Darius Jones’s world was a swirl of pain and light.

The blow came in beneath his chin. Swift. Unrepentant. It knocked his head backward, and his teeth gnashed together, catching his flesh between them. The sweet, metallic taste of blood flooded over the top of his tongue and trickled between his teeth.

Darius swore as he gingerly wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. A pink slurry smeared across the beige fabric wrapped around his knuckles. He pushed his tongue out, exploring the raw spot inside his lip. Stinging pain shot through his cheek, and he winced.

“Keep your hands up.”

The words rang out sharp in the room. They bounced off the mirrored walls before being absorbed by the black, padded floors beneath Darius’s bare feet. Thorn Rose stood across from him. Even in training, she was fierce and tightly wound. She widened her stance. The defined musculature lining her calves and thighs showed through her red leggings, and her bare stomach was rigid and ready as she brought her forearms in to cover her face. Her intense, half-empty, black eyes watched him from the gap between her wrists. She wasn’t wearing guards or gloves, and raised tendrils of scarred skin wrapped around her left thumb to the back of her hand.

“You live here,” she said. “Protect your head. Don’t leave any openings.”

“Got it,” Darius said.

“When you strike, strike quick.” She demonstrated, and her left fist popped out. As it flashed by, Darius caught sight of the Peccostium. The mark of the Sins sat, black and evil, just below her wrist joint. A tangled mess of furious white scars surrounded it, dripping down to her elbow. Her arm snapped back into its proper spot, standing guard by her jaw. “And return here. Always return here.”

Darius nodded and held his hands up, too.

“Okay,” Thorn said. She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled it from her nose. Her thin brows came in heavy over her eyes. “Try again.”

Darius flew at her.

He threw his right fist toward Thorn’s chin. She swiftly deflected—ducked down and to the left. He turned to keep her in front of him where he could more easily defend himself. They circled for a moment. Slowly. Meticulously. The soles of their bare feet made soft, sliding sounds against the padded floors. Thorn’s dark eyes focused intently on Darius’s as they sized each other up.

Darius feinted to the left then came in for another strike on Thorn’s opposite side. She anticipated it, redirecting the blow with her arm and spinning out of the way. When she twisted around, her elbow came in at Darius’s ribcage. The hit was light, but it knocked him off balance, and he stumbled.

“God damn it!”

“You’re too tense,” Thorn said. Her arms dropped from their offensive position, and she reached up to tighten the elastic holding her long, black hair to the base of her skull. From looking at her, no one would have guessed they’d been at this for almost twenty minutes now. Where Darius was sweaty and tired, Thorn looked as fresh as she had the minute she’d walked into the room. She propped her hands on her hips. “You’re getting worked up and making stupid mistakes. Maybe we should be done for the day.”

“No,” Darius said, almost too quickly. Thorn’s expression furrowed, skeptical and observant. He ignored her and pressed on. “I’m fine. I’ve got it. I just have to focus.”

And he needed the outlet—to expend as much energy as he could now so that he could fall asleep tonight.

“You’re exhausted,” Thorn argued. “Take a couple of days to recover.”

“I don’t need to recover,” Darius said. “All the other trainees do this daily. I can, too.”

Thorn raised one eyebrow high on her head. “The other trainees are working with Chris’s tactical team, and you’re healing most of them up at the end of the day. You are working with me, and no one here can fix you.”

Darius shook his head. He didn’t want to acknowledge how right Thorn was—how much more rigorous his work with her was compared to what Chris and TAC did with the others—because it would mean adjusting his schedule and training less. Their sessions were intense and thorough, and they left Darius so tired he could hardly keep his eyes open at night.

Which was exactly what he wanted.

“I’m fine,” Darius said again. He rolled his shoulders and held his hands in front of his face. The muscles in his legs groaned, but he ignored them. “Let’s go.”

Thorn glared at him for a moment longer before she took another deep breath, planted her feet, and raised her guard. “Relax,” she told him, and her eyes focused hard on his, peering so intently into them that Darius was half convinced she knew what he was doing—and why he was doing it. “Don’t get stuck in your head.”

