"Dreams are the angels' way of showing us what is on the other side," Riley's grandmother had told her when Riley was just a child. If that was true, then heaven was a warm and sultry place, considering the dream Riley had just had.
The dream had been so wonderful, in fact, she was loath to leave it. She clung to sleep, to the wispy remnants of that dream, filled with soft caresses and strong hands, until the clamor of voices around her grew too loud to ignore.
Her eyes fluttered open, and she sat up, frowning and disoriented, to find herself in what looked like her own tent. Light shining in through green fabric revealed a neat and ordered space that for the first time since its purchase was now also perfectly clean-with no hint of the dirt or the smell of wet canvas that had clung to it throughout the trip through the jungle. She was still fully dressed, although her boots were sitting beside her pack and her jacket had been neatly folded and put on top as well.
She could hear people moving about and talking outside the tent, and judging by the number of voices, her small party must have met up with other survivors. She sat up abruptly, hope blossoming. Or maybe everything that had happened since heading up the river had all been one horrible, bizarre nightmare.
Before she got her hopes up too far, however, the tent zipper came undone, and the panel fell back to reveal an outside world covered in a thick blanket of gray volcanic ash with more still falling from the sky. Not a dream then.
Riley found a sad comfort when Gary stepped through the tent's opening with a hot bowl of soup and a spoon in his hands. "Oh good, you're awake. I have your breakfast-or dinner, since the sun is about to set."
"Hello, Gary." Nodding her thanks, she took the bowl and set it aside. Her body was still waking up, and she wasn't hungry. "What's happening? Where are we? Is everyone okay? How long have I been asleep?"
There was plenty of room in the three-person tent, and Gary sat down on a camping stool someone had brought in. "Jubal and Ben are fine. In fact, they're outside now." He indicated the door flap. "We're in a camp some of the locals set up as a gathering place for survivors. As for how long you slept, you have been resting for two days now."
"Two days?" she repeated, incredulously. She'd never slept so long in her entire life. Her brow furrowed with sudden suspicion. "Did the vampire hunter put me to sleep?"
"No, he didn't. Apparently, you drained every reserve of strength you had saving our butts and healing him. Which is why you need to eat now, whether you feel hungry or not." He cast a pointed look at the soup bowl.
"Two days," she muttered. "Good God." She lifted the spoon to her lips and numbly took a bite. The flavors exploded across her tongue, and she glanced down at the soup in surprise. It was really good, and as she swallowed her first bite she realized she really was hungry.
"I'm not sure you are aware of what you did, or if you even remember," Gary continued when he was satisfied she was eating. He lowered his voice so others outside couldn't hear him. "Dax, the Carpathian hunter, was badly injured and you used your gifts to directly heal him. He told me that you didn't just draw power from the earth like you did to hold the vampire, or when you redirected the volcano's eruption. You used that power, but you drew most of the energy from yourself and poured it into him. Riley, you healed him completely. And by that, I mean you regrew bone and tissue from nothing. I've been around Carpathians, and not even the strongest healers among them could have done what you did by themselves and in so short a time. It's nothing less than miraculous. After you passed out, Dax checked you out himself, but he couldn't find anything wrong, so he told us just to let you rest. So we have." He glanced down. "More soup?"
It took a moment for Riley to realize she was staring blindly at the now-empty bowl. "Yes, thank you."
Raising his voice, Gary called out to Jubal, and seconds later exchanged her empty bowl for a full one. Jubal himself only poked his head into the tent long enough to give her a huge smile and a wave, which she returned automatically. Then he ducked back outside, and the tent flap closed behind him.
"Riley, you've suspected for a while now that Jubal and I know a lot more than we've been willing to share. We keep secrets for many reasons, mostly because keeping those secrets helps protect people we care for. But because Dax sees us as your "protectors," he's given us permission to share some of our knowledge with you now." He looked like some of her fellow professors did right before they started their first two-hour lecture on a topic that would take years to fully explain.
"Wait." She held up a hand. "Before you get started, tell me about the others. You said Ben and Jubal are okay. What about the rest of the people from the boats? Did they survive?"
"Dax found Miguel, Hector, Don, and Mack Shelton when we were coming down the mountain. And following the trail of the professor and his students is what led us here." Something in the tone of his raised voice caused a sinking feeling in her stomach.
