"No, he promised never to hurt anyone I cared about unless that person attacked him or his people. You're doing neither."
"I bet he'll make an exception," he muttered as I fishtailed a little on my turn off the highway. The road must be icy. Couldn't be me taking the turn too fast.
Rend's gloves combined with Marty not having his usual modifications to reach the pedals meant that I had to drive. I'd avoided learning in the past because I could never get a license with my electricity issues, but having people's lives on the line made for great motivation.
"You'll get pulled over," Marty warned when I roared past the other traffic.
"Then you'll mesmerize the cop into letting me go. You're not going to talk me out of this, so quit trying."
"I should make you drop me off at an airport and take the first flight back to Florida," he grumbled under his breath.
I flashed a look at him before turning my attention back to the road. "You want me to do this without you? Say the word."
"Over my dead body" was his instant reply, followed by a muttered "It's the off season for performing, anyway. Slow down or you'll miss the turn."
I slowed, taking the street that led to Castle Poenari. Once we were off the main road, streetlights became scarce until it seemed like the darkness had swallowed us. The narrow lane, tall trees, and steep terrain all seemed to advise against going forward, but I kept my foot on the gas. The ominous atmosphere worked to our benefit. By day, Castle Poenari would be populated by tourists, but this late at night, I doubted anyone would be there except Szilagyi and his men, burrowed in rooms they'd dug out before Bram Stoker penned the first words of Dracula.
"Tell me when we've gotten close enough."
We couldn't drive right up to the castle. For one, the cliff it was located on meant that visitors had to walk over a thousand steps up the mountain to reach it. For another, we didn't want to announce our presence to Szilagyi. Yet.
After about thirty minutes, Marty said, "Pull over." I did-right into a ditch, from the way the front end tipped.
"It's not my fault," I protested before he could say anything. "I couldn't see what was there with all the snow!"
I thought I heard him grumble "Women drivers" under his breath. Then he met my gaze and his eyes turned green.
"You ready, kid?"
"Yeah," I said, soft but emphatic.
Without another word, he took one of Rend's knives and cut his palm, holding it out to me. Equally quiet, I grasped it and swallowed the dark crimson liquid. As soon as I did, that weak pulse of power inside me began to flare.
We made only one stop on our way here; a gas station where I used the money in Rend's wallet to fill the tank and Marty refilled another way from two employees and a motorist. None of them remembered it afterward and Marty's cheeks were downright ruddy once he was done. He knew he'd need extra for me.
Marty cut his palm twice more. I knew I'd had enough when that harsh taste began to sweeten and my skin itched from the currents pulsating through me. My weariness vanished, replaced with an exhilarating mixture of nerves and purpose.
I pulled my right glove off and then wiped my mouth. Barely any red stained my hand when I looked at it.
"Let's do this," I said, and left the warm interior of the car for the cold, snowy darkness.
Castle Poenari sat at the top of a cliff, as silent and imposing as a great stone dragon. From my vantage point, it looked as though its steep walls sprouted from the sheer rock face by magic. Only one narrow road wound its way through the valley. Reaching the castle required a vertical climb where one wrong step could have disastrous results. Building it before the time of bulldozers or machinery must have been an undertaking of unimaginable proportions. Even with most of it in ruins, what remained still held the power to impress . . . and intimidate.
This was where Vlad had lived before he was a vampire. He'd overseen the castle's restoration and fought in the vast forest surrounding it when he'd been as fragile as any mortal man. Of course, even back then his fierceness had been legendary. Maybe that was what had intrigued the vampire Tenoch enough to find him and change him. I'd never know. Vlad said that Tenoch had killed himself soon afterward. I hoped it wasn't from regret over making Vlad as close to immortal as a person could be.
Far below the house was the Arges River. This was where Vlad had pulled his wife's lifeless body from centuries ago, that event changing him as decisively as becoming a vampire had. But I wasn't here on a sightseeing trip, or even to trace my hand over stones that contained more knowledge about Vlad than all the historical or fictional books written about him combined. I was here because between the river and his former house, hidden by trees and jagged rocks, was the entrance to an escape tunnel.
They say revenge is a dish best served cold. If so, Szilagyi had spent centuries piling on the ice before he'd acted, and he made sure to have a way out if Vlad ever did discover his underground nest. Rend's memories also showed that only a handful of Szi-lagyi's men knew the tunnel existed. Because of this, he wouldn't have multiple vampires guarding it.
Marty and I crept around the side of the mountain. I should've been nearly blind with the dense woods blocking out most of the moonlight, but I wasn't. Vampire blood sharpened my strength and senses, making me able to pick my way through the rough terrain while seeing, hearing, and smelling things with clarity I'd never before experienced. Through Rend's memories, I knew where to go as if he'd drawn me a map. I led the way, Marty following close behind. We didn't have much time. All was quiet now, but Vlad was coming, and he'd tear this whole mountain down to get to Szilagyi if that's what it took.
That was fine, as long as I did what I came for first.
Marty sniffed deeply. "Rend was here, I can smell him," he whispered.
I inhaled, too, but the forest was so rich with scents that my newly sensitive nose couldn't determine a particular person's olfactory calling card.
"Anyone else?" I whispered back, glancing at him.
"Yeah. Both of them came through here, too."
He meant Maximus and Shrapnel, the only ones I'd seen who had survived the attack. After all, Szilagyi couldn't hustle two harpooned vampires into his lair in full view of Castle Poenari's tourists, and he would've been too impatient to wait until dark to start interrogating them.
I started upward again, waving Marty forward. After another fifteen minutes of climbing, I held my hand up in the universal gesture for stop. Then I crouched down, squinting.
There. The huge broken boulder marked the entrance to the tunnel. I couldn't see it from the thick bushes and felled tree trunk, but that was the point. If it could be easily seen, it wouldn't be effective.