Once Burned Page 33

’’You may want to consider running for your life,’’ I said, speaking calmly the way one did to an unpredictable animal.

His generous mouth curled in derision. ’’Why? I know who's here, and you already told him about my tunnel, didn't you? So I can't escape.’’ He cocked the guns. ’’But neither can you.’’

I didn't say any of the cliche things that sprang to my mind, like You don't want to do this (yes he did), or We can talk (we were way past the talking stage). Instead, a grim part of me wondered if I had enough vampire blood in me to snap out an electric lash while dying from a gunshot wound. If he pulled that trigger, I intended to find out.

Screams rang out from above, so anguished that I winced in instinctive sympathy even though they must've come from Szilagyi's remaining guards. Then a large form appeared in front of me like a shadow come to life. It happened so fast that it took a moment to realize what I was looking at-the back of a vampire, dressed all in black, his hands lit up with orange and blue flames that cast an eerie glow over the inside of the pit.

’’Hello, Vlad,’’ Szilagyi said, and to his credit, he didn't sound afraid. ’’I must admit, I'm surprised. You chose to protect her instead of strike out at me. How unexpectedly soft of you.’’

I had the option of cringing behind my boyfriend's back or hurrying to get Maximus and Shrapnel out of their restraints. It was a no-brainer. I backed away slowly, but once I reached them, I whirled and yanked, cut, or pried away the last of the silver pinning Maximus and Shrapnel to the stone walls. I glanced over at Szilagyi several times while I worked, but he didn't move, and those two guns were now pointed at Vlad.

’’Why would I kill you quickly when I can take you with me and spread out your torment over years?’’ Vlad replied in a caressing voice. ’’I owe you for so many things. My captivity after I became a vampire, smearing my name, your betrayal of Romania to her enemies, your murder of my son, all my people you've killed, and finally, your abuse of Leila.’’

Then his voice deepened, and those flames licked up his arms. ’’Though she seems to have recklessly set out on her own quest for vengeance, hasn't she?’’

Vlad glanced at me during that last sentence, and despite the seriousness of the situation, I cringed. That single brief look said loud and clear how furious he was over me coming here, but if he'd waited ten more minutes before attacking, I could've snuck Maximus and Shrapnel out without Szilagyi even knowing it!

Szilagyi let out a short laugh as he overheard that. ’’You might indeed have done so. You've shown yourself to be amazingly resourceful, as your presence here and the smell of Rend's blood on your clothes proves.’’

Maximus and Shrapnel, now free, flanked Vlad on either side. They were weaponless, but they still managed to exude a palpable form of menace. Maybe it was because of how their bodies were covered with dried blood and nothing else. Marty stayed by me, his hand sliding toward the knife still strapped to his belt. Vlad's glance flicked to Maximus, Shrapnel, and Marty in lightning-fast succession before returning to Szilagyi.

’’Leave.’’

The single word was weighted down with immutable command. Maximus and Shrapnel turned to go, but Marty hesitated. At that, the coffee-skinned vampire picked him up and then leapt out, one meaty hand silencing his protests. Maximus moved as if to grab me, but I snapped a warning whip of electricity at him.

’’Don't even think of it. I'm leaving with Vlad or not at all.’’

He glanced at Vlad, who gave me another you're-so-in-for-it glare before jerking his head up. Maximus disappeared out of the pit with a soundless jump and I returned my attention to the standoff between the two remaining vampires.

Vlad smiled at Szilagyi, and that simple baring of teeth managed to be terrifying in its charm. ’’Now you have only me to contend with, my old enemy. Do you know why? Because I wanted you to remember over the course of the next several agonizing years that you couldn't best me even when I stood alone.’’ His gaze dropped to the guns and he let out a short laugh. ’’Unless you actually believe shooting me will work?’’

’’No,’’ Szilagyi said, surprising me as he dropped the guns. Those distinguished features twisted into a mask of hatred. ’’I know those won't stop you. Our sire willed something extra into you when he changed you. A remaining part of Cain's legacy of power. I knew it the first time I saw how unnaturally strong and gifted you were. Tenoch must have already set his plans for death in motion when he changed you and knew he wouldn't need it anymore.’’