Her mouth tightened. Now he was confident she wasn’t talking about the fight anymore. He felt a red heat rise upon his cheeks.

“I’m fine,” Darius said for the third time. Repeating it would make it true, he told himself. He hoped Thorn would believe it—maybe then he would, too.

“You’ve got to be better than fine.”

He lunged for her again.

The last six months were a whirlwind of elation and depression—of victory and bitter defeat. Another Sin had been destroyed for good, leaving only four intact and one floating around looking for a host. If that wasn’t enough of a reason for the Martyrs to celebrate, Nicholas Wolfe certainly was.

When Teresa Solomon, Humility, had eliminated Pride and died in the process, everyone assumed it meant all Virtues had to sacrifice their lives to take down the Sins.

Nicholas had proven them wrong. Sloth was dead, but Nicholas wasn’t.

Not technically.

Thorn dodged Darius’s attack. As he blew past her, she spun and struck him between the shoulder blades. He flew forward, sprawling to the ground.

“Had enough?” Thorn asked.

Darius growled and hopped back to his feet. Thorn was already in position again, expression static and unreadable, her form so perfect that Darius couldn’t even guess at any next move. He rolled his shoulders and braced himself. Facing her was different than facing any other Martyr here, and it wasn’t just because she was the best person on the team at hand-to-hand combat.

It was because Thorn Rose didn’t have a soul.

The energy that had once made her human had been cleaved into pieces—torn from her, bit by bit, when Wrath had possessed her over one hundred years ago—and even after she’d managed to escape, it had never come back together. Darius had come to rely on his Virtue senses when he sparred with the others. He could feel their energy, which gave him an unfair advantage in fights. He could “see” them without seeing them—know how close they were, anticipate their moves based on the warm aura that emanated from their very beings. Thorn didn’t have one.

The circling continued. Darius felt tension rising in his shoulders. The anticipation, wondering when Thorn would come at him, grew with each passing second. Her deep, void-like irises zeroed in on his. He took a slow breath, and Thorn’s words swam in his mind.

“Don’t get stuck in your head.”

He rolled his shoulders, felt the muscles loosen—

Thorn moved quickly. Her left hand came at him again. Gently open, fingers curled, as the heel of her palm moved toward his stomach. Darius glanced out of the way. Barely. When Thorn flew past him and her back was turned, he tried to counter-attack, but she was too fast. She spun expertly, and his fist missed her face—striking, instead, against her arms, which she’d raised to defend herself.

“Better,” she said, and he caught a glimpse of her through the gap between her wrists. There was a small smile on her thin lips.

“But not good enough.” He wiped the sweat from his brow, and at that moment, Thorn rushed in. He wasn’t ready. Her jab flew toward his face. He managed to turn, but as he did, Thorn ducked down and swiped her foot out in a wide, arcing kick. She knocked Darius’s legs from underneath him, and suddenly, he was airborne.

Darius landed so hard on the padded floor it forced the air from his lungs. For a few agonizing seconds that felt like hours, he couldn’t breathe. His diaphragm froze, shocked into silence, and his lungs tightened in his chest. A deep, aching pain, an emptiness, and the fear that this feeling would last forever overwhelmed Darius’s senses. He felt his heart beating hard in his throat, and his mouth gaped open, gasping for air he couldn’t bring in.

Thorn knelt by his side and immediately propped him up. Her right hand wrapped around his bicep, her grip almost painful, as her left palm flattened against his back and moved in firm, tight circles. 

“Yeah,” she said. Her voice came out hard and angry—more self-reproachful than targeted at Darius. “We’re done for the day.”

Darius shook his head. Still gasping, still aching, he shook his head fervently and tried to wave Thorn off, but she was stronger than him, and he still couldn’t breathe. At last, his body seemed to remember what it was built to do, and his chest opened up. He took a deep breath, coughed, and waved his hand again.

