Asylum (Causal Enchantment #2) by K.A. Tucker
“Forgive me,” I whispered, knowing my words would never reach her ears. She was already gone. Safe—safe from this deadly atrium; safe from Mortimer and Viggo; safe from me.
Now for damage control.
I scanned the crowd of a hundred-odd depraved vampires, their wild eyes and expressions varying from bewilderment to crazed blood lust after the briefest scent of a human, until I spotted four familiar faces. The four who needed to survive. Relief flickered through me. Thank God for those pictures.
I closed my eyes, searching for one last thread of energy, just enough to cast another spell. There—a miniscule, glowing purple helix coil, much like a DNA strand, floating beside my heart. I grasped it with my mental hand, and yanked. It immediately took flight, shooting up to my fingertips. Armed with magic, I raised my hand toward the pyre burning brightly atop Veronique’s tomb. A thought brought embers soaring toward my fingertips as if magnetized.
Then I struck.
Sparks shot from my hand and erupted into flaming circles around Evangeline’s friends, forming a formidable barrier of protection—large enough not to ignite them but tight enough to keep them from leaping out and making a run for it.
“Sofie?” Mortimer hollered, his voice tinged with uncertainty.
I turned to see shock masking his face. He stood next to Viggo, both of them frozen like ice sculptures, struggling to grasp the events of the past ten seconds. I knew that confusion would quickly give way to understanding, followed by retaliation.
I’ll deal with them later. For my sister’s sake, they needed to survive; for my sake, in a subdued fashion. Another flick of my hand produced three flaming circles—one around each of them and the last around me. There. That should hold them until I’m finished.
From the corner of my eye, I caught the telltale silvery white hair and hideous face of a mutant. I shuddered; their very existence was truly repulsive, but worse—I knew the Merth-laced building couldn’t confine them. The last thing we needed were those monsters running loose in New York City.
Flames shot from my fingertips to ignite the hideous creature, consuming his body as if it were made from highly flammable fabric. His one shrill scream echoed through the atrium, sending a chill down my spine. I didn’t let it distract my focus, though. Spotting two more mutants, I quickly dispatched them as well.
Heads started to turn, the screams attracting the attention of the other vampires. Soon enough, they’d figure out the fate I had in store for them. Then I’d have mass hysteria and vampires hiding in every nook and cranny of Viggo’s palace. I didn’t have time to hunt them all down individually for dispatch.
I hurled sparks of fire freely from my fingertips toward any vampire in sight. Within seconds, dozens of flaming bodies crumpled to thrash on the ground, scorching the leaves and petals of the atrium’s plants and engulfing any vampires caught in their proximity. But I knew there were more vampires out there, blocked from my view within Viggo’s urban jungle.
There was only one thing left to do. I had to torch the entire atrium—and hope I could control the fire well enough to prevent the entire building from going up in flames. Inhaling deeply, reconciled to the plan, I raised both hands—
Only to be distracted by a body lying on the ground, bound by Merth—a vampire with jet-black hair and lemon eyes.
Jaw clenched, I pictured myself slowly tearing the flesh off her body as she screamed, only to allow it to grow back so I could do it again . . .
But there was no time for that. Sighing my disappointment, I raised a finger toward her, preparing to rid everyone of the viper once and for all.
The scream stilled the spark about to fly from my hand. My eyes swung to the four flame-encircled figures in time to see Caden, his expression lost, vacant, step toward the flames. I gasped. He was going to kill himself!
With the last bit of magic I had left after Evangeline’s complicated transportation spell, I instantly extinguished every flame in the atrium before he could succeed. Caden stared back at me, resentment marring his stunning face—but unharmed. That’s okay. You can hate me. You’re safe.
A powerful hand grabbed me by the neck and hoisted me into the air. “Where is she?” Viggo growled, rage blazing in his eyes.
Despite everything, I laughed. I continued to laugh as I sailed through the air and slammed into a brick wall sixty feet away, my bones splintering on impact. Pain ripped through my body as I tumbled to the ground and lay in a heap, my face twisted in agony, awaiting the second attack that would surely begin before my bones had a chance to heal.
I was right.
Mortimer wrapped a hand around a fistful of my hair and yanked my head back. He crouched in front of me, his chocolate-brown eyes smoldering with rage. “I knew we were fools to trust you,” he growled through gritted teeth. “What else do you have up your sleeve, witch?”
“I had no choice,” I managed to whisper, pain making me wince with each word.
“Lies!” Mortimer boomed. With a fierce shove, he propelled me facedown onto the cobblestones. I felt my forehead split open and my delicate nose explode. A metallic taste filled my mouth as blood poured in.
