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  • Home > Christine Feehan > Dark Series > Dark Blood (Chapter 47)     
  • Dark Blood(Dark #26)(47) by Christine Feehan
  • Zev. Branislava’s voice quivered, but she couldn’t help it. That thought of both mages so close in such a large crowd was utterly terrifying. I think both of them are here. Xayvion as well as Xaviero. I caught a whiff of incense, a powerful combination of herbs that are used to send a spirit along on his journey. Just a small passing scent, but Xayvion favored spells where he used incense to aid him. Whatever they’re doing, I think they plan to do it right here.

    Perhaps someone else used this incense in the hopes of sending Arno and Arnau on a safe journey.

    It wasn’t just that, Zev. It was a combination of scents. Xavier was using it in the laboratory when he stabbed Xaviero. Her heart began to pound as she pulled up the memory. There was a thick fog in the lab that night. I couldn’t see Xaviero’s body once it fell to the floor. I saw Xavier grab his feet and pull him out of the lab, but I couldn’t see his actual body because the mist was too thick, lying about a foot above the floor.

    Branka, listen to me. You can do this. Figure this out. No matter what happens, you have to stay focused on what you believe is Xaviero’s ultimate goal.

    She could see Zev working his way toward the front and Fen on the other side of the crowd doing the same thing. Zev’s calm voice always steadied her. He had a way of looking and speaking with such a composed, sure manner, that everything in her settled. Not this time. This time she was fairly certain she knew what Xaviero and Xayvion were up to.

    They are going to trade the spirit of the living for the spirit of the dead. That’s why I smelled the combination of incenses on Xayvion as he moved through the crowd. They have a live body here, one they want to put Xavier’s spirit into. They need deaths, souls and spirits wailing. The more the better. They intend to open the gates of hell.

    There was a small silence. She could feel Zev around her. In her mind. As always, he was as steady as a rock. He wasn’t in a panic as she was. Perhaps because he didn’t know how bad it was going to get.

    Dimitri, Skyler, Ivory and Razvan burst from the forest, running toward them, drawing her attention. Directly behind them, a mottled snake slithered up a particularly large tree. When it was halfway up the trunk, it reared back and struck the tree, sinking its teeth deep. Color ran up the bark, changing it from the normal darkish gray to a sickly white. The color spread to the branches and then to the leaves.

    Branislava gasped and turned to look behind her. Another tree directly across from the first one, on the other side of the clearing, was lit up in the same ghostly way. She knew without looking that there would be one tree directly across from the ceremonial pyre and two more lit above it, forming an inverted pentagram.

    Several Lycans began to turn their heads away from the funeral pyre, uneasy, feeling the evil dread spreading throughout the clearing. The elite hunters moved in closer to better protect the council members. They’ve started, Zev. You have to get to their sacrificial victim. He’ll be somewhere close to the pyre. They’ll want his body, so they’ll have to drive his spirit out at the precise moment the gates open so they can make the exchange. They’ll slay as many as possible to accomplish their goal.

    Fog leaked through the trees into the opening surrounding the clearing, a thick yellowish-gray vapor. Tentacles swirled up the trees, climbing toward the sky. The ground fogbank was high, a good six feet or more, like a great wall moving toward them, although still slow. Branislava couldn’t help herself. She looked toward the speaker standing on the raised podium. His eyes met hers. She would recognize that malevolent, evil stare anywhere. Xaviero. He threw back his hood, extending his arms wide as if in supplication, just as Zev fired a shot at him.

    The bullet flew true, speeding directly at Xaviero’s forehead, right between his eyes. Xaviero smiled, a malicious, vile, spiteful promise of pure glee.

    In her shared mind with Zev, Branislava screamed in alarm. Zev, duck, hit the ground. She tore her gaze from Xaviero’s and frantically chanted a protection spell.

    That made of lead,

    Fired to kill,

    I remove your force,

    Now shall you be stilled.

    The bullet hit some kind of barrier, stopping just between Xaviero’s eyes, hovering there for a moment and then reversing, to streak through the air straight at the shooter. Zev hit the ground and rolled, the bullet obeying Branislava’s order at the last moment, falling harmlessly to earth.

    Xaviero saluted her with a small bow, his smile widening until he looked almost grotesque, an unholy monster from another realm. She realized he’d spent time in the very place Xavier was trapped. The three brothers had prepared for the inevitable moment when one of them was killed.

