The sky above Saint-Denis roiled with dark smoke that hung thick and low, blotting out the sun and choking those still foolish or unfortunate enough to have remained behind during the evacuations. Father Laurent had a surgical mask covering his nose and mouth, a gift thrust into his hands by a passing paramedic four or five hours earlier. He rode in the passenger seat of a military vehicle whose driver seemed determined to bump over every piece of debris in their path, painfully jostling his injured arm.
'I don't like leaving,' he said. 'It feels like surrender.'
'It's only temporary,' came a voice from the back seat, the young Italian UN soldier who had been his touchstone all day. Ponticellio, that was his name. Father Laurent was having trouble remembering. He blamed it on exhaustion, though he could not help but wonder if he had hit his head at some point and forgotten it.
Father Laurent craned around in his seat and glanced back the way they'd come. Even from this angle he could see the utter destruction of Saint-Denis. The little town had become a smoking ruin. Flames still burned in certain areas, though the worst of the fires had gone out, leaving charred wreckage behind. And smoke . . . plenty of smoke.
With the sky so dark it was impossible to tell the time of day, but he thought it must only be late afternoon. Turning again in his seat, he tried to get a glimpse of the horizon, toward Paris. In the distance he could see blue-white skies and sunlight. Safety, he thought. Sanctuary. But for how long? Hundreds of people were dead and all of Saint-Denis in ruin. If they did not hold the demons here, the devastation would spread, and soon there would be thousands dead instead of hundreds.
'Is it?' he asked. 'Only temporary, I mean? Because I don't think it is temporary for Saint-Denis. All that remains of it is rubble. Half of the basilica still stands, but it will crumble soon enough.'
It felt blasphemous to say such things, but it also felt true.
The engine roared as the driver took them off the street to avoid abandoned cars that blocked their way. They drove across a wide green park in the midst of the city, accompanied by the clanking of a pair of tanks that had already blazed the trail and the growl of other vehicles participating in the final exodus. The military were abandoning the city. Another backward glance showed the dark, insect things in the air, pursuing them. Gunfire ripped the sky, cutting through smoke and tearing apart the insectoid demons.
Father Laurent closed his eyes tightly and prayed for the young woman he had last seen on the stone stairs beneath the basilica, giving birth to demons. He prayed that for her own sake she had been crushed by falling masonry so that her nightmare would be over. It made him feel nauseous and filthy to wish someone dead, even for their own sake, but he prayed for her death nevertheless. Sadly, he believed she must still live. If these things - utukki, the sorcerers had called them - were being born from her womb, then he felt sure she still lived.
He wanted to weep for her, this woman who had been condemned to Hell on Earth. He had told the soldiers and the sorcerers about her but all they had done was promise him they would do what they could. He was not even sure that Ponticello's commanding officer had believed him, though the horror in the young Turkish sorceress's eyes had told him that she believed.
So many hours had passed since then and nothing had changed. They had not stopped the demons from sowing chaos, only slowed them. Now they had another plan, and he hoped that it worked, for the sake of France and even those beyond. There was no way to know how many of these utukki would be born. Was their number infinite? Surely not, but it seemed so.
Artillery fire thumped the air behind them. Father Laurent winced and held his injured arm against his chest. Closing his eyes, he said silent prayers for the dead and for those valiant men and women who were standing against the forces of whatever fresh Hell was unleashing its monsters into the world.
Several minutes passed during which the priest kept his eyes closed. Even with the rough ride and the thunder of war and the fear of imminent attack, he might have drifted off for a bit, because the next time he was jostled enough to open his eyes, they were on the outskirts of Saint-Denis, far from the park. Smoke still filled the sky but it was a thin gray veil that the sun managed to burn through here and there.
'All right, Father,' Ponticello said, patting the headrest of his seat. 'You wanted to talk to Major Rojas, now's your chance.'
The young soldier opened the door for him and Father Laurent slid carefully out of the vehicle. The priest glanced around and saw the tanks and artillery lining up, facing back toward the center of town, though only the fires and smoke could be seen from this distance. Several demons were flying in their direction until a barrage of gunfire and a shell from the leftmost tank destroyed them.
