The wolf waited for the clouds to move back in place and then it walked boldly into the open, deliberately keeping his back to Fabrezo. Anton's eyes narrowed, and an evil smile twisted his mouth. His hand raised the gun, his finger finding the trigger. Before he could pull the trigger the wolf whirled in midair and smashed into Anton's chest, driving through bone, ripping straight for the heart.The wolf leaped over the body, his manner contemptuous as he loped to the cabin. His eyes were tearing continually, streaming water no matter how narrow the slits. The heaviness spreading through his body was far more difficult to ignore. Aware of time passing, the wolf sprinted up the stairs to the door. One claw contorted, lengthened to fingers so that he was able to grasp the doorknob and push the heavy door open. The need for sleep was almost overpowering and Jacques was waiting for the herbs.Distorted, clawed hands hung the bag of precious herbs around the thick, muscular neck, and then the wolf was in a dead run, racing the climbing sun as it burned away the thick cloud covering.Thunder cracked unexpectedly. Thick black clouds, heavy with rain, blew across the sky, providing Mikhail with dense cover from the sun. The storm rolled in over the forest fast, with wild winds kicking up leaves and swaying branches. A bolt of lightning sizzled across the sky in a fiery whip of dancing light. The sky darkened to an ominous cauldron of boiling clouds. Mikhail bounded into the caves and raced along the narrow maze of passages toward the main chamber, shape-shifting as he ran.Gregori's cool silver gaze slid over him as Mikhail relinquished the herbs. "It is a wonder you have been able to tie your shoes without me all of these centuries."Mikhail sank down beside his brother, one hand over his burning eyes. "It is more of a wonder you have stayed alive with your ostentatious displays."Ancient language, as old as time, flooded the chamber. Gregori's voice was beautiful yet commanding. No one had a voice like Gregori's. Beautiful, hypnotic, mesmerizing. The ritual chant provided an anchor in the uncertain sea in which Jacques was floating. Rich soil mixed with Gregori's saliva was a collar around the wounded Carpathian's neck. Gregori's blood, old and powerful beyond measure, flowed in Jacques's starved veins. Gregori crushed and mixed herbs, adding them to the mixture around Jacques's neck."I repaired the damage from the inside out. He is weak, Mikhail, but his will is strong. If we put him deep within the earth and give him time, he will heal." Gregori pushed a poultice into Mikhail's hand. "Put that on your eyes. It will help until we get you in the ground."Gregori was right. The poultice was soothing, a cool ice melting the fire. But somewhere deep inside another nightmare was starting. A yawning, black, empty hole that began to stretch, to crawl through him, whispering dark, insane thoughts. No matter how many times his mind reached for Raven's, he found emptiness. Intellect told him she was in a deep sleep, but his Carpathian blood cried out for her touch."You need to go to ground now," Gregori pointed out. "I will fix the safeguards and ensure we are not disturbed.""With a big sign saying 'Gregori lies here, do not disturb'?" Mikhail asked softly, his voice a low warning.Gregori lowered Jacques's body deep within the healing earth, in no way disturbed by Mikhail's sarcasm."You may as well have written your name in the sky with that display, Gregori.""I want the vampire to be very clear about who I am, whom he has chosen for his enemy." Gregori's shoulders shrugged in a lazy ripple of power.Need crawled along Mikhail's skin like a thousand biting ants, stinging his organs and gnawing at his sinews. He raised red, swollen eyes to Gregori's harsh, yet curiously sensual features. There was such power in Gregori; it blazed in the silver of his eyes. "You think with Raven that I am complete and no longer have need of you. You deliberately draw the danger to yourself, away from me and mine, because in your heart you believe you can no longer hold out. You welcome the danger of the hunt; you are seeking a way to end this life. Now, more than ever, our people need you, Gregori. We have hope. There is a future for us if we can survive the coming years."Gregori sighed heavily, looked away from the steel in Mikhail's eyes, the censure blazing there. "There is purpose in saving your life, but for me, not much else."Mikhail pushed a hand through his thick mane of hair. "Our people cannot do without you, Gregori, and quite