Prince of Twilight (Page 16)

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“She said to come alone. And that is precisely what I intend to do.” Vlad hovered near the mansion's front door, addressing Rhiannon, while the other two mortal women stood a short distance behind her. They looked nervous, as if they expected a vampiric battle to break out at any moment and wished to avoid being caught in the crossfire. “And frankly, I'm growing weary of repeating myself. Give me the ring, Rhiannon. And the scroll.”

He held out a hand, palm up, and looked into her eyes.

She held them in one hand but didn't offer them to him. He hoped to the gods she wasn't going to force him to take them from her.

“There is strength in numbers, Vlad. And she's not one of us. She'll never know if I'm lurking in the shadows nearby, ready to back you up, if needed.”

“And since when does Dracula require backing up?” he asked. “Rhiannon, she's a mortal. A sick one, at that.”

She pursed her full lips and stared at him, her eyes speaking volumes. “She's your wife,” she said.

The words penetrated. The meaning clarified in his mind. “You don't trust me.”

She averted her eyes. “I'm going with you. That's all and that's final. If you want to prevent it, Vlad, you'll have to kill me, and I don't think you're willing to do that.” She shrugged and met his eyes again, hers less serious this time. “Moreover, I don't think you could best me even if you were willing to try.”

“Don't bet your life on it.”

Rhiannon locked her gaze on his. “I never thought it would come to this. The two of us on opposing sides. I'm going to Stormy, Vlad. And I'm going now.” She moved toward the door, but she would have to pass him to get to it.

Vlad threw his will at her, hitting her squarely in the chest with a surge of energy that stopped her in her tracks and made her suck in a quick, sharp breath.

She glared at him. “You dare… “

“Give me the ring and the scroll, Rhiannon.”

She flung out an arm in a powerful arc, sending a bolt of energy that knocked him backward until he hit the wall, hard. A nearby painting crashed to the floor.

He righted himself, shook off the pain and hurled his powerful will at her much harder than he had before. Rhiannon flew into the air as if hit in the gut by a wrecking ball, landed hard, on her back and struggled to suck in a breath of air.

Vlad lunged at her then, straddled her, and searched her until he found the items he needed in a deep pocket of her gown. He took them from her, paused only to gaze at her face, to touch her cheek as she blinked to clear her vision. “I'm sorry, Rhiannon. You left me no choice.”

Then he turned from her and raced from the room, out through the front door and into the night. Regret gnawed at his soul. But he hadn't harmed her. Not truly. Hurt her, yes, but she would suffer no lasting effects. In fact, she would likely be strong enough to follow on his heels within the hour. So he'd best hurry.

He whirled, right there on the steps of Athena House. Spun like a top, gaining momentum and speed, and exerted his will to alter his form. As a giant raven, he flexed his wings, beat them once, twice, three times, as he pushed off with his legs and took to the starry sky. As he made his way to her, Vlad remembered the way their time together had ended in the past. He let the memories flow through him, hoping they would stiffen his resolve to do what he knew must be done.

He had been losing hope of ever finding a way to solve the riddle that had become his life. He stood beside Tempest at the site that had been his bride's grave, and he watched her stare at the ground that bore no marker, no memory. All had been lost to the ravages of time. Grasses and trees grew. The stream still bubbled and laughed its way past. The stars still shone down on her resting place.

Rest. That was a bitter joke, wasn't it? There had been no rest for his beloved. No peace, not in all this time. Why hadn't he had the strength to let her go?

Why couldn't he find it still?

Tempest looked ill. She was pale and trembling at intervals. She rubbed her arms with her hands as if she were cold, and he put an arm around her to warm her. “You haven't eaten all night,” he said. “Perhaps we should go-“

She whirled on him, her hands fisting and rising, her eyes blazing into his. Black, black as coal. “Do not think to leave me here, Vlad! Do not dare think it!”

He recoiled, taken unaware by the sudden change in her. But he knew she was not Tempest any longer. He was staring into the eyes of his beloved, of his Elisabeta.

He lifted an unsteady hand, touched her face. “I wouldn't leave you.”

“You have!” she accused. But she didn't pull away from his touch. Rather, she covered his hand on her cheek with her own, leaned into it, closed her eyes. “You've abandoned me to this existence, trapped, unable to return, unable to move on. I want to return, Vlad. I want to be with you. I will never give up.”

Tears sprang into his eyes, though he fought them. “You shouldn't have taken your own life, Beta. You should have waited for me. Gods, if only you had waited.”

“I have waited. All these centuries, I've waited. And now I've found you again. Don't let her come between us, Vlad. Don't let her take me away from you.”

“I-” He searched her face, unable to speak, because it was as if she knew exactly what he'd been thinking.

“She wants to, you know. She wants to be force me back into that infernal netherworld that's neither life nor death. That limbo. That prison between the worlds. I cannot go back there, Vlad. I will not.”

“I won't let that happen, Beta. Not if I can prevent it.”

“She wants you for herself,” she whispered.

He lowered his head.

“I'll never let her have you.”

Vlad's head rose again at the venom in her tone. At the hatred in her voice. She did not sound like the Beta he had known.

“I'll kill first, Vlad. I vow to you I will.”

