THE DAY OF THE DEAD
looking for my brother,’ the girl repeated, for the third time.
Her accent was terrible, New Jersey meets Mexico City, making her
difficult to understand, but Tomas doubted that that was the problem.
The largely male crowd in the small cantina weren’t interested in
a gaba with a sob story, even one who was tall and slim, with slanting hazel eyes and long black hair.
ancestry, Tomas decided, or maybe Korean. There might be some Italian,
too, based on the slight wave in her hair and the Roman nose, which was
a little too prominent for her slender face. She was arresting, rather
than pretty, the kind of woman you’d remember, although her
outfit would probably have insured that anyway. He approved of the
tight cargo pants and the short leather jacket. But the shotgun she
wore on a strap slung over her shoulder and the handgun at her waist
took away from the effect.
nineteen,’ she continued stubbornly. ‘Black hair, brown
eyes, 6 foot 2 – ’
The bartender suddenly snapped to
attention, but he wasn’t looking at her. His hand slid under the
counter to rest on the shotgun he kept there. Tomas hadn’t seen
it, but he’d smelled the old gun oil and faint powder traces as
soon as he walked in. But the man who slammed in through the door was
Alcazar!’ the bartender shouted, as the room exploded in yells of
abuse. ‘What do you mean, bursting in here like that? Do you want
to get shot?’
The man shook his head, looking
vaguely green under the cantina’s bare bulbs. ‘I thought I
heard something behind me,’ he said shakily, joining a few
friends at an already overcrowded table. ‘On the way back from
‘You shouldn’t have been
there so late,’ one of his friends reproached, sliding him a
drink. ‘Not tonight.’
‘I lost track of time. I was
visiting Elia’s grave and – ’
‘ĦAguas! You will do your daughter no good by joining her!’
There was frightened muttering for a
moment, and several patrons stopped fingering their weapons to actually
draw them. Tomas had the distinct impression that the next time the
door opened, whoever stood there was likely to get shot. Tension was
running far too high for good sense.
Then the bartender suddenly let out a
laugh, and slid another round onto the men’s table. ‘I
wouldn’t worry,’ he said heartily. ‘From what I hear,
even your Consuela doesn’t want you. Why would the
The room erupted into relieved
laughter as the man, his fright forgotten, stood up to angrily defend
his manhood. ‘She ran off with some wealthy bastard,’ he
said, shooting Tomas an evil look.
Tomas calmly sipped mescal and didn’t respond. But he wished for
about the hundredth time that he’d given a little more thought to
blending in. His reflection in the chipped mirror behind the bar, while
not Anglo, stood out as much as the girl’s.
cheekbones and straight black hair of his Incan mother had mixed with
the golden skin and European features of his Spanish father, resulting
in a combination that many people seemed to find attractive. He’d
always found it an inconvenient reminder of the domination of one half
of his ancestry by the other. The conquest of a continent written
on his face.
He couldn’t honestly blame the
locals for mistaking him for a wealthy city dweller, despite the fact
that he’d been born into a village even poorer than this one and
was currently completely broke. He’d picked up his outfit, a dark
blue suit and pale grey tie, at an airport shop at JFK. He’d
needed a disguise, and the suit, along with a leather briefcase and a
quick session with a pocket knife in front of a men’s room
mirror, had changed him from a laid-back college student with a
ponytail to a thirty-something businessman in a hurry.
He’d eluded his pursuers, but
with no money he’d been forced to use a highly illegal suggestion
on the clerk. Since then, he’d lost track of how many times
he’d done something similar, using his abilities to fog the minds
of airline employees, customs agents and the taxi driver who had
conveyed him a hundred miles to this tiny village clinging to the side
of a mountain.
had been a serious infraction of the law, but what did that matter? If
any of his kind caught up with him, he was dead anyway. He just wished
he’d thought to find something else to wear after landing in
Guadalajara. There weren’t a lot of locals in $1200 suits.
Tomas couldn’t see the outfit
that helped him stand out like a sore thumb, because an altar to
the souls of the dead had been placed in front of the mirror. Hand
carved wooden skeletons in a variety of poses sat haphazardly on the
multi-tiered edifice, each representing one of the bartender’s
family members who was gone but not forgotten. One hairless skull
seemed to grin at him, its tiny hand wrapped around an even tinier
bottle of Dos Equis – presumably the man’s favourite drink.
A regular-sized bottle stood nearby, a special treat for the spirit
that would come to visit this night. It was El Dia de la Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
A particularly fitting time, Tomas
thought, for a vampire to return home.
At least resentment of the city
slicker gave the men something to talk about other than their fear.
They didn’t relax, being too busy shooting suspicious glances his
way, but most of them let go of their weapons. Which is why everyone
jumped when a shot exploded against the cracked plaster ceiling.
It was the girl, standing in the
middle of the cantina, gun in hand, ignoring the dozen barrels suddenly
focused on her head. ‘My. Brother,’ she repeated, pointing
the gun at the bartender, who had lost his forced joviality.
‘Where is he?’
‘Put your weapon down, senorita.
You have no enemies here,’ he said, eyeing her with
understandable concern. ‘And I told you already. No one has seen
‘His car is parked by the
cemetery. The rental papers have his name on them. And the front seat
has his handprint – in blood.’
She threw the papers on the bar, but
neither they nor her speech seemed to impress the bartender.
‘Perhaps, but as I told you, this is a small town. If he had been
here, someone would know.’
The glasses on the shelf behind him
suddenly exploded, one by one, like a line of firecrackers. The gun
remained in the girl’s hand, but she hadn’t used it. Tomas
slowly set his drink back down.
‘Someone here does know. And
that someone had better tell me. Now.’ Her eyes took in the bar,
where most of the men’s weapons were still pointed at her. That
fact didn’t seem to worry her nearly as much as it should have.
‘I saw a stranger.’ The
voice piped up from a table near the door, and a short, stocky man,
dressed in the local farmer’s uniform of faded jeans, cotton work
shirt and straw hat, stood up. ‘He was taking photographs of the
ceremony, out by the graves.’
‘He’s a reporter,’
the girl agreed. ‘He was doing a story on...something...but said
he’d meet me here.’
‘I told him to go away,’
the man said. ‘This is a day for the dead and their families. We
didn’t want him there.’
‘But he didn’t leave. His car is still there!’
The man shrugged and sat back down.
‘He said he was going to photograph the church, and I saw him
walking towards town. That’s all I know.’
‘The church is the white building I saw driving in?’
‘Yes.’ The bartender
spoke before the man could. ‘I can show you, if you like.’
He motioned for the boy who’d been running in and out all night
from the back, clearing off tables and wiping down the bar.
‘Paolo can take over for me here.’
‘You’re going out?’
‘But it’s almost dark!’
‘Are you mad?’
The voices spoke up from all
directions, but the bartender shrugged them off. He brought out the
shotgun and patted it fondly. ‘Ocho ochenta. It’s only a short way. And no one should go anywhere alone tonight.’
The murmuring didn’t die down,
but no one attempted to stop him. Tomas watched them leave, the
bartender solicitously opening the door for the girl. His broad smile
never wavered, and something about it made Tomas’s instincts
itch. He gave them a couple of minutes, then slid off his stool and
There was little light, with the sky
already dark overhead, the last orange-red rays of the sun boiling away
to the west. But his eyes worked better in the dark. And in any
case, he could have found his way blindfolded.
looked much the same as it had for the last three millennia. Many of
its people could trace their ancestry back to the days when the Mayan
Empire sent tax collectors here, to reap the benefits of the same plots
these farmers still worked. The 500- year-old village where he’d
grown up in what was now Peru seemed a young upstart by comparison. It
was gone now, bulldozed to make way for a housing development on the
rapidly expanding outskirts of Cuzco. But although he hadn’t been
back here in almost a century, nothing seemed to have changed.
trail of bright yellow petals led the way to a small church with
crumbling stone steps overlooking the jungle that floated like green
clouds against the mountains of the Oaxaca. The church was still draped
with the flor de muertos,
garlands of marigolds, from the morning service. He went in to find the
same old wooden crucifix on the altar, surrounded by flickering votive
candles and facing rows of empty pews. He edged around it and paused by
the back door, where the sweet, pungent smell of incense mingled with
the damp, musty odor of the jungle. Beyond it, out in the twilight, he
caught a whiff of the girl’s perfume.
The church faced the red earth of
town’s only street. Behind it, the jungle washed up almost
to the steps, except for the area where a small cemetery spilled down
the hillside. It had never been moved despite each summer storm
threatening to wash the bodies out of their shallow graves and into the
Tomas picked his
way down a marigold-strewn path to the cemetery gate, pausing beside a
statue of La Calaca. The
skeleton lady was holding a placard with her usual warning:
‘Today me, tomorrow you.’ In many such villages, families
stayed all night at the graves of their dead, waiting to welcome the
spirits that returned to partake of their offerings. But not in this
one. Only four people stood among the flower decked crosses and
scattered graves, and only two of them were alive.