simply, neither can I.""You are so certain that I will not turn?" Gregori's smile was humorless, self-mocking. "Your faith in me exceeds my own. This vampire is ruthless, drunk on his own power. He craves the killing, the destruction. I walk the line of that madness every day. His power is nothing, a feather in the wind compared to mine. I have no heart and my soul is dark. I do not want to wait until I cannot make my own choice. The one thing I do not want is to force you to seek me out to destroy me. My life has been my belief in you, in protecting you. I will not wait until I must be hunted."Mikhail waved a tired hand to open the earth above his brother. "You are our greatest healer, the greatest asset to our people.""That is why they whisper my name in fear and dread."Beneath their feet the ground suddenly shook, heaved and bucked, rolled perilously. The center of the earthquake was obviously a great distance away, but there was no mistaking the howl of rage produced by a powerful vampire at the destruction of his lair.The undead had entered his lair confidently, until he found the body of the first wolf. Each turn or passage entrance was marked with one of his minions, until his entire pack lay dead at his feet. Fear had turned to terror. Not Mikhail, whose sense of justice and fair play would be his downfall, but the dark one.Gregori.It had not occurred to the vampire that the dark one might take a hand in this game. Andre hurtled himself from the safety of his favorite lair just as the mountain heaved and the chamber walls collapsed. Cracks widened in the narrow passageway and the rock faces inched closer and closer together. The clap of granite grinding against granite nearly burst his eardrums. A true vampire making numerous kills was far more susceptible to the sun, and to the terrible lethargy that claimed Carpathian bodies in the day. Andre had little time to find a safe hole. As he burst from the collapsing mountain, the sun hit his body so that he screamed with the agony of it. Dust and rock spewed from his home, and the echo of Gregori's taunting laughter drifted down with the debris from the earthquake."No, Gregori." There was amusement in Mikhail's soft voice. He floated into the soothing arms of the earth. "That is a good example of why they whisper your name in fear and dread. No one understands your dark humor the way I do.""Mikhail?"Mikhail stayed the hand closing the blanket of soil over him."I would not endanger you or Jacques with my challenge. The vampire cannot get by my safeguards.""I have never feared Andre. And I know your spells are strong. I think our friend has his own problems finding somewhere to rest out of the sun. He will not be disturbing us this day."Father Hummer walked the circuit of the rock walls surrounding them. There were no windows, and their prison seemed heavily constructed, the walls so thick, he was certain they were soundproof. No light penetrated the walls, and the complete darkness was oppressive. The priest had piled every blanket available over Raven's ice-cold body, but he was certain she had died from loss of blood. He could not detect a pulse or breath since they had been shoved into the room. After first baptizing Raven and administering the last rites to her, Father Hummer had begun to carefully feel his way around the room in hopes of finding a way to escape.The vampire, Andre, was using Raven to draw Mikhail to this place. Edgar, knowing Mikhail as well as he did, knew the plan could not fail. Mikhail would come, and God have mercy on Slovensky's soul.A small sound, a shuddering wheeze of lungs laboring, drew his attention. Father Hummer felt his way back to Raven. Her body was shivering uncontrollably beneath the pile of blankets. She was as cold as ever. The priest put his arms around her, seeking comfort for both of them. "What can I do to help you?"Raven opened her eyes. She could see clearly in the darkness, examining the tightly constructed cell and then Father Hummer's worried face. "I need blood.""I'll be happy to donate, my child," he responded instantly.She sensed his weakness. In any case, Raven could never take blood in the Carpathian manner. Her mind reached for Mikhail's, an automatic reaction. Pain exploded in her head. She moaned softly, clutching her temples.Do not try, little one.Mikhail sounded strong, reassuring.Conserve your strength. I will be there soon.Is Jacques alive?Sending the message put shards of glass in her skull.Thanks to you. Rest.It was an order - a clear, imperious demand.A smile tugged at the corner of