Swirling mist veiled the mountains and crept into the deep forest, stringing layers of white through the snow-laden trees. Pockets of deep snow hid life beneath the cap of ice crystals and along the banks of the stream. Shrubs and fields of grass rose like statues, frozen in time. The snow gave the world a bluish cast. The forest, where icicles hung, and the stream, with its water frozen in bizarre shapes, seemed an eerie, alien world.
Clear, crisp and cold, the night sky shone bright with stars, and a full, glowing moon spilled a silvery light over the frozen ground. Silent shadows slipped through the trees and ice-coated bushes, moving with absolute stealth. Large paws made tracks in the snow, a good six inches in diameter, single file, the trail winding in and out through the trees and thick shrubbery.
Although they looked in good health, strong with steel muscles rippling beneath thick fur, the wolves were hungry and needed food to keep the pack alive through the long, brutal winter. The alpha suddenly stopped, going very still, sniffing the trail around him, lifting his nose to scent the wind. The others halted, wraiths only, silent shadows that immediately fanned out. The alpha moved forward, staying downwind while the others sank low, waiting.
A yard away, a large piece of raw meat lay on the trail, fresh, the scent wafting temptingly back toward the wolf. Wary, he circled, using his nose to detect potential danger. Scenting nothing but the meat, with his saliva running and his belly empty, he approached again, going downwind, angling toward the large piece of lifesaving food. He went in three times and backed away, but no hint of danger presented itself. He nosed in a fourth time and something slipped over his neck.
The alpha leapt back and the wire tightened. The more he struggled, the more the wire cut into him, strangling the air from his lungs and sawing through flesh. The pack circled, pacing, his female rushing to aid him. She began to struggle as another wire snared her neck, nearly knocking her off her feet.
For a moment there was a hush, broken only by the gasping breaths of the two trapped wolves. A twig snapped. The pack whirled and dissolved in a rush of fleeing shadows, back into the thicker cover of the trees. The bushes parted and a woman stepped into the open. She was dressed in black winter boots, black pants that rode low on her hips and a sleeveless vest of black that left her midriff bare and had three sets of steel buckles running down the middle of it. The six buckles were shiny, almost ornamental, with tiny crosses running up and around, embedded in the squared silver pieces.
A wealth of blue-black hair spilled beyond her waist, pulled back in a thick woven braid. The long hooded coat she wore, made of what appeared to be a single silver-tipped wolf pelt, fell all the way to her ankles. She carried a crossbow in one hand, a sword at one hip and a knife at the other. Arrows were slung in a quiver on her shoulder and all down the inside of the long wolf skin were small loops containing various sharp-bladed weapons. A low-slung holster adorned with rows of very small, flat, razor-sharp arrowheads housed a pistol on her hip.
She paused for a moment, surveying the scene. "Be still," she hissed, both annoyance and authority in her soft voice.
At her command, both wolves ceased struggling instantly, waiting, bodies trembling, sides heaving and heads held low to ease the terrible pressure closing around their throats. The woman moved with fluid grace, flowing over the surface rather than sinking into the ice-crusted snow. She studied the snares, a multitude of them, disgust in her dark eyes.
"They have done this before," she scolded. "I showed them to you, but you were too greedy, looking for an easy meal. I should let you die here in agony." Even as she rebuked the wolves, she withdrew a pair of utility cutters from inside the wolf pelt and snipped the wires, freeing the wolves. She pushed her fingers into their fur and over the cuts deep in their throats, then clamped her palm over the slashes, chanting softly. White light burst under her hand, glowing around and through the wolves' fur.
"That should make you feel better," she said, affection creeping into her tone as she scratched the ears of both wolves.
The alpha growled a warning and his mate bared her teeth; both were facing away from the woman. She smiled. "I smell him. It is impossible not to smell the foul stench of vampire."
She turned her head and looked over her shoulder at the tall, powerful male emerging from the twisted, gnarled trunk of a large evergreen fir. The trunk gaped open, split nearly in two, blackened and peeled back, the needles on the outstretched limbs withering as the tree expelled the venomous creature from its depths. Icicles rained down like small spears as the branches shivered and shook, trembling from contact with such a foul creature.
The woman rose gracefully, turning to face her enemy, signaling to the wolves to melt back into the forest. "I see you have resorted to setting traps to get sustenance these days, Cristofor. Are you so slow and foul that you can no longer lure a human to use as food?"
