The earth rumbled, shook, rolled. Jacob's knife buried deep a second time. The wind unleashed its deadly power, sent leaves, twigs, and small branches flying through the air like missiles. The knife bit a third time. Lightning sizzled once, twice, three times, slammed into the earth as thunder cracked, shaking the land with the unholy sound. The knife found her a fourth time. The heavens opened up and rain poured down hard and fast, as if floodgates had burst.Jacob was covered in blood. He pushed away from her, turning his head as the sky grew darker. He could hear the others screaming in fear. "Damn you." He sliced down a fifth time in fury and defiance.An unseen hand caught his wrist before the blade could find her, fingers curling hard in an unbreakable grip. The knife turned inward toward Jacob's throat, and for one long, eternal moment, he stared in horror at the bloodied blade as it inched toward his flesh. It struck suddenly, burying itself to the hilt.Wolves boiled out of the forest, circled the meadow, glowing eyes fixed on the three people dodging branches that were hurtling through the air. Margaret screamed and ran. Harry took off blindly and Hans lost his footing and dropped to his knees as the earth heaved and shook again."Raven." Mikhail materialized beside her, fear for her clawing at his guts. He ripped the jeans away so he could see the extent of her injuries.The earth rolled again, split the meadow open. Mikhail clamped his hands over the pumping holes in an attempt to stem the terrible flow of blood. Jacques shimmered into view, then Eric, Byron. Tienn arrived, and Vlad.Gregori blasted out of the sky toward the three human assassins surrounded by the wolf pack. There on the meadow, with the world coming to an end, he took the shape of a huge, black wolf, a wolf with the hungry, mad eyes of retribution."My God." Jacques was on his knees beside Mikhail, gathering handfuls of rich soil. "Go, Byron, for the herbs. Hurry!"Within minutes they had packed Raven's wounds with their poultices. Mikhail ignored them, cradling Raven in his arms, his large body bent protectively to shield her from the onslaught of the pounding rain.Mikhail's entire being was concentrated, focused on only one thing.You will not leave me,he commanded.I will not release you.Lightning sizzled, whipped across the sky, slammed into the earth. On its heels thunder boomed, shook the mountains."Jacques! Eleanor is going to give birth." Vlad was desperate."Get her into the house. Call Celeste and Dierdre." Jacques toed Jacob's body contemptuously as he added his large frame as a shelter over Raven."She is not dead," Mikhail hissed, seeing the compassion in his brother's eyes. "She is dying, Mikhail." Jacques's chest hurt with the knowledge.Mikhail dragged her to him, bent his head until his cheek lay against hers.Iknow you can hear me; you must drink, Raven. Drink deeply.He felt the faint stirring in his mind. Warmth, regret. So much pain.Let me go.No! Never! Do not talk. Just drink. For me, if you love me, for me, for my life, drink what I offer.Before Jacques could guess his intent and try to stop him, Mikhail jabbed deeply into his own jugular.Dark blood spurted. Mikhail forced her to him, used every power he possessed to force compliance. Her will obeyed; her body was almost too weak to follow. She swallowed what poured into her but could not draw deeply on her own.Bolt after bolt of lightning slammed to earth. A tree exploded, rained fiery sparks. The earth heaved again, rolled, came apart at the seams. Gregori loomed over them, the darkest of the Carpathians, his pale eyes ice cold and holding the stark promise of death."The wolves did their job," Eric reported grimly. "The lightning and earthquakes will do the rest."Jacques ignored him, gripping Mikhail's shoulder. "Enough, Mikhail. You grow too weak. She has lost too much blood. She has internal injuries."Black rage filled Mikhail. He threw back his head and roared his denial, the sound exploding through the forest and mountains like the booming of the thunder. Trees burst into flames around them, exploding like sticks of dynamite."Mikhail." Jacques refused to relinquish his hold. "Stop her now.""She has my blood; it will heal her. If we can keep blood in her, get her into the soil and perform the healing ritual, then she will live.""Enough, damn it!" Jacques voice held very real fear.Gregori touched Mikhail gently. "If you die, my old friend, we have no chance of saving her. We must work together if we are to do this thing."Raven's head lolled back, her body limp like a rag doll. Mikhail's blood ran unchecked down his chest. Jacques leaned into his brother, but Gregori was there before him, closing the gaping wound with a single stroke of his tongue.Mikhail was nearly oblivious to his surroundings, he was directing his entire being, his entire disciplined focus on Raven. She was slipping away from him, fading slowly but surely. Her heart beat erratically, one beat, a