Once Burned Page 30

It came as no surprise that his chosen nickname implied violence. No wannabe badass would choose a moniker like Petal.

’’Leila D-Dalton,’’ I managed. If I shook any harder from the cold, I might dislocate something.

Another jovial smile. ’’Well, Leila, this will hurt, but if I find that you're not trying to trick Szilagyi, then after I heal you, I'll send you to him.’’ His smile faded, and green covered his gaze until not a speck of blue remained. ’’But if you are trying to f**k us, you will regret it.’’

Then that pale ivory knife slashed across my shoulder, signaling that Rend was done talking.

Chapter 39

Over the past twelve years, I'd gotten familiar enough with pain to classify it in stages of mild, moderate, acute, intense, excruciating, and freeing. That last one might sound strange, but if you've been pushed past every other milestone and were still alive, the final one-the one that inevitably leads to the sweet nothingness of death-is a relief.

This was the third time I'd entered the ’’freeing’’ stage with Rend. Like the other two instances, soon he'd use one of many irrigation syringes he'd prefilled with his blood and force-feed it to me, healing the damage he'd done before I ruined his plans by dying. But right now, hovering over the precipice between life and death, I experienced a moment of clarity.

All I had to do was hang on until he switched to torturing Marty. He hadn't made me confess my true loyalties yet, and he was getting irritated. Soon he'd seek to break me through my love for my friend, but Rend didn't know that every crimson drop he forced me to swallow did more than heal my body-it fueled my power. I felt it growing, surging against my skin, burning inside with a seething intensity that would have killed me if not for all the vampire blood I kept swallowing. It was all I could do to contain the rivers of electricity that tried to push their way out of my hand. If Rend hadn't been so careful to touch me only with his nonconductive weapons, plastic syringes, and thick rubber gloves, he might have sensed the danger. As it was, his precautions would be the death of him.

Touching him might not be enough, after all. I'd see his worst sin, but perhaps not where he'd been before he grabbed me from Tolvai's. The only way I'd definitely find where I was-and hopefully where Szilagyi was-would be through Rend's eyes.

Or, more accurately, through the memories in his bones.

I felt darkness overwhelming me when he cursed in something that sounded like a cross between Latin and Romanian. Then, he shoved a needleless syringe in my mouth and I tasted his cold blood again. That liquid seemed to turn to fire after it slid down my throat and hit my bloodstream. My body convulsed while it healed, leaving me shaking from the surge of power and the agony of countless nerve endings knitting back together.

’’Either you're telling the truth, or you're strong as f*k,’’ Rend muttered in English this time. ’’Let's find out.’’

By the time I blinked enough to clear my vision, I saw the stable door was open. Directly across from my stall, in another open stable, was Marty. He wasn't tied to the posts with rope like I was, but speared through in multiple places with silver. From how pale he was, he hadn't fed in several days, and his blood barely pooled around the stab wounds.

Silver poisoning, starvation, and draining of blood were the most efficient ways to negate a vampire's strength. Rend was no amateur, as he'd proved. But what simultaneously broke my heart and filled me with feral purpose was seeing the crimson streaks on Marty's cheeks. He'd cried while listening to Rend torture me, so much that his tears had turned from pink to red.

’’I hope Vlad rips your guts out and burns them in front of you,’’ Marty snarled at Rend.

The vampire laughed. ’’I've watched him do that to someone, you know. The smell is horrible.’’

Marty spat when Rend came nearer. ’’If you were ever that close to him, then he should have killed you.’’

His back was to me, so I couldn't see Rend's expression, but his tone turned colder than the air around us.

’’Oh, he did worse than kill me. He cut me off from his line mere months after turning me, all because I broke some of his endless, stupid rules. For decades, I was every vampire's bitch until Szilagyi found me and took me in, but enough about the past.’’ He took those rubber gloves off and tossed them aside. ’’Your turn.’’

Rend's body briefly blocked Marty from view as he squatted down until he was nearly the same level as Marty's four-foot, one-inch frame. Then he took a silver knife from an open satchel on the ground and waved it in a taunting manner.

