“No wonder Benjamin was so hard to track down,” Gallowglass murmured, looking at the underground maze.
“Where are the knights now?” I had yet to see the massing of troops I’d been told were in Chelm.
“Standing by,” Hamish replied.
“Fernando will decide when to send them into the tunnels. As Marcus’s marshal, the decision is his,” Baldwin said, acknowledging Fernando with a nod.
“Actually, it’s mine,” Marcus said, appearing suddenly against the snow.
“Marcus!” I pushed my hood back, terror gripping me. “What’s happened to Rebecca and Philip?
Where are they?”
“Nothing has happened. The twins are at Sept-Tours with Sarah, Phoebe, and three dozen knights—all of them handpicked for their loyalty to the de Clermonts and their dislike of Gerbert and the Congregation. Miriam and Chris are there, too.” Marcus took my hands in his. “I couldn’t sit in France waiting for news. Not when I could be helping to free my father. And Matthew might need my help after that, too.”
Marcus was right. Matthew would need a doctor—a doctor who understood vampires and how to heal them.
“And Jack?” It was all I could squeeze out, though Marcus’s words had helped my heart rate return to something approaching normal.
“He’s fine, too,” Marcus said firmly. “Jack had one bad episode last night when I told him he couldn’t come along, but Marthe turns out to be something of a hellcat when provoked. She threatened to keep Jack from seeing Philip, and that sobered him right up. He never lets the child out of his sight.
Jack says it’s his job to protect his godson, no matter what.” Marcus turned to Fernando. “Walk me through your plan.”
Fernando went over the operation in detail: where the knights would be positioned, when they would move on the compound, the roles that Gallowglass, Baldwin, Hamish, and now Marcus would play.
Even though it all sounded flawless, I was still worried.
“What is it, Diana?” Marcus asked, sensing my concern.
“So much of our strategy relies on the element of surprise,” I said. “What if Gerbert has already tipped off Knox and Benjamin? Or Domenico? Even Satu might have decided she was safer from Benjamin if she could gain Knox’s trust.”
“Don’t worry, Auntie,” Gallowglass assured me, his blue eyes taking on a stormy cast. “Gerbert, Domenico, and Satu are all sitting on Isola della Stella. The Knights of Lazarus have them surrounded.
There’s no way for them to get off the island.”
Gallowglass’s words did little to lessen my concern. The only thing that could help was freeing Matthew and putting an end to Benjamin’s machinations—for good.
“Ready to examine the wards?” Baldwin asked, knowing that giving me something to do would help keep my anxiety in check.
After swapping my highly visible black cloak for a pale gray parka that blended into the snow, Baldwin and Gallowglass took me within shouting distance of Benjamin’s compound. In silence I took stock of the wards that protected the place. There were a few alarm spells, a trigger spell that I suspected would unleash some kind of elemental conflagration or storm, and a handful of diversions that were designed to do nothing more than delay an attacker until a proper defense could be mounted. Knox had used spells that were complicated, but they were old and worn, too. It wouldn’t take much to pick apart the knots and leave the place unguarded.
“I’ll need two hours and Janet,” I whispered to Baldwin as we withdrew.
Together Janet and I freed the compound from its invisible barbed-wire perimeter. There was one alarm spell we had to leave in place, however. It was linked directly back to Knox, and I feared that even tinkering with the knots would alert him to our presence.
“He’s a clever bugger,” Janet said, wiping a tired hand across her eyes.
“Too clever for his own good. His spells were lazy,” I said. “Too many crossings, not enough threads.”
“When this is all over, we are going to have several evenings by the fireside where you explain what you just said,” Janet warned.
“When this is over, and Matthew is home, I’ll happily sit by the fireside for the rest of my life,” I replied.
Gallowglass’s hovering presence reminded me that time was passing.
“Time to go,” I said briskly, nodding toward the silent Gael.
