With a knot in her throat, she collected his favorite shotgun: a Remington double-barrel twelve-gauge. It was empty, no slugs to be found; Uncle Eph had long since come round and gathered up all the shells-just in case the demon got any ideas with the scattergun.

The familiar heft of the weapon was reassuring. Soon all this would be over forever. At the thought, she felt a strange sense of relief.

When she returned to the living room, Mama rushed forward. "Please, baby, couldn't you just try prison?"

I'm doomed anyway. An injection later, or a bullet now.

Ellie would die on her terms-bleeding out in the snow, atop her beloved mountain.

"No, jail's out of the question. Now you need to think about Josh. About the family." Ellie forced a smile. "I love you, Mama. Tell Josh I loved him, too. You know I'll be lookin' down, watchin' out for everyone."

As her mother began to bawl, muttering jumbled words, Ellie pointed to the back room. "You go on in the back and stay in there! You hear? Don't come out till they make you, no matter what happens. Promise me!" At last, Mama nodded. Ellie gave her a shove, and she dragged her feet away, softly closing her bedroom door behind her.

Before Ellie lost her nerve, she turned to the front door, Remington in hand. She began to reach for her hand-me-down coat, then made a fist instead. Fool. You won't be cold long.

On the count of three. Ellie took several deep breaths, her thoughts racing. I'm just nineteen-too young.

One.

I got no choice. Soon, nothing'll be left of me.

Two.

Imagine waking up to Mama and Josh, dead, their eyes glassy and sightless.

Never! With a shriek, she threw open the door, raising the gun.

"Shooter!" the sheriff yelled. Bullets went flying.

She felt none of them; a towering man had appeared out of thin air, standing between her and the officers.

With a furious growl, he shoved her to the ground, knocking the gun from her hands as he took the bullets in his back. She stared up in disbelief. His irises were . . . red. At least five shots hit him, but his monstrous gaze never wavered from her eyes.

-"Hold your fire!"

-"Where'd he come from?"

-"What the hell's goin' on?"

The man's skin was like perfect marble, stark against the black shirt and trench coat he wore. His hair was pale blond, his features chiseled. And those eyes . . . otherworldly.

"Another demon!" She blindly rooted her hand through the snow, automatically reaching for the shotgun, but he stepped on her wrist.

When she gave a cry of pain, he pressed down harder, his lips drawing back to reveal . . . fangs. "You dare risk my female?" His voice was deep and accented, his tone filled with scorn. At his words, the baying dogs immediately fell silent.

"Wh-what are you talking about?"

"Your attempted blaze of glory, Elizabeth. And all because of a few murders?" He gave her a look of disgust, as if to say, Grow up.

The sheriff ordered, "Put your hands where I can see them!"

Instead, the pale-haired demon hunched down beside her, cupping her nape to snatch her closer. With his other hand, he tossed her gun away.

When another bullet plugged him in the back, he hissed over his shoulder, baring those fangs. "One-moment," he snapped.

Ellie sneaked a glance at the cops; they looked too confounded to

react.

And behind them, Ephraim and some of her cousins had come running up the mountain, rifles in hand. They'd slowed in shock upon seeing the demon.

The male sneered, "Mortals," then turned back to her. "Listen very carefully, Elizabeth. I am Lothaire the Enemy of Old, and you belong to

me. After considering my options, I've decided I will allow you to go

to jail this eve."

"Y-you've got the wrong girl! I don't know you-"

Talking over her, he said, "In your human prison, you'll be hidden from my kind, which means you'll be relatively safe while I continue my search. I will return for you in two years. Or so." He gave her a harsh shake. "But if you try to harm yourself-and therefore my female-again, I will punish you beyond imagining. Do you understand me?"

"Your female? I'm not yours!"

"I wouldn't have you." He narrowed those red eyes. "The glorious being who lives within you, however . . ."

"I don't understand! What's inside of me?"

He reached his free hand toward her face, his black claws glinting in the moonlight. Ignoring her question, he huskily murmured, "I will have her, my queen, forever."

When he brushed a strand of hair from her face, she flinched. "Unhand me, demon!"

He stared down at her even as he addressed another in that deep, hypnotic voice: "Saroya, if you can hear me, sleep until I return for you. When all my plots and all my toiling come to bear."

