I vory crouched down beside the fallen man, her fingers gliding over his face, around to his neck to feel his pulse. It was unnecessary. Her heart had slowed to match the impossibly slow beat of his. She brushed the snow from his face and began a minute examination of his wounds. His body was crisscrossed in scars-nearly as bad as her own, should she allow anyone to see her as she was. His skin was ice-cold. Every Carpathian learned from childhood how to control the temperature in their bodies, yet he was freezing.

Little sister! Raja's whine ended in a growl of warning. The sun is climbing.

If she didn't take him, he would die here in the open. Her heart stuttered as she looked back at his tracks. That had been his intention. From the old and fresh scars on his ankles and wrists, she could tell he had been chained, the links coated with vampire blood, burning into his flesh each time he moved. She knew one man who used that method of imprisonment: Xavier, the high mage. The Dragonseeker had escaped captivity and instead of heading toward one of the villages to seek aid, he had gone into the forest interior, making his way to the most remote side of the mountain where the sun could claim him.

The pack milled around, uneasy now, casting glances up at the sky. The snow began to come down harder, coating the silvery pelts. Cursing, Ivory reached for him, pulling him into a sitting position so she could lift him.

His eyes snapped open-dark swirling pits of suffering, of determination, of resolve. This was a man honed in the fires of hell, a man who'd suffered unbearable agony and set his mind in stone. There would be no manipulating him; she could see and feel that as his energy surrounded her.

"Leave me." His voice gave a hoarse command.

She felt the mental push behind the brusque order and hastily shut out the compulsion. The telepathic coercion affected her wolves; she could see them back away, and she waved her hand to hold them. Only her long and very tight bond with the pack held them to her under the strength of that compulsion-and that told her a lot about this man. In spite of being so weak, half-starved and emaciated, he was incredibly strong-and dangerous.

She wasn't about to open her mouth. She shook her head mutely and went to lift him. The Dragonseeker pulled back and laid his hand on her arm with surprising gentleness. She felt the jolt of electricity and her body tingled, sudden awareness forcing the air from her lungs in a hissing rush.

"You do not understand," he said. "You are in terrible danger just being close to me. I have powerful enemies and they can reach you through me."

Again she felt the warning compulsion in his voice. He radiated purity-truth. He wanted her to leave him knowing it was a death sentence-not just a death sentence, but that he would die in absolute agony, one slow inch at a time. She cursed again. She had no choice but to speak and he would know the truth. Her species had one mate. One. They could look the world over, through centuries of living and unless they connected to that one person, the one who shared the other half of their soul, they were not true lifemates.

If she spoke, he would know. He would see in color, he would feel emotion-not just remember it. He would know-and maybe he already did-that she was his other half. She knew she had no choice. He would fight her, try to force her to leave him and he had to know she couldn't, that it was virtually impossible to do such a thing no matter how much she might want to. Ivory gave a slow shake of her head.

The Dragonseeker put his hand up and she knew he was about to speak. She spoke first. "I cannot and I think you know why. If you do not want my pack-and me-to suffer the sun burning us, you must cooperate."

She saw the shock register on his face. His body actually flinched as if from a body blow and he squeezed his eyes shut tight for what seemed an interminable amount of time as if his returning colors and emotions were too overwhelming, too dazzling for him to process. In truth, he didn't seem to welcome the news any more than she had, but she was fully aware that he felt that same pull toward her as she did toward him. When he opened his eyes, the color was swirling, dark, almost black, and then mixing into a deep emerald green before going back to a midnight blue. He blinked and the effect was gone. He took a breath. Let it out.

"My mortal enemy is Xavier, the high mage. He can possess my body at will and often does, slipping in and out of me and committing hideous, vile crimes against all peoples: mage, human and Carpathian alike. You cannot stay near me. He is weak at the moment, which is why he has not overtaken my body and forced it back. This is my only chance to escape him."

Ivory sank back on her heels and stared into the dark, ravaged eyes. He was telling the truth. Xavier. He had set in motion things that could never be undone. He had commanded the vampires to chop her body into pieces. He was an incomparable monster like the world had never known, and he couldn't be allowed to regain power.

"Your enemy is my greatest enemy," she said. She had so many.

"Leave me. Hide yourself. If I die here, he cannot use me to harm any other."

