Smoke burned his lungs. It rose around him in bellowing waves, fed by the numerous fires in the surrounding rainforest. It had been a long, hard fought battle, but it was over and he was done. Most of the main house was gone, but they’d managed to save the homes of the people who served them. Few lives were lost, but each one was mourned—but not by him. He stared at the flames with hollow eyes. He felt nothing. He looked on the faces of the dead, honorable men who had served his family well, saw their weeping widows and their crying children and he felt—nothing.
Zacarias De La Cruz paused for just a moment surveying the battlefield. Where before the rainforest had been lush, trees rising to the clouds, home to wildlife, there was now flames reaching to the heavens and black smoke stained the sky. The scent of blood was overwhelming, the dead, mangled bodies staring with sightless eyes at the dark sky. The sight didn’t move him. He surveyed it all—as if from a distance—with a pitiless gaze.
It didn’t matter where, or which century, the scene was always the same and over the long dark years, he’d seen so many battlefields he’d lost count. So much death. So much brutality. So much killing. So much destruction. And he was always right in the midst of it, a whirling, dark predator, merciless, ruthless and implacable.
Blood and death was stamped into his very bones. He’d executed so many enemies of his people over hundreds of centuries, he didn’t know how to exist without the hunt—or the kill. There was no other way of life for him. He was pure predator and he’d recognized that fact a long time ago—as did anyone who dared to come close to him.
He was a legendary Carpathian hunter, from a species of people nearly extinct, living in a modern world, holding to the old ways of honor and duty. His kind ruled the night, slept during the day and needed blood to survive. Nearly immortal, they lived long, lonely existences, color and emotion fading until only honor held them to their chosen path of looking for the one woman who could complete them and restore both color and emotion. Many gave up, killed while feeding to feel the rush—just to feel something—becoming the vilest, most dangerous creature known—the vampire. Every bit as brutal and violent as the undead, Zacarias De La Cruz was a master at hunting them.
Blood ran steadily from numerous wounds and the acid from poisonous blood burned all the way to his bones, but he felt calm steal into him as he turned and walked quietly away. Fires raged, but his brothers could put them out. The acid blood from the vampire attack soaked into the groaning, protesting earth, but again, his brothers would seek that vile poison out and eradicate it.
His stark, brutal journey was over. Finally. Well over a thousand years of living in an empty, gray world. He had accomplished everything he had set out to do. His brothers were safeguarded. They each had a woman who completed them. They were happy and healthy and he had eliminated the worst threat to them. By the time their enemies grew in numbers again, his brothers would be even stronger. They no longer needed his direction or protection. He was free.
“Zacarias! You’re in need of healing. Of blood.”
It was a feminine voice. Solange, lifemate to Dominic, his oldest friend, with her pure royal blood, she would change their lives for all time. He was too damned old, too set in his ways and oh, so tired, to ever make the kind of changes to continue living in this century. He had become as obsolete as the medieval warriors of long ago. The taste of freedom was metallic, coppery, his blood flowing, the very essence of life.
“Zacarias, please.” There was a catch in her voice that should have affected him—but it didn’t. He didn’t feel as the others could. There was no swaying him with pity or love or gentleness. He had no kinder, gentler side. He was a killer. And his time was over.
Solange’s blood was an incredible gift to their people, he recognized that even as he rejected it. Carpathians were vulnerable during the hours of daylight—especially him. The more the predator, the more the killer, the more the sunlight was an enemy. He was considered by most of his people to be the Carpathian warrior who walked the edge of darkness, and he knew it was true. Solange’s blood had given him that last and final reason to free him from his dark existence.
Zacarias drew in another lungful of smoky air and continued walking away from them all without looking back or acknowledging Solange’s offer. He heard his brothers calling to him in alarm, but he kept walking, picking up his pace. Freedom was far away and he had to get there. He had known, as he’d ripped out the heart of the last of the attacking vampires trying to destroy his family, that there was only one place he wanted to go. It made no sense, but that didn’t matter. He was going.
He looked up as his brothers dropped from the sky, forming a solid wall in front of him. All four of them. Riordan, the youngest. Manolito, Nicolas and Rafael. They were good men and he could almost feel his love for them—so elusive—just out of reach. They blocked his way, stopping him from his goal—and no one—nothing—ever—was allowed to get between him and what he wanted. A snarl rumbled in his chest. The ground shook beneath their feet. They exchanged an uneasy glance, fear shimmering in their eyes.
That look of such intense fear for their own brother should have given him pause, but he felt—nothing. He had taught these four men their fighting skills, survival skills. He had fought beside them for centuries. Looked after them. Led them. Once even had memories of love for them. Now that he had shrugged off the mantle of responsibility—there was nothing. Not even those faint memories to sustain him. He couldn’t remember love or laughter. Only death and killing.
