Prince of Twilight (Page 15)

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Elisabeta had dragged herself from the bed and across the room. She'd leaned close to the door to listen to what they were saying on the other side. And so she knew it was good that she had failed in her attempt to kill the feisty little blonde who was trying to steal her husband, because according to Rhiannon, Beta needed her.

She needed the woman's body. They'd still been talking outside her door when Elisabeta made her escape. The moment Rhiannon had stated that the only solution was to exorcise her, kill her, she had fled.

This body, the one she had taken from the foolish Brooke, was weakening, and at last she understood why. It was this Belladonna Antigen, yes. But it was more than just that. The body was wrong for her. A poor fit. She couldn't last in this home. She belonged in Tempest's body. It was the only way.

But how? Tempest had taken the ring and the scroll from her.

First, she knew, she had to get out of this place, before those fiends could send her to her death. Even if Vlad intended to protect her, as he'd promised, he was outnumbered. And the vampiress Rhiannon was, Beta sensed, a powerful foe. Escaping in her weakened state would have been more difficult had she not been able to plumb the depths of Brooke's memory for the solution. She knew this place. She knew everything about it-more than just how to get out. She knew where the weapons were kept.

And she would need weapons if she hoped to defeat Tempest. She took a change of clothing from the dresser and rapidly put the new outfit on. Then she grabbed a bag from Brooke's closet, one that contained all the items Beta would need to perform the ritual.

Her borrowed body was weak but not helpless. Not yet. Beta knew now that it was going to get a lot worse, and she might not have much time. She went to the window, and it opened easily. Then she climbed out and made her way down, finding every chink and bump in the stone outer walls, just as Brooke had done many times before.

Brooke. Elisabeta almost felt sorry for the woman. She understood, oh, so well, Brooke's hunger for immortality. It was what had driven her to risk her life by inviting Beta in. It was the same hunger that had driven Elisabeta herself all these long years. To live, to be immortal, to have limitless power and endless life. It was a dream, the one she craved beyond all others. Just as Brooke had.

She found another window, but it was locked. So she dropped the remaining distance to the ground, where a jarring landing subdued her, but only for a moment. She shook it off and hurried behind the massive house to the sunroom in the back, praying that door would be unlocked.

It was, and finally she was back inside the house. She crept through it, into the main parlor, listening. But there was no one. They were all still busy plotting her destruction upstairs. Bastards.

She made her way to the weapons room, quickly punching the code into the panel to unlock the door. Once inside, she armed herself, taking a sleek silver weapon Brooke thought of as a handgun, a supply of the “bullets” it would fire, and a deadly looking but small knife with a sheath that clipped onto the waistband of the jeans she wore, since that bitch Tempest had divested her of the blade she'd had before. She clipped the sheath in back, so that it hung down inside the jeans, rather than on the outside where it would be visible.

Would it be enough?

It would have to be-they would discover her missing soon.

She hurried to the front door and outside, then ducked behind a hedge when a shiny black car pulled swiftly up to a spot directly in front of the main entrance. Staying low, Elisabeta peered over the bush to watch. The car's trunk popped open, and a woman got out and hurried toward the front steps.

It was her. Tempest.

Beta's fingers itched to draw the handgun, even as she probed Brooke's stores of knowledge to learn how to use it. But she restrained herself. She needed Tempest alive.

She noticed, then, the small suitcase and duffle bag resting on the bottom step. Tempest was leaving? No. Beta couldn't lose her. What if she couldn't find her again in time?

Making a hasty decision, Beta leapt the hedge and ran to the car while Tempest's back was to it. The trunk would never do; she would be seen. Instead, Beta moved to the far side of the vehicle and got into the roomy back seat. She crouched on the floor and hoped the whore wouldn't look there before leaving.

Silently, she huddled there, not moving, barely breathing, as she waited.

She felt the car move when Tempest slung her bags into the trunk, and then the thud when she slammed the lid closed. Elisabeta tensed as the woman walked by the car, but she never looked inside. She just opened the driver's door and got in. And then they were in motion.

