Riley was shocked at the clarity of her new, stereoscopic vision, which was so far superior to her own, unenhanced eyesight. All of the details and color, the ability to magnify images and see multiple locations at the same time was incredible. It should have been overwhelming, but miraculously, she was fine. She could do this.
Mitro's minions were making a straight line for the encampment, destroying everything that attempted to slow them down. It was clear they had come from a local village. And even though everything about them felt evil and wrong, she found it hard to believe all of them had willingly succumbed to Mitro's foul control. Some of the women had baby cradles strapped to their backs!
Dax, wait. What are we going to do to these people? Kill them? There are mothers in that group!
They were mothers, Riley. Were. The men and women coming toward us are already gone from this world. Only their physical husks remain. Vampires take pleasure in digging out the insides of what they despise and can no longer be, replacing it with the foul evil they have become.
Can't you save any of them?
I wish I could, sivamet, but it is not possible. Those people are truly gone. The only humane thing to do is put their bodies to rest. I am sorry. Empathy radiated through their connection.
There were no children in the mob, and Riley's heart broke at the thought of what might already have happened to them. Their parents clearly had not given up without a fight. Almost all of the oncoming villagers bore signs of brutal struggle, including deep furrows scratched into their bodies and faces.
Riley could feel the plant life trying to bend away from the taint of evil the group carried with them. Suddenly her vision went blurry, as if the eyes through which she was watching had lost their focus. She pulled back, closing off all but a few of the viewpoints until she was staring at the approaching group from above. That was when she realized there were several people wearing similar hair ornaments in the row. She counted eight different people, each wearing the same small bone adornment. There was something about them that made her skin prickle. She stretched out her senses and nearly gagged at the overwhelming stench of evil that radiated from them. The earth cringed beneath their feet, insects scurrying away, plant roots withering beneath each step.
For whatever reason, these eight carried the most concentrated levels of corruption in the entire group. As she focused on them, using the reluctant eyes of creatures that would rather run than look at them, she made a disturbing discovery. The long, matted hair spilling down their backs was not their own, but rather multiple bleeding scalps grotesquely sewn together. Riley gagged again as the bowls of soup she'd eaten earlier threatened to come back up.
Those eight are the greatest threat, Dax said. Riley, you don't need to see more. We have all the information we need.
She held on a moment longer. Are you sure? Maybe I can see something else to help us. More details flooded into her brain. The flesh of the eight seemed to ripple and palpate, as if bugs were crawling in every direction under the surface of their skin. Their fingertips were devoid of flesh, the bones filed down to points.
Not out there. Come back to the camp. Come back now. Dax's tone changed. He wasn't making a suggestion.
Riley moved away from the group, releasing the eyes of the forest, but not her connection to the earth. Slowly, she pulled her awareness back to their own encampment, and found herself searching for Dax among the people preparing for battle, needing his calm, reassuring strength. Her awareness shifted downward, and she found him, wrapped in earth, solid and calm in contrast to all the chaos above. Strength radiated from him even while he rested. She could feel his hands running over her arms.
Are you up for a little more?
With the power of the earth running through her veins and his mind connected to hers, she'd never felt so strong before. What did you have in mind?
I was thinking about defense.
Defense? Were you thinking a moat or something?
This is what I was thinking. Her mind filled with an image of the trees behind the camp interlocking to form a dense wall. Two of the trees in the wall remained upright, growing taller than normal. Riley frowned. Weaving the trees into a fence to stop the oncoming attack made sense, but the picture Dax had formed showed the wall being erected at the back of the camp, not the front.
I don't understand. You want to trap us in? Why wouldn't you put the fence between Mitro's puppets and our camp?
I won't let any harm come to the people in this camp, if it can be avoided. Have faith.
Even as Dax spoke the group of thirty or so in the camp, some only armed with spears, began running toward the tree line he'd shown her. Four of the men broke off from the group and ducked into the big tent. Moments later, they came back out, carrying the professor on a makeshift gurney. His remaining student followed close behind, the professor's pack clutched in his hands. Together, the small group moved back into the tree line.
Riley reached for the trees and the plant life with a mental sweep of her hand. The foliage vibrated at her touch, then leaves unfurled and roots extended as she encouraged the plants to grow. Soil was rich with nutrition and water. Bushes thickened. Trees grew taller, branches reaching out. Limbs and vines entangled, weaving together rapidly, and a wall began to take shape.
Excellent, Riley. Leave an opening here. He showed her a small opening in the middle of the wall, just large enough for a single person to fit through. When she formed the opening and grew the two trees on either side to his specifications, he said, I have lived a very long life, even by the standards of my own people, but I must say I've never been as impressed with anyone as I am with you. You are amazing.
Riley didn't respond, but warmth unfurled in her belly. It was nice to feel helpful. She still couldn't believe she was doing most of the things he'd shown her. Seeing through the eyes of forest creatures. Making plants grow with just her will alone. Even her mother hadn't accomplished such feats, and yet, with Dax's help, the abilities seemed to come almost instinctively.
She continued to grow the wall of vegetation, spreading it out in a semicircle around the back half of the village to form a natural funnel, with that opening in its center. The rest of the camp filed through the opening in short order.
All right, Riley. That's enough. It is time for you to leave.
Are you sure the wall will hold? She could feel the attackers drawing nearer. There were so many.
