If somebody doesn't do something, Tavora is going to royally screw the whole world up.
The bustling humans crowded in on all sides. There weren't many, not compared to some of the other places Tavora had hunted. But their blood scents were potent. Almost overwhelming.
It was rare that Tavora did not feel the lust for blood as she walked among humans, but this was one of those rare circumstances. Her face was hidden deeply beneath her hood, her eyes and the terrible burn scars hidden from the mortals. If she'd had a beating heart, it would have been slamming against her ribs.
It seemed impossible, but Tavora bore the marks to prove it. Real, fire-breathing, thunder-wielding dragons. And they'd teamed up with the yellow-eyed vampires. Things were about to get real. And Tavora would be the savior.
She couldn't help the surge of excitement that leapt in her stony gut. In spite of the pain of her injuries, she was eager. Her body buzzed with a jittery energy. When she brought this before the Volturi, Aro would crown her a queen. She'd be the savior of vampire-kind. Her name would go down in history.
The trick was getting back to Volterra. Without the constant presence of her enormous entourage, she felt exposed. Only six slaves remained. Most of them were in bad shape, damaged by the impossible fire. It was all Tavora could do to keep their movements natural, to avoid drawing the eyes of humans who would think they were zombies.
There was no substantial airport in Coeur d'Alene or any of the surrounding areas. Finding a flight had turned into a disaster. Tavora knew she was short on time: now that there were dragons to worry about, everything was hanging by a thread. If they decided to make a move upon Volterra, or upon the whole of the vampire world, there would be nothing to stop them. Not unless Tavora could warn Aro, first.
She needed a flight now.
Communicating with the humans was almost impossible. Her badly burned face was like charcoal. If they caught sight of her injuries, there would be instant panic. It was nearly impossible to ask the stupid mortals at the desk for anything without raising their eyebrows. She was trying to figure out how to get the earliest possible ticket via the internet, using the smartphone that the Volturi had given her. It had been rescued from the fire by her Volturi cloak, and she was glad it had survived.
She was just giving up on a flight in Coeur d'Alene when something seized her attention. Tavora froze, her nostrils flaring.
She could have sworn … through the reek of scorched vampire flesh …
It was hard to turn her head without exposing the destroyed side of her face. As she glanced around, she recognized a vampire in the crowd at once, picking up on the subtle cues in his movements. In an instant, she'd forgotten all about the smartphone and the plane ticket. The phone went into her pocket subconsciously as her eyes locked upon the shuffling form that was already about to disappear into the crowd. Crispin had changed his clothes. It was clear he'd been badly scorched, and he was wearing an unfamiliar hoodie and jeans that were at least six times too big for him.
He was hiding wounds.
Tavora wasn't about to let this opportunity escape her.
He seemed to suddenly realize that she was nearby. Perhaps he'd picked up her scent. His eyes flashed from beneath his hood, and Tavora's breath caught. Ruby-bright. Beautiful. There was something else new, too. He was different. A subtle change lingered in the eyes and in his posture. It wasn't the injuries. There was something else …
Crispin moved swiftly to put distance between them. Tavora followed, hyper-aware of watching, bustling humans all around. Careful … careful … she wasn't about to be the one responsible for revealing vampires to the human world. She was going to be crowned for her discovery when she got back, not punished for breaking the law.
Crispin was moving a little too quickly. He was pushing the limits. The humans might notice! Tavora gritted her teeth in fury. He was just beyond her reach … she couldn't touch him. He was getting away!
"Crispin!" she called, softly, trying to stall him, her mind racing. She had to get close enough to touch him. Just a little closer …
He slowed, turning back to glance at her. The ruby eyes flashed again. They'd been golden earlier today. He'd been one of the yellow-eyed vampires. Apparently, that had changed. She took the chance as he slowed to push closer. She could smell him: scorched and stressed. She licked her lips, trying to plan her way toward him. Her slaves were already moving, shifting closer and surrounding the area. There were only six of them. It wasn't much of a barricade. She needed to bring them closer so they could help her. She subconsciously reached out through them, looking through their dead eyes. She saw flickers of the environment, the people, Crispin, her own position. She reached up with her unburned left hand and pulled the brim of her hood a little further down her face. One of her husks had been able to see the strange contrast of purple-black charcoal against her porcelain skin.
