Chapter Five


When you meet me, You complete me. You bring me back to life again.

DOMINIC TO SOLANGE

Dominic took another slow look at the other four vampires surrounding them. To say it was unusual to have so many of the undead gathered would be putting it mildly. There was still the matter of whatever Drago was fawning over. Dominic didn't so much as glance at Zacarias, but the other Carpathian had nerves of steel. He could feel the hunger pouring off the vampires. They had arisen with voracious appetites and he presumed the humans at the laboratory were strictly off limits if they wanted to keep up the fa?ade that they were helping to track and kill vampires--the Carpathians being the supposed vampires. That meant Zacarias was food for all of them.

Drago smirked. "I think you are outnumbered."

Dominic's eyebrow shot up. "Really?" He flexed his shoulders. "The prize is mine. I claimed him and no one-- no one--will take him from me."

A snarl went up around the loose circle. Dominic gave a little ground, mostly so he and Zacarias could fight back-to-back. Normally Dominic preferred to simply strike without any foreplay, but he suspected there was one other that hadn't yet joined the party, and that meant continuing his outraged vampire act. "You think that traveling with this pack will intimidate me, Drago? That one"--Dominic indicated the vampire of slight stature he'd encountered on the battlefields--"is a worm, crawling on his belly from every battle. He will be of no use to you." His voice was filled with contempt. "And then there is this one." Dominic indicated the best dressed of the group. He was taller and more filled out, his form kept tidy, the serrated teeth barely blackened. "Jason, a fop who prefers colorful clothes to getting the job done. You amuse me, Drago, with your choice of warriors. You cannot fight yourself and you have no eye for those who will aid you in battle."

A murmur of protest went up, but none of them dared to attack, not without permission, and not when Dominic appeared so confident. Spittle burst from Drago's mouth as he shrieked a protest. His hand gripped something hard at mid hip, his sharp, pointed nails digging deep into whatever he had been stroking.

Smoke and flames burst out from under his fist, and Drago screamed and pulled his hand away. Blistered and raw, the flesh fell away from the bones. A shadow took substance. Drago scrambled back, moaning, holding his hand to his chest. The other three vampires put distance between them and the developing apparition, gliding, trying to be subtle about it. Dominic and Zacarias remained unmoving.

The man emerging from the shadows was tall with broad shoulders and long flowing hair, his skin flawless, his clothes immaculate. His dark eyes rested on Dominic for a brief moment, slid over Zacarias and then went back to Dominic. The imposing figure of power, clearly a master, was not one of the Malinov brothers. Somehow, against every odd, the twisted brothers had managed to recruit other masters to serve them.

Demyan of the Tiranul lineage. Dimitri's brother. We thought him dead these years. Dominic identified the master to Zacarias. We grew up with him. He is a master at battle.

New emotions were difficult to control; he had been friends with Demyan. They had traveled for a time together, battling the enemy, slaying any vampires they came across. Sorrow welled up, intense, shaking him for a moment. The Tiranul family had been famous as master swordsmen, and he was certain Demyan would never give up his love of the blade. The undead inclined his head.

"I see you are in disguise and these imbeciles did not recognize you." The voice was mesmerizing. Pitched low.

Dominic had forgotten the power in that ensnaring voice. He shifted his features, hiding every scar so that he looked as Demyan remembered him. Dominic knew he had been a handsome man by any standards, long before he had been burned in the fight to save the prince. He allowed his long black hair to flow neatly down his back in a ponytail, tied with the thin leather cord, always a weapon should one need it.

"Much better. Dominic Dragonseeker." Dominic inclined his head regally. "These . . ." He swept his hand in a contemptuous circle to indicate the vampires surrounding him. He didn't bother to look at the offenders, his gesture and tone said it all. "Interrupted my evening."

"Silly of them. But then, you didn't allow them to know who you truly are."

Dominic shrugged. "I do not find my identity necessary to intimidate ones such as these."

