Last Breath

Chapter Sixteen


Claire could feel Hiram out there, testing the walls, looking for weaknesses. It felt exactly like being in a glass-walled shark tank while the great white prowled around waiting for lunch. The house itself was protecting her - she knew that - but it was conflicted. Hiram was there first, after all. And Hiram at least thought he was in charge.

I can't stay here, she thought. She had no idea how much time had passed. This room was strange that way; it felt frozen, as if time didn't really affect it . . . or passed much more slowly than in other places. That was possible, of course; quantum physics allowed for the possibility that time was variable, but that was usually at the subatomic level, not in the visible world.... Interesting problem, though. Maybe it had something to do with the way the portals worked, also at the subatomic level.

And I'm distracting myself with physics. Well, some people recited baseball scores or movie lines; physics was a perfectly valid hobby. Besides, if she got really desperate, she could recite the periodic tables.

I can't spend the rest of my - eternity sitting on my ghostly butt up here. Alone.

But she didn't dare try to leave, either.

A ripple of raw power suddenly ran through the house. It was so strong that it seemed to break everything apart into jagged, glittering, spinning pieces - the furniture, the room, the house. It all flew apart in a sudden, confusing explosion, turning and falling and rising all at once.

And then she felt the pull.

It wasn't like she'd felt when she'd gone through the portal - that had been a kind of pull, too, but it was as if she'd been anchored and had to unravel herself into strings to move away. This felt more as if she were being pressed together, and a great, vast vacuum was dragging her away into the unknown.

Claire screamed and flailed, trying to grab onto something, anything, but it was all shattered, all cutting edges and confusion -

And then something seized her in powerful hands.

Hiram Glass.

He was still mostly whole, but there were pieces coming off him, bits chipping away and flying into the darkness. "You!" he shouted, and bared his teeth at her, right in her face. "You vandal! You've destroyed everything!"

"No, I didn't - " He wasn't listening. That mouth opened, impossibly wide, and Claire knew he was going to bite her and rip her apart before the dark could take her....

With the strength of desperation and panic, Claire pushed, as hard as she could.

And broke his hold.

Hiram looked comically surprised as his hands slipped free, and he spun off into the black void, screaming as he broke apart into tiny, glittering pieces.


I'll be next, Claire thought. She was weirdly calm. There was no way she could resist that pull. It was like a black hole, and she was standing on the event horizon.


It was a whisper in the hurricane that roared around her, but she recognized the sound. Myrnin. That was Myrnin's voice.

"Here!" she screamed, as the void pulled her away. "Myrnin, help me! Help!"

The spinning pieces of reality around her seemed to slow down. She saw herself reflected in one side of a jagged shard, and then it turned, and she saw Myrnin's face in it. He looked worried, and there were lines of effort around his mouth that she'd never seen before.

His hand reached out to her, but it was as if he was trapped behind the glass; his hand slapped against it, and then the spinning shard turned again, and she lost him.

Claire twisted. There, in another piece, she saw him again, reaching out.

Take it, he was trying to tell her. It wasn't a voice - it was something else, a kind of whisper moving inside her, like blood in her veins. Only she no longer had blood, or veins. This was coming out of her very core, the thing that had survived her body.

Her soul.

Take my hand.

She couldn't. He was on the other side of that glass, and the pieces were moving, and she was being dragged inch by inch into the dark.

Then she saw Shane in one of the spinning, glittering shards. He was on his back, propped up, staring out of the shred of reality, and he looked so agonizingly alone.

Take my hand, Claire - do it now! Myrnin's whisper sounded desperate now. Anguished. This was hurting him, too.

She kept her gaze on Shane's face, but she lunged for Myrnin's hand as another piece of reality slid past her.

Her fingers broke through the cold, icy surface, and touched his.

And reality came back together. She could still see the cracks, hear the awful noise of the darkness beyond that, but Myrnin's hand twisted and closed around her wrist in an unbreakable hold, and she fell, and fell, and fell....

And took a breath.

A real breath.

It hurt.

Her first thought was This can't happen, and the second was blotted out by a wave of pain so intense that she wanted to vomit, but couldn't. She couldn't move. The pain was in her neck, and she remembered the terrible snap, the darkness, the moment when everything had . . .

I'm breathing, she thought. How can I be breathing? I can feel my heart beating. I can feel . . .

I can feel.

The pain was fading now, but there was something else, something almost worse . . . something moving through her veins, like an ice-cold poison. Like death, but slower. Relentless.

She felt freezing hands on her forehead, and Myrnin's voice was inside her head, inside.

You have to choose, he told her. If you want to live as you did before, you must fight. This is your choice. I brought you back, but now you must choose.

She was confused, and scared, and hurting. Choose what?

Human life, he said. Or the endless possibilities I have to offer. But you can't change your mind once you've made that choice.

Having Myrnin in her head was like being Alice down the rabbit hole. He sounded sane enough, but in the background rushed images, feelings, an utterly mad jittering landscape of too much color, too much pain, too much love, too much hunger, too much everything. This was what Myrnin was.

And he scared her, and charmed her, and made her want to cry.

The ice in her veins had something wonderful about it, because it felt like peace. Like stillness. Not like death, but with something of death in it, and something of life. It had the fierce, sharp clarity of eternity.