"The professor fell. Oh, don't worry, it's nothing too bad, except he's in the jungle, and needs to be able to walk, but he'll be okay. He broke his leg."
"And?" she prompted when he fell silent again. "You don't get that worried look in your eyes because the professor broke something. What else?"
"Dax found two of the porters dead that first night. They were returning to see if we all made it away from the volcano. Fernando and Jorge."
She shook her head. "That's so terrible." She knew the bad news wasn't over and waited in silence for him to tell her the rest.
"One of the guides and one of the professor's students are missing. Pedro went to find clean water for breakfast. Marty went with him. They never came back." Gary's expression went grimmer. "Dax believes the vampire he's hunting might have found them." The look on his face said he believed it, too. "But just in case he's wrong, we have most of the men out looking for them now," he added.
Giving her a moment to process the news, Gary handed her empty soup bowl out to Jubal again and exchanged it for two blue metal camping cups.
Vampire. Riley shook her head in disbelief. Vampires were one of the monsters from stories. They were the thing you dressed up as on Halloween, the evil creature in a scary movie. They weren't supposed to be real. But then again there weren't supposed to be dragons, and her mother wasn't supposed to be dead, and ... her heart seemed to skip as she thought about that man. He wasn't supposed to be here, either, whatever he was.
She took the camping cup Gary held out and took a grateful sip of the tepid water. It was warm and tasted of ash and chemicals, but it quenched her thirst and soothed her parched throat.
"What else aren't you telling me?" The image of two dragons facing off in front of them rose to mind. "What about the hunter, Dax? Did you know he was here the whole time?"
"No, of course not. We had no idea Dax or the vampire was here. I don't think anyone did. From what Dax told me, he and Mitro-the vampire-were locked in the earth under the mountain for a very long time. A Carpathian woman named Arabejila, who came here with Dax to hunt Mitro, sealed them both in. Dax suspects Arabejila was your ancestor, and that she's the one who passed down the ritual you and your mother performed to keep the volcano from erupting and freeing them. According to Dax, Mitro is worse than most vampires, and he has a gift for escaping bad situations. Maybe that gift helped him wear down the barrier, but in any case, he's free now." Gary noticeably swallowed after he spoke.
"So what exactly is a Carpathian? You keep using that word like it should mean something to me." Riley needed an explanation as to how vampires and dragons had become a reality.
"The Carpathians are an ancient race-a different species, really-that has existed alongside mankind for a very long time. In fact, the Carpathians say they are of the earth itself. They have very long life spans, and possess amazing gifts and abilities, which is no doubt what spawned all the legends and myths about vampires and shapeshifters. It would take a very long time to give all the details, so I'll just hit the high points. I am sure Dax will be happy to answer any other questions you may have." He gave a small grin.
"Jubal and I have been friends of the Carpathians for some time now. We work with them and for them and count ourselves lucky for the privilege. They are really remarkable beings."
Riley couldn't stop herself from glancing down at Gary's wrist where Dax had taken his blood. If he'd lived with the Carpathians for a long time, was he a friend or more like a pet cow they milked whenever they needed to feed?
Noticing the direction of her gaze, Gary smiled. "I'm fine. Sometimes you can get a little dizzy from blood loss, but Dax was careful not to take too much. They need blood to survive, and the way I see it, giving to them isn't much different than donating to the Red Cross or the local blood drive."
"Except the Red Cross doesn't drink what they take."
"No, but they do use it to save lives. Humans need blood to survive, and so do Carpathians. The only real difference is how they get it. Besides, most people never know they have had their blood taken. It's really quite unobtrusive and painless. Carpathians use their abilities to put a person into a dream state."
"So they enthrall people. Like vampires do in novels and movies."
"Yes, there's nothing malicious about it. Most usually flood the person with happy thoughts, take what they need and leave pleasant memories behind when they leave."
Gary rubbed his wrist as if he could still feel the teeth breaking through the skin. Maybe he could. He hadn't looked like he was in a trance state when Dax was drinking from him.
"Why aren't there any marks?" Riley asked. "I watched him take your blood, but I don't see any sign of a cut or even a scratch on your wrist."
"That's because a Carpathian's saliva has rapid healing agents in it that seem to work on just about anything organic. Wounds close almost instantly. It's really something. They have other gifts, too. Abilities that would seem to fall more in the realm of magic than science. But all those gifts come at a price."
