He’s finally dead.

For one half heartbeat, Caleb rejoiced.

Until he realized that he was still being summoned by his master.

Crap. It lives.…

Disgusted with his luck, Caleb followed the sensation until he reached the R. E. Barrow Jr. Treatment Center, where inmates went for medical care. Returning to his human form, he flashed himself into the building and stayed invisible as he searched for his master.

He knew he’d found Adarian when he came to the most secured room in the facility. Something that was really laughable since Adarian could get in and out of the building as easily as Caleb did.

Without slowing, he walked through the guarded door and into the sparsely furnished room where Adarian was strapped down by all fours to the hospital bed.… Yeah, right. That would really stop Adarian if he wanted to kill someone.

But that being said, Adarian looked awful. The elder Malachai was pale and gaunt in appearance. Weak. Caleb had never seen him like this. Adarian even had a bandage over his head and dark, deep bruises covered his exposed skin.

Yet that wasn’t what stunned Caleb the most. It was the color of the blood that seeped through Adarian’s gauze dressing.

Dark red. That could mean only one thing.…

“Are you dying?”

Adarian curled his lip at Caleb’s stupid and obvious question. “Take the joy from your tone, slave. I’m not dead yet and I still have enough power to end your pathetic existence.” But the death rattle in his chest mocked that threat.

Caleb moved closer to the bed to examine the numerous wounds marring Adarian’s body. “What happened?”

His breathing labored, he licked his dry, cracked lips. “Riot. At first, it strengthened me. Then…” He lifted his strapped hand to show his bleeding skin. “What is going on, Malphas? I should not be weakening while the humans are fighting each other here. I should be growing stronger than ever. How can this be?”

Caleb had no idea why Adarian would be losing power like this. In the past, it’d always been simple. The elder retained his full strength until the younger Malachai came into his own. Then the younger would confront his father and drain him. Once the elder was weak enough, the younger killed him and assumed his rightful place as the sole Malachai.

A perfect blood exchange and inheritance.

Well, not perfect if you were the Malachai who died.…

But Nick hadn’t been near his father since Adarian had gone to Nick’s hospital room and tried to kill him first and absorb Nick’s fledgling powers before Nick learned how to kill him.

“Was it a demon that attacked you?” Caleb asked, thinking it was one of the many predators pursuing Adarian who’d landed a lucky shot on the beast.

“Human, of all disgusting things. I was wounded by a mere mortal!” He had a right to be indignant. Caleb would be highly offended, too, had a lowly human reduced him to Adarian’s current state.

Adarian’s jaw quivered. “Find whatever has done this to me and kill it.”

“And if it’s Nick?”

“Bring him here so I can kill him myself.”

Ah, paternal love …

How he loathed it. Like Nick, he’d never known what it was like to have a real father. His father had plotted against him and used him just like Adarian had done with Nick. But one point in his father’s favor, the bastard hadn’t tried to kill him.

Yet.

“I’m running out of time, Malphas. Do not betray me in this. Know that if something kills me, you will not be freed.”

Caleb scoffed. “That’s not the way it works.”

Adarian laughed cruelly. “It is when you bargain for it.” He glared smugly at Caleb. “I know your ilk, and I know you wouldn’t lift a finger to save me unless your own ass was on the line, too. So I have tied your geist to mine. Whoever takes my powers takes your servitude with them. Forever.”

Caleb cursed as that cold, brutal reality racked him. Only the Malachai had the ability to bond demon geists. It wasn’t easy, but …

“I have no way to gain my freedom? Ever?” he snarled at Adarian.

“You can only control who holds your leash.”

Well, wasn’t this all hunky-dory? Just what he wanted to hear. It ranked right up there with Sorry, you were accidentally turned into a eunuch while you slept.…

In that one moment, he wanted to kill Adarian more than he ever had before. But the laws of his people would drain his own powers and kill him if he even attempted it. And if he died in bondage, his geist would be trapped in a grisly nether realm where he would never have any kind of peace or rest whatsoever.

Eternal hell that made mockery of the one mortals feared.

Impotent rage clouded his vision. “I hate you.”

Adarian closed his eyes as if he savored those words, and why shouldn’t he? Caleb’s hatred only fueled Adarian’s power and made him stronger.

After a second, he opened his eyes to glare at him. “Go, Malphas. Find my attacker.”

“As you will it, my burning external hemorrhoid.” Caleb withdrew as fast as he could before his hatred fed Adarian more. He didn’t want to do anything for the beast he didn’t have to.

How did I become this pathetic a wretch?

His fury and grief mixed inside him as he remembered the fierce, undefeated demon he used to be. Gods, how he despised his memories. All they did was show him the mistakes he’d made. The faces of the past that haunted him to the point he could no longer sleep through any given night.

Before he could stop himself, he manifested his most prized possession into his palm. An ancient gold locket, it contained a single precious lock of white-blond hair that he hadn’t seen in centuries. He was too afraid to open the locket and chance losing his last link to the only thing that he’d ever deemed valuable. Tears welled in his eyes as he ran his finger over the engraving on the outside that was written in his native language.…

Teria assim.

Forever yours.

In his mind, he saw the most perfect human woman who had ever been born. Gentle and kind, she had turned him from an instrument of absolute destruction into a noble hero who had been willing to risk everything to save her race and protect them all, no matter the personal cost. When every living creature had been out to take his life and had driven him mad with his need to survive and conquer them, she had tamed him with her tenderest touch. She had never once seen him as a rabid monster to be destroyed or enslaved.

