Xypher cursed at the thought of having someone be dependent on him. He wasn’t reliable. He didn’t know how to function that way. It scared him that he might corrupt her or harm her because of Hid own ignorance. She needed a better teacher than him. All he knew was pain and betrayal. How to use Hid powers to harm others. That wasn’t Simone. She was kindness.
How could an animal like him teach her what she needed to know? But he would never admit that to anyone.
"I have my own agenda here, Acheron. I can’t be tied down to her."
"You have three weeks to achieve it. For once, Xypher, think of someone other than yourself."
He curled his lip at Acheron’s words. He was thinking of someone else, but again, he’d never admit that out loud. "Thinking of someone else is what got me damned. It’s a mistake I don’t want to repeat."
Those silver eyes burned with an ancient wisdom. "You know sometimes it’s by repeating our mistakes that we realize what went wrong the first time. Knowing that, we’re able to fix the mistake and move past it."
Xypher scoffed at that. "Right, and the definition of basic stupidity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, I’m not stupid."
"I didn’t say to keep doing it." Acheron glanced down to Xypher’s arm where his vow was branded. "Move forward with purpose. Examine what went wrong and correct that one mistake."
Why did everything keep coming back to that one phrase?
Move forward with purpose . . .
"Help her, Xypher. Right now she needs you more than you need to kill Satara." And with that, he vanished.
Xypher sat on the floor with Ash’s words ringing in his head. There was truth there, but the need for vengeance was so strong . . .
Then he remembered the way Simone had touched him earlier that morning when she’d taken mercy on his pain. She’d asked for nothing from him in return.
Xypher gathered her in his arms and held her close. "I’m here for you, Simone."
Simone could barely understand those words; as her body continued to turn. Everything around her felt amplified. The colors, the scents, the sounds . . .
She experienced the world in a whole new way.
"How’s she doing?" Liza’s voice seemed to come from a long way away.
Type O positive. That’s what Liza’s blood type was. She also had a slight murmur in her heart.
And Jesse . . .
She knew his weaknesses, too. She could smell and taste them, and a tiny part of her wanted to exploit those weaknesses. That scared her more than anything else. "What does it mean to be a demon, Xypher?"
"You’re not a demon."
She lifted her arm and stared at her hand. It looked like her hand and yet she felt as if she could crush steel with it. Could she? "I feel so powerful."
"It’s an illusion."
Was it? It seemed real enough. The thought had barely completed itself before she felt her stomach heave. She grabbed the pail from Liza and emptied the contents of her stomach into it.
When she was finished, she no longer felt so strong. She felt weak and worthless. "I want to go home."
Xypher nodded. He paused to look at Liza. "Can I have the amulet back? I still have to hand it over to Jaden or he’ll have my ass."
The reluctance showed in her eyes as she removed it one more time. "I hope this isn’t a mistake."
"Me, too," he concurred.
After putting it in his pocket, Xypher pulled Simone against his chest, and the next thing she knew, she was home, in her bed. He was still beside her, "You should rest."
"Will you hold me?"
Xypher wanted to curse the tenderness those words stirred inside him. He should ignore her and his conscience.
If only he could.
Instead, he lay down beside her on the bed and pulled her close. "Get some rest."
She snuggled against him before she closed her eyes and did what he suggested. It didn’t take her long to fall into a deep, restful sleep.
Lying here with her like this, he almost felt human. How ridiculous was that? They were two demons now lying together. He glanced at the photo of her parents and wondered what had brought them together that they’d tried to live an average human life.
In the picture, they looked like any other family. No one would ever have guessed the secret they hid.
It was a secret that might yet cost their daughter her life.
At dusk, Xypher paced the small condo, wondering if he was making a mistake by staying with Simone. For all he knew, his presence here was an even greater threat to her than leading would be.
He felt the air stilling an instant before Jaden appeared. His unholy eyes were a particularly vibrant shade of green and brown.
"You have it." It was a statement of fact, as if he could sense the amulet.
Xypher pulled it out of his pocket and held it in his hand. No larger than the size of a quarter, it looked like a piece of green turquoise with delicate silver scrollwork around it. It seemed so harmless. It was hard to imagine this object bringing down a god, but then, salt was a completely innocuous substance while being power fill enough to ward off an army of demons. "I have it."
Jaden extended one hand and waited. Xypher dropped the amulet into his palm.
Taking a deep breath, Jaden closed his hand and held it reverently. When he opened his eyes, they were bloodred, "Thank you."
The gold bracelet fell open and hit the floor at Xypher’s feet. "How did you do that?"
He scoffed. "As if I’d explain the source of my powers to you, demon. Merely be grateful that you have fulfilled your part of the bargain."
Xypher could feel his powers growing with each word Jaden spoke. This was what he needed. What he had to have.
Leaning his head back, Xypher laughed. For the first time in centuries, he felt like the god he was. And with those powers came sudden clarity.
"You knew about Simone’s parentage …"
Jaden shrugged. "Of course I did. Who do you think her father bargained with for her protection? I took his soul in exchange for binding her powers from her and the rest of the world."
A shiver went down his spine. "You betrayed him by allowing her to be converted."
Red licked the hides of Jaden’s eyes as he glared at him. "I betrayed nothing. She exposed herself. By being bitten, she undid her father’s bargain. I told her father at the time the drawbacks of my shield. He never thought she’d come into contact with other demons."
Poor bastard. He should have known his daughter would find mischief.
