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~THE ONLY ONE: CHAPTER ONE~
Last Updated: April 18, 2012 00:52:22


The Only One by Christine FeehanVeins of lightning lit the clouds, dancing whips of white-hot energy lighting up 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 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 them 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. Even the insects were silent, 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 gnarled branches, humming with life, reaching deep into the earth. He whispered softly, respectfully, touching the longest, deepest artery, feeling the rhythm. He chanted softly in the ancient language, asking for entrance, 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 carefully through the labyrinth, pushing through the surface, enough to scan his surroundings from inside the cage of safety of the overlapping roots above ground. He shape shifted as he emerged, spreading his shadow amongst the thick branches and leaves.

For one moment he could see only his prey, the tall, thin figure of Gallent, the vampire. He recognized one of the ancients sent out as he had been by their Prince so many centuries earlier. The undead continually twisted, sniffing the air suspiciously, his gaze darting along the ground. He clicked his long fingernails together in a repeated peculiar rhythm.

The wind rushed through the grove of trees and the leaves rustled and whispered. Traian allowed his gaze to shift, quartering the area, reaching with his mind more than his acute vision. The breeze brought the echo of that strange rhythm to him, coming from his left. Then from his right. Two more of the undead waited 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, a small, humorless smile in his mind. Discretion really was the better part of valor in some circumstances. He would pick his own battleground. Then he heard the clicking of the fingernails again. The sound was growing louder. With each click droplets of water fell from the cloud. Small, tiny little droplets that never quite reached the ground. The beads collected in midair, formed a large shimmering pool. He could see his reflection clearly in the pool. Not the scattered molecules, or an illusion, but the real man amongst the leaves. It was his only warning and came 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 attempting to entangle him. Spears spiraled through the air, tiny darts tipped with poison from the tree frog, showers of red-hot embers that burrowed into skin and burned for weeks. Insects clouded the skies and all the while the clicking of the fingernails went on relentlessly.

Traian launched himself at the shadowy figure orchestrating the fight, ignoring the two lesser vampires. Gallent was directing the action, a leader in evil, as he had been a leader among Carpathians. Traian burst through the sky his fist already snapping out, driving toward the vampire's chest.

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 movement swift, as only a full-fledged master manage. The knife-like 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 the exposed neck.

Traian simply evaporated, leaving the smear of blood on the shivering leaves and the scent of the ancient gift driving the vampires into a frenzy of rage and hunger. He traveled quickly through the night. The Carpathian Mountains were riddled with networks of caves, with rich soil deep beneath the earth waiting to welcome him. He was close to home. He had been steadily traveling back to his homeland to see his Prince but had become sidetracked when he came across the vampires. They were so obviously up to something.

His shoulder throbbed and burned. His neck was a fierce torment. There were a hundred places on his body that ached from the embers and darts. He found an opening into the cool interior of the mountain, deeper still, through a labyrinth of tunnels and opened the earth. He floated down into the bed of rich soil and just lay there, feeling a sense of peace and solace in the wealth of welcoming minerals.
   

 *******************************************************

Austria

The theater doors opened to allow the smartly dressed crowd out. They emerged laughing and talking, a crush of happy people pleased with the performance they had witnessed. Lightning forked across the sky, a brilliant, dazzling display of raw nature. For a moment the long sequined gowns, furs, and suits of varying color were lit up as if caught in a spotlight. Thunder crashed directly overhead and the ground and buildings shook under the assault. The light faded leaving the night nearly black and the crowd almost blind. The throng broke into couples or groups, hurrying to their limousines and cars, while valets tried to work fast before the rain began to fall.

Senator Thomas Goodvine stayed beneath the archway, bending his head toward his wife to hear her over the buzz of the crowd, laughing at her softly spoken words, nodding in agreement. He pulled her beneath his shoulder in attempt to prevent her from being jostled by the steady stream of people moving so quickly in an effort to avoid the weather.

Two trees formed the unique archway to the theatre, the branches interlocking overhead to form a small protection against the elements. The leaves rustled and the branches clicked together in the rushing wind. Clouds whirled and spun, dark ominous threads across the moon.

