Sunshine, p.26
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       Sunshine, p.26

           Robin McKinley
 
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Chapter 26

 

  There was now quite a lot of blood, and. . . bits and pieces. I had blood on me too. Con seized my hand again, and said sharply, Come. I didn't dare look in his face. There would be no comfort, no reassurance, in the face of any vampire. When I took a running step to keep up with him, my shoes slipped. In the blood. There was so much blood on our hands that as it dried, our fingers stuck together. The meaty smell was a miasma, a poison gas.

  We didn't duck back into the chaos-space. I had half-forgotten my alignment, but it was now as if it was tied to me - or I was tied to it. It was pulling us along, through these dark broken streets where the shadows lay twisted and crumpled like dead bodies, pulling as if we were on a leash. I wanted to untie it, but I couldn't, I mustn't - I wanted to - no, it was too late; even if I had funked it now, at the last minute, after the last minute, all it would do now is get us killed. Sooner.

  I could hear them - someone - keeping pace with us - why didn't they close in, cut us off, attack us? Con said quietly, as if there was no urgency whatsoever, "Bo will not be able to say your name. Either of your names. "

  What? Sunshine. Rae. Daylight names. Old vampires can't say daylight words either? The very old vampires that can't go out in the moonlight that is only faint reflected sunlight? The academics would have said Con counted as very old, and he didn't even wait for full dark: twilight was good enough for him. And he called me Sunshine. There are different ways of being what we are. Apparently Bo hadn't aged so well. Something to talk to the academics about. Variability of Aging Among Vampires. Usage of Certain Words Pertaining to Daylight by Aged Vampires. Maybe I could get my pass into the Other Museum's library after all. No, wait. I was about to die.

  I didn't immediately see what good Bo's not being able to say my name was going to do me. Bo wasn't going to need to say - or know - my name to kill me.

  Okay. Names are power. We'd had that back at the lake. Big deal. Fangs are more power. We'd had that at the lake too. Con had chosen to let me go. Bo wasn't going to.

  Why had I agreed to this anyway?

  "You feel the pull strongly?" Con went on in that infuriatingly calm voice. "Bo has connected to our presence here. If we are separated, go on. Follow that connection to its end. Leave me. I will catch up with you when I can. "

  Oh good. I was so glad he would make the effort to catch up with me later. Although I wished he'd used the word goal or aim rather than end.

  "I recommend - " he added, dispassionate as ever - I was trying to remind myself that he always sounded unbothered, not to say dead. Or maybe that it was a good sign he sounded so unflapped now, as if this was still all part of the normal range of vampire activities. I almost didn't hear the rest of what he was saying: " - you do not attempt to retreat into any Other-space, including the way I have brought us both. You would only draw some of Bo's creatures after you, and their advantage there would be greater than yours. "

  Right. Like it wasn't greater than mine everywhere.

  I realized that while we were no longer in the chaos-space, we weren't exactly in No Town either. Or at least I hoped it wasn't No Town, because if it was, our human world was in even more trouble than most of us knew about. . . than I knew about. . . again the thought came to me: What did I know? Pat said a hundred years, tops, before. . . And the people who came to No Town for thrills weren't likely to notice that the whole scene was sliding over the edge of normal reality into. . .

  I felt the pull strongly all right, like a hand around my throat that was slowly tightening. If I was a dog on a lead, I was wearing a choke collar, and my master didn't like me much. Maybe it was that sense of pressure that made my vision go funny; but then, my vision had been funny for two months now, and I was kind of used to funniness. But this was a new kind of funniness, where things seemed to dance in and out of existence, rather than merely in and out of light and darkness.

  There were streetlights where we were - some of them still worked - and great swathes of darkness. There was the uneven pavement under our feet, the potholed roads, the crumbling curbs. Once I stepped unawares on a manhole cover and the sound this made, even in this night of horrors, made my heart leap into my throat. There were tall buildings that seemed to prowl among the shadows; a few of them had dim lights burning that gave the old peeling posters on their walls an undesirable life: huge painted eyes winked at me, fingers as long as my legs beckoned to me. The way the clubs leaped out of the night with their noise and bewildering lighting, stabbing and erratic, rhythmic and dazzling, rainbow-colored or this week's fashion match, heightened that sense of Otherwhere: hey, I wanted to say to some of the humans we passed, you don't need drugs, let me tell you, there are spaces between worlds, there are master vampires that loop invisible ropes around your neck and drag you to your doom. . .