Elisabeta had no idea what to do next. Wait, she supposed, until they were in some secluded place. Tempest had the ring and the scroll. Surely if the ritual had worked once, it would work again. All she had to do was subdue the twit long enough to put the ring onto her finger and perform the rite the way it was meant to be performed. Her soul would be transferred into Tempest's body-this time, though, Tempest's would be evicted. She would be gone.

Beta would be strong again, and whole. And Vlad would be hers.

Carefully she settled into a more comfortable position on the cramped floor of the vehicle, leaned her head on the back of the front seat and closed her eyes.

As she drove, Stormy tried to put Vlad out of her mind, but she couldn't. The more she tried not to think of him, the more he invaded her soul. Memories of their past together, the one she'd forgotten for so long, those few forbidden days with him in Romania, lay waiting for her to find. So rather than dwell on her unrequited and hopeless love, not to mention her probably impending death, she let them come.

“You're not well, are you?” Vlad asked as they drove along winding tracks through the Romanian countryside.

“I'm fine. It's probably jet-lag catching up with me.” She knew it wasn't that, though. It was Elisabeta. The woman's presence was stronger here, and the constant struggle for control of her own body was wearing Stormy down.

“You're pale,” Vlad said. More worried, Stormy thought, about Elisabeta than about her.

“So are you.” She sent him a sideways look, but he only scowled in response to her lame attempt at humor.

“Are you sure you're up to this excursion?”

“If not now, when?” she asked. Then she shrugged. “Keep driving, Vlad. Take me to Castle Dracula.”

“I'm afraid this is as far as we can go by car.” He pulled to a stop and got out. She got out, too, and looked in the same direction he was.

They stood at the foot of a peak, and the path up it was so steep, it was nearly vertical. At the top, shrouded in mist and darkness, she could barely make out a shape that might be a castle.

She sighed, unsure she had the strength to make the climb. But then Vlad turned to her. “Come to me, Tempest. Put your arms around my neck.”

She frowned, told herself this wasn't the time or place-and complied anyway. Anytime she could put her arms around him was the right time. And she didn't think she had the will to refuse him, anyway. She slipped her arms around his neck. He quickly scooped her off her feet and whispered, “Hold on.”

There was a rush of speed and motion too sudden and rapid to absorb, much less follow. Seconds later, he was lowering her to her feet again. He kept his hands on her waist, and it was a good thing, because her knees didn't want to hold her weight. They started to buckle as soon as she tried to stand, and her earlier dizziness was magnified a hundred times.

She let him hold her while she pressed her hands to either side of her head and tried to blink her vision into focus. “What the hell was that?”

“I didn't think you were up to hiking the distance. And really, there was no need. We're here.”

Frowning, she searched his face briefly, then turned to follow his gaze. The castle wasn't a castle at all. It was a crumbling pile of ruins, ancient stone blocks piled atop one another to form walls, with little or no mortar left in between. A path wound amid them, and someone had put a modern railing along parts of it, to protect unwary tourists, she supposed, from what would be a deadly fall. “This is it? I thought Castle Dracula was big and white and fancy.”

“That's Bran Castle. I was rarely there, but the tourists seem to like it. This… this was where I lived. Poenari Castle. There's… very little left to explore, I'm afraid.”

“Is it safe?”

“Come.” He took her hand-not because he cared, she reminded herself, but just to keep her from falling, and that only for Beta's sake-and led her closer. They moved past the walls toward the tallest section, a rounded portion. The top of it was long gone, and it was higher on either side, lower in the middle, where more stones had fallen away, so that its top formed a crescent. He led her all through the place, pointing out what used to be the keep, the courtyards and so on. But nothing was even vaguely familiar to her.

Finally she sighed and touched his shoulder. “Vlad, where is the tower? The place where she died?”

He stopped walking, stopped speaking, lowered his head.

“Is it going to be too hard for you? Seeing that spot again? Because I could go alone.”

“No. It's fine. Come.”

He took her hand again and led her along a twisting path through the crumbling stones, finally stopping to point at a cluster of other ruins, though they were in far better shape than the first one. “Do you see the tower down there?” he asked, pointing.

“Yes. Is that…?”

“No. That's where the legends say she died. They say she pitched herself from that tower as the Turks approached, in order to prevent herself being captured. But as you know, that's not precisely the way it happened.”

