Jordan collapsed into his own bedding and fell right to sleep. Cassandra stayed by Niko’s side throughout the night, though he remained unconscious the entire time. His skin flamed with fever and she rubbed water over his body to cool it. The herb treatments in his wounds kept turning black, gagging her with a bitter odor and requiring her to change them frequently. As his life signs became stronger, he slept more fitfully, tossing and thrashing, crying out and whispering, “Man-wolf.” But by the time the sun rose high in the sky, the herbs no longer turned black in his wounds, his skin no longer burned with intense fever and he settled into a calmer sleep.
Jordan finally awoke, barely glanced at Niko’s sleeping form and set out to hunt and gather fruit. He stayed away throughout the morning and into the afternoon. Niko never woke, never even stirred. Cassandra looked longingly at Father’s bed as the thought of a nap tugged at her barely coherent mind, but she was afraid to leave Niko’s side. His life signs remained weaker than normal and his skin still felt warm, but not as hot as he’d been through the night. She made herself stay awake until Jordan could relieve her. Surely he had enough compassion to keep an eye on the sick and injured man long enough for her to get a little rest. But when he returned, he had no interest in staying for long.
After they ate a meal of rabbit and berries, he asked her to go outside with him. Cassandra looked at Niko’s sleeping form and sighed. She didn’t want to leave him in case he woke, but anything she and Jordan had to discuss—their father, their belongings, their future—this stranger didn’t need to hear. She followed Jordan out the door and far into the clearing, which was turning gray in the fading light of dusk.
“We need to leave in the morning,” Jordan said as he turned around to face her.
She blinked at him. “Leave? Why?”
He’d just brought home a month’s worth of supplies. They would only need fresh food, easily found in the nearby woods and streams. Why did they need to go already? And did he actually plan to take her with him? This caught her by surprise, but the thought of leaving crushed her heart. This was the last place Father had been. The last place she’d ever feel his presence.
“I’m not leaving,” she said before Jordan could even explain his reasoning. “Not yet.”
“Don’t you want answers?”
“Answers to what?”
“To what Father revealed to us. He kept it hidden all these years, so there must be a reason he told us. Don’t you want to know what that reason is? Don’t you want to know more about us?”
“And just where do you plan on finding these answers?”
Jordan’s eyes lit up. “There are others out there like us. I know where to find them.”
Cassandra’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about? You know others like us? How?”
“I don’t exactly know them, but four of them live in a village about a five-days’ walk from here. I’ve been there many times over the years and they don’t look a day older than the first time I saw them. We have aged faster than them.”
“I’ve seen it myself.”
She put her fists on her hips. “Then how could they live in the village all these years and no one has questioned them?”
“They only come outside at night and the rest of the village ignores them, as if they don’t even see them. Besides, only I have lived long enough to notice.”
“So they live secret lives while everyone else sleeps? Others ignore them, as if they aren’t even real people? If all this is true and they’re older than us but look younger, well … they sound like … like demons, Jordan.”
Cassandra’s eyes widened. “And you want to seek them out? Have you lost your mind?”
“We’re no different! We don’t sneak around at night, but instead hide out on the edge of civilization. Why would Father make us live like this? Because he was afraid people would know what we really are.”
“But we’re not demons. We’re from ang—”
Jordan cut her off with a roar. “Don’t even say it. Stop lying to yourself!”
She narrowed her eyes, raised up on her toes to lean toward him and lifted her chin. She kept her voice low and her words deliberate. “I am not evil. I am not a demon. And I am not going with you.”
Then she turned on her heel and stalked off toward the hut. Jordan’s hand clamped down on her shoulder and he spun her around.
“At least come with me to get answers. They must know something.”
“You can get your answers. I don’t need them. I know who and what I am. It changes nothing. I don’t care about the rest.”
“I can’t just leave you here alone!”
She threw her arms in the air. “Why not? Isn’t that what you always wanted? Your freedom to do as you please without worrying about your father and sister? I can take care of myself. Now, I have a sick man to tend to and I won’t leave him to die, either.” She turned again and stomped toward the hut.
