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Lea stood her ground for a few more seconds, but then stormed out of the room. Part of me wanted to go after her and try to explain myself, but I had enough common sense to know that wouldn’t be wise.

“She’s in a dark place right now,” Marcus said. “She hurts. Maybe later she’ll understand that this is hard for you, also.”

“It’s not as hard as it is for her.” I tucked my hair back. “I just can’t… the idea of killing him makes me sick. There has to be another way.”

Apollo glided toward me. “All of this… can wait. Today is your birthday, your Awakening.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t know what’s going on with that.” I stared at the runes on my palms. They glowed faintly. Nothing had changed about them. “I feel the same. Nothing’s happened.”

“When were you born?” Apollo asked.

“Uh, March the fourth.”

He arched a brow. “What time, Alexandria? What was the time of your birth?”

I pursed my lips. “I don’t know.”

A dubious look crossed Apollo’s face. “You don’t know what time you were born?”

“No. Do people know that?”

“I was born at 6:15am,” Aiden said, trying to hide his grin. “Deacon was born at 12:55pm. Our parents told us.”

My eyes narrowed. “Well, no one told me… or I forgot.”

“Marcus?” Apollo asked.

He shook his head. “I don’t… recall.”

“Well, you obviously have not hit your time of birth yet.” Apollo pushed away from the window. “I think we have had enough serious talk for the day. It is, after all, your birthday. A time for celebration, not making plans for battle.”

I shuddered.

“You will be fine.” Apollo placed his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. That was the closest offer of comfort I’d probably ever get from Apollo, and that was fine with me. “You do not feel the bond from where we are, so he cannot connect with you. You will be fine.”

I kept watching the clock. When had I been born? I had no clue. It was almost 8:30 in the evening, and not a damn thing had happened. Maybe I was doing something wrong?

“Stop it.” Aiden grabbed my hand, pulling it away from my mouth. “Since when did you become a nail-biter?”

I shrugged. We were sitting on the couch in the small sunroom. Outside the window, it looked like a winter wonderland. Night had already fallen and moonlight reflected off the untouched snow that covered the deck and trees.

“Do you think I’m weak?” I asked.

“What?” He tugged me over so that I was in his lap. “Good gods, you’re one of the strongest people I know.”

I glanced at the closed door, but then figured oh, what the hell. Allowing myself to relax, I rested my cheek against his chest and pulled the rose out from under my shirt. “I don’t feel very strong.”

Aiden settled his arms around me. “Because of what everyone was talking about today?”

I traced my fingers over the edges of the rose. “Lea had a point, you know? I faced down my mom, but I can’t… do that with Seth.”

“Apollo was right.” He placed his chin atop my head. “He’s a part of you. In a way, it’s different than what happened with your mom.”

“It is different. My mom was a daimon and there was no coming back from that.” I sighed, closing my eyes. I saw Seth’s face as I begged him, the indecision in his eyes. “He’s still in there, Aiden. There has to be another way. And I think Apollo knows, but he’s not telling us.”

“Then we’ll talk to Apollo. He mentioned the oracle, and maybe something has changed.” He shifted slightly, and then I felt his lips against my forehead. “But if there isn’t another way…”

“Then I have to face it. I know. I just want to make sure before we decide he needs to be… killed.”

Aiden placed one of his hands over mine. “Maybe we need to go see this new oracle. Who knows? She may be able to tell us something, visions or not.”

“That is if we can get Apollo to tell us about her.”

“We will.”

I smiled up at Aiden. “You’re amazing.”

He grinned. “What makes you say that?”

“You’re easily the most sup—ow!” I hissed as I jerked my hand free from his. “Something stung me.”

He straightened a bit and grabbed my wrist. “Alex, you’re bleeding.”

Tiny pricks of blood covered the top of my left hand, but that wasn’t what I was staring at. There was a blue glyph taking shape, forming something that looked like a music note.

My pulse pounded as I sat up quickly, scanning the room. A clock shaped like an owl showed that the time was 8:47pm. “It’s happening.”

Aiden said something, but another burst of hot, fiery pain stung just below that mark, and blood beaded on my skin. I pulled free from Aiden, my legs shaking as I stood. “Oh my gods…”

“Alex…” He came to his feet, eyes wide. “What can I do?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t—” I gasped as pain shot across my arm. Right in front of my eyes, more blood appeared. Just tiny drops, as if I was under a tattoo needle… “Oh gods, the marks—the marks are like tattoos.” This hadn’t happened with the other marks—the ones Seth had brought out early.

“Gods” Aiden reached for me, but I backed away. He swallowed as my eyes met his. “Alex, it’s going to be okay.”

My heart was racing, double-quick. Pure terror flooded my stomach. The marks would be everywhere once complete, and it was coming so, so fast. Pain spread up my neck, dampening my skin. When it reached my face, I screamed and hit the floor. On my knees, I doubled over, my hands curling in the air around my cheeks.

