Warrior’s Regret by November Dawn

1

Aster

When I openedthe door to the waiting room, three others and a receptionist waited inside. Considering I was thirty minutes early, it seemed I wasn’t the only one nervous about this meeting.

Somewhere on this floor, there was another room filled with our supposed mates.

Mate. The word brought on a shudder of anticipation and a good dose of nerve-wracking anxiety. I still couldn’t quite believe I had taken that final step into getting tested for a mate. All through my teens and early twenties, I had sneered at the notion of a magical blood test deciding who I should spend my life with. I knew better than that. I would decide on my own.

Apparently, my own was not to be trusted, judging by the few disastrous relationships in my life so far. After a lonely couple of years and an especially gloomy winter, I had decided my own could go screw itself and had signed up to mate matching.

Not everyone had a mate, and plenty of people didn’t bother to get tested, having already met their companions in other ways.

But I had gotten lucky. I had a mate, and he had taken the test.

I approached the receptionist—a young man with a blindingly enthusiastic smile.

“Aster Greene,” I whispered. So much anticipation packed the room, I was scared speaking above a whisper would make it explode.

The man nodded and indicated the plush chairs arranged around a low table. “Please, take a seat. Wi-Fi password is ‘hybrids.’”

I nodded in silent acknowledgment and took one of the empty seats. Two women and another man looked at me for a moment before returning to their phones. One of the women held my gaze a few seconds longer, smiling shyly.

They were all human-demon hybrids. Like me.

Three kinds of beings inhabited Earth: demons, hybrid demons, and humans. Demons came from another dimension, mingling with humans from time to time to create lines of hybrids—both their existence kept secret from the rest of the world. And unlike demons, who knew their mate through instinct and touch, we hybrids had to use the old-fashioned way of blood testing.

Fourteen-year-old Aster had been ecstatic at the possibility of having a mate. Love forever and ever? Sign her right up! Unfortunately, you had to be over twenty to have the test. That was okay—she could wait.

Sixteen-year-old Aster had decided she didn’t need a stupid test because her true mate was sitting three rows ahead of her in calculus.

Eighteen-year-old Aster, after the disappointing realization that she really was a hybrid (and a weak one at that) and not some super cool demoness destined to chop evil people’s heads off, had decided true mates were a lie. Biology didn’t mean shit—it was the soul that really counted.

I sighed, taking out my phone. If that Aster could see me now—how disappointed she would be!

I brought up my favorite chat app but couldn’t focus on the group talk. I’d been so cool and calm up to today, telling myself it was just a test. There was no archaic rule chaining me and my “mate” together if I didn’t like him. This was a simple meeting. We would meet face to face, talk a little, and then, if things looked good, we’d go on to have a meal and see where things went.

Thinking of food made me want to puke. Thinking of meeting my mate within the next hour made my heart do cartwheels in my chest and my hands tremble. I hoped I looked okay. I had gathered my dark brown hair in an elegant bun at the back of my head, which Mom always said made me look too severe, but that I kind of dug. I had loosened a few tendrils to fall across my forehead in what I thought was a cute look, and I wore my best jeans and blouse. I had never worn this blouse before, thinking it too fancy for most occasions, but it fit the setting, if not my old spring jacket.

Another fumble of my heart as I allowed myself to guess how my mate might look. My fantasies wanted some tall, brooding, well-built man. A warrior of some sort, like in romance novels. Reality said I’d probably do much better with some nice guy who liked to cuddle.

Either way, ugh.

And if you’re wondering, my parents did not take the test.

They’ve been divorced for ten years.

A second door opened, and a man peeked inside the room. “Jessica Lin?”

One of the women rose so fast, her purse went flying. “Yessir.” Maybe she was a warrior. She stood like one.

A pang of old envy shot through me. Demons and hybrids, like their human counterparts, came in all kinds of flavors. Some demons were happy to secretly help the world thrive, others thought of humans as lesser beings, there for their entertainment and power plays.

Neither type was keen on humanity discovering their—or hybrid’s—existence, for a full-on-war would hurt both sides. Privately, I thought the reason was all demons enjoyed the thrill of fighting right under the general public’s noses, and hybrids rather not go back to stake-burning times.

To fight those demons bent on treating humans like their playthings, the warriors organization had been created—powerful demons and skilled hybrids joined together to fight the forces of “evil.” Me? I worked as an office assistant, answering emails and checking spreadsheet data all day long.

No evil demon had ever been banished by the power of spreadsheets.

Depressing but true.

I didn’t mind my job, but at times it did make me wish for something a little more exciting.

Jessica gathered her purse and followed the man into the hallway on the other side of the room.

My foot began an incessant tapping against the leg of the chair. I’d brought sneakers, in case me and my—swallow—mate decided to get away from here for our lunch date. All the nearby restaurants would be filled by the hybrids working in this building, and we’d only attract stares and gossip. Most hybrids ended up working at hybrid and warrior-related businesses. It was freeing to be able to talk about demon-y things.

