Chapter Nine


Can you come to trust a man once again? Can you come to love an old one like me?

DOMINIC TO SOLANGE

Dominic knew the exact moment the sun set. He'd spent centuries beneath the ground waiting for that moment when his body came to life and the soil released him back into the world. He had waited impatiently for his time to rise. Solange had turned inward, silent after her revelation. He knew she felt she had given him too much information, and more important, that she had given him a way for both of them to survive.

Solange was very intelligent. She had to have known she was handing him a key to a future, and then she'd disappeared, deep inside her jaguar, hiding from him, hiding from herself and most of all, hiding from the repercussions of her admission. Trust was balanced on the edge of a very sharp blade. If he made the wrong move, he would lose everything. Solange was too great a prize to lose through careless handling.

Solange Sangria was a miracle in more ways than Dominic had thought. He replayed the image of her fight with the vampire over and over in his head. She might not have noticed so small a thing, but he stared for a long time at the ground where so many of the parasites had dropped when fleeing her bloodstream. Unbeknownst to her, she reached with her other hand to scrub at the vampire blood, scattering more of her own over the top of the black acid burning through her skin--or it should have been.

The acidic blood had burned through flesh, but the moment it came into contact with her veins, the vampire blood had dried and fallen from her flesh. She was busy washing it off in the river, and she hadn't noticed. What was in her blood? Was she the one Xavier had been hunting for her blood? And if so, what did she have to do with the book the prince guarded so carefully?

The sound of his heart beating filled the cavern. His eyes snapped open. The jaguar lay across his body, obviously on guard. He buried one hand in the thick fur. It was silky, like Solange's soft hair, the dark strands streaked with that soft, tawny color that seemed to melt into swirls in her hair. He stroked his fingers through the fur and up to her head.

The jaguar yawned lazily.

"You stayed up all day. I had strong safeguards surrounding us." He sat up. "Shift."

You guarded against the undead and mages. Your safeguards would work on humans and other animals as well, but I'm not certain they would work on Brodrick. I don't want him to find you unable to defend yourself because he's hunting me.

He waited. He had endless patience. She didn't want to face him, but the longer she stayed in the cat's form, the more terrifying facing him would become. He had been in her mind many times now. The information flooded from one to the other and he was beginning to know how she thought. If he wasn't very careful, she would run, more afraid of their connection, growing as fast as it was, than she would be of any battle.

It took her a few minutes. The cat sighed, the hot breath blasting his chest. I would like clothes, please. It would be . . . easier.

"Of course." Although he rather preferred her naked. Unfortunately she was a temptation that would be difficult to continue to resist. Passion ran deep in her. How could it not? She was passionate about her cause, passionate about her family, and she would be passionate with her lifemate in bed. Mix that fire with her sheer vulnerability to him and it made for a fairly heady aphrodisiac. She sounded sleepy. He knew she'd stayed awake most of the day, worried Brodrick would find his resting place. He rubbed his fingers through the thick fur, massaging those strong muscles.

"Stay as you are and I will return in a short time. You can sleep while I hunt."

Mmmmm.

The drowsy note in her voice was more Solange than jaguar, and his body tightened instantly. The soft sound produced a hard punch to his groin, and that was as expected. But the beast rising ferociously, demanding he claim his mate, was not only shocking but unsettling. It wasn't the vampire blood in his veins; it was his Carpathian blood. He had found his lifemate after waiting centuries, and there was a chance for a future with her. His soul called to hers, and all of a sudden the darkness was far thicker and much uglier. His barren existence grew unbearable now that he had been in her mind--now that he could feel again.

He waved his hand and the blanket of soil he'd allowed himself dropped away as he carefully extracted his body out from under the sleepy jaguar. As he did so, he murmured a command, gently pushing her toward sleep.

He felt her languid stirring in his mind. That won't work on me. He laughed out loud, startling himself. The sound filled the cavern with happiness. "Just testing, kessake, to see if you were paying attention."

For the first time he felt the brush of her amusement, and the heady feeling burst over him. She had relaxed enough to respond to his teasing. It wasn't much, but it was a start. She'd handed herself to him with her revelation, and she was terrified of the consequences, but he'd still managed to slip past her guard and make her laugh.

"This will not take long," he promised and because he loved the feel of all that soft, silky fur and knew she was hiding deep in the cat's form, he deliberately ran his fingers down her entire spine.

