Chapter Three


But then beyond hope, you came into my dream . . . Glowing eyes like a cat, but fierce need like a child. Your warrior heart, loyal. Your anguished, "Don't leave me." Your head in my lap: Csitri! Strong and wild.

DOMINIC TO SOLANGE

The birds went quiet. The monkeys ceased all sound. Even the insects held their breath. Everything in the forest stilled. Color burst behind Dominic's eyes, blinded him, even within the body of the eagle, so that for a moment all he could see was vivid, acute colors, every shade of green, dazzling reds and violets, the flowers on the trees drenched in water and bright beyond all imagination. His stomach clenched and shifted, nausea rising like a tidal wave, the colors so bright they beat at his mind after centuries of seeing in shades of gray.

He thought the eagle would be a protection, but the colors had nowhere to go, no way to disperse behind the eyes of the bird, beating at him, filling his mind, overwhelming him with the various shades of brightness. The macaws stood out on the branches, staring at him curiously as he sailed to the ground and shifted into his own form. Dominic staggered, pressing one hand to his roiling stomach and the other up to shield his eyes. There was no way to stop the colors--it was as if a dam had burst in his brain and every conceivable shade and tint, every hue, mingled and fought for supremacy.

Sorrow lived in him, breathed in him. Regret. Fear. Shock. Every emotion that could be felt hit him in the next wave of attack. He went to one knee, trying to process, to sort out what he was feeling and what she was feeling, the emotions so overwhelming they left him disoriented and vulnerable. His lifemate was alive--was here in this rain forest somewhere close. His dream woman, the woman he had courted so slowly, building trust between them, was real, not the insubstantial myth he thought her. No. His denial was low, his shattered call back to her.

This couldn't be happening. Not now. Not after so many centuries. Not when he'd given up and committed to a path that would destroy them both. She couldn't be real. This couldn't be happening. He had only days to live. If he touched her, claimed her, bound them together, she would be locked to his fate.

I am destroyed if you leave me. Her voice filled his mind, the tones soft and so achingly familiar. Why hadn't he considered that she was real? She'd been in front of him the entire time and he hadn't realized it.

A thousand years he'd walked the earth looking for her. Lifemate. He could taste the word in his mouth, feel it in his soul. He'd been alone for so long, walking an honorable path, one he had chosen, but he had wanted her--no, needed her. The darkness called to his soul. A thousand men, many his friends and kin, had seen their death at his hands. There had been no solace, nowhere to turn, only the memory of honor and the fading hope that she would come to him.

How many times had he walked the night in need? Save me. He had thought himself insane at times. The haunting loneliness, the call of evil always pulling at him, that need to feel something--anything--was so overwhelming as the endless years stretched out in relentless isolation.

I need you. The anguish in her voice tore at him.

What had he done? Given up. He'd lost all hope and he'd taken steps to leave the world while his honor was still intact. The decision had been couched in nobility, a fitting way for a Dragonseeker to end his existence, but it was still an act of cowardice. He had reached a point when he knew he was far too close to the darkness, the need for feeling so strong it was taking root even in his strong bloodline. He didn't want to risk being the first Dragonseeker to ever succumb to the call of the vampire. He had refused to take the chance of giving up his soul, and in doing so, when the risk was becoming sharp and agonizing, he had made the decision to end his days.

Stay. Stay with me. Her anguish clawed at him.

How did he tell her it was too late? He covered his face with his hand, wept bloodred tears. His decision to ingest the vampire blood and end his life had cost him this one last shred of a dream. Worse, it had cost her. His woman. So strong, yet so fragile. What had he done? He had betrayed her as every other male had done in her life.

He knew her--he knew her most intimate fears. Her thoughts. She had told him, but he hadn't listened, not as a lifemate. He should have known, but he'd given up, despaired, turned his back on the most important person in his life.

It was not betrayal. Resignation tinged her tone. Acceptance. That hurt almost as much as knowing he had given up on finding her. The moment he had the first strange dream, a waking dream, he should have renewed his efforts to find her. Unlike the younger Carpathians, he had heard the strange tales some of the elders had told of how the call of lifemates could be heard over great distances and could manifest itself in a variety of strange ways. He had fallen into the trap so many of his kind had without realizing it. He had lost hope, and that had left him open and vulnerable to the temptation of the vampire. She didn't call it betrayal, but to him, a man of honor, when honor was all he had, it was the worst sin he could have committed.