miss, a single beat. There was an ominous, eerie silence.Swearing, Mikhail laid her flat, physically breathed for her, manually stimulated her heart. His mind sought the trail of hers, found a small, huddled light, dim and fading. She floated on a sea of pain. She was weak beyond his imaginings. Breathe, massage. Call her back, reinforce it with an order. Repeat the process.A torrent of water raced down the rocky canyon behind them, a solid wall gathering speed and force. The ground shook again. Two trees exploded into fiery conflagrations despite the heavy rains."Let us help," Gregori ordered softly.Jacques moved his brother gently aside, took over CPR while Gregori breathed for Raven. In and out, Gregori filled her lungs with precious air. Jacques forced her heart to continue. It left Mikhail free to concentrate on his mental quest. A stirring in his mind, the lightest of touches, but he knew it was her and he locked onto that trace and followed it ruthlessly.You will not leave me.She tried to move away from him, up and away. There was too much pain in the direction in which he called her.Panicked, Mikhail screamed her name.You cannot leave me, Raven. I cannot survive without you. Come back to me, come back to me, or I follow you where you lead."I have a pulse," Jacques said. "It is weak, but it is there. We need transport."There was a shimmering in the gathering darkness. Tienn appeared beside them. "Eleanor has given birth, and the child lives," he announced. "It is a male."Mikhail let out his breath in a long, slow hiss. "She betrayed Raven."Jacques shook his head in warning when Eric would have spoken, would have tried to defend the woman. Mikhail was in a killing rage. The slightest mistake might provoke him. Mikhail's fury was triggering the turbulent weather, the raging storm and heaving earth.Mikhail sank back into his mind, holding Raven to him, taking as much of her pain as he could. The trip home was a blur to him, the rain pelting the windshield, lightning sizzling and snapping. The village was deserted and dark, the electricity out in the terrible ferocity of the storm. Inside their houses, people were huddled and praying, hoping to live through the ferocious storm, not understanding their very lives could depend on one small human woman's courage and tenacity.Raven's body, so limp and lifeless, was stripped of her bloodstained clothing and placed on Mikhail's bed. Healing herbs were crushed, some lit. The poultices were replaced with newer, stronger ones to try to stem further blood loss. Mikhail touched the dark bruises on her face with trembling fingers, the dark marks that stood out starkly against her full white breasts where Jacob had deliberately hurt her in his jealous, drugged rage. Fury seized Mikhail and he longed to crush Jacob's throat beneath his hands. "She needs blood," he said abruptly."So do you." Jacques waited for Mikhail to draw the sheet over Raven before he offered his wrist. "Drink while you can."Gregori touched his shoulder. "Forgive me, Jacques, but my blood is stronger. It holds immense power. Allow me to do this small thing for my friend." At Jacques's nod, Gregori drew a single mark over his vein.There was silence as Mikhail availed himself of Gregori's rich blood. Jacques sighed softly. "She has exchanged blood on three occasions with you?" He forced his voice to be neutral, not wanting to appear to reprimand his leader and brother.Mikhail's dark eyes flickered warningly. "Yes. If she lives, she will most likely be one of us." It was left unsaid that she might live to be destroyed by the very one who had converted her."We cannot seek human medical aid for her. If our way does not work, Mikhail, her doctors will be useless anyway," Jacques cautioned."Damn it, do you think I do not realize what I have done? You think I do not know I failed her, that I failed to protect her? That by my selfish actions I put her life in jeopardy?" Mikhail stripped off his bloody shirt, balled it in one hand, and threw it to the farthermost corner of the room."This is senseless, looking back," Gregori said calmly.Mikhail's boots hit the floor, his socks. He dragged himself onto the bed beside Raven. "She cannot take blood our way; she is too weak. We have no choice but to use their primitive transfusion methods.""Mikhail..." Jacques said warningly."We have no choice. She did not take all that she needed, not even close. We cannot afford the delay of argument. I ask you, my brother, and you, Gregori, as my friend, to do this for us." Mikhail cradled Raven's head in his lap, sat back among the pillows and closed his eyes tiredly while they began the primitive process.If he lived another thousand years, Mikhail would never forget that first stirring of unease in his mind while he lay as dead beneath the earth. Knowledge had exploded in his brain, spread terror in his heart and fury in his soul. He had felt Raven's rippling fear. Jacob's hand on her precious body, the brutal blows, the tearing