Eternal beauty, p.1
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       Eternal Beauty, p.1

         Part #0 of Mark of the Vampire series by Laura Wright
 
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Eternal Beauty
Chapter One

 

  The light of predawn had mellowed to a cool gray blue as Petra ran with the Land Dwellers through thick patches of mist-coated fauna and over a series of perfect miniature waterfalls cut into the easy hillside. As always, she lagged slightly behind the Shifter party who hunted their section of the rainforest every other day. Unfortunately it was the reality of one who was not a Shifter and whose lungs and muscles normally gave up before the meal was even spotted.

  "Damn. " She came to an abrupt halt near a wide collection of mud and let her head fall forward as she gripped her knees. The sound of her heavy, labored breaths competed with the thunderous noise of the Shifters steady though departing heartbeats in her ears. Even after twenty-four years in their society, those glorious Shifter heartbeats still made her jealous.

  Would she ever have one?

  Her parents, the kind and generous lion Shifters who had taken her in as a baby, claimed her as part of their pride and protected her secret from the rest of the breed population that she was not Shifter born, had always told her that someday they would help her find her true beginnings. But she was starting to have some serious doubts. Her parents' number-one priority was to protect her and her brothers, and Petra couldn't help but wonder if their claim to know only the name of her birth father was true.

  As the thundering mass of heartbeats moved farther and farther away, Petra picked up on one that did not, one that was actually intensifying, coming straight for her. Under the canopy of trees, she forced herself to stand, forced herself to turn, her gaze instantly spotting the mass of brown fur in the distance. The earth beneath her feet started to shake with its approach, and the cracks of branches and twigs intermingled with the menacing shift of flora.

  The bear.

  A growl echoed through the wood, the fierce sound penetrating Petra's chest. Head down, it rushed toward her, muscles rippling beneath its thick fur, massive paws hitting the dirt in an intimidating cadence.

  Petra didn't move.

  Faster and faster it came, mouth gaping, eyes focused. The entire forest seemed to brace itself, preparing for the bear's assault. But the massive brown giant surprised them all-the trees, the ground, and the fauna-by jerking to a halt right in front of Petra, and shifting into a handsome human male.

  He grinned broadly. "Damn close to the finish today, Pets. I thought you were going to make it. "

  Wearing only a strip of fabric around his lean hips, the male who stood before her, his straight brown hair licking his tanned shoulders, was tall and intimidatingly muscular. But as he gazed down at her, only humor and affection lit his gorgeous pale brown eyes.

  Petra returned his smile. "I honestly don't know why I keep playing this game. "

  Brodan, a bear Shifter and the community's well-respected healer, took a step toward her and put his hands on her shoulders. "Someday you'll be there for the capture and kill, Pets. Then you will feast alongside us. " His eyes locked with hers. "I can't wait for that day. "

  "Neither can I. " Petra's smile faltered, as it always did when Brodan found a reason to touch her. "And maybe at that point I'll have developed a taste for raw meat. "

  He laughed, and as she turned, he dropped an arm over her shoulders. "How about I walk back with you?"

  "No. " She hoped the word hadn't come out too quickly. She liked Brodan a lot, respected the hell out of him, but she didn't feel the same way about him that he felt about her. He was her friend, and she wanted to make sure nothing screwed that up. "Thanks though. I'm going to head over to the mountain and check on Malen. See how she's fairing. "

  Under the light of the waning moon, Brodan's expression changed from familiarity and humor to sympathy. "Poor Malen. Transitioning that early is so difficult on the mind. Bring her by the clinic if you see she's exhibiting any signs of depression, all right?"

  Petra nodded, admiring Brodan and his kind heart. Why couldn't her own heart find him a match? A female would be so lucky to have his love and care.

  "You know," she began, "I've seen this several times during early transition therapy. This first month, and for Malen, the first moon cycle, is the worst. But I have some mental and physical exercises I think will help her to cope. "

  "You are very dedicated and very good at your job. "

  "So are you. "

  He smiled with his whole face. It was the kind of smile that made a female's knees turn to water. "We would make a good team, don't you think?"

  Most females in the rainforest community would've loved to have this attention from Brodan. He was highly sought after as a mate, a wonderful healer, devastatingly good looking-and totally honorable. Like everyone else in the community, he believed she just hadn't gone through her transition to Shifter yet, but unlike everyone else, he found her attractive despite her body's late, or as some had called it, "defunct" response.

  The honorable, perfect male.

  Damn, she wanted to love him. Perhaps she was latent in both her heartbeat and her emotional maturity, she thought with a mental kick of hope. Perhaps those feelings would develop over time. Perhaps she just needed to be patient.

  "You'd better catch up," she told him, easing out from under his hold. "Don't want to miss the kill. "

  He nodded, but his gaze roamed thoughtfully over her face.

  Don't look too deep. You won't like what you see.