There was little light left, other
than a few burning votives here and there, shining among the graves.
But Tomas didn’t need it to recognize the new additions. The wind
was blowing towards him and it carried their scents clearly: Rico and
Miguel, two thugs in the employ of the monster he’d travelled a
thousand miles to kill.
‘I saw her. She shattered them
with some kind of spell.’ The bartender was talking, while Rico
held onto the girl.
‘Why carry all this?’
Miguel held one of the girl’s guns negligently in one hand, with
the rest tucked into his belt. ‘If she’s so powerful?’
‘I’m telling you,
she’s some kind of witch,’ the bartender said stubbornly.
‘That mage I sent you this morning was her brother. She came
looking for him.’
‘Where did you take him?’
The girl demanded, her voice full of cold, brittle anger.
Everyone ignored her. ‘Her aura
feels strange,’ Miguel said, running a hand an inch or so above
her body. ‘Not human, but not exactly mage, either.’
‘What are you girl?’ Rico
demanded, his breath in her face. She didn’t flinch, despite the
fact that she had to be able to see his fangs at that range. If she
hadn’t known what the villagers feared before, she certainly did
‘Tell me what you’ve done
with my brother or I’ll show you.’ She sounded no more
concerned about her predicament than she had at the bar. Tomas
couldn’t tell if that was bravado or stupidity, but he was
leaning toward the latter. Her heart rate had barely sped up, despite
the obvious danger.
‘What about me?’ the
bartender demanded. ‘You said if I brought you the mage, I was
safe. I want my nephew’s safety in exchange for this one.’
‘That will depend,’ Rico
said, jerking her close, ‘on what she can do. You had better hope
one of them is what the master wants, or we’ll be taking out the
price for our inconvenience in your blood.’
Tomas didn’t move, didn’t
breathe, a lifetime’s habit keeping him so still that a small
bird lit on a tree branch right in front of his face. But inside, he
was reeling. It wasn’t the cavalier kidnapping that surprised
him. The men’s master, a vampire named Alejandro, had been
organizing hunts on the Day of the Dead for as long as Tomas had known
across Mexico were busily collecting delicacies for the dead –
chocolate for mole, fresh eggs for the pan de muerto,
cigarettes and mescal – Alejandro was collecting treats of his
own. Strong, smart, cunning – they’d all had some advantage
that made them attractive prey. Assembled together, they were always
told the same thing: last until morning or escape beyond the borders of
Alejandro’s lands and win your freedom. They were given
flashlights, weapons and maps showing the extent of the ten mile square
area he claimed. Then, at midnight, they were released.
No one ever lived to see dawn.
The participants had changed over the
years, from Aztecs to conquistadors to local farmers sprinkled with the
occasional American tourist. But one group Alejandro had always left
strictly alone were magic users. He liked a challenge, but not prey
capable of bringing down the wrath of the Silver Circle, the guardian
body of the magical community, on his head. He was twisted, cruel and
sadistic, but he wasn’t crazy. At least, he hadn’t been
before. It seemed that some things had changed around here, after all.
‘I told you to let go of me.’
heart rate had finally sped up, but Tomas didn’t think it was
from fear. Her complexion was flushed and her eyes were bright, but she
wasn’t trembling, wasn’t panicking. And there was something
wrong about that. Because even if she was a witch, at three to one
odds, with two of the three being master vampires, most magic users
would be more than a little intimidated. His estimate of her
intelligence took another dive, just as what felt like a silent
thunderclap exploded in the air all around him.
A shockwave ran through the ground,
shivering through his body like a jolt to his funny bone. It shook the
surrounding trees and caused the dusty soil to rise up like steam. The
little bird took off in a startled flutter of wings and Tomas made a
grab for the limb it had been sitting on, catching hold just as the
ground beneath his feet began to buck and slide. Within seconds the
slide became a torrent of red earth heading for the side of the
mountain – and a drop of more than a mile.
The bartender lost his footing and
went down, hitting his head against the side of a massive oak. It must
have knocked him out, because the last Tomas saw of him was his body
tumbling over the cliff, still limp as a ragdoll. The two vampires
jumped for the trees on the opposite side of the path, out of the main
rush of earth. They made it, but the girl wasn’t so lucky. She
fell into the crashing stream of rocks, foliage and dirt, her scream
lost in the roar of half a mountainside sluicing away.
Tomas hadn’t wanted to get
close enough for the vampires to scent him, but it meant that she was
too far away for him to grab. She managed to catch hold of a tree stump
in the middle of the sliding mass, but she was getting pounded by a
hail of debris. Tomas tried to tell himself that she could hold on,
that he didn’t have to risk being seen by Alejandro’s men
on a dangerous rescue attempt. He didn’t mind the thought of
dying so much – considering what he was about to face, that was
pretty much inevitable – but he was damned if he wasn’t
going to take Alejandro with him.
Then the church bell began to chime,
its plaintive call cutting through the sound of the earthquake,
reverberating across the valley only to be thrown back by the nearby
hills. Tomas glanced behind him to see the back end of the old building
hanging precariously over nothing at all, its foundation half gone in
the landslide. With a shudder and a crack, the church broke in half,
the heavy stones of its colonial-era construction beginning to
crumble. Some of them were ancient, having been looted by the
builders from nearby Mayan ruins, and weighed hundreds of pounds
apiece. Even if the girl managed to hold on to her precarious perch,
they would sweep her over the mountainside or break her into pieces
where she lay.
Bile rolled up thick in his throat.
Alejandro had wanted to make a monster of him, a carbon copy of
himself. But he’d probably be pleased enough at the thought that
he’d turned Tomas into someone who would stand by and watch an
innocent die because saving her might cost him something. He might
never live to kill that creature, but he wouldn’t give him that
Tomas let go of the limb and leapt
for the one spot of colour in the darkness, the girl’s pale face,
using her as a beacon to guide him through the hail of falling debris.
He reached her just before the first of the ancient stones did, grabbed
her around the waist and leapt for the side of the path that remained
half stable. It was the one where his old associates were trying to
scramble to steadier ground, but at the moment, that seemed a minor
that made the falling hillside look as if it was doing so in slow
motion, he couldn’t dodge everything. He twisted to avoid a stone
taller than him, and slammed into a smaller one he hadn’t even
seen. He heard his left knee break, but all he felt was a curious
popping sensation, no real pain – not yet – and then they
were landing on a surface that wasn’t falling but was far from
Tomas rolled and got up on his good
knee in time to block a savage kick from Miguel. He’d hoped that,
in the confusion and danger, his old comrades might not have recognized
him, but no such luck. Miguel hit a nearby tree hard, but flipped back
onto his feet almost immediately and was back before Tomas could regain
Powerful hands choked him, setting
spots dancing in front of his eyes as he grabbed his assailant’s
arms, trying to keep his throat uncrushed. He pushed Miguel’s arm
the wrong way back until he heard the elbow crack. The vamp
didn’t let go, but his hold weakened enough for Tomas to twist
and get an arm into his stomach, using all his strength to send him
staggering into the path of the falling church. One of the tumbling
pews caught Miguel on the side of his head, knocking him back against
the newly created embankment, where the heavy wooden cross from the
altar pinned him with the force of a sledgehammer.
It wasn’t quite a stake, but it
seemed to do the trick, Tomas thought dazedly, right before something
long and sharp slammed into his side. ‘So the traitor has come
back at last,’ Rico hissed in his ear, twisting a shard of wood
so that it scraped along his ribs, sending stabs of hot pain all up and
down his midsection. ‘Allow me to be the first to welcome you
Tomas jerked away before the sliver
could reach his heart, but his knee wouldn’t support him and he
stumbled. He felt the hillside disintegrate under his foot, then he was
falling, tumbling halfway down the side of the embankment. He grasped
the top of a coffin, one of many now sticking out of the newly churned
earth, and the lid popped open just in time to intercept another slice
from Rico’s stake. A pale, silverfish-grey arm flopped out of the
tilted casket, and Tomas sent its owner a silent apology before
breaking off the limb to use as a makeshift weapon.
He spun to see Rico a few feet away,
his hand raised as if to strike. Only the blow never fell. Rico jerked
once, twice, then he dropped, falling along with the last of the debris
into the valley below. For a moment, Tomas didn’t understand what
had happened. Then a cascade of spent shotgun shells tumbled down the
embankment, rattling against the coffin lid like bones, and he looked
up to see a pair of slanting hazel eyes staring down at him.
‘Are you all right?’ The
girl’s blood was dripping onto his face, a soft wet plucking like
a light rain.