    Zev, find his sacrifice. Do it fast, all hell’s about to break loose. She needed help fast. No matter what happens, keep them off of us. Tatijana, Skyler, Ivory. I need you now. We’re in the battle of our lives. Xaviero and Xayvion will strike at us. We’re the only ones able to stop them. You have to protect us. We’ll need time to counter their spells.

    The spell of the inverted pentagram had closed the clearing off from all help. She was certain no one could get in and no one could get out. The fog winding up the trees and into the sky, coming together in a dense bank above their heads, was all about preventing Carpathians from using storms, or taking to the skies.

    The three brothers had a long time to perfect their ambush and they knew how each species fought. No doubt they had prepared for every eventuality. Zev had been correct in saying three days was too long to give the mages—not when they’d been preparing for centuries.

    The fogbank crept out of the forest, surrounding the clearing like a great army. She could see eyes glowing, both red and yellow.

    Hellhounds, Zev. He’s got hellhounds coming at us.

    They emerged out of the fog. Snarling. Slobbering. Dripping great strings of venom from their muzzles. Lips were drawn back, revealing large razor-sharp teeth. Their heads were massive and many of them had two heads. One had three. Their bodies were the size of ponies, thick and roped with muscle. Black fur appeared spiked and bristling, as if one could get seriously wounded touching them. As they approached slowly, the ground beneath them blackened, the grass withering and curling under each step. Behind each of the hounds was a man, or rather a creature, half man, half wolf.

    Sange rau. Branislava breathed the name into his mind.

    This was the Lycans’ worst nightmare—an army of Sange rau—mixed bloods, faster, stronger and more intelligent than everyone else.

    Take down the barriers he’s built, Zev said. Don’t think about anything else. We’re prepared for hellhounds. We knew he had an army of Sange rau.

    His voice calmed her as it always did. He was matter-of-fact. There was no panic in him, no terror. She realized it was the trait that others relied on as well. Zev could truly face danger and not flinch. His mind was always working, always finding a way.

    Someone screamed, a high-pitched voice of terror. Branislava swiveled around. The ground erupted, first with insects and right behind them, mutated red-striped toads with serrated teeth. Venom dripped down their chins. They snapped at the insects and as people shifted, the movement attracted their attention.

    Toads began hopping onto the nearest warm body and injecting a paralyzing venom into their victim as quickly as possible. Each time a toad sank its teeth into its prey, it emitted a loud croak, calling to the others. More leapt at the hapless targets, attaching themselves on calves and thighs, ripping away clothing to reach the flesh beneath. The accumulated poison brought their quarry crashing to the ground fairly quickly.

    The moment their prey went down, dozens leapt on them, swarming over the top of them like in some macabre horror movie. Blood ran into the ground beneath them, but most of the victims were so weighed down by the toads, she couldn’t see them, just the moving mounds of toads. To her shock, the toads appeared to be growing, or they were bloated from the repulsive feast.

    Other Lycans tried to help their fallen friends, kicking at the slavering creatures and trying to yank up the paralyzed victims. Those injected with the toad venom could only stare up at their comrades, unable to move or talk or even scream as the toads began to devour them.

    Tatijana, you have to take care of those toads, Zev commanded. Branka, get that barrier down and then get rid of the fog.

    She wanted to hiss at him in anger. Did he think she was a miracle worker? All around her was complete chaos, Carpathians pouring hyssop oil over them, turning, taking careful aim and firing oil-dipped arrows at the hellhounds.

    “Pack leaders, take your points and defend your positions,” Zev ordered as he ran.

    Branislava saw him disappear behind the smoking pyre. The smoke was no longer white and clean-scented. More smoke rose toward the overhead bank of fog, rushing up to the sky to gather in one spot, staining the yellow-gray vapor a dark, malevolent shade of black. Flames licked at the wood and flowers, burning the first layer of the pyre and igniting the logs and branches holding the bodies of Arno and Arnau.

    Her heart pounded at the thought of Zev so close to Xaviero. The mage was locked in a circle of protection and she didn’t yet know where his brother was. But if they were unlocking the gates of hell, he would be forming a triangle with his brother and the ceremonial pyre where their sacrifice would be—and Zev was running straight into their powerful web.

