Darius stood in the forest, gazing down at the carnage before him. He'd flown here at lightning speed, only to learn the unit he'd sent to guard Javar's palace had been bested. They were covered in a white film and blood streamed from bullet wounds. Some were alive. Most were dead. His wings retracted and he dropped his vest. His hands curled into fists. Those humans must be stopped.
"Find the survivors," he called. Then he and the dragon warriors branched off, searching for the living.
He cursed under his breath as moans of pain filled his ears. How many more would die before this ended? Frowning, he strode over to Vorik, who lay prone and still. He knelt down.
Vorik's eyelids opened slowly and Darius pushed out a breath of relief that his man lived. He withdrew a sharp silver blade from his back scabbard and blew fire on the metal. When it cooled, he dug out the bullets just as Grace had shown him. Vorik grimaced and tried to pull away.
"Tell me of the attack," he said to distract him.
"Their weapons... " Vorik said, calming. "Strange."
Renard approached and crouched beside him just as Vorik fainted. "What happened to them?" He touched the white, dusty coating and jerked his hand away. "What is this cold substance that covers their bodies?"
Darius turned stark eyes in his friend's direction. "I do not know what it is. Don gloves if you must, but do as Grace showed us and dig out the bullets."
The carnage reminded him of the day he'd found his family slaughtered, and as he worked, he had to bite back a groan. Had he not shared his pain with Grace, he might have collapsed from the weight of it now. With shaky hands he continued on to body after body. The dragon's recuperative blood helped them heal as soon as the small bullets were removed. If only Javar had known this, how many of his warriors could he have saved?
When he finished, Darius gazed down at his blood-soaked hands. He'd had blood on his hands before, and hadn't reacted. But this affected him. How much more blood would he wear before this day ended? He knew the answer: by the end of the day, blood would flow like a river. He only prayed the blood did not belong to his own forces, but his enemies.
He shoved to his feet, gripping the hilt of his blade. "We must reclaim what belongs to us," he shouted. "Who will fight with me?"
"Me," rang out. Every warrior standing wanted the chance to avenge the wrongs done.
"May the gods be with us," he said under his breath. His wings sprang from his back. He swooped up his vest, gripping the black material and smearing it with blood. Using the strength in his legs, he pushed off the ground. The glide of his wings kept him in the air and moving higher, faster. His army followed behind him. He heard the rustle of their wings, felt the intensity of their determination.
Human guards roamed the top of Javar's palace. When they spotted Darius, they shouted, aimed and fired. In the air, he dodged the multiple rounds of bullets and spewed his own fire. His warriors did the same, burning the humans and their weapons. Then, one of his warriors grunted and was suddenly falling from the sky. He didn't see who it was, but continued breathing his fire.
A gong sounded, loud, high-pitched.
The humans atop the ledge didn't live long enough to hear it. Their scorched bodies withered into ash and floated on the breeze. Darius settled his feet on the jagged crystal. His wings retracted, and he quickly drew on his vest and fastened the straps. When his warriors were properly protected, as well, he met each of their stares one by one and waited for nods of readiness.
He withdrew a long, silver blade with each of his hands and approached the dome seam. Sensing his medallion, the two sides silently parted. He gazed down, but could not see anyone inside, surrounded as they were by a thick fog. He heard the shuffle of their panicked footsteps, however, and the murmur of their fear.
He would have preferred flying into the unknown, but the vest would not allow it.
His men quickly followed suit.
Down, down he fell. When his feet hit the ground, his entire body reverberated with the impact. He grunted and rolled.
Humans screamed and scrambled out of the way. Their shock delayed their reaction, and Darius used that to his advantage. He jolted to his feet, swords raised and struck his first victim. The human gurgled in pain, clutching his chest, then collapsed.
Behind him, his warriors fought valiantly. Breathing fire. Always breathing fire. He didn't pause, but advanced on his next target. A look of sheer terror contorted the young man's features when he realized Darius was coming for him. The man aimed a long black gun at Darius's chest and fired. One bullet after another slammed into Darius, causing only pinpricks of pain. He laughed. Eyes widening, the man dropped his gun and gripped a thick tube that rose from a red canister on his back. White foam sprayed out and over Darius's skin, so cold his blood hardened with ice crystals. His dark laughter increased.