Normally I used my sorcerous powers to numb the pain of my physical scuffles with Viggo and Mortimer. But until my magic had time to rejuvenate, I would have to endure for the next few minutes. With great difficulty, I turned my head to rest my cheek on the stone. I lay unmoving on my stomach, focusing all of my attention on the destruction around the atrium and on the spectators, only half hiding, intrigued by this violent exchange. I just needed five seconds, and my face would regenerate. Within ten seconds, I’d be as good as new. Relax, Sofie. You can handle ten seconds . . .
I gasped as a blunt object tore through the middle of my back, through my ribcage, to exit through my stomach and thud against the cobblestones beneath me. Viggo’s signature move. Bastard!
It made healing hard. I had to get it out. Gritting my teeth, I flexed my arms and pushed my broken body up until I rested on my knees. I grasped the jagged end of the steel pipe with shaking hands, took a deep breath—One . . . two—and jerked it forward. My scream filled the silent atrium as the steel slid through my flesh. Again . . . I had no choice. I had to get it out now. Clenching my teeth, I prepared for another tug.
A swift kick between my shoulder blades sent me sprawling on my stomach again, shoving the pipe back into my stomach. Another lightning bolt of agony raced through my battered body. Something against my back—presumably a foot—pinned me down.
“I’m sure Sofie can explain everything,” a musical but authoritative female voice called out above me, adding, “once you stop torturing her.”
From my position, I could see Evangeline’s two female friends—Fiona and Amelie—standing forty feet away. It clearly wasn’t either of them speaking. Evangeline had no other friends. The hairs on the back of my neck spiked. How does this vampire know my name? “Who—” I began, then gasped as someone ripped the pipe out of my body and tossed it clattering onto the stones beside me. The weight lifted off my back. Again I lay waiting until my regenerative abilities—a magnificent vampirism—kicked in, praying that Viggo and Mortimer would allow me time to heal. This time, they did.
Once mended, I flew to my feet to assess the scene before me: the players, the situation, the threat. The atrium was no longer the scene of bedlam it had been only minutes ago. It was now a scene of silent chaos. Charred heaps—the remains of unlucky vampires—littered the ground. Scorched foliage and billowing smoke filled the once-picturesque atrium. I scanned the crowd, quickly counting the remaining Ratheus vampires. Forty. They were scattered, appearing ready to dive behind benches and statues at the first sign of a magical assault. Forty blood-crazed vampires, their eyes dancing wildly as they searched the atrium for humans. If only I had a few sparks of magic, I could level the rest of them. I could—
“Right, Sofie?” the unknown vampiress said, interrupting my plotting.
I turned toward the voice to find Viggo and Mortimer squared off opposite a diminutive, Asian-looking woman with porcelain skin and juicy red lips.
“Right . . . Sofie?” the woman repeated, regarding me with black, almond-shaped eyes. “I’m sure there’s a good reason why Evangeline vanished into thin air and you just charred seventy of your own kind?”
Gritting my teeth, I forced a small smile. You are not my kind. “Right,” I answered as levelly as I could, determined to match her confidence. The problem was, I couldn’t. I couldn’t even answer her by name. Who is she? I needed information—quick. Reaching inside once again, I scoured my body for a magical helix. Just one. Normally I had thousands of tiny purple coils floating around my body, ready to be plucked for various spells. I just needed one to send out a probe, to dissect this vampire’s very core, to grasp her true intentions, to know everything there was to know about her. But I was empty. I had drained my magical tank and until it began to regenerate I would need to rely on my wits. Damn it!
Viggo’s smooth croon broke the silence. “Of course there is! Excuse my rudeness. My desperation got the better of me.” He flashed one of his brilliant smiles. “So sorry, Sofie. That was barbaric of me.”
I sneered in response, his charming fa?ade kindling a desire to punch him in his perfect nose. It was the same fa?ade he had used to lure Evangeline in, to gain her trust. Worse, I had to stand by and watch him spin his repulsive web, powerless to stop him for fear of how he would punish her for my interference. I had learned that horrible lesson five years ago. The last time I overtly crossed him, he murdered Evangeline’s mother, leaving her orphaned.
But he couldn’t hurt her now. She was buried deep within the untouched mountains of Siberia, surrounded by miles of remote wilderness, warm and comfortable in the haven I had spent ten years building. I no longer needed to give Viggo satisfaction by playing along. “You’ll never see Evangeline again!” I sang out, mustering my most obnoxious grin, feeling suddenly giddy.
Viggo’s jaw clenched. Finally, a ripple in that handsome, iron-cast mask. “Is that so?” He took a rigid step toward me but a pale, delicate hand flew to his chest, stopping him. It didn’t actually touch him; it hovered, palm out, inches in front of his charcoal wool suit. Intrigued, I watched Viggo’s cobalt-blue eyes study the little hand for a long moment before sliding up to meet the owner—this undaunted, mysterious female leader who knew my name.