Drago snarled, but subsided when Demyan shot him a cold glare. "I have not heard the news that a Dragonseeker has joined our ranks--and it would be huge news--yet your blood calls to mine."

Dominic sent him an enigmatic smile. "I can walk among the Carpathians without fear of their suspicion. It is useful, although tedious at times. This one"--he indicated Zacarias, with an indolent gesture--"recognized my intentions before I could slay him." He inhaled deeply, drawing the tantalizing scent of powerful blood into his lungs, and sent Zacarias a smirk, allowing, just for a few seconds, his eyes to glow ruby red as he turned back to Demyan. "His blood is . . . powerful."

For a moment Demyan lost his composure, the lure of the ancient blood a temptation beyond his control. The skin stretched and frayed, and then split in places, revealing masses of writhing worms. His lips thinned, drew back to reveal his pointed teeth, hideous blackened needles set in a sunken gaping mouth. The skull caved in, the bones sticking through flesh, as warped and twisted as the blackened heart. The master vampire sniffed the air, a dog on the hunt, desperate for the rich, powerful blood of the ancient.

The lesser vampires reacted, salivating, hissing, moving closer to Zacarias. Dominic lifted his hands toward the sky and they immediately subsided.

"You do not understand," Demyan said, his voice raspy now, but he managed to regain his composure, his illusion of beauty settling over him. "This one must be taken to the laboratory. You can use him as often as you want for sustenance, but you cannot kill him."

Dominic slowly allowed his hands to drop once more to his sides, as if the master vampire was lulling him with his voice. "I can use him here without sharing him," Dominic pointed out. He glided one small step closer to Demyan, Zacarias moving with him so that the action was so subtle those around them missed it.

"He is the most hated enemy of our leaders. They will reward all of us greatly for his capture."

"You mean I am the most feared." For the first time Zacarias spoke, a whip of contempt. "He fears me, they all do." He paused. "As they should." Demyan hissed. "You are fodder for the five. You will be made to crawl before them."

Zacarias's eyes were very black. "I believe they are no longer five. A couple of them sought and found justice."

"You think to mock them? To taunt them? You will suffer greatly before they allow you death."

Zacarias spread his arms out. "They have sent many after me, century after century I have been hunted, yet I still live."

"I am the one who fooled Zacarias." Dominic declared ownership. "No one else."

"A Dragonseeker." Zacarias spat his disgust. "You have no right to use that title. You dishonor it. Te kalma, te jama ikval, te apit?sz arwa-arvo--You are nothing but a walking maggot-infected corpse, without honor." He inclined his head regally toward Dominic. "I know you seek the justice you deserve, and once these worms you travel with have gone, we will finish our little dance."

Drago couldn't contain himself. He flew at Zacarias, his teeth exposed, growling and spitting. Demyan and Dominic both whirled toward him, holding up a hand. The lesser vampire slammed into an invisible barrier and bounced back.

Dominic gave a short, humorless laugh. "I see your beast needs a little more training, Demyan. He is not quite up to your standards."

Demyan shrugged. "It is difficult to get decent help these days. They believe they know more than they do. No patience to learn how to kill a hunter."

"Why do you bother? You do not need one such as this." Dominic gestured toward Drago, his contempt obvious.

Demyan, like most vampires, preened under praise. "They are useful, as you will find. You are used to working alone, but you will find having worms to serve you will be advantageous, especially in a position such as this one. Join with us."

"Yes, h?n ku lejkka w?ke-sarnat--traitor, liar. Crawl to your new master," Zacarias urged.

Demyan whirled to face him. "You can crow all you like, but your blood will soon feed our ranks."

Dominic cleared his throat. "One small detail, Demyan." He waited until the master vampire turned to face him. "His blood belongs to me, and I have never believed in sharing." He smiled and there was a clear challenge in his smile. Solange pushed herself to her hands and knees and took a careful look around. She inhaled the scent of the two jaguar-men. She wanted to remember them, to be able to know them anywhere, know the men responsible for taking the light from her beloved cousin's eyes.

