Dark Storm Chapter 8

Dax stared into the hate-filled, triumphant eyes of the vampire. Just as the volcano had changed Dax, Mitro, too, had evolved into something else. He had spent hundreds of years inside that superheated environment, and to withstand the pressure, gases and heat, Mitro had shifted into a form that was better suited. Over the centuries, his body had taken on the shell of a mutated lizard.

Heavy ridges dissected Mitro's skull, drawing his skin tight over heavy bones. Singed hair stood straight up in spiked razor-sharp rows. Eyelids had grown heavier and the eyes themselves, windows to the soul, reflected back a pure black, no white showing at all, no soul within. Scars from the magma formed deep pits over most of his exposed skin. Slime-covered skin had yellowed and gave off a faint scent of rotten eggs. The chamber began to spin. Poisonous gas infused in the vampire's thick, mottled skin induced lethargy and clouded the mind.

Dax forced his brain to work. The withered heart of the vampire had been incinerated, yet he still lived. How? And how could any hunter possibly kill the undead if he didn't die when he should have? In all the endless years of destroying the undead, he'd never encountered such a thing, nor heard of it.

The mountain shook. A boom reverberated through the chamber. Maniacal laughter grated, slicing through his head. Staring straight into his eyes, Mitro drove his clawing fist deeper into Dax's chest. Agony, bright and hot, robbed Dax of breath. The talons ripped and tore, shredding sinew and muscle, digging a hole, tunneling deep in an effort to reach the Carpathian's beating heart.

That dark parody of a grin widened, jagged, stained teeth in receding gums rushing toward his neck even as the greedy talons grasped at his heart. In that moment everything changed. Dax didn't have the luxury of dying, leaving Mitro loose on the world. Dax had to live no matter what.

He drew back, ignoring the agony ripping through him, took a breath and unleashed a torrent of fire straight into Mitro's malevolent face. The vampire howled, jerking back, twisting his arm viciously as he withdrew his empty fist. Mitro threw himself to one side to avoid the steady stream of flames pouring from the hunter's throat, his scream filling the chamber.

Bright red blood sprayed into the air from Dax's torn chest. Great globs of burning blackened blood, a poisonous acid, from Mitro's open chest splattered through the chamber and burned into ashes, raining down over him. Gases exploded into fiery balls, hurtling through the enclosed space, pitting deep craters into the walls. Vents burst below them, more noxious gas rising along with bright orange-red sprays of molten rock.

Mitro hammered at the thin barrier, slamming into it over and over like a battering ram, dodging the fiery bombs blasting upward from the lower pools of roiling magma. Dax leapt after the vampire, reaching with the tips of his fingers to hook an ankle and yank the undead backward. A thousand tiny needles punctured his palm, burning on contact. His first instinct was to let go, but he forced himself to hold on, dragging the vampire back down toward the bubbling pool of heated rock.

Mitro drove his foot into the hole in Dax's chest. Pain exploded through the hunter. For a moment everything went black. His body shut down, his hand slipping off the ankle. He tumbled through the air before he caught himself. Mitro was at the barrier, ramming his ridged skull over and over into the same spot. Dax streaked upward to try to intercept him again.

The mountain rumbled ominously-held its breath for one still second-and then heaved. The concussion sent both combatants reeling. Dax slammed hard into the wall before he could catch himself. Heat seared his body. Blood dripped from his ears. His vision blurred. The chamber filled with gaseous vapor, and the sudden increase in pressure nearly tore him apart.

In that instant, he felt the Old One rise to protect him. His body had grown accustomed to the conditions of the volcano over the centuries, but neither he nor Mitro would fare well when the volcano erupted and the dragon knew it.

The Old One took possession fast, his soul rising, spreading out to encompass Dax. Crimson and orange scales first engulfed Dax's body, sliding smoothly and efficiently from his head to his toes. The hard shell covered the gaping hole in his chest, but his blood continued to seep out between the scales, staining his chest scarlet.

Dax was used to shapeshifting, but this felt different. When Carpathians shifted, there was no sense of the body completely remaking itself, but this time, there was. He could feel his mass increase, his bones lengthen and reshape. He could feel the wings sprouting from his back, the supple, scaled hide stretching out like vast sails catching an ocean wind. He could feel his nails lengthen, become razor-tipped diamond talons. Strength, agility and raw, primal emotion coursed through his veins. He wasn't a hunter who'd assumed the shape of a dragon: he was a dragon. Mighty. Powerful. Master of fire. King of the sky. And though his consciousness was still there, the Old One was there, too, ancient and powerful and just as deadly.

