Vampire hero Richard Dun, once called Lancelot, is back in the latest book in this exciting, critically acclaimed fantasy series by award-winning actor Nigel Bennett and award-winning writer P.N. Elrod. An old enemy from Richard's past, Charon the Assassin, returns and is literally hell-bent on bloody revenge. He's acquired deadly new powers that are annihilating the nebulous plane of Otherside and threaten the very existence of the Realside plane. Unless balance is restored both will be destroyed. From the sultry Yucatan forests to the chill green fields of ancient Glastonbury, Richard Dun marshals his mortal and immortal allies for a fight that will span dimensions and centuries of time. He is no stranger at battling to the death, but how can one earth-bound vampire stand up to a being able to destroy the gods themselves?
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By Nigel Bennett P. N. Elrod
Baen BooksCopyright © 2004 Bill Fawcett and Associates
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChichén Itzá, Winter, the Present
Sharon Geary crept unsteadily up two dozen of the ninety steps leading to the top of El Castillo, her supposedly fit and toned muscles already cramping from monotonous effort, her lungs fighting for every breath of the thick, still air.
Something doesn't want me here, she thought.
Apart from supernatural factors, she considered the supreme lack of wisdom in scaling a pyramid at any time, but particularly now, in the dead of night.
Not my choice. His. She'd lost sight of Neal Rivers hours ago when the sun was strong, while tourists swarmed, oblivious to his threat beneath its glare. No matter. She knew he was not likely to leave until he'd accomplished his errand.
Errand, indeed. She repressed a snort, using the energy to haul up another few steps, legs pushing, arms pulling. God, but the angle was steep, and you didn't dare look down or the sharp pitch would make you dizzy. You didn't dare look out across the vast esplanade below or the height would...
Shouldn't think too much. Shouldn't think about it at all. She hated heights. Airplanes were not a problem, and just as well, but to be on something tall that was so solidly connected to the ground gave her a sick-making sight line straight to disaster. Better not to look.
Sharon paused to rest, reminding herself that thousands of sightseers made this climb and were no worse for the wear. And long before their chattering, guidebook-oriented, camera-toting modern-times invasion the ancient priests of the Mayans had done exactly the same. The show-off buggers had probably clambered the harsh steps at all hours of the day or night, nimble as mountain goats. Well, if they could do it-
She perversely counted steps. It both distracted and annoyed her, ideal factors to keep her moving and from wondering too much about what awaited at the top.
Oh, but wonderful old Stonehenge was a much easier tour. Flat. Not as exhausting, not nearly as perilous.
Well... not precisely. That had been a different kind of peril, more hidden than the obvious threat here of taking a bone-breaking tumble. When she'd seen Rivers' work at the Henge, seen what he'd done to it, what he'd left of it, the physical risk she courted now was negligible. Compared to some things, it was wholly preferable.
She whooped in a viscous draught of the heavy air and gained another few feet. God, it was like moving against the wind, only there was none stirring to cool her. The stones were still warm from the day's sun, the heat working through her bare hands into her arms, weighing them down. Sharon ignored the added burden and the sweat pouring from her and kept going, up and up and up.
Forty-four, forty-five... there. The halfway point, that wasn't so bad. People handed over fortunes to posh gyms to get this sort of workout. Wasn't she the lucky one?
Forty-six, forty-seven. No reason to turn back; she'd finish it out for sure now. Have a little rest at the top, find out how and why the bastard does it, but above all stop him. Oh-very important-try to forget about the increasing distance to the ground. What was it to the top? Seventy-five or eighty feet? That wasn't much, no, not when one was inside a building. Outside it's a whole different perception of vertical distance. And was it the actual height of the structure or the measure of the length of the steps set into its slanted sides? The guide books she read on the plane flight from London hadn't been consistent, nor had they mentioned just how difficult a climb it would be.
But they all agreed it was ninety steps times four sides, with the top being ninety-one, a nice, tidy Mayan year. Imagine building this great bloody thing just to keep track of the planting season. Combine the stifling heat here-even in the winter-with the hangover humidity that was part and parcel with the surrounding jungle and she wondered why a sane person would want to raise so much as a lean-to in such a climate, much less anything so massive. Simply climbing the thing was intense, exhausting work, what must it have been like to build under such conditions? Sharon didn't want to visualize that depth of detail. Too humbling.
