I was half-alive for a thousand years.
I'd given up hope that we'd meet in this time.
Too many the centuries. All disappears
as time and the darkness steal color and rhyme.
– Dominic to Solange
Carpathian males without a lifemate didn't dream. They didn't see in color and they certainly didn't feel emotion. Pain, yes, but not emotion. So why had he been reaching for a dream for the past few years? He was an ancient, an experienced warrior. He had no time for fantasy, or for imagination. His world was stark and barren, a necessity for battling an enemy who, inevitably, had been a friend or family member.
Over the first hundred or so years after losing his emotions, he had held out hope. As centuries passed, the hope of finding his lifemate had faded. He had accepted he would find her in the next life and he was carrying out his resolve to do his last duty to his people. Yet here he was, an ancient of great experience, Dominic of the Dragonseeker line, a lineage as old as time itself, a man of wisdom, a warrior renowned and feared—lying awake beneath the rich soil, dreaming.
Dreams should have felt insubstantial—and at first his had been. A woman. Just a vague idea of her appearance. So young in comparison to him, but a warrior in her own right. She hadn't been his concept of the woman who would partner him, yet as she grew in substance over the years, he realized how perfect she was for him. He had fought far too long to ever lay down his sword. He knew no other way of life. Duty and sacrifice were bred into his very bones and he needed a woman who could understand him.
Perhaps that was what dreams were. He'd never dreamt until a few years ago. Never. Dreams were emotions, and he'd long ago lost those. Dreams were color, although not his. But they felt like color as the years shaped the woman. She was a mystery, sheer confidence when she fought. She often had fresh bruises and wounds that left scars on her soft skin. He'd taken to examining her carefully each time they met—healing her had become a traditional greeting. He found himself smiling inside, thinking how she was entirely the opposite of confident when it came to viewing herself as a woman.
For a few moments he contemplated why he should be smiling inside. Smiling was equated with happiness, and he had no emotions to feel such things, but his memories of emotions were sharpening as he moved toward the end of his life, instead of dimming as he had expected. Because when he summoned the dream, he felt a sense of comfort, of well-being and happiness.
Over the years she had become clearer to him. A jaguar-woman. A fierce warrior with exactly the same values he held on loyalty and family and duty. He would never forget the night, only a week ago, when he saw her eyes in color. For a moment he couldn't breathe, looking at her in wonder, shocked that he could remember colors so vividly that he could attribute an actual color to her cat's eyes.
Her eyes were beautiful, glowing green with faint hints of gold and amber that darkened when he managed to elicit a laugh from her. She didn't laugh often or easily, and when she did, he felt it was more of a victory than any of the battles he'd won.
As dreams went—and they only occurred when he was awake—they always seemed a bit out of focus. But he looked forward to seeing her. He felt protective toward her, as if his allegiance had already swung toward his dream woman. He wrote to her, songs of love, saying all the things he wished to tell his lifemate. And when she refused to rest, he'd lay her down, her head in his lap, stroking her thick mane of hair and singing to her in his language. He'd never felt more content—or more complete.
He stirred, disturbing the rich soil surrounding him. The moment he moved, the pain took him, thousands of knives ripping from the inside out. The tainted vampire blood he'd deliberately swallowed had been thick with parasites, and they moved in him, replicating, seeking to take over his body, to invade every cell, every organ. And as often as he purged some to keep the numbers down, they seemed to work harder to multiply.
Dominic hissed out his breath between his teeth as he forced his rising. It was not yet fully night and he was an ancient Carpathian with many battles and kills to his name. As a rule ancients didn't rise before the sun had set, but he needed the extra time to scout his enemy and get his bearings in this land of walking myths and legends.
Deep within the cave he'd chosen in the Amazon forest, he moved the earth gently, allowing it to settle around him as he awakened, wanting to keep the area as undisturbed as possible. He traveled only at night, as his kind did, listening to the whisper of evil, on the trail of a master vampire, one he was certain had knowledge of the plans to destroy the Carpathian species once and for all. His people knew that the vampires were coming together under the rule of the five. At first the groups had been small and scattered, the attacks easily fended off , but lately the whisper of conspiracy had grown into a roar, and the groups were larger and more organized and widespread than first thought. He was certain the parasites in the tainted blood were the key to identifying all those forging an allegiance to the five masters.
