Dark Hunger (Dark #14)

by Christine Feehan

Chapter 1

"You would have to pick the most humid night of the year," Juliette Sangria whispered to her sister. She wiped sweat from her forehead and crouched lower in the shrubbery to keep from being seen.

A spotlight swept the area of thick vegetation where the two girls were hidden, but it couldn't penetrate the lush shrubbery and multitude of vines and creepers hanging from the trees. Jasmine waited for the light to pass before shrugging. "I saw them bring in three animals tonight. We have to get them out before they hurt them or perform experiments on them. You know that's what this place is all about."

Juliette swore under her breath and melted back into the shadows as the spotlight slid by them in a long sweep. She was certain the light was more for the superstitious guards, always afraid of the encroaching jungle. She knew from experience the jungle never slept and always tried to regain what man took away.

The building was concrete and mortar, fairly new, but already covered with moss and fungi, a dark, moldy green as the jungle crept back. Creeper vines climbed the walls and wound around the top of the building as if seeking a way in. There were no windows, and Juliette could imagine how hot it was inside for the animals, even with the thick walls. Humidity was always high here, and the research center had been built in the most unlikely of places. She knew it was built in this remote location simply to hide the fact that animals on the endangered species list were being used for illegal research.

"Jazz, we'll only have six minutes to get as many animals out as possible. Some of them will be highly agitated. If any are beyond our help, you have to leave them. Is that understood?" She knew her sister's affinity for wildlife. "These people play for keeps. I think they'd kill us, Jazz. Promise me, no matter what, you'll get out in six minutes and head for home and stay there. I'll hang back and make sure they don't recapture any of the animals."

"You'll lay a false trail into the jungle to keep them off of me," Jasmine said.

"That too. We both know I can lose them. Yes or no, Jazz, do you give me your word? We aren't going in otherwise." Juliette would take her younger sister home and come back another night if she didn't promise. She detested that these men could come into her jungle and capture and torture animals and get away with it, but she wasn't losing her sister over it.

"Six minutes," Jasmine confirmed and set the alarm on her watch.

"Then let's do it. I'll take out the guard at the main entrance and you cut into the security system."

Jasmine frowned as she nodded her acceptance of the plan. Juliette always made it sound so easy. Distracting and taking out the guard was always dangerous. She moved into a better position, covering her sister and getting closer to the main box where the wires were stored. Few people paid attention to that little box, but Juliette and Jasmine knew it contained the highway for the main alarms. At night, only the guards were in attendance and they were always nervous and highly superstitious. They seemed as afraid of what was out in the dark interior of the jungle as they were afraid of what was inside the building they guarded.

Juliette unbuttoned her blouse to just below her breasts so that the thin material gaped open, revealing the generous swell of soft, inviting skin. She pulled a thick banana from her pack and slipped around the building, slowly unpeeling the fruit as she went. As she emerged from the thick shrubbery, she paused deliberately in the sliver of moonlight, bringing the banana to her mouth and running her tongue over the tip of it. The light shone through the thin fabric of her blouse, caressing her rounded breasts so that her dark nipples thrust invitingly against the fabric.

The guard's attention was immediately riveted to her breasts. He licked his lips and stared. Juliette smiled at him around the banana. "I had no idea this building was here. I'm camping with a small party of friends just beyond the stream." She used tentative Spanish as if she didn't know the local dialect. Juliette turned slightly, giving him a more intriguing view of her body, and pointed back into the darkened vegetation. She turned back to him, allowing her gaze to sweep him up and down, to linger for just a moment on the sudden bulge growing in his trousers. "Oh, my, I certainly didn't expect such a big, strong man as you."

He couldn't talk, staring at her mouth as she sucked on the fruit, her lips sliding up and down suggestively. Juliette pulled the banana from her mouth, gaining ground, her hips swaying, her smile flirtatious. "Are you hungry? I'll share." She held out the banana and seemed to notice her blouse gaping open for the first time. "Oh, I'm sorry, it was so steamy in the jungle, I can hardly stand having clothes on. Doesn't the heat bother you? It makes me feel... soooo hot." One hand went to her blouse as if to close it, but her fingers trailed over the ripe swell of her breast.

The guard swallowed hard, staring at her. She held the banana to his mouth. "Are all the men in the jungle as handsome as you?"

He took a bite of the offered fruit, he couldn't help himself. He was smiling down at her, still staring at her breasts when she used the pressure syringe on him, tranquilizing him. He was heavy, but Juliette was strong, and she dragged him into the cover of the bushes, sending up a small prayer that no predatory animal would find him defenseless, propped up against a broad tree trunk. She hastily prepared the scene while Jasmine penetrated the alarm system. From her pack, Juliette spilled a small amount of liquor on the guard's clothes, settled the flask in his hand and removed the bullets from his gun, flinging them into the dense undergrowth.

Juliette and Jasmine stayed in the shadows, avoiding the open where a camera might pick them up as they hurried through the large building. The first few rooms appeared to be empty offices, but just beyond them, they could hear the uneasy sounds of animals in distress. The laboratories were fairly large, each holding several cages. They separated, glancing quickly at their watches and blowing a kiss for luck as they took separate sides of the huge building in the hopes of freeing as many animals as possible.

