The bite before christma.., p.30
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       The Bite Before Christmas, p.30

         Part #15.50 of Argeneau series by Lynsay Sands
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS Chapter Twenty-Three


  Even though the symbols Balchezek carved reversed the original ritual and sent the demon splits out of everyone else and back into Wraith, Mencheres and Kira still drank enough salt water to kill a normal person from organ rupture. The goal was to have everyone's bodies filled with the liquid so they would be inhospitable to demonic repossession, because we weren't done yet.

  Denise swam over in time to be enveloped in a bear hug from a newly un-possessed Spade. She'd jumped off the boat before detonating it, but her top looked ragged and lacerations crisscrossed her face from being in the blast radius. At least with her nearly immortal status, she'd be healed in hours.

  Ian still held Balchezek aloft. The demon's skin looked red and irritated from the residual sea spray, but he'd stayed out of the ocean for more reasons than how the salt water would burn him. Balchezek tore away some of the duct tape that had kept the rectangular plastic container secured to his belt and opened the latch, pulling out a large rat. The rodent's rapid heartbeat was audible even above the sound of the waves.

  Balchezek grinned at Wraith. "Look at your new home," he said while holding the rat above the vampire's stricken face. Mencheres still had Wraith in a punishing squeeze of power, cutting off even his ability to speak.

  "Don't torment the creature," I snapped, flying over.

  Balchezek snorted. "Now you feel bad for the demon?"

  "I was talking about the rat," I said. "Give it to me. "

  Balchezek handed the rodent to me with a muttered comment about misguided feminine sappiness.

  "Will drinking enough salt water force the demon out of him and into that?" Bones asked, nodding at the rat.

  I briefly closed my eyes. I'd hoped to have this part done before Bones resurfaced so it would be too late for him to be involved, but I hadn't had the chance.

  And now I had to tell him the truth.

  "Wraith can't be saved. " I wished he could tap into my feelings to know how sorry I was about this, but his emotional connection as the vampire who sired me only went one way. "The demon is in him so deep; she couldn't pull herself out if she wanted to. The only way to get her out of him is to kill him. "

  Pain brushed over my emotions, mixed with a jaded resignation that I hated because I'd felt it too often from Bones. Life had been cruel to him many times in the past, and it seemed Fate wasn't done with her tricks yet.

  "I suspected as much, but . . . I'd hoped. "

  Those quiet words broke my heart. I came over, pulling out a silver knife with grim resolve. Better for Bones and the man trapped underneath the demon inhabiting him to make this quick.

  I nodded at Ian. "Now. "

  Ian abruptly plunged into the ocean, forcing Balchezek down with him. Water covered Balchezek up to his waist, and he screamed like he'd been plunged into acid.

  "Get me out of this!"

  "Not so fast," I said coolly. "Why don't you tell us the real reason you've been helping us trap this demon?"

  "Because you're fucking paying me!" Balchezek thundered, the words ending on another anguished yowl.

  I watched his skin bubble up without mercy. The salt water wouldn't kill him, but it might make him wish he were dead. "Liar. You slipped up and called her Hazael, but none of us knew her name, and you didn't admit to recognizing her even though you obviously did. So let's try this again. Why did you really help us? "

  Balchezek glared at me as the water looked like it boiled around him. I stared back, unblinking. "Go on, take your time. I love a nice evening swim in the ocean. "

  "She's my ticket to a better job," he gritted out.

  My brows rose. "I thought you wanted Ian's protection because you were quitting that job. "

  "And live the rest of my life among fangers?" The skin on his face began to split, but he smiled even though that made it worse. "I'd rather stay in this ocean. No, I'm earning my way out of the minor leagues, and bringing in Hazael will guarantee my promotion. "

  "So you were going to let us do all the legwork whilst you made off with the prize?" Bones let out a derisive snort. "Right piece of work you are. Why is Hazael worth so much to your kind that she'd guarantee you a promotion?"