A Guardian of the Mist welcomed cold. Was strengthened by it. He twirled his swords and struck. The man's body spasmed, then sank lifeless at his feet.
The alarm grew louder, screeching in his ears and soon blending with the sound of gunshots. He winced at a sharp sting in his thigh, glanced down, and saw trickles of blood where a bullet had pierced. Never slowing, he rocked forward, using the momentum to slay another enemy.
Having destroyed every human within striking distance, he darted his gaze throughout the room, searching where to fight next. He watched through horror-filled eyes as Madox fell, his body covered in white foam, blood seeping from numerous wounds in his arms and legs.
Darius didn't know if his friend lived or died, and his stomach twisted. With a growl of pure rage, he spewed a stream of fire, catching the last of the humans and igniting them like a bonfire. They did not dodge it fast enough. Their screams echoed from the walls, and the scent of burning flesh filled his nostrils.
The moans soon quieted and smoldering corpses littered the floor. With the battle over, he counted how many of his men still stood. Only three had fallen. He carried Madox outside and lay him on me ground. The others followed, some limping, some relatively unharmed. Renard rushed to his side and examined Madox, then helped remove the bullets.
"He'll live," Renard announced with relief.
Filled with his own relief, Darius gripped the dagger he held and sank the tip into one of the wounds on his leg. He grimaced. The bullets hurt more coming out than they had going in, but he welcomed the pain.
As he continued to work the knife in his other injuries, he realized he and his warriors reigned victorious. Yet... where was the sense of joy and accomplishment he should have had?
"What do we do next?" Renard asked, sitting down beside him.
"I do not know. Their leader, Jason, was not here," he fumed.
"How do you know?"
"The cowardly bastard is-" Darius did not finish his sentence. Something stirred in his soul, something dark, and he knew Grace was in danger. His blood curdled. He ripped off his medallion and held it in his hands. Because he couldn't call on Grace's image, he said, "Show me Jason Graves."
The twin eyes lit with glowing red beams. Jason's image formed in the middle. He was standing in front of Grace-who was chained to a wall. Vampires surrounded the two, eyeing Grace hungrily. She struggled against the chains. "What have you done with my brother?"
"I recaptured him and that dragon whore of his. And if you don't shut your mouth, I'll kill him while you watch. You should not have left the palace, Grace," he said with an evil smile. "Mitch told me how protective Darius is of you. I wonder how much he's willing to give up for you."
"Leave him out of this," she spat, then pressed her lips together. Her face and clothes were dirty and her bottom lip was swollen. Darius's world darkened to one emotion: rage. It was a cold, calculated rage that wanted Jason's blood drenching his hands.
He forced himself to study the rest of the vision, searching for clues as to where Grace was being held. When he saw Layel, king of vampires, he knew-and his fear for Grace grew in intensity.
The vision faded all too quickly.
He squeezed his fingers over the medallion. "Those who are well enough, come with me. We fly to meet the vampires. Now ."
Wings sprouted from his back, ripping away his vest. Every dragon still breathing unfurled his wings, as well. He experienced a moment of pride. These warriors were injured, but they remained faithfully by his side. They would fight-and die if they must.
The vampire stronghold loomed on the horizon.
Black stone gave the large structure a haunted aura, casting shadows in every direction. Even the windows were blackened. No foliage grew here, for no living thing could thrive among the destruction and decay. Drained bodies hung from pikes, acting as a visual warning of the death that waited within, ready to strike.
Grace was inside.
Swallowing back his fear for her, Darius flew to the highest window and motioned for his warriors to do the same. The thin railing provided no ledge to stand upon, so he simply hovered there. A cold sweat covered his skin, and his teeth gnashed together. He was a man who liked to wait and study his enemy before attacking. But he couldn't-wouldn't-wait. Not this time. His warriors watched him, floating on silent wings. He couldn't see through the darkened glass, but could hear voices.
A woman's scream filled his ears. Grace !
He immediately gave the signal. Glass shattered as they propelled inside. Vampires hissed and humans aimed their guns. No longer protected by the vests, the dragons were vulnerable-and they knew it.