Saroya? It has a name?

With inhuman speed, he rose, looming above Ellie. More words in another language followed, then he disappeared into thin air.

The shaken deputies closed in on Ellie, their jaws slack. Sweat ran from their foreheads even as their breaths smoked. One cuffed her silently, while the others aimed their pistols in all directions-even up.

Ephraim and her cousins looked stricken; they could do nothing to save her, short of killing four cops in cold blood.

Her stunned mind finally registered that she would be taken alive.

The red-eyed demon had prevented her death. And Ellie burned to kill him for it.

Chapter 2

Ridgevale Correctional Center for Women, Virginia

PRESENT DAY

Does the condemned have any last words?" the warden intoned.

"No!" Ellie squirmed against her bonds on the gurney, pulling taut the electrodes dotting her chest. With each of her frantic heartbeats, the nearby EKG monitor spiked. The IV tubes snaking from each arm swayed back and forth. "No, I'm ready!"

She might have felt dread that she was about to die, but urgency overwhelmed all other emotions. She'd had death snatched from her grasp once before.

And the demon was stirring inside her.

Fearing "Saroya" would rise and attack everyone around her, Ellie had taken no last meal, had met with no family or chaplain. She'd inventoried her worldly belongings-ChapStick, college textbooks, four dollars in change, and her journals-with a swift efficiency.

Ellie had made peace with her fate long ago, had hungered to die ever since the night of her arrest. She'd written apologies to the victims' families, saving them to be delivered after she was gone.

"Please hurry, sir," she begged the elderly warden.

At that, a hum of murmurs broke out in the next room. The witnesses behind the tinted glass window didn't know what to make of her behavior, didn't know how to process such an unusual murderer.


She was young, had filed no appeals to her sentence, and by all accounts had never displayed violent behavior growing up.

There had been run-ins with the law. Some minor-getting caught parking with boys. Some not so minor-poaching on state lands and refusing to testify against family members or cooperate with law enforcement.

But there'd never been a drop of human blood spilled by her hand until a yearlong killing spree.

Saroya had been busier than Ellie had ever dreamed.

"I'm ready."

The warden frowned at her, and the two prison guards flanking him shuffled uncomfortably. Against all their best efforts-and Saroya's-they'd ended up liking Ellie, admiring her quiet determination to educate herself, to earn a degree, though she had no future.

Ellie had always had a good sense of people, and she'd ended up liking the three back. "Thank you for everything."

"Then God be with you, Ellie Peirce." The warden turned toward the adjoining control room. As the guards followed him out, one briefly laid his gloved hand on her shoulder. The other gave her a quick nod, but she could tell he'd be affected by her passing.

The door shut behind them, a deafening final click. I'm alone now. She stared after them, comprehending that no one would be getting out of this room alive.

Alone. So scared.

I didn't want to have to die. . . .

She gazed at her arms, strapped to the padded supports. Her wrists were taped, her palms up. The two IV lines were a dozen feet long, running from her inner arms to a pair of portholes in the wall behind her, continuing into the control room.

Half an hour ago, a nameless, faceless doctor had started a saline drip back there. At high noon, he would add a trio of chemicals, and moments later, the nightmare would be over forever.

Have to finish this. Almost there.

Funny what one would think about on the verge of death. How many people knew-to the minute-when they'd pass on?

She doubted anyone had ever gone to her own execution with such a feverish drive still spurring her, with a goal and an iron will bent on achieving it. Far from muting her determination, jail had only honed it, like adding layer after layer of plating to shore up a mountain train trestle.

I'm about to win. To beat her. Saroya had risen only twice in the last five years, both times in the first few months. Ellie's blackouts had resulted in the permanent disfigurement of two fellow inmates.

All done with her bare hands.

Long dormant, the demon now stirred. Sensing its own doom? That's right, you're going down, bitch.

Only two things could save her life at this point.

An unexpected call from the governor.

Or Saroya's powerful red-eyed mate.

Not a day went by that Ellie didn't think of the fiend named Lothaire the Enemy of Old. She'd seen the male appear out of thin air and then vanish, had seen bullets annoy him. Members of her family, the sheriff, and those deputies had witnessed these things with her, no matter how many times that up-for-reelection sheriff told her they hadn't. . . .

