Eleventh Grade Burns #4
Chronicles of Vladimir Tod #4
Things have taken a darker turn for the half-human teenager with an appetite for blood. Joss, a vampire slayer and Vlad’s former friend, has moved back to Bathory. A mysterious and powerful new vampire, Dorian, appears with a shocking secret and an overwhelming desire to drink Vlad’s blood. And Vlad’s arch enemy, D’Ablo, has a sinister plan to eliminate Vlad once and for all. With death threatening from every angle, Vlad will have to use every ounce of his skill and training to survive, but nothing can prepare him for what awaits him in the end.
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A SLAYER’S RESOLVE
The vampire spun around, a wild, unhinged look in his eye. He lunged forward but the slayer skillfully dodged his blow, delivering a hard roundhouse kick to the creature’s throat. The vampire fell to the ground, coughing, choking on its own blood. The slayer could have killed the beast a half hour ago. But this wasn’t just about ridding the world of another abomination (though that was definitely the end goal). It was about a slayer needing to release some pent-up hostility and cleanse himself of all of his clouded thoughts.
Thoughts that were now perfectly clear.
These bloodsucking things could not be trusted. Not even when they donned the mask of a relatively normal teenager. Not even when they claimed to be your friend. Especially when they used their insidious powers to gain your trust and get you to reveal secrets that even those closest to you didn’t know. Especially when their name was Vladimir Tod.
Joss was done playing games. With Vlad’s face planted firmly in the forefront of his imagination, he slipped the silver-tipped wooden stake from his backpack and approached the vampire on the ground with an eager step. He whispered, “For you, Cecile,” and thrust the stake forward, before the beast could draw a single breath. Blood—hot, slick, so deep red that it seemed black in the light of the moon—poured out over his hands. The nameless vampire fell still.
Joss straightened his shoulders, triumphant.
From his backpack, he withdrew a cell phone and hit number two on speed dial. When the voice at the other end answered, he said, “This is Joss. I need a cleanup on the ocean side of Russian Gulch State Park. The target is secure. Am I cleared to move on to my next objective?”
When the voice on the other end answered in the affirmative, Joss hung up the phone. There was no need to continue the conversation. Small talk didn’t matter.
All that mattered was that he was going back to Bathory.
And this time, he would walk away with no regrets.
Vlad twisted his wrist, pinching his fingers together, spinning the bronze coin on the table. When it fell, he picked it up and did it again, counting. Thirty-six times it had fallen Slayer Society up. Twenty-two times it was down. He spun the coin again, but before it had a chance to fall a hand came down on it from across the table. Henry looked at his best friend, his eyebrows drawn together in concern. Vlad sat back, a dark cloud hanging over him. “When?”
Henry plucked the coin up in his hand and turned it over, frowning. “Next week.”
Vlad watched the coin, rereading the inscription on one side: FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND “How long have you known?”
“As soon as my mom told me I came straight over to tell you.” Henry dropped the coin and ran a hand through his hair, groaning. “What are we going to do?”
The coin rolled across the table and off the edge. Vlad’s hand moved so quickly that Henry couldn’t even see it. He returned the coin to the table and once again spun it on the table’s surface, returning to his former silence.
“We have to do something, Vlad. You can’t just sit here spinning that stupid coin and waiting for Joss to come finish the job. Now that your invincibility is gone . . .”
Vlad spun the coin again, harder this time. Henry was right. They had to do something. Henry’s cousin Joss was moving back to Bathory, this time with his family, and Vlad bet that it wasn’t due to coincidence or the fact that Henry’s family lived here. Joss was coming to kill him. And ever since D’Ablo’s stupid ritual last year, he was very much in danger of dying.
But Vlad couldn’t think about a solution. All he’d been able to think about since the Freedom Fest was Meredith, and how much he wished they could be together. But they couldn’t. He was too much of a danger to her. So he’d broken her heart and, in turn, shattered his own to pieces. He was empty. He was alone.
And now he was in danger of dying at the hand of a slayer, his former friend.
He spun the coin again. Henry picked it up and threw it across the room. It clattered on the floor behind Vlad. “Do something!”
Vlad looked at him somberly. “Like what?”
“Anything. You act like Joss coming back to town is no big deal. I know you’re still all torn up about Meredith . . .” Vlad shot him a warning glance, but Henry wasn’t about to back down. “What? You’ve been like this all summer, but you did what you had to do. Now you act like you don’t care if Joss comes back here and sticks another stake through your heart.” Henry’s eyes shined in frustration. “But I do.”