His wings spread, and his dragon body spun in midair. The long, ridged tail splashed into the magma pool, slinging red-hot rock against the sides of the cavern. But instead of pain, the heat invigorated him, strengthened him. He screamed in triumph and challenge and spewed another jet of hot flame toward the vampire.

But just before the boiling clouds of flame enveloped him, Mitro shifted into a large, scaly black dragon and rammed hard against the barrier, breaching it at last. He bellowed his triumph as the mountain belched, geysers of vapor and fiery material venting through thin spots. There was another short breath and the mountain erupted. Huge, violent plumes of gas, ash and molten rock spewed forth, ripping through the mountaintop and into the sky above. Both dragons went hurtling sideways, driven through the side of the mountain by the force of the blast.

The fiery red dragon tumbled end over end through the sky, disoriented, nearly blind, inside the cloud of fiery ash and gas spreading over the forest. Lightning cracked across the sky. Bright streaks of red and orange fountained into the air. Ash and white-hot mud rained down. Fiery cannonballs of molten rock shot through the air. A river of lava poured out of the gaping wound in the side of the mountain, looking like long ribbons of thick, glowing taffy, twisted and bright, dropping to the forest below. Trees exploded, fiery bombs bursting into flames.

Glowing eyes pierced the veil of the dark cloud and ash to spot the struggling black dragon. Red wings swept down in powerful strokes, propelling him high into the air. The experience was unlike any Dax had ever shared before. He was Dax with the Old One, watching, feeling and thinking with him, yet at the same time he was separate. It felt almost as if his consciousness was a visitor in the dragon's body. The body wasn't his own, and yet it was. The duality left him feeling dazed and a little disconnected.

Yet despite the alienness of his current situation, Dax remained keenly aware of the blood dripping through the scales covering the dragon's chest. Mitro had wounded Dax badly, and that wound had carried over through the transformation. Dax knew he needed to stop the blood loss, and soon. The dragon, however, cared little for the fluid leaking from his chest. Rage and dominance consumed the Old One's mind as he raced toward the floundering vampire that wore the appearance rather than the true form of a black dragon. Banking left and using the ash cloud for cover, the Old One rode the volcano's superheated updrafts to rise above Mitro. When he was positioned above the black dragon, the Old One tucked his wings tight and dove, rocketing downward, plummeting through smoke and ash at deadly speed.

Mitro glanced up just as the red dragon extended its wings and brought its fore and hind legs around, talons extended for a strike. At first Dax thought Mitro would run, but when the black dragon only screamed a challenge and launched toward him, Dax realized Mitro had no idea he was confronting a true dragon rather than the weaker shapeshifted form of a dragon that Carpathians could assume at will.

Mitro thought he had the upper hand.

The Old One was confident that he had the greater size, greater skill, stronger position and momentum on his side. The kill seemed virtually assured.

Inside the dragon, Dax struggled to come to grips with a storm of fierce emotions. Dax had always fought, always killed, with emotionless efficiency. The dragon did not. To the dragon, the fight was life, full of wildness, rawness and pulse-pounding emotions so vivid he could almost taste, touch, see and smell each one. Elation, pure and white, whirled with flames of fiery red aggression, and streaming banners of golden-bright pride. Dax's mind and senses whirled with the overload.

The red dragon slammed into the smaller black one, and they locked together, both falling out of the sky. Wings fluttered wildly, each dragon seeking balance and superior attack position. Long necks writhed. Fangs snapped and tore at scaly hides, seeking a killing bite. The talons of their back legs clutched each other with grim determination, while their forelegs tangled and ripped at vulnerable bellies.

The Old One was stronger and bigger, driving his claws deep into Mitro's belly ripping and tearing through the armored hide to the soft, vulnerable organs beneath. His claws penetrated with each stroke, removing scales and chunks of bleeding flesh.

