The night welcomed them, the wide-open spaces, the sky heavy now with new clouds. Ivory inhaled deeply, drawing the night air into her lungs, and laughed just for the sheer joy of being outside where she felt alive. Where she could breathe.
"Let's never do that again," she said.
Razvan grinned at her. "Good idea. You were the one with the good manners, insisting we thank everyone." He stretched his arms to the gray clouds and inhaled. "I do believe it is going to snow on us."
"Shall we take the children and go home?" she asked, her slow grin matching his.
"Are we flying? Running?" He arched a brow at her.
Ivory took a slow, careful look around her. "I think we will walk for now."
Razvan sent his senses flaring out into the night, trying to pick up on what she felt. He didn't doubt that some of the Carpathian hunters might follow them to make certain they were not meeting with Xavier and reporting everything they had spoken of.
"They think I am a spy," he said. "Does it bother you?"
"Actually," Ivory corrected, "they think we are both spies." She sent him an amused grin. "I have spent more than one human lifetime thinking of the Carpathian people as betrayers, and yet they think me the spy."
"Because you are with me," he pointed out. "If you like, when you wish to visit or speak with them to gather information, it will not hurt me to have you go into the village alone. I can spend the time with the pack on the outskirts, waiting for you."
She shook her head. "It is not simply because of you. I am a Malinov. I cannot blame them. The timing is very suspicious. I would be suspicious." But she wasn't happy with his sister. Natalya should have believed in him. She was afraid to believe, more than she disbelieved. Ivory didn't voice her opinion because Razvan simply accepted his sister's suspicions as he did most things, but if she had an opportunity, she might just have a word with the woman.
Razvan laughed out loud and enveloped her hand with his. "I am still in your mind."
She blushed, realizing she was still in his as well. "It feels so natural. I did not mean for you to hear that."
"I do not mind you wanting to stick up for me, but truly, Ivory, it is not necessary. I have learned to live without Natalya's admiration these long years. I do worry for my daughter, Lara. I hope we can alleviate her problems by eliminating Xavier, but I have no wish to disrupt her life or Natalya's, or even the aunts'. I am fine the way I am. Happy the way I am."
He tucked her hand against his chest as they walked, bringing them close together. "Lara did not come to see me, which you and I both know means that she was not ready to face me. I am uncomfortable in the presence of so many. Emotions, which I am unused to, can be difficult. I need peace in my mind, and with the combination of their doubt and guilt pressing on me, I found myself having to work at keeping my mind calm, which hasn't happened in more years than I care to count."
"They are fools, Razvan, not to understand what you suffered for them. For all of the Carpathian people."
"My aunts will tell them once they emerge from the healing ground. They were kept too long starving and Gregori has long been trying to aid them to recovery," Razvan said. "When we shared minds, I could see them very clearly." He smiled, and this time his eyes held affection. "I observed them as women, as he saw them, not in the form of dragons as they were held captive. It was . . . astounding."
Ivory walked through the snow, swinging hands with him, wishing she'd paid more attention to the various people in Gregori's mind. If they hadn't pertained to battle or seemed significant to her, she had tried to be careful of his privacy. Now, she could scarcely recall the two women who had saved Razvan's life by turning him fully Carpathian. They had Rhiannon's blood flowing in their veins-Razvan's grandmother. Rhiannon had come from such a powerful Carpathian line.
"Dragonseeker," she murmured aloud. "How often that name was whispered in awe and respect. You carry that line and you stayed true to it."
The first flakes began to fall. Small crystals of enormous beauty. Razvan watched them as they walked, their tracks light and then, when Ivory wished it, nonexistent. They still left their scent behind, making certain that anyone who might wish to track them would see the wide curve of a new direction.
Razvan walked along beside her, feeling content, occasionally scooping snow into his hand and packing it to form a ball just to throw it at a tree trunk as they passed. It made him feel a bit like a kid again, carefree and happy, just as much as when he'd run with the wolves.
"You take every moment," Ivory said, "and you live it right then."
He shrugged. "I found that in order to survive I had to live in the moment. I do whatever I am doing with everything in me. I enjoy it, or endure it or survive it." He looked around at the drifting snow and the heavily laden trees with their crystal formations. "This is paradise to me."
