Chapter Twelve

“Do you know this guy Seal?” I asked as Adrian and I hurried toward the nearest intersection, where we stood a better chance of finding a taxi.

“I have heard of him,” he answered. His voice was flat, but as soon as I slid my fingers around his wrist I could feel what he had been trying to hide—intense, profound worry. “He is a forger of some repute, a mortal, but one who has dealings with immortals.”

A taxi zoomed to a stop as if it had read Adrian’s mind. I slid into the back seat, waiting until Adrian had given the address before snuggling up to him, asking softly, “Why did I hear an unspoken but in that last sentence?”

His arm tightened around me. “When I heard of him last, he was mixed up with the Eisenfaust, an offshoot of the German Mafia.”

“He sounds like a delightful individual.” I gave his ear a quick kiss, just because it deserved it. “But if it comes down to you against him, my money’s on you.”

“I am not concerned with beating him in a fight,” Adrian said, his eyes a bright cerulean that promised so much. “I am worried about what payment he will ask.”

“Well, I’ve told you how much I can raise. If he asks for more than that, just flash a little fang. I bet that’ll knock a couple of grand off his price.”

Seal turned out to be an emaciated man whose skin—the color of very milky coffee—was stretched tightly across his bony frame, making me think of him as sort of an animated skeleton. The entire five minutes we were in his apartment, the skin under one eye ticked constantly, but it was the jittery, slightly unfocused look in his muddy eyes that screamed serious drug addict.

“What do you want?” he asked in impolite German through the barely opened door after Adrian had pounded on it for three minutes.

“Gigli sent us. She said you could help us.”

The eye peeping out at us narrowed as it examined first Adrian, then me. “A Dark One and a human. What sort of help do you want?”

“I prefer to not discuss my business in public,” Adrian said. I nodded, holding firmly onto his arm while giving the hallway behind me a suspicious glare. I swore I saw something small and rodentlike move under one of the many piles of garbage that had been scattered down the dirty passage.

Seal’s shadow moved behind the door as it closed, the sounds of several chains scraping across it as he unlocked it. His head popped out to peer around us.

“Come in, come in,” he said quickly, pulling us through the door before he slammed it shut, locking in fast succession three dead bolts, four chains, and a metal brace designed to keep a door from being kicked in. “Now you will tell me what business you want of me.”

Adrian frowned as he glanced around the room. It, like our host, was threadbare and shabby, hinting of days of glory long past. Dingy wallpaper peeled off the walls, bits of it drooping onto a sad, shapeless armchair. Two and a half plastic chairs sat around a small linoleum table that held an extensive array of printing equipment—probably worth more than the entire apartment building. No wonder Seal was serious about keeping people out of his digs.

Adrian pulled out one of the plastic chairs for me, removing the plate of furry French fries and a half-eaten burger so I could sit. “We need to get to London without anyone knowing our identities. How quickly can you make us passports?”

“How quickly do you need to be there?” Seal spoke in clipped German, almost as fast as Adrian. I lumbered along behind them both linguistically, German not being a language with which I’m very familiar, trying to follow the conversation without getting too lost.

“Before dawn.”

Seal shook his head without even glancing at the cracked and broken clock that clung drunkenly to the wall over the table. “Impossible. It takes at least three days to make a passport that can get through international security.”

“We don’t have three days. We need to leave tonight.” The muscles in Adrian’s jaw tensed. I touched his arm, more as a way to remind him not to lose his temper with the forger than to assess how angry he was.

“That is no concern of mine. I’m telling you how long it will take me to make the passports.”

“Do you have any idea who I am?” Adrian snarled, his fangs flashing wickedly sharp as he grabbed a handful of the stained T-shirt that drooped off Seal’s chest, lifting him up and slamming him against a wall. A tendril of wallpaper drifted down at the impact, following in the path of a piece of disattached plaster.

“Yes, you’re a Dark One,” Seal squeaked, his arms and legs flopping around helplessly as Adrian held him a good foot off the ground. “A very big Dark One.”

“I am the Betrayer,” Adrian answered, his voice a low hiss that promised retribution if he was crossed. “I do not have three days.”

“I might be able to do it in one,” Seal gasped as Adrian lifted him higher against the wall. “Tonight! I could have it for you tonight! Twelve hours, that’s the fastest I can make them.”

Adrian snarled and let go of the man, who promptly fell in a whimpering heap. “To delay an extra day does not please me.”

“Twelve hours is the fastest.” Seal dragged himself to his feet, dusting off already filthy pants and unbunching his dirty tee with an odd sort of dignity. “It’s not just a matter of putting pictures on existing documents. First I must find the names of people who’ve died recently, in order for the computers to register a history. Then I must create the holograms, and those take time. Twelve hours is barely enough time to do the background research, but as you are in such a hurry, I will make an exception for you.”