Her heart was struggling to keep beating against it, and the struggle hurt. Life hurt. Everything about it brought pain, even the best things.

Then let go, Myrnin whispered. I'll catch you. But understand - you have to let go of everything when you fall. Even him.


There was something about the uneven beat of her heart that reminded Claire of him - of the way he fought, every day, against something, even if it was only himself. Of the way he went still and peaceful when they were lying in bed together, on the edge of sleep. Of the taste of his kiss and the way he smiled at her and the way he had dared her to live.

There was cold, rational survival in the ice running through her body, and an end to pain, but Myrnin had reminded her of something else, too: that pain was life, and life could be beautiful, with all its scars and flaws.

It wasn't just Shane that was pulling her back. It was Eve, and Michael, and her parents; it was Richard and Hannah and so many others, even Monica, because in the end, they shared that experience of life. Of risking everything, every day, with every breath.

And she wasn't ready to give that up. There was so much more to learn.

She did it, in the end, for herself. For her own distant, uncertain future.

The cold intensified, and she struggled to reject it, fought so hard she thought she should be weeping, but her body was a prison, and she couldn't move it . . . and then she took in another, halting breath, and another, and the ice receded, warmed, melted, and was gone.

Myrnin's whisper said, Good girl, and she felt his sadness and loss, but then it was all gone, like the cobwebs of a dream swept away by a morning breeze.

And she opened her eyes and said, "Ow."

As first words went, it was weak, whispery, and not very inspiring, but Eve shrieked and clapped her hands over her mouth, and Shane lunged up as if someone had pushed him straight off the floor.

And Myrnin stepped back, staggered, and fell.

Shane hesitated, glancing at him, then completed his rush to grab Claire and pull her into his arms. "Ow," she repeated, and blinked. "Shane." Her whole vocabulary had been reduced to single words. "Eve."

Eve blew her frantic kisses, then went to lean over Myrnin, who was lying on the floor with his eyes wide-open. "Hey," she said. "Uh - are you okay?" She prodded him tentatively with a fingertip, and he did one of those vampire-quick grabs to get hold of her arm. Eve tried to pull back, but Claire knew that wasn't likely to happen.

"Eve," Claire whispered. Shane was holding her as if she might break, and also as if he never intended to let go, but she pushed weakly at his shoulder and jerked her chin toward the action. "Eve!"

Shane sighed and let her go. "Don't you move," he ordered, and turned to face the two of them. Eve was crouched down now, trying to pry his cold fingers off her skin. "Come on, man. Let her go."

Myrnin opened his mouth, and his fangs came out. Shane moved fast, planted his knee on the vampire's chest, and helped Eve in her frantic struggle to get herself free. Together, they were able to pry enough fingers loose to let her break the hold, and she stumbled backward, rubbing what was sure to be a monster bruise.

"Go get him blood. I think Michael's got some stashed in the fridge," Shane said. Myrnin was trying to grab him, too, but Shane batted it away, careful to keep his center of gravity over Myrnin's to hold him in place. Claire realized that her boss's eyes had gone red. Very dark red. "Better make it two pints."

Eve ran for the kitchen and came back with two sports bottles, both labeled with Michael's name. "Here." She passed over the first one, and Shane aimed the straw at Myrnin's open mouth and squeezed a fine red spray into it.

Myrnin froze, swallowed, opened his mouth again. Shane stuck the flexible straw in. "Drink up," he said. "I'm not letting you go until you can form actual words."

It didn't take long for Myrnin to drain the first bottle, and go through half the second, but by then his eyes had faded to a muddy brown, and he looked more - himself. "Sorry," he managed to say, and Shane grunted noncommittally. His expression changed as he took another pull on the straw. "Ugh. Is this AB? I hate AB! Don't you have anything else?"

"Shut up and take it," Shane said. "We're not the freaking dispensary." He hesitated, then shifted his weight and stood up, giving Myrnin room to get up on his own. "And thank you. For her."

"It was her choice," Myrnin said. He looked past Shane as he climbed up, and caught Claire's gaze. She got a flash again of sadness and longing, disappointment, pride . . . all complicated, all blazing through a mind she could only distantly understand. "She's made it." He sighed, and his shoulders rounded. "I'm tired. And there's so much to do. I'm sorry; I can't stay. As it is, Amelie's men will be searching. They may well come here looking. If they do, don't lie; tell them you don't know where I'm going, because it's the truth. I don't honestly know myself."

"Wait," Claire said. She couldn't really move, not yet; her body was still aching and struggling to come to terms with being alive again. She supposed that Myrnin's blood had done that much - repaired things, made it all work again in preparation for turning her vamp. There was a needle in her arm, and even as she realized that, Myrnin flipped a switch on the machine sitting on the table, hissing and chugging away, and the gears that had been spinning slowed, then stopped.

He slid the needle out of her arm. Claire felt a rush of heat, then cold, then sick nausea, but she almost immediately felt better. Her heartbeat steadied down from its frantic pounding.

"Wait," she said again, more strongly. Myrnin didn't pause as he coiled up tubing, and shoved things into a black leather bag. "Myrnin. Thank you. Thank you for letting me go." Because it had been as much his will as hers, she realized - he'd let her make the choice, once he knew she wanted it. Not all vampires would have done that. Or could have.

