Sentinel – Jennifer L. Armentrout

FEELING CAME BACK IN MY FEET FIRST, AND THEN MY legs. A pins-and-needles tingling rushed over my skin, causing my fingers to spasm. The sweetness of the nectar still coated the inside of my throat. My body ached as if I’d just completed a triathlon and come in dead last. Or like I’d had my ass kicked and gotten patched up by a god. Either/or… Movement beside me brought the whole side of my body closer to a hard warmth, and I thought I heard my name called, but it sounded like it was on the other side of the world from me. I was moving at the speed of a three-legged turtle, so it took a while to blink my eyes open, and even then it was just a thin crack. When my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, I recognized the buttercup-colored walls and all the titanium trim of the dorm rooms at the University in South Dakota, the same room Aiden and I had done a whole lot of not sleeping in right before Dominic had brought us news of Deity Island survivors. Things…things were different then; it already felt like years ago. A terrible heaviness settled like a stone in my chest, pressing all the way down to my spine. Dominic was now dead. So were the Dean of the University and his Guards. It had been a trick played out by Ares, who’d been masquerading as Instructor Romvi. Our enemy had been among us the entire time. My dislike of that man had been epic before I’d discovered who he really was, but now? Every fiber of my Apollyon being loathed him.

But my hatred of Romvi/Ares/Asshat wasn’t important. So many people were dead, and Ares knew where I was. What was stopping him from coming back for round two? And what was stopping him from killing more people? I heard my name once more, and now it seemed louder and closer. Turning to the sound, I willed my eyes to open. When had my eyes closed again? I was like a newborn kitten or something. Daimons across the nation shuddered in fear. Gods, I was lame. “Alex.” My heart skipped a whole beat, and then sped up in recognition. Ah, I knew that voice.

My heart and my soul knew that voice. “Alex, open your eyes. Come on, baby, open those eyes.” I really wanted to, because for him I’d do anything. Fight a horde of half-blood daimons? There. Tangle with ticked-off furies? Sign me up. Break a dozen or so rules for one forbidden kiss? Done. Open my eyes? Apparently that was asking too much. A warm, strong hand curved along my cheek; the touch was so different than my mother’s, but equally powerful and heartbreakingly tender. My breath caught in my throat.

His thumb traced the curve of my jaw in such a lovingly familiar way that I wanted to weep. I should weep, actually, because I couldn’t fathom what he’d gone through when Ares and I had been locked in that room. Come to think of it, I should’ve cried when I saw my mom. I’d felt the tears, but they hadn’t fallen. “It’s okay,” he said in a voice gruff with exhaustion and emotion. “Apollo said it could take some time. I’ll wait for however long it takes. I’ll wait forever, if I have to.” Those words pulled my heart all over the place, twisting it into mushy knots. I didn’t want to make him wait for another second, let alone forever.

I wanted—no, needed—to see him. To tell him that I was okay, because I was okay, wasn’t I? All right, maybe I didn’t fall into the “okay” category, but I wanted to relieve the harsh edge of stress in his voice. I wanted to make him better because I couldn’t make my mom better, and I knew I couldn’t make myself better. There was a part of me that felt vastly empty. Dead. That was it. I felt dead inside. Frustration coursed like acid in my blood. My fingers fisted in the soft sheets as I dragged in a deep breath. He stilled beside me, like he held his breath and waited, then let out a ragged exhale.

My heart plummeted. Gods, all I needed to do was open my eyes, not walk a tight rope. That frustration quickly flipped to anger—a soul-deep kind of rage that tasted of hot bitterness. My heart rate picked up, and that’s when I realized it was there—the cord. It had been absent in Olympus, but it was back. I hadn’t felt it at first because I’d only been acknowledging the ache in my muscles and bones, but the cord connecting me and the First buzzed like a million yellow jackets, steadily increasing until I swore I could see it in my mind, an amber-colored cord tangling with a blue one. Seth? His reply didn’t come in the form of thoughts or feelings, but a rush of energy so pure it was like being zapped by lightning. Strength poured into me, a torrential downpour of vitality encasing every nerve ending. Every distinct sound in the room was magnified. My own breathing, more steady now, and the deep and slow inhales of the man beside me.

Doors opened and shut in the hallway outside the room, and there were voices, muted but distinct. My skin came alive. Glyphs bled through, swirling across my body in response. I didn’t understand it, but I knew Seth was lending me his power, like he had in the Catskills when I’d fought the furies for the first time. He’d claimed no knowledge of what had happened, chalking it up to adrenaline, but Seth had…he had lied about a lot of things. But now he was helping me. It didn’t make sense, since I was much easier to deal with in this state, but I wasn’t going to look a gift horse too closely in the mouth right at the moment. My eyes flew open. And I saw him. Aiden was on his side, facing me.

