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Margrit crashed to the floor, clutching her head in her hands as Alban’s presence became larger than he was. Gullies opened up around her, deep stony rents in the earth that she feared plummeting through, and from them mountains shot up, heaving and writhing, as though the gargoyle memories were under attack. Static washed through her mind, blaring white noise louder than her own thoughts, louder than anything she’d ever experienced, even the endless ruin of the House of Cards, even the shattering destruction of Daisani’s apartment.

She forced her eyes open, trying to see in the world she knew still existed around her. It wavered through the concepts of the gargoyle overmind, but Janx had stopped fighting. The dragonlord looked as stricken as she felt, taloned feet clawing at his own head, as though he might scrape away the double-world that surrounded him. The twins, too, writhed in pain, all of them experiencing the same blasted reality she saw.

Of all of them, Daisani remained on his feet, countenance angry as he faced Alban. Challenged Alban: the slight vampire leaned into the chaotic world as though he might edge his way forward, put himself in the gargoyle’s space and fight for whatever last vestiges of control might be his.

Wrong; it was wrong. That undercurrent came through clearly, Alban’s agony and worry over how the world had changed. There was certainty in him, certainty that forcing his way into Daisani’s mind had opened a channel that wasn’t meant to be. Certainty that Margrit’s presence exacerbated the wrongness, her bewildering talent for connecting nongargoyle minds to the gestalt hissing to deadly life. None of the Old Races in the apartment could escape it. Margrit felt Alban’s fear that none of the Old Races in the city, perhaps the world, could escape it; that he had gone much too far in a pursuit of dubious justice, or in a misguided attempt to save Old Races lives.

With that conclusion, she felt him begin to draw back, trying to break the forcible link he’d created. Dismay tore at her throat and she shoved to her feet, finding strength to stand against the relentless noise in her head. She pushed by Alban, determined to meet Eliseo Daisani in the battleground of memory herself, if the gargoyle could not.

The ground under her feet steadied as she approached Daisani, though whether that was through his willpower or her own, she had no idea. She felt Alban’s protest at the back of her mind and ignored it; felt Janx’s curiosity driving her on, and took strength from it. Daisani only smirked at her, faint expression of superiority, as though he considered himself untouchable.

It was oddly satisfying to reach out and slap the expression from his face.

Fury followed shock, and the vampire blurred, disappearing from visible sight. Margrit whipped to follow him, and when he struck against her, slammed a hand up to catch his blow.

Astonishment wiped every other emotion from Daisani’s eyes. Margrit’s answering smile felt ugly with smug delight and she leaned toward Daisani, still holding his wrist. “You’re only faster than me in the real world.”

He yanked away and fled again, impossible speed across rough terrain. Margrit, gleefully, gave chase. In the human world, constrained by her human body, she could never hope to catch the vampire, but in her mind, oh, in her mind, she was fast.

The thought tasted of Alban, as though he’d given up trying to pull back and was now urging her on. Urging her to finish the race, urging her to end the game and release them all from the harsh, static connection she created within the overmind, amongst the Old Races. Remembering her own deadly headache, Margrit overcame regret at being unable to play cat and mouse with Daisani, and put on a surge of speed that turned the world to Doppler effects, stretched light and sound whisking by her.

She caught Daisani in a floodplain that seemed a thousand years away from the gargoyle mountains. His territory, she thought, though it was as easily hers, tall wild grass and open land looking like a birthplace of humanity.

They came together with a monumental crash, Margrit flinging herself off the ground to tackle the slender vampire. She had no particular strength, but then, neither did he: any preternatural power came from speed, and she thought she had the slight weight advantage. Dust and earth kicked up around them as they crashed to the savannah floor, and Margrit gathered Daisani’s lapels in her hands to haul him up, nose to nose.

“Where are the bodies buried, Eliseo?”

Daisani hissed, a sound of pure fury and insult that lost any vestige of humanity. His face, his body, his whole form melted away, becoming oil-slick and hellacious. His jaw unhinged into a maw of black teeth, and his eyes disappeared into nearly invisible slits. Segmented, insectoid wings sprang from his back and slammed toward her, razor claws along their edges slashing at her face and hands. Margrit screamed, kicking away, and he pounced after her, a lashing, barbed tail whipping toward her feet. He was altogether more alien than any of the others, every trace of earthly presence turned into a slick, violent predator too fast to stop.

Panic rose in her, then unexpectedly broke, leaving a calm tide behind. Daisani’s pounce landed, sending them tumbling again, and rather than try to escape this time, Margrit surged forward and embraced the vampire, shuddering at the way his oil slid over her skin.