I didn't know what Szilagyi meant, but Vlad did. His smile widened, changing from icily pleasant to genuinely amused.

’’Here I'd thought only Mencheres suspected that. Very perceptive of you, but it makes me wonder why you're not begging for your life if you realize there is no way you can defeat me.’’

Something ancient and vicious lurked in Szilagyi's whiskey-colored gaze. ’’Begging would only please you, but I know what won't. You care for her;I can smell it. You may think you've won, old friend, but I'll make you remember what it's like to lose someone precious, and how fitting that you'll lose her here.’’

I watched something slip from his sleeve, no bigger than a cigarette lighter, but I didn't do anything. Maybe because I'd seen too many movies where the villain monologues all of his evil plans before attempting to act on them. Szilagyi didn't say a word. He simply pressed a button on it and the world exploded.

Well, not the world, but the one around me, anyway.

Vlad's reaction saved me from being killed right then. Rocks blasted out with tremendous force, but his body formed a shield that protected my front while his arms covered as much of my back as they could. My head was stuffed into his chest, his chin holding it down and covering the top of it. The backs of my legs felt shredded from the flying shards, but with the ground dissolving beneath us, that was the least of my problems.

Then Vlad's grip tightened and suddenly nothing was beneath my feet. Were we flying? Being sucked down with the crumbling mountain? I shouldn't have turned to the side to look, but I did-and saw an ocean of fire coming straight at us.

I'd relived death-by-explosion before, so I knew what seemed to take several seconds actually happened in an instant. Vlad vaulted us up, escaping most of the stone and brick minefield, but the fire was too fast. It rushed upward, matching his speed easily. I squeezed my eyes shut again, bracing for the inevitable agony. If I was lucky, death would take me quickly. At least I knew Vlad would survive the flames. Szilagyi had detonated another mountain, but this one wouldn't claim him. It would only take me, and while that sucked, I wasn't the type to want company in death.

Then those roaring flames enveloped me. I felt it in the pressure that covered every inch of me, but though the wind from the inferno whipped my hair around, the only heat I felt came from the vampire who held me so tight, it was hard to breathe.

Had my body gone into shock, numbing me from the pain? Possible, but it had never happened so fast before. I risked another glance-and saw flames all around me, even rippling above me, but though the smoke turned the few breaths I managed into ragged coughs, it was almost as if the fire skipped over me. Not even my clothes or hair were singed.

It was so unbelievable that my mind refused to accept it. I had to be burning. Any second now I'd feel that excruciating pain slam into me and smell the horrifying odor of my own flesh cooking. But even as I waited, Vlad slanted us sideways and increased his speed. The smoke and flames were now to our left, giving me an unrestricted view of Castle Poenari as it smoldered and crumbled into the mountain below it.

Finally Vlad set us at the bottom of that mountain, far enough away from the rock slides that smeared the formerly pristine snow with ugly streaks of gray and black. It took several seconds for my legs to stop shaking enough for me to stand on my own, and even then, I couldn't bring myself to release the grip I had around his neck.

’’How?’’ I managed, my mind filling in the rest of what I couldn't verbally articulate. How did I not burn to death? Nothing should have survived that fire except the vampire still holding me upright.

Vlad loosened my grip enough to stare down at me. ’’My aura saved you.’’

At my blank look, he went on. ’’You did notice that my clothes never burn when I call forth flames. My power recognizes anything contained within my aura as part of me and thus won't consume it. Other fire travels right over my aura as if repelled by it, so I coated you in it to make the flames pass over you.’’

I was so stunned that I couldn't speak. He'd actually managed to make me fireproof? How long would it last?

His mouth twisted into a musing smile. ’’I don't know. I've never done this before. Perhaps it will wear off in as little as an hour, perhaps it will last weeks.’’

It took me a few moments to process the subtext behind that statement because I was still overwhelmed by what had just happened.

’’If you've never done this before, how did you know it would work?’’

His expression changed into the arrogant one I knew so well. ’’Because it had to. I wasn't about to let you die.’’

I shook my head with a sort of bemused amazement. I'd worried that his ego might be the death of him, but as it turned out, it had saved my life. Of course he wouldn't hesitate before trying something that had never been done before. He was Vlad Tepesh. How could he fail?

