Authors: Christine Feehan
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General
Veins of lightning lit the clouds, dancing whips of white-hot energy illuminating the midnight sky. The earth rumbled and rolled, unsettled and flinching as the creature clawed its way through the soil to burst into the air, instantly fouling every living thing it touched.
Leaves shriveled and blackened. The air vibrated with alarm. The vampire settled to earth, turning its head this way and that, listening, waiting, its cunning mind racing, its rotten heart beating with a mixture of triumph and fear. He was the bait, and he knew the hunter was not far behind, close on his trail, drawn straight into the heart of the trap.
Traian Trigovise burrowed through the soil, following the stench of the undead. It was too easy, the trail too well marked. No vampire would be so obvious unless he was a rank fledgling, and Traian was certain he was dealing with strength and cunning. He was an ancient Carpathian hunter, a species nearly immortal, blessed and cursed with longevity, with timeless gifts and the need for a lifemate to make him complete. He was first and foremost a predator, capable of becoming the most loathsome and evil of all creatures, the un-dead. It was his sheer strength of will and duty to his race that kept him from falling prey to the insidious whispers and call of power.
When the tunnel veered upward toward the sky, Traian continued onward, pushing deeper into the dirt, feeling his way, listening to the heartbeat and energy of the earth around him. All was silent, even the insects, creatures often summoned by the evil ones. He scanned the surface, taking in a large area, and discovered three blank spots, evidence that more than one vampire was close.
He found a web of roots, thick and gnarled, humming with life, reaching deep into the earth. He whispered softly, respectfully, touching the longest, deepest artery, feeling its life force. He chanted softly in the ancient language, asking for entrance, felt the response moving through the thick old tree. Leaves shivered as the tree reached toward the moon, embracing the night even as it shrank from the presence of the foul beings. Imparting secrets and conspiring to help, the tree spread its roots to allow Traian into the intricate system protecting and nourishing the wide trunk.
The hunter was careful not to disturb the soil or the root system as he maneuvered his way carefully through the labyrinth, pushing through the surface just far enough to scan his surroundings from inside the cage of safety of the overlapping roots above ground. He shape-shifted as he emerged, a shadow hidden amongst the thick branches and leaves.
For one moment he could see only his prey, the tall, thin figure of Gallent. He recognized the vampire as one of the ancients sent out by their prince so many centuries earlier, just as he had been. The undead continually twisted, sniffing the air suspiciously, his gaze darting along the ground. He clicked his long fingernails together in a peculiar repeated rhythm.
The wind rushed through the grove of trees, and the leaves rustled and whispered. Traian allowed his gaze to shift, quartering the area, searching with his mind more than his acute vision. The breeze brought the echo of that strange rhythm to him, coming from his left. Then from his right. Two more of the undead waited to fall upon him and rip him to pieces. He shifted again, drifting with the breeze through the cage of roots, rising as molecules into the night, allowing the friendly wind to take him higher into the cover of leaves.
Dark clouds swirled into a boiling cauldron. Lightning veined the murky, spinning mass. He hovered there with a small, humorless smile in his mind. Discretion really was the better part of valor in some circumstances. He would pick his own battleground. Then he heard the clicking of the fingernails again. The sound was growing louder. With each click, droplets of water fell from the cloud. Tiny droplets that never quite reached the ground. The beads collected in midair, formed a large, shimmering pool. He could see his reflection clearly in the pool. Not the scattered molecules, or an illusion, but the real man amongst the leaves. It was his only warning, and it came just a heartbeat before the attack.
He caught movement from the corner of his eye and instantly reacted, somersaulting through the sky, shifting into his true form, grateful for the leaves that hampered the nearly invisible silvery net meant to entangle him. Spears spiraled through the air, along with tiny darts tipped with poison from the tree frog, and showers of red-hot embers that burrowed into the skin and burned for weeks. Insects clouded the skies, and all the while the clicking of the fingernails went on relentlessly.
