Dark Peril (Dark #21)

by Christine Feehan


Carpathian males without a lifemate didn't dream. They didn't see in color and they certainly didn't feel emotion. Pain, yes, but not emotion. So why had he been reaching for a dream for the past few years? He was an ancient, an experienced warrior. He had no time for fantasy, or for imagination. His world was stark and barren, a necessity for battling an enemy who, inevitably, had been a friend or family member.

Over the first hundred or so years after losing his emotions, he had held out hope. As centuries passed, the hope of finding his lifemate had faded. He had accepted he would find her in the next life and he was carrying out his resolve to do his last duty to his people. Yet here he was, an ancient of great experience, Dominic of the Dragonseeker line, a lineage as old as time itself, a man of wisdom, a warrior renowned and feared-- lying awake beneath the rich soil, dreaming.

Dreams should have felt insubstantial--and at first his had been. A woman. Just a vague idea of her appearance. So young in comparison to him, but a warrior in her own right. She hadn't been his concept of the woman who would partner him, yet as she grew in substance over the years, he realized how perfect she was for him. He had fought far too long to ever lay down his sword. He knew no other way of life. Duty and sacrifice were bred into his very bones and he needed a woman who could understand him.

Perhaps that was what dreams were. He'd never dreamt until a few years ago. Never. Dreams were emotions, and he'd long ago lost those. Dreams were color, although not his. But they felt like color as the years shaped the woman. She was a mystery, sheer confidence when she fought. She often had fresh bruises and wounds that left scars on her soft skin. He'd taken to examining her carefully each time they met--healing her had become a traditional greeting. He found himself smiling inside, thinking how she was entirely the opposite of confident when it came to viewing herself as a woman. For a few moments he contemplated why he should be smiling inside. Smiling was equated with happiness, and he had no emotions to feel such things, but his memories of emotions were sharpening as he moved toward the end of his life, instead of dimming as he had expected. Because when he summoned the dream, he felt a sense of comfort, of well-being and happiness.

Over the years she had become clearer to him. A jaguar-woman. A fierce warrior with exactly the same values he held on loyalty and family and duty. He would never forget the night, only a week ago, when he saw her eyes in color. For a moment he couldn't breathe, looking at her in wonder, shocked that he could remember colors so vividly that he could attribute an actual color to her cat's eyes.

Her eyes were beautiful, glowing green with faint hints of gold and amber that darkened when he managed to elicit a laugh from her. She didn't laugh often or easily, and when she did, he felt it was more of a victory than any of the battles he'd won.

As dreams went--and they only occurred when he was awake--they always seemed a bit out of focus. But he looked forward to seeing her. He felt protective toward her, as if his allegiance had already swung toward his dream woman. He wrote to her, songs of love, saying all the things he wished to tell his lifemate. And when she refused to rest, he'd lay her down, her head in his lap, stroking her thick mane of hair and singing to her in his language. He'd never felt more content--or more complete.

He stirred, disturbing the rich soil surrounding him. The moment he moved, the pain took him, thousands of knives ripping from the inside out. The tainted vampire blood he'd deliberately swallowed had been thick with parasites, and they moved in him, replicating, seeking to take over his body, to invade every cell, every organ. And as often as he purged some to keep the numbers down, they seemed to work harder to multiply.

Dominic hissed out his breath between his teeth as he forced his rising. It was not yet fully night and he was an ancient Carpathian with many battles and kills to his name. As a rule ancients didn't rise before the sun had set, but he needed the extra time to scout his enemy and get his bearings in this land of walking myths and legends.

Deep within the cave he'd chosen in the Amazon forest, he moved the earth gently, allowing it to settle around him as he awakened, wanting to keep the area as undisturbed as possible. He traveled only at night, as his kind did, listening to the whisper of evil, on the trail of a master vampire, one he was certain had knowledge of the plans to destroy the Carpathian species once and for all. His people knew that the vampires were coming together under the rule of the five. At first the groups had been small and scattered, the attacks easily fended off, but lately the whisper of conspiracy had grown into a roar, and the groups were larger and more organized and widespread than first thought. He was certain the parasites in the tainted blood were the key to identifying all those forging an allegiance to the five masters. He'd gleaned that much over his days of traveling. He had tested the theory several times, coming across three vampires. Two were relatively new, and neither had the parasites and were easy for an experienced hunter to kill. But the third had satisfied his questions. The moment he came into close proximity, the parasites had gone into a frenzy of recognition. He had listened to the vampire bragging for most of the night, telling him of their growing legions and how emissaries were meeting in the Amazon, where they had allies in the jaguar-men and a human society that had no idea they were in bed with the very ones they sought to destroy. The masters were using both humans and jaguar-men to hunt and kill Carpathians. Dominic had killed the vampire, a quick extraction of the heart, and, calling down the lightning, incinerated him. Before leaving the area, he had taken great care to remove any trace of his presence.

He knew time was running out fast. The parasites were hard at work, whispering to him, murmuring evil enticements, unrelenting in their quest for him to join with the masters. He was an ancient without a lifemate and the darkness was strong in him already. His beloved sister had disappeared hundreds of years earlier--he now knew she was dead and her children safe with the Carpathian people. He could do this one last task and end his barren existence with honor.

