Max and Liana are back, and they're looking for Jesse. But will they find him? Read and find out.
Monday's chapter is available here.
Wednesday's chapter is available here.
Friday's chapter is available here.
Update: The excerpt is available on ReadWave and Wattpad, but also here in case the links don't work.
(The Impaler Legacy #3)
The snow crunched under my boots. The chilly air brought a slow burn inside my lungs with each deep breath I took. Max’s blood had saved my life after taking an arrow in the chest, but the X-rays had revealed the presence of some scar tissue left three days after the incident. As a Little Council member, vampire blood could only do so much for me since my system had been genetically engineered to be vampire blood resistant—in theory at least. Lots of things had turned out to be different from the way the Romanian history books presented them.
I wasn’t complaining. I was becoming an expert in taking shallow breaths. The cold bothered me more, having moved from middle of the New Zealand summer in Hastings to full winter in the Mount Cook Reservation. The ski mask and suit I wore favored easy movement in detriment of thermal comfort. But then again, since being compelled, I was always cold.
“Bella, look for Jesse,” I repeated the command.
The Doberman huffed and shot forward on the narrow trail. Her paws had to be frozen after spending several hours in the snow. It was a big mountain, and so far our patrols had failed to find an entrance to the new breeds’ base. We’d come across more evidence hinting that it was located somewhere in these mountains, but no exact location yet.
According to our plan, Captain Nour remained with the bulk of our army near Christchurch on the South Island, doing his own scouting in the surrounding area. The Cabinet had protested against the so-called invasion, but no one dared mess with ten thousand trained military people of both pandurs and vampires. The local authorities had completely shut up once we reported that, except for the big cities, all of the towns we had come across so far had been found empty, with no signs of massacre on site. Where had all those people gone to? The Cabinet had no idea, so the powers that be washed their hands of the issue and let us handle it.
So here we were, handling it. A thousand men were deployed on location, split into mixed patrols of ten people each, combing the snow in search of an entrance. Armed with explosive arrows, stakes, and yatagans, and having either human or vampire blood for backup, they looked for new breeds—those vicious, bloodthirsty vampires that threatened to overthrow the world order. This was the official version: find the new breeds, especially their makers, and kill them. I was looking for Jesse.
One would think the purpose of a kidnapping was to obtain a ransom, but over a week had passed and we had received no demands. I couldn’t help worrying about it. It wasn’t like we were that hard to find. Had Spânu, still a transitioning new breed, somehow slipped and killed Jesse before taking him to his masters? The mere thought made me shiver inside. On the outside, I remained calm and collected and so damn cold, thanks to Max’s compulsion. I wasn’t going to betray our cause in exchange of Jesse’s life, even if the guilt of losing him would destroy me in the long run. Out of desperation, I had agreed to Max’s plan to let go of my feelings for the British doctor, but it wasn’t like he had given me much choice on the matter. He wouldn’t let me ruin everything just because I happened to be in love with a human.
I glared at the older vampire’s back. Max and Radu walked ahead, leading the way. With both of them being vampires, they didn’t have much to fear from the new breeds, who weren’t as good as our pandurs when it came to fighting. Or it used to be that way. I wasn’t sure where we stood anymore, what with the explosive arrows brought into play. I had seen enough vampires being blown up during the farm’s siege to know that a well-aimed arrow would kill Radu. I also knew that he was willing to take that risk. Dying was easy. Fighting new breeds and defeating them was worth dying for. I disagreed with the dying part, but this was the pandurs’ main philosophy and Radu stuck to it, even after being turned.
Max, however, had a different set of rules, one I didn’t fully understand. I wondered if the arrows might kill him too. For a thousand-year-old vampire, he’d survived my poisonous blood with flying colors, only ending up with a slight discomfort for a couple of hours. Other than staking or beheading, I didn’t know what could kill him. But as the strongest vampire around, we needed him on our side until the war was over. And then … I didn’t know what was going to happen after that. I couldn’t bring myself to think that far.
From my left, Trotuş kept stealing worried glances at me. Since the attack, he’d pulled double duty, both as my guard and my babysitter. What I used to do for Max during his incognito stay in Bucharest, Trotuş was now doing for me, making sure I was okay. It annoyed me a little, mostly because I suspected he also reported to Captain Nour behind my back, but I understood his concern. He should have kept a closer eye on Spânu after he had been turned. The two of them being friends and my guards for years didn’t help. As long as he kept his mouth shut, I let it slide. I needed to focus on the climb on the steep path that had to lead somewhere, though our guide claimed to have no idea where.
Bella returned and pressed her nose against my knees, whining. The guys ahead had stopped, too.
