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Dark Curse

A Carpathian Novel

Christine Feehan - Author

Paperback: Mass Market | $7.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780515146998 | 464 pages | 29 Sep 2009 | Jove | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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Summary of Dark Curse Summary of Dark Curse Reviews for Dark Curse An Excerpt from Dark Curse
Born into evil and ice, Dragonseeker Lara Calladine longs to find the source of her nightmares. The only man who can help her is Nicolas De La Cruz who, for centuries, has longed to feel the sensual love of a woman without a hunger for blood. He’s found the perfect mate in Lara. But their mysterious pasts share a secret that could destroy them both.

Chapter 1

"Lara, let's get out of here," Terry Vale said. "It's getting dark and there's nothing here." He shouldered his caving equipment, not surprised that they hadn't found an entrance to an ice cave. If no one had discovered the cave by this time in the Carpathian Mountains, he doubted if the place existed.

Lara Calladine ignored him, continuing to scan the mountainside for the smallest crack that might signal the presence of a cave. She wasn't wrong—not this time. Power had surged and crackled the moment she set foot on the upper slopes of the mountain. She took a deep breath and pressed a hand over her pounding heart. This was it. This was the place she had spent her life searching for. She would recognize that flow of energy anywhere. She knew every weave, every spell, her body absorbing the gathering power so that veins sizzled and nerve endings burned with the electrical current building inside of her.

"I've got to go with Terry on this," Gerald French agreed, backing up the other member of their research caving team. "This place gives me the creeps. We've been on a lot of mountains, but this one doesn't like us." He gave a nervous laugh. "It's getting dicey up here."

"No one says ‘dicey,' " Lara murmured, running her hand along the face of the rock about an inch from it, looking for threads of power. The two men were not only her climbing partners, but her closest friends. At that moment she wished she'd left them behind, because she knew she was right. The cave was here, she just had to find the entrance.

"Whatever," Gerald snapped. "It's getting dark and there's nothing here but mist. The fog is creepy, Lara. We've got to get out of here."

Lara spared the two men an impatient glance and then surveyed the countryside around them. Ice and snow glittered, coating the surrounding mountains with what appeared to be sparkling gems. Far below, despite the gathering dusk, she could see castles, farms and churches in the valley. Sheep dotted the meadows and in the distance she could see the river running, filled to capacity. Overhead, birds cried, filling the sky and dive-bombing toward her only to break off abruptly and circle again. The wind shifted continuously, biting at her face and every bit of exposed skin, tugging at her long, thick braid all the while moaning and wailing. Occasionally, a rock fell down the slope and bounced off the ledge to the hillside below. A trickle of snow and dirt slid near her feet.

Her gaze swept the wild countryside below. Gorges and ravines cut through the snow-capped mountains, plants clung to the sides of the rocks and shivered naked along the plateaus. She could see the entrances to several caves and felt the strong pull toward them as if they were tempting her to leave her current position. Water filled the deeper depressions below, forming a dark peat bog, and beds of moss were a vivid green in stark contrast to the browns surrounding them. But she needed to be here—in this spot—this place. She had studied the geography carefully and knew, deep within the earth, a massive series of ice caves had formed.

The higher she climbed, the smaller everything below her looked and the thicker the white mist surrounding her became. With each step, the ground shifted subtly and the birds overhead shrieked a little louder. Ordinary things, yes, but the subtle sense of uneasiness, the continual voice whispering to leave before it was too late told her this was a place of power protecting itself. Although the wind continued to wail and blow, the mist remained a thick veil shrouding the upper slope.

"Come on, Lara," Terry tried again. "It took us forever to get the permits, we can't waste time on the wrong area. You can see nothing's here."

It had taken considerable effort this time, to get the permits for her study, but she had managed the usual way—using her gifts to persuade those who disagreed with her that due to global warming concerns, the ice caves needed immediate study. Unique microorganisms called extremophiles thrived in the harsh environment of the caves, far away from sunlight or traditional nutrients. Scientists hoped those microbes could aid in the fight against cancer or even produce an antibiotic capable of wiping out the newest emerging superbugs.

