Balthazar (Evernight #5)


by Claudia Gray

Chapter One

THE DEAD WERE WATCHING.

Skye Tierney gripped her horse’s reins in her gloved hands as she shut her eyes tightly, willing the sensation to go away. It didn’t matter, though; whether or not she could see the actual images, she knew what was happening near her—the horror of it was as tangible, and real, as the gray winter sky looming overhead.

Not watching somehow made it worse. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Skye forced herself to open her eyes—to see the woman fleeing for her life.

She thought he wouldn’t follow her up here. He hasn’t been the same since his fall two months ago; it was as if the goodness in him left when his head was cut open, and something else—something darker—flew in. She’d thought he wasn’t paying attention, but he was. He is. He’s here now, his fingers digging into the skin of her arm as he talks about how she has to be stopped.

This is different from his other fits. He’s scaring her so badly that her throat goes dry and she wants to just fall on the ground, play dead like some kind of witless animal, so that perhaps he’ll walk away in one of his dazes. But she can’t pull away from him even to fall; he’s too large, too strong. Voice shaking, she tells him he’s not thinking clearly, that he’ll feel sorry for this when he comes to himself again. Her desperate lunge away from him makes his fingers sink so deeply into her flesh it seems as though her skin will tear. Her feet slide in the fall leaves as she hits at him with her one free hand.

He’s smiling as if he’d just seen something beautiful as he pulls her around in one long circle, just like a child twirling a friend, the way he twirled her when they were little together, except that he slings her over the side of the cliff and lets go.

She screams and screams, arms and legs kicking at the rushing air, all of it futile, and the fall lasts so long, so long, so fast—

Skye stumbled backward against Eb, her veins rushing with adrenaline and her throat tight. The image faded, but the horror didn’t.

“It’s still happening,” she whispered. Nobody to hear her but the horse, and yet Eb turned his massive black head toward her, something gentle in his gaze. Her parents always said she gave him credit for feelings he couldn’t have or understand. They didn’t know anything about horses.

Leaning her head against his thick neck, Skye tried to catch her breath. Despite the warm gray coat and thick teal sweater she wore, cold air cut through her skin to deepen her shivering. The wind caught at the locks of her auburn brown hair that hung from beneath her riding helmet, reminding her that soon night would fall and the wintry beauty of the riding trails on state land behind her house would turn to bitter, even savage, chill. And yet she couldn’t bring herself to move.

Their words to each other had been spoken in a language Skye didn’t speak, didn’t even think she’d heard before. Their clothing and hair made her think they must have been Native American. Was what she’d seen something from five or six hundred years in the past? Did the visions take her back as far as that? Further? It felt like there might be no end to them.

As impossible as it seemed, the visions of past deaths that had surrounded her for the last five weeks—ever since the fall of Evernight Academy—weren’t going away. She never doubted for a moment that the deaths she’d seen were real, no mere nightmares. This … psychic power, or whatever it was, had become a part of her.

It wasn’t as though she’d never believed in the supernatural before this winter; the home she’d grown up in had been haunted. The ghost in her attic had been as real to her as her big brother, Dakota, and about equally as likely to hide her favorite toys to tease her. She’d never been frightened of the girl-ghost upstairs—understanding, somehow, that it was playful and young. Its pranks were gentle and funny, things like taking her pink socks and putting them in Dakota’s dresser, or knocking on the bed frame just as Skye was drifting to sleep. Dakota had “known” the ghost first, and he was the one who had told her it was nothing to be scared of—that ghosts were probably as natural as rain or sunshine or anything else on earth. So she had never doubted that something existed beyond the world everyone could see.

Despite that, Skye had never suspected just how much closer, and more dangerous, the supernatural could get.

Since her sophomore year, she’d been a student at Evernight Academy—which, so far as she’d known, was an elite boarding school in the Massachusetts hills, like many others; sure, there were some odd rules, and some of the other students sometimes struck her as definitely older than their years, but that wasn’t so weird … she’d thought.

No, she hadn’t suspected anything out of the ordinary about Evernight. When her good friend Lucas told her it was dangerous—a school for vampires, no less—she’d assumed he was joking.

Until the freaking vampire war broke out.

Eb nudged her with his nose, as if willing her back to the here and now. Skye decided he was right. Nothing helped her as much as riding.

She steadied herself on the snowy ground before slinging one foot up into the saddle and hoisting herself into her seat. Eb remained motionless, waiting, ready for her. To think she had him because her twelve-year-old self had told her parents she only wanted a black horse with a white star on its forehead.

(That’s silly, Dakota had said. He was sixteen, maddeningly superior by then, and yet somehow still the person she wanted to impress more than any other. You don’t pick horses by colors. They’re not My Little Ponies. But he’d smiled as he said it, and she had forgiven him right away—

No. She wasn’t going to let herself think about Dakota.)

Well, okay, she had been silly. Back then she hadn’t known what to look for in a horse: sureness, steadiness, the ability to know the person on its back as surely as any other human being ever could or would. Eb had all that, and the star.

