I felt Lilith’s power slither around and past me, slick and sinuous as a snake. Hang on, Mom. Fight it. “What will you do if I call her to me? Will you try to save her? Sacrifice yourself? Or will you stand there behind your line of protection and watch as I drink her down, then use my magic to replace Luther with your dear mommy?”
“You don’t have her yet.”
“Don’t I?” I heard the crunch of heels on concrete, felt a body press against mine as my mother shifted her weight in response to the call.
“Hang on, Mom. Hang on.”
I didn’t dare look back, even though I could hear movement from the direction of the church.
“Lana, no!” my gran shouted behind me, and suddenly the darkness was bisected by a spear of white as blinding as a magnesium flare. Reverend Al strode forward, holding the cross from the altar in front of him. It was glowing with the blinding white light of pure faith. He’s a big man, six two, probably a good 250 to 275 pounds of former fullback. He was impressive at any time. Tonight, he was awe inspiring. The scent of incense, heavy with myrrh, floated to me on the chill night air.
“Begone, demon!” His voice rang with authority as he shouted the prayer of banishment in its original Latin. I recognized it from my readings in college, but I’d never actually heard it used. Lilith wasn’t a demon, just a very old bat, but it seemed to work. She screamed in frustrated rage, her power lashing out at him like a living darkness. It struck the wall of his belief with a sound like the clash of swords, but the light of the cross in his hands never wavered. Reverend Al was a wall of solid muscle standing beside me, between the bat and her prey, armed only with the cross and his belief.
The vampire raised her head, howling in agony.
It was the only opening I might ever have. Sending a silent prayer upward, I shifted the knife in my right hand to a throwing position and hurled it into the bulk of her body.
It wasn’t a throwing knife. There was a good chance it might not strike point first. But it was a well-balanced weapon, and with the magic Bruno had imbued in it all I needed was a scratch. It struck home, the blessed blade sinking hilt deep into the soft flesh of Lilith’s abdomen.
She opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Instead, I saw flames eating at her from the inside. Cool. Don’t know what magic made it work, but it was very impressive.
With a whoosh of air her body imploded, until it was nothing more than coarse gray ash, with my blackened knife smoldering on top.
Vampires do not die like that. They just don’t. Killing a vampire is bloody and messy and involves beheading and taking the heart. They do not simply burst into blinding flame and burn down to a knee-high pile of dust—well, not without the help of copious amounts of sunlight. So what the hell had happened? I wanted to call Bruno or Matteo, but I couldn’t seem to move.
I don’t know how long we stood there. Long enough that the light from Reverend Al’s cross faded and my eyes adjusted to the velvet darkness of a night filled with clouds. One by one the streetlights came back on. As if from a distance, I heard my grandmother crooning a lullaby to my sobbing mother.
“We need to gather up the ashes and spread them over a natural source of moving water.” Reverend Al sounded even wearier than I felt, which was quite a trick. Because I felt as though I’d gone twelve rounds with Mike Tyson.
“Yeah, we definitely want to dispose of her properly. And I need to clean my knife.”
I wanted rest in the worst way. But I couldn’t until I was absolutely sure we’d eliminated any possible chance of Lilith coming back.
The reverend’s voice was a little unsteady when he spoke next. “I’ll go get a broom and a dustpan, although what we’ll put the ashes in I don’t know. I don’t have anything ready.” I managed to move my head enough to look at him. His normally ruddy face was gray with fatigue. He looked old, a bit frail, and more than a little afraid.
I said, “I have a bag you can use in the car. Although how we’re supposed to tell the head from the heart I have no clue. And you did great—as well as any of the priests from the order.”
“I didn’t kill her. Didn’t even wound her, really.” He shuddered, his whole body shaking in reaction. “Saints preserve me, but she was powerful. I’ve never felt anything like that.”
“She had to be over a thousand years old. There aren’t many vamps who live that long, and the ones who do are powerful as hell. And if you hadn’t wounded her with the cross, I would never have been able to get her. You saved us all.”
He ran a hand over his thinning hair. “I think you can claim as much credit for that as I can,” he said shakily. “If you hadn’t stepped between them, I would never have made it out here in time.” He stared at me for a long moment. “That was the bravest thing I’ve seen in my life. I know you don’t get along with your mother, Celia. Your grandmother has us pray about it all the time. But you do still love her. Of that there is no doubt.”
