Far beneath the surface, buried deep in the hot, rich, volcanic soil of the Andes, Danutdaxton woke to a steady pounding in his head and heat rising all around him. His eyes opened to the familiar darkness, the sting of sulfur in his nose and the stabbing hunger for blood beating at him with stony fists.

Dax's hands flexed as he checked his safeguards throughout the chamber. He was not alone. Another pounding wave of pressure slammed into him. Despite the pain, the attack made him smile with grim admiration.

"Manners, my old friend," he murmured.

To his credit, Mitro Daratrazanoff was as relentless a foe as Dax was a hunter. They had pursued one another for countless centuries before being trapped in this volcano, and in the countless centuries since their entombment, they had continued their battle, never giving up, each constantly searching for a moment of weakness to exploit. The fight had become their entire existence. Hunter and hunted, predator and prey: their roles switched continually, but they were so well matched neither ever had the upper hand for long.

Dax drew a breath and let the heat and pain and darkness wash over him. His body calmed. The ravenous hunger subsided as the heat and power of the volcano sank into his flesh, feeding him its energy, its strength. He drew sustenance from the earth, much the way a Carpathian drew sustenance from the veins of his human prey.

Once, only blood could have assuaged his hunger. Once, only blood could have given him strength. But the last five hundred years of being locked in the heat and pressure at the heart of a volcano had changed him. He was no longer "just" Carpathian. He had become something different, something ... more.

Flesh and bone had grown denser, harder, less susceptible to injury. He had a much higher tolerance for heat and fire. He could probably stand in the heart of a bonfire without raising the slightest blister. His hair, once long and thick as most Carpathians wore it, had been singed close to his scalp, leaving a short, thick pelt, and his eyes could amplify the slightest light, enabling him to see clearly in nearly pitch-black conditions. And in caverns where not the smallest hint of light shone, he had developed the ability to see through other means. Heat signatures were clearly visible to him, and even in the coldest, darkest caves and tunnels, he could differentiate between the vibrations of energy in the rock and air and thus "see" his surroundings.

Those vibrations whispered across his skin, as he woke fully from his healing slumber, his body shifting and stretching in the heated soil. Parting the soil with a wave of his hand, he rose from his resting place into the empty magma chamber above. Cracks in the hardened black rock revealed glowing orange lava bubbling restlessly in pools below that lit the chamber with a dim orange light.

The earth rumbled beneath his feet, and the ground gave a sudden lurch that nearly knocked him off balance. Steam vented from the glowing orange cracks in the chamber floor, and with it came the familiar, decaying stench of evil.

Dax's muscles clenched. He'd grown used to the rumblings and movement of the volcano over the years, but this was different. The volcano was awakening. And Mitro was the one waking it.

Another wave of pressure slammed into him, throwing him to his knees. The ground shifted and rolled. Dax steadied himself and sent feelers stabbing into the soil, trying to locate his ancient enemy. But the clinging, oily miasma of the vampire's decay had saturated everything inside the volcano, making it impossible for Dax to track the evil back to its source. Mitro was here, working to break free of his bonds and use the explosive force of the volcano to free himself.

For too many years, Mitro Daratrazanoff had fought to escape his prison. Dax had pursued him through the caverns and tunnels of the volcano, hunting, tracking, fighting to destroy him. And for the same amount of years, first Mitro spurned his lifemate Arabejila and then her descendents, who had come to the volcano once every five years to strengthen the bonds of Mitro's prison and keep him contained until Dax could finally kill him. Without Dax constantly hunting him, fighting him, and without Arabejila and her descendents continually renewing the strength of Mitro's prison bonds, the vampire would long ago have escaped to wreak his unimaginable evil on the world.

Unfortunately, over the last few decades, the power woven by Arabejila's descendents had been growing weaker. Their renewal rites no longer imparted the same adamantine strength to the bonds as before. And with the weakening bonds, Mitro's attempts to escape had come increasingly closer to succeeding. The last three times, Arabejila's descendent had arrived just in the nick of time, renewing the bonds only scant days-even hours-before Mitro broke through.

Worry crept down Dax's spine. Judging by the volcano's increasing turbulence, Mitro had already found enough of a chink in his prison walls to work his influence on the outer world. It did not bode well. Mitro must have woken much earlier than Dax this time. He'd grown stronger-too strong.

