Thought of you might enjoy it. =D!!!
The sound of footsteps on cobblestone echoed throughout the empty streets of the city. Tomasia kept the pace, her kidskin slippers hardly making a sound, while behind her came the slap of Andreas’s heavy boots and Giovanni’ s lighter step. They ran in a single file, a tight unit, used to this kind of discipline, used to blending in with the dark. When they arrived at the middle of the square, they separated.
Tomi flew up the nearest cornerstone and perched on a cornice -looking over the broad panorama of the city: the half-built dome of the Basilica to the Ponte Vecchio and beyond the river. She sensed the creature was near and prepared to strike. Their target still did not know he was being followed, and her blow would be immediate and invisible, every trace of the Silver Blood eradicated and extinguished —almost as if the beast—disguised as a palace guard—never existed. Even the creature’s last gasp must be silent. Tomasia kept her position, waiting for the creature to come to her, to walk into the trap they had laid.
She heard Dre grunting, a bit out of breath, and then next to him, Gio, his sword already unsheathed, as they followed the vampire into the alley.
This was her chance. She flew down from her hiding place, holding her dagger with her teeth.
But when she landed, the creature was nowhere to be found.
“Where—?” she asked, but Gio put a finger to his mouth and motioned to the alleyway.
Tomi raised her eyebrows. This was unusual. The Silver Blood had stopped to converse with a hooded stranger. Strange: the Croatan despised the Red Bloods and avoided them unless they were torturing them for sport.
“Should we?” she asked, moving toward the alley.
“Wait,” Andreas ordered. He was nineteen, tall and broad, with sculpted muscles and a ferocious brow— handsome and ruthless. He was their leader, and had always been.
Next to him, Gio looked elfin, almost fey, with a beauty that could not be denied or hidden under his scraggly beard and long, unkempt hair. He kept his hand on his weapon, tense and ready to spring.
Tomi did the same, and caressed the sharp edge of her dagger. It made her feel better to know it was there.
“Let’s watch what happens,” Dre decided.
Part the First
Schuyler Van Alen and the Gate of Promise
Off the Italian Coast
The Cinque Terre
Schuyler Van Alen and the Gate of Promise
Off the Italian Coast
The Cinque Terre
Schuyler Van Alen walked as quickly as she could up the polished brass spiral stairs leading to the upper deck. Jack Force was standing at the edge of the bow when she caught his eye. She nodded to him, shielding her eyes from the hot Mediterranean sun. It’s done.
Good, he sent, and went back to setting the anchor. He was sunburned and shaggy, his skin a deep nut brown, his hair the color of flax. Her own dark hair was wild and unkempt from a month of salty sea air. She wore an old shirt of Jack’ s that had once been white and pristine and was now gray and ragged at the hems. They both displayed that laconic, relaxed air affected by those on perpetual vacation: a lazy, weathered aimlessness that belied their true desperation. A month was long enough. They had to act now. They had to act today.
The muscles on Jack’ s arms tensed as he tugged on the rope to see if the anchor had found purchase on the ocean floor. No luck. The anchor heaved, so he released the line a few more feet. He raised a finger over his right shoulder, signaling to Schuyler to reverse the port engine. He let the rope go a little farther and tugged at it again, the stout white braids of the anchor line chafing his palm as he pulled it toward him.
From her summers sailing on Nantucket, Schuyler knew that an ordinary man would have used a motor winch to set the seven-hundred-pound anchor, but of course Jack was far from ordinary. He pulled harder— using almost all of his strength, and all eight tons of the Countess’s yacht seemed to flex for a moment. This time the anchor held, wedged into the rocky bottom. Jack relaxed and dropped the rope, and Schuyler moved from the helm to help him twine it around the base of the winch. In the past month they’d each found quiet solace in these small tasks. It gave them something to do while they plotted their escape.