‘I should be asking you
that,’ he said, struggling to get back over the edge with only
one good leg.
He felt it when his skin absorbed her
blood, soaking it up like water on parched earth, using it to begin
repairs on the damage he’d suffered. But it wasn’t enough
to do much good. What he needed was a true feeding, something he
hadn’t taken time for recently. It had cost him in the fight; he
couldn’t afford to let it lessen his already slim chances against
He paused by Miguel’s impaled
body, still full of the blood he’d recently stolen, some of it
already pooling in his eye sockets. The sight worked on Tomas the way
the smell of a feast would on a starving human. His mouth began to
water and his fangs to lengthen without any conscious command from him.
He would have delayed it, would have gotten rid of the girl first, but
he couldn’t risk having the blood coagulate and lose the energy
‘I have to feed,’ he said simply.
Instead of recoiling as he’d
expected, she merely took in his injuries with an experienced eye.
‘Yeah. Heroics have a way of coming back and biting you in the
ass. But when you’re done, we need to talk.’
He nodded and hunched over Miguel so
at least she wouldn’t have to watch. Tomas couldn’t
remember the last time he’d fed from another vampire, but he
quickly recalled why it wasn’t a common practice. The reused
blood nourished him, the lightheaded rush of feeding giving the same
almost narcotic high as always, but the taste was like metal in his
himself to finish, trying to concentrate on the feel of his cracked
ribs re-knitting, on the tear in his side mending and on the grating
sensation in his knee slowly fading. The healing of wounds, especially
if done so quickly, was excruciating and this was no exception. Tears
had leaked out of the corners of his eyes by the time he was finished,
forced out by the pain, but Tomas didn’t mind. Pain was good.
Pain meant he was still alive.
‘I hate it when that happens.’
Tomas looked up to find the girl
scowling around at the cemetery. Or what was left of it. A huge swath
had been carved out of the middle, where nothing but slick red earth
remained. On either side, coffins stuck out of the ground like bony
fingers, with a few marigold crosses scattered here and there
Up above, on the
crest of the hill, the remaining half of the church swayed dangerously
on its ancient foundations. One last pew teetered precariously on the
edge of the abyss, half in and half out of the structure. Inside
the church, a single candle still burned.
‘You handle yourself pretty
well in a fight,’ she continued, as Tomas rose from
Miguel’s exsanguinated corpse.
‘I’ve had some practice.’
She gave a sputtering laugh, short
and mocking. ‘Yeah. I bet.’
Tomas pulled himself over the edge
and examined her. Amazingly, she seemed to be all right. There was a
shallow cut on her forehead and few scrapes and scratches here and
there, but nothing serious. It was little short of miraculous.
‘We need to talk, but we ought
to get out of here,’ she said, slinging her shotgun over her back
again. He’d heard her reloading while he fed. ‘Half the
village is likely to be here any minute.’
Tomas sat down on the edge of a stone
bearing weathered Mayan hieroglyphs. ‘I doubt it,’ he said
She studied him silently for a
moment, then plopped down alongside. ‘Want to fill me in?’
‘This is the Day of the Dead.
And in this area, that term has always had more than one
meaning.’ He spent a few minutes sketching out for her
Alejandro’s idea of a good time, making it as clinical and
unemotional as he could. It didn’t seem to help.
‘Let me get this straight. That
son of a bitch has taken my brother to use in his stupid games?’
‘Possibly,’ Tomas agreed.
‘Although I can’t understand it. He never took magic users
‘Maybe he got bored. Wanted more of a challenge.’
‘Does a cat get tired of
playing with lizards or mice, and attack the neighbourhood dog instead?
Preying on weaker creatures is Alejandro’s nature. But if your
brother is a mage, he wouldn’t fall into that category.’
‘His type of magic isn’t
likely to help him much,’ she said curtly.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You don’t need
to.’ She stood up. ‘Just tell me where I can find this
Tomas shook his head. ‘I can’t do that.’
‘Why not? Based on how his
vamps treated you, I got the impression you weren’t all that
He smiled at the understatement.
‘We aren’t. But helping you commit suicide won’t aid
‘Tell me where to find this
Alejandro, and the only one dying will be him.’
Tomas got slowly to his feet,
gingerly putting his weight on the injured knee. It held. ‘For
what it’s worth, I’ve come to kill him. If I succeed, it
may cause enough chaos to allow your brother to escape. Wish me
He started to go, but a hand on his
arm stopped him. ‘I’ll do better than that. I’ll go
‘I told you – that would not be wise.’
‘Really? And you think
you’d have survived just now without me? It sounds like you going
alone isn’t so wise, either.’
Tomas turned to face her, already
exasperated. He had enough on his plate tonight. He didn’t need
this. ‘You may be good with a gun, but that won’t keep you
alive. Alejandro was once my master. I know what he’s capable
‘Uh huh. And can he break off
half a mountain because he loses his temper?’
Tomas regarded her narrowly.
‘You’re saying that was you?’
‘That’s what I’m saying. I’m a jinx.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Jinx. J.I.N.X. A walking
disaster area. Fault lines love me. Of course, so does just about anything else that can go wrong.’
‘An inconvenient talent.’
‘And an illegal one. If the
magical community ever finds out a jinx as powerful as me is walking
around, they’ll kill me. Which is why I got really good at
protecting myself – and other people – a long time ago.
This vampire has bought himself more trouble than he knows.’
‘Bringing down a mountainside
won’t help your brother. If he’s where I think he is, it
would only bury him as well.’
‘I can control it. And this
isn’t exactly my first time at the rodeo. I can take care of
Tomas hesitated, instinct warring
with dawning hope. ‘I tried to draw someone else into this
recently, and almost got her killed,’ he finally admitted.
‘I swore that I’d never do that again. This is my fight
your fight. Once that bastard took Jason, he made it mine.’ When
Tomas just stared at her, trying to think of some way to get rid of her
that did not involve actual violence, the ground grumbled beneath him.
The precariously perched pew gave up the struggle and slid down the
hillside, only to go sailing off into the void like a huge wooden bird.
‘Look, I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. You think
you’ve got troubles now? Try leaving me behind. My brother is all
I’ve got, and he is not dying tonight.’
‘It will not be easy,’ he
said, wondering how to even begin to explain what they were up against.
The girl snorted. ‘Yeah. I kind
of got that.’ She held out her hand. ‘Sarah Lee. And no, I
‘Well Tomas. We gonna stand
here exchanging pleasantries all night, or go kill a vampire?’
Tomas didn’t say anything, but he slowly took her hand. She
grinned. ‘Well, all right then.’
* * *
‘Jason is a reporter for the Oracle,’
Sarah said, as Tomas hotwired her brother’s rental car. Hers had
been parked in the part of the cemetery that hadn’t survived and
was currently exploring the bottom of the valley. ‘We were
supposed to meet up in Puerto Vallarta for a vacation, but when I got
to the hotel, he’d already left. All I found was a note telling
me he’d got a lead on a story and asking me to meet him
‘If Alejandro has started
kidnapping magic users, it would be front-page news,’ Tomas
agreed, as the engine on the old subcompact finally turned over.
‘Or your brother could have found out about one of his other
businesses. He controls everything from magical narcotics to weapon
sales in much of Central and South America.’
‘I know. I’ve dealt with
his people before.’ At Tomas’s sideways look, she shrugged.
‘I can’t buy weapons from legitimate sources, not in the
quantities I need. The authorities monitor that kind of stuff.’
‘Why would you need huge quantities of magical weaponry?’
‘Why do you want to kill your
old master?’ she countered. ‘I didn’t even think that
They bounced out onto the main road
through the village, with only the weak light of a quarter moon to see
by. ‘It wouldn’t be, if he were still my master. I
challenged him to combat, but he wouldn’t face me. He brought in
a champion, a French dueling master, instead. But rather than kill me
as Alejandro had wanted, after Louis-Cesare defeated me, he claimed me
as his slave. I only recently escaped.’
‘And came straight back here.’
Tomas didn’t think it qualified
as heroism if he had nothing left to lose. But he didn’t say so.
Her tone made it clear that the word she’d really been searching
for was ‘stupid’.
‘Alejandro killed the entire
population of my village. There isn’t anyone else.’ If the
dead were ever to be avenged, it was up to him to do it. And after four
hundred years, they’d waited long enough.
‘So you came back alone.’
She shook her head. ‘People like you are bad for business.’
mercenary.’ Tomas supposed he should have figured it out before.
‘We prefer the term ‘outside contractor’.’
‘I couldn’t afford to
hire a team,’ Tomas said, turning onto the pitted road leading
into the mountains. ‘And you also came here alone.’