sensation of the knife as it sliced through skin and into her soft insides. So much pain and fear. So much guilt that she had failed to protect Eleanor and her unborn child.Raven's weak touch had slipped inside his mind, so whispery, edged with pain and regret.I'm sorry, Mikhail. I've failed you.Her last coherent thought had been for him. He loathed himself, loathed Eleanor for not having the discipline to learn mental communication, focused and pure.In that one second of understanding, as he lay helpless, locked in the soil, the very foundations of his life, his beliefs, had been rocked. As he burst free, Jacques rising with him, he had mentally reached for Jacob, had buried the bloodstained knife to the hilt in the murderer's throat.The storm enabled Vlad to break Eleanor and him free without the fear of blindness or that one moment of complete disorientation that would have given the assassins the time to kill his laboring wife.Mikhail sought Raven's mind, crawled to her with warmth and love, his arms a shelter. The needle jabbed the inside of his arm, pierced hers. He had no doubt that his brother would monitor the transfusion closely. Jacques held Mikhail's life along with Raven's in his hands. If she died, Mikhail followed her. He knew in his heart, the black fury that remained would endanger anyone near him, Carpathian and human alike. He could only hope that Gregori was up to the job of dispatching Carpathian justice to him swiftly and accurately if Raven should die.No.Even in an unconscious state, she was trying to save him.He stroked her hair in long caresses.Sleep, little one. You are in need of healing sleep.Using his mind, he breathed for both of them, in and out, forcing oxygen into his lungs, her lungs. He kept the rhythm of their hearts together. He took on as much of the mechanics of her body as he could to enable her to heal.Jacques knew Mikhail's mind was made up. If this woman failed to live, they would lose Mikhail. Right now Mikhail was using his power to keep her blood flowing, her heart pumping, and her lungs working. It was a draining process.Gregori met Jacques's eyes over Mikhail's head. He was not going to allow the couple to die. It was up to them to heal her. "I will do it, Jacques." It wasn't a request.The air stirred beside them and Celeste materialized with Eric. "He chooses to follow her," she said softly. "He loves her that much.""It is already known?" Jacques asked."He is withdrawing," Eric answered. "All Carpathians can feel it. Is there a chance to save them?"Jacques looked up, his handsome face haggard, his dark eyes, so like Mikhail's, grief-stricken. "She fights for him. She knows he will choose to follow her.""Enough!" Gregori hissed, bringing them all to attention. "We have no choice but to save them. That is all that can be in our minds."Celeste reached toward Raven. "Let me do this for her, Jacques. I am a woman; I carry a child. I will make no mistakes.""Gregori is a healer, Celeste. You are with child and it is difficult," Jacques denied softly."Both of you are supplying blood for them. You could make a mistake." Celeste pushed the sheet from Raven's stomach. Her gasp was audible, her horror very real. Involuntarily she stepped back. "My God, Jacques. There is no chance."Furious, Jacques elbowed her out of the way. Gregori stepped between them, his pale eyes flowing over Celeste like mercury, glittering with a calm, cold menace, with a terrible rebuke. "There is no question that I will be the one to heal her. And she will be healed. While I perform this task I want only those who believe completely to attend. Go now if you cannot give me this aid. I must have only complete conviction in my mind and the minds of those around us. She will live because there is no other alternative."Gregori placed his hands over the wounds, closed his eyes, and went seeking out of his own body and into the one lying so hideously wounded, as still as death.Mikhail felt Raven's stirring of pain. She flinched, tried to move away, tried to fade so that this new, painful sensation could not touch her. Mikhail surrounded her effortlessly, held her still for Gregori to do the intricate work of repairing damaged organs.Relax into it, little one. I am here in this place with you.I can't do this.It was more a feeling than words. So much pain.Choose for us, then, Raven. You will not go alone."No!" Jacques's protest was sharp. "I know what you do, Mikhail. Drink now or I will not continue the transfusion."Fury welled up, shook Mikhail out of his semistupor. Jacques met the rage in his dark eyes with deliberate calm. "You are too weak from loss of blood to oppose me.""Then let me feed." There was cold fury, black as night in those words. Pure menace, the threat of death.Jacques exposed his throat without hesitating, managing to prevent a groan of pain as Mikhail bit deep, fed hungrily, ferociously, like a savage animal. Jacques did not struggle or make a sound, offering up his life for his brother