Underworld blood enemy, p.8

Underworld: Blood Enemy, page 8

 

Underworld: Blood Enemy
 


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  “That’s the way to the catacombs, you dolt!” the first man mocked. His derisive tone failed to conceal the uneasiness in his voice. “I wouldn’t set foot in those goddamn crypts if my soul’s salvation depended on it!”

  A chorus of voices chimed in, expressing the same sentiments. “If Brother Ambrose wants to go looking for vampires among the bones of the dead,” a third voice declared, “let him do so himself. Me, I’ve got a wife and four small children to think about!”

  Lucian listened with excitement, a renewed sense of hope surging within his breast. Apparently, the intrepid demon slayers lacked the courage to enter the gloomy catacombs in search of their prey. Can it be, he marveled, that fate has come to our rescue at last?

  Holding a finger to his lips, he waited silently as the voices and footsteps receded into the distance. Not until the last echo of their departure faded did he risk speaking again. “Rejoice, milady,” he whispered. “I daresay the mortal varlets are gone from this place.”

  “Thank the Elders!” she said in a hushed tone. “I thought us doomed for certain.”

  Free from jeopardy, if only for the nonce, Lucian found himself alone with Sonja in the cramped underground corridor. Under other circumstances, this would have been a dream come true; the freshly spilled blood soaking both their garments, however, served as a pungent reminder that their situation was far from idyllic. The desiccated remains of dead monks, resting in their humble stone niches, added to the macabre atmosphere of the moment.

  Reluctantly removing his arm from the princess’ shoulder, he found himself at a loss for words. “My apologies,” he said finally, “for these morbid accommodations. ’Twas the best I could manage, given our present difficulties.”

  A faint smile appeared on Sonja’s face. “You need not apologize for saving my life, Lucian. If not for you, I would be naught but ashes, like the rest of our unfortunate brethren.”

  Hearing his name upon her lips was like receiving a benediction from the Elders themselves. “I was but doing my duty, milady.”

  “Please, dear friend, call me Sonja.” She laid a cool hand atop his. “I think you have earned that privilege—and more.”

  Lucian knew not whether to be delighted or appalled. “I—I am beneath you, good lady,” he stammered. Beneath his sleeve, as he knew too well, his very flesh bore her father’s brand, signifying that he was no more than a vassal.

  “Let me be the judge of that,” she stated. Her eyes widened as she spotted the smear of blood on his side. “You’re hurt!”

  “It is nothing,” Lucian insisted, but his pained expression belied his words. It felt as though the silver arrowheads were branding his flesh from the inside out. Fresh blood continued to seep from the unhealed cuts. “You need not concern yourself with my injuries.”

  “Do not be absurd,” Sonja said. “Let me look at you.” Examining him more closely, she was shocked to discover, besides the grisly wound in his side, the crossbow bolt protruding from his back. “This must come out at once,” she declared.

  Lucian could not deny the wisdom of her words. He would be of little use to the princess unless his injuries were treated promptly; the pain and poison were sapping his strength at a steady rate. Throbbing pangs spread from each wound, pulsing with every beat of his heart. His skin felt hot and feverish, despite the chills that set his body quaking. Cramps and nausea gripped his innards, while his mouth was as dry as the fabled Sahara.

  “Turn around,” she instructed. Lucian presented his skewered back to her scrutiny. Blood plastered his linen tunic to his skin, forcing Sonja to peel it away inch by inch. The wolf’s-head dagger cut through the cloth around the exposed crossbow bolt, but, although Sonja worked as gently as she could, he still winced as the shirt came away, exposing his bleeding torso. He knew also that the worst pain was yet to come.

  “Take this,” she said, offering him the arm bone of a deceased monk. He took the dusty bone between his jaws, biting down on it in anticipation of the agony ahead. “Are you ready?” she asked, taking firm hold of the feathered quarrel.

  He nodded in assent. Sonja pulled on the blood-slick bolt, working it back and forth in order to extricate the silver head without snapping the wooden shaft. Lucian clenched his jaws as tightly as he could, stifling the anguished howl building at the back of his throat. His veins bulged, and his muscles tensed, and it took all his willpower not to turn and snap at Sonja like a maddened hound.

