There is Always
a Price to Pay

So Darius warned her when she accepted a position with his traveling troupe. And gazing mesmerized at the merciless slash of his mouth, the implacable resolve on his face, the soulless emptiness of his black eyes, Tempest was afraid to ask what it was.

She had always been different, apart from others. From the moment his arms closed around her, enveloping her in a sorcerer's spell, Darius seemed to understand her unique gifts. But did his kiss offer the love and belonging she sought, or a danger more potent than his own panthers?

Somewhere deep inside herself, Tempest realized she knew the answer. She had no choice but to accept the velvet stroke of his tongue, submit to the white-hot heat piercing her skin, welcome an erotic pleasure like no other. . .

Christine's Notes

Christine Feehan
When I first began to write Dark Fire, Darius was so strong of a character, I almost couldn't take a break from writing. He is a mixture of Mikhail, the Prince, and Gregori, the hunter and healer. Having had to take on both roles it is no wonder. He is more earthy and raw then Gregori, lacking the elegance of his brother but with more of an edge. He has unexpected qualities that really appealed to me. Darius did not have the benefits of learning from his elders, he experimented through trial and error. He has an enormous strength of character and he tends to be a bit on the ruthless side. He is far earthier with a touch of the savage, taking the hunt to those who threaten the ones he loves.

Tempest is a mechanic badly in need of a job. She answers an ad that leaps out at her, spending her last dime to take her to the site. Almost immediately her dream job takes a nightmarish turn when the leader of the band, a charismatic man, takes her blood and claims her as his own.

I believe Tempest is well suited to Darius, his other half, his lifemate. She shares the quirky sense of humor most of my heroines have to some degree, mostly because I have that same odd sense of humor. It gets her through her trials and impossible situations, just as it does for me.

I loved this book because I love how Darius loves Tempest. To me, this is a true love story!

— Christine Feehan

Christine regularly writes about her books (and all kinds of subjects) in the following places:


Dark Fire

More Order Options

Dark Series ,
Book 6

Latest Release:
Latest Release Date: December 24, 2018
Original Release Date: August 14, 2001
Number of Pages: 390 pages
Publisher: Love Spell
Language: English
ISBN: 0505524473

Dark Fire (Dark Series, #6)

Excerpt: Chapter 1

She was crawling out from under the huge tour bus when he first caught sight of her. She was small, like a child. At first he was certain she was a young teenager. She was dressed in baggy overalls, her wealth of red-gold hair pulled back into a ponytail. Her face was grimy, smudged in several places with oil and dirt. She turned slightly and he could see high firm breasts thrusting against the bib of her overalls beneath a thin cotton top. Darius stared at her entranced. Even in the night her hair gleamed like red flames. It was the fact that he could tell her hair was red that caught his attention. He had not seen colors in more centuries than he could count. He had never disclosed the information to his sister, nor had he discussed his total loss of emotion with her. Through the long centuries, his younger sister, Desari, had remained the same as she had always been, laughter came easily to her. She was sweet and compassionate and everything good that he was not.

It was rather shocking to him to have some little miniature of a woman in a pair of baggy overalls catch his attention. She had a sway to her hips when she walked that sent a deep need jolting him hard. He caught his breath, followed her from a short distance as she moved around the tour bus to disappear out of his sight.

"You must be tired, Rusti, you have been working all day," Desari called out. Darius couldn't see her, but as always his sister's voice was a blend of musical notes, a symphony that would always turn heads. "You must grab some juice out of the fridge in the bus and relax for a few minutes. You cannot fix everything in one day."

"Just another couple of hours and I'll have this one up and running," the little redhead answered back. She had a soft, husky voice that touched Darius in the very core of his being, sent blood surging hotly through his veins. He stood for a moment transfixed in shock by the unexpected and very unfamiliar sensation.

"I insist, Rusti," Desari said gently. Darius knew that tone, the one that always insured she got her way. "Please, you have the job, it is obvious you are just what we need. Knock off for the night, will you? You make me feel like a slave driver just watching you."

Darius sauntered slowly around the bus toward the small red-haired woman and his tall, elegant sister. Beside Desari's tall, slender beauty, the mechanic looked like a grimy child, yet he couldn't take his eyes from her. The stranger laughed, a soft husky blend in her throat that tightened his body to an aching heaviness. From the distance and angle where he stood, he could see her eyes, a brilliant green, large, heavily lashed with red-gold. Her face was a perfect oval, high cheekbones, and a wide, lush mouth just asking to be kissed.

