Home > Dark Demon (Drak #16)

Dark Demon (Drak #16)
Author: Christine Feehan

Dark Demon (Drak #16)

Chapter 1


Natalya Shonski drew the pair of black leather trousers up over her legs and settled them on her hips where they molded to her body. Leather helped prevent injury during battles and she was certain she would be running into trouble tonight. As she pulled on the soft leather camisole, she glanced around the meticulously clean room she'd rented. The inn was small, but colorful with tapestries on the walls and bright patterned covers decorating the bed. Her weapons were laid out with great care over the beautifully woven quilt.

She began to slip various weapons into the specially made compartments and loops in her leather pants. Throwing stars with razor-sharp edges. Several knives. A belt that provided her with room for more weapons and extra clips for the twin guns she fit snugly into the harness under each arm. She put on one of her new peasant blouses and donned the brightly colored fur vest the local women wore for warmth, effectively hiding her arsenal.

The long skirt not only hid the leather pants, but also helped her to blend into the local population. She'd chosen a colorful one, rather than the severe black kind the older women often wore, and tied a scarf over her tawny hair to further disguise herself.

Satisfied she looked as much like a local as possible, she shoved two Amis sticks into the well-worn loops on her backpack and opened the doors to the balcony. She had deliberately chosen a room on the second floor. Her many enemies would find it difficult to approach unnoticed while she could escape easily to the ground below or go up and over the roof.

Natalya rested her hands on the balcony rail and leaned out to survey the countryside. The small village was nestled at the bottom of one of the tall jagged peaks that formed the formidable Carpathian Mountains. Numerous small farms were scattered across the green, rolling hills. Stacks of hay dotted the meadows and led the way up the mountain to the timberline. Above the heavy forest were rocky peaks, still glistening with snow. She felt as if she'd stepped back in time with the simple homes and the rustic way of life, yet she felt as if she'd come home. And that was truly odd. She had no home.

Natalya sighed and closed her eyes briefly. More than anything in the world, she envied these people their families. Their laughter and children and the love shining in their eyes and on their faces. She longed to belong somewhere. Be needed by someone. To be treasured by one single person. Just to be able to truly be who she was, share a real conversation?

Her fingers found deep grooves in the railing and she found herself rubbing the polished wood, the pads of her fingers stroking along the grooves almost in a caress. Startled, she examined the scores in the hardwood. It looked as if a large bird had dug talons deep into the railing, although the marks were old and the innkeepers kept the intricately carved balcony polished and free of splinters.

She inhaled the night air and stared up toward the top of the mountain. Somewhere up there was her goal. She had no idea what drove her to come to this particular spot, but she trusted her instincts. She needed to climb to the top and find whatever it was that wouldn't let go of her. Thick mist hid the mountaintop, enveloping the peak in an impenetrable cloud. Whether the cloud was natural condensation or a preternatural warning made no difference. She had no choice but to climb the mountain, the compulsion driving her was far too strong to ignore.

Natalya took a last look toward the swirling white mists and headed back into her room. There was no point in putting it off. She'd spent the last week mingling with the people in the village, establishing friendships with a few of the women and getting a feel for the area. She found she needed human companionship although her life was very solitary. She enjoyed the time spent with the local women and had gleaned quite a bit of information from them, but she was always saddened that her friendships could never go beyond the surface. It made for a lonely life and she yearned to belong somewhere, to let someone like the innkeeper, Slavica Ostojic, know who and what she was just so Natalya could have the luxury of being honest with someone she truly liked.

The hallway and stairs were narrow, leading to the sitting room below. The room opened into the dining hall on one end and a bar on the other. Many of the locals drank beer in the evening and visited together after a hard day's work. She waved to two or three people she recognized, her gaze automatically scanning the rooms, noting exits, windows and above all, new faces. Several men sitting at the bar glanced at her. She catalogued the lined faces, the friendly smiles and assessing glances, filed them away just in case she met up with them again.

One pair of eyes flicked over her face, giving her pause. The perusal was quick, but it was thorough. He was reading her in the same way she was reading him. He certainly noticed the backpack with the double Amis sticks and her ornate walking stick. Natalya turned away with a quick smile for the owner of the inn, grateful she could make her exit gracefully. If there was a sentry watching, she didn't want him to know her plans.

"Slavica." She took the innkeeper's hands in hers. "Thank you so much for the wonderful meal." She spoke in English because Slavica worked hard to perfect her language skills and always practiced. Deliberately she led the woman away from the bar to a more secluded spot in the sitting room where prying ears would not be able to overhear their conversation. "I'm heading up into the mountains and I'm often gone for days at a time while exploring. Don't worry about me. I'll return eventually. Give me a week at least before you panic."

Slavica shook her head. "It is after sunset, Natalya. Here in the mountains and forests there can be?" She hesitated searching for the right word?"unrest. It's better if you explore during the day when the sun is bright and there are people around you." She looked up and met her husband's eyes across the room and smiled.

Natalya instantly felt a pang of envy. She loved to watch the innkeeper with her husband, Mirko, and their daughter, Angelina, together. Their love for one another was always so obvious in the small little glances they exchanged and their many touches as they brushed by one another when they worked.

"I've gone out every evening and you've never objected," Natalya reminded her. "And nearly all of those times were after sunset."

Slavica gave her a faint smile. "I feel the difference tonight. I know you will think I'm superstitious, but something is not right this evening and it is better you stay here with us." She patted Natalya's arm. "There is much to do here. Mirko will play chess with you. He is quite good. Or I will teach you more about the local herbs and how to use them to heal." Slavica was a trained nurse and renowned for her healing skills throughout the district and for her knowledge of the local healing herbs and how to use them. The subject fascinated Natalya and she enjoyed spending time in Slavica's company while the woman imparted her knowledge.

Natalya shook her head, regret lingering in her heart. Slavica was the kind of woman that made her ache to be part of a family and community. "Thank you, Slavica, but I have protection." She pulled the cross hanging on the thin silver chain from where it was hidden beneath her shirt. "I appreciate your concern, but I'll be fine."

Slavica started to protest, but stopped herself, pressing her lips together firmly. She simply shook her head.

"I know what I'm doing," Natalya assured her. "I'm going to slip out through the kitchen if you don't mind. I've got food and drink enough for several days and I'll be back in the middle of next week if not sooner."

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