Another rumbling sound made me look upward toward what used to be Castle Poenari. A huge smoking hole was all that was left of the tower, and almost all of those imposing high walls had crumbled into the forest below. The structure I'd so recently thought of as a stone dragon now looked like a ragged skeleton.

’’Oh, Vlad,’’ I said softly. ’’Your home. It's . . . gone.’’

His hands settled onto my shoulder, their heat searing through the layers of clothing I'd stolen from my now dead captors.

’’It hasn't been my home for centuries. I'm not sorry that it's gone. Its place in my life is long over.’’

Above the noise from the rock slides, trees falling, and other destructive sounds, I heard shouts. Vlad and I turned, and though I couldn't see who it was in the distance, he smiled.

’’Maximus, Shrapnel, and Martin seem to have survived the explosion. They must have gone out the tunnel.’’

Then he looked at me and his smile faded. ’’Why did you wait to tell me about that?’’ Hints of anger colored his voice.

’’Because you would've sent someone else to free them,’’ I replied, the topic helping me to regain my shattered composure. ’’I can't do anything about the guards who were killed, but Maximus and Shrapnel were captured while protecting me, so it was only fair that I was the one to get them out. I didn't even want Marty to come along, but he insisted.’’

’’Such a reckless, foolish risk,’’ he muttered, but when he brushed my hair, his touch was gentle despite his hardened tone.

I smiled, holding up my hand. ’’Reckless, maybe. Foolish, no. You were right. This is a formidable weapon.’’

He clasped it, absorbing the current it contained without a flicker in his expression.

’’Yes, but you are still only human.’’

I laughed, the sound of it drowned out by the crunch of rocks as the mountain continued to shudder as though in the throes of birth pangs.

’’So was Van Helsing, yet in every movie, he beat the vampire in the end. Never underestimate the power of humanity.’’

Epilogue

Dawn broke with a veil of fog, tinting everything with a haze like the glimpses I occasionally caught of the future. Vlad had sent me and Marty back home while he and several guards searched the ruins under Castle Poenari. He wanted to make sure none of Szilagyi's people who survived the explosion escaped, and he wanted his enemy's bones, either as proof that he was dead, or as a trophy, or both.

After a brief reunion with Gretchen and my dad to assure them that I was fine after my captivity, I pleaded exhaustion and went to my room. I was tired, but I couldn't sleep for many reasons. One of those was because of what happened at the stable. It didn't bother me that I'd killed Rend and the other guards. Given the right circumstances, most people were capable of taking a life, and this had been a kill-or-be-killed situation. But what I hadn't anticipated was how I'd enjoyed it.

Surviving against deadly foes accounted for some of the exhilaration I'd felt, but not all of it. I could use the excuse that Vlad's ruthlessness was rubbing off, but deep down, I knew this cold-bloodedness was all mine. Vlad had even pointed out the darkness in me before our relationship began. I'd thought he was referring to everything I'd seen from my abilities. Now I realized he meant what lurked within me, and it had probably been there since before the accident.

As disturbing as that realization was, what really kept me awake had nothing to do with my unexpected harsh streak. The sun burned off most of the morning fog by the time I heard Vlad's booted stride down the hallway. He came into my room, threw his dirt-smeared coat onto the floor, and was in the process of kicking off his boots when what I was doing made him pause.

I sat in front of the mahogany fireplace, my right hand inside the orange and blue flames. They leapt between my fingers and curled around my wrist, but not one of them directly touched my skin. Instead, they skipped over me as if I wore an invisible glove, and while their warmth was pleasant, it wasn't scorching as it should have been with my proximity.

’’Ah, so my aura is still embedded in you,’’ Vlad commented, not sounding concerned. He resumed his boot removal.

I withdrew my hand, looking at its unblemished state with a mixture of wonder and dismay. ’’Did you find Szilagyi's bones?’’

’’No.’’ Boots off, he came over, kneeling beside me. ’’Don't worry. If he managed to survive, it will take a day at least for him to dig his way out. My men have the area surrounded, and now you, my beauty, can link to him and see if he'd dead, or see what hole he's attempting to crawl out of.’’


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