Last Breath

Chapter Nineteen


Going after Michael was sheer instinct, because Claire knew that Eve would do it in the next heartbeat, and Claire could feel the lingering, if weakened, rush of vampire blood in her own veins. It made her faster, and a little stronger, and right now, that made her the only real choice. "Stay!" she shouted at Eve, and tossed her the silver knife she'd been holding. Eve caught it and slashed at a draug - God, at least they knew what to call them now - who oozed out of the darkness at her. It screamed that awful noise and collapsed into a sticky, skin-thickened puddle.

Claire raced into the pool room.

It would have been an incredible sight, if she'd been able to stop to appreciate it; she got a blurred snapshot impression of Amelie and Myrnin, standing with their backs to each other, firing their shotguns in shattering roars that blasted apart draug in greasy black and silver splatters. Not killing them, really, Claire thought; she saw the sticky fluid slipping over the sides of the pool. They'd be feeding now, and gathering the strength to come back out.

Shane was in that water. It made her sick and hopeless to see him there, diving again with a kick of his feet.

Michael lay limp on the tiles, oozing a thick liquid that wasn't really water, or at least not completely.

Amelie was in trouble. Claire didn't think; she pulled the squeeze bottles that Shane had given her out of her pockets, popped the caps, and yelled as she squirted the contents at the attacking draug in two silvery arcs.

It worked, and even as it did, she was aware of Amelie methodically working in a blur, shoving shotgun shells into her weapon. By the time the bottles were empty, she was pumping the action and ready to fire.

Claire dropped the bottles and ducked as Amelie aimed and fired over her head. She grabbed Michael and immediately felt the sting of draug on her hands, but she pulled anyway, fast, for both their lives.

Eve looked at her as Claire reappeared in the hall. Claire stopped and hefted Michael up higher, braced him, and said, "I need you to keep us clear!" Eve's gaze was riveted on Michael's white, slack face, but she nodded. She slashed her silver sword across a draug that blocked the path to the door, then forced another one out of the way as Claire dragged Michael out.

The night air hit her in a rush. It was staggering how different it was from the atmosphere in that building, and Claire coughed and choked now as she bumped him down the steps. Eve ran ahead and yanked open the door of the Bloodmobile. A draug lunged out from under the vehicle, and she stabbed at him, yelping in surprise. It slithered into a drain.

Claire got Michael up and into the Bloodmobile. "Clean him off!" she told Eve, and tossed her a towel. "Blood's in the cooler! I have to get the rest of them!"

Eve, for once, was speechless. She took the towel and began wiping Michael's face clear of the thick, crawling slime as he began to spit it up in uncontrollable coughs.

His eyes were bright, bright red.

Claire plunged back into the night. Her only defense right now was speed; she couldn't carry weapons and drag victims. Luckily, the draug hadn't regrouped yet in the foyer; most of them were concentrated on Amelie and Myrnin, at the pool. She skidded into the big, open room with its glittering blue pool and foul, choking smell, just as Shane rolled another body out. Naomi.

She was easier to pull - frail, in fact - and Claire got her out without even a single draug coming for them, all the way to the Bloodmobile.

She got her in and on one of the donation chairs, and realized that Eve and Michael were no longer where she'd left them. "Eve?"

She heard a gasp, and went toward the back, where the coolers were.

Eve was lying on the floor. One of the coolers was open, and a blood bag lay fallen next to her hand.

And Michael was crouched over her, feeding.

"No!" Claire screamed. He whirled on her, snarling, and she backed up a step. "No, Michael, stop! She's trying to help you! Stop! You have to stop!"

He had blood all over his mouth, and he looked... savage. Desperate. The glow in his eyes was as bright as hellfire, and Eve moaned and tried to turn over.

He looked down at her, and snarled with sharp, glittering fangs fully extended.

"God," Claire whispered, and didn't really think. She just threw herself on him, locked her forearm under his chin, and pulled, hard.

It was just enough to get him away from Eve, who rolled, grabbed the blood bag, and shoved it in Michael's mouth. He bit down, and the blood squirted out. He gulped, and sucked, and drained it. Eve pulled another one out and gave him that, then a third one.

And Claire felt his body language change. It wasn't gradual - it was sudden, as if he'd been possessed or something.

Michael spat the empty blood bag out and after a second, said, "Oh my God, no . . ."

That sounded like him. Claire let go, and he collapsed backward, throwing himself away from Eve, who was holding her wounded neck. She looked pale and very shaky.

"Eve," he said. "Eve. No . . ."

"It's all right," she said. It wasn't. Claire could see the blood running out from under her hand, but there wasn't time - there wasn't any time. She grabbed the first aid kit and shoved it in Michael's limp hands.