’’You mentioned ripping guts out. Sounds like a good place to start. Speak up if you have something to tell me, Leila.’’

’’Don't worry about me, kid,’’ Marty rasped, and though his voice was hoarse, the words were firm. ’’I'll be okay.’’

’’No, you won't,’’ Rend replied with obvious relish.

Yes, he will, I thought savagely, and released the energy roiling beneath my skin.

Ozone scented the air, replacing the smell of horses. The rope around my right wrist fell away as a sizzling strand of white cut through it. Rend cocked his head at the crackling sound, glancing over his shoulder at me.

I aimed everything I had at him, channeling it in a rush of power that made my hand feel like it exploded when electricity burst from it. A glowing lash ripped across Rend's upper body, shooting out from me so fast, he still had that quizzical expression when he glanced down at where it hit him.

’’That hurt,’’ Rend said clearly.

Then everything north of his collarbones pitched over into the hay. The rest of his body remained crouched in front of Marty, that silver knife still gripped in his hand. The open area of gore where his head, neck, and shoulder used to be revealed Marty's stunned face above it. He stared at Rend's body-both parts of it-and then at me, mouth opening and closing wordlessly as if he'd been the one who was decapitated. The long current of white coming from my hand fizzled and then disappeared with another whiff of ozone.

’’He s-s-o had that c-coming,’’ I said through madly chattering teeth. Exultation filled me, but it didn't stamp out my lingering fury. I had to suppress the urge to summon another bolt and keep whipping Rend's remains until he resembled the hay beneath him. That frothing energy continued to pulse inside me, fueled by pain, rage, and about a pint of vampire blood.

’’He's not alone,’’ Marty hissed.

Later, it would bother me that I was happy by this news. I cut through the rest of my ropes in time to be standing na**d but unrestrained when a Mediterranean-looking man suddenly appeared in the space between me and Marty's stalls.

My hand flashed out, those currents seeking the wild rush of another release. A line of blazing white arced from my skin, cracking across the man's neck. Just like with Rend, his head hit the ground before the rest of his body.

’’One more,’’ Marty whispered, still staring at me in shock.

I wanted to put on one of the dead vampire's clothes-and shoes!-but footsteps were already coming down the stable's narrow hallway. I snatched up the discarded horse blanket and darted out of the stall, hoping whoever was coming hadn't noticed the dead man's legs sticking out of Marty's stall.

From the preternaturally fast way the blond man turned and headed in the opposite direction, he had. I ran after him, extending my right hand and willing all those remaining currents out of me. But my level of power had decreased after two deadly releases. The lash that snapped across the blond vampire brought him to his knees, but it was too low and didn't cut all the way through him. I hesitated. For all intents and purposes, I was unarmed and he was undead. That meant I didn't stand a chance.

Then I forced that thought back with recklessness born of desperation. He couldn't get away and warn Szilagyi. If Maximus and Shrapnel were still alive, that would result in their death sentences. Low voltage or no, I had to stop him.

The vampire pushed himself upright, and it was a toss-up as to which he looked more astonished over-the gash that had cut halfway through his torso, or me charging at him while clutching a dirty blanket. Then it was my turn to be shocked as, instead of attacking, he staggered and began to run away from me.

I chased him, all the vampire blood I'd drunk plus his still-healing wound making me able to keep up. He ran out of the stables and into a snow-covered field. The sun was setting, but it was still light enough for me to see the cell phone he took out of his pants. Panicked, I snapped my hand at it. White flashed through the air, hitting the phone as if driven by missile lock. It blasted apart and he shot a wild look over his shoulder at me before accelerating his pace.

The distance grew between us. For all my increased abilities, I was still human and he was still not. In seconds, he'd be too far ahead for me to see. Even if that didn't happen, I had to get warm or I'd die. The snow felt like razors on my bare feet and despite the blanket, I shook so hard that I began to stumble. In a last-ditch effort, I aimed my right hand at his head and shoved all the waning energy I had toward it.