Perhaps another could not understand. I have given up hope many times. When all we have is honor, when we stand alone against such horrors as we've seen, sometimes despair is all that is left to us.

She shamed him and yet made him proud. A woman to stand by his side. She knew what he had done. He had told her. She knew what a Carpathian was, what could happen should he stray, even for a moment, from the path. And she had to know what it meant when he'd informed her that he'd ingested the vampire blood and was going into their very camp to spy.

Around him, the rain forest had become another world. The sound of the rain was a soft rhythm, music that drummed in time to his heartbeat. Gray had become a silvery mist, incredibly beautiful, each drop a shimmering crystal prism. He felt the inpidual beads on his skin, and for the first time, the sensation was sensual. He opened his mouth and tasted rain, looking around him in wonder even as he opened his mind to share the precious gift she'd given him. He heard her gasp as she comprehended the enormity of their bonding. It was a sharing he had never expected to experience, and her presence heightened his body's reaction.

He breathed deep as blood rushed to his groin, as every nerve ending in his body went on alert and his skin seemed to sizzle just with the touch of the rain. Strangely, the parasites were quiet, almost as if they'd been as mesmerized by her presence as he was. The hideous whispers in his mind ceased completely.

He allowed himself to just feel, to drink in her presence, to enjoy that moment of not being alone. They shared the same mind, and for that time, everything in him settled, was at peace. He could sense the rightness in her as well, although he knew she was horrified at the things she'd revealed to him about herself in their shared dreams. She was embarrassed that she'd been so vulnerable, that he'd seen that one side of herself she kept hidden from every other person in the world.

I feel both honored and privileged to know you so completely--to know the woman, not just the warrior.

A very male part of him rose up, dominant, protective, a hint of jealousy at the idea of another man uncovering her vulnerability. The woman belonged to him alone--as he did to her. The world could see the warrior in them both, but the man and the woman were an intimacy no other needed to know.

Above, the last of the light faded away to shadow the land in complete darkness. Everything stilled--the rain forest holding its breath. There was no wind, yet a dark cloud moved fast through the canopy, the flutter of wings loud in the stillness of the descending night.

Bats. Dominic hissed the warning in his mind. The undead are rising.

From the tangled caverns formed by the finlike roots of the Kapok tree streamed thousands of tiny bats, answering the call of the masters. The ground erupted with ticks and armies of ants, swarming up the trees and over rocks.

They will be hungry. Shift and hide, get to safety. It is unsafe to communicate this way. Any surge in power will alert them.

He was on his feet, already moving fast, sliding into the familiar persona of a warrior unsurpassed. Being a lifemate was new to him, but this--this he knew how to do. He took to the air, streaking across the sky, a dark cloud among the dark clouds, the form of a thousand bats, all with fangs and claws, all ravenously hungry--as he was. He let his hunger amplify, heard the howling wind high above the canopy, protesting the unnatural things traveling across the sky. Any in their path would be destroyed. The animals went silent, the night predators slinking under cover. Lightning forked in the night sky, splitting it with whips of white-hot electricity. Thunder boomed, shaking the ground.

Come to me, Dominic. There was a command in the male voice.

A deep, strong voice of authority--a man used to instant obedience. Dominic recognized the voice. It had been so long ago. They had been friends of sorts, warriors together in the old days. He had much respect for the man and his amazing fighting skills.

Zacarias. Leave this place.

I will aid you. Word was sent of what you have done. You will need every aid possible for such a task. I am to the south, an old man walking alone by the river.

Dominic felt the old camaraderie welling out of nowhere. He would die on this rising or the next and yet his lifemate had given him this powerful gift of emotion. He could feel, not just remember, how much he had enjoyed Zacarias with his quick intelligence and fierce fighting skills. He didn't question that any vampire might mimic the oldest De La Cruz brother's voice, the resonance was too perfect--no one could adequately portray the power of the man with just his voice alone.

It would be good to see you, old friend, but dangerous. If the five could get their hands on you, they would probably be happier than if they managed to capture the prince. Dominic sent the warning, certain Zacarias was well aware the ones leading the vampire rising were the Malinov brothers. Once, the De La Cruz brothers and the Malinovs had been as close as family; now the Malinovs hated the De La Cruz brothers with every bit of malice and treachery their black souls could conjure up.

