Underworld: Blood Enemy, page 3
The silver spikes tore through the lycan’s guts, as Janos’ armored hand plunged elbow-deep into his enemy’s abdomen. A heartbeat later, the hand emerged again, clutching a foot-long segment of the man’s spine. Gore dripped from the dangling vertebrae, which Janos casually tossed aside. He stepped backward and watched with amusement as the lycan’s burly frame scissored in half, then toppled to the ground.
Lucian shook his head at the uneven contest. The lycan’s attack had relied entirely on raw strength and ferocity, lacking any trace of finesse or strategy. No doubt, that was enough, even in his human form, to overcome the strongest mortal easily, but against an experienced Death Dealer, the blustering savage hadn’t had a prayer.
If I had been in charge of this pack, Lucian reflected, I would have seen to it that the camp was better defended. There would have been guards posted throughout the night, well armed and trained in the use of their weapons. There would have been an evacuation plan in place, in anticipation of a raid such as this, and a commander who knew better than to cavort in the open on a moonless night when vampires might be abroad. Yes, there is much that I would do otherwise—were I ever insane enough to side with such rabble against the coven!
His musings were interrupted by a lycan female, who came rushing toward the woods where he stood. A bawling infant was clutched to the woman’s breast, and her glowing cobalt eyes were wide with fright. The tattered remnants of a nun’s black habit barely covered her lean, sinewy form. A mass of unkempt red hair fell past her waist.
Her headlong flight came to an abrupt halt as she spotted Lucian blocking her path. Drawing an iron knife from his belt, he displayed it before her. “Come no farther,” he warned.
The woman’s eyes looked about anxiously, seeing only chaos and bloodshed in every direction. “Please!” she pleaded. Beneath the grime, desperation contorted her features. Flared nostrils sniffed the air between them. “You’re one of us, I can tell. Please, for mercy’s sake, let me go!”
The fervency of her plea touched Lucian’s heart. “Very well,” he declared. “You shall have mercy.”
Rotating his wrist, he turned his knife around and struck her skull with the hilt of the blade rather than the point. The woman dropped like a stone toward the ground, but Lucian managed to snatch the baby from her limp fingers before it crashed to the earth as well. He held the yowling whelp at arm’s length from his body, wrinkling his nose at the reek of the infant’s soiled flesh.
He stared down at the woman’s insensate form. An ugly bruise already marked her temple, but Lucian knew that she would soon recover from his blow. I did not lie, he informed her silently. I have shown you mercy.
You and your child shall live to serve the vampires, as I have always done.
The raid was over almost as soon as it had begun. Dead lycans were strewn across the blood-soaked floor of the clearing, their unclean bodies left to rot where they fell, while the surviving pack members—mostly women and children—were chained together by links of forged iron too dense to be broken by any immortal short of an Elder. Metal collars were fastened around their necks, holding them in place. Heavy manacles locked their wrists together.
Lady Ilona kept her distance from the foul-smelling captives, letting Soren take charge of the prisoners. He wielded his silver whips freely, dealing out painful lashes at the slightest hint of defiance. He took obvious pleasure in his work. Castle gossip had it that while still mortal, the dour Irishman had been stolen away from his homeland by Vikings and forced into slavery himself. Four centuries later, he clearly enjoyed being at the other end of the whip.
Dawn was still hours away, so there was time enough to introduce the defeated rogues to the realities of their new existence. Soren lined the captives up before the fire, which had been stoked to a blazing intensity by the vampires. All resistance whipped out of them, the pathetic lycans miserably awaited their fate. Shaggy heads drooped over their iron collars. Their arms hung limply before them, weighed down by their shackles. Strapping Death Dealers gripped the chain at both ends, holding it taut. Sobs and whimpers were all that escaped the line of prisoners.
Several yards away, Lucian watched the proceedings from beside Lady Ilona’s black steed. Seated above him, the pure-blooded vampiress casually fed bits of lycan flesh to her mount. To his considerable relief, she did not offer any such morsels to Lucian himself. I may be no more than a lycan, he thought, but I am no cannibal.