Raven's soft mouth. "Talk to me, Father; distract me." She was very weak but did not want to draw the priest's attention to it."I'll keep my voice low just to be safe," Edgar said, close to her ear. "Mikhail will come, you know. He would never leave us here." He rubbed his hands up and down her arms to try to bring heat to her laboring body.Raven nodded her head, a difficult task when it felt like lead. "I know what he is like. He would give up his life for us in a heartbeat.""You are his lifemate. Without you, he would become the vampire of legends, a monster without equal in the human race."Raven fought for each separate breath. "Don't believe that, Father. We have our own evil monsters. I have seen them, followed them. They are every bit as bad." She clutched the blanket closer to her. "Have you ever met Mikhail's friend, Gregori?""He's the one they call the dark one. I've seen him, of course, but only once. Mikhail has voiced his fears for him often."Raven's breath wheezed in and out, a harsh sound in the quiet of the cell. "He's a great healer, Father." She took another shuddering breath. "And he is loyal to Mikhail. Do you believe there is hope for their race?"The priest made the sign of the cross on her forehead, on the insides of each of her wrists. "You are their hope, Raven. Don't you know that?"Mikhail touched her mind with his. He was closer, the bond between them powerful. He flooded her with love, enfolded her in strong, protective arms.Holdon, my love.His voice was a black-velvet seduction of tenderness in her mind.Do not come to this evil place, Mikhail. Wait for Gregori,she pleaded.I cannot, little one.Lights flickered in the cell, on, off, back on again, as if a generator was being powered up. Raven's hand found Father Hummer's. "I tried to stop him, to warn him, but he will come.""Of course he will." Edgar's eyes were blinking in the sudden light. Father Hummer was worried about Raven. Her breath sounded strangled, labored.The heavy door clanged and creaked as it swung open. James Slovensky peered at them. His eyes fastened on Raven's face as if drawn irresistibly. Her blue eyes met his across the room. "What's wrong with you?" he demanded.A faint, taunting smile curved her soft mouth. "I'm dying. I think that's plain enough even for you to see." Her voice was low, a mere thread of sound, but so musical that it was impossible not to be entranced by it.Slovensky advanced farther into the room. Raven could feel Mikhail in her, building his strength, his power, crouching, waiting to strike. She also felt a sudden uneasiness.Wait. The vampire comes.She dragged a shuddering breath into her laboring lungs, the sound loud and distressed in the room.Slovensky was shoved carelessly across the room with one powerful swat from Andre's hand. He stood framed in the doorway, flushed from a fresh kill. His eyes were flat and held a kind of contempt, a merciless promise of savagery. "Good morning, my dear. I am Andre, come to take you to your new home."He glided across the room, clearly enjoying his power over them all. As he approached her, his eyes darkened with rage. "You were told to feed on the priest.""You were told to go to hell." She said it in her soft, musical voice, deliberately baiting him."You will learn it is better to obey me," he snapped. Angry at her defiance, he caught the priest by the front of his shirt and hurled him against the stone wall. It was done coldly, callously, without thought of the consequences. "If you are not going to use him for food, we have no need of him, do we?" The vampire's smile was wholly evil.Father Hummer's body had fallen to the floor heavily, his skull cracking audibly on impact. There was a gasping sound as his lungs fought for air, then a soft sigh as they gave up the fight.Raven bit back a scream, struggled for air, her grief so overwhelming, that for a moment her mind couldn't function.Mikhail, I'm sorry. I angered him. This is my fault.She felt the warmth of his love surround her, the brush of his fingers so tender on her face.Never that, my love.She felt his sorrow mingle with hers. Raven lifted her blue-violet eyes to the face of the vampire. "Now, how do you expect to control me?"The vampire bent down, his smile evil, his breath foul. "You will learn. Now you will feed." He snapped his fingers, and Slovensky nearly tripped over his own feet to run out of the cell and return with a glass of dark, murky liquid. His hand trembled as he passed it to the vampire, careful to avoid the razor-sharp long nails. "For you, my dear; breakfast." The