Her research project was fully funded and, although she was considered young at the age of twenty-seven, she was acknowledged as the leading expert in the field of ice-cave study and preservation. She'd logged more hours exploring, mapping and studying the ice caves around the world than most other researchers twice her age. She'd also discovered more superbugs than any other caver.

"Didn't it strike you as odd that no one wanted us in this particular region? They were fine giving us permits to look virtually anywhere else," she pointed out. Part of the reason she'd persisted when no caves had been mapped in the area was because the department head had been so strange—strange and rather vague when they went over the map. The natural geographical deduction after studying the area was that a vast network of ice caves lay beneath the mountain, yet the entire region seemed to have been overlooked.

Terry and Gerald had exhibited exactly the same behavior, as if they didn't notice the structure of the mountain, but both men were superb at finding ice caves from the geographical surface. Persuasion had been difficult, but all of that work was for this moment—this cave—this find.

"It's here," she said with absolute confidence.

Her heart continued to pound—not at the excitement of the find—but because walking had become such a chore, her body not wanting to continue forward. She breathed away the compulsion to leave and pressed through the safeguards, following the trail of power, judging how close she was to the entrance by how strong her need to run away was.

Voices rose in the wind, swirled in the mists, telling her to go back, to leave while she could. Strangely, she heard the voices in several languages, the warning much stronger and more insistent as she made her way along the slope searching for anything at all that might signal an entrance to the caves she knew were there. All the while she kept all senses alert to the possibility that monsters might lurk beneath the earth, but she had to enter—to find the place of her nightmares, the place of her childhood. She had to find the two dragons she dreamed of nightly.

"Lara!" This time, Terry's voice was sharp with protest. "We have to get out of here."

Barely sparing him a second glance, Lara stood for a long moment studying the outcropping that jutted out from smoother rock. Thick snow covered most of it, but there was an oddity about the formation that kept drawing her gaze back to the rock. She approached cautiously. Several small rocks lay at the foot of the larger boulders, and strangely, not a single snowflake stuck to them. She didn't touch them, but studied them from every angle, observing carefully the way they were arranged in a pattern at the foot of the outcropping.

"Something out of place," she murmured aloud.

Instantly the wind wailed, the sound rising to a shriek as it rushed toward her, blowing debris into the air so that it shot at her like small missiles.

"It's the rocks. See, they should be arranged differently." Lara leaned down and pushed the small pile of rocks into a different pattern.

At once the ground shifted beneath them. The mountain creaked in protest. Bats took to the air, pouring out of some unseen hole a short distance from them, filling the sky until it was nearly black. The dark crack along the outcropping split wider. The mountain shuddered and shook and groaned as if alive, as if it was coming awake.

"We shouldn't be here," Terry nearly sobbed.

Lara took a deep breath and held her palm toward the narrow slit in the mountainside, the only entrance to this particular cave. Power blasted out at her, and all around she could feel the safeguards, thick and ominous, protecting the entrance.

"You're right, Terry," she agreed. "We shouldn't." She backed away from the outcropping and gestured toward the trail. "Let's go. And hurry." For the first time she was really aware of the time, the way the gathering darkness spread like a stain across the sky.

She would be coming back early morning—without her two companions. She had no idea what was left in the elaborate ice caverns below, but she wasn't about to expose two of her closest friends to danger. The safeguards in place would confuse them, so they wouldn't remember the location of the cave, but she knew each weave, each spell, and how to reverse it so that the guards wouldn't affect her.

Ice caves as a whole were dangerous at all times. The continual pressure from overlying ice caps often sent great frozen chunks of ice blasting out of the walls, fired like rockets, capable of killing anything they struck. But this particular cave harbored dangers far outweighing natural ones and she didn't want her companions anywhere near it.