He felt her shiver in reaction, but the jaguar didn't lift her head and eye him with her piercing stare. She kept her head on her paws. He floated to the surface of the cave and poured through the tunnel as vapor, scanning the area surrounding their resting place before unraveling the safeguards. He would replace them, but if she was right about Brodrick, he couldn't guarantee her safety from the male jaguar. That meant he couldn't travel too far from her and he would have to be especially alert for the predator.

The moment he was a good distance from Solange, the parasites began their whispers, calling to him to feel the rush of the kill. They weren't as active, her blood still subduing them, but the farther he moved from his lifemate, the more the mutated worms awoke, raking and clawing at his insides, demanding he remove all traces of Carpathian and royal jaguar blood and replace it with the acidic blood of the vampire, the environment where the creatures thrived.

Ignoring them, he continued out of the caves. Vapor poured across the open ground, low, parallel to the floor, climbing higher once it gained deeper forest. The gray mist shifted until it stacked itself, taking the form of the harpy eagle, circling high above the area while he fastened safeguards around the series of cliffs that hid the limestone caves, all the while using sharp eyes to detect any movement on the ground that would indicate the jaguar male was on their trail.

The rain forest burst with color, flowers winding up the tree trunks, great splashes of brilliant purples and pinks and bright ruby reds. He noted each and every one, savoring the beautiful colors he hadn't seen in centuries. He could once again appreciate the beauty of the world instead of simply remembering it. Truthfully, even his memories had faded in the last century. Now he could look down from his ever-expanding circle and drink in the sight of the flower-covered trees, the explosion of colors, the vivid greens of the trees and the brilliant hues of the fungus. The water-falls and pools dotting the landscape along with the swollen river winding in and out of the forest, carving its way through the rugged terrain, were beautiful to him.

He found no evidence of Brodrick anywhere. Relieved, he doubled back toward the spot where they had battled the vampires. He knew Zacarias would meet him there if at all possible. Below him, he spotted the laboratory. Someone had already begun repairs on the side of the building. He circled overhead, trying to pick up Brodrick's scent. If he found the man, he would kill him. He knew Solange intended to face her birth father, but all that really mattered was that he was rendered incapable of continuing his slaughter of those he deemed impure and his kidnapping and brutal assault on women.

A sudden charge built in the surrounding air and Dominic settled in the trees, folding the expansion of wings and watching as a tall, impressive figure emerged from the knee-high fog rolling across the ground. The man stood for a moment, silver hair hanging down his back, his build fit and muscular. He turned, and Dominic recognized him from the old days. Giles. An old friend. His family had been craftsmen. Dominic had always admired Giles. He was smooth and controlled in battle, a good man to have at one's back in a fight. He had never expected to see Giles as a vampire.

He looked good, his face impeccable, his teeth white and his charm noticeable even from the distance between them. He had to have been a vampire a long, long time to acquire the necessary skill to cover all evidence of the rotting flesh and blackened soul. Giles tapped his foot, the only movement indicating he might be annoyed. He was obviously waiting for something and impatient that anything or anyone would make him late. And that said everything Dominic needed to know. Giles was a master vampire, experienced in the dark arts as well as battles. He was used to being at the top of the food chain. And if he was involved in the Malinovs' conspiracy to take down the prince, there was far more danger than anyone had ever conceived of. No master of Giles's caliber would bind himself to serve beneath another. The vampires were evolving. Somehow the Malinovs had managed to find a way to bring the vampire's vanity and need for reckless destruction under some semblance of control.

Two more figures wavered, transparent for a few moments before revealing themselves fully, an occurrence that usually happened when someone had transported quickly. Both were disheveled, although as they emerged fully under the moon, they pulled themselves back together. Giles was already frowning at their lack of ability to maintain their appearances at all times. The newcomers weren't lesser vampires, another mark for Giles. Most masters could keep only the newest close to them, to serve as pawns as they learned the ways of the vampire, but both men had obvious skills.

"You are both late," Giles accused. He narrowed his gaze, fixing that ruby-red stare on the man to his left. "You were to escort Demyan and his followers to this location. I do not see them. I hope you have a good explanation, Beau." He turned his head slowly, a reptilian movement that had the second man taking a step back. "And you, Fabron, I do not see them with you either."

A shudder went through Beau. "We went to the appointed spot to meet them, Giles, but they weren't there. We searched the area. A few miles to the east, there were signs of a battle. I believe the oldest De La Cruz brother is in this area and he attacked them."