“Move.” One word. An order. He expected them to obey as everyone obeyed him. He had acquired wealth beyond imagining in his long years of living and in the last few centuries he had not once had to buy his way into or out of something. One word from him was all it took and the world trembled and stepped aside for his wishes.
Reluctantly, far too slow for his liking, they parted to allow him to stride through.
“Do not do this, Zacarias,” Nicolas said. “Don’t go.”
“At least heal your wounds,” Rafael added.
“And feed,” Manolito pressured. “You need to feed.”
He whirled around and they fell back, fear sliding to terror in their eyes—and he knew they had reason to be afraid. The centuries had shaped him—honed him into a violent, brutal predator—a killing machine. There were few to equal him in the world. And he walked the edge of madness. His brothers were great hunters, but killing him would require their considerable skills and no hesitation. They all had lifemates. They all had emotions. They all loved him. He felt nothing and he had the advantage.
He had already dismissed them, left their world, the moment he’d turned his back and allowed himself the freedom to let go of his responsibilities. Yet their faces, carved with deep lines of sorrow stayed him for a moment.
What would it be like to feel sorrow so deeply? To feel love? To feel. In the old days, he would have touched their minds and shared with them, but they all had lifemates, and he didn’t dare take the chance of tainting one of them with the darkness in him. His soul was not just in pieces. He had killed too often, distanced himself from all he had held dear in order to better protect those he had loved. When had he reached the point when he could no longer safely touch their minds and share their memories? It had been so long ago he could no longer remember.
“Zacarias, do not do this,” Riordan, the youngest pleaded, his face twisted with that same deep sorrow that was on each of his brothers’ faces.
They had been his responsibility for far too long and he couldn’t just walk away without giving them something. He stood there a moment, utterly alone, his head up, eyes blazing, long hair flowing around him while blood dripped steadily down his chest and thighs. “I give you my word that you will not have to hunt me.”
It was all he had for them. His word that he would not turn vampire. He could rest and he was seeking that final rest in his own way. He turned away from them—from the comprehension and relief on their faces and once again started his journey. He had far to go if he was to get to his destination before dawn.
“Zacarias,” Nicolas called. “Where do you go?”
The question gave him pause. Where was he going? The compulsion was strong—one impossible to ignore. He actually slowed his pace, unsettled by the question. Where did he go? Why was the need so strong in him, when he felt nothing? But there was something, a dark force driving him.
“Susu—home.” He whispered the word. His voice carried on the wind, that low tone resonating in the very earth beneath his feet. “I am going home.”
“This is your home,” Nicolas stated firmly. “If you seek rest, we will respect your decision, but stay here with us. With your family. This is your home,” he reiterated.
Zacarias shook his head. He was driven to leave Brazil. He needed to be somewhere else and he had to go now, while there was still time. Eyes as red as the flames, soul as black as the smoke, he shifted, reaching for the form of the great harpy eagle.
Are you going to the Carpathian Mountains? Nicolas demanded through their telepathic link. I will travel with you.
No. I go home where I belong—alone. I must do this thing alone.
Nicolas sent him warmth, wrapped him up in it. Kolasz arwa-arvoval – may you die with honor. There was sorrow in his voice, in his heart, but Zacarias, while he recognized it, couldn’t echo the feeling, not even a small tinge.
Rafael spoke softly in his mind. Arwa-arvo olen isäntä, ekäm—honor keep you, my brother.
Kulkesz arwa-arvoval, ekäm—walk with honor, my brother, Manolito added.
Arwa-arvo olen gæidnod susu, ekäm—honor guide you home, my brother, Riordan said.
It had been long since he’d heard the native tongue of his people. They spoke the languages and dialects of wherever they were. They’d taken names as they’d moved from country to country, even a surname, when Carpathians never had such names. His world had altered so much over time. Centuries of transformation, always adapting to fit in, and yet never really changing when his world was all about death. At long last he was going home.
That simple statement meant nothing—and everything. He hadn’t had a home in well over a thousand years. He was one of the oldest, certainly one of the deadliest. Men like him had no home. Few welcomed him to their fire, let alone their hearth. So what was home? Why had he used that word?
His family had established ranches in the countries they patrolled throughout the Amazon and the other rivers that fed it. Their range was spread out and covered thousands of miles, making it difficult to patrol, but having established a relationship with several human families, the various homes were always prepared for their coming. He was going to one such home and he had to cover the long miles before dawn.
Their Peruvian ranch was situated on the edge of the rainforest, a few miles away from where the rivers formed a Y and dumped into the Amazon. Even that area was slowly changing over the years. His family had appeared to come into the area with the Spaniards, made up names, uncaring how they sounded as it mattered little to Carpathians what they were called by others, unknowing they would spend centuries in the area—that it would become more familiar to them than their homeland.
