Once Burned Page 26

Before Maximus could reply, a tremendous shudder shook the abbey, followed by the flash of flames and a deafening roar. Szilagyi rigged this place to explode was my first thought, followed instantly by Doesn't the fool remember that I'm immune to fire? But then the earth opened up in great cracking chasms, dragging me and the others down while the roof collapsed on top of us.

When the roaring and shaking increased, I realized the rest of Szilagyi's trap. He hadn't only set explosives in and under the abbey-he'd detonated the mountain above it, too. Rage and disbelief filled me. No. I couldn't die like this.

I tried to pull myself out, but the earth shook so violently I could find no purchase and it was too congested to fly. Then multiple tons of rock landed upon me as the mountain rained down, pinning me with gargantuan pressure before tearing my body apart from their weight and velocity.

I came out of the vision with pain still arcing through every limb. That didn't stop me from running out of the dining room and down the hall. At the end of that long, gothic expanse, the front doors were open and Vlad was between them, the sunlit backdrop of a beautiful winter day highlighting his frame in ethereal white.

’’Stop!’’ I shouted as loud as I could.

’’He rigged the abbey and the mountain?’’

A short laugh escaped Vlad. I didn't see anything funny about it. In fact, I was still shaking from reliving his death.

’’Yes. This whole attack is designed to bring you there and then kill you.’’

He stroked his jaw. Sunshine played across half his face while darkness etched the side turned away from the windows. He was a kaleidoscope of light and shadows, much like the startling contrasts of his personality, and while he'd never looked more vibrant or fierce, I still had to keep from running my hands over him to reassure myself that he was whole-and to make sure that I'd truly changed his future from that horrible fate.

’’Szilagyi knows I'd come to assist my men. He must've planned this for weeks to have sufficient charges to bring down the mountain.’’

I let out a shaky laugh. ’’Gotta love an evil mastermind.’’

Vlad came over to me. He'd sat me down in the library when I kept screaming about how he'd die if he left. In hindsight, I should've been calmer in my warning. If he thought I was having an antiquated case of feminine hysterics over him going into regular danger, he might have ignored me and gone anyway.

He knelt in front of my chair, a smile flitting across his lips. ’’You're not prone to hysterics of any kind. That's why I listened when you said to stop.’’

Then he rose, going to the door. ’’Maximus!’’

The blond vampire appeared at once. From his hard expression, he'd overheard everything.

’’Take Shrapnel and four others to the abbey,’’ Vlad stated. ’’Only one of you is to enter at a time to secure prisoners or collect our dead, and be conspicuous about who. You're being watched, but Szilagyi won't detonate the charges if he sees that I'm not there. He can only bring down the mountain once.’’

Maximus bowed to Vlad, but he stared at me while he did it, and the emotion in his gaze was unsettling. Then he left, and when Vlad turned back to me, his expression was harshly amused.

’’I never thought a woman would come between us, but you might. If Maximus wasn't loyal to the last drop of blood in his body, I'd kill him for how he looks at you.’’

His tone was casual, but once again, I didn't know if he was using a figure of speech or being serious.

’’He's just grateful that you're not going to die today.’’

A brow rose. ’’You think this is the only time he's stared at you that way?’’

I hadn't known that, but it didn't change anything. ’’You can't kill someone for how he looks at me. That's crazy.’’

I thought I heard, ’’I can if he keeps it up,’’ but I wasn't sure, and his next words startled me into forgetting that.

’’I'll see you in a few hours. I don't want to be far behind Maximus and the others.’’

’’You're still going?’’ I blurted, astounded.

His smile was coldly anticipatory. ’’Not inside, but someone is watching that abbey in order to detonate those charges. With luck, it will be Szilagyi himself.’’

I wouldn't link to the puppet master to find out;if he was there, Szilagyi would sense that I was spying on him and leave. Instead, I grasped Vlad's arm with my right hand. If I saw another image of his death, I wasn't letting him leave this room no matter what he said.

Nothing. I let out a huge sigh of relief.

’’Go ahead.’’

He stroked my cheek, that deadly little smile never leaving his face.

