Authors: Christine Feehan
Tags: #Fantasy, #Vampires, #General, #Fiction, #Policewomen, #Romance
Dark Series - book 9
The village was far too small to stand against the army advancing so quickly toward them. Nothing had slowed the Ottoman Turks. Everything in their path had been destroyed, everyone murdered, cruelly murdered. Bodies were impaled on crude stakes and left for the scavengers to finish off. Blood ran in rivers. No one was spared, not even the youngest child or the oldest elder. The invaders burned and tortured and mutilated, leaving behind only rats and fire and death.
The village was eerily silent; not even a child dared to cry. The people could only look at one another in despair and hopelessness. There would be no help, no way to stop the massacre. They would fall as had all the villages before them in the wake of that terrible enemy. They were too few and had only their peasant weapons to fight off the advancing hordes. They were helpless.
And then the two warriors came striding out of the fog-filled night. They moved as one unit, in perfect accord, in perfect step. They moved with a peculiar animal grace, fluid and supple and totally silent. They were both tall and broad-shouldered with long, flowing hair and eyes of death. Some said they could see the red flames of hell burning in the depths of those icy black eyes.
Grown men moved out of their way; women shrank into the shadows. The two warriors looked neither left nor right yet saw everything. Power clung to them like a second skin. They ceased to move, became as still as the surrounding mountains as the village elder joined them just above the scattered huts, where they could stare out at the empty meadow separating them from the forest.
"What news?" the elder asked. "We heard of the slaughters in every direction. Now it is our turn. And nothing can stop this storm of death. We have nowhere to go, Lucian, nowhere to hide our families. We will fight, but like all the others, we will be defeated."
"We are traveling fast this night, Old One, as we are needed elsewhere. It is said our Prince has been slain. We must return to our people. You have always been a good and kind man. Gabriel and I will go out this night and do what we can to help you before we move on. The enemy can be very a superstitious people."
His tone was pure and beautiful, like velvet. Anyone listening to that voice could do no other than what Lucian commanded. All who heard it wanted only to hear it again and again. The voice alone could enthrall, could seduce, could kill.
"Go with God," the village elder whispered in thanks.
The two men moved on. In perfect rhythm, fluid, silent. Once out of sight of the village, without speaking a word aloud, they shape-shifted at exactly the same moment, taking the form of owls. Wings beat strongly in the night as they circled high above the timberline, searching out the sleeping army. Several miles from the village the earth below was strewn with hundreds of men.
Fog moved in, thick and white and low to the ground. The wind ceased, so that the mist lay dense and stationary. Without warning, owls dropped silently out of the sky, razor-sharp talons directed straight at the eyes of the sentries. The owls seemed to be everywhere, working in precise synchronization so that they were in and out before anyone could come to the guards' assistance. Screams of pain and terror filled the void of silence, and the army rose up, grabbing weapons and searching for an enemy in the thick white fog. They saw only their own sentries, empty sockets for eyes, blood running down their faces as they ran sightlessly in any direction.
In the center of the mass of warriors a
was heard, then another. Crack after crack, and two lines of men dropped to the ground with broken necks. It was as if hidden within the thick fog were invisible enemies moving quickly from man to man, breaking necks with their bare hands. Chaos erupted. Men ran screaming into the surrounding forest. But wolves boiled out of nowhere, snapping with powerful jaws at the fleeing army. Men fell on their own spears as if directed to do so. Others rammed their spears into comrades-at-arms, unable to stop themselves no matter how hard they fought the compulsion. Blood and death and terror reigned. Voices whispered in the soldiers' heads, in the very air, whispered of defeat and death. Blood soaked the ground. The night went on and on until there was no place to hide from the unseen terror, from the specter of death, from the wild beasts that came to defeat the army.
In the morning the Walachian villagers went forth to fight—and found only the dead.
Carpathian Mountains, 1400
The air reeked of death of destruction. All around were the smoking ruins of the human villages. The Carpathian ancients had tried in vain to save their neighbors, but the enemy had struck as the sun reached its peak. The hour rendered the ancients helpless, as their powers were weakest at that time. So many Carpathians, as well as humans, had been destroyed—men, women, and children alike. Only those of their people who had been far away had escaped the crushing blow.
Julian, young and strong yet a mere boy, surveyed the sight with sad eyes. So few of his kind remained. And their Prince, Vladimir Dubrinsky, was dead along with his lifemate, Sarantha. It was a catastrophe, a blow from which their species might never recover. Julian stood tall and straight, his long blond hair flowing well past his shoulders.
Dimitri came up behind him. "What are you doing here? You know it is dangerous to be out in the open like this. There are so many who would destroy us. We were told to stay close to the others." Despite his youth, he moved protectively closer to the younger boy.
"I can take care of myself," Julian declared staunchly. "And what are you doing out here?" The young boy gripped the arm of the older boy beside him. "I saw them. I am certain it was they. Lucian and Gabriel. It was they." Awe filled his voice.
"It cannot be," Dimitri whispered, looking in all directions. He was excited and scared at the same time. No one, not even the adults, named the twin hunters aloud. Lucian and Gabriel. They were legend, myth, not reality.
"But, I am certain. I knew they would come when they heard the Prince was dead. What else could they do? I am sure they have gone to see Mikhail and Gregori."
The older boy gasped. "Gregori is here also?" He followed the smaller boy through the thick forest. "He will catch us spying, Julian. He knows everything."
The blond boy shrugged, a mischievous grin curving his mouth. "I am going to see them up close, Dimitri. I am not afraid of Gregori."
