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04 rise of the lycans, p.1
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       04 - Rise of the Lycans, p.1

           Greg Cox
 
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04 - Rise of the Lycans


  RISE OF THE

  LYCANS

  Underworld - 04

  Greg Cox

  (An Undead Scan v1.6)

  Prologue

  From The Underworld Chronicles by Selene:

  A war has raged for the better part of a thousand years, a blood feud between vampires and werewolves. It had its roots in the Dark Ages, when a great plague burned through Eastern Europe, turning all the land into a graveyard. Corpse wagons were piled high with the bodies of the victims, their lifeless faces contorted by the fearsome agonies of their deaths. Blackened flesh and swollen buboes hinted at the torments the doomed souls had endured before the Grim Reaper put them out of their misery. Their limbs and extremities were rotted from within. Pus oozed from open sores.

  None was spared save Alexander, Duke of Corvinus. To him and his heirs, the Plague brought not death but life eternal. He became the Father of all immortals, beginning with his twin sons, William and Marcus.

  William was the first to be changed. It began on a moonlit night in the Carpathian Mountains, when the two brothers rode their steeds fearlessly through a dense, black forest. Blessed with immortality, they feared neither beast nor man as they raced past ancient firs and pines. Pounding hooves tore up the winding dirt trail. Without warning, a great black wolf lunged from the shadows. Ivory fangs glistened in the moonlight as the beast leapt at Marcus, who was taken unawares by the wolf’s savage attack. His horse reared up in alarm, whinnying in terror. All but thrown from his saddle, Marcus clung frantically to the reins of his panicked mount, unable to defend himself. The wolf snarled loudly as it went in for the kill, its hot breath steaming the cold night air.

  The young nobleman would surely have perished had not his brother come to his defense with lightning speed. Yanking his double-edged sword from its scabbard, William struck out at the beast only moments before its fangs could tear out Marcus’ throat. Tempered steel sliced through matted black fur. Blood sprayed from the beast’s side. Dying, the wounded beast whirled about and snapped at William’s outstretched sword arm. Powerful jaws clamped down on his armored wrist, punching through chain mail. The wolf’s fangs sank deep into his flesh….

  William saved his brother’s life, but at a terrible cost. Within hours, as his thrashing form was laid out atop a rough-hewn wooden table at the nearest inn, the wolf’s bite caused the mutated virus within his veins to react in an unexpected fashion. Violent convulsions racked his flailing body as a hideous metamorphosis forever robbed him of all semblance of humanity. Snow-white fur sprouted from his agonized flesh. Bones cracked and twisted audibly. His skull stretched beneath his skin, transforming his once handsome features into a canine snout. Jagged fangs protruded from his gums. Hairy ears tapered to points. Claws slid from his fingertips. His hands and feet gave way to large, shaggy paws. His fine clothes and armor came apart at the seams. Bloodshot brown eyes turned cobalt blue and opalescent. An anguished scream devolved into the howl of a ravening beast. On that terrible night, before the shocked eyes of his brother, William became the first werewolf, a soulless monster with a bottomless appetite for slaughter.

  His bloody rampages became legend. He and those he infected laid waste entire villages. Packs of marauding werewolves ran amok through the countryside, devouring the populace while creating ever more of their kind, much to the horror of his brother, Marcus, who in time became the first vampire. It fell upon Marcus to create the Death Dealers, an army of vampire soldiers dedicated to the destruction of William’s inhuman spawn. Vampire waged all-out war against werewolf in a series of horrific battles—until William himself was cornered at last. Led by Viktor, the Death Dealers’ ruthless military commander, the great white beast was finally brought to his knees—and locked away in a secret prison for all time.

  But even after William’s capture, his vile breed lingered for centuries. Death Dealers fought an endless battle against the beasts he had created in his own image. Like William, the werewolves were nothing but wild, unreasoning animals, forever trapped in the shape of monstrous beasts. Only upon death did they regain their humanity.

  Until, one fateful night many years after William’s downfall, he was born.

  Lucian.