Another burst of lightning had him looking up, seeing the two large men pushing against the stream of theatre-goers coming towards them apparently determined to gain shelter in the building. The flash of dancing whips faded, leaving them with the dim lighting of the archway and the streetlights flickering ominously. Thelma Goodvine tugged at her husband's jacket to bring his attention back to her.

"Down, get down." Joie Sanders plowed into the Senator and his wife, her arms outspread, sweeping them both to the ground and rolling, almost in one move, coming up on her knee in front of them, gun tracking. "Gun, gun, everybody down," she shouted. An orange-red flame burst from two revolvers in a steady stream toward the couple she was assigned to protect. Joie returned fire with her usual calm and dead on accuracy, watching one man begin to topple, almost in slow motion, his gun still firing but up into the air.

People screamed, ran in every direction, fell to the ground, crouched behind flimsy cover. The second gunman grabbed a woman in a long fur and dragged her in front of him as a shield. Joie was already pushing at the Senator and his wife, in an effort to get them to crawl back inside the relative safety of the theatre. The second gunman propelled the sobbing woman forward as he fired at Joie who rolled again to cover her charges' line of retreat.

A bullet sliced through the flesh of her shoulder, burning a path of pain and spraying blood over the Senator's trousers. Joie cried out, but steadied her aim, ignoring the churning in her stomach. Her world narrowed to the one man, the one target. She squeezed the trigger slowly, precisely, watched the ugly little hole blossom in the middle of the man's forehead. He went down like a rock, taking his hostage with him, falling in a tangle of arms and legs.

There was a small silence. Only the strange clicking of the branches could be heard, a strange rhythm in tune to the rain falling. Joie blinked, trying to clear her vision. She seemed to be looking into a large shimmering pool and staring at a man with flat cold eyes and something metal glinting in his hand. He rose up out of the crowd, slamming into Joie before she could scramble out of the way. She twisted just enough to escape the lethal blade, driving the butt of her gun upward into his jaw, then slamming it back down on his knife hand. He screamed, dropping the blade so that it went skittering along the sidewalk. His fist found her face, driving her backward. The man followed her, his face a mask of hatred.

Something hit the back of his head hard and Joie found herself staring up at one of her men. "Thanks, John, I think he smashed every bone in my body when he fell on me." She took his hand, allowed him to help her out from under the large frame. "I can testify you can hurt in more than one place at time." Joie kicked the gun from the limp hand of the first man she'd shot, even as weakness took her. She sat down abruptly as her legs turned to rubber. "Get the Senator and Mrs. Goodvine to safety, John." The wailing sirens were fading in and out. "Someone help that poor woman out from under him."

"We've got it, Joie," one of the agents assured. "We have the driver. How bad are you hurt? How many hits did you take? Give me your gun."

Joie looked down at the gun in her hand and noted with surprise she was aiming it at the motionless attacker. "Thanks, Robert. I think I'll just let you and John handle things for a while."

"Is she all right?" She could the Senator's anxious voice. "Sanders? Are you hurt? I don't want to just leave her there, where are you taking us?"

Joie tried to lift her arm to indicate she was fine but her arm seemed heavy and uncooperative. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She just needed to be somewhere else, just for a short time while the medics fixed her up. It wasn't the first time she took a hit and she doubted if it would be the last. She had certain instincts when it came to danger and it made her elite in the world of bodyguards.

Joie could blend. Some of the men liked to call her the chameleon. She could look strikingly beautiful, plain or just average. She could blend in with the tough crowd, the homeless or the rich and glamorous. It was a valuable gift and she used it willingly. She was called in for the tough assignments, the ones where action was inevitable. Few others had her skill with knives or guns and no one could disappear into a crowd the way she could.

She took herself out of her body, watched the frantic scene below her with interest for a few minutes. The others assigned to the Senator and the Austrian agents had everything under control. She was being put into an ambulance and hustled away from the scene. More than anything, she detested the hospital. She simply took herself away, soaring free. Wanting to be outdoors, under the sky or beneath the earth in a world of subterranean beauty, it didn't matter, as long as it wasn't within the walls of a hospital.