Within his black dragon form, Mitro screamed in shock and pain and insane rage. He'd been certain of his victory-certain of his physical superiority over Danutdaxton-but each of Dax's blows struck deep, while each of Mitro's own were turned away by diamond-hard scales and a seemingly impenetrable red hide. Mitro didn't understand. How was this possible?

He writhed wildly but could not break free of the red dragon's fierce grip. Locked in a death battle he suddenly realized he might not win, Mitro began a desperate, brutal assault on Dax's one possible weak spot: the scales over his heart where, even in dragon form, blood was seeping from the terrible wound Mitro had dealt him. With vicious determination and demonic speed, Mitro landed a series of punishing blows on the bloody spot. The chest plate bent, but before it could break, Dax's fangs sank deep in Mitro's shoulder, ripping out a massive chunk of flesh and tendon.

Writhing, screaming, ripping, biting, the two giant beasts plummeted toward the burning ground. Seconds before impact, the two dragons ripped apart, wings spread wide to catch the wind and send them soaring in opposite directions.

Mitro pushed hard, pumping his wings with desperate speed to climb back up into the air. The red dragon pursued him with single-minded determination. The calm, relentless, determined hunter who never surrendered the chase.

He couldn't outrun Dax and, though it still made no sense, clearly couldn't best him with strength alone. Mitro needed an edge, an advantage. His eyes narrowed to obsidian slits, focused on the ash cloud billowing from the erupting volcano. Putting on a burst of speed, he flew straight into the boiling black heart of the plume.

Through the Old One's eyes, Dax watched Mitro dive into the superheated ash cloud. As he disappeared from view, the wind shifted, beginning to spiral around the cloud.

What was he doing? The circling winds gathered the particles of hot ash in an ever-tightening vortex around the wounded vampire. Did he think he could hide in the cloud?

The Old One let out another roar of challenge and dove straight toward the vampire, eager to end the threat.

The concentrated debris in the air dropped visibility to zero, but the dragon's vision saw more than even Carpathian eyes. He could see the changes in the density of air, the solid form at the heart of the whirling black ash cloud. The black vampire was motionless, wings outstretched, letting the unnatural cyclonic winds keep him aloft. Dax could almost feel the vampire healing his wounds from the inside. Closing tears in vital organs and stopping blood loss where the dragon had sliced and torn.

The red dragon was practically on top of Mitro when all the rock and debris in the air solidified into a packed wall that completely blocked the vampire from view. Fearless, certain of his dominance, the red dragon brought his hind legs and forelegs into position for another strike, and plowed through the relatively thin barrier, shattering it on impact.

But instead of finding a vulnerable, wounded opponent on the other side of the ash wall, they slammed full force into the hard point of the black dragon's tail-a point Mitro had transformed from simple flesh, scale and bone into a razor-sharp trident of silver spikes, each two feet long and glinting with evil, serrated at the tips.

Screaming in surprise and pain, the red dragon impaled itself on Mitro's spiked tail. Dax gasped in agony, feeling the spikes as if they were tearing through his own flesh.

Luckily, instead of taking the speared tail through the heart, the spike embedded deep in his stomach. The serrated edges were making quick work of the Old One's insides, but because they'd missed the heart, it bought Dax and the dragon a few precious minutes.

Once more, the two dragons were locked in a death battle as they plummeted from the sky. Mitro stuck fast to the other dragon, claws and tail spike digging deep. The Old One continued to claw and shred at Mitro's belly and limbs, teeth snapping at Mitro's neck and head. The black dragon rammed his tail spike up under the red dragon's ribs, seeking the elusive heart, but just as before, Mitro's shapeshifted dragon form was no match for the might of the Old One. Mitro reeled back in pain.

That flinch gave the Old One the opening he'd been waiting for. His teeth bore down lightning fast just above the shoulder, wrapping around the smaller neck, powerful jaws snapping shut with extreme force. The black dragon returned a bite on the other's face, his fangs sinking deep beside the Old One's left eye.

The dragons crashed into the mountainside, rolling down the steep sides, crushing trees in their path. A hard jolt broke them apart. Mitro came to a stop first, while the larger, heavier Old One continued to roll almost to the base of the volcano. Wounded, one wing torn and bloody, the red dragon struggled to its feet and screamed its defiance, eyes still locked on its combatant, refusing to lose sight of his goal.