vampire held the glass close enough for her to smell the contents. Fresh blood tainted with something else, some herb she didn't recognize."Drugs, Andre? Isn't that stooping a little low even for one such as you?" She had to fight every moment just to breathe, to keep from breaking down and sobbing out her grief for the priest. If only she hadn't angered the vampire.Andre's face darkened when she uttered his name with such contempt, but he simply stared into her eyes, flooding her with compulsion, the need to obey him.Loathing him as she did, fearful for Mikhail and grief-stricken over the priest and Jacques, Raven summoned every ounce of strength she possessed and fought a mental battle with him. Her head nearly exploded with pain and only when little beads of blood appeared on her forehead did he relent.The vampire pushed down his fury at her rebellion. She was close to death and if she died all his scheming would be for nothing. "You will die if you do not feed. I know Mikhail knows this. Do you hear me, prince? She dies. Force her to accept what I offer."You must do this, little one.Mikhail's voice was gently coaxing.Youwill be dead before I can reach you, and above all else, you must survive.The blood is drugged.Drugs do not effect Carpathians.Raven sighed, looked once more at the vampire. "What else is in it?""Only herbs, my dear, herbs that will confuse you a bit, but will ensure that my friends have plenty of time to study Mikhail. They can keep him alive, a prisoner here. Is that not what you want? That he remain alive? The alternative is to kill him immediately." He pushed the glass at her.Her stomach knotted in rebellion. It would just be so much easier to close her eyes and stop struggling for every breath. She could barely stand the pain in her head. She was responsible for Jacques's grave wound, for Father Hummer's death. Worst of all, her beloved Mikhail was racing straight into the arms of the enemy because of her. If she just stopped...No!Mikhail's voice was sharp and imperious.Do not!Gregori added his strength to Mikhail's protest.The vampire wrapped his hand around her throat in his fury that she might choose death and defeat him.His touch made her skin crawl; her stomach roiled in protest. Suddenly the vampire screamed and leaped back away from her, his face contorted in fury and pain. Raven could see his charred and blackened palm, still smoking as he held it to his chest. Mikhail had sent his own warning and challenge."You think he will win," the vampire snarled at her, "but he will not. Now drink!" His hands closed around her wrist, steadying her hand.Raven's mind splintered and screamed at the close proximity of such evil. The crumpled body of Edgar Hummer lay in plain sight, no more than a heap of refuse to the vampire. Touching Andre, she could read his mind easily. He was the most depraved being she had ever encountered.The drug would confuse her enough that he could make her believe she belonged to him. Mikhail would be kept alive, living in pain and torment, too weak to attack his captors. Slovensky enjoyed inflicting pain. His brother was eager to dissect a vampire, experiment on one. The vampire was certain the Slovensky brothers would die at the hands of the avenging Carpathians. She read it all, the betrayal and the hideousness of the undead's plans.Mikhail! Do not come to this place!She resisted the compulsion to drink the tainted blood, struggling feebly in the vampire's foul hold.I will not allow you to fall into their hands. I will choose death."Drink!" The vampire was becoming alarmed. Her heart was stuttering with effort. There was a smear of crimson across her forehead, indicating agony."Never," she said between clenched teeth."She dies, Mikhail. Is this what you want for her? She dies in my arms, with me, and I have won anyway." Andre shook her in his fury. "He will commit suicide the moment you relinquish life. Are you so stupid that you do not realize that? He will die."Her blue-violet eyes searched the gaunt face. "He will destroy you first." She said it with complete conviction.My love.Mikhail's voice was black velvet, soothing in her pain-filled mind.You must allow me to decide this matter. You give me no choice but to force your compliance. This should be our decision together, but you cannot see beyond the threat to me. He cannot defeat me. Believe that; hold on to that. He cannot separate us. We live in each other. He does not understand our bond. Together we are too strong for him. I will allow him to capture me. I allow it; that is all.The vampire knew