"Walking through the forest in the snow, hoping to throw off anyone tracking us?" She laughed, shaking her head. "You really are a little bit peculiar. I like it, but you are still weird."
Razvan's laugh was joyous, the sound deep and pure, sliding into her body and making her heart sing. It made her feel like a bit of an idiot, but she didn't care; she kept the silly smile on her face anyway.
"We have everything we could possibly want right here in this moment. You. Me. The pack. Look around you. The snow is beautiful, the trees unbelievable. We are happy. Whatever comes later, we have these moments right now. Right here. We may as well make the best of them because we will never get these moments back."
He lobbed a snowball at her. It landed in her hair and broke, covering the blue-black strands with flakes. He sprinted away from her.
Ivory gasped and went after him scooping up snow on the run, packing and throwing with the tremendous speed and accuracy born of throwing her arrowheads.
Razvan dodged, looking over his shoulder at her, laughing. She was so beautiful to him, running in the snow with her long strides, her muscles rippling beneath the smooth expanse of skin. Just the way she moved was pure sin. Her eyes were enormous with excitement. Crystal flakes landed on her lashes and she batted the two thick crescents to get the snow off. The gesture was feminine, sexy beyond measure yet totally unintentional.
He took advantage and reversed direction, running at her fast, hurling three snowballs to distract her, uncaring where they hit, watching her mouth, that beautiful bow of a mouth, curved and soft and so tempting. He dropped his shoulder and caught her low, lifting her and taking her down in one smooth move.
They landed in the snow, sinking into the icy powder. Razvan caught her wrist before she could stuff another snowball down his shirt. She laughed up at him, looking good enough to eat. Before he could take advantage and kiss her, she pushed up with her heels, loosening him enough to roll them over so she was on top, trying to pin him down. They wrestled there in the snow, the flakes rising like a whirlwind to meet the ones falling from the sky, their laughter stirring the needles on the trees. The wind carried the sound on the stillness of the night.
They lay side by side, throwing arms and legs out, like two small children, making snow figures on the ground and then leaping to their feet for another wild battle with snowballs flying furiously.
Ivory finally leapt on him, arms circling his neck, her legs wrapped around his hips in an effort to stop the crazy game before she laughed so much she cried. "You are so crazy, Razvan," she said, holding him tightly. She buried her face against his throat, afraid she really would burst into tears at the emotions welling up, threatening to overwhelm her.
She knew he thought her some kind of miracle, but in truth, to her he was the miracle. She had no idea how to have fun, and she had no idea how he did. There had been no fun in his life, only cruelty and torture; she at least had played with her pack, but it was Razvan who brought fun into her world again.
"Ivory?" His voice was gentle with inquiry.
She refused to lift her head, only held him tighter, keeping her face pressed against his throat, listening to the wild beating of his heart and feeling the reassuring throb of his pulse.
Razvan tightened his arms around her, rocking gently as if comforting her, but he said nothing at all, not asking for an explanation to the end of their game. He simply accepted. She closed her eyes and savored him. It wasn't the physical strength Razvan possessed in abundance that drew her to him, it was the sheer strength of his character, the absolute well of determined spirit deep inside of him. He was so steady. A rock. For her.
She lifted her head and smiled down at him, not realizing her heart was shining in her eyes. "You are mine, Dragonseeker. My rock."
His slow, answering smile nearly stopped her heart. "That I am, han ku kuulua sivamet-keeper of my heart. I will be your everything."
Ivory allowed her feet to drop down into the snow. "Let's go home." More than anything she wanted to be home with him. She wanted her private sanctuary to welcome him, to feel as if he was as much a part of the pack-of her home-as he was her heart.
Razvan held out his hand to her. She glanced up at the sky, scanned the trees, hesitating. She was a warrior first. She could never lose sight of that.
"You will never be diminished by what is between us," he said softly.
Something in her settled. She couldn't imagine being diminished by Razvan. If anything, she would be better, stronger, more. She looked at his upturned palm. His hand was large. There were scars up and down his wrist and forearm. Her heart fluttered. She placed her hand in his and watched his fingers close around hers, binding them together just as the ritual words had done.
