Afterlife Page 2

“You would still say no, if you had the chance. If you could go back. Wouldn’t you?” I demanded.

That caught him off guard. “We aren’t only talking about me. Think about your parents. About Patrice, and Ranulf, the other vampires you know. Would they really be better off rotting in their graves?”

Some vampires were okay, weren’t they? That was true of most of the ones I’d ever known. My parents had known centuries of happiness and love together. Lucas and I could have that, maybe. I knew he hated the idea of being a vampire — but only two short years ago, he’d hated all vampires with blind, unthinking prejudice. He’d come so far so quickly; surely he could come to accept himself in time.

It was worth a chance. It had to be. Everything in my heart told me that Lucas deserved another chance, and that we deserved another hope of being together.

I traced a finger across Lucas’s face: his forehead, his cheekbone and the outline of his lips. The heaviness and paleness of his body reminded me of a carving in stone — fixed, unliving, unchanging.

“It’s close,” Balthazar said. He came closer. “It’s time.”

Ranulf nodded. “I sense it as well. You should step away, Bianca.”

“I’m not letting go of him.”

“Just be ready to move, then. If you have to.” Balthazar shifted his weight from one foot to the next, steadying his stance like a fighter preparing for battle.

It’s going to be okay, Lucas, I thought, willing him to hear me past the divide between this world and the next. Wasn’t he about to cross that divide to return to me? So maybe we were close enough for him to listen. We’re dead, but we can still be together. Nothing matters more than that. We’re stronger than death. Now nothing else ever has to come between us. You and I never have to be apart again.

I wanted him to believe that. I wanted to believe it, too.

Lucas’s hand twitched.

I gasped — a reflex of the body I’d created, more a memory of what shock did to a living being than anything else.

“Be ready,” Balthazar said. He was talking to Ranulf, not to me.

Shakily, I laid one hand upon Lucas’s chest. I realized only then that I was waiting for a heartbeat. His heart would never beat again.

One of Lucas’s feet shifted slightly, and his head turned a couple inches to the side. “Lucas?” I whispered. He needed to understand that he wasn’t alone, before he realized anything else. “Can you hear me? It’s Bianca. I’m waiting for you.”

He didn’t move.

“I love you so much.” I wanted so badly to cry, but my ghostly body created no tears. “Please come back to me. Please.” The fingers of his right hand straightened, muscles tensing, then curled back in toward his palm.

“Lucas, can you — ”

“No!” Lucas shoved himself away from the floor, from me, stumbling to all fours. His eyes were wild, too dazed to truly see. “No!”

His back slammed against the wall. He stared at the three of us, his eyes displaying no recognition, no sanity. His hands pressed against the wall, fingers curved like claws, and I thought he might try to dig through it. Maybe it was a vampire instinct for digging your way out of a grave.

“Lucas, it’s okay.” I held my hands out, doing my best to remain completely solid and opaque. It was better to look as familiar as possible. “We’re here with you.”

“He doesn’t know you yet,” Balthazar said. “He’s looking at us, but he can’t see.” Ranulf added, “He wants only blood.”

At the word blood, Lucas’s head tilted, like a predator catching the scent of prey. I realized that was the only word he’d recognized.

The man I loved had been reduced to an animal — to a monster, I realized, the sick, empty, murderous shell that Lucas had once believed every vampire to be.

Lucas’s eyes narrowed. He bared his teeth, and with a shock I saw, for the first time, his vampire fangs. They altered his face so much that I hardly knew him, and that more than anything else tore at me. His posture shifted into a crouch, and I realized he was about to attack — any of us, all of us. Anything that moved. Me.

Balthazar moved first. He leaped — pounced — toward Lucas, colliding with him so forcefully that the wall behind them crunched and plaster dust fell from the ceiling. Lucas threw him off, but then Ranulf was on him in an attempt to push him into a corner.

“What are you doing?” I cried. “Stop hurting him!”

Balthazar shook his head as he rose from the floor. “This is the only thing he understands right now, Bianca. Dominance.”

Lucas pushed Ranulf backward, so hard that he thudded against me, and I stumbled into the old projector. Sharp metal jabbed into my shoulder. I felt pain, real pain, the kind I ‘d experienced back when I had a real body instead of this ghostly simulation. When I put my hand to my shoulder, I felt a lukewarm wetness beneath my fingers and pulled them away to see blood — silvery and strange. I hadn’t even realized that I still had blood now. The liquid gleamed like mercury. almost iridescent in the dim light.

The three — way fight in front of me was growing more violent — Balthazar’s foot to Lucas’s gut, Lucas’s fist to Ranulf’s jaw — but Balthazar saw that I was injured and shouted, “Bianca, stay back! You’re bleeding!”

What was that supposed to mean? Surely vampires didn’t drink wraiths’ blood, so there was no danger of my driving Lucas further into a killing frenzy. At that moment, I wasn’t sure he could become more frenzied than he already was. Younger and weaker he might be, but desperation goaded him on, made him fierce. It was possible he might defeat Ranulf and Balthazar both. I couldn’t bear to see that, but I didn’t think I could stand the alternative either. My fear sharpened — and became anger.

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