the moment Mikhail's will dominated. Raven allowed the glass to be brought to her lips. Even under compulsion, her body tried to reject the nourishment. The vampire could feel her stomach heave and fight. Her bond with Mikhail allowed her lifemate to calm her enough to accept what the vampire offered.Her heart and lungs responded almost immediately to the liquid. Her breathing became less labored; her body grew warm. The moment Mikhail relinquished her will, Raven attempted to squirm away from the vampire. He tightened his arms around her, deliberately rubbing his face against hers. His laughter was cruel, gloating even. "You thought him strong, did you not? But, you see, he jumps to do my bidding.""Why are you doing this? Why do you betray him?""He betrays all of our people." Mikhail strode through the door, tall and strong, looking invincible.Slovensky flattened himself against the wall, trying to appear inconspicuous. Andre pressed a razor-sharp claw into Raven's jugular. "Be very, very careful, Mikhail. You could kill me, there is no question, but she will die first." Andre dragged her even closer, locking her in front of him as he lifted her body completely off the ground. Blankets scattered as Raven was dangled helplessly, her eyes fastened on Mikhail.Mikhail's smile was tender, loving, as he focused on her face.I love you, little one. Be brave."What do you wish, Andre?" His voice was gentle and low."I want your blood.""I will give it to Raven to replenish her."Raven's heart slammed against her ribs. Deliberately she leaned into Andre's claw. A dot of blood beaded, trickled down her neck. The vampire tightened his arm around her ribs, nearly cracking them. "Do not do such a stupid thing again," he reprimanded her, then turned his attention back to Mikhail. "You cannot come close enough to her to give blood. Drain it into a container."Mikhail shook his head slowly.He wants my blood for himself, love, to become more powerful, to aid the drug in confusing your mind.Already he could feel the effects of the drugs in her. She was struggling to stay with him.I cannot allow him my blood.The words echoed sadly.Raven reached for Gregori.You must come.The drug he has given you is an ancient one,Gregori explained, the words brushing softly in her mind,made from the pressed petals of a flower found only in the northern regions of our lands. It will disorient you, but that is all. The vampire will attempt to plant his own memories of you with him and then will use pain to control your thoughts. He has established a blood bond, so he can monitor you. When you think of Mikhail, he can cause you pain. It is not the drug, it is the vampire. Censor your thoughts as much as possible to conserve your strength. When you reach for Mikhail as your mind and body must, Andre must not know. You focus better than any Carpathian I have known. He knows nothing of our bond. I can find you anywhere. The moment I am finished attending Jacques, I will go to Mikhail. You have my word Mikhail will survive. We will find you. Stay alive for the sake of all our people.The vampire and Mikhail stared across the room at one another. Power emanated from Mikhail's every pore. He looked coolly amused by the vampire's dilemma.A ripple of malevolence distorted the tense vibrations in the room, striking at Raven's temple.Mikhail!She screamed the warning in her mind as Slovensky shot him three times. In the small cell, the noise was a loud clap of thunder reverberating off the rock walls. The bullets drove Mikhail backward and he fell beside Father Hummer, his precious blood staining his white silk shirt a vivid crimson."No!" Raven fought the vampire in earnest, fear lending her strength that the loss of her blood had taken. For a moment she wrenched herself nearly free but was jerked back, the vampire's hands around her throat, squeezing hard. Raven fought down panic. She didn't dare pass out.Gregori, Mikhail's down. They shot him.I feel it. All Carpathians feel it. Do not worry. He will not die.Gregori was clearly moving closer.They were very careful to inflict flesh wounds that bleed heavily, not mortal wounds such as they gave Jacques. He is conveying to me the extent of his injuries.The vampire dragged Raven with him to the door. "The others will come, but it will be too late. Do not think he will get out of this," he hissed in her ear. "Slovensky and the others will die for this deed, and with them all records of what occurred in this place. You will be mine, far away where they cannot find you."Raven kept her eyes and mind focused