He nodded sharply, long hair veiling his face. He picked up the sports bottle, drained it, made a sound of disgust deep in his throat, and said, "Tastes like raspberries. I hate raspberries. Disgusting things." He snapped his bag shut. "Keep her still and quiet for a bit. The healing's done, but her body's in shock. She'll be cold. Get her water now, food in an hour, but not too much of either." He managed to turn and smile, but there was something broken about it. "I must be off."

"And you must be leaving," Eve said. It was trying to be a joke, but didn't quite make it. "Sorry. Is there anything we can do to - ?"

"No," he said. "Stay here. Whatever happens, you must not go out again, even in daylight."

"Wait. Michael's not back, and he's supposed to be. Can you look for him? Please?"

Myrnin stared at Eve for a few long seconds, then took her hands in his and gravely said, "If he hasn't returned to you, you must accept that he never will. What's out there now is death to vampires as much as to humans - more so, because we're the real targets. Michael took a terrible risk. He knew that."

Past tense. Myrnin was talking about Michael in past tense. Claire felt Shane sink down beside her, and his warm arm went around her to hold her close. He spread the afghan over them both.

"He can't be gone," Claire said. "Not now. Not when I - " Not when I came back.

Eve looked blankly terrified as she held Myrnin's gaze. "Please," she said again. "He can't be gone. Please bring him back!"

He kissed her hands, first one, then the other, and stepped away. "We are all trying to do our best," he said. "And I will not forget him."

That, Claire thought, was very far from a promise.

Eve looked shattered, but she didn't cry. She stood and watched as Myrnin walked to the blank wall of the living room, opened up a portal, and stepped through. Claire expected him to look back.

But he didn't.

"Eve," Claire said. Her voice sounded stronger, and her friend turned her head, just a little, in her direction. "Please. Come sit."

Eve did, at last, curling up on the couch on Claire's other side and putting her arms around her. The three of them stayed under the blanket, huddling close, as the chill settled inside the house, and rain pounded the windows.

"Something's strange," Eve said. "Things feel different. Not you, but - this. The house."

She was right, Claire realized. She didn't have the sense of the house's emotions, or anxieties; it didn't respond when she reached out to it.

It was just bricks and mortar and wood now.

Myrnin had broken the Glass House to set her free.

The first hint that something strange was going on with her was after she'd consumed the food and water that Myrnin had directed, and risen off the couch under her own power. Shane was hovering around her, obviously worried she was going to drop at any moment, but she felt . . . good. Steady. Even better than that, really.

"Seriously, you should sit," he said to her. "An hour ago you were - "

"Dead," Claire said, and rubbed the back of her neck. Something clicked in there, but not in a bad way. More like a relieving-tension way. She shook her head experimentally. Everything held together. "I know. And I'm so sorry, Shane. I know how hard it was for you. I saw." He knew she was talking about the gun, about that desperate moment as he sat with his back to her door, when it seemed like he had nothing left. "Don't you ever do that again. Promise me."

"I won't," he said, and put his arms around her. He felt so good to her, so real and warm and perfect, as if they were made to fit together. "Don't you ever leave me again, though."

She kissed the soft, warm skin beneath his ear and whispered, "You have to make the same promise, you know."

"I do," he whispered back, and hugged her hard enough to drive her newly recovered breath away. "What are we going to do about Michael?"

"I don't know." She was miserably aware that for Myrnin, and probably for all the rest of the vampires, if you were missing now, you were presumed dead; that meant Naomi, Oliver, Michael, and all the rest wouldn't be coming back even if they were still alive - not if rescue was left up to Amelie. "It's worse than that. I can't be sure but I think - I think Amelie's not really planning to set us all free when the vampires leave."

He pushed her back to arm's length. "What are you talking about?"

Claire swallowed hard, and said, "I think she's going to kill us. All of us. I think she's going to take the vampires out of here, and destroy the entire town to be damn sure her enemies die here, too."

Eve said numbly, "Nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."

That old movie line usually made them all smile, but not now. Not this time.

Because this time, it was actually true.

Shane let go of Claire and ran his hands through his shaggy hair in a distracted, anxious gesture. "They can't do that. Myrnin - why did he bring you back if you were just going to die all over again? Why would he?"

Claire hated to say it, but she knew the answer, in her heart. "Because he feels something for me, and he wanted to give me a chance to live. Like him. With him. But I refused."

Shane turned and looked at her, a blank expression on his face that turned quickly into . . . something else. Claire was glad Myrnin had gotten out while he still could. "Great," he said. "I knew it."

"It's not like that. He's - " She shook her head in frustration. "It's not like he's in love with me or anything; it's more complicated than that. I don't even think he understands it, exactly."

"Yeah, he only loves you for your mind," Shane said, and smacked his palm down on top of the dining table.

One of the empty but still-blood-smeared vials tipped off the edge of the table.

Claire was at least five feet away, but without even thinking about it, she stepped forward, reached out, and . . .

. . . And suddenly she was holding the vial, and it had dropped only about two inches.

She'd crossed five feet and caught something with perfect coordination in less than a second.

What the hell . . . ?

Shane and Eve had both started babbling at her. She held up her other hand for silence, put the vial down, and tipped it off the table again. She waited as it fell, then willed herself to catch it before it hit the ground.

