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.

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