"A pretty steep one. The way it was explained to me, each Carpathian male is born with a seed of darkness in him. At first it's nothing-less than nothing. Like a grain of sand in the ocean. But as the males age, the darkness in them grows."
"By 'darkness,' what do you mean, exactly?"
"I guess you'd call it evil-or, rather, the capacity for evil. Sort of like all the aggressive emotions-hate, violence, selfishness. Once a Carpathian male reaches adulthood, that darkness starts pushing, trying to dominate him. Like I said, Carpathians live a very long time. The longer the male lives, the stronger the darkness inside him becomes."
Gary paused to take a sip of his water, but whether he did so from thirst or nerves, Riley couldn't say. He looked a little uncomfortable.
"The Carpathian males lose the ability to see in color, then the ability to feel emotion. I don't have a clear understanding of how that works exactly. I think it's a little different from person to person. For some, I gather it's a clean cut, like the lights just went out and every emotion they ever had is simply taken away. Love, sadness, joy, regret, all of it's gone, and what is left is just emptiness. For others, it's apparently not such a drastic change, and their emotions just fade. There are some who use their memories to recall what emotion used to feel like, but I'm told it's like hearing under water. It's not the same, but they cling to it, because it's all they have. But even that doesn't last. The darkness eventually corrupts everything, and the Carpathians know it. That leaves them only two choices: either meet the sun and die-and yes, that part works just like it does in all vampires-or embrace the evil and become a vampire, as Mitro did."
Riley looked down at her hands, inexplicably sad. "How terrible for them. So they are vampires, after all."
"No, they aren't. But they can become vampires if they embrace the darkness inside them. That's what we tried to tell you before. The vampires aren't just evil; they've chosen to be evil. They choose to give up their souls because they feel a rush when they kill while feeding. They relish the hate, the destruction, the corruption. There's no worse monster on this earth than the vampire. And the Carpathians like Dax hunt them. And Riley, something you need to understand is that some of the vampires they hunt were once their friends. Maybe even family members. It takes a very strong person to bear a burden like that."
Riley struggled to wrap her head around the information Gary was sharing. Rationally, she had a hard time believing in vampires and shape-shifters, but she'd seen them herself. She couldn't deny they existed. But then, she knew magic existed-the sort of magic that defied rational thought. She possessed it herself, as had her mother before her. The hardest part to come to grips with was the idea that Dax wasn't yet a vampire but might become one. Seeing the image of Dax, standing before her as red and gold flecks fell down all around him, his eyes so focused and yet so lost.
Riley pushed her hand under the corner of her sleeping pad she was sitting on. Her fingertips touched the tent floor. The vinyl felt cool against her hand. Her fingertips began to tingle as her connection to the earth grew stronger. She pushed into the plastic, gaining comfort the closer she got to the packed dirt underneath the tent. To her surprise, the thin plastic material seemed to dissolve beneath her hand, giving her access to the earth, which parted easily, as if welcoming her exploration.
"So Dax hunts these vampires, the ones like this Mitro who escaped from the volcano," Riley summarized. "But Dax is Carpathian, which means he has this same evil growing inside of him as Mitro. And if he doesn't suicide in the sun, he'll eventually become a vampire as well."
The image of Dax's broken body, his wounds open to the night sky, flooded through her. But even though he'd surely been in agony, he'd regarded her with such warmth and such wonder, his eyes filled with emotion. Hadn't he? Her heart seemed to stutter at the idea of him turning vampire. He was noble. Filled with courage. He'd touched her with such gentleness. She couldn't believe that there was evil in him. He was capable of violence, but evil? The idea was so devastating she could barely breathe.
Seeking solace, she used her fingertips to move through the earth. It was odd they moved through the packed soil with almost no resistance, as if she were running her hand through still water. The earth seemed to be singing under her hands.
With her fingers in the soil, if she didn't think about the why, and the how, instead focused on the song that was all around her, she could sense all the others in the camp. She knew where they were, what they were doing. Then, abruptly, she froze, her body turning cold from fear at the thought that Dax was gone.
"Gary, where is Dax right now?"
"He's resting at the moment. Like I said, Carpathians and the sun don't get along too well, although it doesn't seem to affect Dax quite as strongly."
"Gary," she said very coolly. "Answer the question."
"Dax wanted to stay close just in case Mitro or some other threat came up and we needed him."
