With a gruff nod he started down the hallway. Time to wake Blade. This was no longer something for one man to deal with.
“You ought ‘ave told me sooner.”
The same words he’d heard Blade repeat for the last hour. Rip’s jaw tightened as he bent low and heaved the sewer grate out of the cobbles, his biceps straining. “Thought I could ‘andle it.”
And he hadn’t been able to, after all.
Blade put both hands on either side of the open grate and dropped his body through. Leaning the grate covering against the wall, Rip knelt and followed him. Darkness swallowed him whole as he landed with a splash.
Undertown was a rabbit Warren of tunnels and boarded up rooms carved into the world below the East End. Once an attempt to push the underground train lines into the East, the scheme had collapsed with the tunnels. Nearly two hundred workers had died in the shadowy depths, trapped beneath rubble or buried alive in the small niches of tunnel still open.
Rumour said the tunnels were haunted, but that didn’t stop the poor or the homeless from moving in. Or the Slasher gangs.
However this sewer was empty of everything but rats. They skittered in the dark, their frantic hearts beating loudly in the stillness as Rip splashed along in Blade’s wake.
Blade paused at an intersection, faint light streaming through from a grate above. Shadowy bands crossed his closed eyes as he scented the air. “This way,” he said, turning with unerring focus to the left. “I can smell the blood.”
The stench of the sewers killed any hints of blood that Rip could smell, but then, Blade had nearly fifty years of being a blue blood. And his virus count was much higher; dangerously high in fact. As such, his senses were almost as refined as Will’s.
“Lemme go first,” Rip said, pushing past. Old habits died hard and he’d been too long Blade’s bodyguard not to be cautious.
As he followed the tunnel, he finally caught a hint of copper. Blood. They’d tracked the trail from Meggie’s house. Someone – most likely Annie – was bleeding. Not heavily though. He could almost imagine the odd drop of crimson splashing into the murky water, diluting instantly.
At least she’d still be alive. She had to be. The Slashers needed her blood flowing through her veins to extract it properly. Blue bloods refused to drink what they called ‘stale blood’. Or deadman’s drink, in the vernacular.
“Wanted to ask you what’s goin’ on with Esme,” Blade said suddenly.
Rip’s shoulders tensed and he paused, glancing back over his shoulder. “What do you mean?”
Blade sloshed past, as if his words hadn’t thrown the cat amongst the pigeons. “She’s been off-colour lately. Thought you might ‘ave some idea as to why, seein’ how close you two been. Why?” Blade glanced back. “You two ‘ad a fight?”
Rip wasn’t fooled by his master’s relaxed stance. The one thing Blade took extremely seriously was the health and happiness of those he considered under his protection.
Still… if there was one person who might know what the hell was going on, it was Blade. Rip’s experience of women was limited to sex. He let out a rough sigh and followed. “Don’t know,” he admitted. “She ain’t ‘appy with me at the moment.” The kiss suddenly sprang to mind and he was glad Blade wouldn’t see the hot flush that swept his cheeks.
“You said somethin’?” Deceptively casual.
“Nothin’ I know of.” A pause. Then, “She got it in ‘er ‘ead I meant ‘er to be me thrall. I tried to set ‘er straight but she took it wrong.”
“You don’t want that?”
“Jaysus,” Rip swore. “No. I don’t know—We’re friends. Don’t want nothin’ comin’ between that.” He swallowed hard. “You know what it’s like, the ‘unger. Don’t want to scare ‘er, to ‘urt ‘er.” Another curse under his breath. “It ain’t just the blood lust. Don’t want Esme thinkin’ I expect more. Thinkin’ she ‘as to give me ‘er flesh rights.”
“What if she wants to be your thrall?”
Rip laughed under his breath, an incredulous sound. “Aye. Just what every woman dreams of.”
“You undervalue yourself.”
“No. I don’t. Know what people see when they look at me.” A fierce giant of a man with a devilish temper when roused. He’d encouraged it.
“Course they do. That’s the problem with forgin’ a reputation in our line o’ work. Don’t know you, do they?” Blade asked. “But Esme does. Don’t insult ‘er by stickin’ ‘er with that bunch o’ fools.”
Rip splashed along, the leather of his boots damp and miserable. Why had she kissed him? Could Blade be right?
“She said anythin’?” he asked suddenly. “To you?”
“Ain’t ‘ad much time to get ‘er alone lately,” Blade replied. “Can see she’s upset though. You two actin’ like a pair o’ stray dogs, thrown in a room together.”
“We’ll work it out.” He hoped.
“Aye.” Blade paused, cocking his head to listen. “’Ear that?”
Eerie laughter suddenly echoed through the tunnels. Rip’s hand found the familiar leather hilt of his hunting knife as he waded to Blade’s side. “They know we’re ‘ere?”
“Aye.” Blade’s expression tightened. “Let’s go greet ‘em.”
There was a hole in the wall of the sewers, rubble spilling into the water. An iron ladder led into the darkness below. Rip peered through. Could be anything waiting. As Blade moved, he caught his arm.
“Lemme go first.”
“Expect anythin’,” Blade said with a curt nod.
Rip stepped through into the opening. The ladder vanished down what looked like an old air vent. Below he could see fan blades slowly circling. Bending his knees, he leapt out into the darkness, air whipping past him as he dropped.
Landing in the middle of the fan, he knelt low to absorb the shock, his eyes adjusting to the dim light that streamed from the open vent above. The fan blades had once been dull but now sharp edges gleamed as they circled below him. Rust coloured stains edged them.
Another crude opening had been hacked into the wall. This was a part of Undertown he’d never explored. Close to where the original underground train tunnel had collapsed.
