Underworld blood enemy, p.20

Underworld: Blood Enemy, page 20

 

Underworld: Blood Enemy
 


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  Success! He had found the marauders he sought.

  The feral lycans looked indistinguishable from any other pack of wild renegades. Dirty, ill groomed, and obstreperous, they reminded Lucian of that final hunt with Lady Ilona and her Death Dealers, when he’d led the vampires straight to the outlaws’ camp. Guilt stabbed him as he recalled the vital part he had played in enslaving his lycan brothers and sisters.

  Never again! he swore. Henceforth, I will fight only to free my kind from the vampires’ yoke.

  Drawing courage from his conviction, he strode boldly into the primitive camp, inwardly lamenting the ease with which he did so. Had none of these ruffians ever heard of lookouts or sentries?

  “Greetings, my esteemed relations!” He threw back his hood and raised empty palms to show that he was unarmed. “A prodigal son desires your hospitality and attention.”

  His unexpected appearance provoked an uproar among the pack. Wild-eyed lycans, already excited by the imminent return of the full moon, halted their revels to stare suspiciously at the new arrival. Lucian soon found himself surrounded by hostile faces and curious fingers. Strangers tugged on his cloak and robe, perhaps fancying how the sturdy garments would fit upon their ill-clad frames.

  “Is he mortal?” an eager voice asked. “Meat for the taking?”

  “I don’t think so,” another lycan answered, with more than a hint of disappointment in her voice. She sniffed his hands and neck. “He smells wolfen, like one of us!”

  A scruffy and undisciplined lot, Lucian assessed the welcome party coolly, but they will have to do—for a start. “I assure you, my friends, that I am quite as lycan as yourselves.” His eyes searched the faces around him, looking for the stamp of authority, while doing his best to ignore the noisome odor of their unwashed bodies. “Where is your leader? We must have words.”

  A tremendous roar drew Lucian’s attention to an imposing figure standing atop a dark outcropping of rock. He saw a muscular, broad-chested male lycan with a mane of silvery white hair. A shaggy sheepskin cloak was draped over the man’s powerful shoulders like the mantle of a king.

  “I, Sandor, am leader here,” the man declared, his arms crossed over his hairy chest. Sharply pointed canines jutted up from beneath his lower lip. “What do you want of me?”

  The man’s imperious attitude reminded Lucian unpleasantly of Viktor and his fellow Elders. “Come closer, and we shall speak,” he said defiantly. I’ve played the dutiful servant long enough, Lucian thought; the day was long past when he would willingly kowtow to anyone, vampire or lycan. “If you dare.”

  Sandor scowled at Lucian’s impertinence but was not about to refuse a challenge in front of his subordinates. He bounded off the weathered stone outcropping, covering the distance between them in a single leap. The lycans surrounding Lucian parted to let their ruler approach the newcomer. Lucian could not help noticing that Sandor was at least a head taller than him and outweighed him considerably as well.

  And that was before the Change….

  Sandor eyed Lucian’s robes and rosary with derision. “You’ve come to the wrong place, Brother,” he mocked. “We need no priest!”

  The other lycans laughed like hyenas at their leader’s jest, but Lucian took their jeers in stride. He stripped off his robe and cloak, revealing a brown wool tunic and hose. A plain steel dagger was tucked beneath a leather belt. “I am neither monk nor priest,” he stated. “Indeed, I come bearing tidings of war, not peace.”

  “War?” Sandor repeated in confusion. He thrust his head forward, until his protruding fangs were only inches from Lucian’s face. “Who the hell are you? You smell like a lycan, but you talk like a fucking blood!”

  “My name is Lucian,” he said, seeing no need to mince words. “I intend to lead this pack against our great enemy, the vampires. You can step aside and aid me in this endeavor… or you can be destroyed.” He drew his dagger from his belt and tossed it carelessly onto the grassy sward at the base of the cliff. “The choice is yours.”

  Sandor’s face flushed with rage. “You challenge me, little wolfling?” he bellowed, spraying Lucian’s face with saliva. The hairs on his brawny body bristled, and his dark eyes took on a bluish hue. He stepped backward and shrugged off his sheepskin cloak. Cobalt eyes glanced at the darkening sky, where the full moon would shortly rise. “I don’t even need to Change to break you like a twig!”

