Two centuries of being possessed. Even if Wraith did have any consciousness left, he must be a madman after having his will hijacked that long. No one's sanity could endure that much stress.
"If it's the only way to save the others, then Wraith dies," Ian stated.
I wanted to disagree, to find another way, because it was awful enough to sentence an innocent man to die for the greater good, but even worse when that man was the brother Bones never knew. Yet I said nothing, and my silence confirmed my acceptance.
I was glad we couldn't tell Bones this. He'd think we were withholding information because we didn't want the demon in him overhearing our plots, but I didn't want Bones to carry the guilt over it. He'd taken vengeance against my father so I wouldn't have to. The least I could do was carry the sin of his brother's blood on my hands versus his. I might not like sacrificing Wraith's life, but if it was a choice between him or Bones, that was no choice to me.
And the demon didn't seem to realize it, but he'd revealed another important detail. I exchanged a glance with Ian, who nodded almost imperceptibly. He'd caught it, too.
"When do we strike?" I asked.
"Have to wait until mid-December," Balchezek replied.
"No way. She knows we're onto her. Why would we give her another two weeks to plot against us?"
"How many times do I have to tell you I don't make the rules?" Balchezek grumbled. "Mid-December is when many of the world's largest religions begin their big to-do's. Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Muharram . . . faith is at an all-time high. That weakens demons. If you want to drive those splits out of your pals, that's when you have your best shot."
"If she knows she'll be weaker soon, what's to stop her from killing everyone before that happens? That's what I would do," Ian stated with blunt callousness.
"Survival instinct," the demon replied. He jerked his head at me. "Know how your vampire grabbed control instead of killing her, or watching you sex her up? What do you think will happen if the demon tries to kill the people those other vampires care about? She'll have a mass uprising, that's what. So until she's got everything in place, she'll keep those vamps complacent by not f**king with who they love."
Everything in place. For the demon, that would be her assurance of taking over Bones's line when he died. He'd publicly disowned me, but if needed, we could reverse that and deal with the consequences of his enemies and people knowing they had no head to their line. Plus, as long as we had Bones, then the demon couldn't act against the others yet. She'd need them if she tried to find another way to grab the same power. We would use her own plan against the bitch.
"All right, then it's mid-December." My smile was tight. "So we have to kill Wraith, which we know how to do. But how do we get the demon's splits out of Bones and the others?"
Balchezek laced his hands behind his head. "That's where your filmy little friends come in."
Two weeks before Christmas, Fabian flew into our new location in a derelict waterfront factory with the news we'd been waiting for.
"Denise picked up the charges and she is on the boat."
"Thank God she managed to get away," I breathed. "How'd she do it?"
"Wraith would not consent to let her leave no matter what excuse she fabricated, so Denise turned herself into a duplicate of your cat and meowed at the door until one of them let her outside. They never knew it was her."
Faint wonder tinged Fabian's voice at Denise's shapeshifting ability. It still bowled me over, too, and I'd seen her do it several times.
Ian chuckled. "Clever poppet."
I was too keyed up to comment on Denise's smart improvisation. Bones was below in the former boiler room, slumped in his chains, locked in a battle of wills against a creature that could be thousands of years old. So much of his willpower focused on his internal struggle that he couldn't spare the energy to stand. Fifteen days of this while not allowing himself a moment of sleep had taken a brutal toll.
It had tormented me to watch the demon eat him up from the inside out while not being able to help, but finally, I could act. Not a moment too soon, either. Even with his extraordinary willpower, I didn't think Bones could make it much longer.
"Then let's get this show on the road," I stated. "Fabian, you know what to do. Ian, summon Balchezek. I'll get Bones."
I went downstairs, my heart clenching when I saw his dark head bent forward on his chest. His eyes were closed, and not a muscle twitched on his tall frame. Inwardly, I sighed. He'd fallen asleep. I knew it would happen soon. It had been a miracle that he'd held out this long, especially since Bones had no idea that we were waiting for a specific date to act. How could we tell him when that would only be alerting the demon, too? He'd been fighting with no end in sight, and his body had at last given out.