Gile's breath hissed out between his teeth. "That maggot human we tortured lied to us. I should have kept him alive longer. You said you scanned his brain . . ." "The brothers protect those who serve them," Fabron reminded.

Instantly the air sizzled and something snapped hard against Fabron's cheek. Sparks rained down, a dazzling display. Giles hadn't appeared to so much as lift his hand. Dominic studied the vampire more closely. He was smooth. Very fast, the action too quick to follow with the human eye, but Dominic had seen the action as a blur. For a moment he thought he'd blinked, but Giles had actually moved, used a wave of his hand to push the electrical charge toward his followers. It was no wonder he cowed them. He must appear to them as a mage might, able to do things no other could.

"You believe Zacarias has destroyed Demyan and his followers?"

Fabron and Beau both nodded vigorously. "There was a battle. We could not read the ground. Already, the rain forest is fighting back."

Deep inside the body of the harpy eagle, Dominic smiled. He and Zacarias had made certain to remove every trace of vampire blood from the ground and trees so the rain forest could repair itself. Dominic had even remembered to stimulate the forest growth before he'd allowed himself to look upon his lifemate. She had been so beautiful to him, standing there like a fierce warrior who had battled side by side with him, looking at him with the eyes of a vulnerable woman.

He hadn't expected the flood of overwhelming emotion. He'd felt protective of her. He'd wanted so much to gather her into his arms and hold her close. Trust was everything with a woman such as Solange. He had to earn her loyalty and respect, and most of all her love. He understood what a gift it was and he valued her all the more for her reserve. He was not a man to ever share his woman, and that side of her, soft and vulnerable, belonged to him alone.

He studied his enemy. He had expected to go into that camp and eventually die. Now, a miracle had happened. He could rid his body of the parasites and claim his lifemate. There was a future for him--for both of them--and that changed everything. He would have to be much more careful. He had everything to live for now. Before when he went into battle there was nothing to lose. Life changed dramatically when one found the other half of his soul. He wanted to live. He wanted to spend time with her. He could rise every evening for the rest of his existence, looking into her eyes.

Giles suddenly lifted his head and took a quick look around. A quick, piercing probe struck at Dominic, a fast, hard attack directed at the surroundings, a push to draw out the enemy. Dominic felt the stabbing pain, dismissing it, calming the bird, keeping the brain patterns the same so as not to alert the enemy to his presence. The probe passed slowly, but he remained deep within the eagle, holding himself still. The bird was hungry, looking for food, sharp eyes watching for prey before it settled down for the night. The probe came again, harder, deeper, the shaft painful and precise. The bird spread its wings and then resettled as Giles moved on, satisfied there were no enemies around. "Where is Etienne?" Giles demanded.

"He was searching for tracks, hoping to find out where Zacarias might have gone."

"Stupide! Imb?cillit?!" Giles hissed his displeasure. "He has no hope of killing Zacarias. He is already destroyed." With a wave of disgust, Giles spat on the ground. Tiny white parasites wiggled and writhed.

"The others should be here in a few days," Beau said, clearly hoping Giles would allow a change of subject.

"If we have lost Demyan and his followers, we have few to spread the plans. I am representing the masters. We need to get our people organized for a telling strike against the prince. He must be brought to his knees."

The three men moved toward the laboratory. As they approached the human guards, Giles held his hand up to the others and whispered a command. "Leave them. You are human."

Dominic was shocked at the way the vampires immediately assumed the demeanor of a human, keeping their eyes on the ground rather than looking at the temptation of human flesh and blood. They felt utter contempt for and despised the human men they were working with, yet they didn't fall on them and feast on them as they normally would have. Dominic felt the voracious hunger, the call to blood, the parasites shrieking with desire for the rich hot temptation, even the need just to show those so inferior to them who they were. Yet the vampires simply ignored the call.

The masters had done a good job forcing their wills on the lesser vampires. That alone represented a danger. The behavior had evolved into actual intelligence. Vampires had always been cunning and lethal, but a coordinated group with intelligence and strategy behind them, with the ability to control those deadly, powerful creatures, was shocking and even frightening.

The Malinov brothers had amassed an army consisting of jaguars, humans and vampires. They had a plan and they had a semblance of discipline. To Dominic, it was the discipline that was most troublesome. He watched the vampires disappear inside the building before he spread his wings and took to the sky to find Etienne. The vampire wouldn't be returning to his master, but it would be Dominic who would contribute to Zacarias's fierce reputation.