A dark shape suddenly loomed in front
of them, forcing Tomas to squeal tires and practically stand the car on
end to avoid hitting it. The shape resolved itself into a tall, gaunt
man, with the brilliant eyes of a fanatic set deep in the hollows of
his craggy face. ‘Not so much,’ Sarah said, climbing out of
the car. ‘Boys, glad you could make it.’
‘Looks like we already missed
some of the fun,’ another man commented, stepping out of the
jungle that hedged the road on each side.
Tomas stared hard at the new arrival.
He hadn’t heard him approach, and that was unacceptable. Unless
he was a mage using magic to mask his breath, the sound of his heart
beating, his footfalls – all would have alerted Tomas to his
didn’t look like a mage. He had a jagged, ugly scar on his right
cheek, as if someone had dragged a fork with sharpened tines over his
skin. It was the sort of thing that could be fixed by magical healers
or covered by a glamourie. Unless, of course, its owner preferred to
look like an extra from a horror flick.
‘Meet my knife and gun
club,’ Sarah said, slapping the man on the back. ‘At least
the ones close enough to get here in time for the festivities.’
The men didn’t greet him, and
nobody offered any names, but they also didn’t demand to know
what Sarah was doing with some strange vampire. Of course, she
didn’t give them much of a chance, launching directly into an
explanation of the problem. If Tomas had had a doubt about their
profession, it would have been quieted by their reaction to the news
that they were about to raid a vampire stronghold.
‘Can I keep the bones?’
the fanatic hissed, speaking for the first time. ‘They’re
useful in some spells.’
‘Knock yourself out,’
Sarah said, shrugging. ‘But no collecting until we have Jason,
The man gave a quick nod that
reminded Tomas of a lizard or some other kind of reptile. It
wasn’t a human movement. The other man didn’t say anything
at all, just switched out a couple of the weapons in the collection
draped over his body for several others he drew from a pack on his
back. Then everybody got in the car.
Tomas pulled off the road a few miles
to the north, where a burbling stream snaked its way through the dense
jungle. ‘We walk from here,’ he said, pushing the car off
the road in case any of Alejandro’s men were out a little early.
‘I don’t see a
house,’ Sarah had pulled night- vision goggles out of her
associate’s pack, and was staring around.
‘There isn’t one. Alejandro lives underground.’
‘There are some Mayan ruins
near here, with a maze of underground passages beneath them. He’s
lived there for centuries.’
‘Great.’ She sounded less than enthused.
‘What is it?’
'Nothing. What about guards?’
‘Normally, the entrances are
all watched. That’s why I picked tonight to return. They will be
open for the hunt, as the prisoners’ first challenge is to find
their way out of the maze. Many never do.’
‘We need to reach them before
they’re released, then. Otherwise, they’ll be scattered in
the tunnels, in the jungle – we’ll never find them
‘I thought the plan was to rescue your brother.’
‘Yeah. Like I’m going to
leave you and the rest to be prey to that thing.’
Tomas glanced at her, but it was
difficult to see much of an expression behind the absurd goggles.
She’d sounded sincere enough, though. And he couldn’t let
her go in thinking that way.
where they used to keep the prisoners. We’ll go there first. And
if we’re lucky enough to locate your brother alive, you need to
take him and go.’
‘I don’t abandon a
colleague in the middle of a mission. We go in together, we leave
together. That’s how it works.’
‘Not if you want to stay
alive!’ Tomas grasped her arm. ‘I have the best chance of
reaching Alejandro alone. If you stay to help me, both you and your
brother will die. Not to mention that you will almost certainly cause
me to fail at my task.’
She stopped, looking from the hand on
her arm to his face. He released her, but the steady stare didn’t
change. ‘If you don’t want my help, why are you taking me
along?’ she demanded.
‘Because you wouldn’t
find your brother alone. Not in time.’
‘And why would you care about
that? You don’t even know him.’
‘I might not know your brother,
but I’ve known plenty of others.’ A thousand faces, ten
thousand, he’d lost count over the years. All of those eyes
begging him to help them, to save them. They’d seen his face, the
one that had prompted Alejandro to nickname him ‘my angel,’
and assumed he was their saviour. Only to realize with horror that he
was one of those hunting them.
‘Alejandro forced me to help
with the hunts,’ Tomas said bluntly, ‘because he knew how
much I hated it.’ Telling her was unnecessary, but it was
probably his last chance for confession. He didn’t remember the
last time he’d talked with a priest, not even the last time
he’d wanted to, and she couldn’t absolve him anyway. But
then, considering some of the things he’d done, he doubted that
anyone could. ‘I’ve killed hundreds just like
Jason,’ he added, trying to keep his voice neutral. ‘And
the only mercy I could show them was to make it quick. For once,
I’d like to help someone survive. And to have Alejandro be the
one wallowing in his own blood.’
‘That’s a plan I can get
behind,’ she said, fingering her automatic.
Tomas shook his
head and didn’t comment. Once she saw what was waiting for them,
her bravado would fade. Just like everyone else’s always did. The
two men didn’t say anything. But when he and Sara stepped into
the undergrowth, they followed.
The next hour was taken up with
slipping through a jungle through which no paths had ever been carved,
followed closely by a damp cloud of mosquitoes. Sara managed it better
than Tomas had expected; it wasn’t easy going even for him.
Alejandro had left the jungle intact for exactly that reason: it formed
an added layer of protection. It also added to the fun of his hunts,
watching mere mortals flounder around in the endless green sea until he
chose to put them out of their misery.
They finally reached an old temple on
the edge of Alejandro’s lands. The place was beautiful, silvered
with moonbeams, the stones seeming to glow with a delicate light just
bright enough to pick out shapes. Weeds and vines had half obscured the
entrance and small trees were growing out of the tumbled stones over
A crop of wild
orchids had moved in, settling among the ruins like nesting birds,
their white and orange petals spotted with brown like freckles. Tomas
reached out to touch one and found it softly furred beneath the pad of
his finger – like skin. A sudden shiver flashed up and down his
spine, before twisting like a snake in his gut. For a moment, it felt
like the last century had never happened, like he was returning from a
mission for his master with blood on his hands, and all the rest was
merely a dream.
‘This it?’ Sarah asked briskly, breaking the mood.
‘Yes,’ he said, and for
some reason it hurt to talk, like he was scraping the words out of his
under deeply sculpted reliefs and entered the main hallway, leading to
a chamber with a stone altar. Like his own ancestors, and unlike the
Aztec, the Maya had rarely practiced human sacrifice. It was far more
common for their priests and kings to use their own blood as the
sacrifices their gods required, letting it flow when crises occurred or
when the auguries deemed it necessary. Tomas had always been proud that
he came from a people who understood the real nature of sacrifice
– and it wasn’t having someone else bleed for you.
The altar sat in front of a raised
dais, behind which was a small room where he supposed the priests might
have once readied themselves for ceremonies. It was empty now, except
for a set of rock-cut stairs leading down into darkness. Below were a
series of chultuns, old
underground storage chambers for water and food, and beneath them the
reason Alejandro had chosen this site in the first place: naturally
occurring limestone caverns that even Tomas had never explored in full.
It was like an underground city, part of which the Mayans had used as a
refuse dump, part of which had some type of mystical significance, with
carvings on the walls showing ancient ceremonies and still partially
covered in moulding paint.
‘This is one of the lesser used
entrances,’ he told them, as Sarah drew out a flashlight.
‘But we shouldn’t risk the light. Alejandro’s men
don’t need it, and if they see it, it will only draw them to us
that much faster.’
She nodded, but she didn’t
look happy. Tomas wasn’t surprised. Descending into an unknown
labyrinth that probably looked pitch dark even with her goggles
would have upset most people. But there wasn’t much to see,
unless she liked the look of striated stone and deep, dark holes
branching off here and there. That was all until they reached the
populated areas. And then, she was probably better off if she
couldn’t make out what lay ahead.
The four of them entered the
tunnels, and almost immediately Tomas found himself struggling to
breathe against a thick, smothering pressure, voices rising like a tide
in his head. He’d killed before he came to Alejandro, fighting
against the men who had come across the sea to steal his homeland. But
those deaths had never bothered him, he’d never lost one night of
sleep over them, because those men had deserved everything he did to
them. The ones he’d taken in these halls were different.
Taken. It was a good word, he thought
bleakly, seeing with perfect clarity the bodies, pale and brown, young
and old, faces spattered with blood, bodies cracked and split
open. They had bled out onto the thirsty earth because the ones who
hunted them had been so sated that they could afford to spill blood
like water. And none of it had been due to the hand of God, through
some natural, comprehensible tragedy. No, they had died because someone
with god-like conceit had stretched out his hand and said, I will have these, and by that act ended lives full of hope and promise.