Riley's eyes widened and she jumped to her feet. Gary, taken by surprise, fell over backward in his attempt to get out of her way.
"He's right underneath us isn't he?" She looked down, scanning the tent floor. She felt him, and relief flooded every part of her. He was close. She would see him again.
Gary got to his feet and righted his stool. "I honestly don't know. The location of their resting place isn't something Carpathians share, for obvious reasons, but that would make the most sense. He wants to keep you safe."
Riley knew Dax was there. Maybe they weren't supposed to know his exact resting place, but the earth whispered to her. And she knew. There was a man, a Carpathian, buried underneath her. She looked down at her feet. She was standing on him. Well, not actually standing on him, she corrected herself silently. To be perfectly technical about it, the tent just happened to be pitched over ground that contained Dax's sleeping body.
"I hope he doesn't expect me to help dig him out," she said out loud, and Gary brought his fingers up in a shushing gesture.
Laughter rumbled through her, and she knew it was Dax. The man spoke right into her mind. I thank you for the invitation but I am sure I can find my own way out.
His voice was polite and smooth but each word carried a smile. She shivered. Okay, more than polite and smooth, his voice sounded like warm molasses pouring into her mind and filling every empty, lonely spot. Just the sound of his voice sent fingers of arousal dancing through her body and an electrical current snapping and crackling in her veins. Warmth spread through her as if that molasses found a way into her body.
He couldn't be in her mind. Not with the things about him she was thinking-like how very sexy everything about him was. Color swept up her neck into her face. "I'm not comfortable with you in my head."
She glared at Gary, as if he were to blame for Dax's behavior.
Unperturbed by her irritation, Dax continued speaking directly into her mind. I left you a gift, Riley, to thank you for your assistance. Do you like it?
Some external force directed her attention down to the sleeping bag. She flipped the edge over to reveal an intricately woven quilt that depicted a beautiful landscape of mountains and grasslands, all worked in reds and blacks with threads of shining silver and gold embroidered throughout. A silvery moon in the top corner of the quilt sent beams of silvery light shining down upon the landscape below. The detail was exquisite, full of depth and movement. She turned it over to see the back side, and the quilt moved like silk, soft and warm in her hand.
The backing showed a different scene filled with wildlife. Birds of prey flew alongside a giant red dragon. On the ground below, wolves, lions, tigers and snow leopards raced across the plains, some diving into rivers and streams. As with the front of the quilt, the detail work was so exquisite, the scene practically came to life. More than that, the quilt radiated warmth and comfort.
"You shouldn't have," Riley murmured.
The quilt is not to your liking? There wasn't any emotion in Dax's voice, but Riley somehow knew she had hurt him. She had never been good with social niceties.
Her heart thudded in her chest. She'd never seen anything more beautiful-except him. She moistened her lips and glanced at Gary. Color crept up her neck to stain her cheeks. She felt Dax in her mind, waiting for her answer. She reached back to him, wanting to share what she had to say with only him.
I like it very much. How could anyone not? Her fingers traced the lines of the red dragon. Simply touching the fabric, stroking the lines of the design, seemed to wash away her worries and fears. "Did you hear me?" Her heart thudded. She felt shy, when she'd never thought she had a shy bone in her body.
Yes. The word stroked over her skin like a caress.
This is truly a piece of art. But it's far too beautiful to use-especially in a tent. The idea was outrageous.
Ah. But it was made for your use. You healed me. I wanted to thank you, and as you were sleeping, it seemed like the appropriate gift. His tone seemed more at ease. Did you sleep well, Riley? He spoke her name slowly, as if with great care, his tongue savoring each syllable.
She gently folded the quilt and set it down on her bed, her fingers lingering on top of the red dragon, stroking. I did sleep well, and thank you for the quilt, Dax. She found herself trying to say his name with a similar inflection.
But I am not having a conversation with a man while he is buried in the ground beneath my feet. Not to be rude, but I find the whole thing more than a little creepy. Her hand went over her mouth. Did Carpathians know what teasing was?
She could have bitten her tongue. She had the worst sense of humor, and she really didn't want to hurt his feelings, but talking to a man lying in the earth beneath her feet was kind of ... humorous. She sank down and began sliding on her boots. As she was hunched down tightening the laces on her left boot, she felt just the brush of his lips against the back of her neck.