  “We shall see,” Lucian said. Conscious of the moon’s approach, he kicked off his sandals and hastily stripped to the skin. Although raised as a servant, he knew enough of the customs of wild lycans to be confident that the other lycans would not come to Sandor’s defense; a pack leader had to meet such challenges single-handed. “I would prefer not to kill you. The vampires are our true enemies, not each other. But I will do whatever is necessary to take command of this pack.”

  “The only thing you’re going to do is die!”

  Without further ado, Sandor charged at Lucian. The massive lycan slammed into Lucian at the same moment that the moon showed itself above the tree tops, transforming them both in mid-struggle. Sprouting claws raked across Lucian’s torso even as his rib cage expanded to meet the blow. His own claws extended from his fingertips, slashing at Sandor’s protruding snout and leaving bloody gouges across the larger werewolf’s muzzle. Sandor’s spreading fur was silvery in color, in contrast to Lucian’s dark black pelt. Foam dripped from the dueling werewolves’ jaws and their titanic roars and growls echoed against the smooth black face of the cliff at the far side of the clearing. Patches of torn fur went flying into the shadows as the enormous beasts snapped and clawed at each other. Bright red blood sprayed like mist.

  The lambent moon transformed their audience as well, changing the ragtag band of lycans into a pack of frenzied werewolves. Shouted whoops and cheers of encouragement gave way to an ear-splitting chorus of savage howls.

  Sandor was even stronger than he looked. A backhanded swipe of the silver werewolf’s arm sent Lucian flying backward into the trunk of a towering oak. He hit the tree with bone-jarring force, leaving him momentarily dazed. The moonlit clearing swam before his eyes.

  I need a change of strategy, he realized. Now.

  Sandor came at him again, racing across the grass on all fours. Bloody fangs gleamed within his gaping jaws.

  To buy himself time, Lucian turned and clambered up the side of the oak. His claws found purchase in the bark, and he scaled the tree at a feverish pace, anxious to place a margin of safety between himself and the great silver werewolf, if only for a moment.

  Frustrated by his foe’s retreat, Sandor reared up at the base of the ancient oak and roared in fury. He grabbed hold of the tree trunk with his powerful forelimbs and shook the tree with all his might. His volcanic blue eyes locked onto Lucian’s, daring the smaller werewolf to abandon his perch atop the tree.

  The wolf in Lucian wanted to answer Sandor’s fierce growls with tooth and claw, pouncing back down into the fight, but Lucian knew he had to curb his more bestial instincts if he wanted to triumph over the indomitable pack leader, who had no doubt survived many a challenge to his reign. Sandor was strong, but, like most lycans, he relied entirely on brute strength and ferocity.

  I, on the other hand, have my intellect.

  Lucian’s shrewd blue eyes surveyed the field of battle, looking for a way to turn the terrain to his advantage. His gaze fell on the vertical face of the granite cliff, and an idea occurred to him. I need to have this wolf at my mercy, not the other way around….

  An impatient Sandor began climbing the tree toward Lucian. With a parting growl in Sandor’s direction, Lucian leaped from the treetop to the clearing below, forcing startled werewolves to dive out of the way of his plummeting form. He landed nimbly on the grass, then turned to roar defiantly back at Sandor, who was halfway up the tree before discovering that his prey had returned to the ground. He barked indignantly.

  As his plan depended on Sandor chasing after him, Lucian took a moment to taunt th
e silver-haired werewolf. He barked contemptuously at Sandor, slashing at the empty air with his claws. The outraged pack leader responded to the bait by hurling himself from the leafy oak onto the ground after Lucian. The impact of his landing rocked the floor of the clearing, and his thunderous roar drowned out the howling of the wolfen spectators.

  That’s it, Lucian encouraged him. Don’t let me get away.

  The wind whipped through Lucian’s sable fur as he ran full tilt toward the looming cliffside. He felt Sandor’s hot breath on his back and heard the silver werewolf’s massive paws crashing through the grass and brush behind him. Sandor was faster than he looked as well; Lucian knew he had only seconds to spare before the bloodthirsty beast brought him down.

  The stark gray cliff seemed to come rushing toward him, blocking his escape. At the last minute, however, Lucian’s paws pushed off from the ground, and he ran up the face of the cliff before flipping over in the air and landing squarely on Sandor’s back.