Crispin was glancing back. Through the sharp eyes of another slave she saw his glittering ruby eyes again. She noted his face. There was fear. He was missing pieces. Judging by the carved look, he had ripped pieces off of himself with his hands. Probably trying to keep fire from spreading to consume his whole body. Tavora ran her tongue over her teeth, unable to help a bitter disappointment. He was such a pretty thing. What a shame that he'd gone under the fire.
Well, she was lucky he was still around at all. He should have been devoured by the flame like the rest of the Cullens. The fact that he still lived was probably just because he'd been smart enough to find a way to escape.
"Crispin!" Tavora called again, still softly, so softly that a human might not have been able to hear. Crispin heard. Through the eyes of a slave, she watched him falter. Even though her gut leapt with excitement, a surge of frustration coursed through her gut. He'd stopped smack in the middle of a plaza. It was bustling and busy. He had partially descended the stairs toward the ground floor and the exit, just beyond reach, surrounded by stupid mortals. Tavora clenched her teeth hard enough to bite through steel. Oh, this was infuriating. She hated dancing around the mortals. This was why she tried to avoid walking among them. It was a shame that her involvement with the Volturi required it so often.
Tavora paused, watching her prey from beneath her hood. "What are you running from, silly?" she cooed to him, keeping her voice very low to prevent the dumb humans from hearing. "You don't have those scaly monsters on your tail, do you?"
Crispin was panting faintly. Tavora could hear his soft gasps. The ruby eyes watched her from beneath the hood. Now that she was a little closer, she could see with her own eyes the state of his beautiful face. It made her a little sad. What sorrow … he'd been so good-looking. She could smell him. His scent was familiar and it made her hungry. Oh, how she wanted to touch him! There was something off about his scent, too. It wasn't just the powerful stench of fire. There was more, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it.
"She killed them all," Crispin whispered. "Killed them all … I barely got away …"
That news didn't surprise Tavora in the least. She'd lost over forty slaves to that inferno. She'd had to sacrifice them all to get out of that alive, and she hadn't even made it in one piece. She was lucky to have six husks left. "Mmm-hmm," she said, her gaze raking Crispin's supple body. It had been a long time since she'd been so close to him. It annoyed her that he was hiding under all that too-big clothing. It ruined his perfect shape. Of course, if it was the difference between slipping by unnoticed and betraying their secret to the humans …
"Poor, poor Crispin," Tavora cooed. "How awful. I'm here for you, you know. I'm here …"
Crispin's breathing rate kicked up a few notches, becoming noisier. Tavora's keen vampire eyes saw his pupils dilate an instant before he whirled around and kept moving, still going just a tiny fraction too fast. Tavora tried not to run as she hurried to keep up, hungrily watching each sinuous motion made by her fleeing prey. Yes, there was something different going on behind those ruby eyes … She mentally kicked a few of her slaves into action, driving them to strategic points, trying to keep eyes on Crispin and maybe head him off.
But he was already escaping out the door. Into the public. The city was bustling: it was rush hour. They were surrounded by eyes. Gah! It was infuriating. Tavora wished horrible things to happen to every stupid human that got within five hundred feet of them. Stupid, lazy, good-for-nothing … ! If they could destroy all the humans in the world without having to worry about a lack of food supply, Tavora would have had it done in a heartbeat.
Crispin didn't seem to be aiming for any particular place. He was almost crazed, his path twisting and flinging randomly. Tavora relaxed a little, letting him draw further away. She was moving her remaining slaves into position, always tracking his scent, spreading the slaves out. Through their eyes, she'd watch Crispin's movements. She could smell him through their noses, too. She tracked his motions, patiently following … patiently … not too much longer, now …
If it hadn't been for his senseless, high-speed wandering, Tavora would have had him within ten minutes. But he didn't seem to be quite right in the head since the fire and the dragons. Either that, or he was so afraid of her that he'd become senseless. It was irritating. Ten minutes stretched out … twenty minutes … twenty-five …
A new scent reached one of Tavora's hunting slaves. She had to pause for a second. It was that weird something about Crispin's smell. Now, as the smell was strong in the air, she could tell what it was. She directed the husk that had picked up the odor, tossing its head and commanding it to draw breath, flaring nostrils.
