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The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Nineteen)

When they backed off, she moved forward. She stumbled, reach- ing for the table, and hissed in warning as Mason stepped to- ward her. As Jacob watched, she worked her way around the edge until she got to him. It all struck him as surreal. There was Brian in a tuxedo, accept- ing a large syringe from Debra. The cylinder appeared to contain a cup of a blue serum. It was pretty, sparkling sapphire in the dim light. A pretty potion that would kill him. Meanwhile, Uthe had been courteous enough to bring his lady a chair. Perhaps when this was over, they would all–except for him–return to the Ball. Such was the way of life for vampires. Killing and death and socializing and civility so intertwined it colored their entire world in a way that no human would ever mistake for their own. "His shirt, my lady, " Brian gestured, looking uncomfortable but determined. "The serum is delivered directly into the heart. " She made a threatening noise as Debra began to move. The woman immediately backed off. After a tense moment, Lyssa reached across Jacob. Her fingers trembled, though her face remained impas- sive. A lesion had appeared at her chin and was moving down her throat, a hateful serpent of disease eating away her beauty. Yet no physical blemish could mar the fierce beauty of her soul, the wild purity of it he'd had the pleasure to touch and experience.

"You choose now to flatter your Mistress, when you've disobeyed her to the point I don't know of any punishment great enough to inflict upon you. " "No, my lady. " He closed his hand over hers when she rested her hand on his bare chest, the black shirt sliding free with the pull of gravity, pooling on either side of him on the table. Brian raised him enough so that Uthe could step close and slide the rest off, leaving his upper body bare. His insides felt as though they were boiling, but suddenly he was cold on the outside, feeling the surface of the table, his nerves acting up, making his jaw tremble. He was about to die. He was lying here, waiting to have his life taken from him. He tightened his jaw fiercely and increased the grip of his hand on hers, feeling her slim fingers, the disease eating the soft skin on the top. Her nails had already blackened, and it appeared two of them had fallen off. Jesus, it was moving fast. "I never should have given you that third mark. They couldn't have done this to you. " "Ah, my lady. " He cupped her face, the fear washed away by the aching need to ease the pain he heard in her voice. "Look at me. Please. " When she did, he raised his head enough to brush her lips. "I would have coaxed you into it. From the day we met, you've never been able to say no to me and you know it. " She pressed her lips together hard and managed to cut herself with a fang. She averted her face when he tried to touch the wound. Debra approached now cautiously with stethoscope and blood pressure cuff. "To monitor the progress of the serum, " she explained. She managed to wrap it around his biceps efficiently, despite being pinioned under the cold stare of those green eyes. "Not the usual accessory for a ball gown. " He coughed, catching the end of her stethoscope and tugging on it for emphasis.

Debra's glance flickered toward him but she didn't smile. She pressed two fingers on his chest, marked with a swab the entry point for the needle where it apparently wouldn't strike a rib. Then she put the stethoscope to his chest.

He could have told her his breath was starting to labor, a symp- tom his lady wouldn't display. But she had ones that told them the same thing. The blackened skin on her wrists was creeping upward like the slow ooze of mud. The trembling of her hands had increased. There was a twitching motion to her head that he didn't know if she had noticed. Her fingers spasmed on him, revealing that she was fighting pain. The smell of burning flesh was getting stronger, and when her other hand went to her abdomen, her expression tighten- ing, he knew it was spreading inside. He felt it intensifying in his vi- tal organs, though it was not eating away his skin as it was hers. Sweat collected on his skin and his body jerked of its own volition, just as hers did the same. She grabbed at the edge of the table, trying to stay upright. "Hurry, " Jacob said sharply. No. No. "We'd do this with an IV if we could, my lady, but there's no time. I need to do it. " Brian paused. He was smart enough to wait for her word, Lyssa reflected, though she knew that wouldn't be for long. They were clustered around her like vultures. Only instead of wanting to feed on her death, they were forcing her to accept a life she didn't want. "Did you tell her she looks beautiful?" Brian looked at her, startled. "My lady?" "Debra looks beautiful in her dress. Did you tell her that?" He blinked. Debra shifted her attention to the vampire queen. "Of course she looks beautiful. " Brian seemed to recover himself, his tone one of a person dealing with a mentally unbalanced patient. He flinched as Lyssa's hand closed on his wrist over Jacob's body, her eyes glittering. "My mind is all here, young Lord Brian. " Despite the rasp in her voice, she conveyed menace enough to capture his complete atten- tion. "That's not the question I asked. " "My lady, there is no time for this, " Lord Uthe said. Lyssa followed his gaze down to her sternum where the burning pain she'd thought was only in her chest had burned through to the outside, a charred expanse of flesh visible and spreading. The fire moved with it.

