He took the hand off her eyes and wrapped his other arm around her waist, holding her tight against him. "Stop," he said to the others. Claire opened her eyes to see Shane getting up from the floor, wiping blood from his eyes. He looked dizzy, but focused. Eve was standing frozen about twenty feet away, terrified and unsure. Michael was down with a wooden stake in his chest-- oh, God, that could kill a young vampire if it was in long enough--and Frank Collins was slowly circling around, staring at Myrnin and Claire with the intensity of a hunting tiger.
West, the only other member of their backup who'd made it through alive, had her bow drawn and was standing with an arrow pointed at Myrnin's chest. The only problem was that Claire's own chest was actually in the way.
"Help Michael," Claire said. Myrnin's hand closed around her throat, choking off her words, but Shane seemed to understand, and went to pull the stake out of Michael's chest. Their friend rolled on his side, coughing, weak and not able to even try to get up.
Shane held the stake in his fingers and twirled it restlessly, staring at Myrnin now with the exact same expression his father had. "Let the kid go," Frank said. "You know how this is going to end. It's just a matter of how bloody you want to make it."
"Well, friend, I don't know about your tastes, but I tend to like it very bloody," Myrnin said. He shifted position, dragging Claire along like a rag doll without any effort at all. "Have we been introduced?"
"Probably not. Why, you asking me out, sweetheart?"
"You're not my type, darling. Is this one yours?"
"No," Frank said, and looked at Shane, just in a quick flicker. "Let's say she's a friend of the family."
"That'll do. Now, if you want to keep her breathing, you'll take all these children and your woman-at-arms--hello, West, how have you been, my dear? Haven't seen you since Richard was king--and depart gracefully, while you still have the chance, and bring Ada to me. If you do, I may let this one go."
"Nice offer," Frank said. "Why exactly should I take it again?"
"Because the boy there wants you to," Myrnin said. "I can tell. Can't you? He's just dying to come over here and save her from the evil, wicked vampire. Well, boy, why don't you? Don't you like her?" Myrnin's hand tightened on her neck. "Come on--tell her how you feel. It's your last chance, you know, before she dies."
Don't, Claire tried to say, but all that came out was a squeak. She felt a little sick, because she knew what Myrnin was doing, and she hated it.
"Sorry, freak," Shane said, "but you've got a wrong number. I don't know that chick at all. And the second you kill her, we'll take you down, so maybe you'd better find a new plan."
That stung a little, but Claire could see that he was lying, at least about that first part. She could see it in his eyes. It hadn't been long, but he felt something for her, even if it wasn't maybe what she felt yet--and she knew Shane. He'd never, ever stand by and just let her be hurt. He wouldn't do that even if she was a total stranger.
"I think your friend has a hero complex," Myrnin said in a whisper, right into her ear. "That makes this even more interesting, doesn't it, Claire?"
She felt her heart stutter in her chest. He knew her. No--no, wait, he didn't; he just knew her name. It wasn't the same Myrnin, not at all.
The grip around her throat eased just a little, and she was able to gasp out, "Myrnin, please stop. Please. You know this isn't right."
"You know what isn't right? Waking up to find everything changed, to find Ada missing, to find humans breaking into my last safe haven intent on destroying what I hold dear? Does that sound right to you?"
"It's not what you think," Claire said desperately. "Ada's not here. She's not coming back. You have to understand that what's down there isn't something you should be protecting; it's something you have to stop!"
He was silent. Frank Collins took a step forward, then stopped, watching Claire's face. She frantically shook her head.
"You do sound convincing," Myrnin said. He put his head down, mouth very close to the side of her throat, and took in a deep breath. "You do smell familiar, I admit. Your scent is all over the lab, and I confess, I have no explanation for that."
"Because I work here. For you," Claire said. "You know that. Myrnin, you have to remember. Please try."
All of a sudden he let her go and shoved her forward, hard--straight into Shane's arms. Shane dropped the stake to grab her as she fell, and held on.
Myrnin stood there for a moment, head cocked to one side, staring at the two of them. "I have the oddest feeling," he said, "that I've seen this before. Seen you before."
"You have," Claire said, and cleared her throat, trying to ignore the ache. "Myrnin, you know us. Stop. Just stop and think, okay?"
He stared at her, and she saw that he was trying--groping for the lost threads of his life. She saw how it frightened him to feel this way, too. Maybe he'd enjoyed it, on some level; maybe it had felt like freedom, not worrying about anyone but himself and Ada.
But that wasn't him. Not anymore. It hadn't been for years.
