Home > The Day of the Dead (Cassandra Palmer #3.1)(8)

The Day of the Dead (Cassandra Palmer #3.1)(8)
Author: Karen Chance

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 400 or 500 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 axe straight at Alejandro.

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 axe, this one to the spine.

And master or no, no one healed a wound like that instantaneously.

Suddenly his limbs didn’t work: his arms and legs flopped uselessly around him, his head fell back into a puddle of his own blood. Alejandro waved off the guards who were rushing to finish Tomas, as he slowly descended the remaining stairs.

He stopped directly in Tomas’ 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 like that.

Behind 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 neck and a mouth full of cracked and yellowed teeth clamped onto his neck.

Alejandro 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 in his eyes. It seemed Alejandro had kidnapped one necromancer worth his salt, after all.

“You brought them back,” Tomas 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 limestone.

Sara and one of her men ran up, dirty-faced and panting. Forkface grabbed Tomas, yanked the axe out of his back and threw him over a shoulder. Then they ran.

The 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 managed to catch himself on arms that, while unsteady. Actually seemed to work again.

He grabbed Sara, attempting to shield her, at the same time 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 out.

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 green and it stunk, with slimy ropes of algae clinging to the sides, but 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 400 years the Day of the Dead celebrated in this place by the living.

Jason 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 Sara 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, muttering.

Tomas’ 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 Inca kings were believed to watch over their people even after death, and to demand good behaviour of the living. Any who defiled 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 nudge.”

“You mean –”

His eyes went soft and dreamy. “They said that 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,” Sara commented, stopping by after locating enough local people to serve as guides for everyone else.

Tomas had a sudden image of vengeful Inca 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,” Sara said bluntly. “I like that in a person. Want a job?”

Tomas just looked at her for a moment. He was a first-level master, one of only a handful in the world. Others of 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 touch them.

He’d 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.

“Well?”

Sara 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?”

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