Even with one eye destroyed, his strength was too much. The blade began to slip from my hands, cutting me with how tightly I tried to hold on to it. Just as it was about to be wrenched free entirely, something large fell on Trove.
He might have lost his physical strength, but his weight and bulk were enough to loosen Trove’s hold. I got a firmer grip on the knife, preventing the demon from snatching it away. Trove let out a vicious curse, trying to throw Bones off and yank the blade back at the same time. He didn’t drain power from either of us, though, and that couldn’t have been an accident. Maybe with one eye destroyed, he couldn’t anymore.
I tried to wrest the blade away for another strike, but Trove’s grip was too strong. He’d also grown two feet during our struggle, his form now dwarfing the vampire who held on to him with grim determination.
It wouldn’t be enough. We were both too weakened to hold Trove down long enough to slam the blade through his other eye. We needed to try something else. Anything else to gain an advantage.
For a brief moment, Bones’s dark brown eyes locked with mine as our faces aligned; him on Trove’s back, me in front engaged in a lethal game of tug-of-war. My gaze must have conveyed my desperation, because Bones did do something else. Something unthinkable.
His fangs slammed into Trove’s throat and he sucked so hard that the veins in his neck bulged. For a second, I was so horrified I froze. Bones knew demonically altered blood was akin to he**in for vampires! That’s why Denise had to keep her new nature a secret. Demonic blood used to be sold on the undead black market as a drug, and Law Guardians would execute her on the spot if they knew she was a source of it.
Trove let out another howl and tried to fling Bones off. He only succeeded in tearing open a larger feeding trough as Bones’s fangs sliced deeper from the jostling. Despite the demon’s frenetic efforts, Bones held on. Before my eyes, his movements became less sluggish and uncoordinated. Soon, he was gripping Trove with such ferocity that the demon had to let me go to keep Bones from chewing through his neck.
That’s when I understood. Depleted of all his usual power, with no human blood available to replenish it, Bones had turned to the only source available: Demon blood. With its narcotic properties for vampires, it gave Bones the same artificially inflated strength that a human on PCP experienced.
He probably didn’t feel it when Trove slammed them backward, crushing Bones against the floor with his new, larger frame. The concrete dented around them, and still Bones kept ripping at Trove’s neck, swallowing that crimson flow as fast as it appeared. Then his arms and legs wrapped around the demon, not releasing him even when Trove began smashing into everything in an attempt to get free.
This was my chance.
I leapt onto Trove, and for a few, mad moments, I was smashed and slammed right along with them. It felt like being stuck on the bottom of a concrete boulder that was rolling down a mountainside, but I couldn’t dwell on the pain as ribs snapped and bones crushed with the demon’s punishing movements. All I concentrated on was holding on to that knife, and when Trove propelled us into a corner, briefly wedging us between two intersecting networks of pipes, I struck.
The knife rammed into his cheek, a miss. I kept going, blood slicking the sharp edges as I shoved it harder, deeper, trying to dig through his cheekbone.
Trove’s new claws ripped along my back, shredding leather, then skin and tissue. My whole body throbbed with pain, and the light-headedness that gripped me was either from using the last of my strength in my efforts to kill him or skull damage from Trove’s brutal attempts to free us from the piping web.
None of it mattered. All I focused on was his one, glaring red eye. I kept scissoring the knife into his head, but it was soon clear that I lacked the strength to drive it past the defense of his cheekbone.
Then Trove wrenched us out of the pipe labyrinth that had briefly trapped us. For a moment, we were airborne, Bones clinging to the back of the demon, me still on top of him with a knife jutting under the demon’s eye. As if in slow motion, I saw the basement floor draw nearer, and I was seized with an idea.
With a cry that was equal parts fury and frustration, I balanced the hilt of the knife against my chest and flung myself forward. We hit the ground in the next instant.
My weight plus the momentum from our three bodies plowing into the concrete accomplished what my lagging strength couldn’t. The bone blade drove home, sinking all the way through Trove’s eye. Blood spurted to coat my hands, and a new sharp pain was the hilt either cracking my sternum or puncturing it.