Surprise froze him in place for just an instant, and into that stillness she whispered, “If I’m going to die, I’m sure as hell going to find out what I’m dying for. Alban, please!”

For the second time in as many minutes, the world fell apart.

It re-formed much more solidly, a structure imposed that had not been there before. Daisani screamed as though the sound was being ripped from his soul, then writhed back into the dapper human form Margrit was so accustomed to. Panting rage in his eyes said it was not his choice to be so shaped, and his skittering glance at the echoing building in which they stood told Margrit he knew where they were.

Alban’s presence surrounded them, his will a thing of stone, indomitable. More and more walls built up around Margrit and Daisani, each of them borne from a snarl or a whimper from the vampire. Tangled in Alban’s mind and Daisani’s memories, Margrit recognized that the gargoyle was literally stripping hidden knowledge from the vampire and re-creating it openly. His own reluctance to do so was buried beneath a determination to save her; he had failed her more than once, and the price of doing so again was far too dear.

For the first time Margrit’s own will faltered, but it was too late: the church was built, and a familiar voice was speaking. “They must be bound by iron, staked with wood, buried in earth and water.”

“Yes,” said another voice irritably, “very dramatic, but how do I catch them?”

The angle reeled, Daisani turning to face the man with whom he spoke. A big man, his regular features lined with intense determination, he was dressed in clothes of a wholly different era, clothes that marked him, to Margrit’s eye, as out of place and time, though she knew it was she who was out of time. But recognition worked its way through the minds linked to Daisani’s memories: vampire hunter, Janx whispered. The most successful of them all. Margrit was afraid to even think the name, afraid she would be wrong, afraid looking into history-made-fiction might somehow unravel time. She knotted her hands against her mouth, stopping all sound, and held her breath to listen to Daisani’s murmur.

“Ah. You caught me. Can you not manage it again?”

Fresh shock coursed through the link, Margrit’s added to it all. Daisani’s rage, beneath the power of memory, was muted, so muted she couldn’t tell if it was fury from decades ago, or newly born at being made to relive and share remembrances.

The big man made a disdainful sound. “You are no more captured than the wind might be. You’ve walked into this trap, and I want to know why.”

“My kind and I are half sick of shadows,” Daisani said lightly. “Half sick of jumping at them, at fearing some idiot human will embody the very persona of fortune and slaughter us in our sleep. I have therefore come to make you a bargain.”

Tension sizzled through the link, Margrit’s breath catching as profoundly as the hunter’s did. “What sort of bargain?”

“One you’ll agree to or die here,” Daisani admitted, then shrugged. “But I think it’ll be to your tastes. I will deliver you my brethren, and in exchange, you will forget I exist, and let me make my way in the world.”

Ursula’s cry of outrage broke through memory and brought with it the scent of fire, reminding Margrit of the world outside history. The apartment was enveloping in flame, and while the Old Races might survive, she had very little time.

“Why would you do that?”

“Because in a very few years humanity will overrun this planet, and my people are too poor in impulse control to survive unnoticed. Because you are on the brink of revolution that will change the face of your existence, and it will inevitably change ours, if we do not find a way to wait it out.” Another thought whispered beneath Daisani’s spoken words: And because I am the master of my kind, and I will survive at any cost, but you, mortal, need not know such things.

“They’ll come?” The hunter’s voice was rough. “They’ll come to your call?”

“Those in Europe will. The rest of the world, well. Perhaps you and I shall do some traveling together.”

Memory drew back, showing the shape of the world. Subtle flashes highlighted pinpoints across the globe: southern Europe, Australia’s outback, a riverside in China, Central America. Others faded too quickly to be seen, and when the image faded back to the scene, even that had changed. Daisani stood outside the Vatican, the broad-shouldered vampire hunter at his side. “Buried in earth and water,” the hunter said. “Holy water?”

Daisani smiled, humor warping his memories. He said, “Holy water,” aloud, but his thoughts made mockery of the idea. Holy or not, salt or fresh, it made no difference. Submersion held his people in stasis, just as earth comforted their bones as they rested. Wood thrust through the heart stopped their bodies and their thoughts, and iron held them against any chance of tearing free should stakes disintegrate without being replaced. The holy men of any faith would keep their secret charges, thinking all the while that the vampires were vanquished, dead to the world and all time. No one, no one at all, knew the vampires were the only true immortals.