on Mikhail, broadcasting to Gregori everything she saw: Slovensky manacling Mikhail's wrists and ankles, chaining him to a wall, laughing, taunting, kicking at him. Mikhail remained silent, his dark eyes very black, glinting like ice.The vampire lifted her slender body, ran with blurring speed from the place of death and destruction, launched himself skyward, his talons gripping Raven as he sped into the night.Gregori merged his mind with Mikhail's easily. Over the centuries of battles, wars, and vampire hunters, they had exchanged blood many times to preserve one another's life. Mikhail was in pain, his blood loss great. The shooting had been a deliberate attempt to weaken his immense power. Slovensky was busy taunting Mikhail with graphic details of torture.Mikhail's black eyes smoldered an eerie red, a burning flame he turned on Slovensky as the man approached him. The power in those chilling eyes stopped Slovensky for a moment. "You'll learn to hate me, vampire," James Slovensky snarled. "And you'll learn to fear me. You'll learn who really holds the power."A slight, mocking smile touched Mikhail's mouth. "I do not hate you, mortal. And I could never fear you. You are but a pawn in a game of power. And you have been sacrificed." The voice was very low, a musical thread of sound that Slovensky found himself wanting to hear again.The man knelt beside his victim, smiling his pleasure at the other's pain. "Andre will give us the rest of you bloodsuckers.""And why would he do that?" Mikhail closed his eyes, his face lined and strained, but the hint of a smile remained."You turned him, forced him into such an unholy life, the same way you turned the woman. He is going to try to save her." Slovensky leaned closer, drew his knife. "I think I should dig that slug out of you. We wouldn't want you getting an infection now, would we?" His giggle was high-pitched with anticipation.Mikhail didn't flinch away from the blade. His black eyes snapped open, blazing with power. Slovensky fell backwards, scrambling away on all fours to crouch against the far wall. Fumbling in his coat, he jerked out the gun and held it pointed at Mikhail.The ground rolled almost gently, seemed to swell so that the concrete floor bulged, then cracked. Slovensky grabbed for the wall behind him to steady himself and lost the gun in the process. Above his head a rock fell from the wall, bounced dangerously close, and rolled to a halt beside him. A second rock, and a third fell, so that Slovensky had to cover his head as the rocks rained down in a roaring shower.Slovensky's cry of fear was high and thin. He made himself even smaller, peering through his fingers at the Carpathian. Mikhail had not moved to protect himself. He lay exactly as Slovensky had positioned him, those dark eyes staring at him. Swearing, Slovensky tried to lunge for the gun.The floor bucked and heaved under him, sending the gun skittering out of reach. A second wall swayed precariously and rocks cascaded down, striking the man about the head and shoulders, driving him to the floor. He watched a curious, frightening pattern form. Not one rock touched the priest's body. Not one came close to Mikhail. The Carpathian simply watched him with those damn eyes and that faint mocking smile as the rocks buried Slovensky's legs, then fell on his back. There was an ominous crack, and Slovensky screamed under the heavy load on his spine."Damn you to hell," Slovensky snarled. "My brother will track you down."Mikhail said nothing, simply watching the havoc Gregori was creating. Mikhail would have killed James Slovensky outright, without the drama Gregori had such a flare for, but he was tired, his body in a precarious state. He had no wish to drain his energy further. Raven would be in the vampire's hands for the time it took Gregori to heal him. He couldn't allow himself to think of what Andre might do to her. Mikhail stirred, pain shafting through him. More rocks fell on Slovensky in retaliation, covering him like a blanket, beginning to form a macabre grave.Gregori moved into the room with his familiar silent glide, grace and power clinging to him as he strode through the wreckage of the wall. "This is becoming a bad habit.""Oh, shut up," Mikhail said without rancor.Gregori's touch was infinitely gentle as he inspected the wounds. "They knew what they were doing. Placed these precisely to miss vital organs but to bleed you as much as possible." It took seconds to deal with the manacles and free Mikhail from the chains. Gregori pressed soil over the wounds to stop further