And then it was in her hand, one inch from the floor.

Nobody could have caught that.

Nobody human.

But she was human - she had blood rushing through her veins, her heart was pumping, she was breathing . . . and she felt more alive than she could remember.

Shane licked his lips and said, "It's the blood."


"Vamp blood. It's like the stuff they gave me to drink when I was at the gym, fighting - it's got an effect on you. Makes you faster and stronger, at least for a little while. But when you crash, you crash hard. I know what you're thinking, Claire, and it's not a good idea. Not at all."

"What?" Eve asked anxiously. "What are you thinking? Why is it not good? Please, don't do anything not good - it's been a really awful day, Claire, and honestly, I don't think I can take one more trauma right now." Her voice was trembling, and she looked chalk-pale. "Unless it's about Michael. If it's about Michael, it's a very good idea."

"I can try to find him," Claire said. "Look, what choice do we have? Amelie's not looking for Michael, or for any of them. She's going to pack up and run with however many of her people are left. If we just wait here, we're sitting ducks for the big Morganville apocalypse anyway. Maybe I can find out where they are, and I can get Michael, and Oliver, and Oliver can stop this. He'd rather fight than retreat. He can convince Amelie."

"That's true," Eve said. "He's not really the giving-up type." She blinked back tears and grabbed Claire's hand, vial and all. "Do you really think you can find Michael?"

"Wait a second. Think about it," Shane said. "Eve, that thing that almost got us - that's probably what got Michael, if the vamps are so scared. You want Claire to go one-on-one with it?"

"I won't," Claire said. She already had, and it hadn't ended well. "All I'm going to do is try to find where they're keeping the ones they take. Then once I know where they are, we can get help. I can call - "

Shane was shaking his head. "Phones are dead. Hell, for all I know, she's downed carrier pigeons, too. There's no way for us to find you if things go wrong, Claire, and I can't - I won't let you take that risk."

She put her hands on his face. He looked so serious now, and she ached for him, really, but there was no way that she could hide here. Hiding would get them all killed.

Sometimes, you had to risk everything, and she knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that this was the time.

"You will, because you love me," she told him, and kissed him. It was a gentle, sweet, wrenching kiss, and it made her want to cry at the thought of leaving him. "Shane, I'll come back. Be ready when I do, because this is going to get dangerous."

He closed his eyes and pressed his forehead to hers for a long few seconds, then stepped back.

"You're not seriously letting her go!" Eve said. "Did Myrnin give you the crazy? Because this is not safe!"

"I know." He let go of Claire's hand. "And she's not going alone. I'm going with her."

Well, Claire couldn't honestly say that she hadn't expected that, but she'd been dreading it. "You can't," she said. "Shane, I'm going to be on foot."

"Even more reason for me to go. Hey, don't worry. I'll carry the heavy weapons."

She didn't want him to come with her. For good reason - she was scared of losing him, and she knew, knew, that what was out there waiting was capable of . . . anything. He'd survived terrifying experiences, she knew that, but this - this was different.

She also knew that there was no way he'd take no for an answer. Just no way at all. He'd follow on his own if she tried to leave him, and that would only put him in even more danger.

Finally, she shook her head and sighed. "Then get the stuff and hurry. We probably don't have long before Myrnin's blood wears off."

"Wait," he told her. "Seriously. Do not move until I get back."

Claire nodded. She thought about bolting while his back was turned, but that wouldn't do any good. He came back in less than a minute, anyway, wearing his jacket with the pockets loaded down.

He handed her a set of blue squishy earplugs. "What?" She stared at them, confused, as he shoved a set in his own ears.

"Trust me," he said. "You may need them."

She pressed them in. They made her own heartbeat sound insanely loud, but blocked out voices pretty well; she had to read his lips to make out that he said, Good to go.

"Eve, we'll be back," she said. "Lock the doors!"

Eve nodded. She looked stressed and anxious, but she had her long fencing epee in one hand, and a silver stake in the other. I'll be fine, she said, or Claire thought she did, anyway.

Claire rushed to her and hugged her, hard. She kissed her on the cheek and said, "Love you, Eve."

"Love you, too," Eve said. Claire heard it, just barely, through the muffling sound barriers.

Then she and Shane set off into the dark of a Morganville they no longer knew.

There were things out there, and Claire realized why Shane had given her the earplugs by the time they reached the area around Common Grounds; there was a sound in the air, something like singing. She couldn't hear much of it, but it made her distracted, anxious, and it made her want to take the earplugs out to listen.

She didn't, only because when she reached for them, Shane grabbed her hand and held on to it, shaking his head.

Right. Whatever these things are out here, the sound is a trap.

Shane dragged her into the shadows next to the awning of Common Grounds, which was closed and shuttered; in the red and green glow of the neon coffee cup in the window, Claire saw a human figure standing on the street corner, under a flickering light.

In between the flickers, she thought it was black, an oily kind of darkness, but in the light, she saw a man. Pale, nondescript, anonymous.

She knew him, and drew in her breath sharply as she pushed back against Shane's warm, steady strength. His arms went around her.

Magnus. That was the man who'd killed her.

