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Natalya Shonski drew the pair of black leather trousers up over her legs and settled them on her hips where they molded to her body. Leather helped prevent injury during battles and she was certain she would be running into trouble tonight. As she pulled on the soft leather camisole, she glanced around the meticulously clean room she’d rented. The inn was small, but colorful with the tapestries on the walls and the bright patterned covers decorating the bed. Her weapons were laid out with great care over the beautifully woven quilt.
She began to slip the various weapons into the specially made compartments and loops in the leather pants. Throwing stars with razor sharp edges. Several knives. A belt that provided her with room for more weapons and extra clips for the twin guns she fit snugly into the harness under each arm. She drew on one of her new peasant blouses and donned the furred, brightly colored vest the local women wore for warmth, effectively hiding her arsenal.
The long skirt not only hid the leather pants, but helped her to blend into the local population. She’d chosen a colorful one, rather than the severe black the older women often wore, and tied a scarf over her tawny hair to further intermingle.
Satisfied she looked as much like a local as possible, she shoved two Arnis sticks into the well-worn loops on her backpack and opened the doors to the balcony. She had deliberately chosen a room on the second floor. Her many enemies would find it difficult to approach unnoticed while she could escape easily to the ground below or go up and over the roof.
Natalya rested her hands on the balcony rail and leaned out to survey the countryside. The small village was nestled at the bottom of one of the tall jagged peaks that formed the formidable Carpathian Mountains. Numerous small farms were scattered across the green, rolling hills. Stacks of hay dotted the meadows and led the way up the mountain to the timberline. Above the heavy forest were rocky peaks, still glistening with snow. She felt as if she’d stepped back in time with the simple homes and the rustic way of life, yet she felt as if she’d come home. And that was truly odd. She had no home.
Natalya sighed and closed her eyes briefly. More than anything in the world, she envied these people their families. Their laughter and children and the love shining in their eyes and on their faces. She longed to belong somewhere. Be needed by someone. To be treasured by one single person. Just to be able to truly be who she was, share a real conversation….
Her fingers found deep grooves in the railing and she found herself rubbing the polished wood, the pads of her fingers stroking along the grooves almost in a caress. Startled, she examined the scores in the hard wood. It looked as if a large bird had dug talons deep into the railing, although the marks were old and innkeepers kept the intricately carved balcony polished and free of splinters.
She inhaled the night air and stared up toward the top of the mountain. Somewhere up there was her goal. She had no idea what drove her to come to this particular spot, but she trusted her instincts. She needed to climb to the top and find whatever it was that wouldn’t let go of her. Thick mist hid the mountaintop, enveloping the peak in an impenetrable cloud. Whether the cloud was natural condensation or a preternatural made warning made no difference. She had no choice but to climb the mountain, the compulsion driving her was far too strong to ignore.
Natalya took a last look toward the swirling white mists and headed back into her room. There was no point in putting it off. She’d spent the last week mingling with the people in the village, establishing friendships with a few of the women and getting a feel for the area. She found she needed human companionship although her life was very solitary. She enjoyed the time spent with the local women and had gleaned quite a bit of information from them, but she was always saddened that her friendships could never go beyond surface. It made for a lonely life and she yearned to belong somewhere, to let someone like the innkeeper, Slavica Ostojic, know who and what she was, just so Natalya could have the luxury of being honest with someone she truly liked.
The hallway and stairs were narrow, leading to the sitting room below. The room opened into the dining hall on one end and a bar on the other. Many of the locals drank beer in the evening and visited together after a hard day’s work. She waved to two or three people she recognized, her gaze automatically scanning the rooms, noting exits, windows and above all, new faces. Several men sitting at the bar glanced at her. She catalogued the lined faces, the friendly smiles and assessing glances, filed them away just in case she met up with them again.
One pair of eyes flicked over her face, giving her pause. The perusal was quick, but it was thorough. He was reading her in the same way she was reading him. He certainly noticed the backpack with the double Arnis sticks and her ornate walking stick. Natalya turned away with a quick smile for the owner of the Inn, grateful she could make her exit gracefully. If there was a sentry watching, she didn’t want him to know her plans.