  The stubborn arrowhead resisted her efforts, as though unwilling to surrender its purchase within his side. Finally, though, with one last forceful pull on its shaft, the bolt came loose. “There,” Sonja announced. She snapped the quarrel in half and tossed the broken pieces back the way they had come.

  Lucian’s head and shoulders drooped forward. He panted raggedly, letting the arm bone drop from between his jaws.

  Toothmarks showed in the surface of the abused humerus. Exhausted, his bare chest heaving, Lucian could not even muster breath enough to thank Sonja for tending to his injuries.

  But his ordeal had not concluded; there remained the silver arrowhead buried in his side. Blood yet spilled from the narrow gash, which would not heal as long as the toxic metal stayed within the wound. Looking down, Lucian saw that the flesh around the cut had already begun to fester. Traceries of silver gray spread beneath the skin, radiating out from the wound like metallic cobwebs. The skin itself was inflamed and sore to the touch. Sonja’s fingers but grazed the site, and Lucian yelped as though stabbed with a red-hot poker.

  Heartfelt compassion and sympathy tinged her voice. “Forgive me, friend Lucian, for what I must do next.” She laid him down on his side, so that the infected area faced the ceiling, and picked up the dagger once more. “The deadly silver must be removed before it is too late.”

  “Wait!” Lucian blurted. The thought occurred to him that the silver arrowhead would surely prevent him from transforming come nightfall, provided it didn’t kill him first. He still dreaded the prospect of Changing in Sonja’s presence, perhaps even more than he feared death itself. “Mayhap you should leave it be.”

  Incomprehension showed on her porcelain features. “I fear the fever has addled your wits, dear Lucian. The silver cannot be allowed to poison you further.” She placed the monk’s arm bone between his jaws once more. “Hush now, I pray you, and be of stout heart. I promise that I shall be as swift as possible.”

  Brooking no further argument, she used the tip of the blade to open the gash in his side until it was large enough to accommodate her slender fingers. Lucian’s body convulsed in torment as she thrust her thumb and forefingers into the wound, probing for the severed head of the crossbow bolt. She held him down with her free hand, exerting all her pureblood strength to hold him still upon the mud-encrusted tapestry.

  The pain was unbearable. Lucian bit down so hard that the brittle humerus snapped apart between his jaws, sending splinters of bone flying from his lips. He howled in agony, unable to hold back the scream even if a thousand torch-wielding peasants stood at the top of the steps.

  No more! he shrieked inwardly. Was this what every rogue lycan endured when pierced or branded by a Death Dealers silver? Lucian felt an unprecedented stab of sympathy for his more bestial kinsmen. No one deserved to suffer such torture, not even a half-human savage.

  In the Elders’ name, no more!

  Just when he thought he could not stand the pain any longer, Sonja’s fingers retreated from the wound, holding a sharpened piece of blood-soaked silver. As she was a vampire and not a lycan, the hated metal had no effect on her delicate skin. She hurled it away into the darkness before wiping her gore-stained fingers on the hem of her cloak.

  Lucian was impressed and surprised by her lack of squeamishness. Sonja was a lady of culture and learning, not a veteran Death Dealer like her mother. Then again, he recalled, her father, Viktor, was a warrior of great renown; it could well be that battle wounds were nothing new to her.

  He moved to sit up, but Sonja pr
essed him back down onto his side. “Be still awhile longer,” she entreated. “The worst is over, I assure you, but my work is not complete. The wound is badly infected, and the silver taint must be extracted before it can spread further.” Unfastening the clasp beneath her chin, she shrugged off the fur-trimmed riding cloak. Her royal pendant rested on the bodice of a saffron-colored overtunic, beneath which lay a green damask gown. “Were I back at the castle, I would apply leeches to the site, but here we must resort to a more direct technique.”

  A pair of cool lips descended upon his exposed side and began sucking at the open wound. A jolt of surprise rocked Lucian from head to foot, dispelling all thought of danger and distress. The tips of her fangs indented his encrimsoned flesh, and he marveled at what was transpiring between them. Never in a thousand immortal lifetimes could he have imagined that such a moment could come to pass.

