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OTIS, NO! Otis pulled away, and Henry winced as Otiss fangs slipped out of his neck. Vlad breathed a brief sigh of relief that Henry wasnt dead, but he was still horrified at the scene before him. What have you done?

Otis stood, strong once again, his wounds completely healed. Your drudge saved my life.

Then he met Henrys eyes. Thank you, Henry. I am indebted to you.

Henry nodded weakly and said, Hey, you needed blood. I couldnt let you starve to death. Besides, you could barely move and, not that I dont have faith in Vlads abilities, but something tells me were going to need your help getting out of here.

Otis replied, but Vlad was too distracted to hear it. His breathing had picked up in panic, his eyes blurring with tears. But these things hadnt come from him. He focused on the part of his mind that was still controlling Jasik, pushing a bit more until he saw through Jasiks eyes.

DAblo was beneath him, holding the blade at bay, his eyes fierce. Youre weak, Jasik. Letting a boy control you like this. You deserve what fate awaits you.

Jasik was panicking and struggling to regain control-Vlad could sense that much. But he couldnt. Vlad, for once, was too strong-something that pleased Vlad more than he would ever admit to.

But still Jasik struggled, pushing with his mind against the part of Vlad that lurked within him. It was more than Vlad could allow, and he pushed back with all of his might, harder than he ever had before. Jasik lowered the knife momentarily, dazed. Something warm and wet dripped from his nose. It was only when a drop of crimson landed on DAblos hand that Vlad realized Jasiks nose was bleeding. Whats more, Jasik seemed dazed, as if Vlad had caused him physical harm, all from pushing with his mind.

In an instant, DAblo had wrenched the blade from Jasiks hand and shoved him across the room. Jasik stumbled and fell, only to find DAblo atop him with the blade, growling to Vlad through Jasiks ears, Youll be next, Vladimir Tod.

He shoved the blade forward hard, piercing Jasiks chest and sinking the blade as deep as he could. Jasik struggled to pull it out, but it was too late. Blood poured from his heart, and Jasiks vision blurred, then darkened.

Sharp, horrible pain crashed through Vlads mind. He staggered, and Otis caught him. Vladimir, whats wrong?

But Vlad couldnt speak. The pain the pain of death was too much to bear. He could feel the blade in his own chest, though nothing was there. He could feel his life aching and ebbing from his limbs. He was alive, and apart from his wrist, which was already beginning to heal, in good health, yet he hurt as if it were he who was dying.

And then the emptiness came.

Vlad weakened in Otiss embrace. He could almost feel himself going paler. It was over. Jasik was dead.

But the pain remained, coupled with the terrifying shadow of death that shrouded his being. Vlad was a living zombie now, an echo of what his living self had been. There was no going back. This was penance for what he had done to Jasik, and he deserved every nightmarish bolt of pain. He coughed, the feeling of blood pooling in his throat, and Otis whispered, You were in his mind. He died before you could withdraw.

Vlad still couldnt make a sound, only nodded feebly. Unbelievably, the pain went on and on, and only Otiss presence brought him any comfort.

Otis blanched, but spoke in a commanding tone-one that hed never used with Vlad before. You have to block these feelings, Vladimir. Or they will haunt you until the end of your days. Now stand up. If Jasik is dead, then DAblo will be here shortly. I need you. So stand up.

Vlad stood, because Otis told him to. But it was the only thing that could have made him move through the agonizing sensation of death. Otis needed him.

Otis again spoke in a commanding tone, all business now. We need to get out of here, and fast. Unfortunately, the escape tunnel we used in the past has been blocked off, so well have to leave through the lobby. Stay behind me. Henry, you remain between Vlad and me for protection-I know your ankle hurts, but keep up and move quickly. When I stop, you stop. And dont make a sound.

Vladimir. Otis met Vlads gaze, then finished his sentence with his thoughts. Sunrise is in twenty minutes, and we are without sunblock. We need to get out of this building and into the cover of darkness as soon as we can. If anyone gets in your way, kill them quickly. We dont have time to be merciful. And we do not want to be in this building when the council members arrive.

After a moment, Vlad nodded slowly. Hed had enough of death today, but apparently, death hadnt yet had enough of him.

Otis nodded in return. Through the door now. Follow me.

Otis led the way and Henry followed. Vlad, very much on guard and fighting to keep the pain of Jasiks death at bay, stepped in behind them. They moved quickly down the hall and through the open door. Otis led them through several dark corridors, always whispering before they determined which direction to take. Left now right left again

As quietly as possible, they descended a long set of stairs that led to a small, dark room. They crossed the room, then Otis listened carefully at the door at the other end. Here. This way.