He'd gleaned that much over his days of traveling. He had tested the theory several times, coming across three vampires. Two were relatively new, and neither had the parasites and were easy for an experienced hunter to kill. But the third had satisfied his questions. The moment he came into close proximity, the parasites had gone into a frenzy of recognition. He had listened to the vampire bragging for most of the night, telling him of their growing legions and how emissaries were meeting in the Amazon, where they had allies in the jaguar-men and a human society that had no idea they were in bed with the very ones they sought to destroy. The masters were using both humans and jaguar-men to hunt and kill Carpathians. Dominic had killed the vampire, a quick extraction of the heart, and, calling down the lightning, incinerated him. Before leaving the area, he had taken great care to remove any trace of his presence.
He knew time was running out fast. The parasites were hard at work, whispering to him, murmuring evil enticements, unrelenting in their quest for him to join with the masters. He was an ancient without a lifemate and the darkness was strong in him already. His beloved sister had disappeared hundreds of years earlier—he now knew she was dead and her children safe with the Carpathian people. He could do this one last task and end his barren existence with honor.
He rose from the rich soil, as rejuvenated as one with parasites in his blood could possibly be. The cave deep beneath the earth kept the sun from touching his skin, but he felt it anyway, knowing it was just outside the darkness, waiting to scorch him. His skin prickled and burned in anticipation. He strode through the cave with absolute confidence. He moved with the easy self-assurance of a warrior, flowing over the uneven ground in the darkness.
As he began the climb to the surface, he thought of her—his lifemate, the woman in his dreams. She wasn't his true lifemate of course, because if she were he would be seeing colors vividly, not just her eyes. He would see the various shades of green in the rain forest, but everything around him remained gray hued. Was finding solace with her cheating? Was singing to her about his love of his lifemate cheating? He longed for her, needing to conjure her up at times to get through the night when his blood was on fire and he was being eaten alive from the inside out. He thought of her soft skin, a sensation that seemed amazing when he was like an oak tree, hard iron, his skin as tough as leather.
As he neared the exit of the cave, he could see light spilling into the tunnel and his body cringed, an automatic reaction after centuries of living in the night. He loved the night, no matter where he was or what continent he was on. The moon was a friend, the stars often guiding lights he navigated by. He was in unfamiliar territory, but he knew the De La Cruz brothers patrolled the rain forest, although there were five of them to cover a very large territory and they were spread thin. He had a feeling the five who were recruiting the lesser vampires against the Carpathians had deliberately chosen the De La Cruz territory as their headquarters.
The Malinov brothers and the De La Cruz brothers had grown up together, more than friends, claiming a kinship. They'd been regarded by the Carpathian people as two of the most powerful families, warriors unsurpassed by many. Dominic thought about their personalities, and the camaraderie that had turned into a rivalry. It made sense that the Malinov brothers would choose to set their headquarters right under the noses of the very ones who had plotted theoretical ways to remove the Dubrinsky line as rulers of the Carpathian people and then, in the end, had sworn their allegiance to the prince. The Malinov brothers would become the De La Cruz brothers' most bitter and unrelenting enemies.
Dominic's logical line of reasoning had been confirmed by the vampire he had killed in the Carpathian Mountains, a very talkative lesser vampire who wanted to brag about all he knew. Dominic had made his way, taking no prisoners, so to speak, surprised at how the parasites were such a fantastic warning system. It had never occurred to the Malinov brothers that any Carpathian would dare to ingest the blood and invade their very camp.
Going closer to the cave entrance, he was hit by the noise first, the sounds of birds and monkeys and the incessant hum of insects in spite of the steady rain. It was hot, and steam actually rose from the floor just outside the cave as the moisture poured down from the skies. Trees hung over the swollen banks of the river, their root systems great gnarled cages, the thick tendrils snaking over the ground to create waves of wooden fins.
Dominic was impervious to rain or heat; he could regulate his own temperature to stay comfortable. But those thirty feet or so from the entrance of his cave to the relative safety under the thick canopy were going to be hell, and he wasn't looking forward to it. Traveling in the sun, even in another form, was painful, and with the sensation of glass shards ripping his insides to shreds, he had enough to contend with.
