The wind picked up, swirling through the canopy, blowing storm clouds into a churning, riotous mass of spinning dark threads. Lightning forked across the sky, a wicked fork of electricity, lighting the canopy for a brief moment. Thunder rolled, a great boom, shaking the ground. On the heels of the thunder the low moan of the wind rose to wail and then once again died down.
Riley wiped sweat from her face. It was hard to breathe with the ash still clinging to the leaves and flowers. Her boots felt horribly heavy and she made a note to herself to purchase lighter ones next time. Her mind was a little hazy, the hike almost surreal.
Fate had made a terrible mistake. For Riley, tramping through the rain forest at night was an exercise in courage. She tried not to connect with Dax, afraid he'd see how afraid she was of every shadow. Her heart beat so loud she feared Jubal and Gary would both hear it. She wasn't certain how she got to be the lifemate of a Carpathian warrior, who seemed to have all the courage in the world, when she was afraid of the shadows.
Riley cast a quick look around her at the others as they tramped through the dense vegetation. No one else seemed to be feeling as if at any moment they were going to be devoured by a pack of crazed jaguars leaping out of the shadows. It wasn't as if she was completely crazy-the coughs and grunts coming from a short distance away told her at least one, mostly two jaguars paced along beside them.
She tried to control her breathing as best she could, but with every step she took, apprehension grew stronger and her chest grew tighter. The jungle seemed much denser, Miguel and Alejandro struggling to hack a path and keep them all on the much-faded trail. The more miles they covered, the more the dread inside her grew and the harder it was to keep the pace the guide had set.
Her night vision was amazing, her restless gaze following the thousands of insects forming a moving carpet under their feet. Everything seemed overly loud to her, especially the persistent drone of insects, and even the bugs took on a sinister quality to her overactive imagination.
Birds screeched in warning to one another, a constant, alarmed communication, unusual for nighttime. Above their heads was continual motion, the flutter of wings, the swish of branches as monkeys leapt from branch to branch as if they, like the jaguars, were following the travelers.
Tree trunks covered in black spikes seemed to leap out of the shadows at them. Oversize leaves, split into razor-sharp fronds, reached for them, driven by the wind. The dread seeping into her made her stomach churn. The sound of the machetes slashing through the screaming branches and foliage only added to her frayed nerves.
Riley and Dax had caught up with the others quickly. He'd simply shifted into a giant bird and taken to the air, carrying Riley until they were close enough to join her fellow travelers. To make better time, Dax took over carrying the professor. He could go for miles without breaking a sweat. She resisted looking over her shoulder at him. He was close, but with the weight of a grown man in his arms, he couldn't be leaping into action if someone went crazy with a machete or the monkeys ambushed them.
Gary walked directly in front of her. She caught him twice looking over her head, back toward Jubal. They exchanged a knowing look that made her shiver. Okay, she wasn't entirely losing her mind; they both felt the danger, too, they just reacted better. She put her hand in the pocket of her light jacket, assuring herself the Glock was there should she need it.
Your fear is beating at me, yet you do not allow me to share your mind. What is it?
His voice was always so calm and reassuring.
We don't make any sense. She would have glared at him if she wasn't so busy looking in the trees for an imminent attack. Sometimes being so utterly calm was annoying.
Match your heartbeat to mine. Your heart is beating too fast, Dax ordered. In what way don't we make sense?
Smug male amusement was much worse than calm. She risked a quick glance over her shoulder to glare at him. He wasn't even breathing hard, while her lungs were burning. He was all muscle and hotness, and her body felt like lead. He didn't seem to mind that at any moment he might have to pitch the professor into a spiny tree to save the day like some comic book hero.
Comic book hero? Is that how you see me? I must have a cape.
His laughter filled her mind, raw and masculine and unexpected. She found herself smiling just because he was. He'd managed to find his way into her mind when she had been so certain she was closed off to him. He could make her laugh in the worst of circumstances. Ignoring the gathering anxiety pressing down on her, she deliberately began to conjure up an image of Dax in pink tights, a long tunic and a pink cape.
