Authors: Christine Feehan
Tags: #Fiction, #Paranormal, #Horror, #Vampires, #Love Stories, #Occult & Supernatural, #Occult fiction, #Fantasy, #Romance
Lara blinked up at him, puzzled by the strange ritual he always invoked before he caught her by her thin shoulders and yanked her to her feet. His eyes glowed a ruby red, shining with madness as he turned her wrist up and slashed the blade across it.
She cried out, tried to suppress the shock of panic and pain as the knife cut through flesh to bone, freeing the screams of multiple victims, the shadows of life still clinging to the weapon that had tortured and killed them. Razvan pressed her wrist to his mouth and began to suck greedily, his teeth biting and scraping as if at a bone. He made hideous slurping noises, the sound mingling with the cries of the dead.
Tears burned behind her lids, blurred her vision and choked in her throat. The aunts were right, she had to escape. It mattered little what was waiting in the outside world, she couldn't survive this torment day after day.
Stay strong. He is nearly sated.
She clung to that, knowing that the aunts always were aware when Razvan was about to stop feeding. She felt weak and dizzy, her knees sagging. And then everything in her went still. The hair on the back of her neck rose. Goose bumps rose on her arms and a shiver of apprehension slid down her spine.
was coming. If Razvan was a monster, her greatgrandfather was the living epitome of evil. She could feel his presence long before he ever entered the chamber.
Razvan shuddered visibly as he lifted his head and shoved Lara behind him. Lara swept her tongue across the wound, the healing agents in her saliva sealing her skin.
The scent of decayed flesh heralded Xavier's arrival. He entered, his emaciated body bent over, one hand wrapped around a walking stick as he shuffled into the chamber. The walking stick was a weapon of amazing power and could be—and often was—wielded to administer pain. The long robes covering the thin body rustled with every step, swishing across the ice floor, picking up crystals so that the hem collected shards and splinters of glistening white. The long white beard was nearly to the old man's waist. His image was blurry as he moved, but if she looked hard enough she could see the rotting flesh beneath the glamour.
Lara felt the surge of power and knew it emanated from the walking stick rather than from her great-grandfather. Razvan cowered from the old man as he approached. She knew Xavier was the oldest mage, the master of both white and black magic. His teachings had been the foundation of not only the race of mages, but of the Carpathian people as well. Her aunts had educated her in the terrible family history of kidnap, rape, murder and war. All because of this one man and his search for immortality.
Xavier stretched a thin arm toward her, his fingers like bones, the nails long and curled. He beckoned.
Razvan shoved Lara away. "You will not touch her. You have your own supply."
Come close, Lara, now, while they bicker over you. Come close to the wall and aid us in breaking free.
"I can no longer use them as you well know. They have become far too powerful to control. I need the book. We must find the book." Xavier stumbled closer to Lara, his clawlike fingers reaching for her. "Once I have the book, they will not be able to defy me."
Razvan swept Lara farther behind him. "This one is mine and you will not touch her."
"Do not presume to give me orders." The voice bellowed in the vast chambers. Xavier stood to his full height, Razvan shrinking before him. "I grow old, but I still have my abilities and you do not."
Lara inched closer to the wall, all the while gathering the energy in the room.
"You cannot even control your own children. As sick as they are they still defy you! You forced me to bring you my own offspring, but you cannot have this one. You kill them with your greed."
"You will give her to me." Xavier swung his stick up, the tip pointing at his grandson.
Lara seized the moment, pulling every scrap of energy from the stick she could and directing it toward the ice wall. At the same time, the aunts connected their power with hers. The massive wall bubbled outward toward the chamber. Great shards fell off as the ice spiderwebbed, and then fragmented.
"Stop them!" Xavier leapt away from the splintering ice as he yelled the warning.
A bright red dragon burst through the ice, claws stretched toward Razvan as the blue dragon bent its wing to Lara.
Nova! Now! Climb on fast
. Aunt Tatijana called to her.
Lara didn't hesitate. She jumped agilely onto the wing, scrambled up the sloping membrane and swung her leg over the dragons back. Immediately the dragon reared back on its leg, great wings flapping violently, creating a windstorm, blowing both men backward. Xavier lost his grip on the walking stick. Lara concentrated on it, funneling the wind straight at the thick wooden staff. It rolled to the far side of the ice chamber. The blue dragon took to the air.
There is not much time. Go, Tatijana, flee while you can
, Bronnie pleaded with her sister while she flung her body between Razvan, Xavier and Lara.
Lara could see both dragons were weak. Already their skin color was fading. The effort to keep the two mages at bay was already taking its toll on them. Sitting on Tatijana she realized they were starved, had been starved for years. Xavier only allowed them the barest sustenance in order to keep them from being able to utilize their power. Of the two, Tatijana was the weakest. Bronnie tried to give her sister time to reach the surface and escape.
Lara looked down to see Razvan creeping toward the red dragon.
Bronnie flapped her wings to keep Xavier on the floor and away from the all-powerful staff.
. Lara tried to warn her aunt, but the warning was a heartbeat too late.
Razvan plunged the ceremonial knife into the chest of the red dragon. Tatijana screamed. The red dragon sank to the floor.
Get off. Run. I will hold them as long as I can
. Tatijana extended her wing to allow Lara to crawl off onto a ledge far above the chamber.
Go with her Tatijana
, Bronnie entreated.
Come with me
, Lara begged.
Tatijana shook her head.
I will not leave my sister. Go, little one. Run and forget this place. Do not look back. Be free and find happiness
Lara clutched the ice wall. She still had to find her way out of the maze of tunnels to the surface. She looked below one last time at the only home she'd ever known. Xavier regained his feet and held up his hand. The staff hesitated and then flew across the room to him.
