As if we'd want you.
"My connection to the Order is terminated," Chase said. "Just keep the ring out of that vampire's hands. Amazingly, I trust Lothaire with it even less than I do you."
Words hurt, Chase.
"You're truly going to ally with miscreats?" Webb demanded. "Have you forgotten that those abominations tortured and killed your parents? Tortured and nearly killed you? I saved you from them!"
"I am one of those miscreats, Webb. A born berserker."
Shaking off the Order's brainwashing, are we, Blademan?
Though Webb's face was flushed with rage, his tone remained fatherly, concerned. "Son, your mind's unclear. That female has swayed you."
"I'm not your son," Chase snapped. "And that female is going to be my wife. Better Regin sway me than you."
"I reported to the Order that you died on the island," Webb said. "And I'll stick to that, but only if you stand down against our mission."
Chase replied, "You told me I was either on your side or theirs. You were right. Harm any among my allies, and I'll retaliate." Click.
The Blademan rises a notch in my estimation.
As soon as the call ended, Lothaire said, "Ah, was that Chase warning you against me? Shame. If only he'd done so sooner."
The commander whirled around, firing a charge thrower at him.
Lothaire laughed as the electrical stream passed through his torso. "Half-tracing, Webb. You can't touch me. But I can touch you." He briefly materialized to knock the gun from Webb's hand, breaking the mortal's arm with a satisfying crack.
Webb yelled with pain, his other hand darting for a button under his desk.
"Ah-ah, don't touch that alarm." Lothaire secured the man's hand in his own fist. Giving the lightest squeeze, he shattered Webb's bones like a crushed walnut.
As the man bit out a scream, Lothaire smiled down, knowing how terrifying he looked-the face of death. "Now you have two choices, human. If you tell me the combination to your safe and reveal what countermeasures are in place, I might spare your life. Or I can torture you for the information, then drink your memories so I can find and punish your family as well. You have one hidden somewhere, don't you?"
"Never. Never will I tell you!"
"Very well. I'll enjoy it more if you struggle. . . ."
Ultimately, he tortured Webb until the man begged to divulge all. After a while, Lothaire let him.
"And one last question," Lothaire said, rising above the man's mutilated body. "Who gave the Order my name? Who put me on Chase's capture list?"
Blood bubbled from Webb's lips as he laughed brokenly. "Vampire . . . deep down . . . you know."
At that, Lothaire's composure faltered. He'd had a suspicion, of course, but it couldn't be correct. "Not possible."
Between choking coughs, Webb grated, "You know . . . who gave you to us."
He had to be lying. Only one way to find out for certain.
Lothaire's gaze dropped to the man's neck. Would this be the victim that sent him into the abyss? Could he stop short of drinking Webb to the quick?
Must risk it. "I'm going to drain you now." Lothaire hauled the man to his feet. "Do resist. It adds something." Then he pierced Webb's jugular, grimacing at the blood.
The commander tasted like sewage compared to Elizabeth. But the impending kill teased Lothaire, beckoned him to suck harder as Webb's flailing body grew lighter and lighter from blood loss.
When the man fell limp, Lothaire dropped him, staggering back. What's in his blood?
A narcotic haze shrouded him. Raw, potent. Lothaire was high from it, too high to ponder why. He slid his back down a wall, closing his eyes against the spinning room.
As Webb took his last rattling breath, images began to stream through Lothaire's mind at light speed. He fell into a quasi-sleep, immersed in the man's twisted memories.
What felt like hours passed before Lothaire could seize on the memory he sought. . . .
The commander hadn't lied about Lothaire's betrayer.
Bile rose in Lothaire's throat, a spike of pure hatred reviving him. He slitted open his eyes. Everyone he'd ever trusted had died-or betrayed him.
Elizabeth can still do one. Or both.
Forever betrayed. Stefanovich, Serghei, Fyodor, Saroya, even the one being Lothaire had called friend. . . .
But not Elizabeth. Never her.
He lumbered to his feet, kicked Webb's lifeless body-good riddance, prick-then started for the safe.
Now to disable all the safeguards. Press a button there, enter a false code, turn the lever once. Enter the real code.
Puzzle moves. If Lothaire didn't have so much on the line, he might have enjoyed this.
