Web staggered back, the hunk torn out of his arms by Denise's claws healing before his gaze. Her hands had changed moments before she attacked him, stretching into those monsterlike talons that punched through her gloves while her eyes slanted at an unnatural angle.
"Kitten, secure Nathanial," Spade heard Bones shout, but it barely registered. Bloodlust competed with a screaming violence within him. He needed to get Denise below to heal her. He needed to rip every limb off Web's body.
His decision was made when he saw the blood still gushing out of Denise's stomach. Spade swung her up, kicking Web hard enough to knock him against the bow, but left him there while he hurried to take her below.
Denise fought him, snarls coming from her throat and her beautiful hazel eyes filling up with red. Spade jumped down into the interior hallway that led to the bedrooms, tearing his wrist open with his fangs.
"Drink," he ordered, holding his bleeding wrist to her mouth.
Denise tried to turn her head away, but Spade forced the drops of his blood into her mouth. She swallowed, grimacing. When his wrist healed, Spade bit it open again, this time to drip his blood directly over the stab wound in her stomach.
Even as that awful gash began to heal, Denise gasped, those noises continuing to come out of her throat instead of words. Spade went into the stateroom, setting her on the bed and watching her in rising panic. Her injury had healed; why did it seem like she was getting worse?
"Denise, look at me. Tell me what's wrong," he urged.
Her eyes were all red now, slanting at those impossible angles, and her clawed hands ripped at his wrists to knock him away. Harsh, unintelligible sounds came from her, growing in volume as her struggles increased.
"Crispin!" Spade shouted. Maybe Denise needed stronger blood than his. Could Web's knives have somehow been poisoned?
It was Cat who came barreling into the bedroom. Spade ignored her gasp when she saw Denise, not sparing her a glance.
"Get Crispin," he snapped.
Denise began to writhe, the noises from her sounding more frantic. Spade had never seen anything like this before. What was wrong with her?
"I told you, I can help," a voice said from behind Cat.
Spade swung around, his gaze narrowing when he saw it was Nathanial. "What's wrong with her?"
"She's like me," Nathanial whispered. "The brands...she's too far gone to stop it now."
"Make sense or I'll snap your bloody spine," Spade barked, terror seizing him at hearing "too far gone." No. She couldn't be.
"Move aside," Nathanial said.
Spade gave him a look that promised a long, horrible death if he did anything to harm her, but Denise's convulsive jerking made him willing to let the lad try whatever he thought could help.
"What's her name? Denise?" Nathanial asked.
"Yes." One word, clipped.
"Hold her, but not too tight. Let her move. Just don't let her get away."
Spade complied, moving behind Denise to wrap her loosely in his arms, ignoring her clawed nails scoring into his flesh.
Crispin appeared behind Cat in the narrow passageway. "What is it?"
"I don't know," Spade said tightly. "She's...not well."
"I killed the other vampire, but Web got away. We need to leave. He'll have more people on the way soon, if not already," Crispin said with a grim glance at Denise.
"You can't move her yet, you don't understand!" Nathanial exclaimed.
Crispin lasered a glare on him. "Did I ask for your opinion?"
"Argue with him later, I need his help now," Spade ground out. "Find another way, Crispin. Buy us time."
His friend wordlessly went topside. The boat lurched moments later as Crispin gunned the engines.
Nathanial knelt in front of her. "Denise, I know you can hear me," he began in a strong, clear voice. "You're panicking because you feel like you're being pulled inside out, but you'll be all right. You got too upset and it triggered the change. You're too far into it to stop, but you can control it."
"What the bloody hell are you on about?" Spade demanded. "If you're making this up, I'll - "
"Don't bother with threats, there's nothing you can do to me that hasn't been done," Nathanial replied bleakly before his tone hardened. "I've been through this before. You haven't, so be quiet and do as I say."
Cat looked almost as shocked by that bold statement as she was by Denise's altered hands and eyes, but she didn't say anything. Spade decided to follow her example. He clamped his mouth shut.
Nathanial returned his attention to Denise, who was twisting and moaning in that guttural, bone-chilling way.
"Listen to me, Denise," he commanded, moving closer. "If you don't control what you change into, your mind will pick whatever scares you the most, and I'm guessing it'll be something that ends up killing everyone on this boat. So focus on what I'm saying to you. Stop struggling."
Denise's horrible moans didn't stop, but her attempts to break free from Spade did. He felt a flare of hope. She understood what the lad was saying to her, even enough to act on it. Whatever was happening, her con sciousness hadn't been buried beyond reach underneath it.
"Good. See? You're in control enough to force your body into doing what you want. You've fed the demon essence too much to stop the change, but it won't be permanent. Do you understand, Denise? You'll be okay."
Something like a sob came out of her. Spade's heart twisted hearing it.
"I want you to think of something small, something harmless," Nathanial went on. "Something that couldn't hurt anyone. Focus on that. See it in your mind. Don't think about anything else, just that..."
Denise's entire body shuddered, then unbelievably, Spade felt her bones start to shrink under his hands. Her skin rippled around her frame as if it were water, folding into itself and contracting along with the rest of her.
"Oh. My. God." Cat's voice, mirroring the shock he felt.
"You're all right," Nathanial said, never losing that confidence in his tone even though Spade felt like his world was tilting out from under him. "You're doing good. You're controlling it. Keep focusing on that small, harmless image. Don't let it out of your mind for a second..."
Denise continued to shrink until her clothes covered most of what Spade could see of her. He was frozen, unable to move or speak, watching as the woman he loved seemed to vanish in front of his eyes.
"You're doing good," Nathanial chanted.
If Spade could still talk, he'd have told the lad he'd lost his bloody mind, calling anything about what was happening "good." But he could only stare as there was a final shuddering underneath the pile of clothes that, minutes ago, Denise had worn, but now covered...whatever was left of her.