“Did you ever see anything on the hybrids there? Like a weird black stone that looked like it had fire inside it?”

His brows knitted. “None of mine made it except Beth. They didn’t have anything like that on them. I never saw the others.”

Terrible… It was just terrible.

I swallowed thickly, but my throat felt tight. A soft breeze stirred the lake, and a wave rippled from one bank to the next. Like a shock wave…

“Guys?” Daemon called, and we turned. “Are you ready?”

Were we ready to step into the house of pain? Uh, no. But we walked over to them. Daemon stood, holding a circular piece of onyx in his gloved hand.

He turned to Blake. “This is your show.”

Blake took a deep breath and nodded. “I think the first thing to test out is if I do have a tolerance to onyx. If I do, then that gives us a starting point, right? At least then we know that we can build up a tolerance.”

Across from him, Daemon glanced down at the onyx he held and shrugged. Without preamble, he shot forward, placing the onyx against Blake’s cheek.

My jaw hit the ground.

Matthew stepped back. “God.”

Beside me, Dawson laughed under his breath.

But nothing happened for several moments. Finally, Blake knocked the onyx away, his nostrils flaring. “What the hell?”

Disappointed, Daemon tossed the rock in the pile. “Well, apparently you have a tolerance to onyx and here I was hoping you didn’t.”

I clamped my hand over my mouth, stifling a giggle. He was such an asshole, and I loved him.

Blake stared. “What if I didn’t have a tolerance to it? Good God, I kind of wanted to prepare myself for that.”

“I know.” Daemon smirked.

Matthew shook his head. “Okay, back on track, boys. How do you suggest doing this?”

Stalking over to the pile of onyx, Blake picked one up. There was a slight ripple of unease this time, but he held on. “I suggest Daemon goes first. We hold it to the skin until you drop. No longer.”

“Oh, dear Lord,” I muttered.

Daemon took off his gloves and held out his arms. “Bring it.”

There wasn’t a moment of hesitation. Blake stepped forward and pressed that onyx against Daemon’s palm. Immediately, his face contorted and he appeared to try to step back, but the onyx held him in place. A tremor started in his arm and traveled through his body.

Dawson and I both stepped forward. Neither of us could help it. Standing here, watching the pain harshen his beautiful face, was too much. Panic shot through me.

But then Blake pulled back and Daemon dropped to his knees, slamming his hands onto the ground before him. “Crap…”

I rushed forward, touching his shoulders. “Are you okay?”

“He’s fine,” Blake said, placing the onyx on the ground. His right hand shook as our eyes met. “It started to burn. There must be a limit to my tolerance…”

Daemon stood unsteadily, and I followed. “I’m okay.” Then he said to his brother, who was eyeballing Blake like he wanted to toss him through a window, “I’m fine, Dawson.”

“How do we know this will work?” Matthew demanded. “Touching onyx is completely different than being sprayed all over with it.”

“I’ve walked out of those doors before and nothing happened. And it’s not like they’ve sprayed onyx in my face before. This has to be it.”

I remembered how he said everything he touched had been encased in the shiny jewel. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

Daemon opened his mouth, but I cut him off with a glare. He wasn’t going to talk me out of this.

Picking up a glove, Blake handled the onyx differently now. He didn’t come to me but to Matthew. The same thing happened with the older Luxen. He was on his knees, gasping for air, and then it was Dawson’s turn.

It took a little longer for him, which made sense. He’d been exposed to the spray like me and had been tortured by the stuff off and on. But after about ten seconds, he went down and his brother massacred the English language.

Then it was my turn.

Squaring my shoulders, I nodded. I was ready for this, wasn’t I? Heck no. Who was I fooling? This was going to hurt.

Blake winced and moved forward, but Daemon stopped him. Using the glove, he took the onyx from him and stood in front of me.

“No,” I said. “I don’t want you to do this.”

The determined set to his jaw infuriated me. “I’m not letting him do it.”

“Then let someone else do it.” There was no way he could be the one who placed the onyx on me. “Please.” Daemon shook his head, and I wanted to punch him. “This isn’t right.”

“It’s either me or no one.”

And then I understood. He was trying to get his way. Taking a breath, I met him head-on. “Do it.”

Surprise flickered in his bottle-green eyes and then anger deepened them. “I hate this,” he said, loudly enough for only me to hear.

“I do, too.” Anxiety climbed up my throat. “Just do it.”

He didn’t look away, but I could tell he wanted to. Whatever pain I knew I was about to feel would be symbiotic. He would feel it—not the physical, but the anguish would travel to him, as if it were his own. It was the same when Daemon was in pain.

I closed my eyes, thinking that would help him. It seemed to, because maybe ten seconds later, I felt the coolness of the onyx against my hand and the roughness of his glove. Nothing happened immediately, but then it did.