I am sure. Let go of the earth and come back into yourself.
Her hands still in the soil, Riley pulled her consciousness back into herself. It was just as disorienting leaving so many minds as it had been extending out into them. When she was fully back in her own body, she slipped her hands free and staggered to her feet. Her arms and legs felt like she had just run up a mountain, and her head was pounding.
She stood for a moment to catch her balance and stretch her back. The camp was deserted. Only her tent and the big tent at the center were still standing. Everything else had been packed up and carried away.
She turned to face the living wall behind her. It was a sight to behold, dense and impenetrable, already covered in moss, leaves, and little flowers of every color. The wall had grown so quickly, the ash hadn't had time to cover it yet. Gary and Jubal had climbed the two large trees on either side of the center opening, and they had each taken a perch high up in the branches.
Ben emerged from her tent, carrying her backpack. He moved with calm efficiency.
"Time to go, Riley." He gestured for her to precede him toward the opening in the wall. Evil was on the wind and getting closer, and they were the last ones left in the camp.
As they approached the opening, Riley could see the tips of rifles and blowguns poking through the wall of foliage. Everyone who had preceded her through the wall had taken up defensive positions on the other side. Now, she understood the plan. This evacuated camp ground was to be a killing ground, plain and simple. She turned sideways to get through the small opening. Ben followed close enough behind that he bumped against her with every step.
Slipping one shoulder down she ducked through the last few inches of the tunnel and emerged on the other side of the wall. She stepped clear of the opening to let Ben pass, then laid her hand on the wall and willed the branches to grow and intertwine to close the opening. Through the barrier, she could hear the sound of marching feet, growing louder as their attackers neared the encampment's perimeter, and it gave her pause. Dax clearly wanted her on this side of the wall, safe and tucked away. Lord knows, she didn't belong out there in the fight. But she had skills that could help. She wasn't sure where she belonged.
"You belong exactly where you are."
His voice sounded in her ears this time, rather than her mind. She spun around and found him standing less than ten feet away. The sun hadn't yet set, and he stood there in the muted light of the ash-filled sky. Tall, strong, otherworldly. Sparkles of red-gold light flashed around him like fireflies as the dust from his scales rained down from his rising. Riley couldn't take her eyes from him.
With a few long strides, he closed the distance between them. "Right now you are here with me. I wouldn't want you anywhere else." The man's presence was enough to make her forget where she was. He bent his head toward hers, his lips hovering close. Energy crawled from the tips of her toes and traveled up her body, warming and swirling. For a moment, she thought he was going to kiss her right there, and she couldn't think, couldn't move. She could only stand there, staring at him in anticipation.
His head tilted to one side, and he pressed his lips to her cheek. The contact was intimate, soft. With him standing so close it was impossible not to feel the strength of his big frame. The combination of strength and tenderness shifted something down deep, and Riley almost wrapped her arms around his neck.
She needed him. Her heart was thudding like a drum. She wanted to cry for the villagers who had lost everything because she hadn't been strong enough or fast enough to keep Mitro imprisoned.
"Had you kept the volcano sealed, we would never have met," he reminded gently, his thumb tipping her chin up while his other hand cupped the side of her face. "I believe in fate, palafertiilam. Mitro was meant to escape. I have no idea why. Maybe the Universe decided I deserved one such as you. If so, I am forever grateful to it. I am deeply sorry that you have to see the ugliness a vampire leaves in his wake."
Riley nodded her head, half mesmerized by him. One would think that with a war party headed their way, led by zombies ...
"Ghouls," he corrected, in that same, soft, hypnotizing voice.
They were talking war, and her mind was hearing something else. That slow drawl, like molasses, warm and comforting. He exuded such confidence that she couldn't help but feel safe even when she was scared to death. He looked at her and touched her as if she was the most precious, beautiful woman in the world.
Dax had only known violence for most of his existence. He'd seen things most people couldn't comprehend and yet, with her, he was unfailingly gentle, tender even.
She nodded her head. "I can do this."
"I know you can," he agreed.
The cry of a bird and a shout from one of the villagers snapped them both back to attention. They turned to peer through the leafy wall and found that the first of the oncoming attackers had spilled like insects into the encampment clearing. Some of the attackers carried bloody spears and machetes; others held nothing but branches and rocks. Quickly they broke into two groups, each heading for one of the tents.
Riley watched as they tore the first tent to pieces. One of the eight, who had accompanied the first group, became enraged upon finding the tent empty. In a fit of fury, he shoved his spear through the closest person. Pools of black blood spilled out upon the ground as the wounded man screamed and fell to his knees.
Dax pulled her close. "Riley, go. You don't have to see this. I asked you to build the wall because most of the villagers from our camp came from the village Mitro destroyed. They don't need to see what I'm going to do, and you don't, either."
Her heart felt heavy, almost too heavy for her to bear what was going to happen. She studied his face. No expression. His eyes looking into hers, going almost blank. It was his heart she felt when he refused to feel it. Riley raised a hand to his face, cupping his jaw. "Do what you have to. I'm not going anywhere."
