Authors: Michele Hauf
Bowed over Kam’s body, he pressed his lips to hers. “I love you.” She was warm and smelled like cherries and chocolate. And sulfur. Brushing aside the hair from her shoulder revealed the butterfly tattoos. Vile gifts from Beneath.
Determined, he clenched his fists and glanced to the black blade lying on the cobblestones. If he used a weapon he risked cutting into her heart. He opened a fist and stiffened his fingers.
“Yes,” one of the witches behind him whispered.
The threesome knew all too well how to remove a vampire heart without killing the vamp. Wicked witches.
Decided, he must do this.
Shouting out a cry, a blend of horror, regret, and determination, Johnny thrust his fingers deep into his lover's chest until they slid along the thick, slippery heart. Curling his fingers, he cupped Kam’s heart. Closing his eyes, he gritted his teeth and yanked. The life-giving muscle pulled loose.
He looked over the black mass of blood and muscle. It wasn't red, as it should be. Tainted by Himself's wicked control. The arteries hung in snaking tubes and twined about Johnny's hand. He shook at it but they were tenacious.
"Don't let it get hold of you," one of the witches warned. "It'll infuse your veins with Himself's darkness."
"Set it on the platter," Libby directed.
Johnny staggered over to the witches, and when he wanted to drop the heart onto the platter it clung. His skin opened as the veins bored into it, foul worms seeking hold. He tugged and managed to break free from it. Black blood oozed down his arm and splattered the cobbles where a salt circle had been drawn. What droplets landed on the salt hissed and smoked black. The heart slid across the silver platter.
"Stand back," Zoë directed him. The witches huddled over the heart that did not pulse as rapidly as Johnny thought it should.
He clutched the back of his head. He'd killed her. He'd taken out the source of her very life...
Johnny turned to Kambriel. Her chest was soaked in black blood, yet the wound had healed.
"So she must be alive," he murmured. Kneeling beside her, he placed his fingers aside her throat, feeling for a pulse. Nothing. And then...nothing. No pulse? But Zoë had promised...
Chanting over Kam's heart, the witches did not respond. They spoke Latin and hummed in rhythmic melody that at once sounded evil and then toyed with tendrils of sound Johnny imagined only angels could summon.
Pressing his hands together in prayer before his mouth, he tasted his lover’s darkness. Had she stolen his soul when she’d bitten him? He hadn’t felt different following their bites. Well, yes, he’d felt vastly different, because he’d fallen in love with her then. Had plunged into her blood and kisses and swam within her veins.
The witches moved rhythmically around Kam’s heart. Libby tapped the air above the organ with the athame, and then slashed it violently through the night, drawing in its wake a glittering golden bolt of light.
Before him, Kam’s body pulsed upward. She choked up black blood.
Johnny stiffened his fingers into fists, yet wisely, remained planted. He couldn’t stop it now. For good or for ill, the witches must continue the spell.
All three women clasped hands and suddenly ceased their chanting. Spinning in the center of their circle was something dark. At Libby's gasp, the witches stepped back from the spinning heart. A cloud of black winged creatures fluttered out from the organ. Much like the tattoos Johnny had seen peel away from her shoulder. He could but marvel. So many of them. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands. They flew skyward, silhouetted against the gray night clouds as if bats on wing.
"Souls?" he wondered.
"Indeed," Zoë said.
"Are they returning to their owners?"
"No," Verity said the same time Libby answered, "Yes."
Zoë clarified, "Perhaps. What's important is her heart is now cleansed." She bent to pick up the platter with both hands and held it before Johnny as if offering him tea and cookies.
He took the heart, which was bright red and pulsed with new vibrancy. Though it weighed less, he could feel Kam’s essence in it, and he didn’t ever want to see it damaged again.
He held the heart to his chest. “I’ll take care of you. I promise.”
“You are a worthy soul for the vampiress’s heart,” Verity said.