A rapidly growing burn traveled across my hand and then shot up my arm. A thousand tiny pricks of pain radiated across my body. I bit down on my lip, stifling my scream. It didn’t take long after that before I hit the ground, gulping in air as I waited for the burn to ease off.

My body shuddered. “All right… Okay… Not too bad.”

“Bull,” Daemon said, hauling me onto my feet. “Kat—”

I tugged free, taking more deep breaths. “Really, I’m okay. We need to keep going.”

Daemon looked like he wanted to toss me over his shoulder and run off like a caveman, but we moved on. Over and over again, each of us touched the onyx, holding on until our body refused to cooperate. None of us increased in time, but we were just getting started.

“It’s like getting hit with a Taser,” Matthew said as he dropped a sheet of plywood over the onyx, then placed two heavy rocks on the board. It was late and all of us were twitchy. Even Blake. “Not that I’ve ever been Tased, but I image that’s how it feels.”

I wondered if there’d be any long-term effects from this. Like messed-up heart rhythms or post-traumatic stress. The one good thing that came out of this was that between the mind-blowing pain and watching other people succumb to it, I really hadn’t been capable of thinking about anything else.

As we finished up and began to limp back to the house, Blake slowed down until he was beside me. “I’m sorry,” he said.

I said nothing.

He shoved his hands into his jeans. “I liked Carissa. I wish…”

“If wishes were fishes, we’d all throw nets, right? Isn’t that what they say?” Bitterness sharpened my tone.

“Yeah, that’s what they say.” He paused. “Things are gonna get crazy at school.”

“Why do you care? You’re going to leave as soon as you get Chris. You’ll just be another one of those kids who vanished into thin air.”

He stopped, head cocked to the side. “I would stay if I could. I can’t, though.”

Frowning, I glanced ahead. Daemon had slowed down, no doubt doing his best not to physically put more distance between Blake and me. For a second, I considered asking Blake about the stone. He’d have to know, since he worked for Daedalus—still did. But it was too tricky. Blake claimed to be playing double agent. Key word: claimed.

I wrapped my arms around my waist. Overhead, the branches cracked against one another like a low, steady drum.

“I would stay,” he said again, placing a hand on my shoulder. “I—”

Daemon was there in an instant, prying Blake’s fingers off my shoulder. “Don’t touch her.”

Blake paled as he pulled his hand free and stepped back. “Dude, I wasn’t doing anything. Overprotective much?”

Implanting himself in between us, Daemon said, “I thought we had an understanding. You’re here because we don’t have a choice. You’re still alive because she is better than me. You’re not here to comfort her. Got that?”

Blake’s jaw popped. “Whatever. I’ll see you guys later.”

I watched Blake stalk past Matthew and Dawson. “That was a little overprotective.”

“I don’t like him touching you,” he growled. His eyes started doing that glowing-orb thing. “I don’t like him even being in the same time zone as you. I don’t trust him.”

Rising up, I kissed Daemon’s cheek. “No one trusts him, but you can’t threaten him every five seconds.”

“Yes, I can.”

I laughed and stepped in, wrapping my arms around his waist. Under my cheek, his heart beat steadily. His hands slid down my back as his head bent close to mine. “Do you really want to do more days like this?” he asked. “An endless stretch of days filled with pain?”

It wasn’t on the top of my to-do list. “It serves a pretty good distraction, and I need that right now.”

I expected him to argue, but he didn’t. Instead, he kissed the top of my head. We stood like that for a little while. When we pulled apart, Dawson and Matthew were gone. Moonlight started to peek through the branches. Holding hands, we walked back to our houses, and he went to his to clean up.

My house was dark and silent, and as I stood at the base of the stairs, I struggled to breathe. I couldn’t be afraid of my bedroom. That was just stupid. I placed my hand on the banister and took one step.

Muscles locked up.

It was just a bedroom. I couldn’t sleep on the couch forever, and I couldn’t run in and out of my bedroom as if an Arum were chasing me.

Each step up was a fight when my natural response was to turn and run in the opposite direction, but I continued until I stood in the doorway, my hands clasped under my chin.

Daemon and Dee had cleaned up everything like they said. My bed was made. Clothing put away and all the papers were stacked on my desk. My destroyed laptop was gone. And there was a neat little circular rug over the spot Carissa had stood. It was a muted, soft brown. Daemon knew I wasn’t big on flashy color, not like Dee. Other than that, the room looked normal.

Holding my breath, I forced myself to go in. I moved around, picking up books and placing them back in the order I had them in, keeping my mind blank. Sometime later, I changed into an old shirt and knee-high socks, then I tunneled under the blankets and rolled onto my side.

Beyond my bedroom window, scattered stars broke up the dark blue of the sky. One fell, leaving a short stream of light behind as it crashed to Earth. Curling my fingers around the blanket, I wondered if it were a falling star or something else. All the Luxen were here, weren’t they?