  We are running through No Town. I hear our footsteps - no, I hear my footsteps, and the kind of unmatched echo that chills your blood, because you know it means you're not alone, and what you're not alone with isn't human. I remember when hearing and seeing were simple, it had to do with sound and light and the manageable equations they taught you in school. I am wondering if anyone notices us; the only kind of running that goes on here is the furtive kind, no joggers out to burn off last night's burger and fries or reach the buzz of an endorphin high. No one, hearing running footsteps - especially running footsteps with an unmatched echo - is going to look up if they can help it. I guess I can stop worrying about seeing someone I know. . .

  A few people do look up, though: bad consciences, old habits, a momentary - or drug-induced - forgetfulness about who or where they are? I think I meet the eyes of one young woman: I see her take me in, take Con in, disbelieve us both. . . and then we're past her, running out of the light-surf, back into the ocean of darkness.

  Into a fresh seethe of vampires. They didn't want to connect with me. Lucky me. I winced and twitched out of the way of anything I saw, anything I half-saw; I stopped trying to see anything, and let my instinct - whatever instinct this was - keep me moving. Where was Con? No, I still knew him from the rest of them. For one thing, he was the center of the seethe. If there's only one guy on your team, he's the one everybody else is jumping on.

  It went on in a horrible almost-silence.

  There was a hot circlet around my neck and across my breast; there were two small fires burning in my two front jeans pockets. Apparently they'd learned their lesson that first time, when the sunsword had hit the pillow; they didn't set my clothes on fire this time either. And it wasn't because they weren't really putting it out: they were. The evening we'd blown SOF HQ wasn't even a dress rehearsal for what was going on now.

  Even with my talismans going full throttle my luck didn't hold for long. Something - someone - crashed into me, tore me away from Con, out of the seethe; it was taking me somewhere. It was, in fact, the same direction I was being dragged by my invisible leash, but I didn't feel I wanted any help getting there sooner; besides, whatever Con had said about going on without him, I'd rather not, thanks.

  I saw a shape, and ducked away from it. It seemed a little uncertain of its own bearings; it missed its grab, and teeth ground down my arm, strangely fumbling, if teeth can fumble. Hey, my jugular is up this way. I wished for a nice apple-tree stake, well impregnated with mistletoe, except I didn't know how to use it; staking takes training. The table knife had been a one-off. . . I put my right hand in my pocket, braced the butt end of my hot little knife against my palm, and pointed it up between my fingers: not with the blade open, just the hard blunt end of it, like a single fat brass knuckle. I saw it momentarily, shining like a tiny moon, like a slightly misaligned gem-stone in a ring.

  Then I swung it, with my paltry human strength, up in the general direction of where the base of the breastbone that belonged to the teeth in my other arm might be.

  I connected. The wide blunt end of my knife. . . sank in. As it did it blazed up, no longer moonlike but sunlike
, golden, shining, a tongue of flame, and in its light I saw a golden lattice extending up my arm.

  I had just time to remember what had happened in an alley when I had used a table knife.

  The noise was different. There were no narrow alley walls for the gobbets to smack against. Instead I heard the thick heavy splat, like loathsome rain, as they fell around me. I'd forgotten the smell - the smell of something long dead and rotten. I thought, they're not even a little human any more when they explode: they shatter so easily, like throwing an overripe melon against a fence. No melon ever smelled like this. . .

  Con rematerialized from wherever he had been, from whatever he had been doing. I just managed not to wince out of his way too. The problem was he looked like a vampire, and at the moment he looked a lot more like a vampire than he looked like Con. One of the even-more-comforting-than-usual stories about vampires is that sometimes, during vampire gang wars for example, they go into berserker furies and tear anything they can get their hands on apart, not only their enemies but their comrades, the guys on their own side. Supposedly the berserker fit can last quite a while, and if a particularly effective dismemberer gets to the end of the bodies around it before the fit wears off, it will tear itself to shreds too.