leakage."Check Father Hummer." Mikhail's voice was weak."He is dead." Gregori barely glanced at the broken body."Be certain." It was an order. Mikhail never ordered Gregori to do anything. That had never been their relationship.For a moment Gregori's silver eyes glittered as they stared at one another. "Please, Gregori, if there is a chance..." Mikhail closed his eyes.Shaking his head at the delay, Gregori dutifully went to the priest's crumpled body and felt for a pulse. He knew it was fruitless, knew Mikhail knew it, too, but just the same he checked. Gregori was careful to be gentle with the body. "I am sorry, Mikhail. He is gone.""I do not want him left in this place.""Stop talking and allow me to do my job," Gregori growled, easing Mikhail back onto the floor. "Take my blood while I stop up these holes.""Find Raven.""Take my blood, Mikhail. The vampire will not harm her. He will have some patience this night. You must be strong for the hunt. Drink what I freely offer. I would not want to find it necessary to compel you.""You are becoming a nuisance, Gregori," Mikhail complained, but obediently he took hold of the healer's proffered wrist. Gregori's blood was ancient, as was Mikhail's. There was none other that could help as quickly. There was silence as Mikhail fed, replenishing what was lost. Gregori turned his wrist slightly to ease Mikhail away from him, knowing his strength was needed for healing and transporting his prince to safety."The priest goes with us," Mikhail reiterated. A wave of heat coursed through the ice of his body, leaving him needy, hungry. His mind reached for his lifemate, the need to merge overwhelming.Pain exploded in her head, in his, so that he gasped and withdrew, his black eyes seeking Gregori's pale ones in agony.Sleep for now, Mikhail. We will go on the hunt soon enough. We must take care of these wounds first.Gregori commanded it in a mesmerizing voice. Singsong, a flowing chant of ancient language.You will hear my words, let Mother Earth welcome you. The soil will heal your wounds and soothe your mind. Sleep, Mikhail. My blood is powerful, mixing with yours. Feel it healing your body.Gregori closed his eyes, merging completely with Mikhail, flowing in him so that he could find every ragged hole, push out foreign objects, and repair all damage from the inside out with the precision of the most skilled surgeon.A large horned owl circled the ruined building, then settled on the crumpled wall. Slowly the wings folded and the owl's round eyes surveyed the scene below. The talons flexed, relaxed. Gregori lifted his head, coming back to his own body. He spoke the Carpathian's name softly in acknowledgment. "Aidan."The owl's shape lengthened, shimmered, formed a tall, tawny-haired man with glittering gold eyes. His blond appearance was unusual for a Carpathian. He carried his body like a soldier, his manner sure and confident. "Who dared to do this?" he demanded. "What of Jacques and Mikhail's woman?"Gregori growled softly, a slash of pale eyes pinning the male Carpathian. "Bring me fresh soil and prepare the priest's body." Gregori turned back to his work as Byron arrived. Slow, unhurried, the beautiful ancient chant filled the night with hope and promise. No one would believe he was working against time, needing to get Mikhail on his feet this night.Aidan brought the richest soil he could find, stepping back to admire Gregori as he worked. The poultices were mixed carefully and applied over the external wounds. The wind stirred the dirt and dust from the pile of rocks, carrying warnings to the Carpathians. Two humans were approaching in a truck.Byron knelt beside Edgar Hummer, reverently running his hands over the priest's face, gathering the small, wasted body up into his arms. "I will take him to sacred ground, Gregori, and then destroy those bodies beside the cabin.""Who did this?" Aidan repeated.Gregori simply flooded Aidan's mind with the information rather than bothering with conversation."I have known Andre for many centuries," Aidan said. "He is half a century younger than I. We fought together in more than one battle. Our times grow desperate." Aidan glided over the fallen walls, his golden eyes glowing in the darkness. Each leaf on every tree gleamed a vivid silver, bathed in the light of the moon, but Aidan had long ago lost his ability to see in color. His world was dark and gray and would be until he found his lifemate, or sought the solace of the dawn. He inhaled, caught the scent of game, the stench of death, the intrusive odor of man. Oil and exhaust issuing