He doesn’t know what to think of her either. I knew how Viggo’s psychopathic mind worked. I had spent a hundred and twenty years with him breathing down my neck. He wondered how old she was. More precisely, he wondered if she could be stronger than him—the oldest vampire on Earth—given that she’d had no human nourishment for seven hundred years. I caught the curious sparkle in his eyes. He was wondering if he should test her. If he failed, he would prove inferior in front of an atrium full of witnesses. Any edge would be lost.
Do it, Viggo, I silently prayed. Not because I wanted to see him fall—though I so desperately did—but because I needed to see what this vampiress was made of.
“Where is Evangeline?” Mortimer’s deep Parisian voice cut through the tension like a sharp blade. It took the tall, dark-haired vampire only half a dozen strides to tower ominously over me. “What is this new game you’re playing with us? Have we not suffered enough?” Mortimer didn’t bother with an act, which was a refreshing change, despite his naturally unpleasant demeanor. He hadn’t always been surly. It had slowly crept in over the years as he waited for my sister’s release from the magical tomb where I had put her. Between the long wait and the anxiety that she would choose Viggo over him, the being my sister had fallen in love with had vanished. Deep down, I pitied him. What a terrible unknown to endure.
But for now, my resentment with these two outweighed any compassion I might dig up from my deepest recesses. I was, for once, enjoying the upper hand, as spiteful as that was. I felt another wicked smile stretch my lips. I dared to reach up to adjust the lapel of Mortimer’s black wool suit jacket. “Somewhere you will never find her. You can—”
“To protect her or harm her?” the little vampiress interjected, suddenly appearing beside Mortimer. Something strange flickered in her eyes. Fury, possibly, though I didn’t see why.
I felt my lips purse tightly, and my minty green eyes narrowed to slits. Try as I might, I couldn’t school my emotions from my face. Who the hell is she to question my intentions for Evangeline? “To protect her, of course,” I delivered in a crisp tone.
“From us?” She indicated the group of hungry Ratheus vampires with a wave of her hand.
I speared her with the flattest look I could muster. “Yes. You.” My eyes flitted over to Caden, who stood huddled within a small circle with his friends some distance away, whispering quietly while watching the event unfold. My eyes shifted to Viggo and Mortimer. “And them.”
“We would never hurt Evangeline,” Viggo began.
“Drop the act,” I snapped. “No one’s buying it.”
“You must be Viggo,” the vampiress murmured, smiling knowingly at him.
Another intense wave of panic rolled through me. She knows too much.
Viggo responded with a broad, toothy grin and an overly-dramatic bow. “And who might you be, my beautiful creature?” I noticed his fingertips drum lightly against his thigh, the only indication of his tension—one he usually acknowledged and ceased within seconds. This time, though, those long, manicured fingers kept drumming.
The vampiress’s upper lip twitched slightly but otherwise her face remained serene, unreadable. “Mage.”
Evangeline never mentioned a Mage . . . Who was she?
“Well, Mage. Welcome to our fabulous planet.” Viggo thrust his arms out dramatically. “Full of living, bleeding humans! We’re so happy you’ve finally made it.”
At the mention of blood, a chorus of growls and deep inhalations rose from the crowd of depraved vampires. My attention darted to Evangeline’s friends again to see their eyes morph in anticipation.
“Settle down, everyone!” Mage’s stern voice rang out above the noise. “Don’t behave like wild animals.” As if her words had a tranquilizing effect, the noise in the atrium quieted to a low murmur.
“Now tell me, dear Mage, because I am in awe of your power . . . Are you the first?” Viggo asked. The first . . . he meant the first vampire.
Mage ignored him, turning to direct her next question to me in a sharp, direct tone. “Why do you believe Viggo wishes harm to Evangeline?” She was focused. She wanted information. But why did she care?
“Yes, Sofie,” Viggo interjected, his brow creasing as if he were confused and hurt. “Why, exactly? We made a deal. Once our sweet Evangeline brought back a vampire, she’d be free to go with her extorted money and her little friends. Remember?” he asked innocently. “So why exactly don’t you want to finish the spell? Don’t you want to release your sister?” He gestured at Mortimer. “Are you punishing us for something? Or,” his eyes narrowed, “perhaps you want more money for yourself?”
I sighed, absorbing the onslaught of accusations. There was no point in continuing the eighteen-year-old lie anymore. They wouldn’t find Evangeline. But I had to lay the truth out carefully. “The spell isn’t over.” I held my hand up in surrender as the words left my mouth, focusing now on Evangeline’s friends, hoping to explain before they exploded, before they decided I should die for deceiving Evangeline. To my surprise, my confession brought no reaction. Nothing, aside from a flicker of mild surprise in Amelie’s emerald eyes. From Caden and the cute couple standing behind him, nothing. Their expressions were stony, indifferent. Strange.