Mustering as much strength as she could, she crawled along the trunk to the bank and let herself fall onto the ground, into the mud and grass. Giant root cages made a bizarre- looking jungle, dark and mysterious, where creatures could watch her with fear-filled--or hungry--eyes. She got to her feet and fell twice, so she dragged herself into deeper forest. She could shift, but she had so many injuries, she doubted if the jaguar would be better off than the human was.

She used a hanging liana to pull herself up again and, stumbling, took off in the direction of five small limestone caves. They each appeared to be small single chambers, but she had discovered years earlier, in one of them, an entrance that led to the honeycomb of caverns much deeper beneath the earth. More than once, she'd retreated to them when she needed to heal wounds and be safe. It never occurred to her to go to her cousins, or to anyone else. She was wounded and vulnerable. She would never take the chance of leading an enemy to her family's door. It simply wasn't in her code.

She wrapped her arms around her middle and continued her journey. It was dangerous moving through the rain forest at night, bleeding from a half dozen wounds, but she didn't dare try to examine her body. She burned with every jarring step, and she knew from past experience the damage claws and teeth could do, but as a rule she healed fast. Brodrick could have killed her, but he hadn't. He'd been angry, but he wanted her royal blood and ability to shift. He was depraved enough to think she might give him a royal son.

She pushed her hand through her matted, stringy hair. She often chopped it off when it got out of control. Her hair was thick, as it was with most jaguar-people, and it grew fast. The more she cut it off, the faster it seemed to grow. The color was dark sable, much like her jaguar fur, with a few golden streaks. If there was any one feature that might be considered beautiful on her, it would have been her hair. Not so much now.

Her cat's eyes allowed her to see in the dark as she made her way through the trees and brush, the forest of giant ferns and the tangle of roots snaking across the ground. She simply put one foot in front of the other. She had been here before, wounded, weary, heartsick, and she would be again. Sometimes, like tonight, there was no win for anyone. Annabelle had died; she wouldn't be going home to her husband. Annabelle probably hadn't even known why the men had kidnapped her from her home in France.

Solange closed her eyes briefly and then snapped them open, taking a deep breath, aware of the silence of the insects. The hum was continual as a rule, a background noise that never ceased, yet this part of the forest was abnormally still. Something dangerous lurked here. Something unnatural. This was no jaguar. No predator that walked the night familiar to the rain forest inhabitants. The danger had to be the undead.

She melted into the trees, her body close to the trunk. Drawing on her jaguar, she tested the night. Her heart began to pound. Not one but several, just ahead. She felt the familiar and very strange reaction in her veins. Adrenaline coursed through her body. She turned to slip away and caught a familiar scent.

De La Cruz.

She would recognize that scent anywhere. Juliette wore it all over her, as did MaryAnn. She swore under her breath. She was exhausted, but he was family and family was sacred. She tried to clear her brain and think straight. Right now she was fuzzy, off balance, and she couldn't go into battle with vampires without a plan or a clear head. Somewhere close she had a cache, but . . . She turned in each direction, trying to throw off the exhaustion in preparation for battle.

Vampires were difficult to kill. She could rip out their hearts as a jaguar, but she couldn't incinerate them. The undead called for special weapons. Riordan and Manolito had worked with her, perfecting her skills, and, she had to admit, coming up with specialized weapons for her to give her a little edge, which was needed. They were monstrous creatures.

She made her way a few yards to the north, jogging, ignoring the pain in her body now. Nothing mattered but to give aid to whichever brother was in trouble. She found her cache just off the trail leading to the first limestone cave. She never cached inside a cave, aware that vampires and Carpathians went underground to rest. She pulled out the weapons she needed, chewed several leaves that would help numb the burning pain in her body but not fog her mind, and jogged back toward the battleground.