The door opened into another small room, this one full of copiers and a fax machine. As he followed Otis and Henry into the room, Vlad paused. Something wasnt right. He reached out, wondering where DAblo might be, and then he saw him, actually saw him. The gloved hands, the cane he held, the sinister, sneering face, the curled lip, the fierce fangs. He saw DAblo with his mind, as hed seen Otis earlier this year standing in front of Mr. Craigs old house. Pulling away from his vision, he called out in a whisper, Otis, dont

But Otis and Henry were already out the door. Vlad ran to catch up with them just as they reached the lobby doors. He cried out, Otis, DAblo is-

Otis stopped suddenly, and Vlad caught up. DAblo was standing just as Vlad had seen him in his mind, in front of the lobby doors, their exit. -right there

Otis sighed, sounding weary. So he is.

DAblo tilted his head slightly, eyeing them with utter disdain. In stark contrast, he kept his tone light. Yes. Yes, he is. And hes grateful that you chose to come to him instead of making him come after you.

Vlad saw Otiss jaw tighten. Something told him there was a dark history between them that he knew nothing about. Otis growled, Even you cant be stupid enough to face two vampires alone, DAblo. The odds are against you, powerful as you may be. Let us pass and you can go back to whatever it was that you withdrew from my nephew.

DAblos eye twitched, and Vlad couldnt help but wonder how Otis knew what had transpired during the ritual. Most likely, he guessed, Otis had been lurking around in DAblos thoughts from the moment he had tasted Henrys blood.

Otis took a bold step forward, and Henry followed. Vlad felt a surge of pride. His best friend knew when to follow orders, that was for sure.

That-DAblo gripped the handle of his cane and twisted, withdrawing a long sword from the belly of the cane-can wait. The ritual dagger was nowhere to be found-Vlad guessed that a psycho like DAblo had deemed its purposes too holy for the likes of killing Otis. DAblo stood there, eyeing Otis. Vlad wondered how much of their conversation was occurring in telepathy.

Then leave them out of this. Id be happy to take your life on my own.

DAblo tilted his neck one way, then another, cracking it. Then take it. If youre vampire enough.

All Vlad saw was the corner of Otiss mouth twitch, and then Otis flew across the room. DAblo swung the sword, slicing a button from Otiss shirt in half, but Otis changed directions before the cold metal could pierce his skin.

DAblo moved in a blur, slashing the sword toward Otis, who ducked it, but just barely. Then DAblo snarled, his fangs dripping with saliva.

Vlad turned to check on Henry, but he seemed to have disappeared. He wondered if Henry had had the wits to get out while he still could. After all, being a human in the middle of a vampire battle was not a good way to foster ones promising future.

Otis kicked DAblo in the chest, and DAblo stumbled back. But once DAblo regained his composure, he swung the blade around again, catching Otiss cheek.

Otis cupped the gash in his face with a trembling, surprised hand. The look in his eyes was fierce and daring. Ill heal in but a moment, but youll always look the fool. What vampire needs a weapon to take down a foe?

DAblo hesitated before throwing the sword across the room. He hissed, I may look the fool for now, but it is the victor who writes the history books. And youll be lucky to end up as a footnote.

With dizzying speed, so fast that Vlad almost missed it, DAblo darted to Otis, picked him up, and threw him toward the receptionists area. Otis slid over the desktop, catching its edge with his fingertips, and pulled himself up, so that he landed on the desk in a perch. He grinned at his attacker, the cut in his cheek healing closed. Youre playing with me now. Surely you cant think that maneuver is enough to keep me down.

DAblo laughed. Not at all. But it was enough to put you farther from your dear nephew.

Otiss eyes darted to Vlad, and before Vlad could blink, Ignatius gripped him by the throat from behind, the blade of his knife poised to plunge into Vlads chest. Ignatius squeezed hard, and Vlad felt his air supply cut off. After a moment, he could no longer tug at the hands that were suffocating him, could no longer fight. All sound seemed very far away. Even the color began to bleed from the room. He thought he heard someone scream, and then Ignatius released his grip. Vlad fell to the floor in a heap, coughing and gasping until air returned to his lungs.

Ignatius was on the floor to his left. Otis was on top of him, swinging his fists so fast they were a blur. Ignatius gnashed his teeth forward at every swing, biting with his fangs into Otiss knuckles. But Otis kept punching, despite the pain. Blood flew from his hands, and the knuckles healed over until Ignatius bit them again. Finally, Ignatius managed to push Otis off him and they were both standing again, circling each other, like territorial felines. The two circled closer as the sun began to rise, shrinking the shadows of the room. Otiss voice was harsh. The next time you touch him will be your last.

Vlad was watching the scene unfold with great intensity when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that DAblo had retrieved his sword and was creeping up on Otis. Vlad acted before he could think about it. In a flash he recalled every action movie he had ever seen, every stupid wrestling match that he had been forced to endure on Saturday mornings at Henrys house. He ran as fast as he could toward DAblo, jumping high into the air at the last minute. Two size 10 shoes connected with DAblos face. A letter-perfect drop kick that even Hulk Hogan would be proud of knocked DAblo off his feet and away from Vlads uncle.

DAblo wiped blood from his already healing lip and pulled himself back onto his feet. Im growing very tired of you, boy. I am going to enjoy killing you.

