Something ancient and vicious lurked in Szilagyi's whiskey-colored gaze. "Begging would only please you, but I know what won't. You care for her; I can smell it. You may think you've won, old friend, but I'll make you remember what it's like to lose someone precious, and how fitting that you'll lose her here."

I watched something slip from his sleeve, no bigger than a cigarette lighter, but I didn't do anything. Maybe because I'd seen too many movies where the villain monologues all of his evil plans before attempting to act on them. Szilagyi didn't say a word. He simply pressed a button on it and the world exploded.

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Well, not the world, but the one around me, anyway.

Vlad's reaction saved me from being killed right then. Rocks blasted out with tremendous force, but his body formed a shield that protected my front while his arms covered as much of my back as they could. My head was stuffed into his chest, his chin holding it down and covering the top of it. The backs of my legs felt shredded from the flying shards, but with the ground dissolving beneath us, that was the least of my problems.

Then Vlad's grip tightened and suddenly nothing was beneath my feet. Were we flying? Being sucked down with the crumbling mountain? I shouldn't have turned to the side to look, but I did-and saw an ocean of fire coming straight at us.

I'd relived death-by-explosion before, so I knew what seemed to take several seconds actually happened in an instant. Vlad vaulted us up, escaping most of the stone and brick minefield, but the fire was too fast. It rushed upward, matching his speed easily. I squeezed my eyes shut again, bracing for the inevitable agony. If I was lucky, death would take me quickly. At least I knew Vlad would survive the flames. Szilagyi had detonated another mountain, but this one wouldn't claim him. It would only take me, and while that sucked, I wasn't the type to want company in death.

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Then those roaring flames enveloped me. I felt it in the pressure that covered every inch of me, but though the wind from the inferno whipped my hair around, the only heat I felt came from the vampire who held me so tight, it was hard to breathe.

Had my body gone into shock, numbing me from the pain? Possible, but it had never happened so fast before. I risked another glance-and saw flames all around me, even rippling above me, but though the smoke turned the few breaths I managed into ragged coughs, it was almost as if the fire skipped over me. Not even my clothes or hair were singed.

It was so unbelievable that my mind refused to accept it. I had to be burning. Any second now I'd feel that excruciating pain slam into me and smell the horrifying odor of my own flesh cooking. But even as I waited, Vlad slanted us sideways and increased his speed. The smoke and flames were now to our left, giving me an unrestricted view of Castle Poenari as it smoldered and crumbled into the mountain below it.

Finally Vlad set us at the bottom of that mountain, far enough away from the rock slides that smeared the formerly pristine snow with ugly streaks of gray and black. It took several seconds for my legs to stop shaking enough for me to stand on my own, and even then, I couldn't bring myself to release the grip I had around his neck.

"How?" I managed, my mind filling in the rest of what I couldn't verbally articulate. How did I not burn to death? Nothing should have survived that fire except the vampire still holding me upright.

Vlad loosened my grip enough to stare down at me. "My aura saved you."

At my blank look, he went on. "You did notice that my clothes never burn when I call forth flames. My power recognizes anything contained within my aura as part of me and thus won't consume it. Other fire travels right over my aura as if repelled by it, so I coated you in it to make the flames pass over you."

I was so stunned that I couldn't speak. He'd actually managed to make me fireproof? How long would it last?

His mouth twisted into a musing smile. "I don't know. I've never done this before. Perhaps it will wear off in as little as an hour, perhaps it will last weeks."

It took me a few moments to process the subtext behind that statement because I was still overwhelmed by what had just happened.

"If you've never done this before, how did you know it would work?"

His expression changed into the arrogant one I knew so well. "Because it had to. I wasn't about to let you die."

I shook my head with a sort of bemused amazement. I'd worried that his ego might be the death of him, but as it turned out, it had saved my life. Of course he wouldn't hesitate before trying something that had never been done before. He was Vlad Tepesh. How could he fail?

Another rumbling sound made me look upward toward what used to be Castle Poenari. A huge smoking hole was all that was left of the tower, and almost all of those imposing high walls had crumbled into the forest below. The structure I'd so recently thought of as a stone dragon now looked like a ragged skeleton.

"Oh, Vlad," I said softly. "Your home. It's . . . gone."

His hands settled onto my shoulder, their heat searing through the layers of clothing I'd stolen from my now dead captors.

"It hasn't been my home for centuries. I'm not sorry that it's gone. Its place in my life is long over."

Above the noise from the rock slides, trees falling, and other destructive sounds, I heard shouts. Vlad and I turned, and though I couldn't see who it was in the distance, he smiled.

"Maximus, Shrapnel, and Martin seem to have survived the explosion. They must have gone out the tunnel."

Then he looked at me and his smile faded. "Why did you wait to tell me about that?" Hints of anger colored his voice.

"Because you would've sent someone else to free them," I replied, the topic helping me to regain my shattered composure. "I can't do anything about the guards who were killed, but Maximus and Shrapnel were captured while protecting me, so it was only fair that I was the one to get them out. I didn't even want Marty to come along, but he insisted."

"Such a reckless, foolish risk," he muttered, but when he brushed my hair, his touch was gentle despite his hardened tone.

I smiled, holding up my hand. "Reckless, maybe. Foolish, no. You were right. This is a formidable weapon."

He clasped it, absorbing the current it contained without a flicker in his expression.

"Yes, but you are still only human."

I laughed, the sound of it drowned out by the crunch of rocks as the mountain continued to shudder as though in the throes of birth pangs.

"So was Van Helsing, yet in every movie, he beat the vampire in the end. Never underestimate the power of humanity."

Epilogue

Dawn broke with a veil of fog, tinting everything with a haze like the glimpses I occasionally caught of the future. Vlad had sent me and Marty back home while he and several guards searched the ruins under Castle Poenari. He wanted to make sure none of Szilagyi's people who survived the explosion escaped, and he wanted his enemy's bones, either as proof that he was dead, or as a trophy, or both.

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