“I suppose it makes her rather a heroic figure, to remember it that way.”

“I suppose.” He turned and looked at a narrow circle of stones, barely four feet high. “This was the actual tower. My chambers were near the top. I liked to be able to see all the way down the mountain as soon as 1 rose and before I slept.”

He lifted his gaze, and she did, too, trying to picture the place before it had fallen to ruin. But what she saw in her mind's eye could have been more imagination than past life memory.

She moved to the far side of the circular base, where it came within a few yards of a steep drop. She went to step closer to the edge, but Vlad gripped her shoulders. “Careful. The ground is no longer stable here.”

Holding her, he moved a little nearer the edge, then stopped. Stormy stared down, such a very long way down, into a sea of mist. The rocky slope dropped straight out of sight beneath the glittering stars. And then, as if on cue, a wind came, and the mists below swirled and then dissipated, so she could see all the way to the bottom, where a narrow stream wound over jagged rocks and boulders far below.

She felt it, then: the powerful sensation of her body falling, plummeting. The sense of weightlessness, of flying. The deathly silence of her descent. Her hair was tugged tight by the force of the air through which she fell. The wind whistled past her ears and stung her face. Heartache pounded inside her chest, so large it felt she would split open and bleed. She felt the crushing impact, pain beyond human endurance exploding in every part of her, and then it vanished and there was nothing but blessed relief. Release. Her breath rushed out of her. Her final breath. And she smiled as she died. Finally, she thought. Peace. An end to this endless grief. Finally. Let me go.

“Tempest!”

She blinked slowly and found herself lying on the ground, her upper body cradled in Vlad's arms as he smacked her cheeks and shook her shoulders.

“Tempest, talk to me. For the love of the gods… “

“Okay,” she managed. “I'm… okay.”

“Far from it, I think.” He held her closer, folding her to his chest as he knelt there, stroking her hair. For that brief moment she could, almost have let herself believe he really cared. Almost.

“What happened just now? What happened to you?”

She rested against him, closing her eyes, even though she knew this wasn't real, this show of affection. “I think it was her. Elisabeta. I felt what she felt as she plummeted to her death, Vlad. And it wasn't horrible. I mean, there was pain when she hit the rocks. But it was very brief, and it was nothing compared to the pain she was feeling beforehand. The emotional pain. God, it was killing her. But it left her, Vlad. As she died, there was this incredible feeling of relief-of release. She didn't want to hurt anymore.”

He'd been rocking her in his arms, but he stopped then. “And yet, she did, didn't she?”

Stormy swallowed hard, lifted her head from his chest and tipped her chin up to stare into his eyes. “I think she still is. Vlad, the woman I feel in these memories or episodes of possession or whatever they are-she's sweet. She's innocent and naive, and very weak and needy. And in a lot of pain, almost all the time. But sweet. But the one who comes in now, to take over the way she does, she's none of those things. She's cruel and angry and violent. I'm not sure she's the same woman at all.”

“Or perhaps she is. Perhaps this is what she has become, what my actions caused her to become.” He lowered his head. “Perhaps Rhiannon was right. The ritual I had the sorcerers perform was a mistake.”

“I think that might be true.”

“God, what have I done to her?” He tipped his head back to stare up at the stars.

Stormy sat up, brushing her hair back from her face. “Maybe Rhiannon was right about that, too? Maybe we need to find a way to exorcise her? To set her free?”

His head came down, and his eyes locked onto hers, sparking with anger. “Kill her, you mean?”

“Vlad, she's not alive. Not really.”

“Oh, she's very much alive. I see her in you. Even now, I see her. She's trying to come through, trying to speak to me through you, isn't she, Tempest?”

She set her jaw, stiffened her spine. “She has been, ever since we… I'm not sure how much longer I can keep on fighting her. It's… exhausting.”

He averted his eyes quickly. “You, too, are suffering because of what I did.”

She lowered her head then. “Guilt isn't going to solve this, Vlad.”

“No. I'm not ready to give her up. Not yet, Tempest.”

She lifted her head, met his eyes again. “I can't go on like this,” she told him. “Not for much longer, Vlad. At least when I'm not with you, she stays… dormant. Asleep. But here… “

He sighed, impatient, angry perhaps and frustrated. He still expected her to suddenly remember and become the woman he longed for. All she wanted to do was figure out how to get rid of her.