from the approaching vehicle fouled the clarity of the air.He moved through the line of oaks, working to quell the ice-cold predator instinct demanding blood for what one of his kind had done. Their race, so precarious, teetering on the brink of extinction, could not survive another vampire hunt. Every remaining male had pinned his hopes on the survival of Mikhail's woman. If she could adapt to their life, if she could be sealed as a true lifemate, if she could produce female children strong enough to live beyond the first year, then all Carpathian males had a chance. It would be a matter of hanging on, searching the world for women such as Raven. For Andre to betray them all was treason as its worst.Fog began to gather, thicken, an oppressive, nearly impenetrable veil that wound through the trees and closed off the road. The brakes squealed loudly as the driver came to a halt, unable to see in the thick fog. Aidan moved closer, unseen, a dangerous predator hunting prey. "How long before we get there, Uncle Gene?" A boy's voice, eager and excited, drifted on the wind."We'll have to wait for the fog to disperse, Donny." The second voice was uneasy. "We get these unusual fog patterns often up here, and it isn't a good idea to be out in them.""What's my surprise? Can't you tell me? You told Mom I'd have a birthday surprise I would never forget. I heard you talking."Aidan could see them now. The driver was a man nearing thirty, the boy, no more than fifteen. Aidan watched them, the urge to kill running in his veins, surging through his body. He felt power, in every nerve ending, reminding him he truly was alive.The man was very nervous, peering into the fog on all sides of the truck, although he couldn't see through the thick veil of white mist. For a moment he thought he saw eyes, hungry and glowing, almost gold. They were animal eyes - the eyes of a wolf - watching them from out of the night. It made his heart pound and his mouth go dry. He pulled the boy closer to him protectively. "Your Uncle James is keeping it for you." He had to clear his throat twice before the words would come out. He knew they were in great danger, knew a predator was waiting to tear out their throats."Let's just walk up to the hunting lodge, Uncle Gene. I can't wait to try out my new rifle. Come on, it's not that far," the boy wheedled."Not in this fog, Donny. There are wolves in these woods. Other things. It's best to wait until we can see clearly," the man said firmly."We have guns," the boy said sulkily. "Isn't that why we brought them?""I said no. Guns don't always make you safe, boy."Aidan crushed down the wild urges. The boy had not yet seen manhood. Whoever these mortals were, he would not kill unless his life or that of one of the others of his kind was threatened. He would not become a vampire, a betrayer of his people. It was becoming too easy to kill. A kind of seduction of power. The wind whipped up around him, swirled in a circle of leaves and twigs. Gregori settled beside him, Mikhail, pale and lifeless, cradled in his arms. "Let us leave this place, Aidan.""I could not kill them," Aidan said quietly, no apology in his voice."If the older one is Eugene Slovensky, he will have much to occupy him this night. His brother lies dead beneath a pile of rocks, an exchange for Mikhail's priest.""I did not dare kill them," Aidan repeated, making it an admission."If it is Slovensky, he deserves to die, but I am grateful that you resisted the urge, knowing the danger to yourself. You have traveled far to hunt the undead for our people. It shows in the darkness of your soul.""I walk very close to the edge," Aidan said quietly, without apology. "When Mikhail's woman was injured so gravely, Mikhail's fury was felt by every Carpathian in every land. The disturbance was unique, and I felt it was deserving of investigation. I returned to make certain his wisdom continues to benefit our people. It is my belief his woman is the hope for our future.""It is my belief also. Perhaps a new country would bring you relief. We have need of an experienced hunter in the United States."With the fog still thick, preventing penetration by the humans, Aidan turned his attention to the carefully constructed prison. With a lift of his hand, the earth shuddered and shook. The building was leveled, leaving only the stones marking the fresh grave.Into the fog, Gregori rose with his burden, Aidan at his side. They raced across the dark sky to the caves, where the other Carpathian males arrived, one after another to aid in the healing of their prince.