“Are you hurt?” He held his hand out to brush her hair away from her face, but jerked it back when she flinched at his touch.
Fine. Her response pissed him off royally, to quote his roommate, even if he understood why she felt that way. The sooner he got her topside the better. “Come.”
Sasha shrank away from him. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
He ignored how much her reaction hurt. He’d always known she’d hate him when she finally saw him for what he really was. “Right now what I am is your way out of here.”
She retreated another step. “But where are we going? The elevators are back that way.”
He snagged her arm before she gave in to panic and glared down at her. “So is the fighting, Sasha. Too many from both worlds are already bleeding, so you’ll understand if I’d rather not kill any more of my people. Now, follow me or not. It’s your choice.”
He let go of her, hating the fear in her eyes when she looked at him and hating himself for his part in putting it there. Then he walked away, stopping long enough to retrieve his blade before moving on. Surely she’d show the good sense to stay with him. If not, he’d force the issue, but he hoped she’d at least trust him enough to get her to safety.
• • •
Sasha stared at the four broken bodies fallen on the ground. So much blood. Its bitter copper scent filled her head and overloaded her senses. Her stomach churned, foul acid burning the back of her throat. God, would this nightmare never end? It had been hours since she’d last eaten, so it was nothing but dry heaves as she leaned against the wall and retched.
Please, let it stop. She needed to follow Larem even if he was one of them—Kalith, Other, the name didn’t matter. If she lost sight of him, her life might very well end right there in the bloody passageway. She tried to straighten up between heaves, but that only made the pain worse. After stumbling forward a few steps, she had to stop and close her eyes to ward off the dizziness.
As she did, she felt someone beside her and panicked. “No, please no! Get away!”
“Sasha, calm down. It’s me.”
She sagged in relief at the sound of Larem’s deep voice. Despite everything, he hadn’t abandoned her.
“Hold still and don’t fight me.”
His accent was deeper than usual, but his voice was far more gentle than it had been only seconds before. His hand, cool and soothing, rested lightly on her forehead, and his arm slid around her waist, supporting her weight.
He murmured something. The words were unclear, perhaps in his native tongue, but their effect was miraculous. The nausea disappeared almost immediately, as did the cramping. When he removed his hand, she looked up into his pale gray eyes.
She nodded. “Much.”
The chill came flooding back into his gaze as he stepped away and retrieved his sword. “Now, let’s get out of here.”
She glanced back toward the other end of the passage, careful to avoid looking at the bodies along the way, and then followed Larem around the corner. He was moving fast enough that she almost had to run to keep up with him.
She had so many questions for him—now that her brain was starting to function again—but she suspected she wouldn’t like his answers. Like, why had he let her think he was human? She’d known there were Kalith living among the Paladins, but no one had even hinted that they had the run of the place. Was he even supposed to be down here?
Now wasn’t the time to worry about it, not when her life depended on him. Her eyes strayed to the bloody blade he’d wielded with such skill and terrible grace. Would she ever get over the horror of seeing four lives ended right in front of her? Or the knowledge that she’d come so close to being—no, don’t go there. What might have happened didn’t matter right now.
Larem came to an abrupt halt. “Quiet now. We don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. Wait until I make sure the way is clear.”
Sasha froze, her ears ringing with her ragged breath and pounding heart. Gradually, other sounds began to make sense. Horrible sense. Swords banging and clanging. Screams of pain and whimpers of agony. Larem progressed a few feet, holding his sword out to the side as if expecting to be attacked.
Finally, he motioned her forward. “Don’t look.”
But of course she did.
The ground was littered with bodies. She watched as a line of Paladins formed up. They slowly pushed forward, forcing the ragged band of Others to retreat back across the barrier. Men in guard uniforms were busy dragging the dead and wounded Paladins back out of the way, leaving the Others where they’d fallen.
Larem drew back beside her. “Sasha, snap out of it! We’ve got to get the hell out of here. Those guards might not hurt you, but they’ll come after me given half a chance. I do not want to die because of your stupidity.”
Okay, enough was enough. “It wasn’t my stupidity. Lonzo left me a note telling me to meet him down here.”
“Like hell he did. He had car trouble and didn’t get back until just before the barrier failed.”
Larem all but dragged her along until finally he stopped outside an elevator. As soon as she saw the number pad next to it, her heart sank.
“Larem, my code won’t work. We’re trapped down here until Devlin sounds the all clear.” Her voice went up an octave as she spoke; the thought of spending another minute trapped in this hell was unbearable.
Larem was already punching numbers into the security system. “This one will work.”
Sure enough, she heard the low rumble that signaled the elevator was on its way. She leaned against the wall, relieved beyond words. As fried as she was feeling, she still wondered why an Other would’ve been trusted with a high-level security code.
