27 | Blood and Sacrifice

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A drop of sweat slid down the back of Lu's neck, leaving an agonizing itch in its wake. But she didn't dare scratch it. She didn't dare move her hands from their positions, or shift her gaze.

Healing spells were meticulous and time-consuming, and with the amount of damage these wounds bore, the challenge had been doubled. So Lu remained composed, despite the thoughts and feelings running rampant inside her. She kept each breath steady and her head clear of distractions.

Dante jolted as he lay face-down on the table inside the mobile home.

"Don't move," Lu snapped.

"It hurts," Dante hissed through clenched teeth.

Glowing magic poured out of her palms as they hovered over his injured back. The lavender-tinted light rippled with warmth, raising the temperature of the trailer.

When the other wolves had first brought him, Lu almost retched at the sight of at least fifty bleeding slashes in his skin. It didn't take long for her to realize they'd been inflicted by Dante's own people.

"Heal him," Tatiana ordered as Dante was lowered onto the table.

"What did you do?" Lu exclaimed.

"Punished him," the alpha said with lethal quiet. "For saving her."

Lu gaped at Dante's torn-up back, then at Capello, then at the demon-witch. She didn't know whether to sigh in relief, or scream in horror.

He actually did it. Dante rescued Nika as Lu had asked. To prove that he cared about them. Or about Nika, at least. And if Nika had been returned to headquarters alive, then she would warn the Vigil that Tatiana and Capello were after the magic amulet. The element of surprise was ruined.

Dante had betrayed the pack, and because of it, his own uncle had penalized him with a brutality that only Volkari could achieve. This was how they lived—violence, violence, violence. And they wondered why the Ministry called them the savages of Daemonstri-kind.

Lu somehow managed to say, "If this is punishment, why do you want me to heal him?"

"Because he needs to be at his prime when we reclaim Asteroth tomorrow night," Capello said.

"But he crossed you. Why not kill him?"

The alpha looked at her like it was the most outrageous question he'd ever heard. "My nephew was misguided. His juvenile obsession with Nika Dimitrovich will pass soon enough. At the end of the day, he is a wolf. He knows where his loyalties lie."

As Capello stalked away, Tatiana said, "I will return later to check on your progress. You better not disappoint, witchling."

That had been a couple of hours ago, and Lu successfully restored the lower half of Dante's back. But where there had once been smooth skin, there was now a smattering of enflamed scars. She ventured they would never fade, and that had probably been Capello's intention.

Dante released a groan as Lu's magic stitched together muscle tissue, thread by thread.

"Distract me," he panted. "Please. I need to take my mind off the pain."

"How?"

"Just talk. Ask me a question. I don't care!"

Lu scrambled through her brain until a few words leaped off her tongue: "Did you know what would happen to you? When I asked you to save her..."

Dante drew in a long breath. "Yes."

It was an effort not to peer at his face, to see if he was telling the truth. Because Dante Azzara would have to be a saint to make such a sacrifice for a girl he'd spoken to only a few times.

Instead, she said, "Thank you."

"I don't want your gratitude. I want your trust."

"Why?"

"Because I'm not the bad guy. And my uncle...he's not evil."

Lu scoffed.

"He's just desperate. This curse has killed mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. It's taken children, Lu. For a century, my people have suffered. Longer than that, when you consider how we were treated even before the curse.

"That's the way things work in our world. Serafi always come first. Nefili are tolerated, but only because they dedicate their lives to protecting Serafi.

"Volkari and Inferni—we're the real monsters. And why? Because some of us transform into wolves. Others grow wings and talons. Because we're hideous and strange compared to your beautiful race."

Lu was silent while she pondered. It was an ancient debate among Daemonstri—whether Serafi were the best governors, whether everyone could live in peace with each other.

Many Serafi believed there was no one more suited to lead. Not every member of the angel-witch race thought themselves superior, though. There were people like Nika's dad and the other equalist Ministers. Lu's own family, too. People who wanted to make changes.

But the social hierarchy had reigned for a thousand years, dating back to an age in which the Ministry hadn't even existed. To alter the system so dramatically was terrifying to civilians and rulers alike.

It would have been a dream to build a community in which all four races could coexist. But was it realistic?

Would the Inferni be able to control their insatiable bloodlust when they passed another person in the street? Would Volkari still demand to live in packs, hunting and howling their way through life? And what would be the purpose of Nefili, if not to provide protection against the more monstrous races?

Finally, Lu said, "I understand why your people are angry, Dante. I understand why they've flocked around Capello. I even understand why you took me against my will. You want freedom. Control. Purpose...

"But the ends don't justify the means. This revenge mission has caused so much fear and chaos and pain. And the ones who suffer most are innocent. You invaded and attacked an academic institution. Tatiana told me that Miles was killed. Collateral damage, she called it."

"His death was collateral damage," Dante said.

"No, it's a tragedy!" The tears sprung from her eyes with relentless speed. "And so was what happened to Nika. Tatiana tortured her for days. I was forced to infiltrate her mind, Dante. To plant false realities and lies. When she finds out what I did..."

Lu took a steadying breath. The idea had been haunting her ever since the betas had dragged her out of that cave.

Nika will never forgive you. You're a coward. And you're cruel. It would have been more merciful to end her misery for good.

Perhaps that was true. Perhaps killing Nika would have been a kinder choice. But what would Tatiana have done to Lu in turn? And a world without her sister-friend... Lu couldn't bear the thought of it.

She blinked away the tears that had gathered in her eyes, then regarded the wounds in Dante's back. All was healed now, though still tender to touch and movement. Wave after wave of fatigue slammed into Lu as she stepped back from the table.

Dante slowly sat upright, letting his legs dangle over the edge. "Nika will forgive you," he said. "She loves you. Probably more than anything."

Lu set her shoulders back. "You're right. That's why you need to reevaluate this war."

"What does that mean?"

"Who is the enemy you seek to destroy?"

"The Ministry."

"Wrong. You're fighting against the Halfblood Bastard. And she would call upon the power of the Oldbloods, sell her soul to the devil. She would kill, she would die, she would rise from death—all to get me back."

"You seem very confident about that."

Lu sighed. "You're not taking me seriously."

"She's a seventeen-year-old girl. Not even a keeper yet. She's more a nuisance to the pack than a genuine threat."

"Fine. Go and underestimate her. But when you realize she's more dangerous than you thought, don't say I didn't warn you." 

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