It was difficult not to reach for the dream. In her company, the pain eased and the whispering in his head ceased. The constant murmurs, the parasites working on his acceptance of the masters and their plan, were wearying. The dream gave him solace in spite of knowing his lifemate wasn't real.
He knew he had slowly built up his lifemate in his mind—not her looks, but her characteristics, the traits that were important to him. He needed a woman who was loyal beyond all else, a woman who would guard their children fiercely, who would stand with him no matter what came at them, one he would know was at his side, and he wouldn't have to worry that she couldn't protect herself or their children.
He needed a woman who, when it was just the two of them, would follow his lead, who would be feminine and fragile and all the things she couldn't be during the times they would have to fight. And he wanted that side of her completely to himself. It was selfish, maybe, but he had never had anything for himself, and his woman was for him alone. He didn't want other men to see her the way he did. He didn't want her to look at other men. She was for him alone, and maybe that was what a dream really was—building the perfect woman in your mind when you knew you'd never have one.
He was well aware of her fighting skills. He saw the battle scars. He respected and admired her when he walked with her, yet he couldn't really hold her image for long. In dreams she came to him, shielded by a heavy veil, their exchanges in images more than words. It had taken a long time for either to reveal any part of themselves other than the warrior. They'd built trust between them slowly—and he liked that about her. She didn't give her allegiance easily, but when she did, she gave it wholly. And it was to him.
Again he found himself smiling inside at such a ridiculous fantasy at his age. It must be a sign of his mind deteriorating. Senility had set in. But how he missed her when he couldn't bring her to him. She seemed closer there in the heat of the forest, with the rain coming down in silvery sheets. The veil of moisture reminded him of the first time he'd managed to peer through that haze in his dream and see her face so clearly. She'd stolen his breath. She'd looked so frightened, as if she'd deliberately revealed herself—finally taken a chance, but stood trembling, waiting for him to pass judgment on her.
At that moment he'd felt closer to actual love than he ever had before. He tried to compare the feeling with what he'd felt for his sister, Rhiannon, in the early days when they'd all been happy and he still had his emotions. He'd held on to the memory of love all those centuries, yet now, when he needed the feeling to complete his dream, before he went out fighting, the feeling was entirely different.
Feeling. He turned the word over and over in his mind. What did it mean? Memories? Or reality? And why would his memories be so sharp all of a sudden, here in the forest? He smelled the rain, inhaled the scent of it, and there was an edge of pleasure in the sensation. It was frustrating, to almost catch the feeling, and yet it eluded him. It wasn't simply a byproduct of ingesting the vampire blood—he'd begun "dreaming" much earlier. And the dreams took place while he was awake.
He was suspicious of all things that didn't make sense. He wasn't a man prone to dreams or fantasies, and this mythical woman was becoming too much a part of his life—of him. She was tricking him into thinking she was a true lifemate—a reality instead of a myth—yet here in the land where myths and legends came to life, he could almost convince himself she was real. But even if she was, it was far too late. The continual pain clawing at his belly told him his time had run its course and he had to carry out his plan to infiltrate the enemy camp, gain their plans, send the information to Zacarias De La Cruz and then kill as many vampires as he could before he went down. He chose to go out fighting for his people.
He shifted, taking the form of the lord of the skies—the harpy eagle. The bird was larger than normal, and the harpies were already large birds. His wingspan was a good seven feet, his talons enormous. The form would help to protect him as he went into the sunlight before reaching the relative shelter of the canopy. He hopped on the ground and into the light. In spite of the heavy rain, the light burst over him. Smoke rose from the dark feathers, pouring off the bird's form. He'd suffered burns and his body remained ravaged with the scars, although they'd eased over time, but he would never forget that pain. It was branded into his very bones.
Sharply sucking in his breath, he forced himself to spread his wings and rise toward that hideous burning mass of heat. The rain sizzled over him, spitting and hissing like an angry cat as the large bird took flight, wings flapping hard to get height to take him into the trees. The light nearly blinded him, and inside the eagle, he shrank away from the rays, no matter how diffused by the rain. It seemed to take forever to cross the thirty feet, although the bird was in the trees almost immediately. It just took a few moments to realize the sun was no longer directly on his feathers. The sounds of hissing and spitting gave way once again to the calling of the birds and monkeys, this time in sharp alarm.
