“Give us the boy, reaper, and we’ll make sure we kill you quickly.”
I took a deep breath and turned to face the vampires. “So, you do speak.”
There were two of them, bodybuilder sizes with all the muscles and the fangs.
I nudged Fredrin to stand behind me. “I won’t let you hurt the children.”
“Those demon brats are our reward. Our feast. Young demon blood is a fucking aphrodisiac, and we’re getting paid.”
“They get theirs, and we get ours. So, give us the demon boy, and we’ll kill you quick; fight us, and it’ll be pain all the way.”
No. Not happening. Drawing on every ounce of bravado in my reserves, I fell into a defensive stance like Conah had taught me. “I’ll take door number three and kick your asses.”
The vampires shrugged and bared their fangs, horror movie style. It would have been funny if it wasn’t a real-life, I’m-about-to-die situation.
Something fell from the sky and landed on the ground between us. It rolled. And then stopped, face up. A head. A vampire head, face contorted in a snarl that exposed fangs.
“Ned?” one of the vampires said.
“Ned’s not home right now,” Mal said. He landed smoothly beside me. His wings vanished, and he crossed his arms. “So, we can do this the hard way, or the harder way.”
The vampires charged.
“Fredrin, get to the building.” I shoved him out of the way as the vampires reached us.
The next few seconds were a blur of block and stab. There was no time to check if Fredrin made it. He had to have made it.
My scythe cut through the air, leaving a trail of light in its wake, and took off one of the vamp’s faces.
I caught sight of Mal’s shocked expression, but there was no time to dwell on it. Dagger in one hand, scythe in the other, I finished off my attacker with a head swipe. He dusted almost immediately. I turned to help Mal with his, but the other vamp was crumpled on the ground, already turning to dust.
Mal raised his head and locked gazes with me. “You can use it as a weapon? An actual fucking weapon?”
“It usually only works on Dread for us,” he said before his attention shot over my shoulder. “More incoming.”
Fuck my life. How many this time? Four, five? Shit, no time to count. Got to fight.
My body took over, using moves I didn’t realize I had. Power coursed through my right arm and into every blow my scythe made. We were winning. Only two more bastards to go.
“Help! Help me!”
I lost concentration for a moment, but it was long enough for the vamp to get the drop on me. My back hit the ground, and white light stole my vision. Pain followed, filling my head with a scream.
Something wet hit my cheek.
My vision cleared to find fangs coming at me. Not again. I brought my left hand up and stabbed the vamp in the head. Its body slumped over mine, pinning me. Fuck, he was heavy. How was he so heavy?
I turned my head toward the sound, scrambling to try and push the vamp off. Clayna was dangling in the air, held against a vampire’s chest. He bared his fangs, ready to feed.
“No!” I shoved off the vamp pinning me with all my might and staggered to my feet. “Stop.”
But even as I broke into a run, I knew I wouldn’t make it in time. “Let her go!” My cry was swallowed by the rush of blood in my ears, and then a small figure attacked the vampire from the right.
Fredrin. He had something in his hand, something that glinted. A knife. He buried it in the vamp’s thigh. The vampire bellowed and dropped Clayna, who made a run for it. But Fredrin faltered. Why was he faltering?
“Fredrin, run!” I was almost there. Just a second more. I brought my scythe up. The next second was a series of freeze frames that taunted me to intervene.
Fredrin made to run. The vampire snagged the back of his shirt. Fredrin locked gazes with me, his tiny face a mask of fear. The vamp grasped the boy’s head.
No. No. No. I’m here. I’m here.
The crack was small but loud. Fredrin crumpled to the ground just as my scythe found a home in the vampire’s face.
Tears blurred my vision and stung my throat. “Bastard! You fucking bastard!” I stabbed him, again and again, alternating between the dagger and the scythe.
Pain cut between my shoulder blades, and then my head was yanked back, and needles tore into my throat. My scythe winked out from the shock of the pain, but I brought my dagger up, intent on stabbing my attacker. He grabbed my wrist and twisted hard enough to draw a scream, hard enough to force me to release my weapon. A distant part of my brain realized I’d fucked up. I’d lost it. Turned my back on the fight, but my rage was too big, too powerful for fear to have any place in my mind, and a new power, fresh and eager, surged up inside me. Stars filled my vision as my Voralex lent me strength.
“Fuck you!” I twisted, trying to pull free, ignoring the pain in my throat, ignoring the fact I was tearing my own artery by fighting.