She disappeared again, walking beside his sister around the back of the broken down bus to the rear door. Darius simply stood there, frozen to the spot. The night was upon them, creatures stirring to life. He allowed his eyes to wander from spot to spot, noting each separate color. Vivid reds and yellows. Blues. He could see the silver in the bus with the clear black lettering on the sides. The little sports car was a bright fire engine red. Each of the trail bikes secured to the bus were yellow and blue. The leaves on the trees were vivid green and veined with darker hues.

Darius inhaled sharply, drank in her scent so that he could always find her in a crowd, always be aware when she was close. Somehow she made him feel as if he wasn't so alone any more. It was insanity, of course, he hadn't even met her yet, but just knowing she was in the world made it a completely different place. Darius had never told his sister how bleak and empty his life was or how dangerous he had become. His gaze, when it had rested on the redhead, had been hot and possessive. Something fierce and primitive in him lifted its head and roared for release.

Desari came striding around the bus alone. "Darius, I did not know you had risen. You are so secretive these days." Her large black eyes wandered over him speculatively. "What is it? You look..." she hesitated searching for the right word. Dangerous. The description shimmered in the air unsaid between them.

He nodded toward the bus. "Who is she?"

Desari shivered at his tone, rubbed her palms up and down her arms as if cold. "We discussed hiring a mechanic to go on the road with us. You gave your approval, Darius. You said that if we could find someone the cats would tolerate, you would permit it. Early this morning she wandered in. The cats were out with me and neither of them objected to her."

"How is it she made it through our safeguards, the barrier that protects us during the days?" he inquired softly, a hint of menace in his gentle voice.

"I honestly do not know, Darius. I scanned her mind for any hidden agendas and found none. Her brain patterns are very different from most humans. I could only detect her need for work. Honest work."

"She is a mortal." He made it a statement, nonjudgmental, neither good or bad.

"I know," Desari said defensively, well aware of the heavy oppressive weight in the air signaling her brother's censure. "But she has no family and she has indicated a need for a great deal of privacy. I do not think it will bother her if we are not around during the day. I told her because we work and travel mostly at night, we often sleep during the day. She said it suited her fine and we do really need her to keep the vehicles running properly. You know it is true. We can handle a human without much problem."

"You sent her into the bus, Desari. If she is there, why are the cats not with you?" Darius asked, his heart suddenly in his throat.

"Oh my God," Desari turned completely pale. "How could I make such a mistake?" Stricken, she ran towards the bus.

Darius was there before her, jerking open the door and leaping in, crouching low, ready to fight the two leopards for the small body. He froze, motionless, his long black hair falling across his face. The small red-haired woman was lazily curled up on the couch with the two large panthers on either side of her. They dwarfed her in size. The cats were pushing against her hand seeking attention.

Tempest Trine stood up quickly as the man leaped into the bus. He looked wild and dangerous, and smelled that way too. Everything about him screamed of danger and power. He was tall and sinewy like the cats, his long dark hair shaggy and untamed. His eyes, as black as night, were large and mesmerizing, as penetrating as the two panthers' stare. She felt her heart jump and her mouth went dry.

"I'm sorry, Desari told me I could be in here," she offered appeasingly, trying to move away from the cats as they continually bumped against her legs, nuzzling and asking for attention. She pretended she didn't notice, although the cats were nearly knocking over her small frame with each push. They even attempted to lick her hand, which she avoided, knowing their rough tongues could take the skin right off of her.

Desari shoved past her brother's large frame into the bus and stopped too, wide-eyed and shocked. "Thank God you are all right, Rusti. I never would have told you to come in here if I had remembered the cats were locked up."

'That is not something you should ever forget.' Darius delivered the reprimand in a soft whip of velvet straight into his sister's mind. Desari winced visibly but she made no protest, fully aware he was right.

"They're very tame," Tempest ventured hesitantly, touching first one spotted head and then the other. The slight trembling betrayed her nervousness.

Darius straightened slowly to his full height. He looked so intimidating with his broad shoulders filling the space in the bus that Tempest actually stepped backward. His eyes bored straight into hers, his gaze holding her prisoner, searching her very soul. "No, they are not tame. They are wild animals and do not tolerate close contact with humans."