“Beta, don't think that way. It's not-” He broke off there, became she had whirled away from him and taken off running through the forest.

Vlad took off after her. “Wait! Beta, dammit, wait!” He poured on a burst of speed, even as the horrible scene unfolded before his eyes. Beta had flung herself-no, she had flung Tempest-into the stream at its deepest point, and she lay face down in the water. Her arms flailed as if she were trying to get up, as if something were holding her down. She was drowning!

Vlad gripped her around her waist and chest, and hauled her, dripping, out of the water. Then, turning, he took her to the grassy bank and laid her down on her back. He pressed his ear to her chest to listen to her breaths and heard none. But then, suddenly, her head came up and she began choking, water spewing from her nose and mouth.

“Thank the gods,” he muttered, and rolled her onto her side, to help her eliminate the icy water from her lungs.

Leaning over, weak, and shaking now from head to toe, she gagged and spat and gasped, until, finally, she managed to empty the water from her lungs. As she sucked in breath after breath of air, he took off his coat and wrapped it around her shoulders.

“Tempest?” he asked.

She lifted her head, eyes tired and unfocused. “What… happened?”

“I… I don't know.”

A twig snapped behind him, and Vlad whirled to see Rhiannon standing there, Roland at her side. She looked furious. “You know exactly what happened, Vlad. Elisabeta just attempted to murder Tempest. You saw it. You know it's the truth.”

He closed his eyes, lowered his head.

Rhiannon moved closer, knelt beside Tempest. “Has this happened before, Stormy?”

Still shaking, she tugged the coat closer around her shoulders and nodded, the movement jerky. “Yes. I think so. I mean, I wasn't sure until now, but-“

Her words were cut off by another round of coughing.

“We have to get her back to the castle,” Roland said. “She needs to get warm and dry. Mortal bodies can't tolerate this sort of trauma easily.”

Nodding, Vlad got to his feet, reached to gather Tempest into his arms, but Roland stopped him with a hand to his shoulder. “Let me, my friend. I'll get her there quickly, bundle her by the fire and care for her until you arrive.”

“But why?” he asked, searching the man's face.

It was Rhiannon who answered him. “I think you know why. You know what must be done, Vlad. There are things we'll need, for the rite of exorcism.”

Vlad gasped, and his gaze shot from Rhiannon's to Tempest as Roland gathered her weakened, battered body into his arms. She was not doing well. She couldn't take much more of this attack-and he knew now that she was indeed under attack. Without the ring and the scroll, he couldn't hope to help her find union and harmony with the soul he believed to be her former self, a part of her own. But she couldn't go on like this, either. Not and survive.

His tears spilling over, he no longer tried to control them as he whispered, “So be it, then.”

By the time Rhiannon and Vlad arrived back at the castle, Tempest was warm and dry, as Roland had promised she would be. She'd changed clothes, and now wore a nightgown and a heavy velvet robe, and had a blanket wrapped around her shourlders besides. She was sipping hot soup from a large mug, and sitting with her legs curled beneath her in front of a roaring fire. Her hair was beginning to dry, its tendrils springing into their natural curls around her face. She looked exhausted, drained, as she stared into the fire.

Rhiannon had explained that she and Roland, knowing full well Vlad's folly could only lead to disaster, had decided to stay on another day, another night, in case they were needed. Rhiannon had deliberately tuned into Tempest's mind, and had picked up on her distress and located her easily.

Just as well.

His quest was at an end. And yet a spark of hope remained. He had to say goodbye to his goal of almost six hundred years. He had to say goodbye to Elisabeta. But perhaps something of a chance would remain for himself and Tempest. He didn't know. He didn't know if her feelings for him were her own or a part of the possession of her body by his long dead wife. In fact, he wasn't even certain his own feelings were truly for her or for the woman she had been in another time, another place.

And even if it turned out they did still care for one another, there was the inevitable end they both must face. She was mortal. She was not one of The Chosen. She would die. He would live on.

But one thing was certain. She couldn't go on this way.

“Are we ready to do this?” Rhiannon asked.

Vlad looked at Tempest. “Are you certain she can withstand it?”

“It shouldn't be too trying, Vlad. It's only a ritual.”

He nodded. Tempest turned to face him. “I'm ready,” she said, her voice soft. “I'm sorry, Vlad. I'm sorry I wasn't strong enough to give her a chance.”

He moved closer, touched her hand. “Perhaps this was the way it was meant to be, Tempest. She needs to be at peace. We can give her that, if nothing more.”

She nodded, then looked to Rhiannon. “What should I do?”

“Just lie down. Relax.” She nodded toward the chaise that stood a few feet from the fire, and Tempest rose unsteadily. Roland gripped one arm, Vlad the other, and they helped her to the chaise. She slid the blanket from her shoulders as she lay down and pulled it over her instead.

“Very good.” Rhiannon slid a pack from her shoulder, and opened it began taking items from it one by one. Weeds she'd gathered from the forest. A handful of dirt from Elisabeta's grave, a stone from the stream where her body had landed, a vial of water she'd provided herself, and salt and candles, black ones. A bell. She gathered candles from around the castle and brought them to place with the rest of her items.