I refused to let go. Instead, I gave what I could feel of the blade a vicious shove, not stopping until it hit the back of Trove’s skull. Only when that tremendous form began to shrink, crumpling in on itself like a balloon slowly deflating, did my grip loosen on the bone knife. Finally, when nothing but a skeleton, a suit, and the scent of sulfur remained between me and Bones, I let go.
For a few, blissful seconds, I closed my eyes, every muscle in my body sagging with relief so profound, I thought I might have actually passed out. Then Bones’s familiar voice threaded through my exhaustion.
“Get off, luv, I’m high as a bloody kite. No telling what I’ll do.”
A breath of laughter escaped me. If Bones being high was our biggest danger, this had turned out to be the best day ever.
Shuffling noises drew my attention to the other side of the boiler room. Ian appeared, covered in dirt, blood, and far less clothes since what he had left had been ripped half-off. He was even missing clumps of his long auburn hair. I’d never seen him look worse—and I’d never been happier to see him.
“You did it,” I breathed.
He glanced at the remains of the demon between us.
“As did you, but this isn’t over. Mencheres is here, and he brought Marie Laveau, Law Guardians, and the vampire council with him.”
I shot to my feet like my blood had been replaced with rocket fuel. All of my worst fears were realized when Tate appeared behind Ian, his expression locked in a mixture of rage and desperation. Not a muscle on him moved, and he floated in, hovering several inches off the ground.
Since Bones’s power had been depleted, Mencheres must be controlling Tate, but I didn’t see him yet. My gaze was all for Katie as she floated in after Tate, alarm creasing her delicate features instead of her trademark stoicism.
I ran to her. Or tried to. After the first two steps, I was enveloped by what felt like a giant, invisible fist. It squeezed me from the chin down, making escape impossible and speech difficult.
“Let me go,” I managed through gritted teeth.
Mencheres did appear then, and he had an entourage. Veritas was the only Law Guardian I knew by name, but I recognized the other three men. Years ago, they’d supervised Bones’s duel with Gregor, which meant we had a history. I’d almost been executed for interfering in that duel, and there were some who still thought I should have been.
Marie was next, her long black skirt and tailored black jacket sending more sparks of fear through me. She looked like she was going to a funeral, and while the three vampires behind her weren’t garbed as somberly, their expressions were darker than pitch.
“What the bloomin’ hell is this?”
Bones’s harsh tone couldn’t hide his slur. Doped as he was, he still managed to get to his feet without stumbling. He didn’t go any farther, though. Mencheres’s power shot out and stopped him.
“I am doing what must be done,” his friend and grandsire replied. Then obsidian eyes met mine, an abundance of pity in their depths. “I am sorry, Cat,” Mencheres added softly.
It tore from me with all the agony of hopes raised, then smashed. We couldn’t have come so far to lose everything now! Trove was dead, Marie had sworn to leave us alone, and we’d found Katie. I’d looked into my daughter’s eyes and sworn to protect her. She might not believe me, but over time, I’d prove it to her. She was going to have all the love and acceptance she’d been denied before, and to make my promise come true, all we had to do was leave.
Thanks to the mega-Master vampire and his undead associates, we couldn’t even if Bones and I were back to full strength. Forget Marie; the boiler room sizzled with the power coming off the four Law Guardians and three council members. Any second, it might start raining sparks.
“How could you?”
My words were choked with more than the difficulty of saying them with my chin frozen. Marie and the other vampires hadn’t found us by luck. Only Mencheres knew where we were going.
Veritas stepped forward, her white tunic rustling from all the supernatural energy in the air.
“Mencheres did what he could for you. In exchange for delivering the child to us, your lies will now go unpunished.”
“We didn’t ask for your bloody help!” Bones thundered.
Mencheres let out a heavy sigh.
“You did not, but as co-ruler of our line, I couldn’t permit you to drag our people into war. That is what would have happened, and the result would be the same. Now or later, the child would die. This way, only one life will be lost instead of untold thousands.”
My whole body vibrated from the virulent emotions racking me. If I had any power left, Mencheres’s head would have ripped from his shoulders at those words.
“Please don’t do this.”