  Chapter One

  Hungary

  The Thirteenth Century

  The werewolf whimpered in pain as its captors dragged it through the shadowy corridors of the underground dungeon. Silver barbs, embedded deep in the beast’s bleeding hide, were affixed to heavy iron chains that weighed down the werewolf’s shaggy black form; unlike their albino progenitor, William’s successors were covered with fur the color of midnight. Even with its massive head bowed in submission, the monster’s pointed ears brushed the low ceiling of the dungeon. Its clawed feet scraped against the dank stone floor as it staggered down the tunnel on its hind legs. Death Dealers, clad in gleaming black plate armor, tugged on the other ends of the chains, being careful to stay out of reach of their captive’s razor-sharp fangs and claws. The immense werewolf, more than eight feet tall, towered over the smaller vampires. Additional knights, armed with crossbows and silver truncheons, warily escorted the procession, in the event that the beast was not quite as cowed as it appeared. Too many Death Dealers had seen their immortality end beneath the slavering jaws of an enraged werewolf; no one wanted to take any unnecessary chances with this prisoner until it was safely locked away in its cell. Even a chained wolf could bite.

  Loathsome animal, Viktor thought. The regal Elder watched with satisfaction as his soldiers led the beast away Piercing azure eyes peered from his gaunt, clean-shaven face. Sandy blond hair receded from his lofty brow. An aquiline nose distinguished his patrician countenance. A black velvet robe with golden trim clothed his narrow frame. He looked to be roughly fifty by mortal standards, although, like most of the inhabitants of the castle, his true age was measured in centuries.

  Not for the first time, he pondered whether it was worth the risk to take these monsters alive. His alchemists and advisers insisted that they needed living specimens to experiment upon, in hopes of finding new means to combat their bestial enemies, but Viktor sometimes had his doubts as to whether their efforts were truly necessary. Fire and silver had always served the Death Dealers in the past. What more did they need to rid the world of these wretched beasts?

  “This way, sire.”

  A jailor gestured to the right, reminding the Elder of his errand here tonight. A bizarre story had reached his ears, one that frankly beggared belief, but which had seemed to demand his personal attention. With Marcus and Amelia presently hibernating beneath the earth, enjoying two centuries of interrupted slumber, Viktor was the sole Elder in command of the coven. As such, it was his solemn duty to investigate anything that might affect their eternal war with the werewolves—even if, in this case, he suspected he was wasting his time.

  Surely there must be some mistake, he thought. Such a thing is not possible.

  “Lead on,” he instructed the jailor.

  The club-footed turnkey, whose pasty complexion was even paler than an ordinary vampire’s, guided Viktor down a murky subterranean corridor. He held aloft a sputtering torch that did little to dispel the gloomy shadows shrouding the dungeon, while gripping a crossbow with his other hand. Heavy iron bars, reinforced with silver, guarded the dismal cells lining both sides of the passageway. Chains rattled as caged werewolves shuffled behind the sturdy bars. Low growls and angry snarls escaped the cells. Filthy straw littered the cold stone floors. Water dripped down clammy, slime-encrusted brick walls. Arcane runes were inscribed on the greenish-gray masonry. The fetid atmosphere reeked of sweat, piss, offal, and foul wolfen blood. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling. Rats and lizards scurried away from their approach.

  Vik
tor’s nose wrinkled in disgust. He seldom ventured into these noisome depths. “This had best not be an idle rumor,” he warned the lumbering jailor. “I have better things to do with my time than go prowling through this cesspool in search of a drunken hallucination.”

  “No, milord!” the jailor assured him fearfully. His voice quavered at the prospect of incurring the vindictive Elder’s wrath. He nervously licked his lips. “It’s true, I swear it upon my life!”

  We’ll see about that, Viktor thought darkly.

  They came to the mouth of a cavelike cell at the end of the corridor. A barred gate blocked their path. “Here, milord!” the jailor proclaimed. “You can hear for yourself!”

  He struck the bars with the stock of the crossbow, producing a harsh metallic ring. Annoyed snarls greeted the noise, along with something else. To Viktor’s amazement, the unmistakable cry of a newborn baby issued from within the cell before him. He exchanged a startled look with the jailor, who nodded in confirmation. After centuries of immortality, few things surprised the Elder anymore, but the inexplicable wailing left him speechless.

