Once Burned Page 32

’’Tell me when we've gotten close enough.’’

We couldn't drive right up to the castle. For one, the cliff it was located on meant that visitors had to walk over a thousand steps up the mountain to reach it. For another, we didn't want to announce our presence to Szilagyi. Yet.

After about thirty minutes, Marty said, ’’Pull over.’’ I did-right into a ditch, from the way the front end tipped.

’’It's not my fault,’’ I protested before he could say anything. ’’I couldn't see what was there with all the snow!’’

I thought I heard him grumble ’’Women drivers’’ under his breath. Then he met my gaze and his eyes turned green.

’’You ready, kid?’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said, soft but emphatic.

Without another word, he took one of Rend's knives and cut his palm, holding it out to me. Equally quiet, I grasped it and swallowed the dark crimson liquid. As soon as I did, that weak pulse of power inside me began to flare.

We made only one stop on our way here;a gas station where I used the money in Rend's wallet to fill the tank and Marty refilled another way from two employees and a motorist. None of them remembered it afterward and Marty's cheeks were downright ruddy once he was done. He knew he'd need extra for me.

Marty cut his palm twice more. I knew I'd had enough when that harsh taste began to sweeten and my skin itched from the currents pulsating through me. My weariness vanished, replaced with an exhilarating mixture of nerves and purpose.

I pulled my right glove off and then wiped my mouth. Barely any red stained my hand when I looked at it.

’’Let's do this,’’ I said, and left the warm interior of the car for the cold, snowy darkness.

Castle Poenari sat at the top of a cliff, as silent and imposing as a great stone dragon. From my vantage point, it looked as though its steep walls sprouted from the sheer rock face by magic. Only one narrow road wound its way through the valley. Reaching the castle required a vertical climb where one wrong step could have disastrous results. Building it before the time of bulldozers or machinery must have been an undertaking of unimaginable proportions. Even with most of it in ruins, what remained still held the power to impress . . . and intimidate.

This was where Vlad had lived before he was a vampire. He'd overseen the castle's restoration and fought in the vast forest surrounding it when he'd been as fragile as any mortal man. Of course, even back then his fierceness had been legendary. Maybe that was what had intrigued the vampire Tenoch enough to find him and change him. I'd never know. Vlad said that Tenoch had killed himself soon afterward. I hoped it wasn't from regret over making Vlad as close to immortal as a person could be.

Far below the house was the Arges River. This was where Vlad had pulled his wife's lifeless body from centuries ago, that event changing him as decisively as becoming a vampire had. But I wasn't here on a sightseeing trip, or even to trace my hand over stones that contained more knowledge about Vlad than all the historical or fictional books written about him combined. I was here because between the river and his former house, hidden by trees and jagged rocks, was the entrance to an escape tunnel.

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. If so, Szilagyi had spent centuries piling on the ice before he'd acted, and he made sure to have a way out if Vlad ever did discover his underground nest. Rend's memories also showed that only a handful of Szi-lagyi's men knew the tunnel existed. Because of this, he wouldn't have multiple vampires guarding it.

Marty and I crept around the side of the mountain. I should've been nearly blind with the dense woods blocking out most of the moonlight, but I wasn't. Vampire blood sharpened my strength and senses, making me able to pick my way through the rough terrain while seeing, hearing, and smelling things with clarity I'd never before experienced. Through Rend's memories, I knew where to go as if he'd drawn me a map. I led the way, Marty following close behind. We didn't have much time. All was quiet now, but Vlad was coming, and he'd tear this whole mountain down to get to Szilagyi if that's what it took.

That was fine, as long as I did what I came for first.

Marty sniffed deeply. ’’Rend was here, I can smell him,’’ he whispered.

I inhaled, too, but the forest was so rich with scents that my newly sensitive nose couldn't determine a particular person's olfactory calling card.

’’Anyone else?’’ I whispered back, glancing at him.

’’Yeah. Both of them came through here, too.’’

He meant Maximus and Shrapnel, the only ones I'd seen who had survived the attack. After all, Szilagyi couldn't hustle two harpooned vampires into his lair in full view of Castle Poenari's tourists, and he would've been too impatient to wait until dark to start interrogating them.