My voice broke from the hatred and fear roiling inside me. I wanted to slaughter everyone, not beg them, but with my body immobilized and my abilities exhausted, begging was all I had left.
“Please. We’ll take her away. You’ll never have to see her again, and there will be no war, I promise!”
Urgent grunts came out of Tate, his only way to voice his concurring plea. Mencheres had frozen everything on him, it seemed.
“There is no other way,” a council member who could’ve doubled as Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings said. Then he sniffed as he came farther into the room, bringing him closer to Trove’s body.
“The sulfur stench from that demon is everywhere.”
“You’re about to murder a child and what you find most distasteful is demon stink?” Ian’s tone was scathing. “You call yourselves protectors of our race, but all I see before me are cowards.”
“Silence,” the white-haired vampire ordered. Then he turned to the Law Guardian with the wild black hair and Mediterranean features.
The vampire withdrew a curved silver blade that was longer than my forearm. Then he strode over to Katie, grasping her hair. Veritas looked away, her mouth tightening.
“Don’t, please!” I screamed. My teeth tore into my lower lip, drawing blood, but though I willed Remnants to appear with all of my panic, nothing happened. Trove had drained too much from me.
Tears spilled from my eyes, blurring my vision with pink that quickly turned to scarlet.
“Wait,” Marie said.
Hope surged when Thonos paused, that wickedly long blade upraised. The Gandalf look-alike raised a brow but nodded in acquiescence.
Marie came over to me, wiping my eyes with brisk yet gentle swipes.
“You can’t cry, Reaper,” she said, voice so low no one but me would hear her. “You carry my power. If you cry, you doom your daughter to the same fate as your uncle. You must be strong now. This is the only thing you can do for her.”
A wild hope coursed through me. That’s right, if I cried, the blood in my tears would bring Katie back as a ghost! For a crazed moment, I relished the thought. If it was the only way we could be together, I’d take it. I’d seen other ghost children, and they didn’t look like they were miserable . . .
My gaze jerked past Marie to Bones. He stared at me, his expression conveying an equal measure of sternness and heartbreak.
“Don’t,” he said simply.
Pain erupted then, so all-encompassing it almost felt purifying. Of course I couldn’t do that. I’d be sentencing Katie to a harsher fate than these pitiless bastards had decreed, and worse, for the same reason. Selfishness.
They wanted to end the threat of war the easy way instead of confronting the deeper issue—that after tens of thousands of years, vampires and ghouls still had a deep-seated mistrust of each other because they were different races. Why try to resolve their ugly, underlying prejudice when every few hundred years, they could just murder anyone who reminded them of it?
I wanted my daughter with me, but unlike them, I’d take the hard road. The one that hurt me the most instead of her. If I could only be a mother to her for the next few seconds, I’d be sure not to fail.
Marie was right. It was all I could do for my daughter.
With a harsh sound, I choked back my tears. Then I used all of my willpower to hold the new ones back. When my eyes were finally dry, I nodded as much as I could.
“I’ve got it.”
Marie touched my face. Not to wipe away any stray tears; they were gone. As a benediction.
“You are a worthy adversary,” she said softly.
Then she turned and left, taking a place next to the vampire council and Law Guardians. Bitterly, I noticed that they waited in a single line behind Thonos. They had mandated Katie’s death, but they must not want to look into her eyes as she died. The back of the tall, muscular executioner blocked most of their view.
Nothing blocked mine. I stared at Katie, every cell of my body screaming with grief that I refused to release with tears. The little girl stared at the knife above her as though hypnotized, her features an odd mixture of fear and determination. Then, as if she sensed my gaze, she looked at me.
In my lifetime, I’d been shot, stabbed, staked, burned, bitten, beaten, strangled, hit by a car, and tortured by physical and metaphysical means. Nothing compared to the anguish I felt when our gazes met and I saw the acceptance in hers. She knew nothing could save her, and despite her obvious fear, she’d come to terms with that. Maybe it was because, in her short, captivity-filled existence, she’d never known there was more to life than ugliness and death. So much more, like hope, love, laughing, dancing . . . and now she’d never know.