Then she saw something familiar out of the corner of the husk's eye. For a second, her heart leapt: Crispin?! Then she was bitter with rage. No, it wasn't him. It was one of the golden-eyed ones from the clearing. The huge one, the bear-like one, the one that had taken so many slaves to pin down. He was watching Tavora's husk, silently, staring. He knew.
Tavora's whole being tingled viciously with her rage. Crispin was wearing clothing that was too big. They were his clothes. That explained why the new odor was so faint: the big one hadn't worn those clothes in a while. Crispin had to have retrieved them from the permanent settlement after the fire. Crispin thought this big one was dead.
Well, Tavora was going to see to it that Crispin never knew otherwise. She directed the husk away, shifting her focus to the biggest slave of the remaining six. He'd once been a heavy-set vampire, thick-necked and ripped like a wrestler. If any of Tavora's slaves could take the big Cullen, it was this one. That big Cullen had to die. Tavora needed Crispin to be weak. If he found out somebody had survived, it would give him hope. Ugh. The thought disgusted Tavora. Hope made her victims fight harder to escape. She couldn't have that. Crispin had already escaped her too many times, and she couldn't bear to let it happen again. In her current state, she only had one more chance to catch him.
Tavora split her attention between the slaves. The one who had spotted the big Cullen could sense the golden-eyed vampire trailing along. The big fighter slave was on his way to the scene. She couldn't let the burly Cullen catch her weaker slaves. They were no match.
Tavora pulled some of her attention back to herself and started briskly upon Cripsin's trail again. She needed to make sure not to lose it. She briefly diverted her thoughts to bring the other four slaves around, trying to get a glimpse of Crispin through the sidewalks and streets all full of dumb humans. She needed to keep up.
Now she was mentally tracking two chases. One half of her focused on Crispin, and the other half was trying to focus on the big Cullen. She held out strong. Over many years, she'd learned to split her mind between many, many slaves. She could give instructions and then let them carry out mostly on their own, like computers that had been stuffed full of code. It was much easier to control them now that she had gained some experience. And, soon, she would be adding that pretty Crispin to the mix.
It was an effort not to be distracted by the thought of how much fun she'd soon have. Once he was under her control, she'd have free reign over his body. It wouldn't have his mind in it, but that was preferable, really. It would be easier to play with him when he didn't have his own opinions and all that other trash. It would be very nice to strip him down when he was quiet and obedient.
But she still had to catch him.
Tavora sighed in frustration, pausing to lean with her back against the brick wall of a restaurant. She focused for a moment. Her big slave had reached the hefty Cullen and had pulled the other vampire's attentiona away from the weaker slave. Now Tavora just had to lead the big one to a private place so her husk could rip him apart. The big Cullen followed willingly and easily. Tavora tried not to let a vicious smirk cross her face too obviously for fear that the humans would see it.
Brawn, yes. Brains? No. The big Cullen was practically a slave to her, already, following her husk in the hope of starting an epic fight. Well, she would certainly give that to him. She'd learned to fight after years of training with the Volturi. She hadn't had as much experience as some fighters, maybe, but she'd gotten enough to hold her own ground. Or, at least, she'd gotten enough to know how to make her husks hold their ground for her.
She'd bring the husk to a back alley. The less pleasant parts of town would do it. Somewhere with fewer humans.
And, in the meantime … Tavora straightened up and resumed the complex task of tracking her prey. Crispin's scent was especially strong to one of her husks, and she made sure the slave kept close track of it. She couldn't afford to lose Crispin, now. She was still so close! If only she could just pin him down in a place without a billion obnoxious humans around.
It was as Tavora started jogging toward the outskirts of town that something almost crashed straight into her tracker husk. She had to stop, taking a second to recline again against a wall, her mind whirling briefly as she swiftly directed the slave to focus. It was …
Tavora spouted a low string of the filthiest swear words she could get her thoughts around while under so much pressure.