Jacob caught Brian's wrist and yanked him forward, taking ad- vantage of the man's surprise to plunge the needle into his chest at the spot Debra had marked. He cried out at the pain, screamed as Brian depressed the plunger. "No, no . . . " It took precious seconds for Lyssa to fight free of Ma- son, who'd lunged forward to hold her back until Brian injected the serum fully into her servant's body. Lyssa shoved him away at last, covering Jacob with her body and knocking Brian's arm back just as he withdrew the needle. The syringe fell to the floor, the large glass vial shattering. Several vampires started forward, but Brian cut a sharp hand at them despite their seniority, warding them away from her. "It's done. It all went in. Debra, start the timer. " A silence fell over the room, the Council retreating to a tense half circle on the other side of the conference table. The stillness was bro- ken only by Jacob's gasping as he tried to accept the pain like fire burning him from the inside. "It's like being . . . Branded all over for you, my lady. All over, in- side and out . . . " "He does not have to be conscious for this, " Debra said urgently. "Brian–Master . . . " "No. " Jacob forced the word through clenched teeth. "My lady . . . Please . . . Will you hold my hand . . . ?" The way he asked, Lyssa could tell he thought she was still angry with him. She wrapped her hand around his, despite the fact she had to see the beauty of his strong fingers overlapping her hands where the skin was peeling away, exposing muscle and tissue, pink for only a moment before it, too, began to burn. She'd borne pain before, knowing it would not kill her, that it was just a period of time to bear. Now she bore it the same way. For even this was just a moment, one scant moment that might be her last with Jacob. To be part of his mind, one with his soul . . . The serum was a pain like the tearing of the inside of his artery walls. Her own pain merged with it, taking her to a point beyond screaming, almost into the trancelike numbness inflicted upon those seeking visions through agonizing torture. She couldn't stop the moan that broke from her lips.

"My lady, break the link. " Brian's voice was sharp. "If you try to share his pain, you can put your body under worse duress. " Mason's hands clamped on her shoulders. "Damn it, Lyssa. Stop it. " Lyssa tried to shrug him off, but Jacob made a noise, drawing her attention to him. His fair skin tone had gone the white of a virgin's wedding dress and sweat pooled under his body on the table. He was bleeding from his nose, his eyes bloodshot. There was something unforgivable in making something so beautiful into this, she thought dully, tumbling in the surf of her own agony. "Break . . . It, my lady. Talk to me . . . With your beautif . . . Beau- tiful l-lips. I'll hear you . . . You don't have to share my pain to atone . . . For Thomas. He knew. He understood. As I do. " If it was possible, the words tore into her with even sharper claws than the pain. She shook her head, clutched at his arm and watched the impressions of her fingers remain, bruise the skin instantly. "I don't want you to leave me, " she said, fighting the thickness in her throat. "You've left me . . . Twice before. I won't tolerate it. You've disobeyed me enough today. " His face contorted. Fire rose in her, a reflection of the fire in him. Blinding, excruciating. He was mortal. He shouldn't have to endure this. "Please, my lady, " he pleaded. "I can't bear to cause you more pain. Please . . . A last request. " With an oath, she broke the link, but only because she knew if the pain ratcheted up any further, she'd lose consciousness. As awful as this was, knowing she'd wake up on the other side of a faint and find him gone was worse. Though his body remained rigid with physical anguish, his ex- pression eased. Her tears burned down her cheeks. "It never occurred to you, did it?" She spoke soft ly, not because she cared if they heard, but because she had no strength left to raise her voice. His clear blue eyes found her as she stroked his cheek. His limbs were trembling, his teeth chattering as he fought to focus on her words. She suspected any other man would be screaming. Without the connection, she couldn't feel the level of his pain, could do noth- ing but wait to take his life force from him like a parasite.