Dax's hand lingered for a moment, and then a chorus of bone-grinding noises rose from the gathered attackers. Dax pressed a quick, hard kiss on her lips, then turned and disappeared into a cloud of mist that blew through the foliage. Riley stepped close to the wall, and with a touch of her hand, the entangled branches parted so she could see through the wall to the encampment beyond. Her heart dropped as she realized every enraged face was turned her way, looking straight at her as if the dense thicket of leaves and branches was invisible. The group charged.
Riley stumbled back in fear, but then the men leading the charge tripped over something and went down hard. The ones who followed either were stumbled over or tried to jump their downed companions. Shocked, Riley moved back to the small hole she'd made in the wall. As she watched, a man jumped over one of the fallen, and was caught midleap by Dax, who was moving so fast, he was little more than a blur. His foot landed on the fallen man's neck, breaking it with a crack at the same time he snatched the other man out of the air. Bones crunched again as the leaping man's head twisted nearly 180 degrees. The limp body dropped to the ground; all she could see was a blur darting from one end of the encampment to another. And everywhere the blur went, bones cracked and bodies dropped like heavy sacks and did not move again. The trail of corpses made it easier to see where Dax had been rather than what he was doing.
He moved faster and faster, dispatching one possessed villager after another until there was no one left but the eight, scalp-bedecked leaders she had identified earlier. The killing field fell silent. Tears spilled from her eyes. The once-peaceful camp was now littered with bodies, men and women who would never return to the ones who loved them. Horror and sorrow at the loss of life welled up inside her. Then Dax returned to the center of the camp, and waited, alone and unafraid, as the eight leaders of the mob circled him.
Seeing them now with her own eyes, they appeared even more horrific than they had when she'd watched them through the forest's eyes. The bloody scalps of their previous victims bumped against their backs. Their faces had been painted in blood, their teeth filed to sharp points to match the skinless, sharpened bones of their fingertips.
Riley's fear overrode sorrow as Dax stood there, unmoving, calm and ready. Darkening clouds blocked the fading light of the sun, turning the sky a deep, awful red. The scene took on an even more nightmarish quality, with evil and death permeating the air beneath that blood-drenched sky. Wave after wave of foul corruption sped across the ground. She found herself rocking back and forth as each wave washed over her. Her swaying motion began to match the movement of the eight leaders.
One of the eight stepped closer to Dax. A trail of insects and black ichor spread out in his wake, shining darkly in the fading light. Even behind the relative safety of the tree wall, Riley's whole body shook with tremors. She wasn't afraid of insects, but she was terrified of those dropping from the ghouls. Her blood curdled at the thought of them crawling over her skin.
Riley wasn't sure what Dax was waiting for. The rate and magnitude of the spreading evil increased with each passing moment. Already, the flowers blossoming all over her plant wall had wilted and died. The eight were closing in, and Dax, with his back to her, seemed to be just standing there. Had his attack on all the others exhausted him? The sun was still up, even if it was hidden by the clouds. Surely, that drained him, too.
Suddenly, the eight leapt forward in unison, moving with speed she had not thought them capable of. Two leapt through the air above Dax. The others attacked from different angles.
A voiceless scream ripped through Riley. There was no way the creatures could miss. All eight were moving as fast as Dax had, bloody claws extended in preparation for their strike. Still, Dax continued to simply stand there. One of the creatures ran between Riley and Dax, obscuring her view. Her heart rose up in her throat.
"Dax!" Blinding light streaked down from the sky, slamming into the ground where Dax was standing. "No! Dax!" Dax! Blinded by the lightning, she gripped the intertwined branches and screamed his name.
She blinked furiously, trying to clear her vision, then stabbed her hands into the ground and took control of every creature she could find and used their eyes to replace her own. A broken sob escaped her lips when she realized he was still there, safe, standing near a pile of charred bodies and holding a ball of blue and white fire. Quickly he lifted the ball into the air and released it. The shining orb drifted upward like a balloon and moved toward the center of the clearing. The insects that had followed in the wake of the eight were moving rapidly forward, blanketing the ground with their scuttling forms.
A movement from above drew her attention. Still perched high in the branches overhead, Jubal was tying himself to the trunk of his tree. In the other large tree flanking what had been the tunnel through the living wall, Gary was doing the same. She looked back to the clearing. The pile of bodies near Dax began pulsating. A horde of insects erupted from the center of the pile, spilling down in every direction. One of the eight half shoved, half crawled his way out of the pile as well.
Dax raised a hand toward the ball in the sky and called, "Gary, whenever you're ready."
Riley had just enough time to look up and see Gary squeeze a detonator trigger before the encampment exploded. Dirt, rocks and bodies slammed into the tree wall as an enormous ball of flame roared out from the center of the camp. Riley screamed and ducked, instinctively covering her head with her arms. Then Dax was there beside her, shielding her body with his own, both of them facing away from the blast. For a moment, all she could do was cling to him and catch her breath.
The intense heat was still radiating from the blast point, but as the worst of the noise and debris died down, his tight hold on her loosened. Together, they turned to look back. To Riley's amazement, a wall of red and blue fire was raging in the center of the camp, but contained, as if trapped behind a wall of glass just at the edge of the tree line. She could see little blue-white streaks running up and down the outside of the invisible wall.