The harpy eagle cut through the canopy with astonishing speed, moving fast to cover the distance before Etienne found the resting place of Zacarias. Dominic knew the hunter had actual homes in the area. It was possible he'd gone to one of them. The De La Cruz brothers had, centuries earlier, established a relationship with a human family who guarded them during the day, watched over their lands and helped to maintain the illusion that they were human. They had built an empire, their cattle ranches renowned, but their enemies often went after their family members as well. Zacarias would have strong safeguards, but if the vampire tracked him to his home, the humans would be in danger. At this hour, Zacarias would be out hunting.

He spotted the place where their fight with Demyan and his lesser vampires had taken place. The area at first glance appeared undisturbed, but as he swooped lower, he could see the withered vegetation where it had shrunk from the unnatural abomination treading upon the ground as Etienne and the other vampires had searched for Demyan. Some of the brush had shriveled where the undead had passed.

The harpy eagle flew toward the river, taking a direct route. Dominic was suddenly worried about what he might find. On the edge of the trees, the De La Cruz's sprawling ranch was nestled into the valley between the rolling hills. It was surrounded by forest, but meticulously maintained, so the cattle could roam freely in the lush grasses. The house, Spanish style, with thick walls and cool verandahs, was shaped like a U with a courtyard in the center. The green of the courtyard provided an oasis of sorts, colors rioting with one another from the various flowers and bushes.

Along the stone walkway, the sharp eyes of the eagle spotted bright red blood. The small stream was narrow and slowly moved along the stones in a thin crimson line. Dominic dropped down, shifting to his human form as he bent over the fallen man. He had fought, but the vampire had nearly ripped out his throat. He was already dead, and Dominic left him, striding into the house. The door had been left open, providing him with a good view of the long, shaded room.

He heard a snarl and a hard slap coming from another room.

"Where is he?" Etienne demanded, his voice spitting and hissing, alerting Dominic that he was fast losing control.

"I'll never tell you."

A female voice. Fairly young. Terrified. Just the way the vampire liked them. The rush of adrenaline in the blood would serve as a drug flooding the system.

"So you would die for him."

"Yes." The voice trembled, but the word was firm.

Dominic burst through the door as dramatically as possible, hoping to throw the vampire's timing off. Etienne spun even as he delivered the killing blow, swiping at the woman's throat, tearing through arteries and vocal cords and flesh. Blood sprayed across the room. The woman clamped both hands to her throat and went to her knees even as Dominic leapt the distance, slamming hard into the undead, driving him away from the woman. A roar announced the arrival of Zacarias. He burst through the window, shattering glass and adobe. Debris rained down on them as Dominic seized the vampire with one hand and drove into his chest with the other. Etienne dissolved, trying to stream from the room through the open window. Droplets of blood trailed after him, giving him away in the bank of mist.

Zacarias dropped to his knees and gently removed the woman's hands from her throat. She was young, even for human years, perhaps in her early twenties. Her eyes were dark brown, very large, framed with long black lashes. He could see the light receding from her eyes, but she looked glad to see him alive. For some reason, that little flutter of recognition moved him after so many centuries of emptiness. Her family had given his family service generation after generation. Her father lay dead in his courtyard and this young woman was dying on her bedroom floor, obviously trying to protect his resting place.

He wrapped his hands around her throat and pressed heat into her skin, bright and hot and painful for her, he knew. He couldn't prevent the pain, not with the life draining from her body so fast. Her throat was crushed. He sent himself outside his body and into hers, working as fast as possible to repair the damage to the artery, to stem the flow of precious blood. Trusting Dominic to keep the undead from him while he worked on the woman, he left his body vulnerable to attack while he meticulously cauterized the artery, closing and sealing the gaping wound.

Without thought of the consequences, Zacarias slit his wrist and dripped blood into her mouth, stroking until her reflex allowed her to swallow. He had to guide the blood through her torn throat to allow it to soak through her veins and into every cell of her body. He replaced what she'd lost, giving no thought to leaving himself too weak to move. There was no blood supply for him, not with Dominic's blood so contaminated. Right at that moment it didn't matter to him.

