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01 underworld, p.1
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       01 - Underworld, p.1

           Greg Cox
01 - Underworld


  Underworld - 01

  Greg Cox

  (An Undead Scan v1.6)

  Chapter One

  Budapest was no stranger to war. Over the long, bloody centuries, the Hungarian capital had been captured and fought over by a succession of conquerors—Huns, Goths, Magyars, Turks, Hapsburgs, Nazis, and Soviets—before finally reclaiming its independence in the concluding decade of the twentieth century. But all these merely human conflicts were fleeting in comparison with the shadowy, ageless war now being fought in the moonlit streets and alleys of the ancient city.

  A war that, at long last, might be nearing its end.

  Driving rain pelted the rooftops, while the howling autumn wind carried a hint of winter’s bite. A grotesque stone gargoyle, oily black and slick with rain, perched on the crumbling ledge of the historic Klotild Palace, an imposing, five-story apartment block adorned by elaborate Spanish-Baroque stonework. The one-hundred-year-old edifice, whose ground floor now housed an art gallery, a cafe, and various stylish boutiques, overlooked Ferenciek Square, a busy hub of pedestrian and auto traffic located near the heart of central Pest. Buses, trolleys, and taxis zipped along the cobblestone streets below, braving the torrential downpour.

  Another figure crouched beside the petrified gargoyle, very nearly as still and silent: a beautiful woman, clad in lustrous black leather, with long, dark brown hair and alabaster skin. Heedless of both the storm and her own precarious roost upon the narrow ledge, she gazed grimly from the rooftop. Her striking chestnut eyes were fixed on the teeming streets beneath her, even as her somber thoughts looked back upon centuries of unremitting warfare.

  Could it truly be, Selene reflected, that the war is almost over? Her elegant face, as pale and lovely as the moon goddess after whom she was named, was a mask of coldblooded concentration, betraying no sign of the restless anxieties troubling her mind. It seems unthinkable, and yet…

  The enemy had been losing ground for nearly six centuries, ever since its crushing defeat back in 1409, when a daring assault team had penetrated the opposition’s hidden fortress in Moldavia. Lucian, the most feared and ruthless leader ever to rule the lycan horde, had been killed at last, his men scattered to the wind in a single evening of purifying flame and retribution. Yet the ancient blood feud had proved unwilling to follow Lucian to the grave. Though the lycans were fewer in number, the war had become even more perilous—for the moon no longer held her sway. Older, more powerful lycans were now able to change form at will, posing an even greater threat to Selene and her fellow Death Dealers. For close to six hundred years, the Dealers, an elite squad of vampire warriors, had pursued the surviving man-beasts, the weapons changing but never the tactics: hunt the lycans down, and kill them off, one by one. A most successful campaign.

  Perhaps too successful, she mused ruefully. The tail of her glossy black trench coat flapped in the wind as she leaned forward over the edge of the rooftop, defying gravity. A five-story plunge beckoned precipitously, but Selene’s mind still dwelt on the war and its potential aftermath. According to all their intel, obtained at great cost by undercover agents and paid human informants, the lycans were scattered and in disarray, their numbers scant and diminishing. After countless generations of brutal combat, it appeared the loathsome beasts finally had become an endangered species, a thought that filled Selene with profoundly mixed feelings.

  On one hand, she eagerly looked forward to exterminating the lycans once and for all; this was, after all, what she had lived for all these years. The world would be a better place when the carcass of the last savage man-beast was left rotting in the sun. And yet… Selene couldn’t help feeling a tremor of apprehension at the prospect of an end to her long crusade. For such as she, the final extinction of the lycans would signal the close of an era. Soon, like the discarded weapons of the previous centuries, she, too, would become obsolete.

  A pity, she thought, her tongue tracing the polished contours of her fangs. Tracking and killing lycans had been her only pleasure for ages, and she had come to love it dearly. What will I do when the war is over? the shapely vampire fretted, facing an eternity without purpose. What am I if not a Death Dealer?