And then the bands around me were gone. I fell forward, bracing myself on my palms, and looked up at my savior. The ridges across his nose and the crimson eyes gave him away. Not a vampire. This one was a Dread.
The vampire he’d knocked off me, as if it were nothing but a gnat, hissed at him.
The Dread snarled. “Fuck off, fangs. This one is a Dominus. This one is mine.”
Oh, shit. The vampire’s bite couldn’t kill me, but this Dread could. Kill me or turn me. My neck tingled. Was it healing? I had to fight. I needed my scythe. I needed to reconnect with the Voralex power inside me. But Fredrin’s death played in my head on a loop, and grief tore at my chest with its freshly minted claws.
Fight. I had to fight.
My dagger … I swept my hand across the ground. Where was it?
The Dread laughed and grabbed at me so fast he was a blur, and then I was hauled up, my mouth inches from his. Fuck, no.
My insides twisted and tore as if he was pulling them out, my eyes bugged with the pressure from within as my essence, my soul, was drawn toward the monster’s maw. There was light. So much light. Too bright. Too wonderful.
Just relax. You want this. You want me.
My muscles obeyed. My body went slack, and my mind calmed. This wasn’t so bad. Like floating. Like flying. Like—
Warm liquid spattered my face. The Dread’s mouth was gone. His head was gone. Dazzling light shot up into the sky from his torn neck and winked out. My mind cleared to see Azazel, huge scythe in hand, glaring at me as if I was an offense to his senses. The Dread had lost his head, but his body remained upright for a moment longer, his hand still around my throat, and then he fell. His body disintegrated into white-hot embers that vanished quickly. My knees buckled, but Azazel grabbed me around the waist.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” he demanded.
I was hauled back to my feet, and Azazel scanned my face with milky-white eyes. Where were his irises?
“Fuck,” he said.
The world was woozy.
“You’re bleeding out.”
“Not after a Dread’s kiss. Fuck. I’m going to kill Mal.”
“Fredrin is dead.” My words were garbled. Why was it getting so dark?
Azazel grit his teeth. “Fucking hell.” He grabbed the nape of my neck. Tilted my head up and pressed his mouth to mine. Ice shot through me and coalesced at the wound in my neck. Pain so sharp, so fucking intense I couldn’t breathe. I clawed at him, punching and kicking, but he was larger, stronger. He was killing me.
But then heat replaced ice and numbness was replaced by sensation and the impression of unfamiliar lips on mine that felt too familiar. Images flitted through my mind, blue water, pink coral, and the darkness and safety of the sea. I was home. I was safe. I was—
Being shoved away from all the good stuff. Azazel looked down on me with an unfathomable expression.
“The fight is over. The Dread retreated. I healed you. You will live.” He stormed off.
It was over?
No. No, it would never be over.
I fell to my knees beside the tiny crumpled body of a boy who was a hero. A boy who sacrificed himself to save his friend. His eyes were open in shock, his mouth parted in surprise. I’d failed him. I’d let him die. I gathered him carefully into my arms and smoothed his hair back from his face. Tears choked me, and a vise crushed my chest.
The monsters are real. His voice filled my head. The monsters are real.
He was just a boy, just a little boy. This shouldn’t have happened. He should have been safe.
I hugged him close. “I promise you, sweetheart, the monsters will never get to win again.”
Several cadets dead, three tutors dead, and too many injured. Evelyn had extracted the location of the Academy from Conah’s brain and attacked. They’d made it through the wards somehow. The place had been ransacked as if the Dread had barreled through it like a tornado. Mal said it was a ploy to weaken their forces. By attacking the Academy and taking out the cadets, they made sure the reaper pool remained small. They made sure the main threat to them remained crippled.
The vampires had come for the children. Demon spawn, as they called them, were a delicacy to the dirty bastards. But the Academy had sounded the alarm in time to prevent a massacre.
My mind was numb as Azazel led me into the lounge, his grip a tight band on my upper arm. The room was bathed in cheery sunlight totally at odds with the night we’d just torn ourselves from. Confused butterflies fluttered in my chest. I should shrug him off, tell him to fuck off, but Fredrin’s face was all I could see, and my heart— oh, God. It hurt so bad.
Mal followed us into the lounge. “Az, what the fuck?”
“You shouldn’t have brought her,” Azazel said. “She’s untrained. She could have died.”
“She held her own out there,” Mal replied.
“She almost died.”
“But you kissed it all better,” Mal drawled. “Tell me, was there tongue?”