I did get a reaction from Viggo and Mortimer, though. “What?” they screeched in unison, Mortimer’s voice two octaves above his normally deep, ominous level.
I adjusted my stance as I explained, expecting one of them to fly at me. “The pendant can’t come off Evangeline yet and I need the pendant to release Veronique.”
“And when can it come off?” Mortimer whispered, hovering over me, his glare icy enough to freeze a normal person stiff.
“When I figure out how to get it off Evangeline without killing her,” I answered, matching his coolness.
“You’re choosing that girl over your own flesh and blood?” Each word left Viggo’s mouth with slow, sharp precision.
The accusation pierced my heart as surely as if he had stabbed me. “No, that’s not true,” I began, but I faltered, the guilt of my betrayal a weight on my shoulders. I loved my sister. I ached to see her. But Evangeline . . . She may as well be my own flesh and blood, for what she had come to mean to me. I had watched her grow from a tiny, soft baby into a beautiful, gentle woman. I would carve a path of destruction through anyone who wished her harm. I would protect her until my very last second of existence.
“How long have you known?” Mortimer hissed.
Always. The moment the Fates answered my Causal Enchantment, I knew each and every step that needed to take place. But I didn’t answer Mortimer. Instead I locked eyes with Viggo, relishing the moment as recognition passed across those callous, two-thousand-year-old eyes. Recognition that he had been played a fool. I didn’t need to answer. I just smiled.
Viggo’s eyes narrowed to slits. His lips pursed into a tight smile that evolved into a grimace as he stared intently at me. I knew he was visually tearing out my throat, weighing the value of the desire, deciding if it was worth keeping me here. And he could easily dispose of me if he wanted to; without my magic, I was no match for the ancient demon’s strength. In the end, he only sighed. “Well played, witch.” His lips parted into a wicked smile. “Now it’s my turn.”
He flew toward Caden with superhuman speed. A gasp caught in my throat, his intentions immediately clear to me.
Caden met him face-on, as if expecting the threat. Of equal height, they stood chest to chest, regarding each other as predators would before a battle. “What will happen, do you think, when Evangeline finds out her precious Caden is dead?” Viggo purred, shifting his weight, preparing to pounce.
No, you mustn’t harm him. He is Evangeline’s life. It will kill her. I haphazardly pushed Mortimer out of my way as I edged forward, terrified that my sudden movement would serve as a catalyst.
Caden’s head tilted back, his Adam’s apple protruding sharply as he broke out in boisterous laughter.
It stayed Viggo’s hands. He cocked his head to the left and said curiously, “Is that amusing? Your death, after all of this, is amusing?”
Mortimer suddenly appeared next to Viggo—as an ally, or as someone with a vested interest, I wasn’t sure. Either way, the two of them against Caden would be disastrous. I needed to stop this from happening. My heels scraped over the cobblestones as I shifted closer, the thirty feet between us feeling like a thousand.
“Yeah, actually, it is,” Caden answered levelly, those beautiful, piercing jade eyes sizing up both Viggo and Mortimer, undaunted. They were physically the same size, though Caden appeared ten years younger in human years. “We used the human to get here and now you’re threatening me because of it? I didn’t do anything you wouldn’t do.”
My feet froze. His words . . . the human. So impersonal. So cold. So . . . treacherous. Wariness crept into me.
“It worked! And now we’re here!” Amelie suddenly squeaked, cutting into their exchange with an excited lilt in her voice. She skipped forward and placed her hand on Mortimer’s chest, not intimidated by his ominous, towering presence. “You must be Mortimer, right? So tall and handsome! I’m Amelie. I think we could be good friends, don’t you?” She flashed a brilliantly adorable smile—so adorable that it completely disarmed Mortimer. He faltered, blinking several times, and eventually allowed a subdued grin.
The smile didn’t work on Viggo. “So you’re saying you don’t care for Evangeline?” he asked lightly, though I knew his mood was anything but light.
“I’m saying we did what we needed to do to get here,” Caden answered, shrugging. Something in his tone . . . he sounded . . . bored? Detached? It sparked a wave of rage within me.
Viggo’s left eyebrow arched. “I don’t know if I believe you.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass what you believe,” Caden answered with a sneer, his chest puffing out aggressively, “except for one thing. Believe this: if any of you so much as look at us the wrong way—” those mesmerizing, blue-green eyes shifted to me “—any of you . . . you will die.”
Viggo’s responding chuckle would have sent a chill through any sane person’s soul. “I’m not so sure you should be throwing threats around, given your youthfulness and lack of human blood.”