"Claire," he said, and took a step forward. "Claire, I think . . . I think I . . . forgot something . . . about--I don't think this is right. I don't think any of this is right. And I think I know . . . I think I know Ada--"
He stopped and turned to look at the portal an instant before Claire felt the flash of power from it. "No!" he snapped, and stretched out a hand toward the doorway, which was starting to spark and flicker with color. "No one else comes in!"
She couldn't let him stop this, no matter what happened, but she felt sick about it. She'd been close, so close to breaking through . . . and now it was gone again.
Claire scooped up the fallen stake and lunged for his back.
She didn't make it, of course; Myrnin was too fast, and too alert. He whirled, grabbed her arm, and held the point of the stake an inch from his chest, staring right into her eyes.
"Oh, child," he said. "You shouldn't have done that."
But she'd done exactly what she'd meant to do, and in the next second, power rushed through the room, crackling along her skin, and Amelie stepped through the portal behind Myrnin, shining like a white diamond in the dim light. Behind her came two more vampire guards, and Oliver. But Oliver wasn't going to be any help, because he was wearing silver chains on his wrists and ankles.
He could hardly stand, Claire realized. He looked terrible.
Myrnin forced Claire to drop the stake, and held on to her wrist as he turned to face Amelie, bowing low from the waist. "Founder."
"Myrnin," Amelie said, as the portal dissolved into black behind her party. "I seem to have interrupted. I recognize the girl you have in hand, and West, of course." West, looking very unhappy, loosened the bow and removed the arrow from the string, bowing to Amelie. With a glance at Frank, she walked over to stand with the new arrivals, signaling a change in her allegiance. Amelie fixed her attention on Frank, and then Michael, who was still on the ground. Eve was kneeling next to him, trying to help him get up. "This doesn't seem to be going well for you, Mr. Collins," she said. "I suggest you take these children and withdraw while you have the chance."
"No," Michael said raggedly, and staggered to his feet.
And Shane said, "We're not going without Claire."
"I assure you, boys, you will be going, one way or another," Amelie said. "Myrnin. Give the girl to me, and I will deal with this intrusion."
"Do you doubt that I will act in the best interests of Morganville?" she asked, holding his gaze. "Have you ever doubted that, in all our years together?"
"But they have Ada," he said, and his voice was small and lost and plaintive. "You have to make them give her back. Please." "I will," Amelie said. "But first, let me have the girl."
Myrnin nodded and shoved Claire at her.
Claire tried to twist aside, but Amelie, without seeming to move at all, was somehow in the way. She took hold of Claire's arm in an ice-cold iron grip, and looked at her with even colder eyes. "Be still," she said. "I'll deal with you in a moment." Claire felt her last hope die, because there was no hint of real recognition in Amelie's face.
Frank said, "You'd better deal with me before you settle with some little schoolkid, or I'll get offended."
"You'd better deal with all of us," Shane said. "I'm not going to let you hurt her."
"You sound brave, Shane, for someone who doesn't remember being in my presence before," Amelie said. "But I won't hurt her. Or any of you." She looked at Claire again, and this time there was warmth in her eyes. A kind of comfort. "I assure you, I am fully aware of what I am doing here."
She remembered. Relief hit Claire, and she sighed as the tension left her body. Things were still dangerous, no question about that, but with Amelie on their side, surely it was going to be all right. She could convince Myrnin to do the right thing.
"They have Ada," Myrnin said. "You have to find her. Please."
Amelie let Claire go and moved her off to the side, out of Myrnin's reach. "There's no need," she said, and the compassion in her voice was a kind of pain all its own. "We both know where Ada is, Myrnin. I know you remember."
He didn't move, and didn't speak, but there was a frantic, feverish glitter in his eyes.
"You've been ill. Ada was caring for you, but she fell ill as well. Weakness has always triggered bad things in you, and she grew weak. One day--"
"No," Myrnin said. It wasn't so much a denial as a plea for her not to keep talking.
"One day I came here and found her dead. Drained of life."
"It was too late to save her, but you'd tried, once you came to your senses. Heaven knows you'd tried. You did your best to preserve what you could of her--don't you remember?"
"No, no, no!" Myrnin sank down to a crouch, hiding his face in his hands. "No, it isn't true!"
"You know it is," Amelie said, and walked forward to put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "My friend, this isn't the first time we've had this conversation. You become ill, and you forget, and you wait for her to come back. But Ada isn't coming back, is she? She's gone."
"No, she's not gone," Myrnin whispered. "I saved her. I saved her. She can't die now. She can't leave me. She's safe. I'll keep her safe. No one can hurt her."
