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Jude puts his two pieces of his bo staff together to create the long, shimmering metal stick, and he spins it in his hand as a dark smile curves his lips.

“I think we can handle ten of them,” Kai says as he pulls out his swords, not his sai.

“There could be more,” I remind him.

I’m ignored. I guess they’re done listening to me.

“On one,” Ezekiel says with a grin that matches Jude’s.

“One?” I ask, confused.

They all dart through me or by me, and my breath rushes out as I turn to chase them. Apparently I said the magic word.

Jude is already throwing the bo staff through the chest of one as he breaks away from the wall, coming after him.

His eyes widen as the staff breaks through the skin, and he drops to the ground, a look of pure disbelief on his face. Then his gaze lands on me as the life drains from his eyes.

He holds my stare, and I freeze, certain he sees me. But as he collapses to the side, lifeless, I return my attention to the guys. An awed breath escapes me at how they seem to fight like they can read each other’s minds.

Jude ducks as Kai swings a sword, decapitating two of the men rushing Jude from behind. Jude snatches his bo staff out of the other guy’s chest, and spins it, putting it through the neck of one guy who is still hidden against the wall.

Ezekiel takes a hard hit to his side, but he immediately slams a sword through the guy’s chest and twists it as the guy screams in pain. His head dips as Gage’s sword swings by, catching the throat of another attacker.

The four of them work like their own well-oiled army. I prop up and watch, unable to look away.

A man runs right through me, charging Ezekiel from behind, but Gage throws his sword, catching the guy in the face.

He drops, and I frown.

“I thought these were upper level assassins,” I state as the final one lands in a heap. More than ten. Definitely more than ten.

“They are,” Ezekiel says as he jerks his sword out of a man’s body that is pinned to the rocks.

The body drops lifelessly as he wipes the blood off his sword.

“The reason they want us dead so badly, is because we’re far stronger than we should be. And if we can get into the underworld, we might be able to stop the coup before there’s a purge,” Jude answers as he starts stalking down the gauntlet again.

We’re now way ahead of the other competitors.

“There’s a moment between life and death when people seem to be able to see me. Other than that guy I touched. Clearly upper level royalty can’t even see me unless that moment occurs, since the heirs couldn’t. So I’m assuming my touch had something to do with that one guy, because aside from the four of you, he’s the only one who has seen me outside of the in-between moment of life and death,” I state more to myself than anyone.

I’m used to talking aloud to them, expecting them not to answer because they can’t hear me.

I’m surprised when Kai speaks. “It would make sense if you’re suspended in the same state. But it doesn’t explain how you’re getting stronger instead of weaker.”

“Maybe I’m just really hard to kill,” I suggest.

A sword slices through me as if summoned by that brazen proclamation, and my eyes widen as a man charges by, that sword aimed at Jude.

He dispatches him quickly, and my heart slows down again.

“Eyes open in case we missed more,” Kai says, rotating his sword in his hand as he looks around, still walking.

I move way out ahead, growing queasy when I see a massive pit of moving lava blocking the path. The volcanic river that floats through probably isn’t very inviting.

The guys join me at the ledge, viewing the hundred or more feet in front of us.

“Can’t go around this,” Jude curses. “We’d have to leave the gauntlet to do that.”

“How the hell do they expect us to cross this? What if it’s more hellfire instead of eternal flame?” Ezekiel growls.

I can just walk on top of it, since I’m weightless. I move out onto it, trying to study it better. As I tap my foot, I find all four of them studying me.

“What?” I ask, feeling uncomfortable being the subject of all those intense stairs.

I guess that shows I was an idiot to think I could handle an intense foursome. Well, fivesome—whatever that is.

I still want to try it. Just not with these assholes. I saw some other quad teams up there who looked fierce but still high on the list of sexy. Maybe I can attach myself to them and grow whole enough to finally get my fantasy.

I bet their Three wouldn’t even be selfish.