“I’m fine—”

“This isn’t up for debate, Jones,” Thorn snapped. Her grip hadn’t loosened around his arm, and the hand pressed to his back now held him steady. Darius could feel her slender fingers stretched out between his shoulder blades, rising and falling with his harsh, uneven breathing. “You need more rest.”

“I don’t need rest,” Darius said. He pulled himself out of her hands and clumsily stood up. His chest still ached—still felt hollowed out the same way it had last September, when Saul, Juniper, and Lindsay had burned to death, caught in the crossfire between the Martyrs and the Sins, and a week later, when he and Eva had gone to spread Saul’s ashes…

Suddenly, Darius’s mind was full of rattling gunfire, the stink of burned rubber, and spilled blood. He shook his head. “I need to train.”

Thorn slowly got to her feet. Her arms crossed as her dark eyes took in his expression then moved quietly down to the hand he had pressed against the empty spot between his lungs. Darius hadn’t realized he’d raised it, and he quickly dropped it back to his side. Thorn’s focus came to his face again.

“We’re done,” she said. “Go wash up. We’ll get back at it in a couple of days.”

She didn’t let him argue. He opened his mouth to do so, but she threw him a dangerous look and turned away, striding to the women’s locker room. Darius watched after her, breathing hard, until she disappeared. Movement on top of the weight rack to his right made him turn, and he spotted a small, blue-scaled lizard with massive, leathery, red wings folded at its sides.

Sparkie, Thorn’s Familiar, the corporeal part of the energy Wrath had ripped from her, tilted his head as he stared at Darius. Darius wasn’t sure, but he thought even the animal looked reproachful—like it was reminding him to do as Thorn asked and take a shower, too.

And she’d know if he didn’t. She and Sparkie were one and the same. If Darius tried to keep working, he couldn’t hide it from her. Not with half of her soul in the room.

So he took a deep breath, exhaled it in a sigh, and walked into the men’s locker room.

Then he was alone.

The long, narrow room ran along the back of the gym, a tight strip between it and the pool. The smell of chlorine filtered in through the door across from Darius. White tile, white walls, and bright white lights made the locker area blindingly sterile and boring. Almost too boring. Without the chatter of people bouncing off the hard walls or the background noise from showers running and hand dryers blasting hot air, Darius had almost nothing to distract him from his thoughts.

Nothing but sore muscles.

He groaned and walked to the far end, past alcoves of lockers and changing areas, to the showers. He grabbed his gym bag, hung it on a hook, and stripped down. His white shirt clung to the sweat caked across his chest and down the divot of his spine. Pulling it over his shoulders highlighted the acute soreness in his arms. He threw it and the rest of his clothes into a pile on the ground. Then he opened the shower door and turned on the water.

While he waited for the water to get hot, Darius leaned against the frame and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror hanging across the room.

God, he couldn’t blame Thorn for wanting to call it quits.

Dark, sleepless circles made his green eyes look tired. He’d been too lazy to shave the last couple of days, so a fine layer of stubble lined his sharp jaw. Even his body looked worn thin. Since joining the Martyrs over a year and a half ago, Darius had gone from sickly skinny to slim and toned, but now his olive skin was speckled with the shadows of bruises he hadn’t let heal before jumping back into the ring. He gently touched his hand to a deep, green and purple mark at his side. The memory of a bullet ripping through him at that exact spot, leveling him before he could heal Eva’s wounds, made him wince and close his eyes.

Then Eva was all he saw.

He couldn’t wait anymore. He stepped into the shower before it got hot and shivered in the lukewarm spray. When the water finally warmed up, Darius tilted his head back and let it berate the top of his skull. It poured through his short, dark brown hair, over his face, and down the back of his neck. His body reacted to it. Muscles—tense from training, from tossing and turning every night, from gripping anxiety and guilt—allowed themselves a few moments to relax. His legs felt weak beneath him, and Darius leaned his shoulder against the wall. He took a deep breath of the hot, humid air and let it out in a sigh.

“Fuck.”