“Slavica,” she took the innkeeper’s hands in hers. “Thank you so much for the wonderful meal.” She spoke in English because Slavica worked hard to perfect her language skills and always practiced. Deliberately she led the woman away from the bar to a more secluded spot in the sitting room where prying ears would not be able to overhear their conversation. “I’m heading up into the mountains and I’m often gone for days at a time while exploring. Don’t worry about me. I’ll return eventually. Give me a week at least before you panic.”
Slavica shook her head. “It is after sunset, Natalya. Here in the mountains and forests there can be…” she hesitated searching for the right word. “Unrest. It’s better if you explore during the day when the sun is bright and there are people around you.” She looked up and met her husband’s eyes across the room and smiled.
Natalya instantly felt a pang of envy. She loved to watch the innkeeper with her husband, Mirko and their daughter, Angelina together. Their love for one another was always so obvious in the small little glances they exchanged and the many touches as they brushed by one another as they worked.
“I’ve gone out every evening and you’ve never objected,” Natalya reminded her. “And nearly all of those times were after sunset.”
Slavica gave her a faint smile. “I feel the difference tonight. I know you will think I’m superstitious, but something is not right this evening and it is better you stay here with us.” She patted Natalya’s arm. “There is much to do here. Mirko will play chess with you. He is quite good. Or I will teach you more about the local herbs and how to use them to heal.” Slavica was a trained nurse and renowned for her healing skills throughout the district and for her knowledge of the local healing herbs and how to use them. The subject fascinated Natalya and she enjoyed spending time in Slavica’s company while the woman imparted her knowledge.
Natalya shook her head, regret lingering in her heart. Slavica was the kind of woman that made her ache to be part of a family and community. “Thank you, Slavica, but I have protection.” She pulled the cross hanging on the thin silver chain from where it was hidden beneath her shirt. “I appreciate your concern, but I’ll be fine.”
Slavica started to protest, but stopped herself, pressing her lips together firmly. She simply shook her head.
“I know what I’m doing,” Natalya assured. “I’m going to slip out through the kitchen if you don’t mind. I’ve got food and drink enough for several days and I’ll be back in the middle of next week if not sooner.”
Slavica walked with her through the dining room. Natalya risked another glance at the man sitting at the bar talking to Mirko. He seemed absorbed in the conversation, but she didn’t trust him. He had shown interest in her and it wasn’t the interest of a man looking for a woman. She had no idea what it was, but she wasn’t going to take any chances. She gave a small nod toward the man. “Who is he? I haven’t seen him in here before.”
“He travels through this way many times on business.” Slavica’s expression gave nothing away. “He’s very quiet and I don’t know what his business is.”
“Is he married?”
The innkeeper looked alarmed. “This man is not for you, Natalya. He is welcome here as all travelers are, but he is not for you.”
Natalya didn’t dare risk another glance in the man’s direction. He was far too observant and she didn’t want to draw his attention. She walked through the dining room into the small kitchen. There was the inevitable sheep’s cheese and baskets of potatoes. “Don’t worry, I’m not looking for a man.”
“I have seen the yearning on your face and in your eyes when you look at children. When you see married couples,” Slavica said gently. “You wish for a family of your own.”
Natalya shrugged carelessly, avoiding the other woman’s gaze, not wanting to see the compassion she knew would be there. Was she becoming that obvious? When had it become so difficult for her to hide her feelings beneath her carefully cultivated ‘flip’ personality? “I like traveling. I wouldn’t want to be tied down.” It was a blatant lie and for the first time in her life, she knew she had given herself away.
“It is natural to want a family and a man for yourself. I waited to find the right one,” Slavica counseled. “Even when my parents and neighbors thought I was too old and would never find him, I thought better to wait then to make a mistake and tie myself to someone I don’t want to spend my life with. I waited for Mirko and it was the right thing to do. We have a beautiful daughter and this place and that is enough. We’re happy together. You understand, Natalya? Don’t give yourself away to just any man because you think time is running out.”
Natalya nodded solemnly. “I understand and agree completely. I’m not feeling desperate to find a man, far from it. I’ll see you soon.” She pushed open the kitchen door, gave a cheery wave toward the frowning innkeeper and hurried out into the night.
