Crimson Blaze: Retribution

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Chapter 10

Lukiel teetered on the brink.

Not only had Adonai disappeared, but now his brother and Lilias were gone, too. A neighbor had shown up on his doorstep in a panic, so worked up that it took a while to get a coherent story out of her.

On her way into town, she detoured into the cemetery to visit her grandparents’ graves. A gods-awful scream made her blood run cold, and she caught sight of a man attacking Lucien and the woman with him. It frightened her so badly that she ran away before she saw anything else.

But by the sound of it, the man - who matched Alec’s description - killed Lukiel’s aunt and kidnapped his brother. The vampire went to the scene himself and found a frightening amount of blood splatter. It didn’t smell human, so it had to belong to Lilias.

Now he paced around his best friend’s living room. He had tried to keep his emotions in check, and so far, he’d done fairly well. But now with his entire family gone ... again ...

He paused only long enough to steal a glance out the window. “How the hell could I let this happen?”

To this point, Tajali had remained silent where he sat by the hearth, but now he spoke with a firm tone. “Stop it. You didn’t let it happen. You couldn’t have known - ”

“Yes, I could! Alec got his hands on Adonai - of course he’d go after Lilias, too! I should’ve known better than to send my brother off with her! She had a goddamn target on her back!”

Lukiel did his best to rein himself in when he realized he’d snapped at the other man. It wasn’t fair to take out his anger on Tajali when he hadn’t done anything wrong. And as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t really blame his aunt, either. She might not have known of the hunter’s presence in the vicinity. He should have warned her before she and the boy left for the house.

He needed to check his emotions before he truly lost it.

The vampire planted his feet and wrapped his arms around himself. He’d hoped the gesture would get his shakes under control, but it didn’t work. His hands quivered as he gripped his arms tight enough to bruise.

“Lucien is my responsibility,” he said quietly. “I’m supposed to keep him safe, and I failed him. And with Adonai gone, too, and Lilias dead, I’m just - I don’t know what to do.”

He stole another glance outside. This time, he noticed the gathering clouds and heard a distant rumble of thunder. Wherever the hunter held Adonai prisoner, Lukiel prayed it wasn’t outside. The mere thought of the phoenix hurt or in pain made his chest ache.

And then his mind strayed to the possibility that Adonai and Lucien may not even be alive at this point. With no one to keep him in line, Alec absolutely would kill them both just because he could. Lukiel’s anxiety spiked, and he couldn’t choke back a quiet sob. He lifted a shaky hand to hide his face, but he knew it didn’t do any good.

A pair of arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders. The vampire turned to bury himself in his best friend’s embrace as he finally released his pent-up emotions.

At first, Tajali didn’t say anything. He simply let the other man cry. The two of them stood in silence for several minutes, save for the quiet sobbing.

After a while, when the tears finally began to subside, the brunet pulled away to look his friend in the eye. “They’re both tough. They’ll manage until we find them.”

Though he nodded in agreement, Lukiel couldn’t silence that tiny voice in the back of his mind that responded with, If they’re not already dead.

The vampire brushed his hair out of his eyes and tried to dry his face. His sobs threatened to surface again, but this time, he managed to bite them back. He didn’t have many tears left to cry, to be honest. Ever since Adonai disappeared, he would wander off by himself for a few minutes and just let them flow. If he hadn’t, he’d have lost his sanity when he found out about the attack on Lucien and Lilias. He barely held it together, as it was.

A quiet rapping on the window pane caught his attention. The rain hadn’t yet started, but the wind blew the tree branches lightly against the glass. It wouldn’t be long before the storm kicked up.

“Tajali?”

“Yeah?”

“I think ... I think I need to get away for a while. I’m starting to see red, and I don’t want anyone to get caught in the crossfire if I lose it.”

The other man’s concern became visible, but he didn’t argue the vampire’s reasoning. “All right. Where do you want to go?”

Lukiel began to pace again as he took a few minutes to consider his answer. He didn’t dare go into town, but staying in the house would drive him stir crazy. The only other safe place he could think to go was the inn. “The office. I want you to lock me in there for now.”

Tajali’s eyes widened. ”Lock you in there? Are you sure?”

“Yes. Lock me in. I don’t want to take any chances.” Knowing his friend would question the necessity of such a precaution, he added, “I just need a few hours. Maybe until we hear from Valyrna. You can let me out then, and we’ll figure out where to go from there. We can’t do anything until she gets back, anyway.”

The brunet opened his mouth as if to object, but he thought better of it. Rather, he simply nodded - although, he didn’t hide how uncomfortable the situation left him.

By the time they reached the inn, a light rain had begun to fall. Lukiel flipped the sign at the awning to “no vacancy,” and he crossed to the desk in search of the office key. They didn’t often lock that door, so he kept it hidden on the underside of the top drawer.