She pulled a small table closer and began laying the items out one by one. Then she carried the black candles to the extreme directions of the room. One on the mantle by the fire in the south, another on a table in the west, where she poured the water into a bowl. A third rested in a spot she cleared on the bookshelf in the north, the fourth beside a dish of herbs in the east.

She stared at the candles, and one by one they burst into flames at the sheer power of her will. Then she touched one burning wick to the herbs, until they began to blaze. After a moment they died flames out and left the herbs to smolder in a silver dish. The spiraling smoke they emitted was pungent and strong.

“You two sit on either side of her. If Elisabeta realizes what we're doing, there's a chance she could come through and try to prevent us from completing the ritual, or if that fails, to try again to harm her. You'll need to hold her to prevent that.”

Vlad looked down at Tempest, the way her eyes widened at Rhiannon's words, and he stroked her forehead. “I won't let that happen. I promise you.”

When she nodded, he turned to Rhiannon. “Proceed.”

Rhiannon stood still for a long moment, as if gathering her thoughts, but Vlad thought she was doing something far deeper than that. She was connecting to some force within her, or perhaps beyond herself. When she opened her eyes again, she looked different, more powerful than she ever had-and that was saying a lot.

She moved as if floating, lifting a hand and tracing the shape of a circle around the room, encompassing all of them as she muttered words in what he thought was Egyptian. And Vlad swore he could see an ether forming a sphere around them. Thin, barely visible, it wavered and danced, and he had the odd sensation of being contained within a bubble of power.

Then she moved to the westernmost part of the circle and moved her arms as if parting a curtain. And he glimpsed a darkness there, a dark portal within the bubble's wall.

Finally she moved to Tempest and began her work. She chanted over her body, and used her fingers to sprinkle it with water from the bowl. Then she returned the bowl to its place and came back to take up the incense, and again using her hands, she wafted the smoke over Tempest, from her head to her feet.

She continued chanting haunting, mesmerizing words in a melodic, hypnotic tone. Deep and rich and commanding yet gentle.

Tempest's eyes fell closed. Her breathing grew shallow, and she began to turn her head to the left and right.

Vlad held her shoulders, wanting to speak to her, to comfort her, but Rhiannon caught that urge and then his eyes, and told him without speaking to remain silent. She kept chanting.

She put the smoldering herbs back in their spot and took up the bell, ringing it over Tempest, over her head, her chest, her belly, her hips, her knees, her feet. And now her chanting took on a more urgent tone. It was louder, more commanding.

Tempest twisted her head harder. Her breaths came short and sharp and fast, and she started to move her body, twisting and writhing from side to side.

Rhiannon slipped into English. “Leave this body, Elisabeta. Go, through the western gate and on to your reward, to rest. To peace. Go, Elisabeta. Release this woman and go!”

Tempest's eyes opened wide and blue. She shrieked as if in agony, and her body lifted from the chaise as her back arched nearly double.

Roland and Vlad gripped her, and to his amazement, it took all their strength to press her down again.

“Go,” Rhiannon commanded. “You do not belong to this plane! Go, Elisabeta!”

Tempest's entire body began to spasm, as if she were having a seizure of some sort. The men struggled to hold her, and Vlad shot a panicked look at Rhiannon. “I don't think she's breathing. She's not breathing, Rhiannon!”

Her face turned red, and then her lips turned blue, and the rest of her skin tone followed.

“It's killing her, my love,” Roland said. “This isn't going to work. Elisabeta will not leave her alive.”

Rhiannon hesitated only a moment as the spasming continued. But then she ran to Tempest and gripped her shoulder. “It's ended,” she said. “It's over. Breathe again, child. Breathe.”

Immediately Tempest's body relaxed and stopped shaking. But it was a long, long moment before she sucked in a breath so powerful Vlad wondered that it didn't burst her lungs.

Rhiannon sagged in relief. “See to her. I must attend the circle.”

“Did it work?” Vlad asked. “Is Beta gone?”

Rhiannon met his eyes and shook her head sadly. “Her grip on our little mortal is more powerful than I could have imagined, Vlad. If I'd forced her out, she would have taken Tempest's soul with her. I'm sorry.”

Vlad sighed. He wasn't certain if it was in disappointment or relief. Perhaps both. He gathered Tempest into his arms, carried her to the chair nearest the fire and sat there, holding her in his lap, her body resting against his chest. He held her and pondered what on earth he could do now that the exorcism had failed.

Rhiannon had taken away the sphere of energy, extinguished the candles and poured the smoking herbs into the fireplace. She turned to him then, her face grim as she moved closer, her hands going to his shoulders. “We cannot exorcise the trespassing soul from her body. But we can minimize its strength and power over her. That power, Vlad, is at its peak when she is near you. You know that. You've seen it.” She closed her eyes, and Vlad thought he glimpsed a tear on those thick lashes before she spoke again. “You have to let her go, love. For her sake, you have to let her go.”

Vlad stared down at the beautiful woman in his arms. Her eyes were closed, her breathing deep and regular at last. He stroked her hair away from her face. “It won't be forever, Tempest. Only until I can locate the ring and the scroll. Only until then. I promise you.” He bent to press a kiss on her lips, committing their softness to memory. “It will be easier for her if I can make her forget,” he said. “Give me just a few more moments with her. I'll erase her memory, and then you can take her away.”

“Rhiannon?”