She came in downwind, drawing on her jaguar's strength when she feared she couldn't keep going. When her legs felt too rubbery to support her, she went to her belly and slithered through the vegetation, ignoring the swarm of insects drawn by her wounds. Using toes and elbows, she inched closer to the group of men gathered under the trees.

She could hear the moan of the trees and the wail of the grass as the undead trampled ferns and brush, withered flowers and leaves, poisoning everything they touched. The De La Cruz brother was easily recognizable. They all had that impressive stamp of absolute authority, the broad shoulders and handsome face. This had to be the elusive Zacarias, the eldest of the five brothers. She'd once caught a glimpse of Nicolas, and she knew Riordan, Rafael and Manolito. Zacarias looked calm and confident and not in the least bit concerned that he was surrounded by vampires.

She gasped when the man standing in front of him turned slightly and she glimpsed him. Her Carpathian--the man in her dreams. He had no scars, but it was definitely the one who came to her in her worst moments. The one she'd so happily--and stupidly--spilled her guts to and cried like a whiny baby in front of. He was even more handsome in real life than he was in her imagination, which made it all the worse that she'd told him her darkest secrets.

She let her breath out slowly, cursing herself for reacting like a woman instead of a warrior. He didn't need a woman now; he needed her fighting skills--and that she could give him. That might be the only gift she ever had for him, but she would fight with every breath in her body to save him from the circle of rotting flesh surrounding him.

She inched closer, and stopped abruptly when she caught the flash of the tall Carpathian's eyes. His gaze moved over her--he knew she was there. She was certain that he did. He gave a small shake of his head, which she had every intention of ignoring. Zacarias glanced her way, and she felt the weight of his disapproval. That lightened her mood considerably. He'd always disapproved of her, and that constant in her life gave her another boost of energy. She really did find secret delight in annoying authoritative men.

She pushed away the somewhat satisfying thoughts and drew on her last reserves of strength.

Dominic felt the sudden shift in his blood--everything went quiet and still. The parasites had been on a rampage, trying to kill him from the inside out, but now they retreated as if from a deadly foe. Every nerve ending in his body went on alert. He scented the air, but there was no telltale fragrance. That didn't matter. He knew. His lifemate was close. Too close.

Zacarias's head suddenly came up alertly, his dark gaze sweeping the surrounding forest before touching Dominic's face.

We have company.

Power flared all around them as Demyan kept the lesser vampires under control. There was no way for them to tell the two Carpathians were communicating. My lifemate.

Warn her off.

Dominic never changed expression. He merely glanced at Zacarias, keeping his attention directed toward Demyan. You would never abandon your lifemate, Zacarias, not in a fight. You are not capable of that, nor is she.

She is a woman.

She is my woman and she is a warrior as is befitting my needs.

Zacarias made a single sound that meant many things. Outrage. Disapproval. Disagreement. Solange was under his protection, but lifemates took precedence over everything else. In any case, he knew the woman by reputation. She was as stubborn as a mule.

And what happens if they kill her? You will suicide.

I am on a suicide mission, Dominic responded. I am already dead.

Zacarias sighed. So be it, old friend.

The lesser vampires swayed, their feet moving in a pattern much like the drumbeat in a ceremonial ritual. Power crackled in the air. Thunder rolled in the distance. A whip of lightning cracked overhead.

"I see you grow impatient, Demyan," Dominic said.

"I am not used to interference," he snapped. He knew as well as Dominic that the delay only made him look weak in the eyes of his followers, but he was reluctant to attack a Dragonseeker.

"I have never had anyone stupid enough to come between me and what is clearly mine."

"You think to stop us from taking this traitor to the masters?" Demyan snarled. Once again his lips drew back and the blackened, needlelike teeth were a mockery against his handsome image.