Another smug grin stretched across Caden’s face. “Youthfulness?”
“Why, yes! Seven hundred, is it? Give or take? A baby, next to some of us.”
“You assume what we told the human was true.” All four of them chuckled now, the young, blonde Bishop in the back throwing his arm lazily over Fiona’s shoulders. “How much of what you know about me do you think is real?” Caden continued.
This can’t be happening. I was so sure of his feelings. How could anyone not fall in love with her? Panic twisted my stomach. My worst nightmare was coming true. Could they really have lied to Evangeline about everything? Yes! Of course! Why wouldn’t they? Or . . . they could be lying to Viggo, distancing themselves from his target. Either was possible. But now they were toying with my trust.
Ruse or not, Caden’s ploy was working. Viggo’s lips compressed as he realized he could very well be picking a battle with a vampire twice his age, with three more flanking him.
Anxiety tore at my insides. I needed to know the truth. Had he lied to Evangeline? Used her to get here? If they had . . .
I’d tear them all to pieces.
I stepped forward, keeping my target in sight as my mental eye scoured my insides for a spark. I only needed one little helix to read Caden’s soul. Just one tiny little bud, even . . . .
Mage stepped in front of me, blocking my path. “Move,” I growled.
“You cannot blame them for deceiving Evangeline to get what they wanted. After all, you did the same,” Mage reminded me.
“What I did was nothing like that!” Go away! You’re distracting me! I sidestepped around her. Just one spark—one—and I’d burn them to the ground. There! I found one floating beneath my left lung. I plucked at it, pulling it up and forward, releasing it from my fingertip. The tiny, glowing purple bud, visible only to me, sailed toward Caden.
A sharp spasm shot through my back as something dug into my collarbone. I lost my grasp on the helix. Flinching, I watched it drift up and away, now worthless. “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” Mage’s voice hummed in my ear. I turned to see her hand on me, and one eyebrow raised. How did she know what I was doing? Vampires couldn’t see magic . . . “You mustn’t blame Evangeline. Many were tricked. Even other powerful vampires.” She gestured with her chin toward Rachel, lying under a charred tree.
That’s right! I had forgotten. Was the whole Rachel-Caden thing a charade as well? Desperate for answers, I spun on my heels, breaking free of Mage’s grasp, and flew to the raven-haired demon. Bending down, I tore the Merth bindings from her wrists and legs, wincing at the sting.
She was on her feet in a second, her hate-filled yellow eyes locked on Mage. I watched a secret look pass between them.
“No harm intended, Rachel,” Mage offered mildly.
“No. Just trying to leave me in that hell hole,” Rachel responded coolly, her pinched nose and pouty red lips rendering her face beautiful yet unpleasant.
“Well, you’re here and you’re free. Bygones, right?” Mage matched her coolness, unruffled by whatever had transpired between them.
“Right.” Rachel displayed a toothy grin. She turned to Caden, fury flashing over her face, her hands flexing as if about to rake his eyes out.
“So was all that an act, too?” I asked Caden, leaning in to scrutinize his every twitch, his every shift, for some clue.
“No. That was an added bonus,” Caden answered, adding with thick sarcasm, “thanks so much for letting her loose.”
Rachel’s eyes narrowed further. The hatred was genuine, I decided. But all this just couldn’t be . . . Was it all an act? It would certainly be smart of Caden, distancing himself from ties to Evangeline, making himself less of a target for Viggo and Rachel. Again I reached inside for a bud, desperate to read Caden, to end this question once and for all. Regrettably, I couldn’t find even one.
“I don’t believe you,” Viggo finally stated, crossing his arms over his chest.
Caden only shrugged, an infuriating gesture, based on the fleeting twist of Viggo’s mouth. If they kept this up, act or no act, Viggo wouldn’t restrain himself. I had long-since dissolved his patience.
“Well, while you’re not believing, where are the humans? I’m parched,” Bishop piped up with an obnoxious grin.
“You’ll have to ask Sofie if she can find you—” Viggo began, but voices from inside the building interrupted him.
“Are all the servants on vacation?” a female exclaimed angrily.
Right on cue.
Heads whipped around as Camila Forero stormed through the red doors into the atrium, followed closely by her husband, Carmelo—Viggo and Mortimer’s Colombian “beard” family, and the only two humans left in the building. Their children had left with Evangeline for no other reason than that the sweet, optimistic girl had begged me to save them. These two, I’d intentionally left behind.
Camila stopped dead. Her dark brown eyes grew wide as they flitted over the smoldering corpses and landed on the crowd of strangers regarding her with intense interest.