Soren handed off his whips to an assistant, then pulled a heavy leather glove over his right hand. He reached into the fire and drew out a silver-plated branding iron that he had placed in the blaze several moments before. The heated end of the iron glowed in the night, as bright and red as the fires of perdition.
A rare smile lightened his usually stoic features. He had removed his war helmet earlier, revealing a thick black beard and a mane of long black hair. Iron in hand, he approached the front of the line and a slender lycan youth, who appeared to be roughly fourteen years in age, although looks could be deceptive where immortals were concerned.
Most immortals, vampires and lycans alike, were originally mortals, transformed by the bite of either a vampire or a werewolf. And only the most fortunate of humans survived the process; an immortal’s bite proved fatal in the vast majority of instances. Rarer still were purebloods, such as Lucian himself, who had been born immortal, conceived by the union of two immortals. Both of Lucian’s parents had been lycans, so he had never known any other life.
He wondered idly what this particular lad’s story was. Had he been human once, or had he always run with the pack, wild and undisciplined? Lucian hoped for the former; the boy might be easier to train if he had once lived a semi-civilized existence as a mortal.
At the moment, however, the youth’s eyes grew wild with terror as he watched Soren approach with the red-hot branding iron. “No!” he cried out, thrashing violently within his bonds. “You can’t! Stay away from me!” His bare feet clawed at the grass beneath him as he tried unsuccessfully to get away from the steaming iron. “Mercy! Mercy!”
Soren paid little heed to the young lycan’s hysterics; he was used to such displays. He nodded at a pair of nearby Death Dealers, who stepped forward to subdue the thrashing youth. The first guard calmly kneed the lycan in his privates, leaving him stunned and breathless, while the second guard wrapped an arm around the boy’s arms and chest to keep him from waving them about. “Stay still,” the second Death Dealer barked, “or we’ll break every bone in your body, one by one!”
Despite the threats and abuse, the quaking lycan flinched as Soren ripped off the sleeve of the youth’s greasy tunic, exposing his right arm. Held back by his steel collar and chains, the lycan snapped impotently at Soren and the guards with his fangs. Spittle sprayed from his lips—until Soren calmly pressed the glowing end of the branding iron against the youth’s bicep.
An inhuman howl erupted from the young lycan’s throat. Smoke rose from his arm where the heated silver seared his skin. The smell of burning flesh turned Lucian’s stomach.
In a heartbeat, it was over. Soren drew back the iron, revealing the mark now branded onto the lycan’s arm for all time, an ornate letter M.
Lucian caught himself rubbing his own right arm, where a similar brand adorned his own bicep, except that Lucian bore a V upon his flesh instead, testifying that he had begun his service during one of Viktor’s reigns. Mercifully, he had little memory of the branding itself, which had taken place when he was but a young pup; unlike these prisoners, he had been born in servitude.
Soren worked his way along the line of prisoners, branding each in turn. The excruciating procedure yielded a succession of anguished shrieks and howls, but when at last the dire business was complete, he signaled Lady Ilona that the captives were ready to be escorted back to the castle.
The highborn vampiress wasted no time turning her horse around and leading the procession back the way they had come. Although the starry sky rema
He contemplated the dispirited prisoners as they stumbled past him, whimpering in pain and distress. As the highest-ranking lycan at the castle, it would be his responsibility, in part, to turn these trembling vermin into decent servants. Looking over the unsightly throng, he feared he had his work cut out for him.
No matter, he thought. They will learn to obey the vampires—or suffer the consequences.
His gaze fell upon the scarlet-haired lycan female he had personally subdued earlier. Separated from her child, who was now in a canvas bag slung over the shoulder of a marching Death Dealer, she trudged sullenly after the prisoner in front of her, tugged along by the chain affixed to her neck. The right shoulder of her stolen habit had been torn asunder, laying bare her arm and breast. The freshly burned M on the former showed blood-red against her dirty brown flesh.