“What is it?” I asked, while the rest of the pandurs and vampires in our small group caught up to us and surrounded us in a loose circle.
“There are barely enough hours of light left to make it back,” Max said. “We should return.”
Radu frowned beside him, and although he didn’t say anything, it hinted at how he felt about it. He would go all night and probably longer than that if it were up to him. Max could have easily matched him step by step, but he also had to think about me. The new breeds wanted me, there was a prize put on my head, and while it would have made more sense to hide somewhere safe, preferably out of the country, we had all agreed this wasn’t the way we did things.
I checked my watch and looked at the sun’s position in the sky. It wasn’t safe for me to be out here in the open, but we still had time. Descending on familiar ground would take less time than going up.
“Let’s get over there first,” I said with the voice of a kid asking for five more minutes of watching TV before bedtime, and I pointed at a small plateau fifty meters ahead of us. “We can take a good look around from up there.”
Max gave a slight nod, as it wasn’t far, and let me go in line with them, already knowing there wasn’t any danger ahead. Of course, Bella got there first. She circled the flat rock, her paws leaving footprints on the fresh snow, and then she looked at me as if asking why we had stopped. You and I both, girl. I sighed, aware that they weren’t going to let me go any farther.
The view was magnificent from above—many snow-covered mountain peaks and no activity below us. I didn’t see the point in going higher than this. The entrance had to be somewhere closer to the ground. It wasn’t practical to have a new breed army squeeze down that narrow path to get to any kind of transportation.
“Okay, I think we can—“ I began to say, but stopped when I noticed Max staring intently into the distance.
What was he looking at? I took a step closer, then another one. The ground gave way underneath my feet.
And I fell.
I groaned and waited for my head to clear. The only move I dared to make was turning my head a little to the right. I was lying on my side with my face half-buried in what felt like frozen snow, and I didn’t want to suffocate, especially not after surviving the fall. The ski suit and mask had protected me some, but my shoulders and hips hurt from being slammed against the hard rock multiple times. I didn’t think I had a concussion as I had fallen feet first and apparently had landed the same way. Where, though, I had no idea. I was surrounded by darkness.
Twitching one limb at a time, I made sure no bones were broken. The left side of my face ached, and the trickle down my cheek could be either blood or melted snow, but other than that I seemed to be fine, enough to attempt rolling on my knees and gingerly pulling myself into a sitting position. Luckily, I didn’t hit the ceiling.
I remembered I had a flashlight in my pocket and pulled it out. The bright spotlight revealed a small cave with a low ceiling, a snow bed on one side and a larger opening on the other. No blood marred the clean snow, so my face had to sport only some bruises. Pointing the flashlight up, I discovered the hole I had fallen through. I remembered sliding into that crack below the edge of the platform before anyone could catch me.
My backpack had gotten lost, its straps breaking upon the first impact with the walls, which had saved me from getting stuck inside the narrow tube. A ventilation shaft? The walls had felt too smooth and too straight during the several meter fall to be a natural occurrence.
“Hello?” I called out with half a voice.
No answer, only the echo that carried my voice farther in the cave. I checked my cell phone but, of course, I had no bars. I was too deep in the mountain for the signal to pass through. And no one was coming after me. All the men left above were too large to fit through that tube. There was no point in waiting for help. I needed to move and get myself out of this mess. That corridor had to go somewhere.
I left the cavern, aiming the flashlight forward, and walked in the corridor. Again, something wasn’t right about the way the walls looked, but I couldn’t quite tell what. I was no speleologist. My source of light prevented me from noticing a faint light coming from the distance. I started when a sensor-activated lantern was automatically turned on, alerted by my approach. I inspected the fixture on the wall from up close and nodded to myself. No wires, so it had to be battery powered and fairly new. Someone had been here recently.
Urging my stomach to settle down from the excitement, I advanced more carefully. If someone had been here, what were the chances of running into that someone, or anyone for that matter? Whoever that one was, my guess was it would wear fangs, and such a meeting I would rather avoid. The fourth lantern was already on, not being sensor activated. I turned off the flashlight to save the battery and pondered. The previous lanterns hadn’t stayed on long enough to get from one to the other, but maybe if one moved faster … yes, definitely a vampire-friendly environment. But why?
I got my answer when the first opening appeared in the wall. In the absence of a door barring the way, I peeked inside. In the faint light given by the two lanterns hung on the opposite sides of the large enclosure, it took me a moment to come to terms with the idea that those hunched shadows sidelining the walls were bodies. Lots of bodies. Dead bodies? They weren’t moving. But then why were they chained with manacles to the walls? I took a step closer. One of them moved and mumbled something.