Adrian grunted an acceptance.

“Now, shall we talk reimbursement for my services?” Seal asked, rubbing his large hands together.

“I have money,” Adrian said stiffly, lying through his fangs as he took up a protective stance next to me. I leaned against his leg and tried to look wealthy.

Seal smiled. It was an awful thing, that smile, filled with black and yellow broken teeth, but the worst part was what the smile did to his eyes. He might not be one of the weirdo immortal beings who hung around Cologne, but the avarice that flashed in his eyes sent shivers down my back. “The lady, she is your Beloved?”

“The lady is none of your concern beyond making her a passport,” Adrian growled.

Seal’s smile grew broader until it was like looking at a grinning death’s-head. “So she is your Beloved. The Betrayer has found his Beloved. And if I am not mistaken, she is a Charmer as well. How very interesting.” He held up his hand quickly as Adrian took a menacing step forward.”I meant no disrespect, of course. My price, ah, yes, my price. For this special rush job, for the exacting nature of the work you demand, my price is naturally higher than a lesser job.”

“Naturally,” Adrian said dryly.

Seal transferred his grin to me. My creepy shivers went into overtime. “You would not want me to provide your Beloved with a product that would not pass the scrutiny at the airports.”

“Get to the point,” Adrian snapped, moving closer to me.

“My point, Betrayer, is that my time, my expertise, and my resources do not come cheap. My price is not payment in coin, but payment in service.”

“Service?” I asked, my German sounding thick and awkward in the strained atmosphere of the apartment. I cleared my throat. “What sort of service do you want? I can’t charm anything, and my ward drawing is limited to a slippery containment ward and a binding ward.”

Seal’s smile dimmed significantly. He glanced quickly at Adrian before looking back at me. Leaning against Adrian’s leg as I was, I knew the minute he picked up the scent of fear that Seal was exuding. “I find myself in the unenviable position of having attracted the attention of a member of the Eisenfaust. A most unwelcome attention, caused by a minor financial transaction gone awry.”

“I told you I have money,” Adrian said.

Seal’s gaze slid away from Adrian as his large hands waved expressively. “The nature of the man in question has driven me to take drastic actions. He will no longer be satisfied with a mere repayment of the amount I owe him. He must be destroyed.”

“Destroyed?” I asked suspiciously. “Financially, you mean?”

“Destroyed as in destroyed,” he told me, his murky brown eyes meeting mine for a moment. The avarice still glowed behind their depths, mingling with a cruel satisfaction that had me even more worried.

“Killed,” I said.

“Destroyed,” he repeated, emphasizing the word. He glanced at Adrian again. “Killed would lead directly back to me. The rest of the Eisenfaust would come after me. The trail must not lead to me. He must be turned.”

“Turned? What’s that?” I didn’t like the way Seal was looking at us any more than I liked the way Adrian moved away a step so I wasn’t touching him. The fact that he didn’t want me to feel his emotions was suspicious in itself.

“I agree to your price,” Adrian said. “You will give me the man’s address now, then you will begin work on the passports immediately.”

“You will not get them until I have proof that the matter has been taken care of,” Seal warned, scurrying around Adrian to unlock the many locks on the door.

“I will attend to it by sunset tonight,” Adrian agreed, his voice as grim as the flat blue of his eyes.

I held my tongue, not wanting to grill Adrian in front of the creepy Seal, but the second the door closed I turned on him, clutching the arm of his coat. “OK, dish. What’s this turning business?”

A glossy eyebrow cocked. “I’m surprised, Hasi. You seem to be so knowledgeable about vampire lore, I assumed you would know what it meant to turn a person.”

“You’re a Dark One, not a vampire,” I said, poking him in the chest. He captured my hand in his, his fingers stroking mine. “And, as has been pointed out, I can no longer rely on Buffy to keep me au courant with matters vampiric.”

He shooed me down the hallway. I skirted the pile of garbage that rustled ominously, racing down the stairs to the next floor before I added, “If you mean turning the way I think you mean turning, the answer is no. I won’t let you make someone else a vampire.”

“Dark One.”

“Whatever. I won’t let you do that. It’ll screw up the whole soul-retrieval thing we have going on. Besides, I thought you told me Dark Ones could only be created by a demon lord or born to an unredeemed vamp.”

“That is so.”

“Then how does Seal expect you to turn someone?”

Adrian gave me a short, piercing glance. “I will turn the man over to a demon lord.”

“Absolutely not!” I said quickly, giving him a fulminating glare. “Not on your coffin, you won’t!”

He sighed. “I don’t have a coffin, Nell.”

“Well, thank heavens for small favors.”

Adrian stopped on the landing to the floor below, taking my arm and turning me so I faced him in the dim light of the bulb overhead. “Hasi, we do not have a choice. I do not like this bargain any more than you do, but it is a price I can pay. We must have those passports. To delay will bring disaster upon our heads.”