Below him, a porcupine dropped the figs he'd been dining on as the shadow of the eagle passed overhead. Two female spider monkeys, drunk on fermented fruit, stared up at him. The Amazon rain forest passed through eight borders, extending through the countries with its own diverse life forms. A silky anteater climbing in the branches of a tree paused to gaze at him with a wary eye. Bright red and blue macaws called warnings as he flew above them, but he ignored them, expanding his circle ever wider to take in more and more territory.
The eagle moved noiselessly through the forest, as high as the canopy would allow, without emerging above it, covering miles. He needed the shelter of the twisted limbs and heavy foliage to block the light. With the eyes of the harpy eagle he could see something as small as an inch from more than two hundred yards. He could fly at speeds of up to fifty miles per hour if he was in open territory, and drop with dizzying speed if needed.
Now, eyesight was the primary reason for having chosen the eagle's form. He spotted hundreds of frogs and lizards dotting the branches and trunks as he swept by. Snakes coiled along twisted limbs, hiding among blossoms drenched in rain. A margay shrank deeper into the foliage of a tall Kapok tree, its large eyes fixed on prey. The eagle dipped lower, inspecting the overgrown vegetation. Limestone blocks lay half buried in debris, strewn about as if by a willful hand. A sinkhole shimmered with blue water, testifying to the presence of an underground river.
The eagle continued to expand his circle, covering more and more miles, until he found what he was looking for. The bird settled high in the branches of tall tree on the edge of a man-made clearing. A large building made of steel and bolts had been brought in piece by piece and constructed sometime in the last year. Growth around it had been encouraged, presumably with an eye to hiding it, but there hadn't been enough time for the forest to reclaim lost terrain.
Something had blown a hole through the metal from the outside, and a fire had started. The smell of smoke couldn't mask the stench of rotting flesh rising to make his skin crawl even deep within the form of the bird. Vampire. The scent was there, although faded, as if many risings had gone by since the undead had visited this place. Still, the wail of the dead rose from the surrounding ground.
The right side of the building was blackened and the hole gave glimpses of the interior. A very recent battle, perhaps in the last couple of hours, had taken place here. The sharp eyes of the eagle could see the furniture overturned inside, a desk and two cages. A body lay on the floor, unmoving.
Two men—human, he was certain—stood outside the building in combat gear, large guns strapped to their shoulders. One tipped a bottle of water to his mouth and then stepped back into the relative shelter of the doorway, trying to avoid the steady rain. The second stood stoically, the water drenching him, as he said a few words to the first guard before moving on to circle the building. Both watched vigilantly, and the guard in the doorway favored his left leg, as though he'd been injured.
The eagle watched, motionless, hidden in the thick, twisted branches and umbrella leaves up above the clearing. It wasn't long before a third man appeared, coming out of the forest. Naked, he was thick-chested with stocky legs and heavily muscled arms. He carried another man over his shoulder. Blood streamed down his shoulder and back, although it was impossible to tell if it was from the unconscious man or him. He staggered just before he reached the door, but the guard didn't move to help him. Instead, he stood to one side, the muzzle of his gun barely raised, but enough to cover the newcomers.
Jaguar-men. Shapeshifters. There was no doubt in Dominic's mind. Someone had attacked this facility and done a considerable amount of damage. Obviously the human guard was leery of the jaguar-men, but he allowed them into the building. The second guard had hung back and covered the two shapeshifters, his finger on the trigger. Clearly it was an uneasy truce between the two species.
Dominic knew the jaguar-men were on the verge of extinction. He had seen the decline a few hundred years earlier and knew it was inevitable. At that time, the Carpathians had tried to warn them of what was coming. Times changed and a species had to evolve in order to survive, but the jaguar-men had refused the advice. They wanted to stick to the old ways, living deep in the forests, finding a mate, impregnating her and moving on. They were wild and bad-tempered, never able to settle.
The few jaguar-men Dominic had spent any time with had tremendous feelings of entitlement and superiority. They viewed all other species as inferior, and their women were seen as little more than a vessel to carry off spring. The royal family had a long history of cruelty and abuse toward their women and female children, a practice the other males viewed as example and followed. There were a few rare jaguar-men who had tried to convince the others that they needed to value their women and children, rather than treating them as property, but they were considered traitors and were shunned and ridiculed—or worse, killed.
