Underworld blood enemy, p.21

Underworld: Blood Enemy, page 21

 

Underworld: Blood Enemy
 


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  Lucian glanced at the useless quarrel lying at his lieutenant’s feet. Unlike Death Dealers, these mortal soldiers were not equipped with silver weapons, only ordinary steel and iron. After all, the Elders had doubtlessly reasoned, what would renegade lycans want with silver?

  A critical mistake on their part, Lucian gloated, or so I intend to prove.

  He watched intently as his forces engaged the enemy at the bottom of the gorge. A terrified-looking sentry charged at a frothing lycan with his pike, but the inhuman warrior grabbed the mortal’s spear with both hands and easily wrenched it from the grasp of the stunned guard. Tossing the pike carelessly to one side, the same lycan seized the disarmed human and lifted him high above his head before hurling the guard into a crowd of onrushing soldiers, knocking them all from their feet. More lycans fell upon the downed mortals like wolves upon a fallen stag. Geysers of blood erupted from beneath the huddle, drenching the frenzied lycans in scarlet.

  Similar dramas played out up and down the length of the gorge. Faster, stronger, and most definitely more ferocious than the overmatched mortals, the lycan army slaughtered its terrified foes at will, although not without suffering the occasional loss; Lucian watched with dismay as a lucky sword blow removed the head of an inattentive lycan named Fritz. The victorious human did not have long to savor his kill, however; within moments, a pack of vengeful lycans tore him apart, limb by limb.

  The conflict was brief, bloody, and one-sided. Shaken by the grisly massacre ensuing all around them, the last few mortals threw down their weapons and pleaded frantically for their lives. “Spare us!” they cried, falling onto their knees and clasping their hands before them. “For the love of God, have mercy!”

  Lucian chose to grant their pleas, at least for the time being. “Enough!” he shouted, cupping his hands over his mouth in order to be heard over the uproar. “Stand down, my valiant war wolves. The day is ours!”

  In truth, halting the bloodshed was easier said than done. Ultimately, he and Josef were forced to descend to the floor of the gorge themselves and physically tear a few of their more maddened brethren away from the defenseless mortals. Finally, Lucian managed to make his wishes clear… even if Josef had to crack a few heads together first.

  They’re savage fighters, Lucian thought of his newfound army, but they’re still short of discipline. I shall have to remedy that situation if we are ever to have a chance at defeating the vampires themselves.

  The surviving guards were rounded up on Lucian’s orders. Stripped of their weapons and armor, the trembling soldiers knelt on the rocky floor of the gorge, surrounded by a throng of jubilant lycans, many of whom licked their lips in anticipation of succulent mortal meat. A handful of hapless miners, who had taken cover behind the wagons and barracks during the battle, were made to join the vanquished mercenaries.

  “Remember,” Lucian ordered loudly, before anyone’s appetites got the better of him, “one bite only for each man. I want them infected, not eaten!” Reinforcements were needed for his army—an opportunity to recruit another experienced soldier or two was too good to waste. Even if only a single mercenary survived being bitten, that would still add to the forces at his disposal.

  I am offering them a better bargain than their kind have ever offered ours, he observed to himself. The fortunate among them will become immortal. The rest will simply end their brief mortal existence a few years earlier than expected.

  And as for the miners? Well, they would be working the mines on Lucian’s behalf from now on.

  Disappointed moans erupted from the throats of the hungry lycans at Lucian’s decree. “My orders are final,” he asserted, heading off any possible insurrection in advance. “But help yourself to whatever else you find in the mortals’ barracks. Take everything: food, clothing, coins, and drink. If I know mortals, there are certain to be stores of wine and ale just waiting to be quaffed!”

  As he expected, eager lycans rushed off to loot the humans’ quarters. Others rummaged among the captured armor and weapons, claiming the best pieces for themselves. Greed triumphed over bloodlust, except for a handful of particularly savage lycans whose hungry eyes remained fixed on the mortal captives. “Just one bite,” Lucian stressed again, before nodding at them to proceed.

