Biting Cold (Chicagoland Vampires #6)

2,379
05.03.2019

INTO THE DEEP

When I awoke, the bed was empty, the sheets cool. For a horrible moment I thought I'd dreamt he was back, that his return had been a cruel figment of my imagination.

But the bedroom door opened, and Ethan walked inside, a coffee mug in one hand and smal basket in the other. He looked at me and smiled. "You slept in."

"I didn't know vampires could do that." I crossed my legs and puled my hair back from my face. "I must have needed the rest."

"Your bruises are gone, but you look pale."

I made my confession. "I don't think I slept very wel. I'm stil afraid to let you out of my sight."

"Because I might disappear?"

I nodded.

"There's no valor in disappearing," Ethan said. "Realy, the stake was only worth it for the points it got me. For saving your life twice," he added, in case I hadn't remembered that he'd made me a vampire and jumped in front of a stake to save me.

As if either was something I could easily forget.

I roled my eyes. "I'm giving you one week to use the stake against me, and then you're done."

He smiled smugly. "It won't take me one week, Sentinel."

I didn't bother to ask what he was trying to accomplish.

"But for now there's business at hand, and I prefer to have you undistracted when the time comes."

His eyes flashed silver before faling back to emerald green again. A bolt of desire shot through my body, raising goose bumps on my arms and magic in the air.

Ethan and I were both strung taut, our physical reunion clearly on both our minds, but pushed to the back of our agendas because of, as he'd put it, the business at hand.

Malory's business.

When this was al said and done – and God granted that it would be – I was going to kick her ass for interrupting my time with him, even if I did owe her for bringing him back in the first place.

Ethan sat down on the edge of the bed and handed over the mug – which was filed to the brim with warm blood – and the basket. My stomach growled ominously, and I didn't waste any time sipping the blood while Ethan picked through the contents of his duffel bag.

When the mug was empty, I peeked into the basket. There were four muffins inside: poppy seed; blueberry; one filed with chunks of fruit, nuts, and carrots; and a chocolate version studded with chunks of white and dark chocolate.

It was an easy choice.

"Paige bakes?" I wondered, plucking the chocolate muffin from the basket. It was even warm.

"The Maleficium is usualy settled somewhere else," Ethan said. "And, to paraphrase her, there are only so many Order meeting minutes she can transcribe. She apparently has the time.

Is it good?"

He glanced back at me, and I was already licking the chocolate from my fingers. "I'l take that as a yes. You don't mess around."

"Not when there's chocolate at stake." I winced. "Sorry. I probably should wipe that phrase out of my vocabulary."

"Don't change on my account," he chuckled, then grabbed the blueberry muffin.

"You know, feeding me isn't part of your job. I'm perfectly capable of managing my own meals."

He arched a very dubious eyebrow.

"I am," I stressed.

"Not to the degree necessary to keep you healthy and able to handle matters like these. Before this is said and done, I wager you'l need every ounce of your strength and every bit of moxie in that stubborn head of yours. Ensuring you're wel fed makes that more likely, and it makes my life easier."

I wanted to argue with him but found that I couldn't. Sure, it was irritating that he'd taken my measure and found a flaw. I didn't want him aware that I had flaws, much less pointing them out. But it was also comforting. Instead of adding the issue to his mental "red flags" column, he'd figured out a way to cope with it.

What a strange and awesome thing.

He finished his own muffin, then glanced back at me. "What?"

"Nothing," I said, reaching for muffin number two.

When the blood and muffins were gone, we prepared for the possibility of battle. There was no knowing, of course, whether Malory or Tate would pick tonight or tomorrow or a week from now to seek out the Maleficium, but they both seemed impatient enough to force the issue sooner rather than later.

I checked the blade of my katana, ensuring the steel was clean and ready for action, then climbed into my battle-worthy leather pants, a thin, long-sleeved shirt against the chil, and my leather jacket. The leathers were, ironicaly, gifts from Malory for my last birthday. It seemed appropriate and sad that I was donning them to take arms against her again tonight.

