Balchezek shoved himself between us, muttering, "No time." I glanced at how close we were to Wraith's boat. He was right.
"We're coming for you, motherfucker!" I shouted at the demon inhabiting my husband and friends. Our speedboat struck Wraith's craft before my words had died away.
The impact catapulted us out of the boat. Bones sank immediately beneath the waves, but Ian flew straight up, taking Balchezek with him. I had a different agenda. I dove through the raining pieces of two decimated boats, ghosts still clinging to me, to snatch a blond vampire up before she hit the water.
"Mencheres!" I roared, holding a struggling Kira in my grip. "Pull yourself on top of that demon inside you or I swear I'll kill her!"
So saying, I rammed a silver knife into Kira's chest, careful to be close to her heart without actually piercing it. Kira stilled as though she'd been flash-frozen, emitting a hoarse noise of pain that I more sensed than heard above the hissing and sputtering from the two sinking crafts.
A black head breached the waves, bright green gaze leveled on me with a look that was truly frightening.
"If you let that bitch even splash me with your power, she dies," I warned him again, staring right back at Mencheres.
Come on, I silently urged. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Wraith scrabble onto an overturned piece of hull, but he didn't try to interfere. Not with his body, anyway. I could almost feel the demonic energy roiling off him toward Mencheres. The demon didn't want to lose his most powerful puppet.
Another vampire vaulted out of the water at me, but before Spade reached me, Ian caught him in a midair tackle that tumbled them both out of my range of vision.
"Watch the water!" Balchezek snapped, not being shielded from its damaging effects because he was a corporeal demon. Not wearing someone else's body like Wraith.
I didn't dare turn my attention from Mencheres. Currents of energy crackled around him, and if not for the thick blanket of ghosts cocooning me, I knew I'd be missing my head.
I yanked the knife a little higher, causing Kira to cry out again, and something snapped in Mencheres's expression. For a split-second, I thought that not even the myriad of ghosts could save me, but then I felt him drawing in those deadly currents of energy instead of snapping them outward at me. Wraith let out a howl that sounded pained.
"Cat." Mencheres's voice was ragged. "It is I. Let her go."
"Prove it. Force Spade and Annette underwater and make them drink salt water until it's flooding them," I said.
"No!" Wraith shouted, surging toward me.
A wall of power swatted him back into the upturned remains of the hull hard enough to crack its surface - and Wraith's skull. Blood poured out onto the white underside before disappearing into the ocean. Wraith groaned in a higher-pitched, feminine voice.
Then I heard a splash. Heard Ian's muttered, "Drink up, mates," and guessed that Spade and Annette had just been shoved underwater. All these were promising signs, but I still kept that knife jammed into Kira's chest. The demon had to be fighting Mencheres tooth and nail, and nothing would motivate the vampire to keep control like fear for his lover's life.
Of course, when this was all over, Mencheres might still kill me for stabbing Kira.
"Bring me to him . . . carefully!" Balchezek snapped.
Ian descended to where Wraith was with the demon still tucked under his arm like a large football. When Wraith saw them, he tried to slip back into the ocean to get away.
"Hold him still," I told Mencheres curtly.
Power lashed out, pinning Wraith to the upturned hull. Ian adjusted his grip on Balchezek, holding him by the waist so the demon dangled above the trapped vampire with his arms free. Balchezek gave Wraith a cheery smile before ripping his shirt open, exposing the vampire's pale, firm chest.
Wraith screamed something in a language I didn't understand when Balchezek plucked a knife from his belt and began carving symbols onto Wraith's chest. Instead of those symbols vanishing from instant healing, the waves seemed to set them in place, emblazoning the symbols on his skin. The demon was so deeply lodged inside Wraith that his open wounds reacted to the salt water the same way a vampire's did to liquid silver.
"Burns, doesn't it?" Balchezek remarked over the feminine-sounding shrieks that were like music to my ears. Take that, bitch! I felt like crowing.