The modern world crashed back into existence around Margrit, Ursula’s furious shrieks splitting the air in time to the crackling of fire. Janx, with utter disgust, slapped Daisani aside and imploded back to his human form to stand over the damaged vampire. Scorn laced his beautiful voice. “I had thought better of you, old friend. I had thought you were a survivor, not a traitor. Your own people, all but murdered, for the sake of walking alone yourself.”

“For walking safe myself.” Daisani spoke without a hint of repentance, but his voice was shockingly weak. “Tell me you would do no less, should your people waken from their slumbers.” He coughed and slumped, an arm wrapped around his middle.

Margrit strained to see through smoke and fire, remembering that the dragon had skewered the vampire more than once. Even Janx hadn’t easily walked away from lesser injuries, and for all that Daisani’s memories claimed immortality for his people, she thought she could hear his labored breathing over the sounds of the fire.

Alban answered her unspoken question: “Immortal, perhaps, but not undamageable. I wonder if he might yet die.” There was sorrow and censure in the words, as though he regretted the loss of a friend, but thought the loss might be greater in living than in death.

Janx turned away from Daisani with all the grace at his command, very much the picture of a sovereign leaving an unworthy subject to suffer whatever indignities might befall him. Daisani, clearly drawing on all the strength he had left, came to his feet and watched the dragonlord go, a mixture of anger and injury written across his features.

“You are free of your favor to me.” Janx paused by Margrit, his gaze fixed ahead. “You have more than brought my rival low, and none amongst the Old Races would dispute that he is unworthy to walk among us. Tony Pulcella’s life is yours. Goodbye, Margrit Knight.” He stalked past her gracefully, then stopped at the doorway, looking back toward Kate Hopkins.

She cast a desperate glance at him, then at Ursula, who stared at Eliseo Daisani as though he had betrayed her personally. After a few seconds, as if sensing her sister’s gaze, Ursula looked up and offered Kate a brief, sad smile.

Kate bolted across the room to hug her, then darted after Janx, stopping just long enough to shoot a quick smile of her own toward Margrit. Then the pair of them left together, leaving burning memories behind.

Daisani collapsed. For all her anger, Ursula let go a low cry and jolted forward, then stopped herself, expression going hard. Alban touched Margrit’s shoulder, inviting her away, and she looked from the vampire to the gargoyle and back again.

“Do you really think it’s so awful?” To her surprise, she could hear herself over the flames. “He betrayed them and left himself to walk free, but isn’t that better than nobody being left to know where they were? Nobody being left to know how to free them? And he was right, the world was changing.” She was walking through the fire without a conscious decision to do so, kneeling at the vampire’s side in the midst of an inferno. “What if they couldn’t restrain themselves? What if he was right, and he was the only one who could make a choice that hard?”

“Margrit.” Alban’s voice held warning and despair.

She looked up with a helpless smile. “Since when have I played favorites, Alban? You’ve all needed help in one way or another. I’ve given it, if I could. Daisani’s saved my life, and I’ve repaid him with this.” She gestured to the burning apartment and realized for the first time that the smoke didn’t seem to be clogging her lungs. Another gift from the vampire, or maybe the dragon if his blood had, in fact, mingled with hers. Margrit pushed the thought away, only distantly curious about it, and spoke to Alban again. “Maybe he won’t die, but he’s sure as hell not healthy, and it’s not like we can leave him here for the police or fire department to find. Go on. Get out of here before the cops do get here. I’ll be right behind you.”

“I am not leaving you.”

“You’d better.” Tony Pulcella’s hoarse voice came from the doorway. He stepped inside, holding a hand up against the heat, the other covering his mouth as he coughed. “All of you. It’s going to be a hell of a lot easier to explain a building fire if there aren’t a handful of people standing around like potential arsonists. And you can’t afford to be in custody when the sun comes up,” he reminded Alban sharply.

Margrit, as much as the gargoyle, stared at the police detective without comprehension. “What are you doing here?”

“You said you were on your way here. I didn’t know you’d be busy destroying the place, but I thought I’d better come over even before I saw the fire. Go,” he said more urgently, gesturing to Alban. “Margrit’s right. You can’t be here.”

Alban closed his hands into fists. “Margrit…”

Memory flashed through her again, Hajnal’s near death on a rainy Paris night, and Alban’s reluctant agreement to abandon her to dawn and stone. “I know, Alban. I know. I’ll be right behind you, I promise. Get Tony out of here, too. He can’t see what’s about to happen.”

No one saw a vampire’s natural form and lived to tell of it. The warning haunted her, but before any more arguments could be made, she bent her head over Daisani’s shuddering form, and offered him her throat.