’’Don't fear. Szilagyi needed to bring a mountain on me to kill me because I'm too powerful to fall in a normal ambush.’’

Then he was gone, my hair rustling with the speed of his exit. Vlad had the devil's own ego, but according to myth, pride was how Lucifer fell. His arrogance could turn out to be his Achilles'heel if Szilagyi exploited it the right way.

My teeth ground together. That wouldn't happen. Vlad would search for him in his way, and I'd do the same in mine. So far the memories locked inside those bones from the club hadn't yielded more information, but I'd keep sifting through them. With luck, one of them would lead to Szilagyi's location, or to whoever might be helping him. Vlad said he thought that some of his ’’allies’’ really wanted him dead. He'd been seeking out items for me to touch the night of the club fire, but since we'd discovered the identity of the puppet master, combing through people he knew to determine friend from foe had been back-burnered.

Still, someone had snatched Marty off the streets, and Szilagyi had been tucked in his concrete box at the time. It could've been the young-looking vampire with the prematurely silver hair, but as Vlad had said, Szilagyi had waited centuries to make his move because he needed enough people supporting him first. If Szilagyi was close to us as Vlad surmised, maybe his secret cadre of allies were, too . . .

As sudden as the bolt of electricity that had changed my life, I realized how we could find Szilagyi without spending weeks on painstaking searches of abandoned structures or poring through memories contained in his people's bones. All we'd have to do was to give the puppet master what he wanted.

Me.

Chapter 35

I'd been waiting in the indoor garden, and I jumped up as soon as I heard the front door slam accompanied by the mutter of voices. But close as I was to the entrance, I still only caught a glimpse of a red-soaked Shrapnel and Maximus restraining an equally bloody stranger before they disappeared toward the entrance to the underground stone staircase. More vampires I didn't recognize appeared and disappeared just as quickly, one of them cradling a body with achingly familiar curly brown hair.

Ben. Tears pricked my eyes that I fought back. I'd grieve for him properly later. Right now, I had to trap the vampire responsible for his death.

’’I'll be there shortly,’’ Vlad said in a tone I never wanted to hear directed at me. Then he strode toward me, smelling strongly of smoke and charred meat, but as usual, without a singe mark on him. The only things that marred his gunmetal-colored shirt and black pants were smears of red that required no explanation.

’’Vlad-’’ I began.

’’After your vision, I wanted you to see for yourself that I'm safe,’’ he cut me off in a much gentler tone, ’’but I must join Maximus and Shrapnel now. We only managed to take one of Szilagyi's men alive and I intend to question him myself.’’

He'd already turned away, moving with that inhuman speed toward the entrance of the staircase that led to the dungeon, when my voice chased after him.

’’I doubt he knows where he is. Szilagyi considered anyone at that abbey expendable since he intended to flatten it with the mountain. Besides, I know how to find him tonight.’’

That stopped him cold. He whirled to face me, green sparking in his coppery gaze.

’’How?’’ A single word heavy with surprise and lethal intent.

’’You're not going to like it, but hear me out.’’

His brow went up at that. Then he walked over in a leisurely way that somehow looked more dangerous than his supersonic bursts of speed.

’’Continue.’’

I glanced around. I didn't see any of the dozen or so guards he had on this floor, but they were there. Maybe I should've waited until we had more privacy.

’’I trust everyone in this house implicitly, so speak,’’ Vlad stated, overhearing that in my mind.

’’Let me go into town by myself. I'll pretend to run away, then link to Szilagyi and tell him I want to switch sides. He'll snatch me up, take me to where he is, and then I'll link to you and you can come and fry him.’’

Vlad said nothing. Time stretched until the silence was painful. I couldn't tell what he was thinking from his expression. It was so bland, he might have been daydreaming.

’’Even if he didn't have his men kill you on sight, Szilagyi won't let you discover where he is,’’ he finally replied. ’’He'd make sure you were unconscious when you were transported to his location. Before you arrived, he'd have you stripped of any objects, clothes included, that you could link through in order to contact me. Then, because he wouldn't trust you, he'd torture you until he was satisfied that every word you told him was the truth. In short, it's a brave but stupid idea.’’