"How dare you betray one of your own for them?" Wraith snarled, in English this time.
Balchezek didn't pause in his carving. "Easy. I'm getting a lot of money. Imagine that; a demon without a conscience."
His knife flashed again, and Kira shuddered in my arms. I would've thought it was pain from the knife I still had lodged in her, except I saw Mencheres do the same thing.
"Almost done," Balchezek muttered, carving faster. Kira's shuddering increased until I worried that the tremors would edge the knife too close to her heart. Mencheres continued to be affected the same way, too. The waters around him began to froth.
"Almost," Balchezek said again, the knife now flashing so fast that it was nearly a blur. "There!" he announced.
That single word was accompanied by a blast that felt stronger than when the boat detonated, only this didn't shoot off in several directions. All that invisible trajectory was aimed at Wraith, interrupting even Mencheres's iron hold to briefly bow Wraith's body under the weight of its onslaught. For a second, I thought it might blow him to pieces.
But then that energy abruptly dissipated. Wraith slumped before Mencheres's grip immobilized him again. In between the various floating pieces of boat debris around us, Bones's head broke the surface. Though he still looked exhausted, the smile he flashed me was filled with immeasurable satisfaction.
"She's gone," he said simply.
Even though the symbols Balchezek carved reversed the original ritual and sent the demon splits out of everyone else and back into Wraith, Mencheres and Kira still drank enough salt water to kill a normal person from organ rupture. The goal was to have everyone's bodies filled with the liquid so they would be inhospitable to demonic repossession, because we weren't done yet.
Denise swam over in time to be enveloped in a bear hug from a newly un-possessed Spade. She'd jumped off the boat before detonating it, but her top looked ragged and lacerations crisscrossed her face from being in the blast radius. At least with her nearly immortal status, she'd be healed in hours.
Ian still held Balchezek aloft. The demon's skin looked red and irritated from the residual sea spray, but he'd stayed out of the ocean for more reasons than how the salt water would burn him. Balchezek tore away some of the duct tape that had kept the rectangular plastic container secured to his belt and opened the latch, pulling out a large rat. The rodent's rapid heartbeat was audible even above the sound of the waves.
Balchezek grinned at Wraith. "Look at your new home," he said while holding the rat above the vampire's stricken face. Mencheres still had Wraith in a punishing squeeze of power, cutting off even his ability to speak.
"Don't torment the creature," I snapped, flying over.
Balchezek snorted. "Now you feel bad for the demon?"
"I was talking about the rat," I said. "Give it to me."
Balchezek handed the rodent to me with a muttered comment about misguided feminine sappiness.
"Will drinking enough salt water force the demon out of him and into that?" Bones asked, nodding at the rat.
I briefly closed my eyes. I'd hoped to have this part done before Bones resurfaced so it would be too late for him to be involved, but I hadn't had the chance.
And now I had to tell him the truth.
"Wraith can't be saved." I wished he could tap into my feelings to know how sorry I was about this, but his emotional connection as the vampire who sired me only went one way. "The demon is in him so deep; she couldn't pull herself out if she wanted to. The only way to get her out of him is to kill him."
Pain brushed over my emotions, mixed with a jaded resignation that I hated because I'd felt it too often from Bones. Life had been cruel to him many times in the past, and it seemed Fate wasn't done with her tricks yet.
"I suspected as much, but . . . I'd hoped."
Those quiet words broke my heart. I came over, pulling out a silver knife with grim resolve. Better for Bones and the man trapped underneath the demon inhabiting him to make this quick.
I nodded at Ian. "Now."
Ian abruptly plunged into the ocean, forcing Balchezek down with him. Water covered Balchezek up to his waist, and he screamed like he'd been plunged into acid.
"Get me out of this!"
"Not so fast," I said coolly. "Why don't you tell us the real reason you've been helping us trap this demon?"
"Because you're f**king paying me!" Balchezek thundered, the words ending on another anguished yowl.