Little sister! Come away from this place. Take us home. This time Raja bared his teeth, his voice demanding.

Sister-kin. The rest of the pack took up the desperate cry.

Ivory felt the burning itch begin along her bare neck and arms. In spite of the thick snow falling around her, she was that sensitive, or maybe it was a fear she'd developed over the years. It mattered little.

"How does he possess you?"

"I gave him an opening." His gaze held hers captive as he made his confession. "There was a young mage woman who was kind to me. At that time, without my knowledge, Xavier was experimenting with ways to possess a body. He used mine to impregnate women. He wanted a blood supply and thought having children would do it for him. I am his grandson."

Ivory raised her arms to allow the pack to merge with her skin. Grateful that she was at long last preparing to go, the pack took their places one by one, covering her back and arms as if they were only ink on her skin and not immortal creatures. She never took her eyes from her lifemate, never changed expression even though inside she could hear herself screaming.

"The young woman had my child, a little girl, quite beautiful. She was amazing and talented. We were all held prisoner. My aunts, me, my child's mother and beautiful little Lara. I didn't want him to kill Lara as he'd ultimately killed her mother, and I told him I would do anything."

She gasped in disbelief. "To the high mage? You traded your soul? To the high mage?" She felt a little idiotic repeating herself, but who did that? Who would be that . . .

"At the time, I had been tortured severely. He had left Lara's mother's dead body to rot in front of us, and I could not bear for Lara to be tortured. In truth, I was not thinking clearly." He shook his head. "I cannot remember facts accurately anymore. Time has blurred together for me. But you cannot trust me. He can take this body at any time and force me to do unspeakable things to those I love. I have betrayed everyone who ever meant anything to me."

"And yet you fought him. You still fight him."

"I am my father's son. Xavier killed him as well and tried to possess my sister. I would not let him have her. I traded my life for hers and then my soul for my daughter. I have nothing left for you."

Those piercing eyes never once left her face, and if there was regret or remorse in his confession, she didn't hear it. He had traded his life and was willing to die this day, as the sun came up, to protect everyone else, Ivory included.

"He cannot have you," she said. "I am sorry, but if what you say is true, then I have no choice but to render you unconscious so you do not know the way to my lair."

For the first time his expression changed. "You cannot take me there, woman. I forbid it." Both hands came up, and she felt the beginnings of the spell he was casting, one to force her compliance.

She was faster. Palms out, she shattered his spell so that small sparks clashed between them. She whispered softly and he blinked and fought for a moment, but starved and weak, his head slipped to one side as his eyes closed.

Ivory didn't hesitate once she'd made up her mind. She slung the Dragonseeker over her shoulder and took to the sky, racing the sun as it climbed toward the higher peaks. She streaked up through the driving snow, scanning the trails leading into the mountains for tracks of human vampire hunters, rare now, but still a menace to her kind. She let her senses flair out, seeking signs of the undead who may have taken refuge near her lair, or a stray hunter, one of the Carpathian males she was careful to hide her existence from.

In midflight, she found herself rolling her eyes. A fat lot of good that had done her when she'd stumbled across her lifemate, just lying out in the snow, so thin and drawn, so emaciated from starvation and suffering that she couldn't be heartless enough to leave him there.

"O jela peje terad-sun scorch you, palafertiilam-lifemate," she hissed aloud.

It had never occurred to her that she would find herself in such a predicament. A male. She was bringing a sodden male to her home. Her haven. She should have told him terad keje-get scorched-and been done with him, but no, she had to be a simpering female and take the blasted man home with her.

She made for the gap between the two tall, towering columns of rock rising like horns above the mountain. The rock seemed solid and no one, in all the years she'd been residing there, had ever found that thin crack in the left rock that ran from the inside around to the base, where the tower met the mountain peak itself. It took a moment to disable her intricate mineralogical alarm/protection system so she could pass through with the male. She blew gently into the wind, stirring the snow into a mini-blizzard, covering her drop as she entered vaporized, pouring like fog into the crack and making her way down through the inside of the mountain.