* * * * *

Darius paused inside the locker room door and gazed out the window. Thorn waited for him, sitting on the same exercise mat she’d slammed him into less than a half-hour before. Like him, she had showered and dressed. Her damp, black hair fell against her shoulders, and she’d changed into fresh clothes, though Darius didn’t see why. She never broke a sweat when they trained.

If Darius hadn’t known better, he would have thought she was meditating. Her eyes were closed, legs drawn up beneath her, and hands folded peacefully in her lap. Her sleeves extended to her palms, where her thumbs stuck through holes in the wrist cuffs, covering her Peccostium and the scars around it.

The two of them had made a routine of meditating together twice a week, and he knew when she was focused and when she wasn’t. Right now, Sparkie betrayed her agitation. He walked in little circles by her knee, his wings and tail twitching occasionally. Darius heaved a sigh. He couldn’t hang out here forever; Thorn was not above coming in if she thought he was taking too long. So he opened the door. Thorn’s Familiar froze as he walked back into the gym, and her eyes shot open.

“You didn’t have to wait for me,” Darius said. He adjusted his bag on his shoulder as Thorn got to her feet.

She didn’t respond, instead taking a quick moment to look him over. Darius wished he’d thought to wear long sleeves, too, to hide the bruises starting to color on his forearms.

“Let’s go grab some food,” Thorn said at last. Darius got the feeling it wasn’t what she wanted to say by the way her intense focus looked him over—as though she expected him to unravel like a poorly sewn sweater.

“I’m not hungry,” Darius said. It wasn’t technically a lie. He hadn’t had much of an appetite in the last few months. A single eyebrow raised high on Thorn’s head, and Darius let out a rough chuckle. “What?”

“Jones—”

“Don’t ‘Jones’ me,” Darius said, and he made his way toward the door.

Thorn followed, reaching her hand down at the exact moment Sparkie leapt up to grab it. His tiny claws latched onto the fabric on her arm as he scurried up to her shoulder.

“I won’t ‘Jones’ you when you start taking care of yourself,” Thorn said. Darius walked into the courtyard, and she was fast on his heels. “You need to take a break—”

“Jesus, Thorn, how many times do I have to tell you that I’m fine for you to believe me?” Darius snapped. Now that they were out in the courtyard, Darius’s voice carried through the massive, concrete cavern. This space was large enough to house several hundred people comfortably, but it had been a long time since that many had lived in the Underground. Now, the room was vacant. Huge, empty planters lay in a grid-like pattern through the center of the room. Alcoves around its edge boasted of more prosperous times when the Martyrs had entertained hobbies, classes, and other extracurriculars that had since faded away. At the far end of the room, near the elevator, a handful of people were sitting down to a late dinner—mostly researchers done for the day. They all simultaneously glanced up from their meals, and Kenia, the Martyrs cook, craned her neck over the counter toward them.

Darius cleared his throat and spoke a little more quietly this time. “I’m sorry, it’s just—I’ve been seeing Abraham once a week, and honestly, I could do with a little less people worrying about me.” Thorn’s frown only deepened. Darius put on a strained smile. “I’ve been taking care of myself since I was ten. I know what I’m doing.”

“Then do it,” Thorn said, but the sharpness in her voice dulled a bit. A glint of concern passed between her dark eyes, sending an awkward yet grateful jolt through Darius’s chest. She took a deep breath and opened her mouth to say something else, but before she had the chance, both of their phones sounded a sharp, familiar alarm.

Code Black. 

The tension between them shattered. Thorn and Darius shared a look—his eyes wide and haunted, hers narrowed into furious slits—and they took off. Their shoes slammed hard against the concrete tiles as they sprinted across the courtyard. Thorn reached the far side first. Her Forgotten Sin strength gave her speed and endurance Darius couldn’t compete with, even when he wasn’t exhausted from nonstop training. She didn’t waste time waiting for the elevator; she instead rushed to the door beside it and threw it open. Sparkie leapt from her shoulder and disappeared into the stairwell. 

