Twenty-Two . Wherein Our Heroine Sets the Record Straight

Victoria actually slept that night.

She made her way to the small chamber while Max sat in the tavern with Michalas and Brim. All of them had wounds that needed to be attended to, but the three men opted to have a few celebratory mugs of ale first.

Victoria wanted nothing but to find a bed and sleep. So tired. She was so tired.

And tomorrow, they would start again and go after Sebastian. And come face-to-face with Lilith.

Her mind whirled and churned as she used a basin of hot water to wash away much of the gritty blood and grime. Then, her back still aching from the deep slash of claws, she tottered to the narrow pallet and was asleep before she knew it.

Max was with the others. Safe, only one floor below her. She could sleep.

Sometime near dawn, she woke to a presence in the room.

At first, she tensed, reaching for a weapon, waiting to see if her neck felt chill to determine if it was stake or blade that she needed… but then she realized who it was and relaxed. She felt the narrow bed shift with his weight and the comfort of his warm body ease into the narrow space on the bed behind her. His hand slimmed down over the curve of her side as though to ascertain she was really there, and then, tucking her head under his chin and his arm around her belly, he settled, warm and solid, against her. And they slept.

When she woke, the sun had risen high in a cloudless sky and blasted hot through the slit of a shutter, aimed right at her closed eyes. She moved, felt the aches seep through her muscles, and gritted her teeth. Perhaps she should have put something on her wounds.

Shifting so that the sunbeam wouldn’t blind her, she opened her eyes and glanced quickly around the room. The other pallet was empty, and no one slept on the floor. Obviously, Brim and Michalas had found another place to rest last night.

Victoria turned gingerly, nearly falling off the narrow bed, and found Max watching her from very close quarters.

“Good morning,” she said, suddenly wishing for a drink of water.

“It is.”

“I can’t believe you’re here,” she said, reaching to touch his bruised, cut face. Blood had dried on it, and the stubble from yesterday had grown into full-fledged whiskers. His eyes were so close she could see coppery-brown flecks in the dark irises.

“You tried to kill me. Are you still angry?”

“Yes. In fact, I’m quite furious. But that’s not why I attacked you-I thought you were a demon. Now I’m just relieved that you’re here. We’ll probably fight about it when this is done.”

“I’ll look forward to it.”

“It’s not amusing,” she said, trying to keep from smiling at the interested glint in his eye. The last time they’d had a ferocious battle, they’d ended up in his bed. “I’m Illa Gardella. Your leader.”

He had the temerity to snort. “By virtue of your bloodline and family tree, indeed. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a brain and cannot make decisions. And that I don’t have vastly more experience than you. Your aunt,” he continued louder, overriding her angry reply, “considered me her most trusted confidant. And certainly didn’t attempt to overrule my opinions.”

“Never?”

“Rarely. She trusted me. You’ll have to learn to do so, too.”

“I already do, but, Max… you cannot just disappear like that.”

“It was the only damn way.”

“I disagree.” Her voice became more strident.

“Then disagree, Victoria. But you cannot argue that I know Lilith better than you-better than any bloody other mortal, to my great dismay. I knew there was only one way to get those rings, and I was willing to take that chance-and not willing to endanger you as well. What did you think? That you could walk in and she’d hand them to you?”

“Of course not,” Victoria snapped. Her brows drew together in annoyance. “But she must have wanted the portal closed as much as we did. The demons are her enemies, too. It would have been to her benefit.”

Max nodded, his eyes sharp and serious. “Most any sane person would agree. But Lilith knew we would move Heaven and Earth to close that damn portal, so she was in the stronger position. If you had come, she would have had both of us. It was better that she only had me. And I knew you’d come after me.”

“But it was a great risk you took.”

“Every day is a risk, Victoria. That will never change. Do you understand that?”

She nodded reluctantly, her anger fading. Being with him would be the highlight, the sweetest part of a life that would always be filled with danger. Such was their destiny.

He shifted against her, his long legs tangling with hers. “There’s one other thing you must understand. I had to do it to prove to myself that I could. That I could do what had to be done, despite… you. How much I care for you. If I couldn’t make the right decision, then… then I would be no better than Vioget had been for all those years.”

“Max.” Her stomach fluttered. She drew in a breath to tell him she loved him, too. But once again, he cut off her words.

“And don’t think you’re going after Vioget by yourself, just to teach me a lesson.” His expression sharpened as he looked at her.

Anger flared again, but she tamped it back. Later. For now, she wanted to bask, so she shook her head against the pillow, brushing his warm arm. “No. I might have done that… once upon a time, but not now. I’m not quite as foolish as you make me out to be.” Those last words came out hard and annoyed.

“I don’t think you’re foolish. I haven’t thought so for a long time.”

Part of her wanted to follow that trail of thought, but prudence and worry won out. Time for flirtation and teasing later. “What happened, Max?”