With a hiss, the safe door opened. There. A black velvet pouch.
He slipped the ring from it. As he donned the plain gold band, he felt an unfathomable power radiating from it.
Wasting not one second, Lothaire twisted the ring, making his wish. Go back in time to undo my vows to Saroya the Soul Reaper.
Nothing. Lothaire felt no surge of power as he had in the past with other lesser talismans.
Maybe the ring forbade time-travel. He amended his wish: Erase my vows to Saroya.
Again, nothing. Dear gods, the ring had denied him; the vows remained sacrosanct. The pull to destroy his Bride grew overwhelming.
Death was the only move left on the chessboard. Elizabeth's or his own?
He gazed out the study window. The sun was rising, rays of light erupting over distant mountains.
Like clutching fingers. His instinct was to go to ground, to evade their grasp.
Could he sacrifice himself for Elizabeth? Part of him could scarcely believe that Lothaire-the black-hearted Enemy of Old-was even contemplating this! To spare her, would he render himself to ash?
As Ivana had all those years ago to protect him . . .
He told himself he was considering this only because Elizabeth's death would alter him. How could any vampire go on living without his Bride? He tried to convince himself that his heart held no sway in this decision.
But it did. Little mortal, you've changed everything. . . .
Before Ivana had gone to meet her death, Lothaire had asked her, "How can you do this?" At last he understood her answer.
Because anything that is worthy in me began with Elizabeth.
He rubbed his hand over his chest, startled by the ache he felt there. I wish I could have seen her one last time. . . .
Shoulders back, he traced outside to meet dawn, challenging an enemy he'd eluded all his life.
An enemy he now prayed would defeat him.
It's happening," Ellie admitted to Balery as she sipped a Coke. "I'm falling in love with him."
She and the fey were on the deck watching the sunset as Ellie anxiously awaited Lothaire. He'd been missing all day.
As he'd set off, Ellie had again told him she wouldn't worry. So much for that.
Earlier Thad had visited. For hours, he and Balery had tried to distract her, but her sense of dread had grown steadily throughout the day.
At four in the afternoon, she'd demanded that Balery roll her bones. Whatever the fey had seen had leached her face of color, had wrested one gasped word: " . . . burning."
Yet once she'd collected herself, Balery had pasted on a fake smile and deemed that roll a "dud." No matter how much Ellie wheedled, she'd refused to offer more on the subject.
Now Balery said, "I could tell, just by the way you look at him. Have you told him?"
Ellie muttered, "Not yet." Holding on to a thread of her formerly stubborn self, she'd backed herself out of her vows. Never falling in love with Lothaire had turned into not telling him I love him first. . . .
"Elizabeth," Balery began in a pained tone, "there's something you need to know about Saroya and-"
Lothaire appeared; Ellie's jaw dropped.
He was burned in deep patches, his muscles bulging, sweat and blood seeping from his charred skin.
Before either Hag or Ellie could manage a word, he'd snatched Ellie's arm, tracing her to their bedroom at the apartment.
"Lothaire, my God! What has happened to you?" What did Balery witness?
His irises were a deeper red than Ellie had ever seen them, the color bleeding across the whites of his eyes. "Look what I've retrieved, Lizvetta." He pinched a simple gold band with two white-knuckled fingers, his expression a mix of insanity and agony.
"That's good, right?"
He laughed bitterly. "Good? It's your doom."
"What are you talking about?"
"I can't save you. . . . No matter what I try, my vows control me."
Chills skittered up her spine. "I don't understand. Please calm down, Lothaire. Did you drink from someone?"
"Lizvetta, I can't even kill your body first to spare your soul-"
"Kill me? What about my soul? You're talking crazy again!" she cried. "Just use that ring to cast Saroya out of me."
He began to pace the room, never a good sign. "I can't betray her. You don't understand!"
"Then make me understand!"
As if with great difficulty, he grated, "I vowed to the Lore to make Saroya immortal-and to destroy you. You don't merely die. Your soul is extinguished. Tried everything to get out of the vow . . . fighting it even now."
He'd known all along that he'd have to do this? Even she understood that vows to the Lore were unbreakable. "Let me run, Lothaire."
