Home > The Day of the Dead (Cassandra Palmer #3.1)(5)

The Day of the Dead (Cassandra Palmer #3.1)(5)
Author: Karen Chance

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 to succeed. 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 the same. He’d had 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 any more. All he wanted now was to end this.

Sara 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 real 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 above ground, not the reverse, although at 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 from the main hallway before stopping dead.

“What is it?” Sara 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. 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,” Sara muttered. “For the extra creepness this place was missing.”

“This was where Alejandro kept the remains of ancient Inca 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 Inca monarch had to wage his own wars of conquest to fund his rule, because what had been his ancestors’ remained theirs and beyond his control.

Legions of servants had daily draped their withered corpses in the finest 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 festivities.

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,” Sara said, her eyes on his face.

“Are we close?”

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. “Yes. The old cells are down there.” He pointed out a small hole in the wall, about two feet square.

“Down there?” Sara 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.”

“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 Sara, 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 rooms contents jittering.

“There’s no one here!” Sara 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 then.”

“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.

“Why shouldn’t 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.

Sara looked around, as if she honestly hadn’t noticed that the entire room was now shaking. “I can! Usually.”

“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.”

“You’re claustrophobic?”

“I have a small problem with enclosed spaces.” There was a badly concealed edge of panic in her voice.

“But you’re a mercenary! Surely –”

“I’m a mercenary who prefers to fight in the open!” she snapped, her face scrunching up with the effort. The shaking didn’t noticeably diminish.

“You might have mentioned it.”

“Very funny.”

The crack widened, dirt and rock exploded inwards, peppering them with pieces of rock as sharp as knives.

“Do something!”

“I’m trying!”

She 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 the tunnel!”

“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 me.”

“What?”

“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.

Sara’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. Sara 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 now, 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.

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