Fifty-seven, fifty-eight. The backs of her thighs and calves burned. Oh, yes, she was now the pride of every aerobics instructor and film star who had ever put out a keep-fit video. They were always fresh and bouncy in their skin-tight costumes and perfect hair, not a hint of damp about them. Sharon would have been driven in disgrace from the video set in her faded black T-shirt, baggy-kneed, sweat-crumpled army surplus BDU pants and sturdy combat boots. Hardly Hollywood chic, but very practical for hanging about in jungles, particularly with the green camouflage pattern. The Yanks weren't using this style anymore for their active military, but it still worked well for concealment. She'd not expected to have to hide, but had come prepared. Just in case.
Earlier that day she'd drifted in with a tourist group, moving at their speed, but searching for himin the other groups. Futilely, as it happened.
Neal Rivers-the name by which she knew him; he had others-should have been easy to spot with his crooked arm and the eye patch, but a number of men matching his general build were clad in loose, long-sleeved shirts and sunglasses. And hats. Everyone sensible wore a hat against the sun. Certainly she'd kept hers on to conceal her too-memorable mane of red hair. She'd never had direct contact with him, but he might wonder at seeing the same tall redhead so soon after his gutting of the Henge.
She'd slipped from the main swarm of vacationers to pick a hiding place within the trees and settled in to wait for nightfall. If he repeated what he'd done at Salisbury, he would want darkness.
Except for the stifling heat and keeping an eye out for snakes and unfriendly insects, she'd been almost comfortable with her spare canteens of water and protein bars. The hours until sunset had gone slowly, but she could be patient for a sufficiently worthwhile goal. From cover she searched the knots of wandering tourists with her field glasses for a recognizable if unsettling face and form.
And finally spotted him.
He'd been at the northeastern foot of El Castillo, standing disrespectfully close to one of the carved stone snake heads at the base of the steps. During the equinoxes, when the sun was right, angled shadows cast from the main body of the pyramid onto the outside wall of the steps created the illusion of the serpent god's undulating back as it descended from the top. Quite an impressive slow-motion show it was, too; must have pulled in droves of worshipers, same as today.
Rivers stood nose-to-snout with Kukulcan's head, almost as though speaking to it, which was ridiculous. Perhaps he'd made faces. She'd heard that sort of cheek was to be expected from him.
Then he abruptly straightened, turned in her direction, and for a few awful seconds seemed to look straight down through her field glasses into her soul. At such a distance he couldn't possibly see her, but it was startling enough to make her jump. By the time she refocused, he'd vanished into the mob and never showed again for the remainder of the day or during the after-dark light show. Quite inconsiderate of him to be sure.
No matter. Though he was out of sight, she felt his presence. Very odd, that. This particular quarry was dangerous, far more so than any other she'd ever gone after, and on levels well beyond the ordinary.
His touch was cold, the only hint of chill possible in this climate, and rather than sensed as a freezing whisper on her skin, she felt it in her heart and beyond. It went down to the marrow, that feeling. Sharon took it to be a serious warning and gave it her most strict and unsmiling attention.
She never used to trust in such insubstantialities. That eccentricity began only after the business with Richard Dun, her one-time friend and lover.
And teacher. In his own way. He'd opened other doors for her besides the one to his bedroom. Not on purpose, that had happened simply by being with him.
Sixty-five, sixty-six... keep going...
You'd think there'd be some wind by now. But the night sky was stingy even at this height. Or holding its breath? She could believe it. In the last few years she'd come to believe in quite a number of extremely improbable things.
It was all Richard's fault, of course.
Well... not completely. He'd been more of a catalyst than an instigator. It was as though contact with him had awakened a strange insight in her. Sharon had always had intuition a-plenty, combined with boundless common sense, but nothing like this. It was right out of her gram's stories of the women in their family having the Sight. The old lady did possess one hell of a sharp shrewdness about people, though. She'd always been able to tell truth from a lie, know when someone was in pain or happy, and whether it would be a boy or a girl long before the mother knew she was expecting. Both blessing and curse, Gram had said, mind how you wear it.
Sharon thought the idea quaint, a way of making an old tale more interesting. What a shock it had been the day she first noticed auras on people. They were exactly as Gram described, so it wasn't too terribly frightening. Took a bit of getting used to, that, but Sharon had adapted with curious quickness. It was as though she'd always held the potential within and only just needed to be reminded to make use of it.