“Is that what it is?” Jordan asked, catching up with her. “This strange man? You’ll stay for him rather than go with your own brother?”
“I stay for myself, but, yes, I will take care of him until he is well.”
“I want him gone. He leaves immediately.”
“Leave?” She let out a bark of a laugh. “You know he’s too ill. I thought you had questions for him anyway.”
“I won’t wait around for answers he probably doesn’t have. I already know where to find them. And I will not have him here with you alone.”
“Then don’t leave. You’re the one insisting on going.”
Jordan stopped. “So that’s it? You’re choosing a stranger over me? Over your own family, all that you have left?”
Cassandra didn’t answer, didn’t even acknowledge the question. Her decision had nothing to do with Niko. Well, little to do with him. She wasn’t ready to go yet, to leave Father’s memories behind. She needed peace to grieve and time to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. If Jordan wanted to be a part of it, she would be happy. And if he insisted on leaving, she would accept that, too. But she would not go with him now.
“You can’t do enough good in the world to cleanse the blood in your veins,” Jordan yelled. “You’re a demon. Father was a liar and a coward but now you know the truth!”
Cassandra stopped cold. Her heart pounded in her chest. Her nostrils flared and her eyes sparked. She spun around and strode several paces toward the man she called her brother. Jordan stood with his arms crossed over his chest, his muscles bulging out of his chiton, his face twisted.
“How dare you?” she demanded, her voice rising several octaves. “How dare you speak of Father like that?”
“Face the truth, little sister. He lied to us. And you—” He jabbed a finger at her chest. “—you want that man. You want to lie naked in his bed. Admit it.”
Cassandra’s face burned and her eyes bulged as she stared at her brother. She wanted to deny his accusations, but anger kept any words from forming. Her silence seemed to only fuel Jordan’s anger.
“See?” he sneered. “Demon blood. It makes you want him. It makes you choose a stranger over me, makes you want to behave like a prostitute. If you deny it, you’re a liar just like Father.”
“Do not speak of him that way!” Cassandra yelled. “Do not speak of him at all.”
“Demon blood makes us act like this, little sister. That’s why I am the way I am. And you are no different. Not really. I see it in your eyes. Your lust. Your desire. Your defiance. Thank Father for all that.” He leaned back and stroked his chin. “Oh, but you can’t. He conveniently died instead of facing his own children. The coward I always thought he was!”
Sickened by Jordan’s words, Cassandra could think of only one way to shut him up. She pulled her hand back and let it fly forward. But she didn’t slap him. She curled her hand into a fist and punched him in the jaw. As strong as he was, he staggered several steps backward. His blue eyes widened with surprise and his hand went to his injured face. Cassandra turned once again and never looked back.
When she entered the hut, she was grateful to find Niko still sleeping soundly. She sank to her knees and cried. Life had already changed so much. Why did Father wait until he died to tell us? Is Jordan right? She refused to believe her brother’s theory. But she also couldn’t explain his behavior. How could he be so cruel? So selfish? What happened to him? They were so different and she almost had to wonder if he did have demon blood in him.
But if he did …
“Is everything okay?” a husky voice asked.
Cassandra looked up in surprise to find Niko watching her from his bed—her bed—with those strangely beautiful green eyes. She scrubbed the tears from her face.
“Not really,” she admitted, but then she lifted her chin and went to him. She held her hand to his cheek and found his skin temperature to be nearly normal. “How are you?”
“I think I’ll be okay.” Niko covered her hand with his, pressing it tighter against his face. “With you here.”
He closed his eyes and drifted off again. Her hand on his face suddenly felt more intimate than the touch of a healer. She should pull away, but she liked the feeling of his large hand over her small one. She liked the strange tingle of his skin against hers. She couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to have all of him pressed against all of her. Then she gasped and yanked her hand away.
She sprang back, landing on her feet near Father’s bed. How could I think such a thing? Is the demon blood coming out in me? She looked at her palm that had pressed against Niko’s face. She’d never felt anything like that. It felt good, not bad. But Mother had told her many things that felt good weren’t. Especially when it came to men. And punching Jordan had also felt good … at the time. Now her heart squeezed with guilt for hurting her own brother.