Hideous growls and murmurs of protest came from the four lesser vampires. They separated, taking up positions in a loose semicircle around Dominic. Insects swarmed up the tree trunks and over fallen logs. Bats dipped and wheeled in the air above them. A snake slithered along the nearest tree branch and tiny bright frogs stared with round dark eyes. Demyan had marshaled his army.

Dominic paced a little away from Zacarias to give the Carpathian room to fight. Dominic would go for Demyan, the biggest threat. He would have to trust Zacarias to keep the others off him. It wouldn't be easy, but it could be done.

"Perhaps you will call another master, Demyan, but I will not."

Drago let out a shriek of outrage. "He is sworn. His blood calls."

"I do what suits me. It does not suit me to hand my prize over to all of you and then see the three feed off blood that belongs to me." Deliberately Demyan reminded them that five Malinov brothers had begun the campaign to destroy the Carpathian people, but now only three remained alive. Zacarias's brothers had been a large part of destroying the master vampires.

"The sun is near rising and I tire of this little game. Who will start this dance then, Dominic?" Demyan asked quietly.

Silence fell. The forest held its breath. The vampires swayed back and forth.

Solange emerged from the shadows, her weapon held down low, already aimed at the vampire dressed in fashionable clothes. She'd marked him as an easy kill, and God knew she needed an easy one.

Dominic didn't turn or look at her. Zacarias's gaze was cool, without recognition. The vampires swaying stopped for a moment, murmuring and showing black teeth. Demyan's elegant eyebrow shot up and then he smiled, a slow, evil smirk.

"I like to dance," she announced and shot the arrow straight toward Jason, the colorfully dressed vampire, aiming for the perfect spot on his silk-covered chest. The arrow ignited just before it tore through flesh to find the wizened heart, incinerating it with the white- hot flame.

Jason had no time to react, no time to scream or retaliate. He imploded, fire bursting through skin and bone, spraying fiery blood and blackened worms onto the ground.

Zacarias whirled around to slam his fist deep into the chest of the nearest vampire, driving straight to the heart. He ripped it away, the action happening so fast, the well- dressed undead hadn't yet managed to fall to the ground. Zacarias called the lightning down to incinerate the heart even as he turned to face his next opponent. Drago was Demyan's disciple, the lesser vampire a pawn for the master, but as long as Drago lived, Demyan would stand and fight, believing he had a better chance of survival against one hunter. It was imperative to keep Drago occupied and stall killing him until Dominic maneuvered Demyan into a kill position.

Dominic was on Demyan before the master vampire could react, leaping across the distance in an effort to end the battle before it actually started. Such a vampire had been centuries in the making, perfecting skills and acquiring knowledge, growing more powerful each century until he could appear beautiful and clean, holding other vampires in his thrall. Carpathians aged in the same way, but the cunning guile came only when they were close to turning themselves. Dominic wanted to stop the fight before it got started.

Demyan's eyes went wide in shock. It was clear he had believed the parasites in Dominic's blood would control him, prevent him from attacking one of their own, as they should have. He whirled out of reach just before Dominic's fist penetrated his chest, seeking his heart. His eyes went feral and Dominic managed to snatch his hand back as knives spun around Demyan, creating a moving suit of armor.

"I should have known you would use your family's expertise," Dominic said, studying the spinning knives.

He'd never come across anything like it before in all his fights with undead. There seemed to be no noticeable pattern that he could detect, the spinning blades moving around Demyan at varying rates of speed, so that it would be impossible to slam his fist through the armor without getting his arm cut off.

"You should have known better than to challenge me," Demyan corrected.

Dominic filed the hint of the vampire's ego away for future use. The blades whirled and swayed, flashing silver in the dark night. Dominic caught the gleam of a long blade, just a quick flash, his only warning. He just managed to form his own sword to meet the swing of Demyan's blade. Sparks rained around them as metal came together with such force the forest shook. The sound reverberated through the trees. Birds shrieked. A mass exodus followed as the clashing swords slammed into one another over and over.