He still thought Ada was in the machine. That hurt worse than his grief, somehow; it was another tragedy in slow motion, because Claire knew she'd have to see him remember, see him lose what he loved all over again.
Just like everyone else.
But the difference was that Myrnin wanted to hang on, had to hang on. He was three years in the past, and sick, and crazy.
He'd do everything he could to stop them from taking Ada away from him. That was why he'd treated Claire like an intruder in the first place . . . because on some level he was still trying to save Ada, and he knew that Claire intended to destroy her.
"You can't take her," Myrnin whispered. "You can't take her away from me. Please don't do that."
Amelie's expression had slowly gone still and cold. "There's nothing to take," she said. "Ada's gone. Three years ago you wept in the corner and ripped your own skin. I had to stop you from killing indiscriminately to keep from drowning in your pain. I won't let you go back to that . . . beast. You deserve better than that."
Myrnin shuddered and dropped his hands limply to his sides. "What are you going to do?"
"Turn it off," she said. "Stop this madness while we still can. You'll be better once it's done."
Myrnin's eyes flared bright, shocking white, and he leaped for Amelie, fangs sliding down. She twisted out of the way, pulling Claire with her. Her guards jumped into the fight, but Myrnin was strong, and as full-on crazy as she'd ever seen him.
He tossed one the entire length of the lab, and staked the other with a broken chair leg, and screamed at her in defiance.
She didn't move.
"Let me go!" Oliver yelled at Amelie, and shook his chains impatiently. "You can see I had nothing to do with any of this, and you need my help! Let me loose!"
She hesitated, staring at him, and then bent to expertly unlock the chains, which dropped from his wrists and ankles to the stone floor. Oliver staggered a little, gasping out a breath of relief, and Amelie reached out to take hold of his arm.
"Oliver," she said, and held his gaze. "I remember what happened. I remember, and I am sorry."
He hesitated, then nodded in response. It was as if he was waiting for her to make some decision--something more than simply letting him loose.
Amelie said, "I won't be your servant in Morganville. Nor should you be mine. Equals." She offered her hand to him, and he looked down at it, clearly taken aback. But he took it. "Now defend what is ours, my partner."
He grinned--grinned!--and whirled to meet Myrnin in mid-leap as Myrnin attacked.
He had Myrnin down in seconds, but it was a rush of adrenaline that faded, and Claire realized that the pain of the silver chains was taking its toll on him. He slowed down. Myrnin didn't, and in another few deadly seconds, Myrnin's clawed fingers slashed at Oliver's face. Oliver ducked, but lost his balance as Myrnin threw him backward in a rush.
Oliver crashed with deadly speed into a wall, and Myrnin ran in a blur for the back of the room. "He's going downstairs!" Claire yelled, and grabbed Oliver's fallen silver chains as Myrnin yanked the rug away. She heard the beeps of the code being entered in the trapdoor lock. "Stop him!" He'd had days here by himself, doing who-knew-what. Creating . . . things. Letting him go down there was dangerous, even more so than facing him up here.
Somehow, she still wanted to reason with him. It isn't Myrnin, not really. She remembered the Myrnin she'd gotten to know, the kind, almost gentle man, the one who'd brought her soup and held her upright when she'd been too tired to stand on her own. The one who'd fought for her time and time again.
She had to fight for him now. She had to defend him against himself.
Frank Collins almost made it to the trapdoor, but it slammed shut at the last second, and Claire heard the lock engage with a sharp, buzzing snap of power. "Don't touch it!" she yelled, as Shane's dad reached for the keypad. "It's electrified!"
"It's the only way in," Oliver said as he climbed painfully to his feet. "Someone has to open it."
"It's not the only way," Claire replied, and looked at Amelie. "There's a back way. Isn't there?" Amelie hesitated, then nodded. She turned and headed for the portal on the wall. Rudolph's body was lying there--well, half of it--and she moved it aside and stood in front of the black doorway. Colors shifted, pulsed, and faded into darkness again.
Claire found she was holding on to someone's hand. It turned out to be Shane, who'd come up beside her. She could feel how tense his muscles were, and how fast his pulse was going. Hers was at least twice as fast.
"There," Amelie said. Nothing seemed different about the darkness on the other side of the doorway, but Claire felt a kind of energy radiating out of it. "I warn you, it's not a safe course. Go quickly. I have to hold it open, or he might remember to block it."
Oliver gave her a doubtful look, but plunged past into the darkness; it swallowed him up like a pit full of ink. Frank and West followed, and then Claire and Shane. Before they stepped through, Shane hesitated and looked over his shoulder.