“What?” I whispered, kneeling by the man.
“Is it time yet?” he murmured without opening his eyes.
Time for what?
“Not again,” another voice moaned not from far.
I shook the man’s shoulders. “Hey, look at me!”
Glassy eyes opened and watched me with equal amounts of fear and … excitement?
“Is it time yet?” he repeated.
Since I didn’t answer, he tilted his head to the right, exposing a badly bruised neck. Ah. He expected a feeding. And because of the ski mask, he couldn’t see I sported no fangs.
“No, not yet.” I pushed him back gently to rest against the rock.
“I thought so.” He sighed.
Well, if he could still tell the time, maybe he was conscious enough to know other things too.
“I’m looking for Dr. Carver,” I said. “Dr. Jesse Carver? Is he around?”
The man just blinked. I took it as a “no”.
“He should be with a newborn new breed called Spânu,” I insisted. “Tall, bald, wears a brown leather jacket … no?”
“She means the one who did that carnage a few days ago,” the second voice made itself heard again.
I turned to the woman slumped a couple of bodies away from us. That sounded like something Spânu would do. “Yes?”
“He’s new around here … the new breeds don’t like him,” she said. “He doesn’t let anyone touch his human—”
“Could be … they don’t understand why he gets to have exclusivity … we’re just … food.” The words came out with difficulty, as if the longer she spoke, the harder it became for her to stay focused.
“How many humans are here?” I asked.
“Hundreds … thousands … more…”
“Many caves … many floors,” the man said, watching me with hooded eyes.
Hundreds of thousands. The bulk of the new breed army was here, and its sheer size made me gasp.
“How many floors?” I asked, needing more information. I couldn’t go in blind.
“Don’t know … at least two more … three if you count them, too.”
Them. The enemy.
“How often do they feed?”
“Twice a day,” he said. “In the morning and then again in the evening … some may think not often enough.”
Addiction. The vampires kept them hooked on new breed venom. Max’s guess had been right. It was addictive, even more than the regular vampire venom.
“What about the guards? Are there any?” I asked, as I still had to encounter one.
“What for?” He raised a manacled hand.
Good point. Chained and weak from the blood loss, they didn’t need any guards. I could move around freely and look for Jesse. I would find him and … then what? I didn’t know what I would do once I found him, but I had to get there first.
I glanced once more around the cavern in search of a familiar blond head. No, he wasn’t here. Could I find him before someone else found me? I had to try. After all, the new breeds expected me to come and try to save him. That was why they had kidnapped him in the first place.
“Are you here to free us?” The woman’s voice brought me to a halt.
“I don’t know yet,” I replied with cold honesty. “I don’t know if I can free all of you. But I will have them all killed in the end,” I promised. That should be enough. Sometimes, it was all you could do.
“You do that.” The man nodded. The woman sobbed a little.
The others didn’t react, being too far gone to care or notice.
I pulled myself up, murmuring, “You won’t be forgotten,” and walked back into the corridor.
Knowing the vampires probably weren’t going to be there in the middle of the day, I dared to move a little faster. I still had a few hours of light ahead of me during which I could explore the caves. I couldn’t waste that opportunity.
Even without a map, it didn’t take me long to figure out the layout of the place. Caverns lay on both sides of the corridor, varying in size, holding forty to sixty people each. Those caves couldn’t all be natural. Mount Cook didn’t have many natural caves documented.
It was going to take forever to check all of the prisoners, so as time passed, I became bolder when I entered each cavern and saw no one standing. “Jesse!”
For the longest time, no one answered. I reached the end of the corridor going downward, and somehow I ended up on the level below. Considering how much we had climbed on the outside of the mountain and compared to the corridors and caverns’ heights, I didn’t think I was on the ground level. But somewhere, there had to be an exit. If there wasn’t enough time to find Jesse, I had to at least find that.
At the second turn of the corridor, a certain entrance caught my eye. This one had a door made of metal bars, though it wasn’t locked. I pushed it open, careful not to make a sound, and looked for new breeds. Again, no guards. Odd. There had to be something special about this cavern. It was the only one with a door.
“Jesse?” I asked quietly.
A groan came from the back of the room. “Oh, God, no…”
I knew that voice.
Everything inside me screamed to run to Jesse, but my body refused to show any sign of excitement. Instead, I took my time getting to his side and bent at the waist to look at him. “Hey…”
Glazed blue eyes squinted at me. “Liana?”
I removed the ski mask so he could see my face. There were many things I wanted to tell him, but still no word left my lips. A marble statue would have been more expressive.
