"Yeah, it's nice. What does this place have to do with anything?"
"Are you so shortsighted? Look around us. It's the perfect canvas for the first swipe of our brush."
"Meaning what?" When Malik merely gave him a droll stare, dread crept through his stomach. "You're not planning to hurt any of these people, are you?"
The Unseelie scoffed at that. "How can someone who's lived your life still be such a bleeding heart? You wandered through many a town just like this one in your days of being starved and homeless. Did a single one of those people ever offer you a hand?"
He didn't answer that. Of course, nobody had.
Instead, he shook his head. "That doesn't mean people deserve to die for others' indifference. There would be nobody left on earth if-"
"Yes, yes," the Unseelie cut him off impatiently. "I've heard it all. Even so, none of these humans are without their failings. The jogger who passed us is cheating on his wife. The couple walking their dog over there closed the door in the face of a Boy Scout who was collecting cans for the local food pantry. That same Boy Scout struck another student at school just the day before, calling him names. No one is innocent, Kalen."
"This beauty you see is a mere facade. That is why I brought you here, for a simple reminder. And a second exercise toward your tutelage, as well."
"What are you planning?" he asked, trying to hide his trepidation.
"My Sluagh are coming this way. They must travel by foot, as there are too many for me and you combined to transport them magically." His eyes were snakelike, glittering and cold. "They will level this pretty little oasis and devour everyone in it-while you and I stand here and laugh over their screams."
Kalen recoiled in horror. "There is no fucking way I'm going to allow you to slaughter these people, much less help you do it."
"You will." Reaching out, the Unseelie placed his palm on Kalen's forehead. "What's more, you will enjoy every bloody second."
"Abyssus abyssum invocat."
Hell calls hell.
Their bond opened and flooded every cell, the rush of inky blackness so strong, so painful, it nearly sent him to his knees. He fought against the rising tide of evil and knew instantly he couldn't fight this battle and win-not without the strength of his mate's love on his side. Not without her scent, her closeness, her belief in him. He had no footing.
He felt the change take place in his mind, felt the slide into depravity. He couldn't halt it completely. . . . But out of desperation, he snatched an image of Mackenzie's smile, the way she looked at him when she was happy. He seized that picture and tucked it close to his mind and heart, even as the corrupted part of his soul rejoiced in the prospect of inflicting his suffering on others.
"That's it, my boy," Malik's voice said in the maelstrom. "You've been hurt so much, haven't you? You want vengeance. Let it fill you."
Breathing hard, he struggled against giving in. It was almost easier before he'd claimed Mackenzie. At least then, without the strength of her bond to rival Malik's, there had been little sense of right and wrong to tear him apart. No light to battle the darkness . . .
Light and love. This is what Sariel had meant was his only savior. But the inner battle was killing him as surely as the real war would, when the time came.
"You will watch them suffer and die."
"Yes." No! He wouldn't do it.
"Excellent," he purred in praise, rubbing Kalen's shoulder in affection. Affection he knew the Sorcerer craved more than any alcohol or drug on the planet. "They'll be here shortly. You will remain by my side through it all. By the time your commander and his dogs learn of the attack, it will be much too late."
He stared at Malik, shaking his head to clear the fog. "No! I won't-"
"You heard me, boy." The Unseelie's face hardened. "You will not fail me."
The or else went unsaid, but it rang in Kalen's ears anyway as he glared back. There was just no way he could stand by while innocent people died. No matter how strong his tie was to Malik, no matter how badly his soul called out for blood. Ignoring Malik's shout of anger, Kalen vanished, teleporting back to the compound. In his own quarters, he paced the living room, fighting to strengthen his shields and push the evil back into a remote corner of his soul. He had to keep his wits about him. Combat this thing.
He'd tell Nick. Right now.
Pushing into the corridor, he hurried to the end and turned down the one leading to Nick's office. He rapped twice and heard Nick call out for him to come in. He stepped over the threshold, closing the door.
"You look pretty serious," the commander commented, pushing aside a stack of paperwork. "What's on your mind?"
Carefully erecting his shields, he met the other man's gaze. "I just saw Malik."
Nick bolted to his feet. "Here? How did-"
"No, he's not here," Kalen assured him. "He summoned me to a town not far from Cody to tell me his Sluagh are going to attack and kill everybody there."
Lowering himself into his chair again, Nick let out a vile curse. "When?"
"Tonight?" At Kalen's nod, his expression darkened. "I've got reinforcements on the way, but they won't get here in time. We'll have to handle this on our own."
"What kind of reinforcements?"
"People I trust." He paused. "Now, where exactly is the attack taking place?"
"The-the east end of town." At that, pain lanced his temples and he gasped. Feeling dizzy, he sat in one of the guest chairs. "He ordered me not to tell you, but I couldn't just stand by and watch those poor people get murdered-oh, God."
Another blade seared his brain and the room spun. He barely registered Nick calling his name as he slumped to the floor, on his back. The commander's worried face appeared above his and he fought to make him understand.