This woman's family had done so much for the De La Cruz family, and he wasn't going to lose her. He'd seen her a couple of times moving through his house, cleaning, always in the distance. He rarely went near anyone these days. The call of the darkness had become strong in him these last years and he spent most of his time alone, far from temptation. He rarely used this house, until these last few weeks. His brothers had lifemates, and that only increased the darkness in him as he felt separated from them, so long alone. He didn't know any other way of life, so he had come here to put distance between him and his brothers. But in doing so, he had endangered those people who were under his protection.

Zacarias managed to get his feet under himself and, bending, took the woman's slight weight in his arms, cradling her close to his chest. He was strong, but he had awakened ravenous and the scent of blood only increased his need. Giving her blood had weakened him further. He carried her through the house to the master bedroom, the one situated over his lair. Her braid was long and thick, a mass of blue-black hair, now stained with blood. He had no idea if she would live or die, but he'd done what he could. He laid her on the bed and covered her body with a blanket before turning back toward the sound of the battle.

Hideous growls erupted, as Etienne fought the trap Dominic had encased him in, making it impossible to stay in the form of vapor. Blood streaked Dominic's face and shoulder. Savage claw marks slashed through two places in his chest, ripping through clothes as the vampire had tried to get to the hunter's heart. Etienne was no amateur at battle, and he fought with magic and skill, knowing he was facing an ancient adept at destroying the undead.

Etienne looked worse than Dominic, black blood streaking his body. He had lost his ability to keep his appearance, his skin tight against his skull, so that he looked like a walking skeleton. His once dark hair was muddy gray, long tufts of it, like tails sticking out over a mostly bald skull. His eyes were sunken pits of hate, and his teeth had taken their serrated, pointed shape, coated with the blood of his many victims.

Dominic rushed in, gripped the head in his large hands and wrenched, ping away as Etienne raked again with bloody, sharp talons. There was an audible crack and Etienne shrieked, whirling so fast he was a blur, leaping on Dominic, driving him to the ground, his face elongating into a muzzle with dripping fangs. He opened his jaws wide and drove hard at Dominic's neck.

Zacarias's foreman, Cesaro Santos, ran into the yard with three of his men behind him, all carrying rifles. They skidded to a halt when they saw the undead tearing at Dominic, half- skeleton and half-animal. Before anyone could move, a jaguar rushed past the three men to slam at full force into the back of the undead, knocking him over so that he somersaulted and landed hard several feet away.

Dominic had already dissolved out from under him, sliding around with the intention of taking the vampire's heart, but he was no longer in position. The jaguar's next bound took her right onto the vampire's back. Her teeth crunched down on the head and she shook it like a rag doll. The skull cracked like a nut, the bones crushing the brain. One of the men beside Cesaro lifted his rifle to his shoulder, but Zacarias was there before he could pull the trigger, pushing the muzzle toward the ground. Cesaro ripped open his shirt, exposing his neck to Zacarias.

"Take what you need," he offered.

Zacarias could hear his heart pounding. The temptation was too much. He'd never be able to stop, not in the heat of battle when he was so ravenous. He shook his head and stepped away, his fangs bursting into his mouth. He would not endanger those who served him, those under his protection. Better to meet the dawn than to succumb now.

I'm sorry. Realizing her mistake, Solange apologized to Dominic, as she tried to back away from the undead. Etienne ripped at her, a lucky swipe tearing through the fur at her belly. He caught her in the air, tossing the large cat with his enormous strength. She landed hard a distance from him. He crawled toward her, his head wobbling, the insides spilling out.

No problem, Dominic answered with his unfailing calm. We will learn to coordinate our attacks in time. Move to your right just a little, slow enough that he thinks he can get to you, but that you are circling for another try. When I move, leap away fast.

Dominic felt her calm assurance. She knew how to fight, and with a vampire, he was the acknowledged master. She was too intelligent and too experienced not to recognize that. Had she not interfered, he would have already had the undead's heart. It was a lesson and she learned fast. He respected the fact that she didn't beat herself up for mistakes. She simply did what had to be done.

The female jaguar began her circle, her green eyes glowing as she fixed on her prey. Head down, ears rotated backward, indicating aggression without fear, she began a slow stalk, never taking her eyes from her prey.

The humans stepped back, loathing in their eyes as they watched the jaguar circle the vampire, rifles at the ready. The only thing holding them back from firing was the will of their Chefe or Jefe, depending on which language they were thinking in. They detested both species. For too long they had endured the jaguar-men abusing their women. They had to guard the women carefully at all times, curtailing their freedom near the forest. The vampire was an ever-present threat that hung over their heads and threatened their boss as well as their families. Well versed in the ways to kill a vampire, each of them was armed with a stake, a torch and a cross as well as their rifles.