The ground shifted again, throwing all of them off balance. Gerald grabbed her to keep her from falling and Terry caught at the outcropping, fingers digging into the widening crack. Beneath their feet, something under the ground moved, raising the surface several inches as the creature raced toward the base of the rocks Lara had realigned.

"What is that?" Gerald shouted, backpedaling. He thrust Lara behind him in an effort to protect her as the dirt and snow spouted into a geyser almost at his feet.

Terry screamed, his voice high-pitched and frightened as he tipped over backward and the unseen creature raced toward him beneath the earth.

"Get up! Move!" Lara called, trying to get around Gerald's sold bulk to throw a holding spell. As he swung around, Gerald's backpack knocked her off her feet and sent her rolling down the steeper slope. Her birthmark, the strangely shaped dragon positioned just over her left ovary suddenly flared into life, burning through her skin and glowing red-hot.

Two dark green tentacles burst from the snow-covered ground, slick with blood, the color so dark it nearly was black, emerging on either side of Terry's left ankle. The sound of bubbling mud rose along with a noxious, putrid stink of rotten eggs and sulfur, so overpowering the three of them gagged. The bulbous tops of the tentacles reared back, revealing coiling snake heads that struck with brutal speed. Two curved, venomous fangs clamped from either side through Terry's skin nearly to the bone. Terry screamed and flailed in terror as his blood dripped into the pristine snow. The small gap in the ground began to widen into a larger hole a few feet from Terry. At once, the tentacles retreated toward the hole, slithering across the surface, dragging Terry by his ankle. His screams of fear and pain grew louder, shrill and panicked.

Gerald flung himself forward, gripping Terry under his arms and throwing his weight in the opposite direction. "Hurry, Lara!"

Lara scrambled to the top of the slope. The mist whirled and thickened around her, making it difficult to see. She spread her arms as she ran, gathering energy from the darkening sky, uncaring that her companions might see, knowing she was Terry's only chance for survival. Never once since leaving the ice caves had she used the knowledge inside of her, the wealth of information her aunts had shared with her, embedding memory after memory in her mind—indeed, she hadn't been certain it was real. Until that moment. Power flooded her. Her mind opened. Expanded. Reached into the well of knowledge and found the exact words she needed.

"It's too strong." Gerald dug his heels into the earth and held on to Terry with every ounce of strength he possessed. "Stop wasting your energy and help me, damn it. Come on, Terry, fight."

Terry ceased screaming abruptly and began to fight in earnest, kicking with his free leg in an attempt to dislodge the two snake heads.

The vine threw more tentacles out, the greenish black stems writhing hideously, looking for a target. The teeth sank deeper into Terry's ankle, sawing at flesh and bone in an effort to keep their prey.

Lara flung herself forward, lifting her face to the sky as she muttered the words she found in her mind.

I call forth the power of the sky. Bring down lightning to my mind's eye. Shaping, shifting, bend to my will. Forging a scythe to sharpened steel. Hot and bright the fire be, guide my hand with accuracy.

Lightning zigzagged across the sky, lighting the edges of the clouds. The air around them charged so that the hair on their bodies and heads stood out. Lara felt electricity snapping and sizzling in her fingertips and focused on the thinner space between the long, thick bodies and the bulbous heads of the snake vines.

White light streaked across the short distance and pierced the necks of the creatures. The smell of rotting flesh burst from the vine. Both severed tentacles dropped limply to the ground, leaving the teeth, with the heads attached, still sunk deep into Terry's ankle. The rest of the tentacles reared back in shock and then burrowed beneath the dirt and snow.

Terry grasped one of the heads to pull it out.

"No!" Lara protested. "Leave it. We have to get out of here right now."

"It burns like acid," Terry complained. His face was pale, nearly as white as the covering of snow, but beads of sweat dotted his forehead.

Lara shook her head. "We have to get off this mountain now. And you can't take chances until I can look at it."

She took his arm and signaled to Gerald to grab his other one. They steadied Terry between them and began to hurry from the slope to the well-traveled path off to their right.