He stood on the corner for a few long moments, then turned and walked away into the darkness, heading south. Claire gripped Shane's hand tightly and led him out of the shadows. He pulled her to a stop again. Wait, he mouthed. What?

Follow him!

Shane shook his head. Dangerous.

Of course it was. But she knew, knew that Magnus was the key to all this. He'd killed her for a reason; she just didn't fully understand what it was.

She dragged Shane insistently on, to the corner. They hugged the brick wall, and Claire peeked around it to see where he was.

Magnus stopped just as she looked. He was standing over a rusty iron grating set in the concrete of the sidewalk - a drain into the sewers. Claire had a flash of memory, of a grate just like that - where had she seen it?

Behind Goode's Drugs. When she'd followed Magnus the first time.

Magnus seemed to . . . collapse. There was no other word for it; he broke into wet splashing drops, and in a second, maybe two, he was gone.

Like he was made out of water. It was sickening and wrong on so many levels, and it made her feel dizzy and hot, despite the cold rain pouring down on the hood of her coat.

That was how he'd gotten away from her behind the drugstore, and at the grocery store; he'd just flushed himself down the drain, and left her standing there confused, looking in all the wrong places. The idea that he'd been down there, looking up at her, watching her - that made her shudder all the way to her spine.

He knew I'd seen him, Claire thought. He couldn't take the chance I'd known where he'd gone. So he killed me rather than risk it.

There was no sign of anyone - or anything - else on the street. Claire gulped to force down her nausea, then tugged Shane forward, to stand next to the grate.

She pointed at it.

He gave her an odd look.

She pointed again, reached down, and grabbed hold. It was way too heavy for her to lift, even though she pulled until her muscles trembled and spasmed.

Shane shook his head, sending spray flying, and bent over to put his back into it as well. With his help, she got it to creak up at a rusty forty-five-degree angle.

The flood of water on the streets was roaring into the gutters and drainage openings, and this one was no different; it was a waterfall leading down into a black pit.

Shane dug a flashlight from his pocket, switched it on, and lit up the darkness.

It was like a vision of hell, if hell was made of water; thick, brown currents raced below them, carrying shreds of trash, tangles of metal, branches, the debris of everything that had washed in from the streets. She caught sight of rats swimming for their lives. They were swept along at a terrifying rate.

Shane put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head, again. It was too dangerous; he was right. Going into a storm drain was suicidal in this rain; they'd be swept away and mashed up against a grating and drowned, at best.

Besides, apparently Magnus could turn himself into some kind of liquid. How could she possibly track that?

Think. Surely, with all this rain, Magnus wasn't actually living in the sewers; maybe it was his version of a highway. But obviously he was comfortable in the water....

The singing was starting up again, high and sweet at the edges of her awareness, and she unconsciously reached for her earplugs, then stopped herself.

The singing.

Like the old stories of the sirens, in Greek mythology. Or the mermaids.

Singing, to lure people to their deaths.

All she had to do was follow the sound.

Shane pushed the grating down and spread his hands in a questioning gesture.

She grabbed his arm, and towed him on, through the rain, in the direction that the creature who'd killed her wanted his prey to go. Toward the singing.

They had two advantages, she figured; one, they were at least partly protected against the sound of that music. And two, they were coming into it knowing the risks.

The singing seemed stronger as they walked south, into one of the less-populated areas of town; there were abandoned houses here, and old shuttered buildings that had once been stores. There were still a few homes being lived in. A thick knot of dread formed in Claire's chest when she saw that some with lights on had open doors, as if the inhabitants had simply walked out and left them as they were.

She caught sight of a woman ahead of her in the rain. No coat. She was wearing light house shoes that flapped wetly in the icy stream running down the sidewalk, and her clothing was plastered flat against her body. Claire pointed, and she and Shane ran forward to catch up with her.

The woman - a vampire? - didn't seem to notice them at all. She was staring straight ahead, and her wet face was blank as she struggled on, one step at a time. She was shuddering with the cold in her thin clothing.

Shane grabbed her and pulled her to a stop. She tried to yank free, but not as if she was alarmed by getting surprised on a dark street; it was more impatience, as if he was an obstacle she had to overcome to get where she needed to be.

After a few seconds of silent struggle, the woman suddenly turned toward him and swiped her fingernails at his face. Definitely a vampire: her eyes were muddy red, and her fangs flashed sharp in the dim light. Shane let go as he ducked, and she stumbled on, at the same relentless pace.

Can't stop her, Shane said. Want me to . . . He mimed knocking someone out. Claire shook her head. She hated to do it, but the woman was leading them where they needed to go.

They followed behind at a careful distance, but it didn't seem like there was any reason to worry about being spotted; nobody else was around at all, and certainly the woman didn't care if they were behind her, as long as they didn't get in her way.

She slowed and turned, finally, and shuffle-splashed her way up a set of steps toward a big, old building with windows soaped opaque. Shane played his flashlight over the name over the door.


Whatever it was, it had been closed for ages; the building looked old and sagging, and the paint had peeled from the brick to leave it looking diseased and rotten. The big white door had been locked, Claire saw, but the hasp was broken off now, and the rusted lock lay on the stairs.

The woman went to the door, swung it open, and disappeared inside. This close, the singing was soaking through the earplugs, making Claire feel sick and shaky with the need to take the soundproofing out and listen, really listen. The message was important, and she could almost understand....