She craned her head back to look at the clock on the wall behind her. Three minutes till noon.

One hundred and eighty seconds until death slipped down the tubes.

Though driven, Ellie wasn't without regrets. She wished she could have used her hard-won psychology degree, had a career, made friends with women who weren't murderers.

She regretted never having a family of her own. Maybe she shouldn't have been so careful not to wind up a teen mother like her mama and grandma.

Hell, maybe Ellie should've given it up to one of those eager boys she'd gone parking with. She probably should've been less rigid and unbending in general.

Unbending. But that was the Peirce in her; Ellie would get her way in the end. Best step aside.

Another glance at the clock. Two minutes till-

The lights flickered, ratcheting up her anxiety. Another power surge a moment later had the witnesses muttering nervously.

With the third flicker, Ellie froze with dread even as the EKG went crazy. Nothing can stop this! Heart rate 150, 170, 190 . . .

Darkness. The EKG went blank with a last jagged spike.

No windows in the death ward. Pitch blackness. The witnesses were banging on the door, clamoring for an evacuation.

"What's happening?" Ellie cried. For some reason, no generator fired up, no backup lights to cast a glow.

Lying in the dark, strapped to a gurney.

In the distance, a scream rang out.

About to hyperventilate, she twisted against her restraints, cursing her bonds. "What's going on out there?"

An agonized yell sounded, but she refused the thought that surfaced. A jarring clap of gunfire fueled her fears. Some man bellowed, "I can't see him! Where the hell did he go-" then came a bloodcurdling scream. Another man begged, "Please! Nooo! Ah, God, I have a fami-" Gurgling sounds followed.

Realization took hold.

He had come. Lothaire the Enemy of Old had returned for her.

Just as he'd promised. . . .

Chapter 3

That little suka," Lothaire sneered as a guard's neck snapped in his fist. Elizabeth was about to be executed-voluntarily-for a trifling number of murders.

In mere moments.

The guard's partner fired wildly in the dark; bullets plugged Lothaire's skin, but he hardly noticed them.

He'd fed yesterday and was strong from it. At least, his body was. His mind, however . . .

With a yell, he lunged forward to slash his claws across the shooter's throat. When blood splattered over his face, Lothaire's fangs sharpened for flesh, his thoughts blanking.

Madness. Licking at my heels.

Even now with so much at stake. Too many victims, too many memories. Forever tolling.

No, focus on the Endgame! Get to her, save your female.

His foes had prevented him from reaching her sooner. If I'm too late . . .

He charged forward through lightless corridors, easily seeing in the dark, but the place was a maze of hallways and minuscule rooms.

Blyad'! He couldn't scent her over the odor of ammonia. Another hallway came into view, more labeled chambers: family rooms, visitation rooms, cells.

No time. He'd warned Elizabeth not to hurt his female. Yet she'd opted to have herself condemned, directing her public defender to file no appeals, to broker no pleas.

After living thousands of years, Lothaire was very rarely surprised; her actions had surprised the hell out of him. Running into a hail of bullets was one thing, tirelessly plotting a years-long suicide quite another.

He couldn't decide if she was fatally flawed with willfulness or crazed.

In any case, she was proving to be a thorn in his side, costing him in untold ways. Lothaire was known throughout the Lore for collecting blood debts from immortals in dire straits, bargaining with them to make deals with the devil. Though he was proud of his overflowing ledger of entries, hoarding them, he'd already burned two because of Elizabeth.

He'd forced a beholden oracle to keep tabs on her incarceration. And just minutes earlier, an indebted technopath had accompanied him here to cut all the facility's power, including the backup generators, leaving no lights, no cameras.

Only utter confusion.

And that was the extent of Lothaire's plan today: technopath cuts power while vampire massacres his way to female. Laughably simple for a born strategist.

As if to sacrifice themselves to the plan, two guards intercepted him in the corridor, shining their flashlights into his red eyes. During their stunned silence, Lothaire had time to anticipate their reactions.

The larger one to the right will fire first, three shots before he realizes I've plucked his spine from him. The one to the left will stutter an answer to my question, though he knows he'll die directly after.