"What was that?" Gerald hissed, his eyes meeting hers over Terry's head. "Have you ever seen a snake like that before?"

"Was it two-headed?" Terry asked. Anxiety made him hyperventilate. "I didn't get all that good a look at it before it struck. Do you think it's poisonous?"

"It isn't attacking your central nervous system, Terry," Lara said, "at least not yet. We'll get you back down to the village and find a doctor. I know a few things about medicine. I can treat you when we get to the car."

The mountain rumbled ominously, shivering beneath their feet. Lara glanced up at the swirling white mists. Above them, spiderweb cracks appeared in the snow and began to widen.

Gerald swore, renewed his grip on Terry and started sprinting along the thin, winding trail. "It's going to come down."

Terry gritted his teeth against the pain radiating up from his ankle. "I can't believe this is happening. I feel sick."

Lara kept her eyes on the mountain behind them as they raced, dragging Terry every step of the way. "Faster. Keep moving."

The ground shifted and rolled and small fans of snow slid in artful patterns toward the slope below them. The sight was dazzling, hypnotic even. Gerald shook his head several times and looked at Lara, puzzled, slowing down to look around at the undulating snow. "Lara? I can't remember what happened. Where are we?"

"We're about to be creamed by an avalanche, Gerald," Lara warned. "Terry's hurt and we've got to run like hell. Now move it!"

She put every ounce of compulsion and command into her voice that she could muster on the run. Fortunately both men obeyed, concentrating on getting down the steep slope as quickly as they could and asking no more questions. The safeguards protecting the cave were not only lethal, but they confused and disoriented any traveler stumbling across them. The warning system usually was enough to make people so uneasy they left the area, but once triggered, the safeguards fought to erase memories or even kill to protect the entrance to the cave.

It was definitely the place she had been looking for. Now she had to survive in order to come back and discover the long-buried secrets of her past. Gerald stumbled, and Terry screamed as the snake head slammed against a particularly dense pile of snow and ice, shoving the teeth farther into his flesh.

Lara felt the mountain tremble. At first there was silence and then a distant rumbling. The sound increased in strength and volume until it became a roar. The snow slid, slowly at first, but picked up speed, churning and roiling, rushing toward them. Lara forced down panic and reached into the well of knowledge she knew was deep inside of her. Her aunts had never appeared human to her, but their voices had been, and the immense wealth of information they had collected over centuries had been stored in Lara's memories.

She was Dragonseeker, a great Carpathian heritage. She was human, with courage and strength of the ages. She was mage, able to gather energy and use it for good. All of her ancestors were powerful beings. The blood of three species mingled in her veins, yet she belonged in none of those worlds and walked her chosen path—alone, but always guided by the wisdom of the aunts.

She felt strength pour into her, felt the crackle of electricity as the sky lit up with lightning. Once more looking over her shoulder, she sent a command to the wilds of nature to counteract the protective guard the dark mage had used on the mountain.

I summon thee water ice, fit to my hand, provide me with shelter as I command.

Snow stopped movement abruptly, sprayed in the air, frozen in place, curled over their heads like a giant wave motionless in midair.

"Run!" Lara shouted. "Go, Gerald. We've got to get off the mountain."

Night was falling and the avalanche was not the worst they might face. The wind had stilled, but the voices remained, shrieking warnings she dared not ignore. They gripped Terry and half ran, half slid down the steep slope. Above their heads, the heavy mantle of snow had formed a wave, cresting over them, motionless like an ominous statue.

Terry left behind streaks of blood as they skidded over the icy surface. They were sweating profusely by the time they made it to the bottom. Locating their car was an easy task. In this particular area of Romania, most of the locals used carts with tires pulled by horses. Cars weren't a common sight at all and theirs, as small as it was, looked far too modern in a place centuries old.

Gerald dragged Terry through the meadow to where the car was parked beneath some naked branches. Lara turned back toward the mountain, let out her breath and clapped her hands together three times. There was an odd, expectant pause. The wave rolled, snow dropped. The mountain slid, raising a cloud of white spray into the air.