Inside the body of the dragon, the Old One's rage and pain buffeted Dax with a maelstrom of emotion. The Old One was determined to win despite its injuries. Dax wasn't sure how much more their shared body could take, but the Old One fought off his attempts to control the red dragon. All around them, ash and burning chunks of pumice continued to rain down from the erupting volcano.

The red dragon tucked its weakened wing tight against its back and began to climb up the mountain toward Mitro. Still reeling from the brutal fight and equally brutal landing, the black dragon righted himself with shaky, labored motions. Black wings extended and flapped as Mitro tried to gather his strength and take to the air.

Unwilling to let his prey escape, the Old One put on a burst of speed, latched on to the black dragon's rear leg and threw him into a stand of nearby trees.

Riley blinked rapidly as the cave around them disintegrated. Ash continued to fall, soft drifting petals that choked the air and covered the trees and foliage like down. The forest around them was intact-the blast hadn't flattened the trees on their side of the mountain-but a few scattered fires and mud had done major damage. Several hundred feet up, she could see the devastation of the ruins of the Cloud People's village. Fires glowed all up and down the mountain, orange and red valiantly struggling through the darkened ash swirling in the air.

"We can't stay up here," Jubal said, covering his mouth and nose. "The wind is shifting our way and there's every possibility of a gas cloud coming at us from the other side."

"I can't see a trail," Ben said. "How are we going to find our way back without Miguel?"

"We've got GPS," Gary said. "And once the ash settles enough, we've got friends we can call in to pull us out with a helicopter, but we should try to find Miguel and the others just in case."

Riley's head jerked up. There was that ominous note in his voice-in the way he worded it. She let her breath out, coughed and covered her mouth. "I think I can track them," she admitted with a small glance at Ben.

"Of course you can," Ben said. "You can build caves and stop volcanos. I'm just looking for the thigh-high boots and cape." He flashed her a little grin and wiggled his eyebrows.

In spite of the circumstances she laughed. "I wish I had my cape. I'd fly us out of here."

Gary took the lead. Riley and Ben fell into step behind him. Jubal brought up the rear as they began to make their way down the mountain. Ash was thick powder on the ground, in the foliage, falling from the trees above them until they were nearly drowning in it. They wrapped shirts around their mouths and noses and continued doggedly on.

It was impossible to tell how close to dawn it was with the ash so dense in the sky, obscuring any evidence of light, but her watch told her they had a few more hours before the sun began to climb. It shouldn't have mattered, but if there was an honest-to-God vampire roaming around, then she wanted the sun to come up fast.

She cleared her throat. "Gary, if this ash hangs over the rain forest and keeps it dark, will the ... a ..." Saying the word vampire out loud just sounded ludicrous. She definitely could understand Ben's disbelief even in the face of evidence that some form of evil haunted their journey and pushed the porter to murder her mother.

Gary glanced over his shoulder, his expression sober. "I know it's difficult to believe that such things exist. But it's out there and it's a killing machine. It cannot come out in the sun, that much is true about them. They go to ground and place safeguards around their resting places. If this one was locked in a volcano for hundreds of years without blood to sustain it, it has to be one powerful creature."

"And hungry," she murmured. "Tell me about them. Everything you can think of."

Gary looked up quickly. Fear and panic raced over his face as he fought to find words. Before Riley could look up he spoke.

"I will. Later. Right now, we need to move." His voice somehow seemed calm compared to how she felt when she saw giant red dragon wings outstretched, speeding toward the opposite side of the mountain.

They ran. They raced through trees and brush, leaping over fallen trees and debris, unmindful of the many small cuts and bruises they earned as fronds and branches whipped at their skin. The first time they heard the powerful roar that ripped through the air above them, the sound nearly froze them in their tracks. Then survival instincts kicked in, and a jolt of adrenaline sent them racing even faster.

Adrenaline and lack of breath dueled with one another as they attempted to race over a small rise. A crash came from their left, its strength so great it dropped them to their knees. They couldn't tear their eyes away as trees, dirt and ash were tossed into the air. For a split second Riley thought she made out the shape and color of a red wing, but then it was buried in chaos.

The madness came to an end, but what rose over the treetops below was a sight to dazzle the mind, dust and ash still in the air; the red dragon rose from the rubble, his head and back and folded wings coming fully clear of the smaller trees. Jaw, lined with wicked teeth, opened wide, eyes almost alight with fire, in their depths a crimson red.