Do you remember? She couldn't ask aloud; it meant too much. She was very spiritual and believed, whether anyone else did or not, that they had been created to be together, and those words imprinted on him from birth ad made them one.
Razvan brought her hand to his chest and stepped close, brushing the snow from the strands of hair tumbling around her face, pulled from her thick braid in their wild battle. "I remember every word, Ivory, and I meant them. I wanted the binding between us. It was not desperation. And it was not the need to save me."
He bent his dark head in that slow way of his. He still had snowflakes on his lashes. As he moved, a thick heat slipped like molasses through her veins. His mouth closed over hers and the snow melted around her, she was certain of it. She swore she could see steam rising from the ground and feel molten liquid gathering like thick magma in her most feminine core.
She leaned into him, melting like the snow. She felt on the edge of a great precipice, teetering, knowing she was going to fall and it was far too late to save herself. In truth, she didn't want to; she already craved the taste of him, the heat and white lightning arcing through her body, sizzling in her mind, shorting out her brain for way too long when they were out in the open.
When he lifted his head she took a moment to drown in the intensity of his desire. Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Ivory stepped away from temptation. "You are the most lethal man I know."
"I will take that as a compliment." He kissed her again. "You like lethal."
He knew how to kiss. Long and slow and delicious. A slow, burning heat that scorched from the inside out. She found herself smiling up at him all over again as he lifted his head. "Yes, I suppose I do." Although, she was scared to care that much about anyone ever again.
They walked through the drifting snow for several miles until the flakes began to look like a white blanket falling from the sky. It might have been the muffled world they found themselves in, alien and white and so quiet that even their breathing seemed too loud in the vast silence, but Ivory began to feel uneasy. Another mile and her wolves stirred. She felt the itch spread over her skin as Raja lifted his head out of her back and bared his teeth in a snarl.
I know, she soothed. We have company. Ivory glanced at Razvan. "We are being followed." Her voice was a thread of sound, as muffled and as quiet as the snow.
A small, unexpected smile of amusement lit up Razvan's face. "Well, I guess we get to have a little fun."
She frowned at him. "Fun? Razvan, it is not the undead who are following us. We cannot have anyone finding our lair, nor do we want to engage them in battle if they are Carpathian as I suspect they are."
His grin widened. "I was fairly certain someone would try to follow us. I have been giving it quite a bit of thought as we walked, working out a plan."
Ivory's amber gaze narrowed as it drifted over his face. He looked younger. Happier. She had done that but . . .
"Trust me, Ivory. I am not the experienced fighter you are, but I am very good at planning battles and strategies. This is a situation made for me."
She sent her senses racing out into the night, seeking information, looking for any blank spots that would indicate vampire. The hunters were well hidden, so much so that she wasn't entirely certain she was right, but Raja was never wrong and he had issued his warning.
"What do you want to do?"
"We should make our way to the valley of mists. That is where we will disappear altogether and leave those following behind. But in the meantime, I think a little lesson is called for, don't you?"
"Lesson?" she echoed faintly. There was way too much amusement in his voice.
"They need to learn a little respect for my woman. You are a warrior, equal to them, and yet they treat you as if you are an amateur. They did not even give us the respect due by confronting us face-to-face. It might be a good thing for all of them to know they are not as good as they think they are."
"I do not think these are children following us, Razvan. They are experienced Carpathian hunters, possibly ancients who have thousands of battles under them."
His cocky grin made him look boyish when there was nothing boyish about him. "Perhaps, but then again, we may make them remember their childhood."
"What do you all think you are doing?" Gregori demanded as he came upon the small group of Carpathian hunters.
Vikirnoff had the grace to look uneasy. "We are not children to be reprimanded, Gregori," he answered.
Gregori's eyebrow shot up. "No, you are not. You are an ancient hunter, Vikirnoff, one far more experienced than me. Nor did I come to reprimand you. I asked what you were doing merely to see if you needed aid of any kind."
