Chapter Twenty-one

The house was strangely quiet as we entered, not a sound penetrating what seemed to be an icy, dense thickness that filled the building.

Squish.

“Ew! Well, there’s one Nazi slug less,” I muttered as I scraped my shoe on a carton containing several cases of beer. I paused on point like a retriever, trying to open myself up to the house.

“Can you feel Adrian?” Belinda asked in a whisper, her words emphasized by the sight of her breath on the cold air. It was evident by the number of slugs that slid their way along the hardwood floors or down the carpeted stairs that my curse had been all-encompassing, so there was really no reason for us to be whispering, but I felt just as creeped-out as she did. The house was too still. I imagined that with Adrian, Saer, and Sebastian all locked in battle, the house would shake to its foundations, but as we slowly made our way through the hall, peering into the rooms whose doors had been flung open, the house was utterly quiet, as if holding its breath, bracing itself for a blow.

“No, I don’t feel him. Can you feel Saer?”

We reached the bottom of the staircase. She shook her head, her face pinched and white.

“Maybe you should try to do the mind-meld thingy with him,” I suggested, rubbing the goose bumps on my arms as I looked around. It was freezing in the house, seeming colder than outside. The Nazis hadn’t been in possession of Christian’s house very long, but long enough for them to spray-paint red supremacist logos all over the lovely mahogany paneling. Nothing but the slugs moved.

She shook her head again. “I can’t.”

I glanced at her, one foot on the bottom stair. “What do you mean, you can’t? You can’t because you don’t want Saer to know you’re here?”

“No, I mean I can’t. I could before we were Joined, but afterward”—she looked away for a minute—”I couldn’t. Something seemed to go wrong.”

“Odd. Well, there’s nothing for it—we’re going to have to search the house to find them.” I added a silent prayer that we would find Adrian alive. I was more than a little shaken by the fact that I couldn’t feel Adrian’s presence. I knew instinctively that he would break off mental contact with me when Saer was around, no doubt feeling he was protecting me somehow, but even when I’d blocked him from speaking to me earlier, I could feel him. Now there was nothing.

We found Melissande in the basement, bound and gagged, her long blond hair a curtain around her face as she slumped in a chair to which she was tied.

“Melissande!” Belinda jumped forward and knelt before the woman. I moved behind the chair, frowning at the cloth that had been used to bind her hands. I touched it, my frown deepening as the tactile memory of sliding my hands over that shirt came back to me. “What happened to you? Are you all right? Poor Melissande! Who did this?”

I untied Melissande’s hands as Belinda carefully unknotted the matching black scrap of cloth that had been used to gag her. As Melissande lifted her head, Belinda gasped and fell back, staring in horror at her.

I moved around to look, rubbing my thumb over the warm silk. Why had Adrian ripped up a shirt to bind her? The questions that trembled on my lips died when I got a look at what had so horrified Belinda.

The symbol that had been burnt into Melissande’s left cheek was one I was all too familiar with, the mere sight of it sending a cold wave skittering down my back that ended in a sick feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. “Asmodeus.”

Her eyes closed, tears slipping from beneath the closed lids. Faint silvery trails were left as the tears traveled a path down beautiful porcelain skin until it reached the red, angry swelling that marked the brand.

“Asmodeus the demon lord?”

I waved my hand toward Melissande’s feet, feeling sick, feeling worse than sick. Now I knew why the house was so cold. Someone had invoked the power of Asmodeus, and, given the fact that Belinda and I had searched every square foot of it and found no sign of Adrian, Saer, or Sebastian, the odds were that Adrian had come to some sort of grief using the ring. “I fervently pray there’s only one of him. Who did this to you, Melissande?”

I stood in front of her, confused by the anger visible in her gray eyes as she lifted her face to me. “My brother.”

I turned away, unwilling to believe her, but driven to defend his cruel action. “Adrian has been—”

“Not Adrian,” she interrupted, her voice throbbing with anguish. “Saer. He did this to me. He did this after I agreed to arrange a safe passage into the house for him. He marked me with the symbol of the power he’s claimed after he promised to keep Damian safe.”

