Once Burned Page 29

Szilagyi didn't know I'd connected to him accidentally, but his essence on the armrest had been so strong, it had acted like an instant messaging system.

’’Ah.’’ Szilagyi appeared to mull that. Then, ’’Why did you abandon your loyalty to Tepesh? You seemed very staunch in it the last time we spoke.’’

I cast about for any reason he might believe. Things changed since then. You told me Vlad was faking nice, and you were right.

The best lies were steeped in truth, Marty had once told me. I seized on that and continued, hiding my thoughts behind those endlessly repeating lyrics.

Vlad even seduced me to get me emotionally attached to him, but since the first day he brought me to his house, he's had people monitoring my family. When you kidnapped Marty, he grabbed them to use as ammunition against me. Still, joke's on him because my family and I have been estranged for years. Marty's the only one I care about. That's why I snuck something of yours with me and contacted you as soon as I got here.

’’And where is here, Leila?’’ Szilagyi asked smoothly.

My lies had worked too well, and now they'd trapped me. I paused. Szilagyi ran a hand along Marty's face in a mockery of a caress. Marty said nothing, but he gave the faintest shake of his head. Even after everything Szilagyi had done to him-and was about to do-he didn't want to me to tell Szilagyi. He truly was the most loyal friend I had.

Despite this, I couldn't betray Vlad, not to mention get Maximus and Shrapnel killed by answering Szilagyi because they wouldn't let him take me without a fight. I can't tell you, I thought while my stomach felt like it twisted into knots.

Szilagyi clucked his tongue. ’’How unfortunate.’’

Then his knife flashed out. Marty doubled over as much as his restraints allowed. Something thick and red hit the ground.

Stop! I mentally roared.

’’I will when you tell me where you are,’’ Szi-lagyi countered. His knife kept flashing. More gore splattered to the floor and Marty screamed in a way that would haunt my nightmares.

I can't! I replied with another mental bellow. Maximus and Shrapnel are with me. If you come, they'll kill me before they allow you to take me.

’’Maximus and Shrapnel?’’ That made Szilagyi pause, but not in fear. In obvious delight. Clearly I'd just added a cherry to the already yummy sundae of my situation.

Yes, and if they realize they're outnumbered, they'll kill me, I repeated, seeking a reason that would dissuade him. I'm no good to you dead, so give me a little time. Vlad's sending me all over the place, as you may have heard. I'll contact you as soon as circumstances are better.

Szilagyi spun away from Marty to stare at what would have been eye level to me if I'd actually been there.

’’All right,’’ he said.

I was so surprised by his capitulation that my mind briefly went blank. ’’But if you're lying to me,’’ he went on, ’’your friend will experience such pain that hell will be a relief once I finally kill him.’’

My lack of belief in heaven or hell didn't prevent me from shuddering at the threat. I'm not lying. I'll contact you as soon as I'm under less heavy guard. Vlad's already getting lax by letting me go out without him.

Fear for Marty made every mental syllable ring with the illusion of truth. After a long moment, Szilagyi gave me another frosty smile.

’’You have a week to contact me with a location to collect you. Otherwise, your friend will suffer for your betrayal.’’

Got it, I thought, stuffing down my doubts over how I'd pull that off.

His dark brown stare seemed to reach into my soul. ’’Then I'll hear from you soon, Leila.’’

I dropped the link and sank to my knees, still blasting away songs from an era where rockers had longer hair than their girlfriends. That awful gray room was replaced by shades of pale blue, yellow, and peach, the tall windows letting in the radiance of a sunny winter's day. Fear that I'd just condemned Marty to a terrible death battled with determination. You can do this, I chanted to myself. Someone at Tolvai's had a connection to Szilagyi. We'd find out who, Vlad would interrogate the hell out of him, and we'd find Szilagyi's location and save Marty in time. I kept repeating it until I forced myself to believe it.

The attack came less than twenty minutes later.

Chapter 38

I was still searching Tolvai's house to see if I could determine who he'd been in collusion with when the first window shattered. I knew better than to assume anything benign caused it, so I ran to look for Maximus and Shrapnel. In the seconds it took me to see them in the entrance hallway, the house was under a full-scale assault.