Back to my feet—it was either the sneakers or the summer sandals, and it was too chilly for those. My only pair of pumps had lost a heel a couple of years earlier. Not that they were the epitome of look at me, I’m your perfect mate, to begin with, but they had carried a slightly more adult aura.

The door opened again, and we held our breaths.

“Aster Greene?”

Oh, my God, it’s me.I simply stared at the man for a few moments, then shot to my feet, barely managing to keep a hold of my phone. A dull, white noise filled my ears as I pocketed it and reached for my jacket. I could see the front of my blouse trembling from the pounding of my heart. Sweat began to pool at the nape of my neck and low on my back against the waist of my jeans.

As I approached the man in a stiff walk, I realized belatedly I hadn’t even answered him. I wanted to, but my mouth wouldn’t cooperate.

The man seemed to understand this—he had probably dealt with many nervous mate hopefuls before—and gave me a friendly smile. “Come with me, Aster. And please, call me John.”

I nodded and followed him into the hallway. He stopped by another door and opened it for me.

It was a small room with only a table and a couple of chairs. It reminded me of those interrogation rooms you see on TV, but there was no double-sided mirror on the walls or camera on the ceiling.

It suddenly registered that this was it. I was seconds away from meeting my mate. Someone to count on no matter what, to share the nights with, to encourage in life and feel the same level of encouragement back. Someone to make a home with, to grow a life with. A future.

My heartbeats doubled in intensity, and I felt slightly faint. Hurriedly, I made use of one of the two chairs at the table. Somewhere in my brain, I realized the man was talking in upbeat tones, and I made an effort to concentrate on his words.

“I’ll be right back, Aster.”

Dazed, I watched him leave through a second door in the room. He left it open, allowing me a glimpse of another hallway.

Time began to drag. I wanted to check the clock on my phone, but my eyes refused to leave that opening into the hallway. What if I missed my mate’s entrance? That first sight of him walking up to me? My foot found the chair’s leg and restarted its incessant tapping.

After several minutes—eons, if you really asked me—voices drifted through the open door. I stilled, straining to listen. Was one of those voices my mate? They were too far away to identify yet.

I was about to leave my chair and go to the door when a roaring voice startled me into staying put.

“What?” someone bellowed. “NO!”

No more words followed. In fact, all noise disappeared.

What had that been about? Whoever had shouted sounded madder than hell. Perhaps someone had messed up at work. Mate meetings only happened every few months—there weren’t that many hybrids—and these rooms were probably used as normal meeting rooms the rest of the time. It made sense the hallways connected to normal business offices.

John reappeared at the door, cheeks red and lips forming a tight line. He didn’t look like the kind of person to yell, so maybe he had been the one on the receiving end.

His expression changed the moment his gaze fell on me. His mouth relaxed, and his eyes filled with…pity?

“Aster…” he began, then stopped, as if fishing for words. Taking a deep breath, he straightened his shoulders and met my gaze. “I’m sorry, Aster. Your mate has declined to proceed further.”

I blinked, uncomprehending. “What?”

He ran a hand through his hair, clearly uncomfortable. “It happens sometimes.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but he tightened his lips before anything else could escape his mouth.

“But he hasn’t even met me,” I said in a tiny voice.

His hands curled into fists, but his voice gentled when he spoke again. “I’m really sorry. Please, make use of the room for as long as you need. If you have any more questions… I’m sorry.”

He left then, closing the door softly behind him.

I stared at the empty expanse of the table in front of me.

That bellow earlier—had that been my mate refusing me? But he hadn’t even seen me! What could possibly be so disgusting about me to earn that kind of reaction?

My vision blurred, and I wiped my eyes impatiently. Well, screw him.

I shot out of the chair and put on my jacket, my movements jerky and betraying the slight tremble of my hands. If he didn’t want me, I definitely didn’t need him. Mate—hah! Obviously, someone had made a mistake somewhere. Someone had…had…

Oh, what was the use? The anger left me in a whoosh, leaving me standing in the ruins of all my excitement and fantasies about this meeting. About my future. About the end of the long, lonely evenings and nights, and the start of something fantastic. I dabbed the edges of my eyes again. I had to get out of the building, go back home, and do something other than breaking down and crying in the middle of this room.

My mate had rejected me, sight unseen.

A new kind of white noise filled my head. As if in a dreamlike state, I returned to my side of the hallway, to the waiting room.

Three pairs of eyes glanced at me. First in surprise, then in realization, then in pity. I swallowed hard, dropping my gaze to the carpeted floor. In stiff, awkward steps, I made my way across the room and whispered some token goodbye to the receptionist. At least, I thought I did. My exit from the building became a blur, and I could never remember exactly what I said or how I managed to get into a cab and back home.

Once there, I studied my tiny apartment. I had no hobbies but for a couple of games and my books. I kept no mementos or knickknacks. No art decorated my walls. The place was blank and boring, like me. I couldn’t even make my claws grow like most hybrids. I had no life and no potential.

What had I been thinking? I had nothing to offer to a mate. I would only drag him down.