When I was ready, I watched Ethan dress – jeans and a leather jacket covering his long, lean form – and recaled my current to-do list:

1. Stop and secure Malory.

2. Stop and secure Tate.

3. Get the hel back to Chicago.

4. See Ethan naked under more auspicious circumstances.

5. Repeat, ad infinitum.

Tasks four and five were, like Ethan, aluring. But for now, we had a sorceress and a something else to deal with, so I belted on my katana. Thinking we were ready to head downstairs, I put a hand on the doorknob, but Ethan stopped me.

"Merit."

I looked back, eyebrows lifted in question.

He moved forward, as swift as a cat, stopped mere inches from me, and stared down at me with hooded emerald eyes.

Even in jeans and a jacket, he was so handsome, this blond warrior, with ferocity in his eyes and a sword at his side.

"You'l be careful."

"About what?"

"About this mission."

"As careful as possible," I promised. My tone was lighthearted, but that wasn't enough for him. He put a hand on my arm. "And if she's a threat to you?"

I looked up at him, my heart suddenly pounding.

"She may be a threat," Ethan said. "Malory has attempted, and likely wil attempt again, magic that has no purpose but to harm others, including you."

The fierceness in his eyes made my stomach clench with nerves. The protectiveness was thriling, but I was afraid it boded poorly for Mal.

"If it comes down to you or her…"

I was silent for a moment. "What?"

He didn't finish the sentence; he didn't need to. He was warning me, apologizing for what he might do to Malory if  – when – she popped into our lives again. But I didn't want to have this conversation.

"She's my best friend. She's practicaly my sister."

"And she's put you down with her magic. She tried to destroy the third-biggest city in the country, and she tried to turn me into her servant because she thinks she has the right to unleash evil on the world."

I swalowed down fear and a fierce bolt of sudden anger at Malory, and I made myself face him. "I can't let you hurt her, Ethan."

His gaze went fierce, and he lifted my chin with his finger and thumb. "I know you love her. I have no doubt of it. But if it comes down to a choice between you and her, my choice is already made."

"Ethan – "

"No," he said, crystaline green eyes boring into me. "You are my choice. I told you before – you are mine, by blood and bone. I won't let her come between that, no matter how sick she is."

Maybe seeing the panic in my eyes, his expression softened.

"I don't wish it," he said. "I don't want it to come to that. But the decision is made. It is and wil be."

"We're not doing this to punish her," I reminded him. "This is a rescue mission. We find her, and we bring her home, safe and sound. Al three of us, safe and sound. She brought you back to me, Ethan. I can't forgive her for what she's done, but I can't forget that, either."

He wrapped himself around me, his mouth on mine so suddenly it took my breath away. Then he captured my face with his hands and kissed me with an insistence that left no room for question, or doubt, about who I was to him.

We began as enemies, Ethan and I. He saved my life but was unwiling to accept me for who I was – or I, him.

We grew as coleagues but fought our attraction to each other.

And when I was ready to give in to his advances, he let fear lead him away.

He gave his life for me, and I finaly admitted the depth of my feelings for him.

And by a miracle – a miracle by a blue-haired girl intent on destroying the world around us – he was back again…and she was stil the obstacle between us.

Paige's voice echoed up the stairs. "Ready if you are!"

Ethan stepped back and rubbed a hand across his jaw. "We should get downstairs."

I nodded back at him, unsure how to begin again.

Worry heavy in my heart, we met Paige on the first floor. She looked ready for work in heavy pants, black boots, and a short plaid coat with a matching cap and earflaps, her red curls gleaming beneath it. She might have been out here alone, but this girl was serious about her job.

We folowed her outside into the crisp fal air. It was a lovely night for late November, the chil in the air just cool enough to be refreshing instead of toe numbing. Paige led us around the farmhouse and into the field behind it, where the grass was short and yelowed. The moon shone high and white in the sky.

"So, Paige," I said, "if you're the only one here, how do you keep an eye on everything?"

"I have friends. The prairie may be empty of sorcerers, but it's not empty of sups. I also have potions. You've heard of Sleepytime tea? I've invented the opposite – a magical pick-me-up. I cal it Wakeytime tea. It gives me the energy to keep an eye out."

"That's what you were drinking earlier?"