The woman lifted her head, and her eyes met his. He offered her an encouraging smile, to assure her that her future was not nearly so dismal as she might imagine. In truth, he had rescued her from a life of barbarism. She will thank me someday, he thought.
Tonight, however, hatred blazed in the woman’s blue eyes. She spat at him as she passed, the gobbet of saliva striking Lucian on the cheek.
Her defiant gesture was swiftly rewarded with a lash from Soren’s whip. The silver vertebrae snapped against her bare shoulder, and steam rose from a crimson welt. The woman’s fangs snapped shut, biting back a scream.
Lucian wiped the spit from his cheek as he watched the woman stagger away, her chastened form receding into the shadowy woods. Soren’s whip cracked overhead, spurring the lycans behind her to pick up the pace of their forced march.
Lucian had no regrets.
At least, he thought, her child will grow up civilized.
Castle Corvinus loomed before them, its familiar turrets and battlements thrusting upward at the night sky. An imposing stone fortress, the castle was built atop a rocky crag overlooking the forest below. The light of myriad torches and lamps shone through the castle’s lancet windows, making the stronghold appear to glow from within. Crimson pennants, the color of freshly spilled blood, streamed above the watchtowers.
Home at last, Lucian thought as the hunting party marched up the well-trod road toward the castle’s front gate. The ground sloped away steeply from the path on both sides, permitting only a single avenue of approach to the castle. Dense woods surrounded the forbidding granite peak on all sides.
Sentries posted outside the gatehouse and upon the crenellated battlements overhead cheered at the return of Lady Ilona and her troops. Their welcoming cries grew louder and more exuberant as they spied the long line of lycan prisoners shambling between the triumphant Death Dealers.
A deep chasm, one that descended farther than any human being could fall and live, was surmounted by a drawbridge that led straight into the fortified stone gatehouse. A raised portcullis hung over the entrance, its iron fangs guarding the mouth of the castle.
Weary from the night’s strenuous activities, Lucian was looking forward to a warm meal, followed by several hours of sleep on his humble mattress in the servants’ quarters. It was the lycans’ responsibility to guard the fortress during the daylight hours, but under the circumstances, he doubted that anyone would object if he slept late that morning.
Lucifer’s hooves clattered on the wooden drawbridge as Lady Ilona led the procession into the castle proper. Beyond the gatehouse, the way opened onto a spacious courtyard paved with weathered clay bricks. High limestone walls looked down on the courtyard, which faced the great hall of the vampires themselves. The heraldic symbol of the Corvinus family—a raven gripping a ring in its beak—was emblazoned above the main entrance of the hall. A wooden belfry rose from the slate-covered roof.
A lycan stableboy clad in simple woolen attire, hurried forward to assist Lady Ilona, who dismounted gracefully and handed Lucifer’s reins to the servant. “See to it that he is properly fed and groomed without delay,” she instructed.
“Yes, milady,” the stableboy replied, keeping his gaze respectfully fixed on the ground. He led the steed away toward the nearby stables, which were built against the inner walls.
Chimes rang out from the bell tower atop the great hall, warning that dawn was but an hour away. A flock of bats flapped overhead as the squeaking night flyers began to return to their roosts in the belfry.
“Well, a good night’s work,” the lady pronounced with satisfaction. She turned toward one of her lieutenants, a Death Dealer named Istvan. “Send word to Marcus that the lycan renegades have been dealt with severely. With the Awakening drawing nigh, I would not have his mind troubled by such petty annoyances.”
“As you wish, milady,” Istvan said, departing instantly to carry out her wishes. A carrier pigeon would convey the lady’s message to the Elder ere long.
Before Lady Ilona could issue another command, the door of the great hall swung open, and a vision of surpassing loveliness came running out into the courtyard. Lucian’s eyes widened, and his heart leaped at the sight of a beautiful vampire maiden clad in a flowing damask gown.