His words hung in the air between them, weakening Vlad’s resolve.
Henry turned and walked to the other side of the kitchen, reaching up to wipe his eyes on his sleeve, trying to keep it hidden from his friend. “Look, man, I don’t want to get all chick-flick on you or anything, but you’re my best friend and I almost lost you last time. I can’t go through that again. I won’t.”
Vlad sighed, saying everything with his eyes that he couldn’t bear to with his voice. He couldn’t do anything. Short of killing Joss—Henry’s cousin, Vlad’s former friend—he couldn’t do anything at all. “You’re right. I just don’t see how I can stop him without . . .” He didn’t have to say it, and neither of them wanted him to. He couldn’t kill Joss. That just wasn’t an option.
“What about mind control?”
Vlad frowned. “I can’t control him for the rest of his life, Henry. Besides, sooner or later, my concentration would break.”
“There has to be something . . .” Henry returned to his seat, a look of desperation washing over his features. “What about Otis? He’s like a million years old.”
“Three hundred and two.”
“Whatever, he’s old. He’s dealt with slayers his whole life, I bet. You should ask him what to do.”
After a moment, Vlad nodded thoughtfully. If anyone would know what to do, his uncle would.
Henry nodded too, looking somewhat relieved that Vlad was actually going to take action. “Anyway, I’d better get back. My mom is on a cleaning rampage because of our extended family moving to town. If I’m not there, who knows what she’ll throw out! The woman has no respect for the treasures of an adolescent male.”
Henry stood and glanced at Vlad, a worrisome expression on his face. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” Vlad forced a smile, and Henry walked out the front door, closing it behind him.
As soon as the latch clicked, Vlad reached down and retrieved the coin. A deep line creased his forehead as he read the inscription over again. He focused on Otis and spoke with his thoughts. “Otis? I need to talk to you. I could use some advice.”
“Just let me finish up my meeting with Principal Snelgrove and I’ll be home shortly, Vladimir.” A pause, then Otis’s voice once again in his mind. “Is everything all right?”
Vlad turned the coin over in his hand. An image flashed in his mind. A small point of silver at the center of his chest. And blood. Lots of blood. Vlad shook his head, willing the memory away. “No. But it can wait until you get home. Just . . . hurry, okay?”
Otis grew quiet for a moment, then said, “I’ll be there shortly.”
Vlad gripped the coin in his hand and leaned forward, pressing his forehead to the tabletop. He fought, but the memories burst through his dam of resistance. Joss’s eyes narrowing at the sight of Vlad’s glowing mark. The bitter accusations of betrayal. A whisper: “For you, Cecile.” The feeling of being punched in the back. Looking down and seeing the silver tip of the wooden stake. He’d coughed, and the pain had dragged him under.
Afterward, when Joss had visited him in the hospital, Vlad had been almost certain he’d apologize. But he didn’t. Instead, he told Vlad that he was leaving. Their friendship, it seemed, was over. No longer friends, they were more than enemies. They were natural foes—vampire and slayer.
And Vlad still wasn’t sure how he felt about it.
The staking incident had been horrific to endure. And recovering from it had been no picnic. But the worst part of it was that he missed Joss, missed his company, his insight, his impossibly dorky way of looking at the world. When Joss had slammed that hunk of wood through Vlad’s chest, Vlad had survived . . . but their friendship had not. And he was still mourning it, still grieving over the loss of a very good friend.
Not to mention the reason Joss was returning.
He didn’t need to hear it from Joss’s lips. The note he’d left on Vlad’s locker before he skipped town freshman year had said it all: Friendship over.
And if it really was over, then Vlad was going to have to formulate a plan pretty quickly on how to face Joss the slayer, rather than Joss the friend.
He sat up, gripping the coin tightly, and watched the door for Otis’s return. After many minutes, the door swung open, and his uncle entered.
Otis immediately met his eyes. “What’s wrong?”
Vlad sat the coin on the table in plain view. “How’d the interview go?”
Otis furrowed his brow with a questioning in his eyes. “It went well. I’ll be teaching mythology full time at the high school.” He paused for a moment and wet his lips. “Is everything all right?”
“Congrats on the job. A lot of students have missed you since eighth grade—they’ll be happy to have you back. Me too.” Vlad dropped his attention to the slayer coin and released a tense sigh. “I have a problem, Otis. Joss is moving back to Bathory.”