Shane reached up for his, and she grabbed his hand and shook her head. He took a deep breath and nodded, and together, they went up the steps to the white door.

Ready? She mouthed it to him, and got a flash of a smile in response.

Not really, he said. But let's do it.

She had the urge to move fast, but held back; Shane couldn't move at vampire speeds, and leaving him behind, here, wasn't even an option. Not with that sound pressing down, dragging and piercing right through the soundproofing now, digging into her brain. Closer, it was singing. Come and rest. Come and rest.

She didn't want to rest, but she couldn't stop herself from moving forward, slowly, with Shane's hand clutched tight in hers.

The room she walked into was dark, and smelled of mold. The carpet was ancient and filthy, and overhead, the ceiling had cracked and split. Paint had peeled off in elaborate curls, like ribbons, and she ducked to avoid them. There was an old desk, and a wrinkled cardboard sign that read, when Shane turned his flashlight on it, MEMBER SIGN-IN SHEET. The clipboard was still there, dangling from a silver chain, but the papers were long gone.

The entire place reeked of damp and rot.

Closer, the music whispered. Peace and stillness. Closer.

There was a hallway beyond the entry hall, and it glimmered with fairyland lights and reflections.

Shane pulled at her hand, shaking his head frantically. He pointed at the door leading back outside, into the cleaner night air.

But she had to see. Just to be sure.

Claire edged forward down the hall, still gripping his hand. She tried not to touch the walls, which were black with mold. The carpet was gone now, and there were two doors off the hall, one labeled MEN'S KLOCKER ROOM, the other WOMEN'S. The texture of the floor changed to tile, and it was slick and slippery.

The hall opened into a giant open concrete space with a rusty lacework of iron overhead. The floor was cracked white tiles, and on the walls there was more tile, in patterns Claire was sure used to be beautiful, before they were discolored with time and more of the ever-present mold.

In the center was a big square pool, and it was full of glimmering blue-green water, lit from below. It glowed like a jewel, and it was beautiful and mesmerizing and the singing was coming from there, right there....

The woman they'd followed was in the pool. In the shallow end, but walking forward.

And she kept walking as the water reached her hips, then her waist, up to her chest, her neck....

. . . And she went under.

She didn't come back up.

In the deep end of the pool, Claire saw . . .

. . . Bodies.

Claire lunged forward and ran to the edge of the pool. Shane tried to stop her, but she couldn't let him, not now, not now!

There were bodies in the pool. Standing there, upright, six feet below the surface at least. They were anchored on the bottom, she thought, because she could see their arms floating. One woman's long hair drifted lazily in the water, veiling her face, but as it wafted out of the way, Claire recognized her.


The vampire was still and silent, eyes wide. She looked dead.

Oliver was down there, anchored nearby.

And there was Michael. Right there, staring up at her.

And he blinked.

He was alive. They were all alive.

She wanted to scream. Shane was dragging her frantically backward from the edge, and she realized that even as she'd been adjusting to the horrible reality of what she was seeing, she'd been thinking about taking one more step, just one, and sinking into that warm, still water, so calm and peaceful....

He spun her around and screamed in her face, "Claire, we have to go!"

He grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the hallway.

Then stopped.

Because there was a pale-faced man standing there, staring at them. Claire blinked, and he wasn't there anymore - it was a black thing, but she could see his human disguise at the same time, like a skin stretched over the reality.


"You shouldn't be here," he said. "I killed you, girl."

Shane dug silver-coated stakes out of his pocket. He passed one to Claire, then took out what looked like a . . . sports bottle. One had a snap-down top, and he thumbed that off, aimed, and squirted a silvery stream out of it to splash on the thing in their way.

Magnus screamed, and it was like that singing sound, only a million times worse, and Shane dropped the bottle and the stake and staggered, then went down to one knee. Claire came close; it hammered at her in waves of relentless sound, but she could see that the silver nitrate had hurt the thing, burned away some of his human-skin disguise, and melted part of him into a bubbling, seething mass that ran off in a black current to the tiles.

Claire took a firmer grip on the silver stake, summoned up all the speed and strength Myrnin had granted her, and raced forward in a blur.

She buried the silver stake where, in a human, a heart would have been. It was like pushing it into Jell-O, nothing like staking a vampire at all. Sickening. She could feel the cold ooze on her fingers.

Magnus's mouth opened, revealing razor-sharp rows of teeth, and he lunged at her. She yelped and rolled away, still vamp-fast, and Magnus yanked the stake out and flung it away. The wound it had left was another bubbling leak of black fluid, but he wasn't down. Not by half.

Shane staggered up, grabbed her hand, and ran for the door he'd left unguarded. Black streamers of ooze were coming across the tile at them, and Claire had the awful, sickening feeling that if they stepped in it, they'd never get free. The ick on her fingers felt like it was squeezing them white, and she felt horrible pinpricks all over the skin where it touched. She dragged her hand against her jeans as they ran.

There were more of them in the entry hall, black oily shadows with fake human faces, and they were all Magnus. Shane sprayed the rest of the bottle at them, and Claire grabbed a silver-coated knife from his belt loop. She slashed at the one who came for him, and heard that shriek again, an angry, pile-driving pressure like the whole ocean descending on them . . . but the creature went down, splashing into silvery black fragments that rolled aimlessly over the carpet, and Claire grabbed Shane's arm and dragged him forward for the clear air outside. He was staggering, and in the wan, flickering glow of the streetlight outside, she saw that his nose was bleeding, and his eyes were red.