Gallowglass insisted we eat something and took us to a café in Chelm. There I managed to swallow down some tea and two bites of hot-milk cake while the warmth from the clanging radiator thawed my extremities.
As the minutes ticked by, the regular metallic sounds from the café’s heating system began to sound like warning bells. Finally Gallowglass announced that the hour had come when we were to meet up with Marcus’s army.
He took us to a prewar house on the outskirts of town. Its owner had been happy to hand over the keys and head to warmer climes in exchange for a hefty cash vacation fund and the promise that his leaking roof would be fixed when he returned.
The vampire knights who were assembled in the cellar were mostly unfamiliar to me, though I did recognize a few faces from the twins’ christening. As I looked at them, rugged of line and quietly ready for whatever awaited them below, I was struck by the fact that these were warriors who had fought in modern world wars and revolutions, as well as medieval Crusades. They were some of the finest soldiers who had ever lived, and like all soldiers they were prepared to sacrifice their lives for something greater than themselves.
Fernando gave his final orders while Gallowglass opened a makeshift door. Beyond it was a small ledge and a rickety ladder that led down into darkness.
“Godspeed,” Gallowglass whispered as the first of the vampires dropped out of sight and landed silently on the ground below.
We waited while the knights chosen to destroy Benjamin’s hunting party did their work. Still nervous that someone might alert him to our presence and that he might respond by taking Matthew’s life, I stared fixedly at the earth between my feet.
It was excruciating. There was no way to receive any progress reports. For all we knew, Marcus’s knights could have met with unexpected resistance. Benjamin might have sent out more of his children to hunt. He might have sent out none.
“This is the hell of war,” said Gallowglass. “It’s not the fighting or even the dying that destroys you. It’s the wondering.”
No more than an hour later—though it felt like days—Giles pushed open the door. His shirt was stained with gore. There was no way to determine how much of it belonged to him and what might be traces of Benjamin’s now-dead children. He beckoned us forward.
“Clear,” he told Gallowglass. “But be careful. The tunnels echo, so watch your step.”
Gallowglass handed Janet down and then me, making no use of the waiting ladder with its rusted metal treads that might give us away. It was so dark in the tunnel that I couldn’t see the faces of the vampires who caught us, but I could smell the battle on them.
We hurried along the tunnel with as much speed as our need for silence allowed. Given the darkness, I was glad to have a vampire on each arm to steer me around the bends and would have fallen several times without the assistance of their keen eyes and quick reflexes.
Baldwin and Fernando were waiting for us at the intersection of three tunnels. Two blood-spattered mounds covered with tarps and a powdery white substance that gave off a faint glow marked where Benjamin’s children had met their death.
“We covered the heads and bodies with quicklime to mask the scent,” Fernando said. “It won’t eliminate it completely, but it should buy us some time.”
“How many?” Gallowglass asked.
“Nine,” Baldwin replied. One of his hands was completely clean and bore a sword, the other was caked with substances I preferred not to identify. The contrast made my stomach heave.
“How many are still inside?” Janet murmured.
“At least another nine, probably more.” Baldwin didn’t look worried at the prospect. “If they’re anything like this lot, you can expect them to be cocksure and clever.”
“Dirty fighters, too,” Fernando said.
“As expected,” Gallowglass said, his tone easy and relaxed. “We’ll be waiting for your signal to move into the compound. Good luck, Auntie.”
Baldwin whisked me away before I could say a word of farewell to Gallowglass and Fernando.
Perhaps it was better that way, since the single glance I cast over my shoulder captured faces that were etched with exhaustion.
The tunnel that Baldwin took us through led to the gates outside the compound where Ysabeau and Hamish were waiting. With all the wards down save the one on the gate that led directly to Knox, the only risk was that a vampire’s keen eyes would spot us.
Janet reduced that possibility with an all-encompassing disguising spell that concealed not only me but everybody within twenty feet.
“Where’s Marcus?” I had expected to see him here.
Marcus was already inside the perimeter, propped in the crook of a tree, a rifle aimed at a window.