  Sonja lifted her head to spit out a mouthful of contaminated blood, which she dared not swallow, then went back to sucking on the crimson gash. Lucian gasped at the touch of Sonja’s mouth upon his naked skin; the mixture of pain and pleasure was intensely stimulating, and he struggled to conceal his growing arousal. It was just as well that Sonja’s tender ministrations had rendered him speechless, for he knew not what to say to her.

  Did the beautiful vampiress notice the effect she was having on him? If so, she betrayed no indication. Spitting out a second mouthful of lycan blood, she rolled Lucian face-forward onto the tapestry and moved on to the gash in his back. There, too, her supple lips drew the last traces of silver from the wound before spewing the tainted blood onto the dusty floor of the catacomb.

  “’Tis done,” she announced, wiping her lips with the flowing sleeve of her yellow overtunic. “I believe the wound will heal now, but we must have your injuries attended to by an experienced physician at the first opportunity.”

  Lucian sat up beside her. Was it just his imagination, or was the princess’ pale face slightly flushed? “Many thanks, milady… Sonja,” he murmured hoarsely, unable at first to meet her eyes. “I am in your debt.”

  “No more than I to you,” she insisted. Taking up the dagger, she cut strips of cloth from the hem of her gown, which she used to bandage the newly cleansed wounds. “We could very well spend the rest of eternity thanking each other, and not without reason.”

  Her eyes met his, and for one delirious moment, Lucian was tempted to confess his love, to reveal all that he had been feeling these many long months and years. Saner counsels prevailed, however, and he held his tongue. By the Elders, he reminded himself sternly, this delicate maiden has just lost her mother. Now is no time to subject her to the unwanted advances of an overreaching servant.

  “I have been remiss,” he said, assuming a more formal demeanor, “in offering my sympathies and condolences regarding the Lady Ilona.”

  A stricken look came over Sonja’s face, and she threw her arm over her eyes, as though to blot out the memory of her mother’s severed head rolling across the muddy yard. A sob escaped her lips, and she lowered her arm. A crimson tear trickled down her cheek. “Thank you, good Lucian,” she replied. “So much has happened in these past hours, there has been no time to mourn for my poor mother, let alone all the others in our company who perished this awful morning.” She looked over at him, a scarlet film glistening over her luminous blue eyes. “Were there no other survivors?”

  Lucian gave Sonja an uncertain shrug. “I saw Soren make it through the gates of the keep. I cannot say if he eluded the rabble assembled outside.” In truth, Lucian cared not whether the sadistic overseer had survived the massacre. “Take comfort at least that your father still lives and that, if fate is kind, you and your noble sire shall soon be reunited.”

  She looked over at him. Hope warred with despair in her eyes and voice. She fingered the pendant bearing her family crest. “Do you truly think that we will live to see our kinsmen again?”

  “I swear it, milady… that is, Sonja.”

  I shall do everything in my power, he added silently, to see to it that you make it safely to Ordoghaz in time for Viktor’s Awakening, even if it means exposing my inner beast to your revolted gaze.

  His confident assertion seemed to ease her fears somewhat. “What of your parents?” she inquired pleasantly, as though eager to change the subject to less daunting matters. “Do I know them?”

  “Not at all,” Lucian admitted. Although deeply mortified by his bestial origins, he could not find it in his heart to lie to Sonja of all people. “My mother and father were feral lycans, living like animals in the forest. They were exterminated by your father centuries ago, when he first brought the pillaging lycan hordes under control.” His words recalled a bygone era when fierce packs of werewolves terrorized the countryside, before Viktor and his original Death Dealers forced the unruly beasts into submission for the good of all. “I was captured as an infant during the same raid in which my parents were killed.”

  Sonja reacted with horror to his confession. “How terrible for you!”

  “Do not injure your poor heart on my behalf,” he said, dismissing his parents’ fate with a wave of his hand. “If not for your father, I would have been reared as an ignorant savage, no better than my barbaric forebears.”

  Nor would I have ever met you, he added privately. The V-shaped brand on his bicep was a small price to pay for so transcendent a blessing.

  “I cannot imagine you could ever be a renegade,” Sonja stated. She laid a gentle hand upon his cheek. “You are too thoughtful, too noble of mind and spirit.”