She didn’t know what to believe. Was she letting Jordan get to her? Or did she just prove him right? But how could she be a demon? She cared for people. Healed strangers. Gave them everything she could. But what Jordan said … what just happened … Lust and desire—Jordan said he’d seen it in her eyes. Was that what she’d just felt? Was wanting to be close to a man wrong?
Cassandra looked at her Father’s empty bedding. She bent down and smelled him in the blankets.
“I miss you, Father,” she cried. “I miss you so much. I need you. I do need to know.”
She pulled the blankets back, wanting to crawl underneath them, to close her eyes and not think about angels and demons anymore. The thought of being a demon—even half a demon—scared her so much, yet she thought it might be something she would have to face. Maybe her vision had been clouded and confused when Father rose to leave them. Maybe that hadn’t been him at all, with the glorious white wings, looking like an Angel. Maybe Jordan had seen the truth, while she had seen only what she wanted … what she wanted to believe.
She looked over her shoulder at the door, wondering if Jordan had already left, if it was too late to catch him. But she was too exhausted to even try. She would decide in the morning if she really wanted the answers he sought.
She slid into Father’s bedding and began to lay her head down when something pricked her shoulder. She reached underneath herself, pulled out what felt like a twig and held it up to the fire—a small feather, about the length of her thumb. It seemed to almost glow, it shone so white, with gold at the tip of its quill. She held it to her nose and smelled Father. She brushed the feathery softness against her lips as she lay down. She smiled and closed her eyes.
And she saw Father, hovering above her, just like his last moments with them. When he rose with white wings outspread. When he looked so inhumanly magnificent. When he looked like his real self: an Angel.
No, she didn’t need answers from anyone else. She had to believe in herself, in her own eyes, in her own heart. As she’d told Jordan, what they now knew didn’t change anything. She would still care for others and heal them when possible. Her heart still desperately wanted that kind of love Father and Mother shared. And how could a demon want to care for others? Want love?
Jordan is wrong. She must find him and convince him before he ruined his life.
Jordan rubbed his jaw as he watched his sister disappear into the raggedy grass hut they called a home. He’d taught her how to throw that punch, never expecting she’d use it on him. If the forming bruise didn’t pulse on his skin and into his bone right now, he’d never believe her capable of physically harming another person. She had the strength and ability, but not the temperament. He wasn’t surprised to find that perfect Cassandra wasn’t so perfect after all, though. He’d suspected she had a streak buried deeply under all that goodness and now he knew how to pull it out of her.
He turned his back to their home and pulled his dagger out of his belt, swiping it at the thigh-high grass as he walked to the far edge of the clearing. His anger, ignited by Father’s death and fueled by Cassandra’s rejection, cooled as new plans formed in his mind. Perhaps Father’s death—an inexact term for someone who’d revealed their true dark self and then just disappeared, but the only way Jordan could describe it—hadn’t ruined everything after all. He just needed to convince Cassandra of their potential and how much better their lives could be. She should be easier to convince than Father, who had been so cowardly and stubborn.
Jordan’s plans had begun forming over a decade ago, although the idea had planted itself in his mind many, many years before then, while Mother was still alive. Once he had become a man, he’d grown restless, knowing there was more to experience in this world than their secluded lives. Although the rest of his family seemed happy, he was not. He wanted more. So Father took him along on supply trips and taught him how to barter in the marketplace, hunt in the wilderness and fight with a sword and dagger. While at the market one day, a rival army attacked the town. Jordan and Father had to fight or be taken as slaves, leaving Mother and Cassandra on their own. Jordan saw clearly that he and Father were superior warriors compared to any of the trained soldiers on either side.
After experiencing the thrill of victory, he questioned Father on the way home, asking why they didn’t just overthrow the rulers of a small village, claim their spot as leaders and create a real home for their family. Father quickly dismissed Jordan’s notions, explaining that although civilization was a threat to them because of their differences, they were to treat people with kindness, respect and love.
“It is not our place to rule a village,” Father had said. “We’re to serve the people however we can, but never abuse the abilities we’ve been given.”