  Voracious lycans lunged forward, sinking their fangs into the defenseless flesh of the mercenaries, who shrieked in pain and horror as bloody chunks were ripped from their bodies. Lucian heard a few of the other lycans wagering on which mortals would die and which, if any, would become lycans. Within seconds, the betting became quite heated.

  “The ones who die?” a cunning young lycan called out. “Can we eat them after they’re dead?”

  Lucian shrugged his shoulders. “Why not?”

  In the long run, he intended to break his followers of their reckless taste for human flesh, if only to avoid provoking mortal reprisals. One war at a time, he thought; he had no desire to battle the mortals and vampires both. Although he had turned his back on the Covenant, he still agreed with the Elders that feeding on humans was too dangerous a pastime to risk. Still, he was not ready to impose such a stringent prohibition on his feral subordinates just yet. I need a victory or two under my belt before I can command that degree of authority.

  Blood spurting from their wounds, the bitten humans collapsed onto the ground, many already going into convulsions as the lycan venom coursed through their veins. Brother Ambrose’s ugly death passed through Lucian’s mind as he kept a close eye on the proceedings, ready to discourage any of his followers from making a feast of a potential new pack member.

  “What about the mortals still down in the mines?” Josef asked him. He tilted his head toward the gaping black entrance of the mine. “I don’t think they’ll be coming out of their own free will, not after all this clamor up above.”

  True enough, Lucian conceded. He imagined dozens of terrified miners cowering in the depths of the mine. For a moment, he considered simply walling up the entrance to the mine and letting the trapped humans starve to death in the dark. But no, that would be a considerable waste of meat and manpower, not to mention brutally inhumane. Better to give them a chance at life, he reasoned, provided they are willing to work just as diligently for their new masters.

  “The battle is not quite over,” he announced to every lycan within earshot. “More mortals await below the earth, although I doubt they shall put up much resistance.” He drew his sword and advanced toward the opaque mine entrance. “Let us herd them up into the light.”

  To his surprise, none of his warriors fell in behind him. Even Josef remained immobile, seemingly unwilling to follow Lucian into the murky hole in the mountainside.

  “Well?” Lucian demanded of them impatiently. “What is it?”

  Josef shuffled his feet, declining to meet his commander’s eyes. “The silver, sir,” he said sheepishly. “Surely you can’t expect any sane lycan to venture into that cursed pit? With all that silver everywhere?”

  The man has a point, Lucian realized. He could hardly blame his troops for not wanting to descend into the heart of a silver mine. Indeed, upon reflection, the very thought of being surrounded on all sides by the unmined element made his skin crawl. In his memory, Soren’s whips flayed his back anew.

  “Very well,” he declared. “I shall clear out this rat hole myself.” Such a display of unwavering courage was sure to solidify his standing as pack leader. Besides, he figured he was more than a match for a crew of petrified miners. “Josef, watch over our prisoners until I return.”

  He found a working oil lamp among the captured mining supplies and lit its wick before stepping beneath the timber supports of the mine entrance. Sword in hand, he entered the darkness.

  The shaft descended into the mountain at a steep incline, and he quickly left the last glimmer of sunlight behind. Wooden columns supported the dripping limestone ceiling, which was far too low for Lucian’s comfort. The endless procession of ore-laden carts had carved deep ruts in the rocky
floor of the tunnel. The air was stuffy and full of dust, so Lucian paused long enough to tie a rag across his nose and mouth in order to avoid inhaling any floating particles of silver.

  The temperature rose dramatically the deeper he descended, and Lucian was soon soaked with sweat. Perspiration dripped into his eyes, but he was unable to wipe it away without dropping either his sword or his lamp. Groundwater seeped from the porous rock walls, explaining the need for the miners’ many buckets. The brackish-smelling liquid trickled down the floor of the shaft, making it more slippery than Lucian would have liked. Noxious underground vapors assailed his nose and lungs even through the rag, along with the reek of countless sweaty human bodies. Rats scurried away from Lucian into narrow side passages and drainage tunnels. Their beady eyes gleamed in the lamplight.

  Thank fate the vampires never forced us lycans to labor in these infernal pits, he thought, seeing for the first time a positive aspect to their hereditary aversion to silver. How can these mortal wretches endure such hellish conditions?