An image stood out in her mind. The last image, she imagined, that she would ever see. It was dramatic: a slim, dapper man standing before a wall of fire, looking down at her. Despite the fire, she was freezing, as though all the warmth had been drained from her body. Even her heartbeat seemed sluggish, as though there were nothing left to push. She’d felt that way once before, very recently, when her blood had spilled out on a concrete floor, taking her life with it.

Clarity brightened everything for an instant, letting her understand that the same thing had happened again. Nearly the same thing: this time she had chosen to buy one life with her own. Daisani crouched at her side, murmuring under the crackle of flame. “I will not see you again, Margrit Knight. You had best pray for all your days, however long they may be, that I will not see you again. Eliseo Daisani is dead, thanks to you, and the only reason you do not follow him to the grave is this act of grace you have offered. Live with that, if you can survive the fire.”

Margrit nodded, a flimsy motion that stole what strength she had left. Her eyes drifted closed, Daisani’s image dancing behind her eyelids for a little while before it faded.

Liquid brushed across her lips, so sticky she tried to wipe it off. She couldn’t: as before, her muscles were watery. Licking it away was a compulsive reaction, her body working without command from her mind. Iron’s tang was drowned by sugar, so sweet she gagged before involuntary swallowing overrode the weak attempt to spit up.

For a brief eternity there was nothing.

Then life came roaring back in, a surge that rolled her onto her hands and knees, coughing and spitting against too much smoke inhalation. Heat said the fire was behind her. Margrit crawled away, trembling with effort, and collapsed outside Daisani’s apartment door. Cool air rushed to fill her lungs and she heaved for it, trying to clear her mind.

“Margrit.” Tony put a hand on her shoulder, then pushed her back to sit on her heels, keeping her upright with his own strength. He was blackened with soot, sweat making lines through it. “Grit, I couldn’t get back in there to go after you—”

“Alban was supposed to get you out of here.” Her voice wasn’t as bad as it had been after her throat had been cut. Margrit took it as a small favor, focusing on that instead of on the bewildered fear that pounded through her. “Where…?”

“Here.” The gargoyle, in his stone form, crouched at Tony’s side. Margrit blinked at him, further bewildered until she realized she’d taken his broad white form to be part of the wall. She relaxed, fear draining away as she became more aware of the heat behind her. Alban offered a faint smile. “You couldn’t imagine we’d leave you. Not after all of this.”

“You should have. I told you I’d be right behind you.”

“You weren’t,” Alban said with the same tiny smile, though it fell away. “I’ve left you too many times already, Margrit Knight. Never again.”

“He wouldn’t let me past him,” Tony growled.

Margrit folded her hand over Tony’s at her shoulder, testing her own strength and finding it wanting. Memory flashed behind her eyes: Daisani’s fluid, oily form a nightmare of blood-stench and fear that made her shudder. “Good. Daisani…”

“Is dead.” Tony took away the explanation she’d intended to make, speaking with unexpected firmness. “Which we’re all going to be if we don’t get out of here. This place is an inferno, Margrit. I’ve got to get downstairs.”

Margrit nodded, feeling sweat slide down her spine. She set her jaw and shoved to her feet, refusing either Tony or Alban’s help for a few seconds. Just long enough to determine she could stand unaided if she had to. Satisfied, wobbling, she put out a hand, and both men reached for it. Margrit caught a glimpse of their exchanged expressions, and almost found a laugh to tease them with. Tony, after an instant, dropped his hand, and Margrit’s laughter turned to a weak smile as she leaned on Alban. Her thoughts were clearing, as were her lungs. She still felt drained, exhausted from blood loss, but one idea came into focus: “The elevators will be locked down, and you can’t run down forty flights of stairs. Come up to the roof. Let Alban bring you down.”

“Uh—” Tony shot a look between the two of them, and Alban shifted, causing a rumble of amusement under Margrit’s ear.

“She’s right. It would be quicker, if you’re willing to trust me.”

“Trust you?” Flame exploded from the apartment. Alban scooped Margrit into his arms and fell into step behind Tony, protecting the humans as they ran for the stairs. Tony’s bellow echoed over the noise. “I trust you a hell of a lot more than I trust that fire!”

They burst onto the rooftop, Tony sliding to a stop as his voice broke in dismay. “You set the roof on fire, too?”

Margrit patted Alban’s arm, half reassurance and half a request to be set on her feet as she looked over the burning helicopter and flame-eaten expanse of blacktop. “I forgot about that. News helicopters—”

“Are already on their way.” Alban flashed into his human form, still holding her, and nodded skyward, where lights were converging on the building. “Let’s hope their cameras are washed out by the fire. Detective, if we’re to exit discreetly, we had best do it now. Margrit, I think you’d better come with us. I won’t be able to return without drawing attention.”

