Declan ran up the narrow tunnel. Footfalls pounding the earth behind him told him they didn't have much time to escape. Straight ahead, the mouth of the cave yawned, the slight flicker of moonlight revealing their way out.
"I see it," she called over her shoulder, her legs kicking with each powerful stride.
"Fly," he shouted when they neared the ledge. Without slowing, Tallon leapt into the void. Her slight body fell for a split second before she shifted form and took to the sky. Declan made sure she was airborne before pushing off the cliff with a grunt. His long body soared through the cool air, transforming with seamless precision into a black dragon.
As he climbed upward, a glance back showed the vampire soldiers, armed and ready to kill for the treasure he'd carried out of their den.
Turning toward the heavens, Declan beat his wings to climb higher as a barrage of gunshots screamed from below.
"Faster," he shouted telepathically, seconds before bullets tattered the scales of his left wing. A hot spike of pain lanced between his shoulder blades. Slipping in his ascent, he paused to grab a breath.
"Declan. Come on!"
He ignored her. Instead, he stared at the vampire horde twenty feet below. Rage bubbled in his veins at the sight of them spilling out of their seaside catacomb like ants from a hill. A soldier lifted a bow gun to his shoulder and fired. Arrows cut through the sky. Declan swung into their path, taking in his arm the one meant for Tallon. The skewered flesh sizzled.
Silver-tipped arrows. He groaned.
The fine metal acted like a poison on his kind, eating their flesh and siphoning their power from the inside out. Gritting his jaw against the pain, he slashed the knapsack from around his neck and tossed it at Tallon. She caught it in one clawed hand.
"Take it and go."
She looked up. The fear in her eyes eating at his soul. Tonight was not supposed to have gone down like this. They'd gotten what they came for. But he'd be damned if it ended with her getting hurt.
A second arrow ate through his thigh.
"Dammit, Tallon. You promised." He growled. "Get out of here. Now!"
A breath of relief sawed out of his lungs when she nodded. After she disappeared in the darkness, he turned his focus on the vamp with the bow gun. Snapping his wings wide, Declan arced into a kamikaze dive. Fire licked the back of his throat. Smoke curled out of his nostrils.
The vampire saw him coming and turned to run, but he was too late. Declan opened his jowls, raining a torrent of dragonfire on the soldier. Pale flesh melted off his face and hands, pooling on the stones below.
Before Declan could close his jaw, another blitz of gunshots saturated the sky. Blazing heat ripped through his veins with the same burning efficiency as the bullets had torn his flesh. His wings faltered and folded behind him. His elongated muzzle shrunk until cool night air whipped his human face, tossing strands of hair into his eyes.
"Shit," he muttered as he began plummeting toward the ground, human from the waist up.
Unable to stop, he twisted in midair and tucked his chin, waiting for impact. His body smacked the dirt, bouncing and skidding, his flesh eating the small rocks and granules. He slid to a halt. A cloud of dust rose and then settled over him like a blanket, coating his lungs.
Coughing, he rolled to his stomach and opened his eyes to peek. Two soldiers were rushing him. Fast. Their black trench coats billowed behind them, showing off an assortment of weapons strapped to gun belts around their thick waists.
At least six more, all decked out like G.I. Joe on crack, were closing in not ten paces behind them.
The first two almost on him, Declan crouched and sideswiped his leg in an arc, knocking them down. Springing to his feet, he reared his tail. Blood splattered across his face and neck as he lodged the club-shaped ball at the end of it into the nearest vamp's chest. Spinning, he caught the second one by the throat. He snapped the soldier's thick neck around until a sickening crunch reverberated through his arms. Discarding the lifeless heap on the ground, Declan wrenched his tail out of what was left of the other vamp's torso, and turned to face the second wave of soldiers bearing down on him.
"Come on," he said, motioning to the approaching horde. His blood-soaked tail lashed and bit like a whip behind him.
The pack stepped closer. Their teeth were bared and their black claws extended. Not caring if he died tonight as long he took a few of these bastards with him, Declan stepped forward to meet them head-on. He stumbled over heavy feet. Frowning, he looked down. The remaining armor scales on his lower body receded. Then his tail, the only weapon left in his arsenal, shrank back into his body.
The silver, he realized. Its poison was draining his dragon power.
As soon as the thought came, his body screamed in pain, his side and back burning as if someone held a blowtorch to his skin. Cupping the wound, he pulled back a bloody hand.
Another shot fired. Instead of more silver bullets, a heavy net collapsed atop him, dragging him to the ground. The instant his cheek hit the dirt, feet and fists rained down on him. With the net tying him up, all he could do was shield his head with his forearms and wait.
"Enough!" At a female's order, the soldiers backed up a step.
It had to be her. At the thought, an icy shiver passed through him. A rational part of his brain had known she would come for him if he didn't kill her first. Knew she would take her vengeance against his kind out on his flesh—his soul.
Well, he thought, grabbing a fistful of net. He wasn't going without a fight.
With a roar, Declan looped the thick cord around his wrist and pulled, taking several of the horde to their knees. Jabbing a fist through the mesh, he seized the nearest soldier by the throat and squeezed.
"Dammit, Ivan. Hold him," a strong female voice ordered.
At her command, a boot rammed his jaw. Declan flew back, his chin kicking the ground in a teeth-shattering blow. Groaning, he spit out a mouthful of blood and pushed himself up, his head lolling in the direction he'd last heard the woman's voice.
The first thing he focused on were boots— spike-heeled, patent-leather, knee-high stripper boots, wrapped around a pair of slender legs that seemed to go for days. Declan lifted his chin and wrenched his swollen eye wider.
The female stood with one hand propped on black-leather-clad hips. The wind whipped thin blond hair around her—a delicately framed waist, bound in a leather corset that would have given any fetish kink an instant hard-on.
When his gaze finally reached her face, he noted she examined him with black eyes as cold and immortal as his soul. And that she was much too young to be the Queen.
"Where is the crystal?" Her smooth words held a faint trace of a Russian accent.
Not the Queen, but definitely of a noble caste. Declan grinned through bloodied lips.
At his smile, a dainty line furrowed her brow, and she cocked her head to the side. For a moment, she reminded Declan of a confused puppy. Until she raised a sawed-off 12 gauge and one black eye stared down the barrel at him.
"Tell me where it is and I might let you live, Derkein."
"It's gone," he said with a chuckle. "You have nothing to take back to her. You're as dead as I am."
The vixen's onyx eyes flashed silver before she drove the butt of the gun down to his face. He was still smiling when she pistol-whipped his nose and the world plunged into darkness.
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