More often than not, Tomas had been
that hand, the instrument through which his master’s gory
commands were carried out. He hadn’t had a choice, bound by the
blood bond they shared to do as he was bid, but that had somehow never
done much to soothe his conscience. He had known it would be hard to
return, but he hadn’t expected it to be quite this overpowering.
Four hundred years of memory seemed to permeate the very air, the taste
of it thick and heavy, like ashes in his mouth.
He glanced at his companions.
Forkface had an utterly blank stare, cold as ice, while the fanatic
kept muttering silently to himself and fingering a necklace of what
looked like withered fingers around his neck. Sarah was looking a
little green, as if something about the atmosphere was getting to her,
too. He swallowed, throat working, and said roughly, ‘Are you all
She nodded, but didn’t try to
reply. He decided not to press it, struggling too much with the weight
of his own memory. They silently moved forwards.
It was deeply strange to walk through
the familiar halls, the bumps and jagged edges of the lintels
stretching out claws of shadow that even his eyes couldn’t
penetrate. He’d done so much to try to forget this place, but
he’d been branded by Alejandro’s mark too long for that.
The feeling of familiarity grew with every step, like each one took him
further into the past. He kept expecting to meet himself coming around
a corner, as if part of him had never left at all.
Tomas wondered what he might have
been like, if he’d never been taken. Or if his first master
hadn’t decided to show off his new acquisition at court, where
Alejandro had chosen to claim him. Once, he’d yearned for freedom
with everything in him, hungered for it as he never had food, lusted
for it as he never had any woman. But it didn’t seem to matter
how long he waited or how much power he gained, the story was always
three masters in his life, but had never been master himself. The idea
of being free was like an old photograph now, faded and dog-eared, and
Tomas didn’t think he could even see his face in it anymore. All
he wanted now was to end this.
stopped suddenly, breathing heavy, her hand gripping the wall hard
enough to cause bits of limestone to imbed themselves under her nails.
She saw him notice and tried to smile. It wasn’t a great attempt.
‘God, it’s hot.’ She ripped off her jacket,
tying it in a knot around her waist, and gathered her hair into a
riotous ponytail to get it off her neck.
Tomas hadn’t noticed much of a
fluctuation in temperature. Usually, the caves were cooler than
aboveground, not the reverse, although this time of year the transition
was less noticeable. But patches of sweat had already soaked through
her shirt and glistened on her skin, and her hand left a wet print on
the wall where it had rested.
‘This way,’ he said,
leading them into one of the outermost rooms branching off the main
hallway before stopping dead.
‘What is it?’ Sarah had
noticed him tense, instantly aware of a change in the atmosphere.
‘Something’s wrong,’ he said softly.
‘Like what?’ The three
mercenaries had drawn up in a defensive wedge and were scanning the
room, their weapons in hand. The two mages seemed to see fine in the
dark, courtesy of a spell, Tomas asumed. But there was
nothing to see except a few rat bones and a scrap of ancient material.
‘There are supposed to be mummified bodies here.’
‘Great,’ Sarah muttered.
‘For the extra creepy this place was missing.’
‘This was where Alejandro kept
the remains of ancient Incan kings,’ he explained. Alejandro had
acquired them as trophies shortly after following Pizarro to the New
World, and had brought them along when he finally decided on a
permanent residence. Once they were settled in, however, they’d
largely been forgotten, left to mildew in dank, underground cells.
Tomas had been one of the few to ever
visit them. They had been venerated by his people even after death,
remaining in their palaces, supported by their lands, just as they had
when alive. Each new Incan monarch had to wage his own wars of conquest
to fund his rule, because what had been his ancestor’s remained
theirs and beyond his control. Legions of servants had daily draped
their withered corpses in the finest of garments and prepared lavish
meals for them. On important occasions, they had been brought out to
sit again in court, giving council to the living and presiding over the
There had always been something
uncanny about them – brown, almost translucent skin stretched
over old bones, empty eyes and hollow mouths, with shadows inside like
parodies of human organs. Tomas had come this way knowing it was
usually avoided by the court. That still seemed to be the case, but for
some reason it worried him that the kings weren’t there. It made
something cold go running along his spine.
‘I’m more concerned about
the living,’ Sarah said, eyes on his face. ‘Are we
Tomas swallowed. He was imagining
things. The kings had just been moved, that was all; or perhaps
Alejandro had finally decided to rid himself of his macabre trophies.
old cells are down there.’ He pointed out a small hole in the
wall, about two feet square.
‘Down there?’ Sarah
peered into the darkness, her hand tightening convulsively on her gun.
‘You’re kidding, right?’ she sounded hopeful.
‘No. There is another way in,
but it involves going through much more populated areas. This is
‘Safer.’ She didn’t
look convinced. She peered inside the small, dank, black hole for
another moment, then muttered something that sounded fairly obscene.
‘Stay here – keep watch,’ she ordered her men. Then
she stowed her gun in its holster and went in head first, on hands and
knees. Tomas followed close behind.
The tunnel slanted sharply downwards,
leaving behind the mildewed plaster of the chultuns
for true caverns. Tomas could sense the room’s emptiness almost
as soon as they entered the small tunnel – there were no
whimpers, no cries for help, no rapidly racing heartbeats. But before
he could tell Sarah, she was already out the other side.
He emerged in a
dark cave half- filled with ancient garbage, with deer bones and
pottery shards crunching under his weight. His foot slipped on an old
turtle shell, causing him to almost lose his balance, and then there
was a rumbling that set half the room’s contents jittering.
‘There’s no one
here!’ Sarah whirled on him, her face livid.
‘They must have moved them.’
‘A convenient excuse! I swear,
vampire, if you’ve lied to me – ’
‘To what end?’
‘To get me down here alone – ’
‘I had you alone in the
cemetery,’ Tomas pointed out, with barely concealed impatience.
The rumbling just got louder, with rocks and small pieces of pottery
stirring uneasily. ‘If I meant you harm, I would have acted
‘You said they would be here! That you knew where they were!’
‘If Alejandro had followed the
usual practice, the prisoners would be here,’ he replied, trying
for calm. ‘But the contents of the room above were moved, and if
they changed one long-standing practice, they may have changed another.
I haven’t been back in a century – ’
‘Something you might have
mentioned before now!’ she was sweating harder, with a few drops
glistening along her hairline before falling to stain her shirt.
‘We will find your
brother,’ he told her. ‘I swear it.’
‘Why should I believe you?’ she sounded frantic.
you?’ Tomas asked, bewildered. ‘What reason do I have to
lie?’ A crack formed in the ceiling overhead, raining dirt and
gravel down on them. ‘I thought you said you could control
this!’ The caverns weren’t entirely stable, as multiple
cave-ins had demonstrated through the years. If she didn’t cut it
out, she was going to bury them both.
Sarah looked around, as if she honestly hadn’t noticed that the entire room was now shaking. ‘I can! Usually.’
‘I’m a jinx. My magic
isn’t always ... predictable. I’ve learned some control
through the years, but it’s harder when I’m angry.’
She paused, her breath coming hard. ‘And I really don’t
like being underground.’
‘I have a small problem with
enclosed spaces.’ There was a badly-concealed edge of panic in
‘But you’re a mercenary! Surely – ’
‘I’m a mercenary who
prefers to fight in the open!’ she snapped, her face scrunching
up with effort. The shaking didn’t noticeably diminish.
‘Something you might have mentuoned before now!’
The crack widened, dirt and rock
exploding inwards, peppering them with pieces of rock as sharp as
knives. ‘Do something!’
She was almost doubled over in
effort, pain written on her face, but whatever she was doing
wasn’t working. A huge crack reverberated around the small space,
knocking them both to the ground, hands pressed against their temples.
A moment later, a chunk of the ceiling the size of a sofa broke away
and came crashing down, missing them by inches.
Tomas stared at
it for a split second through a haze of dust before grabbing her around
the waist and dragging her back to the entrance. ‘Hurry! Back up
‘It won’t help.’
She’d braced herself against the wall. Her face was pinched and
white and her eyes wide and panicky as they met his. ‘Hit
‘I need a distraction!
Something else to think about. Pain sometimes works.’
Tomas could feel the pressure
building in the room, like a storm in the distance, about to break.
‘Sometimes isn’t good enough! I can put you under a
suggestion – ’
‘No, you can’t.’
‘I assure you – ’
‘I’m a jinx!’ she
repeated furiously. ‘My magic doesn’t work like most
people’s! I’m not susceptible to suggestions, vampiric or
otherwise. Now hit me, goddammit!’
‘No,’ he said, and kissed
her. It was an instinctive reaction, something unexpected
that might shock her enough to stop this without actually hurting her.
But then she shuddered slightly and her mouth opened under his and her
hands clenched on his shoulders and somehow he was kissing her
savagely, this woman he barely knew who might be the last person he
ever touched, the last warmth he ever felt.