And maybe convince him to love her, instead.

She swallowed hard. “Would you… take me to her grave!”

“Are you certain you're strong enough?”

“No. But I want to try. I feel as if I have to.”

“Don't, not for my sake, Tempest.”

“I'm not. It's for her sake, Vlad. Part of me… loves her as much as you do. I mean, the woman she was. Not the presence that haunts me now, but that girl. That innocent, grieving, heartbroken child who is, maybe, somehow, a part of me. I have to help her if I can.”

“You're a generous woman.”

She let her eyes go hard. “I want to help her by setting her free. Not by bringing her back.”

His features hardened, but he got to his feet and held out a hand. She took it and let him draw her upright. “The night is aging.”

“Yeah,” she said, and she slid her arms around his neck. “So let's do this the fast way, all right?”

He nodded. She tightened her grip, and they whirled into the night.

Stormy resurfaced from her memories. She had recovered nearly all of them now, she sensed. She knew when she had fallen in love with him, and why he'd held her heart captive for so very long. Always it had been about Elisabeta. Never her. He'd never loved her.

He never would.

“There is no reason to believe anything dire has happened to either of them,” Rhiannon said for the tenth time.

But that was exactly what Vlad believed, and he was kicking himself for his part in it. By the gods, if anything happened to prevent him doing what must be done in time…

Melina was on the telephone yet again, dialing Tempest's cell phone number. She met his eyes and shook her head. “I got her voice mail again. She must have the phone turned off, Vlad. If she doesn't want to hear from us, she's not going to pick up the messages I keep leaving.”

Lowering his head, Vlad resumed his pacing. “This is my doing. All of it.”

Rhiannon stepped into his path, blocking his progress. “Stop this. You can find her, Vlad. You, more than any of us, can find her.”

He stared into Rhiannon's eyes, frowning. “I don't know. My bond with Elisabeta isn't as powerful as-“

“Not Beta, Vlad. For the love of the gods, would you stop focusing on her for one second? Are you that obsessed? It's Stormy. I'm talking about Stormy. Do you think I can't smell her on you?” Rhiannon snapped, looking as if she would like to knock him over the head with something heavy, “You drank from her, Vlad. And more than once. Her scent and her essence are still alive in you. The bond created by that act is a powerful one. You, more than any of us here, can sense her.”

“You think I haven't tried?” He tipped his head back and pushed his hands through his hair in frustration.

“I think,” Rhiannon said, “that you are trying too hard.”

“I'm going after them,” he said. “Tempest is likely going home, to her mansion in Easton. I'll go there and-“

“Not just yet.” Rhiannon glanced at Melina and Lupe. “Does either of you have any skill at scrying?”

“I do,” Lupe said.

“Then get a map, and a pendulum, and try to narrow the search. For both of them.” Then she turned to Vlad. “Come with me, we have work to do.”

He didn't want to go with Rhiannon. He wanted to be out hunting for the women. But Rhiannon was a wise woman. It wouldn't be smart to ignore the help she offered, though why she offered it, he couldn't fathom. He'd all but destroyed her trust in him. He went where she led him, into a room he'd never seen before-a room with sculptures and candles everywhere. It resembled a spiritual temple. There were huge satin pillows strewn about the floor, and she nodded at one, so he sat.

Then she closed the door behind them. She stood in the room's center and turned in a slow circle, waving her hand before her as she did. One by one, the candles came to life, flames leaping onto their wicks in obedience to her gesture and her will. He was impressed, in spite of himself.

“You're going to need to relax,” she told him.

“Far easier said than done, Rhiannon.”

“Lie back on the pillows, Vlad.”

He did, pulling more of the cushions around behind him to make a bed of sorts.

“Listen only to my voice,” Rhiannon said, and her tone had become deep and low, soft and, at the same time, commanding. “Thoughts will come. Just move them away and return your attention to my voice. Gently, steer your focus to my words. Only to my words.”

“I'll try.”

“You'll do it. Keep your eyes open. Choose a candle you see easily and focus on its flame. See the way it dances, the way its fire waxes and wanes like the tides. Like the moon.”

