Dark Slayer (Dark #20)


by Christine Feehan

CHAPTER 1

Swirling mist veiled the mountains and crept into the deep forest, stringing layers of white through the snow-laden trees. Pockets of deep snow hid life beneath the cap of ice crystals and along the banks of the stream. Shrubs and fields of grass rose like statues, frozen in time. The snow gave the world a bluish cast. The forest, where icicles hung, and the stream, with its water frozen in bizarre shapes, seemed an eerie, alien world.

Clear, crisp and cold, the night sky shone bright with stars, and a full, glowing moon spilled a silvery light over the frozen ground. Silent shadows slipped through the trees and ice-coated bushes, moving with absolute stealth. Large paws made tracks in the snow, a good six inches in diameter, single file, the trail winding in and out through the trees and thick shrubbery.

Although they looked in good health, strong with steel muscles rippling beneath thick fur, the wolves were hungry and needed food to keep the pack alive through the long, brutal winter. The alpha suddenly stopped, going very still, sniffing the trail around him, lifting his nose to scent the wind. The others halted, wraiths only, silent shadows that immediately fanned out. The alpha moved forward, staying downwind while the others sank low, waiting.

A yard away, a large piece of raw meat lay on the trail, fresh, the scent wafting temptingly back toward the wolf. Wary, he circled, using his nose to detect potential danger. Scenting nothing but the meat, with his saliva running and his belly empty, he approached again, going downwind, angling toward the large piece of lifesaving food. He went in three times and backed away, but no hint of danger presented itself. He nosed in a fourth time and something slipped over his neck.

The alpha leapt back and the wire tightened. The more he struggled, the more the wire cut into him, strangling the air from his lungs and sawing through flesh. The pack circled, pacing, his female rushing to aid him. She began to struggle as another wire snared her neck, nearly knocking her off her feet.

For a moment there was a hush, broken only by the gasping breaths of the two trapped wolves. A twig snapped. The pack whirled and dissolved in a rush of fleeing shadows, back into the thicker cover of the trees. The bushes parted and a woman stepped into the open. She was dressed in black winter boots, black pants that rode low on her hips and a sleeveless vest of black that left her midriff bare and had three sets of steel buckles running down the middle of it. The six buckles were shiny, almost ornamental, with tiny crosses running up and around, embedded in the squared silver pieces.

A wealth of blue-black hair spilled beyond her waist, pulled back in a thick woven braid. The long hooded coat she wore, made of what appeared to be a single silver-tipped wolf pelt, fell all the way to her ankles. She carried a crossbow in one hand, a sword at one hip and a knife at the other. Arrows were slung in a quiver on her shoulder and all down the inside of the long wolf skin were small loops containing various sharp-bladed weapons. A low-slung holster adorned with rows of very small, flat, razor-sharp arrowheads housed a pistol on her hip.

She paused for a moment, surveying the scene. "Be still," she hissed, both annoyance and authority in her soft voice.

At her command, both wolves ceased struggling instantly, waiting, bodies trembling, sides heaving and heads held low to ease the terrible pressure closing around their throats. The woman moved with fluid grace, flowing over the surface rather than sinking into the ice-crusted snow. She studied the snares, a multitude of them, disgust in her dark eyes.

"They have done this before," she scolded. "I showed them to you, but you were too greedy, looking for an easy meal. I should let you die here in agony." Even as she rebuked the wolves, she withdrew a pair of utility cutters from inside the wolf pelt and snipped the wires, freeing the wolves. She pushed her fingers into their fur and over the cuts deep in their throats, then clamped her palm over the slashes, chanting softly. White light burst under her hand, glowing around and through the wolves' fur.

"That should make you feel better," she said, affection creeping into her tone as she scratched the ears of both wolves.

The alpha growled a warning and his mate bared her teeth; both were facing away from the woman. She smiled. "I smell him. It is impossible not to smell the foul stench of vampire."

She turned her head and looked over her shoulder at the tall, powerful male emerging from the twisted, gnarled trunk of a large evergreen fir. The trunk gaped open, split nearly in two, blackened and peeled back, the needles on the outstretched limbs withering as the tree expelled the venomous creature from its depths. Icicles rained down like small spears as the branches shivered and shook, trembling from contact with such a foul creature.

The woman rose gracefully, turning to face her enemy, signaling to the wolves to melt back into the forest. "I see you have resorted to setting traps to get sustenance these days, Cristofor. Are you so slow and foul that you can no longer lure a human to use as food?"

"Slayer!" The vampire's voice seemed rusty, as if his vocal cords were rarely used. "I knew if I brought your pack to me, you would come."

Her eyebrow shot up. "A pretty invitation then, Cristofor. I remember you from the old days when you were a young man, still handsome to look upon. I left you alone for old times' sake, but I see you crave the sweet release of death. Well, old friend, so be it."

"They say you cannot be killed," Cristofor said. "The legend that haunts all vampires. Our leaders say to leave you alone."

"Your leaders? You have joined them then, banded together against the prince and his people? Why seek death when you have a plan to rule every country? The world?" She laughed softly. "It seems to me that this is a silly wish, and a lot of work. In the old days, we lived simply. Those were happy days. Do you not recall them?"

Cristofor studied her flawless face. "I was told you were pieced together, one strip of flesh at a time, yet your face and body are as you were in the old days."