Do you know if the remaining brothers are here? Dominic turned south. He did so more to protect Zacarias than for any other reason. If one of the undead spotted him, a fight would ensue. He had no doubt of Zacarias's capabilities in a fight, but the undead seemed to be in significant numbers, and even a warrior of Zacarias's skill could be defeated.

I have hunted them. There seem to be several lesser of the undead, newly recruited, and a few more with greater experience. I have spotted two masters , but neither are the Malinovs. They have targeted my brothers, Dominic. I have no choice but to hunt them.

That was Zacarias. His brothers would always come first. He cared little for his own life, but he would survive to remove any threat to his younger brothers. Which was laughable. The other four De La Cruz brothers were more than capable warriors, each highly skilled, trained by Zacarias, with the experience of thousands of battles.

The bats wheeled in the sky, a black flutter of wings as he circled closer to get a better look at the ground. Far below, walking through the trees, was an old man, bent over, using a tall walking stick, looking very vulnerable, an enticement for any self-respecting vampire. Dominic smiled to himself. Zacarias wasn't prone to a lot of talking. He drew his enemy to him and disposed of him without fanfare or bravado.

He came to earth at a safe distance, just because prudence dictated caution in the midst of enemy territory. The old man remained a few yards from him. They studied one another. Zacarias kept the aged appearance, but there was no mistaking those piercing steel eyes. The shaggy hair was streaked with gray, but Dominic knew it was as black as a raven's wing without the disguise.

" Arwa-arvod m?ne me k?dak--may your honor hold back the dark," Dominic greeted, striding forward. He clasped Zacarias's forearms in the age-old greeting of the highest respect between two warriors.

Zacarias gripped him hard, with remembered affection. " Arwa-arvo olen is?nt?, ek?m-- honor keep you, my brother," he returned formally. "It has been long since I heard our language. We speak Portuguese or Spanish as a rule. Sometimes Dutch. We have to adapt to whichever country we are sweeping for vampires. It is a big continent for the five of us to patrol and the Malinovs know this."

They stepped apart and regarded one another. Dominic smiled. "It has been too long, Zacarias."

Zacarias nodded. "Long have I been fighting, holding on to honor. My brothers have found their lifemates and my job is nearly done."

Dominic looked at him sharply. "You have given up all hope of a lifemate of your own."

"I am weary of this life, Dominic," Zacarias agreed. "And I no longer can change to suit the times. Women are different, have grown beyond all that we knew. I have lived too long as a dominant man, my word law, everything my way. The women I have observed would not be happy living under such restraints as I would put on them, nor can I be other than who I am." He shook his head. "I cannot regret what I do not know. I am not suited to be a lifemate. Those days are long gone."

"Do not be so hasty, old friend," Dominic said, shaking his head. "I gave up hope and chose to give up my life for my people. It is too late, I have taken the blood and it eats me from the inside out. Soon my brain will rot, and I will have no option but to reveal myself to those I would spy upon. I will go down fighting, but I leave behind my lifemate. I found her at long last, in my last hour. Do not betray your woman as I have mine."

There was a long silence. Zacarias's gaze never wavered from Dominic's face.

Dominic nodded. "I see in colors. I feel emotion."

"And you go to the very heart of the enemy's lair."

"That is so. Sorrow is a heavy stone to carry," Dominic admitted. "And guilt. I found her, yet I must leave her alone. If I claim her, she will follow me."

Never once did Zacarias's appearance falter. His impression of an older human was impeccable. He looked and smelled and even kept his brain, should a vampire scan, with the thoughts of a man setting up night cameras. Yet behind the fa?ade, he was the man Dominic had known from so long ago.

"We must find a way to switch places. Infect me and then take yourself to the healers to see if they can save you."

Dominic wanted to smile at the demand in Zacarias's voice. Perhaps the man was right in saying he had too long been a dominant predator. There was no going backward. Their experiences shaped who and what they were and what they became. Zacarias did not belong with a modern woman. A lifemate was dedicated to making his or her other half happy. He knew only his way.

Sorrow for the man and his many lifetimes of service pressed hard on Dominic. Zacarias, as if reading Dominic's thoughts, shrugged.