  Maybe this is a consoling story when you're at home with a book or reading it off your combox screen: the idea that there are that many fewer vampires in the world, that they had done each other in while we humans cowered safely behind closed doors with a hell of a lot of wards nailed over them. (If you find yourself so unlucky as to be living somewhere there is a sucker gang war going on, you pin a lot of wards around your house, and you do not go out after dark or before dawn for any reason. ) I didn't know what a vampire running amok looked like, but it might have looked like Con. It wasn't just. . . it wasn't. . . Look, if you ever have the opportunity to choose between being eaten by a tiger and bitten by an enraged vampire, take the tiger.

  I was probably off in my feeble little human she's-in-shock-wrap-her-in-a-blanket-and-get-out-the-whisky space. Humans don't deal with extreme situations very well. Our pathetic bodies freak out. We freeze, and our blood pressure falls, and we can't think, and all that. I stood there, staring, while Con snarled and showed me his teeth, and didn't offer me the blanket or the whisky or the hot sweet tea. Then - maybe he remembered I was his ally, maybe he'd remembered that but had momentarily forgotten, seeing me as soaked in blood and sprinkled with the remains of a mutilated enemy as he, that I was a mere human. Maybe the snarl was the vampire equivalent of "Hot damn! Well done!"

  Whatever. He stopped snarling, and. . . drew his face together. When he seized my slimy hand and pulled me along after him again I didn't gibber, I didn't collapse, and I didn't throw up. I stuffed my knife back into my pocket, and went.

  I wish I could forget how it feels, your hair stuck to your skull with blood, foul blood running gummily down inside your clothes, invading your privacy, your decency, your humanity, till it chafes you with every breath, every movement, the tug of it as it dries on your skin feeling like some kind of snare. Blood in your mouth, that you cannot spit the vile taste of away. I think I must have gone into some kind of berserker fury myself. There are things you don't want to know you can do, aren't there? But if you're lucky you never find them out. I found out too many of them, all at once. I, who had to leave the kitchen at Charlie's when they were whacking up meat into joints or putting slabs of drippy pulpy maroony-red stuff through the grinder.

  Blood stings when it gets in your eyes. And it's viscous, so it's hard to blink out again. It may not only be because the blood stings that you're weeping.

  I have always been afraid of more things than I can remember at one time. Mom, when I was younger, and still admitted to some of them, said that it was the price of having a good imagination, and suggested I stop reading the Blood Lore series (which was past thirty volumes even then) and maybe retiring Immortal Death and Below Hell Keep from the top bookshelf for a while. I didn't, but it wouldn't have done any good if I had. Reading scary books is weirdly reassuring, most of the time: it means at least one other person - the author - has imagined things as awful as you have. What's bad is when the author comes up with stuff you hadn't thought of yet.

  I'd thought it was bad when I was just reading stuff I hadn't thought of.

  And even then I'd known that sometimes it's worse when the author leaves it to your imagination.

  I stopped using my knife. I found out I didn't have to. I found out I could do it with my hands.

  It was still mostly Con, that we got through. Even warded up the wazoo and covered in bright gold cobweb I was still only human. I was still slower and weaker than any vampire. But I had Con. And I was warded and webbed, and the vampires didn't like tangling with me. They kept choosing to tangle with Con, even though they could see - graphically - what had happened to the last vampire or twelve or twenty-seven or four thousand and eight vampires that had tangled with Con. If we ever got to the end of all this, ha ha and so on, and wanted to find our way back out of the maze, it wasn't a thread we would have to follow but a path paved with undead body parts.

  Maybe they thought they'd wear him out or something.

  I still got a few. You'd think offing a few vampires would feel like doing a community service, wouldn't you? It doesn't. Not even when they don't explode. That's why I started doing it with my hands. They didn't explode, I discovered, if I merely jammed my fingers in under their breastbones and pulled.