For while Isabelle of Orleans had welcomed them to the safety of her home, Jack remembered that once upon a time, in another lifetime, Isabelle had been Lucifer’ s beloved, Drusilla, sister-wife to the emperor Caligula. True, the Countess had been more than generous toward them: she had blessed them with every comfort—the boat, in particular, was fully staffed and bountifully stocked. Yet it was becoming clearer each day that the Countess’ s offer of protection was morphing from asylum to confinement. It was already November and they were virtual prisoners in her care, as they were never left alone, nor were they allowed to leave. Schuyler and Jack were as far from finding the Gate of Promise as they had been when they’d left New York.
The Countess had given them everything except what they needed most: freedom. Schuyler did not believe that Isabelle, who had been a great friend to Lawrence and Cordelia, and was one of the most respected vampire dowagers of European society, was a Silver Blood traitor. But of course, given the recent events, anything seemed possible. In any event, if the Countess was planning on keeping them prisoner for perpetuity, they couldn’t afford to wait and
Schuyler glanced shyly at Jack. They had been together a month now, but even though they were finally an official couple, everything felt so new— his touch, his voice, his companionship, the easy feel of his arm around her shoulder. She stood beside him against the rail, and he looped his arm around her neck, pulling her closer so he could plant a quick kiss on the top of her head. She liked those kisses the most, found a deep contentment at the confident way he held her. They belonged to each other now.
Maybe this was what Allegra had meant, Schuyler thought, when she had told her to come home and stop
fighting, stop fleeing from finding her own happiness. Maybe this was what her mother wanted her to understand.
Jack lowered his arm from her shoulder, and she followed his gaze to the small rowboat “the boys” were lowering from the stern onto the choppy water below. They were a jolly duo, two Italians, Drago and Iggy (short for Ignazio), Venators in service to the Countess and, for all intents and purposes, Jack and Schuyler’s jailers. But Schuyler had come to like them almost as friends, and the thought of what she and Jack were about to do set her nerves on edge. She hoped the Venators would be spared from harm, but she and Jack would do what they had to. She marveled at his calm demeanor; she herself could barely keep still, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet in anticipation.
She followed Jack to the edge of the platform. Iggy had tethered the little boat to the yacht, and Drago reached forward to help Schuyler step down. But Jack slipped ahead and brushed Drago aside so he could offer Schuyler his palm instead, ever the gentleman. She held his hand as she climbed over the rail and into the boat. Drago shrugged and steadied the boat as Iggy brought the last of the provisions onto the bow—several picnic baskets and backpacks filled with blankets and water. Schuyler patted her bag, confirming that the Repository files with Lawrence’ s notes were in their usual place.
Schuyler turned to look closely upon the rugged -Italian coast for the first time. Ever since they had learned of Iggy’ s affinity for the Cinque Terre, they had been advocating for this little day trip. The Cinque Terre was a strip of the -Italian Riviera populated by a series of five medieval towns. Iggy, with his broad face and fat belly, spoke longingly of running along the paths along the cliff edge before coming home to outdoor dinners overlooking sunsets above the bay.
She had never been to this part of Italy and did not know too much about it—but she understood how they could use Iggy’ s affection for his hometown to their advantage. He had not been able to resist their suggestion to visit, and allowed them a day off of their floating prison. It was the perfect spot for what they had planned, as trails ended in ancient stairs that stretched upward for hundreds of feet. The paths would be abandoned this time of year—tourist season was over, as fall brought cold weather to the popular resort towns. The mountain trails would lead them far from the ship.
“You are going to love this place, Jack,” Iggy said, -rowing vigorously. “You too, signorina,” he said. The Italians had a difficult time pronouncing Schuyler.
Jack grunted, pulling on his oar, and Schuyler tried to affect a festive air. They were supposed to be getting ready for a picnic. Schuyler noticed Jack brooding, staring at the sea, preparing himself for the day ahead, and she swatted his arm playfully. This was supposed to be a long-awaited respite from their time on the ship, a chance to spend a day exploring.
They were supposed to look like a happy couple with not a care in the world, not like two captives about to execute a prison break.
Schuyler felt her mood lift as they pulled into the bay at Vernazza. The view could bring a smile to anyone’s face, and even Jack brightened. The rock ledges were spectacular and the houses that clung to them looked as ancient as the stones themselves. They docked the boat, and the foursome hiked up the cliff side toward the trail.
