My ears were ringing. Noah chewed with his mouth open, and his sticky slobber glued food to the roof of his mouth as he slurped his dinner. Across from him, Mindy filed the first layer of her nail off, and my father tapped his foot, humming. He only hummed when he was anxious. Still, he smiled at his new wife, and my stomach churned. How could he be so happy with a human? If it wasn’t for his wedding, the accident wouldn’t have happened, and Abby would be alive. But she wasn’t. “How was your day, Eric?” Mindy asked, her high-pitched voice tearing my sensitive ears like a razorblade. “Fine,” I said, shoveling food into my mouth to avoid a discussion. My father’s glare burned my skin, but I’d never acknowledge his human life. It was only a distraction. In fact, I often wondered if he married a human to throw off the Light, hoping they’d write him off as a human as well. But he wasn’t. And if I couldn’t deny it, he shouldn’t either. Noah kicked the table’s legs, shaking our dinner. “My day was amazing,” he said, spraying meatloaf across his plate. “Billy and I scared the substitute.” “That’s nice, Noah,” Mindy said, patting her son’s head. She hadn’t even paid attention; she was too focused on us. “You two are acting strange.” No. Really? “We’re just practicing our poker faces,” my dad said, beaming. As far as I had been told, we couldn’t have our meeting in the shelter. Security was breeched, and the elders weren’t risking exposure if a light decided to attack. Instead, my father was holding it in his office. We told Mindy it was a father-son poker tournament. She wouldn’t interrupt—not when we had been fighting so often. “We lost the last one from getting too excited,” I said, pushing my meatloaf around. “We don’t want that happening again.” She grinned, lighting up at the opportunity to talk to me. “I really hope you win tonight.” Me, too. The front door rattled with knocks, and then it opened. A man waltzed in, peering into the kitchen from downstairs. “Hello.” Mindy shot up from her chair and waved over the railing. “Hey, George. How are you doing?” “Great,” he said, scaling the stairs with his son behind him. Pierce barely resembled his human form of Jonathon Stone. Instead of pale skin, green eyes, and dark hair, Jonathon had light brown hair and eyes. He wore thick glasses, but his right eye was fogged over with a thick, white cloud. He was partially blind. At school, he was an artist, and he was easily picked on, but his bullies would shake if they ever saw his Dark side. He was strong, capable, and had the best endurance I’d seen from a trainee. He could easily kick any human’s ass. Too bad they would never see him like that. I stood from the table and shook my friend’s hand. “Hey.” Jonathon avoided my eye contact. I’d known him since birth, but he was never secure about his human identity. “How’s the family?” he asked. “Don’t force small talk,” I said, dropping my voice. “You sound like our parents.”
He laughed. “Isn’t that a scary thought?” I nodded, and his telepathic thought shot through me. “You ready to talk to the elders?” “It’s not like I have a choice,” I said. Jonathon pushed his glasses up his nose, and my father waved sodas in our direction. “Come on, boys,” he said, forcing an awkward, chipper tone. “Let’s start.” We followed our fathers down the hallway to the office. George opened the door, ushering us inside, and then he spun around, surveying the golden room. “They should be here any second,” he said, locking the door. Without a word, my father laid his hand on the wall, and we watched as a thick layer of shadows spewed over the room. Gliding around the room from the floor to the ceiling, they twisted into oblivion and the room spun in a tight circle. He’d used a silencing spell. George smiled. “That should help,” he said, enveloping his body in blackness. When he reappeared, his long black hair was shortened, and thick bristles grew along his formerly smooth chin. His black eyes burned green, and I recognized him for who he was after transformation, Urte—my father’s guard and fellow elder. In seconds, my father morphed as well. In his shade form, he was taller, thinner, and had a lot more hair. “You two stay human,” he said, shaking his limbs as he solidified. “I don’t want these elders pushing you around.” “I’d like to see that,” I said, and Urte glared. “Don’t be ignorant, Eric.” I shrugged, and my arm hair spiked up. I tensed, watching the office floor unfold into a whirlpool. Jonathon and I stepped back, and two men sizzled to the surface. Luthicer’s patchy white beard stretched to his collarbone, while his blond hair curled at the nape of his neck. His pitch black eyes wavered from side to side, but Eu stared right at us. He had silver irises and the whitest pupils I’d ever seen, and they contrasted harshly against his thick, mangled black hair. He was three feet shorter than Luthicer, making him about a foot shorter than me. I had only met him once before, but he always seemed to be out of place. He hovered behind Luthicer like—well—a shadow, and Luthicer shined like he was more of a light than a half-breed. “Will Camille be joining us tonight?” Urte asked, and Luthicer’s forehead wrinkled. “She’s resting,” he said, dragging his dark eyes over Jonathon and I. “Her training has been rigorous, but it’ll help our descendant.” I hid my fist behind my back. What’d he do to Camille? I didn’t care if he was her trainer or not. He didn’t have the right. “Which one is he?” Eu asked, and I raised my hand as he stepped forward. His white eyes flickered. “It’s hard to recognize you in this form.” I raised my brow. “Isn’t that the point?” “Eric.” My father’s tone dropped. “You must excuse my son. He’s very—” “Nervous,” Luthicer finished, dragging his eyes over me. I smirked. “That’s your opinion.” “And it’s right,” he said, tilting his head. “If you aren’t nervous, why would you still be a human right now?” “Luthicer.” Urte stood between us. “This meeting is strictly going to be a conversation.” “A conversation won’t get Eric anywhere,” Luthicer said, stepping around Urte. “No,” my father said, sitting on the edge of his desk. “It’s up to Eric.” I changed before anyone even realized I had decided. I didn’t hesitate. I had to be Shoman, the first descendent, and hesitation was weakness. Luthicer smiled, slowly pushing Jonathon aside. “You’re weaker than I expected,” he said, waltzing around me as his fingers grazed my skin. A pain shot up my arm, through my shoulder, and my skin burned. I sucked in breath and grabbed my arm as the pain thundered through me. What was this? I felt hot and dizzy, like I’d collapse at any moment. Why can’t I move? “What are you doing?” Urte’s voice wavered through my foggy hearing. “Testing him,” Luthicer said, leaning in to stare at my pupils. His breath was hot against my cheek. “You can’t even handle a little Light energy.” Light? My body trembled. Is that what this was? Light energy could kill a shade—easily—but it could also poison us.