He focused on a nearby candle flame.

“See how the wax heats and melts. Do you see it, Vlad?”

“I see it.” He watched beads of wax roll slowly down the sides of the candle, pooling at the bottom.

“Feel your body heating and melting just as the wax does. Your feet are warming, melting. Feel the flame relaxing them into liquid.”

He felt her words, her will, flowing into him. And he felt his feet grow warm until it seemed they were melting into the floor.

“And now your calves. Feel them pooling, like warm wax. Dripping, liquefying. And your knees, your thighs, warming, heating, melting.”

He thought about the women as his body obeyed, wondered what was happening between them right now.

“My words, Vlad. Listen to my voice. See the candle. Feel it heating you. Your groin and your hips. Your pelvis and your belly. Warming, melting, pooling.”

She continued, and the thoughts that kept drawing him away seemed to come more slowly and to take longer to return each time he pushed them away.

When she had convinced him that his entire body was a puddle of hot wax on the pillows, she said, “Let your focus go soft. Let the candle flame split into two flames and become blurry. Relax your vision. See now, with your inner eye. See her. See Tempest. Taste her blood again. Feel it coursing through your body. She is inside you, Vlad. She's a part of you. You are bound. See through her eyes. See her.”

His vision blurred, and in a moment his eyes fell closed.

“Where is she, Vlad?”

“She's… in her car. Belladonna, she calls it. She loves the thing.” A smile tugged at his lips. “She's driving.”

“Yes. Good. Don't strain, Vlad. Just let the images flow into you. Flowing like that warm, melting wax. Filling you. Warming you. What else do you see?”

He stopped trying and relaxed. Rhiannon's voice made resistance futile, even if he'd wanted to try. “She's… crying.”

“That's all right. Don't let those tears distract you. They flow, warm and liquid, like the wax. They flow for you. They show you her heart. They are the waters of true emotion, and they are cleansing and healing to a woman's soul.”

“She loves me,” he whispered, feeling the emotion that filled her heart to bursting.

“Yes. And she wants you to know where she is. She wants you to come to her, Vlad. Listen to her thoughts now. Move gently into her mind and listen. Open to her. Let those thoughts roll like the melting wax. Let them seep into you. Let them… “

Her voice faded, replaced by the voice of Tempest's heart, of her thoughts.

He doesn't love me…never loved me. He loves her. I was just a means to get her back all along. He was using me. I've wasted my life, loving him, longing for him, waiting and hoping, when all the time he never…

Have to stop thinking about him. God, why can't I get him out of my mind? Have to go home. No, no, not home. Don't want to face Maxie and Lou, not now. Don't want to tell them what a fool I've been. Don't want to be around anyone, no one. Not now, not yet. I need to be alone. I need to get past this.

I wonder if he'll let Rhiannon exorcise Elisabeta from Brooke's body? He won't. I know he won't. I wish Rhiannon could exorcise him from my heart, though. Maybe she can. Maybe I should ask her. Then again, maybe it won't matter. I'll be dead anyway, if Rhiannon can't send Beta to the other side.

She looked through the windshield of the car, seeing darkness, a road and a sign. “Seaside, 80 km.” And she thought of the sea, the coast, a cozy inn where she could rest and try to heal. Far enough away from him? Maybe. Maybe far enough. It's only another hour. I'll go there. I love the ocean. If I'm going to die tonight, it can be right there, on the shore, with the waves rolling in around my feet. A good place to die.

“Seaside,” he said aloud, though even to his own ears, his voice sounded a bit hoarse. “A town called Seaside. She's going there.”

“Good, Vlad,” Rhiannon said softly. “Very good. Now I want you to pull yourself out of her body, out of her mind. I want you to see what's around her, in the car. Is there anyone else there with her?”

“I am with her.”

“Yes, but besides you.”

