Last Breath

Chapter Eighteen


There is a certain freedom in giving up all hope. One is no longer bound by the cords of dread or fear; you simply move toward the inevitable without thinking on the consequences.

I knew that we would not escape the draug; that much, history had taught me. I'd seen entire vampire clans vanish - drawn, drowned, drained. I'd seen the mightiest and most clever of our kind brought to ruin; the more vampires fought, the more draug swarmed, until all was lost.

So why was I driving toward what was certainly going to be my doom? Perhaps only to stop running from it. It had been following me a long time - all my life - like a dark and lengthy shadow, and perhaps Claire had been right from the beginning: perhaps it was time to stop and draw a line, and hold it.

Even if there was no chance of winning.

I had lost so many whom I cared for, over the years; losing was the natural state of existence for one like me. But Morganville . . . Morganville was a special thing, a creation unlike anything in the rest of the world, and I did not think I had the strength, nor the courage, to build it again, somewhere else, only to see it fall and shatter again.

I was the Founder of Morganville, and maybe it was fit that I should end my days here, after all.

"Left," Claire said. She pointed, and I turned the wheel of the Bloodmobile in that direction. Myrnin had made an excellent choice, I thought, in liberating the large black vehicle; it had ample room inside for any we could rescue, and two large coolers well stocked with human blood. If we could, in truth, drag any vampires from the water, they'd be mad with hunger.

Of course, the chances of any rescue were remarkably small, but it felt right to be prepared. One should not go to one's doom without a proper effort. It was a bother that these young people, with all their short lives ahead of them, should be so willing to throw them away, but that could be said of any soldier in any war.

And we were at war. One we would inevitably lose.

I had not properly appreciated how much Morganville had changed in the past few days; I had spent too much time walled up in my office, hiding from the truth. A fight was under way between the Morganville police and a ragged band of human opponents, who were surprisingly holding their own. There were no businesses open in town, not even one. All was dark, closed, abandoned.


Human habitations still burned lights, and I expected that inside them families huddled, terrified and waiting for some kind of rescue; morning would dawn soon, and they would prepare to go to Founder's Square, where they'd been promised what they'd always craved.


I would not be there to see their betrayal. I mourned the fact of it, and the necessity, but at least I would pay for it with my life. That was a kind of redemption, wasn't it?

The closer we drew to the old Civic Pool, the quieter Morganville became. Lights still burned in homes, but in many the doors were open, the inhabitants lured away, or worse. It was as if this part of the town was dead and already rotting away. Myrnin's machine produced a steady, low-level humming that was maddening in its monotony, but it did block the eerie, seductive call of the draug.

For now.

"Can you still hear it?" Claire asked me. She was sitting down on the bench seat behind us, while Myrnin had taken the passenger position to my right. "I can't. Is it still there?"

"Oh yes," I said. There were hints of sound breaking through the interference, random wails and whispers, but not enough to create a hold on us. But, I reminded myself, we were still not face-to-face with the draug, or with Magnus himself. That would make things much more dangerous. "If you begin to hear it, tell me immediately."

"We have these," Claire said, and held up a pair of blue earplugs. "They worked before."

"They might not now," Myrnin said. "The draug's call gets stronger and louder as they grow, and I can promise you, they are growing. You have silver weapons in that bag, I assume?"

"Yep," Shane said. He unzipped it and threw a fencing epee to Eve, who snatched it out of the air with the panache of someone who had seen far too many films in which the heroes lived. He took out bottles and put them in his pockets, handed more to Claire, and finally drew out silver-coated stakes. "The crossbows won't work, too much force. It goes straight through them, right? Not enough damage."

"Correct," I said. "Their substance is deceptively soft, and anything moving at high velocity, unless it spreads, will only slow them down. To stop a draug, you must cut or stab them with silver that stays in place for at least a few seconds for it to take effect. They will collapse and flee in liquid form to escape it. But don't touch them even then. In liquid form, they have tiny needles which can pierce skin."

What I did not say, and could not, was that the vampires in the pool were not submerged in water - or not wholly in it. The draug entered the water and dispersed, and fed, then emerged again. The pool would be swarming with the things, invisible and deadly.

And there was very little that could stop them that would not also kill the vampires we sought to rescue. Vampire and draug shared a common root, in the dim mists of time. We had taken very different paths, but had some vulnerabilities in common, still. Had there been no vampires in the pool, we could have poisoned it with silver; at the very least, it would have forced them out and on land, where we would have the advantage.

But this was far worse.

"How are we going to get them out?" Claire asked. "They're tied or something, down at the bottom."

"Someone will have to dive in and free them," I said.

"Guess that's me," Shane said, leaning forward. "Take a right up here. We're almost there."

"Why you?" Claire asked, frowning. "I could - "

"Swim team in high school," Shane said. "I can dive, too. I can stay down longer than you."

