Underworld: Blood Enemy, page 2
The armored assailant advanced toward the huge upraised hands, preceded by a voracious tongue of flames. Selene felt the searing heat on her face, even as, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the surviving lycan hightailing it out of the park.
As much as Selene hated to admit it, the injured alpha male had the right idea. Time to get out of here, she concluded, realizing there was nothing more she could do for Diego. I have to let Kahn and the others know what happened here.
But how to get away from the oncoming assassin? Her guns were barely slowing the killer down. She swiftly examined her surroundings, her gaze coming to rest on the huge marble sphere, about the size of a large boulder, poised between the gargantuan bronze hands. A crazy idea occurred to her.
Ignoring the excruciating pain in her side, Selene stood and reached for the little fingers of both giant hands. Grabbing hold of the colossal digits, she pulled herself upward until she hung suspended directly behind the polished stone globe. She swung backward, gathering momentum as she got ready to put every bit of her remaining strength into one last, desperate kick.
The tip of the fiery tongue was less than a meter away when she came swinging back toward the globe, both of her legs extended before her. Here goes nothing.
The soles of her boots collided with the marble sphere. More than mortal strength knocked the globe loose from its pedestal, sending it rolling toward the flame-throwing assassin like an oversized bowling ball. The masked killer was forced to dive madly to one side in order to avoid being flattened.
Nice to have the world on my side for once, Selene thought.
She took advantage of her opponent’s momentary confoundment to make a break for the wire fence surrounding the park. The shrapnel in her hip sent a fresh jolt of agony through her body with every step, and her head was spinning from lack of blood, but still she bolted for the fence, quite literally like a bat out of hell. The tail of her trench coat flapped in the breeze as she hurdled the wires in one bound and kept on running until she had left Statue Park well behind her.
Her adrenaline exhausted, Selene collapsed against the side of her silver Jaguar XJR. She glanced anxiously behind her but was relieved to see no flame-throwing killers in pursuit.
Praise the Elders, she thought. That was a close one.
An emergency packet of freshly cloned blood waited in the glove compartment of the Jag. The blood would restore her, but Selene needed a few minutes to recover before she had the strength to go looking for it. Resting her weight against the car, she let her ragged breathing stabilize and her heartbeat slow down. Her vampiric blue eyes turned brown once more.
She peeked at her wristwatch: 12:28 a.m. Dawn was still hours away. She had plenty of time to get back to the mansion before the sun rose.
This realization brought little comfort. Diego was dead, his immortal existence brought to a fiery conclusion, and for what? She had confirmed the connection between the lycans and Florescu, only to find herself confronted with an even more urgent mystery.
Who else has entered our war?
Stars glittered like silver in the cold night sky, but the moon was nowhere to be seen.
A perfect night for a hunt, Lucian thought, peering up at the sky through an opening in the treetops. He crouched in the underbrush, beneath the towering pines and firs, inspecting the foliage for broken branches. Low-hanging fog swirled around his bended knees. A cold wind rustled his flowing black hair and neatly trimmed black beard. His sable locks were combed back from his brow, exposing a prominent widow’s peak. Coarse woolen clothing protected him from the chill, although his every breath fogged the air before him. Ideal for hunting those of my kind.
“Well, Lucian?” an imperious voice demanded from above. “Have you caught wind of our quarry?”
Lucian looked up into the aristocratic features of Lady Ilona, the mistress of tonight’s hunt. The pure-blooded vampire noblewoman sat astride Lucifer, her magnificent black charger, gripping the reins with one hand and a ready crossbow with the other. A suit of intricate silver chain mail covered her molded leather armor, while a crested steel war helm crowned her skull.
The lady and her steed tarried at the forefront of the hunt. Behind her, a full contingent of Death Dealers awaited her command. Armed with swords, pikes, crossbows, and nets, the vampire warriors were visibly eager to catch up with their prey. As silver chain mail was a rarity reserved for only the most exalted of vampires, the other Death Dealers made do with iron mail over their oiled leather armor. Frothing mastiffs strained at their leashes, held back only by the preternatural strength of Soren, Viktor’s handpicked overseer. The brawny Irishman, who had been inducted into the coven four centuries earlier, wore an iron helmet and a bearskin cloak over his armor. His fierce hounds pawed the ground, eager to be set loose.