  He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. Then he moved away, lifting a hand in her direction. "I'll see you later, Pets. "

  Petra watched him shift back into his bear state, leaving behind the scent of desire and longing. It was the one thing she did have, the one thing that gave her hope that she would someday claim her shift, her animal-a good nose. Several feet away, Brodan stretched up, leaned into a tree, and growled. He was magnificent, massive, fierce-fortunate to know who and what he was.

  With one last glance in her direction, he turned and barreled away, the forest once again alive with the sounds of an animal on the hunt.

  As she always did, Petra watched until he was out of sight, then she turned and made her way out of the forest. Brodan made no secret of his hope that someday she'd suddenly shift into her animal-preferably for him, a bear-and inside the dead muscle housed and protected by her ribs a steady, life-giving beat would begin.

  Someday, they would both know the truth of what she was.

  Under the cover of trees, the sky looked as though it had lost some of its nighttime blue to a sea of gray clouds. Walking up and over the ridge toward the lake, it was hard to make out the lightly populated, but sprawling village below. Shrouded in fog, Petra moved cautiously, down the hill, over massive stone boulders and sharp-edged rocks. Malen, the young female she was going to check on, had experienced her first shift into her wolf state just two nights earlier. The typical age for a first shift was somewhere between fifteen and twenty-one, and Malen was only eleven. These early shifts took a hard toll on the body and mind, and no one understood why they occurred. It was Petra's job to help all Shifters during their transitions, but with someone as young as Malen, she always made sure she checked in for a good three to six months afterward.

  Unable to see clearly, Petra lost her footing for a moment, her shoe slipping on a wet rock, and she went down on her ass. "Dammit," she muttered, scrambling to her feet. Even on a sunny day, dexterity was not one of her strong suits. Something she tried very hard to keep under wraps around the Shifters she lived and worked with, as each one of them moved with perfect grace, speed, and agility.

  Moving low and slow, she continued down the hill. At this pace, she'd be to Malen's house by midday meal. She smiled to herself, heading for a break in the fog several feet ahead. But as she neared, a strange humming n
oise started up around her. At first she thought the sound might be coming from the native people who lived on the other side of the river. Normally, they never crossed the thirty-foot-wide raging bed of water, but sometimes if she was passing close by, she heard them talking and laughing as they washed their clothing. But the sound she heard now was not laughter. It was singular and coming, not from the direction of the river, but from beneath her, within the rock hill she traversed.

  Within the ancient caves.

  Cautious and quiet, she abandoned her path down toward the village and made her way over several more small boulders to the edge of the hill. The fog was lighter here and she was able to see a piece of flat land jutting out over the more uninhabited section of the village. The land near the caves was mostly black earth, with patches of green here and there, no trees. She inched closer, dropped down on her haunches, and listened. At first, she heard nothing but the wind, no voices, no rhythmic humming. She was about to call herself crazy, about to stand up and continue down the hill to see Malen, when something emerged from the cave.

  It was a male; tall and broad and heavily muscled like most the male Shifters she knew. But she'd never seen this male before. With hair the color of the night sky, a purposeful jut to his strong jawline and the stride of one who cared nothing for the opinions of others, she'd certainly have remembered if she had.

  Petra drew nearer, narrowed her gaze. He was carrying something. His back was to her as he walked out onto the patch of earth. The sky was still a dark gray and the fog rolled in gentle puffs below, but she recognized the classic shape of a female in his arms. The fog shifted, and for a moment Petra was able to see things clearly under the moonlight. Holding the female tightly against his chest, her long red hair spilling out over his left arm, her body flopping with each step he took, Petra frowned with the ugly understanding that this female no longer breathed.

  What had happened here? Petra wondered, gripping the rock she was crouched on. She hadn't heard of anyone being ill in this part of the territory. And who did she know that had hair that color? None of the wolves.

  The male stopped then and glanced up at the sky. After a moment or two, he dropped to one knee. As Petra waited, breath held, to see what would happen next, the male did the strangest thing. He curled in over the female in his arms, and like a hen pecking at food, tapped at her body with his mouth. Fear and confusion rolled through Petra. What was this? What was he doing to her? It was wrong and obscene. No Shifter she knew acted like this over its dead.

  With gentle hands, the male placed the female's body on the ground. After several long seconds, he rose and stood over her. A desire to leave her perch and run to the female stirred within Petra. If something could be done, if the female's life wasn't over . . . But her thoughts, her will to help, was overshadowed by a sudden and overwhelmingly intense sense of doom. Dawn was breaking in the far edges of the gray sky. She looked down at the male. He was in the same spot, standing over his female. Again, she glanced up at the sky. Adrenaline poured through her and she gasped, jacked to her feet.

  Move!

  The word exploded from her mind, startling her. The male, the start of day . . . Real and terrible fear pounded at her nerves. But why? What was this reaction? She detected no threat . . . yet it was there-in that strip of pale pink morning sky. She knew it on a visceral level.

  Go! Go now!