In the end the Carpathians had left the jaguar-men to their own devices, knowing the species was ultimately doomed. Brodrick the Tenth, a rare black jaguar, led the males just as his father and his ancestors before him had done. He was considered a difficult, brutal man, responsible for the slaughter of entire villages, of the half-breeds he deemed unfit to live. It was rumored he had made an alliance with the Malinov brothers as well as the society of humans dedicated to wiping out vampires.
Dominic shook his head at the irony. Humans couldn't distinguish between a Carpathian and a vampire, and their secret society had been infiltrated by the very ones they were trying to destroy. The Malinovs were using both species in their war against the Carpathians. So far, the werewolves hadn't come down on either side, instead staying strictly neutral, but they existed, as Manolito De La Cruz had found with his lifemate.
Dominic spread his wings and moved closer, tuning his hearing to catch the conversation inside the building.
"The woman is dead, Brodrick. She went over the cliff . We couldn't stop her." There was weariness and distaste in the voice.
A second voice, one filled with pain, added, "We can't afford the loss of any more of our women."
The third voice was lower, a growl of sheer power, stunning in the absolute authority it carried. "What did you say, Brad?" The voice conveyed a distinct threat, as if the very idea of any of his subjects having a thought of his own in some way made him a traitor.
"He needs a doctor, Brodrick," the first voice hastily intervened.
Dominic watched as a large man dressed in loose jeans and an open shirt emerged from the house. His hair was long, shaggy and very thick. Dominic knew instantly he was looking at Brodrick, the ruler of the jaguar-men. His prince had decreed the Carpathians should leave the species to its own fate, otherwise Dominic would have been tempted to kill the man where he stood. Brodrick was directly responsible for the deaths of countless men, women and children. He was consumed with evil, drunk on his own power and the belief that he was superior to all others.
Brodrick looked at the two guards contemptuously. "What the hell are you doing hanging out in the doorway? You're supposed to be doing a job."
The second guard kept his gun pointed in Brodrick's direction even as the two human men moved in opposite circles, the one who'd been sheltering in the doorway limping badly, confirming Dominic's belief that he'd been wounded. Brodrick scowled up at the rain, allowing it to pour onto his face. He spat in disgust and stalked around to the side of the building where the fire had been. Crouching, he searched the ground. He was thorough about it, leaning down to sniff, using all senses to pick up the trail of his enemy.
Suddenly he sat back on his heels, stiffening. "Kevin, get out here," he called.
The jaguar-man who had carried the wounded one hurried out, barefoot, but in jeans and pulling on a T-shirt that strained across his chest. "What is it?"
"Did you get a good look at whoever broke in and freed Annabelle?"
Kevin shook his head. "He's a hell of a shot. He took out two guards, the bullets so close together everyone thought only one shot had been fired."
"There aren't any tracks. None. Where the hell was he? And how did he know the precise place to blow the building to free Annabelle? There were no windows."
Kevin glanced in the direction of the guards. "You think someone helped him?"
"What happened out there?" Brodrick gestured toward the forest.
Kevin shrugged. "We went after Annabelle. She ran through the forest toward the river. We thought maybe it was her man, the human she spoke of, coming to try to save her. We didn't need weapons to fight him, so we both shifted. We'd be faster traveling through the forest than Annabelle, even if she shifted."
It had been logical thinking, Dominic conceded from his lofty perch above them, but they'd lost the woman.
Brodrick shook his head. "How did Brad get shot? And where's Tonio?"
Kevin sighed. "We found his body just on the other side of the caves. He'd tangled with another cat. Brad was kneeling beside him, and the next thing I knew, he was on the ground and we were pinned down. I had no weapon and I shifted to try to circle around and find the shooter, but I couldn't find any tracks."
Brodrick swore. "It's her. She did this. I know it was her. That's why you didn't find any tracks. She took to the trees."
Neither said who she was. Dominic wanted to know who the mysterious woman they obviously hated—and feared—could be. Someone he wouldn't mind meeting. Four of the five De La Cruz brothers had lifemates. Could the elusive woman be one of their lifemates? It was possible, but he doubted it. The De La Cruz brothers would not want their women in battle. They were men with fiercely protective natures, and coming to this part of the world had only increased their dominant tendencies. They had eight countries to patrol, and the Malinov brothers would know how impossible it was to cover every inch of the rain forest. They would never, under any circumstances, send their women out alone. No, this had to be someone else.
