Below him, man of no honor wept, his tears burning blades of grass, but still he continued, frantic now, slithering like the lowest worm, desperate to find more of the powerful blood. He couldn't live without it now, and nothing else mattered to him, certainly not Ruslan and his threats and empty promises. Only the blood. He needed the blood. He whimpered and slobbered, uncaring now of the thousands of cuts to his face and body, seemingly unaware the saw grass had sharp serrated edges that cut deeper and deeper into him. Only the blood mattered, only that next drop.
Man of no honor didn't notice the flames on the ground or the smoke layered thick over his head. He scented the treasure - that wonderful, amazing, powerful treasure that only he could have. He would never share and it would make him invincible, impossible to kill, more powerful even than Ruslan - after all, this lone hunter was the one Carpathian Ruslan feared above all others. He would be ruler of the vampires and eventually Carpathians. Humans would be nothing but puppets and cattle to him.
He sniffed the air. Was that a droplet above his head? He rolled over, his tongue frantically trying to find it in the smoky air. If the Carpathian would show himself, he would rip out his heart and devour it, and then consume every drop of blood the hunter had in him. He needed that blood. His tongue found nothing, but his nose scented more. Rich. Tantalizing. The droplets had fallen directly into the wounds in his chest and belly. The Carpathian had to be close and had to be bleeding.
His sharp fingernails lengthened to razor-sharp talons and he began tearing at his own flesh, ripping and peeling to get at those precious drops of blood. The sounds were horrendous, shrieking cries of agony, desperate whimpers of hunger and need that resounded through the night. The horses in the stables reacted, kicking and stomping, in a frenzied attempt to escape the sound. The cattle in the distant fields came to their feet, nearly all at the same time as though an electric charge had run through the herd.
In the distance, Zacarias heard the whop-whop of the helicopter blades. Cursing in his native tongue he struck hard and fast, extracting the heart of man of no honor and flinging it far out into the field. He moved under cover of the smoke, careful to float with the breeze and not give his position away by trying to hurry. He knew the other vampire would strike at his screaming partner, certain Zacarias was somewhere in the smoke next to him. Again, lightning lit up the sky, streaks of it, looking to all the world like a modern war zone, the spears of white-hot energy slamming to earth. One bolt struck the heart,
incinerating it, and then jumped unerringly to the vampire's body, destroying that as well.
The cattle were going to stampede. The vampire would realize instantly that the people in the helicopter worked for the De La Cruz family. The ranchers would pour out of their homes in spite of the order to remain inside, their instincts to save the herd overriding the command. More bait for the vampire - he would expect Zacarias to protect them.
Zacarias reached for the turbulent cloud the vampire had spun to use as a trap, rolling and spinning in the sky. It was heavy with moisture, spinning larger and growing into a lumbering tower, a dark malevolent funnel of spinning rage. Zacarias opened the floodgates, allowing the trapped drops to pour down over the field and extinguish all the flames. The black smoke mixed with gray vapor, growing dense and churning with the wild wind until the air was thick with smoke, dust and debris.
He streaked through the haze toward the helicopter, cursing as he did so. The vampire surely would attack the craft first. It was far easier being a Carpathian warrior uncaring of anything but killing his enemy. Protecting humans added a huge risk factor and his mind kept turning resolutely toward the reason. He shut it down fast and hard, but a knot began to grow in the pit of his belly.
He slipped into the helicopter right behind Julio. Get out of here fast. A vampire is here.
As soon as he'd pushed the warning into Julio's mind, he was gone, throwing a protection ring around the craft. The strike came just as expected, a missile streaking through the air, leaving behind a trail of vapor. The projectile hit the protection ring and exploded. Lea, the helicopter pilot, screamed and banked sharply. She had not seen Zacarias, nor was she aware of the warning.
Looking below, she couldn't fail to see the thick smoke.
"Get us out of here, Lea," Julio demanded.
"I'm trying," she shouted back, although they both wore a radio.
The helicopter lurched as something exploded very close to them.
"Someone's shooting at us," she cried.
"No, it's an explosion from the fire. Can you see?" Julio asked.
"The smoke is so thick," Lea responded. "How can it be so thick everywhere?"
Zacarias could hear the humans' frantic discussion as he followed the trajectory of the missile back to the origin. The vampire would have moved as fast as he'd delivered the attack, hoping to bring down the helicopter, but his moving left a trail. And Zacarias could follow any trail no matter how slight. He streaked across the exact vapor trail left by the missile, using the line of trajectory to scan below.