This is what you wish me to wear? He sounded perfectly serious. It is much like the Inca garb. The color might clash with my skin tone.
Riley burst out laughing. Clash with your skin tone? she echoed. Small beads of sweat ran down the valley between her breasts. She had to rub more out of her eyes. What in the world does Gary have going on in his head? You got all your information from him.
Jubal as well. He has sisters. Once again he sounded smug.
She took a deep breath, hoping he'd deny it, but knowing he wouldn't. You know we're going to be attacked.
Yes, of course.
Riley stumbled, but caught herself before she fell. She felt light-headed, dizzy enough to sink to the ground in a faint. She bit down hard on her lip, the stinging pain grounding her. You've been talking to Jubal and Gary. She made it a statement.
Coordinating what they need to do.
Riley cringed a little at her ridiculous reaction to his matter-of-fact tone. Speaking mind to mind seemed so intimate to her, a secret shared with a lover. Could she be jealous? How utterly beneath her. And in the middle of an incredibly dangerous situation. She was acting like an idiot. She wasn't even the jealous kind.
She frowned as she walked, counting her steps to clear her mind. There was no buzzing in her mind to indicate the vampire was influencing her as it had the porter who killed her mother. She continued counting each step, finding a rhythm, wishing she could stop and put her hands in the earth. She felt exhausted, and the soil would rejuvenate her.
Riley? Why do you keep cutting yourself off from me? Your heart is still beating too fast.
She shook her head, not wanting Dax in it. She needed to work this out on her own. Her frown deepened. Dax, Jubal and Gary had all agreed that vampires preyed on weaknesses. She was definitely insecure, feeling as if she somehow wasn't worthy of Dax. To her, he was noble and courageous. He'd sacrificed his life for his people. He'd endured all kinds of suffering and wounds in battle, been completely alone while she'd had a wonderful, happy childhood with every advantage.
At once her mind was flooded with warmth. You have great courage, Riley. There is no other for me, nor will there be.
She got that. She really did. She'd committed to him. She hadn't gone to sleep insecure, but she'd awakened that way. Her mind turned that over and over. What had been different from the time Dax had carried her back to the others and helped her set up her hammock for the night and when she'd awakened? Something had happened to make her doubt herself, or worse-doubt Dax. What was it? She must have fallen into a trap Mitro had set.
She looked around her at her traveling companions. None of them seemed affected.
Gary turned around abruptly to face her, stopping so fast she ran into him. He caught her shoulders in a steadying grip. "You're burning up."
A lump had formed in her throat and when she tried to swallow, she had difficulty. You're talking to Gary again.
You're shutting me out.
No remorse. She would have to store that away for future reference. Apparently not, because you're back in my head again.
Everyone had stopped at some command from Jubal. Dax set the professor down gently on the makeshift travois the guides had made. Riley watched him stride toward her. Her heart leapt toward him. He was impressive any way one looked at it. Sometimes, when she saw him, like now, so confident and purposeful, he intimidated her just a little, yet at the same time, he made her feel safe.
He seemed to get taller as he approached her. His grip on her upper arms was as gentle as ever, yet she knew if she tried to free herself it would be impossible.
"Look at me, sivamet. Into my eyes."
She was aware that the scales running beneath his skin were very close, which meant he was more upset than his demeanor indicated.
Lightning forked across the sky. The wind howled, sweeping through the trees with deadly intent. The branches swayed, rubbing one another to make a clacking sound that seemed to reverberate through the jungle. Long vines dropped down from the overhead canopy, looking like hangman's nooses in the dark.
Dax transferred one hand to her chin, tipping her head this way and that, studying her eyes. "You're ill," he said.
"The spider bite. That's the only thing I can think of. Mitro must have had insects waiting to attack me. Can he program them to do that?" Even to her own ears, her voice sounded far away. "I should have known something was wrong when I was acting so out of character."