It was the psychic one.
This one, Aro had warned her about. Tavora had been lectured several separate times about the one called Alice. This was one of the most dangerous of all the Cullens. She could see into the future. She had already caused the Volturi some grief, and Aro desired almost nothing more than to add her to his collection of powers. He'd asked Tavora several times not to kill Alice, which was extremely annoying. Tavora gritted her teeth. She'd just imagined killing Alice off with her slaves, telling Aro a sob story about how the terrible dragons had burned his precious psychic …
Except, Tavora had just realized, Aro would see through that in an instant. All he'd have to do was touch her to view her memories, and Tavora would lose her crown. She had to remain in favor with Aro if she intended to take her place as the queen of the vampire world, the one who had saved them all by warning the Volturi of the terrible dragons …
Ugh. Tavora watched through the eyes of her husk as Alice gazed levelly upon it.
Well, it was obvious that Alice had not managed to make contact with Crispin. If she had, Crispin would not have said that she was dead. And Tavora needed to make sure that things stayed that way. Maybe she couldn't kill Alice for fear of Aro's wrath, but she could definitely hold her there. She pulled the tracker husk and one of the other undistracted four toward the psychic. Two slaves would be enough to hold her.
Tavora continued to curse furiously under her breath as she yanked the hem of her hood down over her face, making sure to hide the charcoal-burned side from the humans that passed. If there were two Cullens alive, how many others would there be left? The psychic one had to be responsible for this. She had somehow rescued some of them.
If Tavora couldn't close in on Crispin soon, the surviving yellow-eyed vampires would find a way to save him. Worse, they'd find a way to keep Tavora from reaching Volterra. Tavora remembered a few other choice swear words and applied them liberally to the situation. Alice had surely seen her trying to get to the Volturi, and they would almost certainly try to stop her. They'd take the glory for themselves. Or, worse, they'd kill her and the dragons would remain a secret. That wouldn't do.
Tavora turned to where the tracker husk had left off. It was up to her to track Crispin's scent. Her remaining three slaves would have to help her find Crispin. Her muscle man was finally bringing the big Cullen to a private, out-of-the-way location to take him out. And the two others were half-leading, half-avoiding the psychic. That Alice was really going to throw a wrench in her plans.
Time was running out. Tavora oriented herself. It seemed that Crispin was slowly making his unsteady way toward the edge of the town. If she could follow him to where the humans grew less numerous, she would be able to pin him down without having to hide her natural vampirism. It was time to end this chase. It was time to take down her prey. Tavora stepped swiftly, always hiding her face.
Now she was keeping track of three chases. It was especially difficult to focus on controlling the husks that were dancing around Alice. The psychic was infuriating, of course, able to predict her movements and react to them before Tavora could even carry them out. Tavora was trying to lead and corral the psychic to a quiet location where her husks could restrain her. As long as the psychic walked free, she would almost certainly try to rescue Crispin, or worse. Tavora had to keep tabs on her at all costs.
Focused on the psychic, Tavora reacted almost too late when one of her unoccupied husks picked up Crispin's wonderful scent. It was at the edge of town. Crispin was backtracking and crossing over his own tracks. Whether that was to confuse his pursuer or whether that was because he was too confused to walk straight, Tavora wasn't certain. But she had his fresh scent, and she knew exactly where to go. With a stray thought, she directed her muscle slave to duck into an alleyway, where it would engage in battle with the big Cullen. And, meanwhile … Tavora's face twisted into a sneering grin. So close. It wouldn't be long, now … she'd have Crispin under her control. Then she'd make use of him to get a grip on that psychic. Husk or not, Alice was unlikely to hurt him. She'd be able to use him as a weapon.
Ah, but not yet! One step at a time. Tavora took a deep breath, controlling the urge to run as she briskly stepped like a dancing ballerina toward the edge of town. The husk that had picked up Crispin's scent began to track it, picking up speed as it entered the woods. It wouldn't be long, now.
