Underworld blood enemy, p.9

Underworld: Blood Enemy, page 9

 

Underworld: Blood Enemy
 


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  Lucian was astounded that Sonja could feel such sympathy for the humans, even after all she had just endured at their hands, including eternal separation from her butchered mother. Her outward beauty, he realized, gazing at the incandescent vampire princess in rapt admiration, was but a glimmer of her inner grace.

  How could he not love such a woman?

  He glanced around them with a more pragmatic eye. Grotesque as it was, the lonely ossuary struck him as a likely spot in which to take their rest. A mortal slayer would have to be courageous indeed to seek out immortal prey in so eerie a setting.

  “This should do, milady.” He used his fading torch to light the tallow candles suspended in the skeletal chandeliers. “Let us go no farther… with your leave,” he amended hastily.

  Sonja smiled at his embarrassment. “I defer to your judgment, Lucian,” she said. “And please call me Sonja.”

  “I will try,” he said sheepishly. In all honesty, he could not get used to addressing her so familiarly—except in his fantasies, of course—so he resolved to skirt the issue by avoiding all appellations and honorifics whatsoever.

  He sat down between two towering columns of skulls, resting his back against the cold limestone. “Nightfall is many hours away,” he observed. “You should try to sleep.” He tucked his dagger back into his belt. “I will keep watch over you until it is safe to travel once more.”

  He glanced over at a horizontal niche occupied by a robe-clad skeleton. He briefly considered ousting the bones onto the floor to make room for Sonja, but the princess chose to lie down beside him instead, resting her head on his lap. “Would that you could guard me from troubled dreams as well,” she murmured. “I fear the nightmares today’s events must surely breed.”

  Lucian could not resist stroking her flowing hair in an effort to soothe her mind. The flaxen tresses felt like finely spun silk. “Perhaps sleep will grant you oblivion,” he suggested softly, “and sweet relief from the woes of the day.”

  “Dear Lucian!” she breathed. He felt her tense shoulders relax against his leg. “I can always count on you to champion me in my time of need.”

  He basked in her praise and affection, choosing to savor her warm regard while it lasted, which was unlikely to be much longer. Soon, he knew, the moon would rise, and Sonja would be forced to see him for what he truly was: a wolf in man’s clothing, as hideous and repulsive as any other werewolf.

  Sonja may have forgotten, for the moment, the vast divide between us, Lucian thought, but I cannot. Only a few more hours of daylight stand between us and the dreadful truth, that she is beauty itself—and I am a beast.

  Chapter Seven

  THE CATACOMBS

  Lucian awoke with a start. Despite his best intentions, exhaustion had apparently gotten the better of him. The candles in the crypt had long since burned out, leaving him in utter blackness. He instantly reached for Sonja, only to discover that the princess’ head no longer rested on his lap.

  “Sonja!” he cried out in alarm. Panic gripped him as he sprang to his feet. “Sonja!”

  “Be calm,” a melodious voice addressed him. Azure eyes glowed in the darkness only a few feet away. “I am with you still.”

  Slowly adjusting to the gloom, his lycan eyes showed him Sonja’s graceful silhouette standing in the murky crypt. Immense relief washed over him, accompanied by shame at having fallen asleep in the first place. “Forgive me, milady! I did not mean to shirk my duty so!”

  “There is nothing to forgive,” Sonja insisted. “After all your exertions on my behalf, it was only fair that I watch over you for a spell.” Her gaze lifted toward the ceiling, and her voice struck a joyous note. “Can you not feel it, Lucian? The sun has gone down. Night is come again!”

  Lucian shared her certainty. He did not need to see the sky to know that the full moon had risen. He felt energized and restored, as much by the fall of night as by his unplanned-for slumber. Unwrapping his bandages, he saw that his battle wounds were healed; only thin white scars revealed where the silver had pierced his flesh.

  Moreover, his body trembled on the verge of the Change. His skin was drawn taut over his frame, as though his human epidermis were too small to contain the beast caged within him. Muscles rippled along his naked torso, while his remaining garments felt as tight and confining as his skin. If not for Sonja’s presence, he would have stripped off his woolen leggings in a rush. Instead, he merely kicked off his boots, revealing sharpened yellow nails that were already coming to resemble the claws of an enormous wolf.