Melina and Lupe knelt on either side of her as Rhiannon regained her senses and struggled to sit up.

“Are you all right?” Melina asked.

“Of course I'm all right.” She gathered the shreds of her dignity and pushed her hands against the floor in an effort to rise. To her utter humiliation, the two mortals helped her, gripping her arms and tugging until she was upright again. As soon as she had her footing, Rhiannon shook their hands away. “I don't desire your help.”

“I don't blame you,” Lupe said. Melina shot her a look, but the younger woman ignored it. “I looked in the archives, as you suggested, Rhiannon. I know that members of our order assisted the priestesses who tried to hold you against your will, so long ago.”

“What they tried, mortal, was to kill me. Had Vlad not taken me from that place, not transformed me when he did, I would have died. And that was precisely what they wanted. They nearly killed both of us in trying to prevent my escape.”

Lupe lowered her head. “It was wrong, what they did. I'm sorry.”

Rhiannon lifted her brows.

“Rhiannon,” Melina said. “You have to know those women were not acting in accordance with the laws of the Sisterhood. They took it upon themselves to align with the priestesses of Isis to act against you in exchange for the realms of wisdom those priestesses promised them in return.”

“Of course. And I suppose the Sisterhood punished them for it. Or were they given some sort of medal, instead?”

Melina glanced at Lupe and said nothing. Lupe frowned and returned her gaze to Rhiannon's. “I couldn't find any mention of what action was taken against them, if any,” she said.

“We don't keep written records of that sort of thing,” Melina said.

“What sort of thing?” Lupe asked.

Melina licked her lips. “They were executed. Hanged, both of them, for betraying the laws of the order.” She met Rhiannon's eyes. “Read my mind if you don't believe that's the truth, Rhiannon. I'm not proud of what they did, and I'm not proud of what was done to them as a result. But I suppose you have a right to know. You can trust us.”

She was skeptical. “An order is only as trustworthy as its members, Melina. And this order seems to me to be lousy with traitors. Take Brooke, for example.”

“Three, in all these centuries,” Melina countered.

“Three that I know of. I have no doubt there have been more. You don't exactly choose wisely when you recruit these women.”

“I've made mistakes, that's true. I'm only human.”

“Precisely.”

Lupe licked her lips nervously. “We're wasting time. We need to go after him if we want to have any hope of saving Stormy.”

“We?” Rhiannon cocked one brow as she speared the woman with her eyes.

Melina stepped closer, clearing her throat nervously. “We… need to go along, Rhiannon. And I'm afraid I can't take no for an answer. If Brooke survives, she'll need us there. We need to bring her home.”

Rhiannon rolled her eyes. “Where she'll no doubt be tried, convicted and executed for betraying the order.”

“Don't pretend to understand our ways, Rhiannon. You're making assumptions. If there's a way I can save her, I will. But she has to face the repercussions of her actions.”

Lupe came up to stand beside Melina. “I don't want to tell you guys your business, but it seems to me we also need a plan.”

She had a point, Rhiannon thought, though she hated to admit it. With a deep sigh, she said, “If you mortals are coming along, I suppose we'd best travel by car. I have copied the rite we'll need to exorcise Beta from Brooke's body, to set her free of the power of the ring. It's right-” She dipped a hand into her pocket, but it came up empty. She frowned.

“I have the copy you gave me,” Melina said.

Rhiannon swallowed hard. “There's one thing I must tell you, and on this I am adamant,” she said. “We do not intervene until we are certain of Vlad's intentions.”

“We already know his intentions,” Melina said. “He's going to help Elisabeta take Stormy's body. He's going to kill her, Rhiannon.”

“Perhaps,” Rhiannon said. But deep down, she hoped she was wrong. Vlad had made the right decision once before. She had to believe he would do so again, despite the fact that his obsession for Elisabeta seemed only to have worsened over the past sixteen years. For his sake, she had to give him the chance to do the right thing.

And then she was going to kick his ass for what he'd done to her tonight.

“We do not intervene,” Rhiannon said again, “until I am certain. If either of you tries to step in before I give the word, I promise you, you will not see the sunrise. Is that understood?”

The woman looked at each other, fear wide in their eyes. “Understood,” Melina said softly.

As she lay there, drifting in and out of consciousness, Stormy was flooded with memories, the missing pieces of her time with Vlad, sixteen years ago. The memories Vlad had erased from her mind for so long.

He'd tried to save her. He'd tried to let Rhiannon exorcise Elisabeta from her body. He'd been forced to choose between them… and he'd chosen her.

The knowledge made her heart sing, gave her a surge of strength, enough to bring her back from the stupor into which Elisabeta's blow had plunged her. But the moment she did so, her joy faded and her doubts returned. Just because he had chosen her in the past, that didn't mean he would make the same choice again. He'd shown no hint of his feelings for her since their reunion. He'd given her no reason to believe he would act against his bride to save her.

Would he?

Stormy forced her questions to the back of her mind and tried to take stock of her current situation. She found herself paralyzed. Panic at being unable to move her limbs hit her like a blast of ice water in the face, and she came fully awake, eyes flying wide as the instinctive need to move surged through her. She strained and pulled.

Something hit her, a hard, stinging smack across her face.