His hand still cupped my cheek, his thumb smoothing along my skin, and I could feel the marks of the Apollyon gliding toward his touch. His eyes were closed, but I knew he was awake. Thick, sooty ashes fanned the tips of his broad cheekbones. His dark brown hair was a mess. Waves tumbled over his forehead, brushing the graceful arches of his brows. An ugly, purplish bruise marred his left eye, and I wondered if he could even open it. There was another violent mark, an astonishing mixture of reds, shadowing the strong line of his jaw. His lips were parted, neck and shoulders tensed. Without warning, I was thrown back to the very first time I’d seen him. The Covenant in North Carolina no longer stood, but it felt like I was there again, standing in the training room used for novices.

I’d been practicing with Cal and Caleb. I’d done something incredibly moronic, which was nothing new, and the three of us had been laughing. I’d turned and had seen Aiden by the doors. At that time, I didn’t think he really saw us. He was a pure-blood, and they didn’t show any interest in halfs, so I had assumed he was just dazing. Even then, I’d been captivated by him. To me, he’d honestly been the most alluring male I’d even seen—a face that could be both hard and beautiful. And those eyes, flashing between heather gray and quicksilver, had been permanently etched into my memories from that moment on. That curiosity had been inflamed when he’d shown up in Atlanta, saving me from some really annoying and talkative daimons three years later. Our love had never been easy.

As a pure-blood, he was untouchable to me even though I was the Apollyon, and even now he risked everything to be with me. He was my strength when I needed him to be, my friend when I needed someone to talk me down, my equal in a world where by law I would always be less than him, and honest to gods, he was the love of my life. And he would wait forever for me, just as I would wait forever and a day for him. Except forever will probably end up being fairly short, whispered an insidious voice, and it was right. Even if I managed to get past all the obstacles between me and Seth, and transfer his power to me, there was no doubt in mind that, even as a God Killer, I was going to have problems fighting Ares. And if, by some miracle, I survived that, there was a really good chance the other gods would kill me. So why even bother? Aiden and I could run away together, live as long as we could and be happy. He’d do it if I asked. I knew he would. We could hide until we couldn’t hide anymore, but we’d be together, and we’d be alive.

And for a little while, there’d be no more pain and no more death to deal with. A huge part of me, especially that dark, cold place that had been born when Ares held me down, agreed wholeheartedly with that plan. Run away. Nothing seemed smarter or simpler to do. But I couldn’t, because there was too much that had to be done. People relied on me, and the world would descend into absolute chaos if Ares wasn’t stopped. I held onto that needle-thin thread of duty with my life and spoke. “Hey.” His lashes fluttered opened, revealing silvery eyes that never failed to make the muscles in my stomach tighten and my heart do a little pitter-patter. Our gazes met.

Aiden jerked up, his face paling by several degrees, making the bruises along his jaw and left eye stand out in stark contrast. Fear exploded in my stomach, which was kind of strange since terror typically wasn’t my first reaction to sudden movements, but I scrambled against the headboard. My breath stalled out as my body protested the sudden movement. “What?” I croaked. “What’s wrong?” Aiden stared at me with wide eyes. Color hadn’t returned to his face. He was as pale as a daimon, and while disbelief shattered his gaze, pain churned in them. He reached out but stopped short of touching me. “Your eyes…” “What?” My heart beat so quickly I was sure it would jump out of my chest and do a little jig on the bed between us. “I opened them.

I heard you asking me to.” Aiden winced. “Alex…” Now I was really starting to freak out. Why was he reacting this way? Had Ares rearranged my face so badly that my eyes were on my chin or something? He glanced toward the door and then back to me, his face going stoic, but he could never hide his feelings from me. I could read everything in his eyes. There was so much pain in them that it broke my heart, but I didn’t understand why. “What are you feeling?” he asked. Uh, what was I not feeling? “I’m…I’m going to go with confusion. Aiden, tell me. What’s going on?” He stared at me so long I started to feel a wee bit self-conscious.

Several seconds passed, and then I really became convinced that my eyes were on my chin, but then it made sense. Panic unfurled in the pit of my stomach and spread like a virus. Springing from the bed, I hit the floor. Hot slices of pain ricocheted up my still-healing bones. I stumbled to the side, catching myself on the wall. In a heartbeat, Aiden was off the bed and beside me. “Alex, are you—” “I’m okay.” I bit back a moan. Aiden reached out, but I pushed away from the wall before he could touch me. Each step hurt like Tartarus.

