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At the center, lit clearly by the wavering flame, lay the seven Books of History, side by side. The black one Michal had first given them on the left. Then the brown, the blue, the green, the purple, the golden, and another black.
Alucard stood across the room, watching Darsal quickly prepare the table. He turned with her wherever she went, as if he feared turning his back to her for even one moment. It was the way evil worked, Silvie thought. Distrusting.
So this was it? All they'd fought for came down to this moment, far below the earth, in the Romanian mountains? The search for the six missing Books of History, the love that had blossomed between Silvie and Johnis, the a She swallowed at the lump gathered in her throat. "Why haven't they killed us?" she whispered.
"They're going to drown us," Karas's eyes glistened with tears. "Either that or crucify us. It's how he does it."
"You can't know that," Johnis said. "He's gloating after two thousand years of waiting; he's relishinga""
"Silence!" Alucard thundered.
The beast glared at them with yellow eyes. His mangy black coat looked like it hadn't been groomed once in the two thousand years since he'd vanished from his lair in the Black Foresta" a few days ago for Silvie and Johnis, ten years for Karas and Darsal.
"How could you do this?" Johnis's voice cut through the room, heavy with bitterness. He was speaking to Darsal. "How could you betray Elyon?"
A roar crackled through the air; Alucard's wings spread wide, his jaws tilted to the ceiling. Rather than feeling any fear at his display of rage, Silvie felt some consolation in the fact that he still reacted so strongly to the name of their maker.
"And who betrayed Billos?" Darsal snapped, ignoring both Alucard's order for silence and his roar.
"You!" Johnis cried. "You're betraying him right now!"
Darsal faced him, her expression drawn and red. "Who made a mockery of the Great Romance by stealing the one love I've known for the sake of these cursed books?"
"You. You're making a mockery of the mission."
"Shut up!" she screamed. But she couldn't hold back. "If it weren't for these books, none of us would be here!" She stepped closer, jabbing the air to accentuate each point. "There would be no Shataiki or Horde. I would have died for Billos! Do you understand that? He was my life!"
"And you blame Elyon? Don't be a fool!"
"I made a vow, and Elyon help me, I'll keep it or die with Billos!"
"What can you hope to achieve by this?"
A crooked grin split her face. "You know what I hope to gain. These larvae need a female to complete their transformation into lovely black b.u.t.terflies with fangs. The worms in this hall are female. Once they've been fertilized, there's no turning back."
"We begin!" Alucard snarled. He walked toward the table, and with each step his claws clacked on the stone floor.
"Please, Darsal." Johnis could beg all he likeda"she didn't look interested in bending her decision to betray Elyon, Silvie thought. Embittered by her loss of the one man she was willing to die for, Darsal had sworn to wage war on the books and whoever stood in her path to do so.
"We begin!" Alucard growled again.
Darsal's fierce glare drilled Johnis for another long beat. She turned her back to them and walked to the table under Alucard's watchful gaze.
Why was the beast so attentive to her? Clearly there was some bad blood between them.
"Why him?" Karas whispered in a voice so faint that Silvie could barely hear her words. "Why is she cooperating?"
Karas's eyes were wide, and her face glistened with sweat. The thin white blouse she'd worn was now badly smudged and wet. She looked at Silvie.
"If she's waging war a"
"Don't, Darsal," Johnis pleaded. "You can't open the gate! They'll only destroy you."
No reaction this time.
Alucard stood over the seven books like a hawk over a nest of chicks. Saliva dribbled from pink lips and pooled on the table. Darsal stood to one side, eyes on the beast, jaw firm.
Alucard reached for a long knife, held his paw over the silver bowl with water, and slashed himself.
Blood dripped into the water.
Johnis put his free hand in Silvie's and held tight, perhaps to still the tremble in his own fingers. "He's defiling the water with blood," he whispered, citing the taboo they all knew. Silvie didn't know if the rite Alucard was performing was necessary to open the gate, but she suspected it was more a matter of mood setting for the beast after two thousand years of dreaming.
He flung the knife to one side, letting it clatter off the table and fall noisily to the floor. Facing him, Darsal picked up the black book and set it on the table directly in front of him.
The beast squeezed blood from his wound onto the cover, then pulled his claw back.
Darsal set the brown book squarely on top of the b.l.o.o.d.y black book. Now there were two books, one atop the other, joined with blood.
Again, Alucard dribbled blood onto the cover.
This was the vision that they'd seen beneath the waters at the desert oasis. All seven books aligning to create a gateway.
"Darsal a" Johnis didn't bother imploring this time. Just "Darsal," and it was clearly for his own remorse. Darsal, Darsal, what have you done?
One by one Darsal set the books on the stack as Alucard wet their covers with his blood until there was only the second black book left to set on top.
Instead of placing the book on top, Darsal held the book out to him. "This one should be yours to place, sir."
Alucard hesitated. Clearly this was not as rehea.r.s.ed.
He took the book, uttering a soft growl. Held it over the sixth book with both hands. Lifted his head to the stone gateway before him.
He spoke in a low, crackling voice that filled the room. "By the power entrusted in me, for Teeleh, my master, and his precious blood, which gives life to all who despise Elyon and his waters, I call you forth a my bride."
Darsal eased to one side of the table, her eyes on the books.
Alucard lowered the last black book.
A flash of light cracked above the books. Silvie threw herself as low as her chains would allow her. Above them the worms began to squeal.