A handful of smaller vehicles had been parked in a wide, rough circle behind the battle line and Major Rojas stood in the middle of that circle with the old Moroccan mystic and the Turkish sorceress, as well as half a dozen other men and women, officers from the French army and the UN security forces. The old Moroccan - Chakroun, that's his name - stood facing toward town with his hands in the air, as if he were just as formidable as the tanks in holding back the demons.
The sorceress, Beril Demirci, knelt on the ground before him, facing the same direction. She had a dagger in one hand, the blade glinting silver in a stray ray of sunlight that managed to filter through the smoke. In that pool of momentary light, Father Laurent saw her draw the blade across her palm. She tossed the blade aside as the Moroccan raised his voice, shouting at the sky. Beril held her hand above a bowl, though what other ingredients it might have contained the priest could not see from this distance.
As Father Laurent followed Ponticello over to the circle of vehicles, he saw the sorceress pick up her discarded dagger. She used it to stir the contents of the bowl, adding more of her own blood, and then she raised the bowl and poured its oddly viscous contents over the blade, coating first one side and then the other, and then pouring the balance of the mixture onto the hand that clenched the dagger.
The Turkish girl paused only a moment, glancing back at Chakroun. Closer to them, now, Father Laurent saw that the Moroccan's flesh had been painted with wild designs, symbols and runes from some arcane faith. The priest ought to have been offended, but a man praying for deliverance in a world of magic could not afford to take offense at its practice.
The sorceress, Beril, raised the dagger over her head and plunged it into the earth as Chakroun screamed some final benediction. The blade sank deeply into the soil, a splash of light bursting forth from the point of impact - light so crimson that for a moment Father Laurent thought it a splash of blood. The soldiers and commanders standing around spoke to one another but their words were lost in the thunder of fresh artillery. Distracted, Father Laurent looked up and his breath caught in his throat.
There were not three utukki, now, but a dozen of the demons buzzing through the black smoke toward them, emerging from that cloud of fire and destruction. Thirteen of them, now - more - and Father Laurent felt his heart sink. Had they sensed the efforts of these modern mystics? Did they fear whatever magic might be unfolding here and thus were focusing their attack?
All for naught, he thought. The mystics had failed. That splash of blood-red light could do nothing to save them.
But a low thrum had begun to fill the air, growing in volume until it drowned out the Moroccan's chanting. Father Laurent glanced over and looked on in amazement as that splash of red light spread right and left and began to build upward, like a crimson-hued waterfall flowing in reverse, a fountain of churning light that built moment by moment.
Holding his breath, the priest watched as the barrier rose and spread, picking up speed until it seemed to zip itself closed. The last echoes of artillery fire still echoed in the air but the shooting had stopped. When the first of the demons emerged fully from the smoke and collided with the barrier, Father Laurent could hear the utukki's furious shriek. It faltered, tumbling from the sky, and alighted for just a moment on the other side of the barrier from where the sorcerers and officers had gathered. It rose and shook itself like a dog, its chitinous shell clacking, before it sprang into the air to attempt the attack again.
There were three of them, then five, then at least eight, all striking the barrier like bees darting against a windowpane, searching for an exit.
Father Laurent smiled. Whatever magic had been used to create this barrier, it was holding. He strode away from Ponticelli, the pain in his arm forgotten as he approached officers who were congratulating each other. He saw Major Rojas talking with Beril and Chakroun and made his way over to them.
'There you are, Father,' Beril said sweetly. 'Are you all right?'
'I should ask you the same.'
She had her hand tucked against her chest, the palm wrapped in gauze and tape.
'I'll need stitches,' she said, 'but it was worth it, wouldn't you say?' she asked, smiling and proud of herself.
How could he reply to that when he did not know what toll such magic might take on her? The ritual she had performed had required her blood and such offerings were often associated with dark magic and occult evil. And yet, no matter what danger she might have put her own soul in by indulging in such practices, she had done so for only the most noble and virtuous of reasons; surely God could not punish her for that.