"He . . ." A third spear of white-hot agony. Liquid ran from his nose. Blood. "Help them, Nick . . . Ahhh!"
The fourth time was too much. Writhing, he screamed as his brain was torn apart, molecule by molecule. In the distance, he heard Nick yelling.
And then there was nothing.
* * *
Mac was debating the wisdom of going to find Kalen, maybe breaking the ice, when a commotion exploded in the lobby of the infirmary.
"Get me some fuckin' help!"
Nick. Immediately she dropped the clipboard containing Sariel's chart and ran. In the hallway she almost collided with Melina, and the other woman took the lead. When they rounded the corner, her heart almost stopped.
Nick was moving toward them fast, Noah on his heels. But Mac's attention was focused on Kalen, limp in Nick's arms, head tilted back, eyes closed. Her mate's face was covered in blood. Christ, it had even run into his hair.
"First trauma room," Melina barked, gesturing them in. "What happened?"
"He collapsed in my office." Nick carefully laid his burden on the gurney and stepped back. "He was giving me some information about Malik, and this happened."
"You think the Unseelie is responsible?" Melina asked. Grabbing a penlight, she pried open a lid and shone it into one eye. Noah began taking their patient's blood pressure as Nick answered.
"Yeah. I know he is, but how is the question."
Mac spoke up, unable to hide the tremor in her voice. "My guess is he's using their bond to control Kalen. By trying to pass along information that would help you, he crossed the line."
"And now he's paying," Nick said grimly. "When I get my hands on that fucking demon, I'm going to kill him."
"You'll have to stand in line," Mac told him.
Noah piped up. "BP's normal, pulse is steady."
"Pupils are reacting normally as well," Melina put in, visibly relieved. "That's a good sign-though I'll feel better when he regains consciousness."
Suddenly Mac's throat burned with the effort it took not to cry. Her mate looked so vulnerable lying there, struck down by an unseen force. It must have taken a great well of inner strength to go against the leader of the Unseelie.
Fetching a sterile cloth, she cleaned Kalen's face. She noted he'd bled some from his ears and cleaned those as best as she could, too. His hair would have to wait until he could shower.
"He'll be all right," Melina soothed. She turned to Noah. "Let's move him to a room and keep him monitored until he wakes up."
Mac jumped to help the nurse and together they rolled his gurney into a private room. Noah assisted her in undressing him, stripping him down to his briefs. As they got him into a gown, she tried not to stare at her lover's perfect, lean body. But thinking of what he was going through sobered her quick enough.
As she stroked Kalen's hair, Noah slipped from the room. For several minutes she simply stood by him, painfully aware that she could've lost him. For the whim of an evil bastard, he could be dead right now. And she never would've been able to make up with her . . . mate.
"My mate," she whispered, tracing the line of his jaw. His lips.
She had a mate.
And if Kalen would give her another chance, she'd start being a real one to him.
Sprawled in one of the infirmary's uncomfortable vinyl chairs, Mac made a mental note to hit up Melina to order better ones. Not that her request would lead anywhere. The other doc was so tight with their budget she could make it squeal for mercy.
A small movement from the bed interrupted her musings and she sat up, scooting closer to Kalen's side. There was rapid twitching behind his eyelids and he moaned, started to thrash a little, maybe facing down an enemy in his nightmares.
"Kalen?" She touched his arm, watchful of any sudden moves. Patients who'd been through bad experiences could be violent upon waking-and she had extra reason to be cautious. "Hey, come back to me."
"M-Mac?" Licking his lips, he blinked slowly, trying to focus on her face.
She had to smile. "That's the first time you've ever called me by my nickname."
"I know, honey." She cupped his face, unable to get close enough. "You gave us quite a scare."
"You don't remember? Nick says you collapsed in his office. You were telling him about the attack Malik planned on a small town outside Cody."
For a few seconds, he seemed to slowly process this, baffled, as though she wasn't speaking his language. Then a look of horror bloomed on his face as he tried to sit up. "God, the attack! How long have I been here? Has it happened already? Where's-"
"Slow down," she said, pushing him back gently, attempting to calm him. "You've been unconscious for about four hours. Nick sent a couple of the guys ahead to scout the area you told him about, but don't worry. They're going in quiet, looking to see where Malik and his Sluagh are before they bring in the rest of the team."
"I'm going with them," he said firmly.
"As one of your doctors, I strongly advise against any rigorous activity until tomorrow, at least. That includes battling the ugly Unseelie minions."
"Doc, I'm not asking. I'm telling you I'm getting out of this bed and leaving." With that, he sat up and began yanking at his IV.
"Stop!" She swatted his hand away. "You're going to hurt yourself. Let me get Melina and we'll discuss your options."
"No. I'm outta here. You can remove the IV or I'll rip it out. Your choice."
"Wait a second," she entreated. Waving a hand to encompass the room, she tried a different argument. "This is what Malik is capable of doing to you for telling his secrets. How bad will it be if you actually show up and fight against him?"