Concerned, Dax sent his senses out, searching for that frisson of awareness that alerted him to the presence of another Carpathian. He'd been able to use that awareness over the years to track the progress of Arabejila and her descendents when they came to the mountain. His senses soared out, passing through rock, soil, into the sky above the volcano, then across the dense, tropical jungle.

After several long minutes of searching, he found her. Arabejila's descendent. She was approaching the mountain as she had once every five years for the last who-only-knew how many centuries, but she was still hours away. She was not going to get here in time. The woman was too far out and Mitro had grown too strong.

Dax had been considered the greatest hunter of the entire Carpathian race, yet still, fight after fight, Mitro had eluded him. Being locked in the earth for so long without blood to sustain them should have weakened them both, possibly even killed them. But just like Dax, Mitro had found a way to survive and grow stronger. The intense pressure, heat and harsh environment of the volcano had changed them both. If Mitro escaped now, there would be nothing, no one strong enough to stop him.

Dax couldn't let him escape.

The whispers grew stronger, demanding, incessant. For months now, even as he slept, the voices had whispered in his ears, a never-ending chorus. Urging him to visit the cavern near the heart of the volcano. The heat and pressure there was intense, so close to the volcano's main magma chamber that Dax had never been able to stay more than a few seconds at a time. But something was there. Something powerful and fierce. Something that normally did not like to be disturbed.

Something the earth believed Dax needed, because it had been driving him back to that chamber again and again and again over the centuries.

The push was stronger now than it had ever been. Every part of him felt both driven and pulled toward that chamber deep in the heart of the volcano. What lay there was waiting for him, and he could delay no longer. The strength he needed was there, offered up to him if only he had the will to claim it.

He dispatched the wards surrounding his resting place and shifted into a clear mist, traveling swiftly through the lava tubes and fissures in the rock, descending deep into the earth until he reached the superheated chamber. A small section of the floor on the far side of the chamber had cracked, and molten rock from the adjacent magma chamber was spilling into the room, thick and glowing orange. The pool was rising rapidly. It wouldn't be long before the entire chamber was completely filled.

In the center of the room, its hindquarters half submerged in the deepening magma, lay the petrified remains of a dragon. Immense and breathtaking, the creature lay curled tightly, wings tucked against his back, tail curled around his body, head resting on diamond-clawed forepaws. The entire dragon had crystallized, its body turning to ruby and diamond in the intense heat and pressure of the volcano. The dragon's chest was destroyed, crushed. Huge chunks of faceted crystal spilled around the petrified carcass.

The heat rising from the magma made the air around the dragon ripple, distorting Dax's vision until the entire crystallized carcass seemed to tremble and move.

Take it. Take what remains. Take what is offered.

The whispers filled Dax's head, making him dizzy. Before him, the heat waves rising from the magma pool seemed to shimmer and take on a translucent fire-red hue, but the shimmer was ... dragon-shaped?

Dax shook his head, rubbed his eyes, and looked again. The image was still there ... hazy, translucent, a dragon formed of insubstantial red mist. He stretched out his senses, but could detect no concentrated stench of evil.

The Old One offers you his strength. You were not ready before, but we have made you so. Take what is offered. Without it, you cannot defeat your enemy. Take it. Quickly, before it is lost to the volcano. The earth continued to whisper to him, pushing at him to take a chance that could result in his death.

Dax moved closer. The heat from the magma was so intense, he half expected to burst into flame at any moment, yet his burnished skin didn't even blister. Another step brought him close to the dragon's head and a mere five feet from the widening magma pool. Now, he could sense the power radiating from the crystallized dragon. Where had it come from? He'd been here in this chamber before. He'd found the crystallized dragon, half-crushed but still an awesome discovery, but he'd never sensed this pulsating energy. It almost felt alive.

Stepping closer still, Dax reached for the shimmering veil of energy. The instant he touched it, a raw, savage wildness roared in response. Power slammed into him like an iron fist, plowing into him with enough force to knock him off his feet. He landed hard and pain streaked across his back and jaw, which had taken the brunt of the strike.

Take the power. Take what is offered.

"That was an offer?" Dax got up, dusted himself off and rubbed his aching jaw. "No offense, dear friend, but whatever that is clearly doesn't want to be taken."

Without the Old One's strength, you cannot win. You must take it. But first, you must prove yourself worthy.