The more she thought about it, the more obvious the answer. It wasn’t his code at all. Someone had broken protocols by giving it to him, most likely one of the Paladins. Under the circumstances, she wasn’t about to complain.
She stepped to the back corner of the elevator and considered how best to handle the situation. “Thank whoever gave you the code. Tell him there will be no repercussions for the security breach.”
Her good intentions seemed to only make Larem madder. “That’s awfully generous of you, considering he broke your precious rules to save your life.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. I understand why he gave the number to a . . .” She stopped. She would do better to keep her mouth shut.
But it was too late. “A what, Sasha? An alien? An Other? An animal? How about a monster?”
Each question was an arrow-sharp accusation. “I’m sorry, Larem. I was trying to do the right thing.”
He turned toward her, his eyes burning with fury. “The right thing would’ve been to stay the hell out of places you don’t belong. Because of you, my friend delayed his arrival below in order to share that number and the location of this elevator with me. As it is, there aren’t enough Paladins to hold back the invasion. How many were placed at extra risk because he was late to the fight or because they were concerned for your safety and not totally focused on the battle?”
Dear God, she hadn’t thought about that. Even though it wasn’t her fault, she’d inadvertently put others at risk. “Regardless of what you think, I didn’t go down there uninvited. I’m telling you, Lonzo left me a note.”
He stalked toward her, dropping his bloody sword to the floor as he cornered her. “Then let’s see it.”
She held out her empty hands. “It’s gone. I must have dropped it. God, Larem, none of this was supposed to happen. All I can say is that I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well, that doesn’t mean I have to forgive you. Because of you, I betrayed my vow to protect my people. Those Kalith died at my hand, and I have to find some way to live with that. As you now realize, I am Kalith, just as they were.”
He was standing so close that she could feel the tension thrumming through his body. This was no time to notice how long his eyelashes were or how they framed his intense eyes. The memory of what they shared that night at the zoo flashed through her mind.
Her hand lifted to touch his cheek. “But you’re not like them.”
He shook his head. “No, I’m not, but only because they were sick with the need for light. That’s the only difference.”
At her touch, he tangled his fingers in her hair, tilting her face up toward his. “But one thing you would do well to remember, Sasha Willis—I might not be human, but I am a man. You enjoyed my kiss once. Think you will enjoy it this time, knowing what I am?”
Then his arms snapped around her and his angry mouth crushed down on hers. When she gasped in shock, his tongue swept past her lips. She’d never tasted pure fury before, but she had no doubt that’s what was flavoring Larem’s kiss. She should push back, should fight to wrest control from him, but rather than feeling threatened, she felt safe. Rather than this being a claiming, Larem’s kiss was a cleansing, washing away some of the fear and horror of the past half hour. A small voice in the back of her mind told her this was crazy, that she should be revolted by the prospect of kissing this . . . what?
Before she could figure out the answer to that question, Larem ripped his mouth away from hers and lurched back to the other side of the elevator. He was breathing hard. His mouth that had felt so soft and forgiving against hers was now a straight slash of anger.
To add insult to injury, he scrubbed at his lips with the back of his hand as if to wipe away her taste. The soft ping of the elevator finally reaching its destination echoed in the heavy silence between them.
As the two of them stalked out, she stopped to say, “This didn’t happen.”
He smirked down at her. “Do you really think Devlin Bane won’t find out that you were down there? Or that you almost managed to get not just yourself, but me, killed?”
“Not that.” She jerked her hand between the two of them. “I mean this—us. This didn’t happen and it won’t again.”
“Why? Afraid what it will do to your precious plans if it gets out that you’ve been sullied by an Other?”
Okay, that did it. “Forget it. I’m out of here.”
She marched away, her shoulders squared, her heart aching. Darn that man anyway! How did all this go spinning so far out of control? No matter how hateful Larem had been, he’d still risked his life to save hers.
Her father might think all Others were a subhuman life-form, but she now knew better. Clearly Larem was a man of honor, one who was suffering because of what that honor had just demanded of him. All because of her.
Okay, so she’d try one last time. But when she looked back, he was already walking away.
“Larem? About what you did—thank you.”
For a second she thought he might have slowed down, but he never glanced back. It was surprising how much that hurt. She ignored the renewed pain and moved on down the hall herself.
After everything that had happened, it was tempting to call it quits for the day. But she couldn’t—wouldn’t. No, she’d return to her office until she knew the situation was under control. If things were bad enough, as the Regents’ representative she might need to put in a call for assistance from another sector, either in the form of supplies or even for reinforcements until the Seattle Paladins were back at full strength.
A certain Kalith warrior wasn’t the only one who understood the meaning of duty.