Darius pushed, shoved and sliced his way toward Grace. Careful not to burn her with his fire.
When she spied him, she struggled fruitlessly against her chains. "Darius," she called, her voice weak, hollow.
Jason Graves stood beside her, his expression one of shock and rage. Seeing Darius, the coward trained his gun on Grace's temple. Darius did not allow himself to look at his wife's face; he would have crumbled, and he had to stay strong. So it was then that he saw the blood oozing down her neck and onto her shirt.
"We both know I'm going to kill you this day," he told Jason, deceptively serene. "Your actions merely dictate whether you die quickly." His gaze narrowed. "Or whether I make you suffer endlessly."
Jason's hand shook as his gaze darted between Darius and the raging battle. Dragons breathed fire, scorching vampires and humans. Howls and shrieks blended together, creating a symphony of death. Sulfur coated the air.
"Kill me," Jason said, desperate, "and you'll never recover the Book of Ra-Dracus ."
Intent only on saving Grace, Darius stalked toward him.
"One step closer, and I'll kill her. Do you hear me?" he screamed. "I'll kill her!"
Darius stilled completely. Yet... intense fury boiled in his blood, hotter and hotter until finally transforming him into his dragon self. He howled at the suddenness of the change, at the way his body elongated and sharpened. Scales armored his skin. His teeth lengthened and thinned, honed to razor-sharp points. His claws unsheathed. He felt the heat of the change and welcomed it.
Jason's eyes grew round, filling with undiluted terror. "Oh, my God," he gasped. He whipped his gun to Darius and squeezed the trigger.
Darius absorbed the impact of each bullet and launched himself at Jason. He twisted in the air, slashing the man's face with his tail. The bastard screamed, collapsed to the ground, blood seeping from the deep gashes, jewels tumbling from his pockets. Darius reached for him again, but gunfire came at him from a different direction. Another bullet pelted his arm, and he spun, spraying fire at this other enemy. Protecting Grace.
Having regained his breath, Jason scrambled up and stuffed the fallen jewels back into his pockets, the battle forgotten in his greed. Darius swung back to him just as Jason glanced up. Their gazes clashed for one startling second, terror against determination, before Darius bit his throat. Unsatisfied with that, Darius lashed him with his tail, clawed with his hands and slammed the man into the wall. A sickening crack followed as Jason's neck snapped, and he collapsed to the ground in a lifeless heap.
Jason's eyes stared transfixed upon a huge blue sapphire, and his fingers gave one last twitch, perhaps reaching for the sparkling diamond that rolled across the floor toward Grace's boot.
It happened too quickly and wasn't nearly enough. Not for the harm Jason had done. But Grace whimpered, and he suddenly didn't care. Vengeance didn't matter. Justice didn't matter. Only his wife mattered.
"Grace," Darius said, Jason already forgotten. His concern overshadowed all else as he rushed to her. His scales receded, revealing smooth skin. His fangs retracted. His wings curled into his back. When he reached his wife, he ripped her bonds from the wall, and she sank into his arms.
"Darius," she murmured. Her eyes were closed, her face pale.
He lay her gently on the floor and crouched beside her. As if sensing his vulnerable state, the vampire king suddenly appeared before him, his eyes glowing that eerie blue. His sharp, white teeth were bared, ready to strike. The urge to leap up and attack was there, but Darius resisted. He wouldn't risk hurting Grace further.
Layel flew at him. Darius hunched over, protecting Grace with his body. He made no other move toward his opponent. The vampire's teeth sank into his shoulder, but as quickly as Layel attacked, he withdrew.
"Fight, you coward," Layel growled. "We end this here and now."
He glared up at him. "You cannot provoke me. The woman's life is more important, and I will not risk it. Not even to rid our world of your existence."
Blood dripped from Layel's mouth, slashes of red against his pale skin. He looked ready to pounce again, but instead offered, "What are you willing to do for me to save your woman?"
"Call off your bloodsuckers, and I will not burn down your home."
"Burn my home and your woman burns with it."
Grace uttered another whimper. Darius smoothed his hand over her brow, whispering soft words in her ear, though he never removed his gaze from Layel. "My warriors will disengage as soon as the woman is safe."