Hearing it put like that straightened Johnny’s shoulders. He kissed the heart. Sugar-sweet darkness spilled over his lips. He whispered, “I love you.”
Kam lie on the ground, still as a corpse, her face indescribably beautiful in her peace. A trail of black blood trickled from between her lips.
Johnny knelt before her. Holding the heart in one hand, he made a spade with his other hand and looked over her chest to decide where to break through.
Libby screamed. Behind him, Zoë and Verity also screamed.
Johnny knew what had frightened them. And he wasn’t about to lose focus now. Lifting his hand, he ignored the sulfurous odor filling his nostrils. It threatened to seize up his senses until he passed out.
Witchfire zinged through the air. He heard Zoë suggest they get the hell out of there—their safest course of action. Johnny didn’t want any of them in trouble with Himself for having helped him.
The clank of the devil’s hooves walking up behind him crushed cobblestones.
Heartbeats thudded, a grand thump against the universe. He would not turn around. Not when he was so close to saving Kam.
Johnny plunged his fingers into Kam’s chest. She opened her mouth and eyes but her scream was silent. She looked right at him, and he nodded, and once again kissed her heart. Then he placed it inside her chest, and could feel the arteries seek connections, re-establishing blood flow—
A talon cut across Johnny’s back. It sliced through bone and hooked through his lung. He gasped for breath, feeling his lung deflate as if a balloon. The talon swung again, digging into his torso and stirring up his insides.
A baby wailed. Vomiting up blood beside Kambriel, Johnny managed to turn over. What he saw drained the life from his face. Dangling in Himself’s clutches, clad in a pink onesie and matching pink tutu, was Summer. She’d been bawling, but when she saw him, she stopped and stretched out her arms and babbled, “Goo-ee.” It wasn’t baby talk; it was what she called him.
He shoved Kam away from him. “Go!” was all he could say.
Take your freedom and never look back.
But she did not leave. And Summer was here now. The Old Lad Himself had gone straight for his heart.
As Johnny’s eyelids closed and the blood from his heart rose and spilled from his mouth, he sensed the warmth of Kam’s body as she sprawled over the top of him protectively.
* * *
Her heart pulsed with excited vigor. It hadn’t felt so alive and vital for months. And Johnny was responsible for her renewal. Now he lay beneath her, broken and torn apart by Himself’s dauntless cruelty.
Speared through her tiny pink onesie, Summer dangled on one of Himself’s talons. Kam did not see blood on the baby, and she looked unharmed. But she could not imagine the bastard could be so gentle with her. He had brought the baby here to use as a weapon against Johnny, as he had been using his other family members the whole time the vampire had been with her.
Her dark master glowered over her now.
No. He was no longer her master. For the first time in months, Kam could think clearly. And she would not cower or submit any longer. She could decide for herself what her next move would be.
Standing, she fisted a punch into Himself’s iron-hard gut. Her knuckles stung and she let out a yelp.
Himself chuckled then gripped her under the chin, lifting her with ease from the ground. “You are misbehaving, my dark angel.”
She was eye level to the baby, who now looked intently at her. Dangling there at the end of the devil’s talon, the baby probably thought this a game and could have no idea the danger she was in. Too far to reach and claim the babe, Kam had to get free if she wanted to save the child.
“I’m not your mistress or your dark angel.” She struggled against his squeezing hold, but could not pry his iron clasp from her neck. “I’ll never love you, and I’ll never give you what you want!”
“You are not thinking correctly. I will dispose of this useless trash—“ The baby swung wide with a tilt of Himself’s wrist. “And take you home and you can—“
She managed to bite his finger and he shook her off as if a bug. Kam landed before Johnny, glad she could still block him from Himself’s wrath. Yet she centered her position to also put herself closer to the baby.
“You have no control over me anymore. My heart is clean.”
“You think a few magical words are all that is needed to shed my guile?”
