M y head throbbed like someone had shoved firecrackers into my brain and set them off. That was the first thing I became aware of. The second was the burning in my chest, so intense it sent throbs of pain throughout the rest of my body. The third was that my hands and feet were bound to something tall and hard behind me. The fourth was the most disquieting realization of all: I was wet, and it wasn’t from water. The harsh scent of gasoline filled my nostrils without my needing to take in a breath.
“Burn her. Burn her now, before she wakes up!” a familiar voice urged.
Sarah. I should’ve killed her when I had the chance. Hindsight always was twenty‑twenty.
I opened my eyes. Kramer stood a few feet away in the middle of a triangular clearing amidst the tall cornstalks. Sarah was off to the side, but Lisa and Francine made up the other two corners of the triangle. They were chained like I was to tall metal poles dug into the ground, gags in their mouths, eyes wide with horror as they looked at me. Unlike me, though, neither of them had a large silver knife stuck into her chest. The blade seemed to emit a steady stream of acid, scalding my nerve endings and sapping my strength. But though it was close to the center of my chest, it wasn’t in my heart. Either Kramer had deliberately missed because he didn’t want to risk giving me an easy death, or his aim wasn’t as good as he’d intended.
Kramer pulled out a large, leather‑bound book from the folds of his new hooded black robe. Guess he’d gotten sick of that old muddy tunic he was stuck with when he was in vaporous form. His gaze seemed to gleam with malicious triumph as he opened the book and began to read aloud.
“I, Henricus Kramer Institoris, Judge named on behalf of the faith, declare and pronounce sentence that you standing here are impenitent heretics, and as such are to be delivered to justice,” he intoned, and though the original version of the Hammer of Witches had been in Latin, he made sure to speak English so we would understand it.
I didn’t have a gag, probably because Kramer knew I wouldn’t bother screaming for help, but that didn’t mean I was going to stay silent.
“I read that, you know. Your prose was boring and repetitive, and your overuse of capitalization for dramatic emphasis was juvenile at best. Oh hell, I’ll just say it–it sucked out loud. No wonder you had to forge your endorsements.”
Now his gaze gleamed with outrage. He shut the book with a bang, stalking over to me. Writers were so sensitive when it came to criticism.
“Do you wish to die now, Hexe ?” he hissed at me. Then he bent over, picking something up out of my line of sight. When he straightened, he had a hurricane lantern in his hand, the golden orange flame caressing the glass surrounding it as if begging to be freed.
I looked over his shoulder at Sarah, who was practically vibrating with excitement at the prospect of his setting me on fire.
“She might not know what your routine is, but I do,” I said softly. “So put the lantern down. You’re not burning me yet, and we both know it.”
“What’s she saying?” Sarah demanded, hobbling over.
His white brows drew together, and I allowed a little smile to play on my lips. “Awfully bossy with you, isn’t she? Then again, it makes sense. She’s got the pants on, and you’re the one in the dress.”
His fist flashed out, but the blow didn’t land on me. It struck Sarah right as she leaned on Kramer to steady herself. She fell back, crimson spurting from her nose. Now that she’d fulfilled her usefulness, he wasn’t hiding his intentions toward her anymore.
“Why?” she gasped.
Her hurt and confusion were clear on her face, but it belatedly occurred to me that I couldn’t hear it in her thoughts. Same with Lisa and Francine. They had to be screaming with panic in their minds, but all I heard from them was their pounding heartbeats and short, quick gasps through their gags.
The silver bullet Kramer fired into my head hadn’t only knocked me out long enough for him to truss me up and wet me down with gasoline. It had also short‑circuited my mind‑reading abilities. Another round or two, and I’d be all the way dead, but of course, Kramer didn’t want me dead yet. To look at the bright side, I could concentrate better without hearing everyone’s frantic thoughts.
“Do not speak another word, hure ,” Kramer snarled at Sarah.
“That means whore,” I supplied. “It’s how he sees all women. Get used to hearing it for the rest of your short life.”
That earned me a backhanded crack across the jaw, but compared to being stabbed and shot, it was a love tap. “Easy on the jostling, you don’t want that silver shredding my heart and ending your fun too soon,” I taunted him.
He looked at the knife in my chest and lowered his clenched fist. I didn’t move a muscle, but inwardly my brows rose. My bluff had worked. So you don’t know it’s right outside my heart instead of pierced through it. Good.
Tears rolled down Sarah’s cheeks, either from the pain in her broken nose or the realization that Kramer was everything I’d cautioned her about. I couldn’t bring myself to feel sorry for her. She’d shot my best friend so many times she’d had to believe Denise was dead. Except for Denise’s one‑in‑a‑billion supernatural status, she would have been dead. Then Sarah had kidnapped Francine and Lisa and brought them as a present to this monster, fully expecting to watch them burn to death.
No, I didn’t feel sorry that she was all teary‑eyed to discover that she would also be on the receiving end of Kramer’s brutality. When he landed a kick into Sarah’s midsection next, doubling her over and causing her to let out an anguished cry, I still didn’t pity her. That hurt a thousand times less than being burned, I knew from experience, and, considering her crimes, she had it coming.
He ground his booted foot into her broken ankle next. With her new, gasping scream and the constant crackling from the cornstalks around us, I didn’t hear the bones shatter, but they probably did. She curled into the fetal position, sobbing and pleading for mercy that she’d never find from the Inquisitor. After a final kick to her rib cage, Kramer turned his attention back to me, leaving her writhing in pain on the ground.
I didn’t say anything as he approached. In addition to the book, he had a satchel near the middle of the clearing, and I could imagine the various torture implements it must contain. Since Kramer left it there, he had other plans for me right now, and it didn’t take mind reading to guess what those were.