“Can you fly with both of us?”

Alban gave her a foreshortened, nonplussed look that finally brought out her laughter. “I guess that’s a yes. All right. How—”

The question was cut off as Alban, with an apologetic twist to his mouth but no more ceremony than that, jerked his head toward the darker edge of the building and dropped Margrit from the bride’s carry he held her in, wrapping a single arm around her waist instead. He offered the other arm to Tony, eyebrows lifted as he said, “Detective, if you would…?”

“You can’t carry us that far!” Tony fit himself into the offered space awkwardly even as he protested, and let out a baritone yell under Margrit’s shriek of laughter as Alban did, in fact, lift them both easily, and ran across the rooftop to leap into freefall.

Alban transformed, the charge of bursting air earning another bellow from Tony. Their plummet broke as Alban’s wings snapped open, and he turned on a wingtip, updrafts pulling tears from Margrit’s eyes. “I’m afraid this will be a rougher flight than usual,” Alban murmured. “I don’t dare circle the building for fear the news cameras will catch a glimpse of us.”

“That’s fine.” Tony’s voice was strained. “Just get us on the ground.” His face was pale. A death grip locked around Alban’s neck. Margrit grinned wildly at him, then shouted in panicked delight as Alban folded his wings and cut toward the ground at dramatic speed.

They landed harder than they ever had, her hold around the gargoyle’s neck slipping and reminding her that weakness hadn’t yet passed. Alban set Tony on his feet and transformed into his human shape.

Tony staggered away, staring toward the distant rooftop and then at Alban. “Jesus. I thought we were dead.”

“Not at my hand, detective.”

“Good goddamned thing. Grit…?”

“I’m fine.” Margrit slid out of Alban’s arm, still leaning on him for support, and found her cell phone. “Tony, if the docks aren’t a hundred-percent quieter by tomorrow night, you’re going to have to—” She broke off, suddenly wishing her clarity of thought would fade a little. “This is going to sound insane.”

Tony shot a finger toward the sky. “Now you’re worried about insane, after jumping off a forty-story building?”

Margrit glanced upward, then shrugged in acknowledgment. “If the docks haven’t quieted down, you’re going to need to go in with FDNY trucks of salt water and hose all your malcontents down. A lot of them are djinn, and that’ll keep them from misting. If you can find Ursula Hopkins, ask for a pint of her blood and line your handcuffs with them. You’re not going to be able to hold the djinn for long, but it’d at least shake them up.”

Tony pulled a hand over his mouth. “Salt water. And blood.”

“Not just any blood. Vampire blood.” Margrit winced at Tony’s expression, but he turned his hand palm out, refusing any further commentary she might have.

“Salt water and vampire blood. Anything else, Grit?”

“No, except…” Margrit turned away, searching for the call-back feature on Cameron’s phone, and dialed the number that came up.

Voice mail answered, another small gift she was grateful for. “Kaimana. This is Margrit Knight.” For an instant the world rushed up around her as it had when Alban had leapt off the building, all too overwhelming. As if he sensed her wave of exhaustion, Alban tucked himself behind her. She leaned back, shoulders dropping a little. “You get your bag of tricks after all, Kaimana. Eliseo Daisani is dead. Be prepared to hit the market hard Monday morning.” She hung up, fisting her hand around the phone, then put it away to the sound of Alban’s low chuckle.

“Not ten minutes ago you were nearly dead, Margrit Knight, and now you stand in the wreckage of Eliseo’s life and make deals. No wonder they’ve named you the Negotiator.”

“You’ve got to get out of here, both of you.” Tony drew Margrit’s attention from the warmth and comfort that Alban’s arms offered. “Cops’ll be here any minute. I can hear the sirens.”

“If you wish to depart with us, detective…”

“No—I called it in. They’re going to expect me to be here. Go on, get going.”

Margrit marshaled failing strength and put a hand out toward Tony. He caught it and held on a moment, then released her. “Go, before I have to explain who and what the hell you are. And don’t worry,” he added, resigned, “I never saw any of you.”

Margrit whispered, “Thank you, Tony.” And then she was in Alban’s arms and they were running, leaping, soaring into the space between buildings, leaving the life she’d known behind them, and a future of indefinite years and infinite possibilities ahead.

CHAPTER 36 | Hands of Flame | EPILOGUE