Pure – Jennifer L. Armentrout

I STARED AT THE CEILING OF THE GYMNASIUM, LITTLE BLACK splotches dancing in front of me. Man, my butt hurt. No surprise, as I’d landed on it about fifty times already. The only thing not burning with pain was my face; it was on fire for an entirely different reason. My Gutter Fighting class wasn’t going well. This style of hand-to-hand combat wasn’t exactly second nature. My muscles screamed as I pulled myself off the mats and faced our Instructor. Running a hand through his thinning hair, Instructor Romvi looked disgusted with the entire class. “If he’d been a daimon, you’d be dead now. Do you understand? Dead, not alive, Miss Andros.” Like there was some other definition of “dead” I wasn’t familiar with. I gritted my teeth and managed a nod. Romvi shot me another scathing glare. “It’s difficult to believe you have any amount of aether in you, Miss Andros. The essence of the gods is wasted on you.

The way you fight, you might as well be mortal.” Hadn’t I killed three aether-craving daimons? Wasn’t that worth something? “Square off. Keep your eyes trained on muscle movement. You know the drill,” he instructed. I turned back to Jackson Manos, resident Covenant heartthrob and my current opponent. With his swarthy looks and those dark, sexy eyes, he could be quite the distraction. Jackson winked at me. I narrowed my eyes at him. We weren’t allowed to talk during sparring. Instructor Romvi felt it took away from the authenticity of fighting.

Really, even in all of Jackson’s glory, he wasn’t the reason I kept missing his heel strikes and spin kicks. The source of my absolute failure leaned against the training room wall. Dark waves tumbled over his forehead, falling into gunmetal gray eyes. Some would say Aiden St. Delphi needed a haircut, but I loved the wilder look he’d been favoring recently. An instant later, our gazes locked. Aiden returned to the stance I was all too familiar with—welldefined arms crossed over his chest, legs widespread. Watching, always watching. Now he communicated a look that said I should be paying attention to Jackson and not him. Tight coils sprung within me—another thing I’d grown accustomed to.

It happened whenever I laid eyes on him. It wasn’t so much the near perfect curve of his cheekbones or the way his smile hinted at a set of dimples. Or that impossibly ripped body of his— I snapped out my reverie with a moment to spare. I blocked Jackson’s knee with a brutal swipe of my arm, and then I went for a throat strike. Jackson countered it easily. We circled one another, delivering blows and dodging them. He stepped back, dropping his arms to his sides. I saw my opening and went for it. Spinning around, I aimed my knee for his midsection. Jackson darted to the side, but not quickly enough.

I caught him hard in the stomach. Surprisingly, Instructor Romvi clapped. “Good—” “Oh, crap,” Caleb Nicolo, my best friend and partner in mayhem, moaned from the group of students standing against the wall. The thing about defensive kicks—once we made contact with our opponents we either needed to go for the kill shot or back up. I’d done neither. Jackson doubled over my knee and went down, taking me along for the ride. We hit the mat, and somehow—and I seriously doubted by accident—Jackson ended sprawled atop me. His weight knocked my head back and the air out of my lungs. Instructor Romvi yelled, slipping into a different language—maybe Romanian or something. Anyway, whatever he said sounded suspiciously like cursing.

Jackson lifted his head, his shoulder-length hair shielding his grin from the class. “Always on your back, huh?” “Yeah, that’s more like your girlfriend. Get off.” I pushed at his shoulders. Chuckling, Jackson rolled and stood. Ever since the whole “my mom murdered his girlfriend’s parents” incident, Jackson and I hadn’t gotten along. Actually, courtesy of my dead daimon mother, I wasn’t getting along with most of the other students, either. Go figure. Flushing with embarrassment, I scrambled to my feet and stole a quick glance at Aiden. His expression may have appeared blank, but I knew he’d already compiled a mental list of all the things I’d done wrong and filed it away.