Well, maybe we'd be lucky and he'd sleep so long that we'd have the demon beaten before he woke up and she took over -
His eyes opened, startling me. They settled on me in what looked like an unfocused manner.
"Bones?" I replied with the same amount of question in my voice.
"Mmm." That was his only response, as if more words were too much for him.
Was it still him? He might have had his eyes closed for concentration; I'd seen him do that before. But in his current state, I'd be amazed if he could shut his eyes and not sleep. Or had he been asleep and this was the demon pretending to be exhausted so I'd think Bones was still at the forefront?
I had to be sure. "What was the first thing I said to you when we met?" The demon had infected his body, but Bones had confirmed that she didn't have access to his memories, just like he knew almost nothing about her.
He didn't reply, just kept staring at me with that unfocused look in his eyes. I shook his shoulder roughly, chains rattling under my touch.
"Come on, Bones! What was the first thing I said to you when we met?"
Even as I spoke, I drew my gun out of my pants. I kept one on me at all times now, knowing it was only a matter of time until I had to shoot him.
"Hallo handsome," he mumbled. "Want to f**k?"
Relief coursed through me and I put my gun back in its holster. Those were the words I'd said when I was an inexperienced vampire hunter looking to entice Bones outside so I could kill him. What I'd lacked in charm I made up for in bluntness.
"You have to hang on a little longer," I told him as I began to unwind the chains that tethered him to several pipes. "We're moving to another location."
"Kitten, I can't . . . do this anymore."
The words sliced through me like a dozen silver blades. He sounded so awful that all I wanted to do was cradle him while he slept for three straight days. This was too much. I wouldn't have held out half this long. It was horrible to ask anything else of him, but even though it was unfair, I had to push all my tender feelings aside.
"You need to do this," I said sharply. "We're not safe here and we need to leave. Don't you dare fall asleep and let her attack us now. I thought you loved me."
I hated myself for every word. If I were Bones, I'd tell me to f**k off and then I'd start snoring. But he shook his head as if to clear it and then somehow forced himself to stand even with hundreds of pounds of chains coiled around him.
I'd never loved him more - or been more determined to boot that she-bitch inside him back to hell. "That's right," I went on while mentally promising to make this up to him. "Stay alert."
I kept up a steady stream of conversation that only a drill sergeant would consider encouraging as I removed most of the chains but kept his arms locked to his chest in a metallic version of a straightjacket. Then I stuck some earphones in his ears and put a black hood over his face with a final brusque admonition for him to stay focused. Heartless bitch, table for one! I thought, but if things went according to plan, he'd be free of the demon tonight. As my last step of preparation, I duct-taped an iPod to his chains and turned it up. Loudly.
Thus blinded and deafened, I led him up the stairs to the first floor. It would have been quicker if I carried him, but an abrupt "no" from under the hood stopped me when I started to lift him. Male pride survived even a fortnight's lack of sleep and a demon's merciless assault, it seemed. That was fine. Bones could be cursing me up one side and down the other as an ungrateful bitch, and if it gave him strength, I'd cheer him on.
Ian stood next to a bloody series of symbols, Balchezek on the other side of them. Good to know he still responded promptly to his supernatural pages. A plastic container the size of a purse was at the demon's feet, and he hefted it with a smile.
"All right, fangers. Let's put the baby in your friends to bed!"
My thoughts exactly.
Very few people were in this derelict section of town, which was good. If anyone saw us leading a hooded, chained man to the car, they'd call the police and report a kidnapping. But, thankfully, no one stopped us as we sped off toward Ocean Isle Beach, where a boat waited for us on the stormy waters of the North Carolina coast.
