“Where is this mysterious dragon we need to feed, Wadsworth?”
Thomas didn’t wait for a response. He scooped me into his arms and deposited me on the altar, dragging himself up a moment later. More frigid water rained down on us as if we’d landed on an abandoned island in the middle of a monsoon. At best, we had minutes before the water reached the ceiling. My vision threatened to go black at the edges. Being buried alive was always a scary thought; dying in a watery grave was something I never knew to fear. Emotions rolled through me, crashing against my thoughts. Hypothermia was close, its effects already clouding my mind.
Thomas’s lips were already turning a slight blue as he trembled beside me. If the water didn’t kill us, the cold certainly would. Where was the dragon? It had seemed like an inspired idea moments before…
Thomas pulled me toward him, lifting me up as the water reached my chin.
“S-stay w-with me, Wadsworth.”
He stood a good head taller than me and was using his height to offer me extra time before I gulped water. I wanted to cry, bury my face in his neck, and tell him how sorry I was that I had dragged him here, to this horrid tunnel on this ridiculous adventure. Who cared if we were the ones to find the Impaler or the Order? I should have brought my theories to the headmaster. The royal guards should have been scouring these tunnels, not us.
“Thomas…” I spat water out, suddenly eager to unleash all my secrets. “L-listen, C-Cresswell,” I said between chattering teeth, “there’s something I-I have to tell you. I—”
“S-stop, Wadsworth. No l-last-minute confessions a-allowed. We’re going to get out of this.” Water slid down my cheeks and I shook my head. Thomas cupped my chin and looked fiercely into my eyes, his hands frozen. “F-focus. Don’t give up. Use that alluring brain of yours to find Radu’s dragon and get us out of here. You can do this, Audrey Rose.”
“There are no such things as dragons!” I screamed, dropping my face onto his shoulder.
I was so cold I wanted to curl up and float away. I wanted the pain in my limbs to recede. I wanted to give up. I stared at the altar under our feet, eyes blurring with unshed tears as the shape beneath us swam into focus. We were standing on the solution.
A dragon nearly the entire size of the altar was carved onto its top. Its mouth was wide open, showing off teeth made of stone that appeared sharp enough to slice through skin.
“I found it!”
“H-how… f-fascinating,” Thomas said, his body and voice both wracked with shudders. “W-we have a table like this in our home in Bucharest. Except our dragon is less…s-sneering. I n-named him H-Henri.”
I cut a sharp glance in his direction. He was near convulsions. I needed to move quickly. I wrestled out of his iron grip and tilted my head back as far as it would go, then took a deep breath and submerged myself. I kicked toward the carving, not having to work too hard as my clothing acted as an anchor. I shoved my finger into the dragon’s mouth and dragged it across the stone tooth, wincing as blood blossomed in the water.
My heart tapped out an anxious rhythm. Something gave way a little, the dragon’s teeth receding ever so slightly. A trapdoor cracked open in the stone floor, allowing some water to escape, but not enough. I tugged again but the teeth refused to give further. Of course it couldn’t be that easy. Nothing ever was.
I needed to breathe. I tried kicking my way back to the surface, but my layers proved too heavy. Panic seeped in as I flailed underwater, air bubbles streaming out around me. I wanted to scream for help but couldn’t risk losing more air.
When I thought I’d come to the last of my breath, Thomas yanked me up, wiping soggy strands of hair from my face as I gasped and nearly vomited. He made sure I was all right before swimming down to the trapdoor, trying to wrench it open. I took a deep breath and followed, hoping our combined might would work. We twisted and tugged to no avail.
Thomas clutched my shaking hand in his own, and we kicked up toward the remaining air. As we broke its surface water rained down on us—now sloshing past our chins—and I caught the exact moment Thomas resigned himself to our doom.
He drew in a ragged breath, one that might have arisen from hypothermia setting in or from the realization that we were staring down our final moments. I had never seen him without a plan before. He fixed me with the kind of stare that seemed to memorize my every feature. His thumbs caressed the apples of my cheeks. Water covered my mouth and I lifted my face higher. I knew this was it. These were the last moments of my life. Regret filled me with immeasurable sorrow. There was so much I hadn’t done, so much I’d left unsaid.
“Audrey Rose, I—” Panic raged behind his normally measured gaze. I could barely make out the garble of his words as the water rushed over my ears.
Straining to lift my face above the water, I gasped in a final gulp of air.