Michael was right there--pale, a little unsteady, leaning on Eve's shoulder. "Right with you, bro," he said. "Go."
"Are we totally sure this is a good plan?" Shane asked, quietly, to Claire. The fact that he asked her made her feel a little faint; it felt like . . . trust.
No, it was trust. Trust she hadn't earned, but something that felt unbearably precious to her.
Claire tried to sound confident. "I think so," she said. "Just watch your back, okay?"
"Nah, Michael's got mine." He looked straight into her eyes. "I've got yours."
Shane jumped into the darkness, and took Claire with him.
On the other side, it was just as black--a kind of darkness that made panic twist up in a hard, hot knot in Claire's stomach. She knew this darkness. She'd been in it before.
"Easy," Frank Collins said, and she felt his hand grab her shoulder to keep her still. "Don't move."
"There are holes in the floor," she said. "Pits. Can you see them?" She hoped he could; all the vampires she'd ever known could. She and Shane and Eve were about as blind as it was possible to be.
"Yeah, I see it. Hang on; I've got a light." That was Frank Collins speaking from somewhere right behind her. Light blazed out in a pure white cone that lanced out over rocks and pale, angular juts of quartz, sharp as razors. They were in a big cavern, silent except for the echoes of their movements and voices. "Nobody move."
He was right, because the area where they'd come through was the only reliably safe spot in the room. The rock floor was pitted with inky black holes that led, for all Claire knew, down to the center of the earth and out the other side. Not only that, but she knew from experience that where the rock looked solid, it probably wasn't. It was like a maze, and the last time Claire had been here, Myrnin had helped her through. He wouldn't be doing that now. He'd be trying to send her screaming to her death, along with everyone accompanying her. She swallowed hard; in the distance she saw a metal eyebolt driven deep into the rocks, and a length of silver chain. He'd been imprisoned here, once, when he'd been . . . more himself.
But he might not remember that now. Or care that he'd tried to save her life.
"I know the way," she said softly, and took the flashlight from Frank. She tested every step carefully; some of the solid-seeming rock was fragile, eaten away beneath by unseen underground rivers that were long gone. Her foot broke through twice, and only Shane's grip on her arm kept her from falling forward the second time.
It seemed agonizingly slow, making their way along the little path. Even the vampires seemed to take each step with great care. Claire supposed it might be an even worse nightmare for them, plummeting down an endless black tunnel; what if they couldn't get back out? How long could they survive down there without blood, or light? And if they did survive . . . that might almost be worse.
Claire was worried most about Michael. He'd taken a lot of abuse already, and now Shane was quietly taking his other arm, helping Eve, who was starting to stagger under Michael's weight. He'll be okay, she thought. She had to believe that, and focus.
A sound went through the cavern, like a sigh; she frowned, wondering what had caused it. It wasn't wind; there was no breath of a draft in here, just cool, damp air that weighed down heavily over her skin. She shivered and waited a second, but the sound didn't come again.
Then she felt a whisper of air against her face--an unmistakable stirring that ruffled her hair. Claire pointed the flashlight in the direction from which the wind had come, but she saw nothing there. Nothing but the treacherous rock floor, the glittering quartz crystals jutting from the walls, and the dark, silent chasms that spread out in sheets.
Claire made her way carefully toward another patch of apparently solid rock, and as she did so, she felt the breeze again, more strongly.
It wasn't coming from above, or even from the walls.
It blew up straight out of the darkness. Claire braced herself carefully and turned the light downward, into the pit, trying to see what might be going on. Nothing. The darkness swallowed the flashlight's glow without a trace.
Claire put out her hand. Definitely that was a cool breeze blowing up, as if a fan had been turned on.
She felt a little funny, suddenly. A little faint. A little . . . woozy.
"Hey!" Shane said, and grabbed her shoulders to drag her back from the edge. "What the hell are you doing?"
She took in a deep breath. Her head hurt a little. "Looking," she said, and coughed. It hurt. "Sorry. This way."
Moving away from the chasm seemed to make her feel better, though she now had a kind of odd, twisting nausea inside, and she wanted to breathe deeper and deeper, even though she wasn't tired. Claire focused on each step, every careful movement. She heard someone stumble behind her, and Frank Collins's quiet curse.
And then she heard West cough, an explosively loud sound. "Sorry," West said, but then she coughed again, and again, and when Claire looked back she saw that the tall vampire woman was hunched over, hands on her thighs.
She was retching up blood.
It was in that moment that Claire realized that something was very, very wrong. It seemed obvious now, but she wasn't sure why she hadn't understood before. Her brain didn't seem to be working quite right. Her vision swam in and out of focus, and now Oliver was coughing, too, deep, tearing sounds that left him gasping and wiping his mouth. Claire caught the red glimmer of blood.