I should hurry home in case Mom and Dad check on me, she thought. Even in her mind, the words rang hollow. They would be in Albany, working hard. Supposedly this was because their jobs were so demanding—which they were. Skye knew that. But she also knew that the real reason they’d buried themselves even deeper in work during the past year was because they didn’t want to let themselves think about Dakota either. Skye hadn’t quite realized how far they’d taken it until she moved back from boarding school five weeks earlier. She also hadn’t realized how badly she’d wanted them to be home.

But they all had to deal with this in their own way. If that meant she had to deal on her own, okay.

Clicking her tongue and bringing in her heels, Skye got Eb moving, his hooves crunching through the snow. Only about six inches of it on the ground at the moment, which was as good as it got in upstate New York in early January. Soon it would be falling a foot or two at a time, maybe more. All around her, the stark branches of leafless trees stretched up to claw at the low gray sky.

“Now we know to avoid the cliff,” she said aloud, her breath making clouds in the crisp late-afternoon air. “That’s one more place we won’t go. Soon we’ll have figured out a nice long track in the woods to ride on every day, one where nobody ever died, and I won’t have to see anything scary at all.”

But already Skye felt as if she would never again be able to escape the presence of death.

It had begun at Evernight, during that last terrible day. As the vampires fought among themselves, some tribal battle she’d never understood, ghosts trapped within the building had been set free. One of them—Lucas’s dead love, Bianca—had remained imprisoned. Skye’s loyalty to him had led her to make a spontaneous offer—to take Bianca inside herself, to be possessed by her—in order to help her escape.

What Skye hadn’t counted on was how it would feel to share a body with a dead person—how terrifying it was, even when it was someone she instinctively trusted. And she definitely hadn’t realized that being possessed would leave her open to the spirits of the dead forever.

As Eb took her through the heavy woods, Skye wondered if anybody besides her had ever seen these visions. If anyone else understood that throughout Darby Glen, on the streets, in the buildings, even out here in the forest, the world reverberated with the echoes of death after death—

A snapping sound nearby startled her, but only momentarily; it wasn’t unusual to see foxes darting among the snow or deer foraging for what little food remained this time of year. Skye almost welcomed the break from her thoughts—better to lose herself in the moment, in the warmth of Eb, the rhythm of his stride, the beauty in the woods around her. So she looked toward the sound with more relief than alarm—

Until she saw that the snap had been caused not by an animal but a man.

He stood there in his brown coat, staring at her. If he had smiled, waved, or called out hello, Skye wouldn’t have found it unusual; this was state land, after all, and though she and Eb often had the trails to themselves this time of year, she wasn’t the only one who found the forest in wintertime beautiful.

But he didn’t do any of those things. He just stared at her with a flat, almost haughty gaze that felt unnervingly familiar.

“C’mon, Eb.” Skye urged her horse to go a bit faster, still only slightly shaken. This guy, whoever he was, didn’t look good to her—but as a rider, she was faster than he could ever be.

Or so she thought.

Eb’s steps quickened further, and the muscles in her body tensed to hold her steady in her seat. Twigs snapped beneath his hooves, and ice crunched—and yet she could hear more than that. She could hear footsteps behind them.

Skye glanced over her shoulder and saw the watcher in the brown coat, walking after them now, unusually sure-footed on the treacherous terrain. His unnerving expression hadn’t changed at all, but his hands were no longer in his pockets. He was clenching and spreading them, over and over, as if preparing for some kind of strenuous task. Like, say, strangling somebody.

Which was probably completely paranoid of her, she decided; she couldn’t allow her visions to bleed over into her every waking thought. But she looked back at the trail ahead and wondered if she dared to urge Eb to move faster. Rocky—snowy—but not too bad. She jabbed her ankles into his sides, not too roughly, just hard enough for him to know it was time to move.

Eb shifted into a brisk trot, or as brisk as he could manage given the undergrowth, but it was enough to leave behind any human who wasn’t running to keep up.

Again, Skye looked over her shoulder. The guy was running after her. And more than keeping up.

This was real. It wasn’t paranoia, or a supernatural vision of death, or some hysterical hallucination cooked up by what she’d been through at Evernight. That man was real, and he wanted to hurt her, and he was coming after her as fast as he could.

Skye dug her heels into Eb’s sides and snapped the reins, the signal for him to gallop. Treacherous as the ground was, Eb responded immediately by breaking into a run. She leaned forward, the better to avoid being smacked in the face by the tree branches now rushing by her. Her breath quickened, the air so brutally cold that her throat ached. Fear lanced through her, but anger, too—fierce enough to almost overcome the fright. How dare this jerk try to come after her? He was a disgusting creep and she wished she could take a horsewhip to him, but she knew that instead she had to get the hell out of here.

Above her, she heard a strange thudding in the trees. Her eyes darted upward, and despite the blur of motion overhead she could make out his shape. He was above her. Twenty feet up. And leaping ahead of her as if he were weightless.

Oh, my God, she thought. It’s a vampire.

This one wasn’t like the vampires at Evernight. He wasn’t trying to hide what he was. He was moving faster than Eb. Coming for her. Coming to kill her.

Eb stumbled so suddenly that even Skye’s expert seat couldn’t hold her in place—she went tumbling in front of him, hitting the frozen ground so hard the breath was sucked out of her.