Thomas’s plea was forgotten the second the room quaked. A sharp crack echoed off the chamber walls as the ground beneath us split wide open. He grabbed for me, shouting something I couldn’t hear over the deafening noise. As quickly as the water burst out from the walls and ceiling, it tunneled down even faster in a giant whirlpool, yanking us along with it.
I reached for Thomas’s outstretched hand, screaming as water ripped us apart.
We were sucked into a hole that swept both our words and our bodies away.
22 DECEMBER 1888
I struggled to keep my nose and mouth above water as we slid down what I assumed was an ancient pipe covered in slippery algae, heading toward Lord knew where.
I kept my hands tucked against my body, which helped prevent sludge from covering them. If I had known we weren’t about to be spat into a worse chamber—or that my scalpel and Thomas’s hammer weren’t about to cause grave injury—I might have enjoyed the giant underground water shoot. However, I didn’t believe Vlad Dracula or the Order of the Dragon had designed this for amusement. My muscles clenched in anticipation of where we might land.
I shuddered against more than the icy water as I slipped down the seemingly endless pipe. I couldn’t imagine how far underground we must have been—the dark was so complete I couldn’t see my hands in front of me.
The pipe twisted and turned, and after several rotations of my body, it eventually flattened out. Seconds later, I was dumped into a shallow pool. I refused to consider what might be bobbing across the surface as I splashed about; at least the smell wasn’t too foul. As I pushed myself up, Thomas came flying out and landed on me, knocking us both down, our knees and foreheads smacking together in a clumsy backward dance.
Somehow he’d managed to cup my head so I avoided smashing my skull into the stone below us. I imagined his knuckles hadn’t been as lucky.
“That… was… terrifying… and incredible,” he said, losing himself in a fit of laughter. I wanted to agree, but all I could think about was his hands wrapped around me. We’d been so close to death. As if it were a star shooting across the night expanse, our lantern sailed into the water, floating on the surface and offering a bit of light.
Thomas glanced down at me, then stopped chuckling. His expression was now serious and measured. I stared, noting that his lashes were long and dark like the nighttime sky. His eyes were my favorite constellations to gaze at; each fleck of gold surrounding his pupils were new galaxies begging to be discovered. I’d never been fascinated by astronomy before, but now found myself an eager student.
“You saved me once again.” Thomas leaned on his elbows, grinning at my dazed expression. He reached over and plucked sludge from my hair. “You’re beautiful, Wadsworth.”
“Oh, yes. Covered in grime and whatever that foul-smelling bit of…”
“You truly do not wish to know.”
I suppressed a gag and gingerly moved each limb, testing myself for broken bones and fractures. All seemed to be in working order, though it was hard to tell without standing.
“How was that for adventure?” I asked, shivering in place. “Closer to what you’d had in mind?”
The tiniest smile curved his lips, erasing the awkwardness. “Clearly, you’re in need of sleep. I’m not sure we should be friends any longer, Wadsworth. You are too wild for me.”
I winced as he shifted his weight. Lying on the stone floor of the pool, soaking wet, was too horrid to ignore, no matter how much the devious part of me enjoyed being that close to Thomas. Concern flashed in his features.
“What is it? Are you injured?”
“Perhaps we should get back to our task of locating the Impaler. And if you wouldn’t mind moving off me so I might breathe properly… You’re worse than a corset.”
He blinked as if coming out of a dream, then hopped up and offered me a hand. “Apologies, fair lady.” He scooped the lantern out of the water and wiped off its sides. “Which chamber of doom is next on the menu?”
“I’m not sure. Do you still have Poezii Despre Moarte?”
“Right here.” Thomas patted his front pocket. “Though the cranium hammer has gone missing.”
“My scalpel, too.” I glanced around the chamber, noticing a ledge on either side of the pool of water we were standing in, and indicated we should head there. “Let’s see about drying off a bit.”
We picked our way up the ledge and wrung our clothes and hair out as best we could. My skirts stuck to my limbs, making each movement more difficult than the last. I was surprised to see steam rising from a few crevices in the rock face, taking most of the biting chill out of the air. I held out trembling hands, and Thomas quickly did the same.
“Must be hot springs in one of these mountains,” he said, removing his frock coat and hanging it over the steam. I stared at his chest, defined and on full display thanks to the water soaking his shirt. He was finely sculpted, his body recalling ancient sculptures of half-clad heroes or gods.