“I knew you’d come…” he said. “You shouldn’t have…”
I fought back a grimace at his welcoming, part of me agreeing with him. But I hadn’t done it on purpose. It had been an accident. We were looking for the entrance to the new breeds’ lair, not for him in particular. At least, that was the official mission.
“How are you?” I asked, kneeling to take a closer look.
Before he could answer, I turned his head around, taking the matter into my hands. There was dried blood on the left side of his head, but no actual wound underneath. I pulled on the collar of his shirt and found the same thing there—dried blood on his neck, but no ugly fang wound.
“I’m fine, considering…” Jesse said.
He wasn’t. I didn’t have to be a doctor to know that. His eyes were unfocused and his forehead was covered in sweat. I removed my glove and touched it. He winced at the contact with my cold hand. His face was burning up. Not good, not good at all.
“They healed you,” I murmured, frowning. Then why did he have a fever? Vampire blood should have taken care of that. What else was wrong with him?
“Yeah, well … they don’t feed us, so they have to do something to keep us alive.” He grimaced with resignation.
No food at all? I was appalled. How long could a human body survive relying only on vampire blood to cover its basic needs? Apparently, long enough. The new breeds weren’t turning them because the blood would be no good for feeding if they did. So they kept the prisoners sedated and half-freezing. The two portable radiators set inside the cave did little to improve the living conditions. It wasn’t as cold as outside, but it was close.
“It’s good to see you,” he said with a weak smile, glassy eyes lingering on my face. I looked away, unable to return the compliment. “What happened to your face?”
Ah, so there was a bruise forming on my cheek. Oh, well, he’d seen me in worse shape.
“I fell,” I deadpanned and pulled on the chains to test their resistance. I had to get him out of here. Those summer clothes he wore failed to keep him warm, and there were no blankets around. Of course, that was the least of our worries. Vampire blood would prevent him from getting pneumonia, but too much biting did much worse. I pulled harder on the chains.
“No use…” Jesse said. “I tried that too, and they’re human-proof.” The blood coating his wrists under the manacles was proof of that.
Maybe, but that looked like ordinary iron, not even steel, and that meant it wasn’t bulletproof. I happened to have a gun with explosive bullets tucked into my belt, so the chains weren’t a problem. I wondered how far the sound of a gunshot would carry in these caves. Who might it alert and how fast was their reaction time? Rather fast, I reckoned.
“What can you tell me about their organization?” I asked, reaching for his wrist to check his pulse. It felt weird to have the roles reversed as he usually did that for me, but I didn’t like the way he looked. His skin was cold and clammy, both from the vampire venom withdrawal and the cold. In fact, he looked worse than the other prisoners, but at least he was awake.
“Not much…” he said. “They dumped me here and pretty much forgot about me.”
Damn it, too slow. I let go of his hand. It fell by his knee on the floor and opened. A fang lay in his palm. I thought I recognized it, though all new breed fangs looked the same. Nature hadn’t been creative when designing them but focused on purpose. They worked well, I knew it firsthand. I winced at the memories of being bitten, and then I winced once more remembering how I took out my frustration on that poor girl while torturing her to get information out of her. I had kept her fangs as a trophy after removing them and threw them at Jesse during a fight. That fang had to belong to Tawny. Where else would he get one?
Jesse’s fingers closed possessively around it, though not fast enough for me not to notice the scratch in his palm. Was he self-medicating? Most fangs still contained drops of venom, so I hoped he was—anything to make himself more comfortable.
“One would expect a little more courtesy for the prince consort.” Jesse put on an ironic smirk. “I didn’t know I signed up for misery and dirt when I got into this,” he went on, rambling. “I was expecting a five star hotel, but they might be saving it for you. They still call you Princess, you know?”
That was irrelevant at the moment. Someday, I would get to the bottom of this, but not today. I had more urgent issues to attend to. Like how to get out of here unnoticed.
“Is Spânu here? Have you seen him around?” The new breed turned pandur had kidnapped Jesse, but maybe, just maybe, the creature he had become hadn’t lost all trace of the fierce loyalty he’d once felt for our cause. Spânu was our only possible ally inside this blasted mountain.
“Oh, I’ve seen him all right…” Jesse rested his head back against the wall, his eyes threatening to close, but he forced them to stay open. “I see him every four hours.” His throat worked, making the sight of the blood on his neck more jarring.
“Four hours? Why would he—” I trailed off.
There was one reason why Spânu would visit him so often. Security wasn’t an issue, therefore it could only mean he came to feed on Jesse. They were getting him addicted. The glassy, unfocused eyes told me that. He was craving his next fix already and hated himself for it. They were turning him into what he hated the most. His sister had died because of that. I wondered if they had any idea what they were doing to him.
