Home > The Day of the Dead (Cassandra Palmer #3.1)(4)

The Day of the Dead (Cassandra Palmer #3.1)(4)
Author: Karen Chance

“Meet my knife and gun club,” Sara 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 Sara 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 real vampire stronghold.

“Can I keep the bones?” the fanatic hissed, speaking for the first time.

“They’re useful in some spells.”

“Knock yourself out,” Sara said, shrugging. “But no collecting until we have Jason, understood?”

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 over 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.” Sara had pulled night-vision goggles out of her associate’s pack, and was staring around.

“There isn’t one. Alejandro lives underground.”

“Come again.”

“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 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 all.”

“I thought the plan was to rescue your brother.”

“Yeah. Like I’m going to leave you and the rest of the 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. “I know 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 them.” 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 thousands 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 the jungle in 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 seemed 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 the lintel. 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?” Sara 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 throat.

They ducked under deeply sculpted reliefs and entered the main hallway, which led to a chamber with a stone altar. Like his own ancestors, and unlike the Aztecs, the Maya had rarely practised 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 Sara drew 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 didn’t look happy. Tomas wasn’t surprised. Descending into an unknown labyrinth that to her eyes must have been pitch dark 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 see what lay ahead.

The four of them entered the tunnels, almost immediately Tomas found himself struggling to breath 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 then 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, as cold as ice, while the fanatic kept muttering silently to himself and fingering a necklace of what looked like withered fingers. Sara 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 right?”

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.

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