Frank was now coughing, too.
Claire suddenly felt it hit her, too, the ripping pain in her lungs, the overwhelming convulsion. She gasped, instinctively pulled in a breath, and coughed. And kept coughing.
Gas. It was gas. For some reason, the vampires were more susceptible to it; maybe it was attacking them through the skin, or it just took less to make them sick. Michael was gagging now, and Eve and Shane were starting to choke, too.
Claire staggered from the force of her coughing, and almost fell. Oliver lunged and caught her, then lost his grip as he coughed again; she wavered, perilously close to the edge of a big, dark abyss that was--she now realized--spewing out some kind of toxin. She tried to hold her breath, but couldn't do it for long. It felt like she couldn't get enough air. She heard herself making gasping noises, like a fish out of water. Her head hurt, badly, and she just needed air. . . .
Claire felt hot and sick and scared and dying, but it came to her with sudden, brutal clarity that she had to get them out of there. She was the only one who could do it, the only one who knew the path. They weren't far from the exit to the cavern; she couldn't see it, but she knew it was there. It was right behind that outcropping of quartz--a quick left turn would put them on solid rock, and then they'd be out.
She had to get them there.
She reached back and grabbed Oliver's hand. It was wet; she didn't know if that was blood, and she didn't look. "Hold hands!" she shouted, and plunged ahead, not bothering to test the rock anymore. If it broke, it didn't really matter. Being careful was going to get them all killed.
She didn't know if everyone was linked together, but she couldn't wait. She only knew the feel of the stone beneath her feet, the hot, burning pressure in her lungs, the throb of pain in her head. The unreal glow of the flashlight reflecting back white from quartz and gray from stone and disappearing into the black . . .
She couldn't feel her feet now, but she couldn't stop. Claire lurched forward, dragging on Oliver's hand to pull him with her, and jumped across a two-foot-wide black chasm, landing badly and nearly sprawling. She felt the cool, blowing pressure of the gas rippling her clothes as she passed over the pit. Oliver's hand almost ripped free from hers, but she pulled, and he made it. As soon as he was across he turned and yanked Shane over, who pulled Michael, who pulled Eve, who pulled Frank.
Where was West?
Claire spotted her, standing a dozen feet behind them, staggering. Blood was a black mask on her face, and as Claire watched, West dropped the bow she'd been carrying, and fell to her knees.
She pitched forward, into the darkness.
Frank lunged, trying to get to her, but Oliver held him back. With his other hand, Oliver shoved Claire in the opposite direction. She hated him right then, hated him badly enough to push him in, too, but she knew what he was doing.
He was saving their lives.
She plunged on. They were on the path now, and even though she was coughing helplessly, even though it felt like strength was bleeding out of her with every step, she knew where she was going. She felt a wave of coolness against her face, and suddenly her coughing lessened. She dragged in a choking breath, and then another one, and tasted beautiful, delicious, sweet air.
She'd passed the quartz outcropping, and was in the narrow tunnel that led to the black emptiness of another portal.
Claire made it there, staggering but still upright, and the others joined her. Oliver had dropped her hand as soon as he could, but Shane took it, and that was good. She squeezed tightly, and he gave her a thumbs-up as he coughed again and wiped blood from his mouth. His eyes were bloodshot, too. Everyone seemed to be okay, even Michael.
Claire kept breathing in deep, cleansing gasps, and focused on the portal. This part would be tricky if Myrnin had remembered to lock it, but she didn't think he would have. This hadn't been used in so long, according to him, that he'd actually forgotten it existed--at least he had, until Ada had trapped them both in the cavern.
If he'd forgotten all that, he'd have forgotten this secret portal, too.
The frequencies tuned in her head, and she saw a wash of shimmer across the black, then a glow, then pinpoints of light. An eerie wash of color, somewhere between gray and blue. It finally resolved into shadows, and overhead lights, and the weird, sprawling, organic shape of the computer that lay under Myrnin's lab.
"Quietly," Oliver said, and squeezed her shoulder in warning. She nodded. "Let us go first."
She stood back, holding the portal open, as Oliver stepped through, and then Frank. Shane, Eve, and Michael all looked at her, and she nodded.
"You guys go on," Shane said. "I'll go with her."
Michael took Eve's hand in his and stepped through the portal.
"You don't have to do this," Shane said. "You could just let us handle it."
"Us? Who's us?"
He jerked his chin at the vampires and Eve. "You know. The rest of us. This is going to be dangerous."
