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Abby apparently hadn’t had the same treatment as Ashley and Sofia. Her eyes were glazed over with a translucent film and her mouth split open in an awkward smile, her expression mismatched with her age.

“I’m here to meet with the Elder in charge.” Ibrahim’s voice remained steady and if he was frightened even in the slightest, he didn’t show it.

“That would be me.” Ashley held out her hand to him with a smirk on her lips.

Ibrahim declined her offer of a handshake. “Good. I wish to talk privately with you. The temple will be a good place, I think.”

Ashley eyed him. “Why has the Ageless sent you here in her place? I’m accustomed to dealing with her directly.”

“She asks for your forgiveness. She has been very much preoccupied in dealing with the Hawks. They’ve been growing more and more demanding these days. In fact, that’s what I’m here to talk to you about. But, due to the sensitive nature of the subject, I would like some privacy first and foremost.”

As soon as Ibrahim mentioned the Hawks, Ashley’s face twitched. “Very well,” she said. “This had better be worth my time.”

Ibrahim and Ashley made their way toward the entrance of the temple and soon disappeared from sight through the wooden doors, swinging them shut behind them. As soon as they had done so, one of the warlocks a few feet away from me whispered “Now!” and the elderly witch tugged on my shoulder.

We all rushed out from our hiding places. The remaining vampires by the fountain were shocked enough to stand rooted to the spot for a few seconds before chasing after us. But by the time they’d caught up, it was too late. We’d formed a circle around the temple and the witches had begun to recite their magic, uttering a low chant. Just as the vampires closed in around us, little Abby heading straight for me, an invisible force field shot up around the temple. As soon as the vessels made contact with it, they were hurled back several feet.

Enraged, they attacked the force field again, their mouths stretched open in what I imagined would have been wild screams. But we heard nothing. The force field, it seemed, also kept out sound.

I stepped back from the circle of witches and neared the entrance of the temple. I was at a loss as to what my role was to be in all of this. I sought out the elderly witch.

“What should I do?” I asked.

“Follow Ibrahim into the temple. But go silently! He will need you when the time comes.” Her face twisted in concentration as she focused on keeping the shield intact against the vampires. To my alarm, I now caught sight of a crowd of nearly fifty more vampires emerging from the woods. They must have heard the vessels’ screams and come running to assist. The witches were outnumbered. I prayed that they had it in them to sustain their magic long enough for us to complete the mission.

I pushed open the temple’s door, sliding inside the dim corridor. Ibrahim and Ashley’s voices sounded up ahead. I crept along, closing the distance between us as noiselessly as possible, until I was about ten feet away from the temple’s innermost chamber. The pair had already entered it and their shadows bounced off of the stone wall opposite the open door.

“In short, we at The Sanctuary have decided to cut our allegiance with the Hawks and support the Elders in full,” Ibrahim explained. “The Hawks have simply been asking too much of us recently. We can no longer cater to their demands. It’s reached the point where we cannot remain neutral any longer. We must choose sides, either yours or the Hawks’.”

“And what has made you want to choose us?”

“Frankly, we believe that the Hawks are the lesser threat. We’d rather have them as enemies than yourselves. We will create more immunes and continue to allow you access to this realm. We will also put all our efforts into trying to recreate our powers so that we have the ability to manifest new gates, since I’m aware that the Hawks managed to eliminate the gate at The Blood Keep…”

I was so engrossed in their conversation that I failed to notice someone approaching me from behind. By the time I realized, it was too late. I felt a blow to my head and went tumbling to the ground, in full view of the open doorway. A vampire guard towered over me and Ashley’s eyes fell on me.

“Derek Novak,” Ashley hissed, striding toward me.

From the corner of my eye, I noticed Ibrahim take advantage of the distraction and rush over to a hole in the floor.

I scrambled to my feet and steadied myself. “Yes, that’s my name.”

Without warning, Ashley’s claws shot out and she flew at my throat. I ducked and launched into a sprint down the corridor. I didn’t know where I would lead them to, and I was beginning to worry about hitting a dead end. I had no witch to assist me in protecting Ashley. If I was forced to ignite flames to protect myself, I would burn Ashley’s body to ashes.

I kept running, leading them round the winding corridors and as far away from Ibrahim as I could. But then it finally happened. I took a wrong turn and hit a dead end. I stretched out my palms and unleashed a billow of fire, hoping that it would scare them back.

It didn’t deter them.

Ashley narrowed the space between us until she was but three feet away. I looked at the wreck that barely even resembled Ashley any more and felt a pang of guilt. I’d already dealt her more than her fair share of suffering in the past. I battled with myself over what I was about to do. Look at her, Derek, a part of myself reasoned, trying to justify to myself what I now saw as inevitable. She now looks in a worse state than even Sofia was in.

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