  The icy rain sluiced down her face and form, forming sooty puddles on the ornate rooftop. The smoggy night air smelled of ozone, presaging thunderbolts to come. Selene ignored the fierce wind and rain, maintaining her stakeout upon the ledge. She searched intently for her prey, craving action to dispel the melancholy doubts haunting her mind. She glanced impatiently at the clock tower of the Klotild’s sister building, on the other side of busy Szabadsajto Avenue. It was a quarter to nine, the sun had been down for hours, so where the hell were those goddamn lycanthropes?

  The crowded sidewalks below were choked with umbrellas, obscuring her view of the pedestrians scurrying about in the rain, defying the storm from beneath their concealing bumbershoots. Selene clenched her fists in frustration, her sharpened nails digging into her ivory palms. Surveillance teams had reported definite lycan activity in this district, but she had yet to spot a single target. Where are you hiding, you bloody animals? she thought irritably.

  She began to fear that their prey had eluded them, that the wolf pack had decamped under the cover of daylight, seeking a more secluded lair elsewhere. Sadly, it would not be the first time a mangy pack of lycanthropes managed to relocate before the Death Dealers caught up with them.

  She shivered beneath her leathers, the inclement weather beginning to get to her despite her snug attire and intense resolve. It was tempting to give up and call it a night, but no, that was not an option. A look of stubborn determination came over her face as she shrugged off her momentary weakness. There were lycans abroad tonight, she knew it, and she wasn’t about to let them get away, even if it meant crouching in the rain until nearly sunrise.

  Her keen eyes searched the hectic streets below. At first, she spotted nothing suspicious. Then—wait! Over there! Her eyes narrowed as they zeroed in on two unsavory-looking individuals making their way down a crowded sidewalk. Eschewing umbrellas, the two men roughly weaved through the ambulatory throng, using jabbing elbows and surly glares to clear a path for themselves amidst the myriad other pedestrians abroad in the storm. Scuffed leather jackets protected the men from the worst of the wind and rain.

  An angry hiss escaped Selene’s pale red lips. Even in human form, the roving lycans filled her veins with hatred and revulsion. Their present shape could not deceive her; she knew full well that the two ruffians were not really people at all, just filthy animals masquerading as men.

  She recognized them at once from her intel briefings. The larger lycanthrope, some one-hundred-plus kilos of barely contained murderous intent, was known as Raze. Some of the analysts back at the mansion maintained that the muscular black lycan was now the alpha-male of the central European pack, while others speculated that some other lycan, as yet unidentified, outranked even Raze. Either way, the bald-headed bruiser struck Selene as a formidable opponent; she looked forward to filling him full of silver.

  His companion, a smaller lycan maybe eighty kilos in weight, was obviously a lesser specimen. He was Caucasian in appearance, with nervous, ratlike features and a head of untidy brown hair. Selene watched as Raze rudely shoved the other lycan, whose name was reputedly Trix, out of his way as the bullying lycan hurried down the congested sidewalk, intent on the Elders only knew what sort of barbaric mischief.

  Looking past the two lycans, trying to anticipate their destination, she found her eyes briefly snared by a good-looking young man trekking through the rain about half a block ahead of Raze and Trix. Ruggedly handsome, with light brown hair and a disarmingly scruffy fringe of whiskers, he was dressed casually in a windbreaker, dark pants, and sneakers. No umbr
ella shielded his slender person from the storm, and he hurried east with his hands cupped above his head. Something about his manner and bearing suggested to Selene that the attractive youth was an American. She felt a twinge of regret that she couldn’t get a closer look at his eyes.

  Never mind that! she scolded herself harshly, appalled that she had allowed the human to distract her from her mission, however momentarily. This was no time for boy watching, even if there were room in her life for romance, which there most certainly was not. She was a soldier, not a dreamy-eyed maiden or wanton seducer; her immortality had been given over to the crusade against the lycans, and killing werewolves was the only passion she indulged.

  And after the war? Once again, her misgivings about the future intruded upon her consciousness, mixed with the tantalizing possibilities of a brand-new existence. What then? But first, she reminded herself, there were still battles to be won—and lycans to be slain.