The five towns that formed the Cinque Terre were connected by a series of stony paths, some almost impossible to climb, Iggy explained, as they walked past a succession of tiny stucco homes. The Venator was in a jubilant mood, -telling them the history of every house they walked past. “ And this one, my aunty Clara sold in 1977 to a nice family from Parma, and this right here was where the most beautiful girl in Italy lived”—Iggy made a kissing noise—“but . . . Red Blood lady you know how they are . . . picky . . . Oh and this is where . . .”
Iggy called out to farmers as they walked through the backyards and fields, patting animals as they strolled past their pastures. The trail wound back and forth from grassland to homes to the very edge of the sea cliffs.
Schuyler watched tiny rocks tumble over the side of the hill as they made their way forward. Iggy kept the conversation flowing, while Drago nodded and laughed to himself, as if he had taken the tour one time too many and was merely humoring his friend. The climb was hard work, but Schuyler was glad for the chance to stretch her muscles, and she was certain Jack was too. They had spent too much time on the boat, and while they had been allowed to swim in the ocean, it wasn’ t the same as a good hike in the open air. In a few hours they had moved from Vernazza to Corniglia and then Manarola. Schuyler noticed that they passed the day without seeing a single car or truck, not a phone line or power cable.
This is it, Jack sent. Over there.
Schuyler knew it meant he had judged their distance to be nearly halfway between the last two towns. It was time. Schuyler tapped Iggy on the shoulder and gestured toward a craggy outcropping that hung over the cliff side. “ Lunch?” she asked, her eyes twinkling.
Iggy smiled. “Of course! In all my exuberance I forgot to let us stop and eat!”
The spot Schuyler had led them to was in a peculiar location. The trail stretched out toward a promontory so that there were cliffs on either side of the narrow path. The two Venators spread one of the Countess’ s spotless white -tablecloths over a grassy plateau between the rough stone, and the four of them crammed into the small space. Schuyler tried not to look down as she snuggled up as close to the edge as possible.
Jack sat across from her, gazing over her shoulder at the shoreline below. He kept his eyes on the beach as Schuyler helped unpack the basket. She brought out salamis and prosciutto di Parma, finocchiona, mortadella, and air-cured beef. Some of the meat came in long rolls, while others were cut into small disks and wrapped in wax paper. There was a loaf of rosemary cake, along with a brown paper bag full of almond tarts and jam crostata. It was a pity it was all going to go to waste. Drago pulled several plastic containers filled with Italian cheeses— pecorino and fresh burrata wrapped in green asphodel leaves. Schuyler tore off a piece of the burrata and took a bite. It was buttery and milky, equal to the view in splendor.
She caught Jack’s eyes briefly. Get ready , he sent. She continued to smile and eat, even as her stomach clenched. She turned briefly to see what Jack had seen. A small motorboat had pulled up to the beach below. Who would have known a teenage North African pirate from the Somali coast would prove to be such a reliable contact, Schuyler thought. Even from far above she could see that he had brought them what they had asked for: one of the pirate crew’s fastest speedboats, jerry-rigged with a grossly oversized engine.
Iggy popped open a bottle of Prosecco, and the four of them toasted the sun-drenched coastline with friendly smiles. He lifted his hand in a wide gesture as he gazed down at the midday feast. “ Shall we begin?”
That was the moment she had been waiting for. Schuyler sprang into action. She leaned back and appeared to lose her balance for a moment, then bent forward and tossed the full contents of her wineglass into Drago’ s face. The alcohol stung his eyes, and he looked baffled, but before he could react, Iggy slapped him on the back and guffawed heartily, as if Schuyler had made a particularly funny joke.
With Drago momentarily blinded, and Iggy’ s eyes closed in laughter, Jack moved to strike. He slid a shank out from his shirtsleeve and into his palm, flipped it around and drove the knife deep into Drago’s chest, sending the Italian sprawling to the ground, bleeding. Schuyler had helped Jack make the blade from one of the deck boards. He had hollowed out the back of a loose stair tread and carved it against a stone she’d found on a dive. The shank was made from ironwood, and it made for a dangerous and deadly little dagger.
