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Petra Lang did not want to die.
Too bad she didn’t have even the slightest say in the matter.
A specially convened Alliance Tribunal had indicted her, an Alliance prosecutor had outlined the evidence against her, and the high examiner had sentenced her. Now she awaited her punishment from within a coffin-size portable holding cell, her hands bound tightly in front of her despite the space being so tiny there was no way she could have even shot someone the finger, were she so inclined.
And, frankly, she was definitely so inclined. As far as she was concerned, the preternatural assholes who’d sentenced her to die deserved one hell of a lot more than a rude gesture.
Never mind that she was willing to submit to whatever restrictive and oppressive rules the Alliance wanted to subject her to. Because of her curse, she’d been deemed a danger to both the human and the shadow communities, and in less than an hour, she would be dead.
She closed her eyes, trying not to think about it. Trying not to wonder if it would hurt or if she would slip softly away into the black. Trying not to wish she’d had the chance to lift the curse, to touch a man, to see the friggin’ Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall of China. Hell, she’d never even made it up to San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge. She was only twenty-six. She wasn’t supposed to die.
She hoped she wouldn’t cry; if she could make it without tears, at least then she could take some small victory with her to the grave.
Mostly, she thought about Kiril. Worried about him. Her brother who’d dedicated his life to protecting her. The boy who wrote such beautiful poems and could spend hours searching for the proper word for one of his short stories. The sorcerer who’d exploded in a frenzy of wind and thunder when the elite Covert Alliance Apprehension Squad had burst through the door of their house in Studio City.
The squad members had gone for Kiril first, with such swiftness that Petra had assumed they’d come for her brother and had no interest in her. She’d tried to help him, but though the family’s magic flowed in her veins, too, the curse had always interfered, and summoning her meager power during a crisis had never been easy for her.
Instead, she’d watched, horrified, as the officers fired tranquilizer darts at him, the magic fading as Kiril collapsed unconscious onto the floor. She’d raced to him but hadn’t made it to his side. Instead, a burly officer had lassoed her—lassoed!—then dragged her back toward the door.
She’d fought, digging in her heels, tugging on the rope, screaming for her brother. But she had never once run toward her captor. Never tried to rip the cloth that covered his body from nose to toes. Never yanked her own glove off or tried to touch skin upon skin.
She hadn’t used the curse to fight back—she hadn’t even tried.
And yet it was for that very curse that she would die tonight. She’d intentionally pushed the curse once. Only once. And it had been Serge’s decision as much as her own. The vampire knew what would happen—what he would become. But they’d had no choice. They’d been trapped, and time had been running out.
It had been a total Hail Mary ploy, but it had paid off. She’d touched, he’d transformed, and the monster he became had wreaked havoc on their captors.
Serge had sacrificed his sanity, his soul, and even his life to save countless more, but did the Alliance care? Not one damn bit. They didn’t look at the reason or the result; they looked only at the curse, at what she could wreak with nothing more substantial than the slightest brush of skin against skin.
She closed her eyes, clenched her fists, and wished she had the power to turn back time. If she had, she wouldn’t hesitate. She would touch them all and take her chances with the vicious monsters she unleashed. She would do that very thing for which they were now executing her. She would turn them all, torture them all, and, dammit, she would fight to live.
She didn’t deserve this.
Tears pricked her eyes, spilling out over her lashes, and she tried to lift a hand to wipe them away, then shook with fear and fury when her arm wouldn’t move. She couldn’t even dry her own damn tears! Dear God, she didn’t ask for this. Didn’t want it, would walk away if she could. So how was it fair that she died tonight, when she’d spent her whole life apart and alone, protecting the entire world from what she was?
Stop it! Stop thinking!
She almost wished the guards would hurry up and come. Right then, locked in the small concrete cell, she had no company other than her thoughts. And those thoughts were tormenting her.
A tremor ran up her spine, and she took back the earlier wish. She wasn’t ready, not at all.
“Yes.” Her voice was soft, but she took a small bit of pride from the fact that it didn’t shake.
“It is time.”
“What about my brother? My advocate? Can’t I see them?” Didn’t the condemned have the right to say good-bye to their families? To speak one last time to their legal representative?
“Your brother’s request for visitation has been denied.”
“Oh.” She squeezed her eyes shut, not quite able to believe she wouldn’t get the chance to say good-bye to Kiril, that she’d never again hold his hand when a blue moon filled the sky, or read one of his stories, or harass him about kicking up a whirlwind inside the house. Her chest tightened. There were too many things left undone. Too many things she still wanted to say. Now she’d never be able to.
She swallowed, forcing thoughts of her brother out of her mind. “What about Montegue?” she asked, referring to Nicholas Montegue, the vampire advocate who had represented her during the proceedings. Following the verdict and sentencing, he’d filed an appeal with the Alliance, specifically addressing it to Tiberius, the governor of the Shadow Alliance’s Los Angeles territory.
Petra still hadn’t heard the outcome, but Nicholas had been hopeful. Tiberius, he’d said, owed her one.
“The appeal was denied,” the voice said. “The Tribunal has ordered that your execution proceed with all due speed. And Montegue filed no request to visit or be present at the execution.”
She tried to draw a breath as the walls of the already tiny cell seemed to crowd even closer against her as she processed what the voice was saying. Nicholas had fought for her—spent hours researching centuries of shadow law and drafting brief after brief, his intensity and determination so thick that she’d actually dared to hope.
He’d been her courage during the weeks leading up to the hearing, and she’d relied on his quiet strength and sharp reputation. He was Nicholas Montegue, after all, the advocate who represented all vampiric interests on behalf of the Alliance. Who had a hand in the affairs of Tiberius himself.
If anyone could see her safely out of this mess, it was Nicholas. And each day, she’d anticipated his visit, eagerly working beside him, poring over the cases he’d copied and the statutes he’d dug up from faraway jurisdictions, so desperately grateful that he’d given her the gift of hope.
But that hope had died with the sentencing, and now he couldn’t even face her?
How completely pathetic.
“Prisoner!” The sharp voice brought her back to the present, to the small cell and the reality facing her. “Do you willingly accept your fate?”
“No!” The word seemed to burst from her mouth without any forethought.
There was nothing but silence around her, and she took some small bit of satisfaction in having apparently mucked up their formality, even if only a little bit.
“You may proceed,” the voice said, only this time, it wasn’t speaking to her. Within moments, the air in the cell grew thicker, as if it was pressing in against her head, and after a few seconds of that, the air seemed to be actually drilling into her. She wanted to reach up and clasp her skull in her palms, wanted to press her hands hard against her cranium and hold her head together before it exploded, but her shoulders were jammed against the concrete walls and there was no moving—she could only scream, and scream, and scream.
Something moving like a worm through her mind. Digging and twisting and turning. Searching.
Searching . . .
It hurt. Oh dear God, it hurt, and as the pain spread out through her body—as bile rose in her throat and her chest heaved in acid-filled gags—she realized what it was. A Truth Teller—a rare creature in the shadow world. Although she’d spent years poking around in the shadows trying to find the truth for her clients, she’d never once met anyone who’d experienced the mind meld of a Truth Teller. It was horrible, and the more the creature poked around, the worse it became.
What the hell was it looking for?
The claws of the Teller’s grasp scraped through the dark spots of her mind, riffling through long-forgotten memories, stirring up lost scents and fears and small joys along with the raw, red pain of the search.