"Help her!" she screamed at him. She grabbed a handful of blood bags and went back to Naomi; if Michael had gone nuts, Naomi would be next, and they didn't need her attacking from behind. The slender female vamp snarled at Claire when she came closer, and she threw her first blood bag to her. Naomi swiped it out of the air and bit viciously into it.


Claire fed her three that way and left a fourth next to her, then ran for the doors.

She reached the hallway just as Shane came sliding her way with bowling-ball velocity, and ran right into her. He was soaking wet, and he was bleeding - all over, as if he was sweating it. He shuddered and made little horrible sounds in the back of his throat, but he scrambled to his feet, grabbed her hand, and they ran. She'd never seen him really run like that before, like someone really in the grip of mindless fear, but she understood it.

They made it to the Bloodmobile just as Myrnin came out the door, firing a shotgun behind him and dragging Oliver with his other hand. Claire got Shane into a seat and met Myrnin at the door to pull Oliver inside. Naomi was awake and less insane now, and when Claire screamed at her to get blood, Naomi staggered to the back and came back with armloads.

"Where's Amelie?" Claire yelled at Myrnin, who was standing in the vehicle's door, still firing. He shook his head. He looked taut and desperate, and his eyes were glowing red not so much with hunger as with fear, she thought.

Amelie hadn't come out.

"We have to go back!" Claire said. Myrnin's shotgun ran dry, and he backed up into the Bloodmobile and slammed the door shut as a draug rushed forward at them.

"We can't," he said. "I'm out of shells." He sounded shaken and oddly flat, and he shoved her back when she tried to push past him. "No. Wait."

Magnus was standing in the doorway of the Civic Pool. He was holding Amelie, and she was limp as a doll.

Magnus held her up in silent triumph. "If you want her," he said, "come and get - "

Somebody shot him. Not Myrnin, because he was out of shells. Not Amelie, who was hanging helpless.

The shot came from a speeding pickup truck that raced by, then screamed into a slewing 360-degree turn, and Claire recognized it. Men poured out, all armed, desperate, and human.

And Captain Obvious was in the lead, pumping another shell into his shotgun.

Magnus hadn't gone down, and hadn't even screamed, so whatever they were firing wasn't silver, but it was inconveniencing him, at the very least. He dropped Amelie, and she rolled limply down the steps to a crumpled heap as Magnus turned his empty, not-human eyes on the new threat.

And laughed.

Myrnin unlocked the Bloodmobile door, lunged out, grabbed Amelie, and jumped back inside as the firing continued. "Well," he said, "it does appear that your idiot redneck friends are good for something after all. Do tell them to run, Claire." He looked down at Amelie, and stopped talking. His eyes went from red to black in a second.

Claire snapped open the window and screamed at the men in the truck. They kept firing. Well, she'd tried.

"Myrnin?" Claire asked, short of breath with fear.

He didn't look up. "Drive," he said. "Take us out of here." It was a good idea, because Captain Obvious and his friends had finished unloading their bullets into Magnus and the draug, and were piling back into the bed of their pickup, which was revving its engine. Claire jumped into the driver's seat, started the Bloodmobile, and followed the pickup as it drove away. She couldn't match its speed, but it didn't matter. The pickup was racing toward the edge of town, and she didn't intend to go that way.

She turned and headed toward Founder's Square.

"Is she alive?" Claire asked, as Myrnin sat down in the passenger seat with Amelie cradled in his arms. She looked as pale as a marble statue now. Her eyes were closed.

"For now," he said. He pulled back the collar of her black shirt, and Claire saw two giant black holes in her skin, three or four times the size of even the messiest vampire bite she'd ever seen. "There's no cure for a master draug's bite."

It was silent in Founder's Square. The cops had formed their lines again; the fight with the mob was over, just some wrecked vehicles left to mark the whole event.

The whole thing had a nightmare kind of stillness to it. Claire pulled the Bloodmobile up to the curb and parked it, and Myrnin silently stood up with Amelie in his arms.

Oliver blocked him as he turned for the door.

Oliver was still pale, and trembling, but he seemed sane, at least; he'd wiped the excess blood he'd gulped off his mouth, but there were still smears of dark red here and there. He didn't speak, but he held out his arms, and Myrnin, after a brief hesitation, handed Amelie to him.

Oliver shut his eyes for a moment, then nodded and took her outside.

Naomi followed, moving more slowly than Claire had ever seen a vampire move. Myrnin helped her out, which would have looked gallant except for his outfit, which was more like something a crazed beachcomber would wear than a knight in armor, however tarnished.