I bristled. I might not be the world's most famous vampire like some arrogant people I knew, but I was not stupid.

’’How do you think I connected to you when I was trapped at the club?’’ I snapped. ’’I hadn't seen you that day. Your essence wasn't on a single piece of my clothing, yet I still managed to link to you. Szilagyi could have me stripped na**d without a single clue as to where I was, and in ten minutes, I could still be transmitting my location to you.’’

’’I thought you'd brought something I touched with you,’’ he muttered, his gaze narrowing. ’’How did you do it?’’

I walked the last few paces that separated us, taking his hand and not flinching at the stains that coated it.

’’You're in my skin,’’ I said. ’’The day before, you'd traced my mouth with your hand and almost kissed me, so I followed the essence you imprinted on my lips back to you.’’

His eyes glowed, emerald against bronze, as he brought my hand up and kissed it. The gloves I'd put on meant I didn't feel that silky brush of flesh, but I imagined that I could still feel his heat through the current-repelling material.

’’He's no fool. He'll restrain you to keep you from touching anything, my dark-haired beauty. Even your lips.’’

’’Then you'll imprint some of your essence onto my hand,’’ I replied steadily. ’’You're probably doing that right now.’’

That fathomless stare bore into mine. ’’But how will you know where you are to tell me?’’

’’By following essence trails left in that room. Someone's bound to know where they are. Even if I can't pull a location from that, I can link to whoever ties me up and follow that person. Szilagyi won't know what I'm doing. You told me you can't hear my thoughts when I access my power. The rest of the time, it'll be the worst of the eighties songs in my head.’’

’’He'll know you're using your power, and be suspicious as to why.’’ He dropped my hand. ’’At best, he'll torture you until you can't block him from your thoughts and he learns what you intend to do. The answer is no.’’

’’I'm not her, Vlad.’’

I said it knowing full well that I was tearing open his deepest scar, but I didn't let that stop me. He was merciless and unapologetic when he knew he was right. I'd be the same way.

’’I wouldn't rather die than fall into your enemy's hands,’’ I continued. ’’Even if everything you fear happens, I can take it. I've relived every terrible thing that people-human and otherwise-do to each other, and though it broke me once, I came back stronger. Szilagyi kidnapped me, tried to kill me, did kill my friend Ben, and is now holding my dearest friend hostage. I want revenge, and I want Marty safely back.’’

’’I don't f**king believe it,’’ a feminine voice gasped.

I swung around. Gretchen was about fifty paces behind me in the hall, and from the way her mouth hung open in a classic expression of disbelief, she'd overheard everything.

’’What is wrong with you?’’ she went on, now marching toward us. ’’You'd think getting electrocuted, cutting your wrist, and dating a vampire would be close enough to death for anyone, but no! You've got to offer yourself up like a present to some freaky vampire who'll probably kill you!’’

Of all the times for my sister to come out of her room. ’’Gretchen, now's not-’’

’’Not what, a good time?’’ she finished angrily. ’’It never is with you, Leila! But since you're about to try and get killed again, I'm not waiting. So here's a news flash: You're not the only one whose life went to shit when Mom died. And if Dad going emotionally catatonic afterward wasn't bad enough, you started shoving me away as soon as you came out of that coma.’’

’’Shoving you away?’’ My voice rose as long-buried wounds rocketed to the surface. ’’I was a little busy trying to cope with getting Mom killed and electrocuting everyone while reliving their darkest secrets, remember?’’

’’Know what I remember?’’ While I'd gotten louder, Gretchen's voice became soft. ’’Coming home from school to find you in a bathtub full of blood. Calling 911 while holding your wrist together and praying I wouldn't have to bury someone else I loved, and I remember that as soon as you got better, you left.’’

If she'd screamed it at me, it would've been easier, but the quiet despair in her voice cut me deeper than that knife had back then. How could I explain the darkness I'd felt trapped in? Or the conviction I'd had afterward that if I didn't get away from her, I'd destroy her life more than I already had?


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