The Mark of the Vampire Queen (Chapter Twenty)

Fueled by visions of darkness and blood, Lyssa twisted and spun out of the arched walkway along the castle wall, spearing up over the east side of the castle to get a view of the ocean and garden side where most of the explosions had occurred. On the way, she saw hunters traveling close to the castle walls on the outside levels, mov- ing in three-man teams to flush out smaller groups of vampires and servants who'd not been in the ballroom area. They were not her concern. The hunters no longer had the advantage of surprise. It was a fair fight at this juncture, and would soon swing to the vampires' favor, if it had not already. The blast charges had turned the sweeping verandah into rubble, as Malachi had reported. They had blown out the ocean-facing walls of the ballroom, scattering glass and chunks of stone across the gar- dens. Bodies lay in the wreckage. More vampires than she would have expected, but she could tell they'd not been killed by the explosion, but by the hunters who'd rushed upon them before the dust cleared and took advantage of their dazed state to stake or decapitate them. Among the ruins, the servants and vampires still standing waged battle with the hunters. Danny had spread the message, for Lyssa noted that a main force of vampires was engaging the hunters, slowly closing together to form a wall behind which a select group of Council allies could retreat into the castle, seeking to intercept Carnal and his group and come to the Council's aid.

Though she saw approximately three hundred hunters, she still wondered at the absolute foolhardiness of an attack on two hun- dred vampire overlords and Region Masters at night. But as she hovered at her vantage point, she saw the open verandah and ball- room area were the most vulnerable points to detonation. Tonight was the one night they were all gathered in the same place, at the same time, for the Ball and Court meeting. And somehow Carnal had fed them that information, was part of this, of why the hunters were here. The Council's unexpected and timely departure had likely made him froth at the mouth. That alone gave her black satisfaction. He could not count on the hunters' assistance to assassinate the Coun- cil. Successful hunters were those who struck quickly and retreated. Even those three-man teams were not making incursions into the castle's interior. They were working their way along the walls and likely would disappear back into the rain forest cover once they reached the end of their assigned area. She noted dispassionately that they were purposeful, calm, deter- mined. As she plunged and took the turn around to the west wall, she could tell these were mostly hardened veterans, not zealous youths. There was a leaden weight in her chest where her heart should be. She used it now to tip her into a circle, bring her into a tight, silent glide. Carnal was moving along the walkway on the second level to- ward the Council chambers. He was in the lead of a cluster of vam- pires, almost fift y of them. So young and stupid. So vicious. Carnal bore a silver ax and a look of deadly confidence. Enjoy your five minutes of power and fame, you bastard. Because of the communication she and the Council had made with Danny and others like her, it was now impossible for them to slaughter the Council, claim it was the hunters and then take power by opening up a blood war on the human race. But if they did take out the Council, they would have chaos, civil war. Wholesale attacks on humans would result in the widespread realization that vampires did in fact exist.

Mortals would turn all their technological resources toward wiping out vampires entirely. And since the hunters already knew about the Delilah virus, they'd simply inject it in any human willing to carry the inert virus as a deterrent against vampire bites, drying up the only food source vampires had. That was everything that could happen in the future. For her, there was only this moment. The wind sheared over her skin and her fangs pierced her lips, goading her lust for blood with the pain. She swooped down toward Carnal. Apparently she drew the attention of the group of hunters in the courtyard below him, for an arrow struck her leg a glancing blow, creating fire in her blood. She turned her head, hissed a warning and kept on in a straight line toward her prey. But as was the way with all creatures of pure evil, Carnal had a second sense when it came to self-preservation. At the last moment, he looked up. His eyes widened, and he bolted. Narrowly missing him with the grip of her talons, she plunged into the wall behind him instead. As it crumbled, slabs of concrete showered around her to create a cloak of dust. She was aware of the startled group of vampires, some hold- ing their ground, some retreating. Several were brave enough to throw themselves forward, thinking to attack her. She didn't see Carnal. Screaming in rage, she flipped backward and shot through their ranks. Saliva pooled in her mouth as she caught hold of one of them, tore him into two pieces and showered the rest with blood, sending them scattering. The predator in her rejoiced. More. Run, for there shall be nowhere you can hide. Out of the peripheral vision of her widely spaced eyes, she saw Mason and the other Council members materialize, striding down the open walkway. Mason's coat flapped around his torso, giving the impression of a hawk's dark feathers as the Council members ranged out across the expanse of the walkway just behind him in three stag- gered rows of six, ready to charge. Nearly five millennia of experi- ence, and there was no fear in any of their faces, whereas Carnal's vampires were still reeling from her attack such that they'd not yet presented a real threat to her. But the Council was still outnumbered.

