Something faint bubbled from behind. I spun around, searching, my heart near-ready to gallop from my body. The blood was undisturbed, the surface dark as crimson-tinted oil.
“Did you hear that?”
Thomas took a deep breath, his attention methodically scanning the room and the chamber behind us. “Tell me again why we aren’t using this time more wisely. We could be wrapped ’round one another instead of”—he motioned in front of us—“all this.”
“We need to hurry, Cresswell. I have a horrible feeling.”
Without saying another word, Thomas faced the tree and reached forward, placing his weight on a rib cage as he slowly scaled the ivory-colored bones. He put his left foot on another rib, testing it nimbly before transferring his entire weight.
He repeated the movement twice more, barely making it a few feet off the ground, when a horrible crack rent the air, echoing like a switch that had been slapped across knuckles. I lurched forward to catch him, but he gracefully leapt down unassisted.
“Seems I won’t be harvesting any ripe fruit from this tree after all.” He wiped his hands off on his trousers, mouth pressed into an annoyed line. A few drops of blood appeared like rubies on his fingertips before he sucked them away. “Read the poems once more for me, please? One of them has to be relevant to this situation. There aren’t that many to choose from.”
I pulled the worn old book from my pocket and handed it to him. I didn’t care to speak the dreadful words aloud any more than was necessary.
While Thomas read the poems to himself, I quickly unfastened my overskirts. Time was slipping from our grasp. One way or another, we had to pluck whatever knowledge we could from this dreadful tree before heading back to the academy. By this time, Moldoveanu and Dăneşti were probably aware we were missing. We might as well come back with something useful if we were about to be expelled. Plus, I did not want to be caught here by the murderer.
The buttons on my bodice popped off with ease. Their tiny tinkling struck the ground as my heart struck my rib cage with vigor. Thank the heavens I’d changed out of my more complicated dress earlier that evening. I had no bustle or corset to wrestle out of. Before I could change my mind or find reason to be embarrassed, I stepped out from my underskirts, feeling exposed in my chemise and smallclothes, though they covered past my knees and had several inches of Bedfordshire Maltese lace. They were not so different from my breeches, I reasoned. Though my breeches were less… frilly and delicate.
Thomas dropped Poezii Despre Moarte along with his jaw, it seemed.
“Not one word, Cresswell.” I pointed toward the top of the tree of bones. “I’m lighter than you and should be able to scale the tree. I think I see something in that skull up there. See it? Looks like a piece of parchment.”
Thomas kept his attention fixed on my face, his own reddening each time it slipped to my chin. I half wanted to roll my eyes. Not one part of me was uncovered aside from the scandal of my arms and a few inches of leg not covered by smallclothes or stockings. I had evening gowns that showed more décolletage.
“Catch me if I fall, all right?”
A smile curved his lips in a most delightful manner. “I’ve already fallen hard, Wadsworth. Perhaps you should have warned me sooner.”
Devilish flirt. I turned my focus to the tree and scanned the route I’d take. Without dwelling on what I was about to touch, I hoisted myself up, placing one hand after the other, thinking only of the task. The cut on my calf stretched uncomfortably and the warmth of fresh blood trickled down my limb, but I ignored the discomfort in favor of moving quickly.
I refused to glance down. With each new limb I climbed up, the parchment grew closer. I was halfway to the top when a clavicle snapped beneath my feet. I hung, suspended in the air, swinging from side to side as if I were a living pendulum.
“You’ve got it, Wadsworth!” My fingers shook with the effort of maintaining my grip. “And if you don’t… I’ve got you. I believe.”
“Not comforting, Cresswell!”
Using the momentum of my body to my advantage, I swung over to a sturdy-looking rib cage and shifted my weight. My muscles quaked with both surging adrenaline and pride. I’d done it! I mastered my emotions and… The bone at my fingertips creaked in warning. Celebrating victories could wait. I moved steadily but cautiously, climbing with slow precision.
Testing and moving. Testing and moving.
Once at the top, I paused to catch my breath and glanced down at Thomas, immediately regretting the action. He appeared much smaller from this vantage point. I was at least twenty feet from the ground, and the fall wouldn’t be pleasant.
Not wanting to picture all the vivid ways in which I could become part of the artwork of skeletons myself, I inched my way up the last few bones and reached the parchment. I extracted it from the skull it had been fastened to. Someone had used a dagger—whose hilt was encrusted in gold and emeralds—to stab the parchment through the eye socket of the deceased.