"Why can't you do it?" Eve asked me. "Vampires don't need to breathe."

"There are draug in the water. A vampire who goes in . . . is not likely to come out without help."

"See?" Shane said. "My job. You guys just hold them off."

It wasn't going to be so simple, but his principle was correct, and there was no reason to cast pessimism on our cause now. We were committed.

Freedom in abandoning hope, indeed.

There was one still-working streetlight here, and I parked the Bloodmobile as close as I could to the curb underneath it. Light mattered little to me or to Myrnin, but it would be important for our human friends, if we were able to emerge from this place. I turned the engine off. Even with the constant humming cycle of Myrnin's tone generator, the call of the draug was there, pulling inside me like a faint whispering shadow. I could resist it, but it stained the world around me with its desperation.

"Myrnin and I will go first," I said. "We will clear a path and hold it for you. Eve and Claire, you will hold the rear against any who try to come from outside to attack. Shane, when we clear the way to the pool, you will dive in and begin to cut the captives free. You'll have to drag them up and out of the water, one at a time. Get as many out as you can." I hesitated, then said, "You'll feel a burning sensation. That will be the draug draining you. It will weaken you quickly. Be careful."

Shane went still for a second, then nodded. I could not read his expression, but I felt the spike of adrenaline from him. Fear. A completely sensible reaction, although he had no idea what we were going to face. Not yet.

"Wait," Claire said. "Maybe we should - "

Shane took her hand, and their eyes met. He gave her a smile, and had I had a heart to be broken, that might have cracked it, a little. "Too late for that, beautiful," he said, and kissed her fingers. "We agreed, didn't we? Time to throw it all in. It's the only way we can make it."

He was right about that. I would not take a human from Morganville, not even Claire, if it came to that. They would all stay, and they would all . . .

Be given their freedom.

I could not, even now, face the terrible reality of the betrayal of that.

So instead, I opened my door, took hold of my shotgun, and said, "Go."

Myrnin had shed all hint of madness, which was a blessing; he moved with the lithe grace and speed of any vampire, and we communicated through slight gestures and looks as we took the cracked, molding steps up to the building's door. I remembered when this had been built; it seemed like such a short time ago that I'd stood on these steps with the then-mayor, shaded by a black umbrella and waving in regal boredom to a crowd of gawkers. It had been one of the last times I had appeared in public to humans, because one of them had attempted to throw silver solution on me. One of my bodyguards had been badly scarred in the assassination attempt.

I remembered the inside of this place.

It was nothing like my memories.

The ruin of the reception area was breathtaking; the carpets were mildewed and curling, the walls furred with thick, black fungus. Paint peeled from the sagging ceiling, but I could still see the lovely art deco designs beneath, like the straight bones of a rotten body.

There were no draug there to meet us.

The narrow hallway ahead was too small for Myrnin and me to enter together, so with a tiny gesture I held him back, and plunged on ahead, into a waking nightmare.

At first glance, I thought there was only one draug in the room; we could not see them, not clearly, even concentrating on them directly.

But Magnus wanted me to see him. It pleased him to show me his mask, and, behind that, his true nature. The mask was a rubbery caricature of humanity, exactly bland; the thing behind it was made of darkness and rot, and was only vaguely in a shape that mimicked our own.

"Amelie," he said. Unlike the draug's call, this was a humanlike voice, one that cut through Myrnin's device cleanly. "You surprise me. I thought you'd run. You always have."

"I am happy to surprise you," I said, and pointed my shotgun at his chest. He was too far away for it to be effective, and he knew it; he smiled, a rubbery stretch of falsely human lips while the thing behind it bared teeth.

I sensed the draug rather than saw them as they emerged from the mold-encrusted walls, flooding down in pools and forming into shapes. They were all around us. I cast a lightning-fast look at Myrnin, who was slightly behind me to my right. He, too, was surrounded.

"Well," Myrnin said, in a light and oddly happy voice, "I believe it's time for a field test."

And he aimed at the wall of draug closing on him, and fired.

I spun toward mine and fired at the same instant, sending a devastating spray of silver pellets into them. The friction of the air softened the metal and spread it, adding to the chaos of the effect, and with one shot, three draug shrieked and blew apart into liquid that rushed across the cracked tile floor toward the sparkling blue pool.

I pumped the shotgun and fired, keeping time with Myrnin's blasts. Vampire ears are sensitive, and the noise was painfully loud, but a fierce joy was on me as I saw our enemies fall. It was like the old times, the oldest times, riding to battle with a sword singing in my hand and a scream rising in the back of my throat, my hair flying like a banner....

I heard a splash. Shane had entered the pool. I pumped another round into the shotgun and fired, and risked a glance his direction. The boy's form glided through the water, heading toward the deeper end.

I saw Oliver, face upturned and pallid. His eyes were wide and blank as a doll's, consumed with agony.

I snarled, turned back to the draug, and obliterated another line of them.

