This was the last place on earth that Payne wanted to be.
The heavy iron gate squeaked as it closed behind him. Slippery, damp stone steps led downwards into the gloom. Payne allowed his eyes to change to reveal his vampire nature, his irises burning red and his pupils turning elliptical, and the tunnel brightened enough for him to make out the arching roof cut into the rock. Noises came from ahead. He followed the steps in a sweeping curve, his footfalls echoing around him. His breaths formed as white fog in the moist air before dissipating. A golden glow crept into view further down the tunnel and a gust of drier air washed over him, carrying a myriad of scents. Herbs. Spices. Dead things. Blood. Other disgusting fetid smells joined them as he continued to descend and he wished that vampires didn’t feel the need to breathe.
The steps ended and he followed the uneven earth floor. The tunnel grew larger until it opened onto a high plateau at the start of a cavern. His eyes switched back to their normal grey and the world dulled to a more manageable level of brightness. Enormous rust-coloured stalactites hung from the ceiling arching above him, as though the cave had grown fangs, rows of them, all sharp and wicked in the golden glow rising up from below. Their menacing shadows stretched long across the roof, adding to the sense of danger that he liked. He could live in a place like this. A vampire liked mystery. It was perfect for his kind.
Or it would be if it weren’t for the thousands of fae that bustled in the small underground town spread out below him.
Stone buildings covered the huge base of the cavern, a hotchpotch collection of square flat-roofed structures of different heights. Some were two storeys but most of them were a single level, with large windows and tattered canopies reaching out from them into the narrow streets, each a different jewel-tone colour. Some of the ones directly below him bore crests or fae words he didn’t understand. Alleys wound between the stores and homes in stilted lines that reminded Payne of veins. His stomach growled a reminder that he hadn’t eaten in days, not since he had started out from Vampirerotique on this ridiculous mission.
Scents rose from copper stills, thatched baskets, vials and terracotta or stone jars that stood on display outside the stores on his left, and a wooden arch at the start of one of the streets declared it was the witches’ district. Fae and other creatures crammed the streets, passing from store to store. There had to be close to five thousand fae and other creatures in the area.
Payne studied them, an increasing sense of dread churning in his stomach.
Witches didn’t like vampires. His kind had almost driven them to extinction many centuries ago and they hadn’t forgiven them for it.
Still, he had to go down there. He had made a promise and he intended to keep it. He smiled to himself as he thought about the succubus who needed his help. She had chosen to call herself Chica. Andreu, her lover and one of the vampires who worked at the erotic London theatre with Payne, had explained that it was a pet name that he had called her a few times. Payne couldn’t blame her for keeping her real name secret. He knew firsthand the danger of giving your true name to someone.
Chica needed a way to break the spell that bound her to the theatre, Vampirerotique, stopping her from ever leaving its walls. They had tried everything over the past few weeks and none of it had worked. Antoine, the vampire in charge of the theatre, was at the end of his tether and the dark aristocrat didn’t need this extra burden on his shoulders. He had enough to deal with. Callum had brought a very heavily pregnant Kristina to the theatre, moving the werewolf into his apartment there, and then Snow had taken a turn for the worse three weeks ago, shortly after Javier and Lilah had married at Vampirerotique.
Payne smirked. It hadn’t quite been the wedding that Javier had envisioned for his lovely bride, but Lilah had wanted everyone there, including Snow and Antoine, and Andreu. Andreu, Javier’s younger brother, hadn’t wanted to leave Chica alone at the theatre with Snow and Antoine in order to travel to Spain, so Javier had brought his whole family to the theatre to wed his bride on the stage. It had been tasteful enough. They had since left to hold the traditional celebrations in northern Spain at the family’s mansion there.
Chica had been miserable then because Andreu had again refused to leave her and she felt it was her fault that he was missing his brother’s wedding celebrations. Andreu had done his best to reassure her and Payne had reiterated his promise to help her and free her of the binding spell. He’d had more luck in his latest search for a way of undoing it, managing to find three potential leads, all of them in the fae world.