Shatter the Earth – Karen Chance

Ismelled our destination before I saw it. The stench was as bad as a battlefield, all raw viscera, blood and excrement, but the sounds were worse. Far worse. I stopped at the bottom of a hill to pull the end of my headscarf over my nose. I was dressed as a Romanian peasant woman, because noble ladies didn’t go running around the countryside in this era. And because the headscarf helped to hide my blonde curls and shaded my blue eyes, while the shapeless brown dress made me almost invisible in the deep woods. The scarf was also proving useful as a face mask, not that it helped much. A woman screamed in the distance and I flinched, and grabbed hold of a tree. There was no way I wasn’t going to be sick. “Cassie?” The man I was with turned back from a perch near the top of the hill. It backed up to the forest, but on the other side was open country leading to a small city, or so I’d been told. Fortunately, I couldn’t see anything from here. If my companion was bothered by the carnage on the other side, he gave no sign. Quite the contrary. He looked better than I’d ever seen him: youthful and energized, with the dark brown eyes sparkling, the sun-kissed skin flushed and rosy, and the mahogany colored hair, usually so tightly confined, flowing freely on the breeze.

He almost looked human again. Of course, Mircea Basarab, one-time prince, and current member of the North American Vampire Senate, was usually as cool as a cucumber. It was one reason he’d been tapped to lead the vampire army in the ongoing war. He was also originally from our present bit of hell: old Wallachia, now part of modern-day Romania, but in this era a smaller, wilder, and far more vicious place. I flinched as another scream shredded the air, punctuating my thoughts. “Are you all right?” Mircea called back, as if wondering why I was hugging a tree instead of climbing up beside him. I refrained from shooting him the bird—double handed —because that would have necessitated letting go of said tree, which would have resulted in me face planting in the muck. But my expression must have been eloquent, because he started to climb back down. I watched him come and didn’t bother to wipe off my scowl. My name is Cassie Palmer, the time traveling, ghost whispering, chief seer of the supernatural world, a job description that sounds way more fun than it actually is.

Meaning that, in the five months since I took office, I’d seen some shit. And smelled some, too, I thought, as the wind changed, bringing yet more evidence that, yes, people do soil themselves when they die, especially when they die screaming on the end of a sharpened pike, because a madman related to my current travel partner had decided that he didn’t like their nose or something. But today was kind of extreme, even for me. Vlad III of Romania, the man history knows as Dracula, was better known in his own day as Vlad Țepeș, “The Impaler.” And he’d really earned the title. Nobody had any idea how many people he’d killed by his favorite torture method, but it was a lot, possibly as many as eighty thousand over the course of his short reign. It sounded like half of them were on the other side of the hill. Possibly with their pikes —long, sharpened poles on which they were destined to writhe their last—arranged in pretty geometric shapes so that their nut job of a lord could admire the effect from the tower of his castle. I didn’t know, because I wasn’t going up there. I wasn’t going anywhere except back home.

Seriously, screw this! “Cassie.” A strong hand, sun bronzed despite the fact that its owner had been dead for something like six centuries, grasped my arm. Good, that makes it easier, I thought, and prepared to shift us out. “You promised me.” The dark brown eyes were calm and steady on mine. I arrested the spell part way though, long enough to glare at him. “I said we’d see! We’ve seen.” “You haven’t.” I gave what sounded like a laugh and felt like a scream. “Yeah.

Not gonna, either.” I had enough nightmare fodder for a couple hundred years already. I could do without adding to the pile. Not that the chorus of cries that seemed to be getting louder every minute wasn’t already doing that! “You don’t have to come,” Mircea assured me, the honeyed tones dripping with power, because he wasn’t above attempting to influence me. And despite the fact that I knew what he was doing, despite the fact that it was what he always did, I felt some of the tension leave my spine. Mircea’s voice sounded like an angel’s and felt like a drug. Mircea’s voice ought to be illegal. Not that it mattered in this case, because the surroundings were working hard against him. “We are not doing this.” My own voice was flat and completely lacking in any kind of charm.

“You’re right,” he agreed easily, his arm going around my shoulders, and a sense of calm, peace, and singing joy spreading through my veins, because he was really pushing it. “This isn’t something for your eyes. I will find her and bring her here.” He started to move away, but I held on. “Not a chance.” Surprised brown eyes looked back at me, from over a muscular shoulder. Mircea wasn’t used to people disagreeing with him, particularly female people. Especially when he looked the way he did today. Unlike me, he was in a nobleman’s attire, which in this era meant a fur-lined velvet surcoat, dark blue in his case, but rich and buttery enough that the nap gleamed with every movement. A pair of tall, black leather riding boots that hugged sculpted calves, and a silk undertunic and trousers in a matching dark blue, completed the look.