She was bleeding, too, she realized, from both her nose and her hand. It looked as if it had been stung by a jellyfish. It was covered with little beads of blood.

It was biting me, she thought, and shuddered in revulsion.

"Come on!" she screamed, and Shane coughed, bent over, and vomited out a stream of water.

But they hadn't even gotten into the pool.

Magnus was in the doorway, and his eyes were silver white, like moonlight on water, and he was smiling at them.

They weren't going to make it.

Claire screamed again, in pure agonizing frustration, and without even thinking about it, she grabbed Shane and threw him over her shoulder.

That shouldn't have been possible, not at all; he was so much bigger and heavier than she was, but she felt like her veins were on fire, and she wanted to fight, now, fight this thing that had hurt her and come after Shane and come after Michael and Oliver and her town.

But she also knew she couldn't do that. Shane would die.

So she balanced his weight, held on to his legs, and ran for her life, and his.

It took four long blocks for the adrenaline and whatever boost Myrnin's blood had given her to wear completely off. She began to gasp and stagger, and then went down, hard, and Shane went down with her. Her whole body felt like it was coming apart. Shane had warned her that there was a crash, but this wasn't a crash; it was more like being ripped apart and put back together again, and God, it hurt.

Shane had made it to his knees, looking pale and out of it, but the rain on his face seemed to bring him back. He met Claire's eyes and held out his hand, and she took it.

Run, he mouthed, and she nodded. She wasn't sure she could, but he was right.

It was their only real hope.

They were racing flat-out past Common Grounds when Magnus - or his clone - stepped out from behind the building into their path. Claire shrieked and managed to avoid him, twisting out of the way of his grasping hand; Shane ran straight into him. He made it work for him; he got his shoulder around and rammed into the creature. He knocked it back. Whatever it was, it wasn't completely gelatinous; there was some kind of weird strength inside of it, and that made it vulnerable to a physical attack. It staggered a few feet, and Shane made a perfect spinning turn, grabbed Claire, and pulled her into a dead sprint.

But ahead, Claire could see more of them, more of those human disguises in that generic nothing form, and behind them . . . something monstrous. They were coming up out of the rain gutters, dripping out of faucets . . . at least four of them, with more coming behind.

She slowed down and exchanged a fast, panicked look with Shane.

They weren't going to make it.

He put his arm around her, but she shook it off and stood back-to-back with him. They circled, watching as the predators closed in. Claire wasn't sure what was waiting in the Morganville Civic Pool, but whatever it was, she knew it was awful. Living death.

The earplugs made the fast, rasping sound of her breathing into its own horror-show sound track, along with the rapid thump of her heartbeat. She tasted blood; her nose was still dripping, and always, there was singing, singing, that high, clear, perfect music trying to draw her back.

She heard the roaring engine only at the last possible second before the hood of the hearse plowed through the row of creatures closing in from the front. One bounced off and rolled; the other three hit with too much force, and splashed into a thick black film over the windshield, hood, and grille.

The hearse skidded sideways, and Claire saw Eve's white, shocked face in the driver's side. Eve screamed something at them, but it didn't matter what the message was; Shane was already throwing himself into a slide over the hood to the passenger door, and Claire scrambled after him.

Something caught her by the hood of her jacket.

She turned, pulled the silver knife, and slashed blindly. One of them shrieked that awful cry as it was hurt, and she managed to drive herself forward. Shane met her halfway and dragged her to the open door, shoved her inside, and yelled, "Go!" across to Eve as he got the door slammed shut.

She gunned it.

Claire felt a horrible bubbling pressure in her lungs, and coughed. Water sprayed out, tasting like rancid mold. She bent over and coughed until her lungs ached.

Shane pounded her back, not that it really helped, and put his arms around her when she came upright again. Eve looked seriously terrified. Claire said, "How did you know?" but Eve pointed to her ears. Claire saw a flash of blue.


She didn't turn back toward the house; instead, she drove straight for City Hall, where it looked like half the cars in Morganville were parked. There was a full-scale panic under way, Claire saw: families carrying suitcases, hurrying toward the building, police officers out directing traffic.


Eve pulled her earplugs out as she parked, and Claire and Shane did the same. Everybody started talking at once, but Eve shouted the other two of them down. "The cops came to the house!" she said. "Everybody from Walnut Street to Garden had to get the hell out and come here. No exceptions. I figured I'd better go looking for you. Oh God, those things - I hit them. And they splashed. Gross. I wore the earplugs because, you know, last time, the music . . . Did you find Michael?" Eve was bouncing from subject to subject like a crazed meth fiend, but it wasn't drugs driving her, just panic. "Please tell me you found him!"

Shane said, "We found where they have him." That was all he said, and that was probably a really good thing; Eve lit up with a smile. "We need reinforcements before we can even think about getting him out."

"But he's alive?"

"Yes," Claire said. She couldn't smile back; she just couldn't. What she'd seen was too . . . grimly awful. "Yes, he's alive. So's Oliver, and Naomi, and a bunch of others. I have to get to Amelie. She has to understand."

