Bane (Page 20)
They walked back to the palace with their arms around each other, Cole trying to lend his strength so she could get back to the palace. It didn’t feel like a break. She could put weight on it. The muscle felt strange, like it was forced to go a direction that it didn’t want to, and now she was feeling it. Since Kahli was too short to reach Cole’s neck, she laced her arms around his waist. He held her around her waist and they walked hip-to-hip.
“You caught me,” Kahli blurted out. She’d been wondering why he did it when it could have killed him. That was the first thing that confused her. The second was that he wasn’t as weak as he should have been.
Cole nodded, “Apparently.” His inky eyes were staring straight ahead, unfocused. He adjusted his grip on her waist.
Kahli grimaced, “Why? After you were spewing venom at me earlier, I would have thought you’d let my head crack open on the ice and take the flag back yourself.” Her words were barbed. She couldn’t hide how much she hated relying on him for help.
“What can I say? Bloodstains are really hard to get out of ice,” his face was placid, but his eyes shifted and looked down at her. He didn’t know what to think of her. She was fearless. Only the Bane acted like that, yet she was hurt—unable to heal her wounds. That was part of the reason why he walked her back. If she was a Bane, she was putting on a hell of a show.
Kahli shook her head, her lips curling slightly. He was such an a*s. After a few false starts she asked, “So, do you have any other plans for your superhuman strength?”
He shook his head. Staring straight ahead, he answered, “No, the job market forecast is kind of screwy for that particular skill set at the moment. Thick blood, blood that coagulates—that sort of thing—is in higher demand, which brings us back to you. If you are human, as Cassie claims,” he shifted Kahli’s weight and adjusted his arm on her back, “then you need to get the hell out of here.”
She limped along, staring at the snow, “Assuming that wasn’t my plan in the first place, why should I be worried? I mean its blood. You guys have blood. Who cares if mine is thicker or if I get scabs?” She knew why. In the back of her mind, the reason lurked like a starved wolf waiting to devour her.
Cole shook his head, knowing she was too smart to not see it, “You want me to spell it out? Okay. It’s not about scabs or strength. It’s about blood. It’s about power. The vamps created Bane to try and fix this once before and failed. If they see a way to use you, you’re dead. At the very least, they’ll mate you, maybe even try to clone you, but that won’t be the end of it. There are too many possibilities, too many ways to use you to try and fix this mess.”
Kahli blanched, her mouth hanging open. Her brain couldn’t process things fast enough. “Like, mate mate? Does that mean what I think it means?”
He nodded, “Probably. Depends on how much you know, which I’m guessing is a little bit since I heard you have a wedding rune on your side.” He eyed her, but Kahli didn’t respond. There was no way she was talking wedding night rituals with him. Cole sighed, “They’ll pair you off with a strong human and hope your genes are dominant. It gives them two people to feed off of, but I think that mating’s the least of your worries. Vamps aren’t patient enough for your young to reach maturity. They’ll want something faster. They don’t have the luxury of time to wait for another generation to mature. They needed this fix yesterday.”
Kahli repositioned her hand on his waist. She was numb all over. The stinging in her ankle faded until she time she stepped down. Then it felt like someone was crushing her ankle in a vice. Ignoring the pain, she asked, “What else could they do?”
Turning his head, he looked down at her, “I have no idea, but I wouldn’t want to be you right now.”
Kahli walked on, her leg throbbing. She was so frozen that her skin burned. Blue shadows spread across the white as the sun crept lower and lower. Cole hastened his steps, and Kahli tried to move faster, though it hurt her. The flag was in her pocket. It was salvation. A trump card when humans didn’t have such luxuries. When they pushed through the doors of the palace the sun had just disappeared behind the horizon. The moon climbed into the night sky.
Cole leaned into her like they were lovers, and whispered in her ear, “I blew my cover to save your a*s. Now they know I’m not weak. I did it because you saved Cassie. We’re square.”
Ha. That’s what he thought. She glanced up at him, her eyes steeled, “Not in my book. We aren’t square at all. I did what I could to save Cassie and I still owe you. That debt will be repaid.” He stepped back, nodded at her and they continued to the ballroom.
When they stepped through the archway to the grand room, guards closed in behind them. Her hand was still around Cole’s waist as she limped toward the chairs set across the floor. Kahli scanned the room for Cassie. Relief flooded through her body when she saw her. Cole lowered Kahli into a seat next to Cassie, before taking his seat next to her. It was silent, as if they’d been waiting. Two rows of chairs spread across the room. Vampires sat facing humans, ready to purge them of their weaknesses. Kahli glared at them. To her it felt like dogs begging for scraps at the table. Why else would they even come?
She glanced at Cassie who had her arms wrapped around her middle like she was trying to get warm. Cassie smiled at her when they sat down. A worry line faded from between her brows and she seemed to relax after both her friend and her brother were in their seats.