and Raven. Eric moved toward them as Jacques's knees buckled and he sat down hard, but Jacques motioned him away.Mikhail lifted his head abruptly, his shadowed features so haunted and grief-stricken, Jacques ached for him. "Forgive me, Jacques. There is no excuse for my treatment of you.""There is nothing to forgive when I offer freely," Jacques whispered raggedly. Eric moved immediately to his side, supplying Jacques with blood."How could anyone do such a thing to her? She is so good, so courageous. She risked her life to help a stranger. How could someone want to harm her?" Mikhail asked, raising his eyes toward the heavens. Silence was his only answer.Mikhail's gaze found Gregori. He watched his friend work with the intense concentration of the healing ritual. The low chant was soothing to him, brought a measure of relief to his tormented soul. He could feel Gregori with them, inside her body, working, weaving the magic of body repair, a painstakingly slow process."Enough blood," Jacques whispered hoarsely as he lit the scented candles and began another low chant.Gregori stirred, his eyes remaining closed, but he nodded. "Her body is attempting the conversion. Our blood is soaking into her organs and working to change and repair tissue. She needs time for the process." He moved back inside to the deep penetrating wounds he was aligning. Her womb was damaged, and it was far too important to take any chances. She must be made perfect."Her heart is too slow," Jacques said weakly as he slid from the bed to the floor. He looked startled to find himself there."Her body needs more time to make the change and heal," Celeste added, watching Gregori work. She knew she was witnessing a miracle. She had never been this close to the legendary Carpathian everyone whispered about. Few of their people actually saw Gregori up close. Power emanated from his every pore."She is right," Mikhail agreed weakly. "I will continue to breathe for her, continue to ensure her heartbeats. Eric, you must care for Jacques.""Rest, Mikhail, see to your woman. Jacques will be fine. Tienn is here if there is a problem. Gregori has many hours of work ahead of him," Eric replied. "If it is necessary, we can call others in to help."Jacques reached up his hand to his brother. Mikhail took it. "You must calm your anger, Mikhail. The storm is too strong. The very mountains rage with you." He closed his eyes and laid his head against the bedframe, his hand still clasped in Mikhail's.Raven felt almost detached from what was happening to her body. Her awareness of others in the room and their movements came through Mikhail. He was with her somehow, in her body, breathing for her. And there was another, one she didn't recognize, but he was also in her, working like a surgeon would, repairing the extensive damage to her body, to her internal organs, paying special attention to her female organs. She wanted to just stop, allow the pain to swamp her, to carry her someplace far beyond feelings. She could just let go. She was tired, so tired. It would be so very easy. It was what she wanted, longed for.She rejected the beckoning peace, fought to hang on to life. Mikhail's life. She wanted to brush her fingertips over the lines of strain she knew would be around his mouth. She wanted to ease his guilt and rage, assure him that everything had been her own choice. His love, total, uncompromising, unconditional, endless, was almost more than she could cope with. Most of all she was aware of the strange changes taking place in her body.None of it touched her, wrapped tightly, protectively in the cocoon of Mikhail's love. He breathed, she breathed. His heart beat, her heart beat.Sleep, little one. I will watch for both of us.After several long, backbreaking hours, Gregori straightened up, his hair damp with perspiration, his face weary and lined, his body aching with fatigue. "I have done my best. If she lives, she will be able to have a child. Mikhail's blood and the soil should complete the healing process. The change is taking place rapidly. She does not understand and does not fight it." He pushed a hand stained with her precious blood through his hair. "She fights only for Mikhail's life, thinks only of his life and how her death would affect him. I think it is better if she does not understand what is actually happening to her. She does not know the extent of her wounds. There is much pain. She suffers greatly, but she is not a quitter, this one."Jacques was already preparing new poultices to replace the blood-soaked ones. "Can we give her more blood? She is still losing more than I like and is so weak, I fear she will not live through the night.""Yes," Gregori replied tiredly, thoughtfully, "but no more than a pint or two. We must do this slowly or we will alarm her. What she would accept unconditionally in Mikhail, she will not accept in herself. Give her my blood. It is potent, like Mikhail's, and he grows weak trying to breathe for her and keep her