The others looked at one another. It didn't surprise Gregori that Vikirnoff's brother, Nicolae, traveled with him. The brothers had been guarding one another's backs for hundreds of years. The other four hunters were also ancients, returning to the Carpathian Mountains to establish ties with the prince. It occurred to Gregori that all of these ancient hunters did not really know Mikhail and had every reason to worry about his judgment. They were far older and more experienced than the prince, and were used to relying solely on their own judgment.
Tariq Asenguard had come from the United States. Over the centuries he had amassed a huge personal fortune, which he often fed to the other Carpathians. He owned several businesses. Tall, like most Carpathian males, he wore his hair long, but his eyes were midnight blue, almost gemlike. Tariq was a man used to going his own way and the thought of an ancient book in the hands of Razvan and a Malinov was enough to set him traveling fast to see for himself just what the pair was up to.
Andre moved through countries like a ghost, drifting in only to pay his respects and pledge his allegiance. A man of very few words, he stayed aloof, as most ancient hunters did, his eyes restless, the urge to continue moving, the drive to find his lifemate ceaseless now as he neared the end of his tolerance. He was one of the single males Gregori kept a firm eye on, as both Tariq and Andre seemed very close to turning.
Mataias, Lojos and Tomas were never far from one another. Like most siblings raised together, they had formed a bond to see each other through the darker times. They came from a long line of famous warriors, a respected family that always produced multiple children, yet rarely gave birth. Two daughters had been born after the boys, both living no more than their second year. A master vampire had claimed their parents while their mother was pregnant with another set of triplets. The brothers had hunted the vampire across two continents, never ceasing in their pursuit until they had destroyed the undead, exacting justice for their parents and siblings and earning themselves quite a reputation.
Gregori folded his arms across his chest and regarded them all, making certain not to show amusement or exasperation. These men were some of the most respected ancients. They were experienced hunters, every one of them. Yet what they were doing was very foolish and more than a little dangerous and they all should have known better.
"Have you considered that you are following a couple that your prince has promised safe passage to?" he asked, keeping his voice mild and nonjudgmental.
Vikirnoff shrugged, equally casual. "This is an uncertain road. We would be remiss in not guarding the prince's guests."
Gregori's eyebrow rose even higher. "I see. You don't mind if I just tag along and make certain you're all safe, right?"
Swift impatience crossed Vikirnoff's face. "I doubt we'll need protection, but you're welcome. Just make certain you mask your presence. I gave both of them blood so I will have no problem following them."
"That will be interesting. I also gave them blood. Between the two of us, we should have no problem."
Andre and Tariq exchanged a long look and then peered through the snow. It was coming down faster and faster.
"Is there something about this couple we should know, Gregori?" Tariq asked. He still held a faint European accent beneath the American one.
Gregori shook his head. "I am certain none of you would have come on such a mission without a clear idea of who you are chasing."
"A woman," Andre said. "Just a woman and her lifemate. One fairly unskilled."
Gregori followed the others through the snow. "To be fair, they did encounter a master vampire and saved four humans."
Andre gestured around him. "They play like children in the forest, while they carry a book of immense importance."
"Do they now? A book of immense importance?"
Vikirnoff glared at him. "Enough, Gregori. You choose to be amused by this situation, but you did not see the things I did when Natalya recovered that book. It is dangerous. Too dangerous to go unguarded with people we do not know and with enemies closing in around us."
"Oh, I assure you, Vikirnoff, amusement is not what I am feeling." Gregori strode away from the man before he cursed him for being bull-headed. He dropped back, allowing the others to take the lead, knowing the seven hunters were underestimating their prey. In fact, chasing the pair into their own territory was probably the worst idea anyone had had in a long while, but he refused to waste his breath.
Nicolae held up his hand and all of them crouched low, spreading out and automatically blurring their bodies to make it much more difficult to see in the thick snowstorm. A slight breeze blew through the trees so that they caught glimpses of figures up ahead in the meadow-many figures. Big. Tall. Short. Stout. Arms stuck out in strange sticklike shapes, the fingers outstretched as if seeking something.
"What is it?" Vikirnoff asked. "That's not them."
"Ghouls? An army of ghouls?" Andre suggested.
Gregori rolled his eyes. "I very much doubt it."