But he wasn’t my immediate concern. Instructor Romvi stalked across the mats, stopping in front of Jackson and me. “That was absolutely unacceptable! You move away or dispose of the opponent.” To drive his point home, he threw his arm out, hitting me square across the chest. I stumbled back an inch and clenched my jaw shut. Every cell in my body demanded that I do the same in return. “You do not wait! And you.” Romvi whirled on Jackson. “Do you plan to lie on daimons for fun? Let me know how that works out for you.” Jackson flushed, but didn’t respond.

We didn’t talk back in Romvi’s class. “Off the mats now—not you, Miss Andros!” I stopped, eyeing Caleb and Olivia hopelessly. They stared back, their expressions mirroring mine. Resigned to what I knew was going to happen next, because it’d happened every class with Romvi, I turned to the Instructor and waited for the epic smackdown. “Many of you aren’t ready for graduation.” Romvi prowled the edge of the mat. “Many of you will die the first week on the job, but you, Miss Andros? You’re an embarrassment to the Covenant.” Romvi was an embarrassment to the male race, but he didn’t hear me bitching. He circled me slowly. “I am shocked that you faced down daimons and still stand before me.

Some may think you have potential, Miss Andros. I have yet to see it.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Aiden. He’d stiffened, gaze narrowed upon us. He also knew what was coming, and there was nothing he could do, even if he wanted to. “Prove to me that you belong here,” Romvi said. “Prove to me that you have gained reentry to the Covenant based on merit and not familial ties.” Instructor Romvi was a bigger jerk than most Instructors. He was one of the pure-bloods who’d chosen to become a Sentinel instead of coasting through life living off old money. Like Aiden, pures who chose this kind of life were a rare breed, but that was where the commonalities between the two ended.

Romvi had hated me from the first day of class, and I liked to believe Aiden felt quite the opposite. Romvi attacked. For someone so old, Romvi sure could move fast. I backed across the mats, trying to remember everything Aiden had taught me over the summer. Romvi swung around, his booted heel aiming for my midsection. I swiped his leg away and threw a punch I really, really meant. He blocked that. On and on we went, exchanging and receiving blows. He was landing more on me, continuously edging me toward the edge of the mat. With each swing and each kick, Romvi’s blows became more brutal.

It was like fighting a daimon, because I seriously believed Romvi wanted to do me real harm. I was holding my own until my sneaker slipped off the edge of the mat. I made a tactical mistake. I allowed myself to be distracted. Romvi took it. Reaching out and grabbing a fistful of my ponytail, he yanked me forward. “You should be less worried about your vanity,” he said, twisting me so my back faced the doors. “And cut your hair.” I struck out, catching Romvi in the stomach, but it didn’t faze him. Using my own momentum—and my hair—he slammed me onto the mat.

I rolled into the fall, half grateful that it was over. I didn’t even care that he’d kicked my ass in front of the entire class. Just as long as this— Romvi grabbed my arm and pulled it high above me, yanking me to my knees. “Listen to me, halfbloods. Dying in battle is not your worst nightmare anymore.” My eyes popped wide. Oh, no. No, no, no. He wouldn’t dare… He pushed the sleeve of the Under Armour shirt back until my skin was exposed to the elbow. “This is what happens to you.

Take a good, long look at what happens when you fail. They will turn you into a monster.” Fire coursed across my cheeks and my brain sort of emptied. I tried, really tried, to keep the scars hidden from my classmates. I focused on anything other than the faces of the students as he continued to show the world my tags. My gaze fell over his rough, aged hand, then up his own battle-scarred arm. The sleeve of his shirt had fallen back, revealing a tattoo of a torch turned downward. Instructor Romvi hadn’t struck me as the type to be into tattoos. Romvi dropped my arm then, allowing me to pull my sleeve down. I hoped he got eaten by hungry daimons.

I might look like a scarred-up freak, but I hadn’t failed a damn thing. I’d killed the daimon ultimately responsible for leaving me this way—my mother. “None of you are ready to become Sentinels, to face a daimon half-blood trained just like you.” Romvi’s voice carried through the room. “I don’t expect most of you to show any improvement by tomorrow. Class is over.” I fought the urge to jump on Romvi’s back like a monkey and snap his neck. That wouldn’t win me any fans, but the sick sense of satisfaction would almost be worth it. On his way out, Jackson bumped into me. “Your arm looks like a checkerboard.

