Dark Possession (Dark #18)

by Christine Feehan

Chapter One

Manolito De La Cruz woke beneath the dark earth with his heart pounding, bloodred tears streaking his face and grief overwhelming him. A woman's despairing cry echoed in his soul, tearing at him, reprimanding him, drawing him back from the edge of a great precipice. And he was starving.

Every cell in his body craved blood. The hunger raked at him with merciless claws until a red haze covered his sight and his pulse hammered with the need for immediate sustenance. Desperate, he scanned the area above his resting place for the presence of enemies and, finding none, burst through the rich layers of soil, into the air, his heart thundering in his ears, his mind screaming.

He landed in a crouch in the midst of dense shrubbery and thick vegetation, and took a slow, careful look around him. For a moment everything was wrong-monkeys shrieking, birds calling out a warning, the cough of a larger predator, even the brush of lizards through vegetation. He wasn't supposed to be here. The rain forest. Home.

He shook his head, trying to clear his fragmented mind. The last thing he remembered clearly was stepping in front of a pregnant Carpathian woman, shielding mother and unborn child from a killer. Shea Dubrinsky, lifemate to Jacques, brother to the prince of the Carpathian people. He had been in the Carpathian Mountains, not in South America, which he now called home.

He replayed the images in his head. Shea had gone into labor at a party. Ridiculous that. How could they keep the women and children safe in the midst of such madness? Manolito had sensed danger, the enemy moving within the crowd, stalking Shea. He'd been distracted, dazzled with color and sound and emotion pouring in from every direction. How could that be? Ancient Carpathian hunters didn't feel emotion and saw in shades of gray, white and black-yet-he distinctly recalled that Shea's hair had been red. Bright, bright red.

Memories whirled away as pain exploded through him, doubling him over. Waves of weakness rocked him. He found himself on his hands and knees, his belly in hard knots and his insides heaving. Fire burned through his system like molten poison. Disease didn't plague the Carpathian race. He couldn't have become ill with a human disease. This was manufactured by an enemy.

Who did this to me? His white teeth snapped together in a show of aggression, his incisors and canines sharp and lethal as he glared fiercely around him. How had he gotten here? Kneeling in the fertile soil, he tried to sort through what he did know.

Another jolt of blinding pain lashed at his temples, blackening the edges of his vision. He covered his eyes to try to block out the shooting stars coming at him like missiles, but closing his eyes worsened the effect. "I am Manuel De La Cruz," he murmured aloud, trying to force his brain to work... to remember... pushing the words through teeth clenched tightly together in a grimace. "I have one older and three younger brothers. They call me Manolito to tease me because my shoulders are broader and I carry more muscle, so they reduce me to boy. They would not leave me if they knew I had need of them."

They would never have left me. Never. Not his brothers. They were loyal to one another-they had been through the long centuries together and would always remain so.

He pushed past the pain to try to uncover the truth. Why was he in the rain forest when he should have been in the Carpathian Mountains? Why had he been abandoned by his people? His brothers? He shook his head in denial, although it cost him dearly, as the pain increased, spikes seeming to stab through his skull.

He shivered as the shadows crept closer, ringing him, taking shapes. Leaves rustled and the bushes shifted, as if touched by unseen hands. Lizards darted out from under the rotting vegetation and raced away as if frightened.

Manolito pulled back and once again looked warily around him, this time scanning above and below ground, quartering the region thoroughly. There were shadows only, nothing flesh and blood to indicate an enemy close. He had to get ahold of himself and figure out what was happening before the trap was sprung-and he was certain there was a trap and he was close to being truly caught.

Throughout his time hunting the vampire, Manolito had been wounded and poisoned on many occasions, but still he'd survived because he'd always used his brain. He was cunning and shrewd and very intelligent. No vampire or mage would best him, sick or not. If he was hallucinating, he had to find a way out of the spell to protect himself.

Shadows moved in his mind, dark and evil. He looked around him at the growth of the jungle, and instead of seeing a welcoming home, he saw the same shadows moving-reaching-trying to grasp him with greedy claws. Things moved, banshees wailed, unfamiliar creatures gathered in the bushes and along the ground.

It made no sense, not for one of his kind. The night should have welcomed him-soothed him. Enfolded him in its rich blanket of peace. The night had always belonged to him-to his kind. Information should have flooded him with each breath he took into his body, but instead his mind played tricks, saw things that couldn't be there. He could hear a dark symphony of voices calling to him, the sounds swelling in volume until his head pounded with moans and pitiful cries. Bony fingers brushed at his skin, spider legs crawled over him so that he twisted left and right, flailing his arms, slapping at his chest and back, brushing vigorously in an effort to dislodge the invisible webs that seemed to stick to his skin.

He shuddered again and forced air through his lungs. He had to be hallucinating, caught in the trap of a master vampire. If that was the case, he couldn't call on his brothers for aid until he knew if he was bait to draw them into the web as well.

He gripped his head hard and forced his mind to calm. He would remember. He was an ancient Carpathian sent out by the former Prince Vlad to hunt the vampire. Vlad's son, Mikhail, had, centuries since, taken over guiding their people. Manolito felt one of the pieces snap together as a bit of his memory fell into place. He had been far from his home in South America, summoned by the prince to a reunion in the Carpathian Mountains, a celebration of life as Jacques's lifemate gave birth to a child. Yet he now appeared to be in the rain forest, a part familiar to him. Could he be dreaming? He had never dreamed before, not that he remembered. When a Carpathian male went to ground, he shut down his heart and lungs and slept as if dead. How could he dream?

