Dark Nights

By: Christine Feehan

Chapter One

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 undead. 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, and 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 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. Stealthily, he shape-shifted as he emerged, nothing more than 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 with his acute vision. The breeze brought the echo of that strange rhythm to him, coming from his left. Those blank spots—the undead protecting their foul presence from nature—came from his right. It took a few more moments to detect the other two undead waiting 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. The band of vampires had been following him, first one group and then another, attacking and retreating each time he got the upper hand in the battle. This time, they appeared to have the advantage and in any case, he was already exhausted. Like a pack of dogs wearing down prey, they had been nipping at his heels for several risings, inflicting damage here and there, nothing huge, but enough to wear him down. He would pick his own battleground.

As he turned away, the sound of the clicking fingernails came again. The sound grew louder. With each click, droplets of water fell from the clouds—tiny droplets that never quite reached the ground. The beads collected in midair, formed a large, shimmering pool. Shocked, he could see his own reflection clearly in the pool. Not the scattered molecules, or an illusion, but the real man amongst the leaves. If he could see himself, so could the enemy. 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, engulfed him in a fiery cloud, penetrating deep. Pain slammed through him, but Traian shoved it aside, turning to face the enemy. Insects clouded the skies, and all the while the clicking of the fingernails went on relentlessly.

He launched himself at the shadowy figure orchestrating the fight, ignoring the two lesser vampires. Gallent seemed to be directing the action, a leader in evil, as he had been a leader among Carpathians. The ancient Carpathian-turned-vampire was a master at planning cunning traps and with the poison working its way through his system, Traian knew he was in serious trouble. He couldn’t allow Gallent room to think. His lesser vampires were considered fodder, merely pawns in his scheme to kill a Carpathian hunter. It was Gallent, Traian had to destroy.

Traian burst through the sky, his fist already snapping out, driving toward the vampire’s chest, intending to smash through the rotting shell of bone and tissue for the blackened heart.

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.

Dissolving into mist, Traian streaked toward the ancient vampire, at the last moment shifting back to solid form, his fist slamming deep into the chest of the undead. Gallent shrieked. Black blood sprayed over the hunter, burning through flesh to bone, the poisonous acid pouring over Traian’s arm and hand.

Gallent retaliated with a swipe of his vicious claws at Traian’s eyes, attempting to blind the hunter. A brutal head-butt followed, and the vampire rolled his head to one side, teeth tearing into Traian’s neck, right over his vulnerable artery. Pain streaked up his neck and radiated through his body as the vampire’s serrated teeth viciously sawed through flesh to get at the enticing banquet of pure ancient blood.

Traian set his teeth, pushing aside the fierce pain to burrow deeper, tunneling towards the blackened heart. His flesh tore and the vampire spit it out, gulping at his spraying blood. The two lesser vampires shrieked in glee and leapt at him, dragging him to the ground, ripping his arm back away from their master, teeth burying into his body, desperate to get at his blood. Gallent kicked at them as they tried to devour him, teeth ripping through skin to get at the precious treasure.

The pain level became agony, nearly impossible to block out. Traian knew he had to retreat to give himself enough time to repair the damage to his neck and body. With such a blood loss, he was weakening fast. He twice tried to throw off the lesser vampires, but they stuck to him like glue. Gallent’s furious orders and vicious kicks couldn’t dislodge his minions either. The lure of pure blood was too strong.

Gallent abandoned his tactics, saliva dripping in long, slobbery strands from his mouth, as the need for Carpathian blood overcame his discipline, won over hundreds of years of being vampire. He threw himself on Traian, talons raking and teeth biting, trying, like his underlings, to strip flesh away and get at the blood. So rich and pure, the feast would boost strength and give the vampires not only a further advantage, but a rush of feeling they were so desperate to have.

Weakened, Traian took the only way out left to him, evaporating and taking to the air, streaking away from the frenzied undead. Shrieking, the three followed him, unwilling to lose their prey when they were so close to victory. Killing a hunter of Traian’s stature would be a significant victory, and with the taste of blood already in their mouths, they refused to allow such a prize to escape. Traian’s blood rained down on the shivering leaves, the scent of the ancient gift driving the vampires into a frenzy of rage and hunger.

Traian had long been fighting these battles and weariness settled over him even as he raced across the night sky, forced to flee with the poisonous acid working its way through his body and his blood spraying across the forest, the hounds of hell nipping at his heels. He glanced up at the sky. Sunrise was still a good hour away. The vampires would pursue him until they had no other recourse than to go to ground to avoid burning in the sun.

Cursing under his breath, he used a flash of tremendous energy to cut off the bleeding and repair his torn neck as best he could in flight. He needed soil and saliva, but flying as mist precluded both. Shifting took energy as did staying in the air, and he was running on empty. He needed to shake his pursuers fast. The hounds had become the hunters and they had a pack.