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|Damien(Nightwalkers #4) by Jacquelyn Frank|
"Why, Jasmine?" he asked, though he had lived long enough to discover the answer himself after four hundred or so years.
"To keep ourselves from going mad, I believe. Either from boredom or because the turmoil of all the species mixing about on this planet can be so complicated. It exhausts me and makes me want to sleep just thinking about it."
"Puss, you are only fifty-four. A mere child, if you will not take that as an insult. Too young to be thinking about the hunger for entertainment in your old age, and far too young to worry about the fates of all the species crammed onto this planet." He reached to pull back her hair, kissing her baby-soft cheek fondly and stroking an affectionate finger down the side of the flawless, youthful skin of her face. Like all Vampires, she had not aged a day beyond her full sexual maturity in her twenties. "If it makes you feel more content, however, I think I can promise to give you a good entertainment should you ever need one. All you have to do is ask."
"Watching that ugly, freckled woman dodge men and assassins is not my idea of an amusement," she retorted wryly.
"Ah, but there is a method to my madness, sweet."
Damien smiled and turned to face the room. He cleared his throat and gained everyone's attention. A couple of them even sat up in hopeful expectation.
"My time in court has been rather fruitful. There is a bit of a religious uprising taking place in France. Protestants and Catholics and the usual nonsense."
"Oh! Are they sending young men?" Jessica asked excitedly.
"Is it an army or merely a pack of rebels?"
"Yes. You must quantify 'a bit,' Damien," Lind insisted.
"Let us just say it is enough of a bit to cover up our arrival and our hunting for a good while," he said with a chuckle. "We will leave in a week's time."
The next night, Damien arrived at the palace only to find out that Elizabeth was ill and would not be holding court that evening. The Prince was concerned. London, even in wintertime, was a breeding ground for terrible plagues and other treacherous diseases. Elizabeth Tudor did not strike him as the sort to get sick or the type to take to her bed even if she was. She was a feisty, stubborn thing; it was the very reason why Damien enjoyed her so very much.
The Prince took it upon himself to find another way into the Queen's household after Robert Dudley took a bit too much pleasure in turning him away. Damien could have easily influenced him to the contrary, but he was bored with Dudley's ideas of what constituted a play for power.
He made his way with unerring surety to the wing that housed Elizabeth's personal quarters. He came close enough to the worried whispers and scurrying going on around the Queen's chambers to listen for what information he could get, using both the perception of their speech and the divination of their thoughts to construct a full picture of the situation. Once he was certain Elizabeth's illness was minor and she would soon be well again, he would leave, gather his entourage, and head for the battlefields of France, where a number of new entertainments awaited them.
It only took him a moment to realize Elizabeth was not going to be all right at all. In fact, she was probably going to die before the night was over.
She had contracted the deadly smallpox.
Damn lethal nuisance of a disease, Damien thought angrily.
He left the wall he had been leaning against and quickly moved across the room. No one stopped him because no one was even aware of his presence. He walked right into Bess's bedroom and marched over to her bed, thrusting the curtains aside impatiently. He looked down on her, frowning with furious disgust. She looked weak, so deadly pale…almost as if she was not even the same woman who had laughed, danced, and flirted with him the night before.
There were two women sitting watch very close to the bed, and Damien turned to them. He held each by the chin for a brief moment, staring hard into their eyes until he had sufficiently manipulated their thoughts and perceptions. Then he turned back to Bess, kneeled on the bed with one knee, and scooped her up against the support of his chest. She lolled against him like a limp china doll as he shoved back the tangles of red curls covering her neck.
Then he reared back his head for a moment, fangs stretching and flexing out of his mouth with a wicked, sharp gleam for only a second before he drove them into the throat of the young English Queen.
The Vampire Prince felt her blood, superheated with fever, flowing over his tongue. He had not hunted earlier, so there was that sudden pleasure of the release of hunger that always came with the first infusion of prey blood.