    She forced herself to block out the screams and the fighting as well as the terrible baying and howls of the hounds. She couldn’t even look at the toads and their victims. Her job was to remove the five-pointed inverted pentagram. The massive zone the mages had created was the key to their power. Without it, they would be unable to open the gates and they couldn’t exchange spirits and bodies.

    Can you get rid of them, Tatijana? The toads? Can you destroy them?

    I can figure out the toads, Bronnie, Tatijana assured her. You just keep working on that.

    Tatijana moved back-to-back with her sister. She closed her eyes for a moment. Around her the noise was hideous with the cries of the injured and the gasps of the dying. She could hear the breath rattling in their bodies, as she had when she was a child watching her father and uncles performing their experiments on living species. She had to force her mind back to the present, focusing on countering the deadly mutated toads.

    She knew the toads were a distraction from Xaviero’s real plan. They needed dead bodies and chaos reigning. The more souls and spirits trapped within their web, the more power generated for the two High Mages to use. Still, the toads did their job, springing on legs and eventually pulling their prey down. They grew fatter and bloated, but still, they didn’t stop, although their size began to slow them down.

    She stood in the middle of the clearing and, lifting her hands, she began to weave a pattern in the air. As she began, she felt tearing at her leg and then a slow burn that began to make its way up her leg, running from nerve to nerve.

    Dimitri kicked at the frog, tearing it from her body. The hateful creature took a large chunk of skin with it as it went flying across the clearing.

    Tatijana didn’t follow its path. The toads hopped close, ringing her. Targeting her. Dimitri, Skyler, Ivory and Razvan took up positions to protect her while she continued. Dimitri removed the poison from her body even as she worked.

    Her voice was steady, pitched low, yet carrying through the clearing, the singsong notes adding to her power.

    Creatures of earth,

    Warped in design,

    As your voices are raised,

    Let earth take your bite.

    The toads opened their mouths in protest. The serrated teeth fell to the ground with every note coming out of them. Each time they tried to call to the others to join them, more teeth spilled out. Venom ran freely into the soil.

    That which is cold-blooded,

    Dwelling beneath the soil,

    I call to you, snake,

    Come forth and clear this peril.

    Snakes slithered from the holes in the ground where the toads had emerged and began hunting the vile, bloated creatures. The snakes were long, olive green, with yellow half-moons on either side of the neck. Dark bars ran along either side. The grass snake was considered by some to be a protector, not an aggressor. They struck fast. The toads were too bloated to move quickly, allowing the snakes to find them easily.

    Tatijana heaved a sigh of relief and dropped her arms, grateful she had, at least, managed to cut down one threat. She heard Razvan grunt and looked up as a huge hound leapt on him, nearly crushing his chest, driving him over backward, taking him to the ground. Instantly wolves leapt from Ivory directly onto the massive beast, all soaked in hyssop oil, tearing at the hellhound’s underbelly, biting its legs and throat. They were fast, but the beast was faster, dropping Razvan and turning to clamp its giant maw around the male wolf.

    Razvan rolled, coming up under the hellhound, his knife slitting the beast’s belly with the blade also soaked in the oil. The hound opened its teeth, allowing the wolf to drop to the ground. As Razvan rolled, more wolves leapt from his back to join the others tearing at the huge hound. The hyssop oil, more than the knife, the wolves or Razvan, began to take its toll on the hellish creature. It staggered as it tried to whip around, snapping in the air at the wolves.

    Ivory took the blade of her knife, fiery hot, and pressed it into the teeth marks on Razvan, cauterizing the wound. He shot her an agonized glance and turned back to the hound lurching toward the wounded wolf, putting his body squarely between the hellhound and his wolf. Ivory fit an arrow into her crossbow, shooting the beast in the eye. She stepped closer as the slavering beast whirled around, snapping at the air, knocking into Razvan and sending his body tumbling into the fallen wolf. Ivory threw her knife, the one with the glowing red blade, and Razvan, from his position on the ground, slapped it against the bite on the wolf’s body.

    Farkas, one of Ivory’s wolves, howled, adding his voice to the chaos of the terrible battle. Screams erupted near the ceremonial pyre. Tatijana swung her head to look. Xaviero held his arms wide and issued a command. Two Lycans walked in blind obedience into the leaping flames while a line formed behind them, its members waiting their turn.

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