“Yeah. I do.” I didn’t sound happy about it, even to me.
“Then when we’re done with cleanup I want you to come in. Talk to her. Sort out your differences.”
Oh fucking goodie.
The reverend ordered pizza and pop to celebrate. It took longer than it was supposed to to arrive. I would’ve complained to the driver, but Gran intercepted me before I could get to the door.
Still, we reheated the pies in the church oven and the reverend even went to the trouble to dig through the cabinets until he found a blender.
It was my first attempt at “real” food. Yeah, we watered it down and ground it up, but it was pizza. It should have tasted just the same as when it was eaten normally.
It didn’t. It tasted really weird. Maybe it was because everything was all mushed together, so I didn’t taste the individual parts—the crust, the tomato sauce, the cheese, and the toppings. There was this weird twang to it that I couldn’t quite place. Still, I was grateful enough that I wasn’t going to complain. I did manage to get some of it down, and it was certainly better than some of what I’d been “eating.” And it gave me hope. Real food might be possible. Maybe.
I was sitting in the reverend’s study, drinking my watered-down pizza shake and a glass of milk as I wiped down my knife with an oiled cloth. I’d been using considerable elbow grease with no luck at all thus far. It was as if the metal itself had blackened. The wooden handle was fine, but the metal of the blade, while still hard and sharp, was absolutely black. Weird. Very, very weird.
As soon as I got the shake down and the knife cleaned I was going over to Karl Gibson’s. I’d called to tell him about the visit from the king and offer Karl the chance to be there. He’d jumped at it. Turned out he was an avid baseball fan as well as a detective on a mission.
My grandmother stepped into the room. She gave Reverend Al a meaningful look before asking, “Would you mind giving Celia and me a few minutes alone? We need to talk.”
I closed my eyes but didn’t say a word. My mind, however, was racing. No. Oh, please, no. Not a “talk.” I don’t deserve this. I’m tired, damn it. Don’t make me talk to my gran.
“Of course, Emily.” The look he cast over his shoulder as he left had a hint of sympathy directed my way. Gran waited until the door was firmly closed behind him before lowering herself primly onto the chair opposite mine, setting her coffee cup onto the little cork coaster on the table in front of her.
“I was very proud of you tonight. That was a courageous thing you did, standing up for your mother like that.”
“Thanks, Gran.” I fought not to yawn. I was really sleepy. Probably just everything catching up with me.
She gave me a long look. “I’ve always been proud of you, Celia. You know that.” Her eyes met mine and for just a moment she looked old. I mean, she’s my gran, and over eighty. Of course she’s old. But she never looks it. She’s got this energy about her, like a miniature whirlwind. Always on the go, always doing something. But tonight she looked old and sad and more than a little bit worried.
“Gran, what’s wrong? The bat’s dead. She didn’t get Mom.”
“No”—Gran gave me a tired smile—“she didn’t.”
“Look, you’re exhausted, why don’t you get some rest?”
“No, Celia. There’s something I need to tell you, and after what happened tonight I know it can’t wait. I should have told you when you hit puberty. But you were in therapy because of what happened to you and Ivy, and I didn’t think you were ready to cope with it. Besides, it didn’t affect your mother—or not much anyway. I didn’t really believe it would bother you.” She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, her gaze suddenly absorbed by the contents of her coffee cup. She sounded both suspiciously guilty and simultaneously as if she’d been trying very hard to rationalize something away.
“What are you talking about?” The words came out more harshly than I’d intended, and she flinched. I apologized immediately. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap. I’m just tired.”
“No, no. It’s all right.” She reached over and patted my hand. Her hand was gnarled and age spotted, the veins and sinews standing out harshly beneath the tissue-paper skin. “You’ve always referred to yourself as an ‘ordinary vanilla human.’”
“Well … you’re not.”
“Well, no, not since the vampire—”
She squeezed my hand hard, and I looked up, meeting eyes that had gone solemn. “You weren’t completely human before the vampire bite, Celia. My husband, your grandfather, was only half human.”
I blinked. I hadn’t known that. He’d looked human. And really, there aren’t many magical creatures that can interbreed with us. Werewolves, of course, but that’s because they generally start out human in the first place. And Gramps hadn’t been a wolf. No way.