He had brought it out. Unknowingly. Richard. A very pleasant distraction she'd chosen not to linger with for long. He'd asked her to stay with him having freely confessed-wonder of wonders in a modern man-that he was in love with her. She believed him, but weeks before their parting she'd determined she would have to eventually move on.
Sharon tried to let him off as gently as possible, putting on a bravado face mixed with tenderness and giving him her "itchy feet" speech. Richard wasn't the first man who'd ever wanted to settle down with her, so the words came easily and smoothly, but with a hollow tone to them. They'd sounded so painfully brittle and false and overly rehearsed in her own ears. She half expected him to tell her to shut up and come out with the real explanation, but he'd quietly bowed to her reason to leave. No denials, no anger, no demands, no insisting that she reconsider, no offers of a home and security and true-blue hearts-and-flowers devotion for life... just sad disappointment. And acceptance. That was the amazing part of it. He accepted her decision and off she went.
She'd finally met a man who understood her need for freedom and by the time she comprehended the rarity of that quality it was too late to go back to him. She boarded the plane and returned to her previous existence, giving herself a wobbly inner congratulation of having made a successful escape.
A rather narrow escape. He was one hell of a man, after all.
But no regrets she'd told herself. Richard was a warm and happy pause in her life, nothing more. If they ever met again, they would still be friends, and, if he was still available, perhaps again become lovers. For a time. Always and only for a time. She neither needed nor desired anything permanent. "Wandering Star," her Irish gram had pronounced over her more than once, smiling.
It was only after Sharon had left Richard that she came to realize his crashing and unexpected impact on her life. That little adventure they'd shared had changed her. Seeing auras wasn't the half of it.
After auras on people, she began to see them associated with places. It took a bit of practice and study to sort out the accumulation of colors, feelings, and even shapes. Some were terrifying, while others were a delight. That spot in Canterbury Cathedral where Thomas á Becket had been cut down-nasty place, all muddy black and blood red, but then there was that lovely shining glow around the main altar, as though in some way they balanced each other out.
So she'd taken to visiting other historical sites, reading the truth of messages absorbed by earth, brick, stone, and wood, seeing the feelings left behind by thousands of others. She liked the holy sites the best; it didn't matter what religion, they all had something going for them, like... well, like different flavors of ice cream. She wanted to sample them all.
Then toward dusk only yesterday she'd gone to Stonehenge on a whim. She'd been there before, drinking gratefully from its energy, and finding comfort in its ancient strength. Having finished up a minor problem for Lloyd's of London ahead of schedule she could spare the time from her freelancing to loaf. It was on her route back, so why not? She pulled off the A303 into the car park and walked in with other late arrivals to the monument, her inner senses open and receptive.
But she'd found something was happening there, a wrong kind of something. The sonorous visual music coming from the ancient stones competed with a powerful instrument playing determinedly out of tune. An alien element had been introduced into their chorus that made her skin crawl. She first took it to be a weather problem, having seen similar disturbances before, but soon concluded this was nothing to do with the voice of wind and cloud over the land. There was a specific source to the problem, which she eventually tracked to one of the lingering tourists, a stockily built balding man standing casually next to a Saracen stone. His hair, combed straight back from his high brow, was shot through with gray and not a few streaks of pure white, the same as his beard and moustache.
His black eye patch and the scars under it were the most immediately noticeable differences setting him apart from the crowd. Then she noticed his crooked right arm, as though it had been badly broken and never properly set. The shape of the twisted bone showed through the sweater he wore.
That's what tripped her memory. She'd never seen him, but knew him from Richard Dun's description. The man could only be Neal Rivers, professor, an expert on Arthurian legend-the Holy Grail in particular-and when going by the name of Charon, one of the most successful and deadly assassins on the planet. He'd spooked even the mostly unflappable Richard, which was saying a lot.
Rivers in person was quite a few steps beyond what she'd heard about him. The impact of his presence was extraordinary to her changed senses. He wore human form like a disguise. It concealed the truth from the unaware.
Excerpted from Siege Perilous by Nigel Bennett P. N. Elrod Copyright © 2004 by Bill Fawcett and Associates. Excerpted by permission.
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