Otis closed his eyes for a moment and sighed, visibly relaxing. He took a seat opposite Vlad with a small smile affixed to his lips. “You had me worried for a second.”
Vlad’s eyebrows drew together in confusion. Clearly Otis had lost his mind. “You’re not worried anymore?”
Otis shook his head. The bemused expression on his face irritated Vlad, though he wasn’t sure why. “Vladimir, there are far worse things than a slayer who’s out for blood. Besides, if he steps out of line and threatens you at all, he’ll be easily dispatched. Especially with two, soon to be three, vampires living here in Bathory.”
“Dispatched?” Vlad blinked, dropping his gaze momentarily to the coin on the table between them. “I don’t want to kill him.”
Otis seemed perplexed by this. He grew quiet, obviously mulling over something in his mind. Finally, he nodded and said, “If you’re more comfortable with it, I’d be happy to—”
“You’re missing the point.” Vlad’s jaw tightened defensively. “I don’t want anything to happen to Joss. I don’t want you to touch him or hurt him in any way. He’s . . . my friend.”
For a long time Otis didn’t speak. Neither did Vlad. He was too busy trying to figure out how the conversation had gone so quickly from asking for advice to killing his friend.
After a while, Otis leaned forward, tension and disbelief ebbing from him. “We are speaking of the same boy who drove a stake through your chest from behind, in the most cowardly way possible, yes? And you want to, what, give him an opportunity to finish the job?”
“Then the matter must be dealt with.”
“But he’s my friend, or at least he was. I don’t think he’ll try anything like that again.” It surprised Vlad how easily the lie slipped from his lips. Maybe it shouldn’t have. He’d been doing a lot of it lately. Pushing the image of Snow from his mind, he met Otis’s gaze.
Otis furrowed his brow. “Fine. If Joss keeps his distance, I’ll leave him be. But so help him if he threatens or harms you again.”
Vlad shook his head. “Then I’ll deal with him. I don’t want him hurt.”
The corner of Otis’s mouth twitched slightly. “You’ve made that abundantly clear. So what do you want?”
The thing was that he had no real idea of what he wanted. The only thing he could think of was for time to spin backward, for Joss to have never become a slayer in the first place. And that wasn’t exactly an option.
Vlad sighed. “Your advice. I want to know how to make a slayer back off without killing him.”
Otis sat back, shaking his head. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried. As far as I’ve seen, you can’t. Once a slayer has his mark, he will stop at nothing until the task has been completed. It’s always just been easier to take them out of the picture altogether.”
His voice took on a disgusted tone and rose as he continued. “They call it that—a task. Did your friend mention that? I suppose it must make taking the life of a person easier to refer to the act as a task instead of murder.”
He threw his arms up, disgusted and angry and acting very much like Vlad wasn’t on his side. “Just as referring to vampires as things and monsters must make it easier to stomach the idea of killing people who happen to have fangs.” Vlad watched him, wide-eyed, slumping back in his seat. “Why do you sound so angry?”
Otis stood suddenly, and slapped his palms on the table, his eyes fierce. “Because I am! How can you defend him, Vladimir? How can you spare his life when he nearly took yours? He’s nothing, just a slayer, a foolish assassin armed with a wooden stake. They are the ones who declared war on us, and we have every right to defend ourselves when we know an attack is about to happen. That’s all Joss is, Vlad, another casualty of war. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
Otis sat down in the chair opposite Vlad, his eyes seething. “If you ask me, the world would be a better place without him and his kind walking around, free to do as they please.”
Vlad shook his head wordlessly. When he spoke, it was in near-whispers. “Listen to yourself, Otis. You’re grouping them all together and plotting their extinction. You sound just like they do. Maybe you’re not all that different.”
Otis clenched his jaw and pointed a stern finger at his nephew. He stood abruptly, pushing the chair sharply back from the table. Vlad instantly knew that he had gone too far, but he didn’t care. He braced himself for the words that were soon to come flying out of his uncle’s mouth. Hateful words. Words filled with venom and justification.
But the words didn’t come. Otis turned and walked out of the kitchen. When the front door slammed, Vlad winced, but only slightly.
The coin lay on the tabletop where he’d left it. Plucking it up in his hand, he spun it once more, and wondered if Joss had noticed its absence, or if he had any idea where it might be now. It had to be his, after all. There were no other slayers in Bathory. It had to be Joss’s coin. Maybe that’s why Vlad had kept it. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t stop looking at it.
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