"There is no need to feel emotion for me, Dominic, as I cannot feel for myself. I am here first to retrieve a wayward family member, and second, to uncover just where the Malinovs are. Word came to me that you might need aid in your plan. My taking your place makes sense if it is indeed possible."

Dominic frowned. "Wayward family member?" He couldn't imagine any member of Zacarias's family not submitting to his rule.

Zacarias inclined his head. "Solange Sangria. She is jaguar. Her cousin Juliette is lifemate to Riordan, and Juliette's sister, Jasmine, is under the care and protection of our family. Solange is a problem, a little cat running wild. I have to admit--reluctantly--that she has my respect as a warrior, but she will be killed if she continues along the path she has chosen. Both of her cousins grieve for her and fear, as they should, for her life."

Dominic felt his heart twist. Solange Sangria. The name was beautiful. The sound resonated in his soul. She was his. Not Zacarias's, not his family's; she belonged solely to Dominic. Solange Sangria was the only person--the only thing--in the entire world he wanted for himself. He held the name to him, knowing with absolute certainty that Solange was the name of his lifemate. It rang true, the heart of a warrior, her femininity hidden from the world, but there for him alone.

"She is mine."

Zacarias's eyes flickered. "I should have known it would be Solange. The woman is as cunning and as wild as the cats in the rain forest. For all that, Dominic, she is a woman worth the world and a worthy match for a warrior such as yourself. She has seen far too much horror and slaughter. She lives only for battle. I fear she will not retreat from this fight. She will need care, Dominic. All the more reason for me to take your place."

"It was my decision to ingest the blood and make my way into the enemy camp," Dominic replied. "This is my battle, Zacarias. It was my choice and I have no honorable option but to see this burden through to the end."

"Your lifemate may feel differently."

"If she is my true lifemate, she will understand that I can do no other than continue on this course. I would not expect another, no matter how generous the offer, to take my place. It would be a disservice both to him and to his lifemate. You cannot fail your own woman, Zacarias, by giving her up too soon."

A faint smile touched Zacarias's mouth, but it failed to soften his rugged features or reach the cool steel of his eyes. "I failed her a long time ago, my friend. I cannot change. I cannot be what this century dictates is proper, nor do I want to. I cannot demand a woman live within my rules." He shrugged. "I came to terms with this long ago."

"Perhaps she would choose to do so, given her free will."

"My point. What free will would she have with me? You and I both know she would have none." "You cannot know until it happens," Dominic said. "The world changes. You feel nothing now, but should a woman restore your emotions . . ."

"I would hold her too tightly. I am too old, Dominic, too set in my ways. My demands would be absolute."

"Then your lifemate would have to be an extraordinary woman who will find her way in dealing with you," Dominic predicted. "Do not be so eager to throw away hope just yet. Lifemates are destined, Zacarias. We do not just find them anywhere. There is only one to complete us, and while I do not believe it is always easy, I do believe the binding can only take place with the one who is the other half of our soul."

Zacarias shrugged, unconvinced. Without further preamble, he ripped his wrist with his teeth and held out the offering to Dominic. "You will need strong blood to do this thing, my brother. Take what I freely offer. I will come at your call and sustain you throughout this trial."

Dominic raised the wrist to his mouth and drank, the rush of strong, ancient blood hitting like a fireball, rushing through his system to soak into infected organs. The parasites reacted with a frenzy of stabbing pain. He could feel them in his veins, crawling under his skin, ripping and clawing at his gut. He closed the wound on Zacarias's wrist and immediately pushed as many of the parasites through his pores as possible, bleeding them off to keep the damage to his system as minimal as possible.

Zacarias regarded the wigging mutations with interest. "Riordan told me of such things. This is how they identify the ones who work with the Malinovs?"

Dominic raised his hand to call down the lightning, incinerating the vile creatures. "Yes. I must keep them inside of me and they multiply very fast. Gregori first brought these to our attention when he found them in Destiny, Nicolae's lifemate. Gary, a human male who works closely with him, compared those parasites with the ones I have since ingested and found the newer ones to be far stronger. He is not certain what that means, only that Xavier mutated them further. I think they drive those who host them to insanity. They whisper continually . . ." His voice trailed off and his eyes met Zacarias's.

"When I was close to the jaguar, the voices ceased. The parasites stopped moving within me, almost as if they were afraid, as if they were hiding."