They outlined an impressive expanse of chest and thighs that had hardened over years of horseback riding and one-on-one combat. He looked like a medieval Vogue ad, and that was without the added hotness of a curved, scimitar-like blade shoved though a heavy velvet sash. Most girls would have melted at the sight of him, much less after the amount of power he’d just pushed through that casual comment. He’d probably expected me to be a puddle on the ground, patiently awaiting my master’s return. But he wasn’t my master, and he wasn’t the one in charge here. I was. I was Pythia, and any changes to the timeline were my responsibility. And this one wasn’t happening. “There has to be a few thousand people over that hill—” I began. “Cassie—” “—at a minimum.

There’s no way you can fog that many memories. You know you can’t!” He turned back to me then, finally realizing that charm wasn’t going to work this time. He was going to have to plead his case. Of course, being Mircea, it was less pleading and more impatient explaining, but at least he was taking this seriously. “I don’t have to,” he argued. “The majority are poor sufferers soon to die. If they are aware enough to understand what they see, they won’t live long enough to tell anyone. I merely have to avoid the guards—” “And how many of those are there?” I could almost see the cogs turning. That alone told me that he wasn’t feeling himself. He should have had a smooth, easy-to-believe lie prepared before he left the hilltop.

But I wasn’t the only one a little off kilter today. I guessed that was fair, considering that his wife was about to be on one of those pikes. That was why we were here: to rescue her from a hideous fate courtesy of Mircea’s own brother. And I thought I had family problems. Of course, Vlad hadn’t known that the peasant woman who’d come to court, claiming to be his elder brother’s secret wife, was the real deal. She’d wanted help in locating the child that she and Mircea had had together, and which she’d subsequently lost. But he’d assumed that she was trying to extort money from him, using his dead brother’s name. And extorting money from Vlad Țepeș was not a smart move. Predictably, she’d ended up as another of his gruesome lawn decorations, something that Mircea hadn’t known for years afterward, having been on the run at the time from some angry nobles who had blinded and then buried him alive. Mircea went into the ground as a clueless, cursed human, and emerged several hours later as a severely traumatized, half-healed, dirty vampire in a country that had a serious hate-on for his kind.

It had been a toss-up as to which would get him first, the nobles or the torch wielding mobs. As it happened, it was neither, as he was nothing if not capable, even then. And imminent death does tend to focus the mind. He’d run like hell, but not before dropping what money he had off with his wife, by way of a trusted servant. It just goes to show how differently men view things than women. Mircea had thought that he was keeping Elena—his wife before death did them part—from the trauma of seeing him as a monster, and leaving her with enough money to last for years while he sorted out his strange new life. It had never crossed his mind that, of course, getting paid off by a tight-lipped servant would leave her with only one assumption: that she was being dumped. That her prince had found himself a princess, and that his dirty little secret was being shoved to the side with a bag of gold. I could sympathize; I honestly could. Especially since the poor woman had shortly thereafter discovered that she was pregnant.

That wasn’t a great fate in a time when single mothers were looked upon less than kindly. Of course, they were looked on considerably kinder than the mothers of bouncing baby dhampirs. Because the half vamp, half human, result of coitus between a partly turned vamp and a human woman were deemed monsters, too. Elena had been alone, reviled, and terrified for her baby. So, she’d taken what must have seemed like the only chance for her child, and given her away to a passing gypsy band. The gypsies were far more worried about vamps on the long stretches of lonely roads through the mountains than they were about dhampirs. In fact, they prized the latter for their tendency to kill the former, and took the child gladly, knowing that she’d be a potent asset once she grew up. It seemed as if everything had worked out as well as possible under the circumstances, but if it had, we wouldn’t have a story, now would we? As might have been expected, Elena had regretted her decision almost immediately, and had run after the band to retrieve her child. But they’d already broken camp, and she couldn’t find them. And search though she might, that had continued to be the case.

Her daughter was well and truly lost, and with Mircea gone as well, she was left with only one hope: Vlad. And you know how that turned out. So, yes, I sympathized with Mircea’s desire to save his wife from a completely unearned and truly terrible death. Taking her out of the timeline and bringing her into the future with us had seemed maybe, possibly, doable since she’d died, so her absence wouldn’t affect anything that happened afterward. At least, it wouldn’t if no one knew about it. And no one was supposed to. Mircea had developed formidable mental powers in the last six centuries. The idea had been for him to fog the minds of any onlookers, allowing them to believe that the execution had happened on schedule. But even he couldn’t control the memories of a whole regiment. And based on the fact that he still hadn’t answered me, I was guessing that’s what we were looking at here.

“You can freeze time,” he began, before I shook my head. “You know damned well—”

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