"Really?" Mischief danced for just a moment in the depths of Tempest's green eyes. She shoved the biggest cat away. "I didn't realize. Sorry." She didn't sound it, she sounded like she was making fun of him.

Darius knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that her life was tied to his for all eternity. He allowed burning desire for her to flare briefly in his eyes, was satisfied when she stepped back again. "They are not tame," he said again. "They would have torn apart anyone entering this bus. How is it you are able to be here safely?" He demanded an answer, his voice low and compelling, forcing the issue, obviously accustomed to instant obedience.

Tempest's small white teeth scraped across her lower lip betraying her nervousness, but then her chin went up defiantly. "Look, if you don't want me here, it's no big deal. It's not like we signed a contract or anything. I'll get my tools and leave." She took a step forward toward the door but he was a solid wall blocking her way. She glanced behind her, judging the distance to the rear door, wondering if she could make it before he pounced. She was afraid if she ran, it would trigger his predatory instincts.

"Darius," Desari objected gently, laying a placating hand on his arm.

He didn't so much as turn his head, his black eyes remaining on Tempest's small face. "Leave us." It was a clear order directed at his sister, his voice soft and menacing. Even the cats grew uneasy pushing close to the red-haired woman protectively.

Tempest's green eyes flashed like jewels, an indication she possessed the famous red-haired temper. Darius frightened her where no one else had ever accomplished such a thing. There was a stark possession in his eyes, a sensual cruelty around his well-cut mouth, an intensity burning in him she had never witnessed before. She watched her only ally desert her. Desari was reluctant, but she obeyed her brother. Without another word, she left the luxurious bus.

"I asked you a question," he said very softly.

His voice sent butterfly wings brushing at her stomach. It was a black velvet weapon, a sorcerer's tool, very powerful. It sent heat curling unexpectedly through her body. She felt the color creeping up her neck and into her face. "Does everyone do everything you say?"

He waited, as still as a stalking leopard, his eyes unblinking, fixed on her face. She felt a strange compulsion to answer him, to reveal the truth. It beat at her head until she rubbed her temple in protest. Tempest sighed and shook her head. She even attempted a smile. "Look, I'm not certain who you are, but I think we've both made a mistake. I saw the ad and thought this would be something I'd like, traveling with your band around the country." She shrugged carelessly. "It doesn't matter, I can just as easily move on."

Darius studied her little face. She was lying to him. She needed the job. She was hungry and too proud to say anything. She covered her desperation very well, but she needed work. Not once did her green eyes waver from his black stare. Her entire body shrieked of defiance.

He moved then, gliding close to her so fast she didn't have a chance to run. He could hear her heart pound, hear the rush of blood, of life through her veins. His gaze rested on the pulse beating so frantically in her neck. "I think this job will suit you perfectly. What is your real name?"

He was too close, too big, too intimidating and powerful. Up close she could feel the heat radiating from his body, the magnetism he exuded. He wasn't touching her, but she felt the heat of his skin against hers all the same. She had an urge to run as fast and as far as she could.

"Everyone calls me Rusti," she sounded defiant even to her own ears.

He smiled an infuriatingly male taunt that told her he knew she was afraid of him. The smile did nothing to warm the black ice of his eyes. He bent his head slowly toward her. She could feel the warmth of his breath against her neck. Her skin tingled in anticipation. Every cell in her body went on alert, screamed a warning. "I asked you what your name is," he whispered into her pulse.

Tempest took a deep breath, made herself remain perfectly still, unflinching. If they were playing a game of chess she was not going to make a wrong move. "Tempest. But everyone calls me Rusti."

His white teeth flashed again. He looked like a hungry predator eyeing its prey. "Tempest. It suits you. I am Darius, I am the guardian of this troupe. What I say goes. Desari is my younger sister. Have you met the others?" He felt an unfamiliar rage rip through him at the thought of any of the other men around her. In that moment he knew she made him very, very dangerous, not only to mortals, but to his kind alike. In all of his centuries of existence, he had never experienced jealousy or any other emotion remotely like it. He had not known what rage felt like until that moment. It was sobering to realize just how much power this small human woman wielded.

Tempest shook her head. She edged away from his intensity, from the way he made her heart pound in alarm. The more she moved away from him, the further back into the bus she ended up. Without meaning to do it, she found herself looking frantically at the rear door for an escape. When she could see he was too close for her to escape, she glanced at the big cats. Tempest focused and aimed her thoughts, a talent she had had since birth, one she would never admit aloud.