"Slayer!" The vampire's voice seemed rusty, as if his vocal cords were rarely used. "I knew if I brought your pack to me, you would come."
Her eyebrow shot up. "A pretty invitation then, Cristofor. I remember you from the old days when you were a young man, still handsome to look upon. I left you alone for old times' sake, but I see you crave the sweet release of death. Well, old friend, so be it."
"They say you cannot be killed," Cristofor said. "The legend that haunts all vampires. Our leaders say to leave you alone."
"Your leaders? You have joined them then, banded together against the prince and his people? Why seek death when you have a plan to rule every country? The world?" She laughed softly. "It seems to me that this is a silly wish, and a lot of work. In the old days, we lived simply. Those were happy days. Do you not recall them?"
Cristofor studied her flawless face. "I was told you were pieced together, one strip of flesh at a time, yet your face and body are as you were in the old days."
She shrugged her shoulders, refusing to allow the images of those dark years, the suffering and pain-agony really-when her body refused to die and lay deep in the earth, stripped of flesh and open to the crawling insects abounding in the dirt. She kept her face serene, smiling, but inside she was still, coiled, ready to explode into action.
"Why not join us? You have more reason than any other to hate the prince."
"And join the very ones who betrayed and mutilated me? I do not think so. I wage war where it is due." She flexed her fingers inside the skintight, thin gloves. "You really should not have touched my wolves, Cristofor. You have left me little choice."
"I want your secret. Give it to me and I will let you live."
She smiled then, a beautiful smile, her teeth small and pearl white. Her lips were red and full, a teasing, sexy curve inviting him to share the humor. She tilted her head to one side, her gaze moving over his face, assessing him carefully. "I had no idea you had become such a fool, Cristo." She called him the name she had used when they were children playing together. Before. When the world was right. "I am the slayer of vampires. You summoned me with your traps"-she waved a contemptuous hand-"and you think I should be intimidated by you?"
He grinned at her, an evil, malicious smile. "You have become arrogant, Slayer. And careless. You had no idea the trap was for you and not your precious wolves. You have no choice but to give me what I want, or you die this night."
Ivory shrugged her slender shoulders and the silvery full-length coat rippled, moved as if alive. One moment it loosely flowed around her ankles and the next it was gone, settling over her skin until six ferocious wolf tattoos adorned her body from the small of her back to her neck, wrapping around each arm like sleeves.
"So be it," she said softly, her eyes on his.
Spinning, she drew her sword with one hand, rushing toward him, going up and over a snowcapped boulder to launch her body into the air. She felt the bite of a hidden snare, and inwardly cursed as the noose closed around her neck. Already she was dissolving, but blood spattered across the snow in bright crimson drops.
Cristofor laughed and leaned down to scoop up a handful of snow to lick at the droplets, savoring the taste of pure Carpathian blood. Not just pure-the slayer was Ivory Malinov, from one of the strongest Carpathian lineages possible. He followed the arc of blood, saw her forming a few feet from him, closer to the tree line, and satisfaction made him cackle.
Ivory saluted him with two fingers, touched the thin line running across her neck and put her finger in her mouth, sucking off the blood. "Nice score. I did not see that coming and I shall have to apologize to my wolves for scolding them. But Cristo, if you believe your partner back there in the woods is going to help you after slaying my wolf pack, you are doing some serious underestimating of your own."
She ran forward again, her hand low, drawing and throwing the small arrowheads, snapping them with tremendous strength so each buried itself deep into his body, in a straight line from belly to neck. The vampire roared and tried to shift. His legs disappeared, melting into vapor. His head swirled and disappeared. Fog drifted in from the trees in an attempt to help conceal him, congealing around his body, forming a thick veil. The torso remained, that straight, damaging line from belly to neck exposing his heart.
Her sword sank deep, her body weight, strength and momentum from her run driving the blade through the body right beneath the heart. The vampire screamed horribly. Acidlike blood poured from the wound, sizzling over the sword and splattering across the snow. The metal should have been eaten through, but the coating the slayer used protected it, as well as prevented that portion of his body from shifting. She turned her body in a dancer's spin, sword over her head, still stuck inside his chest so that she cut a circular hole around his heart.
Ivory withdrew the sword and plunged her hand deep. "I showed you my secret," she whispered. "Take it to your grave." She withdrew the heart and flung it away from her, lifting her arms to call down a sword of lightning.