After the warmth of the inn, the air outside was cold, but she was prepared for that. She walked briskly along the narrow road leading toward the mountain trail. An empty horse cart passed her and she called out asking for a ride. The farmer hesitated and then stopped for her. Natalya caught up the hem of her skirt and ran to catch up before he could change his mind. Most of the locals used the horse carts rather than cars. They were simple vehicles, a wagon on tires pulled by one or two horses. They were used for everything from transportation to hauling great sheaves of hay.
“Thank you sir,” she said as she tossed in her walking stick and climbed aboard. She settled herself toward the back of the cart, not wanting to make the farmer more uncomfortable than he already seemed to be hauling a strange woman around.
To her surprise he spoke. Most of the older married men were quite reserved around younger, single women. “What are you doing out this late? The sun has gone down.” He glanced nervously around him.
“Yes it has,” she agreed, avoiding the question. “You’re out late as well.”
“It isn’t good,” he said. “Not this night.” He kept his voice very low. The concern in his tone was unmistakable. “Better you should allow my wife and I to put you up for the night. Or I could take you to the inn.” He was looking up at the moon, at the clouds swirling over it, partially blocking the light and it was clear he didn’t want to turn back. He shook the reins to speed the horse up.
Natalya glanced up at the sky and the boiling clouds that had not been there minutes before. The heavy mist obscuring the top of the mountains spread like bony fingers, reaching up toward the moon and lower for the forest. Lightning edged the mist in golden arcs. Thunder rumbled in the distance, centered mainly over the mountain.
She slid her hand inside her fur vest and touched the handle of her gun. “The weather changed fast this evening.” And it wasn’t natural.
“It happens that way in the mountains,” the farmer said, clucking at the horse with urgency. “It’s best to take cover until things settle down.”
Natalya didn’t reply. She had to get to the top of the mountain. Had spies let her enemies know she was close? Were they waiting for her? She turned her attention to the countryside passing by so quickly. Was there movement in the shadows? If so, she had to lead trouble away from the farmer. They had traveled far past the perimeters of the village and well out into the rolling hills where farms dotted the landscape.
She stayed alert, watching for signs of an impending attack, her senses flaring out into the night, reaching for information. She inhaled, taking the night air deep into her lungs, working to unravel the stories the wind brought her. The wind carried the stench of evil. The whisper of movement in the forest. The scent of wolves, restless beneath the moon. Her chin lifted. So be it. She didn’t go looking for fights. She was, in fact, usually the first to walk away, but she was tired of being pursued, of looking over her shoulder every minute of every day. If they wanted to fight, she had come prepared, because this time she wasn’t going to turn away.
The farmer pulled the cart onto a narrow lane. The horse slowed to make the sharp turn and Natalya jumped off, waving at the farmer as she hurried away. He called out to her, but she kept going, walking briskly up the hillside toward the timberline.
The moment she was certain she was out of the farmer’s sight, she stripped off the brightly colored skirt and blouse, folding them along with the scarf and tucking them into her backpack. The double Arnis sticks went into loops at the back of her belt for easy retrieval. Her entire demeanor changed as she gripped the familiar walking stick. She strode with tremendous confidence, weaving in and out of the hay sheaves until she was clear of the farms. A walking path led up the mountain, a trail for goats, not humans, but she took it because it was the most direct approach.
She crossed through a field of alpine flowers, the blossoms everywhere as she pushed through the high grasses toward the slope of timber. The moon was almost completely hidden by the darkening clouds, and the closer she got to the forest, the louder the thunder boomed. Flowers and grass gave way to bushes and scrub. Large boulders dotted the slope. A few heartier flowers had managed to find their way into the crevices. The trees were small and very scraggly, but as she wound her way through two more switchbacks, the vegetation changed completely, growing fuller and taller.
Natalya had studied the Carpathian Mountains. She knew the range was one of Europe’s largest homes for carnivores, rich with brown bear, wolves and lynx. The mountains stretched across seven countries in Central Europe and the heavily wooded forests were one of the last refuges left to Europe’s rare and nearly extinct birds and larger predators. Although home to millions of people, the Carpathian Mountains boasted huge tracts of land that remained utterly wild and dangerous.