  My vampire affinity.

  I lost track. There was gore and gruesomeness and then more of it and I hated all of it, and was ready to be killed, just to get away from it, if someone would promise me, cross their heart and hope to die, very very funny, that I wouldn't rise again. In any semblance. I still wasn't sure about the mechanics of turning and it seemed to me that dying in the present circumstances probably wasn't the best recipe for staying quietly in my grave afterward. Supposing someone found enough of me to bury.

  I would have liked to give up. I meant to give up. But I couldn't. Like I couldn't stay at home and hide under the bed, I guess. Maybe it was promising Con to stick around as long as I could. Stick seemed the right verb under the circumstances. Every time I lifted one of my blood-clotted shoes there was a sticky, ripping noise.

  And then everything went quiet, at least except for the noise I was making. Mostly it was just breathing. Maybe bleating a little.

  One of the things that had happened during the business of savaging our way through Bo's army was that I'd begun to know where Con was, like I knew where my right hand or my left leg was. It was a bit like unwrapping something from swathes of tissue paper, or following an idea through its development to a conclusion. You have an inkling of something, some shape or concept, and it gets clearer and stronger till you know what it is. It happened while the occasional shrieks and dead-flesh noises went on, all those near-misses with my own death. I understood that I was crazy, crazy to be still alive, crazy to be doing what I was doing to stay alive, crazy to be trying to stay alive. This knowingness about Con was a strange island in a strange ocean.

  That sense of Con's presence, of his precise location, had undoubtedly saved my life several times in the carnage, if it hadn't done much for my sanity. But it meant that when things suddenly went quiet and I felt someone - some vampire - coming noiselessly up behind me, I knew it was Con.

  Well well, said a silent voice from an invisible speaker. This meeting has heen much more amusing than I anticipated.

  I didn't have to hear Con snort. He didn't, of course. Vampires don't snort, even with derision. But I knew as Con knew that the voice was lying when it said amusing.

  I also knew who this was. Bo. Mr. Beauregard. The fellow who had got us in all this. The fellow we were here to have the final meeting with. Him or us. I was pretty sure things had only started to get amusing, even if they hadn't gone quite as Bo had expected so far. And while I knew vampires
didn't get tired, exactly, I knew that they could come to the end of their strength. I'd seen Con coming to the end of his, out at the lake. I didn't know how one evening of tearing up your fellow vampires limb from limb matched against having been chained to the wall of a house with a ward sign eating into your ankle and the sun creeping after you through the windows every day, day after day, but I doubted Con was feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed now. I sure wasn't. I was missing my nice sympathetic human emergency room tech saying, "There's nothing really wrong with you, we're giving you a sedative and you can go home. " I was also so tired that the weirdness of my dark vision was starting to bother me again, like new shoes that aren't quite broken in yet that you've been wearing too long. I couldn't tell how much of what I seemed to be seeing was happening, and how much of it was my overstressed brain playing tricks on my eyes.

  I stared around, trying to make sense of what I was. . . okay, not seeing, it was dark in here, wherever it was. When had it become in here? We'd started out on the streets of No Town, more or less. Well, we weren't there any more. Given the. . . mess. . . I was glad no humans were likely to stumble across us. I tried to settle down, settle back into my skin - except I didn't want to be in my skin any more. I didn't want to be me. I didn't want to know me.

  But the animal body was overriding the conscious brain, the brain that ground out concepts like worthwhile and not worthwhile. My medulla oblongata was determined to stay alive, whatever my cerebrum said. For a moment I seemed to be floating up above myself, looking down at the bloody wreckage, at the two figures still standing, Con and me, standing next to each other, facing in the same direction.

  When Bo spoke again, I snapped back together, body and mind. I could almost hear the clunk, as the bolts slotted into place, trapping me with myself again. I may have hated and feared myself now, but I hated and feared Beauregard worse.