  Turning her attention back to Raze and Trix, Selene looked up to see if her fellow warriors had detected the two lycans as well. A smile of satisfaction lifted her lips as she saw that, atop a neo-Gothic office building on the other side of a dingy alley, Rigel already had his digital camera out and was busily taking snapshots of the unsuspecting pair below them. I should have known better than to doubt his alertness, she thought, pleased by the dashing vampire’s skill and professionalism. Rigel’s serene, angelic expression belied his effectiveness as a Death Dealer. He had killed more lycans personally than Selene readily could recall.

  Like her, the other vampire was perched like a gargoyle above the streets. The yowling wind made it impossible for Selene to hear Rigel’s camera at work, but she had no doubt that the expensive digital device was clicking away as Rigel took advantage of his lofty vantage point to capture several candid photos of their foes. Examining the photos afterward would help Selene confirm tonight’s kills.

  Assuming the hunt went well, of course. She knew better than to underestimate their lycan prey.

  Rigel lowered his camera, his surveillance work complete. Selene glimpsed his turquoise eyes shimmering in the moonlight. His slicked-backed hair and refined Slavic features lent him an (entirely unintentional) resemblance to a young Bela Lugosi, back when the legendary movie Dracula was still a matinee idol on the Hungarian stage. Rigel cocked his head like a bird of prey and peered across the lonely alley separating the two buildings, awaiting Selene’s signal to proceed.

  She didn’t even bother to check on Nathaniel, confident that the third vampire was equally ready, just as a Death Dealer should be. Turning her gaze downward, she watched in silence as the two lycans passed directly beneath her roost. They moved with deliberate purpose, seemingly unaware of the vampires’ presence. Selene wondered in passing what foul errand had drawn Raze and Trix from their hidden den.

  No matter, she concluded, tracking the disguised man-beasts with hate-filled eyes. The very sight of the vile creatures made her deathless heart beat faster, provoking an instinctive urge to wipe the voracious beasts off the face of the earth. Long-dead images flashed before her mind’s eye.

  Twin girls, no more than six years old, screaming in mortal terror. An older girl, on the verge of womanhood, her throat savagely torn open. A silver-haired man in antiquated attire, his skull cracked open to reveal the pulped gray matter of his brain. A cozy parlor, its sheltering walls liberally splattered with gore. Mutilated bodies and limbs, once belonging to deeply cherished souls, ripped asunder and cast aside like crimson flower petals…

  Unhealed wounds bled afresh deep within Selene’s core. Her fingers rested on the cold metal grips of the twin automatic pistols holstered beneath her trench coat, and she glared in silent fury at Raze and his skulking accomplice. The lycans’ intentions were of no consequence tonight, she resolved. Their plans were about to be canceled—permanently.

  More than twenty meters below, Selene’s quarry loped down the block. They splashed carelessly through greasy puddles as they elbowed their way east onto Ferenciek Square. Holding her breath in anticipation, she waited a beat, then flashed a silent hand signal to her waiting comrades in arms. Without a moment’s qualm, she stepped confidently off the ledge.

  Like a leather-clad specter, she plummeted a full five stories toward the stony, unyielding floor of the alley. The death-defying fall almost certainly would have killed a mortal woman, or at the very least left her broken and bleeding upon the pavement, yet Selene landed with the nimble elegance of a jaguar, so inhumanly smooth and graceful that she appeared to be striding briskly away before her black leather boots even touched down upon the rain-swept cobblestones.

  She was thankful that the punishing weather had cleared this particular side street of humanity, unlike the busier thoroughfares nearby. No startled eyes, human or otherwise, witnessed Selene’s preternatural descent or heard the stealthy rustle of wet leather that heralded Rigel’s appearance from around the corner. Selene acknowledged the other vampire’s presence with the merest nod of her head, then looked up as Nathaniel—a pale-skinned apparition with a mane of flowing black hair—dropped onto the cobblestones from above, falling in behind the other two Death Dealers.

  A trio of steely-eyed killers, more superlatively lethal than any merely human assassins, Selene and her deadly comrades melted into the crowd on Szabadsajto Avenue. Remaining far less conspicuous than their more ill-mannered prey, they expertly shadowed the two lycans, neither of whom displayed any sign that he was aware of their pursuers. Just as it should be, Selene thought, smiling in expectation of the slaughter to come. The comforting weight of her 9mm Beretta pistols rested securely against her hips.

