"We meet again," Mario said, a hot, dark breeze stirring the bottom of his robe. The sky seemed to grow darker. Even the moon and stars seemed to cringe in his presence.
"Very unfortunate," Kylie said, and breathed in. The night air tasted of his wickedness. She felt her blood fizzing in her veins and the sense of danger nearly sucked the oxygen right out of the air.
Derek shifted behind her and Kylie reached back and caught him, holding him in one spot.
Protect him. Protect him. The words repeated in her soul like a litany.
Mario chuckled as if he could read her mind. "Do not worry, child. I want nothing to do with your boy toy. He is in no danger from me."
The old man smiled. His teeth-thin and slightly yellowed with age-appeared below his lip. The creepiness of the moment sent a shiver crawling down her backbone.
"You can calm that protective side of yours down," Mario said, as if he sensed her defensive side surging to life. "It will do you no good. For you see, the only one I'm after here is you. I mean the weakling no harm."
Derek yanked free and went barreling into the freakish old rogue. Kylie took a protective step forward to intervene. Mario turned invisible and Derek crashed to the ground.
Mario reappeared a few feet away. "How cute," he mocked. "The little man wants to protect you."
Derek didn't hesitate to go at him again. But, like before, Mario disappeared into thin air and reappeared again a few feet from Derek.
"Stop it," Kylie said to Derek.
He ignored her and stared daggers at Mario. "I'm not the one who's disappearing, you bastard. Fight me like a man."
Mario laughed, and the evilness of his tone raked over Kylie's nerves like broken glass. "You want me to fight so your girlfriend can protect you. I am no fool, child."
As much as she resented it, Mario was right; if he didn't harm Derek, she couldn't draw upon her powers to fight him. Fear settled in her gut.
"Leave," Kylie insisted, and right then, she saw the spirits gathering at the gates, their mutterings filled with concern for her.
"Not without you," Mario demanded, but his confidence seemed slightly lessened when he cut his eyes toward the graveyard gate. Could he sense the spirits, too? He took a step closer to her-or was it just a step away from the graveyard gate?
She took a step back. In the corner of her eye, she saw Derek reach for a large stone at his feet. She knew his plan was to anger Mario enough to pose a threat to him so she could protect them both, but Kylie wasn't sure she could do it. Indecision filled her chest whether to stop him or not. Because like the plan or not, it might be their only one.Mario, focused on her, didn't see the rock coming. It hit him in the temple with a thud. But she knew it would come with ramifications. And she had damn well better be ready to face them.
Tension thickened the air around them as the rogue's eyes brightened to a lime green color and red blood spurted from his brow. A low growl snaked out of the man's lips as he glared at Derek.
Kylie felt the strength start to build in her muscles, but it was nothing like what she should feel to draw upon her true power.
"Come get me, you coward!" Derek taunted.
Mario wiped the blood from his forehead and the fury in his eyes faded. "You do not interest me."
"What about me, you bastard vamp?" Lucas, appearing out of nowhere, shot out from behind the trees and took the old man down.
Kylie had no time to consider her emotional havoc. Derek, obviously seeing the opportunity, barreled forward. Kylie moved in, her strength now full force. But her strength and speed were nothing compared to Mario's. She hadn't reached the pile of swinging fists when the rogue tossed first Lucas and then Derek off him. Their bodies were flung into the air like rag dolls. Breath caught at the sight, she bolted up into the air and snagged both of them. After only a fraction of a second, she dropped both of them to the ground and then lunged at the rogue.
Proving his abilities again, before she got to him he'd bounced to his feet and shot out of her path. She came to a startling jolt and looked around. He stood several feet away watching her as if she was nothing more than a form of entertainment.
He was toying with her. And she didn't know how to turn the tables on him.
Gripping her fist so tight her hand hurt, she forced herself to accept he was out of her league. He may be old, but his power obviously kept him agile and quick.
He stared at her and smirked, then with eyes thirsty to see more, he held out his hand toward Lucas.
"How far will you go to save them?" Kylie saw a fireball extend from his fingertips. She darted between the fireball and Lucas. She snatched the circle of flames and threw it back at Mario. He managed to dodge it, but then he tossed two more. She caught one of them and the other shot past her. She glanced over her shoulder and saw the other fireball knock Lucas down. The taste of fury, bitter and salty, spilled onto Kylie's tongue. In spite of her emotional befuddlement over Lucas, her heart begged her to go to him, to assure herself his injuries were not bad. But the need to stop Mario had her facing him again.
"Will you die to save him?" A grin filled his aged gray eyes. "Which one will you save first?" Mario studied her as if amused, definitely not afraid, and apparently so occupied with tormenting her that he didn't see Derek coming at him again. And neither did Kylie, or she would have stopped him. Stopped him before someone died.
The moment Derek crashed into Mario, the man reached for Derek and tightened his gnarled fingers around his neck. Kylie surged forward, her fury, her need for revenge strong. Wrapping one hand around Mario's throat, she used her other hand to peel the old man's hands from Derek's neck. The second she felt Derek slip free, she used both her hands on the rogue's throat.
"Let go!" the voice echoed in her ear at the same time the ghostly cold shimmied down her spine.
Kylie ignored the spirit. This was so not the time.