I started upward again, waving Marty forward. After another fifteen minutes of climbing, I held my hand up in the universal gesture for stop. Then I crouched down, squinting.

There. The huge broken boulder marked the entrance to the tunnel. I couldn't see it from the thick bushes and felled tree trunk, but that was the point. If it could be easily seen, it wouldn't be effective.

I glanced upward toward the castle that trees and the steepness blocked from my view. Everything was still quiet, good. I should only need ten minutes to-

Multiple booms! sounded in almost simultaneous succession. The mountain trembled and rocks began to cascade downward. A slew of curses ran through my head. Clearly Vlad was going for a shock-and-awe entrance, but my goal had been to get to Maximus and Shrapnel before Szilagyi knew he was under attack. As soon as he realized Vlad had found him, he'd probably kill any hostages before making a run for it through the tunnel.

I dashed forward, abandoning any attempt at being stealthy. With the barrage above, it didn't matter anymore. The bushes in front of the tunnel were thick and thorny, but I shoved past them, my heavy clothes helping to limit the scratches. Then I ducked under the huge broken boulder, careful not to hit my head on the rock ledge immediately beneath it. Once clear of that, I turned left into the tunnel as if I'd been here a hundred times.

It was pitch black, making me grateful that my enhanced vision meant I wasn't stumbling around blindly. Something happening above made the tunnel shudder as if in the throes of an earthquake. That was my cue to start running. What, had Vlad flown in carrying a huge wrecking ball with him?

After I went about a hundred yards, I saw the glow of green ahead. A male voice called out in Romanian, but I didn't reply. I kept coming, and when I rounded a curve, a skinny man with black hair and a beard stood in the tunnel. He looked to be in his forties, but those glowing eyes proved that he wasn't human.

’’Sorry,’’ I said coolly. ’’I don't speak Romanian.’’

He looked me over in surprise, taking in my too-big clothes and shoes. He didn't seem afraid, though. Idiot. Did he think I was a lost hiker who'd accidentally stumbled across the tunnel?

’’You need to get out of my way,’’ I said, flexing my right hand. I didn't want to waste my power on him. I only had so much juice and it was earmarked for other things.

’’Who in hell are you?’’ he asked with a thick accent.

’’Know the difference between dying nobly and dying because you're stupid?’’ I replied, ignoring his question. ’’Nothing, you're dead either way. Hear that racket? That's Vlad Tepesh attacking, so if I were you, I'd run instead of staying to fight.’’

’’Fight you? You're human, I kill you,’’ he sneered, but another shudder followed by a boom! made him glance around nervously.

’’If I was easy to kill, I wouldn't be talking to you.’’

He still didn't move. This was taking too much time, not to mention giving Szilagyi an opportunity to hear everything. I held out my right hand. He just stared at it, cocking his head.

I was about to unleash a current when a blur of motion shot by me. It barreled into the vampire, knocking him backward. Amidst the mad whirl of limbs and flashing silver knives, I caught a glimpse of a four-foot body crowned by bushy brown hair. Marty, not willing to hang back and let me deal with it. God, please don't let the other vampire be faster than him! I couldn't risk letting a deadly lash of energy fly, either. Not when it could cut through Marty instead of Szilagyi's guard. All I could do was wait, hand at the ready in case another guard heard the disturbance and came to investigate.

After a few seconds that shredded my nerves, the guard fell back, Marty on top of him. His hand gripped a knife handle half as long as his thick forearm, the blade buried deeply into the guard's chest. Then he jumped off, executing a low bow.

’’And the crowd goes wild,’’ he said smugly.

’’Could you just let me handle it next time?’’ I hissed to cover how worried I'd been.

Marty rolled his eyes. ’’Please. I was fighting to the death before your grandparents were born. Now, let's finish this.’’

He jogged deeper into the tunnel. I hurried after him, only then realizing that in my moment of panic, I'd said a prayer to a god I didn't believe in. Strange.

When we reached a fork in the tunnel, I paused. Rend hadn't been the one to take Maximus and Shrapnel here, so I hadn't seen which way to go through his memories. If I made the wrong choice, I could be dooming them. No matter how quietly I moved through the tunnels, unless Szilagyi was so busy focusing on Vlad's attack, I was now close enough that he'd hear my thoughts and know why I was here.