"Out of character?" he repeated, catching her when she would have collapsed.
"You know, doubting that I was good enough to be your lifemate. I'm sure I have a high opinion of myself." She reached up to stroke his jaw. "You really are beautiful, Dax."
He hissed something between his strong white teeth she couldn't catch. She seemed to be floating through the air, while several of her travel companions looked on with trepidation on their faces.
She waved at them. "No worries. He has a pink cape," she assured.
Overhead, the flutter of wings distracted Dax for one moment as he found the spot he was looking for. Crouching low, he looked up as a great horned owl, known as the night tiger, settled on the branches above them. Somewhere in the distance, an eerie scream sent a shiver of goose bumps chasing down the travelers' spines. They all moved closer together.
"This is my fault, Riley," Dax said. "This evening I was so eager to be with you that I dismissed the bite as a typical hazard of the rain forest. I took the swelling and itch away, without delving deeper."
Riley looked up at him, her hand stroking his face. "I'm right, aren't I? Mitro attacked me, didn't he? I should have known right away. I hate it when I'm slow on the uptake."
He passed his hand over her face, taking the sheen of sweat from her skin. "I think, in this instance, you were quick figuring it out. You aren't used to dealing with the undead." He laid one hand over her heart and the other over the small wound on her hand. "Mitro is clever, and his traps can be subtle."
Jubal. Gary. Keep an eye on that owl. Be ready to kill it if necessary. Dax sent the order to the two men he felt had a chance of keeping Mitro's next weapon at bay. He still found it a little disconcerting to rely on humans, but neither man flinched when it came to combat with the vampire's puppets.
Dax took a deep breath and sent himself outside his body, becoming spirit, a white light of energy, slipping into Riley's body to track the sliver of poison the spider had injected. Mitro had kept it very subtle so the threat would have time to take hold and spread before anyone noticed. It was very Mitro-like. Most vampires were anything but subtle. Mitro was in a category all his own.
Dax hadn't known he was lonely until Riley had come into his life. He loved the conversations she had with herself, her smile and the way she would suddenly blurt out that he was beautiful. He also loved that she was intelligent and quick to comprehend the unknown. She didn't waste time denying what was happening, she took it all in stride, and he admired her for that. Now, moving through her body, she remained quite still, observing what he was doing, but not protesting.
She was already fighting the effects in her mind. He could see the damage there, but Riley was strong, much stronger than Mitro gave her credit for. That was one of the vampire's weaknesses. He viewed women as inferior to men. He always had. He had underestimated Arabejila, and he would always underestimate Riley, which gave her a small advantage.
Dax moved through her body, white light illuminating the dark blue clusters of cells spreading slowly, multiplying and invading healthy cells. Dax attacked the clusters with bursts of energy. The darker cells tried to hide from him, but he ruthlessly followed them, moving through every organ to ensure he got every last one. He would never be complacent about her health or safety again. Had she not begun to question why she was acting out of character, the virus might have had a much better chance of taking hold.
He knew the moment he returned to his body, the owl would attack, because Mitro would know Dax would be at his weakest and would orchestrate the strike that way. The bird was a predator and would hurl itself at Riley, going for her eyes with its lethal talons.
Jubal. Watch for the one you can't see. He couldn't help himself, he had to warn Jubal. As much as he'd learned of the two human men traveling with him, he still preferred to rely on himself, especially when it came to protecting his own lifemate.
Clever Mitro. I know you so well by now.
Dax burst into his body, accepting the disoriented effect that came with shedding one's physical shell and then returning to it. Simultaneously, he allowed the armor lurking beneath his skin to the forefront. Diamond-hard scales erupted from his feet to his neck, sliding over his skin to encase him in a shield. He spun around in a quick circle feeling for the real attack. The cat hit him hard in the chest, a monster of a jaguar, the hot breath on his face as wicked teeth rushed for his throat. Claws raked at his belly.