He gently withdrew from Tempest's mind, the voice of her thoughts fading away, until he was in the car, in the passenger seat. He felt something, a presence, a familiar one, and he frowned, guiding his attention toward it. And then he saw-

The door to the room burst open, jarring Vlad back into his own body, into the room, into reality, where he landed with as much impact as if he'd fallen from a tall building. The trance state shattered on impact, and he sat up so fast it made him dizzy. He had to press a hand to his head. Rhiannon's hands closed on his shoulders as she snapped, “Lupe, what are you thinking, barging in here during-“

Vlad growled an interruption. “When I can stand upright, you bungling mortal, I'll-“

“I've got her!” Lupe blurted almost at the same time. Then she looked at Vlad as his threat sunk in, and her face went tight with fear. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean-“

He held up a hand to shut her up.

“Ground yourself, Vlad. Here, hold this.” Rhiannon handed him a large quartz crystal the size of his fist, and he took it and held it between his palms, trying to get his bearings again.

“We know where Tempest is going, Lupe,” Rhiannon explained. “To a town called Seaside.”

“I got the same thing. But not just for her,” Lupe said, a little breathlessly. “I got the same results when I scried for Elisabeta. I think she's following her or-“

“She's not following her,” Vlad said softly. Gripping the edge of a table, he got to his feet, still a bit shaky. “She's with her.”

“With her?” Rhiannon searched his face.

“She's hiding in the back of Tempest's car.”

A gasp came from the doorway, and they turned to see Melina standing there. Her fists clasped, she said, “The weapons room door was open, so I went in to check. There's a handgun missing.”

Tempest pulled over and patted Belladonna's dashboard the way she would pat the neck of a sweaty horse, one that had just carried her away from trouble. “Thanks for taking me the hell out of there. You've been a pal. I'm gonna miss you.”

She cut the engine, slid one arm through one of the straps of her backpack purse, and pulled it onto her shoulder as she got out of the car. Then she stood for a moment, looking down at the spot that had beckoned her. A rocky shoreline, choppy sea beyond, shallow waves rolling up and breaking over the stones and boulders. It appealed to her, this rough-faced beach. Not all smooth and sandy, but rugged and forbidding, harsh beneath the star speckled velvet black of the sky.

Stormy hitched her bag up higher onto her shoulder, walked down the little incline to the shore and stood for a moment, staring out at the sea. And even as she tried to find a positive spin to put on her heartache, warm tears welled in her eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks.

“It's not entirely bad,” she told herself. “At least I got rid of her.”

She took a moment, then, to feel the lightness in her soul. No more was there that sense of something foreign, lurking and waiting to take over. Hating her from within.

It felt good. It was a huge relief.

And yet, there was another weight in her, this one crushing heavily down on her heart. She loved him. She loved him even now. And it was stupid-pathetic, really-to love a man who didn't love her back. She knew it. And yet there was nothing she could do about it. Pretty sad to think that she, the independent and notoriously feisty Stormy Jones, was going to die loving a man who cared nothing for her.

“Pathetic,” she muttered, and bent to pick up a small stone, then straightened and hurled it out into the waves.

“Yes. Terribly pathetic.”

Stormy spun around at the voice coming from right behind her, knowing before she saw her, who it was. Elisabeta, in Brooke's body, holding a handgun and pointing it right at her chest. The wind blew in from the sea, tossing Brooke's normally sleek hair into a wild mass of auburn tangles as Elisabeta's black eyes glinted from her face.

Stormy stiffened, stifling the words that flew to her lips, realizing she was face to face with an armed lunatic who wanted her dead. Better to try to diffuse the situation.

“I left because I want no more to do with him, Beta,” she said. “He's all yours. I won't be back.”

“Sadly, that's not quite good enough.”

Frowning, Stormy tried to size up her situation. She had no weapon. There was a cell phone in her bag, but Beta could squeeze that trigger before she would be able to take it out, much less dial 911. There was no one around. No one in sight. She tried to remember the last place she'd passed where there might have been people or even lights, and knew it had been a while.

“What do you want from me, then?” she asked.

“Not so much. Just your body.”

Stormy went stiff. Could the bitch know, somehow, what was ailing her? Her face was drawn and pale, her eyes slightly sunken. Dark circles were beginning to form underneath them. “What's wrong with the one you've got?”

“It's dying,” she said. “So I need yours.”

“Sorry, but I'm using it right now.” She could have kicked herself for letting the words out, heavy with sarcasm and impatience. She schooled herself to calm. “Maybe… there's some way I can help you, Elisabeta. Maybe-“

“Oh, there is. I need your body before midnight, or we'll both die. In order to do that, I must have my ring back. And the scroll. Give them to me.”