More pacing. "You could be on the other side of the earth. Won't make a difference when I'm forced . . . forced to . . . end you."
She couldn't quite get enough air. "Will my soul be extinguished from this body-or from everything?"
"Gone! As if you never were!"
Breathe, Ellie, breathe. "This is what you were hinting about! Why didn't you tell me? To prepare me?"
"Couldn't . . . physically couldn't set you on a path that might interfere with my vow. Thought I could save you anyway."
Desperation deepened. And still I'm going to die. Right back to where she'd started.
No, now it was so much worse. At least before, she hadn't been falling for the vampire. At least before, she would have gone from death row to heaven, or so she'd believed.
Now she was to go from a paradise of pleasure to . . . nothingness.
I'm to be no more? Destroyed by the man I'd started to love?
He shoved his fingers through his sooty hair. "Couldn't even remain in the sun. . . ."
Her lips parted. That was why his skin had burned? Balery had told her that pain was excruciating for a vampire. "You tried to die for me?"
"Of course!" he bellowed, yanking her into his arms. "I would rather die than hurt you!"
She couldn't quite believe that, but knew he couldn't lie.
Today, Lothaire had sought to end his life for her, had defied a survival instinct that had kept him alive for thousands of years. "How are you able to tell me all this now? Because it's as good as done?"
He clutched her shoulders, gazing down at her face. His expression answered her.
"Oh." Tears gathered and fell. Why not cry? She'd never felt more hopeless.
At last she knew what he'd been struggling with. "Will it h-hurt?"
At her words, he roared with anguish, blood tracking from the corner of one eye. "Lizvetta, don't. . . ."
"Can you use the ring to bring me back?"
"Can't reverse a wish! But I will find a way to bring you back!"
"Lothaire, I'm"-she gave a sob-"I'm afraid."
Another agonized bellow followed, then he enfolded her against his chest. He was shuddering all around her, fighting that inner battle. "If I can't save you, I will follow you." Clasping her tighter, he rocked her, murmuring unknown words in Russian.
His charred skin and clothes smelled of ash. He tried to burn for me.
Would that be the last scent she ever perceived? "Don't follow me, Lothaire. I don't want you to-"
Ellie's head whipped up. "What is that?"
"Remove my riiiinnnnngggg!" sounded a woman's shriek from just off the balcony-twenty-five floors up.
At once, Lothaire pushed Ellie aside to take off the band. "Dorada. How the fuck did she find us?"
Some female outside was controlling him? Just as they'd feared!
"Enemy of Old!" Dorada's words sounded staticky, as though they'd been passed through a filter. "Allow me entry. Do not resist me."
"I can't fight her," Lothaire snapped under his breath as he crossed to the wall beside the balcony door. Symbols were etched into the plaster. "Get to the front door, Elizabeth! You'll be able to open it soon."
Once Lothaire had unlocked the boundary, Dorada dropped down over the balcony railing, as if she'd just stepped through an invisible entrance. With a wave of her hand, the French doors flew open.
While Ellie gaped, the sorceress floated inside, half a foot off the floor.
Lothaire had revealed some things about Dorada-how she'd been half-mad, grotesquely mummified, shrieking for her ring.
Now the sorceress was regenerating. She still had only one eye, but it was striking-olive green with sweeping lashes. Some strands of her hair were a thick, luxurious black, others lank strings. Half of her face had smooth, tawny skin; the other was crusted with rotting gauze.
A solid-gold breastplate covered her torso, a skirt of golden threads wrapping around her hips-
Ellie snapped her jaw shut, and whirled around, sprinting toward the front door. Down the halls she ran. The front entrance in sight.
She reached it, unlocked the ordinary deadbolt, then threw open the door-
Ellie drew up short with a scream; Lothaire gave an answering bellow from his room.
Wendigos blocked her way.
Their emaciated bodies were hunched and misshapen, their fangs the size of her finger. Pasty skin stretched tight over their skeletal frames, yet seemed to billow in places-
Horror struck. They were wearing others' skin.
Sleeves, vests, collars . . .
Ellie slapped her hand over her mouth, backing away. Too much. I can't handle much more of this.
As they scuttled into the apartment, they licked their lips at her, their red eyes alight.