A second, much smaller dragon, a gleaming black, burst from the ashes, wings out from its torn, bloody body, the wedge-shaped head reaching with snapping teeth toward the red dragon.

"Holy shit," Ben whispered.

Under the circumstances, Riley found the profanity utterly appropriate. The two enraged dragons turned their heads in tandem and pinned their focus on Riley and her companions.

Fear had been her constant companion this entire trip, but now, as the gazes of the giant red and the smaller black dragon rested on them, fear turned to terror. A rotting, twisted evil shredded her insides, and heat so hot it felt like she was trying to hold the sun in her chest burst through her body.

Riley fell to her knees. Sickness washed through her, seeming to spread from the ground up as if living mold and fungus raced over her skin. A terrible, poisonous voice began clawing at her mind, speaking the same language the porters had used.

Then it was over. The terrible voice fell silent as the black dragon let out a furious roar. The red dragon answered, his shout like a force of nature, the shock waves of the sound strong enough to flatten trees.

Riley's hands came up, covering over her ears. She felt a pressure in her chest as she saw the black dragon turn and climb up the mountain. The red dragon followed close behind.

A hand grabbed her arm and yanked her to her feet. Jubal. The man always seemed to hold on to his nerves no matter what happened.

"We need to get away from here now."

The ground began to rumble and quake. On the volcano less than a mile above them, new vents split open, releasing geysers of steam and hot gas.

"Holy shit." The whispered words sounded crystal clear to Dax's dragon-enhanced senses.

Four humans were huddled together on the ash-covered mountainside. Dax caught a glimpse of shocked faces. Three men huddled protectively around the smaller, curvier frame of a woman. Inside the red dragon, Dax felt a strange awareness-like a crystalline note singing through the dragon's veins. Rich, vibrant, alive. All at once Dax smelt the rich, fertile aroma of the forest, of earth. Through the dragon's eyes, he could see it, a verdant glow of green that seemed to radiate from the spot where the woman's feet touched the ground. Dax couldn't see her face, but Dax knew instantly who she was. The power of the earth was so strong with her, she could only be the latest descendent of Arabejila.

Protect them! he cried into the Old One's mind.

The red dragon snarled and snapped at the air in a clear warning, and the four humans took off running down the mountainside. The black dragon hissed and charged toward them, but the Old One leapt into his path. The two beasts began a bizarre dance between predators as Mitro looked for a way around the giant red dragon, stepping to the side, bobbing his head, only to be matched step for step, move for move.

With no choice but to trust the Old One to keep Mitro from the humans, Dax directed his full attention to healing the dragon's wounds from the inside out, while simultaneously trying to find a way to separate himself from the bombardment of visceral emotion and bring the red dragon under his control. The Old One was a ferocious fighter, but he had no sense of self-preservation and no intention of letting any other being dominate his actions, even for his own good.

Their shared body was badly injured, dangerous amounts of blood gushing from deep wounds, internal organs damaged almost beyond repair, but his spirit fought Dax's attempt to divert him from his prey. The Old One was completely consumed by the need to rend and kill his enemy, regardless of the cost to himself. Within the dragon's body, aware of how close they were to death and even more aware of the vulnerable humans who had resumed their frantic run down the mountain, Dax was equally determined to stop the Old One long enough to heal. He could not afford for them to die before Mitro was defeated-especially not with the woman so close. Yet each time he attempted to exert control, his efforts seemed only to feed the Old One's rage.

Suddenly, the black dragon turned and extended his wings. Long, curving hooks sprouted from the apex of each wing. He used the hooks as a third pair of claws, scrabbling up the volcano in leaps and bounds. With a final, ferocious roar, the red dragon set off after his adversary once again.

The hot rush of emotion rolled over Dax like an ocean of fire, burning him with its wild need. But this time, instead of fighting that fury, he relaxed into it, let it wash over and through him. He didn't try to stand fast. Instead, he tried to make himself as insubstantial as mist.