Above, caught in the smoke, the helicopter seemed to be in trouble. The vampire fed the smoke, pouring more into the sky and field so that it was dense, nearly impenetrable. Zacarias went after him. If he stayed and tried to help the two in the helicopter, the men rushing from their homes to get to the cattle would be in danger. He had to stop the undead.
The vampire had been very clever, hiding almost out in the open. Once straight overhead the hiding place, Zacarias could see where he had utilized the natural terrain as it dipped below the sloping fence line. Bushes were thin there, but he had managed to secrete himself in the sparse vegetation without touching a single leaf. The grass where he had stood was shrunken and a dull brown, some blades shivering, testifying to the fact that the undead had recently abandoned his hiding place.
The vampire moved under cover of the thick smoke, hastily changing his position, passing close to the vine-covered post on the outer fence. The leaves and tangle of shrubbery recoiled subtly. Zacarias followed that faint path. In the distance, he could hear the frightened bawling of the cattle and the sounds of men rushing to horses. The undead had a target. Stampeding the herd, bringing out many potential victims, would give him advantages.
Above Zacarias the helicopter lurched awkwardly as another projectile exploded against the protection ring. He soothed the wild wind, sending it out and away from the funnel cloud to disperse the smoke, giving the helicopter pilot a way to see an open spot to bring the metal bird to the ground safely.
Men poured from the houses, leaping onto the backs of horses, racing wildly toward the far fields where the cattle had been semisheltered by the gently rising slopes and tall shade trees. Zacarias streaked ahead of the vampire, throwing up a barrier so the undead hit it hard and bounced back, finding himself sitting in the middle of the burned field.
Zacarias materialized a distance from him. "I know you. You should have known better than to hunt me."
The vampire picked himself up slowly, dusting off his clothes with meticulous care. He bowed low, and then stood straight and tall. "Who could resist pitting wits against the great and all powerful Zacarias De La Cruz? You are the thing of legends. Any who defeated you would be known for all time."
"And you are just the man to manage it," Zacarias said softly. He kept his voice pitched low, melodious even, a stark contrast to the vampire who had to work to modulate his voice. All the while he listened to sounds of the frantic men trying to calm the restless herd.
The buildup of electricity in the air told him the vampire would attempt to use a lightning whip to prod the cattle into stampeding. Zacarias waved a casual hand toward the sky countering the electrical charge. The air stilled, all clouds disappeared.
"An old trick," the vampire said. "But you cannot protect them all from me."
Insects burst from the ground, thousands of them, a plague of starving bugs, desperate for food. They took to the air, flying straight at Zacarias, the migration heading for the cattle, horses and men behind him. He seemed a small obstacle in their path.
Zacarias shrugged. He stood calmly, not moving as the insects approached him. "What does that matter to me? I have one purpose. One."
He smiled as his wind shifted, picking up, driving away from him straight at the vampire. Blades of serrated saw grass speared through the air like a thousand knives. The insects tried to devour it in midair, the force of the wind blowing them backward along with the grass. The blades struck the vampire with such force they went through his body before he even realized they were concealed in the mass of insects. Hundreds of grass spears impaled him from his head to his feet. At once the insects covered him, desperate to feed at the wounds.
Zacarias materialized inches in front of the vampire, slamming his fist through bone and muscle, through the acid blood. Insects rained to the ground, dying as they touched the hideous unnatural blood of the undead.
"I destroy vampires," Zacarias whispered, looking him straight in the eyes, his dispassionate gaze saying it all. "That is my one purpose." He extracted the blackened, wizened heart and tossed it into the mass of wiggling, dying insects.
Lightning forked across the sky and slammed into the mountain of bodies, incinerating the heart as well as the insects. Zacarias stepped back calmly and allowed the body to fall so the white-hot energy bolt could incinerate the remains.
He stood for a moment, allowing the cool night air to take the stench of the undead from his nostrils before he turned to make certain the helicopter had landed safely. Julio ran across the open ground just in front of the hangar, Lea's hand in his, both headed toward the stables, presumably to help with the herd.
In spite of the way the ground shook under the pounding hooves as the cattle began to run mindlessly, Zacarias's gaze was pulled unerringly, even compulsively, to the hacienda. She was there. Marguarita. Huddled inside. Alone. He had ruthlessly abandoned her, and he would do it again and again,over and over. He ran his fingers through the mass of thick hair.
There were no lights on in the main house - the only structure still dark on the property. As soon as the alarm had gone out that those guarding the cattle would need help, every home on the property had come to life - with the exception of Marguarita's home. He could have touched her with his mind - certainly every cell in his body needed her, needed that deep connection - but he refused.