The jagged bolt incinerated the heart and then jumped to the body, burning it clean. "Find peace, Cristofor," she whispered and hung her head, leaning on her sword, tears shimmering briefly for her lost boyhood friend.
So many were gone now. Nothing remained of the life she'd once known. She took a deep breath, drawing in the crisp night before cleaning her sword and all trace of the vampire's blood from the snow. She retrieved the eight small arrowheads and slid them into the loops on her holster before holding out her arms for the silver-tipped pelt. The tattoos moved, emerging, sliding once more over her body in the form of a coat. She allowed the silvery full-length garment to settle over her body slowly before picking up her weapons and drawing up the hood. At once she seemed to disappear, blending seamlessly with the layers of white fog.
Ivory moved in silence, feeling the hostile energy radiating from her pack. They were under attack and her wall of protection was weakening. She'd thrown the shield up around them hastily when she scented the second predator. Had he not been quite so eager for the kill, and stayed downwind, he might have managed to kill her wild wolf pack. She couldn't reuse the arrowheads on him; the vampire's acidic blood would have eaten through most of the coating. She had very little time to kill her enemy once she buried the small, lethal wedges in the vampire's body before that acidic blood ate through the coating and allowed her enemy to shift.
Weaving through the trees, the slayer stayed low to the ground, taking on the shape of a wolf. With her silver-tipped pelt it would be difficult to distinguish her from the other wolves in the area as she slipped through the trees toward the second vampire. She sank behind a fallen tree, studying the man hurling fireballs at the wolves. He had cornered them just at the water's edge, where the ice was thin and dangerous. She could see cracks spreading along the thin shield she'd thrown up where the vampire continually battered at it.
She took a breath, released it, and let herself find that place deep inside where there was stillness. Where there was resolve. In human form now, she stood and ran at the vampire, firing the crossbow as she went. Again, her aim was for his torso. She caught him as he turned, one arrow slicing into his lower back, the second missing altogether. He flung the fireball at her and Ivory somersaulted on the ground, letting it fly over her head. Then she was up on her feet, still running, always advancing, shooting at him with the crossbow.
The vampire howled in rage, the sound cut off abruptly as an arrow slammed deep into his throat. Her wolves threw themselves at the wall, frantic to come to her aid, but she knew the vampire would simply destroy them all. On the other hand...
The slayer shrugged, this time sending her thick, silver-tipped wolf pelt away from her. The heavy coat landed in the snow, widespread, the fur rippling as if alive. The hood stretched and elongated, and each sleeve did the same, moving with life as the body of the coat formed three separate shapes to match the ones emerging from the hood and sleeves. Ivory didn't wait for her companions to shift to their normal forms; she rolled across the snow, coming up on one knee, firing two more coated arrows into the vampire's chest while he was distracted by the six newly formed wolves.
The vampire hissed, his eyes glowing hot with hatred. He tried to shift, but only his legs, belly and head took the shape of a multi-armed beast, leaving his heart exposed. He realized he was trapped, but was fully aware of the small arrow weakening in his back as the metal was destroyed by his acidic blood. He whirled, sending up a spout of snow, gathering the wind to him and hurling it outward, creating an instant blizzard as the snow was drawn into his circle and flung out around him.
It was impossible to see the vampire in the center of that storm, but the wolves leapt through the swirl of icy snow, guided by scent to attack, tearing at his legs and arms, the alpha going for the throat in an effort to bring him down. The slayer followed them into the circle, knife in hand, hurling herself into the frenzied fray. One of the wolves yelped, and then screamed as the vampire ripped open its sides with curled, slashing talons and flung its body at her.
Ivory dropped her crossbow and caught the wolf as it slammed into her chest, driving her backward. The blizzard slashed across her face without mercy, tearing at her exposed skin as she went down, the wolf on top of her. She put the alpha's injured body aside as gently as possible and crawled forward fast, covering the snowcapped ground like a snake, picking up the crossbow and loading it as she slithered forward. Firing rapidly, she struck him three more times, exploding to her feet right in front of him, driving the knife deep, her hand wrapped around the hilt, following as the blade sliced through bone and sinew in an effort to get to the heart.
The vampire reared back, spittle and blood foaming around his mouth. He slammed his fist at her chest, trying to get at her heart, striking the double row of buckles. Howling, he withdrew his hand, the burn marks evident in the flesh of his knuckles. The tiny imprints of crosses woven into the silver and blessed with holy water had burned through his flesh almost to the bone.