Dax pointed his right hand toward the firestorm and the wall pushed in on itself. Quickly, it retreated back, shrinking from the blaze and funneling the heat skyward. The fire shrank tighter and tighter until it closed in upon itself and disappeared altogether, leaving behind a barren stretch of charred ground devoid of all signs of battle. Riley stood up, staring at the blackened ground in surprise, realizing that the area had been completely cleansed. Every last hint of the evil that had permeated the ground was gone. Dax had destroyed it utterly.
Dax's arms tightened around her, pulling her closer as they watched the remaining ash rain softly down on the scorched clearing. She leaned her head back against his chest and breathed in his clean, masculine scent. His arms were warm, so hard and solid. He made her feel safe and protected. She turned in his arms to look up at him in wonder. He also made her feel tiny, even delicate, which considering her height was no easy task.
Her eyes searched his face. The burnished skin, his strange multifaceted, burning eyes. The strong, masculine beauty that made her heart flutter every time she saw him. She laid a hand along the side of his face, brushing one thumb across his high cheekbone, marveling at how his skin felt. And how clean. There wasn't a smudge of dirt on him, while she could see just from her hands that she was a sooty, soil-covered mess.
"You're clean. You just took out an entire army, stood in the center of a blazing inferno, and there's not a speck of dirt on you. How is that possible? I can't walk two steps without getting filthy." Riley raised her hands, which were streaked with dirt and soot.
He smiled. Really, he had the most gorgeous smile. "There are certain gifts Carpathians have that can be quite handy." Without warning, the dirt, sweat and salty tracks of her dried tears evaporated from her skin. One second, she was a hot mess. The next, she looked like she'd stepped off the cover of a magazine, every hair in place, her skin smooth and fragrant, her clothes crisply pressed and sweet-smelling.
"Where have you been all my life?" she quipped with a grin. "And do you do windows?" She knew she was relying on humor to slow the adrenaline. The sheer terror of seeing him surrounded by the insanity of Mitro's macabre human robots was almost more than she could bear. He must have known it, too, by the tenderness in the way his thumb traced her cheekbone and moved down to her lips.
He laughed, and the rich, deep sound rolled over her senses like dark chocolate melting in her mouth. Pleasure rippled up and down her spine, and all she could think about was dragging his perfect mouth down to hers and kissing him like there was no tomorrow.
Only the sound of a twig snapping in the vicinity of the wall brought her back to her senses. She pulled away, coughing nervously, looking anywhere but at him.
"So ... uh ... what just happened out there? You rigged some sort of bomb?" She looked up at him under the sweep of her heavy lashes.
"We used something called 'explosives' that Gary and Jubal brought with them. I didn't know what Mitro might send against us, and I wanted to be ready for anything." Dax indicated the two men. "They are good fighters, very prepared."
"And the wall of fire, with the blue and white lightning running through it?"
"The four of us were too close to the explosives, so I used a ward to hold in the majority of the blast. That also let me concentrate the heat of the explosion on Mitro's ghouls, to cleanse their taint and remove the possibility of any future threat from them."
Riley shook her head. "Why is it I have a feeling that the more time I spend around you, the more questions I'm going to have?" The sorrow of the fleeing villagers who had set up a temporary camp and taken them in beat at her. The earth cried out at the abomination of evil and the destruction of plant life. She needed him to mute the sounds and sensations for just a few moments to give her time to recover.
His answering smile was warm and inviting with just enough sexy to make her hungry for more. She wanted to kiss him again. She wanted to wrap her body around his and lose herself in his strength.
Dax's fingers curled around the nape of her neck. "You can, you know. You can take from me whatever you want, sivamet. I give myself to you willingly." His eyes drank her in, and his hot gaze dropped to her lips.
On some level, Riley knew the fear drove her more than passion. She needed comfort. She needed to feel him alive, hear his heart beat strong and steady after watching him so calmly facing the enemy. The thought of him dying had all but shattered her. She told herself it was because she'd just lost her mother, but ... it would be a lie. It was him. Dax. She stepped closer to him, captured by the small flames burning in his eyes.
"I thought you were dead. For just one terrible, unimaginable moment, I thought you were dead," she murmured, sliding her hands up his chest, over his heart.
Dax seemed to know exactly what she needed. His arms moved around her body. Hard. Strong. Comforting. He pulled her tight against his chest. She rested her head there, just for a moment, just to listen to his rock-steady heartbeat. His hand beneath her chin urged her head up. His eyes met hers. The small red-gold flame leapt and burned, robbing her of breath. She watched his mouth move toward hers, inch by slow inch.
Everything feminine in her reached for him, her stomach doing a slow somersault. A thousand butterflies took wing. His lips were warm and firm, but soft. She felt as if she just melted into him. His tongue teased the seam of her mouth, demanding she open to him. She did so, and he swept inside. There was no breathing-he did it for her. There was refuge, sanctuary, a world of sensation with the ground moving beneath her feet, sweeping her away from death and madness. She all but crawled up his body and wrapped her legs around his waist.
The sound of Gary and Jubal climbing down from the nearby trees was barely enough to break the moment.
"What now, Dax?" Gary asked when he reached the ground. "Is there anything here still left to be done?"
Dax shook his head, sweeping her behind him with one arm protectively, giving her time to collect herself. "I believe Mitro has already left this area, or he wouldn't have sent his ghouls out on such a useless attack. He is far too cunning to have sent them alone if he were still here. This was nothing more than a delaying tactic, something to hold my attention while he escaped to somewhere else."