As Tavora reached the trees, she dispatched the muscle slave to begin the fight. The burly Cullen had just poked his nose around the corner. Now he was going to die. The muscle slave would fight with complete abandon, unafraid and unfazed. It would fight to kill that Cullen until it was in pieces. And it would win. It had already nearly won, once, before that stupid dragon had ruined everything.
Tavora's skin crawled a little as she re-engaged her focus, relieved to direct more of her attention to the complex task of playing cat-and-mouse with the psychic. The thought of the dragon was still frightening. Tavora had never been so close to losing everything. The display of raw power and destruction had been … awe-inspiring.
It was a good thing the beast was so big and smelled so strongly of fire. It could not hope to hide from a vampire's keen senses. Tavora would be a little smarter about avoiding it, next time.
As Crispin's scent grew stronger to the slave that was following him, Tavora drew the husk back, slowing its steps. She wanted to be the first to come upon her prey. It would give her the best chance of catching him. Her remaining husks would have to surround him to keep him from fleeing. Even when he was injured, Tavora wasn't certain that she'd be fast enough to catch him on the run. He'd always been a faster runner than her, even since his early days.
Well, he wouldn't have a chance to run, this time. She was smarter than that.
As her other slaves went violently head-t0-head with the yellow-eyed brute and danced a risky ballet with the psychic, Tavora followed Crispin's wonderful scent right to him. He couldn't escape his own trail. She would always be able to track him. The trees were soon thick, and the earthy odor of pine and soil permeated the atmosphere, the sun drawing the smell of the sap from the trees. As his scent grew stronger, the fear and charred odor grew pungent, almost overwhelming. Crispin's terror thrilled her. She was the one in control here. Soon, he would be completely under her grasp, and she would drag him in, pull him under her hands, force his lips to hers … ah! She had to stay focused. The reward would only come after she'd completed the hunt.
Tavora came upon his hiding place so suddenly it startled her. She stopped as she crested a small hill, flaring her nostrils to pull in Crispin's delicious scent. It smelled powerfully of ash and smoke, and there was a tinge of Crispin's sour terror. There was a dilapidated little shelter built of thin tree trunks that had been freshly pulled up from the soil. Crispin must have paused here. It had been a good idea: wherever he had intended to go when he'd come to the airport, he wouldn't have been able to get a ticket to go there for days. The stinking airports here were dismal. Tavora licked her lips, her three slaves whisking quickly into their places, ready to head Crispin off if he bolted. Now was the time. She checked in quickly with the busy three. Her muscled slave almost had the brute Cullen in a headlock. The other two weren't so lucky. They were already starting to lose track of Alice. The little psychic was clever, and the ability to see into the future was making things especially difficult. Tavora guided her slaves a little more, relocating the psychic and directing her slaves to get her into a corner. Then she pulled her focus back to the matter at hand.
This was what it had all led to. Tavora crouched slightly, approaching the shelter's entrance slowly.
The first thing she noticed with an incoming breeze was the overwhelming odor of human blood. It almost blocked out Crispin's smell. Human blood! Though Tavora was focused on her task, the blood still bore that wonderful, debilitating appeal … so distracting! Tavora licked her lips again, feeling the gritty crackle of the charred side of her face. This must be where Crispin had acquired his scarlet eyes. He'd probably taken a human blood meal out of desperation after his injuries. Well, he wouldn't be needing blood meals once Tavora was finished with him.
Tavora reached the entrance. She paused outside it, intently listening before betraying her presence. She could hear the frantic panting. Crispin was inside. Tavora sneered, focusing on the slaves that she had surrounding the area. The wooden shelter wouldn't stop him from bolting straight through the walls if he wanted to go badly enough. She'd have to be ready to catch him with the husks so she could have the chance to grab him. Softly, she called into the entrance. "Oh, Crispin! I know you're in there. Come on out. We don't need to play these silly games."
There was movement from deep in the shadows. The panting picked up speed. Tavora raised her hackles. She wanted to pounce like a striking tiger. Patience … patience! She shifted to move in front of the door, but not too close. There was a chance that, in his panic, he might attack her when she showed herself. She had to be ready for anything.