I watched his skin bubble up without mercy. The salt water wouldn't kill him, but it might make him wish he were dead. "Liar. You slipped up and called her Hazael, but none of us knew her name, and you didn't admit to recognizing her even though you obviously did. So let's try this again. Why did you really help us? "
Balchezek glared at me as the water looked like it boiled around him. I stared back, unblinking. "Go on, take your time. I love a nice evening swim in the ocean."
"She's my ticket to a better job," he gritted out.
My brows rose. "I thought you wanted Ian's protection because you were quitting that job."
"And live the rest of my life among fangers?" The skin on his face began to split, but he smiled even though that made it worse. "I'd rather stay in this ocean. No, I'm earning my way out of the minor leagues, and bringing in Hazael will guarantee my promotion."
"So you were going to let us do all the legwork whilst you made off with the prize?" Bones let out a derisive snort. "Right piece of work you are. Why is Hazael worth so much to your kind that she'd guarantee you a promotion?"
Another grotesque smile. "You know America's Most Wanted list? Demons have their own version, and Hazael's been on it for over two centuries. Probably why she jumped into a human to hide. She must've thought she hit the jackpot when that human got turned into a vampire; I told you demons avoid the vampire world as a rule. But just like greed and arrogance led her to kill an influential Fallen, Hazael must've gotten fed up living the quiet life inside the vampire she'd possessed. Maybe she thought enough time had passed that she could risk expanding her powers without getting caught. So she went for the simultaneous possessions and grab for Mastership of your lines. Probably had even bigger plans after she got them."
I nodded at Ian, who pulled Balchezek out of the water. Enough of it soaked his clothes so he wouldn't be able to dematerialize, but that also meant his skin still looked like it was being cooked.
"I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that I'm honoring our agreement and I'll let you go with a fat check for your help getting Hazael out of our friends. The bad news is that's all you're getting, because you're not taking her with you."
Then I handed the squirming rat to Spade, who took it with a distasteful expression.
"I need you to fly this thing at least a mile away."
Spade had dealt with demons before, so he flew off without questioning the directive. No other boats were around, so, in a few moments, there would be nothing else available for Hazael to jump into once she was forced out of Wraith. Ian and I had our warding tattoos, Denise's brands made her scorched earth to a demon, and all the other vampires and marine life in the near vicinity were filled with salt water.
There would be only one place Hazael could go - straight down to the fiery pit, and no demon I'd ever heard of went there willingly. It was the one place every demon seemed to truly fear.
Balchezek began to struggle. "You can't do this to me. I already told my boss that I would come back with her!"
"Then you should have made that part of our deal instead of lying," I replied coldly. "You know the old saying. Don't bitch about the terms after the bill's come due."
The demon shot me a dirty look at my paraphrasing of his former words, but then quit struggling when Ian pulled out the bone knife and held it near Balchezek's eyes.
"Don't make me use this, I still quite like you."
He continued to glare at me, but now stayed silent and complacent. I met Bones's gaze and curled my hand tighter around the silver knife. "Let me handle this," I said low.
He looked at the vampire that was his brother. From Wraith's widened eyes, I could tell the demon inside him was struggling with all her might to get free, but Mencheres's power was too strong for Hazael. Considering the scent of anger that was palpable even with Mencheres floating in the ocean, he wasn't the slightest bit conflicted about ending Wraith's life if it meant harming the demon who'd controlled him for weeks.
Then Bones looked back at me and his mouth twisted. "No, luv. He's the last of my family. It's my responsibility to do this one final deed for him."
He took the knife from me, staring into Wraith's vivid blue eyes as he waded through the water to him and then set the tip against Wraith's exposed chest.
"If underneath her you can hear me at all, brother," Bones said softly, "know that I am truly sorry I never knew you."
Then he shoved the blade down to its hilt. A hard, efficient twist, first to the left, then the right, extinguished the light in Wraith's eyes. Very slowly, the vampire's skin began to shrivel as true death started the aging process that had been delayed hundreds of years.