Without thinking, Riley laid a hand on his arm, still needing their bond. He gave her a warm glance and covered her hand with his own. She could feel a portion of her own, earth-born strength pouring into his body, renewing his depleted energies.
Through that connection, Riley realized that even as Dax was standing here, talking to them, his mind was scouring the surrounding countryside for some sign of his ancient foe. She could almost feel the death and destruction that Dax had to search in order to find Mitro. It pained him to witness Mitro's evil, she realized. He might have lost his emotions centuries ago, if what Gary told her about Carpathians was true, but that didn't stop him from feeling responsible for the lost lives and the destruction Mitro had wreaked. He considered Mitro's escape his failure, not hers.
"So what's the plan?" she asked, trying to bring his attention back to her, away from Mitro's trail of carnage. The attempt to distract him worked. "You think I have a plan?" Male amusement lightened his eyes.
"Men like you always think you have a plan." She laid a hand on the tree wall. The branches and vines parted, re-creating a wider tunnel that led back to the clearing. She ducked through, Dax close on her heels. Jubal and Gary brought up the rear.
"Men like me?" Dax murmured as they exited the tunnel. "Just how many men like me have you met?" He was showing off his teeth in a way that made her want to cover her neck.
"Not the point. So, what's the plan?" She looked back toward Jubal and Gary to include them in their conversation.
"We should find out what happened to Marty and Pedro first," Jubal said. "Unless they were in the group ..." His words died off, and everyone looked to Dax.
"They were not. Though I doubt you will find them alive. Mitro's stench is very thick in this part of the jungle."
"So how do we go about finding them?" Riley asked. "Even if you think they're dead, we can't be sure. And we can't just leave them out here alone. Who knows what sort of traps Mitro has set."
"I have to go to the village where these people came from." He indicated the blackened battleground.
"The remaining villagers have fled," Jubal said. "They melted into the rain forest, and Miguel said they wouldn't go back to their village."
Gary nodded. "We told him to take the others away from here, deeper into the forest as well, and to wait for us there. They think another more aggressive tribe attacked us."
Riley tightened her fingers around Dax's. "Why go there? Haven't you sacrificed enough? You don't have to see what else he's done."
Dax brought her hand to the warmth of his mouth. "Mitro had to have spent at least one night in that village to have corrupted so many. He would have left dangers behind, as well as his personal signature of evil. I have to clean that up. From there, I should be able to find in which directions he traveled. It's possible you might be able to help me in that regard, Riley, although I'm not certain I want you to see any more death, but with Arabejila's connection to him and your gifts, you might be able to pick up his trail. In that lies our best chance of discovering what happened to the two missing men. And finding them might help me anticipate Mitro's next move."
The thought of seeing more innocent dead people twisted her insides, but Riley took a breath and agreed. If he had to endure the aftermath of the vampire's destructive path, she wanted to share it with him. She was just as responsible. "I'll do whatever I can to help. But how can finding Marty and Pedro help lead you to Mitro?"
"It's just a guess. The only thing that ever changed his course besides a hunter getting too close was information he could turn to his advantage. If he took your friends and didn't kill them immediately, then he was likely using them for information."
"What information could he possibly get from an archaeology student and a local guide?" Riley answered her own question. "The local area. Pedro would know all the roads, all the villages and cities. He'd be like a walking map of this part of Peru."
Jubal continued the line of thought. "The kid would have buckets of information the vampire could use. Internet, English, how electricity works, biology, explosives. Hell, cameras, police, world trade. Marty's college education would definitely be of interest."
"We should get moving. The more time that goes by the fainter Mitro's trail will be, and it is a very big world out there for him to hide in," Dax said.
"Let me take a minute and see if I can ..." Riley trailed off looking toward the blackened ruins of the battleground. "It will only take a moment." She felt guilty for holding everyone up, especially since she knew they were on a limited time schedule, but the compulsion was growing strong in her. She couldn't bear to leave that scarred piece of ground when she knew she could aid the healing process.
She didn't wait for permission, her feet already taking her toward the blackened soil. She was vaguely aware of Dax pacing protectively alongside of her, but her mind was already tuning itself to the earth. Everything else faded into insignificance. She knelt beside the terrible blackened soil and sank her hands deep. Closing her eyes she sent out energy, the seeds of plants, trees and flowers moving through her mind. She could see them sprout, wind their way up through the dirt to burst toward the sky. The soil was rich with minerals, fuel for the plants to aid them in recovery.
She had no real idea of time passing until she found herself swaying a little and blinking at the sight of the circle of dense foliage growing in front of her. Dax put a hand on her shoulder to steady her. Behind him, Gary and Jubal were looking at the amazing growth of plants. There was no feeling of evil thanks to Dax, and the ground was more fertile and thick with an abundance of young trees, ferns and plants.
"I should probably get my pack-we will need supplies," she said, with a small, shaky smile. She felt as if she was coming back from a long distance. She allowed Dax to help her to her feet. "What about them?" She pointed back toward the wall. "Are we leaving any weapons with them or anything? The professor didn't look like he should be moved much."
"I was thinking just the two of us. Gary and Jubal can stay and protect the others and your things. We won't leave them for long." He gestured toward the wide circle of plants. "That's amazing. You're amazing." And mine.