Traian launched himself at the shadowy figure orchestrating the fight, ignoring the two lesser vampires. Gallent was directing the action, a leader in evil, as he had been a leader among Carpathians. Traian burst through the sky, his fist already snapping out, driving toward the vampire’s chest.
Gallent shimmered transparently. The fist passed through his body harmlessly even as the undead struck back with razor-sharp talons. The hand came from Traian’s left, the swift, sure movement of a full-fledged master. The knifelike nails drove deep through flesh and muscle, all the way to the bone. One of the lesser vampires hurled himself onto Traian’s back, sinking his teeth into his target’s exposed neck.
Traian simply evaporated, leaving the smear of blood on the shivering leaves and the scent of the ancient gift driving the vampires into a frenzy of rage and hunger. He traveled quickly through the night. The Carpathian Mountains were riddled with networks of caves, where rich soil deep beneath the earth waited to welcome him. He was close to home. He had been steadily traveling back to his homeland to see his prince but had become sidetracked when he came across the vampires.
His shoulder throbbed and burned. His neck was a fierce torment. There were a hundred places on his body that ached from the embers and darts. He found an opening into the cool interior of the mountain, went deeper still, through a labyrinth of tunnels into the earth. He floated down into the bed of rich soil and just lay there, feeling a sense of peace and solace in the wealth of welcoming minerals.
The theater doors opened to allow the smartly dressed crowd out. They emerged laughing and talking, a crush of happy people pleased with the performance they had witnessed. Lightning forked across the sky, a brilliant, dazzling display of elemental nature. For a moment the long, sequined gowns, furs, and suits of varying color were lit up as if caught in a spotlight. Thunder crashed directly overhead, and the ground and buildings shook under the assault. The light faded, leaving the night nearly black and the crowd almost blind. The throng broke into couples or groups, hurrying to their limousines and cars, while valets tried to work fast before the rain began to fall.
Senator Thomas Goodvine stayed beneath the entrance archway, bending his head toward his wife to hear her over the buzz of the crowd, laughing at her softly spoken words, nodding in agreement. He pulled her beneath his shoulder to prevent her from being jostled by the steady stream of people hurrying to avoid the weather.
Two trees formed the unique archway to the theater, the branches interlocking overhead to form a small protection against the elements. The leaves rustled and the branches clicked together in the rushing wind. Clouds whirled and spun, weaving dark, ominous threads across the moon.
Another burst of lightning illuminated two large men pushing against the stream of theatergoers, apparently determined to gain shelter in the building. The flash of light faded, leaving only the dim lighting of the archway and the streetlights flickering ominously. Thelma Good-vine tugged at her husband’s jacket to bring his attention back to her.
“Down! Get down!” Joie Sanders plowed into the senator and his wife, her arms outspread, sweeping them both to the ground. In one move she rolled up on her knee in front of them, a gun in her outstretched hand. “Gun, gun, everybody down!” she shouted. An orange-red flame burst from two revolvers in a steady stream toward the couple she’d been assigned to protect. Joie returned fire with her usual calm and dead-on accuracy, watching one man begin to topple, almost in slow motion, his gun still firing but up into the air.
People screamed, ran in every direction, fell to the ground, crouched behind flimsy cover. The second gunman grabbed a woman in a long fur and dragged her in front of him as a shield. Joie was already pushing at the senator and his wife in an effort to get them to crawl back inside the relative safety of the theater. The second gunman propelled the sobbing woman forward as he fired at Joie, who rolled again to cover her charges’ line of retreat.
A bullet sliced through the flesh of her shoulder, burning a path of pain and spraying blood over the senator’s trousers. Joie cried out, but steadied her aim, ignoring the churning in her stomach. Her world narrowed to one man, one target. She squeezed the trigger slowly, precisely, watched the ugly little hole blossom in the middle of the man’s forehead. He went down like a rock, taking his hostage with him, falling in a tangle of arms and legs.