"Be still or you will die," he commanded. "You fool," he hissed at Razvan.
The red dragon continued to fight, spilling blood across the ice floor in bright red streaks.
Xavier pointed the staff at the blue dragon. "Be still or I will kill your sister."
Bronnie ceased all movement and lay panting on the ice. The blue dragon settled next to her sister, nuzzling her with her long neck and tongue in an effort to save her.
Lara held back a sob by pressing her hand tightly against her mouth.
Go before her sacrifice is in vain
, Tatijana ordered.
"Lara, let's get out of here," Terry Vale said. "It's getting dark and there's nothing here." He shouldered his caving equipment, not surprised that they hadn't found an entrance to an ice cave. If no one had discovered the cave by this time in the Carpathian Mountains, he doubted if the place existed.
Lara Calladine ignored him, continuing to scan the mountainside for the smallest crack, that might signal the presence of a cave. She wasn't wrong—not this time. Power had surged and crackled the moment she set foot on the upper slopes of the mountain. She took a deep breath and pressed a hand over her pounding heart. This was
. This was the place she had spent her life searching for. She would recognize that flow of energy anywhere. She knew every weave, every spell, her body absorbing the gathering power so that veins sizzled and nerve endings burned with the electrical current building inside of her.
"I've got to go with Terry on this," Gerald French agreed, backing up the other member of their research caving team. "This place gives me the creeps. We've been on a lot of mountains, but this one doesn't like us." He gave a nervous laugh. "It's getting dicey up here."
"No one says 'dicey,'" Lara murmured, running her hand along the face of the rock about an inch from it, looking for threads of power. The two men were not only her climbing partners, but her closest friends. At that moment she wished she'd left them behind, because she knew she was right. The cave was here, she just had to find the entrance.
"Whatever," Gerald snapped. "It's getting dark and there's nothing here but mist. The fog is creepy, Lara. We've got to get out of here."
Lara spared the two men an impatient glance and then surveyed the countryside around them. Ice and snow glittered, coating the surrounding mountains with what appeared to be sparkling gems. Far below, despite the gathering dusk, she could see castles, farms, and churches in the valley. Sheep dotted the meadows and in the distance she could see the river running, filled to capacity. Overhead birds cried, filling the sky and dive-bombing toward her only to break off abruptly and circle again. The wind shifted continuously, biting at her face and every bit of exposed skin, tugging at her long, thick braid all the while moaning and wailing. Occasionally, a rock fell down the slope and bounced off the ledge to the hillside below. A trickle of snow and dirt slid near her feet.
Her gaze swept the wild countryside below. Gorges and ravines cut through the snow-capped mountains, plants clung to the sides of the rocks and shivered naked along the plateaus. She could see the entrances to several caves and felt the strong pull toward them as if they were tempting her to leave her current position. Water filled the deeper depressions below, forming a dark peat bog and beds of moss were a vivid green in stark contrast to the browns surrounding them. But she needed to be here—in this spot—this place. She had studied the geography carefully and knew, deep within the earth, a massive series of ice caves had formed.
The higher she climbed, the smaller everything below her looked and the thicker the white mist surrounding her became. With each step, the ground shifted subtly and the birds overhead shrieked a little louder. Ordinary things, yes, but the subtle sense of uneasiness, the continual voice whispering to leave before it was too late told her this was a place of power protecting itself. Although the wind continued to wail and blow, the mist remained a thick veil shrouding the upper slope.
"Come on, Lara," Terry tried again. "It took us forever to get the permits, we can't waste time on the wrong area. You can see nothing's here."
It had taken considerable effort this time, to get the permits for her study, but she had managed the usual way—using her gifts to persuade those who disagreed with her that due to global warming concerns, the ice caves needed immediate study. Unique microorganisms called extremophiles thrived in the harsh environment of the caves, far away from sunlight or traditional nutrients. Scientists hoped those microbes could aid in the fight against cancer or even produce an antibiotic capable of wiping out the newest emerging superbugs.
Her research project was fully funded and, although she was considered young at the age of twenty-seven, she was acknowledged as the leading expert in the field of ice-cave study and preservation. She'd logged more hours exploring, mapping and studying the ice caves around the world than most other researchers twice her age. She'd also discovered more superbugs than any other caver.
"Didn't it strike you as odd that no one wanted us in this particular region? They were fine giving us permits to look virtually anywhere else," she pointed out. Part of the reason she'd persisted when no caves had been mapped in the area was because the department head had been so strange—strange and rather vague when they went over the map. The natural geographical deduction after studying the area was that a vast network of ice caves lay beneath the mountain, yet the entire region seemed to have been overlooked.
Terry and Gerald had exhibited exactly the same behavior, as if they didn't notice the structure of the mountain, but both men were superb at finding ice caves from the geographical surface. Persuasion had been difficult, but all of that work was for this moment—this cave—this find.
"It's here," she said with absolute confidence.
Her heart continued to pound—not at the excitement of the find—but because walking had become such a chore, her body not wanting to continue forward. She breathed away the compulsion to leave and pressed through the safeguards, following the trail of power, judging how close she was to the entrance by how strong her need to run away was.
Voices rose in the wind, swirled in the mists, telling her to go back, to leave while she could. Strangely, she heard the voices in several languages, the warning much stronger and more insistent as she made her way along the slope searching for anything at all that might signal an entrance to the caves she knew were there. All the while she kept all senses alert to the possibility that monsters might lurk beneath the earth, but she had to enter—to find the place of her nightmares, the place of her childhood. She had to find the two dragons she dreamed of nightly.