Oh, the human blood … so good …
Tavora crept closer, slinking like a cat into the shelter. Her eyes swiftly adjusted to the shadows. There he was. He'd retreated into a corner and was watching her with those ruby eyes, panting. There was blood on the floor and walls. Some stupid human had probably died here in Crispin's hands. The body had already been relocated, and probably for the better. Tavora hated to think that Aro might take away her little toy if Crispin broke the laws.
"Ah, there you are," Tavora cooed, inching closer. Still, Crispin didn't move. His eyes were wide, crazed, bright scarlet, staring. She readied herself, checking her balance, expecting him to bolt at any moment. "Come here, pretty Crispin … just let me—"
And then it all went wrong in a single breath.
Forms exploded out of the trees. In an instant, Tavora felt tiny flashes of white-hot pain. One, two, three! Her slaves fell beneath the teeth of vampires and a single massive wolf like a horse. She screamed, whirling to face the door. No! Cullens! More of them!
Snap! Another flash of agony. It was her muscle slave. In a burst of shocking strength, a look of glee on his face, and the brute Cullen had torn his opponent down, ripping off limbs. Then the psychic turned on a dime, signaled by some glimpse of the future, and wrenched the slave behind her to the ground. The tiny psychic ripped the head off the slave in a single savage motion, and the last thing Tavora saw from its view was a crumbling hamburger wrapper. It was a back alley. The psychic had led the slave into a trap while Tavora had been distracted. Tavora gasped in agony as each slave was blinked out with a stab of searing light.
That psychic! She'd planned everything.
Tavora had just turned her attention to the last slave, wildly thinking to rescue it, when she realized a split second too late: she wasn't focusing enough.
Crispin had lunged upon her.
For a second, there was a blinding sear of agony, stronger by far than the loss of the slaves. Tavora screamed and whirled, thrashing to fling her prey off. But Crispin had already sprung back, and his gaze was clear, calculated. Tavora staggered back, gasping, clutching at the pain. Her arm—Crispin had detached it with surgical precision. It lay in the pine needle mulch at his feet.
Tavora peeled her lips back as far as they would go, showing him every single one of her teeth as she sensed the Cullens closing in. They were all here! Every one of them! How had they escaped?
Then she saw it. Crispin's sudden calm. Fear coursed through her steely veins when it hit her. As she stared into those scarlet eyes, she realized … those were contact lenses.
It was a trap.
There was nowhere to run. The Cullens had her surrounded. Tavora had directed her remaining husk to flee into the woods, pulling it away from the psychic. She had it scrambling up onto a rooftop from the safety of a back alley, but it was already too late as Alice found it. Alice pulled the last slave to the cement and grinned knowingly as she wrenched its head off. Tavora gasped at the final terrible stab. And then there was emptiness. She had lost them all.
Crispin shifted slightly in his crouch, adjusting his feet to balance himself better. Tavora hissed at him, still clutching the place where her arm had been removed. It was a bitter agony, even though it would barely cripple her. She could feel the severed muscles and the inward curve of the bone. Crispin had severed through the muscles with his teeth and had snapped her arm out of the joint as though breaking apart legos.
"I hate you!" she hissed at him. That pretty face, watching her, knowing he had won. Crispin's expression screwed into a look of disgust and hatred.
"Believe me, the feeling is mutual."
Tavora directed a sharp motion to the arm that lay on the ground. She lashed out. If she could only reach him! As Crispin skipped easily out of the way, she lunged with the rest of her body, trying to catch him by surprise. But a powerful vampire hand had seized her suddenly from behind, ripping her off her feet and flinging her aside like a rag doll. She hit the wall of the shelter, and it fell at once. She landed on her feet, barely stumbling over the logs as they tumbled. Argh! She'd kill them all!
Too late, she saw it. In a flash, sapphire-blue wings had flared wide, obscuring everything. The dragon's glowing amber eyes were locked on her. Tavora turned, but it was too late. A grinning human girl stood there, lightning-blue eyes blazing out of her sprite-like brown face.
No … that was no human.
In an instant, there was a wall of glittering black scales. The dragon had transformed. And then there was fire. Everything was fire. It coursed and raged, leaping and whirling, a ballet of destruction. Tavora didn't even have a chance to let out one final scream.