Dark Challenge (Dark #5)

by Christine Feehan

Chapter One

Julian Savage hesitated outside the door to the crowded bar. He had come to this city for one last errand before he would choose a Carpathian's eternal rest. Almost an ancient of his race, he was weary of the centuries of living in a stark, gray world void of the intense colors and emotions known to the younger males of his kind, or to those who had found a lifemate. Still, he had one last goal to accomplish, one more thing asked of him by his Prince, and then he could meet the life-destroying dawn with an easy mind. It wasn't that he was on the verge of losing his soul, of turning vampire; he could hold out longer should he choose. It was the bleakness of his life, stretching an eternity before him, that had dictated his decision.

Yet he could not refuse this errand. In the long centuries of his existence, he felt he had given little to his dwindling race. True, he was a vampire hunter, one of the more powerful, which was considered a great thing among his people. But he knew, as did most of their successful hunters, that it was the Carpathian male's killer instinct, not any special talent that made him so brilliant at what he did. Gregori, their people's greatest healer, second only to the Prince, had sent word to him to warn that this woman he now sought, this singer, was on the hit list of a fanatical society of human vampire hunters, who often mistakenly targeted unusual mortals, as well as Carpathians, in their murderous zeal. The society had very primitive notions of what made a vampire - as if avoiding daylight or feeding on blood alone rendered one soulless, evil, undead. Julian and his kind were living proof that nothing could be farther from the truth.

Julian knew why this task of warning and protecting the singer had been given to him. Gregori was determined not to lose him to the dawn. The healer could read what was in Julian's mind, realized that he had chosen to end his barren existence. But he also knew that once Julian gave his word to protect the human woman from the society of killers, he would not stop until she was safe. Gregori was buying time for him. But it would do no good.

Julian had spent many lifetimes, century after century, apart from his people, including his own twin brother. Julian was a loner even in a race made up of solitary males. His species, the Carpathian race, was dying out, their Prince desperately attempting to find ways to give his people hope. To find new lifemates for their males. To find ways to keep their children alive, to bolster their dwindling numbers. Julian, however, had no choice but to remain solitary, to run with the wolves, to soar with the birds of prey, to hunt with the panthers. The few times he walked among humans, it was usually to fight a worthwhile war or to lend his unusual strength to a good cause. But he had spent most of his years walking alone, unseen, undetected by even his own kind.

For several moments he stood still, reliving the memory of his childhood folly, that terrible moment he had stepped upon a path that had, for eternity, changed his life.

He had been but twelve summers. Even then his terrible, unquenchable thirst for knowledge had been upon him. He had always been inseparable from his twin brother, Aidan, yet that day he had heard a far-off call. A summons he couldn't resist. He had been filled with the joy of discovery back then, and he had slipped away, following the lure of an unspoken promise. The network of caves he discovered was honeycombed deep within the mountain. Inside he met the most amazing wizard - personable, handsome, and willing to impart his vast knowledge to a young, eager apprentice. All he asked in return was secrecy. At the age of twelve, Julian had thought it all an exciting game.

Looking back, Julian questioned if he had wanted knowledge so much that he had deliberately ignored the warning signs. He had mastered many new powers, but there had come the day when the truth hit him in the face with all its stark ugliness. He had arrived early to the caves and hearing screams, rushed inside to discover that his young, handsome friend was the most loathsome of all creatures, a true monster, a cold-blooded killer - a Carpathian who had yielded his soul and turned vampire. At twelve Julian did not have sufficient powers and skills to save the hapless victims as the vampire drained their blood completely, seeking not just sustenance, as a Carpathian would, but the subject's death.

That memory was etched in Julian's mind for all time. The streaming blood. The unearthly screams. The horror.

Then came the moment when the vampire's hand gripped him, the once-admiring pupil, and dragged him close enough to smell his fetid breath, to hear his taunting laughter. Then the teeth - fangs now - were tearing into his body, painful and vulgar. But, worse, Julian wasn't allowed death, as the vampire had given his other victims. He remembered the way the undead creature had slashed his own wrist and forced it to Julian's mouth, had brutally forced him to accept that tainted blood, to exchange blood with the most unholy of creatures, bringing him into his power, beginning the process that could make Julian his slave, that connected them for all time.

The shame had not ended there. The vampire had immediately begun to use the boy even against his will, as his eyes and ears, to spy on those of his former race he now wished to destroy. He had the talent to eavesdrop through Julian on the Prince or the healer when the boy was near them. He had taunted Julian that he would use him to destroy his own brother Aidan. And Julian had known it was possible; he had felt the darkness spreading within him, at times had felt the vampire's eyes looking through his own. Several times Aidan had escaped by a mere hairsbreadth from traps Julian later recognized he had inadvertently set himself, under the vampire's insidious compulsion.

And so, many centuries ago, Julian had made a vow to lead a solitary life, to keep his people and his beloved twin safe from the vampire and himself. He had lived on the fringes of their society, gaining a Carpathian's true strength and knowledge until he was old enough to strike out on his own. His people's blood still beating strongly in him, he did his best to live his life honorably, did his best to fight the gathering darkness and the continual assaults the vampire made on him. He had evaded further blood exchanges with the undead and had hunted and killed countless other vampires, but the one who had fashioned his life so brutally always eluded him.