The smaller of the two leopards, the one with the lighter coat, moved between them, pressed against Darius, showed her teeth in a warning snarl. Darius reached down and laid a calming hand on the cat's head. Be still little friend. I would not harm this one. She seeks to leave us. I feel it in her mind. I cannot allow such a thing. You would not wish it either.

At once the cat moved to position itself in front of the door, blocking the rear so Tempest had no chance of escape. "Traitor," she hissed at the leopard under her breath, forgetting herself.

Darius rubbed the bridge of his nose thoughtfully. "You are an unusual woman. You can talk to the animals."

She looked guilty, her eyes shifting away from him. Tempest ducked her head, pressed the back of her hand to her soft, trembling mouth. "I don't have a clue what you're talking about. If anyone's talking to animals, it's you. The cat's in front of the door. Not only everyone, but everything obeys you, don't they?"

He nodded slowly. "Everyone in my domain and that includes you. You are not going to leave. We need you as much as you need us. Did Desari assign you a place to sleep?" He not only felt her hunger, but her fatigue. It beat at him, inside him, so that his every protective instinct roared to life.

Tempest stared up at him, measuring her options.

Somewhere deep inside herself, she knew he had taken away her choices. He would not allow her to leave. It was in merciless slash of his mouth, the implacable resolve on his face and in the soulless emptiness of his black eyes. She could pretend if she wanted to, leave it unspoken between them. Not challenge him. Power clung to him like a second skin. She had been in dangerous situations before, but his felt entirely different. She wanted to run….and she wanted to stay.

Darius reached out, tipped her chin up with two fingers so that he could stare directly into her vivid green eyes. That was all. Two fingers. It felt like he had put chains on her, bound them together in some inexplicable manner. She felt the impact of his gaze burning into her, branding her his.

The tip of her tongue touched her full lower lip. Darius' body clenched, hot, hard, an urgent demand. "You are not going to run, Tempest. Do not think you can get away. You need the job, we need you with us. Just follow the rules."

"Desari said I can use this bus to sleep in," she found herself answering. She didn't know what she was going to do. She was down to her last twenty dollars. She had been certain this was the perfect job for her. She was an excellent mechanic, she enjoyed traveling, she liked being alone and she loved animals. Something about the ad had jumped out at her, drawn her to this place, these people as if it was meant to be. It had been so strange, how certain she was, almost a compulsion she couldn't resist, using up every penny she had to find these people, so sure the job was meant for her. Desari made it plain that the band stayed asleep during the day and she would be completely on her own. She should have known it was too perfect. Without thinking she sighed softly.

Darius' thumb feathered lightly over her delicate chin. He felt her tremble, but she stood her ground. "There is always a price to pay," he observed, as if reading her mind. His hand moved to the thick abundance of her hair, rubbed silky red-gold strands between his fingers as if he couldn't help himself.

Tempest stood very, very still, like a small animal caught out in the open by a stalking panther. She knew he was very, very dangerous to her yet she could only stare up at him helplessly. He was doing something to her, mesmerizing her, hypnotizing her with his burning black eyes. She couldn't look away from him. She couldn't move. "How high is the price?" The words came out strangled and husky. She couldn't tear her gaze away from his no matter her much mind screamed at her to do so.

His body moved close, closer even still, until his hard frame seemed to be imprinted on the softness of hers. He was everywhere, surrounding her, enveloping her so that she was a part of him. Tempest knew she should try to move, to break the sorcerer's spell he was weaving around her, but she couldn't find the strength. Then his arms closed around her, drew her into him and her heart turned over at the gentleness in a man of such power and enormous strength. He whispered something soft and soothing. Something compelling. The whisper of a sorcerer's seduction.

Tempest closed her eyes, the world suddenly hazy and dreamlike. She felt as if she couldn't move, as if she didn't want to move. She waited almost breathlessly. His mouth touched her temple, feathered across her cheek to the corner of her lips, moved across her ear, breathing warmth, leaving little dancing flames wherever he touched. She felt torn in two. One part of her knew it was so perfect, so right, the other urged her to run as fast and as far as she could. His tongue stroked across her neck, a velvet rasping caress that curled her toes and sent heat pooling low. His fingers curved around her nape, drew her even closer. His tongue stroked a second time. White hot heat pierced her skin exactly over her frantically beating pulse. Pain sliced through her, gave way instantly to erotic pleasure.