I touched the tip of his nose, smiling determinedly into his midnight-blue eyes. “I know that, and believe me, I’m just as anxious as you are to get my hands on your tricky brother, but there has got to be a way to pay Seal without damning yourself any further.”

“Other than the fact it must involve a demon lord, you do not even know what a turning is comprised of,” he answered, following me as I trotted down the remaining stairs to the street.

“Ungrammatical, but true. However, I can guess most of it, and I don’t like the answer.” I wrapped my arms around myself against the cold, sticking close to Adrian as he stalked down the street. We were in the bad part of Cologne, the part the tourists seldom see. The streets here were dark and narrow, the buildings all wearing a decrepit, abandoned air, the people on the street either brazenly soliciting, offering illicit substances, or scurrying by with heads down, trying to avoid catching anyone’s attention. It was thoroughly depressing, and I said nothing more to Adrian until he found us a taxi.

Before he could give the driver the address Seal had given him, I told the driver where I wanted to go, then sat back against the shiny plastic upholstery to find Adrian glaring at me.

“Hasi, you heard Gigli. She cannot help me with the price I must pay Seal. To return to her house now is to delay the inevitable, and we do not have the time to spare.”

“She said she couldn’t help you, but she said nothing about me—”

“This is ridiculous,” Adrian interrupted. “I know you do not approve of what I must do, but we have no choice. It must be done.” He leaned forward to tap on the glass between the driver and us. I yanked him back.

“No, it mustn’t. I mean, it shouldn’t. You shouldn’t.”

“I am the Betrayer—”

“Which has nothing to do with why you’re doing this,” I interrupted him this time, my fingers skimming over his face so I could feel his emotions. “You’re doing this because you think we have no other way to pay Seal, but we do.”

I smoothed the frown that pulled his brows down. “Seal said he did not want money. What do we have to pay him with if not that?”

“Me.” I smiled as I kissed his chin. “And you can stop looking so indignant, I don’t mean sexually.”

He looked even more outraged. “My Beloved would never even consider being with another man, for any reason!”

“Think so?” I choked back a gurgle of laughter at the fury that flashed in his eyes, and kissed him properly, my lips caressing his as I added, “You’re absolutely right, I would never consider being with anyone but you. I was just teasing you, Adrian. A little touch of jealousy always looks good on a man, I think.”

“I do not like to be teased. You will not do it again.”

“No, I won’t,” I soothed. “At least, not until we catch up with Saer. Then all bets are off.”

“If you are finished joking about the circumstance we find ourselves in, we will proceed to the German’s house.”

“I wasn’t joking,” I said, pulling him back again, this time draping myself across his front to keep him from leaning forward. “I would never joke about your redemption, Adrian. I’m very serious when I say that I think we can fulfill Seal’s request without putting any more black marks on your soul.”

“I do not have a soul.”

I nuzzled the area where his jaw met his ear. “I could never love a man who had no soul. Yours is almost within reach, but it’s at risk of being torn away if we step out of line. So rather than have you tempt fate, why don’t we do this the easy way?”

“Nothing is ever easy where you are concerned,” he mumbled against my hair, but I could feel his resistance fading with each nibble on his ear. “How do you think you can pay Seal?”

“That book Gigli offered me, the Charmer book. When I was flipping through it I saw something about how to charm a curse that changes someone temporarily into a toad. It looked like it had drawings and complete details about how to unmake the curse, so all I have to do is reverse everything to cast the curse. Considering that what Seal wants is the Iron Fist guy out of his hair but not killed—something I wholeheartedly agree with—what better way to do it than to curse him into toadhood?”

Adrian’s kiss was sweet, so sweet it brought tears to my eyes. “There is a big difference between charming and casting a curse, Hasi, and you yourself have said you are not a Charmer. While you may ward with impunity, charming exacts too heavy a price. Can you imagine what a curse would cost you? I will not have you risking yourself on my behalf.”

“I’m totally with you on the not wanting to blow out any more of my brain circuits, but I don’t think this is going to be a problem. After all, I’ve got you. I’m immortal now, aren’t I?”

Adrian gave me a long look. “No, you are not.”

“I’m not? Why aren’t I? Haven’t we done that Joining thing?”

His eyes, always a barometer to his feelings, darkened to midnight. “There is still the seventh step, the final step.”

“Which is?”

“A blood exchange.”

“Oh.” I looked at his neck, at the spot where his pulse beat slow and true. “I get to do the vamp thing to you, huh? OK. I can do that. It… uh… doesn’t have to be a lot of blood, does it? I’m not sure if I’d like that.”

“No, it does not have to be a lot of blood. One drop will do, but that point is moot. We will not conduct the final step of Joining.”

