Chapter Twenty-Four

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They're not dead.

Somewhere deep inside, a small voice tells me they aren't dead. Not yet.

The forest blends into one large mass, a blur of twigs and trunks I must navigate, moving with speed that even I am unused to. For Cassandra, she's probably already gone blind due to the stress taken on her eyes to see. I reach the entrance, practically skidding to a stop. Cassandra tumbles out of my grasp, whirling around, trying to recover her balance.

To my everlasting horror, the sight before me feels like a scalding iron staked through the chest.

I thought the earthquake had buried them alive. I thought I'd arrive to dig them out, search through survivors. I thought the screams were of panic... not terror.

Terror is all I see. The hollow entrance to the underground dwelling is wide open, door swinging in the wind, regurgitating screams of the hunted to level ground. Cassandra, still blind, blinking, covers her ears, not understanding yet what has happened.

I rush into action, slamming my hands down onto the vampire sucking the life out of one of the humans, who clearly had just barely escaped below, just a few feet away from the door. The creature, Marlon—one of the most passive living within the compound—snarls viciously as I tear him away from the throat of a woman, who now continues to bleed out into the cold mud.

God almighty...

"Marlon, what the fuck!" I shout as he fights me, possessed by a desperate hunger.

The woman is crawling away, driving her nails into the dirt. Her throat is shredded enough that speech is impossible for her now. She cannot scream. She has seconds left to her life. My mind registers her mangled face, recalling the children that were always strapped to her side.

Cassandra is trying to pull the woman up, shouting for her to run. The creature struggling in my arms, aching for bloodshed, wails louder as the woman makes it to her feet. Holding him in my arms, feeling his fury, I'm sure this wasn't some lingering hatred within him.

They've been targeted.

After the events Cassandra and I just experienced, there is no questioning the evil seeping from this man, from the undead inhabitants below the earth. There is no time to spare him. He is too strong, too unpredictable. I remove the blade at his side, piercing his chest from behind, bringing him a quick and abrupt end. At the same moment, the woman falls, despite Cassandra's aid, landing face first into the frozen dirt.

When the body of the vampire falls at my feet, I shout for Cassandra, realizing the need to enter the tunnel immediately. "Cassandra! She cannot be saved! Leave her!"

I consider ordering her to stay above ground, despite knowing how much she'd push back on it.

Hand on her arm, we look at each other, momentarily paralyzed. My eyes fall to the citrine on her neck, the object that spared us from an avalanche of stone. Knowing the presence of evil surrounds us, seeking to punish us both, I find I cannot leave her. Not alone.

She must enter this war with me.

"Remain behind me," I command, handing her Marlon's bloody blade before climbing onto the ladder. As we descend, and the screams heighten, mixed now with objects being thrown, snarls of the moroi on a rampage, I fear for the souls of my sons, calling out to them from within, ordering them to my side.

Not this. He cannot do this to them.

On the last bar, I see through the darkness, relieved Cassandra's eyes aren't capable of it.

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