The moment he touched her, he would feel. Fear mounting to terror would crawl through his body - fear that she would regret her choice, fear that she would want to sever the ties between them. Standing alone in the middle of the empty, burned field, he didn't have to feel anything.
Behind him he heard Cesaro shout. The massive herd sounded like thunder approaching. Cesaro, Julio and two others were trying to turn the running animals. The steers were large, big muscular animals, heads down, eyes rolling as they pounded toward the fence separating Zacarias from danger.
Cesaro fired his rifle into the air in a last-ditch effort to turn the cattle. They crashed into the fence with their broad chests, snapping wood like twigs. The cattle bellowed and bawled, dust rising into clouds as they tore through the fence.
Zacarias could hear the shouts of Cesaro and his son, warning him to run. He turned to face the huge steers, one hand in the air. Allowing the predator to rise to the surface, he hissed a warning into the air between them, pushing the scent of dangerous predator with it. He sent that intimidating threat in a straight line out just feet from him, a long wall of deterrent.
The lead animals abruptly turned, swinging around in a semicircle, suddenly more afraid of what was in front of them than the animals pounding behind them. More animals rushed toward him, but the scent of danger was overwhelming. It didn't take long for the cattle to become confused, bawling and slowing, circling, allowing the cowboys to take control.
Julio rode closer. The horse danced sideways, trying to get away from Zacarias. "The pilot, Lea Eldridge, isn't one of us. She saw things I can't explain to her."
Zacarias nodded his head. Julio remained stationary, controlling his horse with his knees and hands. Zacarias arched an eyebrow in inquiry.
"It's just that she saved Ricco's life and she's Marguarita's friend."
Julio's voice told Zacarias much more than Julio was prepared to give away. He might say the woman didn't belong in their part of the world, but secretly, he wished she did.
"I will be careful which memories I remove when the time comes," Zacarias said.
"Are you all right?"
"Why do you ask?"
Julio hesitated. "Your eyes, se?or , they're glowing. Do you have need of . . ."
Zacarias shook his head. Destroying the undead took a toll on every hunter. The taking of lives was not done lightly or without consequence. Julio already feared him - all the workers did - even Cesaro. He couldn't explain the dangers he faced each time he took a life - even that of the vampire. Taking blood was a temptation, a very dangerous one after the taking of lives. He inclined his head in thanks, and then turned away from the man. In truth, he turned away from the sight of the nervous horse.
Marguarita had pointed out that the Peruvian Paso, at least those bred on his ranch, were bred for temperament as well as abilities. They were renowned for their steady natures in the face of adversity. He'd finally been able to ride, flowing over the ground, his spirit connected to the animals, yet now, the horse didn't even recognize he was the same person. The killer was far too close to the surface.
Zacarias turned away from the battlefield, the lingering smoke and drifting scent of death, and walked back to the main house - back to her.
Marguarita. Susu - not his birthplace, but home was a woman he called p?l?fertiil - lifemate. The only place he could find peace was
in her. The only time he truly came alive was with her. The only way he could leave the half world of shadows was by filling his empty spaces with her bright light. Marguarita was sivam es sielam - his heart and soul. There was no getting around the fact that without her spirit brushing his, he had no heart or soul, just places that were now sieves, filled with millions of holes no longer connecting to anything worth saving.
He hadn't wanted this. He was too far gone and, while he'd been searching for the undead, a solitary hunter, living in strict isolation, the world had long since passed him by. He didn't understand modern ways. So many centuries of walking the earth hunting prey had kept him remote, removed from other species. He knew nothing of humans and certainly nothing of women, but after feeling her inside of him, after being inside of her, there was no going back.
He walked the worn path to the front steps, noticing the flowers and shrubbery. All were a dull gray, no bright colors for him until he stepped inside and joined his mind to Marguarita's. A part of him resisted this new path, but she was already a drug in his system, an addiction he couldn't defend against. He needed the vivid colors, the rush of emotion, the pure pleasure he'd never experienced. Marguarita was laughter and frustration. She was an intriguing puzzle he couldn't solve.
He walked up the stairs, a simple act, yet something inside him, something hard and edgy seemed to settle. He felt her close. She was still closed to him and he didn't allow his mind to seek hers. He needed to see her face - to know that she could accept this part of him. He was the predator the animals recognized. He knew his face was honed in battle, rough and etched with the stamp of a killer. His eyes would still be glowing, his canines would be sharp and a little extended.