“It says ‘XXIII,’” I whisper-shouted down, mindful of not swinging around and losing my footing. The last thing I wanted to do was impale myself while hunting down the murderer known for using the same deadly method.
Thomas found the correct poem and read it aloud. I cringed at how strong and powerful his voice was in this morbid space.
WHITE, RED, EVIL, GREEN. WHAT HAUNTS THESE WOODS STAYS UNSEEN.
DRAGONS ROAM AND TAKE TO AIR. CUT DOWN THOSE WHO NEAR HIS LAIR.
EAT YOUR MEAT AND DRINK YOUR BLOOD. LEAVE REMAINS IN THE TUB.
BONE WHITE, BLOOD RED. ALONG THIS PATH, YOU’LL SOON BE DEAD.
“Oh, goodness,” I muttered. That poem… it was one that Radu had read to us in class. The meeting place of the Order. And the place where it sacrificed people to Prince Dracula.
We needed to get out of this crypt at once. I knew, deep within my bones, that we were about to encounter something more horrendous than we could fathom. Another sheet of parchment caught my attention as I began my descent. I carefully moved toward it, then read it aloud for Thomas: “Fă o plecăciune în faţa contesei.”
Bow to the countess.
“What was that?” he called.
“One moment.” An illustration accompanied the sentence. I blinked, reading it over again. I certainly hoped this was a remnant from the Crusades, though the slick sensation in my innards told me otherwise.
We were wrong again about the Order of the Dragon’s involvement. This appeared to be the work of Prince Nicolae Aldea.
And the countess in this drawing was entirely covered in blood.
22 DECEMBER 1888
I tucked the second clue into my underclothes and climbed down as quickly as I dared. I didn’t want to shout for fear of calling even more attention to ourselves.
Dread made my hands tremble as I reached for a femur and missed. I concentrated on my breaths. I would treat this as if it were a body in need of study—precision was key. I swung over to the next bone, fingers sliding off its smooth surface. If I didn’t collect myself and make it back down to Thomas… I didn’t want to consider what might happen. Prince Nicolae was close; I sensed his presence as each cell of my being warned me to flee.
We needed to leave the crypt at once or else we’d go from being the hunters to the hunted. When I reached the halfway point on the macabre tree, a strange shape caught my eye from the far side of the bone gate. At first I thought it was some peculiar, cave-dwelling animal.
Then it stood, stumbling forward a bit.
My breath caught. The heap had risen from the bones, revealing a robed figure who was no reanimated corpse or strigoi. I wagered he was human; there was absolutely nothing fantastical about him aside from his taste in theatrics.
A cloak covered his head, drawn over his features as if it were a hood, and a large cross hung from around his neck. The cloak vaguely reminded me of those worn by the men who’d vanished into the woods with that corpse a few nights before. The cross was larger than two fists and was made of gold. Very ornate and medieval, it appeared as if it would make a fine weapon itself.
Thomas cocked his head, unaware of the new threat. “I can’t hear you, Wadsworth.”
Clinging to the tree and unable to point, I watched as the figure staggered closer. He looked injured, but it could be an act to lure us into a false sense of security.
“Behind you!” I shouted, but it was too late. The figure fell against the gate, slamming it shut as he stumbled backward.
Three-quarters of the way down, the rib I’d been gripping snapped, and I dropped like a felled tree in this forest of corpses. Moving faster than I could blink, Thomas dove into my path, breaking my fall. It was not a glamorous rescue, but his effort was valiant.
He hissed as he smacked the ground, then issued another grunt when my forehead slammed into the back of his head. I hurried off him, spinning in place, searching for the figure who’d been stalking toward us, but saw nothing. We had moments to run. Thomas turned over, and blood gushed from his nose.
“Where are your plasters?”
He held his nose. “Lost them in the water chamber.”
I ripped off a piece of my thin chemise and offered it to my bleeding hero. He might be able to use it to staunch the flow of blood, or perhaps he could strangle our attacker with it while I distracted him.
“Hurry, Cresswell. We’ve got to move—”
Out of nowhere, the figure reappeared, falling toward us from behind the Tree of Death, the promise of violence clearly visible in his stance.
“Get. Out,” he said through gritted teeth, then clutched at his torso. His breathing was labored, accented voice strained. “Hurry.”
Fear released its grip on my logic. I leaned forward, squinting to see the face I knew matched the voice. “Prince Nicolae? You’re—are you—who did this to you?”
The prince shook the hood back from his face. It was splotchy with dark patches, and his cheeks were gaunt. “If you don’t hurry… she’ll—”