“Do you confess your pact with the Devil, Hexe ?” The words were softly spoken, almost wheedling in tone. “If you do, I may yet spare your life.”
That made me snort. “Even if I didn’t know better from Elisabeth, did you miss the part where I read your book ? That includes the section where you rationalize lying to prisoners about letting them live as part of being a good Inquisitor.”
His fist smashed across my jaw, making my lip bleed before it healed. “Confess and renounce your allegiance to the Great Deceiver!”
“Judging from how surprised Sarah was when you turned on her, I’d say that label fits you to a tee, also,” I noted.
His brows drew together, and he advanced until that reeking breath made me thrilled that I didn’t need to breathe anymore. “You incite me as if you wish me to continue.”
I shrugged as much as my bound hands would allow. I had a plan, but I wasn’t about to let him in on it. Besides, as long as his attention was on me instead of Francine and Lisa, I’d take all the abuse he could dish out.
Well, within limits, I amended to myself as he grasped the center of my shirt and carefully pulled the material away from the hilt of the knife. He’d already taken my jacket off and done something with it, leaving me in my simple black button‑down blouse and jeans. Once my blouse was free of the blade, he pulled it open in opposite directions with his unnaturally strong grip. The lantern cast flickering light over his face as he stared at my breasts. Impatiently, he tugged at the front of my bra where the clasp was.
I’d bet my red diamond wedding ring that a pig like him had only been able to get it up when he was human if the women had been helpless and terrified. Now that he was a ghost clad in flesh, he probably didn’t have that issue; but with the look he gave me when he opened my bra, he wanted me to cringe away in shame. I didn’t; only my skin was bare, but it was his soul that was exposed with these actions. I wasn’t ashamed when Kramer roughly handled my breasts, avoiding the knife jutting between them. I was furious. I wanted to rip him to pieces, then burn each of them into ashes, but rage wasn’t what I needed right now. In order to send out my supernatural LoJack signal, I needed something else.
It wasn’t hard to tap into enough guilt and regret to make my throat tighten and moisture leap to my eyes. All I needed to do was remember a day several years ago when I’d kissed Bones, told him I loved him . . . and then betrayed him by leaving without a trace. At the time, I thought leaving him was the only way to protect him, and Don did a good job by keeping me hidden for over four long years. But all it did was make both of us miserable until Bones finally found me.
Four years. We’d been apart longer than we’d been together, and that was because I turned my back when I should have stood my ground. Bones might have forgiven me for that, but I’d never forgive myself. The memory of the one mistake I wished I could undo more than any other made that moisture leave my eyes and spill down my cheeks. The tears flowed faster, dripping down to land on his hands. Kramer stopped squeezing my flesh to look at the pink wetness with cruel satisfaction.
“Cry more of your bloody tears, Hexe. They only prove your tie to Satan.”
“What they prove is that vampires don’t have as much water in their bodies as humans, idiot,” I said, relishing the ringing slap he gave me because it drew more of that needed moisture from my gaze.
Then he ran his rancid mouth over my skin, careful of the knife, his few brownish teeth leaving grooves in my flesh. Disgust rippled over me, but I fought to ignore him, turning my thoughts from revulsion and regret to the quiet, white nothingness I’d felt the last time I tapped into the power of the grave. It wasn’t right beneath surface like it had been before. I had to search. Pain from the blade and Kramer’s groping lower down my body took away from my concentration, but I strained to push those things aside. I needed to find that faint spark inside. Most of my power was gone, but not all of it. It had to be within me somewhere . . .
Cool, soothing stillness seemed to brush over the throbbing from the silver and the anguish of my regrets, lessening both of them with that single caress. Despite the tears still leaking from my eyes, I smiled. That’s right. Accessing this power meant letting go, not hanging on to emotional or physical anguish. I concentrated on the blissful emptiness that fleeting caress hinted at, and finally found the remaining ember I’d been looking for. It was only a tiny speck compared to what it had been months ago, but even still, it resonated. God, I’d forgotten how wonderful that quiet abyss was! It felt like coming home. Now the tears that fell from my cheeks were full of the most indescribable peace. If the power stemmed from brushing the edges of eternity, death truly was nothing to be afraid of.
Kramer drew back, looking at me with a mixture of degeneracy and confusion.
“Why don’t you beg me to stop? Why are you so silent?”
I pulled myself away from the alluring embrace of the grave enough to hold on to the power, but still focus on him.
“You’d only like it if I begged you, and you’ve pegged me all wrong if you think I’d do anything you like. Know what else you’re wrong about? The reason behind these tears.”
That inner speck felt like it was humming now, the whiteness eating away at the pain from the knife in my chest.
“You think they’re a sign of weakness. That I’ve given up, just like you think your flesh makes you stronger. Wrong. Your flesh makes you weak, and these tears are stronger than any weapon you can imagine.”
He leaned closer, the stinking breath from his words falling against my face. “You enjoy crying? I will see to it that you don’t stop.”
Then Kramer frowned, cocking his head to the side. He ran his hand over me again, but in wariness this time.
“You feel . . . strange,” he muttered.
“Do I vibrate?” I asked, my voice coming out as a throaty whisper. “Do you feel drawn like you did when you followed the line of energy that led you to me in Ohio, in St. Louis, in Sioux City, and the farmhouse? Do you know why you’re feeling it so strongly again now?”
He reached out to swipe his hand across my face, staring at the pink wetness clinging to it with growing concern instead of triumph.
“There’s something in these,” he drew out.
“That’s right,” I said, caressing each word. “Power.”