One . . . two . . . . there. Forty sets of nostrils flared. The scent of human blood coursing through delicate human veins had reached the Ratheus vampires. It was all they needed. Eyes began morphing into the hideous red globes of ravenous vampires, the only time one of our kind could be considered grotesque.
Camila’s jaw dropped. Her terror flooded my mind like a potent memory. Another vampirism. I knew the others would sense it as well. It would only feed their lust. Camila’s feet began sliding backward as she edged stiffly toward the building. Her four inch snakeskin heels scraped against the concrete steps. She stumbled into her husband before pushing past him to run, Carmelo on her heels. I sighed. Bad move, running.
“The garage!” I heard Camila whisper to her husband as surely as if she stood next to me.
So they thought they could hide? Despite myself, I chuckled. Silly humans. There’s no hiding . . .
The swarm took off, Caden and Amelie in the lead, tearing into the building after the humans, in a race to see who would taste human blood first. Sympathy for Evangeline swallowed my anger, the likelihood that her friends had deceived her growing with each minute.
“Wonderful!” Viggo muttered sarcastically, throwing his hands up in the air. “Who’s going to clean up the blood?”
I rolled my eyes. “You think there’s going to be a drop of blood left?”
Camila’s shrill scream silenced any retort.
“How long before they discover they’re trapped?” Mortimer asked, the legs of a bistro chair scratching against the cobblestones as he dragged it away from a charred body. He repositioned it on the other side of Veronique’s statue. “And how angry do you think this Mage will be?”
“Yes, she may prove thorny,” Viggo mused absently as he inspected the leaves of a wild rose bush—an ancient and rare variety that Veronique loved, now a crisp mess.
I wondered the same thing. I began tinkering with the Merth the second Evangeline left for Ratheus for the last time, testing out different magical weaves and chants, combining basic witch binding spells with my own concoctions, adding my own unique signature to make the spell unbreakable by anyone but me. It had taken days to figure out and thousands of helix threads but, in the end, no vampire was getting within twenty feet of an exterior wall without facing paralyzing pain. Given we now had forty vampires within these walls instead of four, I couldn’t be more thankful that the spell was in place. It was the only thing I was thankful for.
We didn’t have long to wonder how Mage would react. “What have you done to this building?” her crisp voice called out. I turned to see the delicate vampiress gliding toward me, her movements smooth and controlled. She dabbed a blood-stained cloth against her mouth. More dark red stains covered her shirt—a gray button-down meant for Fiona. A mutant accompanied her on her right, the only surviving mutant. To her left, at a distance but clearly intent on hearing the conversation, Rachel slinked.
A flood of Ratheus vampires trailed the three of them through the doors into the atrium, their angry crimson eyes settling on me. I counted twenty-eight now. The rest were no doubt lying on the cold tile within the Merth’s border, waiting for someone to drag them to safety. But twenty-eight could still prove difficult to control, that fact driven home as I caught whispers of “witch” and “torture.” I glanced from Mage back to them, and to Viggo and Mortimer. I’m surrounded by angry, desperate vampires. This couldn’t end well. “What do you mean?” I asked, my voice intentionally airy.
Mage paused for a moment to regard me, a knowing smirk touching her lips, her eyes narrowing slightly. She turned to a tall, willowy blonde standing near the security door beside the iron garage gate. “Tanith? Please demonstrate.” The blonde vampire hesitated. “Go and open that door,” Mage pressed gently, her voice a soothing song.
Tanith stalked toward the metal door. She reached out slowly, her face pinched, her long fingers approaching the metal handle as if anticipating pain. Like a cobra, her hand shot forward the last few inches to graze the handle and pull back.
Her eyes lit up in pleasant surprise; what she had expected hadn’t happened. She glanced over at Mage as her hand clamped over the door handle. She gave it a yank. It did little more than creak. I had expected as much, given it was triple-reinforced with titanium deadbolts and a system of iron rods tunneling ten feet into the brick surrounding it. Even Viggo with all his strength couldn’t open that door without exerting significant strength.
With a sigh, Mage floated over to the door. She reached out to grasp the handle with her dainty hand as Tanith had before her. She pulled. A hair-raising metal screech echoed through the atrium as Mage ripped the security door out of its frame as if it were nothing more than a sheet of paper, sending concrete and brick flying in every direction. I had never seen a display of strength like that before. It was all I could do to keep my mouth from hanging open. In my peripheral vision, I spied Viggo’s jaw drop for a split second before he schooled his expression and clamped his mouth shut. Mage was no longer his competition. She had just proven herself to be vastly superior.
Now, with a gaping hole in the wall, the Ratheus vampires—Caden and friends falling in at the rear—bolted. They poured through the opening into the tunnel, heading toward the exterior door, the final barrier between them and the streets of Manhattan . . . and the blood they’d been craving for seven hundred years.