Passing layers of rock, crystal caves and ice, all the while using the small crack that ran from the highest point to deep beneath the ground, she moved steadily lower until heat began to warm her and the pressure on her body increased. It always took a few moments to adjust to the depth beneath the earth, but over the years her body had adapted. If the Dragonseeker had been held prisoner by Xavier, then he'd been underground in the ice caves where Xavier ruled and his body would be somewhat acclimatized to the depths.

She continued down, past the caves where bats dwelled and even lower beyond the depths of the ice caves, where no Carpathian she knew ever slept. She'd found rich soil and a hollowed out cavern. Over the centuries she'd enlarged her living quarters to include several rooms. She'd brought in books, storing them on the floor-to-ceiling shelves she'd created. She'd painstakingly re-created each spell book she'd studied when she'd attended school under Xavier, back in the old days when Xavier had been thought to be a friend of the Carpathian people.

Her furniture suited her and her candles were made with the best healing fragrances and minerals she could find. In enlarging her lair, she'd come across a small flow of water, and although it had taken nearly seventy-five years, she'd hollowed out a natural basin in the solid rock and formed a pool for herself. She loved her pool, the cool, clean water that always flowed and cascaded down through the floor into the next bed of rock beneath them.

Once down in her lair, she reprogrammed her unique alarm system with its gems that not only weighed the mass dropping through the crack but provided light for her far beneath the surface. She shrugged off the wolves the moment she was inside her home, allowing them to take their natural forms, while she strode through the outer rooms, her sitting room where the wolves liked to curl up while she read or painted or played her instrument, and then the rooms where she did her metal work, constructing her weapons, before going down the stairs leading to the last room where they all slept.

A violin lay in a case against one wall of her bedchamber; nearby sat a deep rock basin that she'd filled with the richest soil. She set the Dragonseeker down on the rejuvenating earth and studied him a moment. He was struggling, fighting off the slumber spell. She had the feeling he hadn't been as deep as she'd intended, but all that really mattered was that he hadn't seen the location of her lair.

Taking a deep breath, she laid aside her weapons and reversed the spell. The Dragonseeker, in spite of his starved and weakened condition, came up out of the soil, his eyes mercilessly angry. She fell back away from him, landing on her rear so that she had to tilt her head up to see him.

"What have you done, woman?" he roared.

Before she could answer, Raja burst into the room and hurled himself at the intruder's throat. He launched himself high, teeth bared.

"No!" Ivory commanded.

The Dragonseeker caught the huge wolf by the neck, the force of the attack driving him back into the bed of soil. She saw his hands clamp down like a vise. The wolf fought instinctively for air.

Little brother, he is not an enemy. He is my mate. She bared her teeth at the wolf and he went still and submissive in the Dragonseeker's hands.

"Let him go," Ivory ordered. "Do it now, or I will retaliate."

The Dragonseeker raised his eyebrow, his hands remaining firm around the wolf 's neck. "You seek to threaten me with bodily harm? I doubt there is much you can do that has not already been done. And if you desire to kill me, that is my wish, so I do not believe that it will serve your purpose to intimidate me."

She spat out another curse. "Veridet peje-may your blood burn!"

He released the wolf a little warily, keeping his gaze fixed on the large alpha and not on Ivory, which only served to irritate her more, as if he thought the animal was more of a threat to him than she was.

"My blood has burned on many occasions, avio palafertiilam-my lifemate."

Her breath hissed out of her lungs. "Do not ever say 'my lifemate' to me. I am not yours. I belong to no one. I trust no one, least of all the grandson of Xavier and a Dragonseeker on top of that." She put every ounce of contempt and disgust that she could summon into her voice.

Before he could respond, Ivory switched her attention to Raja who, picking up on her mood, was baring his teeth again, low warning growls rumbling in his throat. Little brother, I have no patience now to deal with two males and their egos. Go to your mate who will soothe your nerves and leave me to deal with this... this... There was no word bad enough to describe him.

The wolf sent the Dragonseeker one last look of warning and then loped out of the room, leaving them alone in the bedchamber.

Ivory moved back across the floor until there was space between herself and the Dragonseeker. She pressed her back to the wall, fighting to maintain her composure. "It has been centuries since I have been alone in a room with another person," she confessed. "I am no longer certain what one does."

"You could start by telling me your name."

He didn't smile. He didn't look at her as if the moon rose and set with her, as lifemates were reputed to do. He didn't even argue that she did belong to him as every cell in her body screamed at her was true.