Demyan's sword came down in a straight slice right over Dominic's head. He barely managed to get his blade up to parry the strike away from him, arms up, head level to prevent the sword from falling on the top of his head. The moment his arms went up, the smaller whirling blades burst toward him, as if fired from a gun, a hundred knives thrown simultaneously. Dominic swept his sword across his body, knocking most of them away, but one lodged in his thigh and another in his chest.

The blades were fashioned with Carpathian skill, forged by a master, and they sliced clean through flesh and muscle, burying deep. Dominic had no choice but to dissolve into vapor in order to rid himself of the metal. The blades dropped to earth, but Demyan was too experienced to allow that brief respite to stop him. He followed the droplets of blood, the scent in his nostrils, and like a bloodhound, he drove through the cloud of vapor, slashing with his sword.

Dominic materialized, countering, pushing pain to the back of his mind while he met each of Demyan's moves, his brain working to find the pattern of the swirling knives as well. He needed to anticipate each of Demyan's moves and get ahead of him. As Dominic sprang to attack Demyan, Solange turned and shot Robert the worm in one smooth motion. The arrow flew true, slamming through the chest to pierce the heart, exploding into the same white-hot heat that incinerated everything on contact. Exhaustion was something even her willpower couldn't overcome. Her legs went out from under her and she found herself sitting on the undulating ground. Around her the ground groaned. Wide cracks began to weave across the forest floor, hairline fractures that slowly widened until debris began to fall into them.

"Get off the ground," Zacarias yelled as he rushed toward Drago. "Get to safety."

She sent a smoldering glare. Did she look stupid? She had already scrambled to her feet and leapt for the lower branches of a young tree. As a shelter, it didn't offer much, bending under her weight, but it got her away from the splintering ground.

She heard the clash of metal against metal and turned her head to see sparks raining down. Her heart jumped to her throat. She nearly stood up on the flimsy tree branch, fear for her Carpathian crashing through her unexpectedly. She'd had no idea how much she had invested in a man she'd made up. She watched him flowing like water over the uneven ground, avoiding tree roots as he danced around the master vampire. The spinning blades were mesmerizing, and she was forced to turn her attention back to Zacarias. There was no way that she could see to help her Carpathian, but if Zacarias could defeat Drago, he would be able to help defeat the powerful vampire.

Zacarias and Drago came together, two fierce fighters, going up off the ground, hovering in midair for just a moment. Zacarias slammed his fist into the chest wall and instantly thousands of bats dropped from the sky to cover his body, teeth sawing flesh, driving him away from the lesser vampire. He stumbled under the weight, falling to earth where the bats carried him to the ground.

Solange let go a third arrow as Drago rushed into the feeding frenzy of the bats, obviously intending to kill Zacarias while the night creatures had him trapped. The arrow sank into Drago's shoulder, bursting into flame as it hit the flesh. The vampire's shoulder exploded from the inside out. His shoulder, his arm and the side of his neck turned black and fell into ashes. Drago screamed, his head snapping around, those pitted red eyes finding her in the precarious shelter of the tree.

Her heart slammed hard in her chest. She crouched, preparing to leap, even as she fitted another arrow into the crossbow. Howling, Drago threw his good arm toward the sky so that the dark clouds boiled and lightning forked along the edges. The bolt slammed into the tree as she jumped into the branches of the next tree, landing hard, catching with one hand, claws bursting through her left hand to grip the trunk while her right hand clutched her weapon. Few of her kind could perform such a difficult feat in the midst of a battle, utilizing one body part in jaguar form and the other in human form.

She dragged herself onto the branch, lifting her bow to get another shot off. Zacarias was back on his feet, whirling so fast his large frame seemed to blur, flinging off the bats, leaving his clothing shredded and bloody. He bowed slightly as he moved to his right, forcing Drago to move as well.

"I see you learned a trick or two from your master."