As they stared, trying to peer through the heavy veil of snow, the figures shifted, moving busily around, stooping, shaping, building a low structure.
"A wall?" Tariq whispered.
"It's going up fast. Too fast to be anything but magic," Mataias warned. He signaled his brothers and they separated, coming around the meadow from three different points of attack.
The hunters crept closer, using the trees to mask their presence, all senses alert. Whatever was guarding the couple gave off no scent, no spoor whatsoever. It was as if the couple was gone, and the land itself was pristine with snow.
"A fortress," Lojos hissed in warning.
The attack came swiftly. Missiles whistled through the air, a bombardment, the air heavy with white-capped balls that hit with deadly accuracy, slamming into the Carpathians, the trees, and everything else in the battle zone.
"Acid!" Tomas hissed in warning.
The men dissolved and burst onto the battlefield, each in front of one of the attacking ghouls, punching through the chest to get at withered hearts, others slicing through necks to take the heads from the vampire's puppets.
Gregori folded his arms and leaned against the broad trunk of a tree and watched the frenzied, chaotic fight, the battle raging furiously as the ghouls continued hurling the missiles and others continued rapidly building until the structure began to form a roof, now surrounding them on all four sides, confining them within its walls.
"It is a trap," Tariq warned the others. "Above you."
The seven Carpathian hunters somersaulted away from their opponents, each trying to study the structure rapidly enclosing them.
Gregori shook his head, rolling his eyes while the minutes ticked by and the ghouls grew more plentiful and the missiles doubled.
Vikirnoff worked his way across the battlefield to his side. "Do you mind helping?"
"I would feel a bit ridiculous fighting snowmen, but you go right ahead," Gregori said with a small elegant bow toward the ancient hunter.
Vikirnoff looked around, a frown on his face. Everything slowed a bit as he tried to see with all of his senses. The ferocious battle continued, but now the ghouls were white and flaky and suspiciously round in body and head. The arms appeared to be nothing more than branches and old twigs. The missiles were snowballs, splattering against their chests and faces.
Vikirnoff took a breath and let it out. The scene cleared and completely focused. Color swept up his neck and flooded his face.
"I believe you just got spanked," Gregori said. "And by a girl."
"Terad keje-get scorched, Gregori," Vikirnoff snapped. "It is an illusion," he called to the others. "She is good with magic. A delaying tactic only. They know we follow them."
The fighting slowed and then halted as the hunters slowly realized they'd been duped. Around them, snowmen lay fallen, slashed, heads rolling with grinning faces laughing up at them.
"I cannot believe we fell for this," Tariq said. "She is better than I gave her credit for. I did not, for one moment, feel a surge of energy."
The hunters looked at one another. It was Lojos, renowned for being a great warrior, who voiced his appreciation. "Not only was there no surge of energy, the illusion was absolutely seamless. This is no amateur. Even the skill of the snowmen fighting was superb." If he could have felt admiration it would have been in his voice, but his emotions had long since faded and all he could do was voice his acknowledgment of the expertise.
"Pick up the trail, Vikirnoff," Mataias said with relentless purpose. "There is not even a faint trace left behind. We will have to use the call of your blood to track them."
Gregori smirked a bit. "Yes, Vikirnoff. You use that. I am certain you will have no problems finding them." The snow was coming down so hard that he almost failed to see Vikirnoff's face, but it was well worth the extra effort to see the hunter's exasperated expression.
"If your lifemate had been duped repeatedly by someone, you would not be so quick to trust him, Gregori," Vikirnoff accused.
"Perhaps not, but I would trust my prince."
Vikirnoff stalked away, leading the group of hunters across the meadow thick with snowmen and back into the forest. The scent was so faint, even with the call of his own blood, as if somehow it had been diluted. Wary of traps now, they had to move much more slowly, spread out in a standard search pattern, all senses alert. There were no tracks, no visible signs of Razvan and Ivory's passage. Twice Vikirnoff had to back-track and wind his way deeper into the forest where the trees were taller and closer together.
The canopy wove an umbrella overhead, blocking the worst of the snow so that the layers on the ground weren't quite as deep, although the branches overhead were piled high and every open space had high drifts.
