Home > Kingdom of the Wicked (Kingdom of the Wicked #1)(8)

Kingdom of the Wicked (Kingdom of the Wicked #1)(8)
Author: Kerri Maniscalco

I moved swiftly through the darkness. One torch was lit at each end of the long corridor, leaving much of my path in shadow. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed movement and froze. I’d stopped walking, but the sound of cloth brushing against stone continued a good breath or so before falling silent, too. Someone or something was here.

My entire body buzzed with nerves. I shook my head. I was already scared about the Malvagi and my mind was playing tricks on me. It was probably Vittoria again. I gathered what little bravado I could muster and forced myself to turn around, scanning the corridor of silent, watchful mummies for my sister.

“Vittoria?” I stared into the shadows, and almost screamed when one formed a denser silhouette that rose from behind the bodies. “Who’s there?”

Whatever it was, it didn’t answer. I thought about the rumors Antonio mentioned yesterday, and couldn’t stop picturing a shape-shifter hiding in the dark. Little hairs on my arms stood on end. I swore I felt eyes on me. Tiny bells of warning sounded in my head. Danger lurked nearby. Nonna was right—tonight was no night to be out. I was contemplating how quickly I could dash back outside when wings flapped in the rafters. I blew out a breath. There was no apparition, or mythological shape-shifter, or demon stalking me. Just a lost little bird. I probably frightened it more than it scared me.

I slowly backed down the corridor and made my way to the next chamber, ignoring the jitters claiming my bones. I hurried into the room where I’d forgotten my basket and snatched it up, shoving my supplies back in, hands shaking the whole time.

“Stupid bird.”

The faster I gathered my things, the faster I could get Vittoria from the festival and go home. Then we’d borrow a bottle of wine and crawl into bed, drinking and laughing together over Nonna’s dire proclamations about the devil, warm and snug in the safety of our room.

A scraping of a boot against stone had me frozen in place. There was no mistaking that sound for the wings of a bird. I stood there, barely breathing, listening to an all-consuming silence. I reached for my cornicello in comfort.

Then, something quietly began calling me. Slow and insistent; a silent buzzing I couldn’t push aside. Goddess knows I was trying. It wasn’t a strictly physical sound, more like a peculiar feeling in the pit of my stomach. Each time I considered running away, it grew more demanding.

I gripped the knife from my basket in my other hand and tiptoed down the corridor, pausing to listen at each chamber. My heart pounded with each step. I was half-convinced it might stop working altogether if I didn’t calm down.

I took another step, followed by another. Each one more difficult than the last. I strained against the drumming of my pulse, but no other sounds emerged from the darkness. It was as if I’d conjured the earlier noise from fear. But that feeling…

I followed it farther into the monastery.

At the very end of the next corridor I halted outside a room with its door ajar. Whatever had been calling me led inside; I felt it. A slight tug in my center, a summoning I had no hope of fighting. I didn’t know what sort of magic was at play, but clearly sensed it.

I dropped my amulet and held my breath as I slipped in unseen, wary of what drew me. Nonna always scolded my ability to sneak around undetected, but, at present, it felt more like a blessing than a curse.

Inside, traces of thyme mixed with something metallic and some burnt paraffin wafted around. It took a moment for my vision to adjust, but once it did, I bit down on a gasp, wondering how I’d missed him. Perhaps his preternatural stillness was to blame.

Now that I was aware of his presence, I couldn’t drag my gaze away. It was too dark to make out his features clearly, but his hair was a shade close to onyx, almost iridescent like the wings of a raven catching sunlight. He was tall and powerfully built, like a statue of a Roman warrior, though his clothes were that of a fine gentleman.

There was something about him that made me cling to the shadows, though, uneasy about detection.

He loomed over a shrouded body. My mind churned with a dozen stories. Perhaps the love of his life died tragically before they could live out their dreams together, and he was angry with the world. Maybe she passed away peacefully in her sleep. Or maybe she was the murdered witch Nonna mentioned yesterday.

The one whose body was discovered in our city.

That thought was like a pail of ice water being poured over me. I stopped playing out mental fantasies and focused harder on the chamber. A strange assortment of half-blown-out candles were carefully placed in a circle around the stone altar where the body lay. Fragrant wisps of thyme wafted over to me again.

Odd for a human man to set up candles and burn herbs. I recalled the scent of thyme last night, and wondered if he’d been here while Antonio and I were cooking a few chambers down.

I stared at him, pulse thrumming, trying to determine if he was the source of magic that originally caught my attention. I didn’t think so. There was no pull to him, only this chamber. Without warning, the air pressure suddenly felt wrong—like there was some distortion occurring in the space around us. Even the shadows seemed to bow in acquiescence.

Right. It was a ludicrous thought. First, invisible ghost demons were following me through the corridors, and now this. There was nothing menacing about a young man saying good-bye to the girl he loved. Placing candles around a body wasn’t so strange, either. Plenty of people lit them while praying to their god. Once again, my—

He suddenly bent toward the body, his hands skimming the area above her heart, and I waited for him to tug the shroud away and kiss his beloved good-bye one final time. When he removed his hand from beneath the cloth, his fingers were coated in blood. Slowly, as if in some devil’s trance, he brought those fingers to his mouth and licked them. For a moment, I stared, unable to process what I’d seen.

Everything inside me buzzed and went immobile. Fear and rage swirled together in a cacophony as I finally understood my earlier innate sense of wrongness.

Warnings rang through me, screeching about bloodthirsty demons, but I was incensed beyond reason. This wasn’t a midnight creature, born of darkness and moonlight like Nonna claimed. This all too human monster had broken into the catacombs and committed the vilest of acts; he tasted the blood of the dead. Before I could heed the warnings my grandmother had beaten into our thick skulls from birth, I was out of my hiding spot, screaming like I was a feral creature of the night.

“Stop!”

Either from the raw command in my voice, or more likely the ear-splitting shrillness of it, the stranger jumped back a few feet, his movement almost too fast to detect. There was something else odd… something… I grabbed my cornicello and concentrated on his aura; his luccicare wasn’t lavender, but a shimmering, multitoned black with specks of gold. It reminded me of Nonna’s titanium quartz. I’d never seen anything like it before.

He glanced from the kitchen knife I held to the body lying on the table, probably debating his next move. For the first time, I noticed the dagger in his hand. A gold snake with lavender eyes twined around its hilt, fangs bared. It was beautiful. Wicked. Deadly.

For a moment, I thought he’d aim it straight at my heart.

“Stay away from her,” I warned, taking a small step in his direction, “or I’ll scream loud enough to summon every fratello in this building.”

It was a lie. The whole brotherhood was out doing their duties for Santa Rosalia. As far as I knew, he and I were the only ones in the entire monastery. Deep as we were within the catacombs, no one would hear my screams if he lunged for me. But I wasn’t defenseless.

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