heart going.""You are tired, Gregori," Jacques protested. "There are others.""Not with my blood. Do as I say." Gregori seated himself calmly and watched as a needle was inserted into his vein. No one argued with Gregori; he was a law unto himself. Only Mikhail could truly call him friend.Celeste drew in a deep breath, wanting to say something to Gregori that would indicate her admiration, but there was a look in his eyes that stopped her. Gregori was calm in the eye of the storm; he was lethal in his coolness.Jacques allowed Gregori's precious life fluid to flow directly into Raven's veins. It wasn't the best or fastest way for healing, but Gregori's observations alleviated Jacques's concerns. Only after he had assured himself that the blood was flowing easily did Jacques sit down again. They had to organize themselves, make certain every detail was taken care of. Mikhail believed details saved lives. "We need to assess the damage to our people. All of the assassins died; not one escaped?""Hans, the American couple, and the man who attacked Raven." Eric counted them off. "They were the only ones present. No mortal could have survived the intensity of the storm, the killing rage in the animals. If there had been an unseen observer, Mikhail or the beasts would have known."Gregori stirred tiredly, his enormous strength beginning to fade with his continuing efforts. "There was no other." He said it imperiously, as if no one would think to question him, and of course they wouldn't.Jacques found a small grin touching his mouth for the first time all evening. "But you made a clean sweep of the area, Eric?""Absolutely. The bodies are burned, caught together under a tree as if for shelter and hit by lightning. There is no evidence of wounds," Eric reported."Tomorrow a search will be launched for the missing tourists and Hans. Byron, your house is close; the other assassins will suspect you. Do not go near your home. Vlad must take Eleanor and the child away from this area completely.""Are they able to travel?" Gregori asked. "By car.""We have the night. I have a house I use in the winter months sometimes, not often. It is well protected, difficult to access." Gregori's smile did nothing to warm his silver eyes. "I like my privacy. At the moment it is unoccupied. I offer it freely for the protection of the woman and child for as long as there is need. The house is well over a hundred miles from this place, and I roam the world, so you will not be disturbed."Before Vlad could protest, Jacques preempted him. "Excellent idea. That solves one of our problems. Byron has his own bolt-holes. Start now, Vlad. Guard Eleanor well. She is precious to us, as is the child.""I must speak to Mikhail. Eleanor is very distraught that she put Raven's life in jeopardy.""Mikhail is not himself." Jacques removed the needle from Raven's limp body and Gregori's arm. Her breath was so light, so shallow, he didn't see how Mikhail could keep her going. "You will have to discuss things at another time. He is forced to use all his energies for Raven's survival. His woman is not breathing on her own."Vlad frowned, but complied when Gregori waved him out. He might have stayed to argue with Jacques to ease the conscience of his lifemate, but all obeyed Gregori. He was Mikhail's right hand, the most relentless of their hunters, the true healer of their people, and he guarded Mikhail as a treasure."None of our people have fed this night," Eric pointed out, studying his wife's pale features. "No human will be out.""The risk is great when we are forced to enter a dwelling." Jacques sighed, wishing he could consult Mikhail."Do not disturb him," Gregori said. "She needs him more than we do. If she dies, we lose him and any real chance at a future for our race. Noelle was the last female to survive, and that was more than five hundred years ago. We need this woman to continue our species. We must be at full strength. It is not finished."Mikhail stirred, opened his dark, haunted eyes. "It is not finished. There are at least two others, possibly four. Eugene Slovensky, Kurt Von Halen. I do not know the identity of the other two travelers, or if they are even involved. Their names should be at the inn; Mrs. Galvenstein can provide them." Long lashes drooped. Mikhail's fingers tunneled deeply into Raven's hair, as if he could drag her back from the brink of death.Jacques watched those long fingers stroke her hair lovingly. "Can we put her in soil for a few hours, Gregori?""It should speed the healing process."Eric and Jacques went down to prepare the cellar, opening the earth with a single command, creating enough space to lay two bodies side by side. They moved Raven carefully, and Mikhail stayed close to her side, never speaking, focusing his entire concentration on her heart, her lungs, on preserving the dim light that contained her will to live.He lowered himself deep in the bowels of the earth, felt the healing properties of the rich soil as it settled