Despite her illness and fever, Elizabeth reacted to his intrusion. She groaned softly, reaching blindly to grasp the arm banded tightly around her ribs beneath her breasts. He could not ignore the stroke of her fingers as they brushed over the fine hairs on his arm, and the twist of her body against his chest and thighs. The stimulation enhanced the pleasure of his feed, just as the act of nourishment always brought out the instinctual sensuality of the prey. The only thing that could have made it sweeter would have been fear or rage or anything that pumped a human full of the spice of adrenaline just before the skin was pierced.
She was already weak, so he did not take his fill. Nowhere near it. But he kept his mouth over the wound he had made. Her carotid pulse beat madly against his tongue, sweeping the effects of his second bite into her throat as his fangs injected her with the clotting agents that were stored within them, just as venom is delivered through the fangs of a snake.
But unlike venom, this would not harm Elizabeth in the least.
On the contrary. Somewhere, mixed in the chemistry of the coagulants that were quickly stopping the blood from escaping from the wound as he disengaged from her neck, was the antibody she would need to fight off the invader threatening her life.
There were few Vampires who were old enough or strong enough to take in an infection of the magnitude and complexity of smallpox. However, those like Damien who were powerful enough had the ability to divine and localize the pathogen, extracting it from disease-ravaged cells and forcing their own chemistry to produce the necessary antibody. It was no easy trick, and Vampires who were not up to the task could easily poison themselves with disease. Luckily, they could sense such things on their prey even before they caught up with it.
The reward for risking this conversion from disease to cure, however, was a pathological memory of the antibody that joined with hundreds of others and was added to the coagulant injected into prey at the end of a feed. Damien had preyed on a victim of smallpox before, and this had allowed his body to create the antibody whose benefit Elizabeth was now going to enjoy. He had not fed on her for the sake of hunger. That had been a small side bonus.
He had fed on her to help cure her.
Damien slid away from the Queen, laying her down gently into an abundance of feather-filled pillows. He caught an errant bead of blood on his thumb, pausing only long enough to lick the precious sweetness away.
His bite was not a miracle cure. It was merely a shortcut that would give her immune system a great advantage. Elizabeth was strong and a fighter. The combination would help her to recover. It would just take some time.
Damien would go to France, feast with his brethren on the battlefields, and return later, hopefully to find her alive and well and pleased to see him.
San Jose, California, Present Day
Damien's head snapped up as he got the sudden sense that someone was very nearby. The sharp turn of his neck caused the braid at the base of his neck to snap like a whip against his throat.
It was nearly like pitch, the darkness around him was so black and so complete. There was no visible moon, leaving everything like a heavy blanket of suffocating velvet that those who considered themselves vulnerable might feel an urge to run away from. Even the glow of the streetlamps placed few and far between in the California suburb seemed helpless to penetrate this darkness.
However, the night did not bother Damien. Quite the opposite. It was his natural habitat, all of his senses equipped to work best within its folds. In spite of all that, something blew with alien chill down the back of his neck as this new presence crept within range of his perception.
He leaned back into the protective shadows of the foliage a little bit more as he realized it was not a human being that moved toward him with such near-perfect stealth. Normal humans were not capable of defying his senses so well that they could come this close before he became aware of them. So the Vampire Prince was left to wonder who, or what, it was that was following so stealthily in his footsteps.
He first had to determine if this was an accidental or purposeful tail. He exhaled, out of habit rather than a need to, shaking his head with momentary perturbation. All he had wanted to do that night was take part in a good hunt and then return to his holdings in peace. However, in order to have that sort of easy peace, he mused, one had to have no enemies.
Unfortunately, Vampires had a lot of enemies.