"Not going to happen," Claire said. "I might be able to get him to stop."
"Who, crazy dude? Maybe. Or he might pull your head off," Shane said. "I kind of worry."
She couldn't help but smile. "Yeah?"
"A little bit."
"That's . . . nice."
He studied her, and returned the smile. "Yeah," he said. "Kind of is, actually. So. I'm going, then."
Shane held out his hand, and she took it, and they went in together.
On the other side of the portal, there was no sign of Myrnin at all. The machine hummed and clanked and hissed, steam whispering from valves at all angles. He's here, Claire thought. Somewhere. Oliver and Frank were moving silently through the shadows, hunting for him. Eve, Michael, and Shane were sensibly staying put where they were.
The switch on the wall was the master control for the power. Claire pulled free of Shane's grip, and they had a mime-style argument, him shaking his head, her holding her finger to her lips, him mouthing words she was pretty sure would have gotten him expelled if he'd actually been fifteen. Or at least put in detention. She made a definite "stay here" motion, and moved toward the power switch.
When she was still about two feet away, she felt the prickling warning around the metal. Myrnin had wired it, somehow, and there was live current running through it. If she--or any of them--touched it, they'd roast.
She studied the problem for a few seconds, then turned and went back to her friends. She grabbed Eve by the arm, bent close, and whispered, "I need your boots."
"What? " Eve tried to keep her voice soft, but it came out a little too startled. "My what?"
"Boots," Claire hissed. "Now. Hurry."
Eve gave her a wide-eyed, doubtful look, shook her head in a way that indicated she thought Claire had gone completely mental, and bent over to unlace her heavy, clunky, thick-soled boots. She slid one off, then the other, and stood there on the cold stone floor in red and black striped socks. She held the boots out to Claire. Claire stuck her hands inside the boots like they were giant, awkward gloves. They were warm and a little damp from Eve's feet. Under normal circumstances that would have been gross, but Claire was kind of over that now.
She went back to the switch, took a deep breath, and clapped the rubber (or plastic) soles of Eve's boots onto the red-painted lever. She closed her eyes when she did it, half expecting to get zapped into oblivion, but instead, nothing happened. She could still feel the power, but the boots were insulating her, as were her own rubber-soled shoes.
Claire yanked down on the switch, using all of her strength, and for a second it seemed it wouldn't give--but then it did, snapping to the off position with a sudden, shocking clank of metal.
And it didn't matter. Nothing happened.
The machine kept running.
Claire stripped the boots off her hands and tossed them to Eve, who quickly bent over to put them on her feet, unfastened.
"I knew someone like you would come," Myrnin said, and Claire thought he was somewhere behind the machine, hard to see, harder to reach. "Someone who wanted to destroy everything. Someone who wanted to bring down Morganville. I've been working for days to be sure you wouldn't succeed. Save yourselves. Leave now."
"Myrnin, there's nothing here to save! It's just a machine, and it's broken! Ada's gone!"
He hissed, and there was fury in his voice when he said, "Don't you say that. Don't you ever say that."
There was a choked cry, and a sudden, violent flurry of motion in the dark where Myrnin was hiding.
Oliver staggered backward and fell into a pool of light. His face was twisted, and there was a silver stake buried deep in his chest. He went limp and stayed that way.
Claire rushed forward, but before she could get to him, Myrnin stepped out of the dark and grabbed her. She hadn't seen him coming, and couldn't twist out of the way in time. He had her in a split second, dragging her away from Oliver and off into the shadows with his hand over her mouth.
"No!" Shane yelled, and ran forward to yank the stake out of Oliver's chest. Oliver convulsed and rolled over on his side, but Shane hardly even paused.
He came after Myrnin and Claire with the weapon.
Frank Collins grabbed his son from behind and slung him out of the way just as Shane hit a trip wire, almost invisible in the dim light.
All Claire could see from her perspective was a brilliant flash of light, which was followed almost immediately by an incredible, numbing roar of sound. She felt stinging cuts open up on her body, even as Myrnin shoved her down to the floor and fell atop her, and a choking wave of dust washed over her. She twisted free of Myrnin, who was lying dazed, and tried to scramble to her feet.
In front of the machine, a huge metal column had tipped over and pinned Frank Collins in a pile of rubble. Shane was lying a few feet away, covered in pale dust but still alive and breathing; as Claire pulled herself up, she saw Michael get to him and check his pulse. He gave her a thumbs-up gesture, then moved to where Frank was pinned. He tried to lift the metal column, but it was too heavy even for his vampire strength.
