Underworld, page 1
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The very memory of that night was like a recurring nightmare….
The fog was cold and damp, and an icy wind blew through the shadow-cloaked forest, but Selene barely noticed the chill. Autumn trees, bare and skeletal, clawed at her as she ran frantically through the woods outside her home. Her heart pounded so loudly she felt certain it would burst. Glancing back over her shoulder, she glimpsed vague, indistinct figures moving through the mist behind her. A full moon shone through the barren tree branches overhead. Storm clouds drifted across the moon like a veil.
They were chasing her. Whatever they were.
Only nineteen years old, Selene knew she was soon to die.
Heartrending screams ripped through the night, sending fresh jolts of fear and anguish through the young woman’s soul. Her dark brown hair streamed wildly behind her. Panic filled her wide chestnut eyes. Undried tears streaked her cheeks. A thin linen nightgown provided scant protection from the cold. Spilled blood streaked her gown, glistening wetly in the moonlight. The sticky red fluid had soaked through the fabric, causing the linen to cling to her skin. Bare feet raced over a carpet of fallen leaves.
Thunder boomed above her. A jagged bolt of lightning sliced the sky in twain. Rain poured down in sheets, drenching Selene. The forest floor turned to mud beneath her feet. Muck oozed between her toes and she had to fight to keep her balance on the slippery leaves. If she fell, her pursuers would be on her in an instant. Chances were, she would never rise again.
Who are they? she wondered. What are they?
More screams penetrated the darkness. The blood-chilling ululations came not from human throats. Something is in the stables, she realized. The horses sounded as though they were being torn to pieces, which might well be the case. Selene had already witnessed far worse this evening.
The blood upon her gown was not her own, but it could not have been any more precious to her before it had gushed from the severed throats of her mother, sister, and baby nieces. She had left the butchered bodies of her nearest and dearest strewn upon the wooden floor of their violated home when she had fled madly into the night, seeking out the only family left to her.
Father! she thought desperately. He had gone out to calm the horses only moments before the mysterious invaders had attacked their home. Please, God, let him live still. Do not leave me alone with these…creatures!
The stables loomed before her, barely visible in the mist and gloom. As she drew nearer the large wooden structure, she saw that the barn door was open wide. Had her father drawn back the door while checking on the horses, or had the monsters already invaded the stables as well? Utter blackness shrouded the interior of the stable, offering no clue as to what might lurk within, but she could hear the frightened horses whinnying in alarm. The poor animals sounded absolutely terrified.
Dare she enter the stables alone? Glancing once more over her shoulder at the hellish shapes surging through the fog, she realized she had no other choice. The sturdy building was her only hope for sanctuary, no matter how meager.
Trusting her life to fate, she dashed through the doorway into the stables. A timber roof provided welcome relief from the pouring rain. Flashes of lightning and sporadic moonbeams filtered through the roof to provide some slight degree of illumination. Crazed horses bucked violently in their stalls, terrified by the storm and God only knew what else. Their hooves pounded against the solid oak doors trapping them in their stalls. They had worked themselves into a lather, the sweat gleaming on their quivering bodies.
Selene could not spare a second to see to the horses. Before her pursuers could catch up with her, she slammed the door shut and bolted it in place. She prayed that the heavy oaken barrier would keep out the bloodthirsty monsters behind her, but feared that no power on earth could truly save her. It was as though Death itself had come lunging out of the fog this night, to strike down her loved ones one by one.
Breathing hard, she turned away from the door. Water streamed from her hair and gown. The dank air reeked of wet hay, dung, horse sweat, and blood. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darker gloom of the sealed barn, and she staggered forward uncertainly. Another flash of lightning pierced the darkness, revealing a supine figure lying motionless upon the hay-strewn floor between the stalls. The sprawled body was as still and silent as the grave.
No! Selene thought. An icy certainty spread through her veins, and she felt her last vestige of hope succumb to despair. She stumbled toward the lifeless form, already knowing what she would find. Her brown eyes brimmed with tears.
The face of the corpse was contorted with fear, but Selene could not fail to recognize the kindly, bearded visage that had so often looked upon her with warmth and affection. Her father’s throat had been torn open, as though by a rabid animal. Bright red blood was splattered all over him, just as it had been on the savaged bodies back at their house. His limbs were twisted and askew. Broken shards of bone jutted from his fractured arms and legs. Glassy eyes stared blankly into oblivion.
Her father was dead—just like the rest of her family.
She was alone.
Why us? she thought in agony. What did we ever do to deserve this? She dropped to her knees beside the body, heedless of the blood spreading out from beneath her father’s gory remains. My father was a good man. A decent man. Violent sobs rocked her body. Tears fell upon the dead metalsmith’s face.