Tempest gasped, found some deep reservoir of self-preservation and squirmed, pushed at the heavy muscles of his chest. Darius shifted subtly, his arms tight and unyielding. Drowsiness slipped over her, a willingness to give him whatever he wanted.

She seemed two people. One stood locked helplessly in the dark embrace, the other looking on in shock and horror. Her body was in flames. Hot. Burning. Needing. Her mind accepted him and what he was doing. Taking her blood. Staking his claim on her. She knew that somehow, knew he was not trying to kill her. Knew he was not anything human.

Her lashes swept down and her legs buckled. Darius slipped his arm under her knees and lifted her, cradling her against his chest as he fed. She was hot and sweet and unlike anything he had ever tasted. His body was on fire for her. He carried her to the couch, still feeding, savoring the essence of her, unable to stop himself from taking what was rightfully his. And she was his, he felt it, knew it, would accept nothing less.

It was only when her head lolled back on her slender neck that he realized what was happening. Swearing eloquently to himself, Darius closed the wound with a sweep of his tongue and bent to check her pulse. He had taken far more blood than she could afford to give. And his body was an unrelenting savage demand. Tempest was a very small woman, and not of their race. She could not afford such a blood loss.

It was forbidden. What he was doing was strictly forbidden. He was breaking every code, every law he knew. Every law he himself had taught to the others and demanded they follow. He couldn't stop himself. He had to have this woman. A mortal female could be used for sex, a simple pleasure of the body, if one could still feel such things. A mortal female could be used for sustenance, to feed upon. But not both, and never at the same time. It was taboo. Darius knew if she hadn't fainted from the blood loss, he would have taken her body with his. Not once, but again and again. And he would kill anyone who tried to stop him, who tried to take her from him.

Had it happened then? Was he turning? The one thing every Carpathian male feared, was it happening to him? He didn't care. He only knew she was of the utmost importance, the only woman he had ever wanted in centuries of a lonely, barren existence. She made him feel. She made him see. She brought life and color into his bleak world and now that he had seen it, felt it, he would never go back to total emptiness.

Cradling her on his lap, he started to tear a ragged wound in his wrist with his teeth. Something stopped him. It didn't seem right to feed her that way. With one hand he slowly opened his immaculate silk shirt, his body unexpectedly tightening even more in anticipation. One fingernail lengthened into a razor-sharp talon and traced a thin line across the heavy muscle of his chest. He pressed her mouth to the dripping wound. His blood was ancient and powerful and would replenish her quickly.

At the same time he reached for her mind. In her unconscious state, it was relatively easy to take control, to command her to do his bidding, but he was astonished. Desari was right. Tempest's mind did not have the normal pattern of a human. It was more like the cunning intelligence of the leopards he often ran with. Not exactly the same, but definitely different than the normal human brain. It didn't matter, he easily controlled her, demanding that she drink to replenish what he had taken.

Out of nowhere came an ancient chant. He found himself saying the ritual words, uncertain where they came from, knowing only that they must be said. He murmured them in the ancient tongue of his people first, then repeated them in English. Bending over her protectively, stroking caresses in her hair, he breathed the words softly into her ear. "I claim you as my lifemate. I belong to you, I offer my life for you. I give you my protection, my allegiance, my heart, my soul, and my body. I take into my keeping the same that is yours. Your life, happiness and welfare will be cherished and placed above my own for all time. You are my lifemate, bound to me for all eternity and always in my care." As he uttered the words, he felt a curious shifting in his body, a release of a terrible tension. He swore he felt the words weaving tiny threads between her soul and his, his heart and hers. She belonged to him. He belonged to her.

It wasn't right. She was a mortal. He was Carpathian. She would grow old, he never would. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered to him except she was in his world beside him. It felt right to him. She fit with him somehow as if she had been fashioned only for him.

Darius closed his eyes and held her to him, savoring the feel of her in his arms. He closed the wound himself, and laid her among the pillows. Very gently, almost reverently, he washed the dirt and grime from her face. 'You will not remember this when you awaken. You know only that you took this job and are now part of our crew. You know nothing of what I am or that we exchanged blood.' He reinforced the command with a hard push more than sufficient for a human.