And the Prince of all Vampires usually had ten times the usual dose of them. Exterior politics and the number of annoying humans or troublemaking Nightwalkers aside, Vampires had an awful tendency to play King of the Mountain with one another. Though most knew better than to match skills with Damien, there were always a few who over-estimated their ability to unseat the royal Vampire from his throne. Theirs was a society where survival of the fittest was at the core of many of their motivations. In the case of the throne, it determined who would lead their entire species.
He should know, he thought with a sly half-smile that allowed the ivory of one anticipatory fang to glimmer in the darkness. Defeating the previous monarch was how Damien had come to be in his princely position several centuries ago.
But his predecessor had been something of a jackass, he mused as he waited idly for his stalker to catch up with him, and he had quite thoroughly earned his ritualistic beheading.
As he turned his senses to the task of making prey of his hunter, he was able to determine that it was not a Vampire that tracked him. All he needed to do to figure that out was flick into place the small nictitating membranes hidden in the anatomy of his eyes. That membrane added the ability to visualize a brightly fluoresced aura that varied with the amount of heat a body was giving off.
While Vampires did not have a natural circulation to speak of, they did retain the heat of the blood of their victims from one feeding to the next, able to maintain it well, provided they fed within twenty-four hours of the previous meal. However, the flaw to that system was that extremities like fingers and toes lost that artificial heat the quickest. So, in his visual perception, a Vampire who had not hunted yet would have a sort of bull's-eye effect at this young hour of the night. The heart and chest would be the hottest, flaring bright and white, but in eddying circles that white would fade to a circle of red, then orange, then pink, until the location of hands and feet were almost imperceptible to heat vision, blending in too well with the temperature around them.
A Vampire who had hunted already would be a uniform red, unlike a human, who was a changing series of white, red, and redder splashes of determining color. Human heat levels were always changing, with movement, effort, sickness, or arousal, and there was a perceptible time period before the human body compensated for those changes, evening them out somewhat. However, those with the sharpest of eyes and skills could easily determine the difference between a flushed Vampire and a mortal being after a century or two of practice.
The figure that tracked him was neither human nor Vampire, he determined. However, it was potentially a Nightwalker who could emulate any level of body temperature they wished, or it was a Demon. The Demon race was notorious for a body temperature several degrees cooler than most upright walking species on the planet. This was the case in the body that stood in shadow not too far away from him.
The Nightwalker species were the races that lived only in the night, hiding from a curious variance of negative effects the sun caused them. Of these species, Demons were the second least likely to cause grief or pose a danger for the Vampire Prince. Demons were infamously moral and reclusive, focusing within themselves and upon policing their own, and were very much less likely to venture out in order to cause trouble elsewhere.
There had been a bit of trouble lately that made anything possible.
Of course, it could be a Shadowdweller. Those devious little tricksters were the masters of self-camouflage. They were the Nightwalker equivalent of chameleons. They were also an enormous pain in the posterior, Damien thought wryly. They had little to no political structure, wandering around in clans or religious clusters, quite often causing more than their fair share of mischief and trouble. They were like wild children, pestering other Nightwalkers, scrapping amongst themselves and with others, mucking with mortals like they were toys and dolls for playing with.
Not that Damien failed to see the appeal in that. He had mucked around with humans and others quite a bit in his youth.
Well, perhaps youth was being too liberal.
To be honest, he was still quite easily capable of toying with the workings of the races around him, if it suited his mood. He chuckled to himself at that. Gideon, an old Demon friend of his, had once accused him of being a cosmic busybody. It was not all that far from the truth.
Before Damien would allow himself the luxury of believing that this Demon was a friend, he needed to turn the hunt around and surprise his quarry. If he lollygagged in the bushes much longer, the person tagging after him would realize he had become aware of being followed.
Unexpectedly, the shadow suddenly broke from its surroundings and headed straight in his direction.
The direct approach.
That meant one of two things. Incredible stupidity, or immeasurable fearlessness. As he switched to normal vision and picked out the features of the approaching figure, he realized it was the latter.
"Noah," he said, breaking from the shadows himself to step up to the Demon King.