"Lara," Terry gasped. "You have to get these teeth out of my ankle. My leg burns like hell and I swear, something's crawling inside of me—inside my leg."

He sprawled on the small backseat, his skin nearly gray. Sweat soaked his clothes and his breathing came in ragged gasps.

Lara knelt in the dirt and examined the hideous heads. She knew what they were—hybrids of the dark mage, bred to do his bidding. She'd seen the beginnings of them in her nightmares. The snakes injected a poisonous brew, including tiny microscopic parasites, into their victim's body. The organisms would eventually take over his body and then his brain, until he was a mere puppet to be used by the dark mage.

"I'm sorry, Terry," she said softly. "The teeth are barbed and have to be removed carefully."

"Then you've seen this before?" Terry gripped her wrist and held her close to him as she crouched beside the open door of the car. He was sprawled across the backseat, rocking in pain. "I don't know why, but the fact that you know what they are makes me feel better."

It didn't make her feel any better. She'd been a child, dragged into a laboratory. The sights and smells had been so hideous she'd tried to forget them. The stench of blood. The screams. The grotesque tiny worms in a putrid ball, wiggling in a feeding frenzy, consuming blood and human flesh.

Lara took a deep breath and let it out. They didn't have much time. She needed to get Terry to a master healer who could handle such things, but she could slow the deterioration down.

Gerald looked around him, then back up at the mountain, now quiet and still. White mists swirled, but the voices were gone. Overhead the clouds grew heavier and darker, but the mountain looked pristine—untouched—certainly not as if anyone had climbed it and been attacked.

"Lara?" He sounded as puzzled as he looked. "I can't remember where we were. I can't remember how these snakes attacked Terry. Don't snakes need warm weather? What's wrong with me?"

"It doesn't matter right now. What matters is getting these teeth out of Terry's leg and getting him to the inn where someone who knows what they're doing can help him." Someone with natural healing skills, more than doctor's skills. If they were in the vicinity where she had been held as a child, then it stood to reason someone would know how to treat a mage wound.

She closed her eyes to block out the sight of Terry's gray face and Gerald's anxious one. Deep inside, where that wealth of knowledge lay, she found her calm center. She could almost hear the whisper of her aunts' voices, directing her as the information flooded her mind. The curved fangs had a barb at the tip.

Severed head that now does bite, fangs be removed with heat and light. Draw the poison that would remain, holding the harm, stop the pain.

"There might be someone much better at taking these out," Lara said. "We can get you to the inn fast and the couple who own it might be able to find someone for us who has dealt with this before."

Terry shook his head. "I can't stand it, Lara. If you don't take them out now, I'm going to rip them out. I really can't stand it."

She nodded her understanding and reached beneath her jacket for the knife on her toolbelt. "Let's get it done then. Gerald, get in the backseat on the other side and hold Terry's shoulders." More than anything, she didn't want Gerald where some of the tainted blood might spatter onto him. The tiny microorganisms were dangerous to everyone.

Gerald obeyed her without question, and Lara studied the first snake head. The hybrid was part plant, part living animal, and all frightening. It was meant to take over a person, no matter what the species, and bring them under the dark mage's control. It hadn't been just Carpathians and humans he had tortured, but his own people as well. No one, not even his own family, was safe, as Lara could attest to.

She closed her eyes and swallowed hard, slamming the door on memories that were too painful, too frightening to remember when she had such a complex task before her. She had rarely used her healing abilities on anyone else in the last few years. In her childhood, she'd made the mistake several times, traveling with gypsies. She'd knit broken bones. Healed a wound from a blade that would have killed a man. Removed harmful bacteria from children's lungs. At first people would be grateful, but inevitably they would come to fear her.

Never show that you are different. You must blend in wherever you are. Learn the language and the customs. Dress the way they dress. Speak as they speak. Cloak who and what you are and never trust anyone.