There was a small silence. Only the clicking of the branches could be heard, a strange, disquieting rhythm. Joie blinked, trying to clear her vision. She seemed to be looking into a large, shimmering pool, staring at a man with flat, cold eyes and something metal glinting in his hand. He rose up out of the crowd, slamming into Joie before she could scramble out of the way. She twisted just enough to escape the lethal blade, driving the butt of her gun upward into his jaw, then slamming it back down on his knife hand. He screamed, dropping the blade so that it went skittering along the sidewalk. His fist found her face, driving her backward. The man followed her down, his face a mask of hatred.
Something hit the back of his head hard, and Joie found herself staring up at one of her men. “Thanks, John. I think he smashed every bone in my body when he fell on me.” She took his hand, allowed him to help her out from under the large body. Joie kicked the gun from the limp hand of the first man she’d shot, even as weakness overwhelmed her.
She sat down abruptly as her legs turned to rubber. “Get the senator and Mrs. Goodvine to safety, John.” The wailing sirens were fading in and out. “Someone help that poor woman up.”
“We’ve got it, Joie,” one of the agents assured her. “We have the driver. How bad are you hurt? How many hits did you take? Give me your gun.”
Joie looked down at the gun in her hand and noted with surprise she was aiming it at the motionless attacker. “Thanks, Robert. I think I’ll just let you and John handle things for a while.”
“Is she all right?” She could hear the senator’s anxious voice. “Sanders? Are you hurt? I don’t want to just leave her there; where are you taking us?”
Joie tried to lift her arm to indicate she was fine, but her arm seemed heavy and uncooperative. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She just needed to be somewhere else, just for a short time while the medics fixed her up. It wasn’t the first time she’d taken a hit and she doubted it would be the last. She had certain instincts that had taken her to the top of her profession. It was very dangerous at the top.
Joie could blend in. Some of the men liked to call her the chameleon. She could look strikingly beautiful, plain, or just average. She could blend in with the tough crowd, the homeless, or the rich and glamorous. It was a valuable gift, and she used it willingly. She was called in for the difficult assignments, the ones where action was inevitable. Few others had her skill with knives or guns, and no one could disappear into a crowd the way she could.
She took herself out of her body, watched the frantic scene around her with interest for a few minutes. The others assigned to the senator and the Austrian agents had everything under control. She was being put into an ambulance and hustled away from the scene. More than anything, she detested hospitals. She simply took herself away, soaring free. She wanted to be outdoors, under the sky or beneath the earth in a world of subterranean beauty—it didn’t matter, as long as it wasn’t within the walls of a hospital.
Joie felt weightless, free, skimming through the mountains she had studied so carefully. As she soared free, she planned a trip caving with her brother and sister as soon as the senator and his wife were safely back home. She crossed space. Smelled the rain. Felt cool and moist in the mist of the mountains. Far below her, she saw the entrance to a cave, spotlighted by the small sliver of moon that managed to peek around the thick cloud cover. Smiling, she dropped down to enter a world of crystal and ice. Whether she was dreaming or hallucinating didn’t matter; all she cared about was escaping from the pain of her wounds and the smell of the hospital.
Traian lay in the cool earth, gazing up at the high, cathedral-like ceiling. His body hurt in so many places, he just wanted to rest. The beauty of the cave was breathtaking and took his mind off his physical pain. Then he turned his head and saw her. She was hovering just overhead to his left. A woman with a cap of dark hair and large eyes. She was staring down at him in complete astonishment.
“You’re hurt,” she said. “If you were real, I’d send the paramedics.”
“What makes you think I am not real?”
“Because I’m not really here; I’m in a hospital many miles away. I don’t even know where here is.”
“You look real enough to me.”
“What in the world are you doing lying in the mud in the middle of a cave?” Her soft laughter rippled through him. “You didn’t mistake this for a beauty spa, did you?”
His heart nearly ceased beating. Those simple questions turned his world upside down. He was aware of everything —the coolness of the interior, the blue of the ice, the dramatic sweep of architecture formed thousands of years earlier. He was mostly aware that her hair was a rich brown and her eyes were a cool gray. Her mouth was wide and curved at the corners, and she had laugh lines.