Chapter Forty-One

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I lost my footing and skidded across the floor, tearing the skin on my elbows.

Rachel loomed over me, her face twisted and ugly with rage. Smoke from the fire swirled around her in a thick grey nimbus. "It seems I underestimated you, little Kiara," she said. "But war is coming to Dalwick and you are not going to stop it."

She kicked me in the ribs and I gasped with pain. She tried to kick me again but I rolled over, grasped the edge of the nearest chair and hauled myself to my feet.

I didn't waste precious time on witty banter or threats, I just launched myself at the mad bitch who'd set out to ruin my life. My knife flashed down but Rachel dodged with incredible speed, and jabbed me in the back with her elbow. I came after her almost as fast, hacking and slashing. Smoke billowed through the kitchen, forcing foul-tasting fingers down my throat. My eyes streamed.

This was madness.

If ever there was a bad place to have a showdown, this was it. But Rachel would stop me if I tried to escape, and even if I did get out, Rachel would survive and come after me again. I had to kill her if I wanted this nightmare to end.

I kicked a chair at her and it hit her somewhere on the knee. Her breath hissed between her teeth. She lifted the chair and flung it at me, and only a swift dive under the kitchen table saved me from being hit in the face.

Rachel grabbed my ankles and tried to pull me out from under the table but I kicked at her hands until she let go. She promptly grabbed the table and flipped it over. The crash it made was louder than the roar of fire.

She bent over me again and I slashed back with my knife, opening up a bloody furrow on the side of her neck. If my vision wasn't so smoke-hazy, I'd have better aim. I might actually have killed the bitch. Instead all I did was piss her off.

Rachel grabbed me by the throat and lifted me off my feet. Her sharpened nails dug into my skin, drawing blood.

Half the kitchen was engulfed in fire now, and the heat blistered my streaming eyeballs. The smoke was thick enough to choke on, even if Rachel hadn't been doing that for me. I drove my knife into her wrist, savagely twisting. She screamed and dropped me. I fell awkwardly, dull pain shooting through my ankle, but forced myself to climb to my feet.

Rachel had half-turned away from me, cradling her injured arm, but when I rushed at her unprotected back she turned and punched me so hard I saw stars. Coppery blood filled my mouth, blending foully with the taste of ash and smoke.

Distantly, through the hungry bellow of the fire, I heard someone roaring my name and knew it was Luke. But he couldn't get in, either because of the fire or because he couldn't get past Rachel's vampires.

Rachel grabbed me, hauling me to my feet, but she wasn't as strong now she could only use one arm. She snapped at my throat but I got my hand under her chin, forcing her head up and away from me.

We wrestled in the burning kitchen, crashing into fallen chairs and the one cabinet that hadn't caught fire yet, then Rachel managed to pull her head away from me, duck in past my defences, and sink her fangs into my hand.

Remembered terror seared my brain – me lying on the ground while a vampire ripped into my shoulder, snapped my bones, drank my blood. The helplessness and agony of that moment formed a thick ball of nausea in my stomach, pushing up into my throat. No one was going to save me this time. If I wanted out, I had to do it myself.

Twisting my fingers in Rachel's hair, I yanked her head sideways with a strength that surprised both of us. It was strength born of sheer desperation – if I couldn't defeat Rachel soon, I'd burn to death instead.

My lungs felt like they were coated with soot, and I coughed and retched as more smoke forced itself into my mouth. I dragged Rachel across the room, throwing every last bit of energy I had into it, until I was close enough to the flames that their burning brightness near blinded me. Sweat poured down my face, turning the soot that blackened my skin to thick, stinking sludge.

Rachel snarled and clawed at me, her sharp nails raking deep furrows in my forearms. I couldn't feel the pain. Releasing my hold on her hair, I jerked Rachel's arm behind her back and forced her face into the flames.

The bitch vampire screamed, true agony crescendoing in her voice. Her blonde hair burned to ash, the skin of her face blistering and melting. The flames hungrily licked at my own hands and I reared back, pulling Rachel with me.

Her mouth stretched open in a scream, fangs gleaming white against the blackened ruin of her face. Pulling the last knife from my belt, I plunged it into Rachel's chest. She staggered away from me, her arms flailing. Her eyes met mine, the hatred in them burning hotter than the fire, searing me from beneath blistered eyelids.

I should have taken that knife from her chest and plunged it through her neck just to be sure. But I was coughing so hard I couldn't breathe, my eyes swimming in a teary, sooty haze. I could barely see a thing.

Rachel's whole body went rigid like she was bracing herself for something, then she turned and launched herself into the fire, leaping through the air higher than any human could, and arrowing her body straight through the window.

I staggered for the back door, coughing so hard I was nearly sick. Kicking the door open, I fell onto the grass outside. Deliciously cool, clean air poured over me, and with it came pain. My hands were blistered; waves of agony pulsing up and down my arms, made worse by the gouges Rachel's nails had carved through my flesh. My stomach was full of charcoal, my eyes burning with pain.

I tried to turn over, to crawl away from the burning house, but I couldn't seem to work out which way was up. The world around me was blotted out by clouds of smoke, and my limbs felt as heavy as lead.

Then I remembered Rachel throwing herself through that window, and I found the strength to pull myself into a sitting position. Rachel had gone through a window once before and survived. I wanted to believe that this time it was impossible, that the extent of her injuries would kill her even though she'd escaped the house, but nothing would convince me until I saw the body.

I pressed a hand against the ground, digging my fingers through the grass and into the soil beneath as if that would help me find the strength I needed to get up.

"Kiara!"

The voice sounded hazy to my fire-deafened ears, but it was so beautifully familiar that my heart ached.

"Luke," I croaked, before my voice dissolved into another wracking cough.

Another sound reached me, the shrill howl of a fire engine.

Luke pulled me into his arms but I planted my aching hands on his chest and pushed him away. I had to know. As fast as my shaky legs would carry me, I ran around to the side of the house where Rachel had made her escape, praying that I'd see her sprawled in the grass, bloodied, burned, and finally beaten.

But the ground beneath the window was empty.

"No," I whispered, and my legs gave out.

Luke caught me before I fell, lifting me into his arms and cradling me against his chest. "It's okay, Kiara, it's over," he whispered.

I tried to shake my head, to tell him that Rachel had got away, but my body was too exhausted to do anything other than lie limply in his arms.

Luke carried me from the garden to the front lawn, and my bleary, swollen eyes picked out the shiny red shapes of two fire engines as well as the smaller white blob of an ambulance. Voices clashed in the air above me – some I recognised, some I didn't.

I tried to ask if everyone was okay but my throat was too raw. Dimly I was aware of someone running towards me, barking orders, then I closed my eyes and slipped into darkness.

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