He must have breached the compound’s stone walls by swinging from tree limb to tree limb. With no wards to worry about, provided he didn’t use the gate, Marcus had taken advantage of the pause in the action and would now provide cover for us as we went through the gate and entered the front door.
“Sharpshooter,” commented Baldwin.
“Marcus learned to handle a gun as a warmblood. He hunted squirrels when he was a child,” added Ysabeau. “Smaller and faster than vampires, I’m told.”
Marcus never acknowledged our presence, but he knew we were there. Janet and I set to work on the final knots that bound the alarm spell to Knox. She cast an anchoring spell, the kind witches used to shore up the foundations of their houses and keep their children from wandering away, and as I unbound the ward, I redirected its energy toward her. Our hope was that the spell wouldn’t even notice that the heavy object it now guarded was a granite boulder and not a massive iron gate.
We would have been inside the house in moments if not for the inconvenient interruption of one of Benjamin’s sons, who came out to catch a cigarette only to discover the front gate standing open. His eyes widened.
A small hole appeared in his forehead.
One eye disappeared. Then another.
Benjamin’s son clutched at his throat. Blood welled between his fingers, and he emitted a strange whistling sound.
“Hello, salaud. I’m your grandmother.” Ysabeau thrust a dagger into the man’s heart.
The simultaneous loss of blood from so many places made it easy for Baldwin to grab the man’s head and twist it, breaking his neck and killing the vampire instantly. With another wrench his head came off his shoulders.
It had taken about forty-five seconds from the time Marcus fired his first shot to the moment Baldwin put the vampire’s head facedown in the snow.
Then the dogs started to bark.
“Merde,” Ysabeau whispered.
“Now. Go.” Baldwin took my arm, and Ysabeau took charge of Janet. Marcus tossed his rifle to Hamish, who caught it easily. He let forth a piercing whistle.
“Shoot anything that comes out of that door,” Marcus ordered. “I’m going after the dogs.”
Unsure whether the whistle was meant to call the fierce-sounding canines or the waiting Knights of Lazarus, I hurried along into the compound’s main building. It was no warmer inside than out. An emaciated rat scurried down the hall, which was lined with identical doors.
“Knox knows we’re here,” I said. There was no need for quiet or a disguising spell now.
“So does Benjamin,” Ysabeau said grimly.
As planned, we parted ways. Ysabeau went in search of Matthew. Baldwin, Janet, and I were after Benjamin and Knox. With luck we would find them all in the same place and converge upon them, supported by the Knights of Lazarus once they breached the lower levels of the compound and made their way upstairs.
A soft cry drew us to one of the closed doors. Baldwin flung it open.
It was the room we’d seen on the video feed: the grimy tiles, drain in the floor, windows overlooking the snow, numbers written with a grease pencil on the walls, even the chair with a tweed coat lying over the back.
Matthew was sitting in another chair, his eyes black and his mouth open in a soundless scream. His ribs had been spread open with a metal device, exposing his slow-beating heart, the regular sound of which had brought me such comfort whenever he drew me close.
“Fuck.” Baldwin rushed toward him.
“It’s not Matthew,” I said.
Ysabeau’s shriek in the distance told me she had stumbled onto a similar scene.
“It’s not Matthew,” I repeated, louder this time. I went to the next door and twisted the knob.
There was Matthew, sitting in the same chair. His hands—his beautiful, strong hands that touched me with such love and tenderness—had been severed at the wrists and were sitting in a surgical basin in his lap.
No matter which door we opened, we found Matthew in some horrific tableau of pain and torment.
And every illusory scene had been staged especially for me.
After my hopes had been raised and dashed a dozen times, I blew all the doors in the house off their hinges with a single word. I didn’t bother looking inside any of the open rooms. Apparitions could be quite convincing, and Knox’s were very good indeed. But they were not flesh and blood. They were not my Matthew, and I was not deceived by them even though those I had seen would remain with me forever.