  The bustling city square, packed with innocent human bystanders, was obviously no place to stage an ambush, but she felt positive that an ideal opportunity would present itself if they just followed the lycans long enough. With any luck, they’ll be dead before they even know they’re under attack!

  Downtown Pest, as opposed to palatial Buda on the other side of the Danube, was a thriving urban center equipped with all the amenities of modern life. Smoky espresso bars and Internet cafes looked out onto Ferenciek Square, named after an eighteenth-century Transylvanian prince. Bright yellow boxes, housing state-of-the-art computer terminals, squatted on the street corners, providing automated information and directions for both tourists and residents alike. The high-tech guides coexisted with red public post boxes and closely monitored parking meters.

  Selene saw Raze furtively glance back over his shoulder and ducked behind the welcome cover of a tall green telephone box. Luckily, the wary lycan did not seem to have spotted her and promptly continued on his way.

  A lighted sign, flaunting a large blue M against a white background, caught her eye. From the looks of it, Raze and Trix were navigating toward the sign, which indicated an entrance to a Metro station beneath the square. Of course, she realized; the prowling lycans were doubtless heading for the Underground, to catch the M3 line to parts unknown.

  This did not concern her overmuch. Having finally sighted two promising targets, she was hardly going to let them elude her so easily. Selene signaled her companions, pointing out the Metro stations assorted entrances and exits, and the three vampires dispersed noiselessly, blending into the churning sea of umbrellas like ethereal beings composed of nothing but insubstantial shadows and rain…

  Chapter Two

  Shit! Michael Corvin thought as he dashed for the Metro entrance, holding his hands above his head in a futile effort to keep from being soaked entirely by the nocturnal deluge. The young American kicked himself mentally for forgetting his umbrella back at his tiny apartment. Just my luck we had to get the storm of the century, he thought, shaking his head in good-natured bemusement. His light brown hair was plastered to his scalp, and a trickle of cold rainwater leaked beneath the collar of his nylon windbreaker to send an ice-cold shiver down the entire length of his spine. The night’s already off to a bad start, and I haven’t even made it to work yet!

nbsp; He glanced at his (thank God!) waterproof wristwatch. If he hurried, he could still make it to the hospital in time for his nine o’clock shift, assuming the subways were running on schedule. Then he only had to survive nine-plus hours in the ER before venturing out into the open again. Probably still be raining then, too, he figured.

  A gibbous moon peeked through the massed black storm clouds overhead. Michael grimaced at the sight of the moon—and the thought of the long hours ahead. He wasn’t looking forward to tonight’s shift; the casualty ward always got crazier as the full moon approached, and the swollen yellow disk in the sky was only a sliver away from full.

  Times like this, he couldn’t help wondering if moving to Hungary had been such a good idea…

  His sneakers overflowing with water, he sloshed over to the steps leading to the subway station. “Bejarat,” read the metal sign posted above the stairs, much to Michael’s relief. “Entrance” and “Exit” (“Kijarat”) were two of the first words he had learned upon arriving in Budapest months ago, along with the Hungarian equivalents of “Do you speak English?” (“Beszel angolul?”) and “I don’t understand” (“Nem ertem”).

  He was thankful his Hungarian had improved since then.

  To his frustration, the concrete archway at the bottom of the steps was clotted by a swarm of damp Hungarians fumbling with their umbrellas, which forced him to spend several more seconds in the pouring rain. By the time he finally reached the shelter of the station itself, he looked and felt like a drowned rat. Oh, well, he thought, trying to maintain a sense of humor about the whole situation. If I wanted to be dry all the time, I should have looked for a residency in the Sahara!

  Although Budapest had boasted the first underground Metro system on the Continent, constructed in 1894, the blue M3 line had been in operation only since the 1970s. As a result, the Ferenciek Square Station was sleek and modern looking, with spotless tile floors and pristine, graffiti-free walls. Michael fished a pale blue ticket (good for thirty days) out of his pocket and franked it in the machine in front of the nearest turnstile. A puddle formed beneath him as gravity did its best to dry him.

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