'I think you've done an extraordinary job,' Father Laurent said, nodding to Chakroun as well. That, at least, was the truth.
Major Rojas had turned away, focused on the seething red barrier that had trapped the demons in the ruin they had made of Saint-Denis. The smoke from the fires had been trapped as well, and as Father Laurent watched it began to thicken, shrouding the streets and trees and buildings in a gray-black cloud. Major Rojas wore a half smile, as if she did not want to commit entirely to the relief she must have been feeling. Father Laurent thought her a very intelligent woman. The barrier was holding for now, but there was no way of knowing what new pressures might be brought to bear by the hellish forces now locked inside.
'What now, Major?' Father Laurent asked.
'Now we use our time wisely,' Major Rojas replied, turning to him. 'Mr Chakroun and Miss Demirci will consult with other mages, including Octavian if we can track him down. Caging these things is not going to be a real solution . . . not when we have to assume that more and more of them are being born in there. One way or another, we've got to put an end to that.'
Father Laurent shivered and the pain in his shoulder throbbed deeply. He stared at Major Rojas but she did not avert her gaze.
'You're going to try to kill her. The young woman afflicted by the demon, this innocent who is enduring a hell we can't even begin to imagine, being forced to give birth to these things over and over.'
Major Rojas did not lower her gaze, but she did avert her eyes for just a moment, long enough for Father Laurent to know that she felt the grim weight of the choices that lay ahead.
'You can't do that, Major,' the priest insisted.
'What choice is there?'
'How are you going to kill her?' Father Laurent asked. 'You shelled the basilica already, took down half of its stones, and obviously she still lives or there would be no more of these things. So how will you get to her?'
'Someone will have to go in.'
Father Laurent blinked and shook his head, then pointed at the shimmering barrier. 'In there?' He gestured toward Chakroun and Beril. 'These mages only just now managed to put this barrier up. Even if you could get someone inside, on their own they would be dead in minutes.'
Major Rojas nodded. 'Agreed. But Shadows could do it. They could pass right through the barrier and make it down into the basilica's sublevels without the demons even knowing they were there. If the woman can be saved, they can save her. And if she cannot, they can at least give her the mercy that will end this for her and for us all.'
'Shadows,' Father Laurent said, nodding, though a ripple of nausea passed through him. 'I see. And where are these Shadows?'
Major Rojas glanced upward, searching the late afternoon sky outside the barrier.
'On the way, Father. On the way.'
Jessica Baleeiro had found peace in Siena, at least for a little while. Across centuries of Roman and Florentine rule, the city had been largely ignored, its coffers lacking the funds to modernize. Yet in time that lack of modernity had been Siena's saving grace, as tourism began to flourish, so many wanting to get a glimpse of the well-preserved fragment of history the city represented. Its tiled roofs and gothic towers had made it a window into the past, full of charm and character.
Now, Jessica stood on a wooded Tuscan hillside and watched the past being erased. The city's signature bell tower crumbled in the distance. Rain fell from a menacing gray sky, but even against the clouds the smoke demons were visible, circling the peaked roofs that remained standing, crashing through upper-story windows to ferret out those hiding in fear for their lives . . . dragging them back out through the jagged, broken glass. Screaming.
Even from here, miles away, Jess felt sure she could hear the screaming.
The rain had plastered her hair to her scalp. She used a hand to wipe the water from her face and turned away, not wanting to see anymore. For the rest of her life, she would not need any help remembering the sight of those winged harpies darting about the rooftops of Siena, all charcoal smoke and no substance. Bullets slowed but did not kill them . . . disrupted the substance of their being, or so one of the dark-suited professors working with the military had said.
Hundreds more had died since then, and the death toll would have been much higher if there had been more demons. Help, it was said, was on the way, but meanwhile the entire city had to be evacuated. That was another reason why Jess didn't want to look at the skyline any longer. Every time she saw someone else dragged from a building, the guilt hit her hard. She and Gabe were doctors; they were supposed to be helping.
We are, she told herself. We are doing what we can, the best we can.