Joie felt weightless, free, skimming through the mountains she had studied so carefully. As she soared free, she planned her trip to go caving with her brother and sister as soon as the Senator and his wife were safely back home. She crossed space. Smelled the rain. Felt cool and moist in the mist of the mountains. Far below her, she saw the entrance to a cave, spotlighted by the small sliver of moon that managed to peek around the thick cloud cover. Smiling, she dropped down to enter the world of crystal and ice. Whether she was dreaming or hallucinating didn't matter, just that she could escape from the pain of her wounds and the smell of the hospital.

************************************************

Traian lay in the cool earth, gazing up at the high cathedral-like ceiling. His body hurt in so many places he just wanted to rest. The beauty of the cave was breathtaking and took his mind off his physical pain. He turned his head and saw her. She was hovering just overhead, to his left. A woman with a cap of dark hair and large eyes. She was staring down at him in complete astonishment.

"You're hurt," she said. "If you were real, I'd send the paramedics."

"What makes you think I am not real?"

"Because I'm not really here, I'm in a hospital many miles away. I don't even know where here is."

"You look real enough to me."

"What in the world are you doing lying in the mud in the middle of a cave?" Soft laughter played along his spine. "You didn't mistake this for a beauty spa did you?"

His heart nearly ceased beating. Those simple questions turned his world upside down. He was aware of everything, the coolness of the interior, the blue of the ice, the dramatic sweep of architecture formed thousands of years earlier. He was mostly aware that her hair was a rich brown and her eyes were a cool gray. Her mouth was wide and curved at the corners and she had laugh lines.

He was seeing in color. After hundreds of years of a bleak, gray existence, living in a world without color or emotion, there she was. The other half of his soul. Staring down at him with curious eyes and an amused grin. There was blood on her shoulder and bruises on her face, a tear in the gown she wore.

"You seem a bit over-dressed for a cave," he pointed out.
She shrugged, her laughter soft and inviting. "Yes, well, a lady likes to know she looks her best when the cave crickets come calling."

"You are hurt."

"A small bit of trouble with some unpleasant fellows. What about you? And do you often go swimming in the mud with a gaping hole in your shoulder? You have heard of infection and gangrene, haven't you?"

"How good of you to notice. A small run in with a group of unsavory ruffians. I was uncharacteristically slow."

"You have an incredibly sexy accent. Do women fall all over you just at the sound of your voice?" She was very good at placing people by their accents, but his was different, a rich turn of his words. He spoke English but sometimes slipped into French and one of the Romanian dialects. As dreams went, it was a fun one.

"I have not noticed such a phenomenon but I will watch for it in the future."

"Nice cave. I love caves. This one looks like a wonderful place to explore."

"I do not believe it has been discovered yet," he replied pleasantly. Peace seeped into his body. His soul. Genuine laughter found its way into his heart.

"Really? You just sort of stumbled in blindfolded, did you? An interesting way to explore caves. Where am I? I'd like to come back here."

It was his turn to arch his eyebrow. "You floated through the air blindfolded?"

She grinned at him. "I do that sometimes when I don't want to be wherever I am. A bad habit."

Her form shimmered and her smile faded. "They're doing something nasty to me, I can't hold the projection."

He sat up, bit back a groan as the embers beneath his skin burned fiercely. "Do not go yet."

"I'm sorry." She looked down at her arm, looked back at him, tears swimming in her eyes. "They're cleaning it out. It hurts like a bear."

And then she was gone. Just that fast. Vanishing without a trace. He sat there alone in the dark of the cave, astonished at how life could change in the blink of an eye. She was real. Her psychic abilities were strong. He had shared her space, shared her mind and the path was imprinted on his brain. She would not escape him.

Traian lay back and waved his hand to close the soil over him, stilling his heart, his breath, allowing the song of the earth to send him into a deep healing sleep.




CHRISTINE FEEHAN, #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR

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