And Frank didn't look good. There was a steady, thick stream of blood running from his chest to pool on the floor around him.
"Help me!" Michael yelled, and Oliver managed to crawl over and put his shoulder to the pylon as well. "Push!"
"No use," Frank gasped. "I'm done. Finish this. Claire, finish it."
She turned toward the console of the machine. It was covered in dust, and the screen was cracked, but it was still alive and working. She reached for a handful of wiring, but stopped just an inch away as she felt the hair on her arms stirring and standing up.
"You can't," Myrnin said as he rolled over and stared at her. "You can't stop it. It's all right. Once you let go, it feels better. You'll feel better. Just . . . let go."
"I can't do that." She was crying now, out of sheer frustration and fright. "Help me. Help me!"
"It can't be turned off now," Myrnin said. "I made sure. Ada won't ever be hurt again. Not by you, not by me. She's safe."
"She's killing us!" Claire screamed. "God! Stop!"
"No, she's fixing us," Myrnin said. "Don't you understand? I read the journals, the ones upstairs. Morganville hasn't been right for years. It's been changing, turning into something wrong. She's made us right again. All of us."
"Bullshit," Frank Collins said, and coughed blood. "Shut it down, Myrnin. You have to do it."
Myrnin looked at him over the pile of rubble. "Don't you want to go back to when you were happy, when we were all happy? You, your wife, your daughter, your son? It can all come back. You can feel that way again. She can make you feel that way."
Frank laughed. "You're going to give me my family back?" he said. "Is that what you're telling me?"
"Not me," Myrnin said. "Not really. But I can make it all as it was, for you as well as me. You, of all people, should want that."
Frank's throat worked, as if he were swallowing something unpleasant. His eyes were bright and very, very cold. "So you're God now," he said. "You can bring back the dead."
"I can give you a new family. This girl can be your new daughter. We can find you a wife. I can make you forget. You'll never know the difference, and she'll forget all about who she once was."
"You really think that's tempting," Frank Collins said, very softly. "It's sick. My wife and daughter are dead, and you're not going to make me believe a lie. You're not going to pervert their memories. My son loves that girl, and I'm not letting you take her away from him, too."
Myrnin looked up, as if he'd sensed something. "It's too late," he said. "It's starting."
Claire heard the pitch of the machine's hum changing, shifting to something higher, more urgent. She felt a pulse of power from it, and something went weird in her head. Something she needed.
Something that held her in place in the world, in time, in space.
It hurt. It felt like her brain was being shredded, ripped in half, and memories spilled out in a silvery stream. She couldn't hold on to them; it was all just . . . noise.
The pain stopped, but something worse took over. Panic. Horror. Fear. She was looking at a room full of strangers. Scary people in a scary place. How had she gotten here? What was . . . what was happening? Where was she?
Why wasn't she at home?
No, that wasn't right. She knew them; she knew them all. That was Shane, getting to his feet . . . then everything shifted, and he was a boy she didn't know, dark-haired, dusty. A stranger. He started toward her, but then he wavered and stopped, and put his hands to his head as if it hurt. Hers still hurt, too. There was a sound, a weird sound that wasn't really there, wasn't really a sound at all, and she felt . . .
Lost. She felt so lost, and alone, and terrified.
It was like having mental double vision. She knew these people at some very basic level, but she'd also forgotten them. She didn't/ did know the man with the scarred face, and the boy reaching out to her, and the girl with the dark hair and the pale face, and the other golden-haired boy. She could see them in one way, with names and histories, but it kept fading out. Disappearing.
No. She didn't know anyone here, and she'd never felt so vulnerable and horrible in her life. She wanted to go home.
There was another stranger dressed in funky old Victorian clothes, like some steampunk wannabe, staring at her with big, dark eyes. He reached out for her, and she knew that wasn't right. Knew she had to stumble away from him, into the arms of the boy.
Another older, gray-haired man elbowed her out of the way and slammed the Victorian man into the wall, then dragged him out and down the tunnel. He was yelling at them all to follow. Claire didn't want to; she didn't trust them, any of them.
But the boy took her hand and said, "Trust me, Claire," and she felt something inside that had been howling in fear go quiet.
Another wall of pain slammed into her, and she almost went down. It was all going away, everything she was, everything. . . .
She fell to her knees and realized that she was kneeling next to a man with a scar on his face. He was trapped under a fallen metal pillar, and it looked bad, really bad. She tried to move it, but he reached out and caught her hand in his. "Claire," he said. "Get out of here. Do it now."
He let go and rummaged through a bag that had fallen next to him. He brought out something round and dark green, about the size of an apple.