She paused to examine the pristine forest surrounding her. The area received twice the rainfall of surrounding regions and the amazing forests and green hills gave evidence of the amount of water that fed the river systems below. The vivid colors of green drew her into the coolness of the forest almost as a compulsion would. Why did she know this place? How had she dreamt of it? How did she know that when she took the left path, no more than a deer path, it would lead her deep into the interior and she would find the faint trail that would take her to the very top of the mountains, right up into the swirling mists where few people ventured to go.
She took the left path, moving fast, using a light, ground-eating jog that took her through the brush quickly. She had to make the top of the mountain and find the entrance to the caves before sunup.
The forest grew more dense, the plants more exotic and lush as she hurried through the seemingly impenetrable trees. Swaying branches interlocked overhead, blocking most of the moonlight. Natalya had no problem seeing where she was going. In addition to excellent night vision, she’d always had a sense of radar, even with her eyes closed, preventing her from running into obstacles.
She moved through the forest swiftly but with instinctive caution, fully alert, aware of the smallest of rustlings, the silence of insects and the faintest of scents that would indicate she wasn’t alone.
Her mouth went suddenly dry and her heart rate increased. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled with unease. She was being stalked.
Behind her shadows slipped around the trees in an effort to surround her. Natalya continued jogging at the same steady pace. As she ran she transferred her grip on the walking stick to the familiar grooves at the top of it in preparation for a fight.
The first wolf sprang at her out of the cover of brush as she crossed a small stream. Natalya didn’t slow down, but met the charge with a practiced swing of the thick walking stick. The crack was audible; the wolf yelped and leapt back as she swept past. She whirled around, drawing the sword smoothly from the stick and casting the deceptive sheath aside to face the wolf.
“If you wish to fight me, brother, do so. I have places to go and you are delaying my travel.” She murmured the words aloud as she glided toward the animal, deliberately stepping into the wind so it could carry her scent to the pack.
The wolf sniffed the air and backed up, suddenly wary. The pack members milled around in confusion. Natalya growled low in her throat, the warning of a wild, dangerous animal. Her vivid green eyes began to swirl with intense blue, going almost opaque as she bared her teeth at the pack. Streaks of midnight black and bright orange—almost red banded through her hair. The wolves broke off, loping away from her. Only the alpha female looked back, snarling and showing her displeasure at the unfamiliar scent. Natalya hissed a warning and the female fled after the pack.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Natalya called after them, sliding the sword back into the scabbard. She waited to make certain the wolves were gone before continuing up the mountainside, moving steadily toward her goal.
She cleared a downed tree covered with moss and fern and slid to an abrupt halt as a man sauntered out from behind a tree directly in front of her. He was tall with dark hair, very handsome, his shoulders wide and his smile dazzling. Natalya scanned the area with every sense on high alert. He wasn’t alone, she was certain of it.
She dropped her pack on the ground and smiled at the man. “I expected you a good hour ago.”
He bowed from the waist. “I am sorry to be late then, lady. I arrived here to prepare for your coming.” He opened his arms wide to encompass the area around them.
“It wasn’t necessary to dress in your Sunday best,” Natalya said. “Although the alternative is rather disgusting.”
A flicker of anger rippled across the man’s face, but he hung onto his smile. His teeth weren’t so white and appeared pointy and sharp. “Please put down your stick.”
“Do you think I’m going to make it easy on you? I’m not really happy with you, Freddie boy.”
This time the anger stayed. Brown stains appeared on his teeth. “I am not Freddie. Who is Freddie? My name is Henrik.”
“You don’t get out much do you? Haven’t you ever watched the late night movies? Freddie’s a regular star. A very ugly mass murderer, much like yourself. I really don’t care what your name is. I care that you persist in following me and I’m damned tired of it. So take your best shot, Freddie boy and let’s get it over.”
Henrik’s breath came out in a long hiss of anger. “You will learn respect.”
Not bothering with a retort, Natalya launched her attack, freeing her sword as she sprang at him. The sword arced through the air slicing toward his neck.
Henrik dissolved into vapor, streaming away from her, a shriek of rage echoing through the forest. He faced her several yards away. His thick black hair was gone to be replaced by long white very disheveled strands.
“I should have known you’d be a sissy. Vampires are supposed to be such bad asses, but you’re all such babies. You wanted a fight.” Natalya continued to goad him. “I’ve got things to do tonight. I don’t have time to play your little games with you.”