Sarah’s heartbeat was hard
against his hand, the urgent thump resonating through his body. They
stumbled back into the cavern wall, Tomas cradling the back of her head
to save her from a concussion, trying to remember to be careful when
his hands were so hungry that he couldn’t hold them still. Sarah
was shaking almost as hard as the room. And, for a moment, it was the
most natural thing in the world to be kissing her desperately, both
hands locked around her head, the long hair coming loose under his
fingers, while the mountain threatened to fall in around them and death
lay waiting, sure and inevitable, only moments away.
Tomas hadn’t realized fully
until that moment how certain he’d become that he wouldn’t
survive the night. He felt the knowledge settle into him now along with
her breath, and instead of sadness or regret, he found himself just
overwhelmingly grateful that, if this was the end, at least he
wasn’t facing it alone. It was, all things considered, more than
And then Sarah pulled away, her eyes
wide open, shocked and angry, and struck him hard across the mouth. It
was enough to rock his head back, to make him taste the rich, metallic
tang of his own blood. He wiped a smear off his lip with a thumb as she
pushed at him, hard.
‘I said hit me! Are you deaf?’ She didn’t wait for an answer, but launched herself towards him, fist clenching.
Tomas caught her hands, effortlessly
holding her away from him. ‘Vampires don’t get in fights
with humans unless we intend to kill. You’re too vulnerable, too
Another rock hit the floor, hard
enough to send bones and debris flying. Sara looked around wildly.
‘If you don’t, we’ll both be broken! Nothing else
He grabbed her by the hips, swinging
her against the wall, slamming her backwards into it. Startled out of
fighting for a moment, she just stood there, panting and staring up at
him as he pressed against her. ‘If I misjudge, there will be no
one to stop this hillside from erupting just as the cemetery did.
You’ll be unconscious or worse, and we’ll both die –
as will your brother.’
His hands were busy as he spoke, and
with a sharp tug on the hem of her blouse, he sent the buttons flying.
By the time he’d pushed the cloth out of the way, getting his
fingers on the living warmth beneath, her nipples had gone tight and
pebbly and she was gasping, her hands fisting in his shirt. But she
wasn’t pushing him off. She was kissing him brutally, lips and
teeth savage, pressing hard against his body while her hands clawed at
‘Are you distracted yet?’
he breathed, as she ripped open his shirt, pushing his undershirt up to
his neck and biting at a nipple.
‘I’ll let you
know,’ she said roughly, dragging their lips together again.
Her mouth tasted of the sharp sweet
tang of mescal, or maybe that was him. Her lips were sweet, but her
body was shaking and her eyes were darting everywhere as if certain
this wasn’t going to work. And it wasn’t, if he
couldn’t get her mind off the room and onto him – and keep
it there. The room was coming down in chunks around them and the only
thing that kept running through his mind was that it would be truly
typical to come a thousand miles to die in some deserted anteroom.
He was breathing hard, adrenaline
pumping through him, as he managed to get a hand between them. He
dipped his head for another kiss, hands slipping away from hot, damp
skin to tug impatiently at the button on her jeans, to work at the
zipper. He pushed the maddeningly tight material down her thighs, his
hand clenching on the soft flesh of her hip, rounded and warm for his
palm. He pulled her closer, fixed the angle between them, and pushed
Her legs wrapped around his thighs,
clenching, as he began moving. He’d been careful because he
hadn’t prepared her, but she gasped out, ‘I won’t
break,’ her voice low and rough, and he began thrusting hard and
fast, the way his body craved. His only concession to her comfort were
his fingers working between her thighs roughly.
she was shuddering, her breath fracturing into harsh, quick gasps,
panting, ‘Harder, damn you!’
‘Make me,’ he growled,
and in one quick movement she shoved him back, her foot behind his,
tripping him, sending them both falling to the floor and driving
herself onto him. Tomas barely noticed the hard floor or the pottery
shard that was gouging him in the back or the unstable ceiling hanging
above him. He was too busy watching her face. He kept his hands on her
hips, guiding her, but not giving in to her gasped commands. Instead,
he deliberately slowed down, then abruptly stopped, waiting.
‘Tomas!’ He ignored her,
even though she wouldn’t stop squirming, pushing the jagged pot
shard further between his shoulder blades. She shifted, pulling back
enough to rip open his shirt, to rain biting kisses all along his neck,
to lick the hollow of his collarbone and mouth, his shoulders.
Tomas’s hands scrabbled desperately at the rubble beneath him,
but he didn’t move. He just lay there and took it, amazed at how
much he needed this, until she let out a frustrated scream and raked
her nails down his chest. ‘Move, damn it!’
He just stared up at her, at her
glittering eyes and sweat drenched, dusty hair, her blouse open and her
jeans around her knees, giving him a view of the dark stain of his
hands against the pale skin of her hips. He wondered how he’d
ever thought her less than stunning. She glared at him and then pulled
farther back, letting him almost slide out of her, then suddenly forced
herself back onto him. She did it again and Tomas bit back a groan, but
he held himself completely still.
‘Some help here!’ she
demanded, and did something with her hips that made his eyes roll into
the back of his head.
He slid his
hands down the curve of her back and tightened them on her slim waist.
He could feel the tremors in his frame the longer he held on and knew
he’d soon have no choice but to move. And she knew it, too–
she was laughing when he finally gave in, an exultant sound that ran
like fire through his veins.
He let her have
her moment of triumph, before suddenly stopping once more. It took her
a second to notice, then she stared down at him, momentarily
speechless. ‘That’s inhuman!’ she finally hissed.
He grinned. ‘So am I.’
She wrapped her hand around his tie
and jerked him upwards, the new angle forcing a moan out of them both.
‘Finish this or I swear – ’
Tomas was moving before she completed
the sentence, ignoring caution this time, fast and furious, glad that
he didn’t actually need to breathe because she hadn’t let
go of the tie. And then her hips were jerking in a way that was making
it hard for him to focus, her gasps loud in his ears, her body’s
pleasure doubling his own. He felt her shudder her release and the
clenching of her body triggered his, making them both groan deep in the
back of their throats – and a great mess of pebbles and dust
poured out of the ceiling.
It took Tomas a few seconds to
realize that he wasn’t trapped beneath a ton of dirt and rubble,
that this wasn’t a cave in, just the result of one final tremor.
He dug himself out to find Sarah staring about room, which was,
surprisingly, mostly still intact. It was also blessedly quiet.
Those hazel eyes came back to rest on
him and she smiled a little crookedly, teeth a shock of white in her
dirty face. ‘Okay. I guess that method works, too.’
* * *
Instead of having to fight their way
to the centre of the complex as Tomas had expected, their path was
unobstructed, the halls echoing, silent and empty except for the carved
faces of long forgotten gods staring down from the walls and lintels.
That was more than strange – it was unprecedented. And very bad.
Tomas had always
known that his only real chance was that he knew this place, and its
master, better than anyone. But nothing had gone as planned all night.
He honestly didn’t know what to expect when they finally
made it to the huge natural cave that Alejandro used as an audience
He brought them
in through a little-known side tunnel that let out onto a set of steps
about a story above the cave floor. There were guards at the entrance,
finally, who Tomas dealt with by simply ordering them to sleep. He was
a first-level master; he hadn’t been worried about them. But the
creature sprawled on the throne-like chair at the head of the room was
first-level also, and far older than he.
As usual, Alejandro was dressed like
a Spanish nobleman of the conquest period, which he’d once been.
He didn’t look like a monster, with an attractive if florid face
and bright, intelligent black eyes. But then, the worst ones never did.
Seeing that face again brought a sudden, miserable lurch, a shuddering
memory of centuries of heartbreak and horror and nauseating fear. Tomas
had to clutch at the door jamb, feeling the rock crumbling beneath his
fingers, to keep silent.
Nobody else said anything, either.
Tomas had warned them that even a whispered word was likely to be
overheard, as beyond the excellent acoustics of the room itself was the
small factor of vampire hearing. So Sarah was quiet as they surveyed
the scene spread out below, although her face was eloquent.
Tomas now knew why they hadn’t
met anyone on the way. The prisoners should have been downstairs, the
vampires getting ready to disburse throughout the property for the
hunt. Instead, the entire cavernous space was crammed with people,
mostly human, but with a ring of vampires circling them. It took Tomas
a moment to understand what was happening, because none of this was
A young Mexican man stumbled forward,
pushed by one of the guards. He landed near a group of five
bodies. There were lined up in a row at the front of the hall, their
throats slashed down to the bone, white gleaming through red flesh in
wide, jagged lines.
beneath them was not the chipped, angular surface of the outer halls,
but worn to a smooth, concave trough by generations of feet. A small
stone altar had been found when Alejandro moved in, leading to
speculation that this had once been the site of sacred rights. Blood
from the corpses had run down the central depression, looking like a
long finger pointing the way to the altar and to his throne above it.