Tariq clawed a spiderweb from his face as they infiltrated the darker recesses of the forest. The webs here were much more abundant, as often happened in less-traveled areas.
"It does not appear they came this way," he cautioned. "The webs are intact."
The hunters halted, maintaining at least a five-foot distance between one another. They inspected the numerous spiderwebs that stretched from tree to tree. Sparkling like diamonds from the ice crystals coating the intricate strands, the webs actually draped over many of the trees and stretched between them in labyrinths of artfully connected roadways. They had seen the ice spiders' elaborate webs before, mostly in caves deep beneath the ground, but once in a while they were treated to the rare sight during a prolonged cold winter.
"These webs have been undisturbed for many weeks," Andre added, stepping close to one of the larger ones to study the insects trapped there. Even a few hapless lizards and birds had been snared by the strong webs. "I doubt they passed this way."
"Perhaps as mist?" Mataias suggested. "They might have slipped through."
"Not an ice spiderweb," Lojos objected. "Everyone knows you cannot simply slip through."
"Ice spiders are small, but ferocious," Tomas reminded. "If you stumble upon a colony in the caves you had better fear for your life. This looks like a colony."
"Without a doubt," Nicolae agreed. "If we go into the middle of that, we had better be prepared to burn them out. Even with everything wet, we could destroy this forest."
Vikirnoff glanced uneasily at Gregori. The healer made no suggestions, he simply stood off to the side and watched them puzzling out the trail. There was no expression on his face, no indication of what he might be thinking.
"Watch out for an ambush," Nicolae cautioned, "but look around. They had to have come through here. If they found a passage, so can we."
"Do not disturb the webs," Vikirnoff cautioned as the hunters began to cast for signs.
The blood spoor was faint, and Vikirnoff was certain the couple had come through the ice spiders' territory. The webs appeared to encompass several miles of forest, a thick barrier stretching like fences through the trees. If the couple had skirted around rather than going through the colony, it would have taken them much longer, and the blood scent didn't lead that way. To avoid trouble with the dangerous and very aggressive spiders, they would have had to find a way to go through the area without tearing the webs. The spoor was so faint already, he was afraid if they chose the longer route, they'd lose the couple altogether.
"I believe I've figured out what they've done." Lojos said. "They had to have repaired all damage to the webs as they passed through. If they could weave quickly enough and keep each web intact enough not to rouse the ire of the spiders, they might have made it through without a battle."
Tariq nodded. "That is the only logical explanation. Spread out. No one is good enough to repair an ice spider's web exactly as the spider weaves it. They will have left signs."
Vikirnoff sent an elated look toward Gregori, who merely shrugged, which irritated the hunter even more. The seven ancients spread out through the trees, stepping close to the webs, almost pressing their noses against them in an attempt to find any signs of ragged edges where the crystals clung to the silken strands.
Vikirnoff glanced at Nicolae, his frown deepening. "I do not see anything here, but no one passes through the heart of ice spiderwebs. They can go on for miles and it would be far too perilous. Not only is it too dangerous, the caution they would have taken would certainly have slowed them down."
Looking at his brother, he moved from the outer trees toward the center of the forest. He took a step and his foot sunk about four inches into the snow in spite of making his body light. At once silken strands whipped up and around him, enclosing him in a net that sprang from the ground high into the air, the web tight, without the tiny holes allowing vapor to pass through.
Vikirnoff struggled, but as with all ice spider traps, the web tightened the more he struggled, rolling him until he was trussed up like a turkey. He forced himself to go still, fury eating at his usual calm. He found himself high in the canopy, dangling several hundred feet up in the air. His brother glared back at him from the net where he was wrapped like a mummy and trapped within the silken, crystalline net. Around them the other hunters had met the same fate.
Vikirnoff didn't dare look at Gregori. "Get us down," he bit out.
Gregori sighed. "If I move, Vikirnoff, I may step into one of the numerous traps laid out. I have to study the situation first. It will do no good for me to wind up the same way."
"Spiders could never do this," Lojos said. "Magic is at work here."
"You think?" Nicolae was sarcastic. "We are being made fools of."
"Or perhaps you are simply being fools," Gregori offered.