Glass exploded inward as vampires crashed through multiple windows, converging on the two men in the hallway. More violent sounds came from outside, too, and gunfire made me instinctively hit the floor. Once there, I froze, not sure if I should try to help, or if I'd only get in their way. My decision was taken away when suddenly I was snatched up from behind, my right wrist held in an iron grip. Whoever grabbed me cursed from the voltage he absorbed, but I couldn't hit him with my full power. I couldn't even connect to Vlad and tell him of the attack because my hand was immobilized.

Then a voice hissed in heavily accented English, ’’Quit struggling! Szilagyi has ordered me to protect you.’’

Tolvai. It wasn't one of his people who were in league with Szilagyi. It was him. No wonder Szi-lagyi had capitulated so easily at my refusal to tell him where I was. Tolvai hadn't stormed off in ire over his house being searched, but to message Szi-lagyi about his unexpected visitors. That's how he'd known where to attack. When I first saw Szi-lagyi typing away on his iPad, he'd probably been ordering the assault.

Tolvai hustled me up the stairs and into an upper bedroom closet. Meanwhile, the battle sounds continued. From the shouts and how the walls and floors shook, Szilagyi had attacked with overwhelming force. Maximus, Shrapnel, and the other guards wouldn't have a chance. Tears burned my eyes, but I refused to face my enemy crying. I waited, hoping Tolvai's grip on my wrist would let up enough for me to do something, but it never did.

When the shouts and tremors finally stopped, the silence drowned me in a tidal wave of dread. Were Maximus and Shrapnel still alive? Then a man's voice called out, of course not in English. Tolvai responded in the same language, and he sounded relieved.

’’What?’’ I asked.

He didn't reply, which was no surprise, but he did move away as though being in close proximity to me had been distasteful. Before I could snap a current at him or connect to Vlad, an ominously familiar person appeared in front of me.

’’Hello again,’’ purred the silver-haired vampire who'd left me to die in a burning club.

I didn't see his fist. Only felt the explosion of pain that darkness quickly snuffed out.

I had no idea how long I was out, but I awoke with a chemical taste in my mouth and ropes digging into my wrists and ankles. No shocker there, but my head wasn't pounding, which did surprise me until I remembered how much of Vlad's blood I'd been drinking recently. That would accelerate my healing. It wouldn't help with the biting cold temperature, however. Immediately, my teeth began to chatter, but before another thought could cross my mind, I began to recite the lyrics to Right Said Fred's ’’I'm Too se*y.’’ Not an eighties song, but sufficiently irritating on endless repeat.

When I risked opening my eyes, I didn't see gray concrete walls, Szilagyi, or Marty. Instead, I was in a wooden stall, the straw-covered ground smelling strongly of horses, and I was na**d except for a scratchy blanket tucked around me.

I wasn't, however, alone.

The silver-haired vampire lounged on top of the high stall door, balanced effortlessly on the narrow strip of wood. He stared down at me with a little smirk that would've made me shiver even if I wasn't already doing so from the cold.

’’Expecting someone else?’’ he asked in a smug tone.

I allowed a single Oh crap to slip through my thoughts before I buried that under lyrics declaring that I was too se*y for my shirt-not that I was wearing one at the moment. Just because Szi-lagyi wasn't in sight didn't mean he wasn't close by, tuning in to my head.

’’In fact, I was,’’ I said, and my reply would've been smooth if not for my teeth chattering. ’’Where's Szilagyi?’’

Silver Hair jumped down, sticking the landing perfectly, of course. He was dressed for the cold in a long suede jacket over a cream sweater, and the material of his chocolate-colored pants looked like corduroy. But what drew my gaze were his gloves. He wore the same oversized, industrial ones I'd used before Vlad got me the normal-looking pair. They weren't the only things in Silver Hair's hands, either. He also carried a wooden mallet and a knife that looked like it was made from ivory.

My previous Oh crap upgraded to an Oh shiiiit!

’’You told Szilagyi you've had a change of heart about joining his side, but he's not convinced,’’ the vampire replied cheerfully. ’’Until he is, he's not letting you near him in case you try to summon Vlad and ambush him.’’