“Safe,” I snarled, whirling around to face her. My hands were clenched with the need to grab her and shake her as I’d done to Belinda, but I couldn’t, not with the blood still fresh on the brand that marked her lovely cheek. “Safe from what, his own father? Don’t you understand that Adrian loves Damian? Don’t you see that he’s sacrificed everything to save the boy? Are you so blinded by prejudice that you can’t get it through your head that Saer is the one who means Damian harm, not Adrian?”

She stood, slowly lifting a hand. Her fingers were clenched tight in a fist, unfurling stiffly to reveal a small white and gold object lying in her palm. “I know that now. I am more sorry than I can ever express that I didn’t recognize the truth.”

I looked from Asmodeus’s ring to her tear-stained face, confused. “Did Saer give you that to hold for him?”

“No.” Her eyes were filled with pain similar to what I’d so often seen in Adrian. “Saer doesn’t know I have it. Adrian gave it to me to give to you.”

“Adrian gave you the ring? Why—”

“They took him,” she said, shoving the ring at me. Of their own volition, my fingers plucked the ring from her palm, the familiar warm weight of it a comfort as it slid onto my thumb. “Saer and Sebastian took Adrian. He tried to save me despite what I had done, but it was no use. Saer threatened to kill me outright if Adrian did not cooperate. Sebastian went after Christian, but Saer remained. He made Adrian watch as he marked me, and then he tied me here, leaving me to face death alone.”

“Death—” Belinda said. We both turned to look at the wall opposite. Melissande’s chair was carefully placed so that as the sun rose in the morning, light from the unshuttered window would creep slowly across the tile floor until eventually it would consume her—but not before she had a few hours to anticipate her end.

“I don’t understand,” I said, turning away from the window as I fought my own battle with a rising sense of panic. “Why didn’t Adrian use the ring against Saer?”

“He could not,” Melissande answered, her voice breaking as she slumped back into the wooden chair. “Saer too has been bound to Asmodeus. The ring was useless to Adrian, but he knew that in the right hands—your hands—it could wield the power needed to free him. Please, Nell, please free my brother. Save Adrian. Don’t let Saer destroy him.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t,” I said, marching determinedly toward the stairs up to the main floor, pausing when I realized I had no idea where I was going. “Uh—where exactly has Saer taken Adrian?”

“The British Museum. Adrian told Saer that the ring is hidden there. He did not admit it, but I know his intention is to summon Asmodeus before Saer can make the sacrifice. When Asmodeus finds out that Saer is trying to usurp him, Adrian will destroy them both.”

My shoulders slumped. Alice and her six impossible things had nothing on me. “I really am going to have to have a talk with Adrian about his obsession with martyring himself. What sacrifice does Saer plan on making?”

“Damian,” she said, sliding a guilty glance toward Belinda. “The only way Saer can gain power over Asmodeus without the ring is to offer the sacrifice of an innocent.”

Belinda stiffened.

“OK. So we just have to get there and put a cap on Saer before either Adrian can summon his demon master to wipe out everyone, or Sebastian finds Christian, whom he’ll have to kill to get Damian, which means Allie will probably die too, thus making the death toll three even before he drags Damian in to be turned into a sacrificial offering. And I thought Americans were violent! Belinda?”

She stared at Melissande for a few moments, then shook her head. “Saer is lost to me. I can’t do any good if I go with you. He would only use me as a hostage, and I couldn’t stand being the cause of any more of this horribleness.”

“You’re not the cause of any of this,” I said, running back to give her a quick hug. “You’re the most innocent of all of us—you and Damian. You’re just caught up in a war between siblings.”

I looked at Melissande, part of me wanting to blame her for Adrian’s capture, but a more benevolent side of me pointing out that she had had her comeuppance, and had paid the price for her misguided loyalty. I summoned as much of a smile as I could manage (which admittedly wasn’t much). “I won’t let the bad guys win.”