"No. That realy was Sleepytime tea. I took the day off since you were here, too. It made me feel better to have someone else in the house, even if you were unconscious. It was the first time I've slept in days."

I was impressed that she looked so good on so little sleep. I'd have looked like a plague victim on a bad hair day. "You look fantastic."

"Not al of us are vampires with ageless skin. We do what we can. Sometimes we do it with magic."

Paige led us down a wel-trodden path across a smal pasture and through the gap in a split-log fence. The next field was furrowed, the remains of yelowed cornstalks stumpy along the ground.

"You grow corn here?" Ethan asked.

"Keeping up appearances," Paige said. "There's the entrance to the silo." In the middle of the field, which had to be three hundred yards across, sat a smal cube of concrete. "The missile bay doors are hidden under the topsoil."

"The Order definitely picked a hard-to-reach location," Ethan said.

"The armed forces picked it first. We're in the middle of the country," Paige said. "It was a great place for missile defense, if you want maximum protection from the enemy."

We crunched across the frozen ground to the silo entrance, which didn't appear to be more than a concrete box with a utility door. Paige unlocked and opened it, revealing a smal metal platform.

"Climb aboard," Paige said, puling off her cap and revealing a tangle of red curls. "The bunker is thirty-two feet down. The platform's on a scissor lift, so it wil take us to the bottom."

The "platform" consisted of a plank of corrugated metal – the kind you could see straight through – and a few strips of railing.

Below us was only darkness.

Paige joined me and Ethan, then punched a red button on a giant metal box that hung from one side of the railing. Slowly, and with a metalic screech, we began the descent.

I wasn't much for dark, confined spaces. I could feel my chest tightening as claustrophobia took hold. The dim light that glowed beneath us didn't do much to diminish the lingering sense of doom.

After a few seconds, we hit the bottom floor. The platform stopped with a jerk, revealing the end of a long concrete halway.

"Basement," Paige said, "ladies' accessories and hosiery."

We folowed her off the lift and into the halway, which was cold and silent but for the steady hum of machinery we couldn't see. The air was warm but smeled musty, like the same air had been recycled since the silo had been built. The wals were the glossy, pale green of hospitals and antiquated DMV offices, and they were broken intermittently by more closed utility doors.

Paige pointed at them in turn as we walked to the other end of the hal. "These are al living quarters. When the silo was operational, it was staffed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. There were at least two men here at al times – and they were always guys back then."

"Heaven forbid the ladies should accidentaly launch a PMS-driven missile," I snarked.

"Precisely," Paige dryly agreed. "We're strong enough to birth children but hardly trustworthy when national security's on the line."

"Is the missile stil stored here?" Ethan asked.

"No. It was removed when the silo was decommissioned. But the tube remains. And that's what's helpful for us."

The halway ended in a giant sliding concrete door. Paige pushed it sideways along its tracks.

"This is the silo," she quietly said, and led us inside.

The room was enormous, a concrete circle with cavernous holes in the middle of the floor. Panels with thousands of smal,sharp-cornered buttons lined consoles along the wals beside brightly colored warnings not to touch the buttons without authorization.

I had to curl my fingers into fists to keep from pressing them just to see what might happen.

And the gaping concrete hole where a missile had once stood? Big enough that I had trouble wrapping my mind around the scale of it. I stood at the railing that bound the gap and looked down. The shaft was wel lit, and it was lined with steel supports I assumed would have supported the missile.

"The silo itself is one hundred and three feet tal," Paige said, her voice echoing in the vastness of the room.

"And we're roughly thirty feet down," Ethan said, "which means there's seventy more feet of hole below us."

"Correct. The concrete is three feet thick on al sides. Quite impenetrable."

"It boggles the mind," Ethan said, staring down into the abyss.

She pointed to a metal staircase across the room. "There are floors above and below. They hold tanks and more operational controls."

"And the Maleficium?"

She walked to the railing and pointed down into the silo. "It's at the very bottom on a pedestal, ironicaly or otherwise. You can just see it."

I looked down. Sure enough, I could see its red leather cover.

It didn't glow or vibrate or give off a weird vibe. It just sat there, minding its own business, holding within it the power to destroy a city and a friendship.