No time for indecisiveness. I went right and Marty followed, silver knives gripped in each hand. As I ran, I also stroked underneath my thumb, seeking Vlad's essence. I couldn't wait despite him being busy with the attack. He had to know about the tunnel. Szilagyi couldn't be allowed to escape.

I'd intended to relay a quick message and then disconnect-not just because time was of the essence, but also to limit his fury with me once he discovered where I was-but when the tunnel fell away and I saw Vlad as though I hovered above him, I stared in disbelief. A pile of stone, brick, and rubble surrounded him that once had been the tower rising imperiously into the mountainous horizon. No, he hadn't brought a wrecking ball with him, as I wondered upon hearing the noise and feeling the tremors. He was the wrecking ball.

Vlad tore through layers of rock and earth with nothing more than his bare hands, flinging huge chunks aside in a maelstrom of destruction. Fire blazed over every inch of him, making him look more like Dante's version of a demon than a vampire. The light coming from him allowed me to see even as he tore deeper into the earth, ferociously annihilating everything in the way between him and his enemy. The mountain shuddered as if it could feel pain over the force of Vlad's assault, parting deeper and deeper beneath his merciless barrage. For a second while watching him, I was so stunned that I forgot to breathe.

’’What are you doing here?’’ I thought I heard him shout, but the continuous smashing of rock and stone was thunderous.

Not sure if he could hear me, I mentally yelled my reply. There's an escape tunnel on the lower east side of the mountain about three hundred yards from the river. Send people to guard it. Maximus and Shrapnel are still alive. I'm going to get them.

Then I did disconnect, whatever he would've said lost as the tunnel rushed back around me. Marty had carried me while I was in my trance, and now we were in front of a large crevasse that looked to me like the open throat of a stone monster. Inside it, barely visible in the light of Marty's glowing green eyes, were Maximus and Shrapnel.

Marty jumped into the depths with me still in his arms. I grunted at the hard jolt when we landed. The pit had to be fifty feet deep. Then I sprang away from him, my right hand extended and ready to shoot a cutting whip through anything that moved.

Nothing did. Maybe Vlad's attack had cleared out the guards who were interrogating Maximus and Shrapnel. I thought I'd have to kill whoever was in here, but aside from the two vampires restrained to the wall in sickening ways, the pit was empty.

’’Leila.’’ Maximus's voice was unrecognizable from the silver harpoon still embedded in his throat, and he was so covered in dried blood that it took me a moment to realize that was all he had on. ’’What are you doing here?’’

I let out a harsh imitation of a laugh. ’’Oh, you know. I was in the neighborhood.’’

Chapter 42

Marty began to rip out the knives and harpoons that he could reach, muttering something to Shrapnel about karma. I wasn't strong enough to pull out the restraints like he was, but I wasn't helpless. Cold satisfaction filled me as I cut through their harpoons and manacles with a laserlike beam of electricity, allowing the weight of their bodies to do the rest of the work. No, not helpless at all.

Szilagyi had thought I was when he brought me into this fight back when he had Jackal kidnap me. Ever since, I'd been nothing but a pawn to him. Now that pawn had killed three of his people, led Vlad to his hideout, and freed two men who'd risked their lives trying to protect me from Szi-lagyi's latest attack. I only wished I could see the puppet master's face when he realized that all his carefully laid plans had come crashing down around him.

’’Leila,’’ a male voice with a distinct accent said from behind me. ’’We meet at last.’’

I didn't need to look to know who it was. Be careful what you wish for! rang through my mind. Why hadn't I waited until I was out of the mountain to gloat about my victory?

I turned. As expected, there was Szilagyi, wearing the same sort of nondescript sweater and thick cotton pants that he had the first time I saw him. But what really held my attention were his two guns;one pointed at me, one at Marty.

’’Do I really need to say don't move?’’ he asked pleasantly.

The current spiking from my hand died away. He'd blast a hole through me before I could even twitch, and from the malevolent gleam in his dark brown eyes, I didn't know why he hadn't already.

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