“Is he coming alone?” I lowered my voice, considering my options.
“Yeah, usually … why?” Jesse narrowed his eyes. “Don’t even think about it … He’s way faster than you.”
I knew that. I was no match for Spânu’s pandur and vampire skills, but I hadn’t been thinking about killing him, not yet. I intended to at least try to get him on our side first. For this to happen, I needed to be alone with him without outside interference.
“How is he?”
Jesse had to think about it before answering, “A quieter, grumpier version of himself…”
Spânu used to be on the quiet side when working, but I had often heard him joking and being friendly with Trotuş when they weren’t on the job. If he got quieter, he didn’t speak at all.
“He never hurt me…” Jesse murmured then rolled his eyes. “I mean other than feeding on me. He protected me.”
“Yeah, he’s been compelled to protect you,” I said, distracted by some other thoughts. “We figured out that much.”
“We…?” He arched an eyebrow. “Where are the others? Are you alone?”
“Yes, I’m alone.” I nodded, aware of how dumb that sounded. “It couldn’t be helped.”
“That’s … not good.” He shook his head. “You should go.”
“I know, but…” I let out a choked laugh. “I don’t know the way out … so you see, I have to wait for Spânu.”
“In that case…” Jesse raised his voice, “You can come in now. She’s not going anywhere!”
I looked back and saw Spânu’s tall frame darkening the entrance. He hesitated at first, but then walked quietly over the rocky floor.
“Let’s get it over with so I can think clearly for a couple of minutes,” Jesse said, the excitement in his voice hard to miss.
Spânu kneeled by his other side, and I looked away so I wouldn’t have to see the double pair of fangs sinking into Jesse’s flesh. Turning my upper body slightly, I arched my left arm. I had a perfect shot at Spânu’s back. If he indulged for too long in the delicacies of human blood, my stake had a good chance of finding his heart.
He didn’t. He pulled back a few seconds later and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. Then he ran his palm along the blade of the yatagan he still carried attached to his belt. Once blood had gathered in his palm, he let it drip on the fresh wound that decorated Jesse’s neck.
Jesse groaned, and his eyes snapped open, suddenly alert.
“You have to get her out of here,” he told Spânu in a commanding voice.
The big man straightened himself up. “Can’t. They want to see her.”
“You can’t take her to them!” Jesse protested loudly, startling a few of the prisoners in his vicinity.
The knot in the pit of my stomach tightened. Finally, I was going to meet with the brains behind this mass murder operation. Max had shared his suspicions and told me a little bit about everyone involved, since they wanted to talk to me and I needed to be prepared, but we had no confirmation that he was right on all accounts.
“It’s all right,” I said, placing a hand on Jesse’s shoulder to keep him calm. “That’s what I’m here for, to negotiate the release of—” I gestured around the place “—all of these people.” And among them, him too.
“Liana…” Jesse’s hand covered mine. “I don’t think it’s worth it. They’re too far gone … you can’t save them.”
It didn’t sound like him at all—this was the venom, pain, and despair talking. He hadn’t been able to save his sister, and now he knew what she had gone through. He was giving up. It had taken them only a week to break him. They had to have known it would have this effect on him. One more thing to make them pay for.
“It doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying,” I said coldly and got up. “Take me to them,” I asked Spânu in a confident voice, as if we were still at home and he was under my command.
“Liana—” Jesse outstretched his arm, but I was already out of his reach.
“Don’t worry, I’ll come back for you.” To anyone listening in, it would sound like I was referring to everyone around. Thank God for the lack of difference between the plural and the singular in the English language. To Jesse, it would mean something else.
“Worry…” He slumped back, but his eyes kept staring at me. “What happened to you?” he asked, and this time he wasn’t talking about my face.
I had hoped he’d miss that, but he knew me too well. He was freezing, and I hadn’t asked Spânu to bring one of the radiators closer to Jesse or give him his jacket, which the new breed didn’t need anyway. I couldn’t fake such indifference in front of Jesse unless something had happened. Well, it had.
“I did what I had to do,” I muttered. I didn’t like what Max had done to me, and I hated the way it made me feel inside. However, given the circumstances, the only way to save Jesse was to set everyone else free.
Jesse nodded in understanding, and it broke my heart to see he still trusted me. My anguish had no outside manifestation, though the idea of leaving him here unprotected was killing me. The compulsion held.
I gave him a small nod and started for the exit. Following my lead, Spânu walked ahead with a steady pace in the corridor. He didn’t fear me, but he did fear something, because he whispered in Romanian, “Don’t try anything.”
Whether he worried about me or them, it was hard to tell. But the cards hadn’t been dealt yet. We could still change something, so I held back a grin.