Red exploded as if I'd hit him with a paint gun pellet. The vampire staggered, turning in my direction. That's when I saw that the back of his head was missing. Despite everything I'd seen over the years, let alone experienced today, I gagged, but I didn't slow down. He fell over, thick dark blobs staining the snow, yet he wasn't dead. His hands swatted at his head in an uncoordinated manner, as if some thread of consciousness urged him to stuff his brains back inside the ruins of his skull.

I reached him in the next minute. He still looked dazed, but part of his head had already begun to heal. Soon he'd be fully recovered-and pissed. I fell to the ground next to him, avoiding most of his wild swipes as I began to search him. My teeth chattered until I tasted blood and my hand shook so badly that it took a few tries to get inside his coat. His eyes were open but unfocused, the sounds he made horrible animalistic grunts. Even when a few of his blows landed, I continued to tear at his clothes. Two hands would've been more thorough, but I couldn't afford to lose any time reliving his sins.

Something stabbed me in his inner coat pocket. At the same moment, those smoky brown eyes focused on me with terrifying clarity. Without even looking to see what metal the weapon was, I yanked it out and shoved it into his heart, twisting with all of my might.

Chapter 40

I trudged into the stables wearing clothes and shoes several sizes too big. I'd even put on the vampire's shirt despite its bloody rip in the chest. I was too cold to be picky.

Marty would've heard me com-ing, but until I appeared in the entrance of his stall, I don't think he'd allowed himself to really believe that I was okay. He stared me as I dropped to my knees in front of him. Two fat red tears rolled down his cheeks.

’’You made it, kid.’’

I began ripping the knives out with hands that still shook, my own tears falling onto my cheeks. Their fleeting warmth was welcome. I didn't know if I'd ever feel free of the cold that seemed to have turned my bones to icicles within me.

’’You made it, too,’’ I said huskily.

The truth of those words made more tears fall, blurring my vision as I yanked out the last of the knives. Once Marty was free, he grabbed me in a hug so tight, it would have been painful if not for how happy I was to be held by him again.

Then he pushed me back. ’’We gotta hurry, kid. Now that Szilagyi and Vlad are after us, we need to disappear.’’

I blinked, thinking hypothermia must be messing with my ability to comprehend. ’’What do you mean, we need to disappear?’’

He sighed. ’’I heard Rend say that you agreed to betray Vlad to Szilagyi, so he'll come after you with everything he's got. With luck, they'll keep each other occupied long enough for us to leave Europe-’’

’’I didn't betray him, Marty,’’ I interrupted. ’’Rend was right. I lied to Szilagyi. In fact, I need to search through Rend's bones to find out where he is and then contact Vlad with the information.’’

’’Vlad let you get captured?’’ Marty shook his head in disgust. ’’I warned you that he was ruthless. Vlad doesn't care about what happens to you as long as he gets what he's after.’’

’’That's not true,’’ I said sharply. ’’We were searching some vampire's house when Maximus, Shrapnel, and I got ambushed, but you are right about one thing. I did offer to let Szilagyi capture me in order to lead Vlad to him. He refused.’’

Marty's expression said that he couldn't believe I was the same person he'd known for years. Maybe I wasn't. The old Leila had a tendency to hide from her problems while suppressing her unwanted powers. This Leila was running toward them while milking her abilities for all they were worth.

’’How long do you think we have until Szilagyi realizes there's a problem?’’ I asked, moving to the next issue.

’’Not long. He stayed in frequent contact with Rend,’’ he muttered, still giving me that who-are-you look.

I stood. ’’Then I better get started with Rend's bones. If Maximus and Shrapnel are still alive, they won't be for long after Szilagyi realizes Rend and the others are dead. Or he'll move and we'll have to hunt for his location all over again-’’

’’I know where he is.’’

My mouth fell open long enough for my teeth to stop chattering. ’’You know where Szilagyi is right now?’’

’’Of course. They didn't worry about blindfolding me when they brought me to him. They never intended to let me live.’’

I bent and hugged him even harder this time before tweaking his bushy brown sideburns in delight. ’’You are beautiful, you know that? Wait while I link to Vlad and tell him.’’

’’Or you could use Rend's cell phone,’’ he pointed out.

Marty nodded at the satchel a few feet away. Sure enough, next to several silver knives and other gruesome-looking instruments was a cell phone.

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