Standing to the
side of the carnage were two men and a woman, all human, with
expressions ranging from dazed to disbelieving to horror struck. Tomas
felt a hand grip his arm, and looked down to see Sarah clutching it
hard enough to bruise had he been human. ‘To the right,’
she mouthed, and nodded to indicate the tall, lanky young man at the
end of the lineup, his face dead white and smeared with blood.
He looked like
he’d put up a struggle, but there was nothing of that spirit
visible now. He was swaying slightly on his feet, mouth slack, and
blinking slowly behind his glasses like a sleepy owl. Shock, or close
to it, Tomas thought; so much for hoping he could run on cue.
‘You want to save the life of
this man?’ Alejandro asked, addressing the young brunette on the
other end of the line. ‘Because you know what I want.’
Instead of answering, the young woman
giggled, a nervous, high-pitched sound that warned of incipient
hysteria. It reverberated oddly in the high vault of the room; laughter
wasn’t a sound that lived here, and the echoes came back with
sharp, mocking edges. She stopped, cutting it off abruptly.
you already,’ the older man next to her said, his salt and pepper
beard quivering more than his voice. ‘What you ask is impossible.
Even if we could create that many – which we can’t –
keeping them under control would be – ’
Alejandro screamed, cutting him off. He gestured savagely to a row of
odd-looking spectators assembled behind his throne. The missing kings
looked out with dead, empty eyes onto the crowd, assembled once more in
an audience chamber, as if to give their advice. ‘They’ll
have no more mind than these! A child could control them!’
‘If the child had multiple
souls,’ the older man snapped. ‘We’re necromancers,
not puppeteers! To raise a zombie, we must lend it part of our soul
– that is the only way to direct it. I can create one or two
zombies at a time – no more. An especially-gifted bokor might be
able to manage as many as five, but a whole army?’ he gestured to
the mass of waiting humans. They were there, Tomas realized with a
sickening lurch, to be turned into more troops for Alejandro’s
growing megalomania. Troops who wouldn’t question his orders,
wouldn’t challenge him as Tomas and a few others, had dared.
‘You ask the impossible!’
Alejandro didn’t move,
didn’t blink, but Tomas knew what was coming. A flick of a
guard’s wrist broke the man’s neck, his body tumbling to
the floor to join the others. The young man who had been intended as
the next victim fainted and was dragged back into the waiting throng.
‘Do it,’ Alejandro told
the girl, who was staring at the body of her fallen colleague as it was
arranged in line with the others. ‘Now.’
She transferred her stare to the
creature on the throne, and Tomas knew she couldn’t do as he
asked. It was written on her face, along with horror and revulsion and
abject terror. She was shaking just standing there, and he doubted she
could concentrate enough to remember her name at this point. Much less
how to manage a complex spell.
Sarah said suddenly, ‘and my brother will be next.’
Tomas looked around frantically for
any sign that she had been overheard, but there was nothing. The
closest vamps, two guards a few yards away at the bottom of the stairs,
never even flinched. They were watching one of the captives, who was
busy vomiting up his dinner, the gasping, wet sounds followed by
painful dry gasps.
Tomas glanced at
Sarah, who nodded at the fanatic. He was clutching his bones and
murmuring something with a distracted air, as if everything below
wasn’t enough to hold his attention. ‘Silence shield,’ Sarah explained. ‘Have any suggestions, or do you just want to wing it?’
Forkface had taken off his bulging
pack and was systematically tucking stoppered vials into his already
weapons-filled belt. It was pretty obvious how he was voting. Too bad
they’d all be dead within half a minute of an attack.
‘This is Alejandro’s
power base,’ he said, struggling to explain in terms a human
could understand. ‘In addition to his own, he can draw power from
every vampire in the room. A frontal assault will not be
‘Any idea what will?’
Tomas’s eyes were on the woman
necromancer, who was crying and chanting at the same time, with
theatrically raised arms but no discernable effect on any of the
bodies. ‘Can he do a spell to allow you to move through the crowd
unseen?’ Tomas nodded at the fanatic.
‘The best he can do in full
light is a shadow spell to make us less obvious. It works on humans by
redirecting attention away from us. But I don’t know what effect
it will have on vamps.’
She glanced at
her colleague, who was still muttering to himself but was now staring
at an old inscription in the rock. She kicked him. ‘Yes, yes. Will not work on master-level, but all else, yes.’
Tomas nodded. ‘I will distract
Alejandro. While he is occupied with me, slip through the crowd and get
‘That won’t help everyone else.’
‘If I can defeat him, his
position will devolve onto me and they’ll be safe.’ But the
odds were a lot less in his favor than he’d hoped. Catching
Alejandro somewhere in the tunnels or the jungle, alone except for a
few of his closest attendants, he might have stood a chance. But
nowhere in his plans had he figured on anything like this.
His voice must have reflected some of
his doubt, because Sarah narrowed her eyes. ‘And if you
‘Once they see me, the court
will likely have eyes for nothing else. Get as many people out as you
can while they are distracted.’
‘Distracted killing you, you mean. Bullshit.’
‘I came here knowing this was the likely outcome.’
‘Another little thing you
forgot to mention. We’re gonna have to work on our
Tomas decided he couldn’t waste
more time arguing. The woman necromancer had failed and
Alejandro’s power was boiling through the room, hot on his neck.
He was furious. And when he lost his temper, people died – a lot
of them. It would be perfectly within character for him to simply order
every human in the room put to death.
As if in
response to Tomas’s thoughts, the guard behind the woman started
forward, hand raised.
grateful for vampiric speed, which allowed him to reach her before the
guard could snap her neck. He caught the vamp’s arm, but he
needn’t have bothered. The room had frozen.
‘Tomas.’ The voice was
the one he remembered, echoing inside his head like cool silver, but
crawling under his skin like something alive. But the power behind it,
the force compelling him to do Alejandro’s will, was gone. For
the first time, Tomas had reason to be grateful for his current master.
As much as he hated the man, Louis-Cesar’s ownership insured that
Alejandro’s unspoken command exerted no more pull than that of
any other first-level master. A rank he currently shared.
Tomas opened his hand and the guard
retreated in an undignified scramble. The rest of the court was moving
closer, not attacking, not yet, but on high alert. No one had any
doubts about why he was here.
Apparently, neither did Alejandro.
The moment Tomas made a move in his direction, a strong force
pushed against him, like a hundred invisible hands holding him back.
Make that two hundred, he thought, glancing about at the family
he’d once called his own.
The fifteen feet
to the bottom of the stairs felt like miles; he had to fight for every
inch with eyes burning into his spine like acid and a thick, roiling
nausea in his gut. He had a moment of vertigo, swaying on his feet like
a drunk trying to dance, and someone laughed, high and cold and
mocking. It wasn’t Alejandro. His eyes were glittering
dangerously and he'd lost the faintly amused smile that was his usual
The stairwell leading up to his
throne had twenty steps. By the time Tomas reached them, he was panting
like he’d run a mile. ‘I challenged you once before,’
he said around the mass that had risen in his throat, huge and cold and
sickening. ‘But you were too cowardly to face me. I have come
It was a good thing he hadn’t
worked too hard on his speech, because he never got to give it. The
vampires had closed in on every side, jostling each other, trying to
get up the courage to attack him. Tomas had hoped that
Alejandro’s pride would force him to fight his old servant
himself, especially with the odds so heavily in his favor. But
Alejandro remained seated, letting his men get more and more worked up
until, finally, two broke away from the crowd and dashed in, snarling.
They came from opposite sides, and
while Tomas was dealing with the one on the left, turning his own knife
back against him, the one on the right smashed something heavy against
his leg. It was the one he’d injured earlier, the one that had
yet to completely heal. He fell to his hands and knees, the jar of
landing on the shattered kneecap turning the whole room white hot with
He pulled the knife out of the first
vamp, who retreated back into the crowd, howling and clawing at his
wound, and rolled in time to slash at the second’s throat. He
missed because the man dodged, lightening fast, at the last minute.
But Tomas didn’t need weapons to crush his throat with an
application of raw power.
The vamp was young and
that effectively put him out of commission. But it also used up power
Tomas couldn’t afford to lose. And there were plenty more that
the family would consider expendable if their deaths served to further
dragged himself back onto one leg, momentarily crippled while his
system fought to rebuild torn cartilage and shattered bone. Alejandro
leaned forward, still not bothering to get to his feet. ‘Do you
really believe you will make it all the way up here, Tomas? Because I
believe I will sit here and watch them gut you as you try.’
