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A Vial of Life(A Shade of Vampire,Book 21)(7) by Bella Forrest

When we returned to the witch physician Uma’s island with the ingredients and Benjamin found out that the merflor was missing, he immediately suspected Arron—although, of course, it had been me who had removed and destroyed it. Then a few moments later as we stood on that hilltop discussing returning to The Cove to collect more merflor, Bahir vanished. That left only the jinni inside Benjamin to deal with. I knew then that I had a good chance of luring him back to our ship with the idea of the Elder box.

Then the Hawk practically took himself out. I’d suspected from the look in Arron’s eyes that he was planning to attack Benjamin. But I waited until he neared Benjamin with the iron bar before leaping at him and tearing out his throat—I had to do it while Benjamin was watching, so that he could see how I’d saved him yet again.

After that, Benjamin Novak had no more options. There was nothing left that he could do but take my suggestion to come with me to retrieve the box.

As soon as we reached the ship and I brought him on board, it was plain sailing. Since he’d been so unsuspecting, we had the element of surprise on our side and it wasn’t long before we’d locked him in the box.

Now he was with Basilius. As I and Hans’ siblings moved down the mountain to meet with the Elder who had promised to finally take us to see Hans, I thought of Benjamin Novak, lying paralyzed on that cliffside. Perhaps his Elder had already taken him over by now.

It had been hard to remain stoic throughout my betrayal. I hadn’t wanted to do what I did to Benjamin. The more I’d gotten to know the vampire, the more difficult the task had become because… he was a good man. I didn’t want to cause harm to him and yet delivering him to the Elder was the only way I could see Hans again. My yearning for my lover blinded me to all else and almost numbed me to the guilt.

Once we reached the foot of the mountain, I shoved aside thoughts of Benjamin. We’d arrived outside an old oak door etched into the mountain wall—one I recognized too well.

My breathing became harsh and erratic. This is it. Finally, the day has come. I exchanged glances with Arletta, who stood next to me with clenched fists.

I stepped forward and knocked on the door. “We brought the boy safely to Cruor,” I called. “Now he is with Basilius.”

I sighed with relief as a cold presence closed in around us. The door creaked open and we stepped inside a long dark tunnel.

“Straight ahead,” a voice hissed.

I was surprised that we were going along this route. It was one of the main entrances to the Elders’ mountain abode. Could they really be keeping Hans and the other vessels here?

The path wound deeper and deeper into the mountain until the Elder commanded us to stop. Strangely, it was right in the middle of the tunnel. There were no doors or anything nearby… at least not that I could see.

Then Arletta pointed to our right. A ridge ran down the wall from top to bottom to form a perfect ninety-degree angle.

“Enter through this door,” the Elder commanded.

No wonder the Elder had said I would never find the place where Hans was hidden. When passing through long tunnels like this, one didn’t pay attention to the walls. They faded into the background.

Arletta and I pushed against the stone with all our strength, but it was incredibly stiff. As though it hadn’t been opened since the day it was locked.… Perhaps even eighteen years ago. Fear filled me. Will Hans really not have consumed blood for eighteen years? Although I didn’t see how he would have been able to consume it since the Elders weren’t supplying it, at the back of my mind I’d held out hope that somehow he’d managed to procure enough blood to stay healthy. Please be alive. Please be alive. I repeated the mantra over and over in my head like a prayer.

Hans’ brothers helped out with the stone entrance and, with all of us pushing at once, the door ground open.

Before us was another long, dark tunnel, the ground and ceiling cluttered with stalagmites and stalactites. We had to watch our step to avoid being gouged. After five minutes, we reached a dead end.

“Now what?” I murmured.

“This is another door,” Braithe, Hans’ second youngest brother, said. And he was right. Before us was the same ridge. Again, it required all five of us to force it open. The grating of stone against stone sent echoes bouncing around the walls, making the place feel all the more eerie. We stepped through the second door and arrived at the top of a jagged stone staircase—at the bottom of which we could spot yet another door, this one locked with a bolt. I wondered how many more doors we’d have to pass through.

We reached the bottom of the staircase and, drawing aside the thick metal bolt, began to tug on the third door. Just as it felt like we were on the verge of prying it open, the Elder spoke again.

“Beyond this door, you will be reunited with the vessel you seek.”

As Hans’s siblings continued to tackle the entrance, I drew away and held up a hand. “Wait,” I whispered. Now that we were on the precipice of seeing Hans again, fear washed over me—fear of what we might see behind this door. Most of all, I feared seeing his wasted corpse.

Hans’ siblings respected my wish to take a few moments to steel myself before barging through the door. I was sure that they were taking the opportunity to do the same. Sensing that the Elder’s presence was still with us, I asked him in a shaking voice, “Is Hans actually alive?”

There was a pause. An agonizingly long pause. Then the Elder gave me the least comforting answer he possibly could. “I know not,” he whispered back.