  Four sets of claws dug into the silver wolf’s leathery hide, holding fast despite Sandor’s increasingly frantic efforts to dislodge him. Sandor flailed wildly with his forelimbs but found it difficult to grab onto the snarling creature on his back. He spun about on his hind legs in a useless attempt to get at the smaller werewolf.

  Time to end this, Lucian thought. Safely clear of Sandor’s snapping jaws, he sank his own fangs into the silver werewolf’s neck. Hot blood gushed past his teeth as he tore out his opponent’s throat.

  A crimson fountain spurted from the beast’s severed jugular. Sandor’s roar fell silent, and he toppled face-first toward the ground. Lucian jumped free of his falling foe and watched in silence as the werewolf’s body twitched spasmodically on the grass. Taking no chances, he took hold of Sandor’s huge head with his forepaws and then twisted the werewolf’s neck until he heard bone crack.

  Lucian stood panting above a furry silver carcass, while the other werewolves looked on in cowed silence. His victory brought with it a twinge of regret. If fate is kind, he thought, Sandor will be the first and only lycan to die at my hands.

  Still, he was alive, and the pack was his. Surrendering to the moment, Lucian threw back his head and howled triumphantly at the moon. Hesitantly at first, then with greater enthusiasm, his fellow werewolves joined in. Their fierce, primeval music rang out across the forest, surely sending a chill through any mortal close enough to hear the inhuman symphony.

  A smile curled back Lucian’s wolfen lips. These baying beasts would be the nucleus of his new army… an army that would liberate their oppressed species—and wipe the hated vampires from the face of the earth.

  Chapter Eighteen

  CARPATHIAN MOUNTAINS

  The afternoon sun was streaming through the branches overhead as Lucian led the pack toward their target. The lycans moved stealthily through the pine woods, making as little noise as possible, the better to catch the enemy unaware.

  Lucian paused at the top of a rocky slope. He signaled his troops to stay back while he surveyed the scene. He was thankful there was no moon for the lycans to howl at; his strategy depended on the element of surprise.

  This raid, he thought, shall be our baptism of fire.

  The silver mine occupied a wide gorge at the foot of the hill. Sturdy timbers framed the entrance to the mine, which was dug into the side of a craggy mountain at the northern end of the gorge. Stone barracks had been erected to house the miners, along with a company of mercenaries hired to guard the site. A muscle-powered windlass served to pull the heavy chain that drew cartloads of raw ore up from the mine’s subterranean depths. Wagons drawn by enormous draft horses waited to haul the ore to the smelter in a small village farther on down the mountain. Sweaty miners emerged as well, bearing buckets of silty water that needed to be cleared out of the mines in order for them to continue the back-breaking work of extracting the precious element from the earth. Armed guards watched over miners and metal alike.

  So this is where the goddamn silver comes from, Lucian thought bitterly. His back remembered the scalding bite of Soren’s silver whips, reminding him of the importance of today’s raid.

  Silver was the vampires’ greatest weapon against those of his kind, so Lucian had resolved to begin his campaign by seizing control of the very silver mine that provided Viktor with much of his wealth and arms. For better or for worse, Hungary and the Carpathians contained many of the richest silver deposits in Europe, making the hated metal all too readily available to the coven and its merciless Death Dealers.

  But not for much longer.

  For obvious reasons, the vampires could not employ their lycan slaves to extract the silver, so the coven had hired skilled human laborers, mostly imported from Germany, to work the mines under the protection of the equally mortal mercenaries. The guards wore padded leather armor supplemented by steel gauntlets and kettle helmets. Lucian watched as a trio of bored soldiers leaned on their pikes, exchanging bawdy jokes as the straining miners toiled beneath the blazing sun.

  “They don’t look too tough to me,” a raspy voice whispered in his ear. Lucian did not need to turn around to know that the voice belonged to Josef, his chief lieutenant. “How many of them did you say there are?”

  Discovering the balding, one-eyed lycan among the pack had been an unexpected boon. A veteran soldier, short but stocky, Josef had fought valiantly in the Crusades before surviving the bite of a Turkish werewolf. By his own account, the newly converted lycan had then made his way back to Europe from the Holy Land because he preferred the taste of “decent Christian flesh”. For himself, Lucian was simply grateful to find a wild lycan who had a solid grasp of military tactics and discipline. Would that I had a hundred score more of him!