Ivory moistened her lips. "I am Ivory Malinov, sister to the five raising an army and a rebellion of vampires. Sister to the ones in league with Xavier." She took a deep breath. "And this is not my true form."

"I am Razvan, grandson of Rhiannon and Xavier. I am a dealer of death and torture to any who dare come near me, especially those I care most for. I will never lay claim to you, so have no worries, Ivory. I will leave you as soon as I am able to do so." He tilted his head to one side and studied her flawless body. "Do you fear showing me your true form?"

Her chin went up. "I do not fear much of anything, Dragonseeker, least of all you."

"I can see that," he said, faint sarcasm sliding into his tone. "Though, in truth, you should fear me. Not me: Xavier. He can find me wherever I am. You must believe me in this."

"I believe you. I studied under Xavier, many years ago. Far longer than I care to remember. I know him well-too well."

"You displeased him in some way." Razvan made it a statement.

She found she could barely breathe in the close confines of the room with the Dragonseeker's hunger beating at her. Maybe it wasn't just his hunger. Maybe it was the way his eyes moved over her with a hint of possession, a male's intense look of interest. No one had looked at her that way since the prince's eldest son-and that hadn't turned out so well.

Her skin ached. Her bones. She'd forgotten that pain, or at least pushed it so far back in her memories that it was dull and faded. Now, looking at him looking at her, asking her questions, her body remembered the feel of sharp objects slicing through bone and tissue.

"Ivory," he prompted, his voice gentle. "What did you do to displease him?"

She sank down along the wall, drew up her knees and clasped her arms around her legs, making herself much smaller. "I wanted to go to Xavier's school and learn from him. My brothers and five of their friends raised me. Ten strong warriors indulging my every whim. I learned how to fight, but was never allowed to use my knowledge. I could do things no other woman could do, yet was expected to sit home and wait for a lifemate to provide safety for me." She shook her head, remembering the frustration of having an active brain desperate for knowledge, any kind, and running into a stone wall as her brothers refused to allow her any freedoms.

She rubbed her chin on her knees. "At that time, Vlad Dubrinsky was the prince." She was giving him a very convoluted explanation, rambling on instead of making it short and succinct. She pressed her fingers to her eyes. "I think it has been so long since I have carried on a conversation with anyone but my pack that I have forgotten how." She rubbed her palm up and down her thigh.

Razvan's gaze jumped to her hand and lingered there, recognizing the sign of nerves. She was wild, like her pack, uneasy with his presence, not because he represented danger, or because he was her lifemate, but simply because she was inherently wary of everyone.

"Be calm, Ivory," he said softly, crooning as he would to tame a cornered wild animal. "I seek nothing from you. I do not believe that Xavier will hunt for my body this soon. He has grown weak and old without Carpathian blood to feed on. He will need to find his strength before he can strike at me. Lara escaped his prison first and then my aunts. So for the moment you are safe, but never turn your back on me. Consider killing me."

She ignored his last statement. "How did you escape?"

"Xavier took my body out of the ice caves when his fortress was destroyed. He needs blood now to survive and be strong." He looked down at his worn, torn body with a brief, humorless smile. "He had used my blood until little enough remained. I believe he had it in his mind to kill me, but when the aunts escaped, he needed my blood to keep him alive. He is determined to gain immortality. As you can see, there is little left of me, and he grew weak trying to build his new fortress."

Ivory took a deep breath and let it out. He could see she struggled with herself before she made the offer.

"You need to feed."

Her voice was low, trembling, and his heart turned over in his chest. It had been long since another had offered a kindness to him.

"I thank you for your offer, but I must regretfully decline. I have taken enough blood from those I should have protected and I will not take yours."

She frowned at him. "I can feel your hunger."

"I know. I cannot control the needs spilling into the close confines of this room. I am truly sorry for causing you distress."

He didn't want her dwelling on the hunger crawling through his body, every cell crying out for sustenance. He could smell her blood, rich and hot and flowing in her veins, calling to him. He could barely think with his teeth already lengthened and his saliva in his mouth. Her heartbeat matched the irregular beat of his own, and that worried him.