As if from a distance, he heard the rush of wings as owls dropped from the trees, talons extended, trying to get at Riley. He clamped his hands around the neck of the jaguar, holding the teeth away from his neck. A gun went off right near his ear and two more fired from a short distance away. With a quick wrench of his hands, he broke the neck of the cat and flung the body from him, turning to face the threat of the owls.
Three birds lay dead on the ground surrounding Riley. She held a gun in her hand. Jubal and Gary stood with guns out as well. Handy thing, guns. Dax liked the idea of them. A gun might not kill a vampire, but it could definitely kill a vampire's puppets. Mitro was clever, but he hadn't counted on Gary and Jubal or guns. This trap hadn't slowed them down or caused real harm.
Dax nodded his thanks to the two men and reached down to help Riley to her feet. She stood a little shakily, and Gary leaned in to remove the gun from her hand.
"Maybe we should be a little careful with this thing," he said.
Riley held out her hand. "I hit the thing instead of you, didn't I?"
Gary grinned at her. "I believe you did, Miss Parker."
Dax found the exchanges between the men and Riley interesting. He "felt" their affection for one another. Teasing seemed to be an art form.
Riley checked her gun before slipping it back into her pocket. She made a little face. "Here comes Weston. How are we going to explain this?"
Dax waved his hand toward Weston and the man stopped abruptly, looked around him and scratched his head as though he'd forgotten what he was doing. Riley's laughter spilled into Dax's mind.
I wish I had that particular talent.
You will, he assured. Aloud, to Jubal he added, "Let's get them moving again. We want to make the river before the sun is up. If we're being flown out of here, we'll have to give the helicopter somewhere safe to land."
I suppose I'll learn everything I want to know without having to go to school as well, Riley said. You'll be making my profession obsolete.
He brought her hand to his mouth, placing a kiss in the center of her palm. "Only for you," he murmured.
She laughed, just as he knew she would. He found he was becoming just as addicted to the sound of her laughter as he was to the way she looked, that soft glow and the curve of her mouth.
Before we join the others, you might want to get rid of your scales. I think you look adorable, but Weston probably will be incredibly rude. You know how you get when people are rude; better just to change out of that outfit.
Her laughter teased at his body this time, the vibration rushing through him like an aphrodisiac while fingers of sound stroked. He found himself laughing with her. Mitro had just made another try at her and Riley had shaken it off and was teasing him.
You're quite something, lifemate. He held out his hand to her.
She sent him a quick smile and placed her hand in his. They made their way back to the others, Dax ensuring none of the other travelers, other than Jubal and Gary, would remember anything that happened. Once again, Dax lifted the professor and they started off for the clearing where the helicopter was to meet them.
The flutter of wings overhead told Riley they weren't completely out of danger. She was shaken at the thought that even when Mitro was long gone from the forest, he could still leave such successful traps behind. He was much more powerful than she had ever imagined. She should have known when Dax was so amazing and yet in battle after battle with the vampire, neither had won. Mitro had to at least be his equal.
"Stay alert," Dax advised Jubal and Gary. "Keep everyone in a tight formation and pick up the pace."
The travelers fell into line, Weston and Shelton grumbling as usual. "It's best to stay quiet," Dax said. "You never know what's going to trigger a jaguar attack."
Weston swore under his breath, but both men immediately fell silent. Riley hid a smile. You have such a way with people.
I am learning to be in your world.
Smug. Arrogant. Male. Hot as hell. Why in the world did she find him so attractive? He made her feel as if she could do anything when she was with him.
I think I've fallen in love with you. Right here in this rain forest in this terrible, awful, ugly situation. She made the confession as she walked along the trail, keeping her head down as if she was watching the narrow trail. All the while, she held herself still. You're so beautiful, Dax. Your heart. Your soul. I don't think I could ever find a better man.