Waves bounced our boat like a stone skipping across a pond as we made our way toward the small craft bobbing in the distance. With my enhanced vision, I made out Denise's dark head at the helm, the wind whipping her hair into Medusa-like tendrils. I slowed our craft to idle speed, letting the current direct us instead of the speedboat's powerful engines. We didn't want to get too close. Denise made no move to approach us, either. She kept her craft where it was, staying as still as a statue in her position by the wheel.
Less than an hour later, I heard the roar of another engine coming from the direction of the harbor. With darkness approaching, the frigid temperatures, and small-craft advisory warnings, I didn't think it was a family out for a pleasure cruise. A sleek white craft cleaved through the water toward Denise's boat, the sun's dying rays illuminating the pale hair of the vampire at that helm.
A vampire who bore a striking resemblance to Bones.
"If you wanted to escape me, you should have paid in cash instead of using your credit card to rent your boat!" Wraith shouted at Denise. His voice carried over the waters to us, sounding feminine and bearing no trace of an English accent. He barely glanced in our direction, though he had to notice us drifting less than a quarter-mile away. For Wraith to be so unconcerned, he must not be alone in the boat.
To prove my guess, I next saw a blond head appear, then three brunets, and finally, a strawberry blonde. Looked like Wraith brought the whole crew with him. I didn't think he'd risk leaving them unattended after we'd snatched Bones out from under him. But when the Egyptian vampire turned in our direction, I tensed. With the distance and the way both our crafts rocked on the waves, I'd never get a clear head shot on him, but Mencheres's powers didn't need a calm surface or closer proximity to be effective.
"Now," I barked into my cell phone.
Three things happened at once. Ghosts shot out of the bottom of my boat, winding through me, Ian, and Bones in such great number that our bodies were engulfed in their diaphanous forms. At that same time, the instant crushing pressure I'd felt on my neck muted to only a strangling sensation that was unpleasant but not lethal, since I didn't need to breathe.
And Denise's boat blew up with a spectacular explosion.
The boom followed by debris shooting out in every direction claimed Wraith's full attention. He tried to turn his boat around, but he'd been too close to Denise's craft when it blew. Flaming pieces of wreckage showered down onto him and the other vampires, some bits pelting through the side of Wrath's craft from their velocity. That pressure around my neck lessened even more.
"Kitten!" Bones shouted, his aura surging with what felt like a shot of adrenaline.
Ian yanked the hood off him and began to undo his chains.
"Get ready. It's time to reclaim our mates," Ian said with vicious satisfaction.
With an equally ruthless grin, I gunned the throttle on the speedboat and headed straight toward Wraith's vessel. He continued to try to clear the dangerous pieces of wreckage from his boat, cursing at the damage the nearby explosion had done. We were a hundred yards away before Wraith seemed to realize that we weren't slowing down.
Through the hazy layer of ghosts still twining all over me, making my whole body feel electrified, I saw realization dawn on Wraith's face.
"Stop them! Kill them!" he screamed at Mencheres. Then he abandoned his attempts at clean-up and swung the boat around, gunning his engine.
It sputtered, sounding like something was caught in the jets or they'd been damaged from the explosion. Our craft also began to shake, but Fabian and Elisabeth had brought a lot of their kind with them. More ghosts appeared, gloving the craft with their bodies and acting as a supernatural buffer against Mencheres's power.
The former pharaoh's abilities were staggering, but they didn't work on anything from the grave. Silly me had needed a demon to remind me of that. Balchezek and others might mock me for my affinity for ghosts, but with their bodies acting as a force field to deflect Mencheres's formidable power, it was good to have friends in dead places.
Ian got the last of the chains off Bones and threw them aside. "When you hit the water, swallow enough to rupture your stomach, and then keep swallowing," I said urgently, glancing at him. "All that salt water will make it easier to purge the bitch out of you."
Bones reached out and pulled me to him for a fierce kiss. Ghosts still swirled around and through us, but it was the touch of his hands - the first I'd felt of them in weeks - that made my body vibrate.