Then again, had it not been for Xypher, her secret would have been safe forever. He had no one to blame for her current situation except himself and he hated himself for his part in her conversion.
"What of her mother?" he asked Jaden. "Was she a demon, too?"
"She was human."
That baffled him. Humans and demons seldom ever interacted in anything other than a combative situation that almost always resulted in the death of the human. "How did they end up together?"
Jaden placed the amulet in his pocket, "Simone’s mother was an unfortunate mistake. Palackas, Simone’s father, was a bound demon who stumbled across her one night while he was carrying out an order for his master. One thing led to another … He inserted part A into slot B, and he fell in love with her, but as to be expected, his master refused to release him. Rather than come to me, he ran for freedom to be with her. His master called out the hounds to hunt him down, and either return him or kill him. They hunted him for years until they found his scent here in New Orleans, Because Simone’s mother and brother held the scent of the father, they found them and killed them instead of him by accident."
"Why did Simone live?"
"Unlike her brother who inherited all of his mother’s humanity, she had her father’s demon genes in her. Enough that her blood held its own unique scent apart from her father’s. The Skili weren’t authorized to slay anyone except her father and so she was spared."
"But they killed her mother and brother."
Jaden snorted. "Have you ever met a Skili? Just because they look human doesn’t mean they have a brain. They’re dogs. All they smell is blood and genetics. They thought the two of them were her father. Palackas’s master was pleased since he thought their deaths would bring Palackas home again."
But it hadn’t. The poor man must have been lost after their deaths and stricken not only with grief but guilt. And fear that his daughter would soon join his wife and son.
The Skili were an elite tracking force that was sent out to destroy any demon who violated their laws. Part human, part bloodhound, they had no will of their own. All they did was track and kill. If Palackas hadn’t known why Simone had escaped, he’d have been terrified of the Skili finding her next.
"Did her father know why they didn’t kill her?"
"He didn’t ask."
"You mean you didn’t tell him."
Jaden shrugged nonchalantly. "He summoned me for a bargain. Who am I to dissuade a demon when he offers me his soul?" He gave Xypher a pointed look.
Xypher cursed as he remembered the bargain he, himself, had made with the demon lord.
"My father killed himself."
Xypher turned at the sound of Simone’s quiet voice. She stood in the doorway behind him, holding on to it with a grip so tight he could see her knuckles turning white. Her wan face worried him.
Jaden took no mercy on her. "He killed himself to protect you, child, and to appease his master. Even if he’d gone back to his master at that point, his master would have ordered his execution. He’d been gone too long from his bindings. Plus there was still the matter of you to worry over. The last thing your father wanted was for you to be captured and turned into a slave, too. So he took his fate into his own hands and used his life force to seal our bargain."
"You bastard!" Simone ran at him.
Xypher caught her to his side and held her in place. "Don’t, Simone."
"He let my father die!"
Xypher could feel the anguish of her cry, but it changed nothing. "You can’t attack him, Simone. He’ll kill you."
One comer of Jaden’s mouth quirked up. "And I’ll enjoy every minute of your dying."
She lunged again. "You’re a monster."
"I can be. But I prefer the term . . . ‘broker.’ "
Growling, she fought against Xypher’s hold. "Get out!"
Jaden tsked. "And to think I’ve always heard how wonderful Southern hospitality is. Guess that’s only for humans." His eyes faded back to their normal color. "Our bargain is met, Xypher."
Jaden tapped his shoulder twice with his fist, gave a short, mo clang bow, and vanished.
Simone tinned on him. "Why didn’t you let me scratch his eyes out?"
"Because he would have ripped your head off before you got near him."
She shook her head in disbelief. "You’re a god. How powerful can he be in comparison?"
"Powerful enough to kill me and you with nothing more than a thought."
Simone paused as she realized he wasn’t kidding. "I don’t understand."
"The universe has order, Simone. At the end of the day, we all answer to someone. While gods are all-powerful, we have limitations. A creature like Jaden can kill us and absorb our powers for himself."
"Then why doesn’t he?"
"My guess is he, too, has limitations on what he can and can’t do."
"Set by whom?"
"That’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t know the answer, and I don’t know anyone who does."
She wiped at the comer of her eye as she left him to look at the photographs of her family on her mantel. "Do you think my father knew and understood what he was doing when he summoned Jaden?"
"Probably. Most demons do. Even though we’re raised aware of the fact that he’s our bogeyman, Jaden usually explains the drawbacks of a bargain to those who make it. I may not like him, but as a rule, he is fair and impartial. . . even when he’s being intolerant."
Simone turned to face him. "He didn’t tell you about the amulet and what it did."
She had a point. Jaden had hidden that knowledge from him. "No, he didn’t, which tells me it must be important to him on a personal level."
Simone barely heard those words. Honestly, she didn’t care about Jaden and his desires; or wants. What mattered was the fact that her family had died.
And he’d played a part in it.
I’m a demon . . .
Those words kept chasing themselves around in her head. How could this have happened? How could she not have known? Suspected something. . .
"There’s a special fire inside you, angel," her father had once said. "One day you’ll understand it. "
Was this what he’d meant?
She looked at Xypher, needing answers she doubted she’d ever have. "Why would my father have killed himself? Wouldn’t he have been better off protecting me while alive?"
"I’m sure he was thinking of the fact that he hadn’t been able to protect your mother or brother."
"I needed my father!"
Xypher flinched. The pain in her voice tore through him. He’d never wanted to comfort anyone before, but right now, he’d give anything to ease the anguish he saw in her hazel eyes.