But Thorn paused and waited for Darius to reach her. Then, they climbed the stairs two at a time. She pulled ahead again, opening the door to the first floor before he reached the landing so they could fly through it together. The uppermost level of the Underground was a flurry of activity. Darius felt dozens of souls moving. The hallway from the elevator was narrow, flanked by the garage and the the tactical room. People moved about in there, buzzing like hornets.

As the hall opened into the entrance and waiting room to the hospital ward, Darius spotted a tall, slender man speaking quietly with one of the nurses. His black hair fell to his shoulders, and his mouth set into a hard frown behind his goatee. Dark, half-empty eyes landed on Thorn and Darius as they entered the room. He dismissed the nurse with a nod and turned toward them.

“Alan,” Thorn said. “What’s the situation?”

Alan Blaine, the founder of the Martyrs and Thorn’s uncle, took a long, slow breath. “One of our TAC units was ambushed at a police checkpoint leaving the city. Two others came to the scene to relieve them. They were outnumbered. Outgunned.”

Thorn’s mouth tightened into a fine line. “Gluttony.”

“We must assume,” Alan said, “though he was not on the scene, for which we are very lucky. All six of our people were injured, but none have died… not yet.”

He passed Darius a dark look.

“Which units were involved?” Darius asked. His throat tightened against the words.

“The Fourth, Fifth.” Then Alan paused, and he gave Thorn a troubled look. “And the First Response Units.”

Thorn’s porcelain skin paled. A flash of fear so cold, so palpable, that it sent a shiver down Darius’s spine flooded her expression.  

“Elijah and his team are preparing triage for severe trauma,” Alan went on, and he turned away from Thorn and took in Darius again. “You will want to be in there.”

Darius brushed past Alan and sprinted across the length of the waiting room. He couldn’t feel Thorn, nor could he hear her, but he knew she’d be right behind him.

“She’ll be fine,” Darius said. He glanced over his shoulder to see Thorn following close on his heels. “I’m sure she’s fine.”

Thorn’s forehead knitted into a tight furrow, but her eyes glistened with a carnal, wild panic. “She fucking better be,” she whispered.

Darius swallowed hard as they rushed through the double doors.

The hospital ward was empty. It usually was. Despite the Sins’ increased activity and the influx of injured Martyrs returning from patrol, patients rarely stayed hurt for long now that Darius was around. Hospital cots and privacy curtains dotted down the long room. Over two dozen individual beds sat, clean, crisp, and untouched.

Darius strode past them and through another door on the far end of the ward. Where the hospital was empty, the triage room moved with warm, positive energy. Darius could feel Dr. Harris and a team of nurses darting around, preparing the unit for an influx of people. The thought made Darius’s aching stomach twist. He pushed through the swinging door.

“Darius,” a tense voice said. Elijah Harris stood by the back wall, scrubbing his hands and arms with soapy water as his wife and head nurse, Colette, tied a medical mask around his face. “I hope you never tire of hearing me say, thank god we have you.”

“Glad to be here,” Darius said, though he was anything but glad right now. He walked past Elijah, Colette, and the other four nurses standing ready in the room. Raquel Hernandez, the one nearest the door, watched Darius intently until he met her eye. They shared a brief, anxious nod.

“Thorn,” Elijah said, his tone weary, “you know the rules.”

Dr. Harris turned his steely gray eyes onto Thorn as she came through the doorway. Even with his nose and mouth covered by a mask, Darius could see the frown in his expression. His brown hair, graying at the temples, poked out from the bottom of his green medical cap as Colette pulled it over his head. Thorn looked up at a large screen on the far wall where the six incoming TAC members’ vitals were laid out. Darius wasn’t an expert, but he’d picked up enough to know it wasn’t looking good.

Thorn pointed at the top chart. “Chris is—” 

“Getting worked up won’t help her,” Elijah snapped, “or anyone else here. Get in position.”

Darius’s stomach twisted, and he glanced at Raquel to see tears glistening around her brown irises. An alert sounded from a speaker in the corner of the room, and every eye turned toward the entrance. Thorn, for once seeming to listen to someone other than herself, stood at the back of the nursing staff with a forced calm. Her mouth set into a fine line as she stared through the windows and into the garage beyond them.