"Wonderful." Dax moved his head, stretching the tendons and cracking the joints in his neck. He regarded the translucent image of the dragon shimmering in the hot air. "So be it, Old One. Let us roll the bones."

This time, as he approached the crystallized dragon carcass and the veil of energy hovering above it, he braced himself for attack. The blow, when it came, struck twice as hard as before. Power tore into him with diamond-hard claws. The sheer intensity of it threatened to rip him to pieces, but he set his jaw and leaned into it, firing back a blast of his own, meeting power with power, force with force. The shimmering dragon roared and flexed its wings.

And the fight was on.

Waves of energy swirled around the room. A powerful force built underneath and around him. The walls of the chamber began to tremble. Tiny particles of rock and sand fell from the ceiling. Dax thrust calming waves into the ground, stilling the rupturing earth.

The flow of magma into the chamber increased, forcing Dax to step back. Gases bubbled and spat in the magma pool. The heat increased. The air sparked. The gases caught fire in a flash of boiling orange flame. Dax closed his eyes and flung up a shield. Heat poured over him like an ocean wave.

A voice that sounded like thunder growled and rumbled in his brain. Only the strongest may hope to hold a dragon's soul. How strong are you, Danutdaxton of the Carpathians? The dragon spoke in his ancient language, Carpathian, allowing Dax to understand him.

Each word boomed and burned inside his mind as if a hammer made of flaming lead were pounding against his skull. Dax fought the urge to cover his ears, knowing it was useless.

"As strong as I must be to defeat my enemy," Dax replied. A dragon's soul. Was that what fought him now? Or had Mitro found a way to trick him after all? "Do you think me your enemy?"

Does a lion name the flea his enemy?

"A flea, am I?" Dax was mildly insulted at the thought. He reached for the heat rising from the magma, drawing it to him, shaping it between his hands into a ball of fire, which he flung at the center of the insubstantial creature. But rather than punching a hole through the shimmering red mist, the fireball exploded against the surface, spreading out in tongues of flame that were swiftly absorbed. The red-mist dragon seemed to grow larger, as if the flames only made it stronger.

The enemy of heat was cold. Dax tried to drain the heat from around the veil of mist, but the heat was too intense for him to do more than cool the room a few degrees.

"If you mean to help, Old One, then help," Dax said. "There is a great evil locked inside this volcano. While I fight you, it is trying to escape."

What should I care of this evil thing? You have awakened me from my resting place and I care nothing for your troubles.

Dax puzzled over that for a moment. The dragon had no reason to care. His time was long past. All that he knew and loved was gone from the earth. Even his body was gone.

Perhaps there is no reason other than you are a dragon, and a great warrior, or so I have been led to believe.

There was a moment of silence. A dragon's soul is a mighty power. Only the strongest of vessels could hope to contain it. All others would shatter.

Power slammed toward Dax again, but this time he tried a different tack. In his years of training with the ancients of his race, he'd learned when to stand firm and when to bend like a tree in the wind. He ducked the dragon's main blast and rolled forward beneath it, coming up close to the beast's shimmering presence.

His feet sank into the edge of the magma pool. Fiery pain streaked up his legs as flesh scorched and burned. Dax shuttered his mind against the agony and tried to absorb and use the heat as the dragon's soul had absorbed and used his fireball earlier. His hands shot out, tracing wards in the air, spinning and twisting energy and the molecules of air in the room into a shining web that he cast around the insubstantial mist of the dragon's soul. A rainbow of light reflected through the room as the energy swirled around his opponent.

Determination and calm rolled through him as the net settled over the dragon. He could feel the spirit gather itself, like any creature would before it strikes. He spread his fingers wide and held them, palms out, between himself and the dragon. Gently, he touched thumb to thumb, then forefinger to forefinger, completing a circle of power, and through that circle, he drew his net of energy tight.

The beast thrashed and roared in outrage, but the bonds of his net held fast. Slowly, relentlessly, Dax pulled the net tighter and tighter. He inched his way backward, dragging the protesting weight of the dragon with him.

Heat jetted out, splashing over him like a geyser. His skin burned. His hair singed. He did not release the net. He kept pulling it through his circle of power, drawing the dragon's soul in tight, folding it in upon itself, pulling it away from the magma pool that he suspected was feeding its strength.

