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Still I shrink back, pulling my legs up and trying to curl into a ball as best I can. It’s not much protection—or really any protection—but it’s all I’ve got until Jaxon manages to break through the ancient safeguards.

I expect Lia to start hacking at me with the knife as soon as she gets to me, but instead, she stands above me—arms spread wide and knife pointed directly at my midsection.

Not cut, then. Stabbed. Awesome.

I brace myself for more pain, but the knife never descends. Instead, the black smoke surrounds us, winding itself tighter and tighter as the breeze picks up and Lia finally stops chanting.

“Open your mouth!” she screams at me as the smoke centers itself directly above me.

No freaking way. She can kill me if she wants to—in fact, at this point she can feel free to do just that—because there is no way I’m opening up and sucking some noxious and terrifying smoke into me that may or may not be Jaxon’s dead brother. Not going to happen.

“Grace!” Jaxon yells from the other side of the door. “Grace, are you okay? Hold on! Hold on for me just a little longer.”

I don’t answer him—doing so would require opening my mouth, and right now I’ve got my face pressed into my arm and my jaw clenched as tightly as I possibly can. No way is this going down the way Lia seems to think it will.

“Do it, or I’ll kill you!” Lia screeches. “Right here, right now.”

Like that’s going to scare me? I resigned myself to death a while ago, so the threat of dying doesn’t hold much weight at the moment—especially since I know she’ll kill me once she gets what she wants anyway. So why on earth should I give it to her? Especially when it involves me turning into some kind of bizarre host for an ancient vampiric ritual?

Lia abandons the threats and throws herself on top of me as she tries to pry my mouth open with her fingers.

Don’t let her do it, the voice inside me warns. Hold the course.

I kind of want to answer it with a resounding no shit, Sherlock, but I’m too busy trying to buck Lia off me.

It’s not working—big surprise considering she’s a pissed-off vampire with superhuman strength and I’m a human in really, really bad shape. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up, though, doesn’t mean—

A giant wrenching sound suddenly fills the air. Lia freezes on top of me as stones go flying in every direction. And in walks Jaxon.

“No!” Lia screams as she picks up one of the stones that landed near us and chucks it back at him as hard as she can. “You can’t be here! You’re not invited in!”

Jaxon deflects the rock with little more than a look. “No wall, no invitation needed.” And then he’s leaping across the room in a single bound. He lands next to us on the altar and rips Lia off me, sends her flying across the room.

She hits the wall with a crash but comes right back at him. Jaxon, in the meantime, whispers, “I’m sorry, Grace,” as he waves a hand over me. The bindings on my wrists simply fall away. Then he’s crouching down next to me, stroking a hand down my face. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not—” My voice breaks as relief sweeps through me. “It’s not your fault.”

His voice is bitter. “Whose fault is it, then?”

I start to answer, but—big surprise—Lia’s not going down without a fight. “Look out!” I scream as she hurtles across the stage straight at Jaxon. He waits for her to get close then uses her own momentum to send her flying off the altar and across the room.

She lands with a sickening crunch of bone, but that doesn’t keep her down, either. She staggers to her feet, holds her arms up, and starts that horrible chant again. The black smoke responds, circling Jaxon, circling me, cutting off our view of Lia and the rest of the room.

“What’s happening?” Jaxon demands.

I don’t answer him now that the smoke is right next to me again, too scared of opening my mouth to so much as make a sound.

Jaxon uses his powers to try to move the smoke away from us, but it must be the one thing in the universe not under his control. Because instead of clearing out, it winds itself more and more tightly around us, until I can barely see Jaxon, let alone the rest of the room.

Which, apparently, is Lia’s plan, because as soon as Jaxon turns his back in search of an escape, Lia is on him. She leaps onto his back with a primal kind of war cry and plunges the knife straight into Jaxon’s chest.

It’s my turn to scream—or as close to a scream as I can get with my jaw clamped shut. I try to get to him, but Jaxon throws a hand out, uses his telekinesis to keep me where I am. Then he reaches down and yanks the knife out of his chest.

It falls to the ground with a clatter.

Blood is steadily leaking out of his wound, but Jaxon doesn’t seem to even notice. He’s too focused on Lia. Reaching over his shoulder, he grabs Lia by the collar and pulls her over his head and onto the ground at his feet.