She went still, blinking through the surge of hot tears that sprang into her eyes and tried to focus.

Brooke-no, not Brooke, Elisabeta-stood before her, silhouetted by the moon against darkness, the pounding sea at her back. There was something different about the beach. And slowly as her mind cleared, Stormy became aware of several things all at once. First, she wasn't paralyzed at all, but bound by lengths of rope that had been in the trunk of her own car. They held her immobile. She lay on her back, her arms outspread and staked to the ground on either side of her. She felt the ropes chafing her skin. Her ankles were bound together, and staked, as well. And she had been moved. She was no longer on that gorgeous stretch of rocky shore where she had stopped to work through her feelings and her pain and, perhaps, to die.

No, this spot was different. There were trees and brush around, and the ground was just as rocky here, but amid the rocks was soil, not sand. The waves crashed to the shore beyond Elisabeta, but that shore was farther away than it had been before.

Finally she drew her gaze back to the woman who stood before her. And the cold breath of panic crept into her veins as it fully hit her-she was bound. Completely vulnerable to the whims of this insane, unnatural being. A being who wanted nothing more than to see her dead.

Hell.

Elisabeta seemed satisfied that Stormy had stopped her struggling, and she turned and resumed what she had been doing. What she had been doing, it turned out, was placing candles on the ground. And as Stormy slid her gaze back along those she had already set out, she saw that they would form a complete circle around her staked body. A circle in which she lay not in the center, but toward one side. There was room for another to lie within the ring beside her, and she had no doubt Elisabeta intended to be that other.

At four equally spaced points around the circle, censers were at the ready, heaped high with herbs that would burn to surround her in clouds of fragrance and power; herbs that would help Beta in her purposes. No herb had the power to eject a soul from its body. But the right ones would grease the wheels, so to speak. And though Stormy had no idea where the insane woman had located the candles and herbs, she had little doubt that Beta knew what she was doing.

She had to get the hell out of this. She resumed tugging at the ropes that held her. Elisabeta paused with the lighted match in her hand, poised at the wick of one of the candles, and sent her a scowl. “Stop it. It's no use, anyway. You're only wasting your energy.”

Stormy stopped but not because of what Beta had said. She stopped because of the way the other woman looked there in the light of that tiny flame. Her eyes were even more deeply sunken than before, and rested atop giant, dark brown half moons. Her face was gaunt and pale in the flickering match-light, and her skin seemed papery and loose. Dry to the point of peeling, and hanging from the bones of her face as if it were no longer attached.

“My God, how long have we been here?”

Beta shrugged. “A couple of hours. Why?”

Clearly Beta didn't know about the drastic and rapid changes in her appearance. But as Stormy watched her, she could tell the woman didn't feel a hell of a lot better than she looked. She walked in tiny, weak steps, feet barely leaving the ground, back bent, head low. She was out of breath, it seemed. She had aged fifty years in the space of a few hours.

“Where did you get the candles?”

“They were in Brooke's bag. She saved them from last time.”

“And the herbs?”

“The same. I only wish Brooke had memorized the rite itself, but she didn't.” She shrugged. “It doesn't matter, I suppose. I need to wait for the ring.”

“I see. And, uh, what are you doing now?” Stormy asked.

“Lighting the candles.” Her voice was hoarse.

“Well, yeah, I can see that. But could you elaborate?”

“For the ritual,” Beta said. “Vlad is coming. He's bringing the ring and the scroll.”

Stormy would have liked to think he wouldn't go through with it. That he would arrive like some kind of a dark knight in onyx armor and save her from the madwoman. But the madwoman was his wife. The love of his life. That was fact. Anything else she might come up with was guesswork. Hell, he'd never told Stormy how he felt about her. Not even in the past. Maybe if Beta had never been squatting inside her body, he never would have felt a damn thing to begin with.

And yet he tried to save me from her, all those years ago. Maybe he would again.

No, she couldn't count on him to get her out of this mess. She had to save herself.

She tugged, pulling her right arm, but not jerking it as she had before. Best to keep her efforts hidden. She exerted steady pressure and hoped to feel the stake in the ground give a little.

It didn't.

Perhaps sensing something, Beta turned to study her. “What are you doing?” She had lit half the candles by now.

“I can see why you moved us to a different spot,” Stormy said. “The wind isn't even touching the flames, is it?”

“No. We're sheltered here by the trees and those bigger boulders over there,” she replied, nodding toward the giant rocks that flanked their spot. So dark, the boulders. They blended into the night; Stormy hadn't seen them there behind the trees before.

Elisabeta resumed lighting the candles.

“You don't look so good,” Stormy said. Making conversation, hoping to mask her movements by keeping Beta distracted. She'd had no luck with the stake at her left arm and so was tugging surreptitiously on the right one now. One at a time, she thought, would let her exert more strength on a single goal. But so far this stake wasn't moving any more than the first one had.

“It doesn't matter. I'll be out of this body soon enough.”

“Yeah, it looks like any minute now.”

She felt the glare Beta shot her and stopped tugging on the right stake. No progress at all. Okay, maybe the one at her feet. She tugged hard, bending her knees upward a minuscule amount.

“Ahh, he's coming,” Beta said, straightening from the final candle and turning slowly. Her form was bowed, as if she were very old or very tired. The change in her from only a few hours earlier was astounding.