She had to see him as he was. It was difficult to accept the Carpathian, but the hunter was terrifying. He had no idea what he would do if she rejected him. Take her off to his lair and try to find a way to make her happy, perhaps? Impossible. He shook his head, his palm resting on the door, just the height of her head. This was an impossible situation. By all that was holy, what was destiny thinking? A Carpathian woman, an ancient, would have had difficulties with him. But a human? A woman with no experience with a rough, dominant male who would rule her without the tender things a woman needed? How could she possibly cope with him?
He was careful to remove all safeguards. The Carpathian men could leave their houses, but getting back inside would have been difficult - painful - and dangerous. He opened the door and went inside. Normally, inside a structure, he found it difficult to breathe. Outside, the wind kept him apprised of danger. Inside, the scents of the humans and the way they lived overrode everything of value to him. Now, when he inhaled, he drew in - Marguarita.
Her fragrance was all woman. Soft and subtle. She smelled like a miracle. Clean and fresh and belonging to the rain forest - to him. He padded silently down the hall, not wanting to give her time to prepare herself. She needed to see him as he was and he needed to see her face, her true expression. Touching her mind would tell him everything, but once her mind was in his, the lifemate bond would take over and mask her fears and her initial true reaction to him.
He stepped into her bedroom. The room was completely dark. The drapes remained closed, blocking out the moon. Marguarita huddled in a corner, on the floor. Her face was streaked with tears, her hands were pressed tight over her ears. Of course she'd heard the sounds of the battle, the screams of her beloved horses and the bawling of the cattle. She couldn't fail to know the herd had stampeded, not with the crashing, thundering hooves pounding into the ground. His blood had heightened all of her senses.
Her long hair was down, all those silken strands and even now, in his worst predatory state, he could see that thick mass was a true black, gleaming without even light to show the hidden blues. He watched her for a long moment, prolonging the wait, not wanting to know the truth, but needing it at the same time. He took a breath, drew her into his lungs and willed her to look up.
ow. See me now. He pushed the compulsion into the room and held his breath as Marguarita lifted her head.
Her eyes were drenched in tears. Enormous, beautiful, chocolate eyes. Her gaze locked on to him, and he saw her catch her breath. Her breasts rose and fell in a soft, feminine movement. She swallowed as if something was lodged in her throat. Her fingers were twisted so tightly together they were white. But it was her face he focused on.
She stared at him for what seemed eternity. Very slowly she stood up, feeling her way up the wall, her eyes wide, moving over him inch by inch, looking for damage. Carefully inspecting him. When her gaze returned to his face, she took the few steps to stand in front of him. Her hands framed his face and then slid over him, a touch of her fingers, feather light, but the obvious caress sent a jolt through his body.
A mixture of emotions crossed her face, so easy to read. She couldn't speak, but her feelings were transparent. Relief. Joy. Fear. It was all there, but his heart took up a rhythmic beat when he hadn't even realized it was stuttering along with his ragged breathing.
He wrapped his hand around the nape of her neck and drew her body close to his, holding her head against his chest, slipping his arm around her to feel her body against his. She melted into him, her arms circling his waist. She held him as if comforting him, or comforting herself. And maybe both of them needed comfort. He rested his head on the top of hers and let her peace seep into his mind and heart. She hadn't looked at him as if he was a monster. She was afraid, but for him, not of him.
Perhaps having a beautiful lunatic for a lifemate was the perfect solution for a lost man like him. She didn't know enough to fear him.
Holding her wasn't enough. He needed her inside of him. "Come into me, sivamet . I need you inside me." He whispered the invitation into the cloud of midnight blue-black hair.
She lifted her head and looked into his eyes. He felt himself falling. The ground under his feet shifted. She came into him slow, like warm molasses, thick and perfect, filling him with her brightness, filling the holes in his heart and soul, bridging the broken connections and driving the shadows out. She filled him with - her. Her spirit moved against his. His soul recognized hers. She became the rhythm of his heart.
Zacarias had never needed anything or anyone. Now he couldn't do without her. She made him as vulnerable as a new baby. He knew forever. He'd lived forever, but now, with her, with Marguarita, everything was different. Forever wasn't going to even be close to long enough with her. He blinked several times, the colors in the darkened room so vivid and bright they hurt his eyes. Marguarita was color, all those intense, beautiful hues that burst in front of his eyes when she was in him.
Using the hand wrapped around her throat, he forced her head up so that her dark eyes were compelled to meet his. His heart stuttered in his chest. His body trembled. He felt as if he'd been hit by a tsunami and he was being swept away, drowning. Perhaps he'd been drowning all along and had never noticed the sensation until her mind connected all the dots, but now, he knew the water had closed over his head and he was under.