Schuyler rushed for the other Venator, but Iggy was gone before she could stand. This they had not counted on. The fat man could move. In an instant he had pulled the shank from his friend’ s chest to use as a weapon of his own and turned toward Schuyler, the laughter having died from his eyes.
“Jack!” she cried as the Venator charged. She suddenly couldn’ t move. Iggy had hit her with a stasis spell when he’d stolen the blade, which he was now holding above her chest. In a moment it would pierce her heart—but Jack
dove between them and took the full brunt of the blow.
Schuyler had to get out of the spell. She wrenched herself forward with every ounce of energy, fighting the invisible web that held her. The sensation was like moving in slow motion through a thick ooze, but she found the spell’ s weak link and broke through. She screamed as she ran toward Jack’s seemingly lifeless body.
Iggy got there first, but as he turned Jack over, he did a double take. Jack was unharmed, alive, and smiling grimly.
He leapt to his feet. “Tsk, tsk, Venator. How could you forget an angel cannot be harmed with a blade of his own making?” Jack rolled up his sleeves as he faced his adversary. “Why don’t you make it easy on yourself?” he said mildly. “ I suggest you go back and tell the Countess that we are not a pair of trinkets she can keep in a jewelry box. Go now, and we will leave you unharmed.”
For a moment it appeared as if the Venator was about to consider the offer, but Schuyler knew he was too old a soul to take such a cowardly route. The Italian removed a nasty-looking curved blade from his pocket and pounced toward Jack, but suddenly stopped in midair. He hung there for second with a funny look on his face, part confusion and part defeat.
“Nice move with the stasis,” Jack said, turning to Schuyler.
“Anytime.” She smiled. She had taken the edges of the spell that had paralyzed her and hit the Venator with it.
Jack took it from there, and with a powerful gesture, he threw the fat guard off the side of the cliff, sending him crashing to the water below. Schuyler rolled the unconscious Drago to the edge and threw him over as well, to join his friend in the ocean.
“You got the tank?” Jack asked as they scrambled down the face of the cliff to the pirate boat waiting for them below.
“Of course.” She nodded. They had planned their escape well: Jack had driven the yacht’ s anchor impossibly deep into the rocky ocean bottom, while Schuyler had emptied the yacht’s fuel supply. The night before they had sabotaged the boat’s sails and the radio.
They ran across the beach toward the pirate boat, where their new friend Ghedi was waiting for them. Schuyler had befriended him during one of their supervised trips to the Saint-Tropez market, where the former member of the self-styled “ Somali Marines” was helping unload a pallet of fresh fish upon the dock. Ghedi missed his days of adventure and jumped at the chance to help the two trapped Americans.
“All yours, bossing.” Ghedi smiled, showing a row of gleaming white teeth. He was lithe and quick, with a merry, handsome face and skin the color of burnished cocoa. He jumped off the starboard. He would catch a ride back to the market on the ferry.
“Thanks, man,” Jack said, taking the wheel. “ Check your accounts tomorrow.”
The Somali grinned more widely, and Schuyler knew the fun of stealing the boat was almost payment enough.
The massive engine roared to life as they sped away from the shore. Schuyler glanced to where the two Venators were floating lifelessly in the water. She comforted herself with the knowledge that both would survive. They were ancient creatures and no cliff-side fall could truly harm them; only their egos would be bruised. Still, they wouldn’t be able to recover for a while, and by then she and Jack would be well on their way.
She exhaled. Finally. On to Florence, to begin the search for the keepers and secure the gate before the Silver Bloods found it. They were back on track.
“All right?” Jack asked, guiding the ship with expert ease through the stormy waves. He reached for her hand and squeezed it tightly.
She held it against her cheek, loving the feel of his rough calluses against her skin. They had done it. They were together. Safe. Free. Then she froze. “ Jack, behind us.”
“I know. I hear the engines,” he said, without even bothering to look over his shoulder.