“Oh… oh man, this is gonna blow.” I struggled for air.

Aiden was beside me immediately, his hands reaching for me but not coming into contact. “Just… take a deep breath, Alex. Breathe with me.”

My laugh came out strangled. “I’m… I’m not having a baby, Aiden. This is—” Sharp bites of pain swept down my back, and I screamed again. I placed my hands on the floor, trying to draw in a deep breath. “Okay… okay, I’m breathing.”

“Good. You’re doing really good.” Aiden inched closer. “You know that, agapi mou. You’re doing great.”

As my back bowed, it didn’t feel that way. I’d rather face down a hundred aether-starved daimons plus a legion of Instructors than this. Tears leaked from my eyes as the marking continued lower. My legs gave out, and with Aiden’s help, I lay down on my stomach.

The door opened, and I heard Marcus. “What the—oh, my gods, is she okay?”

My face hurt too badly to stay like this, but the skin on my back felt raw. “Shit…”

“She’s Awakening,” Aiden said, voice tight.

“But the blood…” I heard Marcus move closer. “Why is she bleeding?”

I eased onto my side. “I’m being tattooed by a giant, mother fu—” Another strangled scream cut off my words as a different type of pain settled in, moving under my skin. It was like lightning racing through my veins, frying every nerve ending.

“This is… wow,” Deacon said, and I pried my eyes open. There was a whole audience by the door.

“Get them out of here!” I screamed, jackknifing on the floor. “Gods, this sucks!”

“Whoa,” I heard Deacon murmur. “This is like watching a chick give birth or something.”

“Oh my gods, I’m going to kill him.” I could feel the beads of blood breaking out under my jeans. “I’m going to punch him—”

“Everyone leave,” Aiden ground out. “This isn’t a godsdamn show.”

“And I think he’s like the father,” Luke said.

Aiden rose to his feet. “Get. Out.”

A few seconds later, the door closed. I thought we were alone until I heard Marcus speak. “She’s my niece. I’m staying.” I heard him come closer. “Is it… is it supposed to be like this?”

“I don’t know.” Aiden’s voice sounded strained, near panicked. “Alex?”

“Okay,” I breathed. “Just…just don’t talk. No one—” It moved up my front, searing my skin. I jerked up, hands shaking.

Holy crap. I couldn’t breathe. Pain was everything. I was going to kill Seth. Not once had he told me that the Awakening would feel like this—like the skin was being filleted from my bones.

My body buckled as another wave of pain rippled through me. I didn’t remember hitting the floor or Aiden pulling me into his lap, but when I opened my eyes, he was there, above me. Skin somewhere, where I wasn’t sure anymore, caught fire. Another mark was being tattooed. I couldn’t hold the cry back, but when it leaked from my lips, it was nothing more than a whimper.

“It’s okay. I’m here.” Aiden smoothed the hair off my damp forehead. “It’s almost over.”

“It is?” I gasped as I stared up at him, squeezing his hand until I felt his bones rub. “How in the fuck do you know? Have you ever Awakened before? Is there something—” My own hoarse, weak scream interrupted my tirade. “Oh gods, I’m… I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to cuss at you. It just…”

“I know. It hurts.” Aiden’s gaze drifted over me. “It can’t be much longer.”

I squeezed my eyes shut as I curled toward Aiden. His soothing gestures helped ease some of the pain. I stiffened as blinding light flashed behind my eyes. A rushing filled my ears, and I could suddenly see the blue cord so strongly in my mind.

It was like a switch had been thrown.

Information rushed me all at once. Thousands of years of the Apollyon memories dumped into me just like Seth had warned they would. Like a digital download, I couldn’t keep up with it. Most of it didn’t make any sense. The words were in a different language—the one Aiden spoke so beautifully. The knowledge of how the Apollyon was born passed onto me, as did the nature of the elements and of the fifth and final one. Images flickered in and out—battles won and long since lost. I saw—I felt—akasha shooting through someone’s veins for the first time, igniting and destroying. Saving—saving all those lives. And the gods—I saw them through the eyes of the past Apollyons. There was a relationship there, strained and full of mutual distrust, but there was… and then I saw her. I knew it was Solaris, felt it in my core.

I saw her turning on a beautiful boy, raising her hands as she whispered words—powerful words. Akasha flared from her, and I knew in an instant that she had turned on the First. Not to kill him, because there was infinite love in her eyes, but to subdue him, to stop him. I grasped at the information, but it moved on through the years until the First… the First.

The cord was snapping, rushing out through space and distance, seeking, always seeking. I couldn’t stop it, didn’t know how to. An amber-colored glow covered everything. In a burst of swirling lights, a hazy face came into focus. The natural arch of his golden eyebrows, the wicked tilt to his lips and slant of his cheekbones were all painfully familiar. I couldn’t tell where he was. He shouldn’t have been there. We were too far apart.

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