“You go too far. I don’t care what the order is. I’m going to kill you,” the vampire snarled.
She smirked at him, giving a small salute. “Nice to know you can think for yourself. I thought your puppet master had you too well trained for free thinking.”
The branch above her head cracked and broke off, rocketing toward her head like a missile. Natalya leapt forward, going on the offensive, ramming the sword straight at Henrik’s chest. The branch slammed into the ground exactly where she’d been standing.
The vampire parried the sword away with a sweep of his arm. He was enormously strong and the contact sent violent vibrations up and down her arm so that for a moment everything went numb and the sword slid out of her hand. She kept moving, spinning nearly in midair, already reaching for her guns. She drew both, rapid firing as she raced at him, the bullets slamming into him repeatedly, driving him backwards away from her.
Henrik jerked with each bullet, staggering, but staying upright. As she reached arm’s distance, she holstered one gun and drew a knife, holding it low, close to her body as she drove toward him.
He attempted to shift shape, reaching for her with contorting arms and clawed hands. She drove the knife into his chest, deep into his heart and leapt away to keep the blood from touching her skin. She’d learned from experience it burned like acid. She’d also learned vampires could rise again and again.
She whirled around and raced for her sword. The wind rushed over her, a whirling eddy of leaves and twigs. Wings beat strongly above her head and talons materialized out of the sky, dropping at an alarming rate of speed straight toward her eyes. Natalya dove for the ground in a rolling somersault, coming up on one knee, guns in both hands, tracking the huge bird. It had already dissolved into mist. The droplets shimmered and began to take the shape of a human.
She waited. It was impossible to kill a vampire without form. Already Henrik was stirring, tugging at the knife buried in his heart. He called weakly to the new arrival. She heaved a sigh. “Die already! Sheesh, the least you could do is put yourself out of your misery and get it over.”
“Good evening, Natalya.” The voice was hypnotic, almost mesmerizing.
“Well, if it isn’t my good friend Arturo.” Natalya faced the vampire with a false smile. “How nice to see you again. It’s been a long time.” She gestured with her gun toward the writhing vampire. “Your little sissy partner is making so much noise. Would you mind finishing him off so we can talk without the background music? If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a whiney vampire.” Deliberately she continued to goad Henrik, knowing the angrier the vampire, the more mistakes they made in battle.
“You haven’t changed much.”
“I’ve gotten meaner.” She shrugged and grinned at the newcomer. “I’m losing my tolerance for your kind.”
Arturo glanced at the bleeding vampire clawing at the ground. “I see that. He is rather loud, isn’t he?” He walked over and yanked the knife from his partner’s heart and tossed it aside, nudging the vampire with his toe contemptuously. “Get up, Henrik.”
Henrik managed to stagger into a standing position. He shrieked and hissed, spittle and blood running down his face. “I’m going to kill you,” he snapped, glaring at Natalya.
“Do shut up,” Natalya said. “You’re becoming so repetitive.”
“You will not escape this time,” Arturo said. “You cannot best Henrik, me and the wolves. Do you hear them? They are on their way to assist us.”
“You take all the fun out of fighting because you never fight fair,” Natalya complained. “You have no honor.”
Arturo smiled at her with his perfect white teeth. “What is honor after all, Natalya? It is worth nothing.”
Vikirnoff Von Shrieder knew the moment he entered the heavy woods that something evil waited there. The warning came in the silence of the forest, the way the earth shuddered and the trees cringed. Not a single living creature moved. It mattered little. He was a hunter and he expected danger to find him. It was his accepted way of life and had been for centuries.
He took a step and stopped abruptly as the grass shivered beneath his feet. He looked down, half expecting to see the stalks shrivel. Was the forest shrinking from direct contact with him? Had it sensed the darkness shadowing him with every step, with each breath he took? Nature could very well be naming him monster—vampire. A Carpathian male who had deliberately chosen to give up his soul for the momentary rush of power and emotion a kill while feeding brought.
It was a choice, wasn’t it? Had he made a decision and was no longer aware of whether he was good or evil? Was there even such a thing? The thought should have distressed him, but it didn’t. He felt nothing at all even as he contemplated the idea that he was no longer fully a Carpathian male; that the predator in him had consumed all but some small spark left in his soul.