Lucian was the only lycan trusted to take part in the hunt, a distinction that filled him with pride. A pewter badge, bearing the Corvinus coat of arms, was pinned to his jacket, testifying to his elevated rank among the servants, that of reeve. “Almost, milady,” he assured her. “Permit me merely another moment or two.”
“Very well,” the lady consented, “but be quick about it. I promised Marcus that I would see to this matter in his absence.”
Lucian recalled that the Elder was presently in Buda, preparing for the upcoming Awakening. Lady Ilona had been left in charge of the castle until the time came for her and the other vampire nobles to join Marcus at Viktor’s estate outside the city. Lucian hoped to make the pilgrimage himself, as part of the Elder’s household.
Perhaps if I prove myself invaluable tonight!
“I will not fail you, milady,” he vowed. Returning his attention to the forest floor, he devoted every effort to tracking his quarry. His keen senses searched the night, quickly detecting the spoor of both wild stags and boar, but those game, although tempting, were not what he sought. Frustrated, he sniffed the air once more.
Hold! What’s that? A sickly odor, both familiar and disturbing, reached his nostrils. Lucian smiled to himself, nodding as he grew more confident that his nose was not deceiving him. He rose excitedly to his feet. “This way,” he informed Lady Ilona. “Follow me!”
He ran stealthily through the woods, dodging thick tree trunks and bounding over fungi-encrusted logs. The dense pine canopy overhead blocked out most of the starlight, casting the forest floor into darkness, but his lycan eyes penetrated the shadows as easily as any vampire’s. The undeniable exhilaration of the hunt sent his blood racing; he almost wished the moon were full, so that he could savor the moment in his most primal form.
Then again, he hardly desired to flaunt his bestial origins in such highborn company. Bad enough to be a mere lycan among the elite of the immortals, he lamented. Let me not become a slavering animal in their presence.
Lady Ilona and the other Death Dealers followed closely behind him, making as little noise as possible. Like Lucian, they needed no torches to navigate the murky woods at this late hour; even more so than their lycan tracker, they were fundamentally creatures of the night.
Lucian’s nose led him to a narrow mountain pass, where a rocky dirt trail, only infrequently traversed by the occasional peddler or wandering minstrel, led between craggy stone cliffs too steep for any mortal soul to scale. It was, Lucian immediately noted, an excellent spot for an ambush.
Or a massacre.
Evidence of the latter littered the road. Human bones, stripped clean of flesh, were strewn upon the earth. Arm and leg bones had been cracked open to get at the marrow, while shattered skulls had been emptied of their brains. Splashes of dried blood stained the granite walls of the pass, in addition to the trampled ground around the bones. Most of the clothing was missing as well, but from the profusion of religious artifacts scattered amid the debris—Bibles, crosses, rosaries, saints’ medals, and such—Lucian guessed that the unlucky mortals
Alas, their piety had proven no protection against the ruthless predators who had devoured them. Despite his finer instincts, Lucian’s mouth watered at the thought of the carnage that had clearly taken place there.
No doubt, the pilgrims had been delicious.
“Revolting,” Lady Ilona declared, arriving on the scene. She shook her head in disapproval. “Atrocities like this stir up the mortals, increasing the danger to us all.” A determined look settled on her elegant features. “We must put an end to these outrages at once.”
Shame stabbed Lucian. Lady Ilona was quite right; there was nothing at all appetizing or appropriate about what had transpired there. The Elders had expressly forbidden feeding upon mortals, and for good reason; in their numbers, the humans posed a significant threat to lycans and vampires alike. Better to leave them alone than to risk inciting a vendetta that could consume them all. Immortals had been captured and burned at the stake for less.