  No, he thought in disbelief. It cannot be….

  Shoving the jailor aside, he stepped forward and peered through the sturdy bars of the cell. The stygian darkness beyond strained even his vampiric vision, yet as he squinted into the gloom, he thought he perceived a small pink shape clutched to the bosom of a squatting female werewolf. The infant’s high-pitched squeal continued to echo through the subterranean recesses of the dungeon. The cries agitated the other werewolves, who barked and howled incessantly, raising an infernal racket that chafed at the Elder’s patience.

  “Open it,” Viktor demanded.

  The jailor hesitated. He seemed more afraid of his bestial charges than Viktor thought suitable. “Milord?”

  “Open it, I say!” He snatched the crossbow from the jailor’s trembling grip, barely resisting the urge to cuff the fool. The weapon fit comfortably within his hands, reminding Viktor of many a glorious battle. “And be quick about it!”

  “Yes, milord!”

  Depositing his torch into a nearby sconce, the jailor hurried to carry out the Elder’s command. He grunted with exertion as he drew back a tarnished silver-plated bolt. Rusty hinges that sounded as though they had not been employed in months screeched loudly as the barred gate swung open. Chains clanked inside the cell as the she-wolf lurched up from the floor. A warning growl escaped her throat. Her hackles rose. Glistening black lips drew back, baring her fangs. She crouched above the bawling infant… like a mother defending her young?

  Viktor could think of no other way to account for the baby’s presence in the cell. Yet that defied all reason; werewolves bred, certainly, but they gave birth only to primitive animals such as themselves. No she-wolf had ever whelped a human child.

  Until now.

  Raising the crossbow, he stepped warily into the cell. “Take care, milord!” the jailor cautioned, remaining safely outside in the corridor. The bitch barked furiously and tugged at her chain. If not for the riveted metal collar clamped around her neck, she would have gladly ripped him to shreds. Her cobalt eyes blazed with murderous fury.

  Viktor took the she-wolf’s show of aggression very seriously. He knew full well how dangerous a wild animal could be when guarding its young. Should his lady wife ever bear him a child, he intended to defend his own heir no less zealously.

  He took aim with the crossbow and squeezed the trigger. A silver-tipped bolt flew from the weapon, striking the werewolf directly between the eyes. She yelped in pain as the force of the shot knocked her backward against the far wall of the cell. Her mangy bulk collapsed against the straw-covered floor. She spasmed once before falling still and silent. Blood streamed from her sloping brow. Smoke rose from the silver arrowhead buried in her skull. The smell of burning hair and flesh added to the noxious atmosphere of the cell.

  The baby cried out in fear and longing.

  Was the beast truly dead? Viktor waited a moment or two, just in case the fallen creature was feigning death, until he saw her thick black pelt begin to recede into her mottled hide. The prone body of the werewolf contracted as much of her size and weight evaporated into the ether. The creature’s grotesque exterior melted away until only the naked body of a dead peasant woman remained, sprawled lifelessly amidst a spreading pool of blood.

  Viktor wasted not a moment mourning the she-wolf’s death. Slaughtering her kind had been his life’s work for centuries now. It was the infant that interested him. Lowering the crossbow, he crept farther into the cell, drawing near to the orphaned baby upon the floor. His probing azure eyes confirmed the staggering truth:

  A baby boy, completely human in appearance, wailed piteously at his feet.

  How can this be? Viktor marveled. He assumed that the bitch had been pregnant when captured, but that hardly explained why she had given birth to such a normal-looking infant. The child’s plump pink skin had been licked clean by its mother’s tongue. His toothless mouth shrieked to the heavens. He shook his tiny fists at the pensive vampire standing above him.

  Viktor wondered what manner of beast had sired the child upon the she-wolf. Alas, the identity of the father had died with the mother, not that the mindless creature could have ever communicated that knowledge, even if Viktor had spared her life. The circumstances of the baby’s conception were destined to remain a mystery forever.