Zacarias didn't dare move away from them, knowing it was only his presence that prevented them from shooting the cat, and that if they did, Dominic would slaughter everyone in sight. The Dragonseeker was in motion, a thing of beauty, his body fluid and graceful, so fast he was a blur, slamming hard into Etienne even as the jaguar jumped back out of reach.

Etienne shrieked, a bizarre animalistic sound that startled the sleeping cattle in the distance. The herd came to its feet, mooing and stomping restlessly. Cesaro jerked his hand back, gesturing toward the rolling hills, and his men took off at a run. Others poured from homes scattered around the hills, leaping on horses, racing to calm the frightened cattle.

The vampire spun, moving fast like a twister, whirling and spinning, trying to use his feet like a drill bit, digging into the earth, hoping to escape the relentless hunter. Dominic spun with him, lost to sight in the debris, drawn into the tornado reaching from earth to sky. He flowed with the turbulent winds, implacable in his resolve to destroy the undead.

The air began to charge. The hair on their arms stood up. Zacarias called a warning to Solange as he took Cesaro to the ground, covering his body with his own. Solange leapt away from the charging air and nearly landed in a fountain. She flattened herself as close to the ground as possible just as lightning struck, the bolt going from earth to sky and back to earth again. Etienne shrieked hideously. The smell of decomposed, rotting flesh turned to smoke, permeating the air with a foul stench.

Zacarias could only smell the blood around him as he lay over the top of his foreman. The scent was everywhere, heavy in his lungs. His fangs refused to retract. The sound of hearts beating became a drum of desire pounding through his skull. Warm flesh beckoned, the lure of hot blood strong, the pulse right beneath his mouth. So close. So tempting. The whisper was insidious in his ear . Just this once.

His mouth nearly touched that strumming pulse. His ears filled with the sound, the ebb and flow of the life force in Cesaro's body. His mind refused to work, flooded now with need. Just this once. He could smell the delicious fear. The adrenaline racing through veins. He moved his head back, his sight narrowed to that temptation.

The jaguar hit him full force, knocking him off Cesaro's body. He rolled and came up on his feet, his mind a red haze of need and anger. Ruby-red eyes fixed on Solange, furious that she had stolen his prey. She prowled back and forth between Zacarias and Cesaro, keeping him from the hot, spicy blood his body needed so desperately. He hissed his anger, the two predators locked in a stare, each waiting for the other to attack.

Cesaro moved slowly, carefully, trying not to draw the attention of the large cat. His fingers inched their way to his rifle and, increment by increment, drew it to him. Don Zacarias needed and he provided, just as his family had done century after century. If it was his blood Zacarias needed, Cesaro would give it. His fingers drew the rifle into his hand and his fist closed around it. He took a deep breath and surged to his feet, the butt of the weapon fitting snugly into his shoulder, his sights on the cat. Very slowly his finger found the trigger and he began to squeeze.

Behind them, bloody, his shirt and chest shredded, Dominic roared a challenge to Zacarias even as he ripped the rifle from Cesaro with one hand and slapped him away with the other. The strike was casual, but so hard the force sent Cesaro flying through the air to land hard against the house.

"See to the woman," Dominic ordered, his voice a low command that brooked no argument. He pointed and the man slowly got to his feet, looking dazed, his eyes showing his confusion.

Cesaro was protected from compulsion, so it was only the sheer force of Dominic's personality that overrode the loyalty ingrained in the foreman to protect Zacarias.

"She's in the bedroom and needs immediate medical attention." That spurred the man into action. He hurried into the house, leaving the two Carpathians facing one another. Dominic held his hands out to his sides. "Zacarias." Just the name. A calling. Zacarias shook his head. The whispers refused to stop, pounding like a drumbeat deep in his veins, in his mind, until he was consumed with the dark desire for blood. "Go. Go while you can, old friend. Save yourself."

" Ekam. My brother. Anaakfel. Old friend." There was anguish in Dominic's voice--in his heart and mind. "This is not your choice. Your choice is to serve your people. I need you. The prince needs you. We have to get this information to him." Even as he spoke, Dominic glided into position, his heart so heavy he could barely keep the burning tears from moving past his throat. There was a ball of them lodged there. Zacarias. A man noble beyond anyone's imagining. To kill him felt like a sacrilege.