"W-What, my lady?" His lips had dried out and now cracked so that more blood seeped from the full and sensuous bottom one she'd nipped more than once. "That I wouldn't want to live in a world without you in it. " Her sentimental Irishman. Her words made his eyes fill with tears, but when he lifted his shaking hand to her face, his thumb found the track of wetness from her own. "Ah, my lady . . . You know you don't mean it. " Somehow he found the strength to stroke her with the reassuring, calm touch he'd always used. He even reached out an arm, drew her away from Mason and closer so she lay half on his chest and could hear his heart thundering, racing, running out of time. "Once your strength . . . Is restored, you'll say it was . . . The disease. Making you talk . . . Like this. " Jacob could feel her weakness. It only reinforced what he knew he had to do. He would save her. She would live. "You bastard. " She clung to him. "You know it's not that. " He tipped her face up. He tried his best to fight past his own ag- ony, to put his heart in his eyes. There was too much pain for him to know if she was still in his mind against his wishes. "Well . . . When you're . . . All better, I'll . . . My spirit . . . We'll wait to hear you say it again, and know you mean it. I . . . Regret nothing except . . . Leaving you. " Getting hard to focus. She swallowed. "I order you not to do this. " "Too late. " This you cannot command, my lady, because my first duty is to protect you. I will serve it faithfully, always. He touched her lips with his, despite the charred skin on her face, despite the blood still running from his nose over his lips. That didn't matter. He made her hold his gaze, his shaking thumbs tracing her tears, un- able to speak anymore, but still able to give her his thoughts. In this life and the next. There will be a next. I'll never leave you alone. Not ever. Lyssa pressed her forehead to Jacob's shoulder. "I will not tolerate this, " she said again into his flesh.

You will, my lady. 'Twill be all right. A vampire's . . . Nature is to embrace life. Live . . . To the fullest. "Shut up, " she said, a sob choking her. "I don't wish to hear such things from you now. " Debra discreetly inserted a needle in his arm, drawing out a sample. Brian took it from her, both moving at a quick step to the microscope. There were painful flashes of color in his vision. Sharp, knifelike silver, the red of blood, the glaring yellow of a too hot sun. Gods, he'd never hurt so much. Go on; get it over with, he thought hazily. My lady needs my blood. Jacob . . . Her sob of anguish called him back. Sssh, my lady. He was grateful that he could still be coherent in his mind in a way he could no longer accomplish verbally. You al- ways hoped that your sacrifices for Rex . . . That one day it would be enough. He would become the man you wanted him to be. That's not the way it works. He has to deserve the sacrifice. My lady, you deserve the sacrifice. You deserve everything I can give you and more. When he turned his head, pressed his lips to her temple, some- thing inside Lyssa's heart cracked, an audible sound. Why didn't any of them understand? This was her time to go. Had she not suffered enough loss over the past two years to prove it, lived enough centu- ries, completed enough? Perhaps she would like to live in this world longer, but for once with no expectations of her. She'd been prepared to die because Ja- cob was going to die. She couldn't imagine what compass would be there to guide her on the other side of this. She could choose to meet the sun once she was restored to herself, and Mason had as much as said no one would stop her. But where would Jacob be by then? If they went together, as irrational an idea as it might be, it was in her mind that he couldn't be taken from her. She'd worried about the idea of Hell, of having no soul. Now she only worried about not hav- ing him by her side in the afterlife, whatever it might be. Damn it all, she'd always provided her own compass. Why should this situation be so different? She was not helpless; she never had been. Jacob was right. A vampire's natural desire, contrary to their dark reputation, was to embrace life.

How could she embrace it for both of them? "My lady, it's time. You need to drink now. " She raised her head, feeling Brian's light touch. As she heard the terrible words, she met Jacob's eyes, inches from hers. "No, " she whispered. Her eyes filled with tears anew, thinking of life draining out of that clear gaze. She knew what death looked like there, the cloudy glassiness. She couldn't bear the idea. How had he come to mean so much in such a little time? She was sure everyone in the room thought it the distorted effect of the disease. Thomas thought it was because they shared a link that extended far beyond the past handful of months. But her head was filled with everything Jacob had said or done during the short time in this life they'd had together. From the very first he'd made an impression like a launched arrow, and the shaft of his presence had embedded itself more firmly every moment since then. She didn't care that they saw her tears. Brian was shifting, obvi- ously warring with the need to press her and the automatic reaction of their kind to draw back from an emotional display, give her the courtesy of privacy. She felt him exchange a glance with Mason, and Mason start to step closer to her again. "Do not push me on this, " she said. You can lead a horse to wa- ter . . . The menace in her voice was enough to push them back. She kept her gaze on Jacob's suffering form, those beautiful blue eyes no longer able to pay attention to what was going on in the room. He was just staring at her as if memorizing every feature in her face, just like the first time she'd seen him at the Eldar. "I almost walked out that night, " she said. "Impulsive, brash man. You know that?" I knew you wouldn't leave. You wanted me too much. The trace of humor that flickered through his eyes broke her heart further. His voice in her mind had become as erratic and harsh as his breathing now. She laid her hand on his chest, watched it shake with his movements. "Liar, " she whispered. "You were ner- vous. You lie to your Mistress now, even on your . . . " "Deathbed. " He finished the sentence when she couldn't. Thread-ing his trembling fingers in her hair, he began to apply downward pressure to her nape, even as she began to resist.