The eagle spread its massive wings and took to the air. The sun was beginning to fade, making him a little more comfortable, but the whisper of the parasites grew louder, tempting, pushing his hunger to a ravenous level, until he could barely think straight. It was only the bird's form that kept his sanity as he tried to adjust to the rising level of torment. As the night grew closer, the parasites went from sluggish to active, stabbing at his internal organs while the vampire blood burned like acid. He needed to feed, but he was becoming more and more worried that insanity was grabbing hold and he wouldn't find the strength to resist the temptation of a kill while feeding.
Each rising he'd woken voraciously hungry, and each time he fed, the parasites grew louder, pushing for a kill, demanding he feel the rush of power, the rightful rush of power, promising sweet coolness in his blood, a feeling of euphoria that would remove every pain from his weary body.
He kept to the shade of the canopy as he expanded his exploration, heading for the site of the battle, hoping the eagle could spot something the men hadn't. He found the cave entrances, very small and made of limestone, but these didn't seem to curve back underground to form the labyrinth of tunnels as the cave system miles away had done. There were only three small chambers and in each he found Mayan art on the walls. All three caves showed evidence of occupation, however brief, but violent in some way. There were dried spots of blood in all of them.
He took to the sky again, a vague uneasiness in his gut. That bothered him. He had seen horrific sites of battle, torture and death. He was a Carpathian warrior, and his lack of emotion served him well. Without a lifemate to balance the darkness in him, he needed the lack of emotion to stay sane over a thousand years of seeing cruelty and depravity. Yet the sight of the blood in that cave, and the knowledge that women had been brought there by the jaguar-men to be used as they wished, sickened him. And that should never happen. Intellectually, perhaps. An intellectual reaction was acceptable, and the honor in him would rise up to abhor such behavior. But a physical reaction was completely unacceptable—and impossible. Yet…
Unsettled, Dominic expanded his search to include the cliffs above the river. The rain continued, increasing in strength, turning the world a silvery gray. Even with the clouds as cover, he felt the bright heat invading as he burst into the open over the river. A body lay crumpled and lifeless in the water, caught on the rocks, battered and forgotten. Long, thick hair lay spread out like seaweed, and one arm was wedged in the crevice two large boulders made. She was faceup, her dead eyes staring at the sky, the rain pouring over her and running down her face like a flood of tears.
Cursing, Dominic circled and then dropped. He couldn't leave her like that. He just couldn't. It didn't matter how many people he'd seen dead. He would not leave her, a broken doll with no honor or respect for the woman she'd been. From what he'd gleaned from the conversation between Brodrick and Kevin, she had a family, a husband who loved her. She—and they—deserved more than her body battered by water, left to swell and decompose and be fodder for the fish and carnivores that would feast on her.
The bird settled on the boulder just above her body, and he shifted, covering his skin with a heavy cloak, the hood helping to protect his neck and face as he crouched low and caught her wrist. He was strong and had no trouble pulling her from the water and into his arms. Her head lolled back on her neck, and he saw the bruises marring her skin and the prints around her neck. There were circles, black and blue around her wrists and ankles. Again he was shaken by his reaction. Sorrow mixed with rage. Sorrow was so heavy in his heart that it slowly blotted out the rage.
He took a breath and let it out. Was he feeling someone else's emotions? Did the parasites amplify emotions around him, adding to the high the vampire received from the terror his victim felt—from the adrenaline laced blood provided? That was a possibility, but he couldn't imagine that a vampire could feel sorrow.
Dominic carried the woman into the forest, every step increasing the heartache. The moment he entered the trees, he scented blood. This had to have been where the second battle had taken place and Brad had been wounded. He found where the third jaguar-man had shed his clothes and gone on the hunt, hoping to circle around and take the shooter.
There were few tracks to show the jaguar's passing, a small bit of fur and a partial track the rain had filled, but it wasn't long before he found the body of the cat. There had been a battle here, one between two cats. The dead cat's prints had been heavier, and spread farther apart, indicating he was larger. But the smaller cat had obviously been a veteran fighter; it had killed with a bite to the skull after a fierce struggle. The foliage was soaked in blood and there was more on the ground.