"You should be. And I have heard that Lucian and Gabriel are really the undead."
Julian burst out laughing. "Who told you that?"
"I heard two of the males talking about it. They said no one could survive as long as they have, hunting and killing, and not turn."
"The humans have been at war, and our people have been destroyed in the process. Even our Prince is dead. Vampires are everywhere. Everyone is killing everyone else. I do not think we have to worry about Gabriel and Lucian. If they were really vampires, we would all be dead. No one, not even Gregori, could defeat them in battle," Julian defended. "They are so powerful, no one would be able to destroy them. They have always been loyal to the Prince. Always."
"Our Prince is dead. They are not necessarily loyal to Mikhail as the heir." Dimitri was obviously quoting adults.
Julian shook his head in exasperation and continued forward, this time making certain to be silent. He inched his way through the thick vegetation until the house was in sight. Far off, a wolf howled, the note high and lonely sounding. A second wolf answered, then a third, both much closer. Julian and Dimitri shape-shifted. They were not going to miss seeing the legendary figures. Lucian and Gabriel were the greatest vampire hunters in the history of their people. It was well known that no one could defeat them. The news that they had singlehandly destroyed an entire invading army during the night had preceded their arrival. No one knew their exact body count over the last few centuries, but it was extremely high.
Julian assumed the shape of a small marmot, moving in close to the house. He kept a watchful eye out for owls as he approached the front porch. He heard them then. Four voices murmuring softly from within the house. Although he was young, Julian had the incredible hearing of the Carpathian people. He used that acute hearing, determined to get every word. The four greatest Carpathians alive were in that house, and he would not miss the event. He was barely aware of Dimitri joining him.
"You have no choice, Mikhail," a soft voice said. The voice was incredible, pure velvet, commanding yet gentle. "You must assume the mantle of authority. The bloodline dictates it. Your father had a foreshadowing of his own death, and his instructions were clear. You must assume leadership. Gregori will help you in this time of great need, and we will do the job your father asked of us. But the mantle of authority does not belong to our bloodline. It is yours."
"You are an ancient, Lucian. One of you should rule our people. We are so few, our women lost to us, our children gone. Without women, what are our males to do?" Julian recognized Mikhail's voice. "They have no choice but to seek the dawn or become the undead. God knows, we already have enough of them doing that. I have not yet acquired the wisdom to lead our people in a time of such great need."
"You have the blood and the power, and, most of all, our people believe in you. They fear us, our power and knowledge and all that we stand for." Lucian's voice was beautiful, compelling. Julian loved the sound of that voice, could listen to it for all time. It was no wonder the adults were afraid of his power. Even at Julian's young age he recognized the voice as a weapon. And Lucian was simply talking normally. What would it be like if he wished to take command of those around him? Who would be able to resist such a voice?
"We give you our allegiance, Mikhail, as we did your father, and we will provide you with whatever knowledge we can to aid you in your difficult task. Gregori, we know you as a great hunter already. Is your tie to Mikhail strong enough to see you through the dark days to come?" Lucian's voice, although as soft as ever, demanded truth.
Julian held his breath. Gregori was blood kin to Gabriel and Lucian.
The Dark Ones
. Those of that bloodline were always the defenders of their race, the ones who brought the undead to justice. Gregori was already powerful in his own right. It didn't seem possible that he could be compelled to answer, yet he did.
"As long as Mikhail lives, so do I, that I may provide for his safety and that of his line."
"You will serve our people, Mikhail, and our brother will serve you as we did your father. It is right. Gabriel and I will continue the fight to defeat the stranglehold the undead have on the humans and our own race."
"There are so many," Mikhail observed.
"There is, indeed, much death, much fighting, and our women have been all but stamped out. The males need hope for a future, Mikhail. You must find a way to provide them with one, or they will have no reason to hold out when the darkness stretches on. We must have females to provide our males with lifemates. Our women are the light to our darkness. Our males are predatory, dark, dangerous hunters, growing more deadly as the centuries pass. Eventually, if we cannot find lifemates, all will turn from Carpathian to vampire, and our race will become extinct as the males give up their souls. There will be devastation such as we cannot imagine. Preventing that is your task, Mikhail, and it is a monumental one."
"As is yours," Mikhail said softly. "To take so many lives and stay as one of us is no small thing. Our people have much to thank you for."
Julian, within the body of the marmot, scampered back into the bushes, not wanting to be caught by the ancients. There was a rustle in the bushes behind him, and he turned. Two tall men were standing there in complete silence. Their eyes were dark and empty, their faces as still as if carved in stone. Around him a mist seemed to fall from the sky, leaving, him and Dimitri in a stunned heap. Julian caught his breath and stared in astonishment. Gregori materialized just slightly in front of the two boys, almost protectively. When Julian moved his head to look around him, the mythical hunters were gone as if they'd never been, and the boys were left to face Gregori.
The sun faded from the sky, leaving behind brilliant colors. Those colors slowly yielded to the charcoal of the night. Beneath the earth a single heart began to beat. Lucian lay in the rich, healing soil. His wounds from the last terrible battle were healed. He mentally scanned the area around his resting place, noting only the movement of animals. Dirt spewed upward as he burst from the earth into the sky, drawing in air to breathe. His world would be changed this night for all time. Gabriel and Lucian were identical twins. They looked alike, thought alike, fought alike. Over the centuries they had acquired knowledge in all areas and subjects and shared that knowledge with each other.