The vampire roared, clubbing at her throat in spite of the wolves hanging on his arms. His nails scraped across her neck and shoulder, gouging flesh away as he struggled wildly. The alpha male hit him full force in the torso, driving him back and away from Ivory before those poison-tipped talons could pierce her jugular.
Ivory leapt on him, punching down with her fist, reaching for the heart, ignoring the acid as it poured over her coated gloves and began burning through them quickly. The vampire thrashed and ripped at her, but the wolves pinned him down as she extracted the pulsing black heart, flinging it from her and raising her hand toward the sky.
Lightning zigzagged, streaked down and slammed into the heart, jolting the ground. The wolves leapt out of the way and the bolt of cleansing energy jumped to the body, incinerating the vampire and cleaning her arrows. Wearily, Ivory bathed her gloves in the light and then sank down into the snow, sitting for a moment, hanging her head, struggling to draw in air when her lungs were burning with need.
One of the wolves licked at her wounds in an effort to heal her. She managed a small smile and laid her fingers in the fur of the alpha female, rubbing her face in the soft pelt for comfort. These wolves, saved from death so many years earlier, more even than she remembered, were her only companions-her family. They were her true pack and she owed no loyalty to any other but them.
"Come here, Raja," she crooned to the big male. "Let me take a look at the damage."
Still trapped behind the shield she'd created to protect the natural wolf pack from the vampire, the alpha roared a challenge. Raja ignored him as he'd done so many others over the years. The natural pack lived and died, the cycle of nature intervening, and he'd learned such petty rivalries didn't touch him. He sent the natural alpha a look of pure disdain and crawled to Ivory, lying on his side so she could inspect his wounds. She'd healed him countless times over the years, just as his sisters and brothers healed the slayer's wounds, their saliva containing the healing agents.
She scraped snow from the frozen ground and dug deep until she had good soil. Mixing her saliva with the soil, she packed the wounds and then hugged him. "Thank you, my brother. As so many times before, you've saved my life."
He nuzzled her and waited patiently while she inspected each of the pack. The strongest female, Ayame, named after the demon princess wolf, cuddled close to him, inspecting his wounds and passing her tongue over the other scratches he'd received. Their littermates formed the rest of the pack: Blaez, his second in command; Farkas, the last male; and Rikki and Gynger, the two smaller females. They crowded around Ivory, pressing close to her battered and bruised body in an effort to aid her.
The littermates, born of different parents, were very distinctive with their thick, silver-tipped coats, a shimmering fall of luxurious fur, all larger than normal, even the two smaller females. All had the blue eyes from their puppy days when Ivory had tracked blood and death back to the den, finding the mangled bodies of her natural wolf pack all those years ago. Even then, she'd become a scourge to the vampires, a whisper, the beginnings of legend and they'd sought to destroy her. Instead, they'd killed and mutilated the bodies of the wolf pack she'd befriended.
She had found the puppies dying, their torn bodies wriggling across the blood-soaked ground, trying to find their mothers. She couldn't bear to lose them, her only family, her only contact with warmth and affection, and she'd fed them her blood out of sheer desperation to keep them alive. Carpathian blood. Hot and healing. She'd stayed in the den with them, back away from the light of day, nearly starving herself. Forced, again out of desperation, to take small amounts of blood from them to stay alive. She hadn't realized she was giving blood exchanges, until the largest and most dominant of the pups underwent the change.
The pups had retained their blue eyes as they'd grown, the Carpathian blood giving them the ability to shift. Their ability to communicate with Ivory had saved them, giving them the necessary psychic brain function to live through the conversion. Like Ivory, they had been wounded a thousand times in battle, but over the past century they'd learned how to successfully bring down a vampire, the seven of them working as a team.
She lay back in the snow, catching her breath, letting her body absorb the pain of her wounds. The one in her neck throbbed and burned and she knew she had to cleanse it immediately. She was impervious to the cold, as were all Carpathians. Her race was as old as time, nearly immortal, as she had discovered, to her horror, when the prince's son had betrayed her to the vampires for his own gain. She'd never known such agony, an endless battle deep in the earth as years went by and her body refused to die.
She must have made a sound, although she didn't hear herself. She thought her cry was silent, but the wolves pressed closer, trying to comfort her, and the natural pack behind the shield took up the cry. Looking up at the night sky, she let her wolves soothe her, their love and devotion a balm whenever she thought too much about her former life. Time was creeping forward. This time of day was as much an enemy as the vampire. She had to hurry to get to her lair, and there was still much to be done before dawn.