"Please . . . My lady. Come let me nourish you . . . Once more, give you life. It will be . . . My honor. " He sucked in an abrupt, laboring breath. His body began to rip- ple, the precursor to a convulsion. His hand clutched involuntarily against her throat and dug into the rotting skin there. Hurry. Please, my lady. The muscles of her face were going to shatter with the force of the grief that swept her. With a cry of animal pain, she pressed her face to his throat and bit, cupping his neck to hold him, to convey her presence, her awareness of his sacrifice even as she took what he of- fered. His life for her own. The serum was there, a taste that made the blood even more me- tallic and somewhat bitter, interfering with the taste of Jacob she loved, that she wanted uncorrupted. She remembered her first taste of him had been spoiled by the medicine that had staved off the virus for a while. The beginning was the end. Full circle. She'd seen that proven throughout her life. Now she knew it held an important key, if she could struggle through the agony of this moment. Beginnings and endings . . . Beginnings. Her hand found his other hand, lying across his bare stomach. Their fingers intertwined once more. She gripped hard, and he gripped back. She knew she was giving herself an unwelcome ba- rometer, for that grip would slacken as life left him. No one lived up to expectations, most especially herself. But once the soul could find a way to swim out of that defeatist quagmire, it would reach a quieter plain. See someone as they really were, not as the artist intended him, not the interpretation of the viewer, but what he was, the simple truth of a soul . . . A still place where things were simply as they were. There was a poignant beauty in the finding of that reality, because so much of life was seen through the mind-numbing, deafening ca- cophony of illusion. Hell was noise, and Hell could close in every day. In the silence that descended upon her, the pain was just a backdrop, a roaring wall like the water at the mall that evening when she gave Jacob the second mark.

It stilled everything outside of where she sat next to him. The only thing that lived was her and the man on the table. A soul is a soul. Thomas's words. Jacob was Jacob, whether in the body of a samurai guard, a knight or a young man carry ing both mantles as his legacy. Even as he spun the tires of his bike and made Bran chase him, Bushido had been his life and his philosophy, whether he knew it or not. The way of the warrior, spiritually, physically. Serious, amused, sometimes even shy or naive, though he would be disgruntled to hear her think of him that way. He would apolo- gize for none of it, only challenging himself to be and do more for her well-being. No, he wasn't appropriate to be a servant. Not by the definition that existed in the vampire world. But when the expecta- tions fell away, disappointed, there he stood inside her, everything she'd ever wanted. He also was exactly what she needed, and she wished she'd realized it sooner, so she wouldn't have made him fight so hard to earn her realization of it. She was a queen, and a vampire. Daughter of a Fey lord. She had her compass, and it did not answer to anyone surrounding her now, only to the man whose life she was taking, who'd given it freely. To whom she'd given her heart in a way she hadn't to anyone else,not in her entire long life. As a vampire, she didn't possess the humility that mortals with their short life spans had to cultivate. She expected things to occur the way she wanted them to occur, and by God she wasn't going to accept this outcome. "My lady–" "Can it hurt her, to keep drinking?" "Perhaps she needs the additional strength . . . She was so close to the end . . . " Disparate voices, worried murmurs, irritations only. The lesion on her hand disappeared. The one on her breast closed, healing into smooth skin. She felt the burns on her face receding like their wor- ries. Their awe and amazement vaguely reached her, as did Brian's sense of triumph. She released the serum from her fangs, felt it speed through Jacob's body and merge with the antivirus serum as she opened herself to what was going on inside him, his body nearly drained of its blood.