“Is it hellfire or eternal flame? One we’ll survive. The other we won’t,” Gage states dryly.

I look down and back up. “How would I know? I can’t feel anything physical.”

Ezekiel runs a hand through his hair. “They’d have had to put hell stone up here to hold all this lava. The fire beds would have taken a while to prepare, but something of this caliber would take much longer, and it would have drained the individual a large amount. How badly do they really want us dead?” he asks the other three.

“They knew there’d be no way across without running out of the gauntlet or siphoning. Both would disqualify us and likely cost us our lives. What happens when dark angels who never died before finally do die? What if that’s what all this is about, and they need us to die?” Gage asks.

“If anyone cares, I vote you stay there while I try to channel enough protective mojo to knock some of this away or something.”

They ignore me, since they likely know that’s a last ditch effort.

“I doubt anyone could want us dead this badly,” Kai says, deciding to risk it.

“No!” I shout too late as he steps onto the fire.

It happens so slow and so fast, all at once. The fire rushes up his leg, and a feral sound of agony explodes from him. The guys rush to grab him, just as the lava evaporates, a path around us quickly being carved out and stretching across the fiery lake.

The fire is still licking up Kai’s leg, and I dive, landing on him. The flames extinguish along his leg, and he roars that same inhumanly sound again as his body tenses and contorts with excruciating pain.

I push off him, my eyes tracking the lava that continues to retreat as though someone is peeling it away now.

None of that power is coming from me. That’s way above my fear-induced, what-will-happen-this-time, beginner’s level. It’s an intricate and complex power that hums through me and makes me envious, almost covetous.

I have to blink a few times to keep from going into a rage about it. It makes no sense, since I’m really grateful someone is helping out.

I whirl around, finding a familiar redhead perched on a rock like it’s her favorite seat in the house, as she chews a piece of gum around a smile.

Lilith.

Why the hell did she just save them?

The guys start carrying Kai, rushing across before the devil’s eldest daughter changes her mind. I watch her, even as she never sees me. She stands and spins in a circle, twirling her hair around her fingers as she walks away with an exaggerated hip shake.

I turn around, watching as the lava starts closing back in, slowly at first, but steadily growing speed the longer she’s away.

My gaze snaps back to see them running faster now. Jude turns and grabs Kai, putting him over his shoulder and running behind them, but losing a little too much ground.

The other two turn to grab them, and launch them way ahead. By some miracle, they manage to make it across just in time, and all of them collapse a great distance away from the lava.

“Energy sucking fucking rocks,” Jude groans, arching his back like he’s in pain.

“They don’t just want us dead; they want us fucking tortured too,” Kai bites out, his leg still charred and slow to heal.

“I’ve seen him slice a thumb off with one of his soul sucking blades, and the damn thing healed back immediately. What’s taking it so long this time?” I ask aloud, again forgetting they can hear me now.

“Hellfire,” Ezekiel answers, kneeling to rip the jeans up and away from the worst part of the leg. “It’ll take days for this to heal. We still have to cross over the last ridge, that will likely have lethal monsters, and dragging him up there is going to take a lot more energy than those rocks left us with.”

“Lilith never bestows a gift without offering a curse with it. It’s how she maintains balance,” Jude says as he tears his shirt off and starts putting more pressure on Kai’s leg when he bleeds through the first one.

“She wants us to have to choose to attempt to make it by dragging him to the line, knowing there are only twenty places available. We might all die if we’re slowed down too much. Or we could leave Kai behind so we can occupy three of those spots and ensure we survive, even if it means sacrificing his life,” Ezekiel goes on.

My heart sinks.

“Is there a way to speed up the healing?” I ask, getting closer and kneeling beside his leg.

He hisses out a sound that tells me he really doesn’t want me this close right now. Since he hates me and all.

“No, not in here, and we can’t waste anymore time. Tie it off and cut it off. It’ll grow back in a couple of weeks. We have time before the second trials. It’ll make it easier on him that way. The hellfire hurts worse than amput—”

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