As he watched them, something indistinguishable came over Layel's expression. Something... almost human. He licked the blood from his mouth. "You love her?"
"I loved once," he said as if he couldn't hold back the words.
Darius studied the taut lines of Layel's features. "Then you understand."
The vampire king gave an almost imperceptible nod, then closed his eyes for a long moment, pensive. When he refocused, he said, "Your men may leave my castle in peace. But we will fight again, Darius. That I promise you."
"I welcome the day."
Layel unfurled his cape and turned, but he wasn't about to leave without offering one final blow. "I know where Ra-Dracus is," he said, grinning over his shoulder.
Before Darius could reply, smoke erupted around him, and the vampire disappeared. Just like that, the rest of the vampires disappeared, as well, and the dragons were left in midbattle stances. Confused, they swung around, their expressions feral as they hunted for their opponents.
"Search the dungeons," Darius called. He continued to hold and rock and coo at Grace, willing his strength into her body.
Long moments later, Renard dragged a human man by the arm. Teira raced at his side, shouting that he was not to be hurt. Alex, Grace's brother Darius realized. The human paled when he saw Grace.
"Grace," he shouted and fought to free himself. Renard held tight.
"These two were in the dungeon," Renard said. "This is the man your woman spoke of, is it not?"
The moment Alex gained his freedom, he sprinted to Grace. "What have you done to her," he snarled, trying to rip her from Darius's arms. "Let her go."
"If you do not remove your hand from my wife, I will remove it for you," he snapped. "The woman is my mate. Mine . That you are her brother is the only reason you will live. No one touches her but me."
Wisely Alex dropped his hands to his side. He lost his fury and desperation, both replaced by confusion. "Your mate?" He knelt beside them. "Is she... "
"She lives. She is merely weak from blood loss."
"Give her time," Darius said, gazing down at this woman he loved and caressing a fingertip down her nose.
"I'm awake," she said quietly. "I'm sorry I left your palace. I thought I could protect you."
Relief shuddered through him, and he couldn't hold back his next words. "I love you, Grace Carlyle."
"That's Grace en Kragin." Her eyelids fluttered open, and she smiled slowly. "And I love you, too."
Darius didn't know where Javar's medallion was, nor did he know where the Book of Ra-Dracus was, but he had Grace, and that's what mattered.
"I was so afraid... "
He cupped her cheeks in his hands. "Hush. All is well. Your brother is here."
To verify this, Alex leaned into her line of vision and grinned. "I'm here, sis. I'm here."
"Oh, thank God." With a grimace, she sat up and wrapped her arms around him, hugging, her grip fragile. "I missed you. God, I was so worried about you."
Darius allowed her a few minutes to reunite with her brother, then reclaimed her in the circle of his arms, exactly where she belonged.
She glanced up at him. "So what do we do from here?"
"I want you to live here with me. We can build a life together and raise our children."
Her eyes filled with tears. "Yes. Yes ."
Chuckling, he smoothed back her hair, then kissed her nose, her lips, her chin. "I think your brother will be staying, as well."
"Really?" Grace glanced at her brother curiously.
Alex wagged his brows and motioned to the beautiful blonde. "He means," her brother said, putting his arm around Teira, "that I've found love, too. Grace, I'd like to introduce my future wife, Teira."
She and Grace shared a secret smile, then Grace turned to Darius. "We can't leave my mom and aunt Sophie on the surface without us."
"I'm sure Layel has room for them."
He smiled at her, a true, genuine smile. "I was teasing, Grace."
She stilled. Blinked. Darius? Teasing? How... shocking.
"You do find teasing acceptable, do you not, sweet Grace?"
"Of course. I just didn't expect it from you."
A tender light consumed his golden eyes. "You thought I lacked humor?"
"Well, yeah," she admitted. She drew in the masculinity of his scent, closed her eyes and savored. "But I love you anyway. You'll adore having my mom and aunt with us."
His lips twitched. "I'm not sure my men are prepared," he said with an undercurrent of humor. "But for you, anything."
"I love you," she said again. "Have I told you the one about the dragon who couldn't say no?"