Of course. The broken sconce was glaringly obvious now.
“Shall I impress you with my powers of deduction? It was the only unlit sconce in the room, leading one to believe if there was indeed a secret—”
“Not now, Cresswell. Give me a hand. I want to see what Vlad Dracula was hiding down here. And what Dăneşti is after.”
5 DECEMBER 1888
If the near-complete darkness wasn’t enough of a warning to turn back, then the sickeningly sweet stench of decay that assaulted us should have been.
“Lovely.” Thomas scrunched his nose. “There’s nothing quite like the aroma of a bloated corpse to get one in the mood for adventure.”
We stood on the threshold of the trapdoor, staring down into what was sure to be a dismal setting. Gray stones edged with cobwebs and other detritus yawned before us, opening their chipped teeth wide to allow entry into the bowels of the castle. I did my best to breathe through my mouth. “Think of it as if it were simply a ripe fruit ready to burst.”
Thomas’s gaze swept over me, brows lifted in appraisal. “You are morbidly enchanting.”
“We need to hurry. I don’t want to linger too long.” I nodded at the trapdoor. “Should we close this?”
Thomas eyed the secret passage and then the main door, resignation settling on his features. He sighed. “I’ve a feeling we’ll regret it, but yes. Go on down a few steps and I’ll close us in with the dead body and spiders. In the dark.”
I gathered my skirts, thankful that they weren’t as bulky as normal, and descended one step at a time, cringing at what might be getting caught in my hemline. I was terrified of what was causing the stench and hoped it was only the carcass of an animal that had found its way into the castle. I wasn’t keen on finding human remains.
Thomas huffed from behind me, his shoes finding every way imaginable to scrape over stone as he maneuvered the trapdoor into place. From previous experience, I knew he was more than capable of moving through the night with inhuman stealth. I gritted my teeth, ignoring the smack of his shoes as he stomped down the steps after me. Perhaps he was still shaken from his idiotic maneuver of playing dead.
A pebble bounced down the steps, sounding our arrival for all the world to hear. I stopped moving, my pulse a roaring wave crashing through my veins. We couldn’t be positive we were alone down here, and I did not want to get expelled so quickly. Especially when there were so many unanswered questions about what, exactly, was happening at this academy.
Thomas muttered something too low for me to understand.
“Quiet, you.” I tossed a glance over my shoulder, though it was too dark to make him out clearly. His silhouette was gilded by the gaslight filtering through a crack in the trapdoor. I fought the urge to shiver. There was always something about him that was—unsettling in an intriguing manner. Especially when we were secreted away in the dark.
“I can’t wait to see if it’s as pretty as it smells.”
“Honestly? Is it impossible for you to hush?”
The strike of a match followed by a hiss was his only response. Thomas smirked at the candlestick he was flourishing, the light barely a flicker in the oppressive dark. I did not bother asking where he’d found the stub of wax. Perhaps he’d had it secured in his morning coat.
He leaned in, speaking quietly enough that I nearly missed his words. However, he did not miss the hitch in my breath as his lips grazed my neck, making my skin tingle with the contact. I felt him smile into my hair.
“You’re the handsomest young man I’ve ever known,” he said.
I squinted, trying to discern any bruising or imperfections on him. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary that I could see. Simply two golden-brown eyes staring back, amused. “You’ve hit your head, haven’t you? Or did someone slip you a strange tonic?”
“You want my silence.” Thomas grinned, then stepped around me after he leapt down the stairs. A perky hop to his step. “The phrase I just uttered is the code for when you want me to speak again. I promise I shall not utter one syllable until you unlock these lips with those words.”
“If only I were so lucky.”
Keeping his promise, he crept down the remaining stairs without so much as breathing too loudly. If I didn’t already know Thomas was there with me, and couldn’t see the slight flicker of light he held, I’d never have known he was only a few paces ahead. He certainly moved like a wraith when he chose to.
His silhouette dissolved into the shadows surrounding us. Taking care to use the same caution, I descended with a sharp focus, as the last thing I needed was to break a limb down here.
Wings flapped in the distance, the sound like leather striking leather in frantic succession. I ignored the way my heart longed to take flight and carry itself straight back up the stairs. I imagined those were the bats the headmaster had mentioned the night we arrived.
Foul-smelling corpses were one thing, but bats… A shudder vibrated along my bones. Bats with their rodent faces and membranous wings made my nerves jangle.