As if he himself were a ghost summoned by her words, she felt him approach behind her, felt her husband's hand on her shoulder.
'You have to focus,' he said. 'I can't help other people if I think I'm abandoning you.'
Jess relaxed against him, feeling the warmth of his breath on her neck and the strength in his broad chest as he wrapped his arms - carefully, so carefully - around her.
'You're not abandoning me,' she promised. 'Just because I can't be of much help, that doesn't mean I'd deprive these people of the things that you can do for them.'
Gabe's eyes shone. 'We'll be all right,' he said.
'I know,' she lied.
He kissed his fingers and touched them to the tight splint on her left arm. She smiled to perpetuate her lie, hoping he would believe that it wasn't as painful as it truly was. The sling took pressure off of it, but she had not wanted to take a heavy dose of the painkillers the army medics had with them. There were others who would need the drugs far more than she did.
'We've got to get these people out of here,' she said.
Gabe nodded, glancing around at the makeshift camp on the hillside, overlooking Siena. There were SUVs and several transport trucks that the Italian army and the UN security forces had brought, along with three ambulances that had been commandeered from the city. Refugees were spread out, some of them with jackets over their heads to hold back the rain, though most of them just let it soak into them, numb with shock and loss. Medics helped or carried people in and out of the back of one of the ambulances for treatment. Gabe had already done more than a dozen battlefield surgeries. Given what little supplies they had available to them, she thought it a miracle that it appeared seven of those men and women would survive.
Jess had helped in Siena, when the demons had first appeared. She and Gabe had rounded people up, gotten them indoors, then hustled them from building to building, keeping out of sight of the smoke demons. Together, a group of them had stayed alive until the military had begun to show up and the evacuations had started. It had been while they were running for the back of an army transport that she'd broken her arm. A smoke demon had darted down from the sky, long talons extended, reaching for her. One of the soldiers had fired at it and another had tackled her to the ground, protecting her with his own body.
She'd broken her forearm and the pain had made her cry out so loudly that for a moment she did not hear the screams of the soldier who had saved her, as he was torn from atop her and carried off into the sky.
A shudder went through her.
'Are you all right?' Gabe asked, his brown eyes so full of love and worry.
'Just a chill from the rain,' she said. Jess had told so many lies today that one more would not hurt. She glanced over at the one tent that the army had set up. 'What's going on over there? Do they have a plan?'
'To get us out of here or to stop those things?' Gabe asked, sneering slightly as he nodded toward the broken towers of Siena and the gray, darting harpies that preyed on those left behind.
As they both watched the tent, a pair of soldiers emerged. Through the veil of rain, Jess thought one of them might be an officer. Gabe had been invaluable to them. Lives had been saved because they had a surgeon with trauma experience right there with them in the midst of the crisis, but the rest of the refugees had to be moved far, far from here. Including us, Jess thought. If Gabe wanted to stay and continue to help, she would fight against it. She would beg if she had to. Somehow she knew that if he stayed here, he would die. They would both die. The certainty rested in the center of her chest, just above her heart.
The army had told them reinforcements were on the way and that all refugees would be evacuated to one of several nearby cities, where staging areas were being set up. The wounded would be taken to hospitals. And all of that would have offered Jess some comfort, but Gabe had shared with her things that he had overheard from the wounded he had doctored.
The smoke demons had been more solid at night. In the dark they had seemed more savage, but when dawn had broken they had become more sluggish and seemed less inclined to expand their attacks. Even now, she cast a glance toward Siena's ruined cityscape and saw that they were sticking close to the center of the city, not straying more than half a mile or so from the tower. But the day would only last so long.
'I don't want to be here when night falls,' she said.
Gabe exhaled loudly and nodded, but he said nothing about leaving.
'No more word about reinforcements?' she asked.
'Only that they're coming,' Gabe replied, his brows knitting thoughtfully. 'Colonel Neroni says they have a plan. That they're bringing . . .'
'Bringing what? Are they going to nuke the town or something?' Jess asked, having visions of mushroom clouds that made her forget to breathe.
'No, no. Nothing like that,' Gabe said. 'They're bringing in some kind of magician. A sorcerer.'
