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
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
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
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
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
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
She shrugged, her laughter soft and inviting. "Yes, well,
a lady likes to know she looks her best when the cave crickets
"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,
"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
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
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.