  Welcome, welcome. Do come in. Welcome between us, Connie, has been a curious affair for some years now, eh? I imagine you haven't been too surprised. Perhaps you explained it to your companion. I hope so, Connie. It would have been rude of you to omit explanation, I feel, and you have always been the soul of courtesy, haven't you? Your little human, Connie, is very enterprising. She has been nosing around me for some little while. I'm surprised, Connie, that you would allow a human to do your, shall I say, dirty work? You must have found your experience a few months ago more debilitating than I realized. Or perhaps more corrupting.

  And I had thought Con's laugh was horrible. I blanked out when Bo laughed, like you blank out when you're conked on the head. It's not a voluntary response.

  Maybe I should have been insulted that I was being ignored. I wasn't. I didn't want him to say anything to me. The mere experience - I won't call it sound - of his voice was like having the skin peeled off me - the skin I hadn't wanted to fit myself back inside a few moments ago. Very, very distantly it occurred to me that if I was feeling a little brighter I might find it funny that Bo seemed to be accusing me of being a bad influence. On a vampire. But I wasn't feeling brighter.

  Oh yes, I am here, waiting for you. Do keep coming on. After all, you have worked quite hard to progress so far, have you not? It would be a pity to waste all that effort. And I really don't feel I could let you go now without paying your respects to me personally. It would be so rude. And wasn't I just saying, Connie, that you are the soul of courtesy?

  The voice itself was flaying me alive. What was left of my mind and will were addled with the effort to remain - myself. Slowly, painfully, I moved my right hand, slid it stickily into my pocket, and closed my gummy and aching fingers around my little knife. It wasn't hot any more, but the painful pressure of the voice eased a little. I dropped my eyes and through the smeary muck on my forearms I could see the occasional gleam of golden webbing.

  Do walk on. Please.

  That please seemed to last a century.

  Walking on being precisely what he was trying to prevent us from doing, by the nonsound of his voice. I squeezed my knife till I could feel it grinding into my palm, and took a step forward. So did Con. He didn't take my hand again, but as we moved, his shoulder brushed mine. I realized it was important not to appear to be struggling. Con could probably have moved faster without me, but he didn't; he waited. So I raised my other foot and took another step. And another. Con matched me, and with every step we touched, briefly, shoulder or arm or back of hand. There was a sort of quiver against my breast, as if the chain that hung there was rearranging itself.

  You must be tired, said the voice. You are walking so slowly.

  But I heard it too. He was losing this round, as he had lost the first one, because we weren't paralyzed and helpless. Because I wasn't dying under the scourge of his voice.

  I wondered how much worse it would be if he said my name.

  It became easier as we went on; he'd withdrawn, I guess, plotting his next move. We didn't get rushed by any minions trying to kill us either. I kept my hand wrapped around my knife, and I felt the little hard lump that was the seal against my other leg. The chain felt stretched across my breast like a rock-climber spread-eagled across a particularly tricky slope. I pretended I was going forward bravely, ready for the next challenge. But I'd been wounded by that voice: the bitter burning of acid. My body throbbed with it, despite the talismans, despite the light-web. Every step blew a little gust of pain through me. I tried not to shiver, which would only make it worse; and besides, pathetically, I didn't want Con to despise me. As our shoulders brushed, I felt him helping me, offering me his strength. I forgot again that he was a vampire, that I was afraid of him too, that I hated what he could do and had done, tonight, hated him for making me find out what I could do. He was also all I had. He was my ally and if I was going to let him down, which I probably was, at least let me not do it because I just lost it.

  The silvery luminescence that began eerily to come up around us was genuine light of some sort, light that a human eye could respond to. But there was nothing here I wanted to see, that I wouldn't rather be able to trick myself into half-believing I wasn't seeing, that my human neurons were confused by the vampire thing I was infected with.