  “About twenty soldiers,” Lucian estimated, based on days and nights of furtive observation. Only six guards or so were on duty at the moment, but Lucian knew that more mercenaries were on call in the barracks. “Plus maybe sixty or seventy miners.”

  His own army numbered fifty-five. More than enough, he judged, to deal with a gang of unsuspecting mortals.

  Even without the aid of the moon.

  “Fucking sunshine,” Josef grumbled, raising a hand to shield his remaining eye from the glare. A brown goatskin eye patch covered the ugly cavity where his other eye had once lodged, the victim of a Saracen arrow back when the crusader was still mortal.

  Lucian knew that the doughty ex-soldier was not the only member of his pack who found it disconcerting to be abroad by daylight. Although the sun was not lethal to them, as it was to their undead foes, lycans—like wolves—were instinctively nocturnal. It had required considerable effort on Lucian’s part to persuade his newly acquired army to attack the mines well before sunset.

  “That sunshine is our best defense,” he reminded Josef. “How else are we to avoid engaging the vampires directly?” Lucian was not ready to take on the Death Dealers just yet.

  When that dreaded battle comes, it will be at a time and place of my own choosing.

  He watched as another load of raw ore was dragged out of the mine. To his slight surprise, the all-too-familiar gleam of silver was nowhere to be seen; instead, the jagged chunks piled high in the cart were bluish gray in color, being an impure amalgam of the silver with lead and minerals. Apparently, the silver took on its characteristic hue and luster only after it had been smelted and refined.

  The thought occurred to Lucian that perhaps, after he had seized control of the mine, he should use the precious metal to finance his war against the vampires, which would involve finding humans to work the mine for him. For the moment, however, it would suffice simply to cut the coven off from its supply of the deadly element.

  “Ready the spears and arrows,” he instructed Josef. “We attack on my command.”

  His lieutenant slunk back into the woods to gather the troops. Within minutes, the advance guard of Lucian’s army joined him at the top of the slope, just within the concealing foliage. Crude wooden spears and tightly drawn bo
ws were directed at the unwary guards below. Josef himself drew back the string of a powerful longbow.

  I do this in your name, Sonja, my love… and in vengeance for our unborn child. “Now!” Lucian commanded. “Let your weapons fly!”

  Spears and arrows whistled through the air, raining down on the startled soldiers and whatever luckless miners happened to be aboveground at the moment. Sharpened spear tips and arrowheads pierced mortal flesh, eliciting screams of pain and anger from the ambushed men. Bleeding bodies crashed to the ground, while others clutched at wounded limbs and torsos.

  But the battle had only just begun. “Onward!” Lucian hollered to his blood-crazed warriors. “Fight like wolves!”

  The lycan horde streamed down the hillside, howling like ravenous beasts. Handmade shields and bucklers defended their immortal flesh, while they flaunted an eclectic assortment of weaponry looted from various ill-starred mortal wayfarers: swords, pikes, maces, sickles, scythes, and pitchforks. Cobalt eyes gleamed in the sunlight. Yellow fangs showed between open jaws as they whooped and shouted their atavistic war cries. Lingering behind at the top of the hill, Josef continued to pick off human targets with his longbow, making Lucian wish that there had been time enough to tutor more of the primitive lycans in the finer points of archery.

  Perhaps next time, he considered, observing the battle from atop the slope. The prospect of bringing down a company of Death Dealers beneath a hail of arrows appealed to him. If the mortals could kill so many vampires at the keep, could not a legion of lycans fare even better?

  Aroused by the agitated cries of their comrades and the feral howling of the invaders, more soldiers came running out of the barracks, only to find themselves confronted by an oncoming avalanche of wild-eyed barbarians. Swearing profanely, they raised their weapons to meet the yowling berserkers.

  Crossbow bolts flew at the lycan charge, only to be blocked by thick oaken shields. A few stray quarrels found fleshier targets, but the steel-tipped bolts had little effect on the immortal attackers. A single bolt struck Josef in the ribs, but the squat lycan simply yanked the offending missile from his body and fired back at the mortals with his longbow, his very next shot spearing a human mercenary between the eyes. “Hah!” he laughed robustly. “Not bad for a one-eyed archer!”

 
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