"From what?" Zacarias asked. "Your woman?"

"If they fear a female, they could not have infected Destiny," Dominic pointed out.

"Perhaps, with Solange close, the pain simply was easier to ignore."

Dominic shook his head. Zacarias's eyebrow shot up. "While I appreciate your current disguise as a vampire, parasites wiggling near your eye are a bit much."

Dominic flicked the offending creature off and watched it incinerate. Lightning forked overhead and the trees shivered.

"They are drawing closer, Zacarias."

Zacarias regarded him with his cool eyes. "Did you think I have traveled all this way to run when the enemy approaches? I will stay here and play my part as the researcher bent on installing these night cameras to catch sight of the elusive jaguar. I even have a proper permit for my work and credentials. I have found it is a good lure for the evil ones."

"Are your brothers close?"

"I do not stay near them. Their happiness is all I have sought to secure, yet being near them is unsettling in ways I cannot say." He flashed another humorless smile. "I irritate their lifemates with my demands. It seems I have not the right way of asking for their safety."

Dominic laughed, uncaring that his vampire pointed teeth gleamed black and atrocious in the night. "I can imagine how you would sound to those women."

Zacarias shrugged. "None of them should be allowed to do what they do. Even Rafael has gone soft."

An army of ants swarmed up and over the fallen trunk just behind Zacarias. One moment the truck was covered in moss and fungus and the next a moving carpet of black and red poured over it. Dominic jerked Zacarias away from the trunk, throwing him behind him, an instinctive reaction to protect the other man. Even as he did so, he threw one hand up toward the sky, bringing down several forks of lightning.

The white light, hot and bright, slammed into the fallen tree. The ants burst into flame, snapping and sizzling, some leaping into the air, others crawling through the vegetation on the forest floor, breaking around Dominic's booted feet to get to Zacarias.

Dominic's breath hissed out between his teeth. Vampire. He is coming at you.

Then surely I must hide behind you in cowardice. There was nearly an edge of rough humor to Zacarias's voice, as if he remembered irony and humor just barely.

Lightning followed the swarm of ants, several strikes, but the massive numbers spread out across the ground to surround Zacarias. The two warriors went back-to-back, sweeping the ground around them with fire to clear the debris.

" Muon?ak te avoisz te--I command you to reveal yourself," Dominic ordered, his voice low, but the tone one of absolute authority. The ancient words used with the power of the ancient warrior carried every bit as much strength as the bolt of lightning.

The mass of insects undulated, a living carpet that began to reluctantly weave itself into a dark shadow creeping along the ground. Obviously trying to resist, the shadow transformed back and forth between insubstantial shadow and thousands of ants.

" Veriak ot en Karpatiiak, muon?ak te avoisz agbaainad ?s avoisz te ete kadiket--by the blood of the prince I command you to take your true form and reveal yourself before the instruments of justice," Dominic demanded.

A shrieking wail, much like nails on a chalkboard, reverberated through the trees. The forest responded with painful cries. Monkeys whimpered, tails tucked, heads down, hands over their ears.

The insubstantial shadow grew into an elongated body, the vampire's arms stretched toward Zacarias, the fingers of his hands bony and gnarled, the nails sharp and slightly curled like claws. The vampire raised its head in defiance, revealing skin pulled tight over bone, worn thin in places, so that he appeared scraped raw, maggots pouring from the gaping holes. He spat at Dominic.

"Traitor. You are one of us. Share this fool." The vampire dug his nails into the ground and dragged himself closer to Zacarias, his attention centered on the "human researcher." He made growling noises as he spoke, his vocal cords rusty and strained. He sounded more animal than man. His bony knees dug deep into the dirt, and beneath his body the earth groaned and small ugly white maggots writhed and wiggled as he dropped them. His body was long rotted, indicating he had been a vampire for many years, possibly centuries, yet he was no master.

Dominic struck fast, as was his way. He had long ago given up bravado or talking. He was there for only one purpose--to destroy the undead. There was no reason to talk to them unless he was extracting information, and he knew there were more in the area. This one was too close to Zacarias and might carry tales.

He struck while the vampire was still crawling on his belly toward Zacarias, who remained utterly motionless, the perfect picture of a human man shocked by a nightmare come to life. Dominic's fist slammed through the vampire's back, ripping through muscles and bone, penetrating deep, reaching for the heart.