She did a somersault and dropped like a stone, intending to feed the panic and her own bloodlust with another couple of corpses. Just before she reached them, a rumble gave her warning. The upper walkway exploded, erupting in the expanse of space remaining be- tween the Council and their adversaries, taking several of them down in the blast. Lyssa flipped back from the concussion and bounced off the castle wall, screaming in fury as hot bits of debris showered her skin. She launched herself into the smoke, out into the open courtyard. Angry shouts came through the obscuring clouds. She heard Mason's battle roar and knew he'd recovered quickly enough to take advantage of the moment. It gave them an unexpected advantage. The fact the walkway had blown where it could endanger Carnal and his followers told her that he hadn't been working as closely with the hunters as she'd sup- posed. He'd perhaps fed them information through a human plant serving him. But he hadn't gotten all the details of their attack. Such was his arrogance, he assumed he would murder the Coun- cil and deal with the "disturbance" the humans caused afterward. He'd never considered them capable of interrupting the execution of his own plot. Based on their pattern with the previous explosions, the location of this detonation meant the hunters below were pre- paring to charge this level. She needed to disrupt the hunters to give the Council time to re- gain control. They couldn't afford the distraction the humans would cause. The fortunate thing was they'd managed to slow the forward progress of Carnal's challengers. She had a moment or two. Don't be greedy, Mason. Save Carnal for me. I'll be back. His voice was a savage snarl in her mind, telling her he was en- gaged in combat. I'll do my best to honor my lady's wishes. Though I'd prefer she not sully her fangs with his filth. She hoped when she got back, Carnal would still be on his feet. She wanted him to see her coming.

"Jesus Christ, Gideon. There it is again. How did it survive that blast?"

Gideon paused on the second level, staying close to the wall for cover, his eyes everywhere. The flying creature that looked like a cross between a gargoyle and a harpy swooped over the courtyard, seeking them, he assumed, since it winged in close to a pack of the rear guard behind them, sending them retreating into the shad- ows of the lower-level defi les for cover. The vampires just ahead of them on this level were snarling, sounding almost as if they were . . . Fighting. The glimpses he was catching of them through the dust showed them grappling, a few weapons flashing. But there were no other hunters up here, just his team of a dozen, hanging back fi ft y feet, waiting for the go order to charge forward into the fray. They'd managed to get up here in less than eight minutes from the original blast, but he knew every moment would swing the tide further against them. He wanted to give the command to charge in, to take those disoriented vampires out before they could rally their defenses, but the sounds of battle were throwing him. Besides which, he couldn't move forward out into the open on the remains of the walkway without dispatching that winged threat. First things first. He notched an arrow to his crossbow and took aim. "Let's hope it's some type of vampire, or something even more destructible. " This setup stank. His gut told him they'd gotten in too easy. When two of their members had disappeared almost immediately upon reaching the inner gates, he was certain they'd been sold out. But they'd forged ahead. Too much planning, too much invested. Already they'd taken out more vamps in thirty minutes than they'd managed all year. Three dozen, though of course they'd lost a third of their own people. They were supposed to be in and out in fifteen minutes. Guerrilla warfare, not toe-to-toe combat. The loss of the human servants was regrettable, but hell, who knew they'd fight so fucking viciously for the bloodsucking fiends who had enslaved them, brainwashed them into thinking being a servant was some- thing they wanted? Your brother went willingly. He shoved that away. So far, everything was going as planned. Better than planned. Perhaps that was what was making him un-easy.