"Well, you need to do it soon, because she's already started moving vampires out of town," Eve said. "I saw buses leaving. They have blacked-out windows, like those rock star kind of things. Probably hot and cold running-blood taps, and I just totally skeeved myself out by saying that. I guess those are the first-class passengers. I heard from Hannah Moses that some were being put into semi tractor-trailer trucks, too. I guess that would explain the sudden Wal-Mart invasion."

"Wal-Mart?" Shane repeated.

"I guess they grabbed whatever trucks they could get. Wal-Mart, grocery trucks, mail trucks . . . It looks like one of those disaster movies, with the people crawling over each other to get on the last helicopter." Eve had lost her smile, and she looked . . . adult. And suddenly grim. "I think this town is done for, guys. It feels like it's dying all around us."

It felt that way to Claire, too. "Will you take us to Founder's Square?" she asked. "Please? It's not safe to try to get there on foot, not anymore. I know they told you to come here, but . . ."

"Sure," Eve said. "Like I ever followed anybody's rules anyway. Hey, try the seat belts. I hear they save lives and crap. We may be doing some seriously defensive driving."

She turned the key, and the engine made an awful grinding sound. Eve frowned and tried it again. It sounded horrible, and it definitely didn't sound like an engine was supposed to sound.

"Dammit," she said, and unbuckled as she got out. Shane joined her at the hood, but instead of lifting it, they both stood there, staring.

Claire scrambled out to take a look, too. "What is it?"

The front grille of the hearse looked melted. There was black, wet gunk oozing out of it, and when Eve reached out to pop the hood release, Shane stopped her. "Don't," he said. "Don't touch that stuff. Get the work gloves - I left them in the bag in the back."

Once she'd gotten them, Shane tugged the thick, heavy gloves on, took a deep breath, and reached under the grille to pop the latch. It came free with a sticky, wet sound, and as he raised the hood, there was a thin film of goo that came up with it.

The engine was fouled with the stuff, and it was bubbling. It looked, Claire thought sickly, like a cross between slime and seaweed, and it gave off a wet, thick smell of decay.

"Oh my God," Eve said. It came out muffled, since she was pinching her nose shut and backing away. "Oh my God, my poor baby - what is that?"

Shane slammed the hood and stripped off the gloves. They were smeared with the same stuff, and he kicked them under the hearse. "Whatever it is, you're not driving us anywhere," he said. "So what are we going to do?"

"Find another car," Claire said, and just at that moment, she spotted one pulling up. It was rocking pop music at an earsplitting volume, which cut off abruptly as the driver pulled the key and got out.

Monica Morrell didn't look like she was planning on getting out of town. In fact, she looked like she'd been pulled out of an after-hours club, and as she stalked up the sidewalk, stiletto heels tapping out an impatient rhythm, Claire had to give her style points. Everybody else had a mismatched refugee look, but not Monica. She had on a glittery, figure-hugging minidress, one that showed off her long tanned legs and curves and cleavage. Even her long, straightened dark hair blew in the wind like a supermodel's.

She slowed down as she caught sight of them, and rolled her eyes. "Oh, perfect," she said. "You guys." Claire wondered if she'd heard about her death; obviously not, because Monica skipped right over her presence. Or just massively didn't care either way.

Monica tried to go around them, but Eve stepped directly in her way. "Bitch, please!" Monica tried to shove her, but Shane's timing was perfect; he moved Eve out of the way, and Monica's flattened palm hit his chest instead. "Oh. Well, hello, delicious." She batted her eyes at him. "Looking for something a little less pasty and junior-sized?"

"Keys," he said, and looked down at her hand on his chest. "You're touching me, Monica. That's a bad thing."

"Keys," she repeated, and slowly stepped back. "What do you mean, keys?"

"As in, give. Now." Shane had that look - hard, and no bullshit. "We don't have time for your drama, Monica. Nobody does."

She got serious. It looked very odd on her, Claire thought. "My brother told me not to go out," she said. "He wasn't wrong, was he? Something's happening. They shut down the club and told us all to leave." Shane nodded slowly, and Monica turned her attention to Claire. "Why do you need my keys, exactly?"

"To get to Amelie," Claire said. "We need a ride. Eve's is toast."

"That's true," Eve said. "I'm in mourning."

"Really? How can anybody tell?" Monica tossed her car keys in her hand and gave them a brilliant smile. "Tell you what, losers: I drive. Nobody touches the baby but me. Besides, if I'm semisafe here with my brother, I'll be much safer with the Founder."

Claire doubted that, really, but she wasn't about to tell Monica that.

Eve, for once, didn't call shotgun, and neither did Shane. She just got in the back, behind Monica. Claire quickly rock-paper-scissored with Shane on the way to a decision, and Claire lost. She was up front, with Monica, and Shane piled in the back, along with a canvas bag of stuff that he'd dragged out of the back of the hearse.

"Seriously," Shane said as they settled in and Monica turned the key. "You live in a town full of vampires. Is a convertible really the best option?"

"I didn't know you cared," Monica said, and the pop music started up in midsong. It was off Monica's iPod, Claire guessed, and she was apparently a big Britney Spears fan.


That was actually weirdly appropriate.

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