I left her to her memories and retreated into the corridor. My physical discomfort was forgotten beneath her emotional pain.
They had eyes only for each other, and being in the room felt suddenly wholly inappropriate.
I slipped away, and I doubt either of them noticed.
Conah met me in the lounge. “Fee, what happened?”
He walked across the room and pinched my chin with his thumb and forefinger, forcing me to look up at him. “You’ve been crying.”
I blinked and sent tears skating down my cheeks. When the hell had that happened? “I didn’t … I wasn’t …” I took a shuddering breath, noting the weight of sorrow on my chest. “Shit. I was talking to Nera. She’s in so much pain.”
He reached up and gently wiped my tears away. “And now you feel it.”
There was no denying how miserable I felt. How lost and empty, and how pointless existence seemed until Pan had shown up and then … then that feeling had eased a little.
“What the hell is happening to me?”
“I can’t be certain, but I believe you’re experiencing a fraction of Nera’s emotions.”
“I don’t understand …”
“I think you may be able to pick up on what people are feeling by experiencing their emotions.” His brows shot up. “I think you may be an empath.” He released me as if contact burned him and took a deep breath.
“What? So, I can feel what other people feel?”
He nodded but didn’t meet my eyes. “Have you”—he cleared his throat—“noticed anything else? Any other emotions from … anyone?”
Oh, shit… back in the gym. The heat, the desire. It hadn’t been all mine. Well, this was awkward. Like being caught spying.
I shrugged. “Just stuff, here and there. Wasn’t really paying attention, to be honest.” Crap, change the subject, quick. “Who’s Pan?”
Conah looked relieved. “Pan’s Nera’s soulmate.”
“I thought Peiter was her mate?”
“Peiter was her life-mate. Pan is her soulmate.”
How many kinds of mates were there? “Has it got something to do with the mark they share?”
“You noticed that, huh?” He looked impressed. “I guess you are good at picking up clues.” He pushed his sleeve up to his elbow to reveal a mark of his own. “Male demons are born with a mark, and when they find their soulmate, he or she takes on that mark. So, some males have two marks. And before you ask, soulmates are rarely romantically involved. They can be siblings, father and son … You get the picture?”
“And Pan is Nera’s soulmate.”
“Yes. He’ll be a great comfort to her at this time.”
“But they never …” I widened my eyes. “You know …”
He pressed his lips in a thin line of disapproval. “If they did, then I’m not aware. What I do know is that Nera was devoted to Peiter and vice versa.”
I didn’t feel his annoyance, but it was evident in his tone and his expression. Shit. I needed to watch my mouth. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“You felt my irritation?” He looked surprised.
“No, I heard it in your voice.”
He looked relieved. “Oh, good.”
Wait, was he blocking me now he knew what I could do? “Have you put up a wall?”
“Yes,” he said. “And you should too. Trust me, knowing what others feel all the time isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Not to mention the fact that it’ll drain you.”
“Yeah, well, you’ll need to show me how to stop.”
“Azazel is the best person for that. He taught me how to shield. Once he gets back, I’ll ask him to train you.”
“Please tell me he isn’t like Mal.”
Conah’s expression was unreadable. “He is nothing like Mal.”
I waited for him to continue. He didn’t. Awkward silence reigned. “Hey, aren’t we going to be late to the Academy?”
“Right. Yes.” Conah nodded. “We should go.” He held out his hands to me.
I took them, and the world splintered.
We materialized in a courtyard surrounded by three stories of gray stone building. Corridors were visible through ground floor windows and balconies on the upper floor. The courtyard was lush green grass, pretty pebbled paths, and neat wooden benches. Obviously, a prime spot to take a break, maybe eat lunch, but right now, there wasn’t a soul about.
“Classes are in session,” Conah explained. “Follow me.” He led me past the pretty benches and away from a tinkling fountain, obviously there to add an aesthetic air, toward a set of open glass doors and into the clinical-smelling building. Why did all schools smell the same? My stomach swirled with nerves as the distinctive smell brought back unwanted memories of a time I’d rather forget.
My stomach cramped.
