Earlier she’d cut her wrist to pour her blood into a cup so that Aden would finally eat without revealing her secret, or having to bite and addict her—or himself. There’d been no je la nune on the metal, yet the blade had sliced right through her flesh without any hindrance. The wound had yet to heal. And Chompers, well, he’d stopped roaring, even stopped mewling.
“You and Aden dating?” Ryder asked her, relaxing for the first time since he’d watched Nathan shift.
Leaning her temple against the driver’s headrest, she peered back at him. “Yes.” I think. Since waking up in her bed, he’d been kind, tender, sweet and affectionate. More like his old self. She constantly battled the urge to throw herself into his arms and spill everything. Her fears, her frailties…her love. Fear of rejection formed a clamp around her mouth.
Maybe it was a good thing her beast was quiet. The question pushed all the wrong buttons, and she—or Chompers—might have dove over the seat and ripped out Ryder’s tongue. “He’s not crazy.”
“He talks to himself. Or to the souls, as he calls them. I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure that’s the textbook definition of crazy.”
Twisting, she threw her glare at him. How like Draven he was. Clueless to the violence he stirred. “I drink blood.” Or I used to. “And my closest friends turn into wolves. Are we crazy?”
The corner of his mouth kicked up. He should have appeared amused, but he just looked sad. “Probably.”
“What?” Ryder thumped a fist into the roof. “This whole thing is fucked up, yet everyone is acting like it’s normal.”
“Then why are you here?” she demanded. “Why did you come with us?”
Shannon peered at him with growing horror. Why the horror? She glanced at the clock on the dash, the numbers glowing a soft red. Nathan and Maxwell had been gone for twenty-three minutes, and Aden for nineteen. When would they return?
“‘I—I was bored’ says the b-boy who always t-talks his way out of everything? No. I know y-you. Wh-what did you d-do?” Shannon asked Ryder. “Why did y-you want to leave Crossroads?”
“I did nothing.” Ryder shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “And I didn’t want to leave. Aden asked us to come.”
Shannon wasn’t giving up. “Wh-what the hell did y-you do? J-just say it. S-say it b-because I already kn-know. Didn’t w-want to believe, but you were g-gone last night, after w-we…just after. You reeked of g-gasoline. I believed you when you s-said you’d been working on th-the truck. B-believed you, but you…you… S-say it!”
Cringing, seemingly in pain, Ryder rubbed the spot just above his heart. The two boys glared at each other for a long while. The pain must have been building, must have pushed from him. A moan escaped him, followed by a spew of poisonous yelling.
“You want to hear the truth? Fine. I started the fire. Okay? All right? There was a voice in my head, and he told me what to do. I tried to stop myself, but I couldn’t. You know what else? He told me to kill you, to kill all of you, and I stood over your bed. I was going to do it, just like he told me, but I started shaking, and I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it, so I dragged you out instead.”
Victoria listened, her own sense of horror growing.
“You…you…” Shannon let his head flop into his upraised hands.
“The voice told me to go with Aden, wherever he went. He told me—” Ryder’s entire body shook, as if he were having a seizure. His eyes rolled back in his head, until only the whites could be seen through the slits in his lashes.
“R-Ryder!” Darting into action, Shannon pushed his friend to his side, and shoved his own hand into the boy’s mouth, trying to prevent him from swallowing his tongue. Then the shaking stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
The passenger door slid open, frosty air once again shoving inside the car to battle with what little warmth remained. No one had opened the door that Victoria could see, yet it had opened—and was now closing on its own. Victoria’s horror morphed into alarm, the reason popping into place.
In a snap, he materialized in the seat. His clothes were ragged and bloodstained, his sandy hair plastered to his head and sporting matching streaks of crimson. His eyes held a corrosive sadness that would eat through the rest of him if he wasn’t careful.
“Hello, Victoria,” he said. “You got my text, I see.”
She would not be cowed. She might be human, but Riley had trained her in self-defense. Weak as she was, she wasn’t completely helpless. “Yes, I did.” And having taken a page from the Aden Stone School of Ass Kicking, she’d stored daggers under the sleeves of her robe.
Motions fluid, Ryder sat up and pushed Shannon away from him. “Do not touch me with your filthy hands, human,” he snapped, and despite his vehemence, his voice was formal, cultured, with a slight Romanian accent in the undertones.