“Careful,” he called.
Blade landed beside him, the tails of his leather coat slapping the backs of his thighs. Rip steadied him and nodded at the hole in the wall.
“Looks like someone missed.” Blade noticed the bloodstains.
“Unless they were thrown.” Rip shouldered through the small tunnel.
Just big enough for him. It left him at a disadvantage, for he could barely swing his arm, let alone a knife. By the time he reached the end, he’d have been sweating if a blue blood could.
Light beckoned ahead. The narrow tunnel opened into an enormous cavern of shadows. From the slight breeze, it must have gone a fair ways. As his eyes adjusted, Rip saw the train platform stretching into the distance.
One of the abandoned stations that had once been carved beneath London. No doubt the tunnel he’d just come through had been hacked out by someone of an enterprising nature, trying to unearth their own little hidey-hole in the caved-in sections.
Movement shifted. Rip stiffened as a man stepped out of the darkness, dragging a young woman in a stained gray gown. Dusty red curls tumbled over her dirt-marred forehead and her eyes were glazed with pain and horror as the man sank a hand into her hair and yanked her throat back.
“Come on out, little rats. I see you,” the man called, taking a sniff of the stale air. “I smell you.”
Tall enough to fill out the brown coat he wore. Rip examined him ruthlessly. Whoever he was, this man knew how to fight – and dirty. The fingertips had been cut from his gloves, but razor blades gleamed over his last knuckles, where’d he’d cut them through the leather. Land a punch with them and they’d tear a man to shreds.
A cap covered his hair, his cheeks gaunt and dirty, though the way he stood – as if he were king of this lair and they supplicants – gave Rip some idea of his character.
Behind him, Slashers crept out of the shadows, crawling low on hands and knees as they fanned out. Armed with an assortment of knives and bludgeons, they bared teeth and snarled in Rip’s direction.
“You afraid o’ Bloody Bill ‘iggins?” the leader called. “You ‘eard o’ ‘im, ain’t you? ‘Eard what he can do--”
“Can’t say rightly that I ‘ave,” Rip called. “Slashers come. Slashers go.” A shrug. “They all bleed the same colour in the end.”
Higgins’s smile died. “You’ll know me fuckin’ name by the end o’ this. I’ll carve it in your bloody forehead.”
Behind him, Rip could hear Blade fanning out in the other direction.
“All this,” Blade called, “just to get me attention? Should ‘ave just left your callin’ card. I mighta gotten round to you. In the end.”
A knife came up, pressing against Annie’s throat. Higgins dragged her back against his chest, hissing through his teeth as she gasped. “That were me callin’ card. Thought you’d like the blood.”
Rip stilled, shooting Blade a look. The man was on edge. Mock him too much and he’d cut her throat just to taunt them.
“So what d’you want?” Rip called. “Why the games?”
“I want the ‘Chapel.”
Blade laughed. “She’d eat you alive, boy-o.”
The knife cut just enough to break Annie’s skin. “Please,” she whispered.
“Let ‘er go,” Rip called, taking a step closer. “She got no part in this.”
Higgins pressed his lips to her cheek, never taking his eyes off the pair of them. “She’s the bait. The good times. The fun.” Shutting his eyes for a second, he rubbed his cheek against hers, as if smelling her. A long trickle of blood slid down the muscle of her throat and pooled in her collarbone. Higgins licked it. “You ever drained a lass? They fight it at first. Kickin’ and screamin’… Then you see ‘em startin’ to get sleepy as the blood drips.” Looking up, he smiled. “You cravers think you own the world, but you’re afraid o it, afraid o’ the power. You could drain the world dry and they’d not be able to say nay, but you don’t. Keepin’ your thralls alive. Takin’ sips when you ought to tear a lass’s god-damned throat open.” A mad light came into his eyes. “I’d make a better blue blood than all o’ you.”
“You want to be a blue blood?” Rip snarled. “Then come and get me blood.”
“Nah. Want you to put your weapons on the ground and kick ‘em over. Slow like. Then I’ll take what I want.”
Rip didn’t even look to see what his master was doing. He held up the two hunting knives strapped to his thighs and dropped them, listening to the metallic ping. A pair of brass knuckles followed, then the longer knife he wore sheathed down his spine.
Kicking them over, he waited as Blade did the same.
All they needed to do was wait for the moment Higgins let Annie go. She was all that stayed his hand.
His gaze slid to her throat and the slow drip of blood there. Rip fought the urge to swallow. Whispers of darkness blurred his vision for a moment. Hunger.
Think of Meggie. Think of bringing her mother home to her.
“That’s the way.” Higgins smiled and gestured to his men.
They crawled forward and snatched the assortment of weapons. Blade was still stripping knives out of his boots and leather waistcoat. Near on a half dozen of them.
Fools. Neither he nor Blade needed a knife to be dangerous.
“Turn around,” Higgins said.
“Let ‘er go,” Rip replied.
“Let ‘er go?” the bastard laughed. “Aye, I’ll let her go…”
He jerked the knife hard, slashing across the inner skin of her wrist. Annie screamed as blood splashed over her gray skirts. Tumbling away, she cupped a hand over the wound, blood dripping between her fingers.
Rip took a step forward then stiffened as six Slashers stepped in front of Higgins.
“Take ‘em down,” Blade said softly. “I’ll ‘elp the girl.”
This. This he could do. Rip stepped forward, letting the red haze, the anger, the fury wash over him. For a second Annie’s frightened scream sounded like his mother’s, that last time.
“I’m goin’ to kill you,” he whispered, fists clenching.