“Thank you,” she said simply.

“I’ll stay with her here,” Belinda said, getting to her feet as I headed back to the stairs. “In case someone needs to know what’s going on.” She bit her lip for a moment, her eyes shadowed. “You’re sure that Christian—”

“Absolutely. That’s one tough vamp. I know, I’ve tried to take him down a couple of times. Damian will be as safe with him as he would be with Adrian.”

“Good luck,” she said, her chin lifting as she tried to put a brave front on her worries. “May God go with you.”

“Thanks. I’m going to need all the help I can get.”

It wasn’t until I hit the first floor that something struck me: My mummies were gone.

“Well, hell!” I swore, looking around the hall in case someone had dumped them in a corner. “Sorry, guys, wherever you are. I’ll deal with you once Adrian and I have taken care of the baddies.”

It’s amazing what a ring of power will do for you when it comes to escaping a forming police cordon. I had figured that there was no way I’d be able to slip out of Christian’s house without being stopped and grilled by the cops, but either London’s police force had been warned about coming between a Beloved and her vamp in need, or the ring had some sort of invisibility mojo going on that allowed me to walk out in plain sight of the police who had gathered beyond the rim of Nazimobiles. Blue lights flashed, sirens wailed, and occasional staccato bursts on bullhorns demanded that the supremacists surrender.

I walked down the sidewalk past two sharpshooters hiding behind a rhododendron bush. The men’s eyes shifted to look at me, but neither gave me more than a glance as I walked by.

“Cool!” I whispered to myself, twisting the ring like it was some sort of talisman. The other police, everyone from a guy in a yellow jacket who was trying to convince the neighbors to go back into their houses to the incident officer in charge of the bullhorn, all clearly saw me, but I didn’t seem to register on their psyches.

Which was perfectly fine with me.

I took the ring off after I figured out that its protective powers went so far as to make me insignificant to the taxi drivers gathered around a train station a half-mile down the road. By the time I found a cab and was whisked through the oddly empty streets toward the British Museum, enough time had passed for all sorts of horrible, torturous, life-ending, apocalyptic things to have happened to Adrian.

And each and every one of them paraded through my mind in glorious Technicolor and Dolby digital surround sound as we drove.

I expected there to be more guards than normal at the museum, given the events of a few hours past, but I hadn’t expected to find a veritable army camped around the museum.

“Sorry, love, but this is as close as I can get you,” the taxi driver said as he pulled up a block away from the museum. He nodded toward the two big black police vehicles that blocked the road. “Must be a terrorist threat or something.”

“Something like that,” I agreed, handing him a couple of pound coins I had bummed off Belinda. I slipped on the ring as soon as the taxi made a U-turn, smiling and nodding pleasantly at the various police stationed at checkpoints that led to the museum.

I approached the museum bold as could be, secure in the power of the ring. Police and the British Special Forces guys in ultratechy skin-tight black body armor and armed with enough firepower to blow a small country off the face of the planet filled the forecourt of the museum. Small mobile dispatch centers, command posts, and a couple of official police chemical toilets (even SWAT team members have to go sometime) stood like black monoliths amidst a sea of police on the paving stones that led to the museum front doors.

I weaved my way through the maze of vehicles and people, pausing to listen to a radioed message from a couple of guys who I gathered were crawling their way up the glass roof of the Great Court, reporting no signs of movement via their thermal night vision goggles, but picking up an odd keening sound from the ultrasensitive microphone taped to the glass dome.

The man who was listening to the report on the radio glanced toward me. I smiled at him and walked toward the front doors. When I looked back, he was frowning at the spot in which I had been standing, as if he was puzzled by something.

“I could definitely get used to this,” I said aloud as I walked up the stone steps to the doors. With my fingers crossed that they would be unlocked, I strolled past a small terrier-sized camera-mounted security robot that was crawling toward the door. Obligingly, I held the door open for it to enter, following without a backward glance.

The second I entered the museum I was swamped by anger, anger so intense that it almost sent me running. Adrian’s anger.