around him like a welcoming bed. He accepted her slight weight, fit her body into the shelter of his.Mikhail moved his hands, formed a slight tunnel over their heads and ordered the earth to blanket them. The soil filled in closely around and over his legs, her legs, covered their bodies, pressing them deeper into the earth.Raven's heart leapt, nearly missing a beat, became erratic in spite of the firm beating of his own heart.I'm alive! They're burying us alive!Be still, little one. We are of the earth. It is offering to heal us. You are not alone, I am here with you.I can't breathe.I am breathing for us.I can't stand it. Make them stop.The earth has recuperative powers. Let them work. I am Carpathian, of the earth. There is nothing to fear. Not the wind or the soil or the waters. We are one.1 am not Carpathian.There was sheer terror in her mind.We are one. Nothing can hurt you.She closed herself off from him, began a frantic struggle that could only end her life. Mikhail realized it was futile to argue. She could not accept the earth closing around her, over her head. He released them from the ground immediately, forced her heart to slow to normal, floating upward with her in his arms."I feared this," he said to Jacques, who was still in the cellar. "Carpathian blood runs strong in her veins, but her mind sets human limits. Burial represents death. She cannot tolerate the deep earth.""Then we must bring the soil to her," Jacques said."She is so weak, Jacques." Mikhail held Raven to him, his face etched with grief. "It makes no sense that this was done to her.""No, it does not, Mikhail," Jacques answered."I have been so selfish with her. I am still being selfish. I should have allowed her to find peace, but I could not. I would have followed her, Jacques, but I do not know if I would have gone quietly from this world as I should have.""And then what of the rest of us? She represents our chance, our hope. We have to have hope, Mikhail. Without it none of us can continue for much longer. We believe in you; we believe you will find the answer for the rest of us." Jacques paused at the door out of the cellar. "I will get a mattress. Byron, Eric, and I will cover it in the richest soil we can find.""Have they fed?""The night is on us; we have many hours."In the cellar they set up a healing bed, used herbs and incense, covered the mattress in three inches of earth. Once again Raven and Mikhail settled together, her head on his chest, his arms holding her close. Jacques packed the soil beneath her so that it contoured to the curves of her body. They formed a thin blanket of it to lay over them, added a sheet so she would be able to feel the reassuring comfort of cotton against her neck, her face."Keep her still, Mikhail," Jacques encouraged. "The wounds are closing, but she is still losing blood. Not much, and we can give her more blood in a couple of hours."Mikhail rested his cheek against her silky head, allowed his eyes to close. "Go feed, Jacques, before you drop," he murmured wearily."I will go when the others return. We will not leave you and your woman unprotected."Mikhail stirred as if he might protest, but then a grin tugged at the hard edges of his mouth. "Remind me to take you out back and teach you a lesson or two when I am feeling more myself." He fell asleep with the sound of Jacques's laughter in his ears and Raven wrapped tightly in his arms.Outside, the rain eased to a fine drizzle, and the winds died down, taking the thunderclouds with them. The earth was silent after the series of quakes. Cats and dogs and livestock settled down to their normal behavior. Wild animals sought shelter finally from the storm.Raven awoke slowly, painfully. Before she opened her eyes, she assessed the situation. She was hurt; she should be dead. She was in Mikhail's arms, their mental bond stronger than ever. He had dragged her back from death, then offered to let her go - if he went with her. She could hear the sounds of the house creaking over her head, the soothing sound of rain beating a tattoo on the roof, at the windows. Someone moved in the house. If she worked at it, she would be able to figure out exactly who it was and where in the house he was, but it seemed far too much trouble.Slowly she allowed the horror of what had happened to replay in her head. The trapped woman about to give birth, the ugly fanaticism that led to such brutal murder and insanity. Jacob's face as he slapped her, ripped her clothing.Raven's low cry of alarm brought Mikhail's arms tighter around her, his chin nuzzling her head. "Do not think of such things. Let me send you back to sleep."She curled her fingers against his throat, needing the reassurance of his steady pulse. "No. I want to remember, to get it over."His uneasiness was instantaneous. It disturbed her as nothing else could. "You are weak, Raven. You will need more blood, more sleep. Your wounds were very serious."She moved then, just shifted her weight slightly. Pain clawed at