I wasn’t worried about them escaping. Instead I stood frozen, watching as Mage tossed the heap of metal aside and calmly approached me. I have no magic and I’m facing off against the vampire queen that I’ve single-handedly trapped in this building. I wondered how long I would survive. The mutant lingered beside her, his eyes shifting furtively to the gaping hole, no doubt wondering if he could pass.
Shrieks of pain echoed from the tunnel.
Mage crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s what I’m referring to.”
“Oh, that.” I was going for aloof but it came out sounding like a petulant child. “Well . . . ” I paused, evaluating my options. What should I tell her? They already knew I was a sorceress. Should I play dumb? Could I pretend I was as much a victim of some witch’s trap as she was, that I couldn’t get out either? Or could I blame Evangeline’s spell, say that this was a consequence? Various webs began spinning at warp speed in my mind. It was all I did lately—lie. Lie to Viggo and Mortimer to protect Evangeline; lie to Evangeline to protect her. Heck, I even lied to myself to ease my guilt over the choices I’d made.
I regarded Mage’s shrewd, hawkish eyes and some instinct cautioned me against lying this time. The truth it is. A rarity. “We can’t have blood-crazed vampires tearing through the streets of our city, especially ones who’ve already had a hand in the extinction of one world’s humans. So, I’ve laced the building with Merth. None of you will get out until I release the spell.” Go ahead and kill me, Mage. You’ll never taste warm human blood again.
Mage leveled a hard stare at me, the corners of her almond eyes crinkling as she thought. “You’re telling me the truth.” It was a statement. “I appreciate that. I know it doesn’t come naturally for our kind. Thank you.” She turned her back on me to walk toward the tunnel. “Everyone, listen!” Mage shouted. She waved them all out of the tunnel to form a circle around her in the atrium. Only fourteen returned, throwing daggered glares in my direction. The rest were caught within the Merth. “I’m sorry, but every one of us will need to stay here for now . . . Jonah, stop!” Her hand flew out toward the mutant Jonah as he slowly edged toward the tunnel exit. He glanced over his shoulder at Mage, his face twisting into something more repulsive, if that were possible. But his feet still moved forward. He could get past the Merth. He could be free.
He can’t escape. With desperation on my side, a flame suddenly erupted at my fingertip. Oh, thank God. My magic is back. “Stop,” I commanded, my hand rising, my finger pointed, ready to burn the mutant to the ground.
Mage suddenly appeared in front of me, her powerful hand clamping over mine, thwarting my plans. Her hand remained on mine as she turned to regard him. “Jonah,” she said, her voice calm.
“Just for a bit . . . promise,” he murmured, continuing forward.
Viggo and Mortimer appeared before the gaping hole in the wall, their tall, lean frames creating a formidable barrier. Luckily we agreed on one thing—we couldn’t have a mutant loose.
“Seriously?” Jonah chuckled arrogantly.
“Now would not be a good time to make your exit.” Mortimer’s French accent made him sound calm and diplomatic but I could see the mixture of rage and panic in his eyes. Viggo, on the other hand, swayed side to side, hands at the ready, sneering. He was eager to pounce, his distaste for mutants evident.
Jonah rolled his hideous white eyes. “I disagree! I’ve waited seven hundred years. Now is the perfect time. You two aren’t strong enough to match me so I suggest you let me pass before I rip you to shreds.”
Great. Another volatile situation. How many more of these would we endure under this roof? How long before one of us died? My attention slid to Evangeline’s friends, who now stood in a far corner under a sizeable fig tree, their shirts speckled with blood. Clearly they’d been at the head of the line for the Foreros.
“No, but with my help they are,” a prissy voice called out, drawing my eyes back to the hole. Rachel stood next to Viggo, offering Jonah a wicked grin. “Thanks for tying me up, freak.” Whatever had transpired on Ratheus, Jonah had made an enemy of her. “If I can’t go out there, neither can anyone else.” She offered Viggo an over-exaggerated grin and a wink. She’s choosing a side. “Besides, you can’t go out there. You’re hideous!” she sneered at the mutant.
Jonah smirked, unperturbed. “So what?”
“So what?” Mortimer shouted, never one to control his anger. “So you’ll only attract the attention of a bunch of fanatics watching us every minute of every day, waiting for a reason to uncover us!”
“You’re being watched?” Mage glanced at my fingertip and, seeing the flame extinguished, released her grip.
I nodded once.
A second nod. Not just any humans—the People’s Sentinel, a group of zealous humans whose sole mission was to kill vampires. They had been nothing but a thorn in our side for centuries.
“Have they made an alliance with the witches yet?” Mage asked.