“Well, at least you’re alive,” I said, trying to make my feet move when Adrian was pouring wave after wave of resistance into my head. I knew he was trying to protect me, but it didn’t make it any easier to ignore the compulsion that pummeled me with every struggling step forward.

By the time I made it to the center of the Great Court I was covered in sweat, my heart pounding so loudly I couldn’t hear anything else, my breath as labored as if I’d run a hundred times the distance. I stopped, trying to calm my heart, doing my best to shut out the almost palpable waves of anger swamping me, but it was no good. I weighed my options, and decided that with my brand-spanking-new immortality—and a stylish ring of power—there wasn’t much that Saer or Sebastian could do to me personally, so it wouldn’t hurt to make my presence known.

“I get the picture, Adrian,” I bellowed, needlessly cupping my hands to amplify the volume since my voice echoed eerily off the glass ceiling, rebounding off the walls, and flitting along the stairwells. “I appreciate it, but it’s not necessary. The cavalry is here!”

A red pinpoint laser light skittered along my face for a moment. I looked up and saw a man’s shape silhouetted against the glass roof, his laser-gun sight pausing on me for a few seconds, then moving on in a steady sweep along the floor.

Adrian’s obstructionary measures ceased. I smiled ruefully to myself, knowing he was going to be one very tetchy vampire when I found him, but also well aware there was no way we were going to come out of this with our skins intact unless he allowed me to help.

“You left me the ring,” I muttered as I hurried across the rest of the Great Court, heading for the stairs that led to the basement offices. “You told your sister I was the only one who could use it, and then you have a hissy fit when I come to do that very thing. Vampires! Surely the most unreasonable of all creatures. Whoa! What the—”

Halfway up the stairs from the basement, a long, thin, sticklike object flexed, flopping over into a roll. Behind it a smaller, squat, spiderlike object crawled. A truly monumental scream was building inside me, about to burst out when a horribly dry, crackling noise whispered up the stairwell. I squinted at the brown objects for a second, leaping down the stairs toward them as a misshapen blob thumped its way around the landing.

“What the hell did they do to you!” I yelled, gathering up the (animated) mummy arm and disattached hand before jumping the last few steps over the torso. “Ginger? My God, they tore you apart! Hold on, I’ll get you, you don’t have to try to move.”

I scooped up Ginger’s torso, pausing on the way down the second half of the stairs to collect both his legs (which, though separated, were working together to make their way up the stairs) and a second hand. Ginger made happy little noises at being held so close, his dried lips making a horrible sort of puckering shape that I had a nasty suspicion was his version of a kiss.

“Hold tight, I’ll get you put back together,” I told him as I pushed open the metal door to the basement offices. “What happened to the other… oh, no!”

The scene in the basement hallway was like something out of a deranged mummy movie. A very low-budget deranged mummy movie. I don’t know if the bits and pieces that made up the other two mummies had been scattered in the hallway, but each individual piece—an arm here, a pelvis there—was crawling, kerthumping, and rolling with single-minded determination toward the door… and my voice.

“Stop!” I yelled, unable to watch as the disembodied pieces moved toward me. A familiar head rolled onto its side, its jaws open wide in a happy little coo of surprise. I set the bits of Ginger down on a table, propping his torso up so he could look around. “None of you move! That’s a direct order. Just as soon as I take care of a little business, I’ll be back to collect you and put you back together, assuming there’s a barrel-sized jug of superglue around here.”

Ginger moaned something that sounded like a question.

“Oh, don’t worry,” I told him, plucking a spasming finger from my sweater and setting it next to his femur. “The vamp who did this to you all is going to pay. Now just stay put and wait here for me.”

I started to walk down the hallway toward the room that held Asmodeuss statue, then paused to look back. “You might scoot yourselves over next to the wall, just in case those police come in. I wouldn’t want anyone to get stepped on, OK?”

Three warbling eons-old voices keened their assent.

“Right,” I said, marching down the hall, Asmodeus’s ring heavy on my thumb: “Time to kick some serious tail.”

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