Nika fought against the tug of the monsters, steeling her mind against the strength of their call. She didn’t want to be with them tonight. She wanted to be with Madoc, in her real body, and revel in the fearlessness surrounding him.
When she was close to him, she wasn’t afraid. She felt almost normal. Madoc strengthened her with his presence.
But he didn’t want to be with her. He’d made that clear when he’d left her while she slept. He’d left and he hadn’t come back.
The idea of sleeping alone frightened her. She needed him to keep the monsters from pulling her apart while she slept. Why didn’t he understand that?
Andra came into Nika’s room just as she finished pulling a big sweater over her head. The sweats she’d borrowed from Andra hung low on her bony hips and pooled around her ankles, but they helped keep her warm against the chilly air-conditioning inside Dabyr.
She was feeling stronger—hungry for the first time in what felt like years. She’d already had three meals since she’d woken, but was ready for another.
“It’s time,” said Andra. “The men are waiting for you.”
Nika had only regained consciousness for a handful of hours, but since then, seven Theronai had come to see her. To touch her.
She tried not to be afraid, but without Madoc here, it wasn’t easy to fight off the pain and panic of so many strangers pawing at her.
“I’m not going to let them touch me,” she told her sister. “It hurts.” The blisters from the last batch still hadn’t healed.
Andra’s mouth tightened. “I know it does, but it’s the only way to be sure. They’re good men, Nika. They don’t mean to hurt you. In fact, one of them may be able to help you.”
“I don’t want their help.” They weren’t Madoc.
Andra looked down from her impressive height, giving Nika that look of desperate concern she’d come to know so well over the last eight years. “I know, but there’s no other way.”
“Please, don’t make me do this.” Panic started leaking into her stomach, driving away the hunger under its crushing weight. Nika couldn’t stand the hands of the men on her. They all wanted something from her, and she felt their desperation sink into her more with every touch. She’d just reclaimed enough of her mind that she was starting to feel whole again, and then all these men came along, each one of them wanting to take a little piece of her away with them.
They left her with slivers of their need and pain, shoved them into her skin like needles, so deep she couldn’t dig them out.
Andra sat down on the bed next to Nika and took her hand. Andra’s fingers were long and strong and capable, unlike Nika’s bony, weak fingers.
She wanted so much to be strong like Andra. To know what was real and what wasn’t. To be able to stay inside her mind and not be flung across space into bloodthirsty monsters until she no longer knew who she was.
Andra stroked the back of her hand in a soothing circle. “I hate doing this to you, baby. I really do, but Tynan is convinced that the best thing for you is to find your Theronai. Once you do, he can help you heal.”
“Madoc is helping,” said Nika.
Andra’s jaw tightened. “I know. He’s been out killing off sgath right and left and that’s great, but it’s not enough.”
“How do you know?”
Andra looked away, toward the door like she wished she could escape. Her eyes darkened until they were the same rich sapphire color as the luceria around her neck.
Nika’s hand went to her own throat, which was bare and bony, and she felt a sense of loss.
“Madoc has checked and double-checked. You’re not compatible,” said Andra.
“How can he be sure?” she asked.
“Believe me, baby. It’s what he wants, too. All of the men want you to be the one who can save them, but it just isn’t meant to be.”
Nika refused to believe her. “If Madoc isn’t meant to be mine, then why am I drawn to him? Why is he the only person besides you who makes me feel safe?”
Andra stroked Nika’s hair back from her face and a wavering sheen of tears glittered in her eyes. “It’s a trick of your mind, baby. Like all the others.”
“And the blisters? Are they a trick of my mind, too?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. But I don’t want you to worry. We’ll find the one who can help you.”
Nika wasn’t so sure. She was broken. She might never find the man who could give her the gift of magic.
And if that man wasn’t Madoc, she didn’t even want to try.
“I’ll be right there with you,” said Andra. “There are only two men this time, so it won’t take long.”
“I don’t want to,” said Nika. She sounded like a willful child, but she didn’t care. She was tired of doing things she didn’t like. Tired of having no choices. Everyone told her what to do. She was almost twenty- one and more than old enough to make her own decisions.
“We can wait until tomorrow if you want. They won’t like it, but they’ll wait for you. I’ll tell them you’re not feeling well enough to see them.”
“No,” said Nika. If she wanted people to start treating her like an adult, she was going to have to act like one. Do the hard things. “Let’s just get this over with.”
And then, once the pain subsided, she’d slip out of her body and go find Madoc. He wouldn’t know she was there, watching him hunt, so he couldn’t run away. It wasn’t as good as feeling his body, solid and strong against hers, but if it was the only way she could be with him, then she’d take what she could get.