"It's the most secure point in the facility – six concrete doors to get through, assuming you could find your way down there.

This place is a maze."

Difficult to maneuver unless you could fly straight down the silo and nab it. Thank God sorcerers didn't actualy use broomsticks, although the thought of Malory in pointy black witch's shoes riding a push broom did a lot to perk up my mood.

"You've done a masterful job making it difficult to get to," Ethan said.

"It's not just to keep people out," she said. "It's to keep the evil in. The world used to be a much harsher place. The sorcerers who created the Maleficium thought they were creatively solving a problem – lock evil away and everything's just hunky-dory. As it turns out, a magical book is pretty porous."

"Evil seepage?" I wondered.

"Yep," Paige said. "The mechanism isn't perfect. It's just the best mechanism we have, though, so it's worth protecting."

"Point made," Ethan said.

My stomach picked that moment to rumble impolitely. In the cavernous space of a missile silo, it wasn't exactly a quiet sound.

Ethan shook his head. Paige smiled. "Let's head back upstairs, and I'l start getting a real meal together. You two can explore the property a bit, get the lay of the land. It's a big acreage – a square mile in al, and it's bounded by the roads on al four sides, so if you reach gravel, you've gone too far."

Ethan nodded. "Thank you. Having a feel for the place might come in handy."

Undoubtedly, I thought. The question was, when?

The platform carried us to the surface again. Paige made her good-byes, puled on her cap, and relocked the door as we stepped outside. The wind had picked up and the air was brisker. I zipped up my jacket.

Paige walked back toward the house, a lonely silhouette in the dark emptiness.

"I wonder if she's being punished – sent out here al alone by the Order," I said. "They have a history of punishing their members." Or in Catcher's case, kicking them out altogether.

Ethan put his hands on his hips and scanned the empty field.

"Like this is an island of misfit witches?"

"Something like that, yeah."

"Paige seems to take her job seriously. She doesn't seem like the punished type. Unfortunately, even if she was faking it, I'm not sure we'd know. I'm beginning to doubt there's a single sorcerer or sorceress in existence capable of teling the entire truth about anything."

"Bitter much?"

"With good cause," he said. "Catcher was in denial. Simon was an idiot. Malory is addicted to something that has the potential to destroy her, and Paige has been stationed out here alone. Neither the Order nor its representatives inspire confidence at the moment."

He gestured toward a line of trees on the other side of the field.

"There's not a lot of visibility over there, and I find that makes me uncomfortable. Let's take a look."

As we walked toward the stand of trees, the sound of moving water grew louder, and the crunch of spent cornstalks gave way to the crunch of dead leaves.

The trees, maybe fifty yards deep on each side, lined a smal, rocky creek that flowed into the distance. The trees were old and gnarled, their crabby black branches reaching for the moon-bright sky.

Winter was steps away, and if the sudden biting cold was any sign, it wasn't going to be a nice one. The air had become frosty enough to suck the air from your lungs and bring tears to your eyes.

"It's getting colder," I said.

Ethan nodded. He took my hand, and we folowed the stream for a bit in the quiet dark, then crossed through the trees to the edge of another field. This one was bounded by a fence and held a scattering of cows.

"I think I prefer woods to empty fields," I said. "Trees seem safer somehow."

"I suppose," Ethan said quietly. He dropped my hand and rubbed his temples.

"Another headache?"

He nodded, then took my hand again. We made it only a few more steps before he wrenched his hand from mine and began scrubbing his hands across his arms.

"Christ almighty," he swore.

"Ethan?" I tentatively asked. He was obviously in pain, but I had no idea how to help. And when he looked at me, there was fear in his eyes that made my blood run cold.

"Is it Tate again?"

He shook his head.

"Is it the accident? Did you hit your head?"

He reached out for a nearby tree, bracing his arm against it.

"You told me Malory said her need for the dark magic was uncomfortable. An irritation."

I nodded, fear squeezing my chest tight.

"I think I feel that itch beneath my skin."

My eyes widened. "You can sense what she's feeling?"

He squeezed his eyes shut and baled his fists on his forehead like he was holding back a scream. "It's infuriating. Like fire beneath my skin. Like things are wrong."