“What happened to your foot? Did you find it?” Cassie whispered, unzipping the front of her coat as she leaned closed to her friend. Kahli nodded once while she rubbed her fingers, trying to warm them. The movement stung. Quickly assessing what was going on, Kahli knew now was not the time to speak. They had already begun the next step. Outside, Cole told her that they would all meet together. The victors would be congratulated and the losers would have to turn over their weakest member. It was done now. There was no tomorrow for one of them.
A vampire was standing at a jewel-encrusted podium in front of them and began to speak. The ballroom wasn’t as fancy as it was the first time she saw it. The fine silk drapes and colored lights that hung like jewels across the ceiling were gone. The room was barren and cold. Even the seats were stark, industrial chairs with white padding. Everyone sat erect, awaiting the verdict.
Before she and Cole walked in, the tension was thickly cast on the left side of the room, but now it was thrown all over. The opposing team, shot looks at Kahli and Cole as they passed, but no one spoke. The winning team would be rewarded and the losing team would deal with the consequences.
The vampire at the lectern was slender, his pallor like that of an onion skin. His hands had long tapered fingers that made Kahli’s skin prickle. Being touched by those fingers would evoke the same response as a spider creeping up her arm. His black eyes narrowed on Kahli, as she limped to her seat next to Cassie, and flicked over Cole before looking to his right. It was impossible to see who sat in the shadows, but someone was there, lurking in the darkness like a monster in wait.
Kahli leaned back in her chair and folded her arms over her chest. The warm air stung her face. While the vampire droned on, Kahli scanned the room again trying to count the humans. She saw Will in the back corner, his eyes on her from the moment she walked in. Did he count as human? No, she thought sharply, but she couldn’t overlook him. There was something in her gut that told her he wasn’t what he seemed. She just had no idea if it was a good thing or not.
After years of living alone, Kahli learned to trust her instincts. Will glared at Cole. Cole kicked his long legs out in front of him, acting like nothing was happening. Missy was on the other side of the room with the other group. Her dark eyes shifted nervously, her hands clasped in her lap so tightly that she was shaking. There were nineteen humans total, including Kahli. There had been twenty this morning. Someone didn’t make it. The Purging had already begun. The elements took one of them down.
The vampire at the podium, Guive, was saying, “… so we’ll move straight on to the presentation of the list.” He snapped his long fingers and the two bags appeared. Both had odd shapes making the sides protrude here and there. Kahli saw that their bag was fuller. Guive pulled out item after item with his spidery long fingers, and checked them off one by one. The other team had about two-thirds of the items. Not bad, considering Kahli stole their previous attempt.
Guive examined the opposing team’s bag and did the same thing, counting, examining and scratching things off the list, one by one, until the pack was empty. Cassie’s hands were folded tightly in her lap, her sickened expression matching Missy’s across the aisle.
“It appears that Jessica’s collected nearly the entire list. Good show. A for effort.” Guive’s condescension was palpable. “However, you are missing an item. Since the other team presented the flag…” Cassie blanched as he spoke, frozen with fear.
Kahli shot out of her chair, shaking. He was lying and she wouldn’t let him be the reason Cassie died. Interrupting him, Kahli demanded, “What item was missing? We got everything on that list.” Her lips were mashed together, her fists trembling at her sides. They’d gone over the items over and over again. When she handed Cassie the bag, everything was there.
The vampire tilted his head at her, eyebrow arched, like she was a yipping dog, “I’m sorry my dear, but there was an item missing.” His slender finger scratched a yellowed nail down the page, “Let me see, ah yes… the willow bark.” The vampires surrounding him wore disgusted expressions that told Kahli exactly what they thought of her.
Kahli limped to him like a rampaging snowman, and tore the bag out of his hands. The vamp looked bored, leaned on the podium, and watched her. He glanced at the shadows as if asking, should I stop this? But there was no reply.
Kahli knew her behavior was dangerous. She took a calculated risk. There was no way they would kill her if they needed her to survive. From the expressions of those surrounding her, she knew she was taunting a lion. Kahli reached into the bag and pulled out the willow branch and thrust it under his nose, “This is willow bark.”
“That is a willow branch, my dear. The bark does not come off. If you’d… what are you doing?” Guive’s eyes went wide, shocked. Either that or he was disgusted. Kahli took the tiny branch and stuck it in her mouth. She pulled it out again and the bark peeled away like it was as fragile as a potato skin. She handed him the bark saturated with spittle. Guive’s dark eyes were gleaming like black pearls, his lips pulling into a snarl that revealed pointed eyeteeth that looked like hers.
For a brief moment she wondered what it must have felt like to be an impotent vampire, a beast who’s survival depended on fang and blood—a monster that was denied both. And then his meal was talking back, her arrogant green gaze defiant, as if she knew she could not be touched. His long fingers twitched like he wanted to wrap them around her throat and squeeze. The crack of Kahli’s neck would have eased the tension, but it was forbidden. The girl was marked for the Queen, and Guive realized she knew it.