  We were in a huge room. There were enormous pipes, and the remains of scaffolding, and machinery, all round the walls, and more overhead. Some kind of derelict factory; No Town was full of them. This one had been renovated, in a way; the sickly wash of marsh-light gleamed off knobs and rivets, dials and gadgetry that no human had ever invented, let alone put together. I wondered, dimly, if there was any purpose to them, or if they were merely backdrop, window dressing, the latest vampire version of Bram Stoker's febrile fantasy of ruined castles and earth-filled coffins. Big or important vampire gangs always had a headquarters, and headquarters usually contained some accommodations for those nights they wanted a change from eating out, and they felt like throwing a dinner party at home. Such a space would be suitably decorated to inspire further adrenaline panic in their visitors, and the word was that techno degeneracy had been the staging of choice since the Wars, although how anyone found this out to report it on the globenet was a mystery. Stoker and his coffins had always been nonsense, but the vampires had borrowed the idea for a century or two as a ruse-en-scene because it worked. The lack of scarlet-lined black capes and funny accents tonight wasn't making me happy.

  I knew immediately that I didn't like techno degeneracy either, but I wouldn't have liked earth-filled coffins any better. If there was any surprise, it was that I had any energy left to dislike anything.

  I was much better off disliking the decor, and trying to convince myself I wasn't seeing it anyway. At the far end of the big room there was a dais, and on that dais sat Bo.

  I felt his eyes on me. Look at me, they said. It wasn't a voice this time, or even a compulsion, like the drag like a rope round my neck I had felt earlier. Not looking into his eyes felt like trying to prevent my heart from beating. But I didn't look, and my heart continued t
o beat.

  The dais was a tall one, and on the steps up to it lounged several more vampires. They were all watching us with interest. I could see the glitter of eyes. I wondered if vampire eyes really do glitter, or if it was something to do with the marsh-light, or with my dark vision, or with the fact that I'd gone crazy and hadn't figured this out yet. So, okay, chances were I wasn't going to stay alive long enough to do any figuring, but I was still alive at the moment, and I was. . . it seemed ridiculous even as it occurred to me, but I was angry. I'd had my life ruined by this disgusting, undead monster. I had nothing to lose. All the best stuff in the books - and sometimes in history too - gets done by people who have nothing left to lose and so aren't always looking over their shoulders for the way out after it was over. I thought, wistfully, that I'd rather be looking over my shoulder for the way out. But I wasn't. I was about to die. But if I could take him - the Bo-thing - with me, it would have been worth it.

  The thought flamed up in me, like the sun coming up over the horizon. Yes. It will be worth it. I took my hand out of my pocket.

  Now all I had to do was do it.

  We reached the bottom of the dais. Those eyes were still pulling at me. Deliberately, consciously, voluntarily, I lifted my own eyes and met them.

  Monster didn't begin to cover it. Ironically the greeting we'd had from his guard corps had done me a service; I think if I hadn't already been shocked beyond my capacity to handle it I wouldn't have survived the initial blow of looking into the eyes of the master. Maybe it was a good thing I'd already lost my soul, that I was already half out of my body, my mind, my life. Because it meant I wasn't there to meet the full force of Bo's gaze.

  It was bad enough anyway. The distillation of hundreds of years of evil shimmering in those eyes, and his enjoyment of my looking at it.

  But he also expected me to crack, to disintegrate, immediately. He thought that as soon as I looked into his eyes it would be all over. Never mind that I could, apparently, look into ordinary vampires' eyes. That had happened occasionally. (I saw this in his eyes too, and thought, it did? Remember this. The part of me that was looking forward to finishing dying said, What for?) Bo was a master vampire. He could destroy vampires with his glare. A mere human would incinerate on the spot.

  Oh, and his eyes were colorless. Did I say that? I hadn't thought of evil as being without color but it is. Once you get past plain everyday wickedness, the color is squeezed right out of it. Evil is a kind of oblivion, having destroyed everything on its way there.

  I did go up in flames. But they weren't the flames he had anticipated. The light-web blazed up, like a lit fuse running back to the detonator, the bomb, snaking along the ground as it had been laid out: a slender tongue of fire began in a curl on the back of each of my hands. They ran up my arms, licking along the lines of the lattice, across my breast - the chain around my neck flared - into my scalp; I could feel my hair rising, waving in the fire, or perhaps it became fire itself; running down my back, my belly, my legs. The lighting of that fuse was looking into Bo's eyes.

  I was on fire. I put one flaming foot on the first stair of the dais, and stepped up. I was still staring into Bo's eyes.