As he pulled, he began to weave new, cooler threads of power over the others. And with each precisely woven thread, his connection to the dragon's spirit increased. He could feel its consciousness pressing up against his own. Each writhing fight, each blast of heat and power, was as much instinctive self-protection as it was a test of Dax's own strength. As the last bit of Dax's net passed through his circle of power, a great force snapped out, but this time the power didn't strike him; it raced up the flows binding it, following them back to Dax.

"No." Realizing its intent, Dax straightened abruptly and tried to weave protective wards. But his efforts were too late, and in speaking he had left an opening, a second circle of power, only this one led into him. The soul rushed forward, a blazing pulse of light and heat that shot into his mouth and down his throat. Energy, heat, power flooded him, burning him from the inside out. He staggered back, releasing his now empty web of power.

The dragon's soul was inside him, searing him. An immense fiery presence that threatened to burst his body asunder. Dax spun a new web, only this time around himself, drawing the threads tight around his own body, adding even more strength to the skin and bone made dense by his centuries locked inside the volcano.

His skin turned dark and began to shudder. Red scales rippled down his arms. Dax held up his hands in surprise as his nails grew crystal clear and lengthened like claws ... like the dragon's own diamond talons. The change didn't feel like a normal Carpathian shapeshifting. It felt elemental, as if the transformation was happening at more than a cellular level.

Dax fought back, unwilling to relinquish his own body to the soul that had leapt into him. He willed his hand to change back, his nails to soften and shorten. Inch by inch, he fought back the change sweeping over his body, fought to keep his own form.

Inside his body, a second, similar battle raged, only this was not a battle of flesh, but a battle of minds. The dragon's soul surrounded his own and tried to absorb him into itself. It tried to dominate him. But Carpathians were predators, not prey, and Dax was a hunter of immense skill and drive and determination. He did not surrender. Not when fighting the most powerful and heinous vampire the world had ever seen, and not while fighting a powerful, ancient soul for control of his own body.

The dragon rifled through Dax's memories, tearing into his brain, past his substantial inner barriers, ripping through the outer hunter into the depths of Dax's soul. The life of aloneness. The friends and fellow hunters who had turned to evil. The other hunters who had feared and avoided him once they realized he could tell which of them was about to turn vampire. He'd known before they did. Known, and waited close by to kill them before they could harm others.

The Old One found his memories of the friends loved and lost to Mitro Daratrazanoff's evil. The family who had taken him in after his own parents were killed by yet another friend turned vampire. The wish, long forgotten now, for a lifemate of his own. The beautiful Arabejila, companion and friend for more years of life than any unmated Carpathian warrior should ever have to endure. And yet with her, all things had become bearable. The years had not weighed so heavily. The emotions lost to him as he aged had always seemed close at hand when she was near. He had always admired her. Honored her gentleness. Respected her quiet strength. And she had been strong. As strong as he was in her own way. She'd had to be to endure the ruined life Mitro had left to her.

Never once had Dax heard her complain. Oh, he'd seen her eyes grow dark with sorrow. Heard her weep softly in the day when she thought he was asleep. But she'd never complained. Just as she'd never blamed him for not killing Mitro when he had the chance.

Dax had always known Mitro was not right. He'd always stayed close by, waiting for the darkness growing in Mitro's soul to spill over. But when Mitro's soul recognized Arabejila as his lifemate, Dax had thought them safe, thought the power of that bond would keep Mitro from the brink, would heal what was broken inside him.

Instead, it had unleashed the monster. And Dax, who had been lured into a false sense of security, had not been watching as he should-as he would have had Arabejila not been Mitro's lifemate. He'd thought her strong enough to heal him, as she so effortlessly healed all things and all people with just her presence.

She was of the earth. The dragon's voice thundered in Dax's head again, pounding at the edges of his skull.

"Yes," he confirmed. "Stronger in her gifts than any I ever knew."

She sent you to me.

"No, Old One. She is dead. She died long ago."

She is of the earth. She and her daughters. She sent you to me. She sends a daughter to you now.

It surprised him that the dragon knew about the approach of Arabejila's descendent, but perhaps it should not. The dragon, after all, had been buried in this mountain much longer than Dax. It had become the mountain; its flesh had become the mountain's stone; its fire had become the mountain's fire.