He dropped to his knees, his hands digging through layers of leaves and twigs covering the forest floor and plunging deep into the rich, dark soil beneath. He lifted his face to the night sky. “ Susu ,” he whispered aloud. I am home. His native language rolled off his tongue naturally, his accent thicker than usual as if somehow by just being in the Carpathian Mountains he could go back in time.
After so many centuries of exile in service to his people, he had finally returned to his birthplace. He knelt in utter silence waiting for something. Anything. Some flicker of emotion, or remembrance. He expected the soil to bring peace, to bring him serenity, to bring him something, but there was the same barren void he woke to every rising.
Nothing. He felt absolutely nothing. He bowed his head and sank back on his heels, looking around him. What he wanted or even needed, he didn’t know, but there was no flood of emotion. No elation. No disappointment. Not even despair. The forest looked bleak and gray with twisted, malevolent shadows waiting for him. The endless cycle of his life remained. Kill or be killed.
Hunger was ever present now, a soft seductive whisper in his mind. The call to power, to salvation, and false though he knew it to be, it had gained strength with every rising. He had fought battles, far too many to count, destroying old friends, men he respected and admired, watching the fall of his people and all for what? “Tell me the reason,” he whispered to the night. “Let me understand the complete waste of my life.”
Had he fed this night? He tried to recall the occasion of his wakening, but it seemed too much trouble. Surely he hadn’t taken a life while feeding. Was this how it happened then? Was there no real choice, but a slow indifference pervading one’s mind until one kill ran into another? Until one feeding became mixed with a kill and his indifference became the weapon of his own destruction?
He looked toward the south where he knew the prince of his people resided. The wind began to pick up speed and strength, rushing through the forest in a southerly direction. “Honor is a damnable trait and one that may not last eternity.” Vikirnoff murmured the words with a small sigh as he rose to his full height and drew back his long hair, securing it at the nape of his neck with a leather tie. Did he still have his honor? After centuries of battling to keep his word, had the crouching beast at last consumed him?
The leaves on the trees closest to him began to tremble and the branches swayed with alarm. He was a Carpathian male, born into an ancient race now on the brink of extinction. They had few women, so all-important to the males and the preservation of life. Two halves of the same whole, darkness ruled the males while light dwelt within the females. Without women to anchor them, the males were falling into the greedy jaws of their own demons.
Vikirnoff co-existed with humans, living among them, trying to maintain honor and discipline in a world where he no longer saw in color or felt even the slightest of emotions. After two hundred years, his feelings had faded and over the long endless centuries the dark predator in him had grown strong and powerful. Only faded memories of laughter and love sustained him, and then only through his link with Nicolae, his brother. Now, that too was gone, with Nicolae an ocean away.
Vikirnoff had lived too long and become far too dangerous. His fighting skills were superb, honed and sharpened in the too numerous encounters with those of his kind who had chosen to give up their souls for the momentary illusion of power, or more likely, more tragically, for a brief moment of feeling. He felt as if he were single-handedly destroying his own race. So many deaths. So many lost friends. “For what?” He asked aloud. “ Möért?” He whispered again in his own language.
He deliberately used his own ancient tongue to recall his duty, his promises to his prince. He had volunteered to be sent out into the world. It was his choice. Always his choice. Free will. But he was no longer free. He was so close to being the very thing he hunted, he almost couldn’t separate the two.
The ground rolled gently beneath his feet and the night sky rumbled a menacing warning. Somewhere ahead of him was his quarry—a blue-eyed woman who he had pursued across an ocean. Between the woman and Vikirnoff was a vampire—or perhaps more than one.
Vikirnoff pulled the photograph of his quarry from its place close to his heart. He saw only in shades of gray, yet he had known she had eyes as blue as the sea and Nicolae told him her hair appeared midnight black. Blue Like the nearly forgotten ice lakes of his homeland. The various shades of blue in the skies overhead. He had thought—hoped—that perhaps knowing instinctively that small detail meant he was pursuing his lifemate. The other half of his soul, light to his darkness, the one woman who could restore the lost colors and most of all, his ability to feel something. Anything at all. That hope too, had faded over time, leaving the world a bleak, ugly place.