  Another grotesque smile. "You know America's Most Wanted list? Demons have their own version, and Hazael's been on it for over two centuries. Probably why she jumped into a human to hide. She must've thought she hit the jackpot when that human got turned into a vampire; I told you demons avoid the vampire world as a rule. But just like greed and arrogance led her to kill an influential Fallen, Hazael must've gotten fed up living the quiet life inside the vampire she'd possessed. Maybe she thought enough time had passed that she could risk expanding her powers without getting caught. So she went for the simultaneous possessions and grab for Mastership of your lines. Probably had even bigger plans after she got them. "

  I nodded at Ian, who pulled Balchezek out of the water. Enough of it soaked his clothes so he wouldn't be able to dematerialize, but that also meant his skin still looked like it was being cooked.

  "I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that I'm honoring our agreement and I'll let you go with a fat check for your help getting Hazael out of our friends. The bad news is that's all you're getting, because you're not taking her with you. "

  Then I handed the squirming rat to Spade, who took it with a distasteful expression.

  "I need you to fly this thing at least a mile away. "

  Spade had dealt with demons before, so he flew off without questioning the directive. No other boats were around, so, in a few moments, there would be nothing else available for Hazael to jump into once she was forced out of Wraith. Ian and I had our warding tattoos, Denise's brands made her scorched earth to a demon, and all the other vampires and marine life in the near vicinity were filled with salt water.

  There would be only one place Hazael could go-straight down to the fiery pit, and no demon I'd ever heard of went there willingly. It was the one place every demon seemed to truly fear.

  Balchezek began to struggle. "You can't do this to me. I already told my boss that I would come back with her!"

  "Then you should have made that part of our deal instead of lying," I replied coldly. "You know the old saying. Don't bitch about the terms after the bill's come due. "

  The demon shot me a dirty look at my paraphrasing of his former words, but then quit struggling when Ian pulled out the bone knife and held it near Balchezek's eyes.

  "Don't make me use this, I still quite like you. "

  He continued to glare at me, but now stayed silent and complacent. I met Bones's gaze and curled my hand tighter around the silver knife. "Let me handle this," I said low.

  He looked at the vampire that was his brother. From Wraith's widened eyes, I could tell the demon inside him was struggling with all her might to get free, but Mencheres's power was too strong for Hazael. Considering the scent of anger that was palpable even with Mencheres floating in the ocean, he wasn't the slightest bit conflicted about ending Wraith's life if it meant harming the demon who'd controlled him for weeks.

  Then Bones looked back at me and his mouth twisted. "No, luv. He's the last of my family. It's my responsibility to do this one final deed for him. "

  He took the knife from me, staring into Wraith's vivid blue eyes as he waded through the water to him and then set the tip against Wraith's exposed chest.

  "If underneath her you can hear me at all, brother," Bones said softly, "know that I am truly sorry I never knew you. "

  Then he shoved the blade down to its hilt. A hard, efficient twist, first to the left, then the right, extinguished the light in Wraith's eyes. Very slowly, the vampire's skin began to shrivel as true death started the aging process that had been delayed hundreds of years.

  And right after that, a roar filled the air, sounding as though it came from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The wind coming from i
t stank like sulfur and blasted the wet hair back from my face. It increased, whipping the waves to white caps and chasing away the ghosts that had lingered around us. My eyes stung from the bitter gale and the growing shrieks made my head throb, but the demon still wasn't done. Pressure built until it felt like my insides would pop from the strain.

  But I wasn't afraid. I knew what this was-Hazael's last moments on earth, and I shouted into that indistinct whirlwind with all the anger left in me.

  "Say hi to hell for me, bitch!"

  That disembodied howl grew to a thunderous crescendo, exploding my eardrums. A blast of power hit me with the effect of a swinging wrecking ball. But then, abrupt as a lightning bolt, there was nothing but silence. The wind and pressure vanished, the seas around us ceased their frothing, and though I felt blood trickling out of my ears, I smiled. My eardrums would soon heal, and thinking about what Hazael was going through now made that small pain feel sweet.

  Bones swam closer to wrap his arms around me. "You all right, Kitten?"

  His voice sounded faint from my still-healing ears, but I leaned into his arms with a profound sense of relief. Everything was all right now.

  "You can let Balchezek go," I told Ian. Then, to the demon, I said, "You'll get your check when I get my ring back. "
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