"That daughter will not arrive in time. That is why, if you have strength to give, I ask that you give it to me now. If I cannot stop the vampire, he will destroy this world. So tell me, Old One, will you help or hinder me? There is no time left. Decide now." Dax drew a breath and dropped his defenses, baring his mind to the dragon's consciousness, everything he and Arabejila had fought for all these years, everything he had loved and lost, everything he believed in, everything he fought for.

As the dragon's mind had pillaged his mind, its power had tested his power, its strength, his strength, now its soul invaded his, peeling him down to the barest essence of his being and examining him with ruthless thoroughness.

Dax felt like he was drowning in the fires of hell. Before, when the lava had burned him, he'd managed to compartmentalize the pain, push it from the forefront of his mind and ignore it, but now there was nowhere that was not wide open and raw and throbbing with agony. Sweat poured down his body, turning to steam against his superheated skin. Dax hardly noticed. An inferno raged inside him.

Hoping to escape the indescribable agony, Dax transitioned into pure energy, a skill normally used to heal someone else, but even as his body became a white glow of light, he could not escape. The vast, fiery redness of the dragon's soul was there, searing him. Body, mind and soul were invaded with burning heat and energy. A latticework of magic and energy led back to every particle of his being, connecting them. That latticework grew tighter, pulling Dax's light form and the dragon's shimmering red soul together, closer and closer until they touched.

In that instant, for a brief flash of time that seemed to stretch to eternity, the dragon's memories sped through Dax's mind. Eons of existence. Soaring flights. Fiery battles fought between winged behemoths dominating the skies. Dense, savagely beautiful jungles, a world that had existed long before the first footsteps of man. A mate, sleek and beautiful, with wide, wind-filled wings and sharp, curling talons. Then man with his steely spears, hunting the creatures he feared. The beautiful mate fallen to the spears of men. Rage. Fire. Blood and destruction raining from the sky. And finally, age and weariness ... a wound draining ancient strength. A choice to sleep in the heart of the volcano until the world passed away.

The Old One was ancient indeed. A vast, primordial power. An ancient intelligence birthed when the world was still young. Red dragon. Fire dragon. No wonder it had chosen a volcano's heart for its final resting place. The wonder was that it even considered sharing any part of itself with Dax at all.

And share it did. The dragon's long life, each moment of thought or feeling, instinct and craving before this one became part of Dax's memories, part of him. The two became one. Not two beings merged together, but two souls connected by a single body. They could feel each other, move with one another.

The magma pool rose to fill the chamber, and the crystallized remains of the dragon melted back into the liquid earth's blood that had spawned him.

Centuries of living deep in the labyrinth of caves meant Dax had explored every inch possible. He knew the river of lava flowing beneath the earth, a long ribbon of bright orange and red magma and the long tubes that formed the underground subway. He knew every chamber, some with walls of crystalline beauty and others under steaming water. Mud pools bubbled and spat while pools of hot mineral water sent steam rising like fog through caverns.

The problem was that Mitro had had the same time to explore his environment as well. Dax could no longer separate the evil scent from the living abomination; the stench of the undead was everywhere, making it impossible to track him-unless you were a dragon.

Dax felt the Old One stretch, testing senses. Suddenly, like a stick puppet, Dax's body whipped around awkwardly and began moving toward the lava tube on his left. He staggered, his body impossible to control, falling sideways into the wall. The sharp edges of rock scraped at his skin, peeling off the top layer. In the glare of the magma pool, his burnished arm appeared covered in overlapping ovals of red gold. He blinked down at the strange patterning and then touched them. The ovals felt hard, like armor. With his strange diamond-hard nails he tapped them tentatively.

Scales? Like a lizard?

At least it kept him from bleeding. That could come in handy in battle. He'd evolved there in the volcano, and clearly now there would be more changes. The enticing whispers of the earth hadn't disclosed that his body would be altered on an elemental level if he allowed the Old One's soul to share his physical form.

Before he could make a move, his body jerked again toward the lava tube, a large round tunnel he knew went for miles beneath the peaks. He felt like a marionette being jerked around by a drunken puppet master. He sensed the dragon's impatience and realized that being without emotions was a double-edged sword. Carpathian males lived for so long that not feeling was a terrible burden, yet with that came an advantage when hunting.