She looked so young in her sleep, her red-gold hair framing her small face. He touched her, his hand possessive, his black eyes burning fiercely. He turned to regard the large cats. You like her. She can speak to you, can she not?

     He could feel their instant answer, emotional, not in words. It was more images rising of affection and trust. He nodded. She is mine and I will not give her up. Guard her well while we sleep until the next rising.

The two cats rubbed against the couch, tried to get as close to the woman as was possible. Darius touched her face once more, then turned and left the bus. He knew Desari would be waiting for him, her gentle doe-eyes would be accusing.

She stood leaning against the front of the motor home, puzzled, her confusion showing on her beautiful face. The moment she saw him she looked anxiously at the bus. "What have you done?"

"Stay out of this, Desari. You are my own blood, the one I love and treasure." He found he could say it honestly for the first time in centuries. He did feel love for his sister. It beat in him real and strong. The relief was tremendous. "But I will not tolerate your interference in this matter. She will stay with us. The others will not touch her."

Desari's hand went to her throat, her face paled visibly. "Darius, what have you done?"

"Do not think to defy me. I will take her far from here and leave you all to go your own way."

Desari's soft mouth trembled. "We are under your protection, Darius. You have always led and we have followed you. I trust you and I trust your judgment. I know you would never hurt this girl."

He studied his sister's face for a long moment. "No, you do not, Desari, and neither do I. I know only that without her, there will be blood and death to many before I am destroyed."

He heard her swift intake of breath. "Is it that bad, Darius? Are you so close then?"

"She is all that is standing between the destruction of mortals and immortals alike. The line is that fragile. Do not interfere, Desari. It is all the warning I am capable of giving you." There was a merciless implacable resolve she had never seen in him before.

Darius had always been their acknowledged leader. He was the strongest, the most cunning and the most powerful. He had the gift of healing. They relied on him for his wisdom and expertise. He had steered them through the long centuries without thought for himself. Desari could do no other than support him in this one thing asked. Not asked. Demanded. She knew Darius was not exaggerating, he never did. Everything he said, he meant. Darius would not know how to bluff.

Slowly, reluctantly, Desari nodded her head. "You are my brother, Darius. I am with you always, whatever you choose to do." She turned as her lifemate shimmered into a solid state beside her. He took her breath away, the sight of his tall, heavily muscled frame, the striking, molten golden eyes that always reflected love back to her.

Julian bent to brush Desari's temple with the warmth and comfort of his mouth. He had caught her distress through their psychic link and returned from hunting prey. When he turned his gaze on Darius his eyes were cold and merciless. Darius held that gaze with one of his own. Two territorial males measuring each other. Desari sighed softly. "You two promised."

Instantly Julian leaned into her, his voice extraordinarily tender. "Is there a problem here?"

Darius made a sound of disgust, a low rumbling growl deep in his throat. "Desari is my sister, I have always looked out for her welfare."

For just a moment the golden eyes flickered over him, cold with menace, then Julian's white teeth gleamed in a semblance of a smile. "It is true, and I can do no other than be grateful to you."

Darius shook his head slightly. He was unused to tolerating the presence of any other male not of his family in close proximity. Saying he accepted his sister's new lifemate traveling with them was one thing, meaning it was quite another. Julian had been raised in the Carpathian Mountains in their native lands. He had been forced into a solitary existence, but he had had the benefit of years of training, of Carpathian adult protection and guidance during his fledgling years. Darius knew Julian was strong and protective, one of their most skilled hunters of the vampires. He knew Desari was safe with him, but he couldn't quite relinquish his own role as her protector. He had had far too many centuries of leadership, of learning the hard way, through experience.

Darius and five other Carpathian children had seen their parents murdered in the classic ritual vampire slayings. A stake through the heart, the beheading with garlic stuffed in the mouth. It had been a frightening, traumatic time for all of them. Turks had overrun the village while the sun was high in the sky, just as their parents were their most vulnerable. The Carpathians had tried to save the mortals, standing with them to fight the invasion despite the fact that the attack had come when the Carpathian people were at their weakest. There were far too many of the intruders and the sun too high. The Turks had massacred everyone before help could arrive.

