I found Dex waiting outside the warehouse a few minutes later, anxiously checking his watch with one hand and fiddling with the scepter inside his jacket with the other. When he saw me, his eyes lit up so quickly you’d have thought he had a lightbulb for a brain.
“Amber!” he exclaimed, rushing to meet me. “I was starting to get—”
I slapped him across the face as hard as I could—and since I’m a werewolf, that’s pretty freaking hard. He went down so fast I almost thought I’d knocked him out cold, but then he looked up at me with that little kicked puppy dog face he was so good at making.
He sighed. “I guess I deserved that, didn’t I?”
“You think?” I yelled, towering over him. “I can’t believe I trusted you!”
Picking himself up, Dex sat down with his back against the warehouse’s metal wall. He didn’t meet my eyes. The sight of him being that down, robbed of what protection his sarcasm and humor gave him, almost made me forgive him on the spot. I still loved him, dang it! Right now I hated myself for it. If you’d offered to take all my feelings for him away then and there, I…oh, who am I kidding? I wouldn’t give them up. Lying traitor or not, he was still the only thing in my life that could be called even remotely good.
“I knew you’d be mad when you found out,” he said softly. “But I knew it’d be worth it if everything worked out the way I hoped.”
He finally looked up at me. “And it did, Amber.”
I swallowed. “What worked out the way you hoped?”
“You did,” he answered. “You have no idea how much I hated seeing Hendricks torture you over the past three years. I’ve never been religious, Amber, but I prayed every night that you would remember the strength you had before…well, you know.”
He shook his head. “But you never did, so I got tired of waiting. That night when you came back smelling like Hendricks had tried to barbecue you, talking about how you’d left the Gauntlet of Malleus behind, you finally gave me the opportunity to do something about it.”
I glared down at him for a minute, and then sat next to him, putting the stupid glove on the ground beside me. I kept my distance, just in case the slimeball tried to touch me, but I was exhausted both physically and emotionally after what I’d gone through today.
“So,” I finished for him, “you went and found Kaylie—”
“Majestic has known where she’s been ever since she ran away from the Swag Pag.”
“Whatever! You stole the gauntlet from the hotel, gave it to her, and then used her to lead me on a wild goose chase across the country to get it back. And you put both of our lives in danger to do it!”
He shook his head again. “Not both of us. Just me. You know you’re too valuable for Hendricks to kill.”
I snorted. “What, did Kaylie’s pack not get the memo?”
That shut him up for a while, and he went back to studying the cracks in the sidewalk again. I took a few minutes to rest, my brain still not completely caught up after the events of the fight. My face still hurt like hell from the punch I’d taken, but at least I’d healed enough that I could talk without spitting teeth out.
But inside me was a different story. The little black hole what had once been my heart hurt so bad that my face felt like it’d only gotten a relaxing massage by comparison. Feelings are the easiest drug in the world to get addicted to. Like cuddling up with a soft, warm teddy bear, only for the teddy to suddenly grow three foot long flaming spikes.
“Wasn’t it worth it in the end, though?” Dex finally asked. “Look at you! You can control your Silverblood form. You’ve gotten your confidence back. I can see it in your eyes. That was one of the things that always made you look so beautiful.”
Despite myself, my cheeks colored a little bit. “Was that what this was all about? Making me prettier?”
“No, of course not!” His eyes glinted with a hint of anger now.
“Then what was the point?” I shot back. “So what if I can control my Silverblood? All that means is that Hendricks will use it to kill even more people! Nothing has changed, Dex!”
“You’re wrong,” he whispered. “Something has changed. The most important thing that could change.”
“And what’s that?”
Hesitantly, he reached out and took my hand in his own. My first instinct was the jerk it away. The last thing I wanted was to be touched by this scuzz right now. But I didn’t. Traitor, lover, whatever the hell he was, he was still the most solid anchor I had to this world right now.
“You did,” he said.
I didn’t reply.
Dex tightened his grip. “You have all the power of a Silverblood at your command, and you have the Gauntlet of Malleus. Don’t you see what this means, Amber? You can make it so that Hendricks never hurts you again!”