Dax poured himself into her mind, needing the closeness every bit as much as she did. Carpathians knew. There was no doubt for them. But humans wondered. Worried. And Riley was moving from her world into his-an enormously generous decision. A gift beyond price. How could he not treasure her?
Dax felt his soul brush hers. You are han ku kuulua sivamet, which means, "keeper of my heart." And you are ainaak enyem, "forever mine." I am fully aware of the courage it took for you to bind yourself to me without fully knowing what you were getting into, and I will forever be the keeper of your heart, Riley. I will be forever yours.
Riley hugged his words to her as she kept moving through the dense foliage. She listened to the sound of water racing down the slopes and over rocks to run in narrow ribbons or wider streams. Water was everywhere. Drops fell from the leaves above them to add to the rushing rivulets. More water burst from the side of the hill in a long fall over boulders, a frothy stream of glittering silver. Below the waterfall, the large, moss-covered rocks formed a pool.
Bright green moss covered everything near them, the rocks, the fallen tree trunks, even the trees standing. Riley spotted flowers springing from the green slopes and rocks, some in bushes almost as tall as some of the smaller trees. The splashes of color along with the bright silver of the water in the dark were beautiful. She wished she was alone with Dax and could just sit quietly with him, holding hands and listening to the sounds of the waterfall splashing into the cool pool below.
Dax answered her with a caress down her cheek. I can always have the Old One make an appearance. He isn't fond of people. He'll clear them away fast.
Riley laughed, unable to contain her happiness that she had him. He made her feel safe in a world turned upside down. She could forget the ugliness of the situation for just a few minutes and see the beauty around her because of him.
"It's damned hot," Weston called. "Come on, Riley, want to strip down naked and go swimming tonight with all of us? Bet you'd like that. You'd be the center of attention."
Riley glanced back at Dax. Their eyes met. Amusement bubbled up. Serpent in paradise. There's always one.
The Old One particularly finds him foul.
Riley reached deeper. The dragon opened a sleepy eyelid, winked and went back to sleep. He wanted little to do with man. The Old One, or you? she teased.
Perhaps both, Dax conceded. His hands were gentle on the professor, his steps sure as they continued hiking toward the river. If Weston truly wishes to be naked, I can help him with that.
The trail led down a ravine and back up the other side. The going was easier. Miguel's machete was silent. Ferns grew everywhere, in between the boulders and along the banks of the pool and stream, creating a glimpse of paradise.
Don't you dare! Laughter bubbled over.
Perhaps not, Dax agreed, but he quickened his pace until he was up beside Weston.
The engineer snickered. "You got something to say to me? I'm just saying what every man here is thinking, including you." He grinned at Riley. "Isn't that so, baby? Your fantasy. Naked with all these men licking that gorgeous skin. You'd love it."
Riley's heart stilled. She shook her head, her breath burning in her lungs. Weston had no idea what he was dealing with. Dax could go from easy-going to extreme violence and back in seconds. Don't. Don't hurt him.
He will not feel a thing. His voice had gone from soft and sensual to grim and forbidding.
A shiver went down Riley's spine. This was a man-a being-one couldn't control. He would go his own way, make his decisions based on the rules of his world-not hers.
Weston opened his mouth to taunt Dax again and a deep, bullfrog croak came out. Startled, Weston's hand went to his throat, his eyes going wide. Shelton burst out laughing. "Dude! What's wrong with you?"
Riley pressed her lips together, trying not to laugh. Your sense of humor is out of hand.
I don't find anything about Weston humorous. You wish him to live, so better he croaks this way than another.
There was no amusement in his voice, or in her mind, but his answer made her laughter escape in spite of her determination not to encourage him.
Weston cleared his throat and tried again. A series of loud sounds much like croak, croak, croak burst from his throat.
Even Jubal's mouth twitched as though he had to suppress his laughter. Gary and Miguel smirked, but neither commented. Miguel continued leading the line of travelers down through the narrow canyon that was a shortcut to the river. The small gorge would save them miles.
You can't leave him like that.
