Home > The Day of the Dead (Cassandra Palmer #3.1)(2)

The Day of the Dead (Cassandra Palmer #3.1)(2)
Author: Karen Chance

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 1,000 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.

“The 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 ignore 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 now.

“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 towards 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 breath, 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 him. While families 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 was 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.” The girl’s 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 were 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 shock wave 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 rumbling over the cliff, still as limp as a rag doll. The two vampires jumped for the trees on the opposite 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 from 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 satisfaction.

Tomas let go of the limb and leapt for the one spot of colour in the darkness, the girls 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 leaped 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 issue. Despite senses 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 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 steady.

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 filled back onto his feet almost immediately and was back before Tomas could regain his stance.

Powerful hands choked him, setting spots dancing in front of his eyes.

He grabbed his assailant’s arms in an attempt 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 to us at last,” Rico hissed in his ear twisting the 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 home.”

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 and 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, to save himself, and the lid popped open just in time to intercept another slice from Reno’s stake. A pale, silverfish- grey arm flopped out of the tilted casket, and Tomas sent its owner a silent apology before breaking it off the limb to use it as a makeshift weapon.

He spun to see Rico a few feet away, his hand raised 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 Alejandro.

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 it contained.

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