Yes, she hoped for that. But really? Was she still under his control? Kam slapped a palm over her chest where her torn dress was stained with black blood, trying to focus on what was real, what she felt, what she knew...
“Kambriel, I love you!”
“You have not the capability to understand the meaning of that word. Love is not control or ownership or even showering a person with ridiculous gifts and treasures. Love is…” She breathed, finding the courage to stand up to the evil and malicious being. “Love is what that man did for me. He risked death to save me. Johnny has never tried to own me with pretty things. All he’s ever wanted was to be worthy of my regard.”
“If a dead vampire is your thing, then perhaps I should release you to wallow over his rotting corpse.”
“He’s not dead.” Kam glanced down. He couldn’t be. He lay face down, the deep slash marks carving open his back, but he didn’t bleed overmuch. “He can’t die. And you won’t allow it.”
She stepped up to Himself and shoved his chest with both her palms. The dark lord actually yielded. She’d not ever seen the horned demon so dumbfounded. Good. He needed to understand she was no longer his puppet.
“I love him,” she said. “And if he dies my heart breaks—and I die, too. And you won’t be able to endure that because I will haunt you forever. Always out of your reach, a figment that can never be yours. I’m taking my freedom from you right now, and with it, Johnny and that baby will walk away with me. And you. Will make. That. Happen.”
He lunged in to make eye contact. The massive horns paralleled her shoulders, the tips of them curling around at her back. “Foolish longtooth.” His black lips tightened. “You are not my world, Kambriel Persia Saint-Pierre. I do not need you.”
“Oh yeah?” She slapped her shoulder over the tattoos. “Then remove them. Take away your entrance into my private thoughts and secrets. Prove that you don’t need me.”
Himself had the audacity to look miffed. The baby gurgled sweetly.
“You need me,” she taunted. “You need the innocence I have protected no matter your begging or entreaties to give it to you.”
“Oh yes. You don’t want to make love with me because you are incapable. But ensuring I keep my virginity feeds you. Possessing innocence gives you some kind of power, doesn’t it?”
Himself lifted the hand that dangled the babe and, with a flick of his wrist, the child popped into the air, and landed in his palm with a gleeful giggle.
“Exactly,” Kam continued. “Innocence is your fuel. You can steal it, but you know I will not have given it freely, which makes it tainted and black. Just like you, tainted and black. The vilest of demons. The lowest maggot. I am free of you,” she announced boldly. “And I will never let you back into my heart.”
Would he walk away, leaving the awful tattoos on her skin, always allowing him to see into her soul? Yet the babe would go along with him, a helpless innocent caught up in his vile world. Had she played this wrong? Maybe. And yet, she must remain strong. Chin up, shoulders back. She mustn’t let him see her flinch.
At her feet, Johnny stirred and lifted his head. “Summer?”
Himself chuckled and pointed a finger at the vampire. To deflect the evil magic, Kam rammed her shoulder into the devil’s chest, bounced off him, but managed to grip his wrist, to keep him from doing whatever he had in mind to the man she loved.
Himself raised his arm, Kam hanging from his wrist with desperation. She peered into his red eyes and for the first time saw the irises were of flame. Never kind, never charming, as she’d once believed. How he had seduced and tricked her. Beguiled, indeed.
She kicked at his chest, but the demon didn’t flinch.
From behind and below she heard, “Don’t hurt Summer. Set her free.”
“Dying words,” Himself muttered, his gaze still fixed with Kam’s. “How sweet.”
“If you do love me,” Kam managed. Her heart shivered to speak the words. “Then give me one last gift.”
“I live to please you, Kambriel.”
“Then let me walk away with the baby and Johnny.”
Then she did what her heart compelled her to do. She touched Himself’s cheek. It was hard and leathery, forged from ancient evils she had only glimpsed while under his control. If she touched him too long the contact would singe her skin. Yet she held there, making the connection for one final time. Cleansed soul to blackened entrails. The virtue she had clung to shivered, yet she remained strong.