She liked Gerald and Terry—very much. They'd worked together for several years, but she'd been very careful never to intrude on either of them, or to show them that she was different in any way.

"Lara."

Terry's pleading voice forced her thoughts to the task at hand. She steadied herself and gave him a reassuring nod. They were used to following her lead and it was natural to look to her now. She took another breath and let it out, pushing down the revulsion welling up.

The words to the healing chant rose out of that same bank of knowledge and she repeated them under her breath as she slid the razor-sharp knife beneath Terry's skin and found the barb.

Ku?asz, nélkül sivdobbanás, nélkül fesztelen löyly. Ot élidamet andam szabadon élidadért. O jelä sielam jorem ot ainamet és sone ot élidadet. O jelä sielam pukta kinn minden szelemeket bels?. Paj?ak o susu hanyet és o nyelv nyálamet sívadaba. Vii, o verim sone o verid andam.

The ancient Carpathian language she'd learned as a child came easily. She might be rusty, having never used it other than to murmur it to herself before she fell asleep, but the words, spoken in a chant, were always soothing to her.

As she whispered the healing words, she blocked Terry's pain. The fang was wicked—and nasty. It curved into the skin, growing wider, digging deep, and at the end, near the point, was a small barb, curving in the opposite direction. She had to slit the skin carefully to allow the points on either side to become loose enough to slide out without further damaging Terry's leg.

At first she used her human sight, blocking all other ability to see until she had the barb out. Only then did she allow herself to look with the eyes of a mage. Tiny white worms writhed and burrowed, swarming to the cells to reproduce as quickly as possible. Her stomach lurched. It took tremendous effort to shed her awareness of her own thoughts and physical self and become a blaze of healing white light pouring into Terry's wound to burn the organisms as quickly as she found them.

The wormlike creatures tried to hide from the light, and they reproduced quickly. She tried to be thorough, but Terry squirmed and moaned, distracting her, all at once reaching down to his other ankle, trying to yank the snake head free.

She found herself abruptly back in her own body, for a moment disoriented and panic-stricken. "Terry! Leave it. I'll take it out."

She was too late. He screamed as he yanked at the foul snake's head, tearing it loose from his ankle. The barb ripped through his skin and muscle. Blood sprayed the backseat of the car and shot across the seat, splattering Gerald's chest.

"Don't touch the blood with your hands!" Lara yelled. "Use a cloth. Get your jacket off, Gerald."

She clamped both of her hands over the wound, pressing hard, ignoring the burning pain as the blood coated her skin, burning to the bone. She fought past her own fear and panic to reach for the cool, centered place inside of her, calling healing light, burning white-hot and pure, to counteract the acid of the snake blood. The way her birthmark was burning there had to be vampire blood mixed in the foul brew.

Gerald ripped his jacket open and threw it away as the material smoldered with a grayish smoke.

Terry grew quiet as Lara sent healing light streaking through his body to the gaping wound in his leg. Bleeding slowed to a trickle and the tiny wormlike creatures retreated from the spreading heat Lara generated. She cauterized the wound, destroying as many of the parasites as she could before bathing her hands and arms in the same hot energy.

"Did you get any blood on you, Gerald?"

He shook his head. "I don't think so, Lara. It felt like it, but I wiped my hands and face and there aren't any smears."

"Once we get Terry to a healer, take a shower as soon as you can. And burn your clothes. Don't just wash them, burn them. Everything."

She backed out of the seat, helping Terry to swing his legs out of the way of the door so she could close it and rush around to the driver's side. Terry's coloring was terrible, but more important, she didn't like the way he was breathing. Part of his distress could be shock, the shallow, too-fast breathing of panic, but she feared she hadn't stopped the parasites from assaulting his body. He needed a master healer immediately.

She drove as fast as she could over the narrow, pitted mountain road, sliding through some of the sharper turns and bumping over the muddy holes. Dirty water sprayed into the air as the car fishtailed through mud and snow. All around them, the peaceful countryside seemed a sharp contrast to their terror and desperation.

