"You were a spoiled child who did a cruel thing. You deserved to be beaten and confined to your room, but you didn't deserve to lose everything."
I swiped at the sudden wetness near my eyes. "Oh? I wanted to stay with my aunt, and I got my wish. My mom, sister, and I moved in with Aunt Brenda when she told my dad to go to Germany unaccompanied while she figured out what to do. Then a month later, tornados knocked a bunch of trees down in our neighborhood. Afterward, I heard a dog whining in the yard. It was so weird; the dog just sat there, tree limbs all around him. I didn't see the downed power line. I went to clear the debris away . . . and the next thing I knew, I woke up in a hospital." Harsh sigh. "The doctors said I was lucky the shock knocked me across the yard. Otherwise, I'd have burned to a crisp while stuck to that power line. But what no one could explain was why my mother died from the leftover voltage in my body when she tried to help me, yet that same voltage didn't kill me."
"Why?" Vlad's lips curled, his sympathetic expression gone. "Some things just are, Leila. You survived. She didn't. Wondering why is as irrelevant as it is futile."
After everything I'd experienced, I knew that to be true. Yet it didn't make the pain of my mother's death go away, let alone my guilt over how I'd ripped my family apart.
Vlad began digging again. Either he was impatient or the ground wasn't as frozen farther down because his progress was faster.
"Again you're being naive. Your father's infidelity ripped your family apart. You were merely the messenger."
I'd never told anyone this next part, and it took two tries before I could force the words past my newly tight throat.
"He wanted to work things out. He cheated on my mom, but he still loved her, and when she died . . . part of him blamed me so much that he avoided me. He never said that, but I saw it when I touched him." My voice cracked. "It's his worst sin."
Vlad abandoned his digging and rose, but I held out a hand. "Don't. Right now I need you to be cold. If you're not, then I have to remember how much that hurt, and I don't want to."
The words were ragged, but I'd managed to stop the tears, at least. Vlad stared at me for a long moment, his expression unreadable. At last he knelt and began digging again. A few minutes and a taller pile of dirt later, he let out a grunt and then pulled something long and whitish from the hole.
"Right where you're supposed to be," Vlad muttered.
It did seem to be undeniable proof that Szilagyi couldn't be the puppet master, but I came closer, holding out my hand.
"Let's make sure."
His brow arched, but he placed the bone in my right hand.
At once, echoes of the man's agonizing last moments washed over me. He'd been burned to death, which I expected, but I didn't see Vlad's face through the flames. I saw the puppet master's, his face haggard and gray-streaked hair much longer, but his features were unmistakable. Another jumble of images replaced those in rapid succession, showing a benign sin, long days spent farming the land, and small children playing by a mud-walled house. A name kept reverberating throughout the memories. Josef. This was all wrong.
When I clawed my way back to that fiery death again, I saw what I'd missed the first time in the jumble of pain and panic. The puppet master was wearing the ring I'd seen when he ordered my attack, only here, he was doing his own dirty work. The man buried here was named Josef, and he'd been burned to death by the same vampire who had recently tried to kill me.
Once again, I found myself surrounded by vampires while trying to find a killer through the essence trail left from the man he'd murdered. But this time, I wasn't being forced. Despite the late hour and being exhausted, I wanted to find this bastard now, not later. I would've started looking next to that grave except Vlad insisted that we return to his castle.
When I found the essence thread leading to Josef's murderer, I followed it. The tapestry room with its large fireplace and exquisite wall coverings fell away, replaced by what looked like the inside of a cement box. With the all-gray colors of the room, for a second, I thought I'd stumbled upon a past memory. Then I saw the brown wooden door with thick black iron hinges. Color images, no haziness. That meant I was in the present. In the corner of the drab room, underneath a blanket-sized fur pelt, was the elusive puppet master, asleep.
Or, if my guess was correct, Josef's murderer and the orchestrator of my kidnapping was Mihaly Szilagyi-the vampire Vlad thought he'd killed centuries ago.
"Got him," I said out loud.
The vampire's eyes snapped open, deep brown and piercing. Now that he was in color, I saw that the streaks in his hair were blond, not gray. The lines in his face also looked less pronounced, but maybe that was because he wasn't scowling like the other times I'd seen him. His complexion was typical vampire pale, but his cheeks held a faint tinge of color. He must have fed recently. Marty had always looked flushed after a good meal.
"How unexpected," the puppet master drawled with the same faint accent that Vlad had.
I glanced at the wooden door, but it was still closed. Prickles of fear danced up my spine. Vlad would have told me if he was a mind reader, I tried to reassure myself.
The vampire stretched as though waking up from a nap. "Much can change in three hundred years, my little psychic spy."
Oh, crap! "We have a problem," I said out loud. "He's like you, Vlad. He can hear me in his head."
Vlad muttered a curse, but I seized upon the only defense I had. At once, I began to mentally blast the most annoying eighties song I could think of. The vampire winced.
I turned up the volume in my head instead. Thank you, Bones! "Mihaly Szilagyi," I said aloud, "you've been found out in more ways than one."
I was guessing, but thanks to that song blasting away in my mind, the vampire didn't know that. He threw aside his blanket, revealing that he wore black sweat pants and a thick pullover sweater. Then he got up, a mocking smile on his lips.
"Capturing you has surely backfired on me. At least now I know how Vlad located you so quickly. I worried that I had a traitor in my midst, but your abilities are truly extraordinary."
"So I've been told," I replied, still mentally jamming out.
Another wince. "Must you keep thinking of that wretched song? It was unbearable even when it was new."
"How'd you do it?" I asked, not really expecting an answer. "Survive Vlad? He normally leaves behind nothing more than a pile of ash."
That made Szilagyi smile again. "We share the same sire. If Vlad thinks about it long enough, he'll figure it out."