Things never went as planned. Why did he feel as if a trap was closing around them, the deeper they forged into the resort?

Fuck it. He raised the crossbow, steadied as the creature poised in midflight, wings stretched out full, head cocked, looking. Then it turned in the air and saw him. Gideon. No. It reverberated through his head, locked his trigger hand, over- whelming him like he'd been caught in the electric field of a thun- dercloud. He fought it, even as he saw the beast dive, coming toward him with death in its eye. Oh, shit. He couldn't get his damn arms to move. Let . . . Go . . . Of . . . Me. You son of a bitch. He closed his eyes at the last moment, the pain of the final, un- forgivable betrayal so sharp he almost welcomed his own death. The creature's heat encompassed him like the sharp burn of sulfur. Tobias screamed. Gideon's eyes snapped open, and he spun to find Toby sprawled on the ground. The creature had one set of talons on his torn throat, the other clamped on Gideon's crossbow, holding it toward the ground though he hadn't released his grasp on it. Its head was turned to gaze directly into his face. At this level, he realized only the wings were big. Though sleekly muscular, she was definitely female. The mounds of her slim breasts were obvious, as were the folds of her bare sex. Her body was small and fine boned. "There is a faction of vampires seeking to overthrow the Council right now, Gideon. " Her voice in this form was a harsh rasp, close to a growl. "Up on that walkway. They infiltrated your ranks, used your attack. They've set up patrols all around the perimeter of the com- pound so when they succeed they'll have all of your hunters who sur- vive trapped. They probably plan to torture and dine on your friends in grand celebration of the new order. " Looking down, she nudged Tobias with a toe. For the first time, he noticed the man had been taken down with a knife clutched in his hand. "This was apparently one of the spies, " she said in that ser- pentlike hiss. "Chosen to take you out as one of the leaders, I assume. He stinks of Carnal's blood, and he was getting ready to put this be- tween your shoulder blades. "

He knew her eyes and that mocking tone, despite the mutation of her vocal cords. Gideon took a deep breath. "You. " She gave a faint smile, a disquieting gesture with her fangs longer than his fingers, and blood staining them. She glanced up at the por- tion of the sky from which she'd struck. "Help cometh from Heaven, no? Rally your people. If you go down to the third level belowground, accessible through the kitchens, you'll find a dungeon. It's been made into a sexual playground. Behind the iron maiden there's a loose stone. It guards a passageway underground that will take you a half mile down the road, into the jungle. You'll take no more lives today, but you'll keep your own. " Her green eyes, round and spaced widely, narrowed in pure malevolence that sent a chill through his body. "Don't expect that passage to be there again. I'm not stupid, nor is the vampire who owns this place. Did you have a plan to spare your brother, or did you even care to check that he was here?" Gideon's jaw flexed. "We both made our choices. " Lyssa stared at him. Something changed in her expression that made him wish she didn't have him trapped against a wall with no ability to lift the crossbow in defense. "I should have let him stab you in the back, " she hissed. "Why did you even come down here?" he snapped. "Jacob held me back with no effort. Why not just disarm Toby the same way? And when did you teach Jacob how to do your mind tricks? Servants can't do that kind of shit. You finally figure out how to exploit his psychic power for your own benefit?" Lyssa blinked. "No one controlled your mind. I can't . . . I move too swift ly to be hit with one of your arrows. He's . . . Dead. They . . . " His stomach dropped at the words. With his free hand, he reached out to clamp onto her arm, demand what she meant. But she was aloft, headed back toward the second level as though she'd been launched from a cannon. "Jesus, she's like something out of a children's nightmare. " The comment came from one of his people just behind him. He'd smartened up enough to give the man a sharp glance, make sure it was someone really covering his back instead of intending to spear him, but his mind was whirling.

