“I know it has, lirsha.” He scooted toward her, slowly, and with every inch, she felt panic rise. “But now it’s making sense. You weren’t his intended victim. He didn’t kill your mom to torment you. He killed her after tormenting her for years.”
“Years? No. That couldn’t be.” She frowned, because actually, what he said made sense. Everyone who’d known her said she’d had goals, a good life, and then she started doing drugs. Tayla remembered how she would talk about getting rid of her demons . . .
They’d been real. The demons had been real, and no one had believed her.
“She’d get clean for a while, and then relapse, going off about demons, how her nightmares had started again. He must have come to her during the times when she was clean, and he drove her back to the drugs.”
“When did she start using?”
“I’m not sure . . .” Before her grandma died, she’d told Tayla that everything happened at once. Her mom had dropped out of college in the middle of a nervous breakdown everyone assumed had come as a result of stress, drugs, and an unexpected pregnancy . . . “Oh, God. God, no.”
“Yep.” Shade’s mouth tightened in a grim line as he connected a unit of blood to Eidolon’s IV line.
“There’s only one reason E would have turned into a Soulshredder, Tayla.”
Cramps twisted her insides, threatened to double her over. “Because he sensed it in me,” she said hoarsely.
Eidolon inclined his head. “The demon who killed your mother—”
“Was my father.”
Eidolon rubbed his cheek where the markings had been. “That’s why you can see scars no one else can. Shredders can see old injuries, even if they’ve healed. They find weaknesses and exploit them.”
Wraith shot her a look of sympathy she could see through the veil of darkness that started to descend.
“Dude, and I thought I was f**ked up.”
“You are, dumbass.” Shade hung the bag of blood from a dresser knob as she backed toward the door. She had no idea where she was going, just that she needed to get out of this room that kept growing smaller with every passing second.
“I, uh, I need some air.” She darted out the door and down the hall, ignoring Eidolon’s shouts for her to come back. The sound of footsteps behind her only spurred her faster, and before she knew it, she was running barefoot along the maze of hallways that made up the top floor of the high-rise building.
“Tayla!” Shade’s voice echoed after her, distant, but not distant enough. Panic had reached up and taken her by the throat, and right now she just needed to be alone.
She darted down the fire escape stairs and kept going once she hit the lobby. People stared, but she didn’t care. The doorman opened the doors for her, and she flew out of the building and into the rainsoaked daylight.
The cool spring shower did nothing to ease her fevered thoughts even as it saturated her to the bone. People dressed in business attire and outfitted with umbrellas gave her a wide berth, no doubt seeing a crazy, homeless waif with tangled hair, hole-ridden jeans, and no shoes.
She didn’t give a crap.
The Soulshredder that killed my mother was my father. The words screamed through her head. She clamped her hands over her ears, as if that would block them out, but it only made them echo more violently off the inside of her skull.
A massive sob escaped her, and she did the only thing she could.
If nervous energy could be harnessed, Eidolon would have lit up Manhattan with his pacing. Shade and Wraith had gone in search of Tayla, and now, fifteen minutes later, there was no word. He’d stayed behind in case she returned, but he didn’t know how much longer he could stand doing nothing but wait.
The front door flew open, and Shade, dripping wet, burst inside. “She’s gone. Wraith is tracking her, but I have a feeling that if she doesn’t want to be found, she won’t be.”
Pain struck him like a blow, worse than anything Tayla could do to him if she tried. “I have to find her. If her demon half rears up, she could be incapacitated. And if The Aegis catches her . . . I have to go.” He grabbed a jacket from his closet. “Call Gem. She said she can sense Tayla—”
“E.” Shade grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. “Give her some space. She just found out her sire is a species that makes Cruenti go to ground.”
“Why do you care?”
“Because you do.”
In a moment of tense silence, Eidolon let the words sink in. He did care for Tayla, and he might as well stop denying it. “Is it that obvious?”
“Ah, you’re kidding, right? She’s the enemy, she blew up the hospital, got Yuri killed . . . yet you moved her in with you. I’m thinking all that means you care. A lot more than you should.” He dropped his hands and leveled a hard look at Eidolon. “That said, she could have taken you out a couple of times, but instead, she called me to help. She might not be a total wench.”
“She’s not.” The night they’d shared came back to him in slow motion. He’d f**ked a lot of females, but he’d never once made love to one.
He’d made love to Tayla over and over.
“Shit,” Shade muttered. “Don’t do it. Don’t bond with her. E? You hear me? She’s a slayer—”
Curses fell out of Shade’s mouth, creative ones Eidolon had never used. “You know our blood is toxic to humans.”
“She’s half-demon. She could survive the ritual.”
“It’s dangerous enough to make a demon your mate, but someone trained to kill you? Twenty years from now, when she decides she wants a divorce—”
“That’ll be my concern. Not yours.”
Shade stared at him for a long moment. “If I wanted to take a mate, would you be worried?”
“Damn straight. But only because of your curse.” A curse that would doom Shade to a fate worse than death if he ever fell in love. “My situation is different. A lot different.”
Shade shook his head in exasperation. “Fine. Whatever. You bitch about Wraith being so stubborn, but you make him look like an amateur.”
The phone rang, and Shade grabbed it. He listened for a moment, then hung up. “We need to get to the hospital.” His sinister grin matched the evil glint in his eye. “Paige just woke up from her coma.”
It was a monster with a hundred eyes. Some had been smashed, others were so clouded they couldn’t be used. The thing stared at Tayla through the rain and fog, mocking her with its silence.
It was The Warehouse, the one where she’d been born, the one she always came back to because the hunting was so good, though now she wondered if there was another reason she kept returning to this place. Maybe she was suffering from some sort of demon compulsion to return to her birthplace, because eight hours after fleeing Eidolon’s apartment, she found herself before it once again, and with no memory of how she got here.
