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I let go of Sofia and stood up, praying that the witch knew what she was doing. I willed all the heat I possessed in my body to well up beneath my fingertips. Sofia hissed and squirmed on the floor, still refusing giving up the fight. As soon as the witch began muttering beneath her breath, I knew that it was time.

I unleashed the fire all at once. It wrapped itself around Sofia’s body, engulfing her in a tornado of flames. Her screams could be heard for several minutes. Those minutes were the most torturous of my life—not knowing how many of those screams were Sofia’s.

Eventually she fell silent. Her body became motionless and the Ageless nodded at me, indicating that it was safe to relinquish the flames.

Beneath the billows of dark smoke lay Sofia’s worn body. She looked so fragile I was afraid that just picking her up would cause her to fall to pieces. I immediately ran to her side, showered her face with frantic kisses, and eased her into my arms.

Emergency room. I have to get to the emergency room.

I needed to see her eyes open again soon, or I wasn’t sure my heart could take it anymore. What if Arron spoke the truth that Sofia’s body is spent now? I placed my ear against her chest. Thank God there is a small heartbeat, however faint.

“You can ruin this gate, witch.” Arron’s eyes glinted dangerously in the dim lighting. “Just remember that Aviary doesn’t forget. And Aviary doesn’t forgive.”

Then without another word, he dove through the hole in the floor. After he’d vanished from sight, the Ageless stared down at the gate and began muttering to herself.

Ruin the gate… but… my son…

“Wait!” I shouted. “Arron said that my son is in Aviary.”

“He had every reason to lie to you about that,” she snapped.

“I know. But it’s the only straw I have to cling to. We’ve hit dead end after dead end trying to locate my son. Even if there’s one millionth of a chance that Arron could have spoken truth, it’s the only lead I have.” Balancing Sofia over my shoulder with one hand, I grabbed the witch’s arm with the other and pulled her back from the edge of the gate.

“This is against the agreement I discussed with my council. They would never approve of this. Keeping this gate jeopardizes our entire strategy. I can’t, Derek. I’m sorry.”

“Please.” My eyes blazed into hers. “Please.”

From the Ageless’ impatient expression, I was sure that she was about to destroy the gate. But then her eyes softened.

“Go now, then,” she said. “You have four hours. I’ll eliminate the gate on the strike of the hour whether you have returned or not.”

“But I can’t leave Sofia in this state. Please, just give me a few days…”

“Out of the question! I’ve just offered you four hours. Take it or leave it.”

The choice was clear: act on the slight chance that I’d be able to locate my son in four hours, or tend to my wife. Leaving Sofia at this critical hour might mean leaving her forever. Even if I managed to return unscathed through the gate, Sofia might have passed away by then without me at her side.

“I can’t leave Sofia now,” I repeated, my shoulders sagging.

The witch returned to the edge of the gate.

Not wanting to witness the only possible clue to my son’s whereabouts fade away, I left the chamber and ran back through the tunnel.

I’d been so focused on my son that I’d only just considered that Aiden too was supposed to be in Aviary now. Sofia never even got to bid farewell. And what if Vivienne and the others have been taken there too?

Silent tears ran down my cheeks as I gazed down at my wife’s unconscious form.

Chapter 25: Derek

As we emerged from the trapdoor, the bright lighting in the Atrium showed the state Sofia was in even more clearly. My arms were already wet with her blood from the wound Arron had inflicted on her, and her skin was so dry it had started to flake off. Yellow skin had formed around her eye sockets and her eyes were shut tightly. Bruises and scrapes covered every part of her body and blood dripped from the corners of her mouth—a mixture of hers and my own.

With Arron locked out, I felt safer taking Sofia directly to the emergency room to see one of the nurses. I insisted upon the same one who had helped Sofia when I first brought her to Headquarters after her escape from the hut.

The nurse’s round face drained of all color when she saw Sofia.

“How in heavens…”

“Please,” I gasped. “She’s had an original vampire, an Elder, inhabit her body for far too long. Her heartbeat is weak. Please, hurry!”

I laid Sofia down on the nearest bed and looked up expectantly at the nurse.

“But… I have no idea what you’re even talking about. What is an Elder? I have no experience with this!”

“She’s an ordinary vampire now!” I said, looking around the room at shelves upon shelves of medication and equipment. “Immune blood. Try giving her some more immune blood. That’s got to help…”

“But,” the nurse stammered, “we have no more immune blood. It’s all been used up.”

“Check the cupboards again!” I yelled. “Or there must be some left in the lab from when they were carrying out their testing on Anna. Where is the lab?”

“It’s too late for immune blood.” A deep voice spoke from the entrance of the room.

“Ibrahim? What the hell are you doing here? How could you have left Rose and Corrine…”

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