I think it's best, Dax replied.
Once again warmth flooded her mind, all that slow, heated molasses filling her brain with erotic fantasies.
He can't say your name and naked in the same sentence, not without me remembering just how soft your skin is. The only man to lick water off your skin is going to be me.
A frisson of pure arousal slid down her spine. Heat curled in her belly. Even when he was being bad-especially when he was being bad-he was downright sexy.
Now you're just being outrageous. She paused and then let her imagination take flight, wickedly feeding him a few fantasies of her own.
She felt his breath catch in his throat. Fire smoldered deep.
You could get yourself in trouble. I can always shield us from prying eyes, and believe me, sivamet, I am more than willing.
Her womb clenched. Hot moisture gathered. Her breasts felt instantly achy. She would love to be in his arms, legs wrapped tight around his waist, him buried deep inside her. She would love to be in the cool water with him, under the waterfall, or better yet, in a soft bed ...
Hard bed, he corrected. The things I could do to you in a hard bed. Or on a hard floor.
She swallowed, nearly stumbling at his sexy implication. The things he could do with his voice alone left her breathless; she couldn't imagine what he had in mind on a hard bed. Her mouth went dry and the blood in her veins throbbed. The ground shifted beneath her feet.
Riley glanced down to see water bubbling up around the soles of her boots. The ground appeared so saturated that the water had nowhere to go. It actually took a moment for her mind to assimilate what was happening. She looked around her. Water leaked from the moss-covered boulders and trickled between smaller rocks. She blinked and several small mudslides gave way to ribbons that swelled in volume.
We have to get out of here. This is a natural basin and it will flood fast. The other side of the canyon looked a good distance away. More leaks were springing, the mountain too saturated to hold all the water. I should have been warned. I should have known.
She felt as if the earth had betrayed her. Granted, she was diverted by her exchange with Dax, but still, she should have felt her connection with the earth was so strong, she should have been warned the water was rising all around them.
Another trap, Dax soothed softly. Mitro knows I can counter this, so why would he bother? It makes no sense. Can you feel anything beneath the water? Or perhaps in the sides of the canyon?
Riley fought down panic. Miguel picked up the pace, clearly reading the danger. Both Jubal and Gary looked at Dax briefly and then at each other. They must have known Dax could stop the rising of the water, or at least delay it enough for them to get out, but neither said anything.
She forced her mind to stretch, to see beyond the obvious danger of the moment. It was difficult to get past the urge to flee. Her brain told her flight was best, but she grabbed on to Dax's calm and took a deep breath and let it out. She actually felt her mind unfurl, reaching for her connection to the earth. For a moment, she felt a little dizzy, disoriented, as if she was in two places at one time-aboveground and below.
Sounds faded, the pounding footsteps, the splash as boots hit the water inching up on the trail, the roar of the falls, everything receded until she was left with the whispers of the earth. She went still inside, even though she continued forward, on automatic pilot, her eyes on the man in front of her.
A river rushed beneath the canyon, fed now by the continual rain. Steam rose around them, curling through the boulders and reaching out like fingers toward them. Something moved, shifting continually, hiding in the vapor. She was aware of the movement just outside her vision. The sensation was dreamlike, as if she watched from a distance, seeing the steam drifting as the water table rose.
There was something more ... Something she just missed. It was there, lurking beneath the water, waiting for its moment. The thing waited, watched, radiating malevolent hunger. She had the impression of red eyes staring beneath the water, fangs dripping. No, not thing-things.
Riley gasped and shook her head adamantly. No, Dax. Don't.
You control the water. Don't try to stop it, that will trigger the attack. Just slow it down.
Riley knew she had no choice. Dax was going to face the monsters below them. He trusted her to stop the rush of water pouring into the canyon from both sides as well as the water rising up beneath them. He was utterly calm and matter-of-fact. She took a breath and nodded her head, the terrible rolling in her stomach stilling. She would do this. If he could face those fangs and the single-minded purpose to kill them all, she could slow the rising of the water, but she'd have to get to it-the water was up to their ankles, slowing them down.