It caught her heart in a fist, the feel of those systems failing, the pro- cess of death she knew intimately, but she also saw the serum wind- ing through those passages, quicksilver mixing with the blue among empty passages that had been filled with blood she'd drained from him. Just a little more . . . The effect of Brian's potion was rocketing through her like a hal- lucinogenic, only in reverse. The clarity of her reality was now so sharp it was as if everyone in the room but her and Jacob were mov- ing and speaking in extreme slow motion. His fingers were loose. No responding pressure as she held them. Somewhere his soul was hovering, wanting to go to the place he de- served, but he would still want to see he'd done what he swore to do. Protect her to the end. But I haven't released you. You are still my servant, and I com- mand you to come back to me, Jacob. I won't let you go. Silence. A void. Her soul suddenly emptied as if it had been tipped over, obscenely quick. She knew what having a servant die felt like. Thomas had been the worst of all those she'd lost, until now. A never-ending emptiness, the very definition of loss. What she wanted didn't appear to matter. She looked, searched desperately within him for any indication, but now her serum glit- tered in his system like malachite on rock. Inanimate, sparkling but inert. "He's gone. " Debra's voice, soft, compassionate. The stethoscope was pressing over his heart, just above their linked hands. His hand was heavy, wanting to fall, drop away from hers. Lyssa wanted to kill Debra, silence her forever for saying those words. "Lady Lyssa, it's over. " Lyssa lifted her head, her fangs marked with the remnants of his blood. Traces of ethereal silver mixed with it. "She . . . " Uthe's eyes widened, flicked to Jacob. "She turned him. " "She tried to turn him. " Mason stepped forward before panic could sweep the room. "She was unsuccessful. The man is dead. "

A pause, where she could hear her heartbeat. One, two. Thump. Thump. Something was . . . Odd. The physical pain was gone, but she wasn't going to survive the tearing agony of Jacob's death. He was gone, no longer in her mind. She was alone. Completely alone. Some- thing was dying . . . Something important but she couldn't seem to care . . . Energy exploded through her. Lyssa arched back, screaming as the transformation clamped down on her, tore her into pieces. The dress split. Her fingers, rising to untangle herself from it, lengthened with the razor-sharp claws of her talons. It was as if by emptying her reserve of conversion fluid into Ja- cob's blood, there had been a reaction between Brian's serum and hers that had kicked back through her own system and overloaded it. Her Fey form was the only one strong enough to take the reaction. Like Mason and the Council, her own body had ignored her wishes and was forcing her to grasp at life. Whenever she transformed, the exponential melding of her two forms was something she could control with careful precision, as Jacob well knew from the night she'd taken him on the forest floor. She'd transformed portions of herself between human and Fey as needed without effort. Not now. Her other self literally exploded out of her vampire- humanoid form, tearing her flesh to ribbons, tearing screams from her throat as she inadvertently dropped Jacob's lifeless fingers. His hand flopped to the side, his blue eyes staring, glazed over. She snarled, her fangs lengthening to curve over her chin. With serpent- quick movements she lunged onto the table as Brian started forward with Uthe and Belizar. Now they stopped as she hissed, going to a crouch. "You will not touch him. " Her wings cut from her back as if coming into the room from a different reality. Ten feet from tip to tip, she filled a good portion of the chamber with her physical presence, though the mental impact was far more considerable. The Council members were up against the wall. "Holy Christ, " Brian murmured. "My lords, I didn't take into account . . . There was no time.

She isn't full vampire. This must be a mutation of the serum because of her Fey blood. My lady, stay calm. We can figure out what has happened . . . " The wildness of her soul manifested itself, throwing off all yokes of restraints. She had nothing left to lose. She laughed, the rasping sound of a harpy's deadly hiss whispering through the trees at a soulless hour of night. "I am calmer than you can imagine, Lord Brian. I am as calm as death. " For years, she'd exercised rigid control over her words and ac- tions to achieve her goals for her own species, to protect her servant, to try to love a husband unable to accept love. Always knowing what was expected of her, never resenting it, knowing the advantages that power gave her to live her life as she chose. Until now. They would know what it meant to try and wrest power from a queen. Lord Belizar's eyes narrowed. "It is not a mutation, Lord Brian. " Cocking her head, she placed her claws on either side of Jacob's head, covering him completely, like an eagle guarding her young. "If you are clever enough to figure that out, Lord Belizar, you are clever enough to let me take my servant without attempting to molest me further. " Her voice was a rough growl. "Lady Lyssa, " Helga said, "you cannot convert a servant. It breaks our most basic law. And there is no telling what he could be, particu- larly converting him with the serum in his blood. " "She's no longer Lady Lyssa. Perhaps she never was. " This from Carola. "She is your queen, " Mason snapped, despite the fact his atten- tion was riveted upon her, his expression one of fascination and amazement. "She just abdicated. " Belizar threw out an arm, gesturing angrily in her direction. "Look at her. She has deceived us, for how many years? We cannot follow one such as this. Nor will anyone follow a Council that does. As head of this Council, I order her execution for her deception. Her servant's body should be burned and so should hers. " "Over my dead body. " Mason moved so he was at her side. The Council shifted, muttering. "With all due respect, my lord . . . " It almost made Lyssa laugh, Brian observing courtesy when the air was rife with barely suppressed violence.