Stormy twisted her head to look in the direction the other woman was staring, and she saw a giant raven, as large as an eagle, easily, land heavily on the ground nearby. And then it opened its wings and seemed to stand straighter, stretch higher, and right before her eyes it changed until it became a man, all dressed in black.

Dracula.

Smiling, an expression that was downright frightening to behold, Beta called out, “Here, Vlad. I'm here.”

Stormy closed her eyes and tugged harder against the ropes holding her ankles. They burned, scraping her skin. It didn't matter. She had to get away. Dracula had arrived. To kill her or to save her? There was no way to know. She kept her eyes trained on his approach and struggled against her bonds, no longer trying to be quiet or still.

And then he stepped into the light cast by all those dancing candles. His eyes sought her out, found her, but gave nothing away. No sign of affection. No hidden, reassuring smile. Nothing. He just looked at her, his eyes skimming her face, then the stakes that held her arms and her ankles. She stopped straining to pull free while his attention was on her.

Then he looked at Elisabeta, and this time his face did change. He couldn't hide his shock and horror at the way she looked.

“By the gods, Beta-“

“I know,” she said. “I know how I look. I'm dying, Vlad.”

He nodded, moved closer, and lifted a hand to touch her hideous face. Damn him.

Stormy tried not to see the tenderness in his eyes, but she saw it anyway. He was here, and his mission might very well be to take her life.

And yet she loved him.

God, she was sick. Hopeless. Possibly helpless. And love him or not, she wouldn't hesitate to slit his throat and let him bleed if it meant the difference between her own living and dying. Not for a second. Maybe she wasn't totally hopeless after all.

She tugged harder. And the stake at her feet moved just a little.

Vlad couldn't believe the change in Beta. Though he supposed, logically, the changes were happening in Brooke's body, not in Beta at all. Just to the body she happened to be occupying at the moment. She looked weak. And in pain. She was suffering, and it hurt him to see it.

Tempest, on the other hand, seemed fine. Her eyes flashed the same fire as always, and though there was a swollen, purplish lump on one side of her head, she was well. Strong. Whole. Frightened, though. And angry, too.

He'd felt her eyes searching his, probing, as if for some sign of his intent. She didn't trust him, then. No. Why would she?

“Did you bring the ring and the scroll?” Beta asked.

“Yes.”

“Give them to me.”

He glanced at Tempest. Her eyes pleaded with him, but he tore his gaze away, and took the ring and the scroll from his pocket.

Elisabeta snatched the scroll from his hand, unrolled it and bent to set it on the ground, using small rocks at the top and bottom to keep it from rolling up again. She positioned it between two candles, so she could see to read it; then, as her eyes raced over the lines, she spoke to him without looking up. “Put the ring on her, Vlad.”

He looked at Tempest again.

She stared back at him, her eyes holding his powerfully as she shook her head slowly left, then right, then left again.

He hadn't moved. Beta swung her head toward him. “Do it, Vlad. We haven't much time. l… am weakening, even now.” Then she moved to the first pot of herbs and touched one of the candles to the pile until it caught and blazed. She let it burn a moment, then bent close and blew it out. Smoke wafted then, thick and fragrant. And Beta moved on to the next pot, and the next.

Vlad forced himself to step past the ring of blazing candles. To kneel beside Tempest, between her outstretched arm and her legs. He held the ring in his fingers, and he moved it toward her hand.

She bent her wrist, flinching from his touch. “Don't do this, Vlad.”

He looked at her, and saw the mistrust and hurt in her eyes. “I'm doing what I have to do.” The smoke from the herbs was increasing, growing thick, swirling around them.

“Look, I get that you love her and not me, okay? I totally get that. You want to be with her, and you'll do whatever it takes to be with her.”

“Stop it, Tempest.”

“No, I won't stop it. This is my life. I don't blame you for wanting to be with the woman you love, Vlad, but it's not fair that I should have to surrender my life to make it happen.”

He hesitated, the ring near the tip of her finger. He had to put it on her, but his hand was shaking.

From beyond him, Beta said, “And is it fair that I should have to die? Was it fair to keep me trapped between life and death for the past five hundred years?” She paused to draw a breath, exhausted, it seemed, just by the act of speaking. “One of us has to die, Tempest.”

“One of us already did, Elisabeta. One of us chose to die, by her own hand. You made that decision. Be woman enough to deal with the consequences.”

“Enough,” Vlad said. But his voice was choked and shaky, even to his own ears. “It's enough. There's no point in arguing. The decision is made. What must be done, must be done.” He clasped Tempest's wrist in his hand to hold it still.

She clamped her hand into a tight fist. “No! I won't let you do it.”

“Open your hand, Tempest.”

“No!”

Gods, he hated this. If emotional pain could kill, this would surely be the end of him. He stared into her eyes through the smoke that made his own water, and for one brief moment he let his heart show through. “Please, Tempest. Open your hand.”

She held his eyes, tears pooling in her own. “Vlad?”

Trust me, just this one more time.

He didn't know if their bond was powerful enough to allow her to hear his thoughts. But he thought it must be, when slowly, her fist unclenched, her fingers unbending slowly. “Damn you for this, Vlad,” she whispered. “Damn you. I love you.”