He fidgeted with the piece of metal for a moment, and then he held it out for his friend to take. “Lock the back door, too. Don’t let me sneak out either one.”

Tajali hesitated. “You’re sure about this?”

He nodded. “And don’t take any customers. I want this place empty until I’ve been let out.”

The other man drew in a breath and sighed, but he did eventually take the key. Tajali clearly didn’t like this idea.

“If anyone inquires about me, just tell them I’m busy with paperwork or something. Besides, this way I’ll pace a hole in my own floor instead of yours.” A feeble attempt at a joke on his part, and the brunet didn’t seem amused. But hey, at least he was trying.

God, Adonai would smack him a good one if he could see all this negativity.

Lukiel stepped into the office and pulled the door closed behind him. After a few seconds, he heard the lock turn and latch into place. A moment or two later, the lock across the room did the same. He was now effectively boxed in. Neither door could be unlocked from either side without the skeleton key.

For the first couple of hours, he did okay. The wind, rain, and thunder had a strangely calming effect on him. Maybe because his immediate concern shifted to whether the storm would get worse and cause any damage to the inn or the house. As things began to settle outside, though, he realized he shouldn’t have isolated himself.

But by then, he was too far gone to care.

His mind ran away with him in the silence after the rain. He latched on to the feeling that rose in his gut just before Adonai left to mend the broken desk. That voice that told him he would regret it if he let the phoenix walk out the door. The voice that said something bad would happen.

Damn it. Adonai was right. He needed to learn to listen to his intuition. If he had, the love of his life wouldn’t be in danger right now. Neither would his brother, and his aunt would still be alive. If only he had spoken up ...

His guilt over Lilias wouldn’t release its hold on him, either. He spent so long being suspicious of her, wondering what her motives were. Just because she was Cain’s mother, Lukiel assumed the worst about her and wouldn’t let it go until it was too late. He wasted what little time he had with the one person who could tell him stories about his mother when she was a kid. The last family member he and his brother had left.

And Lucien ... god, he didn’t dare go down that rabbit hole. The boy willingly opened up to Lilias, trusted that she would be different from her murderous son. Lukiel assumed the boy’s lack of life experience had clouded his judgment, but ... No. Far from it. The vampire allowed his past bad experiences to overpower the good ones. His own perception had been compromised.

He failed all of them.

By the time he heard the key turn in the lock, late afternoon shadows stretched across the office window. The heat started to become uncomfortable, but he barely noticed. As he stared at the wall ahead of him, his mind continued to race with all of the ways he could have better protected Adonai, protected his brother, how unfair he’d been to Lilias ... Tajali’s presence didn’t even register until the brunet spoke up.

“Lukiel?”

The vampire’s entire body began to quiver. Lukiel suddenly realized he hadn’t fed in several days and that his fangs now protruded past his upper lip. The voices that had been reminding him of his failures at last silenced and took a back seat to the primal need for fresh blood.

He almost couldn’t keep himself under control as the other man approach him. Despite the fact that he couldn’t ingest human blood, he fought the itch to launch himself at his best friend.

If Tajali picked up on the danger, he ignored it. “Hey. Lukiel, come on. Snap out of it.”

“Stay away,” he snapped. The tone of his voice had dropped dangerously low, and his shakes continued to worsen. If Tajali didn’t leave soon ...

Thankfully, the brunet at last seemed to catch on. Rather than leave, however, he quickly unlocked the back door and yanked it open. “Go. If you need to feed, go.”

Lukiel didn’t hesitate. He had to get out of this room before he did something he’d regret.

He bolted through the open door with the intent to go into the woods and find a few rabbits or squirrels. Once his primal urges had been settled, he planned to vent his anger and frustration on the trees or bushes or, really, anything that got in his way.

All that changed when a sharp crack echoed through the trees. At first, he thought perhaps another round of thunderstorms loomed on the horizon. But ... No, that wasn’t thunder. That was ...

That was a gunshot. And it came from Illano’s store.

The shopkeeper didn’t sell weapons, and the vampire knew he didn’t keep any firearms for protection. That meant someone else fired that gun ... at someone inside the shop. Probably Illano himself or maybe even Corie.

The thought of another of his friends being hurt or killed sent Lukiel over the edge. His eyes flashed white, and any remaining shred of self-control completely left him. A faint whiff of blood hung in the air - so imperceptible he might not have noticed but for his desire to feed. It left him intoxicated in a way that he hadn’t felt since the night he joined the undead.

He knew Alec carried an ax, not a firearm. Still, his instinct screamed at him that the hunter had attacked someone else he cared about.

A single thought ran through his mind: Get the son of a bitch and make him pay.

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