The dragon was eager for the chase, believing Mitro to be no more than an irritation. He wanted to slumber, didn't want to remain awakened, and once Mitro was disposed of, he planned on doing just that. Dax's body jerked again, his foot lifting awkwardly and then setting down a large stride away, nearly throwing him off balance.

Exasperated, he scowled. Just give me direction. Don't try to control the movements of my body.

How was he going to fight Mitro when he could barely take a step without falling? The dragon hadn't had a body in centuries and Dax's body was far too small for him to comprehend how to move it around.

The dragon gave a snort of derision. It is no wonder this great evil has prevailed. You are a puny one, Carpathian.

Perhaps that is so, Dax soothed. After all, in relation to size, it was true. But I can maneuver this body much more easily than you. If we fight one another how will we succeed in our mission? If pandering to the dragon's ego would result in destroying Mitro, Dax could manage it with no problem.

Power pulsed deep inside, pushing against the restraints of his physical frame. His entire body vibrated, his brain crashing hard against his skull. His body hit the side of the tube hard, this time flinging him to the floor. He couldn't imagine how frustrating it had to be for a massive dragon to find himself confined in a human frame, but Dax was finished reasoning.

And I was told your kind was so intelligent.

Fiercely he pushed back, slamming a wave of massive force straight at the Old One's soul. The internal explosion sent his body reeling. For a moment his head felt as if every bone in his body would shatter. He set his jaw and accepted the pain.

We can do this all night, or work together to destroy the vampire.

Amusement filled his mind. The dragon had a rusty sense of humor. For a puny lizard, you have a hard punch. How do we do this? I cannot work this strange body.

If you can find him, point me in the direction. I'm Carpathian. I know you are aware of the things we can do. I'll shift into whatever we need to hunt him. If we need your form, you take over, otherwise we work as a unit, with you guiding me where we go and me getting us there. Is that acceptable?

There was a long moment of silence. So be it.

Dax didn't give the Old One time to change his mind. He moved into the lava tube at the dragon's urging. As Dax shifted into mist and sped away through the vents and fissures in the black volcanic rock, the dragon was there with him, part of him, a separate soul and consciousness sharing his body, his gifts. Together, yet still separate. More powerful together than either had been apart. Neither of them would ever be alone again. And both of them streaked through the volcano with one purpose foremost in their minds: to stop Mitro Daratrazanoff or die trying.

The tube was miles long, an old subterranean flow that had long since shifted, leaving a wide tunnel extending under the mountain. Dax had been in it often, following Mitro, knowing the vampire was up to something within the tube, but he'd never managed to catch him at anything. As mist, he could travel without giving away his presence if Mitro had set a trap for him, which he did habitually.

Wait. Here. He has not gone beyond this point.

Dax stopped moving instantly, the mist stretching out along with his senses, trying to reason out where Mitro could have gone. The stench of the undead permeated the tube, and he couldn't feel or smell a difference, but he trusted the dragon's instincts. The creature was a fierce hunter and well adapted to stalking in caves.

The tube didn't have any tributaries, not any that Dax could see, or that he'd ever found, yet the dragon sensed that the vampire hadn't continued along the tube, which meant he'd found another way through the mountain-or was disguised and lying in wait for his enemy.

Dax went still, reaching for his dragon senses. The undead was a repulsive, loathsome stench in the home of the Old One. The creature of myth and legend found the presence of a creature so against nature to be abhorrent. The fact that Mitro was in his home had the dragon outraged.

The stench was strongest to his right. Dax studied the rock outcropping. The wall was dark reds, yellow and deep brown. He could detect no hint of Mitro tampering with the wall itself. He experimented with moving slowly, inch by inch, his patience at odds with the dragon's growing emotions of hostility toward the unwelcome abomination in his home.

The hunt took patience, something the dragon had never had to really develop. Dax skimmed along the rock wall, allowing the mist to touch the various colors and settle into the cracks, examining them to see if there was an opening too small to see. Nothing. He moved lower, taking in every inch of the wall. The tube sloped downward, coming to the floor in a relatively smooth overlap. Again there was no sign of Mitro, but he was beginning to feel a sense of urgency.

Dax knew from centuries of experience that when a hunter felt that sudden push, it meant his prey was close and up to no good. He waited a few heartbeats, going still again, getting a feel for the tube and anything that might be out of place. The overhead ceiling was mottled with grays, blues and deep rust colors. The floor was yellow and brown, chunks of rocks scattered everywhere. Small flecks of gray, blue and rust dusted the top of three of the rocks directly below him.