“I'm sorry.” He slid the ring onto her finger, then turned away, unable to meet her eyes for even a moment longer.

Elisabeta took his hand in hers and tugged him to the spot at the top of the circle of candles. “Here. You can read from the scroll here. Follow each instruction precisely.”

Nodding, he knelt and bent to look at the words on the scroll, then turned to observe what Elisabeta was doing.

She was lying down, taking a position beside Tempest.

“Begin,” she said.

“Don't do this to me, Vlad,” Tempest begged.

Vlad ignored her, though it wasn't easy. Not when there were tears sliding from the corners of her eyes and down her face. “Beta, this ritual isn't going to work.”

“Of course it will. Just begin, for the love of the gods. We haven't much time.”

She lay there, eyes closed. He slid a look toward Tempest but didn't dare let his eyes linger on her. “No. It's worded in a way designed to release you from the bonds of the ring, into the body of the one who wears it. But you've already been released from the bonds of the ring into Brooke's body.”

“We have to try, Vlad.”

“I didn't come unprepared,” he said. “I was afraid of exactly this problem, in fact. But I located another ritual, this one designed to do specifically what we need it to do.”

Beta opened her eyes but didn't look at him. “And what is it that we need it to do?”

“Free your spirit from Brooke's body.” He said it slowly. “Once we do that, then we can proceed with the original rite, the one to take you into Tempest's body.”

Beta drew a deep and stammering breath. “I… see. And where did you get this ritual?” She tried to sit up, struggled, and Vlad quickly went to her side, gripped her shoulders and helped her.

“I stole it from the files of the Sisterhood of Athena. No one knows I have it.” It was a lie. He'd stolen it not from the Sisterhood's files but from Rhiannon's pocket.

Once sitting upright, Beta leaned forward, bending over herself, hugging her waist. “Thank you, Vlad. I just… I'm not sure I-“

And before he knew what she had intended-the very instant the alarm in his mind began to warn him, in fact-he heard the explosion and felt the red-heat impale him. The gun barrel stabbed into his chest at the same moment she pulled the trigger, sending the bullet straight through him. The pain was blinding, and he sank to his knees to the sounds of Tempest's screams, blood gushing from his body.

Beta tore the ritual from his hand and moved toward the candlelight to read it. “I knew it,” she rasped. “I knew it was a trick. This ritual would exorcise me! You… you were going to kill me!”

“No. Beta, no,” Vlad said through clenched teeth. “I was going to free you.”

“You were going to save me,” Stormy whispered. “You… you chose me.”

He met her eyes, though his vision was beginning to blur. “I made that choice long ago, Tempest. I love you. All this time, I have loved you.”

“Bastard!” Beta shouted.

She crumpled the ritual Rhiannon had copied down for him, then held it to the flame of a candle until it caught and burned. Then she bent over the original sheet, the one with the ancient rite that would condemn Tempest to death, and she began to read the words. “Powers of the ancients and of the Underworld Gods, open the gates between life and death. Open the gates and take this one, this Tempest Jones. For her body belongs to me-Elisabeta Dracula.”

Vlad lifted his head, knew he was growing weaker by the second. “It won't work, Beta. It won't work, not this way.”

She paused to send him a hate filled glare. “How do I know you are not lying to me yet again, print, ul meu?”

“I swear it. I swear it on… on her life.”

“Her life? Yes. She matters that much to you, doesn't she? That the most meaningful vow you can imagine is to swear on her life. It does not matter, Vlad. Her life is about to end.”

“It won't work, I tell you. You'll both die if you go through with this.”

“I am dead either way,” she said, “Better I die trying to save myself than to simply give up. Better she die with me than I should die alone. She will never have you, Vlad.”

“I have him now, Elisabeta,” Stormy told her. “I've had him for sixteen years. Only I didn't know. I'm sorry I didn't trust you, Vlad.”

“I gave you no reason to trust me. And yet you did, in spite of everything, when you let me put that ring on your finger.”

“Shut up, both of you! You're making me sick!” Beta turned and moved to where Tempest lay, bending to clasp her ankles in a brutal grasp. “Singe la singe! Minte la minte! Corp la suflet! Al't u la al meu!” She shouted the words, and then she shouted them again and again.

Around her hands at Tempest's ankles, a silvery mist seemed to take shape.

“It is working,” Beta whispered.

“No!” Vlad cried. “Stop this, Beta! I beg of you, stop it now!”

“Soul to soul. Mind to mind. Body to body. Yours to mine,” she chanted. “Tempest, out! Elisabeta, in! By the powers of the Underworld, I will it so. Tempest, out! Go! Cross the veil! Do it now!”

The mist around Tempest's body began to spread up her legs, over her torso. It was like a thin shadow of Tempest, rising from her form as she lay there, wide eyed, thrashing and fighting to hold on. And now there was a similar shroud around Elisabeta.

“Hang on, Tempest!” Vlad cried. “Beta, don't do this! I beg of you!”

“Out, out, out!” Beta cried, her head tipping back now, her voice growing softer, her eyes taking on a glow not unlike that of a hungry vampire about to feed. “Guardians of the Underworld, take her now!”

