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Kim hooked her arm with her father’s. “I'm helping them,” she said, her eyes strangely soft and sad. “I won't leave her side until it's finished.”

Charles nodded, squeezing his daughter to his side.

“Okay,” I said, shaking off the fear. “How are we going to do this?”

“This is crazy!” Ryan said. “Tel her, Jared! There’s no way we’re using her for demon bait!”

Jared cringed, but he didn’t speak.

Claire grabbed my hand. “We choose our own fate, right Nina?” she said, managing an encouraging smile.

“Yes,” I said. “If it’s going to happen, I want it to be on my terms.”

“You’re al insane!” Ryan said, horrified. “I feel like I’m watching you al sentence her to death!”

Kim opened the door to the Sentra. “Now al we need is a plan,” she said.

Jared tugged on my hand. “Ride with me.”

I squeezed his fingers in mine, knowing he faced the same fate as I. The ride home was quiet; no radio, no talking, just the noise of the road under the tires, and the rain pounding against the windshield.

The window wipers danced back and forth, clearing the rain drops long enough to let the next droplets splash into their place. Headlights from oncoming cars whizzed by, but they were driving slow because of the weather. It was Jared that was disregarding the speed limit by at least thirty miles per hour.

The decision to use myself as a distraction was mine, but the plan was up to Jared. He would be forced to map out our every move, hoping that it was perfect enough to spare our lives.

“We can do this,” Jared final y said, lifting my hand to his lips. “It’s going to work, and we’l have the book, and then we can save you.”

“I know,” I said with a smal smile. “I trust you.”

“Sweet potato fries,” he said, his cloudy eyes glossing over.

“Sweet potato fries,” I smiled back.

Chapter Seventeen

The Roof

Jared paced, brooded, and once in a while, when his thoughts were particularly tormented, he winced. The color had long left his face as he played back the different scenarios in his mind. Back and forth he paced, so many times that I watched the floor, wondering when he would wear a trail. His inner turmoil could have set the room on fire. It was unbearable to watch, but I couldn't leave him; not when he was planning my death.

Claire sat next to me, holding my hand, suffering Jared's torture as I did. Jared had the most to lose, so the plan was his alone. Each decision, from the moment we left the house until the book was safe within its wal s, fel on Jared's shoulders. Watching that responsibility slowly tear him apart was agonizing.

I did not envy his position. Just he thought of doing the same made me feel sick to my stomach.

Jared stopped mid-step. “Ryan?”

“Yeah, man?” Ryan said, standing. He had never been a fan of Jared, but we al shared a common thread. Whether we liked it or not, if one of us was hurt, we would al fal . A loss would affect al of us differently, but it would change our lives in the same horrific way.

“Come with me,” Jared said, leaving the room.

Ryan glanced at Claire, and then fol owed Jared into the hal way. Claire's grip on my hand tightened.

“You can hear them,” I said.

She looked down at our hands, and then closed her eyes. “Don't ask me to tel you, Nina. Let Jared do this his way.”

“Okay,” I nodded, trusting her judgment.

Ryan returned with a solemn expression. Uncomfortable at best, afraid was a more honest description. He took a few steps toward Claire and I, and then held out his hand.

“Feel like going to the pub?” he asked me.

My eyes veered to Claire, and my head turned slightly unintentional y. “Um...I guess,” I said, looking back to Ryan.

“Good. Give her something shiny, Claire,” he said, pul ing me to stand.

Claire reached behind her and held out her pistol. “Take it,” she shrugged, trying too hard to seem indifferent. “I have seven more at home.”

My first instinct was to ask a dozen questions, but something told me time was an issue. Jared wanted this to be over.

I took a deep breath. “On the bright side, if I die, I don't have to worry that I didn't study for the test I have in the morning.”

“You're not going to die,” Ryan said. “This is just a test run.”

“A test run,” I said, looking at the gun in my hand. “Okay. Let's see what they've got.”

I fol owed Ryan into the hal , passing Jared along the way. He didn't meet my eyes, so I grabbed the sleeve of his shirt.

“You don't exactly exude confidence. Can you just pretend?”

He forced a smile. “I'l see you soon.”

“Good job,” Ryan said dryly, pul ing me behind him.

In Ryan's truck, we took the short trip to the pub. Every bump, every pot hole, every street light seemed especial y big or bright, as if my mind wanted to record every second of my last moments on earth.

The truck slowed to a stop in the parking lot across the street, and I looked out the window to the pub. Col ege co-eds meandered on the sidewalk, congregating in smal groups, laughing and chatting without a care in the world. I had seen a few of them in the hal s of Brown, and I wondered what they would say when they heard the news, and what the news would even be. Would the papers call it an accident? A murder? A suicide? I shuttered when thoughts of myself post-mortem. Would demons al ow me any dignity or mercy at al ?

“Ryan? If it comes down to it, don't let them take me, okay? I don't know what things something so evil is capable of...but I don't want to....” I struggled to say it aloud, “Don't let me suffer, okay? Take care of it. You know what I mean?”

“What?” he said, his nose wrinkling. “You mean you want me to issue a mercy shot before they drag you off to torture you.”

I didn't remember Ryan being so blunt before. Perhaps the desert had taken every bit of sensitivity he had left.

“I don't want to be alone with those things. Even for a minute. If they take me, I'm giving you permission.”

“Stop,” Ryan said. “I won't let anything happen to you, and I know Jared, Claire and Bex are al watching. You act like you've never been bait before.”