  I felt, rather than saw, the vampires on the dais slither together and descend on Con. I don't know if they saw me burst into flames or not; I don't know if they were the sort of flames that anyone sees, even vampires. If they did see the light-web ignite, presumably they thought it was to do with their master having me well in hand, and they could afford to concentrate on Con. But Bo gave me another gift, as I toiled up the dais stairs toward him, letting me see, briefly, out of his eyes, to the bottom of the dais, behind me. I saw the other vampires pull Con down. The vampires around Bo's dais would be the elite, of course, as the welcoming committee had been the cannon fodder; and as I say, I'm not sure that vampires get tired, exactly, but they can come to the end of their strength. I thought now, as I flamed (I seemed to hear the roaring of flame too) that Con might have given me more of his remaining strength than I had realized, to get me this far. More than he could spare.

  Which meant I had to. . .

  I saw one of the vampires bend over him, as they pinned him down, its mouth open, fangs shining: it buried its face in his throat. I saw him jerk and heave, but they had him fast. I saw another vampire delicately unbutton the remains of his shirt, stroke his chest. . .

  I saw its fingers reaching under Con's breastbone for his heart.

  It wasn't anything so clear and noble as a decision that since I could do nothing for him I might as well get on with what I was doing. That Con was dying in a good cause if I could finish it before I died too. It wasn't a meeting of my strength against Bo's either, because Bo was still the stronger. He was going to stop me before I reached him.

  I was two steps from the summit, the crown where Bo sat enthroned, and I couldn't go any farther.

  But I still couldn't watch Con die. I couldn't.

  Think about cinnamon rolls. Think about the bakery at Charlie's. Feel the dough under your hands and the heat of the ovens. Think about Charlie cranking down the awning, Mom going into the office and flicking on her combox before she takes off her coat. Think about Mel in the kitchen next door. Think about Pat and Jesse sitting at their table, eating everything that Mary puts in front of them; think about Mary pouring hot coffee.

  Think about Mrs. Bialosky sitting at her table, and Maud sitting across from her.

  . . . And for a moment I saw them, Mrs. B and Maud. They were holding hands across the table, and their faces looked haggard and strained and awful, as if they were waiting to hear the news of someone's death. News they were expecting. And then Mrs. B looked up, straight at me, as she had the day I had been watching her from behind the counter, and Maud looked up too, over her shoulder, as Mrs. B was looking. Their eyes met mine.

  Standing behind them I seemed to see Mel. He held out his arms toward me, and flames leaped from his skin, as if his tattoos were a light-web.

  I took the last two steps. I was standing in front of Bo.

  But I couldn't bring myself to touch him - to try to touch him. I said that monster doesn't cover it. There is no word for a several-hundred-year-old vampire who has performed every available wickedness over and over till he has to invent unavailable ones because he'd worn the others out. His flesh was not flesh; it was a viscous ooze, held together by malice. His voice was a manifestation of malignancy, for he had no tongue, no larynx; his eyes were the purest imagination of evil: flawless in a way that flesh could never be.

  I knew that if I touched him I would be re-created into such as he was.

  The scar on my breast burst apart, and my poisoned blood ran down.

  I stopped. I stopped trying.

  But Bo made a mistake. He laughed.

  I reached into my left-hand pocket, and took out the daylight charm. I didn't look at it, but I felt the tiny sun spin and blaze, the tree shake its leaves - yesssss - the deer raise her head, acknowledging her own death, watching it come toward her. I felt the moving line of the water-barrier around its edge. As Bo laughed, I threw the charm down the noisome hole that indicated his mouth. A little tracery of fire followed it, like an arrow carrying a rope across a chasm. The mouth-hole closed with a sucking sound - something an ear could hear. What there was that was left of him in the real world wavered and became vulnerable to reality again, as the force and concentration of his will faltered in surprise.

  Surprise and pain. The fire - my fire - ran up his face; his eyes

  No no I can't say

  But he had been strong and evil and undead for such a long time, and I had been alive and human for such a short time. My little fire wavered, and began to ebb. His face writhed: he was about to speak.

  Ssssssss

 
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