Dax turned his attention to the ceiling, the mist moving in close, pressing against the mottled rock. The surface was much smoother here, the tiny cracks and crevices harder to discern. As mist, he could seep into the little spaces, going as deep as possible before they dead-ended, and he could examine large portions of the ceiling at the same time.

Clever, clever Mitro. There was a pinhole, so small only a tiny bore worm would be able to insert itself into that dot, but the moment the mist touched it, Dax felt the familiar pull that told him he was not only on the trail, but was very close. He moved deeper inside that small opening and almost immediately it widened in circumference. The worm had grown to enormous proportions, burrowing through the rock and then pushing any flakes to the side. A few had escaped through that little pinhole and landed on the rocks below.

Many times over the centuries, Mitro had worked at finding his way out, burrowing close to the shield set in place by Arabejila so many years earlier. The vampire at times had managed to weaken the barrier when the women had become less powerful, but once the ritual was performed, that safeguard held. Clearly, now that the volcano was close to exploding, and the woman was late, Mitro was making another try.

With great stealth, Dax seeped through the ever-widening hole. The larger the bore worm, the more efficient and faster he could go through the rock. Mitro expanded his worm the moment he thought it safe to do so. It was a brilliant and cunning plan. Dax would never have found that tiny pinhole on his own. The stench of the vampire was too strong everywhere, especially in the lava tube. Mitro had made certain his presence was known in every corner and chamber underground. He knew it was his best defense.

Dax wasn't in the least surprised that Mitro had managed to bore a great distance through, up to the barrier itself. He was finding it hard going once he hit the shield. It may have weakened without the necessary reinforcement Arabejila's kin would bring, but the safeguards were still powerful.

Dax crept up behind the great worm. The creature spun fast, turning over and over, a living drill, its head equipped with a diamond-hard bite while the tail acted like a rudder. Dax timed his moment, a hand reaching out of the mist, grasping the spinning tail, shackling it in a grip impossible to break. Immediately he reversed direction, backing up and dragging the worm with him.

Mitro thrashed and fought, but the hole was tight, preventing him from turning and sinking his teeth into Dax. He tried shifting, but Dax refused to relinquish his hold. Mitro couldn't go forward or shift into insubstantial mist. As the hole began to narrow, he shifted just enough to use his diamond-hard nails on his feet like the claws of a dragon, cutting through the rock as if it didn't exist. He widened the hole, maintaining his grip on the worm's tail as he moved backward toward the lava tube.

The moment he felt the air sliding over him, he shifted again, back into his human form, dropping to the floor of the lava tube, dragging Mitro with him. The worm swung his head around, the massive drill bit driving at Dax's body. Without letting go of the tail, Dax pulled his chest out of the way of that whirling diamond point.

The ground lurched, sending him sprawling against the tube. The worm went wild, slamming itself into the wall, trying to bank off the rocks to get at Dax. Deep inside the dragon roused, a blast of warning reverberating through Dax's skull. Temperatures soared in the lava tube, and steam vented through several places in the floor. The ground shook a second time and molten rock burst through the openings. The floor crumbled and melted, dropping down into the lava flowing beneath the tube.

Dax gripped the struggling worm's tail with both hands, determined they would both be destroyed in the magma rocketing into the tube. More and more geysers slung the melted rock high into the air so that it hit the ceiling and splattered in all directions. Desperate, Mitro reversed direction and slashed at Dax's wrist, driving through flesh. The ground gave another lurch, and Dax sprawled onto the floor.

Beneath him the floor opened and magma shot through. He heard his own scream as the flesh of his legs burned away. He lost his grip on Mitro. For a moment it looked as if the molten rock had engulfed the vampire, but with the orange and red stream of magma rose a suspicious steam. Shrieks of pain and rage filled the tube.

Dax had no choice but to survive. Cutting off the excruciating pain was impossible, but he shifted, knowing it was the dragon's scales that saved him. His flesh was burned away and he needed the healing earth immediately. Once again, fate had favored Mitro. The timing of the blast through the tube's floor hadn't been the vampire, but the volcano preparing for a major eruption. The body of the worm had saved Mitro, but he, too, would have to seek the healing soil. Neither had much time; the volcano wasn't going to wait for them.