Ivory pressed her fingers to her burning eyes and forced her body to move. First, she removed the poison from the lesions in her flesh, where the vampire's poison-tipped claws had torn her open. The vampires who'd banned together used tiny wormlike parasites to identify one another, and those parasites infected any open wound. She had to push them through her pores fast, before they could take hold and require a much more in-depth healing. Again she brought down the lightning to kill them before mixing soil and saliva to pack her own wounds.
"Ready?" she asked her family, picking up her weapons and shoving the used arrows back into her pack. She never left a weapon or an arrow behind, careful that her formula didn't fall into the hands of the vampires, or worse: Xavier, her mortal enemy.
Ivory stretched out her arms and the pack leapt together, forming the full-length coat in the air as they shifted, covering her body, the hood over her head and flowing pelt surrounding her with warmth and affection. She was never alone when she traveled with her pack. No matter where she went, how many days or weeks she traveled, they traveled with her, keeping her from going insane. She'd learned to be alone and had the wolf 's natural wariness of strangers. She had no friends, only enemies, and she was comfortable that way.
Striding through the snow, she waved her hand and allowed the shield to disintegrate. The natural wolf pack milled around her, weaving in and out between her legs and sniffing at her coat and boots, greeting her as a member of the pack. The alpha marked every bush and tree in the vicinity to cover Raja's scent marks. Ivory rolled her eyes at the display of dominance.
"Males are the same the world over, no matter what the species," she said aloud and checked the wolves one by one, assuring herself the vampire hadn't harmed any of them.
"All right. Let's get you fed before dawn. I have a ways to travel and the night's fading," she told the pack. Catching the alpha's muzzle, she looked into his eyes. Find and drive prey to me and I'll bring it down for you. Hurry though, I don't have much time.
Although she talked to her own pack all the time and they understood her, it was easier with a wild pack to convey the order in images, rather than in words. She added a sense of urgency at the same time. She needed to begin the trek back to her lair. Ordinarily she would fly, and each of her weapons was made of something natural that could shift with her, to transport her arsenal over long distances. But first she had to help the pack find food. She didn't want to lose them over the winter, and another storm was coming in soon.
The wolf pack melted away, once again fading into the forest to look for prey. She shouldered her crossbow and began walking through the wilderness in the direction of her home. She'd only make a few miles before the pack would flush something her way, but she would be that much closer to home-and safety.
She understood little about the modern way of life. She'd been buried beneath the ground for so long, the world was unrecognizable when she'd risen. She'd learned, over time, that the prince's son Mikhail had replaced him as the ruler of the Carpathians, and his second in command, as always, was a Daratrazanoff. She knew little else of them, but even the Carpathian world had changed drastically.
There were so few of her species, the race nearing extinction, and who knew? Maybe it was for the best. Maybe their time was long past. So few women and children had been born over the last few centuries that the race was nearly wiped out. She wasn't part of that world any longer, any more than she was part of the human modern-day world. She knew little of technology, other than from books she read, and she had no concept of what it would be like to live in a house or village, town or-God forbid-a city.
She quickened her steps, and again glanced at the sky. She would give the wolf pack another twenty minutes to flush game before she took flight. As it was, she was pushing her luck. She didn't want to be caught out in the light of dawn. She'd spent so much of her life underground that she hadn't developed the resistance to the sun as many of her kind had done, able to stay out in the early morning hours. The moment the sun began to rise she could feel the burn.
Of course, it might have something to do with her skin taking so long to renew itself, scraped from her body as it had been until she'd been nothing but bones and a mass of raw tissue. Sometimes, when she first woke, she still felt the blades going through bone and organs as they chopped her into little pieces and scattered her across the meadow, left to be eaten by the wolves. She remembered the sound of their rasping laughter as they carried out the orders given to them by her worst enemy-Xavier.
The wind began to increase in strength and dark clouds drifted overhead, heralding the coming storm. She sought the haven of the trees and took refuge, closing her eyes to seek the wolf pack. They had discovered a doe, thin and drawn from the winter, hobbling a bit from an injury to her old body. Giving chase, the pack had taken turns, running her toward Ivory.
She whispered softly, asking for the doe's forgiveness, explaining the need to feed the pack as she lifted her weapon and waited. Minutes passed. Ice cracked with a loud snap, disturbing the silence. Hard breath burst from lungs in a rapid puff of steam as the deer broke through the trees and ran full-out over the icy ground.