Her gaze jumped to his. She heard him so clearly, that firm, soft and warm and so sexy voice pouring into her mind so intimately. Her hand fluttered to her throat. "You're not going to turn into a giant red dragon right now are you?"
"Do you want me to shift into a dragon?" His voice sounded different, causing her to think more closely on the conversation: something in what they were saying mattered to Dax but Riley wasn't sure what.
"I was thinking we could hike if it's not too far."
"I was thinking something a little different." Dax sent a picture of him lifting her off the ground and taking to the sky with her in his arms.
"No. No way. Don't even think about-" She squealed as the man swept her off her feet and began to run.
"I can't believe you're carrying me again."
He glanced down at her in genuine surprise. "I can turn into a dragon, stop an explosion with 'magic,' and do all manner of incredible feats, but you can't believe I'm carrying you?"
"That was a figure of speech. Now put me down. I will not be carried through the jungle by Tarzan."
"I do not know this Tarzan, but if he makes a habit of carrying off his woman, I think I would like him." His laughter rumbled through her. "Wrap your arms around my neck and hold on tight."
He launched into the sky, spearing up through a hole in the canopy. The moment they broke through the canopy, Dax caught her around the waist and turned her so she could see the ground below them and the direction they were flying. "Oh my ..." From this height she could see the volcano clearly as it was billowing ash from one side. The rivers of magma spilling down its sides looked like ribbons of orange light in the dusk sky. The sight was humbling and beautiful on such an elemental level Riley found all she could do was watch in awed silence.
"I had hoped you would like this."
"Dax, I don't know how anyone could not like this. It's beyond words."
"The height doesn't bother you?" There was a teasing note in his voice.
"If you let go, the height will bother me very much." She realized her nails were digging into his arms wrapped around her waist. Slowly she loosened her muscles, trusting he wouldn't let her go.
"I won't let go." Warmth spread down her spine and nestled deep inside.
The sky turned red and gold all around them, and little red and gold flakes swarmed about them. At first, she thought the glittering flakes were embers from the volcano, but they remained close despite the fact that Dax and Riley were racing across the sky.
"What are these red and gold sparks in the air around us?"
"The side effects of a choice I made. Mitro was getting out, and I wasn't strong enough to stop him. I needed something more than I had to give ..."
"You locked yourself in a mountain for untold years, but you blame yourself for his escape? Dax, it's my fault he's free. My mother and I didn't get there in time. I wasn't strong enough to keep him caged."
"No, Riley. Stopping Mitro is my responsibility. It always has been."
Silence speared between them. Riley wasn't sure what to do. She wanted to comfort him but wasn't sure how.
"What was the choice you made?" she asked instead. "When you were trapped in the volcano with Mitro, you said you made a choice ... one that caused these red sparks that flicker around you at times, especially when you're moving fast. What was it?"
"Mitro and I weren't the only ones trapped in the mountain. A fire dragon had chosen that volcano as his final resting place long before we arrived. When Mitro was trying to escape, the dragon offered to merge his soul with mine in order to give me his strength and abilities."
"You mean dragons are real?"
He laughed. "I tell you I chose to merge my soul with a dragon's and you're more interested in the fact that dragons are real?"
"No ... well, yes. Really? They're really real?"
"They were. I don't know if any still live. The one I found had been there for millennia. His body had crystallized, becoming part of the mountain."
"So you're telling me that right now your soul is mixed with a dragon's, and as a side effect from time to time these sparkling red and gold flecks appear." She shook her head and laughed in disbelief. She couldn't help it. What else did he have in his life? "So if I ask why you're so sexy, are you going to tell me your mother was a goddess from Mount Olympus? That she ensnared your father, after a shooting star fell to the ground on a starless night?"
Dax laughed again. "My mother was a sweet woman whom my father loved very much. Although, it's true my mother did claim to ensnare my father, and he did claim he saw stars the first time he set eyes on her." Then his tone changed, losing its flirtatious note. "We're here."
They glided back to earth and landed softly in a small clearing about a half mile from the smoking remains of a village. Dax set her down on her feet, but kept her hand in his.
"Riley before we continue, there is something I'd like to give you." Reaching into his pocket Dax brought out a folded black and red silk cloth in the shape of a dragon. "You open it by pulling the wings out to the sides."
"I don't want to ruin it."
"I can make another one."
Carefully, Riley pulled the wings back, and the cloth dragon unraveled in a way only Dax's magic could make it do. In the center of the cloth lay a gold and silver bracelet.
"This is for me, but why?"
"Let's just say for now it's tradition. I wanted to say I am very sorry for the loss of your mother, and again I hoped you might honor me by finding a home for her last gift in here." He gestured to the empty setting in the intricate design and then slipped the bracelet on to her wrist.
Riley wasn't shocked when it fit perfectly. It was a work of art, and she tracked the different trails of silver, each holding several smaller diamonds meeting at the central space.
Reverently, Riley pulled out the silver dragon with agate eyes holding an obsidian stone. Her mother's death was an enigma. The magic and power she now had wrapped through all her memories and experiences. Something had touched her when she was there, something that had soothed the grief and allowed her to move forward. But holding the piece of jewelry handed down in her family from mother to daughter was a reminder of her mother, and no matter what that something was it couldn't fill the gap that was left behind.