Vampire blood spewed over his hand and his arm, black and shiny in the dark of the forest. It burned through his skin. All the while the parasites inside Dominic shrieked and screamed helplessly in protest, stabbing his insides so he felt as if he'd swallowed glass. Hot fire closed around his wrist and arm, as the undead's leeches tried to protect him, wrapping around Dominic's flesh and chewing fast. Dominic pushed deeper, ignoring the pain. Sensing the hunter was nearing his heart, the desperate vampire rolled fast, howling, his serrated teeth snapping at Dominic even while his other hand reached for Zacarias's ankle. Dominic went to the ground beneath the rotting walking corpse, his hand unerringly shoving through attacking parasites even while those in his own body reacted with agitation, stabbing and clawing, tearing at his organs to control him.

Zacarias eluded the searching hand of the vampire, melting away to reappear a few feet away, his cool eyes studying the sky and ground rather than the struggle between hunter and prey. A few yards away, sap ran like black blood, oozing from the trunk of a fig tree. The leaves shriveled and drops of the sap hit the ground in a slow drip, sizzling and burning a hole in the thick vegetation surrounding the tree. A small porcupine shot its quills into an erect position, scurrying away from the tree, dropping the fruit from its paws.

A monkey screamed and leapt, as if burned, from the lower branches to the next tree over. Several birds took flight and a snake lifted its head, forked tongue reaching toward the dark, seeping sap. Abruptly it uncoiled, reaching out for an interlocking branch from the neighboring tree. Frogs and lizards abandoned the branches, and insects made a mass exodus.

Zacarias moved closer, flowing over the ground, moving fast, reaching the tree just as the massive trunk broke open and expelled the foul creature poisoning it. At once the stench of rotting eggs mixed with decomposing flesh spewed into the still air. Leaves on the surrounding trees and shrubbery withered. Flowers closed petals and shrank away from the abomination.

"Drago, old friend. I see you have come to visit me," Zacarias said gently. "Long have I issued you an invitation, but you refused. It is good that you finally have opted for justice. It is long overdue."

Drago snarled, pulling back his lips in a snarl to reveal hideous teeth, pointed and black, stained with the blood of the many lives he had taken. He stroked the air beneath his hands, as if petting an invisible creature, his nails daggerlike, each stroke precise.

"Foolish upstarts. They are so busy fighting over the scrap of a meal, they failed to notice the prize they had." When he spoke, Drago growled each word, just as precisely as the movements of his hand.

"But you did," Zacarias said gently. His cool eyes continued to sweep their surroundings. Drago would never confront him so calmly unless he thought he had the advantage.

Behind them, Dominic was very aware of the second vampire on the scene, but around him, tentacles burst through the ground, running along the floor of the forest, seeking prey. He heaved the vampire off him, rolling on top, slamming the rotting face into the ground among the tentacles, even as his fist pushed through the mass of writhing parasites to get at the heart.

Tentacles immediately circled the vampire's neck and skull; more pulled at his legs and arms in an attempt to drag him underground. Dominic's fingertips reached the cold, withered heart. The undead shrieked and redoubled his efforts to throw Dominic off him. The absolute silence of the hunter was unnerving. The vampire had no idea whether Dominic was one of his fellow recruits for the masters, as his parasitic blood indicated, or whether he was a highly-skilled hunter, as his earlier commands indicated. Dominic had invoked the name of the prince, something no vampire would ever do.

Dominic's fingers burrowed around the blackened organ, feeling more parasites wriggle against his palm as he enclosed the prize in his fist and began to extract it from the vampire's body. The tentacles fought him for possession. Overhead, lightning forked in readiness. Thunder rolled ominously. The sound was horrendous, the sucking of the undead's acid blood trying desperately to hold on to the heart, the high-pitched shrieking of the vampire and the wail of the parasites already spilling out of the body, abandoning their host.

The tentacles frantically jerked at the undead in an effort to draw him beneath the earth, out of Dominic's reach, but Dominic rose, the heart in his fist, dripping parasites and acid onto the ground as he leapt away, commanding the lightning. The bolt slammed into the body before the tentacles could save it. He tossed the heart into the white-hot blaze and directed the energy across the blackened ground until every tentacle and every parasite was incinerated. His arm and hand burned, the flesh nearly eaten away down to the bone. He rinsed his flesh in the edges of the light to take off the blood and kill any remaining parasites that might have gotten on his skin.