Dominic knew the jaguars would return to burn the fallen cat, so after carefully studying the ground to commit the victorious jaguar's prints to memory, he carried the woman to the most lush spot he could find. A grotto of limestone covered in tangled vines of flowers would be her only marker, but he opened the earth deep and gave her a place to rest. As the soil closed over the woman, he murmured the death prayer in his native language, asking for peace and for her soul to be welcomed into the next life, as well as asking that the earth receive her body and welcome her flesh and bones.
He stayed a moment while the rays of the sun sought him out through the cover of the canopy and rain, burning through his heavy cloak to raise blisters on his skin. The parasites reacted, twisting and shrieking in his head, his insides a mass of cuts that caused him to spit blood. He pushed some of them from his body through his pores. He found that if he didn't decrease the number, the whispers grew louder and the torment impossible to ignore. He had to incinerate the writhing mutated leeches before they slipped into the ground and tried to find a way back to their masters.
He moved the vegetation on the ground to cover all signs of the grave. The jaguar-men would come back to remove all traces of their species, but they wouldn't find her. She would rest far from their reach. It was all he could give her. With a small sigh, Dominic checked one last time, making certain his chosen spot looked pristine, and then he shifted once more, taking the shape of the eagle. He needed to find where the victorious jaguar had gone.
It didn't take long for the sharp eyes of the eagle to spot his quarry several miles from the site of the battle. He simply followed the sounds of the forest, the creatures warning one another of a predator close by. The eagle slid noiselessly through the tree branches and settled on a broad limb high above the forest floor. The monkeys howled and shrieked warnings, calling to one another, occasionally throwing twigs down at the large spotted cat weaving its way through the brush toward some unknown destination.
The jaguar was female, her thick fur spotted with dark rosettes and, in spite of the rain, blood. She limped, slightly dragging her back leg where the worst of the lacerations seemed to be. Her head was down, but she looked lethal, a flow of spots sliding in and out of the foliage so stealthily that at times, even with the eagle's extraordinary eyesight, it was difficult to spot her against the vegetation of the forest floor.
She moved in complete silence, ignoring the monkeys and birds, padding along at a steady pace, her muscles flowing beneath the thick fur. So intrigued was Dominic by her dogged persistence in traveling in spite of her severe injuries, it took several minutes before he realized the hideous whispers in his mind had eased significantly. All the times he had drained off the parasites to give himself some relief, he had never had them cease their continual assault on his brain; yet now, they were nearly silent.
Curious, he took to the skies, circling overhead, staying within the canopy to keep out the last rays of the sun. He noted that the farther he was from the jaguar, the louder the whispers became. The parasites ceased activity the closer he got to her, so that the stabbing shards of glass cutting his insides remained still, and for a short time he had a respite from the brutal pain.
The jaguar continued to move steadily into deeper forest, away from the river and into the interior. Night fell and still she traveled. He found that he couldn't leave her, that he had no wish to leave her. He began to equate the strange calming of the parasites with her, as well as the even stranger emotions. The rage had subsided into an unrelenting sorrow and anguish. His heart was so heavy of a burden he could barely function as he moved overhead.
Below, large limestone blocks appeared, half buried in the soil. The remnants of a great Mayan temple lay cracked and broken, trees and vines nearly obliterating what was left of the once-impressive structure. Scattered over the next few miles were the remains of an ancient civilization. The Mayans had been farmers, growing their golden corn in the middle of the rain forest, whispering with reverence of the jaguar and building temples to bring sky, earth and the underworld together.
He spotted the sinkhole, and beneath it the cool waters of the underground river he'd noted earlier in the evening. The jaguar continued without pause until she came to another Mayan site, although this one had been used more recently. The thick growth of tangled vines and trees put the date nearly twenty years earlier, but clearly there had been more modern houses here. A generator, long since rusted and wrapped with thick lianas and shoots of green, lay on its side. The ground wept with the memories of battle and the slaughters that had taken place here. The sorrow was so heavy now, Dominic needed to ease the burden. The harpy eagle flew through the canopy a distance away from the jaguar and remained motionless, just watching, as the jaguar made her way through the long ago battlefield, as if she were connected to the dead who wailed there.