Vikirnoff snarled at him. "Say what you like, Gregori, but if they have nothing to hide, they would not have gone to such lengths to hide from us."
As he spoke the branches overhead stirred, flakes raining down as spiders scurried along the intricate webbing. One began to lower itself toward Vikirnoff, drawn by his voice.
Gregori, placing his feet carefully in the obvious minefield of snares, moved closer, should his aid become necessary.
The spider stopped level with Vikirnoff's eyes. They stared at each other for a long moment. Vikirnoff could see the fangs dripping with venom. The spider began to weave another web, this time forming words as if programmed. It took some time for the spider to connect the silken lines.
Fear not. I have arranged for safe passage through spider territory.
Vikirnoff felt his gut tighten. Safe passage. As if they were children unable to make it through the ice spiders' realm on their own. The blow to their pride was deliberate. A slap in the face.
Vikirnoff was tempted to roast the entire colony by calling down the lightning.
"I wouldn't do that," Gregori said. "If Ivory or Razvan used magic and befriended these spiders, chances are they left protection behind for them. They traded something for your safe passage."
"We didn't ask for their help," Vikirnoff snarled, his teeth snapping together.
Above their heads the trees came alive as thousands of spiders shifted and moved. Vikirnoff wished he'd never set out on the journey in the first place but he wasn't about to tell Gregori that. Forcing back his anger, he inclined his head to accept whatever agreement Ivory and Razvan had made.
"Hopefully you are right about them and they haven't traded their safe passage by giving us to the spiders for their winter food."
"I would not allow that to happen."
That was almost as hard to swallow as the couple arranging safe passage. Vikirnoff swore silently. They had no choice now. They had to continue forward, and he knew the healer wore that particularly annoying smirk.
They were lowered back to the ground almost at a snail's pace, making Vikirnoff want to scream in frustration. Another delaying tactic. And then each was rolled out, one by one, so the silken strands binding them could be preserved, another absolutely humiliating torture for experienced hunters. And if Gregori mentioned spankings again, he'd kill the man and damn the consequences. While the hunters were being rolled out like sausages, an opening was prepared through the webs so when all seven hunters were once again standing beside Gregori, there was a way through the thick forest.
Uneasy now, the group continued to follow Vikirnoff as he set out to track Ivory and Razvan through the dark interior and back out the other side. They found themselves in the worst possible place and the spiders worked quickly to close the passage behind them.
The Valley of Mists lay between two tall mountain peaks, rising abruptly at near vertical angles. The gorge was narrow and treacherous, nearly always entrenched with thick, icy mist, the particles small enough to nearly freeze lungs when inhaled. No one, not even Carpathians, could see through the heavy veil of mist that hung like clouds. Snow and ice often calved off the angular cliffs, and avalanches were frequent in the area.
The wind often came in off the highest peaks on a spiraling down-draft to howl through the canyon at breakneck speeds, carrying voices, wreaking havoc with auditory senses. Few animals could live in the valley; snow leopards reigned, but even they stayed away from the base of the mountains where the snow and ice sloughed off with thundering force.
The hunters heard the sound of a woman's laughter and figures moved in the mist. Tomas glanced at his brothers and they moved forward only four steps into the valley and disappeared.
Vikirnoff looked at Gregori. "They chase ghosts, don't they?"
Gregori shrugged. "I would imagine they do."
Vikirnoff closed his eyes and sent his mind seeking the blood trail. It was lost in the mist. Not even the faintest trace remained. "They probably dissolved into mist and are mixed in this thick soup. I could spend months trying to trace them."
"You will not find them," Gregori said.
Tomas, Mataias and Lojos returned. "We are chasing phantoms. They play with us, but they are no longer here."
Vikirnoff shook his head. "I hope your prince knows what he is doing, Gregori."
"Our prince," Gregori said. "Each of you swore allegiance." This time there was no amusement. None. The silver eyes glinted at each of the hunters as if marking them. "Ivory and Razvan refused the offer of the book. Mikhail tested them in every way and they passed each test. I cannot say the same for any of you."
He simply dissolved and streamed away, up and over the forest with its spider colony, back toward Carpathian territory, leaving the others to follow.