Jess blinked, shifting in such a way that the pain in her arm flared up and she winced.
'Are you kidding?'
'Not at all. Don't look so surprised, Jess. That's what they do in cases like this, don't they? Fight fire with fire? How many stories have we seen on newsfeeds in the past ten years where there were sorcerers involved?'
Jess turned and looked at the dark, haunting, awful figures circling the half-fallen tower again. As she watched, one of them dove across the street toward a darkened window, crashing through into the building. These were demons. How else to fight them than with magic? And how could she even begin to doubt that sorcery existed when she could glance out across Siena and see demons made from nothing but gray smoke?
'Does the colonel think the sorcerer can stop this?' she asked, her voice barely a whisper.
Gabe stood behind her, now, arms circled protectively around her, the two of them looking out over this place where not long ago they had been so at peace.
'You know something similar to this is happening in France,' Gabe said. 'I guess they've managed to create some kind of barrier there to trap the demons inside. They're hoping they can accomplish the same thing here.'
A spark of warmth ignited in her chest. A wall to hold them in. To buy time for the military to figure it all out, and for the refugees to make good their escape.
But then the spark went cold and a sick feeling twisted in her gut.
'What about the people still inside when the wall goes up?' she whispered. 'What about them?'
Gabe said nothing, but he didn't have to.
She knew the answer.
'That's enough!' Octavian snapped.
Metzger and Allison turned to look at him, both blinking at him in surprise. They looked as if they were waking from some kind of trance, and he thought that perhaps that wasn't far from the truth. If so, it was a trance of violence and blood.
The vampire, Holzman, was seated in a hard-backed wooden chair, hands cuffed behind him and his ankles cuffed together. A third set of cuffs linked them, so that he sat with his back arched, feet bent under the chair and arms thrust down behind it, totally exposed and vulnerable. With Medusa toxin running through his system, he could do nothing to free himself. His vampiric strength was great, but these cuffs were a reinforced alloy made especially for prisoners of unnatural strength. Holzman wasn't going anywhere.
'What's the problem?' Metzger asked, eyeing Octavian warily.
Locked down onto the chair, Holzman spit a stream of blood and snot onto Metzger's trousers. The commander backed off, swearing, and Holzman bucked against the chair, testing the cuffs and the strength of the wood. Pointless, Octavian thought. He might be able to shatter the chair but he would not break the cuffs. Even if he did, Private Song stood a few feet away with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder. With the toxin in him, Holzman would die instantly if Song decided to punctuate this interrogation with bullets.
'Look at yourselves,' Octavian said, glancing from Metzger to Allison, who seemed uneasy with herself. She dropped her gaze. 'This isn't some gulag. Shouldn't we be in a concrete cell somewhere, or an abandoned warehouse? Isn't that where we do this sort of thing?'
Anger reddened Metzger's cheeks. 'Are you fucking kidding me? You're worried about the decor?'
Octavian shook his head. He glanced again around the room - an ordinary hotel room, except for the fact that they had a centuries-old vampire locked down onto a chair and had spent the better part of an hour questioning and beating him. Torturing the vampire ought to have broken a whole host of international laws, but Task Force Victor had successfully argued in front of the UN Security Council that vampires were not human and therefore not afforded any such protections.
Metzger had initially had one of his own people, a thuggish-looking Brit, doing the dirty work. The man had beaten Holzman and cut his flesh and even burned him in places. With Medusa having stolen his ability to heal himself, Holzman had bled considerably onto the plastic sheeting that the Brit had put down under the chair. After forty minutes or so, Allison had offered to take over and Metzger had sent the Brit packing, but she had not fared any better.
'Pain isn't working,' Octavian said quietly, studying the eyes of the bleeding vampire. Holzman grinned slightly, cracking the charred skin of his cheek.
Allison nodded and slid onto the bureau, the casualness of the action adding to the absurdity of the situation.
'I agree it's ridiculous,' she said. 'But what are we supposed to do? If we try deprivation or isolation or sound, not only do we need to move him to a place where that kind of thing might actually work, but it takes time.'