  But the male didn't move. It was as though he were rooted to the spot, unable to look away, unable to break free. Didn't he understand? Daybreak was seconds away. Petra's mind spun, her skin shivered with anxiety. And as the first pale yellow rays moved over the stretch of earth below her, panic flared white hot inside of her. Living with Shifters had taught her to trust her instincts above all else. She may not understand what drove this desperate fear raging through her blood, but she believed something terrible was about to happen.

  Her gaze lifted, caught the rays of the sun, and followed them as they moved over their prey. Petra froze, her eyes wide with terror and shock as she watched the female's body begin to smoke.

  Smoke . . . Gods, where there is smoke there will be-

  Petra's eyes cut to the male. He remained, standing over the female, watching her. Heat surged into Petra's chest, and she opened her mouth to scream.

  Move, damn you! Move!

  But before she could utter a word, the female's body erupted into flames.

  The male cried out and dropped to his knees.

  Unable to hold herself back a moment more, Petra leaped from the edge of the cliff, hit a rock below, and jumped again. She landed with a jaw-cracking thud onto the black earth several feet away from the male. Every inch of her shaking with fear, she ran at him and threw herself on top of his massive frame. He was huge and blisteringly hot. Growling in pain, no doubt out of his mind, he tried to buck her off. But Petra refused to let go. Instinct as old as the dirt they struggled atop drove her to protect him, but the sun was even older and far more powerful. For reasons she knew not, it attacked every inch of skin it could claim on the male-his hands, the front of his neck. He fought it like he fought her, but it was useless. Weak with pain, he jerked forward and collapsed beside the red-haired female, who was turning to cinder and ash before her eyes.

  Not the male! her mind screamed. Not knowing or caring where the strength would come from, she grabbed his arms and began pulling him back toward the cave. His deadweight had her stumbling a few times, but she was past determined. She was possessed. However hurt this male was, he would not die; he would not sustain any more burns than he already had. As she strained and pulled, groaned and cursed, she kept her gaze on his blistering face, his closed eyes, and his bared teeth. Teeth? No . . . those were . . .

  Canines? Did he belong here? Was he a Shifter? And if he was, why wasn't he protecting himself? Why wasn't he-

  "No," he uttered hoarsely, cutting off her thoughts as they reached the mouth of the cave. "Leave me. Let me be. "

  Petra ignored him. The internal drive to save him, keep him for the sun, was too strong. In fact, the more he struggled, the stronger and more determined she became.

  "Stop fighting me," she said through gritted teeth. "Do you want to die?"

  "I need to be with her. " His accent was strange and unfamiliar.

  "You need to be out of the sun!" she returned.

  Groaning with the effort, she continued to pull him inside, yanking him back, all the way to the deepest, darkest part of the cave. Once there, she breathed a quick sigh of relief, but it was all he would grant her. The moment she released him-the moment she collapsed in an exhausted heap-he was scrambling to his hands and knees and crawling back toward the mouth, toward the sun.

  Dammit! She ran after him, her legs slow and her arms shaking. But she managed to catch him, grab him by the ankles and start the process over again.

  "Goddamn you, stop it!" she cried out. "What the hell are you doing?"

  "Release me. "

  She squeezed his ankles even tighter. "You're insane. "

  "I have to see her," he said, his voice hoarse and desperate as he fought to move forward. "I can't make that mistake again. "

  Panting, she continued to try and haul him back toward the cool darkness. "What mistake?" But it was like trying to rein in a charging bull.

  "I thought she was dead once before," he said, nearly at the mouth of the cave-nearly in the path of the sun. "I have to see her. "

  It was all she could do. Petra leaped on top of him, taking the sun's rays upon her. The male cursed and moaned, but ceased his struggle as he stared straight ahead. Petra lifted her gaze, wanting to know what had changed his manic need to get outside, get to the female. But when she saw it, she gasped with horror and shock. The female's body was gone. Only a pile of sparkling black ash remained. Black ash that, before their very eyes, was rising slowly into the air and little by little blowing away on the morning breeze.

  Her breath catching in
her throat, Petra watched until the very last bit of ash was gone. Then silence followed. The wind calmed. Not even a single heartbeat sounded.

  Slowly, Petra rolled off the male, trying to make sense of what she'd just witnessed. She knew magic, she knew the amazing gift that was shifting from human to animal, but never in her life had she seen anything like that.

  "I should've gone with her," the male rasped miserably, crawling over to a patch of shade against the cave wall.

  "No. " It was all she could say in her state of confusion. Confused by him, by her own actions, what she'd just seen.

  He glanced up to look at her, his face and neck destroyed by the sun, but his dark eyes wet and swimming in misery. "You have never known the wondrous and debilitating depth of love, have you, Veana?"

  Veana? The male spoke in a different dialect-or was it madness?

  She was about to answer him, tell him she didn't know what a veana was, but that she had a family and knew all about love, when his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed on the floor of the cave.
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