Vlad used his remaining strength to rush at her, hitting her body and knocking her over onto her side. Her hands were wrenched free of Tempest's ankles, her chanting silenced. But as he lay there, struggling with the blinding, crippling pain, she wrestled free of him, got to her feet and, drawing the gun once more, pointed it at him.

Vlad felt hope desert him, and then it returned in a rush as he sensed Rhiannon's presence. She had followed him. Just as he had known she would. He turned his gaze toward where he sensed his dearest friend stood, just beyond the shadows. He felt her there, felt her waiting. He found her mind with his, nodded once. “Do what must be done.”

And she spoke. “Now, Melina.”

There was no sound other than Elisabeta's sudden shriek as her body jerked backward, away from Tempest. Stumbling, she landed on her side on the ground, gazing, stunned, at the dart that was embedded in her chest. She lifted trembling hands, grasped it and tore it free with a whimper of pain; then she tossed it angrily aside.

Melina stepped out of the shadows, a weapon in her hand. A gun made to shoot tranquilizer darts. Lupe stood beside with a gun of her own. A real one. It was Rhiannon who rushed forward, bending over Vlad, pressing a large piece of cloth to the wound in his chest.

“Don't waste time with me. It's Tempest you should be attending,” he cried. He stared at Stormy even as the mist that had been rising seemed to settle into her body once more. “Please, Rhiannon. Is she all right?”

Reluctantly, Rhiannon left him to crouch over Tempest, touching her, sensing her. She stroked a hand over her brow, then rose with a nod and returned to Vlad's side. “She'll survive. I'm not so certain about you.” She lifted her eyes and looked at Melina, who was kneeling now beside Elisabeta. “What about her?”

Leaning close, Melina spoke softly. “Brooke? Brooke, are you there?”

A clawed hand shot upward and raked Melina's face. She rocked backward. Lupe jerked her weapon into position and fired a shot at Brooke's body, but the bullet only hit the ground beside her, spitting sand and soil with its impact. Beta jerked at the sound, then went still.

“Are you trying to kill her?” Melina shouted. She whirled on Lupe, snatching the weapon from her hands.

“Elisabeta is still inside her,” Rhiannon said.

“It doesn't matter. We have the rite we need now, Rhiannon,” Melina said softly. “The one you wrote for us. We know how to set Elisabeta free.”

Vlad closed his eyes, moaned.

“What is it, Vlad?”

“I took the rite. I tried to use it myself, but Beta caught on. She burned it.”

“No matter,” Rhiannon said. “I knew it went missing-and hoped to the gods my guess that you had taken it was correct.” She glanced at Melina. “You'll find another copy of the rite in the library desk at the manse. Use it.”

“We will,” Melina said. “Tonight. There's still plenty of time to get Brooke back to Athena House and perform the ritual. We'll take care of it. I promise you that.” She got to her feet, and brushed herself off, then moved closer to Vlad, while Lupe removed handcuffs and shackles from a bag, and snapped them around Elisabeta's wrists and ankles.

Melina knelt beside him. “If you don't make it, I promise you, your love will be awaiting you on the other side. I'll see to it.”

Vlad shook his head, glancing toward Tempest, who lay still, barely conscious now, her eyes unfocused and wet. “No,” he said. “The one I love is here.”

Melina nodded and turned to Rhiannon.

“Take her and be done with it,” Rhiannon said. “I've work to do here.”

“I hope… I hope we're okay now. You and me,” Melina said to her.

“My issue has been with your organization, not with you, Melina. And that remains the case.” She thinned her lips. “However, I will concede that the Sisterhood of Athena has a few… worthy members.” Quickly Rhiannon gathered Brooke's ravaged body up into her arms. “I'll take her to the car for you.” She shot a look back at Vlad. “Don't move. And for the sake of the gods, don't bleed out.”

Vlad wished he could promise not to. Instead, he waited until she was out of sight and then dragged himself toward where Tempest lay. He pulled himself alongside her and then lay still, his head close to hers, one hand in her hair. He used what strength remained in him to free her hand from the rope that held it.

“Vlad?” she whispered. Her newly freed hand came up to cup his cheek.

“It's you, Tempest,” he told her. “Not her. It's been you all along. I'm sorry it took me so long to tell you. But if I had revealed my heart, she would have known. I had to make her trust me in order to save you.”

“Vlad, you're bleeding again.” She turned to the side, rapidly freeing her other hand; then she sat up, untied her ankles and cradled his head in her lap.

“Please, just listen to me,” he said. “There may not be much time. You were right all along. I barely knew Elisabeta. We met at a time of crisis, when neither of us had anything to live for. We clung to each other. But I didn't know her. You-I know you, Tempest. I knew you sixteen years ago. You are the woman I love. There can be no other. Nor has there ever been. Not really. Perhaps the reason I was drawn to Elisabeta so long ago was because she was foreshadowing of her spiritual descendant. Of you, Tempest. Only you.”

“Vlad, we have to help you. You're… you're… “

“No, love. There's nothing you can do. Just tell me, please. Tell me you believe me this time. I came here to save you, not to hurt you.”

“I believe you. And I love you, too, Vlad. I have all along. I've loved you for sixteen years.”

He felt as if a weight had been lifted from his soul, and he smiled. “Thank you, Tempest.” And then his eyes fell closed.