Oh my God, you broken record. Why dont you get your cronies to write you some new material? Vlad glanced quickly to check on his uncle, but Otis and Ignatius had disappeared down the hall. Vlad could only hope that Otis was strong enough to defeat his own father. He turned his attention back to DAblo, balling up his fists in fury. Now do you want to go ahead and admit that your little plan has failed and give up? If not, then I suggest we finish this.

DAblo cast a condescending smile, As you wish. His sword having been knocked away when Vlad kicked him, DAblo lashed out with his fist, catching Vlad under his jaw. Vlad flew several inches into the air and came down hard on the floor. But he wasnt down for long. When DAblo jumped to cover him, he kicked him in the chest with both feet, sending him flying, then did a flip and was on his feet again.

Henry had reappeared, and he yelled Vlads name. Vlad looked just in time to see a small object flying through the air toward him. He turned his attention back to DAblo long enough to deliver a kick to his side that sent the vampire skidding across the floor. He turned back and reached out his hand to catch what Henry had thrown. His friend had one small bit of advice: Just make sure you dont miss.

Vlad furrowed his brow, and then opened his hand. What he saw there completely explained why Henry had disappeared and very nearly made him hug Henry on the spot. He turned the familiar black cylinder over in his palm, and all he could hope was that what he was holding was the real Lucis, not the copy hed been tricked with last year. He turned just as DAblo reached down to retrieve his sword. Holding his breath, Vlad aimed and brushed his thumb against the glyph on the end of the Lucis.

The room lit up with a brilliant white light. Otis came running back into the room, having apparently defeated Ignatius. He ducked just in time for the powerful beam of light to miss hitting him square in the side of the head. Vlad brushed the glyph again, closing the greatest weapon known to vampirekind.

DAblo howled. His hand had been blown completely off, leaving nothing but a charred stump behind. But off wasnt an exact description, as the hand was nowhere to be found. It had been blown into oblivion, into nonexistence.

DAblos screams echoed in the lobby of the empty office building, blending with a myriad of curse words in every language he could think of, including one that Vlad guessed to be Elysian code. Vlad gripped the Lucis tightly, but he didnt turn it on again. Something sick and horrible filled his insides. He couldnt kill DAblo. He couldnt kill anyone that his father had called friend, despite the fact that he hated DAblo with a passion. He lowered the Lucis and met Otiss eyes. I cant kill him, Otis. Im sorry.

Otis stood, his eyes wide in disbelief. He stepped toward his nephew. I can. Give me the Lucis. This menace will not be stopped until we stop him, Vladimir. It ends today.

Vlad flung the Lucis away, letting it fly from his hand. It tumbled through the air, and time stood still.

Otis pleaded with his eyes, but Vlad tightened his jaw stubbornly. It does end today. But not that way, Otis. I couldnt live with myself knowing I allowed my dads friend to die.

Otis shook his head. The Lucis clattered onto the floor. He wont stop. He will never stop.

The Lucis rolled over the slatted top of an open vent. Vlad whispered, I know.

Otis dove forward, but it was too late. The Lucis slipped between his fingers and down the vent shaft. He hung his head, defeated.

A curved blade sang through the air, stabbing through Otiss hand. Otis screamed, and Ignatius pulled him back into the dark shadows of the hallway.

Vlad jumped forward to follow, but something large slammed into his side, knocking him through the air. He managed to glance in the direction he was flying quickly enough to shield his face with his hands. He smashed through the glass of the front door, and suddenly he could feel the sunlight on his skin as he fell outside. The smell of acrid smoke filled his nostrils, and fire lit up his sleeve. He was burning.

He opened his eyes, but couldnt stand, couldnt run from the suns murderous heat. Something was on top of him.

DAblo shrieked as his hair and flesh burst into flames, but not with pain with laughter. He growled into Vlads horrified face, Perhaps its better this way, Vladimir Tod. Perhaps its better that we die together.

Then Vlad realized that the flames he felt werent coming from him. DAblos burning flesh had set his clothing on fire. Vlad was perfectly fine and in full sunlight.

He screeched, DAblo, get to the shadows! Youre dying!

In a horrific, gravelly voice, flames framing his face as his skin charred before Vlads very eyes, DAblo said, Were both dying.

He withdrew the ritual dagger with his only hand from somewhere behind him and lifted it high in the air.

Vlad almost choked from the smoke coming off DAblos burning flesh. He pushed as hard as he could with his mind, into DAblos thoughts, just long enough to make him drop the blade. Once metal had clanged against pavement, Vlad grabbed the dagger and pointed at his attacker.

DAblo stood, still aflame, and ran toward the nearest dark alley. All the while, he screamed.

Vlad dropped the weapon and rested his head on the concrete. After a moment, he held up a hand in the sunlight. It felt warm. It felt good.

And it erased any small remaining doubt that he was the Pravus the prophecy had spoken of.

23 THE RITUAL | Tenth Grade Bleeds | 25 THE AFTERMATH