"A human body cannot take the serum. She has not converted him. I tell you without doubt that Jacob is dead. I could study the effect of the serum on him. If you burn him–" Lyssa blinked. "You think I would let you dissect him?" The harsh menace of her voice in this form would have been intimidat- ing even if she was in a mild mood, so she appreciated that he squared his shoulders and met her gaze when he began to respond. "My lady–" "She is not to be addressed thus. " Belizar was practically frothing at the mouth. It took visible effort for him to look at her. Lyssa re- membered how Jacob had looked at her the first time she'd changed. Touching her sleek, muscular gray skin with wonder. Making her shiver with longing. "We have not voted, " Lady Helga said. Over the shouts and argu- ments, in which she could smell the tension moving to boiling point, Lyssa met Brian's confused but not unsympathetic eyes. But they would not get Jacob's body. Would not set fire to it. Would not cut it up. None of them. He was cold. All the steps of mortal death, followed by the slow rot of his corpse. The blue eyes would decay and disappear. How could God bear the inevitable end to one of His most beautiful sculptures? Did none of it matter? Were all the noble principles sim- ply the fantasies of living beings who assigned them to a Divinity who didn't care? If that Divinity didn't care that Jacob's body had been destroyed, then Lyssa couldn't imagine It would care if she turned the walls in here red with the blood of the very Council she'd created. "Kill her . . . " Belizar's command. Seconded by another Council member. And another. She'd known vampires were like this, had ac- cepted it as a weakness even as she appreciated their strengths. What was remarkable was how humans tolerated it enough to become their servants, this superiority that, when challenged, proved itself to be no less self-serving and motivated by fear than any other form of prejudice, human, vampire or otherwise. She was weary of it all.

She was hungry for blood. Anyone's blood would do at this point. If they didn't stop their cacophony, she would impose silence in a way that would most satisfy the ache inside her. She dropped low, readying herself. Mason was at her side, his body still, waiting. His eyes had narrowed, his lip curling back. He pulled the sword hidden in the cane he'd brought with him to the chamber and gripped the wooden shaft in his opposite hand. Only on Belizar's face did she see complete resolve. The others were uncertain, angry and confused. Some were perhaps willing to follow Belizar's lead, but not with the odds so decisively stacked in her and Mason's favor. But just like a scene from Gone with the Wind, where the Southern gentlemen were so certain that all that was needed to win the war was their honor, so her Council still clung to the naivety that their "purity" made them invincible. If they charged, she knew without a doubt she and Mason would kill them all. And the vampires would be once again lawless, leaderless . . . She struggled to care, but all she felt was the weight of loss and fury. "Take her now, " Belizar thundered. His voice was swallowed by a muted roar outside the chamber. The walls shuddered as if the structure of the west wing had been shaken on its foundation. Distant screams speared through the walls, under the door. The smell of smoke reached their heightened senses. Several vampires had thrown themselves forward, but now came up short in confusion. Lyssa cared not for what was happening out- side of this room. The second they moved, she lunged into the air. Her wide wingspan cut sharply through the air, talons reaching with deadly chaotic and unpredictable intent. Her barbed tail lashed out like a whip as she hovered over Jacob where none could get to him. Mason went to a half kneel, weapons at the ready, ducking under the movement of her wings as if he'd fought next to a Fey warrior all his life. "Earthquake? What–" "No, " Lord Mortimer said. He stood at the wall, still uncommit- ted to Belizar's suit. "Explosion. " Belizar's eyes were focused inward. "Malachi says we are under attack by . . . Vampire hunters, " he said tersely, affront in his tone at the very idea. "