Which was completely irrational. I tolerated rats well enough. And birds were all right. But those featherless wings—and the veins that spread along them like branches in the tree of life. Those I could do without.
As we reached the bottom of the stairs and entered a corridor that appeared to have been hewn from the rough stone of the mountain itself, I questioned my need to discover secrets contained under the morgue in a castle with such a forbidding past.
Condensation dripped from the stone, though no one was here to wipe the sadness of this miserable tunnel away. At least no one we’d want to meet without a weapon. Wind howled through the passageway, raising gooseflesh along my arms.
I cursed, forgetting to be quiet. Thomas turned, his expression bemused, but I motioned for him to keep walking. I’d need to look into having some sort of scalpel belt made. Then I could strap it to my body and wield it like the dangerous blade it was whenever I needed to. I wondered if the dressmaker in town would be able to manufacture such an accessory.
If one could create a belt, surely this could be done. I was stalling again and knew it. I sincerely hoped no bats assaulted us. There were a great many things I could withstand… but imagining their claws getting stuck in my curls as they screeched and tore strands of hair out…
I wiped my hands down the front of my skirts, wishing I’d had thought to bring a cloak. Though of course I hadn’t planned on going anywhere other than the servant corridors. It was much colder this far beneath the castle’s many fireplaces. As if he’d plucked the deduction from the darkness, Thomas abruptly faced me, offering his coat.
“Thank you. But you keep it for now.” It was so long, I’d stumble over it.
He nodded and continued on. I hurried after him, managing to ignore the fluttering wings echoing in the dank passage ahead.
I tugged Thomas to a halt. At the far end of the very long stone tunnel we were in, a single torch flickered. While its light resembled a sun sinking into the horizon, there was absolutely no warmth to be found within its meager rays. If a torch was lit, someone was either down here now or had been fairly recently.
My breath clouded in front of me—ghosts of warning. Thomas signaled for me to lead the way. The walls seemed to draw closer now, the mountain crushing in on us from both sides. We passed a few doors, some of which were stained black, while others were dark oak, all almost indistinguishable from the cave walls until we came upon them.
I tried pushing one in, but it refused to budge. I carried on down the corridor, attention homed in on any flicker of movement. I wasn’t sure what we’d do if we encountered someone sinister down here. Hopefully Thomas had a weapon hidden away wherever he’d secreted the candlestick.
A slight breeze gusted, and with it our candle blinked out. I longed to pull my hair free from its plaiting and cover my neck with it. The air near this end of the tunnel was more frigid than it had been by the stairs. Water no longer dripped but froze in a glistening sheet where it kissed the rock face.
Thomas caught up to where I’d paused and pointed toward the direction we’d come from. Looking back from this vantage point, I could see we’d steadily descended, though it hadn’t felt that way while we were walking. We were also much farther from our entry point than I’d thought.
Darkness was playing tricks on my senses. I could have sworn that it felt us, watched every step we fumblingly took and delighted in our terror. Thomas swatted a spiderweb away before I could walk through it. Chivalrous, considering his fear. I thanked him and slowly continued down the passageway.
“Feels like a carnival with too many looking glasses. Doesn’t it?” I asked.
A few beats passed. I twisted, expecting a sassy response, but Thomas simply nodded, grin spreading wickedly. Then I remembered his vow to remain silent.
“You know what?” I asked. He raised his brows. “I rather enjoy seeing you without hearing all the nonsense spewing out. You should be quiet more often.” I allowed my gaze to inspect his chiseled features, pleased by the longing that lit in his eyes when my attention found his mouth. “In fact, I’ve never wanted to kiss you more.”
I quickly moved down the passage, smiling to myself as his jaw swung open. A bit of levity was what I needed to hold my unease at bay. I did not want to consider what we were about to see. Death never smelled pleasant, and the overwhelming odor now made my eyes water. Hope of coming across an animal carcass was dwindling.
Unless it was a rather large, human-size animal.
I wiped wetness from the corners of my lashes. This was how bodies smelled when they weren’t buried far enough below the earth. We hadn’t dealt with advanced decomposition too often in Uncle’s laboratory, but the few times we had had left memories that would be stitched within the seams of my brain for eternity.
Drawing closer to the lone torch, I distinguished two more tunnels forking off in opposite directions. At the point before they branched off, however, there was a thick oak door set to one side. Droplets of water seemed to leak from the porous wood. How very odd.