All she knew was that her feet were bleeding, she was soaked, and she was angry. She crossed the street, not caring that cars had to slam on their brakes and honk their horns to keep from smashing her. Several drivers cursed at her, then cursed more when she presented them with a middle-finger salute.
She walked into a wall of stench as she stepped inside the building. Human waste, smoke, rotting food. She’d always ignored the odors and the filth, but today she catalogued it all in her mind. This was where her mother had spent a lot of her life. Here, among the graffiti-scarred walls, the discarded hypodermic needles, the rats and cockroaches.
The Soulshredder had done this to her mother.
A sound, faint, female, carried over the scratching of rodent claws on concrete, and Tayla crouched, crept toward the east wing. Several voices rang out behind her—laughter, probably coming from the western offices where crackheads liked to hang out. The dozens of exits in that part of the building provided a safety net for them, especially during police raids.
“Leave me alone, Bryce.” Ahead, a woman sat in a corner, blood dripping from her nose, her stringy blonde hair matted to what looked like dried blood on her cheek. A bulldog of a man stood over her, meaty fist cocked back. The woman scrambled away, but he caught her and punched her hard in the head.
Curiously calm, Tayla stepped out of the shadows, prepared to pound the man into dust. A vampire did the same, at the other end of the room. A large male, it seized the man by the back of the neck, slammed him against the wall, and buried its fangs deep into the human’s jugular.
Whimpering, the woman lurched to her feet and fled the room, not sparing a glance back.
The wet sound of sucking cut through the other warehouse noises. Bloodlust shimmered in the air like an electric current, dancing off Tayla’s skin. She’d never noticed the sensation before, or maybe she had, but assumed it was part of the adrenaline rush that filled her before battle. It felt curiously good. Seductive, even, and she had to plant her feet firmly to keep from moving closer to the bloodsucker and his prey.
Just a few days ago, Tayla would have taken out the vamp and saved the man, which seemed ironic, given that the human had beaten the crap out of a smaller woman and might have killed her. Now Tayla just watched.
“Funny how sometimes humans prove to be bigger monsters than demons, huh?”
Tayla whirled around. The first thing she saw was a pair of luminous green eyes that were level with hers. The second thing she saw was the fist connecting with her face.
Tayla’s head snapped back. “Ow!” She returned the favor with an elbow in the black-haired woman’s jaw.
The woman wobbled on her feet before steadying herself, one corner of her black lipstick-stained mouth tipping up in a half-smile. “It’s good to finally meet you, Tayla.”
Tay touched the back of her hand to her stinging lips. It came away with blood. “Right. Finally. Who the hell are you?” Whoever she was, she was pretty, with long, thick eyelashes, high cheekbones, black and blue hair braided into two pigtails that would have looked ridiculous on anyone older than seven, but that somehow worked on her. Probably because she was dressed like a Catholic schoolgirl. On crack.
“My name’s Gem.”
“Well, Gem, now that we’re all buddy-buddy and on a first-name basis, you want to tell me why you introduced me to your knuckles?”
“So many ways to answer that.” Gem studied her black-painted nails. “How’s life in The Aegis treating you?”
“You must be a demon.” Something struck Tayla as being familiar. Gem’s eyes . . . so green. Tayla had seen them before.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because demons seem to lack the switch in the brain that warns them when they are about to say something stupid.”
“I knew you’d have a sense of humor.”
“Enough of the cryptic shit. How do you know me?”
“I’ve always known you.”
“Jesus Christ,” Tayla muttered. “I don’t have time to play games.” She turned on her heel, not sure where she was going but desperate to get away from Cryptic Goth Chick.
“You have very little time for anything, slayer. You’re dying. And not slowly.”
Tayla snorted and kept walking. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
A hand closed on her elbow and jerked her around. “Fool!”
Tayla had Gem flat on her back and was straddling her waist in a flash. “What the hell is your problem?”
The sound of approaching footsteps barely registered, but the low, controlled drawl drew a groan from them both.
“That is so hot. E, do you think we can talk them into getting na**d, too?”
Eidolon stood next to Wraith and Shade, arms crossed, watching Gem and Tayla like a stern father, which was appropriate, because fighting with Gem seemed unnaturally . . . natural.
“She started it,” Gem said, and Tayla snorted.
“What’s your issue with me?”
Gem shrugged off Tayla’s grip on her upper arm, but didn’t try to dislodge her. “My issue is how you’ve wasted your life. You could have been so much more than an Aegis slayer.”
“Guardian,” Tay growled. “And how do you know what I’ve done with my life or what I could have been?”
“Because,” Gem said, “we’re sisters, and look what I became.”
Tayla narrowed her eyes at the other woman. “Sisters in what? Half-humanhood?”
“Blah, blah.” Wraith yawned. “Can you guys start fighting again?”
Gem shoved Tayla off her. They sat in the light from street lamps that streaked through a broken window, staring like rival cats. “I’m half Soulshredder. Just like you.”
Tayla’s breath left her in a rush. “We have the same father?”
Eidolon moved in, as if he knew she was going to need him, which was good, because she had a nasty feeling he was right.
Deep grooves furrowed Gem’s brow as she grasped Tayla’s hand. “We have the same father,” she confirmed. Her gaze locked with Tay’s. “And the same mother. We’re fraternal twins.”
The world fell away. “That . . . that’s impossible,” Tayla whispered. There was a pause. A long one in which she began to tremble. “My mom—”
“She didn’t know. I was born first. Delivered by demons right here on the warehouse floor while our mother was in a drugged stupor. The demons took me because they sensed demon in me. They didn’t sense it in the unborn baby. You.”