A tremor slid down the length of her spine. She knew that voice. Both loved and hated that voice. But…but…impossible, she thought.
“A-are you o-kay?” Even though Ryder had just admitted to destroying Shannon’s home, Shannon obviously cared about his welfare.
“I’m fine. Or rather, I will be.” Ryder reached for his boot, withdrew a dagger of his own—and stabbed Shannon in the heart.
He moved so quickly, Victoria only registered what had happened after Shannon screamed. After the blood was flowing. After Ryder twisted the blade deeper and deeper still.
Shannon gurgled, unable to form words. His eyes said it all. What? Why? How could you?
“No!” Victoria dove into the backseat, placing herself in front of Shannon while thrusting Ryder away from him. Using her back as his shield, uncaring if she was stabbed, she jerked the blade out and pressed her palms into the wound. Warm blood met her quaking hands.
Ryder gave a little laugh. She thought he might even have rubbed his hands together in a job well done. “Smells good, doesn’t it, Tucker, my lad?”
There was nothing she could do. No way to help. Or to save. Tears burned Victoria’s eyes, spilling onto her cheeks. “Shannon, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I should have…” Done something, anything.
Shannon was gasping now, desperately trying to lure oxygen inside his lungs. Blood seeped from the corners of his mouth. He was in pain, so much pain, and she hated that more than she hated the thought of his death.
“That,” Ryder said to Tucker, “is how it’s done. Had you done that to Aden, my daughter never would have been able to save him.”
Not impossible, then. Vlad had possessed Ryder.
He’d done this. Vlad had done this. To Shannon. To Aden. To all of them. The man she’d once mourned the loss of had done this.
She couldn’t teleport Shannon away. She couldn’t carry him out of the car. Waiting for Aden would cause him needless suffering.
Aden. For a moment, she was thrown back to the night of his stabbing. He’d been in pain, too. He’d wanted so badly for it end. All of it, including his life. Anything for a little peace. At one point, he’d even begged her to let him go.
She hadn’t, then. She could now.
“I’m so sorry.” Hating herself more than ever before, she slashed into Shannon’s jugular with her fangs. Fangs that were not as long or sharp as they’d once been, but there was nothing she could do about that now. His gurgling increased before it faded, but he didn’t fight her, and as she gulped at the blood as quickly as she could, she tasted copper and what was surely despair. She didn’t let herself dwell on that, not here, not now, and kept drinking, until there was nothing left. Until his head lolled to the side.
Until he was gone, his pain no more.
Distantly she heard the clomp and scratch of a wolf’s paws. Nathan. Maxwell.
She straightened with a snap, panting, crying again, and scanned the area outside the car. Everything was blurry. Sniffling, chest heaving—how could she have done that to Shannon, even to set him free?—she wiped at her eyes with the back of her wrist.
There was Maxwell, still wearing his shades, and Nathan, still in his Seeing Eye dog uniform. They were bumping into cars as if they were both blind.
“They’ll never find this car,” Tucker said. “I’ve made sure of it.”
“Your ability to cast illusions is the only reason you’re still alive, boy,” Ryder remarked. “I hope you know that.”
They were having this conversation now? As if nothing had happened? Heartless monsters.
Victoria twisted to face the father who wasn’t her father, not anymore, and the boy who had changed her life forever. “How could you do this?”
“So wonderful to see you again, my love.” Ryder’s smile was all winter ice and black dagger. “Even though you have betrayed me in ways I can never and will never forgive.”
His intent to kill her shone so brightly in his eyes, she felt spotlighted. “You don’t scare me. Father. Not anymore.”
He tapped his chin with a fingertip. “Whatever can I do to change that?” A grin so heartless even his amusement was tainted. “I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
How did I ever look up to this man? “Shannon did nothing to deserve that kind of death.”
Finally. An expected reaction. His amusement faded, his eyes narrowing to tiny slits and his lips peeling back from his teeth. The expression of a predator who’d spotted prey. “He aided Aden. Of course he deserved to d—”
Victoria dove for him, landed on top of him. Vlad might have possessed Ryder, but Ryder still had a human body. Which meant, Ryder was still vulnerable.
He had nowhere to go as she chewed on his jugular.