Dax handed the professor off to Alejandro and Jubal, taking care to ensure Patton wouldn't feel the jarring of the two men as they waded through the rising water. He waved his hands, weaving an intricate pattern, so that for a moment the air around them shimmered, cutting off the humans' ability to see him, and he slipped beneath the soil to drop into the water below.
Jubal's brain had contained a wealth of information, and Gary was a walking data bank. His mind carried billions of facts, some so strange and outrageous, at first it was difficult to believe, but when he looked into Riley's memories of airplanes and trips to the moon, those facts had been confirmed. There was so much he had missed while imprisoned in the volcano. He had knowledge of those things, but he hadn't experienced them.
Evidently the college student Mitro had found was a walking data bank as well. Jubal recognized a form of the creatures waiting for him there in that river. Goliath tigerfish, although as always, Mitro had manipulated the species and enhanced their natural aggression and savagery. The tigerfish weren't native to these waters, so the student had to have traveled elsewhere for them to have been in his mind. Surprisingly, it was Jubal's memories that gave him the most data on the dangerous species. Clearly he was just as well traveled.
Riley's memories had not contained any information on the fish. Riley. His Riley. She was such a miracle to him. He could feel her fear beating at him, but then she would shore up her defenses, set her shoulders and get the job done. There was so much about her to love. The moment she recognized what he intended to do, she no longer feared for herself-it was all for him. He couldn't remember anyone ever worrying about him, and it was a strange, two-edged sword. His heart swelled with joy at that thought of a woman caring so much, but on the other hand, he really didn't like to cause her anxiety.
Dax dropped deeper in the water until he felt the first stirrings of evil. The sensation seeped slowly into him rather than poured in. He expanded his vision as well as his senses, shifting into a tiny, nondescript leaf as he neared the gigantic fish. They were formed loosely in a pack, pacing slowly with the humans above them. As the water rose, so did they, gaining ground. So if the water table dropped, how could these fish possibly escape and do harm to those aboveground? What did Mitro have in mind?
Mitro was cunning. Dax would expect fish. Something nasty and brutally savage, but if he stopped the water rising, how would that trigger an attack from monster fish? He was missing something important. The water would rise, and if Dax or Riley didn't stop it, the fish would attack. But if they did succeed in stopping it, then the fish would be useless to Mitro.
Waves of evil assailed him as he hovered over the pack of fish. The feeling emanated not from the hungry pack of tigerfish, although certainly he felt the taint of the vampire on them, but it was something more, lurking below them, held back like a leashed tiger.
Without warning, a tigerfish lunged at him, mouth open wide, swallowing Dax. He reacted immediately, poisonous spines covering the leaf as it shifted into a very large lionfish, the terrible spines lodging into the tigerfish's throat and mouth, paralyzing it. He burst through the jaw of the monster fish only to be surrounded by the pack. He shifted again, diving down, leaving behind a trail of the tigerfish's blood. The pack tore into the goliath fish.
Beneath him, the real threat exploded toward the surface, a monstrous streak of scales, wedge-shaped head and streamlined wings. Front legs were tucked under, just as the wings stayed tight against the sides of the beast as it rose like a locomotive toward the surface. Dax caught the blue-green sheen to the scales as it rushed by. The force of the backwash sent him tumbling backward.
The Old One roared a challenge, the sound bursting through Dax's skull. Although the dragon had lost his mate long ago, the deep pain and sorrow would forever be etched into his soul. He would not lose Riley. Riley was part of him now, just as Dax was. No water dragon would take her from them.
No, not in your form. Dax took charge, knowing the water dragon would have the advantage over a fire dragon in their circumstances. My form, but we both work together.