  Even separated from the moon by several tons of solid limestone, he could still feel its irresistible effect. Tiny hairs bristled all over his body. Canine fangs slid from his gums. His fingers began to curl into paws….

  No! Lucian thought, determined to fight off the transformation for as long as lycanly possible. Not now. Not yet. He paced restlessly within the vault, unable to stand still. Snatching a fresh torch from a nearby sconce, he lit it with his flint, then headed toward the archway leading back to the surface. “We must make haste. Many miles lie between us and the safety of your father’s estate.”

  “I am ready,” Sonja answered bravely. The gleaming pendant on her bosom reflected the bright orange glow of the torch. Her glowing blue eyes took on their customary chestnut tint. “I know that I am safe in your hands.”

  That much was true, Lucian acknowledged, no matter what the moon revealed. Sonja was in no danger from the beast he was doomed to become; as a werewolf, his strength and ferocity would be directed only against their human foes.

  A thought occurred to him, and he handed Sonja his belt, bag, and dagger. “Take these,” he told her, his voice already deeper and gruffer than before. “I… will soon have no need of them.”

  She accepted the items without argument. “I understand,” she said simply, sparing Lucian any need to explain. She tied his belt around her own svelte waist. “I will keep them safe for you.”

  As if my lowly possessions are at all worth your concern, he thought disparagingly. Only the wolf’s-head dagger possessed any modicum of value. Sonja’s safety is all that matters.

  Drawn by the ceaseless pull of the moon, he practically dragged her behind him as they hastily retraced their path through the underground labyrinth, using his scratch marks as a guide. After passing the blood-encrusted tapestry upon which Sonja had treated Lucian’s injuries, they ascended the spiral steps back up to the ruined church. Lucian peered around the archway at the top of the stairs, searching the shadows for any hint of lurking demon slayers, but he saw no sign of danger. He sniffed the air; the only human smells he detected were several hours old.

  The lack of adversaries did not surprise him. What mortal would be foolhardy enough to hunt vampires and werewolves after dark—and beneath a full moon, no less?

  They emerged from the stairwell into the deserted abbey. Moonlight poured through the stained-glass windows, electrifying Lucian’s senses. Bone and sinew crackled and twisted beneath his skin.

  He tried to fight the Change, but it was like holding back the tide. Claustrophobia gripped him, along with an overwhelming urge to flee Sonja’s company, and he bolted down the nave like a lunatic, rushing out of the abbey into the churchyard. “Lucian! Wait!” Sonja called after him, but he could barely hear her over the roar of the blood pounding in his ears. His heart hammered like a drumming tabor, and his pupils shrank to pinpricks of black, surrounded by bright cobalt orbs.

  The full moon shone brightly above the churchyard. No longer filtered through tinted glass, the potent lunar radiance fell directly on him, hastening the Change. With a sinking heart, Lucian realized that he could resist the transformation for not a moment more.

  Sonja came rushing out of the abbey, her rumpled tunic and damask gown rustling about her. Her buckled leather shoes hurried down the steps toward him. “Lucian, please! You need not hide from me.”

  “Look away, milady! I beg you!” His guttural voice sounded scarcely human. He turned away fro
m her, even as a violent tremor shook him from head to toe. He could feel his very entrails being wrenched into new shapes. “I would not have you see me thus!”

  He threw back his head and shoulders, unable to resist basking in the moon’s invigorating glow. His fair skin darkened, turning a mottled shade of gray. His widow’s peak birthed a mane of coarse black fur that sprouted from his head and shoulders, then spread across his body and limbs, which themselves grew larger and heavier with every heartbeat. His spine lengthened painfully, as though stretched upon the rack, and his leggings came apart at their seams as he assumed the proportions of a giant. Jagged claws protruded from his fingers and toes.

  A tortured moan was torn from his lips as his skull underwent a drastic metamorphosis. A canine snout protruded from his face. His brow sloped backward above fierce blue eyes. Tufted ears tapered to a point. Flattened nostrils flared above a mouthful of jagged incisors. Foam dripped from wolfen jaws.