Deep inside his body, in the veins and organs, the parasites rushed to hide from the blinding heat, giving him, for one moment, a reprieve from the constant agonizing torture. Never once did he allow his appearance to change from his vampire persona to that of a Carpathian hunter. Only when he was finished did he look up to meet Drago's eyes. He snarled, pulling back thin lips to reveal serrated, bloodstained teeth, his growl a challenge.

"That is my food you are toying with," he snapped and strode through the trees to put his body between Zacarias and the new threat.

He knows who I am, Zacarias warned. He would never openly challenge me if he did not have some nasty little surprise up his sleeve.

"You have no idea who this is," Drago snarled. "He is a prize beyond compare."

"I remember you from the old days," Dominic prodded. "Drago, a whining, sniveling coward. You always disappeared in a battle."

Drago smirked. "I managed to live another day while so many others fell." Dominic studied his enemy. Drago's hand continued those precise strokes, down low, close to his hip, as if he might be petting a dog. His tone had a strange cadence, each word separate, almost as if he punctuated each with a stop after it. Dominic had seen many traps in his centuries of battling the vampire, but he was in new territory here.

He took another step closer to the undead in an effort to get into a position to close the gap quickly and finish the vampire before the trap could be sprung.

Drago shook his head. "You are one of us, sworn to the five masters. This is Zacarias De La Cruz, sworn enemy of our leaders. They will want him alive."

Dominic shrugged. "You cannot take credit for my having found him."

Zacarias flexed his shoulders, regarding them both with cool eyes. "I am not captured yet, nor do I think either one of you has the ability to defeat me in battle, alone or together, but you are welcome to try."

Dominic sneered. "Hunter, stay quiet while I deal with this fool." He allowed his gaze to sweep the surrounding forest, paying attention to the trees closest to them.

Drago had evidently traveled through the ground and entered the fig tree via the roots, emerging from the trunk when he thought it safe. If he was traveling with others--and from his confidence, Dominic was certain that he was--they could be using the trees to hide.

Stay away from the trees, he cautioned Zacarias.

Zacarias must have had the same thought as Dominic, because he was already shifting position, trying to secure a spot where he could keep an eye on the surrounding trees. Dominic was grateful he had the hunter at his back. They might look like predator and prey, but they had battled together many times in the past, in the old days, hunting vampire and the enemies of both humans and Carpathians. There was no other he would have chosen to fight with him.

Drago's fingers rose and fell over his invisible companion. "This hunter will be turned over to the masters."

Dominic risked a glance at Zacarias. He was every inch the Carpathian hunter, broad shoulders, long flowing hair and eyes cool under fire, yet minutes earlier he had been an older man, bent over, fumbling with his cameras in the trees. How did he know who you were? Zacarias's disguise had been faultless.

I have no idea.

" I am a master," Dominic growled at Drago, staying in role as a braggart and bully, as so many of the undead were. "You cannot tell me what I must do with my prey. Stand away or you will meet the same fate as that fool who challenged me."

Drago spat on the forest floor, and small parasites wiggled obscenely in the dried and decaying leaves. His eyes glowed a deep red, and he threw back his head and howled. A tree to the left of Dominic shivered. A large snake that was twisted around the branches lifted its head and slithered along the trunk, uncoiling its long body as it descended to the ground and slithered almost to Drago's feet. Its long tongue tested the air and then flicked over the parasites before he rose, taking his hideous true form, to stand a few feet from his companion.

Drago's fingers continued to stroke the air under his palm as the ground just behind Zacarias split open and spewed a third vampire. A fourth emerged from the twisted branches of the blackened fig tree that Drago had come from, and Dominic automatically put him down as the weakest link. His face was still half recognizable, the flesh still covering the shrinking bones. Dominic had encountered him when he was still a hunter, not even an ancient, yet he had been unable to control his desire for emotion and had obviously capitulated to the whisper of darkness. His name had been Robert, but Dominic thought of him as a worm.

Zacarias looked around at the four vampires surrounding them. We could be in a little trouble here.

Dominic sent the impression of a smug smirk. Just like in the old days. The way I like it.

You always were a little crazy. You love the battle. Zacarias's tone was wry.

And you do not? There was laughter in the question.

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