A deafening crash jolted her from her grief. She spun around toward the barn door, which shivered beneath the force of powerful blows. A battering ram? she thought in confusion as the oak door was smashed to splinters. It crashed to the floor with a resounding thud that echoed loudly throughout the stables.
Selene turned away from the door, back toward her father. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut. Although Death had surely come for her, she had no desire to look it in the face. Trembling, she awaited the fatal blow that would sever her soul from her body. She could only pray that her end would be swift.
Soon, she promised herself, I will be reunited with my family in paradise.
Footsteps trod heavily on the blood-soaked floor of the stables. The horses reared up within their stalls, positively maddened with fear. Selene heard the footsteps approach her at a measured pace. She braced herself for the searing pain of razor-sharp fangs or claws sinking into her flesh. She imagined her own blood spouting from her throat.
Instead a steady hand fell firmly yet gently upon her shoulder. She held her breath, expecting the hand to move to her throat, but it remained where it was, as though to comfort her. Puzzled, she opened her eyes and looked behind her.
No monster stood above her. No pillagi
“They’ve gone,” Viktor said.
Can this be true? Selene wondered. Am I truly saved? She eyed the armored warrior warily, torn between suspicion and an urgent desire to accept the comfort she so desperately needed. Her entire world had been torn away from her. What will become of me now?
Viktor reached down and gently helped her to her feet. Her legs were unsteady, and she would have fallen, save that he took her in his arms the same way her father had. She rested her weight against his, unable to run or fight back any longer. His strong arms held her up and she surrendered to his sheltering embrace. For the first time since this nightmare had begun, she felt safe and protected. “All is well, child,” he said. “You need fear no longer. The beasts that slew your family have been driven away.”
Praise the saints! Selene thought. An overwhelming sense of relief washed over her.
Closing her eyes once more, Selene failed to see her rescuer slyly wipe the blood from his lips. A stray beam of moonlight caught the gleam of Viktor’s pointed fangs.
Nor did Selene see another figure emerge from the murky depths of the barn, not far from her father’s body. Soren was likewise clad in black armor. His azure eyes glowed eerily in the darkness. Fresh blood glistened upon his ivory fangs and bushy black beard.
Her father’s blood.
A second vampire crept from the blackness. Kraven’s handsome face was flushed with stolen blood. A mane of shoulder-length black hair framed a clean-shaven, aristocratic countenance. Cruel blue eyes ravished Selene’s trembling form. He leered at her in lustful anticipation.
Moving as silently as shadows, the two predators stalked toward Selene, awaiting only Viktor’s command to fall upon the unsuspecting mortal maiden. Her back to them, her tearstained face resting against Viktor’s armored shoulder, she had no idea that she was still in mortal danger. Soren thirsted for her blood. Kraven was more interested in her tender young flesh.
But Viktor raised his hand to ward them off. Gently stroking Selene’s wet hair, he quietly signaled them to back away. A look of bitter disappointment crossed Kraven’s face, but he knew better than to defy his master. With Soren, he furtively receded back into the shadows.
Selene never even knew they were there.
“There, there, child,” Viktor cooed in her ear. “You’re not alone anymore. You shall never be alone again….”
Thunder pealed in the night.
Six centuries later…
The crack of a gunshot broke the stillness of the night. Startled crows scattered from the branches of a bare winter tree. The roar of an enraged beast sent a collective shudder through the nocturnal forest. More shots followed in rapid succession, the blaring noise muffled somewhat by the heavy snow falling from the sky. The fierce roar gave way to the high-pitched howl of a dying animal. A massive body crashed to the earth.
Selene turned away from the fallen beast. Smoke rose from the barrel of her Beretta automatic pistol. She stood atop a jagged cliff face, which overlooked the hilly woodlands northeast of Budapest. The snowstorm, which had arrived unexpectedly only a few hours ago, continued to blanket the wilderness beneath a carpet of fresh white powder. A glossy black trench coat was draped over her shoulders. Lustrous black leather clothed her lithe frame. High black boots sank into the snow beneath her feet. A cold wind rustled her dark brown hair.
She brushed an errant snowflake from her cheek. Her alabaster features betrayed not the slightest hint of emotion.
Killing was nothing new to her. Indeed, it had been all she’d ever known, ever since that fateful night some six-hundred-odd years ago. Selene was a frightened child no more. Now she was a Death Dealer, a vengeance seeker….
Until earlier tonight, when she had discovered that everything she believed she knew was a lie. Her friends were her enemies, her enemies, victims, and everyone she had killed over the centuries, a crime. Once again, her entire world had turned upside down.
It had not been a good night.