Drago drew back his lips to show his hideous teeth. "You will regret your contempt."

Zacarias smiled. "I think not." The two opponents rushed forward again, two gladiators crashing into one another while the thunder rolled over their heads.

Around Solange trees groaned and tilted as the massive upheaval continued. From her position she could see the center of the web, with the cracks spreading out, reaching like silken threads, searching . . .

She gasped. This was an attack against a specific person. Her Carpathian. The ground swells and cracks were reaching to find him. She could see the gaping lines in the earth switching directions, away from Zacarias and the vampire he was fighting with.

The blades spun too fast, making a shot with her arrow nearly impossible. She was good, but the timing was out of the question. Her heart in her throat, she watched her Carpathian. He seemed to be anticipating every move the vampire made, his sword meeting with crash after fiery crash. From her vantage point she could see the vampire trying to maneuver him into a position, but the Carpathian seemed able to avoid traps. Twice she saw his blade penetrate the whirling knives, a slash that swept cleanly through the armor and bit deep into the vampire.

Black blood sprayed across the whirling blades, hissing as the acid hit the ground. Demyan spat blood at her Carpathian and touched his head in a mock salute. Her Carpathian sliced a second time, striking through the armor, and Demyan's eyes went mad, the red killing haze reflected there. He attacked hard, driving her Carpathian back, fearful now of allowing him the offense, as he had somehow figured out how to time the spinning of the blades.

The cracks widened, drawing Solange's attention again, now several feet long, the ground opening a good inch across. It was impossible to see how deep each crack went.

Look out! It sucked that she didn't even know his name. On the ground, a trap. She didn't know what kind of trap, but it was closing in on him, ring after ring of spiderweb cracks. She sent the detailed image into his mind.

Dominic. The name was given to her in a calm, detached tone, even as his sword parried thrust after thrust, the vampire clearly trying to maneuver him toward the widening, gaping holes in the forest floor. I am Dragonseeker.

Solange frowned, the adrenaline running wild, the blood in her veins pumping in a ferocious, almost violent reaction to the parasites in the vampire's blood. She actually could feel the reaction inside of her, as if her blood rose up to fight the blood of the vampire in complete revulsion. Everything inside of her felt feral and uncontrollable, yet he was the exact opposite. Dominic. That was all. As if he was strolling through a meadow of wildflowers, not in the fight of his life.

She took a breath, watching the way the master vampire maneuvered him, stepping back, drawing him in, turning left, then right, attacking, retreating, but keeping Dominic's attention on him as he expertly wielded his sword. That terrible razor-sharp blade sliced into Dominic's chest, shredding elegant clothes and leaving deep slashes across his skin.

The master vampire and Dominic anticipated one another's moves, a very violent ballet that was terrifying yet so mesmerizing, she couldn't look away. All the while those rings kept circling Dominic, coming closer and closer. To her horror, spiders began to pour out of the cracks. She recognized them immediately. Brazilian wandering spiders were highly venomous and aggressive. The spindly legs spanned a good five inches, and they seemed to pause, rearing back to stare at Dominic with their eight eyes, the two largest glowing with the same ruby-red maniacal hatred Demyan's eyes held. They displayed red jaws, a signal of anger, evidence of their readiness to attack.

Solange knew from experience that Carpathians could push deadly venom from their system, but with multiple, excruciatingly painful bites, Dominic would have problems fighting the master vampire. She couldn't spray the ground with fire to incinerate them, but she could perhaps disrupt Demyan's battle plan. She had no idea how to get through those spinning blades but she was willing to try. Before she had a chance to let him know, she felt the stirring in her mind.

Distract him with your arrows and I will call down the lightning to burn these creatures. Watch for the faint blurring just below his heart. I will attack hard. He will be hard put to keep the knives in various patterns. That is his vulnerable spot.