  At first, there was little silver to contend with, the upper portion of the mine having been already denuded of the toxic metal; yet the farther he descended into the lower reaches, the more he became uncomfortably aware of the thick veins of raw silver running through the chipped and chiseled rock all around him. Black and bluish-gray ore, occasionally tinged with green, permeated the walls, floor, and ceiling, only rarely betraying a hint of silver’s metallic luster. Quartz crystals glittered like diamonds amid the dull black ore, along with bright flecks of iron and copper.

  The presence of so much silver made him feel distinctly queasy. He carefully stuck to the center of the tunnel, doing his best to avoid contact with the walls. If not for the thick leather soles of his boots, he suspected, walking down the shaft would be akin to treading over hot coals.

  Am I mad to venture thus? he asked himself. Perhaps this was not my wisest decision.

  He was almost ready to abandon his original purpose when he heard the muffled sound of hushed human voices directly ahead. Peering past the glow of his own lamp, he saw a flickering radiance at the bottom of the shaft.

  He quickened his pace, coming at last to the deepest level of the mine, some one hundred feet below the mountain. Here the narrow shaft opened up onto a cavernous gallery, hollowed out by the miners’ strenuous exertions. Wooden pillars supported the ceiling. Oil lamps rested on rocky shelves, throwing shadows onto the damp stone walls, as well as onto a large iron cart half filled with freshly excavated ore. The makings of a bonfire—sticks, kindling, and so on—had been piled up against one wall of the cavern, preparatory to setting a blaze to weaken a particularly stubborn vein of ore. Cold water would be dashed on the wall after the fire had heated it, causing the solid rock to crack and crumble.

  Lucian spotted the remaining miners. At least two dozen men huddled at the far end of the chamber, gripping their picks and shovels defensively. Accustomed to laboring in the purgatorial heat of the mines, the men wore only linen breeches cut off at mid-thigh. Their sweaty flesh was pale from lack of sunlight, so that they almost resembled the vampires who employed them. Powdered stone clung to their faces and bodies, all but masking their individual features. They eyed Lucian warily as he entered the gallery. German curses and exclamations met his arrival.

  “Greetings,” he said before they could work up the nerve to attack him. His voice was muffled only slightly by the rag across his mouth. “My name is Lucian, and this mine now belongs to me. Lest you consider turning your picks and hammers against me, let me inform you that my forces now control your only means of escape from this pit. Unless you surrender at once, none of you will ever see daylight again.”

  He paused to let his words sink in. Their stricken expressions were truly pitiful, and Lucian experienced a moment of sympathy for the unfortunate humans, even though he knew that, as mortals, they would gladly put every lycan and vampire to death if they could. They should be grateful that I am giving them the opportunity to serve us, he reflected. If lycans could mine silver for our coffers, there would be no need for these mortals at all.

  His eyes searched their grimy faces, looking for some clue to their intentions. Oddly enough, many of them kept glancing upward nervously. Lucian finally looked up as well—just in time to see an enraged male vampire skittering across the ceiling toward him!

  Clad in a sooty black doublet and hose, the bloodsucker traversed the roof of the mine like a great black spider. Azure eyes glared at Lucian as the vampire realized the lycan had spied him. Hissing loudly, he launched himself at Lucian, who dived to one side to avoid the plummeting vampire.

  Damnation! he cursed himself, realizing that he still had much to learn as a warrior and commander. I should have guessed there might be a vampiric overseer lurking in these sunless depths!

  The vampire landed nimbly on his feet only a few yards away. Lucian recognized him now as Zoltan, an undead nobleman who had visited Castle Corvinus on occasion. His dark brown hair was pulled away from his face and tied in a knot at the base of his neck. A drooping brown mustache framed a mouthful of ivory fangs. Virulent blue eyes glowed in the dark.

  “Well, well, a lycan in a silver mine.” Unlike his human work crew, the cold-blooded vampire seemed unaffected by the oppressive heat of the underground chamber. Not a drop of sweat showed on his chalky white brow. “Now I’ve seen everything!”

  “Times are changing,” Lucian informed him, brandishing his bloodstained sword. He wished that he could change, but without a full moon to awaken his inner wolf, he was trapped in human guise. “Your days are numbered.”