Grenade. The word floated through her mind and dissolved into mist. There was some reason she should be afraid of that, but she couldn't really think what it was.
The dark-haired boy was yelling at her now, pulling her to her feet. He looked down and saw the thing, the grenade. "Dad," he whispered. "Dad, what are you doing?"
"Get out of here," the man said. "I'm not going to lose you, too, Shane. It's starting to all go away, and I can't let that happen. I have to stop it. This is the only way."
The boy stood there, looking down at him, and then dropped to his knees and put his hand on the man's head. "I'm sorry," he said. "Dad, I'm sorry."
"Don't be," the man said. "I need a little help, and then you need to get your friends out of here. Understand?"
The boy was crying, and trembling, but he nodded.
He reached down and took hold of the metal ring in the grenade, and his dad yanked his arm in the other direction. The pin sprang free.
"Go," the man said. "I love you, son."
The boy didn't want to go. Claire practically dragged him across the room, in the direction all the others had already gone. They stopped at the mouth of the tunnel, and Claire saw the man roll the grenade slowly across the floor, until it clicked against the metal of a huge, Frankenstein tangle of cables and clockworks, pipes and keyboards.
She knew him. She was almost sure she did as he turned his head and smiled at her.
His name was Frank. Frank Collins.
Frank said, "Good-bye."
Claire gasped and yanked Shane into the tunnel. He tripped and went down, and she did, too, and it was a good thing.
In another second, the world exploded behind them.
She woke up to a ringing sound in her ears. Her whole body ached, and her head felt like it had been filled with battery acid, but she was alive.
And she felt . . . whole. Herself again.
When she moved, she found she was pinned under a heavy, warm weight. Shane. She wriggled out from underneath and turned him over, frantic with terror that he'd been hurt, but then she saw he was breathing, and his eyes fluttered open, looking momentarily blank and oddly surprised. They focused on her face. He said something, but she pointed to her ears and shook her head. She helped him sit up, and ran her hands anxiously over him. He had some cuts and bruises, but nothing bad.
Shane pointed to her and raised his eyebrows to make it a question. She made an okay sign. He gave her a thumbs-up on his own behalf.
A sudden burst of light overhead caught her by surprise, and she looked up to see a trapdoor fly open as light poured down. A lithe figure in a white suit dropped, landing lightly on her high-heeled feet, and looked around at the damage. If Amelie spoke, Claire couldn't hear it; she moved over to stand beside Oliver, who was bending over Myrnin and holding him down.
Myrnin didn't seem as if he needed to be held down. He was shivering, pale, and hollow eyed, and when he met Claire's eyes, he looked quickly away.
She saw tears.
Michael and Eve were standing together, wrapped in each other's arms, looking like they didn't intend to ever let go. Claire reached down and took Shane's hand, pulling him upright. She felt a cautious kind of joy, a dawning realization that they might actually be okay, after all.
Until Shane turned his head and looked down the tunnel, and Claire remembered. Worse, she saw him remember. His lips parted, and she saw him yell, Dad!, and he ran down the tunnel toward the machine room.
Claire ran after him, heart pounding.
The machine was destroyed. Really, truly scrapped. It was hard to believe just how ripped apart it was, actually; she supposed that there'd been some kind of chain reaction inside of it, because it looked like it had just crushed in on itself at some points. There were pieces everywhere, bent and scattered. Nothing moved. There was a thick, choking haze of dust hanging in the air.
Shane headed straight for the wreckage. Claire tried to stop him, but he shook her off, face white and blank. Dad? She heard a dim echo of the shout this time, and heard the dread in Shane's voice.
She grabbed Shane's arm, and he looked down at her. She had no idea what to say, but she knew her expression would communicate how sorry she was.
Shane pulled free and ran over to the machine's wreckage--and stopped. Just . . . stopped, staring down.
Claire didn't know what to do. She felt awful and scared and sick, and she knew she should go to him, but something told her not to. Something told her to wait.
Amelie touched her shoulder, frowning, and Claire jumped in tense surprise. Amelie looked from her to Shane's motionless figure, and Claire saw knowledge dawn in Amelie's face. She went to Shane and put her arm around his shoulders, then turned him around, and Claire knew that he'd seen something behind that tangle of metal. Something awful. There was a burned-out, dead look in his eyes again, and it felt like her heart turned to ash in sympathy for him. Claire rushed over and into his arms, and after a few seconds, he hugged her. Then he put his head on her shoulder, and even if she couldn't hear him, she felt the way his body shook, and the dampness of his tears against her skin.
Claire combed her fingers through his hair and did the only thing she could do.
She held on.