Both had the ability to calm and control even the largest of cats. It was more difficult when the animals had been teased and abused or tortured, but both women were certain of their talents and they moved fast and efficiently, their teamwork well practiced.

Juliette kept an eye on the time as she opened cages and directed animals. The last laboratory held the biggest animals. A sun bear, a jaguar, and a sloth. She cursed under her breath as she saw that the sloth was beyond all help. The sun bear had several injuries from someone poking it with a sharp instrument, but the jaguar was still in good shape, one of the newest animals the laboratory had acquired. She spoke softly, soothing the pacing animal, growling once low in her throat when it leapt at the cage walls in agitation. It took a bit longer to manage the lock and herd him out of the room down toward the entrance, using her telepathic link to guide him. She took three steps after the cat when she felt a tremendous draw toward her left. To her dismay there was another door.

The door was heavy, a thick, soundproof vault with several bars and locks. Juliette glanced at her watch a second time. She should be running to get out, but something outside herself demanded she investigate. Praying Jasmine kept her promise to depart and head home immediately, Juliette set to work on the door.

Riordan lay on the cement floor in a pool of blood, dispassionately watching as it seeped toward the built-in drain. His blood looked like a thin, pale gray trail of liquid pooling in an ever-widening puddle. It was unthinkable that he had been trapped like this, that one of his kind could be shamed and dying at the hands of his enemies. He was an immortal, a Carpathian male, no fledgling, but a man of honor and skill. He lay in a pitiful heap, unable to gather the strength needed to move. Unable to summon help from his own kind.

His brothers would be seeking him now, wondering why his mind was closed to them. He dared not draw another into the trap as he had been drawn. He would not be bait to ensnare more of his kind. The enemy had found a way to poison the blood of their people, to immobilize them long enough to drain their blood and keep them weak. He had thought he was skilled enough to push the poison from his body. In the past he had done so on numerous occasions, but the new poison held him helpless and weak and paralyzed against the continual torture.

There was no way to transmit the news to his prince, no way to warn of this new, even more lethal drug their enemies had devised. Riordan struggled into a sitting position until he lay, propped against the wall he was chained to, examining the compounds racing through his system. They had used some sort of electrical charge to stimulate the cell deterioration in his blood. He allowed his breath to escape in a long, slow hiss of deadly promise. Of deadly despair.

He would not die easily-his body would continually regenerate-but without the necessary blood, without the healing earth, it would happen, slowly and painfully. It was the last death he had ever envisioned for himself.

The drug was crawling through his body, a chemical monster nearly as lethal as the dark demon lurking deep within him. Before he died, he intended to transmit as much information on the poisonous compound as he could to his brothers. He would issue a warning, but he would not do so until his death was imminent. He would not betray his kin. He would not be used as bait to draw in the others. His prince needed to know that a master vampire was using the humans, playing puppet master. Riordan had to find a way to escape, there was no other option. He could not allow his life to end until he carried the vital information of this treachery to his people. He could not let pain and despair, his ever-present companions, weaken his resolve.

Riordan closed his eyes and crawled deep into his mind. Almost at once he heard the soft click of the lock at the heavy metal door. Fearing his immense power, his captors never came to him at night. He did a cursory scanning to touch the mind of the human entering the laboratory, his prison, but to his shock, he could not read the thoughts. He had the impression of a human female.

He sat very still, his mind working at a furious rate. Had his captors managed to find a way to shield their thoughts? They were protected most of the time by his own weakness. During the daylight hours he was helpless and vulnerable, but at night they had been cunning enough to stay away. Although they had drained his blood and his strength, he was mentally strong enough to command one of them should they venture near at night. This was his chance to escape or seek a way to end his life before they could use him against his own species.

He studied the mind of the single person entering his prison. She was a young female. He kept his eyes closed, conserving his strength, waiting for that one moment he knew would come. He would reach past the strange barriers in her mind, rip past each strange compartment until he had total control. He would force the human female to do his bidding. Escape or death, whichever it took to win this battle. He could smell her now, a clean, fresh fragrance suggesting the outdoors, the rain forest after a cleansing downpour. A hint of exotic flowers, and something else-something wild. Something not quite human. Riordan felt his muscles tense at the unfamiliar odor, a strange quickening, a heat spreading throughout his body, but he held himself under control.

Nothing could prevent his attack. It was the first mistake any of them had made, and he would use it, capitalize on it. The demon in him was struggling to break free, listening to the steady heartbeat, the ebb and flow of blood in her veins. Hunger gnawed at him endlessly, mindlessly, brutally. He waited, unmoving, listening to the soft padding of her steps. There was only a whisper of sound, yet he smelled her excitement, the edge of fear and adrenaline. She was moving closer.

All at once the soft footfall ceased, her breath exploding out of her in a soft hiss of shock. "Oh no!" There was a rush of movement toward him, the rustle of clothes. Riordan clearly heard the shocked horror in her voice. She had not been expecting him.

Juliette couldn't believe the terrible sight, the man pale beyond imagining, his blood draining away on the floor. The heavy chains wrapped around his chest seemed burned into his very flesh. His hands were manacled, and blood seeped from a multitude of wounds. She couldn't believe he could suffer so much and still live. She knelt beside him and felt for his pulse.