A chill went down my spine, and I finally pulled my hand away. “You’re insane. He can’t die. He’d kill us both. Or, rather, he’d kill you, make me watch, and then hurt me so bad that I’d never be able so much as talk back to him ever again.”
“And since when has that ever stopped you before?”
I froze, then looked at him.
“This isn’t the first time you’ve faced impossible odds,” he said, looking back at me with all the intensity of a laser beam. “You’ve bullied Majestic’s board of directors into giving you what you want. You’ve fought Slayers and lived. You’ve faced down immortal, prehistoric hyenas and won!”
“There was only one of those,” I mumbled.
He threw his hands in the air. “It doesn’t matter, Amber! You are by far the most amazing woman I’ve ever met! That’s why, with your power and that gauntlet, I know that you can take down Hendricks. All you need now is for you to believe it.”
Hearing his words, a fire sprang up in my heart. I sat up a little straighter. He was right, I had done all those things! I’d beaten Becky, pulled Kimberly out of Majestic’s clutches, escaped from Hendricks after he’d caught me, and…
I slumped forward again, that fire dying inside me like a match thrown into Niagara Falls. None of those things mattered. Every time I thought I’d done something right, something would go a hundred times more wrong. Mom had been kidnapped and tortured. Tyler had died. Stacie had gotten her memory erased. And Kimberly…
I closed my eyes and shook my head. ““You’re wrong about me, Dex. I’m not strong. I’m not special. I’m just a stupid girl who’s been in over her head since day one.”
Dex looked stunned, like he had actually expected his little pep talk to convince me to fight an immortal, psychotic demon. “But…You can’t just give up! What about—”
I whirled on him, eyes alight with anger. “I can’t do it, Dex!”
As soon as those words came out of my mouth, a shadow as black as a moonless, starless night fell over us. Daylight was still shining all across Chicago, but somehow the sun had vanished entirely in the small section of sidewalk we were sitting on. A deathly cold froze the air around us solid, but that didn’t chill my soul half as much as the words that came after it.
“A wise choice, Amber.”
Dex and I were both on our feet in an instant, spinning around to see the pale skinned, black eyed face of Hendricks peering at us from a shadowy portal that had appeared in the wall behind us. Before either of us could react, his arm shot out, stretching unnaturally long, and wrapped his clawed, bony fingers around Dex’s throat.
“But you, Dexter,” he crooned, his voice as sweet as acidic honey, “have just made the worst decision of your life.”
Dex paled until he was almost as white Hendricks. All the feeling leaked out of my body, and I could only stand there and stare while Hendricks reeled his arm in, pulling Dex through the shadow portal and out of sight. My heart pounded. My blood froze in my veins.
This…This couldn’t be…
Hendricks grinned, his razor sharp teeth glinting even in the darkness. “Take the rest of the week off, Amber. You’ve earned it.”
“Wh- What are you going to do to Dex?” I forced myself to ask.
His grin stretched even wider. “He’s nowhere near as valuable as you are, so I have no qualms about killing him—after I skin him alive!”
He vanished before I could say anything else, leaving the portal open and the sidewalk cloaked in shadow. All I could do was stand there, looking at the place where Dex had disappeared.
Dex…the only one who had shown me the smallest bit of kindness over the past three years.
The one who had made me laugh when it had felt like there was no joy left in the world.
The man I loved, no matter how much I wanted to hate him.
That fire leaped up inside me again, and I clenched my fists. No. No! Hendricks was not going to take him away from me. He had taken away everything else. My home. My friends. My family. If he wanted to take Dex too, he would have to kill me first!
The Gauntlet of Malleus was still lying on the ground. I grabbed it and slid it over my right hand. It tightened around my arm until it fit as snugly as my own skin, and the surge of energy that came from it was enough to blow my hair backwards. So much power! Even more than I had in my Silverblood form! I made a fist while the gauntlet sent tremors up pain and pleasure through my entire body—and then I fixed my eyes on the portal.