her. "I couldn't reach you. I tried, Mikhail, for that woman."He brought her fingers to the warmth of his mouth, pressed them there. "Never again, Raven, will I fail you."There was more pain in his heart and mind than in her body. "I chose to follow them, Mikhail. I chose to involve myself and help the woman. I knew exactly what those people were capable of. I didn't just walk into the situation blindly. I don't blame you; please don't think you failed me." It was such an effort to talk. She wanted to sleep, wanted the blessed oblivion of a numb mind and body."Let me send you to sleep," he whispered softly, his voice a caress, his mouth brushing across her fingers an added enticement.Raven swallowed her assent; she would not be a coward. How could she possibly still be alive? How? She remembered the terrible moment when Jacob's hands had clawed at her breasts. Unclean. Her skin crawled at the memory. She wanted to scrub until she had no skin. His face, so evil, maniacal, malevolent. Every tearing stab a mortal wound.The storm, the earthquakes, lightning, thunder. Wolves leaping at the Summerses, at Hans. How did she know, see it in her mind so clearly? Jacob's face dissolving into fear, his eyes wide with terror, a knife protruding from his throat. Why wasn't she dead? How did she know everything?Mikhail's fury. It was beyond imagination, beyond the mere bounds of a physical body. Nothing could contain such turbulent rage. It spilled from him, fed the storm until the very earth heaved and rolled, bolts of lightning slammed into the earth and rain poured down.Was this all real or some horrendous nightmare? But she knew it was real, and she was close to some terrible truth. There was so much pain; she was so tired and Mikhail was her only comfort. She wanted to crawl back into the shelter he provided and just let him protect her and keep her safe until she was strong again. Mikhail simply waited, allowed her to choose. He was providing warmth, love, closeness, but he was holding something inside himself, away from her.Raven closed her eyes, concentrated. She remembered Mikhail suddenly beside her, pain and fear in his dark, mesmerizing eyes, his arms dragging her close, his mind seeking, finding hers, commanding her to stay, holding her anchored to the earth when her body was dying. His brother was there, and more of his people. Something was placed on her abdomen, something that seemed to work its way into her body, something warm and alive. Low, soothing chanting had filled the air all around her.Shock and alarm emanated from Mikhail's people. Mikhail's blood, hot, sweet, revitalizing, soaking into her body, her organs, reshaping muscle, tissue. Not flowing into veins, but...Raven went rigid, her brain so shocked it was numb. The very breath was driven from her body.Not the first time.Other memories surfaced: Mikhail's frenzied feeding, her mouth pressed hungrily over his heart. "Oh, God!" The words escaped as a strangled sob of denial.It was the truth, not some hallucination. But her human brain refused the truth. It wasn't possible; it couldn't be. She was in the middle of some terrible nightmare and any moment she would wake up. That had to be what was happening. She was mixing everything up - the assassins' fanatical belief in vampires and Mikhail's powers. But her heightened senses told her differently, told her the truth. She was lying in some underground chamber, with soil under her, over her. They had tried to bury her in it. To sleep. To heal.Mikhail simply waited, allowed her mind to process information, held nothing back from her, even when she drew on his memories. When her reaction came, it took him totally by surprise. He'd expected screams, tears, hysteria.Raven jackknifed off the mattress, cried out low, an animal sound of pain. She rolled away from him, heedless of the consequences to her mortally wounded body.He spoke sharply, much more sharply than he intended, his fear for her safety outweighing his compassion. His command paralyzed her body, trapped her helplessly on the floor. Only her eyes were alive with terror as he crouched beside her, ran his hands over her wounds, seeking the extent of the damage."Relax, little one. I know this knowledge is shocking to you," he murmured, frowning as he saw the precious blood seeping from three of the four wounds. He lifted her, cradled her in his arms, close to the shelter of his heart.Let me go.Her plea sounded in his mind, echoed in his heart."Never." Mikhail's harsh features were an implacable stone mask. He looked at the doors over their heads. The doors responded, flying open at the touch of his will.Raven closed her eyes.Mikhail, please, I'm begging you. I cannot be as you are."You have no idea what I am," he said gently, floating up to the next level so nothing would jar her body. "Humans mix up the truth about my race with stories of the undead, stealing babies, killing, tormenting victims. I could not have saved you if you were dead. We