“Fee, are you all right?” Conah was looking at me with concern.
“Fine, just … school isn’t my happy place. In fact, any kind of institutiony place isn’t my thing.”
“Liberatus Academy isn’t like a regular school. We cater to all ages from seven to twenty-one, many of whom live here during term time. There are no written exams. We focus on physical training and mental fortitude. There are a few basic classes where we cover history, math, and the written word, but those are mainly for the under twelves. Demons aged thirteen and upward are focused on physical training.”
He led the way down the corridor, boot falls echoing off the walls.
“And what do you teach?”
He flashed me a wicked smile that stole my breath with its beauty. “How about I show you.”
Conah forged ahead, his stride long as he navigated the wide corridors. There was no time to peek into any of the classrooms, no time to take much in before we were climbing a set of stairs and entering a massive empty room. The ceiling was high, and there were no windows. The floor was a checker pattern of different colors, and there were strange patches of color on the walls too.
I arched a brow. “What is this room? What’s with the floor?”
“You’ll see.” There was a definite flash of excitement in his eyes as he climbed up onto a raised platform. “Up you get.”
He held out his hand. His fingers were warm and firm as they curled around mine, and then I was being hauled up. Our torsos met briefly, and an electric shock of awareness sliced through me, but Conah had already turned away and was busy at the desk that took up most of the platform.
Were his shoulders a little tense? Had he felt the jolt too? He desired me. I’d felt it. But he was blocking me now, and I was probably imagining things. I blew out a breath. No dwelling. If shit was meant to happen between us, then it would. Obsessing got you nowhere. I’d tried that with Lucas and look what had happened there. A big fat nothing.
I’d dated, of course, had the odd short-lived liaison, but nothing serious. I both craved and feared a serious relationship.
Conah slipped into the only seat on the platform and began tapping away at a cool ergonomic keyboard. There were three monitors all angled toward him. The screens flashed blue, and then an image of the room appeared on each one, but each image was from a different angle, and it wasn’t a video feed image. It was a graphic one etched onto a grid of green lines. Conah began tapping in numbers, and the image began to change. Buildings appeared, and obstacles sprang up. He continued to type commands until the room on the screens looked like a street.
The screen grew brighter as he worked. No, wait, the room was getting darker. I looked up to see stars above us, and fucking hell, there was even a moon. A soft whirring registered, and the ground below us began to shift. The squares on the ground flipped, and the walls began to move until the room wasn’t an empty room anymore. It was a replica of the street on the monitors. How could it all fit in this room? The sky seemed miles away but couldn’t possibly be.
“What is this place?” My tone was hushed.
“This is one of our training rooms,” Conah explained. “We have two. One that puts our trainees’ consciousness into a virtual environment, and this one, where their physical forms are entered into a danger zone we create.”
“Can they get hurt?”
“Yes. They can get hurt. But better to be hurt here than out in the field. This is the place for them to learn, to make mistakes, to pick themselves back up and try again and again. The system logs their successes and failures and allows them to identify their weaknesses.”
But what would they be up against? I opened my mouth to ask, but my question was answered when Conah brought up the image of a mouth on his third screen.
“You have a mouth?”
“So, the students will fight that?”
“They’ll fight several.” He hit the multiply key and entered the number six. And then the mouths vanished.
“Where did they go?” I scanned the image on the monitor.
“They’ll appear in the room at random locations when we’re ready. They’re chipped so they can’t use their mouths to feed. But they can still attack in other ways. The cadets will need to hit the collars at their necks or get a chest blow to deactivate them using specially designed batons.”
The door to our left opened, and several demons walked in. A female and four males. They looked young, probably around seventeen or eighteen. The woman was petite, dark-haired, and dark-eyed with sharp features that gave her a ruthless edge.
The guys towered over her.
They were all dressed in black and red. They even had weapons belts with black batons clipped to them, and shit, they all had their eyes fixed on me.
“Hello, cadets,” Conah said. “This is Dominus Dawn. She’ll be observing today.”
The female cadet was staring openly at me now. “So, it’s true. Dominus Peiter is dead.”