Zacarias looked down at the canopy of the rainforest as he flew. It too, was disappearing, a slow, steady encroachment he didn’t understand. There were so many things about modern times he didn’t understand—and really—what did it matter? It was no longer his world or his problem. The compulsion driving him puzzled him more than the answers for the vanishing environments. Little aroused his curiosity, yet this overwhelming need to return to a place he’d been few times was disturbing on some level. Because the drive was a need and he didn’t have needs. It was overwhelming and nothing overwhelmed him.
Small droplets of blood fell into the misty clouds surrounding the emergents, the scattered trees rising above the canopy itself. Beneath him, he could feel the fear of the animals as he passed. Below him a band of Douroucoulis, very small night monkeys, leapt and performed amazing acrobatics in the middle layers of branches as he came upon them. Some fed on fruit and insects while others watched for predators. Normally they would screech an alarm as soon as the harpy eagle was spotted, yet as he passed over the family of monkeys they went completely and eerily silent.
He knew it wasn’t the threat of the large bird flying overhead that caused the forest to go so still. The harpy eagle sat still in the branches, often for long hours at a time and waited for the right meal. He would rocket down with shocking speed and snatch a sloth or monkey right off the trees, but he didn’t, as a rule, hunt in flight. The mammals hid, but snakes lifted their heads at his passing. Hundreds of dinner plate size spiders crawled along branches, migrating in the direction he flew. Insects rose by the thousands at his passing.
Zacarias was used to the signs marking the darkness in him. Even as a young Carpathian, he had been different. His fighting ability was natural, bred into him, almost imprinted before birth, his reflexes fast, his brain working quickly. He had the ability to assess a situation with lightning speed and come up with a battle plan instantly. He killed without hesitation, even in his early days, and his illusions were nearly impossible to detect.
Darkness went deep, a shadow on his soul long before he’d lost his emotions and color—and he’d lost both far earlier than others his age. He questioned everything. Everyone. But his loyalty to his prince and his people was unswerving and that had earned him the undying hatred of his best friend.
He flew with strong wings, fast through the night, ignoring the wounds and his need of blood. As he crossed the border and dropped lower into the canopy, he felt the pull of the compulsion grow. He needed to be on his Peruvian ranch. He simply—needed. The forest stretched out under him, a dark tangle of trees and flowers, the air heavy with moisture. Mosses and vines hung like long, flowing beards, reaching nearly to the watery pools, streams and creeks. Tangled ferns vied for space, creeping over long exposed roots on the dark floor beneath him.
The harpy eagle dropped through branches covered with flowers, liana and all kinds of insects hidden in the jumble of greenery. Far below him he heard the soft call of a treefrog calling a mate and then a courser, much more grating sound adding to the chorus of frogs. An almost electronic trilling joined the symphony as thousands of different voices rose to a crescendo abruptly going silent in an unnatural, spine-chilling alarm as the predator approached, then passed overhead.
The dark night sky turned to a soft dove gray as dawn crept in, stealing away the night’s powerful reign. The harpy eagle dropped from the canopy spiraling down into the clearing where the ranch house was situated. With his sharp vision he could see the river running like a thick ribbon dividing the land. Gentle slopes gave way to steep ridges, deep ravines cutting through the forest. Trees and vegetation snaked across the rocky ground, a dark tangle of growth determined to reclaim what had been taken.
Neat fences bisected the slopes and as the bird flew over the ravines and valley, hundreds of cattle dotted the grasslands. As the shadow of the bird passed over them, they lifted their heads in agitation, trembling, knocking into one another as they turned back and forth trying to find the danger they scented.
The eagle flew over several fields and at least an acre of gardens, all tended well as Zacarias had come to associate with the extended family who served him. Everything was neat, kept in meticulous repair, every chore done to their best ability. Pastures and fields gave way to the large corrals where the horses whirled and tossed their heads uneasily as he flew over them. Below him, the ranch was laid out before him like a perfect picture he could not appreciate.
As he approached the stable, a rush of heat slid through his veins. Deep inside the body of the bird, where he should have felt nothing at all, his heart gave an unfamiliar stutter. The strange fluttering nearly knocked him from the sky. Naturally wary, Zacarias didn’t trust what he didn’t understand. What could possibly send heat rushing through his very veins? He was exhausted from the long battle, the long flight, and the loss of blood. Hunger throbbed with each beat of his heart, clawing and raking for supremacy. Pain from the wounds he hadn’t bothered to heal ripped through him like an ever present jackhammer, drilling through his very bones.
Weeks earlier, he had been so close to turning vampire, the need for relief from emptiness so strong in him, the blackness of his soul without the least relief, that his reaction now made no sense. He was in worse shape. Starving for blood. More kills staining his soul. Yet there was that strange reaction in the vicinity of his heart, that heat pulsing through his veins in anticipation. A trick then? A lure set by a vampire? What was he missing?