Sweat dotted my forehead, and my legs shook with the effort to make it to the bathroom that joined the two suites together. “I have to see,” I gasped out. “Maybe you should sit down,” he suggested, close behind. I couldn’t. I knew what Aiden was thinking. I was connected with Seth, and maybe he even thought this was a trick of some sort and was waiting for me to break free and pull out Deacon’s ribcage, but Seth was quiet on the other end of the cord. Reaching around me, Aiden pushed the bathroom door open, and I all but fell inside. Light flooded the small but efficient washroom when he found the switch on the wall. My reflection formed in the mirror. I gasped.

This couldn’t be me. No way. Uh-uh, it wasn’t, and I refused to believe it, but the damn reflection remained the same. I had changed. Dramatically. The pressure in my chest returned and doubled as I gripped the edge of the sink. My hair hung an inch or two past my shoulders now, the edges ragged and uneven from the dagger Ares had used. I picked up a strand, wincing as I discovered it was a good deal shorter than the rest. Did the rest of my hair hang in Hades’ war room now? My skin was pale, as if I’d been sick for months and hadn’t seen the sun. But it wasn’t even that.

Hell, it wasn’t even the fact that, yes, my eyes were amber-colored. Identical to Seth’s in clarity and shininess, they were like two topaz gemstones. And they were glowing, like you could see me in the dark kind of creepy glowing, and I got why that set Aiden on edge. Great, I had glowing, honeycomb eyes. Big freaking deal. It was my face I couldn’t get over. I was as shallow as any other eighteen-year-old girl, so yeah, this… this was major. Across my cheekbones and nose, faint pink lines crisscrossed over my skin. My forehead was the same. A web-like network of scars covered my face.

Only one side of my jaw, where Aiden had been touching me earlier, had escaped the…well, the deformity. Dazed by what I was seeing, I slowly lifted my arm and ran my fingers across my cheek, confirming what I suspected. The lines were slightly raised, like stitching. Apollo and his son had healed me. The nectar was still doing its mojo in my system, but I knew these scars were proof of just how badly I’d needed the gods’ help to heal. Like anything else, there always had to be an exchange. When anything was gained, something had to be sacrificed. No one needed to tell me. I knew these scars would never fade. “Oh, my gods…” I swayed.

“Alex, you should sit down.” He reached for me again. “Don’t,” I snapped, holding a hand up between us. My eyes widened. My hand was also covered with scars. I wasn’t even sure what I was saying “don’t” to, but my mouth kept moving. “Just don’t.” Aiden pulled back, but he didn’t leave. Leaning against the threshold of the door, he folded his muscular arms across his broad chest. His jaw set in a hard line.

The pressure moved into my throat, swelling like a balloon and then exploding like a late summer’s day thunderstorm. “What are you waiting for? Me to go all Evil Alex on you again?” I swung forward, losing my balance. “That I’m going to use—” Aiden shot forward, catching me before I cracked my head against the wall. “Dammit Alex, you need to be careful and sit down.” I wrenched free, stumbled back a step, and plopped down on the closed toilet. Air punched out of me. Dear gods, it felt like my tailbone had been cracked. I sat there on the toilet, my butt feeling like someone had literally kicked me in it. Aiden stared at me with warring levels of hope and distrust in the eyes I loved so much. I felt about seven kinds of dejected.

Aiden stepped forward, crouching down so that we were at the same eye level. “You don’t want to kill me?” Most of the rage seeped out of me. Nothing like hearing the man I love ask a question like that to really take the wind out of my sails. “No,” I whispered. There was a sharp intake of breath. “You don’t want what he wants?” “No.” My gaze dropped to where his hands rested between his knees. Good gods, the knuckles were bruised and the skin was torn open, as if he’d punched a…then I got it. Aiden and Marcus had been banging on the titanium doors of the dean’s office with their fists. My heart ached as I watched those battered hands open, close, and then open again.

“I don’t even feel him. I mean, the cord’s there, so I know he’s somewhere, but I don’t feel him. He’s quiet.” His hands unclenched, and even though I wasn’t looking at him, I could tell that most of the tension had left him. He believed me for the most part, and I couldn’t hold the residual suspicion against him. “Gods, Alex, when I saw your eyes, I just… They glowed like that when you escaped the basement and…” When I had almost killed him. If I lifted my lashes, we’d be face to face, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. He shifted closer. “I’m sorry. I should—” “It’s okay.