She strode away from the fallen beast without a single backward glance. The edge of the cliff dropped away sharply in front of her, but she fearlessly walked straight up to the precipice—and right over the brink.
Gravity seized her and she plunged toward the woodlands one hundred feet below. She coolly ejected a clip from the Beretta as she fell, unconcerned by the snow-covered ground that seemed to be rushing up at her at breakneck speed. Her leather-clad form plummeted gracefully through the branches of the trees, expertly missing the towering tree trunks that threatened to impale her. It was a myth that only wooden stakes could kill a vampire, but that didn’t mean the trees posed no danger to her.
Selene knew what she was doing, however.
Her boots touched down at the foot of the cliff and she marched forward, not even breaking her stride. She deftly snapped a loaded clip into the Beretta.
We have to keep moving, she thought. Dawn will be here too soon.
A figure awaited her in the woods. She strode past him without missing a beat.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Michael Corvin hurried after her. The young doctor was ruggedly handsome, with light brown hair and a face that somehow retained a hint of innocence despite everything he had endured over the last few nights. His brown leather jacket looked hardly adequate for the wintry weather, but he was no longer as vulnerable to the cold as he had once been. Three nights ago, he had been human, subject to the usual mortal frailties. Now he was something else altogether, and not even Selene truly knew what that meant.
She heard him trudging through the snow after her. “Impressive,” he said to her back. An American accent betrayed his origins.
Killing that beast? Selene had already put that encounter out of her mind. Exterminating werewolves was just an ordinary night’s work to her. It was what she lived for.
Or rather, it used to be.
Now she wasn’t sure about anything.
“Who was following us?” Michael asked. Anxiety colored his voice. He still wasn’t used to hunting and being hunted, as she was.
“Not us. You.”
She paused and turned to face him. He should know the hard truth, she thought. Our lives may depend on it.
“They were lycan. Like you.” She glanced up at the ridge behind them. “They can sense one of their own for miles.”
Technically, of course, Michael was no longer just a lycan. He had become a hybrid, blending the traits of both vampires and werewolves. But apparently enough of the wolfen taint remained in his blood to call out to others of that savage breed.
Lucky us, she thought.
She walked on, while Michael struggled to assimilate what she had just told him. “So, on your own, they couldn’t track you?”
Selene gave him a knowing look. Not for the first time, she asked herself why she kept putting herself in jeopardy for a stranger she had met only a few nights before.
He saved my life, she recalled. And exposed the lie that my life had become.
She left him standing bewildered in the snow, while she trekked on through a stand of tall pine trees. Her mind was already looking ahead to the challenges and dangers to come. A handful of renegade werewolves were the least of her worries.
Viktor had died at her hands, his skull cloven in twain by his own sword. It was a fitting death for one who had lied to her since the moment they had first met, who had kept on deceiving her throughout the long, bloody centuries. It was Viktor, she had discovered, who had been truly responsible for the slaughter of her mortal family, not the feral lycans she had blamed
Yes, Viktor had deserved his grisly end, but his death was not without consequences. Killing the powerful vampire Elder had turned Selene from the hunter into the hunted. Her own kind would soon be united against her, along with what remained of the lycan horde. Her only hope of survival was to reach the last remaining Elder before her final punishment could be decreed. She could only pray that the truth would spare her life.
Soon, Marcus will take the throne, and the tide of anger and retribution will spill out into the night. A chill that had nothing to do with the inclement weather ran down her spine. And soon, I will become the hunted.
Hours had passed in the silent crypt. A trickle of blood pooled atop a polished bronze disk bearing an elegantly engraved letter M.
Crimson rivulets seeped through the edges of the burnished hatch, slithering downward into the buried sarcophagus, where the last surviving Elder hung upside down in his tomb, like a slumbering vampire bat. For over two hundred years he had hung thus, hibernating deep beneath the earth while his fellow Elders took their turns ruling over the coven. One above, two below…that had been the way of things ever since he and Viktor and Amelia had agreed to the eternal cycle of the Chain. Undisturbed within his sarcophagus, Marcus had no way of knowing that both Viktor and Amelia had perished this night.
Two centuries of fasting had taken its toll on the Elder’s appearance. Dry, blackened skin was stretched tightly over his emaciated frame, so that he resembled a mummy more than a vampire. His once-handsome face had shriveled into a grimacing, skull-like visage. His eyes were squeezed tightly shut at the bottom of sunken, black sockets. Yellowed fangs were locked together in a frozen scowl. Only a few thin strands of hair still clung to his desiccated scalp. His rib cage showed through the papery skin covering his chest. By all indications, the Elder’s withered form looked dead beyond all hope of resurrection.
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