Four more vampires rushed him, all
from the same side, and although he dealt with them and with the low
level master who had waited for them to distract him, he missed
the ax that someone threw from the crowd. Alejandro made a small
gesture and the assault halted, for the moment, while Tomas shuddered
and leaned his forehead against the slick, cold surface of the third
step, a buzzing uproar surging all around him. On the third or fourth
or tenth try, Tomas managed to take a couple of shallow breaths. He
brought up shaking hands and tore the weapon out of his belly.
‘Really, Tomas. I’m
disappointed. I remembered you as better than this.’ Alejandro
had finally bothered to get out of his seat, but he didn’t come
any closer. ‘And to think, I was contemplating offering you a
position at the head of my new army. I really will have to
Hot tendrils of agony shot out from
his stomach wound as he tried to stand. At least he couldn’t feel
the throbbing in his leg anymore, Tomas thought, and laughed to cover
the scream that wanted to tear out of his chest. An all out assault on
Alejandro was the only chance he had. If he hurt him badly enough, the
family might back off, waiting to see the outcome before they risked
attacking the man who might be their new master. Slogging slowly up
these steps, one by one, being battered from all sides and buffeted by
Alejandro’s power, was a sure recipe for disaster. But it was
also the only hope the humans had.
He couldn’t hear anything from
the back of the cave, from the mass of four or five hundred people who
had been corralled there. And there was no way so many could remain
silent while witnessing something like this. Not unless they were being
shielded and hopefully guided out.
But it was a
long way through the maze of hallways, as countless mortals had learned
to their terror, and even further to the town beyond. He had to give
them time, if they were to have any chance at all. And in this slice of
hell, time meant pain.
Pain wasn’t a problem, Tomas
decided, looking into Alejandro’s amused black eyes. He’d
brought it to enough people through the years. It was his turn.
‘Still a coward posing as a
gentleman,’ Tomas gasped, and threw the gory ax straight at
His old master turned it aside with
an elegant wave of his hand, but anger and surprise caused his
attention to waver slightly, allowing Tomas to make headway against the
stream of power opposing him. He made it to the tenth stair before the
world spun around and dropped out from under him, and he hit something
hard and unyielding. Only when the pain receded a fraction did he
realize he'd been dumped on the floor by another ax, this one to the
And master or no, no one healed a
wound like that instantaneously. Suddenly, his limbs didn’t work,
his arms and legs flopping uselessly around him, his head falling back
into a puddle of his own blood. Alejandro waved off the guards who were
rushing in to finish him, as he slowly descended the remaining stairs.
He stopped directly in Tomas’s
line of vision, his booted feet just touching the bloody pool. He
unsheathed a rapier, good quality Cordoba steel instead of wood, making
it obvious that this wasn’t going to end quickly. ‘How the
mighty have fallen. That is the phrase, isn’t it? From my
lieutenant to this, all because of ambition.’
Tomas tried to tell him that ambition
wasn’t the point, that it never had been, but his throat
didn’t seem to work either. Although that might have been because
of the sight that suddenly loomed up behind his former master. At
first, Tomas was sure he was imagining things. But not even in a
pain-induced near faint could his brain have come up with something
Alejandro, a withered arm encased in a few rotting rags appeared, a
tracery of thin blue veins pulsing under the long dead skin. A head
followed, cadaverous and brown, but with two enormous, glittering eyes
rolling in the too large sockets. They stared at Tomas for an instant,
full of terrible, ancient fury, before the arm caught Alejandro around
the waist and a mouth full of cracked and yellowed teeth clamped onto
gave one sharp gasp before the others were on him, a crowd of dry, old
bones and tanned leather skins that glowed slightly from the inside,
like someone shining a flashlight through parchment. And although
Alejandro’s power still surged around Tomas like a hurricane,
they didn’t seem to feel it. There was a crack, a thick, watery
sound, and then silence – except for the ripping, chewing noises
coming from the middle of the once human mass.
The kings had returned.
Another pair of feet came to rest
beside him, just brushing his hair. Tomas looked up to see Jason,
slack-jawed no longer, but with a quiet intensity his eyes. It seemed
Alejandro had kidnapped one necromancer worth his salt, after all.
‘You brought them back,’ he managed to croak after a moment.
Jason didn’t look away from the
creatures and their meal. ‘They brought themselves.’
Tomas didn’t have a chance to
ask him what he meant, because the earth began to move in a very
familiar manner. Jason grabbed him under the arms and pulled him
backwards down the stairs. No one tried to stop him. It was as if the
court was frozen in place, staring in disbelieving horror at the sight
of their master being attacked by supposedly harmless sacks of bones.
They made it to the edge of what had
been the holding pen before Alejandro’s power suddenly cut off,
like someone throwing a switch. A ripple went through his vampires as
they felt it too and realized what it meant. They came back to life
with a vengeance, but too late; half the roof collapsed in a cascade of
Sarah and one of her men ran up,
dirty-faced and panting. Forkface grabbed Tomas, yanked the ax out of
his back and threw him over a shoulder. Then they ran.
doorway collapsed behind them, dust billowing into the air while rocks
and gravel nipped at their heels. The entire tunnel system was
buckling, floor heaving, ceiling threatening to crush them at any
moment. His helper lost his footing and they both went down, Tomas
managing to catch himself on arms that, while unsteady, actually seemed
to work again.
Sarah, attempting to shield her, at the same time that she grabbed for
him. And amid stones falling and dust clouds choking them, they braced
together, Sara saying things that Tomas couldn’t hear over the
roaring in his ears. But their small patch of ceiling held, and after
they limped across the boundary from the caves to the old temple, the
rumbling gradually petered off.
They emerged at last into the jungle,
where a mass of dazed people huddled together in small groups under the
dark, star-dusted sky. Forkface dumped Tomas unceremoniously beside a
small pool just inside the temple, where people were scooping up water
in hats, hands or flasks. It was a green and it stunk, with slimy ropes
of algae clinging to sides, and nobody seemed to mind. Some were
hugging, more were crying and one, amazingly, was laughing. Tomas
blinked at them, disbelieving, seeing for the first time in four
hundred years the Day of the Dead celebrated in this place by the
brought him some water in an old canteen, and while Tomas didn’t
particularly need it, he drank it anyway. The fanatic came over to join
them after a moment. It seemed he’d been delegated to lead the
way out while Sarah and her remaining associate remained behind to
rescue Tomas. He seemed perturbed that they hadn’t brought him
any bones, and eyed Tomas speculatively for a moment before moving off,
whole body hurt and he was ravenously hungry, but he was alive. It
didn’t seem quite real. ‘How did you do it?’ he
finally asked Jason.
‘I didn’t. I only woke them up.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘The Incan kings were believed
to watch over their people, even after death, and to demand good
behavior of the living. Any who defied them soon learned that they also
had within their power to reward or to punish.’
‘That’s a myth.’
Jason smiled, an odd, lopsided
effort. ‘Really. It seems strange, not to mention expensive, to
tie up most of the revenues of the state in the care of creatures who
have no ability to hurt you.’ He shook his head. ‘The
ancient priests prepared the royal dead well. I only had to give them a
‘You mean – ’
His eyes went soft and dreamy.
‘They said they had been watching Alejandro for a long time. And
they were hungry.’
‘Well, they’ll have the
whole court to snack on now, once they finish with him,’ Sarah
commented, stopping by after locating enough local people to serve as
guides for everyone else. Tomas had a sudden image of vengeful Incan
monarchs pursuing Alejandro’s vampires through the halls where
they had once done the same to humans. He smiled.
‘Attacking that thing on your
own was insane,’ Sarah said bluntly. ‘I like that in a
person. Want a job?’
just looked at her for a moment. He was a first-level master, one of
only a handful in the world. The rest at his rank were either sitting
in governing positions over his kind, or were powerful masters with
their own courts. They were emphatically not running around with a
motley crew of mercenaries carrying out jobs so crazy no one else would
killed Alejandro, or close enough by vampire law. He could assume his
position, round up whatever vampires had made it out before the
cave-in, and claim to be the new head of the Latin American Senate.
That would put him beyond the jurisdiction of the North American
version – which wanted him dead – and his master –
who wanted him back in slavery. He could rebuild Alejandro’s
empire and walk these halls once more, this time as their master. He
would be rich, powerful and feared ...
And, in time, just like Alejandro.
Sarah didn’t seem to be the
patient type. It was something else they were going to have to work on.
They weren’t touching, but she was standing so close that he
could smell the vestiges of her perfume mingled with gunpowder and
sweat. It was strangely comforting, like the lingering warmth of a
touch even after it’s gone. Tomas looked up at her face,
surrounded by stars, and for the first time in longer than he could
remember, he saw a future.
‘Where do I sign?’