That accounted for almost all the vampires they'd rescued. Claire got up and walked toward the back. She stopped when she reached Shane, who was lying down on a donation couch. He'd wiped himself clean of the blood, but she could see bleeding pinpricks on his face and hands. He looked terrible, she thought, and wanted to cry in wild, screaming sobs. Somehow, she gulped it back.

He sat up and held out his arms, and she collapsed against him. He kissed her, and even though he still tasted like that pool, like all the nightmares, she sank into the kiss, because underneath it he was Shane, he was alive, he was alive.

And so was she.

He was shaking, she realized, but he was trying to comfort her with soothing strokes down her back, a gentle touch on her face.

Neither one of them tried to speak.

Michael carried Eve past them. There was a thick bandage on her neck, but the bleeding seemed to have stopped, and she seemed okay. She had her arms around him, and her head was lying in the hollow of his shoulder, and Claire thought she'd never seen a look like that on Michael's face, that complicated mixture of fierce love and fear and regret.

He looked almost as frail as Naomi had, but he carried her anyway.

"What are we going to do?" Claire whispered. "Oh God, Shane, what can we do?"

He shook his head and sighed, and pressed his lips against her hair in a gentle kiss. "We're going to win," he said. "That's our only choice. I don't know how, and I don't know what the cost is going to be. But we're going to win."

"Yes." The voice was raw, and quiet, but it was Oliver's. He was standing in the doorway, and Amelie was still in his arms. "There's no option now. We fight them for Morganville. All of us." He looked down at Amelie. "And the cost will be high, Mr. Collins. It will be very high indeed. Come now. It won't be safe out here for long, and the sun is coming up."

Claire didn't want to move, but she did, and helped Shane up. Oliver stared at the two of them for a moment, then shook his head.

"What?" Shane asked.

"I don't understand humans at all," he said. "Why would you do such a thing, for us?"

Shane exchanged a look with Claire, and shrugged. "Had to be done," he said. "And we needed you to stop Amelie from pulling the pin on Morganville. She was going to kill us all."

Oliver sighed. "What makes you think I won't?"

"Because you're a fighter," Shane said. "Like me. And now you're in charge."

"Oh, trust me, you won't enjoy that," Oliver said, with a touch of his old acid tone. "We haven't even begun to fight."

"Good," Shane said. "Because as far as I can tell, we're getting our asses kicked, and I'm tired of that."

Oliver gave him a slow, odd smile. "So am I," he said. He turned to go and said, in an offhand kind of way, "Thank you."

He was gone before Shane could make some kind of smart-ass remark. As, Claire could tell, he'd been about to do.

"Don't," Claire warned him, and put her finger to his lips. "Just enjoy the moment."

"I am," he said. He met her eyes, and in that moment, she could see absolutely everything in them. Everything he felt. All the fear and the anger and the horror and the determination.

And the love. So much of that.

"Sun's up," he said. She blinked and realized that outside the open door of the Bloodmobile there was a pink blush on the horizon. A new day. Maybe the last day.

He took her hand and led her out into it, and despite everything, despite the stillness and the danger and all that she knew, Claire took a deep breath of fresh, clean air and thought, We're going to win. We have to win.

And standing there with the sunrise washing over them, driving away the clouds, she thought that maybe, just maybe, it was possible.

"Wait," Shane said, and pulled her to a stop as she started to follow Michael, who'd already made it to the shadows, down the sidewalk toward the square. "Claire."

"We shouldn't stay out here even if the sun's up. The draug - "

He put his hands on either side of her face, looked down at her, and said, "I want you to understand something. I hate this place. I hate Morganville. I hate the vampires. But I swear to God, I will fight to my last drop of blood for Michael and Eve and you. Do you understand? If you want to run, if you want to go right now, I'll go. But I'm not going without you."

"If we run, what's to stop Oliver from letting everyone die?" she asked him. "From doing just what Amelie would have done?"

"God, Claire - stop thinking about them. Think about you. Just you."

"I am," she said. "I can't face being a coward. Not this time."

"Then we stay," he said. "And when we get out of this . . . and we will get out of this . . . I want you to promise me one thing."


He swallowed, and shifted his weight a little uneasily, and then said, very quietly, his lips almost touching hers, "Promise me you'll marry me. Not now. Someday. Because I need to know."

Claire felt a flutter inside, like a bird trying to fly, and a rush of heat that made her dizzy. And something else, something fragile as a soap bubble, and just as beautiful. Joy, in the middle of all this horror and heartbreak.

"Yes," she whispered back. "I promise."

And she kissed him, and kissed him, and kissed him, while the sun came up and bathed Morganville in one last, shining day.

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