"Elyon, help us," Johnis breathed, gripping her hand even tighter.
The light slammed into the stone wall and ran a ring around the perimeters of the concentric circles. Alucard spread his wings, lifted his jaw, and roared, "My bride!"
The gate dissolved into light, humming with the power of a thousand lightning bolts. Silvie couldn't breathe. Her heart felt as though it had been crammed into her throat.
The first streak of black that cut through the light was a Shataiki guard, the kind that had flocked above Silvie and Johnis in the Black Forest. Roughly two and half feet of shrieking muscle, with large yellow fangs.
And then they came in a dizzying rush, dozens in the s.p.a.ce of a few seconds, flying to the ceiling, where they hooked their claws into the squealing worms and hung, glaring with red eyes.
It's over, Silvie thought. We've lost.
But then everything changed.
Darsal moved. The smaller Shataiki were still flying through the breech, and Alucard was still glorying over his coming bride, and Darsal was moving like lightning.
She grabbed one of the wooden candlesticks and flung off the candles, rounding the table in long strides. The candlestick was now a long, sharpened stake.
Screaming at the top of her lungs, Darsal thrust the wooden stake under Alucard's raised arm. Into his heart.
An earsplitting crack from the beast's throat shook the chamber. A single, oversized Shataiki spilled out of the light and landed on the ground beyond Alucard. The female had joined her guard. And more of her guard flooded the gate.
Alucard spun about, slashing at empty air. Skin fell from his face, exposing bleached bone.
Darsal leaped over the books, s.n.a.t.c.hed up the second candlestick, and descended on the still-disoriented female.
"I knew it!" Johnis cried. "I knew it!"
She sidestepped a thrust of Alucard's claw, dove for the female, and plunged the second stake into the creature's chest.
Silvie watched in disbelief as both Alucard and the female who would bring his offspring to life began to melt before them. Their flesh fell from their bodies like rotten flesh falling from an overripe fruit. Unable to hold their own weight, they fell to the ground, writhing.
Darsal stood back, eyeing them. Silvie knew then that Darsal, chosen alongside Silvie and Johnis and Billos, had planned this all along.
Still the Shataiki flooded the chamber.
knew it!" Johnis said. "The key, the key, hurry!"
Darsal stared at him.
What was she doing? Shed saved them, right? Shed planned this whole thing down to the final touches: winning Alucard's trust by giving him her book, pretending to be filled with bitterness, knowing that one day the others would come through and Alucard would have the advantage. He would beat them to the books. But she would be there to kill him, having learned precisely how to kill Shataiki in this reality.
Everything else had been lies. She'd lied to them so that Alucard wouldn't have any reason to doubt her. And she'd turned on him only when he was at his weakest, in the moment of his own glory.
She'd done it.
"Darsal," Johnis breathed. "Please, no, no, no! Tell us that you've stayed true!"
Darsal spit on Alucard, who was now a shivering blob. She crossed to the table and stood before the seven Books of Histories.
For a moment she just stood there, her back to the others.
Stop it! Silvie thought. Break the connection. Shut the gateway!
Instead, Darsal spun around, thrust both arms into the air, and screamed at the bats still swarming into the chamber.
"It's her!" Karas cried. "Darsal is the Dark One!"
So then not everything Darsal had said had been a lie. She'd intended on killing Alucard all along, but she was as bitter as she'd let on.
Darsal screamed at the ceiling, full throated, veins p.r.o.nounced on her neck and arms. But now tears ran down her face. She took one long draw of air and screamed again, until Silvie thought she might tear her throat.
"Elyon!" Johnis wept. "Elyon compels you, Darsal. Elyon compels us all."
"No!" Darsal whirled to Johnis. "Elyon made the Dark One, you fool! Don't you see? I am the Dark One. The prophesy was about me! I am destined to destroy this world. I've turned my back on Elyon!"
She was right.
"I haven't turned my back on Elyon." Johnis's eyes darted to the Shataiki filling the room. A thousand it seemed, For a moment Silvie thought she saw some white fur among them, but then it was gone.
"You may be the Dark One, but you can't deny Elyon's power," Johnis said. "Or his will to take the diseased and bathe them in his water!"
Darsal was breathing hard, her eyes fiery, desperate. But she had nothing to say.
"It doesn't matter why you did what you did any longer!" Johnis cried. "It only matters what you do right now."
Her face wrinkled. Shataiki streamed in over her head. On the ground, Alucard and his bride convulsed, then stopped moving.
The worms stopped squealing. Except for the steady beating of wings through the gateway, the room fell silent.
The Shataiki suddenly began to fall to the floor, chunks of rotting fur raining from the ceiling by the hundreds. They thudded on the stone and immediately bowed their heads to Darsal. The ground was quickly carpeted with black bats except for a large circle around Darsal and the two dead Shataiki.
Silvie blinked. Having lost one master, they were acknowledging another: Darsal.
The Dark One.
"Is Elyon so foolish?" Johnis demanded.
Darsal was out of words. Now it was tears that came from her in streams, wetting her cheeks.
"Do you think he allowed you to become this so-called Dark One without knowing it would work to his advantage?"
What was he saying?
"He knew that in this moment you would do something not even you have antic.i.p.ated. That was why he chose you! He knew you would stand against evil! You will undo all that Alucard has done by saving the books."
She shook her head. "No a"
"You, this Dark One, will embrace Elyon's love, that same love you felt for Billos, and you will destroy evil."