She heard Derek gasp for air. Now it was Mario who could not breathe. She felt his tendons rollbeneath her tight grasp. Her goal was simple. Stop him. Stop him now and forever. All she had to do was squeeze a bit tighter.
She would crush his windpipe with just a little more force.
She would send him to hell where he belonged.
Her mind went to Ellie, who Mario had taken too young from this world. She thought of this man's grandson, who had died knowing his own blood had brought him to his death.
Mario deserved this death.
A thought raked through her mind. Killing wasn't easy. Not even when it was the right thing.
"Let him go!" the spirit yelled. "You are blind. Nothing is as you see it!"
She could see just fine, thank you! She tightened her hold on the old man's neck, trying to convince herself to finish what needed to be done. The raspy sound of Derek bringing air into his lungs echoed behind her. Mario's arm swung at his sides, trying to find something to hang on to. Trying to find life.
She heard Derek blurt out her name, his voice hoarse, but she ignored him. Ignored everything but the fact that she was about to take a life.
Suddenly, a sick feeling filled her stomach-as if something was terribly wrong. And that's when she saw Mario. Standing several feet back and smiling. Her breath caught and her gaze cut to the face of the person she was in the process of killing.
Mario's laugh echoed around her.
Panic shot through Kylie like raw pain. She released her hold around Lucas's neck. He fell into a heap on the ground, but Kylie didn't remove her gaze from Mario.
Lucas shifted at her feet. Tears filled her eyes at the realization of how close she'd come to taking the life of someone she loved.
"I should kill you now," Mario said, "but it's so much fun to see you suffer."
Kylie's next intake of air shuddered in her lungs.
"Oh, he lives, but for how long?" Mario asked, his tone expressing the excitement he felt at the pain he'd caused her.
The wickedness in the man seemed to flavor the air. She had no idea how Mario had traded places with Lucas, but what mattered was stopping him from doing more. And if she couldn't think of something quick, he would take her down. And she wouldn't go down alone.
Her blood raged faster, the air she breathed tasted carbonated with emotions raging though her like viruses. Then fear, like a liquid trying to drown her, rose in her chest.
Her pulse raged with horror that this was a battle she could not win. For one second, she accepted defeat and mourned. Mourned not for her life, but for Derek's and Lucas's. They had come here to save her, and now would die for their efforts. And then others would follow. Mario wouldn't stop.
A voice seemed to come with the wind. You are not alone. Ask and you will receive.
Were the death angels here? She focused on Mario, but prayed for assistance. Prayers without faith, her heart seemed to whisper. Doubt filled her and echoed in her soul. If the death angels were going to help her, would they have not already been there? Why would she feel so alone, so unprotected? Would they not have offered her help before she almost killed one of her own?
Like a flash of lightning, she remembered the dead at the gate, and something Holiday once said floated through her mind like a thought she needed to grasp on to. Sometimes I think all the dead are my deathangels.
Kylie drew in a breath of hope. Help me. The plea echoed in her mind. Be my death angels.
A loud, bone-chilling creak echoed in the dark. The gate started to open. The squeal of the rusty metal being forced to move rang in her ears. Then the dead came barreling out by the hundreds. Male, female, young, old, they all came running, their hands outstretched. Their eyes haunted. But their expressions didn't beg for help, they offered it.
The icy feel of their presence burned her skin. The air in her lungs seemed too cold to breathe. But even in her pain, she saw she wasn't alone. And that offered her hope. Hope she clung to.
Mario's face, old and wrinkled, grimaced in anguish. Pain, perhaps the same cold ache filling her body, reflected in his gray eyes. He slung his head back and roared. Steam rose from his mouth and danced above his lips. He caught his breath and bolted backward a good ten feet.
As if the distance offered him a reprieve, his gaze turned to her. Kylie tightened her eyes and saw his pattern. He was for sure a chameleon. Oddly enough, with her vision slightly unfocused there was something about him that felt different. Familiar in a different way. The thought seemed important, but like a storm cloud that promised to return, it blew past.
"You might have won this time, but my moment draws near," he spat out. "You will come to me, Kylie Galen, come to me willing to die, to suffer at my hands for my pleasure, because the price will be too great! Your weakness will take you down."
Her weakness? What was her weakness? Kylie wondered, but with her mind churning with pain and hope at the same time, the question remained unasked, and unanswered.
Instead, she focused on the hope. Hope that she had spared Lucas and Derek. And somewhere in the depth of her soul, she wanted to be spared, too.
The spirits still crowding around rushed at Mario again. Purposefully. Their intent-to protect her- showed in their concerned and ash-colored faces. Holiday had been right. All spirits were in some way death angels-death angels being spirits of supernaturals. Spirits who while known to protect the innocent, were mostly feared for their stern judgment of those misusing their powers. A quick glance at the graveyard gate and Kylie saw even more phantoms stumbling out. Some moved slow and uncertain, as if they had just been awoken from a deep sleep.
"Thank you," Kylie managed to say, even though her teeth chattered and the cold of the presence of too many dead made being alive difficult.
As the spirits re-gathered around the rogue, Mario roared again and the sound of his disappointment and agony was the last thing she heard before the icy throbbing in her body became too much. Her vision blurred, ice coated her lips, and she felt herself being pulled into a dark spiral of nothingness.