I see. Well, if that is the case, you could join me here if you like, it would not be too difficult. I am sure you would find it very interesting.
Riley froze for a moment, her hands stilling on the laces of her boot. The idea of joining him ...
Male laughter vibrated from the floor. Waves of warmth radiated upward, and she started laughing, too. Carpathians definitely knew all about teasing. That realization eased her fears that her Dax could possibly become vampire. Evil creatures taunted, but they didn't tease. Teasing was gentle, friendly. There was a difference. Somehow, she got the feeling that he wanted to touch her, even if he couldn't physically be there right then. And somehow he had. Tingles coiled inside her and her shoulders relaxed.
You called me your Dax.
She stiffened. She had called him her Dax. She thought of him that way and she had no idea why.
Yes, you know why.
That voice could melt a glacier. If she didn't quit she'd be tripping over her own tongue. "I am leaving. You"-she pointed to the ground-"stay there." See? She could be funny, too. Laughing at her own joke, she exited the tent.
Gary followed her out, and as they left the sound of Dax's laughter faded, leaving her with a small empty feeling that she quickly tried to push aside. Riley stopped Gary with a hand on his arm. "How do we keep him from becoming a vampire?"
Gary looked at her for a long time, obviously choosing his words carefully. "The Carpathians are born with a soul that must find its other half. The light to their darkness. Only that soul can restore colors and emotions and prevent a Carpathian male too long in the world without those things from turning. Without that one woman who is the other half of his soul, he will choose between giving up his soul and becoming the very thing he hunts, or he must seek the dawn and suicide. He must find his lifemate."
At the word her heart clenched. She pressed her hand over her heart, suddenly barely able to breathe, her mind racing. "Gary, what's the Carpathian word for lifemate?"
Gary looked her straight in the eye. "Palafertiilam."
Riley slowly nodded her head, trying hard not to notice that her blood surged hotly at the word, or that her mind continually reached for Dax. She pressed her lips together to keep from smiling. "I understand."
"Do you?" Gary asked.
She shrugged. "Not really, but I'm certain I'll figure it out."
Outside the tent, ash blanketed everything. It was still falling through the canopy of trees, turning everything a snowy gray. Riley looked around, easily spotting Jubal and Ben along with some natives gathered around a central fire pit. The camp was surprisingly large. As she walked toward Jubal and Ben, another group of men came in from a trail off to her right.
She spied Alejandro, one of their guides, along with Miguel, Hector, Don, and Mack Shelton. They were obviously one of the returning search parties, but since there was no sign of Marty or Pedro among their numbers, it seemed clear their search hadn't been successful.
Jubal approached. "Hey, Riley. Good to see you up and about. You feeling okay?"
"I'm good, thanks." She turned to watch the returning search party. "Gary told me Marty and Pedro went missing."
"Yeah. Looks like they still are. Can't say if that's good news or bad."
"Vampires like to play with their victims," Gary explained in a quiet voice. "Turning people into walking puppets isn't uncommon. If Mitro is the reason those two are missing, whoever finds them will probably get a very unpleasant surprise."
Riley spun around in shock. "Did you tell them that?" She nodded her head in the search party's direction, lowering her voice so they wouldn't hear.
Gary and Jubal's silence was all the answer she needed.
"Why wouldn't you tell them? If you're sending out a search party and putting them in harm's way, shouldn't they know what they're dealing with?" She scrubbed her hand over her face. "Gary, Jubal, how fair is that?"
For the second time since waking, she felt the sensation of a warm hand touching her back, calming her and drawing the focus of her anger away from Jubal and Gary. She turned to glance behind her, but no one was there.
"We considered it highly unlikely they'd find Marty or Pedro," Gary said. "Before Dax went to sleep, he ran a preliminary search in a five-mile radius around the camp, and found nothing."
"Riley, you have to understand," Jubal added when she continued to shake her head. "Gary and I swore an oath, to keep the Carpathians' secrets at all cost and by doing so keep their race safe. We didn't make that vow lightly, and we don't keep it lightly. There are men, women and children ..." He paused for a fraction. "And babies counting on us." He watched the returning members of the search party as they separated and sought out their own tents, and his expression turned resolute. "We will not fail them. We can't share even a hint of what we know with others. Too many lives depend on our silence-not to mention, do you really think the likes of Don Weston would believe us?"
