them, but never seen one.”
“I haven’t,” Roth replied. “Obviously.”
The crone heaved out another laugh. “No. You would not be sitting here if that was the case, would you? Ah, the Alphas. They are a threat to us all. Maybe even the humans. They see only in black and white, no shades of gray. No sympathy. They are the true monsters.”
I schooled my expression into blankness as she prattled on. The Alphas were literally the boogeyman of all things and while there was a part of me drawn to them, they also terrified me.
“Back to the Lilin,” Roth coaxed gently.
“Impatient, young Prince? You should not be.” The old crone cackled. “No Lilin has sought refuge with us, if that is what you think. There is no reason for that. You seek what is right in front of you, Prince. You know that. It’s the truth behind why you rose from Hell.”
Unease formed in my belly and the fear that was never too far away returned like a vise circling my throat. I looked at Roth and the muscle in his jaw ticked. “What do you mean?”
She turned those milky-white eyes on me. “He knows. You know. That is all I am willing to tell you. Your coming here was unnecessary. Now go.” She lifted her frail arm and waved slender, bonelike fingers at us. “I am tired and done with this conversation. Go.”
Roth didn’t give me a chance to protest. Wrapping a hand around mine, he hauled me to my feet. Then he bowed at the waist. “Blessed be.”
The crone hooted. “Silly, Prince, silly...”
His grin was cheeky as he turned, but the look in his eyes could freeze the circles of Hell. He held on to my hand as we headed around the tables and past the witches. They may have been looking at us once more as though they were about to dump a hex on our heads, but I didn’t care.
You seek what is right in front of you, Prince. You know that.
I tried to pull my hand free as the knots in my stomach tripled, but Roth tightened his hold. “Don’t, Layla.”
My breath was coming too fast—two breaths in, one breath out. I let him pull me out to the hallway and down to the elevator. As soon as we stepped inside, I pulled free and smacked the emergency button.
“What are you not telling me?” I demanded, hands curling at my sides.
Roth leaned back against the wall of the elevator. “I don’t know what would make you think that.”
“Don’t mess with me, Roth. I want to know why you really came back from Hell. What is the truth?”
“You know why I came back. To look for the Lilin,” he said, crossing his arms.
Everything in me told me there was more to this. “It seems like the crone expected us to already know who the Lilin was. Like maybe it was right in front of our faces—in front of mine. And you know what I think? I think...” My voice cracked and I looked away.
“What do you think?” he asked quietly. “Tell me, Layla.”
Our eyes met. “I don’t think there’s a Lilin, at least not one that was born successfully from the ritual with Paimon.”
He didn’t say anything as he kicked his head back against the wall. Closing his eyes, he swore under his breath and my stomach dropped.
“Roth,” I whispered.
He uncrossed his arms and rubbed his hands down his face. “It’s not simple. I don’t think you’ll understand that it’s not.”
I took two breaths. “Try me.”
Lowering his hands, he pierced me with eyes that were...that were sad, and that told me everything before he spoke. “I wasn’t around when the chains started to break and I don’t know if it happened before I was cast into the pit or during. The Boss...well, wasn’t really paying attention. We couldn’t figure it out. We knew the ritual wasn’t completed.”
I slumped against the wall, forcing my legs to hold me up. I’d asked for the truth and I needed to hear it.
“At least we didn’t think the ritual was completed, but Cayman was right. Who knows if the carnal sin was sex or just something related to it? None of us know that, but we knew something was happening up here and we knew that either a Lilin was born or...”
“Or it was me?” I asked.
Roth closed his eyes again briefly and then he nodded. “Or it was you. Those are the only two options. All of us knew that. So the Boss sent me back up to either find the Lilin or find proof that it is you.”
I pressed the heel of my hand against my chest.
“That’s why I returned to the school at first. I wasn’t convinced that the Lilin was really there, but I knew I needed to...to stick close to you, to see if you’d changed,” he continued as he pushed off the wall. He started to pace in front of me, the elevator music an odd backdrop. “I didn’t think it was you, because I know you. You may be part demon, but at your core, you’re pure. Not in the bullshit way people label things pure, but you’re inherently good.”
My heart ached, because his words reminded me so much of what Zayne believed. It appeared their undying faith in my gooey goodness was the one thing they had in common.
“But then it was other students who were infected, people who’ve all been tied to you, one way or another.” He shook his head as he passed in front of me. “And there was no proof of the Lilin. Still really isn’t anything concrete other than a cocoon. I’d hoped that the crone would point us in another direction and not confirm what I...what I feared.”
That it was me.
He stopped in front of me, his striking features strained. “From the beginning, I knew your abilities were like the Lilin’s, just slightly different. Where the Lilin can take with touch, you do so by breathing the soul in. But maybe your abilities have shifted. I don’t know, but I do believe you’re not aware of it. That you have no idea that it’s happening.”
I closed my eyes. “Does that make a difference?”