I expect him to use his powers on her now, but instead he plunges his hand down, aiming straight at her chest. She rolls away at the last second, tries to kick him in the face. But he grabs onto her leg and twists it, fast and hard.

A sickening crunch fills the air, followed by Lia’s howls of pain. Jaxon grabs on to her hair, prepares to break her neck and put all of us out of our misery, but before he can do it, the black smoke circles his neck and starts to choke him.

He claws at his neck, tries to get it away from his throat, but it’s not letting go no matter how hard he wrestles with it.

Somehow, Lia is on her feet again. Her left leg is bent at an unnatural angle, but she’s standing, arms raised as she starts that horrible chanting again. The spell only seems to make the smoke stronger as it continues to strangle Jaxon.

He’s sheet white as he falls to his knees and tries to wrestle with something he can’t get an actual grip on. Blood continues to seep out of his chest wound, and I know if I don’t do something, Jaxon is going to die right in front of me.

I can’t let that happen.

I crawl forward, hands stretched out in front of me as I search for— My fingers come across the cold steel of Lia’s ceremonial knife, and I grab onto it with all of my waning strength.

It’s sharp and it cuts me, but I barely feel the pain as I push myself up off the floor. And swing the knife at Lia’s chest with every ounce of strength I have left in my body.

She’s wide open, her arms spread out to the sides, so I connect. The knife makes a sickening squishing sound as it sinks through skin and flesh to the organs below.

She doesn’t scream this time. Instead, she rears back with a strange gargle-gasp and falls straight backward onto the floor.

The horrifying rattle coming from her chest tells me I punctured a lung instead of her heart, but at this point I don’t actually care. As long as she’s out of commission, I’m good. Or I will be as soon as we figure out how to get the greasy black smoke off Jaxon, who honestly isn’t looking much better than Lia at the moment.

If he’s not strong enough to pry it off—with or without his telekinesis—I know I’ve got no shot. So I do the only thing I can think of, the only thing guaranteed to get the smoke to let him go.

I open my mouth and take a long, slow breath.


Where There’s Smoke,

There’s a

Dead Vampire

It takes a few seconds, but the smoke—or whatever that thing is—finally catches on. It relinquishes its hold on Jaxon and arrows straight for me.

Which, gotta say, is probably the most terrifyingly awful thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.

But considering the alternative is standing around and watching another person I love die, there is no alternative. And so I open my arms and gather the smoke toward me. Once it’s surrounding me, I take a breath, start to suck it in.

“No!” Jaxon roars.

Suddenly, I’m falling backward, flying backward off the altar and halfway across the room while Jaxon stumbles to his feet. He’s nearly gray at this point, but he manages to stand tall as he holds his hands out in front of him. Then slowly, slowly—so slowly I think I may have a heart attack watching him—he starts to compress the air between his hands into a spherical shape.

As he does, the entire room—the entire tunnel—starts to shake. And then it starts to crumble around us.

And still, Jaxon doesn’t let up. Still, he continues to compress the sphere, his hands slowly rotating in a circle as he pulls more and more energy, more and more mass into the sphere.

The smoke flattens itself out, starts streaming in the other direction, but Jaxon is having none of it. He just starts pulling harder, until stones and candles and vases filled with blood start flying across the room toward him. He takes it all, pulls it all into the sphere and then reaches for more, until even the air in the room is streaming toward him in what looks and feels an awful lot like a tornado. And with the air comes the smoke, no matter how hard it struggles against Jaxon’s power.

It’s getting harder to breathe as Jaxon absorbs more and more of the oxygen in the room, but I don’t even care. I just drop to the floor the way they taught me in fire safety and try to breathe whatever’s left down here as I watch him draw the smoke inexorably closer to him. Closer and closer and closer.

Soon even Lia and I are caught up in the energy suck, getting dragged across the floor by Jaxon’s power and his indomitable will. I don’t try to fight it, don’t do anything that might possibly make this harder for him. Instead, I just give myself over to Jaxon and trust that somehow he will keep me safe, even from himself.

He always does.

He’s got the smoke in his grasp now, floating between his hands as he struggles to condense it, to break it down into whatever he needs it to be so that the vortex or whatever he’s got going on in there can absorb it.

But the smoke isn’t going down without a fight. Every time it looks like Jaxon might have it contained, a small stream escapes his hold and he has to start all over again. But Jaxon has a will of iron and more power than I even imagined possible inside of him. He won’t give up.