A significant force in numbers, if not capability. They somehow planted explosives on the verandah and have swarmed into the castle. " Lady Helga cried out, doubling over. Lord Welles caught her by the waist, steadying her. No one in the room asked what had hap- pened. They all knew the signs of losing a servant abruptly with no time to brace the body against the loss. Hadn't they just seen an ex- ample of it moments before? "Tristan, " she whispered. Jacob's loss was like a fire roaring through Lyssa's blood, squeez- ing her vital organs. She was going to go mad. Hold, lady. Mason's voice. Be our queen. "Malachi says the explosion wounded perhaps sixty, killed a dozen servants at least. They targeted the upper levels and are taking advantage of the surprise to advance. We will go to their aid, " Beli- zar said shortly. His gaze rose, met Lyssa's. "You have your head start, Lady Lyssa. If you do not want this Council to hunt you down and bring you to justice for your deception, then you should make certain we never see you again. We will purge the memory of your hybrid existence from our ranks. " "If you have so little value for your life, " she responded, red eyes glittering, "come and find me, for I will never hide from the likes of you. It is not so difficult to defeat a mind that refuses to change. " Belizar's eyes flashed, but abruptly his expression suff used with shock. "The vampire hunters have breached the inner walls, but there is . . . Another group. " His attention snapped back up to Lyssa. "Vampires. There is a group of vampires apparently part of this, us- ing the humans to attempt an overthrow of the Council. They are on their way here, led by–" He stiffened. Though he managed his reaction better than Helga, his face still went rigid with pain. "Malachi. " "Who?" Mason stepped forward, his eyes narrowed. "He did not . . . " Belizar shook his head, struggling to overcome the effects of the severed link. "He couldn't show me before they took his life. They must have seen him. He exposed himself to be sure of what he saw. "

"We know who it is, " Lyssa said flatly. "It is Carnal and his car- rion eaters. " Lord Stewart snarled. "We should have known. He has been in- creasingly defiant. " "Joining with humans to attack us?" Mortimer scoffed. "Carnal, who despises humans far more than anyone else?" "Perhaps Carnal was able to overcome his prejudices to use their strengths. He has a bit more adaptability than this Council. Unfor- tunately, he's also a sociopath, " Mason observed contemptuously. "Carnal has been traveling a great deal these days, " Lyssa said. She didn't want to be involved in this, didn't want to care, but she was speaking despite herself. "Recruiting for this, I suspect, and he was wise enough to choose those who were in his camp, no chance of the secret slipping out. " "You foresaw this–" Belizar accused. "Oh, good Christ. You all foresaw this. You fools just assumed he would use the Council floor to try to initiate his coup. In all your civility, you've forgotten that the root of a vampire's nature is vio- lence, particularly when the end he seeks is total domination, " Ma- son snapped. "You did nothing. You should have staked him out years ago. " So in the end, it is your cynicism that is our ultimate truth. You were right. I was the biggest fool of all. Mason glanced at her. No, my lady. To try to make your world a better place and fail is far nobler than to never have the faith to try. He turned his attention back to the Council. "If we are to stop this we need to get out there. Now. " "Where we cannot tell friend from foe?" Belizar shook his head. Lyssa snarled. Even during this, the most horrible moment of her entire life, she refused to let someone like Carnal take control of what she'd worked so hard to build. She felt the horrid stillness of Jacob's body beneath her, remembered Carnal striking his face, re- membered how close Jacob had come to staking him. If he'd been alive, she knew what he would be saying. What are you waiting for, my lady? Go finish what I started. Kick his goddamn ass.

She registered the fleeting feral grin on Mason's face as he caught the thought and reminded herself to break his jaw later, just on gen- eral principle. It would heal, after all. "Your opponents will be Carnal and the territory leaders who have been seeking pre-Council ways. " Where vampires could rampage unchecked in the human world, which would spell vampire extinction. She played for just a blink with the idea of letting it happen, and then let that go. All she had to do was remember Danny, Devlin, Mason . . . Thomas. Jacob. Even more appealing, she'd have the immediate opportunity to kill someone. Many someones, and that was what she wanted more than anything. At least of the things that were within her power. "That means he will likely have twenty percent of the overlords with him. They'll have armed their servants, " Uthe spoke. "There's no time for subterfuge. Either we go out now and respond with aggression or they corner us here. Mason, it's your home. Malachi said they de- stroyed the verandah. What way are they likely to take to get here?" "The west corridors are the quickest route. They might divide their forces though, bring someone around the east side to cut off escape. " "We have allies out there. " Lyssa found it easier to concentrate on the problem at hand instead of the terrible reality of the still body on the table. "Any of you who have a blood link to a vampire here you trust, let them know what is happening. That was the point of Carnal's alliance with the hunters, or however he accomplished their presence here. Those loyal to Council are out there fighting hu- man hunters. By the time they understand the real enemy is Carnal and his group, they'll have us cornered and slaughtered. " "Do it, " Uthe said, since Belizar seemed at a loss for words at the moment. Lyssa nodded, gazed into space for a moment, mirrored by other Council members. She looked for Danny. Blinking several times, she started at the click of the link, like the blast of a television turned on at high volume. Through Danny's eyes, she saw carnage. Smoke, fire, the rubble of the verandah. Bodies flung and sprawled. Limbs ampu- tated. The chaos and noise of battle.