"I'm out," Myrnin said in a businesslike tone. "Reloading."

I spun to cover him and fired into the draug that were lurching toward him as he fed new shells into the shotgun, moving as calmly and carefully as if he'd been all alone on a target range. I fired my last load to protect him as he finished.

And a draug took me from behind.

I dropped my empty shotgun, drew a silver-coated knife from the sheath at my belt, and turned. I sliced it across the false skin, dragging deep. The draug collapsed against me, sticky almost-flesh, and its liquid essence flooded over my skin and stung hard.

I gagged as it tried to force its way down my nose and throat.

In the pool, Shane surfaced, sputtering and screaming with pain. He was towing a vampire toward the edge. Not Oliver.


He shoved Michael up to flop bonelessly onto the tiles, and I saw that Shane's face was red with tiny needle-sharp stings. He was gasping and cramping with agony, but he sucked in a deep breath and submerged, again.

I had rarely admired the courage of humans, but in that moment, I loved him for it.

I clawed the draug's cold, thick liquid from my face, spit out the foul taste of it, and slashed at the next one to come at me. Behind me, Myrnin's shotgun was roaring again. I needed time to reload, but I couldn't pause. Michael was lying at my feet, vulnerable and shuddering. I was no longer fighting for just my own existence, but his.

I should have known that Claire would fail to follow orders.

She charged toward me with two bottles in her hands - some kind of water bottles, with the caps dangling free. A squeeze of her hands sent a spray of silver into the mass of draug, and the shrieks were so deafening that I felt the pull of them even through the roar of Myrnin's machine. She emptied the bottles and dropped them to grab Michael under the arms, and dragged him away, toward the hallway.

I took advantage of the temporary lull to take up my shotgun, reload with quick, sure flicks of my fingers, and begin firing again. The room stank of terror, mildew, cordite, and the rotten stench of death and draug, but against all odds, we were still alive.

Shane pushed another limp body out of the pool and went down again. I risked a fast look. Naomi. My blood-sister looked drained and very near to her final death.

She reached out toward me, and I saw the desperate terror in her eyes. I touched her hand with mine, then pumped a fresh shell and fired.

The draug kept coming. I sensed Claire coming back and dragging Naomi away, sensed Shane bringing another body out.

"Get out!" Myrnin was shouting - not to me, to the young man, who was struggling toward the shallower end of the pool. He was being pulled down, I realized. The draug, in their liquid form, had coated his body. He was too weak now to fight.

He wasn't going to make it.

"Bother," Myrnin said. He turned toward me, and flung his shotgun in my direction; I grabbed it out of the air, pumped it, and fired at both my opponents and his simultaneously, driving them back.

It was a miracle from the hands of God that we had gotten this far, I thought.

Myrnin jumped into the pool, grabbed Shane's shoulders, and pulled him to the steps, dumped him on the tile, and I saw the liquid that had coated Myrnin's skin during that brief immersion writhe, thicken, and squirm up his body toward his face. He scraped the worst of it off, grabbed Shane, and threw him bodily toward the door.

I looked down. There were so many more trapped there in the pool. So many of my people, my responsibilities, and I could not save them. Some I knew and loved. Some I disliked. All were precious to me, for one reason or another, even if because they were now so rare in this world.

Oliver was the last one that Shane had dragged from the pool, and he lay at my feet, limp and still.

"Myrnin!" I shouted. "Get Oliver!" I pumped and fired both shotguns again, and Myrnin ducked under the blasts to take Oliver under the shoulders. "Get him out!"

Myrnin's gun was out, and there would be no opportunity now to reload. Mine had two shells left. As Myrnin dragged Oliver for the exit, I fired them in rapid succession, dropped both weapons, and turned to go.

Magnus was in my way.

I grabbed for my knife, but he was faster. His hand went around my throat, and the singing, the singing . . . it crawled inside my mind and ripped apart my fury, my will, my soul.

"Not you," he said. "You don't escape, Amelie. Not this time."

He was right. There was no escape. There was nothing now but darkness, and drowning, and despair.

But I had one thing left. Just one.

I couldn't reach my knife, but I could reach the glass vial in my pocket. I crushed it in my hand and let it fall into the water in a bright rush of silver.

The silver flecks spread, and where they touched, draug glittered, turned visible, and died.

My own people would die, too, from the poison, but at least they would be at peace, and he'd be denied using them so cruelly.

"No!" Magnus flung me back, too late; it was done, and there was no undoing it. What I'd dropped into the pool was enough silver poison to kill everything in it. "No!"

He snarled and jumped for me, and I got my knife out, but in the end, his fangs sank deep enough in me to inject a cold, black poison, and I fell.

I heard shouts, and a confused clatter of a shotgun firing, and then . . .

. . . Then it was gone, and my last thought was one of odd satisfaction.

At last, I have stopped running.

Cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless.

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