are a race of people who belong to the earth, the sky, the wind, and the water. Like any other people, we have our talents and our limitations." He did not go into details about where vampires came from. She needed truth, but not everything at once.Mikhail took her to a guestroom, laid her carefully on the bed. "We are not the vampires in your horror stories, the walking dead, for God's sake. We love, we worship, we work, we give service to our countries. We find it disgusting that the human male can beat his wife or child, that a mother could neglect her child. We are repulsed that the human race can eat the flesh of an animal. To us blood is lifegiving, sacred. We would never dishonor the human by hurting or killing. It is taboo to have sex with a human and then drink of his or her blood. I know I should never have taken your blood - it was wrong - but it was wrong because I did not tell you what could happen. I knew you were my true lifemate and my existence could not continue without you. I should have had more control. For that I will pay through all eternity, but it is done. We cannot undo what has already been wrought."Mikhail finished new poultices, placed them precisely over the wounds to seal them. Her fear, her revulsion, her sense of betrayal beat at his insides, making him want to weep for her, for both of them."What I did with you was not the same thing as using a human woman for sex. We did not have sex; my body recognized you as my lifemate. There was no way I could ignore the call. I would have had to choose to end my life. The ritual demands the exchange of blood. It is not feeding hunger; it is purely a sensual exchange, a beautiful, erotic affirmation of love and trust. The first time I took your blood, I inadvertently took too much because I felt such ecstasy. I was out of control. I was wrong to tie you to me without your understanding of exactly what it all meant. But I allowed you to make the choice. You cannot deny it."Raven stared up at his face, reading the sorrow in his dark eyes, the fear for her. She wanted to touch him, to ease those lines of strain, to reassure him that she could handle what he was asking of her, but her brain could not accept what he was saying."I would have chosen death, if you had allowed me to go with you." He pushed the hair from her face with gentle, caressing fingers. "You know that, Raven. The only way I could save you was to make you one of us. You chose life."I didn't know what I was doing."If you had known, would you have chosen death for me?"Her blue eyes, so bewildered and confused, so haunted, searched his face.Release me, Mikhail. I do not like to lie here helpless.Mikhail covered her body with a thin sheet. "Your wounds are severe; you need blood, healing, and sleep. Do not move around."Her eyes chastised him. Mikhail touched her chin with gentle fingers. He released her, his eyes watchful. "Answer me, little one. Knowing what we are, would you have sent me to eternal darkness?"She made a supreme effort to get herself under control. A part of her still could not believe this was happening. A part of her struggled to understand and be fair. "I told you I could accept you, even love you as you are, Mikhail. And I meant that then. The same is true now." She was so weak, she could hardly speak. "I know you're a good man; there is no evil in you. Father Hummer said I couldn't judge you by our standards and I won't. No, I would have chosen life for you. I love you."There was too much sorrow in her eyes for him to feel relief. "But?" he prompted softly."I can accept it in you, Mikhail, but not for me. I could never drink blood. The thought of it sickens me." Her tongue touched her dry lips. "Can you change me back? A transfusion, perhaps?"He shook his head regretfully."Then let me die. Just me. If you love me, let me go."Mikhail's eyes darkened, burned. "You do not understand. You are my life. My heart. There is no Mikhail without Raven. If you wish to seek eternal darkness, I must go with you. I had never known the pain and ecstasy of our people's love until I found you. You are the very air I breathe, the blood in my veins, my joy, my tears, my very feelings. I would not wish to continue a barren, empty existence. It would be impossible. The torment you felt for those short hours without our mind touch would be nothing compared to the hell to which you wish to condemn me.""Mikhail" - she whispered his name in anguish - "I am not Carpathian.""You are, little one. Please give yourself time to heal, to absorb all this and adjust to it." He was pleading with her, his voice soft and persuasive.She closed her eyes against the tears welling up. "I want to sleep."Raven needed more blood. The transfer would be easier on her if she had no idea what was happening to her. The healing sleep of the earth might provide her with comfort; in any case, it would speed the healing process of her body. Mercifully, Mikhail obliged her request and sent her into a deep sleep.