“I can handle it,” I said, forcing my voice through clenched teeth. “I’m not so sure,” he said, digging his nails into my shoulder, and, as if to prove his point. I lurched over in pain, gasping. Urte slammed his hand against the wall. “Elder or not, you have no right to hurt this boy.” “He isn’t hurting him, Urte,” Eu said. Urte shook his head. “I’m an elder just like you, Eu,” he said, and I stumbled back, leaning against the wall for support. “Eric doesn’t need this sort of a test yet.” I held my hand up, silencing them. “If they think I need it,” I said and sucked in a breath. “I’ll believe them.” I will not be weak. Not in front of them. Luthicer hummed. “You’re either brave or very foolish.” “What’s the difference?” The room silenced, and Luthicer knelt in front of me. “That kind of talk can be used against you, Shoman.” My lip curled. “They can’t use anything against me,” I said, and Luthicer squinted. “What about love?” Abby. “I have no love,” I said, shoving the loss away. “I haven’t had love in a long time. Not for anybody.” Luthicer’s face turned, and he focused on my father. “You, at least, raised the boy right.” Then, he stood, pointing at Urte. “But you,” he said. “You haven’t begun his training.” Urte straightened. “I was planning on starting soon.” “Planning does nothing,” Luthicer said. “You start soon. Understand?” “Don’t forget we’re equals,” Urte said, his chest rising. Luthicer’s brow scrunched. “So act like it then.” My father stood and pushed himself between the men. “This isn’t about you two,” he said, his black hair springing into the air. His eyes radiated as he glowered at Luthicer. “Shoman will start training with Urte soon—as long as Eric agrees.” Everyone turned to me, and I winced. My spine was squeezing. “I can do it,” I said. “This is a serious decision, Eric,” he said. “If you do it when you’re not ready, you’ll only injure yourself.” I hesitated for the first time that night. In the corner, Jonathon was pale, his working eye widening behind his thick glasses, and I knew he realized what I had. Our fathers were just as capable as Luthicer, and Darthon—the second descendant—was worse than them. He was more powerful than our elders, just as I was supposed to be, but I wasn’t even close to meeting that power. If I was going to survive, I needed to be stronger. “I will try,” I said, wincing as my voice strained against my throat. Whatever Luthicer had done to me resonated. The pain was worsening. “Then it’s decided,” Luthicer said, stepping back and clasping his hands together. “Eric will begin his training.” I clenched my teeth together, while my father guided the men to the middle of the room. “So this meeting is over,” he said, and both men nodded. “We’ll be within calling distance,” Eu said, and then they were gone—without even bothering to say their goodbyes to me. The shadows spiraled and dissipated. When I was positive they were long gone, I collapsed. “What the hell did he do to me?” I asked, grabbing my scalp. My father shoved water in my face. “Drink it,” he said, and I gulped it as he explained. “It’s a torture illusion; you’re okay.” “You mean,” I choked, hitting my knee as I caught my breath. “That wasn’t even happening?” “It attacks your nervous system,” he confirmed, shaking his head. “It’s probably the most commonly used spell. You’re not hurt.” I lay back, groaning. “I hate that guy.” “Roll up your sleeves,” Urte said, and I fell out of my shade form as I obeyed. Urte ran his fingers across my bruising skin, glowering at the red marks Luthicer left behind. “He had no right.” “The power he used,” I breathed. “Does Camille—” “She’s capable of it,” my father said, cringing. “I’m afraid she knows much more than that.” “And she’s nothing compared to Darthon?” Their silence answered my question. “It’s going to be okay, Eric,” Urte said, helping me sit up. I shook my head. “Lying is my forte, Urte, not yours.” Slowly, I stood up on my shaking feet and walked across the office. I leaned against the desk, ran my hand over my father’s paperwork, and picked up a pen. Turning around, I shoved it in my father’s hand. “What’s this?” he asked, raising a brow. “You’ll need it to sign my death certificate,” I said, pain vibrating my veins against my muscles and bones. “Are we done now?”