Dax streaked after the dragon, pouring on speed, cutting through the blood-soaked water, his hands outstretched for that spiked tail. The long tail swept back and forth in the water like a rudder as the water dragon cut easily through the water. Dax allowed the red and gold scales to pour over his body as he caught that wedged spike on the tail and instantly reversed direction. The Old One rose just enough to lend his strength as well.
The water dragon hissed as it halted its forward progress abruptly and was jerked backward. The water churned, great turbulent bubbles, so agitated he could have been in the middle of a geyser. The tail whipped back and forth angrily and the water dragon spun around, and, moving like lightning, rushed the hunter.
Dax watched the huge, wedge-shaped head lunge straight at him. Underwater, the eyes were open and fiercely malevolent. The horned snout opened to reveal a jaw filled with serrated teeth. Just as the dragon snapped at his head, Dax threw himself to the side, still retaining possession of the lashing tail. Beneath the water, he heard the steady drum of a heartbeat. The water amplified the sound. The rhythm of the heart of the water dragon sounded strange to him, the beat booming first loud and then softening only to swell in volume again.
Dax was Carpathian, and he honed in on that sound unerringly. His blood sang in his veins. He reached out to the dragon, matching heartbeats, slowing the giant boom gradually, all the while dodging the lightning-fast strikes with those wicked teeth and the lashing head. He stayed just out of reach, staying in tune with the giant heart slowly taking control of that wild beat. It seemed to beat not where it should have been, but instead was lower and to the right, as if the heart had slipped and lodged in a different place than normal.
The water dragon slowed his great body, shuddering. Still, the dragon was so enraged that something as insignificant as Dax would dare to enter his territory and stop him from gaining the meal promised him by his creator ... Dax nearly dropped the tail. Mitro had created the dragon. He would know that if Dax faced the water dragon, he would go for the heart and he'd deliberately placed it in the wrong position.
He is real yet not, the Old One confirmed.
Dax struck hard at the weakened heart, driving through the thin mantle of scales to the soft underbelly. His diamond-hard nails bit through the belly to drive toward the now very sluggish heart. It was much larger than he expected, but he managed to grasp the organ in his fist. The dragon's head whipped around and ripped at his shoulder.
Dax hung on grimly to the tail with one hand while he curled his fingers around the object he sought. The moment he wrapped the heart in his hand, he knew he'd made a terrible mistake. Spines embedded themselves in his hands. Poison entered his system rapidly. He ripped the heart from the thrashing dragon before the creature could take his head off. It was close though; he felt the blasting breath of cold water pouring over him, the snap of those jaws as the teeth nearly managed to tear his face open.
Dax put on a burst of speed, heading for the surface, feeling the poison taking hold, paralysis setting in. Below him, the gigantic tigerfish scented prey, shooting toward him in a pack hunting formation. His fist punched through the thin ground surface as his legs went numb. He stretched as far as he could, opening his hand, fingertips searching for something solid so he could pull himself out of the water. With the poison slowly spreading through his system, there was no way to shift.
A hand smacked his wrist, caught hold and jerked on his arm. Jubal's face swam into view. Gary, crouched beside him, reached down, caught him under the shoulder and heaved him up and out of the water. Under him, rising up out of the water, following the same path, a goliath tigerfish opened gaping jaws. The mouthful of thirty-two wicked teeth burst at him like a locomotive.
The gunshot was loud, almost in his ear. Jubal and Gary dragged him up and away as Riley calmly emptied her Glock into the fish. It dropped back into the hole Dax had made, and the water instantly bubbled up red.
We've got you. Riley's voice poured into his mind.
Give me a minute to drive the poison out of my system. I don't want you near this. It's slow-acting but paralyzing. It took longer than he anticipated to rid his body of the poisonous brew Mitro had prepared for him and to heal the wounds the dragon had inflicted.
Miguel had continued with the others, racing out of the canyon. Dax waited until he had his strength back before destroying Mitro's mutations. He didn't want them to breed and grow in the river and eventually kill someone. By the time the four of them had caught up with the others, the helicopter was waiting in the small clearing.