Shimmering golden hair tumbled down onto her shoulders like the sunshine she had never known, and a gilt circlet rested gently on her head. Chestnut eyes gazed from a snow-white face that surely rivaled the greatest beauties of myth and history. A crest-shaped pendant, centered around a polished turquoise gemstone, dangled from a chain around her swanlike throat. The precious ornament bounced atop the ivory slopes of her bosom as she scampered across the torchlit courtyard toward Lady Ilona.
In all his immortal existence, Lucian had never seen anything to compare with the unearthly radiance of this enchanting vampire princess. Not even the moon at its fullest could ever outshine such perfection.
“Mother!” she cried out, her musical voice ringing out over the courtyard as she embraced Lady Ilona. “You’ve returned!”
The lady laughed as she held her daughter in her arms. “Did you doubt it?” she teased. “Really, Sonja, you don’t truly believe that your mother could be undone by a pack of unruly lycans? Don’t be absurd!”
“Then the hunt went well?” Sonja inquired.
“But of course,” Lady Ilona declared. Keeping her arm around her daughter’s shoulder, she turned Sonja so that the flaxen-haired maiden could behold the captives in their chains. “These wretched beasts will not be dining on our mortal neighbors any longer.”
Behind the prisoners, the heavy portcullis descended, cutting off the feral lycans from the lives they had known. Heavy cables drew up the drawbridge, sealing the castle in preparation for the dawn. Double doors of thick oak reinforced with iron provided a third and final barrier against intruders. Many of the captives gasped out loud as the mighty doors were bolted shut, blocking their last glimpse of the outside world.
Lucian scarcely noticed the renegades’ despairing moans. Sonja filled his vision, to the exclusion of all else. She grows more lovely each time I see her, he thought ardently. Like the very embodiment of all that is pure and unblemished.
Soren strode up to Lady Ilona and Sonja. The tips of his silver lashes were red with lycan blood. “Shall I escort these animals to the dungeons, milady?”
“By all means,” the lady replied. Many weeks of discipline and captivity would be required before the rogue lycans could be integrated into the servant population. Invariably, a few of the more stubborn prisoners would have to be tortured to death first, as examples to the others. “And have those filthy rags they’re wearing burned.” She placed a silk handkerchief over her nose. “They stink abominably.”
Soren nodded dutifully. “As you command.” He cracked his bloody whips over the heads of the trembling lycans, who flinched in anticipation of yet more painful lashes.
“Poor things!” Sonja exclaimed as the renegades were dragged away. Compassion shone in her eyes, enhancing the delicate grace of her angelic countenance. “They look so lost and forlorn!”
Her mother frowned. “Your sympathy is wasted on such creatures,” she informed Sonja sternly, eyeing the departing lycans with contempt. “Your father would not approve.”
Sonja’s father was none other than Viktor himself. Although he was then hibernating in his crypt in Buda, the legendary Elder was due to be Awakened in a little more than three weeks.
Lady Ilona noted Lucian standing by, enthralled by Sonja’s captivating allure. “That will be all, Lucian,” she said, dismissing him. “You may go now.”
Lucian realized with embarrassment that he had been staring openly at the elegant princess, a grossly presumptuous act for one such as he. Tearing his gaze away from Sonja, he ducked his head and backed quickly away from the vampiric noblewomen. “Yes, milady,” he murmured as he turned away and scurried toward the servants’ quarters, all thought of food and sleep forgotten.
Fool! he chastised himself, as he always did whenever Sonja’s presence stirred up impossible yearnings within him. She’s a vampire—and the only daughter of an Elder, no less! How can I possibly dream of loving her? It’s more than just insane. It’s forbidden!
In his mind’s eye, however, he could still see her wondrous face, shining brighter than the moon.
An insistent hand tugged at his shoulder, rousing him from dreams of Sonja. Blinking in confusion, he lifted his head from his straw pallet to find Nasir, another household servant, shaking him frantically. Consternation marked the other lycan’s features. Lucian knew at once that something was very wrong.
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