"Gary, how long have you known about the Carpathians?" Riley asked.
"For some time now," he admitted. "Several years."
"And in that time you've never told anyone else about them? Ever?" Her question made the two men go still, as if she had touched something sacred.
After a long silence, Jubal finally said, "Riley, you're the first person either of us has ever told." The way he said it made her wonder how these two men lived with such a big secret. How the world looked to them, as they went into coffee shops and airports, listened to news reports about unexplained events, knowing what they knew.
The ground under her seemed to shift a little. Riley looked down and sent a thought spiraling into the ground. Go to sleep. I'm not dealing with you right now.
Riley tried to put herself in Gary's and Jubal's shoes, to imagine what she'd do in their place. If an entire race of beings depended on her for survival, would she betray their trust and reveal their secrets to others? Or would she keep their secrets even if that meant she might put other people in danger?
Truth be told, she'd already made that choice. She and her mother, both. They had come here to this mountain to work the ritual that had been passed down from generation to generation. Her mother had known about the evil imprisoned in the mountain, but she hadn't warned the others in their party. Neither had Riley, when the secret fell to her to keep. She'd done what needed to be done. Was she really any different than Gary and Jubal?
"Riley, I know it's hard for you to understand. It's hard for us to withhold information when we know it might cost lives. But have you ever been a part of something so important that your own needs become insignificant? That's what this is to us." Jubal paused to let his words sink in.
"Even though we can't talk about what we know, we still do what we can to protect the innocent," Gary added. "Like the way we accompanied you up the volcano. We suspected what was up there. We couldn't tell you our suspicions, but we came with you to protect you all the same."
Riley saw the same defenseless honesty in Gary's face that she had in Jubal's. That helped put her own feelings of guilt to rest.
She felt Dax before he spoke to her this time. They are both great men, sivamet, both have tremendous capacity for caring for others. It is a very rare trait. It is no wonder my people have chosen to bring them in.
Dax had a way of bringing a calming stability when he spoke to her. They helped as much as they could on the trip here, and on the mountain. I owe them a debt. It was odd speaking in her head to someone, but she had to admit she liked the intimacy of it. Strangely, when his voice filled her mind, she sometimes caught a hint of life, his memories, as if more than just his voice had entered her mind.
It seems we both do. Riley heard the conviction in his voice.
If you're going to keep talking to me, I don't see why you're pretending to sleep.
Riley could almost see him smiling I will rise soon. I find I can withstand the sun even longer now than I could before. However, since I doubt Mitro has gone far, I need to conserve my strength.
All the more reason you should stop talking. I'm sure it takes energy to speak to me like this. She wasn't at all sure she was right, but she remembered how completely drained she'd felt after she healed him.
Riley, I find that I only gain from speaking with you. As for strength, I find myself stronger than I have ever been before, but thank you for your concern.
Riley took a deep breath. You called me palafertiilam.
Yes. There was no hesitation. He exuded complete confidence.
She felt another surge of heat curling through her body like a wave. I asked Gary for the translation. He said it meant lifemate and that there is only one.
Gary is correct. You possess the other half of my soul. You are the keeper of my heart.
Again, she felt that wave of heat rush over her. How do you know?
I know. He spoke with that same confidence.
How will I know?
This time she felt his smile, his joy. I will share my mind with you. Court you. Persuade you. I can be quite charming when necessary.
Without warning, goose bumps prickled across Riley's arms. The smile faded from her face. She turned instinctively toward the trail the search party had returned from. The smell of rotting vegetation, one of the jungle's inescapable aromas, seemed stronger than usual. She realized the song from the plants and earth she had heard since waking had changed, becoming discordant.
Mitro is attacking, Dax told her. Do not fear. You are safe. He sounded certain, but she wasn't feeling it.
"Safe? I've seen what he can do. I've felt it. And what do you mean he's attacking? From where? How?" She gestured to Jubal and Gary, mouthing "Mitro is attacking."
It's nothing I cannot stop. He is simply trying to weaken me by forcing me to protect this village while the sun is still up. A group of men and women he has corrupted are moving toward us. You have the ability to track them through the earth if you so choose.
"They're coming," she told Gary and Jubal. "Men and women under Mitro's power."