I goggled at him. “We won’t? Why won’t we?”

He tried to turn his head, but I grabbed his ears and made it stay put. Pain flickered in his eyes, swelling within him, mingling with regret and guilt that he had drawn me so far along the path of Joining.

“You don’t think you’re going to survive Saer,” I said, reading the echo of his thoughts even though he struggled to keep them from me. “You think he’s going to destroy you, and you don’t want to leave me unprotected, a Beloved without her Dark One. Why, Adrian? Why would you think your brother would try to destroy you?”

He pulled my hands off his ears, gently pushing me back onto the seat. “You do realize what casting a curse involves, don’t you?”

“Other than invoking ill will on someone, no, and don’t change the subject. Why do you think Saer is going to mash you into vampire pulp? And why don’t you think you can beat the pants off him if he tries?”

“To conjure a curse, you must first call a demon. It is through the demon that the curse is cast.”

“Why do you think Saer is… a demon?” I stared at Adrian in growing horror. “You mean a demon demon? The kind demon lords have, those sorts of demons? The icky, nasty, mean things that rain terror and horror upon mankind? The habitants of hell?”

“Yes,” he said, opening the door as the taxi stopped in front of the pink part of Gigli’s house.

I scurried out after him, waiting until he paid the driver to ask, “I don’t suppose there are any good demons, are there?”

“A good demon?”

“Yeah, you know, kind of how you’re like a good vampire. I was hoping maybe there is a lesser sort of demon that isn’t too bad that I could work with.”

He looked at me like I was crazy. “No. There are no good demons.”

“Oh.” I thought that over as we made our way upstairs, Adrian nodding to Jada as she tossed a drunken patron down the stairs. I looked after the man in surprise. He had to be at least a foot and a half taller and fifty pounds heavier than Jada, and yet she tossed him down the stairs like it was nothing.

“Strength spell. Not even the biggest of the lot can fight it,” she told me, her blind eyes on me for a moment before turning to Adrian. “Gigli is expecting you. Don’t forget to ward yourselves this time.”

Adrian swore under his breath as Jada cackled her dry, ancient crone cackle, dusting off her gnarled hands with satisfaction before reclaiming a comfortable-looking rocking chair next to the door. “You must draw the ward, Hasi,” he said.

“Why? If you know how to do it, it makes more sense for you to do it than me. I’m not sure how much warding charge I have in my mental batteries.”

“I cannot ward.” Adrian pulled me toward the door at the end of the short hallway, behind which I could hear the dull throb of music. I shivered, remembering how that music had seemed to burn into my blood, pushing my need for Adrian to the forefront of my mind.

“Really? Dark Ones can’t draw wards?”

“Others can, I cannot. I am cursed, bound to a demon lord, which leaves me without the resources to ward. The glamour ward is drawn thusly…”

It took me five minutes of practicing before I could draw the ward to his satisfaction.

“I hope that does it,” I said as I finished drawing the ward over him. It glowed weakly for a moment, then evaporated into the air, leaving behind a faint pattern I could see only when I wasn’t looking directly at it.

Adrian took my wrist as I reached for the door. “No. You must be certain that you drew the ward correctly. The power of a ward comes from your belief in the ability to draw it. If you do not believe, the ward will offer no protection.”

“It won’t? No one ever told me that before.” I bit my lower lip. “Maybe we should ask Jada or someone to ward us? I’m not sure that my ward will hold up—”

“I believe it will,” he answered, rubbing this thumb over my abused lip. “I have confidence in your abilities, Hasi. You have great power that you have not yet touched.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but the look of pride in his sapphire eyes brought a warmth to my heart that I hadn’t known was missing. I touched his cheek and knew he was telling the truth—he really did have faith in me. He believed I could do anything I tried. That knowledge glowed inside me, reinforcing the wards I had drawn on us both. They flared gold for a moment, then shimmered into the air.

“Right,” I said, my hand on the doorknob, feeling reckless and invincible, as if we were starring in a high-budget action flick. “Come on, Vampbo, let’s get this over with, so we can go find your brother and get that ring back.”

“Vampbo?” Adrian sighed as I threw open the door and marched into the room, my head held high, pushing my way through the small, crowded dance floor. “Never has anyone treated me like you do. I am feared and shunned by all. I am never mocked or teased. I am the Betrayer—”

“And I”—I elbowed my way through the crowd, tossing a smile over my shoulder at Adrian—”am your Beloved, which makes me the Charminator! Out of my way, dancing humanoid! The Betrayer and I have important business to attend to.”

I heard Adrian sigh again, but paid his faux regret no attention. I knew from touching him just how much he cherished the fact that I wasn’t afraid of him, that I would fight for him, that I had chosen him over freedom.

Now we just had to see about salvaging that soul of his…