The marauding armies had herded the children, mortal and immortal alike, into a straw shack and set it on fire, burning the children alive. Darius had cloaked the presence of the children from the Turks, a feat unheard of at his age. He noticed a peasant woman who had managed to escape the bloodthirsty eyes of the soldiers. Before the marauding army could discover her, he had cloaked her presence and forced a compulsion on her. He quickly gathered the Carpathian children who were closest to him and embedded within the woman, a deep need to take them all with her. To save and protect them. Darius had a strong will and he was determined he would not give up those children with him to the cruelty of the Turks. The woman took them to her lover, a young man who owned a boat. Sailing in the open seas was rarely attempted as boats were precarious at best in that century. Tales of sea serpents and falling off the earth abounded but the Turks cruelty was a worse fate, so the crew took their vessel far from their usual route in an attempt to flee the steadily advancing army.

The children had huddled together as far from the miserable crew as they could get, trying to stay out of sight. They were all terrified, all shocked at the deaths of their parents. Even his little sister, a mere infant was fully aware of what happened. Darius had kept them going, insisting they could make it if they stuck together. A terrible storm had come up, the crew washed overboard, the sea rising up to claim them as efficiently as the Turks had massacred the village. Darius had refused to yield his charges up to such a fate. Although such a young age, he already had an iron will. Holding the image of a bird in their minds, he forced the children as young as they were to shape-shift before the ship went down. He had flown, clutching Desari in his talons, leading them to the nearest body of land, the wilds of Africa.

Darius had been six years old. His sister had been barely six months old. The other female child, Syndil, had been a year. There were three other boys, the oldest four years of age. The continent of Africa was wild and untamed, a primitive, frightening land. Darius was responsible for the safety and training of the other children. He learned to fight, to kill, to hunt. He learned how to be a complete authority. He took ultimate responsibility for his group. Carpathian children did not have extraordinary talents. They had to work, to learn from their parents and those that would teach them. Darius didn't allow those facts to stop his mission. It hadn't mattered to Darius that he was just a little boy. He would not lose the children. It was that simple to him.

It had not been easy to keep the two girls alive. Often Carpathian children did not survive the first year of life. Darius had to figure out how to provide for them. He had to fight wild animals and natives. At first, he had waited, certain the other Carpathians would come and rescue them, but, as time passed, the memory of the Carpathian race faded. He took the few rules imprinted on him from birth, what he could remember of his talks with his parents, and he devised his own code of honor by which to live.

The children became much closer than most families and friends. They were the only ones like themselves in their narrow world. The few of their kind they had encountered had already turned, becoming the undead, the vampires, feeding on the lives of those around them. It was always Darius who had taken the responsibility of hunting down and destroying the dreaded demons. His group was fiercely loyal to one another, fiercely protective of each other. And all of them followed Darius without question.

His strength and will had taken them through centuries of learning, of adapting. He had given them some kind of life. It had been a shock to discover, a few short months ago that others of their kind, Carpathian and not vampire, still existed. Darius had been secretly afraid all males eventually had no other choice. He had lost all emotion centuries earlier, long before the other males in his family. He never spoke of it, always afraid the day would come when he would turn on his own loved ones. Already, one among them had done so.

Darius glided away from his sister and her lifemate, thinking of Savon. Savon had been the second oldest boy. They had been great friends. Darius had relied on him often to hunt and watch over the others. Savon had always been his second in command, the one he trusted to watch his back.

He stopped for a moment beside a huge oak tree and leaned against the large trunk remembering that horrible day. A few months earlier he had found Savon crouched over Syndil. Her body had been a mass of bite marks and bruises. She was naked, blood and seed seeping between her legs. Her beautiful eyes been glazed glazed with shock. Savon had attacked Darius, going for his throat, ripping and tearing mortal wounds before Darius had time to realize his best friend had become what all the males feared most. The vampire. The undead. Savon had brutally raped and beaten Syndil and was trying to destroy Darius.

Darius had no choice but to kill his friend and incinerate his body. He had learned the hard way how to destroy a vampire properly. They could rise again and again from the most mortal of wounds unless certain techniques were used. He had had no one to instruct him, only an eternity of mistakes to correct. Darius had lain for some time after that terrible battle, deep within the soil, healing himself.

Syndil had been silent these last months, often taking the shape of a panther and staying with the cats, Sasha and Forest. He sighed. It was only now that he could feel the deep sorrow sweeping over him for Savon, his guilt and despair that he had been unable to see it coming and find a way to help his friend. After all, he was their leader, he was responsible. And Syndil. She was like a lost child, with such sadness, such wariness in her beautiful dark eyes. He had failed her most of all, failed to protect her from one of their own, thinking in his arrogance that his leadership, the unity among them would prevent the ultimate depravity one of their species could experience. He still could not look Syndil fully in the eyes.