"When did it start?"

"Just now. This is the first time…this has happened."

But was it? Ethan's rebirth hadn't been unicorns and rainbows at first. He'd managed to walk through smoke and fire back to me, only to colapse a few minutes later.

"On the midway, you colapsed. You fel down right after she resurrected you."

"I don't remember that," he said.

I thought back to that moment, looking for some fact that might link what had happened then and what he was feeling now.

"You walked across the grass. Jonah saw you first."

"Where was Malory?"

"She was unconscious. Catcher had knocked her out." She'd passed out, and then he had, too. I worked to keep my voice steady. "Do you think you're connected to her somehow?"

He shook his head. "I don't know. Had the familiar spel been completed, I certainly would have been. But she didn't manage to finish it."

"Maybe what she did finish was enough," I said, and the fears began to pummel my brain. Please, I silently prayed, please don't let her turn him into a zombie.

He squeezed his eyes shut and grunted, his face contorted. "It hurts. If this is what she's feeling, I get it. I understand the pain."

I felt a sudden sympathy for her – not for what she'd done, but for the demons she'd had to fight along the way. They didn't excuse her behavior, but if this was what she was feeling, they certainly explained it a little: better to destroy the world than to let it drive you completely crazy.

"But you wouldn't harm others to be rid of it," I quietly reminded him. "Why are you feeling it now? Can you tel if she's upset? Angry?"

He opened his eyes, his face stil tight with pain. "Maybe. I don't know. But I think she's nearby."

I put a hand on the pommel of my sword and opened myself to any hints of magic in the air. But there was nothing. If she was nearby, I couldn't tel. "Do you know where?"

Ethan shook his head. I could tel he was struggling to maintain his composure, but I wasn't about to give up on him or let him succumb to whatever was overcoming Malory. And I realized that if he couldn't overcome it – a vampire with four hundred years of experience in dealing with magic – how could we possibly ask her to?

I tipped his chin up so that he was forced to look at me. And then I recaled al the speeches he'd ever given me, and al the motivational things he'd ever said, and the fact that he'd never let me quit or stop when something big was on the line.

"Ethan Sulivan. You are four hundred years old, kiled and resurrected twice. You are stronger than she is. Fight back. Do not let a self-centered sorceress bring you to your knees."

He tried to look away, but I held his chin tight, red welts appearing beneath my fingers. I'd been a vampire for less than a year, but I was a strong one. Might as wel show it off for a good cause.

It worked: When his gaze found mine again, there was fury there. His eyes had changed from emerald green to molten silver, and he clearly wasn't pleased with my attempt at an intervention.

"Watch your tone, Sentinel."

Mimicking him perfectly, I arched a single eyebrow. "You watch your tone, Sulivan. You wil not alow a child to make you weak. She is no vampire. She is no predator. She is a witch."

There was a rumble deep in his throat. He was getting pissed, so I knew I was on the right track. It was just a matter of making him remember what he was.

"You are a vampire," I repeated. "A predator among predators. A creature of deep nights and ful moons. But you have learned to survive in an urban environment. You have learned to block out the sensations you don't need. Malory is one of those sensations. The feelings aren't yours – they're hers.

So suck it up, and block them out."

He shivered as he fought for control, trying desperately to separate what he felt from what she felt.

I saw the moment Ethan's control kicked in – his eyes flashed back to green shards of ice.

"Thank you," he quietly said, unusualy stil with the effort of keeping her angst in check.

"You're welcome."

We looked at each other for a moment, and something passed between us. Something new. For months, I'd been comforted by others, and now I was comforting him…at least until a sharp pain radiated from my shin.

"Ow!" I yelped, instinctively looking down – and staring in shock.

There, at my feet, tapping his foot impatiently, stood a brightly uniformed…Wel, he looked like a garden gnome. White cap.

Stumpy shoes. Long beard. Red pants and green shirt. Just like the kind you'd see in someone's backyard. Except for the sulking. Which he was clearly doing.

"If you two are done with al the lovey-dovey crap," he said, "can we get down to business?"

"Wel," Ethan said, eyebrow arched at the man at our feet. "I did not expect that."