This atrocity was only the most recent of a string of attacks on the mortals of this realm. Isolated farms and villages had fallen prey to the same ravening beasts, thus necessitating tonight’s hunt. Tracking down the killers was more than mere sport; it was essential to the safety of the castle and all who dwelled there.
A Death Dealer named Casmir bent to inspect the grisly scene. He lifted a hand-carved wooden crucifix from the dirt. Contrary to the mortals’ ridiculous superstitions, the cross did not sear his flesh. “Milady?” he inquired respectfully. “What would you have us do with these mortals’ remains?”
Lady Ilona sighed impatiently. “I suppose we shall have to dispose of this mess eventually and hide the bones where they will not be found.” Her voice held no sympathy for the unfortunate pilgrims, only concern that their gruesome fate might incite their fellow humans. “But not this very moment. First, we must attend to the perpetrators of this butchery.” She turned her steely gaze toward Lucian. “Lead us to your savage brethren, lycan.”
He winced to be linked in the same breath with the barbaric monsters responsible for this unlawful slaughter. He felt a surge of volcanic anger at the renegades; it was creatures like these that made the vampires think that all lycans were without breeding and self-restraint, much to Lucian’s eternal chagrin.
“With pleasure, milady!” he told her.
Although the massacre obviously had taken place several days ago, beneath the light of a full moon, it was child’s play to follow the scent of the bloodstained lycans back into the woods on the opposite side of the pass. Lucian raced through the nocturnal wilderness until the smell of smoke and the din of raucous voices caused him to slow his pace and advance more warily through the brush and bracken. He crept furtively toward the noise and smoke, taking care to stay downwind of whatever lay ahead. He gestured for the vampires to move quietly as well, so that the hunting party passed through the night like specters, barely disturbing a single twig.
The flickering glow of a roaring campfire could be seen through the tree trunks as Lucian and the vampires drew nearer. He glimpsed humanlike figures around the fire and smiled in silent triumph. Try as they might, the rogues could not hide from one of their own.
Just ahead, the forest gave way to an open clearing surrounded on all sides by dense pine woods. Lucian snuck up to the very edge of the meadow and peered around the trunk of a venerable old fir. He stared, with a mixture of victory and disgust, at the quarry he had gone to such lengths to locate.
A pack of wild lycans cavorted around the fire, which Lucian knew had been kindled merely to dispel the cold; lycans preferred their meat raw. More than a dozen men, women, and children were present, each, to Lucian’s eyes, more barbaric than the one before. Although trapped in human guise until the moon waxed full once more, the debased lycans looked almost as bestial as their wolfen alter egos. Their greasy hair was matted and uncombed. Their nails were as long as talons. Dirt and sweat caked their unwashed faces. Yellow teeth, with notably pointed canines, gleamed behind the tangled beards of the adult males. Lucian could smell the stench of the renegades’ fetid bodies from halfway across the clearing. He suspected even a mortal could.
The lycans’ clothing, such as it was, obviously had been ripped from the bodies of their victims and donned without any sense of style or propriety. Lucian recognized the tattered remnants of the dead pilgrims’ long woolen tunics, still rent where a werewolf’s claws had slashed them and soiled with their original owners’ blood. Other lycans wore a mismatched assortment of garments plundered from who knew how many unfortunate mortals: a monk’s black robe, a jesters motley, a noblewoman’s brocade gown, hats of straw or felt, ill-fitting hose and doublets, miscellaneous boots, sandals, and stockings. All were uniformly filthy and in need of repair.
The renegades’ behavior was even more appalling. Males and females rutted openly around the fire, while their neighbors laughed and egged them on. Others engaged in wrestling matches of uncommon viciousness, biting and clawing each other in sport, or anger, or both. Hungry lycans gnawed on the bloody bones of a disemboweled deer until their faces were liberally smeared with gore. Naked children ran amok, unheeded by the carousing adults. Grunts, groans, screams, snarls, and howls assaulted the ears.
Lucian blushed with shame, humiliated to the depths of his soul by his kinship to these noisome brutes. They’re animals, he thought bitterly. Nothing but animals!
Not for the first time, he wished with all his heart that he had been born a vampire instead.