  His senses expanded, the night coming alive with a thousand new scents and sounds. As the transformation neared completion, the gut-wrenching convulsions gave way to an undeniable feeling of exhilaration. He stretched out his claws, reveling in his heightened strength and vitality. Succumbing to a primal impulse, he howled triumphantly at the moon.

  Yes! the werewolf exulted. I am free!

  “Lucian?”

  Sonja’s voice called him back to himself, reminding Lucian that he was not alone. The gigantic beast turned to face the princess, who was now at least three heads shorter than the two-legged monstrosity Lucian had become. Beneath his shaggy pelt, Lucian’s heart dreaded the shock and revulsion that were bound to be written upon her face.

  To his amazement, however, she gazed up at him just as warmly as before. He saw himself reflected in her eyes—a towering, subhuman brute—but she did not draw away from him. Rather, she stepped forward and laid her slender hand upon one of his hirsute paws.

  “Foolish Lucian,” she said with a smile. “Do not fear to show me this part of yourself. No aspect of you can be repellent to me.” A gentle chuckle reached his ears. “Did you truly think that I had never seen a werewolf before?”

  Lucian was overcome with emotion. The moment he had most dreaded had come and gone, proving all his fears unfounded. Sonja had seen past his bestial exterior to the thinking being within! Alas, his muzzle was no longer suited to human speech, so he could not reply to Sonja’s sweet words in kind, but in his heart and eyes, her blessed visage outshone the moon.

  He could conceive of only one way to repay her generosity. Scooping her up in his hairy arms, he set off toward Buda at a steady lope. She felt as light as a feather in his arms, and he knew that he could carry her all the way to Ordoghaz before the sun rose again. He raced into the surrounding forest, heading southwest by the stars.

  Love, as well as the moon, lent him speed.

  Dawn was lighting up the horizon as Lucian and Sonja drew near the high stone walls that guarded her father’s estate. A heavy layer of fog hung over the land, and the ground was damp with dew beneath Lucian’s paws. The mist obscured his vision, but he could dimly glimpse the enclosed guard stations flanking the gates of Ordoghaz.

  Almost there, he thought with relief, and with but moments to spare! The dense fog provided Sonja with a degree of protection from the rising sun, but only for a few minutes more. He had to get her safely indoors before the daylight arrived in full force.

  Sonja ran beside him, having insisted on completing the last leg of their journey under her own power to spare him the effort of carrying her any farther. In truth, his weary arms were grateful to be relieved of their lithesome burden; he had traveled hard and fast all through the night, sticking to the woods while skirting any mortal towns or villages. They had encountered no resistance. On this night of the full moon, it seemed, no mortal dared to venture into the untamed forest; they preferred to stay safe at home behind locked doors festooned with garlic and crosses.

  The moon itself was sinking from view, and Lucian felt his strength waning. Soon he would be compelled to shed his wolfen form, but not before he delivered Sonja unto the protection of the coven once more.

  After that, what happened to him was of little account.

  Two Death Dealers, armed with crossbows, emerged from their stations guarding the spiked gates. As Lucian lunged out of the fog, one of the sentries hastily raised his weapon and took aim at the charging werewolf. Without thinking, Lucian tried to address the guards, but all that emerged from his snout was an inarticulate yelp.

  A silver-tipped bolt went whizzing past Lucian’s head, missing his misshapen skull by mere inches. The werewolf froze in his tracks, uncertain whether to flee or advance. The bitter irony of being fired upon only yards away from their sought-after destination was not lost on him.

  “Wait! Hold your fire!” Sonja called out frantically. She darted out of the fog and threw herself in front of Lucian, shielding the towering werewolf with her own willowy form. “We seek sanctuary—in the Elders’ name!”

  The trigger-happy guard looked unwilling to heed Sonja’s desperate cries. Reloading his crossbow, he took aim once more and might have fired again, had not his comrade reached out and forced the point of the crossbow toward the ground. “Hold, Kraven!” the second Death Dealer barked. “Let’s hear what the girl has to say!”