And now he was breaking his own laws. Had he made up those laws so they would have a code to live by? Had his father told him these things? Had they been imprinted on him before birth as many other things had been? Had he been better friends with Julian they might have shared information, but he had always learned for himself, a private person, answering to no one, accepting the consequences of his own actions and mistakes.

Hunger bit at him and he knew he had no choice but to hunt. The campground they had chosen to stay in for a few days was deep within a state park, little used and, right at the moment, empty. The highway ran close by, but he had put out an invisible warning net, a sense of oppression and dread, that deterred those humans that thought of stopping. It wasn't particularly strong, just enough to make mortals wary. It hadn't driven Tempest off.

He thought about that as he shape-shifted on the run, his body contorting, stretching. Muscles and sinew held the leopard's bones together in a loose, supple package. Most of the cat's body weight consisted of muscle, thick ropes and bands of it. Darius loped silently through the forest toward the more popular campsite situated near the lake.

People traveled great distances to the deep, clear lake. The leopard covered the distance quickly, scenting prey. It moved, circled to stay downwind and sank low in the bushes. Two men fished from the reed-covered shore, talking to each other in short bursts of speech.

Darius paid no attention to the words. In the body of the cat he slunk low to the ground. Carefully positioning each large paw, he crept stealthily forward. One of the men turned his head toward the sound of laughter coming from the campsite. Darius stopped, then began a stealthy freeze-frame slow motion. His prey turned his attention back toward the lake and, in absolute silence, the leopard resumed its forward motion. It edged ever closer, crouched low in a spring-loaded position, powerful muscles bunched and waiting.

Darius sent forth the call, enveloping the shorter of the two men, drawing his prey to him. The man's head went up, he turned toward the leopard waiting crouched in the brush. He dropped his fishing pole into the lake and began to walk forward, one foot in front of the other, eyes glazed.

"Jack!" The other man grabbed the sinking pole, twisting around to stare after his friend.

Darius froze him with a mind block and shape-shifted as the man came up to the cat. It was the only safe thing to do. He had found that the cat's hunting instincts made it dangerous to use its form to feed. The leopard used its sharp canines to pierce and kill its prey. It had taken several trial and error episodes on his part as a child to learn what was acceptable. As children they could not hunt. They had no choice but to use the leopards and their abilities. Natives had died. Darius accepted the responsibility of that. It was the only way he could keep the other children alive.

He kept the other man calm and accepting with the ease of long practice, a method perfected long ago. He bent his head and drank his fill, careful not to take too much. He didn't want his prey sick and dizzy. Helping the first man to a sitting position in the brush, he summoned the other one to him.

Filled, he slowly allowed his body to reshape. The cat snarled silently, its instinct to pull the carcasses into the limbs of the nearby trees. Darius fought the urge and padded on cushioned paws back toward the tour bus. They traveled together, modern day troubadours, going from city to city singing in local bars and taverns. Desari had a beautiful voice, haunting and mesmerizing. Dayan was a superb songwriter and his voice, too captured audiences and held them spellbound. It was an interesting life allowing them to travel from place to place without close scrutiny in the old days. No one would notice their differences. Now, with the world growing smaller, it was a much more difficult feat.

Darius made his way back to the campsite and shape-shifted after he entered the bus equipped with every luxury. Tempest was in a deep sleep, due, he was certain, to the fact that he had been greedy in the taking of her blood. He should have tried to control himself, to deprive himself of the unexpected ecstasy of it.

Just looking at her made his body ache, a relentless urgent demand he knew was not going to go away. They would have to learn to strike some sort of balance. Darius was well aware he was used to no opposition. Everyone always did as he bid without question. He could not expect a redheaded human woman to do the same. He tucked the blanket more closely around her and bent to brush his mouth against her forehead. His thumb brushed the softness of her skin, felt the answering jolt in his body.

Darius directed a firm command to the leopards before stalking out. He wanted her safe at all times. The cats slept the day away as did Darius and his family. The leopards gave the troupe some semblance of protection, guarding the bus while they were deep within the ground. He directed that protective instinct to include Tempest.

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