“Well done,” Lady Ilona whispered to him from her horse. Moving like shadows, the Death Dealers spread out around the clearing. Soren tugged on the leashes of his hounds, urging them to follow him as he vanished into the woods to the east on his way to the opposite side of the meadow. Expertly trained, the hunting dogs would keep silent until Soren set them loose.
The lady waited until all the beaters had sufficient time to get into position before raising an ivory hunting horn to her immaculate lips. Behind her, grim-faced Death Dealers readied nets of iron mesh. Silver links were interspersed through the netting, adding to its potency. Lucian stepped to one side, to avoid getting in the way of the restless vampire warriors.
He had done his part tonight. The rest was up to his undying masters.
The horn sounded and was immediately answered by fearsome war cries and the baying of the hounds. Startled lycans, caught unaware amid their crude revelry, looked up in alarm as Soren and his dogs burst from the woods on the far side of the clearing, accompanied by vampiric pikesmen whose silver spearheads pierced the flesh of the nearest lycans, regardless of age or gender. The frenzied dogs fell upon unarmed savages, tearing out their throats in exquisitely poetic justice for the marauders’ own depredations. Letting go of the hounds’ leashes, Soren threw back his bearskin cloak, revealing a pair of silver whips wound around his shoulders. He uncoiled the whips, which were composed of sculpted silver vertebrae, and cracked them against the exposed flesh of a naked male. The twin lashes left steaming welts on the cur’s body.
As anticipated, the other lycans ran frantically away from Soren and the other beaters—straight toward Lady Ilona and her Death Dealers. “In the Elders’ name!” she shouted boldly as, astride Lucifer, she charged into the throng of fleeing savages. Her crossbow released its deadly bolt, the silver-tipped missile lodging right between the bloodshot eyes of a shaggy male lycan. Lucifer reared up his hind legs, then brought his silver-shod hooves crashing down on lycan skulls. “Let none escape!” the lady commanded. “Not a single bitch or whelp!”
Panicked renegades, evading Lucifer’s thunderous hooves, attempted to dart around the lady and her steed, only to ran directly into the upraised nets of the Death Dealers behind her. The metal webbing descended upon the hapless lycans, weighing them down to the grassy floor of the meadow They thrashed wildly within the nets, unable to break free, and howled in agony every time one of the intermittent silver links brushed
It was less of a battle than a rout. Deprived of the full moon’s transforming light, the outmatched lycans were unable to unleash the mighty beasts within them. Accustomed to tearing mortal prey apart with nothing but their own teeth and claws, they were pitifully equipped with weaponry, having only a few crude knives and axes among them. Lucian watched from the edge of the clearing as a hulking barbarian, his hairy frame naked from the waist up, tried to fight his way past an armor-clad Death Dealer a few feet away.
The lycan brandished a blazing torch, snatched up from the campfire, in one hand and a rusty iron dagger in the other. Matted brown hair fell past his shoulders, and a voluminous beard obscured his features. Crazed blue eyes glowed with feral rage as he bared his fangs at the sneering vampire standing between him and freedom. “Out of my way, blood!” the savage roared.
The Death Dealer, whom Lucian recognized as Janos, merely drew his sword from its scabbard. Silver gleamed in the starlight, hurting Lucian’s eyes. An icy smile lifted the corners of the vampire’s lips as his free hand tauntingly invited the lycan to advance.
Bellowing like a rabid animal, the barbarian charged forward. His dagger was raised high above his head, and his torch produced a trail of fiery sparks as he waved the burning brand before him. “Burn in hell, blood!” he growled as he swung the torch at Janos, who evaded the flames with effortless grace. “Burn, damn you!”
The silver blade flashed in the night, and the lycan’s torch went flying, as did the hand that was holding it. The dumbstruck brute froze in shock, staring aghast at the gushing stump at the end of his arm. He stabbed clumsily at Janos with his dagger, but the Death Dealer easily blocked the blow with the hilt of his sword, then rammed a spiked gauntlet into the man’s exposed belly.
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