“How?” he almost croaked.
Vlad’s smile turned cruel. “You wanted to drive me into recklessness by what you did to Leila. Instead, you drove me into the next level of my power. When I burned my castle down, my near-insane rage caused my abilities to overload until I began to melt stone. Once I knew I could do that, it was only a matter of focusing my power to improve upon it.”
He’d said something similar to me the first time he’d goaded me into turning my electrical whip into a weapon. Wow, had he followed his own advice.
“The last time we were face-to-face, I intended to capture you so that I could torture you for a long, long time,” Vlad went on, his smile dissolving from his face. “This time, what I want more than anything is your agonizing, screaming death, and I want it now.”
Then he grabbed Szilagyi by the shoulders. The necromancer sighed deeply and looked away. I tightened the whip around my neck in warning, but the necromancer seemed more resigned than vengeful. Maybe, after seeing Vlad melt the walls right off Szilagyi’s version of a panic room, the necromancer had reconsidered his role in Szilagyi’s plan to take Vlad down.
Fire spilled from Vlad’s hands to cover Szilagyi like a bright, full-body halo. Yet nothing burned under those orange and blue flames.
“You coated yourself in another fireproofing spell?” I didn’t understand the wave of savage pleasure across my emotions until I heard Vlad’s next words, spoken in a chillingly genial tone. “Spells, no matter how powerful, wear off.”
Szilagyi began to fight with the only weapon he had left: himself. Punches, kicks, head-butts, and brutally aimed knees bashed into Vlad, who absorbed the blows without trying to protect himself. Instead, he kept his hands planted on Szilagyi’s shoulders while more power spilled out of him, intensifying the heat from the fire.
After a few minutes, Szilagyi began to scream as first his clothing began to burn. Then his hair went up with a stench that would’ve made me gag if I still breathed. His struggles became more frantic when his skin began to blacken, and when it cracked and split, revealing raw, red flesh that quickly turned dark, he wasn’t just screaming. He was pleading in between agonized shrieks that caused me to do something I didn’t think I was capable of.
I pitied him.
Szilagyi had been behind my kidnapping and torture a few times. He’d intended to rape me himself before passing that off to Maximus under the auspices that it would be more brutal for Vlad that way. He’d murdered my friends, tormented my husband, tortured my best friend, and would have gleefully tortured and killed my family if he could, yet listening to him scream from the kind of pain that made his pleas incomprehensible and his body violently contract made me wish that his suffering was over. I’d thought I would be glad to see him in awful, extended pain. Instead, I couldn’t even look anymore. His high-pitched, agonizing screams would already haunt my nightmares.
“Please,” I said to Vlad, not knowing if he could hear me through the horrible sounds Szilagyi made, let alone his own near-consuming need for revenge. “Please, Vlad. End it.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the necromancer jerk his head as if surprised to hear me plead for mercy on Szilagyi’s behalf. I didn’t look at the necromancer, though. I stared at Vlad, silently willing him not to drag this out. With how vampires healed, he could, and though he wouldn’t bring Szilagyi back as a prisoner to torture him over weeks or months, he could make his death last for hours, at least.
Vlad didn’t respond and he didn’t look away from Szilagyi’s charred form, which was only still upright because Vlad hadn’t released his iron grip on his shoulders. Yet I knew he’d heard me when I felt the strangest emotion thread through mine. It wasn’t frustration, or annoyance, or admiration, but a blended version of all three. When the flames covering Szilagyi went from orange and blue to a shimmering, white haze, I almost sagged against the tunnel entrance in relief.
I’d thought myself incapable of pity for Szilagyi and been proved wrong. Now, I was proved wrong again. I hadn’t really believed that Vlad would show mercy to his oldest, worst foe, but as that white haze increased, Szilagyi’s screams were cut off. Then his body shrank with the suddenness of a balloon being popped, and in seconds, Vlad had nothing left to hold on to.
A charred skeleton dropped to the stone floor, where it began to stick in the still-cooling rock. Vlad knelt, holding his hands over the bones. That white sheen over them brightened, and with an almost imperceptible noise, the bones burst into a powdery substance that Vlad burned until nothing but faint smears on the rock remained.
A door at the back of the small room opened. I jumped, startled into almost yanking my whip off to confront this new threat. Maximus walked out of a closet lined with electrical panels, like the switchboard for a large fuse box. The lights on the tabs flashed in a sequence of colors before going dark, one by one, until they were all off.
Vlad’s emotions flared with an intensity that almost matched the fire he’d just manifested. Then a wall of blankness slammed into me as he raised those impenetrable shields to cut off what he was feeling from me and the other vampire he’d sired. Maximus.
“As soon as he saw you on camera, he had me go in here to start the self-destruct sequence,” Maximus said, his tone oddly flat. I couldn’t read anything from his expression, either. Those striking, rugged features were as closed off as Vlad’s emotions. “Unless the cancel code was entered in time, the bombs beneath the floor would have detonated and started the cave-in. It was his backup plan in case you killed him.”