She would need the ring and the scroll to perform the rite again. And this time, Stormy realized, she wanted to perform it on her. “I'm sorry. I can't-“

“Give them to me or I'll kill you!”

Stormy swallowed, held up a hand as if to calm the woman. “If you kill me, you'll never have my body.”

“If you don't give them to me, I'll die anyway,” Beta said. “Now give them to me.”

Stormy waited a beat, trying to decide the best answer to give, and finally decided not to push her luck. “I don't have them.”

“You're lying!”

“No, I'm not. When I left, I washed my hands of this entire case. I wanted no more to do with you or with Vlad-or with that cursed ring. I'm telling you, Beta, I don't have them.”

Beta closed her eyes, but popped them wide open again before Stormy could even think about going for the gun. “Who does?”

Stormy almost smiled. Almost. Because of all the lies she could think of, the truth was still the best option. “Rhiannon,” she said. “Good luck getting them from her.”

Beta was silent for a long moment, her eyes seeming to search inwardly. It was almost as if she were listening to something, or someone, and then she focused again, blinking and frowning. “You have a… Celephone? Yes?”

“A cell phone ? Yes, I have one. It's in my bag here.”

“Take it out.”

Stormy started to take the bag from her shoulder, and Elisabeta wiggled the gun. “Slowly.”

“All right. All right. Easy with that thing. If you shoot me by accident, we'll both be screwed.” They were both screwed anyway, Stormy thought. Clearly Beta had escaped before Rhiannon could exorcise her from Brooke's body. And time was ticking away. Slowly and carefully, Stormy slid the cell phone from its holder on the side of the backpack. “It's right here, okay?”

“Call her.”

“Who? Rhiannon?”

Beta nodded, her gun hand starting to tremble. She was getting tired.

“Okay. Just… it's turned off. I have to turn it on.” She flipped open the phone, and as soon as it powered up, the message signal sounded. No time now, though, for retrieving her voice mail. Instead, she located the number for Athena House in her phonebook and hit the call button.

It rang. And rang. And rang some more. She licked her lips, held the phone out so Beta could listen if she wanted. “No one's there,” she said.

“Does she not have a… cell phone she carries with her. Like yours?”

“Yeah. You want me to try that number?”

Beta nodded, so Stormy placed the call. Rhiannon didn't pick up, though. Vlad did.

“Tempest?” he asked. And God, he sounded as if he really hoped it was her. Yeah, he probably did. He still needed her to save his lunatic bride.

“Yeah, it's me.”

“Are you all right? Where are you?”

And now he sounded worried. Really worried. “I'm here with Beta. She has a gun on me.”

“Give it to me!” Beta commanded.

“Hold on. Your wife wants to talk to you.” Stormy held out the cell phone.

Beta snatched it from her, keeping the gun aimed, one handed now, and her eyes focused on Stormy. “Get the ring and the scroll from Rhiannon and bring them to me. If you want to save me, Vlad, do this for me. If you don't, Tempest and I will both be dead soon. And you know that's the truth. And if you come, Vlad, and you are not alone, I will shoot her, just to be sure you don't try to save the wrong woman.”

Without waiting for a reply, she handed the phone back to Stormy. “Tell him where we are, so he can come to us.”

Stormy nodded as she pressed the phone to her own ear again. “We're on a deserted stretch of beach off the Seaside exit. Take a right, about two miles down. You'll see my car along the roadside.” She met Elisabeta's eyes and said, “She's going to try to take my body. If it were me, I'd let the bitch die, but I don't suppose you feel the same.”

Beta snatched the phone from her hand and hurled it into the sea. “I should kill you right now.”

“Go for it. I've got nothing pressing.”

She swung. It came out of the blue; Stormy hadn't expected it. The gun hit her right in the side of the head, behind her left eye. There was a brief explosion of pain, and then the ground was rushing up to meet her as she went down for the count.

Her last thought was that her words to Vlad had been wasted and she'd taken the blow for nothing. There was no way he would let his precious Elisabeta die. He would probably bring the ring and the scroll and assist in Stormy's execution.