Schuyler stared at the horizon, where three dark shapes had appeared. More Venators, on Jet Skis with a black-and-silver cross insignia emblazoned on the windshields. Their forms grew larger and larger as they drew closer. Apparently Iggy and Drago hadn’ t been their only jailers.
Escape was going to be harder than they thought.
Into the Deep
Into the Deep
The first drops of rain fell like gentle kisses on her cheek, and Schuyler hoped it would be nothing but a mild shower. But a glance at the ever-darkening sky told her other-wise. The calm blue horizon was now a palette of gray, red, and black; the clouds swirled together to form a heavy, solid mass. The rain, which had begun like a quiet afterthought, suddenly drummed against the deck in a -rising staccato. The thunder cracked, a deep rumbling boom that made her jump.
Of course it had to rain. Just to make everything more complicated. Schuyler reached behind Jack and holstered a short bow they had asked Ghedi to procure and stow in the smuggler’s locker, a hidden compartment located in the bilge.
During their month at sea they had passed the time by preparing for this escape. After hours, Jack had schooled Schuyler in the fine points of Venator craft (subterfuge, ammunition), and with Iggy’ s and Drago’s approval, had taught Schuyler a rudimentary course in archery. With her steady hand and eye, she had proven an even better shot than Jack. She removed several ironwood arrows from her pack, more handmade weapons fashioned during their captivity. Schuyler holstered one against the bow and took position.
Their pursuers were still a long way behind for now. She could see them clearly even through the wind and fog. She bent her knees slightly and willed herself to be a statue in the moving sea, raising the bow and drawing the arrow as far back as she could. When she was sure she had her mark, she let it fly. But the Jet Ski expertly dodged away.
Unperturbed, she reloaded the bow. This time when she drew the arrow, it lodged in a Venator’s knee. The Jet Ski swerved uncontrollably in the water, and Schuyler felt triumphant until the Venator righted again, unfazed by his gaping wound.
Meanwhile, Jack kept his eyes straight ahead, a steady hand on the throttle. He was giving the engine everything it had, and it was burning up too fast and too hot—throwing off a shower of sparks and making a horrid sputtering noise.
Schuyler looked behind them again. Their pirate boat was doing the best it could, but it wouldn’ t be long before they were overtaken. The Venators were much closer now, no more than fifty feet away. It rained even harder, and she and Jack were both soaked to the bone as the wind whipped up the waves and the boat rose and fell in a treacherous, roller-coaster fashion.
She planted her feet, hoping to get more leverage, as columns of water surged onto the deck. She only had two arrows left; she had to make them count. She armed up and poised to strike, just in time to see something fiery and -blazing aimed right at her.
“Schuyler!” Jack yelled, pulling her down just as something exploded in the air where she had been standing. Good God, the Venators were fast— she hadn’t even seen her assailant take aim and fire.
Jack kept one hand on the steering wheel, the other hand he kept protectively at her back. “Hellfire,” he muttered as another explosion barely missed the starboard and shook the ship. The missiles were outfitted with the deadliest weapon in the Venators’ arsenal: the Black Fire of Hell, the only thing on earth that could end the immortal blood running in their veins.
“But why would they want us dead?” Schuyler asked, above the roar of the storm as she held the bow to her side. Surely the Countess did not wish them that much ill will. Did she hate them that much?
“We’re collateral damage now,” Jack said. “She was only keeping us alive while it was convenient for her. But now that we’ve escaped, her ego can’t take it. She’ ll kill us just to make a point. That no one defies the Countess.”
The boat bounced across the swelling waves, each time landing with a hard jolt, a rickety crunch of bolt and nail against wood and water. The engine was shot. It felt as if it was only by their sheer will that the makeshift speedboat held together.
Another blast rocked the helm of the ship, closer this time. The next one would sink them. Schuyler leapt from her hiding place, and in quick inhuman succession, pulled off the last two shafts. This time her arrows pierced the gas tank of the nearest Jet Ski, which exploded upon impact.
They didn’t have time to celebrate, as another missile sailed over the bow, and Jack turned the wheel sharply to the right only to come directly upon a ten-foot-tall wave that swallowed the ship whole.