  Her generous praise, which plainly came from her heart, unsettled Lucian, tempting him once more to declare his love. Instead, he rose from the tapestry and extended a hand to help Sonja to her feet. “Come,” he said. “Let us find a less confining locale in which to wait out the day.”

  She eyed him worriedly. “Are you quite certain you are ready for such activity?” She gestured at the improvised bandages encircling his torso. “Better, perhaps, that you rest awhile longer?”

  “That shall not be necessary,” he assured her, not entirely without cause. Now that the silver had been purged from his body, its grievous effects were quickly fading away. He still felt weary enough to sleep like a hibernating Elder, but his wounds no longer throbbed quite so mercilessly. The chills and nausea had abated, the profuse bleeding had been stanched, and an itching sensation beneath his bandages indicated that his perforated skin had begun to reknit itself. “I am well enough to walk, thanks to your skillful nursing.”

  Sonja took him at his word, rising from the tapestry to stand beside him. An unlit torch rested in a sconce upon the wall, and Lucian wrested the brand from its perch, then lit the tallow-dipped fibers at the end of the torch with a flint he routinely carried in a bag on his belt. The sputtering flambeau cast flickering shadows on the crumbling walls of the catacomb, exposing the rotting monks in their dismal niches. Withered corpses, with empty sockets where their eyes had once been, stared blindly into eternity.

  Hand in hand, they headed into the deeper recesses of the ancient catacombs, leaving behind a heap of bloody fabric composed of the cloak, the tunic, and the tapestry. In truth, Lucian was less concerned with comfort than with putting yet more distance between themselves and the steps leading back up into the monastery. The demon hunters seemed unlikely to return, thanks to their superstitious dread of the defiled monastery, but Lucian was not inclined to risk Sonja’s immortality on that assumption.

  Let us not tempt fate, he thought, while daylight still favors our foes.

  He led the way, slashing through curtains of sticky cobwebs with the blade of his dagger. Nevertheless, tendrils of filmy webbing snatched onto them as they passed, streaking their hair and clothing. The air grew cooler and staler as they descended the winding tunnels. Their footsteps echoed in the lonely passages. Lucian took to scratching arrows into the limestone at every intersection to ensure that they would be able to find their way back to the surface come nightfall; he ha
d no desire to become lost within this subterranean labyrinth.

  “How far do you think these catacombs extend?” Sonja asked. Her blue eyes gazed in fascination at the endless succession of mummified monks. Lucian wondered if she was thinking of her own father, entombed beneath the earth at Ordoghaz. “How many years have these lifeless husks lain thus?”

  “I know not,” he admitted. “Mortal life spans are so brief, their dead surely outnumber the living.”

  “How strange,” the immortal princess said, a pensive expression on her face. Barring accident or foul play, she could expect to live for all eternity. “And how very sad as well.”

  At length, the corridor they were following opened up to expose a larger chamber beyond. Lucian and Sonja stepped over the threshold, then gaped in wonder at what they beheld.

  The light of Lucian’s upraised torch revealed a spacious crypt grotesquely decorated with human bones. Skulls, vertebrae, ribs, scapulae, clavicles, and more were arranged on the walls and ceiling in intricate designs and patterns. Columns of craniums, all brown with age, reached to the vaulted ceiling, where the skeletal figure of the Grim Reaper was depicted entirely in artfully placed bones. More skulls formed graceful arches above the supine forms of mummified monks. Slender arm and leg bones, laid knob to knob, framed macabre rosettes composed of mounted ribs and vertebrae. Even the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling were made of dusty clavicles radiating outward from upside-down skulls.

  Everywhere Lucian looked, he saw dried bones put to some bizarre use. He could not even begin to calculate how many human skeletons must have been required to create this charnel display or how many hours the holy brothers of Saint Walpurga must have spent to create this ghoulish celebration of mortality. “This is the work of madmen!” he exclaimed. “It’s obscene!”

  “It may seem so to us immortals,” Sonja conceded in a much milder tone, “but we need not fear death as the mortals do.” Compassion tinged her voice as she contemplated the morbid spectacle. “Poor, benighted creatures! I had never truly comprehended before how their inevitable extinction must prey upon their minds. They walk in death’s bleak shadow every moment of their lives.”

 
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