Behind the doe, a wolf ran, silent, deadly, hungry, moving across the expanse of ice on large paws. Surrounding them, the pack came in from various angles, keeping the doe running straight toward Ivory. They'd hunted this way more than once, bringing the prey to her in desperate times.
Ivory waited until she had a killing shot, not wanting the doe to suffer before releasing her arrow and taking the animal down. Before the alpha could approach the carcass, snarling at the others to wait until he had his fill, she hurried to it and retrieved her arrow, striding away fast, not wanting to use energy to control a starving pack when there was a banquet in front of them.
Increasing her speed until she was running, Ivory sprang into the sky, shifting, the wolves sliding over her skin to become ferocious tattoos as they streaked through the clouds with her. She always felt the joy of traveling this way, as if a burden was lifted from her shoulders each time she took to the air. Spinning dark clouds helped to ease the light on her skin as she moved quickly toward her home. Maybe that was what made her feel less weighted down-that she was heading home, where she felt safe and secure.
She'd never learned to be relaxed and at ease aboveground where her enemies could come at her from any direction. She kept her lair secret, leaving no traces near her entrance, so no one had the opportunity to track her. Her unique warning/protection system would never be detected; of that she was certain. The entrance wasn't protected with the usual spell, so if a Carpathian or vampire found her lair, they wouldn't know it was occupied or even existed. She'd learned many years earlier what levels underground her enemies were most comfortable at, and she avoided them.
Ten miles from her lair, she went to earth, landing, still running, skimming across the surface, arms outstretched so her wolves could hunt. They all needed blood, and with all seven of them spreading out, they'd run across a hunter or a cabin. If not, she would go into the closest village and bring back enough to sustain the pack. She was very careful not to hunt near home, not unless she absolutely had to.
As she slipped through the trees, the mountain rising high in the distance, she came across tracks. An early morning wanderer out to get wood perhaps, or doing some hunting himself. She crouched low and touched the tracks in the snow. A big man. That was always good. And he was alone. That was even better. Hunger gnawed at her now that she'd allowed herself to become aware of it. Ivory ran in the footsteps, following the male as he made his way through the trees.
The forest gave way to a clearing where a small cabin and outhouse sat, a stream bisecting the meadow surrounding it. Ordinarily the cabin was empty, but the tracks led through the snow and inside. A thin trail of smoke began to float from the chimney, telling her he'd just come to the hunting cabin and lit a fire.
Ivory threw her head back and howled, calling to her pack. She waited on the edge of the clearing and the man stepped outside, rifle in his hands, looking at the surrounding forest. That lonely call had spooked him and he waited, quartering the area around his house.
Ivory took to the sky again, moving with the wind, part of the drifting mist surrounding the house. She stood above her prey on the roof while he studied the forest and then, with a small curse, went inside. She saw the shadows flitting among the trees and gestured to them. The pack sank down, waiting.
The crack beneath the cabin door was wide enough for the mist to flow through, and Ivory entered the room, warm now from the crackling fire. Only one room, with a small fireplace and cooking stove, the cabin had the barest of amenities. In modern times, even the poorest of the villagers had such few trappings. She watched the man from a dark corner of the room as he poured water into a pot and set it on the fire to boil.
Crossing the room, she materialized almost in front of him, slipping between him and the fire, her will already reaching for his to calm him and make him more accepting. His eyes widened and then glazed over. Ivory led him to a chair where she could seat him. She was tall, much taller than many women in the villages, a gift from her Carpathian heritage, but this mountain of a man was still taller. She found the pulse beating on the side of his neck and sank her teeth deep.
The taste was exquisite, hot blood flowing, cells filling and bursting with life. Sometimes she forgot just how good it was to feast on the real thing. Animal blood could sustain life, but true strength and energy came from humans. She savored every drop, appreciating the life-giving blood, grateful to the man, although he wouldn't remember he had donated. She planted a dream, slightly erotic, wholly pleasing, not wanting the experience to be unpleasant for him.
She flicked her tongue across the puncture wounds to close the two holes and erase all evidence that she'd been there. She got him a drink of water and pressed it to his mouth, commanding him to drink, and then she set another one beside him and tucked a blanket close to keep his body heat up before leaving.