  Sonja rushed forward while Lucian lingered behind, not wanting to provoke the first guard, whose name was apparently Kraven, into yet another rash attempt upon his life. The dark-haired Death Dealer eyed Sonja suspiciously as she approached the gates. “Careful, Vayer!” he sneered at his fellow guard. “I smell lycan trickery!”

  Lucian had to admit that in her disheveled state, with her once fine garments now smeared with blood and muck, Sonja looked more like a renegade lycan than a highborn vampire. Kraven kept his crossbow poised and ready as he sneered at the bedraggled princess.

  “Bless you, kind sir!” Sonja said breathlessly to the more hospitable guard, Vayer. “We are sorely in need of the shelter of this, my father’s house.” She raised her crest-shaped pendant for the man’s inspection. “I am indeed Sonja, daughter of Viktor.”

  Vayer’s eyes widened in astonishment as he peered past the sweat and grime masking Sonja’s beauty. “By the Elders, it is you, milady! We thought you dead!”

  “Viktor’s daughter?” Kraven blurted. His entire manner changed more rapidly than a lycan in the moonlight. “A thousand pardons, your ladyship. Kraven of Leicester at your service.” He spoke Magyar with a recognizably English accent. “How may I assist you?”

  “Assist her?” Vayer mocked. He tilted his head toward Lucian, who continued to keep his distance. “You nearly killed her servant, you fool!”

  Kraven shrugged, as though Lucian’s accidental demise would have been of little consequence. The werewolf’s hackles rose, and he snarled beneath his breath, taking an instant dislike to the callow vampire, who had almost been the death of him. I would not want to meet my end at the hands of a panicky vampire.

  “Come, your ladyship,” Kraven said solicitously. “Let me personally escort you to the manor.” Leading Sonja away, he glanced back at his fellow watchman. “Vayer, you stay here and see to the changing of the guard.”

  Lucian knew from experience that with dawn breaking, the vampiric sentries were due to be relieved by their lycan counterparts. Vayer looked taken aback by Kraven’s pre-sumptuousness but was apparently too level-headed to argue the point when an Elder’s daughter was in urgent need of succor.

  The spiked gates swung open, and Lucian followed Sonja and Kraven onto the grounds of the estate. Ordoghaz, known locally as Devil’s House, was dominated by a sprawling stone mansion built by Viktor centuries ago while he was still but a mortal warlord. Jagged spires and battlements rose atop its looming stone walls, while majestic columns and pointed arches adorned its brooding facade. With sunrise nigh, the mansion’s narrow lancet windows were tightly shuttered so that not a single candle could been seen fro
m outside. Doubtless, most of the vampires had already retired for the day, leaving the household’s lycan servants to tidy up after the night’s activities.

  A circular fountain, in the Roman style, was situated across the way from the mansion’s front entrance. Lucian felt the spray of the fountain on his fur as they hurried up the marble steps toward the entrance. The warning pangs of another impending transformation gripped him, and he felt the bristling hairs begin to retract back into his skin.

  A very human-sounding sigh of relief escaped his muzzle as Sonja slipped beneath the shade of an imposing portico. Kraven pounded with his fist on a pair of closed oak doors. “Open up!” he bellowed self-importantly. “The Lady Sonja desires admittance!”

  A bewildered lycan retainer opened the doors, and Kraven barged into the foyer beyond. With a swooping bow, he graciously invited Sonja into her own ancestral manor. “Please, milady, enter freely and without fear.” He barked orders at the hapless retainer. “Summon Marcus at once—and someone fetch Lady Sonja a flagon of warm blood!”

  Sonja stepped inside, but Kraven balked when Lucian attempted to follow her. He regarded the werewolf’s inhuman form with open disdain and wrinkled his nose at the pungent aroma of Lucian’s damp and dirty fur. “Excuse me, milady, but this beast simply cannot enter the manor—like that.”

  “He goes where I go,” Sonja stated firmly. She looked back at the werewolf without hesitation. “Please join us, Lucian.”

  Kraven was visibly appalled but was not about to contradict an Elder’s daughter. Lucian enjoyed the Englishman’s discomfort as he stepped inside the mansion. His height was such that he had to duck his wolfen head beneath the archway, but he could already feel his spine contracting along with the rest of him.

 
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