  “I think not,” Zoltan answered. Without warning, he dipped his claws into the half-filled cart and snatched up a heavy lump of raw ore. The vampire hurled it at Lucian with preternatural strength.

  The lumpen missile slammed into Lucian’s gut, knocking the breath from him. He doubled over in pain. His lamp went flying from his fingers, creating a fiery arc that exploded onto the rocky floor only a few feet away from the piled kindling. Burning oil spread through the cracks and crevices running along the bottom of the carved-out gallery.

  Clenching his teeth against pain and nausea, Lucian charged at Zoltan with his sword in a desperate attempt to drive the vampire away from the cartload of ore. But Zoltan dodged his sword thrust and grabbed Lucian’s other arm, using it to swing Lucian face-first into the wall. The impact jarred his senses, even as the silver embedded in the rock scalded his skin.

  Taking advantage of the titanic clash between the vampire and the lycan, the fearful miners ran madly for the exit. Their racing feet pounded up the slanted shaft as they abandoned the spacious gallery to the dueling immortals.

  “You should never have come down here, lycan!” Zoltan hissed as he came up behind Lucian and twisted his sword arm behind his back until the blade dropped from his fingers. Lucian struggled to avert his face from the noxious silver, but Zoltan mercilessly pressed Lucian’s profile against a wide vein of blue-gray ore. Steam rose toward the ceiling as the entire left side of Lucian’s face blistered and burned.

  He fought to free himself from Zoltan’s hold, but the vampire was too strong. Out of the corner of his eye, Lucian spotted one of the gallery’s many wooden support pillars standing less than a foot away. In desperation, he kicked out at the vertical timber, knocking it loose.

  The effect was immediate. The limestone ceiling groaned as though dying. Dust and fragments of rock began to rain down on the floor. Rats squealed in panic and scurried to escape. A largish chunk of ore hit Zoltan in the head, forcing him to release his grip on Lucian. He staggered backward, clutching his bleeding skull.

  “Brainless lycan!” he ranted. He stared in horror at the crumbling ceiling. “What have you done?”

  Lucian instantly realized the vampire’s dire predicament. Whereas he had a chance to escape the collapsing mine, provided he moved swiftly enough, the vampire had nowhere to run—except into the glaring daylight.

  What’
s more, Lucian now saw that the burning oil had set the miners’ bonfire ablaze. Flames crackled at the rear of the mine, filling the gallery with thick black smoke.

  Time to make a run for it. Yet, before he could reach the exit shaft, Zoltan leaped to block his path. “You’re not going anywhere, you lycan trash!” the vampire snarled, clutching a miner’s discarded metal pick. “We’ll perish together if need be.”

  Lucian had no intention of spending eternity beside the charred skeleton of a vein-sucking vampire. Darting behind the heavy iron cart, he grabbed onto the edge of it with both hands and shoved it forward with all his strength. Iron wheels rolled along the ruts in the floor, zooming toward Zoltan like a battering ram. Legs pumping, Lucian ran the ore-filled cart right over the startled vampire, hearing Zoltan’s bones crunch beneath the weight of the combined silver and iron. His own boots trampled the vampire’s pulped remains for good measure.

  Is he dead? There was no time to find out. With a tremendous roar, the roof of the cavern came crashing down behind Lucian. Dust and debris came flying out of the gallery into the shaft beyond.

  Letting go of the cart, Lucian squeezed past the heavy transport and bolted up the inclined shaft as fast as his legs would carry him. Halfway up, he encountered Josef running toward him. The one-eyed lycan had a worried expression on his face and his longbow in one hand. “Sounded like you needed help!” he gasped by way of explanation.

  Not anymore, Lucian thought. “Run!” he commanded, hearing the tunnel collapse behind him. “Run for your life!”

  Sunlight beckoned, and moments later, they burst from the mine into the gorge. A dense cloud of poisonous dust exploded out of the tunnel in their wake, accompanied by a thunderous rumbling that took several minutes to die down. Lycans stared, bloody jaws agape, at the noise and spectacle of the cave-in. Some cheered to hear the lethal silver buried beneath tons of falling rubble.

 
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