His mouth tensed, and he pulled slightly away to lean against the wall behind him. She realized how small a space he’d squeezed himself into and shifted a bit to allow more room. “Vioget came and offered himself in exchange for my release.”

“What?” Victoria sat up and would have tumbled off the bed if he hadn’t grabbed her arm. “He offered himself?”

Max nodded. “You must know the rings cannot be removed, and so he proposed an exchange-himself and the rings for my release.”

“But why? Why on Earth did you not simply kill her? He came in…” She couldn’t speak any longer. What sort of addled men did she know, who insisted on sacrificing themselves to the depraved vampire queen? Couldn’t they find some other way to meet their objectives? Did they have some sort of hesitation about violence against a female? Even an undead one?

Blasted fools.

“He could have left with me, Victoria. But I think… I believe he came for some other purpose. He told me…” His voice trailed off, then began again, stronger and rushed, as though to get the words out before he changed his mind. “He did it for you.”

“For me.” Her stomach dipped and squirmed, and she had to look away for a moment. Sebastian had sacrificed himself to Lilith for her… for her happiness. He’d released Max, his rival, so that she would be happy. The very thought made her want to cry. Again.

She met Max’s eyes. He added, “Do you think me selfish for allowing it?”

“Selfish?” Max, selfish? “You?” She shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. And aside of that, did you really have a choice?”

“I could have refused to go.”

Victoria snorted, unable to help herself. “And then both of you would have been trapped by Lilith. Both of you selfless, idiotic men. Then I would have had to come rescue two of you.”

He moved forward and covered her mouth with his in a firm, solid kiss, as though to drown out her lecture. “Victoria,” he said, pulling away after a moment. “There’s more, and before you go racing off to save him, I must tell you about it.”

She pressed her hand to his chest, feeling the rough hair and warmth of his skin, and the slide of muscle beneath as he propped himself up with one arm. “I stopped racing off anywhere without a plan after that incident with Beauregard,” she chided him.

“Indeed? Well, then, I won’t argue about the finer details.”

“What else?”

“His exact words were ‘I did it for her… for both of them.’ ”

“Both?”

Max nodded. “I had plenty of time to think on it during my ride here, and I’m certain he spoke of Giulia.” His voice roughened at the mention of his sister’s name. “It’s no secret that the cause of enmity between us began with Giulia, and… well… continued with you. So when he says ‘both of them,’ that’s what he means.”

“But what would trading himself to Lilith have to do with Giulia?”

“I cannot pretend to understand how his mind works, but he did say to ask Wayren about the ‘long promise.’ Something to do with Rosamunde.”

Victoria frowned. “You have no idea what he meant? Does he think he might find something in Lilith’s hideaway that might help Giulia? And wanted a chance to look for it?”

Max shrugged, and she couldn’t help but notice the smooth movement of his broad, dark shoulders. She swallowed and had to resist the urge to touch him again. There would be time for that later. “He must have some reason to go willingly into that place. He’s spent a lot of time with Wayren lately, and Wayren… well, you know she is very profound. She’s guided me more than once.”

“And me. I’m glad she’s safe.”

He nodded. “But now, as for Sebastian. Victoria, he may not want to be rescued.”

She stared at him. “What in the bloody hell are you talking about?”

“My, you’ve acquired quite a vocabulary for a genteel marchioness.”

“I’ve been around you too much.” But the levity faded, and she continued. “I’m going to kill Lilith, so Sebastian will be rescued whether he wants to be or not. Are you coming with me?”

“In very short order.” And he slid his hand down between them as he gathered her close for a kiss.

Max approached the hidden entrance to Lilith’s lair as confidently as he had in the past. He had no fear of being accosted or injured by anyone but the vampiress, for every one of her minions knew how important he was to her.

A benefit to being the obsession of a vampire queen. The only damn one he could think of.

The sentinels, Guardians of course, loitered just inside the stone overhang that protected them during the hours of sunlight. Since it was just past noon, they didn’t have the freedom to move about onto the jutting balcony-like rock formation, which limited their view of the rocky side of the mountain and the grassy slopes below.

Though he couldn’t see them, Max knew that Victoria, Brim, and Michalas had secreted themselves nearby, waiting for his signal.

As before, he stepped forward into full view of the vampires. “I’m here for Lilith,” he announced, holding a stake out to the side so they could see it. It didn’t happen to be one of his favorite silver-inlaid ones; thus it was expendable.

“Couldn’t keep away, could you?” said one of the guards.

“Apparently not.” Max stepped closer as a second Guardian moved nearby. “Does she still have that fop Vioget with her?”

“He’s in there. A bit jealous, are we?”

“Not a bit,” said Max. That was all he needed to know, and he lunged toward the vampire, feet lifting from the ground as he slammed into the undead.