A tense hush fell.

Then the sensation of warm energy came into Darius’s awareness from above and spiraled downward. Light shone through the glass. Tires screeched to a halt.

“Let’s move!” Dr. Harris called.

Darius forced the door open as Raquel, Colette, and Elijah ushered their team out with stretchers and rushed upon a battered, black SUV. The metal sides were dented and pierced—bullet holes ripped through the outer shell and left the reinforced doors scraped and misshapen. Almost every window was shattered. A big, burly man opened the driver’s side door, blood pouring from a wound on his scalp like a crimson waterfall down his face. Pebbles of glass shards sprinkled onto the concrete floor as he stepped down. Darius moved toward him, but he shook his head.

“I’m fine,” he said, waving his hands. His fingers shook, and his palms were covered in blood. “Help the others.”

“Conrad, come here,” Colette said, and she grabbed the bleeding man by the arm. Together she and Darius lowered him back onto a stretcher. As soon as his backside hit the cot, he collapsed onto it.

“Darius!”

Raquel’s voice echoed through the dark parking garage like a howl. The sound pierced deep into Darius’s chest, into his soul, and he rushed around the side of the vehicle to where she and Elijah had opened the rear hatch. He felt the blood drain from his face, from his hands, from his feet as the room around him went cold and numb.

The back was full of bodies.

Moving, groaning, bleeding bodies. Five Martyrs lay crumbled together, clutching onto one another in a desperate and harrowing attempt to hold themselves together.

And they needed to be held together. The gray interior of the vehicle was the color of rust and reeked of the sweet, metallic scent of blood. Raquel and Dr. Harris were pulling people from the back. Jason Nichols. Seth Graves. Amelia Chan. They were all dazed, barely clinging to consciousness. Darius moved toward Liz Wright, Conrad’s partner in the Fifth Response Unit, as Raquel and another nurse transferred her from the SUV to a stretcher. Power surged to his hands, eager for a release, and he drew them closer to her…

But Liz shook her head and gestured a pale, shaking hand back to the vehicle.

“Chris,” she said. Her voice was harsh and gravelly. She coughed, and blood speckled her purpling lips. “Get Chris.”

Darius’s heart sank as he spun around to see Elijah crawling backward from the SUV. His green scrubs were painted in heavy, scarlet swatches. As he drew back and came to full height, Darius heard the sickening sound of liquid dripping onto the floor—

“Chris!”

Thorn. Her voice filled with an aching desperation. She came tearing from the triage room, her black eyes wide and terrified as she swiftly moved between the other nurses and injured Martyrs until she’d forced her way to where Dr. Harris was laying Chris onto a stretcher.

 Thorn grabbed it, and she pushed it toward the triage doors, Darius guiding it from the other side. He could feel Dr. Harris behind them, moving to handle other casualties while they waited for Darius’s healing touch—

His touch.

As Thorn forced them through the doors and pulled the stretcher out of the way, Darius cupped one hand to the side of Chris’s face. His thumb gently stroked her cool cheek while his other pressed tight against a wound he could see through the shredded fabric at the crook of her neck. Her black turtleneck was saturated in blood.

“Shh,” Darius said, opening up the boundary between them. He felt energy pour out of him, flowing from his healthy body into Chris’s broken one like a river emptying into a dry lakebed. Her eyes rolled backward, and she gasped. Darius urged more power forward. “It’s okay. We’ve got you.”

He glanced at Thorn. She didn’t look back. Her eyes were focused on Chris and Chris alone.

More wounded were carried through, and the triage room exploded with noise and chaos. Darius’s ears filled with the sounds of Elijah yelling orders, groaning and crying Martyrs, and the harsh beeping of machines. He tuned it all out and zoned in on the patient between his fingers. Chris’s skin was still cold and sallow, her lips a shade of blue that made Darius too nervous to let go. Her eyelids had stopped fluttering, but instead of becoming more alert, they’d shut hard and hadn’t opened again. Darius pushed more energy into Chris while Thorn ran her fingers through her yellow hair. Brown streaks of tacky blood held it together in clumps.

