Kalen complied without comment and waited.
"Tell me exactly what happened before you were compelled to set Beryl free. Don't leave anything out."
That was not a scene he'd wanted to revisit. Ever.
But the steely look in Nick's deep blue eyes said that Kalen wasn't getting out of telling the truth. He took a deep breath. "I was in my quarters about an hour ago and the bastard started prying into my head again." They both knew the bastard he was referring to was Malik. "He told me that he'd never abandon me as everyone else in my life has done."
"Smart," he said, an edge of disgust to his tone. "He's isolating the vulnerable cub from the pack, playing the doting mentor."
"I'm not a cub." His youth was a sore spot. Always had been, ever since he'd been kicked out of the house at the age of fourteen. A lifetime ago, it seemed. He'd had to scrabble, suffer, for every morsel that eased the hunger in his belly. For every night not spent in a dirty alley under a cardboard box.
He didn't feel twenty-three-he must be a hundred.
"Trust me, you are, despite all that power the Unseelie asshole is attempting to harness in you. I don't say that as an insult," he said seriously. "What I mean is that in you, Malik has found a young, extremely powerful Sorcerer on the cusp of becoming all he is meant to be. As strong as you are, Kalen, you're nowhere near the level you'll be in a few years, then a few decades. With you, it's like when the very first coach ever saw Michael Jordan in action and said, 'My God, that kid is going to be the greatest player in the NBA one day.'"
In spite of himself, Kalen snorted a laugh. "What a comparison."
"But true. The Unseelie king knows you're a rising star and he wants you on his team. I can't let that happen. Do you understand?"
You're going to be the greatest Sorcerer the world has ever known, your power beyond comprehension. And that means there are those who would seek to control that power, or take it from you altogether.
A lump lodged in his throat at the memory of his grandmother's ghostly prediction, and he pushed it away. "Do you want me to leave after all? Or are you just going to take me out now and be done with it?"
"Just finish telling me how Malik manipulated you earlier."
It didn't escape his notice that Nick hadn't answered the question. "He promised me power, told me all I had to do to get it was surrender to him. He was . . . very seductive."
"In a sexual way?"
Kalen felt sick, and fought it down. "Yeah. The bastard touched me, and suddenly I wanted everything he was selling. God, Nick," he choked out. "What's wrong with me?"
Once a whore, always a whore, my pet. Malik's smug voice intruded into his head. Don't forget you belong to me.
Kalen shoved the Unseelie out with great effort.
The commander pushed from his desk and walked over to stand by Kalen's chair, gripping his shoulder. "There's not a damned thing wrong with you. Like the rest of us, you're trying to get a foothold on fighting the Unseelie, only for you it's worse because he's taken a personal interest in recruiting you. That means he'll stop at nothing to get what he wants. Creatures like him wield seduction like a weapon."
"I know. Just like I know him messing with me was nothing but a mindfuck, but that doesn't make it better."
"A mindfuck? How so?" Nick retreated to park his butt on the desk again.
"He sent Beryl to me in my room, or the illusion of her since she was still locked up, and by then I was lost," he said miserably. "She seduced me, but when it was over, she just vanished. And here's the weird part-I was still dressed and I wasn't even fully hard. No evidence of sex at all. It was so real at the time, and yet it never happened! I'm losing my fucking mind."
Burying his hands in his hair, he held on as though he could keep his scrambled brains inside. "I called him Master, and I liked his approval. No, I wallowed in it and would've done anything right then to please him. So I guess you're right about the cub thing, huh?"
"Jesus Christ." Nick's gaze pierced him to the core. "Then what happened?"
Kalen lowered his hands to his lap, fists clenched. "He told me to let Beryl out of her cell. He said she had a task to perform before she left and that she was never meant to stay with us. I didn't know he meant for her to die, but I should have. Then I let her out, took her up to the ground level, where she attacked Sariel. Rowan and Aric went after her, and Aric killed her."
The commander fell silent for so long, fear balled in Kalen's gut. Finally he gathered his courage and asked once more.
"Are you going to kill me?"
"Would you submit if I said yes?"
Kalen nodded, the bottom falling out of his stomach. "Yes, I would."
"Why?" Nick cocked his head.
"Because you're a PreCog and that means you can sometimes see the future. On top of that, you're the commander and a good, fair man. So if the future is better without me in it, if my death will keep the Pack and other innocents safe . . ." He couldn't finish.
"On your knees, Sorcerer."
The commander's tone was cold, his blue eyes like the Arctic North. Legs shaking, Kalen slid from his seat and knelt on the stubby carpet. Placed his hands on his jeans-clad thighs and stared at his polished black fingernails digging in painfully. His heart thundered in his chest, threatening to break his sternum.
Then Nick walked around his desk and opened a top drawer. Reached in and lifted out the biggest fucking hand cannon Kalen had ever seen. The spit dried up in his mouth and he watched numbly as the Alpha wolf approached, went to stand behind him.
The hard muzzle of the gun pressed to the back of his head. So he'd die on his knees, execution-style. Quick and painless.
Oh, God. Take my soul before Malik can claim it, and look after Mackenzie, too. That's all I ask.