She shrugged her shoulders, refusing to allow the images of those dark years, the suffering and pain-agony really-when her body refused to die and lay deep in the earth, stripped of flesh and open to the crawling insects abounding in the dirt. She kept her face serene, smiling, but inside she was still, coiled, ready to explode into action.

"Why not join us? You have more reason than any other to hate the prince."

"And join the very ones who betrayed and mutilated me? I do not think so. I wage war where it is due." She flexed her fingers inside the skintight, thin gloves. "You really should not have touched my wolves, Cristofor. You have left me little choice."

"I want your secret. Give it to me and I will let you live."

She smiled then, a beautiful smile, her teeth small and pearl white. Her lips were red and full, a teasing, sexy curve inviting him to share the humor. She tilted her head to one side, her gaze moving over his face, assessing him carefully. "I had no idea you had become such a fool, Cristo." She called him the name she had used when they were children playing together. Before. When the world was right. "I am the slayer of vampires. You summoned me with your traps"-she waved a contemptuous hand-"and you think I should be intimidated by you?"

He grinned at her, an evil, malicious smile. "You have become arrogant, Slayer. And careless. You had no idea the trap was for you and not your precious wolves. You have no choice but to give me what I want, or you die this night."

Ivory shrugged her slender shoulders and the silvery full-length coat rippled, moved as if alive. One moment it loosely flowed around her ankles and the next it was gone, settling over her skin until six ferocious wolf tattoos adorned her body from the small of her back to her neck, wrapping around each arm like sleeves.

"So be it," she said softly, her eyes on his.

Spinning, she drew her sword with one hand, rushing toward him, going up and over a snowcapped boulder to launch her body into the air. She felt the bite of a hidden snare, and inwardly cursed as the noose closed around her neck. Already she was dissolving, but blood spattered across the snow in bright crimson drops.

Cristofor laughed and leaned down to scoop up a handful of snow to lick at the droplets, savoring the taste of pure Carpathian blood. Not just pure-the slayer was Ivory Malinov, from one of the strongest Carpathian lineages possible. He followed the arc of blood, saw her forming a few feet from him, closer to the tree line, and satisfaction made him cackle.

Ivory saluted him with two fingers, touched the thin line running across her neck and put her finger in her mouth, sucking off the blood. "Nice score. I did not see that coming and I shall have to apologize to my wolves for scolding them. But Cristo, if you believe your partner back there in the woods is going to help you after slaying my wolf pack, you are doing some serious underestimating of your own."

She ran forward again, her hand low, drawing and throwing the small arrowheads, snapping them with tremendous strength so each buried itself deep into his body, in a straight line from belly to neck. The vampire roared and tried to shift. His legs disappeared, melting into vapor. His head swirled and disappeared. Fog drifted in from the trees in an attempt to help conceal him, congealing around his body, forming a thick veil. The torso remained, that straight, damaging line from belly to neck exposing his heart.

Her sword sank deep, her body weight, strength and momentum from her run driving the blade through the body right beneath the heart. The vampire screamed horribly. Acidlike blood poured from the wound, sizzling over the sword and splattering across the snow. The metal should have been eaten through, but the coating the slayer used protected it, as well as prevented that portion of his body from shifting. She turned her body in a dancer's spin, sword over her head, still stuck inside his chest so that she cut a circular hole around his heart.

Ivory withdrew the sword and plunged her hand deep. "I showed you my secret," she whispered. "Take it to your grave." She withdrew the heart and flung it away from her, lifting her arms to call down a sword of lightning.

The jagged bolt incinerated the heart and then jumped to the body, burning it clean. "Find peace, Cristofor," she whispered and hung her head, leaning on her sword, tears shimmering briefly for her lost boyhood friend.

So many were gone now. Nothing remained of the life she'd once known. She took a deep breath, drawing in the crisp night before cleaning her sword and all trace of the vampire's blood from the snow. She retrieved the eight small arrowheads and slid them into the loops on her holster before holding out her arms for the silver-tipped pelt. The tattoos moved, emerging, sliding once more over her body in the form of a coat. She allowed the silvery full-length garment to settle over her body slowly before picking up her weapons and drawing up the hood. At once she seemed to disappear, blending seamlessly with the layers of white fog.

Ivory moved in silence, feeling the hostile energy radiating from her pack. They were under attack and her wall of protection was weakening. She'd thrown the shield up around them hastily when she scented the second predator. Had he not been quite so eager for the kill, and stayed downwind, he might have managed to kill her wild wolf pack. She couldn't reuse the arrowheads on him; the vampire's acidic blood would have eaten through most of the coating. She had very little time to kill her enemy once she buried the small, lethal wedges in the vampire's body before that acidic blood ate through the coating and allowed her enemy to shift.

Weaving through the trees, the slayer stayed low to the ground, taking on the shape of a wolf. With her silver-tipped pelt it would be difficult to distinguish her from the other wolves in the area as she slipped through the trees toward the second vampire. She sank behind a fallen tree, studying the man hurling fireballs at the wolves. He had cornered them just at the water's edge, where the ice was thin and dangerous. She could see cracks spreading along the thin shield she'd thrown up where the vampire continually battered at it.

She took a breath, released it, and let herself find that place deep inside where there was stillness. Where there was resolve. In human form now, she stood and ran at the vampire, firing the crossbow as she went. Again, her aim was for his torso. She caught him as he turned, one arrow slicing into his lower back, the second missing altogether. He flung the fireball at her and Ivory somersaulted on the ground, letting it fly over her head. Then she was up on her feet, still running, always advancing, shooting at him with the crossbow.