Julian was now taller and more muscular than many of his race, and while most had dark hair and eyes, he was like a Viking of old, with long, thick blond hair he tied at the nape of his neck with a leather thong. His eyes were amber, and he often used their smoldering, mesmerizing fire to hypnotize his prey. Now, though, he gazed about the street, seeing nothing yet to account for his unease, and he moved forward like the predator he was, fluidly, muscles rippling beneath his sleek skin. When need be he could be as still as the mountains, and as relentlessly unyielding. He could be the rush of the wind, like flowing water.

He had tremendous gifts, could speak in many tongues, but he was always alone.

In his younger years he had spent much time in Italy; more recently he had lived in New Orleans, in the French Quarter, where his aura of mystery and darkness alarmed almost no one. But not long ago he had given up his home there, knowing he would never return. At long last, after this one remaining task, his duty and honor would be satisfied. He saw no reason to continue his existence.

Julian heard the conversations, so many of them, from the interior of the bar. He felt the excitement of those inside. The patrons seemed enthralled by the singing group they were waiting to hear. Evidently the band was intensely popular, and recording companies were screaming for deals, but the performers refused to sign with anyone. Instead, they traveled like old-fashioned minstrels or troubadours, from town to town, city to city, never employing outside musicians or technicians and always performing only their own songs. The odd, reclusive nature of the troupe, along with the lead singer's voice, described as hauntingly beautiful, mesmerizing, nearly magical, had drawn the unwanted attention of the society of vampire hunters.

Julian inhaled deeply, and caught the scent of blood. Instantly hunger beat at him, reminding him he had not fed this night. He stood outside, unseen by the humans clamoring to get in or by the security guards silently standing at the entrance. He would go in, deliver his warning to the singer of the danger she was in, and get out. Hopefully the woman would listen, and his duty would be done. If not, he would have no choice but to continue to endure his terrible solitary existence until he could make certain she was safe. And he was tired. He no longer wanted to endure.

He began moving then, weaving silently through the crowd. At the door stood the two men, both tall and dark. The one with long hair looked like someone to contend with; he even looked vaguely familiar. Julian became but a rush of cool air as he glided past, hidden from sight yet walking confidently among the crush of humans. Still, the guard with the long hair turned his head alertly, black eyes searching restlessly, resting on Julian briefly even though Julian was invisible. The guard was clearly uneasy. Out of the corner of his eye, Julian saw him turn his head this way and that before his icy gaze swung back to follow Julian's progress through the crowded bar.

Julian's white teeth flashed with a predator's gleam. He knew he was unseen, so the guard had well tuned, radarlike senses, unusual for a mortal. Interesting that the band had him. He might be worth his weight in gold should there be an actual attack on the woman.

The cold air Julian pushed before him parted the pressing crowds; he didn't even have to slow down. He glanced at the stage set up for the performers, then walked toward the back rooms. As he did so the humorless smile faded from his face, leaving the familiar hard edge to his mouth. He knew there was a hint of cruelty there, the cold mask of the hunter. Then he smelled them. The enemy. Had they reached the singer before he had?

Swearing silently, eloquently, Julian moved with preternatural speed to the woman's dressing room. He was too late. She was gone, already making her way to the stage with the other members of the band. Only two beautiful leopards with spotted fur were curled up in a corner of the small room. Simultaneously their heads swung toward him, all senses alert. The animals were larger and heavier than most in the wild, and their yellow-green eyes, fixed on him, betrayed their superior intelligence. It was also unusual to see the two together, as leopards were generally solitary creatures. Like Julian.

"Where is she, my friends?" he asked softly. "I have come to save her life. Tell me where she is before her enemies kill her."

The male cat crouched and snarled, exposing long, sharp canines that could grab, hold, and puncture its prey. The female crouched even lower, ready to spring. Julian felt the familiar sense of brotherhood he always did when he encountered a member of the Panthera pardus family, and yet, when he reached for the leopards' minds, he found he couldn't control either easily. He succeeded only in confusing them a bit, slowing their reaction time. Then the male cat began its move, a slow stalking, head down, eyes fixed on him, its slow-motion manner preliminary to the explosion of speed preceding a kill. Julian didn't want to have to kill such a beautiful, rare creature, so he quickly slipped out of the room, closing the door firmly behind him, and headed toward the sound of thunderous applause.

The band began to play the opening to the first song. Then he heard the woman's voice. Haunting, mystical notes that hung in the air like silver and gold shimmering with fire. He actually saw the notes, saw the silver and gold dancing in front of his eyes. Julian stopped dead in his tracks, shock ripping through him. He stared at the hallway. The tattered, faded wallpaper was edged with red. It had been well over eight hundred years since Julian had seen anything in color. It was the fate of Carpathian males beyond their youth to lose all sense of color, to lose their emotions, to struggle in gray bleakness against their predatory natures, unless a lifemate appeared to balance their darkness with her goodness and light. Only then would color and emotion - powerful emotion - be restored to them. But females were rare, and surely one such as Julian would never be blessed with a mate. Yet his heart jumped in his chest.

He felt excitement. Hope. Emotion. Real emotion. Colors were so vivid that they nearly blinded him. The sound of her voice played through his body, touched him in places he had long forgotten. His body tightened; need slammed into him. Julian stood frozen to the spot. The colors, the emotions, the physical lust rising so sharply could only mean one thing. The singer possessing that voice had to be his lifemate.