I schooled my features not to show fear, but I felt like my stomach had dropped to my knees.

’’How am I supposed to summon Vlad if I don't have anything of his to link through? And more importantly, how can I convince Szilagyi of my sincerity if I'm nowhere near him?’’

The vampire's grin widened, and his flipped his weapons in the air before catching them. ’’That's where I come in.’’

It was the answer I'd expected-and dreaded. He'd even made sure to pick torture items made of wood and bone instead of the more highly conductive steel, and his gloves would provide protection against any currents that did slip through. Despair knotted in me. I'd wanted to give myself to Szilagyi to trap him, but Vlad had vetoed that plan. He'd said Szilagyi wouldn't believe me and would torture me into telling the truth. Looked like he was right.

’’You leave her alone!’’ a familiar voice called out.

’’Marty?’’ I asked in astonishment.

I looked around, but although I was in one of many stalls, the walls were so high that I couldn't see into any of them.

’’Yeah, I brought him,’’ Silver Hair said. ’’I doubt you're tough, but you surprised me once before. So even if you can hack what I do to you, I bet you'll break at what I do to him.’’

’’Why don't you light up your peepers and use vampire hypnotism to ask if I'm a double agent?’’ I snapped, trying a different tactic.

He laughed. ’’Because Marty tells me that due to your condition, you're given regular doses of vampire blood.’’ He tapped the corner of his eye. ’’Means you're immune to these.’’

I knew that, which was why I'd hoped to trick him with my answers, but my gamble that Marty hadn't told them of my need to imbibe vampire blood had backfired. All of my gambles had backfired, from the look of things. Tremors kept wracking me from the freezing temperature, and the macabre thought came that it would make my blood run slower when Silver Hair cut me.

My gloves were gone, wrists tied to two separate wooden posts, but I could still touch my right hand with my fingers. As unobtrusively as possible, I slid them over my palm. Vlad's thread jumped out like a flare embedded beneath my thumb, but no one else's. Silver Hair must've used his own current-repelling gloves when he transported and then restrained me.

The bad news kept coming. I'd assured Vlad that even tied up and na**d, I could direct him to my location, but I'd counted on Szilagyi taking me to where he was. Not having Silver Hair tie me up in a stable where the only essences I could pull from the wood beneath my hand were from horses.

Silver Hair yanked the blanket off. The stables weren't windy, but it still felt like the cold punched me all over. I thought I'd been freezing before, but without the slight retention of body heat from the blanket, I shook so hard that the rope around my wrists and ankles began to cut into my skin.

Either Silver Hair liked seeing everything jiggle or he really enjoyed his pre-torture interlude. His cornflower-blue eyes became flecked with emerald as he perused me.

’’Where oh where shall I start?’’ he wondered aloud.

Marty began to yell again, cursing and promising revenge if Silver Hair hurt me. It only seemed to amuse the vampire. My despondency grew until it felt like it was choking me. I could contact Vlad, but all I'd be able to tell him was that I was in a stable. I didn't even know if I was still in Romania, or how long I'd been unconscious to give him any sort of a search grid.

This is what you get for thinking you could outsmart someone centuries older than you, an insidious inner voice taunted. For all your big talk, you and your friend are going to die, and there's nothing you can do about it but scream.

FUCK you! I thought, something steely rising in me. That dark inner voice had been responsible for my worst mistakes, like tattling about my father's affair out of spite instead of love, cutting my wrist, and walking away from my family after I healed. I refused to let it direct my actions now. Yes, all my plans had gone to shit, but I'd make new ones. I might indeed die, but it would be fighting every step of the way.

’’Wh-wh-what's your name?’’ I asked, teeth chattering so hard that it made me stutter.

He snorted. ’’Trying to stall? That won't work with me.’’

’’N-n-not trying to stall, but if y-y-you're going to t-torture me, we sh-sh-should at least be on a first n-name basis.’’

He laughed. Under other circumstances, I would've said someone with his pleasant features, vivid blue eyes, and runner's build was attractive, but nobody pulled off cute when they were about to carve into you as if you were a juicy steak.

’’I was born Aron Razvan, but for the past three centuries, I've called myself . . . eh, the English translation would be Rend.’’


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