She thought about everything her mother had stood for, the way she was raised, her sense of humor, how she always was there to pick her up when she had fallen down. Annabel was classy and strong; if this dragon was her last gift it deserved a better place than inside her dirty pocket.
Riley's mind was puzzling out what it meant to wear her mother's stone out where others could see it. "How did you know about the dragon, and my mother?"
"You touch it from time to time when you walk, although you don't seem to notice. As for knowing about your mother, how could I not know?"
Opening her hand she presented the dragon to him. "Would you mind?"
Dax covered the bracelet and her wrist with both hands, having palmed the dragon. She felt the heat but couldn't tell if it was his touch or what he was doing as tingles ran up her arm and into her fingertips. His hands came away, and it was perfect. The shadows of grief were still inside, but as she looked from his face down to her mother's gift on her wrist, Riley felt a little more at rest. Without thinking Riley wrapped her arms around Dax, this time feeling completely at ease; she pulled hard, bringing his head closer to hers, initiating the contact this time.
His kiss took her away, sensations pouring into her body. He was so warm, his skin almost hot, his body hard against hers while his mouth moved over hers in long, heady kisses.
Riley pulled back a little, and Dax let her, but she could feel the struggle in him. It caused a wicked sense of danger and control she found a little intoxicating. The fact that he was having a difficult time with control was reassuring. Riley released his neck, slowly bringing her hand over his chest. She could feel his heart beating. Looking up she saw that his eyes were dancing as he held still, and Riley felt even more powerful. Playing with fire, she curled her nails into him.
The growl that rumbled out ran over Riley, causing her to jump back. Dax's whole demeanor was one of victory and entirely too male, she thought. "You beast." Shocked laughter infused her voice at the man that had growled at her.
"If you wish me to be, sivamet. It would be my pleasure."
Riley felt he wanted to pounce on her right then, and by God there was a part of her asking him to. Dax spoke in her mind. We will have lots of time for pouncing, I promise you.
"I'm going to leave that one alone for right now. Thank you for the bracelet." She was trying to find a way to break some of the sexual tension, but she didn't think there was a knife big enough. "What does sivamet mean?"
Dax smiled down at her, tucking a flyaway strand of hair behind her ear. "You're welcome. I enjoy giving you things you like. As for sivamet, it means 'of my heart,' or 'my love' might be a better interpretation in your language."
Her heart performed a slow dizzy somersault. She had no words, but held his answer close to her. She just nodded.
"We need to get moving," he said gently.
"It's probably best. Where is the village we were going to?"
"Not very far, but we should explore the perimeter first and see what we find. And, Riley, be aware, Mitro's evil will be drawn to you like no other. Keep your mind open to me at all times."
"Dax, I made my choice." She rubbed the bracelet on her arm. "Mitro killed my mother, those villagers and how many others, and now he's out there right now and by all accounts doing it all over again. I don't think I can fight him, but I can do this."
"Take my hand. I have been blocking the area around us from your senses, but I am dropping the barrier now."
The difference was instantaneous. Riley was filled with information. Her power was not one she could turn off and on, only turn up or dim down. It was easy to tell where the village was. The slimy feeling sinking into her skin gave that away.
"He was here," Dax said. "But he's long gone. I feel his evil permeating the ground. He's left a few traps, and I'll get rid of those. He's good at masking his tracks, but there will be evidence. As powerful as he is, even he has to leave something of himself behind."
She closed her eyes and filtered through the information.
They walked the perimeter, in a very wide circle, looking for signs Mitro left behind. They'd circled halfway around the village when Dax suddenly stopped in his tracks. Evil lay so thick in the ground, she felt like she was swimming through it. She looked down at the ground and saw the soil moving. "What is that?" She was horrified.
The moment she spoke, ants erupted from the ground, the surrounding bushes, even dropped from the branches overhead. Dax snatched her up and jumped across a clearing of grass and dirt. The area was ant-free, and as Riley looked back, she saw that the spot they'd leapt from had already returned to normal.
"One of Mitro's traps. Let's continue." He was matter-of-fact.
Dax found two other traps, sprang them and cleared them unemotionally. But then, just before they completed their circle around the village, Riley halted abruptly without even knowing why. "Dax." She looked up at him, confused. "I'm not certain what I'm doing." She frowned. "There's something here. Do you feel it?"
"Yes," he said.
She looked up at him. "You would have found this without me. What is this? Some kind of test?"
"I didn't want to leave you there. It was too dangerous. If one person from this village escaped or lagged behind the battle, you would be the target. Here I could protect you as well as find out what you can and can't do." There was no remorse in his voice. She realized he wasn't going to apologize for choosing the best way to keep her safe.
She straightened her shoulders. "Let me try, then."
As he had done when they first reached the village, Dax blocked all the other information, letting her concentrate her senses on that one strangely empty spot. As she focused, Mitro's trail became clear. Riley began to shiver. The tiny spot wasn't empty. The evil was so concentrated, it froze her senses, the way ice numbed nerves.
Riley sidestepped away from the direction they had been going, and started following the icy trail, certain that this was the path Mitro had taken. Her instincts were directing her thoughts. Her abilities stretched out. Though they weren't as strong without using a ritual to focus and amplify them, with Dax blocking the "noise" from the rest of the forest, it was easy to follow the trail Mitro had left. Her mind raced along the icy remnants of his wake, twisting and turning as the vampire had until Riley was very far from where she started.