” I was so tired. Not the physical kind. Oddly enough, it was more of a…spirit-weary sort. “I understand. You had every reason to think that. I don’t know why my eyes are glowing. Seth’s there, but he’s not trying to influence me.” “Yet” hung unspoken between us. “And he’s not talking,” I added, keeping the fact that Seth had lent me some of his own juice out of the conversation. I shifted my gaze back to my own hands and the scars that marred them.

They hadn’t been like that in Olympus, or at least I hadn’t noticed. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s you, and that’s all that I care about—all that matters.” I wanted to believe him. I really did, but the horror in his face when he’d seen my eyes haunted me. I knew Aiden had hated them from the moment they appeared after I’d Awakened, and I couldn’t blame him. These eyes would always remind him of Seth and everything I’d said and done back then, especially when they glowed like yellow light bulbs. “Alex.” His much larger hands covered mine. There was a long stretch of silence.

“How are you feeling?” I shrugged a shoulder, then winced. “Okay.” His hands circled my wrists, and I suddenly was on the verge of tears but didn’t know why. All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball, right there, on the bathroom floor. “I’ve never been more scared in my life than when you forced me and Marcus out of the room.” “Me, too.” I swallowed hard. I don’t know what made me do it, but I pulled my hands free and slipped them between my knees. “How is Marcus?” “He’s hanging in there, but he’s going to be relieved once he learns you’re awake.” Aiden leaned in, his breath warm against my cheek.

Every instinct insisted that I lift my chin a fraction of an inch to meet his lips, but I couldn’t move. There was another pause, and the words he spoke next were heavy. “I know why you made sure Marcus and I were out of that room when Ares attacked. It was incredibly brave, and so like you.” My fingers dug into my stiff denim jeans. Gods, were they the ones I’d worn during the fight? Patches of dark dried blood covered the legs like paint. Squeezing my eyes shut, I was sickened to find that the images of what has caused the stains lingered. Aiden took a deep breath. “But if you ever do anything like that again, I will strangle you. Lovingly, of course.

” I almost cracked a smile at the same thing I’d thought about him not too long ago, but the smile never made it to the surface. He wasn’t done. “We promised each other we’d face this stuff together.” “Ares would’ve killed you,” I said, and it was the truth. Ares would’ve killed him and Marcus if they had stayed in that room, and he would’ve relished doing so. “But I would’ve protected you,” Aiden countered. “I would’ve done every godsdamn thing there was to save you from having to go through what you went through in there. When I came into the room and saw you…” He broke off, cursing under his breath. “You would’ve died trying to protect me. Don’t you get that? I had to do it.

I couldn’t live with myself if you or Marcus died—” “And do you think either of us can live with ourselves knowing what that bastard did to you?” Anger snapped through his voice. So did frustration. “Look at me.” At a loss of how else to explain the obvious to him, I shook my head. “Godsdammit, Alex, look at me!” Startled, my head jerked up and my eyes met his. They were a furious shade of gunmetal gray, and they were so open. Raw pain flowed from them, and I wanted to look away from that, to take the coward’s way out. “My heart stopped when that damn door closed on me. I could hear you two fighting. I could hear him taunting you, and I could hear him breaking your bones.

And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.” He placed his hands on the sides of my legs. Tension rippled through the muscles in his arms. “You never should’ve faced something like that alone.” “But you would’ve died.” “And because I love you, I am willing to die to save you from that. Don’t you dare take that decision away from me again.” My mouth opened, but there were no words. So much was going on inside my head and chest. What he said had split my heart wide open and then stitched the wound closed.

But what would I have left if he’d died? I would’ve been beyond heartbroken, and I couldn’t even bear to think about his death without hurting. If I had to do it over again, I would make the same decision because I loved him. So how dare he expect me to do anything less? I knew I needed to say those words to him, but they…they just couldn’t get past the ball in my chest or pop the lid on the pressure inside me. I shivered, numb and chilled to the core. Aiden went to grasp my shoulders, but he stopped, his fingers curling around air. “You have my heart, and you also have my strength. Make no mistake, I am willing to die for you, but you have to trust that I don’t want to leave your side. Ares wouldn’t have taken me out easily, because I would’ve fought to stay alive and be there for you.” I heard him, and I felt what he said, but all I saw were the Guards that Ares hadn’t even touched. Dominic, whom he’d snapped in two with the twist of his hand.