Metzger fumed, glancing back and forth between them, stunned and apparently furious that they were discussing their torture strategy in front of the creature from whom they were attempting to elicit information. Octavian did not smile, but he did take a certain amount of pleasure in the commander's frustration.
'We don't have that kind of time,' Octavian admitted.
Allison shrugged. 'So, we just start stabbing him until he talks or dies?'
Octavian turned to study Holzman's impassive features. Though he might not be able to heal himself, and though he had cried out in pain during his torment, he had never given any sign that he might break. At the moment, they had no idea if Holzman even knew Cortez or if he was just being difficult on principle.
'Give me the room,' Octavian said.
Metzger gaped at him. 'What?'
Octavian walked over to Holzman, staring down at the vampire, all sense of amusement leaching from him. He had been patient, had let Metzger try his own methods, but now Octavian had run out of patience.
'Give me the room, Commander,' he repeated, glancing up at Song and then Allison. 'All of you.'
Allison gave him a curious look but then she went to the door, opened it, and held it open for Metzger and Song.
'You're not going to tell me what you've got in mind?' Metzger asked.
'Answers,' Octavian replied.
Metzger hesitated a moment, then shrugged and walked out. Song followed, keeping his weapon trained on Holzman until he reached the door, then stepping out quickly and closing it behind him.
Holzman uttered a low, sandpaper laugh.
'You've really got them hopping, don't you?' the vampire said, his accent clipped and rough with the jagged edges of his Germanic lineage.
Octavian went and perched on the edge of the bureau just where Allison had been sitting moments before.
'We're going to make this quick,' Octavian said.
'You and I have met before,' Holzman said. 'You don't remember? It was many years ago. You were like me, then. A blood-drinker. A taker of life. Your blood-father, von Reinman, and I were part of the same coven, once upon a time. That would make me your uncle, in a way.'
Octavian passed his hand through the space between them and the air rippled and flowed, shimmering for just a moment with deep blue light. Holzman frowned at this display, sneered and opened his mouth to continue, only to find that no words would come out. For the moment, at least, he was mute. His expression contorted into an ugly snarl and he bucked against the chair, pulling at his cuffs.
'I'll make this quick because you've wasted enough of my time already,' Octavian said.
The hatred in Holzman's eyes warmed his heart.
'You know who I am and what I'm capable of,' Octavian went on. 'Or you think you do.'
He held out his right hand, palm up, drawing the vampire's attention to the tiny ball of sparking golden light that spun there like a miniature sun. Idly, he let that bit of magic spill back and forth between his hands as if it were some kind of prop and he a stage magician about to perform a trick.
'You know you're going to die in this room, Holzman. They can slice you up, break your bones, do whatever they like, and you'll keep silent just to spite them because you know it's over for you.'
Holzman's mouth moved, lips curling back in disdain, but still he could make no sound.
'There's only one agony I can think of that might make you beg for an ending, make you willing to tell me what I want to know just to hasten the mercy of death. I don't like to think of it, honestly. This kind of thing is really distasteful to me. But you haven't given me any choice.'
With a flourish of his hand, the golden ball vanished. Octavian slid off the bureau, studying Holzman, whose defiant glare had not wavered. The vampire expected him to remove the silencing spell now, to offer him one last chance to reveal what he knew about Cortez and his coven. But Octavian had no illusion that he could intimidate Holzman into complying with words alone.
While the vampire watched, he closed his eyes, tapping both his own memory and the reservoir of magic that he had nurtured inside himself during his centuries in Hell. There were doors in the human soul and inside the human heart that had to be unlocked to access the magic in the world. When Shadows shapeshifted, they reduced themselves to their component molecules, but in the space between molecules there existed a substance - an ether - that made up the texture of magic. It was a part of all things, but not available to all things. To touch it, to manipulate it, to master it required disciplined study, patience, passion, a natural affinity that existed from birth or the taint left behind by some profound supernatural experience. To know magic the way that Octavian knew it was to become magic, to be the instrument rather than the musician.
Holzman had no idea what he could do.