Once again he risked a look at his surroundings. His stomach lurched as the brilliant colors dazzled him, hurting his head and making him sick. After centuries of seeing in black-and-white with shades of gray, now the surrounding jungle held violent color, hues of vivid greens, a riot of colored flowers spilling down tree trunks along with creeper vines. His head pounded and his eyes burned. Drops of blood leaked like tears, trailing down his face as he squinted to try to control the sensation of pitching and rolling as he viewed the rain forest.

Emotions poured in. He tasted fear, something he hadn't known since he'd been a boy. What was going on? Manolito fought to get on top of the strange tumbling of jumbled thoughts in his mind. He pushed hard to clear away the debris and focus on what he knew of his past. He had stepped in front of an elderly human woman possessed by a mage just as she thrust a poisoned weapon at Jacques and Shea's unborn child. He felt the shock of the entry into his flesh, the twist and rip of the serrated blade cutting through his organs and ripping open his belly. Fire burned through his insides, spreading rapidly as the poison worked its way through his system.

Blood ran in rivers and light faded quickly. He heard voices calling, chanting, felt his brothers reaching for him to try to hold him to earth. He remembered that very clearly, the sound of his brothers' voices imploring him-no-commanding him to stay with them. He'd found himself in a shadowy realm, banshees wailing, shadows flickering and reaching. Skeletons. Dark spiked teeth. Talons. Spiders and cockroaches. Snakes hissing. The skeletons drawing closer and closer until...

He closed his mind to his surroundings, to all shared pathways, so there was no chance anyone could be feeding his own fears. It had to be hallucination brought on by the poison coating the blade of the knife. No matter that he had stopped anything from entering his brain-something malicious was already present.

Fire ringed him, crackling flames reaching greedily toward the sky and stretching like obscene tongues toward him. Out of the conflagration, women emerged, women he'd used for feeding throughout the centuries, long dead to the world now. They began to crowd around him, arms reaching, mouths open wide as they bent toward him, showing their wares through tight, clinging dresses. They smiled and beckoned, eyes wide, blood running down the sides of their necks-tempting-tempting. Hunger burned. Raged. Grew into a monster.

As he watched, they called to him seductively, moaning and writhing as if in sexual ecstasy, their hands touching themselves suggestively.

"Take me, Manolito," one cried.

"I'm yours," another called and reached out to him.

Hunger forced him to his feet. He could already taste the rich, hot blood, was desperate to regain his equilibrium. He needed, and they would provide. He smiled at them, his slow, seductive smile that always foreshadowed the taking of prey. As he took a step forward, he stumbled, the knots in his stomach hardening into painful lumps. He caught himself with one hand on the ground before he fell. The ground shifted, and he could see the women's faces in the dirt and rotting leaves. The soil, black and lush, shifted until he was surrounded by the faces, the eyes staring accusingly.

"You killed me. Killed me." The accusation was soft, but powerful, the mouths yawning wide as if in horror.

"You took my love, all that I had to offer, and you left me," another cried.

"You owe me your soul," a third demanded.

He drew back with a soft hiss of denial. "I never touched you, other than to feed." But he'd made them think he had. He and his brothers allowed the women to think they'd been seduced, but they had never betrayed their lifemates. Never. That had been one of their most sacred rules. He had never touched an innocent, not to feed. The women he had used for feeding had all been easy to read, their greed for his name and power apparent. He had cultivated them carefully, encouraged their fantasies, but he had never physically touched them other than to feed.

He shook his head as the wailing grew louder, the ghostly specters more insistent, eyes narrowing with purpose. He straightened his shoulders and faced the women squarely. "I live by blood and I took what you offered. I did not kill. I did not pretend to love you. I have nothing to be ashamed of. Go away and take your accusations with you. I did not betray my honor, my family, my people or my lifemate."

He had many sins to answer for, many dark deeds staining his soul, but not this. Not what these sensual women with their greedy mouths, were accusing him of. He snarled at them, raised his head with pride and met their cold eyes straight on. His honor was intact. Many things could be said of him. They could judge him in a thousand other ways and find fault, but he had never touched an innocent. He had never allowed a woman to think he might fall in love with her. He had waited faithfully for his lifemate, even knowing the odds that he would ever find her were very small. There had been no other women, despite what the world thought. And there never would be. No matter what his other faults, he would not betray his woman. Not by word, not by deed, not even by thought.

Not even when he doubted she would ever be born.

"Get away from me. You came to me wanting power and money. There was no love on your side, no real interest other than to acquire the things you wanted. I left you with memories, false though they were, in exchange for life. You were not harmed, in fact you were under my protection. I owe you nothing, least of all my soul. Nor will I allow myself to be judged by creatures such as you."

The women screamed, the shadows lengthening, casting dark bands across their bodies, like ribbons of chains. Their arms stretched toward him, talons growing on their fingernails, smoke swirling around their writhing forms.

Manolito shook his head, adamant in his denial of wrongdoing. He was Carpathian and he needed blood to survive-it was that simple. He had followed the dictates of his prince and had protected other species. While it was true that he had killed, and that he often felt superior with his skills and intelligence, he had kept that place that was for his lifemate, the one spark of humanity, alive, just in case.