The Dean he’d tossed out the window with a wave of his arm. All the wanting and needing in the world wouldn’t have saved their lives. He let out a ragged breath when silence filled the bathroom. “Say something, Alex.” “I…understand.” He stared at me, dumbfounded. The numbness had seeped into my muscles. “I want to take a shower. I need to get out of these clothes, and I need to bathe.” Aiden blinked, and then his gaze dropped.

Some of the color brought back by anger drained as if he’d just realized I was in the same blood-splattered clothing I’d worn when I faced Ares. “Alex…” “Please,” I whispered. He didn’t move for the longest time, and then he nodded. Rising fluidly, he stopped halfway and pressed his lips to my forehead. My heart thumped heavily, but then I realized his lips were touching those scars and I winced. Aiden pulled back immediately. Concern etched into his striking face. “Do they—did I hurt you?” “No. Yes. I mean, it’s tender.

” Truth was, it hadn’t hurt at all. Not like the rest of my body did. At first, it had actually felt nice. “I just need to shower.” He hesitated, and for a moment I thought he wasn’t going to leave, but then he nodded again. “I’ll get something for you to wear when you’re finished.” “Thank you,” I said as the door closed behind him. I stood slowly, feeling like I was ninety as my joints popped and my muscles stretched. Stripping off the soiled clothing took an indecent amount of time, and as I turned the water on and steam filled the bathroom, I stepped in. Hot water doused me from head to toe, pricking my raw skin.

The water coursed through my hair and down my body, filling the tub with red and circling the drain like a grotesque raspberry swirl. I washed my hair twice, going through the mind-numbing mechanics until I was satisfied when I didn’t see a hint of pink in the bottom of the tub. Only then, as I turned off the water and felt the spray lessen until it dripped down the plastic walls, did I look down at my body. From my toes to my collarbone, with only a few places where there were no bones to break, I was covered in the thin lacing of pink scars. Good gods…I’d never seen anything like this before. I looked like one of those patchwork dolls. I stepped out of the shower, legs shaking as I twisted to the side. My back was much worse. The coloring was darker along my spine, where many of the vertebrae had been smashed. Had all these bones broken the surface, or had the injuries burst blood vessels? There had been too much pain when it’d happened for me to tell.

Apollyon or not, I couldn’t believe I’d survived this. None of it seemed real. The numbness in my chest spread like a weed. Maybe I was struck stupid by what I saw, because I had known it was my body that looked like this, but the knowledge had only sunk through a layer or two. A strange mark on my back, near my hip, caught my attention. Colored like a pale pink rose, it didn’t follow the typical pattern of the rest of the scars. Swiping the mist off the mirror, I twisted to get a better look at the mark on my lower back. My mouth dropped open. Holy Hades holding hockey sticks, it was the shape and distinct form of a hand. “What the hell?” “Alex?” Aiden’s voice came from the bedroom.

“Are you okay in there?” Heart pounding, I grabbed a towel off the rack and wrapped it around me. That was the last thing I wanted Aiden to see. Opening the door, I forced what I hoped was a reassuring expression. “Yeah, I’m fine.” The look on his face said he didn’t believe me, but then his gaze dropped. It wasn’t the towel that had caught his attention or the fact that so much flesh was exposed. Deep down, I knew why he stared and why his lips thinned. I knew that, when he saw me, it wasn’t my body that held him immobile. It was the patchwork of web-like scars that now covered almost every inch of me, and it was the first time he was really getting to see them in all their glory. Embarrassment flooded my cheeks with heat.

There’d been scars before—daimon tags and, of course, the stab wound—but never like this. It was ugly, really ugly. No way around that. His gaze flicked up, meeting mine, and I couldn’t stand to see the emotion churning in his silver eyes or go through another conversation like before. Hurrying across the room, I grabbed the fresh set of clothing he’d set on the bed and stumbled around, nearly falling into the bathroom. “I’ll be right out.” “Alex—” I shut the door on whatever he was going to say, which would be something ridiculously supportive and typical Aiden, but I knew better. It wasn’t okay. This body sure as hell wasn’t beautiful anymore, and I wasn’t stupid enough to believe that. Tears clogged my throat as I ripped the towel away and threw it to the floor.

It was stupid to get upset about this, because it surely didn’t make the Top Ten List of Messed-Up Problems right now, but damn, it burned like a fire in my chest. Once dressed, I stared at the door. The tears never fell, but the invading numbness spread, leaving behind the worst of emotions: anger and pain. And fear and anxiety

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