Gary ran toward the big tent without a word. Jubal gave her a pat on the shoulder and turned to shout commands in the local dialect. The entire camp erupted with activity, men gathering weapons and preparing for a fight, women hustling children to safety.
"What should I do?" She felt the rush in her body, but was at a loss at what to do about it.
Stay close to the center of camp. And breathe, sivamet.
She felt like an idiot, but she took a moment and tried to calm down.
Good, remember, I will always be with you. I won't let any harm come to you. She felt invisible arms wrap around her, and the taint of evil washed away, replaced with warm strength. I can sense Mitro's puppets coming from the neighboring village, but I want you to try and "feel" them. Then we will set a defensive perimeter. Dax showed an image of her sliding her hands in the ground.
Riley knelt down. When she put her hands in the earth before, she'd felt compelled, like the earth itself was asking her to communicate. This time, she was the one doing the asking. She wasn't sure she really knew what to do-or that she could even do it. Taking a breath, she put her hands together as if she was going to dive into a pool and slowly pushed her fingers down into the earth.
The packed soil shifted, loosening so that her hands plunged in with ease. Surprise gave way to exhilaration as her world changed again. The song of the earth was strong and rich. It hummed up her arms, through her veins and along her nerve endings, a harmonious vibration that filled her with a sense of vast, ancient power and limitless strength. She closed her eyes, sitting back on her heels and savoring the sensation.
Use what the earth offers, Dax advised. Stretch out your senses.
There was nothing on earth not connected to it. She had the wild idea that she could even sense what was happening on the other side of the world, if she tried hard enough. As it was, however, she confined herself to a slightly less grandiose effort. Instead of the world, she reached out to the earth nearby. Her awareness radiated out to all corners of the camp and then beyond, moving through the sandy soil of the rain forest until she located the group moving with deadly purpose toward the camp.
"Dear God." She could feel the misery, the rage, the evil taint that clung to them like a foul muck.
Riley, remember you're in control. Your job is to gather information. We need to see how many people are coming, and what sort of surprises Mitro has in store for us. You're doing great.
Riley steeled herself and tried to look at the mob. In her mind's eye, she saw the top of a recently shaved head bobbing in front of her. Then another head, this one covered in bloody scratch marks that were already bubbling with infection. She was looking through the eyes of a tree frog, watching as the mob passed by below his perch in the branches.
Frustrated that she couldn't make out more, she pushed out with her power. Her hands sank deeper into the earth. The tips of her boots sank, too. A second view of the mob appeared, and it was like she had two sets of eyes, watching from two separate angles. Then a third pair of eyes expanded her vision, and a fourth. It was difficult to adjust to the multiple visual inputs.
Breathe, Riley, you are doing great. Let the fear go. You can do this. I'm right beside you. And he was. She could feel him under her, around her, inside her, sharing her mind. At the moment, it didn't feel creepy or disturbing. She wanted him there, wanted him with her. Good, now focus on what you want. Trust your gifts to do the rest.
There are so many eyes. Where do I focus? Her head hurt. Images were pouring in now, dozens of different wildlife feeding their vision into her mind, each with a different perspective of the advancing threat.
His voice was steady, reassuring, as if they had all the time in the world and this was simply an exercise, not a matter of life and death. Pick a single image and then focus on one small detail.
"Okay, I'll try." She chose the first "screen," the one that came in from the tree frog.
She was once more looking down on the tops of the people as they moved past. One head caught her attention. A woman. Her straight, thick black hair was covered with leaves and ash, like most of the others, but she had something stuck in her hair. An ornament made of bone, carved and painted. Riley could make out the swirls of red and white paint beneath the streaks of ash. She locked her focus on that hair ornament, and as the woman continued on the frog tracked her with its eyes until the hair ornament disappeared from its view.
The image of the woman immediately changed to a different perspective. Now she was watching the woman from a spot ahead of her, but she still had a clear view of the ornament in her hair. Riley could see part of the woman's face but she didn't want to get lost, so she stayed focused on that single detail. As the woman walked, Riley's vision began switching from view to view. The viewpoint switches started coming faster and faster, until Riley thought she was going to lose herself.
Dax poured waves of reassurance into her, and as if blinds had opened to let sunlight stream in, her mind expanded, using the eyes of every insect, bird and beast nearby to form clear, three-dimensional images of the party.
The entire party of the hundred or so villagers advancing on Riley's encampment were bent on killing her and everyone with her.