She should have known he would have the same plan as she did. In her dreams, they often discussed the battles they'd been in and they definitely thought alike. She took careful aim, breathing deep for calm, her eyes on the spot just below Demyan's heart. The knives were terrible, glinting, silvery bursts that never seemed to show an opening. She waited with complete faith that Dominic would maneuver the master vampire into her line of fire. She'd get one, maybe two arrows off and he'd attack her. She had to be ready to abandon her perch, but she wasn't going to ground, not with those spiders everywhere. She didn't have the Carpathian ability to remove the venom from her system.

Dominic, as calm as ever, ignored the thousands of eyes staring at him and glided close to Demyan, coming in at an angle and forcing Demyan to sidestep or go backward. For one tiny second his armor faltered, repeating the pattern, and Solange let the arrow fly. It wasn't even close to a kill shot, but it sank into the spot just below the heart and exploded. The air charged fast, her hair standing on end. She leapt. Instantly, the world around her exploded with heat and a great burst of light. The force knocked her backward in the air. She used her flexible cat spine to turn, hands seeking a branch. She had no choice but to drop her crossbow to save herself. She needed both claws to catch what surface she could to keep from hitting the ground, now on fire, the spiders burning and popping with hideous shrieks, a foul stench permeating the air, making her cough.

She dragged her body up into the tree, her strength waning. She saw Zacarias glance at Dominic, who gave an imperceptible nod. Her heart jumped. They were in communication and they were planning on an all-out attack. Zacarias drove through Drago's defenses with an ease that made her realize he'd been deliberately keeping the lesser vampire alive for some reason she couldn't fathom. He slammed his fist through the chest wall, nearly lifting the undead into the air with the force.

There was a horrible sucking sound as he extracted the heart and flung it into the fiery blaze Dominic called down. At the same time, Dominic timed his throw, slamming his blade straight through the knives. Sparks became fireworks, the blades grinding to a halt, shattering and dropping to reveal Demyan's blood-streaked body.

The master vampire roared his hatred, taking in Drago's body as it turned to ashes, his gaze leaping to Zacarias. The knowledge that the two hunters were working in conjunction hit him. Solange saw the shock on his face. Instantly lianas dropped from the trees, coiling like living snakes around Dominic as he thrust his fist toward Demyan's chest. Solange shed her clothes hastily, tearing off her blouse and shoving her jeans aside. She leapt from the tree to the rolling ground, shifting with practiced speed. The vines wrapped Dominic tight, pinning one arm and covering his mouth and nose. One looped around his neck, drawing tight around his neck as another grew the head of a viper and reared back, teeth exposed to strike at his eye.

The jaguar rode out the sudden upheaval of ground beneath it, setting itself, waiting. The moment the swell subsided, she charged Demyan, rushing at him from behind. His attention was on Dominic, directing the vines that were imprisoning him. The jaguar hit the master vampire full force, teeth sinking into the back of his head. Powerful jaws clamped down on his skull as the momentum of the jaguar's attack drove him forward to impale his chest on Dominic's outstretched fist.

As Solange jumped back, Zacarias picked up Dominic's discarded sword and, with a fierce swing, cut the blade through Demyan's neck. His head went flying and Solange turned away, unable to look at the sight of a head rolling across the ground, right into the fire. His screams raked at her insides, and even in her jaguar form, she felt bile rising. Dominic tossed the heart into the blaze and the two Carpathians stood, heads down, breathing hard, while around them the ground blazed with fire and the vampire blood burned through skin to bone.

Solange made her way to the tree where she'd left her ragged clothes, not looking back. She knew the two Carpathian males were seeing to their wounds, healing themselves as best they could before trying to clean up the area and remove all the vampire blood as well as parasites to aid the forest recovery.

She dressed behind some brush, considering making a run for it, but she was too tired to even try it. She couldn't help with the cleanup. She'd be lucky to find a safe place to sleep. Steeling herself, she squared her shoulders and turned, nearly bumping into-- him.

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