The Old One's anger and destruction surrounded him. The dragon's innate determination to dominate any threat plowed into him, and this time, Dax let that fury pass through him without resistance. Lightly, with serene patience and endless calm, his senses branched out through the dragon's body. He was not an interloper in the dragon's body. He was the dragon. Not a separate consciousness, not a separate will, but one and the same. He did not want to imprison or control the dragon, but rather merge their consciousnesses, let their thoughts and actions become one. The dragon offered raw power, primal and indefatigable. Dax offered calm, judicial restraint, the ability to plan, think and act without passion, without rage, without emotion. If he could successfully join the dragon's might with his own legendary control, together they would be unstoppable. Together they could-and would-end the threat Mitro posed to the world.

But they would only succeed if they could act as one, rather than fighting each other for control.

Above them, higher up the volcano's slope, Mitro had turned his attention to the bubbling fury of the earth's hot core. The ground began to tremble as Mitro directed the volcano's heated gases and acids to the surface. Steam began to rise from the cracks and fissures in the rocks. The main blast of the volcano had exploded on the other side of the mountain, but now Mitro was opening another vent on this side ... one that would mean certain death for the four humans racing down the mountainside.

Mitro knew Dax too well. Knew how to distract him. Mitro called it weakness-to care for those helpless before a hunter's great power-but that need to serve, to protect, was the only thing that had ever stood between Dax and the same darkness to which Mitro and so many other Carpathian hunters had succumbed. The innocent must be protected at all cost. It was the reason Dax had been born. The reason he lived still.

The dragon's bloodlust was in full force as the Old One fought to pursue Mitro and end him. Fire spewed from his throat, roaring up the mountain, licking at the black dragon's tail.

Mitro leapt into the sky just as the volcano split open. The side of the mountain burst open, throwing boulders and trees through the air like a child's toys. Burning clouds of ash and superheated gas roared down the mountainside at phenomenal speed.

As diversions went, it was a superb one. To go after Mitro now would mean certain death for the humans. With only a split second to decide, Dax made his choice.

We must save them, Old One. The woman, especially.

He didn't try to force the dragon to his will, instead he merged his will with the dragon's, weaving their most instinctive drives together. With a scream, the Old One wheeled around and launched into the air, diving at a steep incline toward the fleeing humans below. As they neared the small group, dragon's wings spread wide, forming a protective shield over their bodies. Ash and burning rock pelted the dragon's hide. He locked his claws deep in the earth and swept his wings tight around the small party, ignoring their shouts of fear and surprise as he caged the humans in a protective dome formed by his curled body and overlapping wings. The dragon tucked his head beneath his wings as the pyroclastic cloud slammed into him.

His good eye was pressed against his tail. His left eye was temporarily blinded by the wound Mitro had dealt him, so he couldn't make out the faces of the people trapped beneath his wings. There was so much dust and ash from his landing that he doubted any of the people could see anything. They'd probably have a hard time breathing soon, too. But they would survive, and that was the important thing.

Dax tried to calm the Old One, to silence the instinctive growls rumbling in the dragon's chest. He didn't want to frighten the humans more.

Then, to his utter shock, a hand slipped out and touched the wound next to his eye. The touch was such a small, tiny thing, but so unexpected-so fearless and unafraid-that both Dax and the dragon froze in stunned paralysis.

Long, long ago, before even Dax had been born, the world told tales of dragons and maidens. Some said, a maiden's call was impossible for a dragon to resist. But now, as the woman laid that small, soft, gentle hand upon him, Dax knew it wasn't her call-it was her touch. A caress that gentled the savage heart of the beast. It was such a paradox-frailty that conquered strength.

Finally, the volcanic blast subsided, and for another, long moment, no one moved. Dax wasn't sure what to do. Everything in him-every thought, every one of his senses, every nerve in the dragon's body-was focused on that small, slender hand laid alongside the dragon's wounded eye.

Abruptly, foul, crowing laughter rang out in his mind, snapping him out of his strange daze.

Once again you have failed, Danutdaxton. Just as you will always fail. Mitro's sneering voice choked Dax's enhanced senses with rotting filth. Because I am the superior being, and you will always be weak!

The Old One unfurled his wings and flung himself back on his haunches. Despite his wounds, the dragon roared a defiant challenge with enough force to be heard for miles, then spouted a jet of intense flame high into the sky, a beacon in the dark of night. It cut through the ash and clouds, lighting the area in a fiery glow. But Mitro was already gone.