Octavian exhaled, opening his arms, his fingers dancing in the space between them, sketching at the air. His lips moved silently, forming words in a language so old that even the residents of Hell had no name for it. When the air began to turn gray around Octavian's hands, it did not crackle with the static he so often associated with the magical power inside of him. No, it crept. It seeped. It flowed and thinned and soon it slid like mercury away from his hands and extended a searching tendril toward Holzman's face. The vampire twisted away, attempting to escape. He tried to shout but was still mute.
'Come on, Holzman, don't squirm. One touch of this and the Medusa toxin will be gone from your system,' Octavian promised. 'You'll be able to shift again.'
The mage held out his hand as if that gray ooze were his puppet and he held its invisible string. Holzman whipped his head in the other direction, but could not elude the touch of the gray tendril. Once it made contact with his skin, it was as if a balloon full of water had burst, but instead of splashing to the floor, that gray liquid flowed horizontally, soaking Holzman's clothes and spreading across his skin, giving his flesh an ugly gray hue, the color of week-old ashes left behind in the hearth.
The vampire stopped thrashing. Despite the strange coloration on his skin, he smiled, because Octavian had been as good as his word.
Holzman shifted to mist in the blink of an eye.
Octavian put up his left hand, already glowing a bright, fiery green, and an emerald sphere seared the air around the vampire in the very same moment. The cloud of mist drifted and spun and roiled inside that sphere but the substance of the vampire Holzman could not escape.
'Don't be a fool. I told you that you would die in this room,' Octavian said. 'Your choice is only in how you die. Shift back. Now.'
Holzman did, reintegrating himself instantly. He was sitting in the chair once more, but no longer restrained. He looked gaunt and wild, his eyes a terrible scarlet, and he roared silently at Octavian, baring his fangs and lashing out at the magic that caged him with deadly talons.
'You look hungry, Holzman,' Octavian said.
The vampire shook with fury and desperation. Saliva dripped from his sneering mouth. He seemed thinner by the moment. As Holzman reached out to claw at his cage again, he faltered and slid from the chair, finding his limbs too weak to attack. For the first time, the hatred in his eyes gave way to dreadful confusion.
When he looked at Octavian again, the question in his eyes was clear.
'Now we understand each other,' Octavian said. 'I've poisoned you with time, Holzman. With entropy. The toxin's out of your system because it wore off. For me and the rest of the world around you, only a minute has passed. For you . . . weeks.'
Understanding blossomed into fear on the vampire's face.
'You can't possibly understand what I've lost,' Octavian went on, grief stabbing at his heart again. 'You don't know what it means to love and cherish someone. You've forgotten, if you ever knew. But it's your misfortune that those joyful human parts of me have been torn away.
'Cortez killed the woman I love. You know something, maybe not about her murder or even about his plans, though perhaps you do. But you know something I can use to get to Cortez, to find him and destroy him and his entire coven. Now, you can play coy the way you were with Commander Metzger and my friend, Allison. But I know what it's like to need the blood to live, I know what it's like when the hunger starts to eat at your insides and you feel yourself begin to wither, and it's a hell of a lot worse than the cut of any blade or the blow of any fist. A few minutes from now you will be weeping for death as if it were your mother. You tell me what I want to know, give me something I can use, and I will give you that death. Or you say nothing useful, and I will leave you here to shrivel in upon yourself until you are little more than parchment and bones, and still you will be alive. I will make sure of it. Only hours will pass for me, but for you it will be years of hunger gnawing at your soul.'
Holzman's face had crumbled into despair. Octavian took no pleasure from it, nor did he feel any guilt. This was a monster who had been offered a decade's worth of opportunities to become something more and chose to remain a monster. His fate was his own choice.
'Now,' Octavian said. 'One chance and one only.'
He passed his hand in front of him, the air wavered, and he released the vampire from the spell that had silenced him.
'Speak,' Octavian said.
'I know only rumors,' Holzman said, his voice an ancient rasp. 'Things I have heard about places where Cortez has made nests.'
'Tell me,' Octavian replied. 'And death is yours.'