The air charged with electricity, crackling and snapping along with the building thunder. Cloud formations built in the sky, great towers churning upward. He drew the pad of his thumb in a small unconscious caress over the picture of the woman as he had done so many times before. He had dreams, of course, of the perfect Carpathian lifemate. A woman with this face, those eyes, a woman who would do as he bid, see to his happiness while he ensured hers. Life would be peaceful and serene and filled with joy and most of all, emotion. He slipped the photograph back inside his shirt, over his heart, where it would be protected. He couldn’t even sigh with regret. He didn’t feel regret, or despair. Just the endless emptiness.
You have to stop! The words swirled in his mind, a telepathic link of unexpected strength. Your emotions are so incredibly strong I can’t imagine how you don’t recognize they exist. You’re devastating me, ripping my heart out. I can’t afford this right now. Control your emotions or get the hell far away from me!
The feminine voice swirled in his mind, slid over and into his body, invaded his heart and lungs and rushed through his bloodstream with the raging force of a firestorm. For nearly two thousand years he had existed in the gray shadows feeling nothing at all. He had lived in an endless, starkly barren world without desire or rage or affection. In that one moment everything changed. His mind was instant chaos.
Colors blinded him, running together in vivid, dazzling streaks his eyes and mind could barely accept. His stomach churned and rolled as he fought to maintain alertness when the very ground beneath his feet swelled and buckled. A floodgate opened and where before there had been nothing, now there was everything, a wild jumble of every emotion with his tremendous strength and power feeding the chaos.
The trees nearest him split in two, the sound horrendous as trunks hit the ground, shaking the earth. A rift opened in the ground close to him, followed by a second jagged tear and then another. The rocks shifted and buckled and another row of trees split and flattened.
The demon in him lifted its head and roared for release, tearing at him with great claws, fighting for the freedom to abandon honor and go after the one thing that belonged solely to him. His savior. Or maybe she was his damnation. His incisors lengthened and his blood was so hot he feared he might burst into flame.
Oh my God! You’re one of them. Terror made her voice tremble.
Just as he had shared his loneliness, pain and sorrow with her, he shared his darkness and the terrible intensity of overwhelming emotions. She felt his edgy need for violence. The rush the kill provided. The primitive, raw sexual hunger that ruled his body and mixed with the possessive lust to claim her. She shared it all with him, not only the wild elation, but every fierce need and desire pouring into his body. Every questioning of his life, the gradual need to hunt and kill. The madness of his beast rising and fighting to get loose, to be unleashed for the sole purpose of getting to her.
Fear hit him, great waves nearly amounting to terror, just as quickly building into resolve. The emotions were so strong his stomach rolled. It took a moment before he realized her feelings were pouring into him with every bit of strength as his own. He touched the stream of feminine passion and found power. She would fight. Surrounded, she had no choice but to fight and win. The fear was banished. The terror gone. She would defeat whatever, whoever came at her because it was the only way left to her to survive.
Vikirnoff closed himself off from her, abruptly halting the sharing of the storm of emotions breaking through him. He searched for a mental path, a trail that would lead him back to the woman. She belonged to him. No other. Not another Carpathian. Not the vampires on her trail. She was his. He would have her or many, human and Carpathian alike, would die.
Taking a deep breath to restore his control, Vikirnoff lifted his head slowly and looked around him. The forest seemed to expand and grow and glitter with brilliance, even in the dark of night, as if he had taken a strong hallucinogenic. Above his head the clouds were black with wrath, edged with flickering white-hot lightning. Twisting tendrils of fog snaked through the trees and gathered along the ground.
Vikirnoff remained still, allowing his experience as a hunter to guide him, rather than following the dictates of his chaotic mind. He waited, sorting through the frenzied sensations, waiting for calm before taking action.
All the while he savored the sound of her voice. The path leading back to her was subtle, almost too subtle to follow. It was puzzling. She was Carpathian, yet not Carpathian. She was human, yet not human. He felt the whisper of power in her voice, the subtle ‘push’ when she tried to force obedience. She had tried to force his obedience. He took another deep breath, inhaling to take air deep into his lungs, but most of all to find her scent.