"I'm sorry, kid."
Kalen squeezed his eyes shut. Time crawled to a standstill.
The crack of a gunshot split the air.
Lightning before the storm.
* * *
Mackenzie pushed an errant lock of curly dark hair behind her ear and looked up from the paperwork on her desk to see Noah standing there. The cute blond nurse was wearing a pleased expression as he hovered in the doorway to her office.
"Blue's finally awake," he said, referring to Sariel. "Blue" was the name all of the staff at the compound had called the Fae prince, due to his long, gorgeous blue hair and matching wings. The Fae had eventually revealed his real name to Kira, Jaxon Law's mate. Kira had proved to be a godsend in the ensuing months, working with the creatures in Block R, or the Rehabilitation unit, where Sariel used to be housed.
"That's great news!" She smiled at Noah. "Does Dr. Mallory know?" Melina Mallory was her colleague and a damned fine doctor. Mac counted her as a friend, but the woman also ruled the roost in the infirmary as well as in their research on shifters and other paranormal beings.
"She's with him now. All his vitals are looking good-well, at least for what we know about faeries, anyhow. The prince has got some color back in his face, but he's still refusing to eat. I wouldn't be worried because it's not surprising that a patient wouldn't be hungry after being severely wounded, except Blue hasn't been eating well since he's been at the compound."
"We need to keep an eye on that," she said worriedly. "If his weight drops so much as another ounce, I want to know."
"You bet," Noah said. Some of his natural cheer returned. "But he's back with us and that's what counts."
"Yes, it is." Standing, she stretched. "Go and tell Blue I'll check on him in a short while. I've got a couple of things to do first."
With that, the nurse was gone. Mac couldn't help but be fond of the guy. Noah was a bundle of energy. He lived at the compound, loved his job, and rarely took any time off. He was in his element taking care of wounded Pack members, who were frequently injured in the course of battling rogue paranormals. He'd also started working with Kira and Sariel, rehabbing the innocent creatures like Chup-Chup, the resident gremlin, and even the prince himself, who had no one else to help them adjust in what was, to them, a strange world.
Noah was adorable, and fantastic at what he did.
After straightening her papers, she walked out of her office and down the corridor past the exam rooms, in the opposite direction of the patients' rooms. She headed toward the lobby of the infirmary, past the receptionist, and into the main hallway leading to the rest of the compound.
Only when she was alone did she reach up to touch the pendant hanging around her neck from its long chain. The weight of the disk was solid, comforting. She could feel the raised ridges that formed the pentagram within the circle, and the pendant seemed to warm in her hand. Almost as though it were seeking to reassure her that it would always do what Kalen had said-protect her from all evil.
Including Malik. The Unseelie slime had sent a Sluagh to attack her and Kalen in town a few weeks ago, and Mac had been scratched by the beast. This had somehow allowed Malik a portal into her mind, and the bastard had truly frightened her. Kalen had promptly given his beloved amulet to Mac, his sole possession of any sentimental value. The enchanted protection his grandmother had given to him was now Mac's.
Oh, but Kalen had shared so much more than that. Her footsteps faltered and she halted, remembering.
Breathy moans and tangled sheets. Messy black hair falling over his kohl-rimmed green eyes as he moved over her. Thrusting, possessing.
And then it was over and he'd pulled into his isolated shell, claiming there could be nothing between them. He'd given her the pendant, made her promise never to remove it, and then put miles of emotional distance between them. They might as well be living on different planets, the chasm was so great.
A loud crack startled Mac, making her jump. The noise echoed down the corridor and, as it faded, she realized what the sound had been.
Heart thundering, she took off in the direction of the noise. Kalen had used his Sorcerer's power to ward the compound against intruders, but perhaps a Sluagh or some other creature had gotten inside? Or maybe one of the creatures from Block R had become feral?
But no, the sound took her past Rehab, past the wings where the staff living quarters were located. Men from the Pack bolted from their rooms, came from every direction, rushed past her. She ran, at last realizing they were heading for Nick's office. She couldn't imagine what terrible thing could have happened.
Until she saw Nick standing like a statue over Kalen's prone body, a smoking gun in his hand.
Then Mac's eyes rolled up in her head and she saw nothing more.
* * *
I'm not shot. Holy fuck, I'm alive.
Kalen stared at the burned spot in the carpet right next to his leg for about five seconds before he slumped to the floor. His body simply refused to cooperate any longer, and he lay there in shock, hardly believing he was breathing.
"I had to know if you'd go through with it," Nick said quietly. "I'm sorry."
"Fucking hell," he croaked.
"Your last thought was for the safety of others, not yourself. You were willing to die for the greater good of everyone else, and that means Malik hasn't won. You're a good man at the core, and so there's hope."
"Nick, am I fighting this battle just to die anyway?" It was a question he'd asked before, and he received the same answer.
"I don't know."
"And you wouldn't tell me even if you could."
God, what a screwed-up mess. He wasn't sure how he would've responded, but the sound of footsteps, voices raised in concern, floated from the corridor. Kalen let out a deep sigh, humiliated that the guys, plus Rowan, were here to witness this and learn about Nick's little "test" of his worthiness.