He rose from the rich soil, as rejuvenated as one with parasites in his blood could possibly be. The cave deep beneath the earth kept the sun from touching his skin, but he felt it anyway, knowing it was just outside the darkness, waiting to scorch him. His skin prickled and burned in anticipation. He strode through the cave with absolute confidence. He moved with the easy self-assurance of a warrior, flowing over the uneven ground in the darkness.

As he began the climb to the surface, he thought of her--his lifemate, the woman in his dreams. She wasn't his true lifemate of course, because if she were he would be seeing colors vividly, not just her eyes. He would see the various shades of green in the rain forest, but everything around him remained gray hued. Was finding solace with her cheating? Was singing to her about his love of his lifemate cheating? He longed for her, needing to conjure her up at times to get through the night when his blood was on fire and he was being eaten alive from the inside out. He thought of her soft skin, a sensation that seemed amazing when he was like an oak tree, hard iron, his skin as tough as leather.

As he neared the exit of the cave, he could see light spilling into the tunnel and his body cringed, an automatic reaction after centuries of living in the night. He loved the night, no matter where he was or what continent he was on. The moon was a friend, the stars often guiding lights he navigated by. He was in unfamiliar territory, but he knew the De La Cruz brothers patrolled the rain forest, although there were five of them to cover a very large territory and they were spread thin. He had a feeling the five who were recruiting the lesser vampires against the Carpathians had deliberately chosen the De La Cruz territory as their headquarters.

The Malinov brothers and the De La Cruz brothers had grown up together, more than friends, claiming a kinship. They'd been regarded by the Carpathian people as two of the most powerful families, warriors unsurpassed by many. Dominic thought about their personalities, and the camaraderie that had turned into a rivalry. It made sense that the Malinov brothers would choose to set their headquarters right under the noses of the very ones who had plotted theoretical ways to remove the Dubrinsky line as rulers of the Carpathian people and then, in the end, had sworn their allegiance to the prince. The Malinov brothers would become the De La Cruz brothers' most bitter and unrelenting enemies.

Dominic's logical line of reasoning had been confirmed by the vampire he had killed in the Carpathian Mountains, a very talkative lesser vampire who wanted to brag about all he knew. Dominic had made his way, taking no prisoners, so to speak, surprised at how the parasites were such a fantastic warning system. It had never occurred to the Malinov brothers that any Carpathian would dare to ingest the blood and invade their very camp.

Going closer to the cave entrance, he was hit by the noise first, the sounds of birds and monkeys and the incessant hum of insects in spite of the steady rain. It was hot, and steam actually rose from the floor just outside the cave as the moisture poured down from the skies. Trees hung over the swollen banks of the river, their root systems great gnarled cages, the thick tendrils snaking over the ground to create waves of wooden fins.

Dominic was impervious to rain or heat; he could regulate his own temperature to stay comfortable. But those thirty feet or so from the entrance of his cave to the relative safety under the thick canopy were going to be hell, and he wasn't looking forward to it. Traveling in the sun, even in another form, was painful, and with the sensation of glass shards ripping his insides to shreds, he had enough to contend with.

It was difficult not to reach for the dream. In her company, the pain eased and the whispering in his head ceased. The constant murmurs, the parasites working on his acceptance of the masters and their plan, were wearying. The dream gave him solace in spite of knowing his lifemate wasn't real.

He knew he had slowly built up his lifemate in his mind--not her looks, but her characteristics, the traits that were important to him. He needed a woman who was loyal beyond all else, a woman who would guard their children fiercely, who would stand with him no matter what came at them, one he would know was at his side, and he wouldn't have to worry that she couldn't protect herself or their children.

He needed a woman who, when it was just the two of them, would follow his lead, who would be feminine and fragile and all the things she couldn't be during the times they would have to fight. And he wanted that side of her completely to himself. It was selfish, maybe, but he had never had anything for himself, and his woman was for him alone. He didn't want other men to see her the way he did. He didn't want her to look at other men. She was for him alone, and maybe that was what a dream really was--building the perfect woman in your mind when you knew you'd never have one.

He was well aware of her fighting skills. He saw the battle scars. He respected and admired her when he walked with her, yet he couldn't really hold her image for long. In dreams she came to him, shielded by a heavy veil, their exchanges in images more than words. It had taken a long time for either to reveal any part of themselves other than the warrior. They'd built trust between them slowly--and he liked that about her. She didn't give her allegiance easily, but when she did, she gave it wholly. And it was to him.

Again he found himself smiling inside at such a ridiculous fantasy at his age. It must be a sign of his mind deteriorating. Senility had set in. But how he missed her when he couldn't bring her to him. She seemed closer there in the heat of the forest, with the rain coming down in silvery sheets. The veil of moisture reminded him of the first time he'd managed to peer through that haze in his dream and see her face so clearly. She'd stolen his breath. She'd looked so frightened, as if she'd deliberately revealed herself--finally taken a chance, but stood trembling, waiting for him to pass judgment on her.

At that moment he'd felt closer to actual love than he ever had before. He tried to compare the feeling with what he'd felt for his sister, Rhiannon, in the early days when they'd all been happy and he still had his emotions. He'd held on to the memory of love all those centuries, yet now, when he needed the feeling to complete his dream, before he went out fighting, the feeling was entirely different.