Jacob, dead? No, he'd heard him, loud and clear. But from Lyssa's face, he could tell she'd thought he was dead. Suddenly the ravages of pain he'd seen around her eyes, the ones he saw every time he forced himself to look into a mirror, made sense. Gideon spun at the yell of warning. There was a wave of new shouts and curses and the clash of more weapons as a full legion of vampires swept down upon them. They were dead, he thought. Instead, the vamps swatted him and his hunters out of the way. The faction that mowed over Gideon and his men was led by a slender woman in white with gold-blond hair. She looked like a blood-soaked version of Barbie, another disquieting image he didn't want imprinted in his head. The Barbie's servant, sticking grimly at her side, roared at the vampire challengers and drew their attention, spinning them around. They snarled in return. Both sides accelerated into a lightning charge, coming together in a flash of gleaming fangs, snarls, weapons. The overthrowing faction and the faction loyal to the Council, just as Lyssa said. His people were smart enough to take advantage and shoot ar- rows into the mob. But Lyssa was right. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They needed to get going, because whatever side won, they'd obliterate his small army. The original plan needed to be followed. Strike swift ly, get out. Their fifteen minutes were up, for now. He snatched out his radio, even as he began to shout out com- mands.

Jacob. Jacob. It was in her head, a cry in the darkness. She reached out, looking for him. Felt something. A fog of clouds, confusion. A clip of a thought. There was so much energy and death around. She knocked vampires out of her way, tossed hunters out of her path, screamed a cry like an enraged eagle when she swooped down the corridor and saw the Council room doors on their hinges. Diving inside, she spun in a circle, but in a blink she knew Jacob wasn't in the chamber.

There were hunters and vampires fighting here who had worked their way down from the main battle ensuing on the walkway. Brian had put Debra in the corner, and she was crouched down as he shielded her, fighting off one of Carnal's followers, his face a mask of protective fury. Lyssa picked up his opponent, dashed him against the wall, crushing his skull. Before Brian could digest her sudden appearance before him, Debra scrambled over and staked the disabled vampire with a chair leg. "Lady Lyssa, we didn't abandon him . . . Jacob . . . " His expression told her, lodging her heart farther up into her throat. She tucked in her wings and shot back out, circling over the area, eyes frantically moving over the battlefield. Blood everywhere, the flash of fangs. Weapons that had been in the hands of the hu- mans were now in the hands of other vampires, being used against Carnal's followers. There were many servants in the mix, fighting capably as so many of them could. The communication link between Masters and Mistresses and servants was turning the tide. From her vantage point she could see them getting organized, mobilized. The loyalist servants were commanded to turn their attention to the re- treat of the vampire hunters. Their Masters and Mistresses focused on Carnal and his group. She briefly saw Danny smeared with blood, her hair tied back hastily with a strip of the dress she'd torn off com- pletely so she could fight in just corset and short slip. With her bare feet, she looked like some type of petite Roman warrior, her blond hair streaked with blood, her fangs gleaming, eyes hard. A stray arrow whizzed past Lyssa. So busy seeking Jacob, she barely avoided it and it scored her shoulder. Where are you?

Gideon plunged back down into the courtyard with a set of wooden knives and the rage of a berserker. He'd watched Lyssa charge into a room and return to swoop over the courtyard, taking dives over them with the frenetic speed of an erratic bat. Something had hap- pened to Jacob. She was looking for him. Jacob might need him.