While others had feared and cursed him, she had reached out and offered him innocent friendship. In all the centuries he’d existed, she alone had loved him. And the agony of her loss was every bit as profound and cutting now as it had been the moment she’d drawn her last breath in his arms.

I would give anything to have one more moment with you.… To smell the sunshine on your skin …

Hear my name on your precious lips.

“I miss you so much, Lilliana,” he breathed, his voice breaking with the weight of his pain.

He had lived solely for her beautiful smile.

And she had died protecting his worthless life.

The injustice of it was enough to drive him insane. But the gods wouldn’t allow him even the comfort of madness to escape this hell he was trapped in. And he was no longer the creature who had loved her to distraction. She had taken his nobility and love with her into eternity, and left him forever bereft and aching for her.

I am sorrow.

My name is Hatred.

Disease.

Wrath.

A single tear slid down his cheek.

Infuriated by that weakness, he wiped it away so hard that he bruised his skin. The searing pain brought him back to the present and to the task Adarian had given him. The elder Malachai was about to die, and since Caleb didn’t know what was killing him, he had no idea who his next master would be.

But the one thing he could guarantee, who or whatever was coming for Adarian wouldn’t hesitate to use and abuse both Caleb’s physical being and his powers. And as bad as Adarian was, for the most part he had left Caleb alone.

His next master might not be so neglectful.

A tic started in his jaw. Slavery sucked for anyone, but for demons it was so much worse. If their masters wanted to torture them, they couldn’t even die and escape it. And most everything that knew how to enslave demonkyn possessed a cruel streak that made the Marquis de Sade look like a Buddhist monk flower child.

Grinding his teeth, he used his powers to return Lilliana’s locket to his room where it would be safe from harm or loss. His hand turned cold immediately from the sudden emptiness, and the hole in his heart ached all the more.

When he’d looked into her kind, blue eyes, he’d seen a future with her by his side forever.

Instead of an eternity of happiness and love, he’d only been granted three precious years with her. Or more precisely, twelve hundred and four days.

A mere blip on eternity.

Closing his eyes, he tried to forget that her life had been the only thing he had ever begged for.

But even now, he could see himself covered with her blood as he screamed out for his father to help him. For someone, anyone he’d served to breathe life back into the only person who had ever made him feel whole. Needed.

Loved.

His precious Lilliana had lived and she had perished by her convictions.

… Damned is the soul that dies while the evil it committed lives on. And the most damned of all are those who see the evil coming for others and refuse to confront it. For it is not out of fear that heroes are born, but rather out of their selfless love that will not allow them safety bought from the torture, death, and degradation of others. It is better to die in defense of another than to live with the knowledge that you could have saved them but chose to do nothing.

And to those who think that one person cannot make a difference, I say this … the deadliest tidal wave begins as an unseen ripple in a vast ocean. Live your life so that your integrity will motivate others to strive for excellence long after you’ve passed on, and know that no good deed or sacrifice, or offer of sincere friendship or love, is ever forgotten by the one who receives it.

Lilliana’s words haunted him. She had taught him that it was far better to be alone than to be surrounded by people who were morally bankrupt. People who sought to bring him down with jealous words and barbs they couched in humor, thinking he was too stupid to recognize the insults they thought they’d so cleverly hidden.

He’d given up his lead role as a fierce, conquering warlord to live in a tiny hut where Lilliana had made him the king of her small, precious world. And she had been right. He had never, for even one nanosecond, forgotten the warmth of her love that had taught his dead heart how to beat.

To this day, even though he hated it, he still strove to be the man she’d seen him as.

Yeah, he understood exactly the brutal cold hatred the first Malachai had borne for his mother over the death of his wife and child. It was the same hatred he bore for his own father, who had ignored his pleas to spare Lilliana’s life. To take his life in exchange for hers.

How could you, you worthless bastard, when you knew full well that she was all I had?

His nostrils flared as more anger filled him.

Stop, Malphas. Don’t think about it. There was nothing he could do to change the past.

It was the future he needed to focus on. That was the only thing he could alter.

Whoever was killing the Malachai was an evil force to be feared. And if they could kill Adarian while he was in a place where nothing other than Nick should be able to weaken him, then they would be able to control Nick, too.

That was truly chilling.

While Caleb might not like this world he was forced to live in, he knew how much worse it would be in the hands of something that powerful, and he would not dishonor his wife’s memory by putting his hands in his pockets and turning away from the battle to come.

Not when he knew how to fight and how to win.

This wasn’t about following the orders he’d been given. It wasn’t about saving his own worthless existence … he was already in hell. It was about doing what was right.

Fighting for those who couldn’t fight for themselves.

Adarian was lost to his hatred and there was nothing Caleb could do to salvage him.

But Nick …

Hope is that tiny light that the gods have given us so that we can find our way through our darkest hours. And while we might stub our toes and bruise our knees, if we keep moving forward, even when our progress is slow and painful, we will overcome and be made better by our journey.… No misery or bad situation is ever infinite or final until we make a conscious decision for it to be so.

Caleb had scoffed at Lilliana’s naive idealism. So basically what you’re telling me, little one, is that hope is a human’s way of flipping off the gods and saying “ha, ha, you lose and I have no intention of quitting?” Take it from someone with a lot of personal experience, they tend to react badly when you do that.



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