Yet? “No . . . ” I began, processing her words and her tone. A few had helped the elusive Ursula—a scorned witch from my past—attack Evangeline in Central Park the day she hoodwinked Leo and the dogs. Max was kind enough to bring one of the victims’ hands home to show me the awkward crucifix on the thumb: the Sentinel’s trademark. I wouldn’t call it an alliance, though. The Sentinel hated witches as much as they did vampires.
“And so it begins,” Mage murmured.
Unease stirred in my stomach. She knew something. She expected something. I opened my mouth to demand she share her knowledge, but she had already turned her back to me, her attention on Jonah.
“I need you to remain within these walls until we decide how to eliminate this threat,” she told him. “We must avoid a repeat of Ratheus. Understand?”
A repeat of Ratheus. She was afraid of a world war ending human life here. She and I shared one thing in common, at least.
“Understand?” Mage repeated more loudly when Jonah’s gaunt face twisted in displeasure. After a pause, the mutant nodded, scowling.
It was as if she had power over them, as if she could control them. There was something so elusive about her, so . . . I seized a magic bud and quietly chanted a few lines of a probing spell as I let my magic drift toward her. The glowing tendrils curled around her skull, preparing to enter and download information buried deep within her core. I would know everything there was to know about our dear Mage in fifteen seconds . . .
Black hair fanned outward as she whirled around to face me, anger flashing in her eyes. “Don’t you dare,” she hissed.
My magical fingers recoiled.
“Don’t ever do that again, or you and I will have a problem,” she warned quietly.
I pursed my lips tightly, torn between feeling like the child caught with her hand in a cookie jar and pure fascination. How did she know what I was doing?
Satisfied that I would not continue my magical assault, Mage looked to Viggo and Mortimer. “We know everything. We know about your venom issue. We know about Sofie’s sister in that tomb over there.” She pointed to the statue behind Mortimer. Viggo’s eyes bulged with panic, that the secrets he guarded so closely were thrown out into the open. “It’s in everyone’s best interest that we consider a truce. No more killing—anyone. No more of Sofie’s magic.” She looked at me to confirm that I heard her. “In return, Jonah stays inside and this group will behave as appreciative guests, accepting your asylum.”
Viggo and Mortimer exchanged the briefest look. “Though I am trustworthy,” Viggo began, earning an eye roll from me, “how do we know we can we trust this group?”
Mage offered Viggo a honey-sweet smile but when she spoke, her words were laced with deadly warning. “No one defies me. No one.”
“No one?” I mimicked, eyeing Rachel, whose vengeful snake eyes hadn’t left Caden and his friends.
Understanding my concern, Mage turned to Rachel. “No retaliation, right, Rachel?”
After a pause, a sneering Rachel nodded reluctantly.
“And,” Viggo added, his index finger swinging back and forth between Caden and me, “we have a truce as long as they stay away from each other.” Of course. He was afraid I’d form allegiances.
Caden chuckled in response. “No worries there. I want less to do with that witch than with psycho.” He gestured toward Rachel.
“You had better not be lying to me,” Viggo warned in a low tone, his blue eyes icy. Caden snorted.
If this is an act, you had better ease off. Though Viggo played the easygoing vampire, getting caught lying to him had disastrous consequences.
“Fine. We’re in agreement,” Mage said, assuming she had my agreement. “So now what?”
Viggo clapped his hands together, his typical false charm in full swing again. “How about a beverage?”
“Stand back!” Viggo sang out as Mortimer pushed a refrigerated cart along the cobblestone path, its metal frame rattling noisily over the uneven ground. They had insisted on bringing a batch of blood up from the cellar, afraid that exposing the Ratheus vamps to all that blood at once would send them into a crazed tailspin.
Now, though, asking a group of vampires who had waited seven hundred years for a drop of blood to stand back was too much. All forty vampires—I had rescued the ones from within the Merth-affected perimeter in an effort to gain favor—flocked toward the cart like starving, red-eyed peasants begging for the king’s rations. Arms outstretched, they groped eagerly at the metal box.
“You’ll all get some!” Viggo chirped as he tossed bags of blood out, adding for my benefit, “It would be faster if we had servants, of course.”
The vamps tore through the thick medical plastic with their teeth, desperate to get to the contents. Blood spilled over their hands and splashed onto the ground. Evangeline’s friends pushed forward to fill their fists with bags, then scurried to a far corner to feed quietly, whatever promises they’d made about refusing human blood clearly nonexistent. I felt another sharp pang of despair, my hope that they might be deceiving Viggo and Mortimer all but gone.
That much spilled blood proved difficult even for me; I felt the spidery web of veins creep into my eyes and knew I needed to get away. Turning from the crowd, I fled to the only place that offered some semblance of comfort in this asylum of blood-crazed vampires.