The pirate boat burst through to the other side, miraculously still intact.
Schuyler looked over her shoulder. Two Venators left; they were so close she could see the outline of their goggles and the silver stitching on their leather gloves. The -Venators’ faces were impassive. They didn’t care if she and Jack lived or died, if they were innocent or guilty. They only took orders, and their orders were to shoot to kill.
A crashing wave took them precariously off balance, the ship tilting forward until it was almost vertical, then slammed back hard on the opposite end. Any moment now they were bound to capsize. They were out of arrows. They were out of options.
We’ll have to ditch the ship. We’ll go faster if we swim , Schuyler sent. It was the same thing Jack was thinking, she knew. It was just hard for him to say it. Because swimming meant being separated from each other. Don’t worry. I am strong. As are you. She exchanged a wry smile with her love.
Jack gripped the steering wheel, his jaw clenched. You’re sure?
Meet me in Genoa, she told him. The nearest coastal town from their current location. Thirty miles to the north.
He nodded, and a picture appeared in her mind, to show he knew it as well. A crowded port city ringed by mountains, colorful boats of every stripe bobbing in the harbor. From there they could hike through the rugged terrain to Florence.
Swim out as far as you can. I’ll aim the ship at the remaining Jet Skis, Jack sent. He held her gaze for a moment.
On my count.
I can do this, Schuyler thought. I know I will see Jack again. I believe it.
There wasn’t any time for a last kiss, or a last word of any sort. She felt Jack’ s countdown more than heard it—her body executing the commands before her brain could register them. By “three” she was already diving off the edge, already plowing down into the deep, dark water, already kicking her legs against the tide, already measuring her breath. As a vampire she could swim underwater for longer stretches than her human counterparts—but she would have to be careful not to waste energy.
Above the surface she heard a sickening crash as the pirate ship slammed into their enemies. The darkness of the sea was absolute, but after a while Schuyler’s eyes adjusted. She pushed her hands against the water, churning, -churning, muscles pushing and aching against the heavy water. She watched the bubbles rise to the surface. She could go five minutes without air, and she had to make good use of it. At last her lungs screamed for oxygen, and she began to kick up toward the surface—she had no desire now except to breathe—so close—so close —yes—one more kick and she would break through—yes. . . .
A cold, bony hand grasped her ankle, keeping her down, pulling her back into the deep.
Schuyler squirmed and kicked. She twisted so that she could see who was holding her. Below, a female Venator seemed to float effortlessly in the dark water. Her attacker assessed her coolly and continued to pull. You are under the protection of the Countess. To deny this protection is an act against the Coven. Submit or be destroyed.
The hand gripped her ankle in a solid lock. Schuyler could feel herself weakening—she would pass out soon if she didn’ t get air. Her lungs were about to burst. She was dizzy and starting to panic. Stop it, she told herself. She had to be calm.
The glom. Use the glom. RELEASE ME, she demanded, sending a compulsion so strong she could feel the words taking physical form, each letter an attack upon the -Venator’s cerebellum. The hand on her ankle shook slightly, and that was all Schuyler needed.
She burst away just as the Venator sent a compulsion of her own. Schuyler ducked and sent it back tenfold.
The compulsion was a punch to the stomach, and the Venator flew backward into the deep, as if propelled downward by a sinking cannonball tied to her ankle. It would take her to the very bottom of the ocean, hopefully giving Schuyler enough time to get away.
She scrambled to get above the waves, finally breaking through to the surface, gasping for air. The rain, cold as a dead man’s fingers, lashed her cheeks. She chanced a look back.
Their little motorboat was on fire. Burning, with sparks of black flames shooting up toward the heavens.
Jack made it out, she told herself. Of course he did. He had to.
A few feet away, Schuyler could see another Jet Ski circling the fiery carcass. But why hadn’t that Venator gone after Jack, Schuyler wondered. Unless . . . unless he was already . . .
She couldn’t finish the thought.
She pushed her head underneath the waves. The Genoa port. She began to swim.