“Don’t you do this to me,” Thorn murmured so quietly only Darius could hear her over the raucous noise filling the tiny room. Emotion crackled the last word. Thorn cleared her throat. “How many times do I have to tell you, you’re not allowed to die.”

She wouldn’t die. Darius wouldn’t let her.

He closed his eyes and focused, searching with his Virtuous senses to find where Chris needed healing the most. He felt it in his stomach—mirrored as a deep, heavy aching in his abdominal wall and the organs behind it. He moved his hand to her waist, lifted her shirt, and pressed his fingers against the seeping wounds on her gut.

Then he drove his healing energy forward again. It focused on and centered in her core, draining Darius. He closed his eyes and clenched his teeth as his head began to swim, but he didn’t stop.

Not until he felt two tiny, metal items push out from a hole in Chris’s flesh and into his palm.

Darius raised his hand and tilted the bullets into a tray by the side of the cot. They landed in the basin with a soft clink-clink!

At last, Chris began to move. It started in her hands. Where Darius was still holding the crook of her neck, Chris reached up and wrapped her fingers around his wrist. Darius’s heart skipped a beat, and he paused in his healing. Chris’s green eyes opened. She stared at the ceiling, her pupils constricting with the light.

“Oh, thank god,” Thorn murmured.

Chris turned toward her, brows furrowed, mouth open. Then she looked to Darius…

The reality of the situation struck her. Her confusion dissolved, and her eyes filled with wide terror. The sounds of the room roared to life around Darius with a thunderous boom. Dr. Harris calling out orders. Raquel and the others responding in turn. Footsteps. Alarms. Swearing—

Chris sat up on the cot, sucked in a sharp, painful breath, and pushed Darius away.

“Heal the others,” she growled, grabbing at her stomach where the wounds were still not fully healed. “I’m fine. Go.”

“I’m almost—”

“I said go!

Chris pushed him further back, wincing again. Thorn grabbed her and lowered her back onto the cot. Then she turned to Darius and gave him a dark nod, which he returned before moving to his next patient.

Seth Graves was barely better off than Chris. He was laid out on the cot beside her, his face ashen, jaw shaking. Raquel and Colette were prepping him for Darius—cutting clothing away from the bullet holes tearing through his stomach and right thigh. As he approached, the two nurses moved away to help Dr. Harris. Seth turned his head toward Darius as he came up to the side of his cot and let out a frantic laugh.

“Fuck, Darius,” he grunted through chattering teeth. Darius pressed his hands against Seth’s stomach, and the other man groaned in relief as healing power surged into his body. “I didn’t think we were gonna make it this time…”

“What happened?” Darius asked. It was a technique Dr. Harris had recommended Darius try a couple of months ago when the first big influx of injured Martyrs had started to come in. Talk while you work on them. Ask questions. Keep them busy. It helped everyone stay calm.

“Police checkpoint,” Seth said. He swore and tilted his head back. “Never had a problem before, but as soon as we stopped, they started firing. Chris was hit before we knew what was happening. Thank god backup was so close, or we’d be laid out in a morgue somewhere…”

Darius nodded, but he wasn’t really listening. His brain was struggling to keep up with the words coming out of Seth’s mouth—struggling to make sense of them. The power flow from his body was slower than he was used to. Or maybe he just perceived it as slow. He looked over his shoulder at Liz Wright, lying on the next cot over, and it felt like he was looking at her through water. The hairs at the base of his neck began to tingle…

“Jones?”

A hand wrapped around Darius’s bicep. The lack of a warm aura told him it had to be Thorn’s. He ignored her, focusing on the flesh molding beneath the heel of his hand. A metal slug forced its way through the entrance wound and into his palm. 

He dropped the bullet into another little tray. It rolled in a semi-circle before stopping, drawing an arc of deep crimson against the chrome behind it. Darius’s bloodstained fingers quivered, and he shook his wrist to steady them.