Haystacks and cows surrounded them. Small thatched houses and horse-drawn carts with huge tires gave the impression of stepping back in time to a much slower-paced and happier era. The castles and abundance of churches lent the area a medieval look, as if knights on horses might come charging over the hills at any moment.

Lara had traveled all over the world searching for her past. She remembered little of her journey from the ice cave and once the gypsies had found her, she'd traveled all over Europe. Passed from family to family, she'd never been told where they'd found her. Coming to the Carpathian Mountains had been like coming home. And when she had entered Romania, she felt at home. This place was still wild, the forests untamed and the land alive beneath her feet.

The car slid around another corner and they were out of the heavier forest and into the peat bogs. The trail narrowed even more, winding on solid ground while the smell of the bog permeated the air around them. Trees swayed and drooped under the heavy weight of snow. Lights in the distance heralded farms and for a moment she thought to stop at one of the nearest ones for aid, but Terry had been bitten by a mage-bred snake carrying vampire blood. Healing a mage wound was difficult enough, but a hybrid with vampire blood—that required skills far beyond her knowledge or that of a human doctor.

Their one hope lay with the innkeepers. The couple had been born and raised in the area and had lived their entire lives there. Lara couldn't imagine that they wouldn't have some knowledge of the danger lying beneath the mountain. Over time, it became difficult to tamper with the same memories. And there had been something about the inn—something that had drawn Lara to it. A suggestion of power, as if perhaps there was subtle influence at work, encouraging tourists and visitors to stay at the homey, friendly inn.

Lara had allowed herself to be susceptible to the flow of power because it was the first time since the dragon had shoved her onto the upper cavern ledge that she had encountered the light, delicate touch of flowing energy. She had forgotten what it was like to bathe herself in the crackle of electric power, to feel it surrounding her, flowing through every cell until her body hummed with it. The inn and entire village gave off the amazing feeling, although it was so subtle she had nearly missed it.

"Lara," Gerald called from the backseat. "My skin is starting to burn."

"We're almost there. Go in and take a shower first thing." She didn't want to think what Terry was suffering. He was very quiet, other than making a soft moaning sound. "Gerald, when we get to the inn, we'll need to talk to the owners and ask who the village healer is."

"The owner's name was Slavica and she seemed very nice."

"Hopefully she's very discreet as well. She certainly seems to know everyone."

"Wouldn't it be better to ask for the nearest doctor?" Gerald asked.

Lara tried to sound casual. "Sometimes the local healers know so much more about plants and animals in the area. Although we've never encountered this particular species before, it's a good bet the villagers have, and the local healer probably knows exactly what to do to extract the poi—" She broke off and hastily changed her description. "Venom."

Lara pulled the car up the twisting road to the inn on the edge of town. The large, two-story inn faced the forest with its long porch and inviting balconies. She parked as close to the stairs as she could get and raced around to help Gerald get Terry out.

Shadows lengthened and grew as the clouds overhead thickened with the threat of snow. The wind howled and the trees swayed and rustled in protest. Lara glanced around her with sharp, wary eyes as she opened the door to the backseat and reached inside for Terry.

"I'll come back for the snake heads to show the innkeeper. Don't touch them," she cautioned.

Terry was nearly deadweight as he hung between them. Gerald had to practically carry him as they stumbled through the snow. The walkway was clear, but they took a shortcut, tramping across the front slope to get to the porch faster.

A tall, dark-haired man opened the door for them and reached to help. Even under the dire circumstances, Lara found him handsome, compelling even.

"Don't get the blood on you," she warned. "It's highly venomous."

The dark-haired man's gaze swept up to her face and froze, locking on to her. For one moment there was shocked recognition in his eyes and then it was gone as he got his shoulder under Terry to relieve her of the weight.

Lara whirled around, back toward the car. "Get him inside and ask the innkeeper to find a healer. I'll get the snake heads."


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