So while he'd ordered the retreat of his own people according to Lyssa's direction and they were managing it just as they were trained to do, one group falling back as the front line held their retreat, he'd surged forward, helping with the coverage. He'd be damned if he'd leave until he knew what was going on. Lady Lyssa didn't need to know that he'd had one of his people pose as one of the masked servants and affi x a tracking beacon to Jacob's cuff earlier in the evening. He had known where his brother was at all times. Jacob's call to the chambers had been fortuitous and saved him having to figure out a way to haul his ass out of the ball- room before it blew. The tracking beacon said Jacob was still in the Council cham- bers, but when she emerged and launched herself again, he knew somehow Jacob had gotten separated from his jacket. Gideon turned, looking. Reached out with his own senses. He'd always known how to find Jacob when they were on a vampire hunt together. It was a sense, like breathing. It wasn't words, a call. It just was. An instinct. And there he was. He stepped out of the shadows at the opposite end of the walkway. God knows how he'd gotten past that snarl of vampires. He was pale and entirely savage looking, shirtless,bloody. But there was a wandering look to his eyes, suggesting some type of disorientation as if he'd been hit in the head. Then he was gone, an- other cluster of struggling vamps engulfing him. He was alive and apparently okay, though he wouldn't be for long, standing there dazed and unprotected. When he pulled his mind back together he wouldn't likely forgive Gideon anytime soon for this. As if Gideon gave a damn about forgiveness anymore. There he was again. Now he was up on the railing. He turned, looking toward the sky. No question who–or rather what–he was looking for, though his timing was lousy. Wake up, you stupid bas- tard. Gideon broke into a run, yelling it. Carnal was bearing down on Jacob, materializing from one of the side hallways where he'd prob- ably decided to take a coffee break while his lackeys did his blood work.

No one was taking his little brother down while Gideon lived. Even if the bastard had given his heart and loyalty to a vampire. Then Jacob leaped from the rail and was gone, retreating down an- other corridor into the castle, Carnal in pursuit. Son of a bitch. He'd been drawing him, using himself as bait. Gideon cursed, took the stairs three at a time onto the landing. He stumbled over some rubble, regained his feet and charged after them. When Gideon reached the corridor he found it was a tribute hall and practice room for different periods of ancient weaponry. Jacob had seized a nimcha blade as his first choice. Carnal unfortunately had chosen a mace. Jesus, that third mark allowed his brother to move fast. Jacob was keeping pace with the vampire remarkably well, such that Gideon could barely follow their movements until the mace caught on the blade, wrapped it. "Jacob!" As the ball swung toward the guard, forcing Jacob to release the handle, Gideon ripped the closest available weapon from the wall, a flat-headed Danish battle ax. They were turned so he couldn't attack Carnal's back, and there was no time with that superhuman speed anyhow. Desperately, he tossed the heavy weapon with a grunt the few feet in Jacob's direction, hoping to give him something with which to shield himself. Gideon lunged for a sword, planning to spear Carnal from behind while Jacob held his attention. In its heyday, the Danish battle ax was assigned only to the burli- est fighters, for they were the only ones strong enough to wield it ef- fectively. Jacob was likely to get gutted by the mace while his hands were occupied in lifting the thing for a swing. Instead Jacob caught the ax one-handed and swung upward, faster than Gideon could follow. Carnal roared, shock coursing over his features, but it was a final act of defiance. The blade severed cleanly through his neck, his head rolling off his shoulders and thud- ding to the ground. In real life, it had all the macabre look of a badly done special- effects movie. Gideon didn't like horror movies for just that reason. Jacob drew in a shuddering breath, his blue eyes alight with a rage that made Gideon oddly hesitant to draw closer.

Then Jacob's knees buckled, and it didn't matter. He was next to him, putting his brother's arm over his shoulders to help draw him to his feet. "Are you hurt?" Jacob glanced at him, something unusually still and focused about his eyes. "That was so fucking satisfying. It was almost better than sex. Let's put his head back on so I can do it again. " "You've lost your mind, " Gideon stated flatly, but he couldn't help the giddy relief at the humor in his brother's eyes. "Are you hurt, you idiot?" Jacob chuckled, his head dropping forward as if he suddenly didn't have the strength to hold it up. "I was dead, Gid. Absolutely dead. You know . . . What you said? About Mom being up there, saying, `Why'd you do a fool thing like that?' I think I heard Dad for a moment . . . Felt Mom's hand on my head. You remember how good that felt . . . The answer to every- thing . . . I need to find my lady. She's unhappy. " "You're seriously freaking me out. We've got to get you out of here. " Jacob nodded. "I feel like shit. But I'm going to live, Gid. Even if you don't want me to. "

When he smiled this time, he revealed the pair of gleaming fangs that had split his lip open. "Oh, bloody fucking hell. "