I'm going to shift, Dominic. I need clothes.

Solange's voice startled him. She was so calm. Her utter composure surprised him. He felt her in his mind, knew she felt his love for Zacarias. They were ancients. They had been childhood friends. They'd spent centuries fighting the same enemy, sometimes side by side, other times alone, but they'd always been in the world sharing the same fate. His heart would shatter when he killed Zacarias--but he would kill him. He would spare Zacarias the humiliation of losing his honor. The Carpathian people would remember him as the hero he truly was.

Leave us, Solange.

Dominic flexed his fingers. He'd taken a beating killing Etienne. The ancient had been a skilled fighter and he'd sustained several injuries. Zacarias was one of the best, most experienced warriors he'd ever encountered. Dominic's love for him, his respect, would be difficult to overcome. He didn't want Solange anywhere near this battle. He had no doubt that he would kill his friend, but there was every possibility that Zacarias would kill him, too.

There's a chance to save him.

His first reaction was to order her away, but the absolute belief in her voice swayed him. More than anything, he wanted her protected. Yet Zacarias was as close as he was ever going to get to a real friend, and Dominic didn't want to have to kill him.

She didn't wait for him to make up his mind, but shifted just to the left of him. He clothed her in her normal clothes, the faded jeans and thin tee that worked best when she was moving through the forest. She had emerged closer to Zacarias than he liked, and he knew it was deliberate.

"I am family to you, Zacarias," she said, addressing the Carpathian hunter.

Centuries old, Zacarias was more than intimidating under normal circumstances. But he was so close to turning, he was growling, his eyes already changing, revealing the red haze of the vampire already trying to possess his mind.

Dominic moved into position to strike. He would need every ounce of speed and strength he possessed to drive through the wall of Zacarias's chest and extract the heart before Zacarias could retaliate. The attack would have to come as a complete shock if he had any chance at all to end it fast. The idea sickened him, but he meticulously went over each move in his head. Solange had merged her mind with his. He knew she saw the attack in his mind, but she continued to try, taking another step toward the hunter.

Even as Dominic reached out a hand to stop her, Zacarias stepped out of reach and shook his head. "Take her and go while you can, Dominic." His voice was little more than a growl.

"Look at me," Solange persisted. "I am your family. Sister to you. Would you really destroy the one you have long protected? The scent of blood, so much death, it's calling to you, but I'm offering you freely, as your sister, as one under your protection . . ."

Dominic's breath hissed out between his teeth, his heart pounding. She was reading his mind, seeing the traditional and very formal Carpathian ways. Her life for his. No, Solange. I will not accept that.

For you, not for him. This is a gift to you. I want to love him and see him as you do. You see honor and I want to see that as well. Let me give you what I can of myself. This is for you.

Not at the risk of your life.

You risk yours to kill him. Let me risk mine to save him.

If he hadn't loved her before, he did now. The force of the emotion shook him as Solange extended her wrist toward Dominic. All the while he watched Zacarias watching them. Zacarias was more predator than hunter. Perhaps both of them were in that moment. Both dangerous beings. But then Solange had faced danger unflinchingly before. He took a breath and allowed one nail to slide over her skin, opening the vein. Bright ruby droplets welled up, small, beautiful gems, glittering like jewels.

"Come, brother," she said softly. "Feed and then go to ground. This will pass. It has happened before. You're strong and we need you."

Zacarias couldn't tear his eyes from the blood. "Not like this. Never like this. It is too dangerous, Dominic. Send her far from me."

"I will honor your wishes should you go too far," Dominic promised, his heart in his throat along with the ball of unshed tears. "You are my brother. Our brother. Drink. You will stay in control." He tried a little push to aid Zacarias, but ultimately, it was his choice. He had to fight the beast, find the last bit of strength to get him through this foul crisis.

Solange stood her ground. Of all of them, she was the most calm. She held her wrist out to Zacarias. If he stepped forward to take the offering, he would be fully exposed to Dominic. She had placed herself as bait. All three knew it.

Life or death.

Choose life, Dominic pleaded silently.

Zacarias glided across the space between them, taking the offered wrist, his chest and heart completely exposed and vulnerable to Dominic. Deliberately he kept one arm out away from his body while with the other hand he took Solange's wrist.

She couldn't stop the shudder running through her mind--or her body--but she stood her ground as Zacarias's mouth covered her wrist and he drank.

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