The Guardian crashed to the stone floor, and Max pivoted easily to slam his stake into the second sentinel, then whirled back to the one on the ground. Poof.

By the time the ash from the two guards had settled, Victoria, Brim, and Michalas had clambered onto the stony balcony from their hidden locations. Max made a movement toward the entrance, but Victoria grabbed his arm and tugged him away.

“What is it?” he asked, glancing at the others. They’d started to walk inside the cavern as planned and he was ready to go with them.

“I…” She looked up at him, her scratched, bruised face so beautiful, and yet fierce, it made his lungs hurt. “I love you.”

“I know that. What else?” he asked, tightening his hand on the stake, waiting for her to give him some other instruction.

She just looked at him and blinked. “Oh.”

“Anything else?”

“No. Let’s get on with it.” She smiled, and then, before his eyes, that softness in her face changed and she became the warrior.

Her green-and-gold-flecked eyes sharpened; her mouth, marred by a deep cut into her upper lip, firmed; her chin lifted. Short, curling hair hung crazily around her cheeks and jaw, making her look as though she’d just risen from a long night in bed, and she brandished a stake in one hand.

Despite the power and confidence emanating from her, Max had to acknowledge-and then dispel-the sudden visceral urge to pull her back, force her to let him go first… even send her back down the mountain. Not that there was a chance she’d listen.

He drew in a deep breath and followed her into the tall crevice.

She wears two vis bullae.

Yet he felt a wave of fear as she charged along the stone corridor ahead of him, her figure smaller and slighter than any of the others.

But then Max could stew no longer, for a wave of undead poured from the insides of the mountain. Eyes red or pink, some glowing magenta, the vampires swarmed the four Venators in the tall-ceilinged passageway, unleashed by the sentinels to keep the intruders out.

Familiar power surged through him, the flow of movement and the satisfaction of muscles bunching and sliding beneath his skin as he met the onslaught. After months without his powers, of fighting as a Venator without the grace of the vis bulla, this altercation was practically a joy.

His speed had returned, along with the powerful strength he was used to and the bare annoyance of discomfort, rather than the breathless slam of pain, over and over.

He wasn’t foolish enough to feel cocksure or lazy about the battle, of course. Especially with Victoria in the damn thick of it, and Lilith waiting somewhere deep inside like a skeletal black widow. But the pure pleasure of being whole again gave him even more power and capability.

The air was heady with undead ash, and the quiet explosions sounded like soft staccato beats in the confined area. From the corner of his eye, he caught the grace of Victoria’s lunge, and the smooth strike with her stake as she easily dispatched a Guardian vampire twice her size. She kicked out, pivoted, and then moved on to a different target. Thus reassured, Max made a low leap in the space and slammed into a cluster of undead, crashing them against the wall like puppets.

He lost himself in the fight. As it always did, everything seemed to slow around him, giving him ample time to thrust and kick, spin and stab before his opponents knew what struck them. His feet left the ground. He felt weightless and free as he dipped and glided low in the confined space.

They made headway, fighting the vampires back into the area of the hideaway where the passages branched off. Max knew that Lilith’s chambers were to the right, but he’d never been to the left or down the central passage.

As it turned out, he happened to be on the left side, well matched with an Imperial vampire whose blade thrust and gleamed wickedly. The Imperial flew low, and he and Max circled in the corridor, vacillating up and down and around along the left passage until the rest of the melee was behind them.

All the while Max lunged and whipped and turned, dodging and clashing with the Imperial, he was fully aware that Victoria was out of sight, clogged in the midst of the battle.

She is Illa Gardella.

He leapt and smashed his arm against the stone wall, for the passage had narrowed and settled lower. The Imperial laughed and swiped his blade up, scoring along Max’s right arm and drawing a long line of blood. The vampire’s eyes gleamed, and he lunged again. Max landed on the ground and somersaulted to his feet, surging up beneath the vampire as he came down. His upward motion sent the undead off balance, and Max helped him go, catapulting him into the wall with a ferocious shove.

She wears two vis.

The vampire crumpled to the ground, his sword clanging after him. Max bent forward and shoved the stake home, then whirled just in time to face his next attacker.

And so it went, one after the other, or two, or three, he pummeled and fought and tried not to think beyond the moment, trying to work his way back toward the main passageway.

When he finally dispatched the last undead foolish enough to come after him, Max dusted himself off, breathing heavily, and suddenly became aware of cries and shouts from behind him.

Turning, he saw that he’d been backed into an alcove ended by a heavy wooden door. A small barred window had been cut from the top, and he went to peer through it.

Inside thronged more than a dozen people, crying, wailing, pleading. Mortals. Lilith’s private storehouse of food.

“Christ,” he said, and began to tear down the door even as the prickling urge to find Victoria nagged at him. “Hold up. I’m here to help,” he called, even as he felt the presence of another undead behind him.

He readied his stake and turned.

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