She and Devlin were fighting back-to-back, fending off a quartet of hunters. Praying she would not distract her to adverse effect, Lyssa fed her the information. She heard Danny swear colorfully in acknowledgment. As she tore the head off a hunter, Lyssa appreciated not only the viciousness but the creative suggestion related to Carnal's origins. Danny kicked the body out of her way and went after another. Slamming him to his back on the ground, she ducked as Devlin launched a pike and took a man in the chest who was coming to the aid of her current victim with a crossbow. "It's done. But how long it will be before she can act on it, I don't know. She's under siege. " The other vampires reported similar results. Mason's eyes nar- rowed. "An unexpected aerial attack will slow Carnal down, confuse the hunters. It will give those we've contacted time and space to muster the other vampires. And give us cover to get out there. " Lyssa shook her head. "I won't leave Jacob here alone. " "He won't be. I'll stay here, " Mason responded. "You are as powerful as she is, " Helga pointed out. "We need you to fight. " Brian stepped forward. "I will stay by him, Lady Lyssa. As I live, he will suffer no desecration, not even from me. " She pinned him with a gaze, and he bowed. "I may not be every- thing you want me to be, my lady, but I do not lie. " Lyssa glanced down, slid her talon along the side of Jacob's brow. She couldn't bear the dead expression of his face, but she couldn't close his eyes, not with her hands like this. She tried to make the claws retract, something that was typically easy for her, but there seemed to be no link to her human form she could trigger, the famil- iar path back to herself. Debra stepped forward. Brian reached out a hand to hold her back, a protective gesture that brought her to a halt. "Please, my lady, " she said soft ly. "Let me help. " "There's no time for this, " Uthe said. He was always sensible, logical. He didn't have Belizar's ambition, just the desire to see the world as she'd envisioned it.

Nevertheless, at the moment Lyssa still wanted to destroy him with all the others. Lyssa inclined her head. Brian did not release Debra's arm. "My lady . . . " "I will not harm her. I may not be everything you want me to be"–she tossed his words back to him, indicating her altered form– "but I do not lie. " His jaw tightened. Nodding, he allowed his servant to move for- ward into the shadow of Lyssa's tensely poised body. Debra gently closed Jacob's lids. Removing her earrings, flat silver circles ironi- cally bearing the Celtic knot symbols for love, she took out the hooks and laid the disks on his eyes. When she lifted her head, Lyssa saw no revulsion, only a sorrow that wrenched her own up several notches. It was easier to handle her grief when she knew it wasn't shared by anyone in the room. The tears in Debra's eyes could undo her. "Jacob had more honor than any man I've ever met, Lady Lyssa. We will make sure your wishes are respected or die trying. " "How do we know she won't get out there and join them against us?" Anger flushed Mason's expression. "Damn you, Belizar. She's given more to this Council and our way of life than anyone in this room. You–" "Because Carnal was responsible for my husband's death. He drove Rex to complete madness, such that I had to kill him. " Lyssa spoke flatly, ignoring the gasps. "I want him dead. I can assure you I would not stand with Carnal for any reason, even if it meant the de- struction of this Council, or the end of the universe for that matter. " There was one stuttering flame in her heart, trying to stay alight for God knew what reason. Was the desire to see Carnal dead the only thing she'd have left after this night? "However, if you do not swear to me that you and the Council will leave Jacob alone, then I will sit back and watch what happens to you. " "After all your years of dedication, you would abandon us now over this dead human, " Belizar sneered, but there was desperation in his face as more screams came under the door.

My lady . . . Mason, his voice urgent. "After all my years of dedication to this Council, you shunned me in less than a blink.

Turned your back on me because my blood is not as pure as yours. " Belizar's jaw clenched. A long, tense moment commanded the chamber as they felt the rumble of further explosions, possibly gre- nades, bullet fire snapping. Roars of rage. Sounds of death. Getting closer. "Done. " Belizar nodded his head. A quick jerk. "He will not be touched by any in this room or anyone under our command. " Lunging aloft, she burst through the arched design of glass above the double doors, her wings pinned back like a Stealth fighter.

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