That’s real hot.” “Yeah, that’s what your girlfriend said about your di—” Instructor Romvi’s hand snapped out, catching my chin. “Your mouth, Miss Andros, could also use improvement.” “But Jackson—” “I do not care.” He dropped his hand, glaring down at me. “I do not tolerate such foul words in my class. This is your last warning. Next time you will find yourself in the Dean’s office.” Unbe-freaking-lievable. I watched Romvi stalk out of the room.

Caleb approached me, handing Olivia her gym bag. His eyes, the color of the clearest sky, shone with sympathy. “He’s a prick, Alex.” I waved my hand dismissively, not sure if he was talking about Romvi or Jackson. They were both pricks in my book. “One of these days, you’re so gonna snap and kill him.” Luke dragged his fingers through bronzecolored locks. “Which one?” I asked. “Both.” Luke grinned as he tapped my arm.

“I just hope I’m here to see it.” “I second that.” Olivia wrapped her arm around Caleb’s. They pretended whatever was going on between them was a casual thing, but I knew different. Whenever Olivia touched Caleb, which was often, he completely forgot about whatever was going on and got this stupid smile on his face. Then again, a lot of the male halfs got that look on their faces around her. Olivia was stunning. Her caramel-colored skin was envied by most of the halfs. So was her closet. I’d kill to get my hands on her clothes.

A shadow fell over our little group, quickly dispersing them. I didn’t have to look up to know it was Aiden. Only he had the kind of power to send just about anyone running in the opposite direction. Respect and fear did that. “See you later,” Caleb called out. I nodded vaguely, staring at Aiden’s sneakers. Shame over Romvi’s little display made it hard to look at him. I worked hard for Aiden’s respect, to prove I did have the potential he and Leon had believed I had the day Marcus had tried to toss me out of the Covenant. Funny how one person could ruin that in a matter of seconds. “Alex, look at me.

” Against my will, I obeyed. When he spoke that way, I couldn’t help it. He stood in front of me, his long and lean body coiled. We currently were pretending I hadn’t tried to hand my virginity over to him the night I’d found out I was going to be the second coming of the Apollyon. Aiden seemed to be doing really well with it. I, on the other hand, couldn’t stop obsessing over it. “You didn’t fail.” I shrugged. “Doesn’t seem that way, does it?” “The Instructors are tougher on you because of the time you’ve missed and because your uncle is the Dean. People look at what you do.

They pay attention.” “And my stepfather is the Minister of Council. I get it, Aiden. Look, let’s get this over with.” My voice was a little sharper than I intended, but Aiden had seen how mortifying this class had turned out. Not like I needed to discuss it with him. Aiden caught my arm and pushed up the sleeve of my shirt. It had a whole different effect on me. A flutter formed in my chest, spreading a warm flush all over me. Pure-bloods were off-limits to us halfs, which meant what had gone down between us was tantamount to feeling up the Pope or offering Gandhi a roast beef sandwich.

“You should never be ashamed of these scars, Alex. Never.” Aiden dropped my arm and motioned me to the center of the floor. “Let’s get this going so you can rest.” I trailed behind him. “What about your rest? Don’t you have a patrol tonight?” Aiden was pulling double duty between training me and his Sentinel duties. Aiden was special. He’d chosen to be a Sentinel, and he’d also chosen to work with me so I wouldn’t be so far behind the other students. He didn’t have to do either, but a sense of justice had propelled him to become a Sentinel. We shared that desire.

What made him want to help me? I liked to think he was undeniably attracted to me—like I was when it came to him. He circled me, stopping to position my arms at mid-level. “You’re holding your arms wrong. That’s why Jackson’s hits kept getting through.” “What about your rest?” I persisted. “Don’t worry about me.” He squared off, motioning me forward with one hand. “Worry more about yourself, Alex. This is going to be a tough year for you, and you’re doing triple time in training.” “I’d have more free time if I didn’t have to practice with Seth.