  What mattered now was deciding what was to be done with the unnatural child. Viktor raised the crossbow once more. Every fiber of his being urged him to slay the infant immediately, before its very existence overturned the immutable laws by which their twilight world was governed. Who knew what dire consequence might result from the birth of this seeming abomination? Best to dispatch the child now, the same way he had disposed of his mother.

  He loaded another bolt into the crossbow and took aim at the baby’s head. His finger tightened on the trigger.

  And yet… the baby’s birth was a miracle of sorts, albeit of a dark and disturbing variety. And perhaps a miracle should not be taken lightly? Curiosity as to the child’s true nature and potential arose in Viktor’s mind. Perhaps there was an opportunity here, as well as risks? Why rush to judgment?

  I can always put the whelp to death later on if need be….

  For now, however, he chose to stay his hand. Putting the crossbow aside, he knelt and lifted the naked infant from the straw. The squirming newborn felt small and fragile within his arms. Innocent brown eyes peered up into Viktor’s own. A small pink fist gripped the Elder’s chin with surprising strength.

  He prayed that he was not making a dreadful mistake.

  Fifteen years later

  Castle Corvinus was carved into the very face of a craggy black peak rising high above the surrounding forests and countryside. Its forbidding turrets and battlements stabbed upward at the starry night sky. The light of myriad torches and lamps shone through the fortress’ lancet windows, making the isolated mountain stronghold appear to glow from within. Crimson pennants, the color of freshly spilled blood, streamed atop the watchtowers. Sculpted grotesques, in the shape of writhing plague victims, perched upon the eaves and ramparts. Flanking towers abutted the sturdy guardhouse defending the front gate. Armored Death Dealers patrolled the tops of the high gray walls, which were more than ten feet thick in places. Rectangular stone merlons jutted up from the parapet like a bottom row of teeth. Flying buttresses reinforced the walls. Massive siege crossbows the size of catapults were mounted upon the outer palisade. Steel harpoons more than ten feet long were loaded into the formidable weapons, which were also known as ballistas. Steel winches were required to draw back the bow arms.

  A slender youth, no more than fifteen years old, stood poised upon a parapet overlooking the drawbridge below. Dark brown hair fell past his shoulders. Coarse woolen clothing testified to his lowly status in the castle’s hierarchy. His dirty brown tunic and breeches were torn and frayed. Piercing brown eyes peered out from a handsome face
that had yet to require the touch of a razor. A brisk autumn wind rustled his unkempt locks. He gazed past the rampart at the precipitous thirty-foot drop before him.

  Don’t look down, Lucian thought.

  Despite his sage advice to himself, the young servant could not resist peering down from his elevated perch atop the castle’s outer walls. The drawbridge below looked impossibly far away. Any mortal man who attempted to leap from this height would be smashed to pieces for certain.

  Thankfully, Lucian was no mere mortal.

  I can do this, he thought. Lord Viktor expects me to.

  He took a deep breath to steady his nerves, closed his eyes, and stepped off the parapet. Gravity seized him and he plummeted downward at breathtaking speed. The night air rushed past him, roaring in his ears. His eyes snapped open in time to see the hard wooden floor of the drawbridge appear to surge up at him like a battering ram. His brief, inconsequential life raced before his eyes as he feared that he had fallen victim to some cruel joke on the part of his undead masters. Would it amuse Viktor and the others to see his brains splattered across the mountainside?

  Perhaps.

  It’s not fair! he despaired, only heartbeats before hitting the ground. I haven’t even begun to live yet!

  He braced himself for death, only to land nimbly upon the drawbridge in one piece. The impact didn’t even knock the breath from his body, let alone kill him. He glanced down at his intact flesh and blood in astonishment. He gasped in relief.

  I did it! he rejoiced. Just like Viktor promised!

  His jubilation was cut short, however, when three beefy ruffians emerged from the shadow of the castle’s high front gate. Lucian recognized the men as mortal laborers employed in the ongoing expansion of the fortress’ dungeons. Their unwashed hides had been baked brown by the sun, compared to the paler complexions of the castle’s more nocturnal inhabitants. Dried mortar splattered their filthy garments. Iron bludgeons in hand, they charged at the unarmed youth. Angry shouts and florid red faces made clear their hostile intentions. Their breaths reeked of strong spirits.

 
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