"That's far enough, Riley. We have enough to go on." His voice broke her concentration.
That wasn't what she wanted to hear. She was getting closer to him. The trail had a different feel, like it was growing stronger. She wanted to know her abilities every bit as much as Dax did.
"Sivamet, you've given us a start, but it's getting too dangerous." There was a firm command this time.
With a sigh, Riley let go of the trail and came back. Her body ached and her muscles felt as if they were hard knots, her legs like rubber. Dax was the only thing holding her up. "Why did you call me back? I was getting so close."
"You were getting tired. And Mitro might have been waiting for you. He has a gift for such things. He might have been able to strike at you in that form."
"I really don't like him." Her breathing was back to normal and her arms didn't feel like lead weights.
"I knew him before he turned vampire, and I didn't like him then, either." Dax stood and helped her to her feet.
She shuddered as the noxious sensations radiated out from the village, but she stood her ground. As she processed the information, she realized there was more, that the rhythm and pulse of the surrounding area vibrated in opposite tune. She could feel the earth fighting to expel the blemish on the land.
Holding hands, Riley and Dax walked together toward the village. They walked into three more traps, each of which Dax quickly dispatched, and then they broke through the forest into the cleared area of the village, and Riley found herself standing in the middle of the most horrifying sight she'd ever seen. Words failed her. The sheer number of bodies strewn across the ground defied belief.
"Mitro must have visited the outlying areas during his first night and brought more villagers here," Dax said. "I have never seen him work this fast before."
In the center of the village was a horrific altar of sorts. A wooden dais bore a crude throne fashioned from what looked like wood and human bones. Great black wings soared out on two sides, each covered in layers of black feathers. The wings were covered in blood that refused to dry in the humidity of the jungle. Like a macabre waterfall, blood continued to drip from the blood-soaked dais to the black ichor-covered ground below. Riley and Dax carefully circled the dais. Pinned like a crucified Jesus to the back of the bloody wings was Marty's tortured body, naked except for the insects that were feeding or hatching in his open wounds. Bile rose in Riley's throat. Most of Marty's organs were hanging free outside his body; his back had somehow been fused with the dais, and it was his blood dripping down the front. As they approached, the bloody, disfigured face lolled to one side and a bubbling groan wept from his lips.
"Oh, my God. Dax! Dax, do something! He's alive. He's still alive!"
With a wave of his hand, Dax sent all the insects fleeing their feast. He stepped up to the dais and placed a hand just over the boy's collarbone. Bloody eyelids fluttered. Haunted eyes rolled up to focus on Dax. How Marty was alive, let alone still conscious, Riley had no idea. Her heart was breaking as she looked at him, and tears streamed down her face.
Dax held the contact for several minutes, clearly searching Marty's mind for information he could use. When he was done, he turned his head just slightly toward her, not making eye contact. "Riley, look away." It was the closest Dax had ever come to a plea, and she almost did as he asked. Instead, she squeezed the hand she still held. She knew what he was going to do, and she wouldn't let him do it alone.
In that instant all pain was gone, memories of horror were gone from his mind, so Marty only remembered happy moments in his life. Dax waved his hand, and Marty gave one last sigh before succumbing to his horrible wounds. Riley didn't need to be told that there was nothing they could do. The boy was too far gone. Her tears continued to fall as Dax walked them away from behind the dais.
Clouds formed unnaturally fast, dark and mean. Lightning raced from one side of the sky to the other. The electricity was palpable in the air, but it was Dax being so closed off that truly unnerved her. For the first time she felt him mentally slipping away, and she let him go. She understood the need to distance oneself when faced with such horrors.
"Marty was here to study ruins with his professor and Todd, his friend," Dax said, staring at the gathering storm. "He had a love for history and especially the study of how myths and gods were created. Mitro spent a lot of time in this part of his brain. I believe the vampire may be considering making his own cult, using the volcano and the dragons and local legend." His voice was neutral, but even without the connection she thought she detected shame.
"This is not your fault, Dax."
He went on as if he didn't hear her. "Mitro used Marty to learn about the modern world, or at least as much of it as he could. He took his time while he made the village people sacrifice each other in his name. Pedro was one of the first to die."
Dax cut her off. "Yes, Riley, this is my fault. Every child, every man, every woman ... their deaths are my fault." Dax raised his hand and lightning sprang to his fingertips, gathering into another ball of light and fire.
"Do we know where he is?"
"Before coming here Marty and Todd spent time in a city, filled with people. Mitro spent time reviewing those memories. I think the city appealed to his latest aspirations."
Dax threw the ball of flame straight down at their feet. Waves of lightning and fire in every color spread in an instant, burning everything but them. Dax took her arm and guided her back toward their camp. The fire retreated from their every step. "I believe he wants to go to a place where there are young people that will worship him as he believes he deserves."
When the village was out of sight, Riley looked up at Dax. Otherworldly and beautiful, his expression looked carved from stone.
Riley had had enough of his stoicism. She could feel how much he was suffering. She reached up, grabbed the back of his hair and kissed him hard. At first, he held firm and then their world turned to a fire as hot and wild as the one they'd just left as he let her take him to someplace far, far different.