” Aiden swung forward so fast I barely blocked the blow. “Alex, we’ve been over this.” “I know.” I stopped his chop. I alternated days between Aiden and Seth, as well as every other weekend. It was like they shared joint custody of me, but I hadn’t seen my other half yet today. Strange—he usually lurked around nearby. “Alex.” Aiden moved out of the offensive stance, studying me closely. “What?” I dropped my arms.

He opened his mouth, seeming to rethink his words. “You’ve been looking a little tired lately. Are you getting enough rest?” I felt my cheeks burst with color. “Gods, do I look that bad or something?” He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Softness crept across his features. “Alex, you don’t look bad at all. It’s just that… you’ve been through a lot and you seem tired.” “I’m okay.” Aiden placed his hand on my shoulder. “Alex?” My heart thundered in response to his touch.

“I’m fine.” “You keep saying that.” His gaze flickered across my face. “You always say that.” “I say it because there isn’t anything wrong with me!” I swatted at his hand, but he dropped his other one on my shoulder, effectively trapping me in front of him. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” I said again, but much quieter. “I’m okay. Completely a hundred percent fine with everything.” Aiden opened his mouth, probably to say something ridiculously supportive, but he didn’t say anything. He just stared at me and then his grip on my shoulders tightened.

He knew I was lying. Everything wasn’t fine. Nightmares of those horrifying hours in Gatlinburg kept me up at night. Nearly everyone at school hated me, believing I’d been the reason for the daimon attack at Lake Lure during the summer. Seth’s constant stalking only added to their suspicions. Out of all the halfs, only Caleb knew I was fated to be the second Apollyon—and fated to complete Seth as his supernatural supercharger or something. His continuing attentions didn’t win me any fans among the female halfs. All the girls wanted Seth, while I just wanted to be rid of him. But when Aiden looked at me like he did now, I forgot about the world. I couldn’t read much of anything fromAiden’s expression, but his eyes… well, his eyes told me he wasn’t doing so great with the whole pretending-we-hadn’t-almost-hooked-up charade.

Aiden still thought about it; hell, he was thinking about it right now. Maybe he imagined what would’ve happened if Leon hadn’t interrupted— maybe even as much as I did. Maybe he’d lie awake and remember how our bodies had felt together. I know I did. The tension racked up several degrees and my body warmed deliciously. These were the kind of moments I lived for. I wondered what he’d do if I stepped forward and closed the distance between us. It wouldn’t take much for me to do it. Would he think I just wanted comfort? Because he would comfort me—he was that kind of guy. And then, if I tipped my head back, would he kiss me? Because he looked like he wanted to do both.

Hold me, kiss me, and do all sorts of wonderful, forbidden things. I stepped forward. His hands jerked against my shoulders, indecision crawled over his features. For a second—just as second—I think he seriously considered it. Then his hands flattened, like a barrier meant to keep me back. The doors opened behind us, and Aiden dropped his hands. I twisted around, wanting to punch whoever it was in the face. I’d come this close to getting what I’d wanted. Leon’s bulky mass filled the door, dressed in his typical, all-black Sentinel garb. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but this cannot wait.

” Leon always had something important to tell Aiden. The last time he’d interrupted us had been two seconds after I’d given Aiden the green light to go all the way. Leon had the worst timing ever. Of course, the last time he’d interrupted, things had been pretty serious. They’d found Kain alive. Once a half-blood Sentinel, Kain had helped Aiden train me. A weekend trip to nearby Lake Lure had proved fatal for everyone involved. He’d survived the daimon attack but had come back to the Covenant as something we’d thought was impossible—a half-blood daimon. Now Kain was dead, and I’d seen it happen. I’d liked and missed Kain, even after he’d killed a bunch of pures and knocked me around the room.

That hadn’t been the Kain I’d known. Like Mom, he’d turned into a terrible version of who he’d really been. Leon moved his massive body forward, looking like the poster child for steroids. “There’s been a daimon attack.” Aiden tensed. “Where?” “Here at the Covenant.

.

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