The pack met her in the deeper woods, surrounding her the moment she called to them. The alpha male came first, leaning against her knee as she knelt and offered her wrist, the blood welling up. He licked the wound from her left wrist while the female fed from her right one. She fed all six wolves and then sat for a moment in the snow, recovering. She'd taken quite a lot from the woodsman, although she'd been careful that he could still function, not wanting to risk him freezing to death before he recovered, and she was a little drained after the fight with the vampires and then feeding the pack.
She rose slowly and held out her arms, waiting for the wolves to shift back into tattoos covering her skin. As they merged with her, she felt a little more revived, the wolves giving her their energy. Again she ran and leapt into the sky, shifting as she did so, giving her body wings as she flew over the forest, heading home.
The clouds were heavy and full, and small gusts of wind blew in the mist, blotting out the rising sun. The mountains rose in front of her-snowcapped and high-hiding warmth and home beneath the layers of rock. She found herself smiling. We're home, she sent to the pack. Almost. She had to scout before she dropped down, check for strangers in her area.
She felt the wolves reach out with each of their senses just as she did, never taking safety for granted. It was how she'd managed to stay alive for so many years. Trusting no one. Speaking to no one unless she was far from her dwelling. Leaving no tracks. No trace. The slayer appeared and then vanished.
She worked her way in an ever-tightening circle, closer and closer to her lair, all the while scanning for blank spaces that might indicate a vampire, or for the disruption of energy that meant a mage could be in the area. Smoke and noise might be humans. Carpathians were more difficult, but she had a sixth sense about them and could hide herself if she felt one near.
As she began her spiral downward, unease rippled through her body and then through the wolves. Below her, through the layers of mist, she caught glimpses of something dark lying motionless in the snow. The snow began to fall, adding to her loss of vision, and she knew by the prickly sensation crawling over her skin that the sun had begun to rise. Every instinct told her to increase her speed and make it to her lair before the sun broke over the mountain, but something far older, far deeper, deterred her.
She couldn't turn away from the sprawled body lying in the snow, already being covered with the new falling powder. O kod belso-darkness take it. Cursing ancient Carpathian oaths that would have shocked her five brothers in the old days, when she remained their protected, adored baby sister, she set her feet down in the snow and threw her arms out to allow her pack to leap down.
The wolves approached the carcass wearily, circling in silence. The man didn't move. His clothes were torn, exposing part of his emaciated torso and belly to the gleaming, hungry eyes. Raja moved in, two steps only, while the pack continued to circle the body. The alpha female, Ayame, stepped in behind the male and Raja turned and snarled at her. Ayame leapt back and whirled around, baring her teeth at her mate.
Ivory took a wary step closer as Raja resumed sniffing the motionless man. He'd once been a powerful male, no doubt about it. He was taller than the average human by several inches. His hair was long and thick, a black-gray pelt that was loose and unkempt. Blood and dirt were caught in the thick strands, matting his hair in places. She leaned over Raja to get a closer look and something inside her shifted.
Gasping, she pulled back abruptly, her body actually turning, ready to flee. He had the strong bones of a Carpathian male, a straight aristocratic nose, and deep lines of suffering cut into his once-handsome face. But what really caught her attention and terrified her was the birthmark showing through his torn, thin shirt. She could see the dragon on his hip. It was no tattoo; he'd been born with that mark.
Dragonseeker. Her breath rushed from her lungs in a long gasp. Around her the snow continued to fall and the world became white, all sound muted. She could hear her heartbeat, too fast, adrenaline pumping through her body, her blood roaring in her ears.
Raja nudged her leg, indicating they should leave the body where it lay. She took a breath, even though her lungs could barely drag in air. Her body actually shivered. She turned away, signaling to the wolves to leave him, but her feet refused to work. She couldn't take a single step. The man with that ravaged face, too-thin body and barely a pulse, held her to him.
She raised her face to the heavens, letting the snow cover it like a white mask. "Why now?" she asked softly. A plea. A prayer. "Why are you asking this of me now? Don't you think you've taken enough from me?" She stood waiting for an answer. Lightning to strike, maybe. Something. Anything. Her whispered entreaty was met with implacable silence.
Raja gave a series of whines. Come away, little sister. Leave him. He obviously disturbs you. Come away before the sun is high.
For the first time in hundreds of years, she'd forgotten the sun. She'd forgotten safety. Everything she knew, everything she'd learned-it was all gone because of this man. She wanted to go away. She needed to go away, but everything in her was drawn to this one man. Palafertiilam-lifemate-her lifemate-the curse of all Carpathian women.