“You need to sit down,” Thorn said, firmer this time. Her grip tightened around his arm, and she tried to guide him away from the chaos—away from where four other TAC members were still bleeding out on the tables. Dr. Harris didn’t notice—or he didn’t care. Jason Nichols suddenly shook violently. Elijah was at his side in seconds. Colette cut through Jason’s shirt and pulled it open to expose his chest. He’d been shot only once—near his heart.

“We’re losing him!” Elijah yelled into the room.

Darius pulled out of Thorn’s hands and rushed past Liz, past Conrad, past a handful of nurses, and came upon Elijah’s side. Thorn followed close behind him. He felt her grab his shoulders as he reached down and placed his palms directly over Jason Nichols’ heart. Jason’s eyes met his, wild and frantic, as he grabbed Darius’s hand with ice-cold fingers.

“Don’t let me die,” he choked out. Blood bubbled at his lips, and tears poured down his cheeks. “I’m not ready to die!”

“I’ve got you,” Darius said. Power followed the path from his soul, through his arms, into his fingertips, and began weaving into Jason’s flesh and bone. Jason shook again, and Darius pushed until his face went cold and his hands started to quake. That tickle at the base of his neck became a blaring warning. The hairs stood up on end, sending goosebumps across his shoulders and down his arms. Something inside of him screamed, “DANGER!”

He ignored it, kept pushing forward—

Darius didn’t even notice his vision go gray, nor did he hear Thorn’s voice calling his name as she pulled him backward, and he fell into her arms. Jason convulsed again. The monitor beeped faster and faster until—

It stopped entirely and rang out in a single note, as deafening as the silence of a heartbeat.

The next thing Darius knew, he was staring at the ceiling, and Thorn’s face obscured his vision.

“Jesus fucking christ,” she growled. She ran her fingers through his hair, much like she had with Chris. He was surprised at how gentle they were against his scalp and thought he could feel them shaking. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

He tried to sit up, but his head was still swimming, and the movement made him nauseous. His stomach buckled, and before he could stop himself, Darius turned sideways and dry-heaved onto the triage room floor. Cold, sticky sweat made his shirt cling to him, and his nose, lips, and hands felt clammy. The squeaking of sneakers on the tile floor, the motion of hot energy as the nursing staff moved around them, hardly registered. He tried to sense Jason Nichols in the room, but his aura had disappeared. Darius’s stomach dropped, and Thorn’s words cut like a scalpel.

“What’s wrong with me?” he managed to get out through a gasp. “I’m just one Virtue, Thorn! And I’m trying, but—”

His guts twisted again, sending him hunched over in another bout of heaving stomach acid between his clenched fists on the tile. Hot water stung his eyes as he laid his forehead against his wrists. Thorn’s hands found him again, this time wrapping around his shoulders to steady him as she pulled him up. When he looked at her, her expression was tight with painful sympathy.

“You’ve done enough,” she said. “More than enough.”

“But Jason—”

“We can mourn him later,” Thorn cut in. “Right now, focus on the people we helped. Wright is going into surgery, Carter and Chan don’t have any life-threatening injuries, and Graves and Chris are healed enough to get through the night—because of you.

Her sharp brows furrowed over those deep, black, and fervent eyes. The attention was so focused, so uneasy, that it filled Darius with a heavy block of guilt. He shook his head and looked away, and his eyes landed on a cot just six feet from where he sat. Someone had draped a sheet over Jason Nichols. All Darius saw was the outline of a body—empty, without a soul.

It had been a long time since he hadn’t been able to save someone. Almost six months exactly.

When Eva Torres had been shot and Darius hadn’t been there for her.

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Categories: Excerpts

MC Hunton

MC Hunton is a bright personality with a shockingly dark taste in the stories she writes. She has been obsessed with storytelling since she was a child and has been honing her craft for over two decades. MC graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Creative Writing in 2010 and has been working on her debut series, The Martyr Series, since 2005. She has a penchant for fast-paced action, deeply-rooted sociopolitical and spiritual themes, and emotionally driven plot and character development.