Sapped of strength, the Old One turned slowly back to the humans, who had covered their ears against his shattering roar and curled up in tight balls to protect themselves from the intense heat of his flame. They were huddled in the only small spot of greenery left on this part of the mountain. As the echoes of his scream died away, they lifted their heads and slowly got to their feet.

Dax's heart skipped a beat as he caught his first good look at the woman-at the extraordinarily beautiful face that was as familiar to him as his own. The lush, womanly curves, the soft, fathomless dark eyes, the long, iridescent black hair and skin as pale as milk beneath the layer of volcanic ash that covered her from head to toe.

Arabejila? Hiszak han olen te? He whispered the question in astonishment on the private path they had forged between themselves centuries ago. Was it truly her? She had been an ally in his pursuit to bring Mitro to justice, but he'd felt her die centuries ago. Hadn't he? It seemed impossible that she could have survived all these years ... and yet, there she stood.

She turned as if she might be seeking the protection of the three men with her, but the Old One surprised him by curling his tail more tightly, trapping her and forcing her a step closer. Her scent dizzied him as they breathed her in.

Her heart thundered in his ears. Clearly, the red dragon frightened her. Perhaps she could sense, as Mitro had not, that the Old One was a true dragon, not simply a shape assumed by the Carpathian hunter she had once known.

Dax radiated his will through every cell of the dragon's body and their mutual, merged consciousness. The Old One was too weary from battle to fight for control, and the great, fiery red scales and immense mass of the dragon folded in upon itself. Shrinking down and metamorphosing back into the tall, muscled density of Dax's natural form.

"Arabejila. Hiszakund olenaszund elavanej." He truly had thought she was dead.

She stumbled back, raising her hands as if to ward him off, clearly shocked that the massive bulk of the dragon would disappear to leave a human form standing before her. Two of the men in her company sprang into action, pulling weapons of some kind and rushing toward him, lethal intent plain in the cold glitter of their eyes.

Had he misread the situation? Were these men holding her prisoner?

Dax reacted instinctively, moving with preternatural speed. "Arabejila, run!" he shouted in Carpathian. "Run, my sister! If they are Mitro's slaves, he will soon return."

He disarmed Jubal, breaking his arm with a clear, audible snap. The man fell to his knees, clutching his arm to his chest.

"Sisar?" the man repeated in Carpathian almost under his breath. Then in an odd dialect Dax was unfamiliar with, "Gary, wait, he thinks she's his sister. He's trying to protect her."

Dax caught Jubal by the strange clothing covering his chest. The hunter pulled his hand back, fingers curved into diamond-tipped claws, ready to rip out the human's throat, when Arabejila cried out in the same, odd dialect as the first man.

"No! Stop! Don't hurt him! Please!"

Dax froze. Not because he understood her command-though the plea in her voice was unmistakable-but because at the first sound of her voice, an enormous wave of emotion crashed over him. Not the fiery, rage-fueled emotion of the dragon, but something deeper, fuller, more visceral. It shook him to his core. And the black-and-white world of his Carpathian vision deepened as well, becoming richer, more varied.

Before his brain could process the change, before he could understand or even put a name to it, a loud blast sounded behind him. Something hard and hot tore through his back, ripping a path through his chest. Dax staggered, releasing the man in his grip and falling to one knee. In a daze, he put a hand to his chest. It came away wet, covered in dark liquid.

"Gary, stop! Stand down. Put the damned gun away!" The man with the broken arm pushed forward, shoving the others out of the way. "Olenasz? Nimed olen?" A demand to know his name.

Jubal glanced up at the others. "Someone, give me a light. I need a light over here."

A small, shockingly bright light flared into existence. It blinded Dax for an instant, and then focused on the bloodied mess of Dax's chest.

His blood gleamed bright, shocking scarlet in the light. His skin, once the pale white that had never seen the sun, was a burnished mahogany brown.

Dax stared up into Arabejila's eyes. Not black but a rich, dark brown, the color of fertile earth so necessary to every Carpathian's survival. But she wasn't Arabejila. She wasn't the friend who had traveled and hunted beside him for centuries. She was someone else entirely. Someone he had long ago ceased to think could possibly exist.

He reached for her, his bloody hand brushing a streak of red across the ash coating her cheek. Palafertiilam.

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