He knew little of lifemates, and the last thing he had ever wanted to do was feel real emotion. It was bad enough to remember what it was like to love and feel remorse for the vile things he had done, even under another's compulsion, but she had brought it all into his mind and heart and made it real again. Where before he had been numb for hundreds of years, now every terrible, brutal act-the violation of women, feeding from his own children, stabbing his aunt, betrayal of every single person he loved and cared about-all of it was in front of him, filling him with self-loathing and disgust.

His soul was so black. The emotions poured into him with his memories. His beloved sister-he'd fought to save her, but in the end he'd betrayed her. His aunts-he'd tried so hard to save them, yet Xavier had controlled his body and he'd been the one to plunge a knife into his aunt's chest. He couldn't breathe, couldn't find air to drag into his lungs.

His throat felt raw and he choked, closing his eyes, trying to shut out the guilt and horror of his actions. It mattered little that he had not been in control-that in itself was a terrible guilt-or that he hadn't been strong enough to stop Xavier. Fighting him every inch of the way hadn't been enough, and now this stranger, this woman, brought every horrifying, vivid and disgusting detail into his mind and branded his soul unredeemable.

"Razvan." Her voice was soft. Gentle. "Look at me."

He couldn't move. Couldn't face her. No, not her-himself. He cursed his body's resistance to death. How could he ever face anyone after the terrible crimes he'd committed? Bile rose and he choked on it, a bitter, metallic taste. He wiped at his face and his palm came away smeared in blood.

He scented her, although she made no sound as she drew closer to him, as silent as her deadly wolves. He shook his head. "Stay back. Don't come too close." Because hunger turned him savage, while guilt made him a little insane. Now it wasn't Xavier he feared; it was himself. He knew what even the best of his kind could do when starved, and he was so far from the best. He was damned-cursed, even-cunning and... so hungry. Ravenous.

Ivory crawled toward him. "You need to feed. I feed my pack often, it is truly of little importance. Just take the blood from my wrist."

Between his fingers he could see her now, in front of him, concern on her face, although she was smart enough to be wary. She didn't trust him-it was there in her eyes. One fingernail lengthened, razor sharp, and she reached down toward her wrist.

Razvan caught her hand, the rush of fear and adrenaline combining to give him strength when he really had little left. "No! I will not." The thought sickened him. Her offered wrist conjured up a vision of a greedy mouth tearing at a small wrist. He choked again and turned away from her.

How do you tell someone you are damned? He shook his head. "You have to take me to the surface and let me go."

"Why won't you feed? Perhaps if you tell me . . ."

He didn't tell her. He showed her. She had to see-know-the monster she'd brought into her lair. He seized her mind, flowing into her, shoving the memories into her head, forcing her to watch him tear at a frightened child's little wrist while she pleaded with him, letting her see the mother of his child rotting while he screamed and fought and wept blood, raging at the monster who imprisoned him. He made her watch as he betrayed his twin sister, Natalya, and as he plunged the knife into the breast of a dragon desperately trying to help his daughter escape.

She paled, but she didn't pull away from his mind. He felt her move inside of him, alert, the way she was naturally, but soaking up his memories, reading his life. And he fed it to her, hundreds of years with Xavier, watching him torture and kill. Xavier had used his body over and over to commit horrendous acts, to breed with chosen psychic women, slowly taking him over, and then later, using him as a puppet to do his evil bidding. She should have recoiled, should have plunged her fist into his chest and extracted his heart there on the spot, but she stayed, looking at everything, unafraid, quiet, giving nothing of her own thoughts away.

After a while he became aware that he was weeping, deep inside, for those years of torment and regret, for the arrogance of a young man who thought he could single-handedly defeat an enemy who'd eluded warriors and minds far older and wiser than his. He realized he was lying with his head in her lap, her hand stroking his hair, the blood of his tears smearing her thighs.

"Do you see what I am?" he asked. It was a plea. He had spent the last twenty years planning to escape, planning to let the sun cleanse his soul, to take his chances in the afterlife. But here she was, the one woman who could stop him-and she refused to let him go. If he'd had the strength, he would have fought his way out, but he couldn't risk hurting her, and with his mind so shredded and his body so weak, he doubted he could reach the surface without a major battle between them.

"I see more than you think I see. You have forgotten, Razvan, that I had my own experiences with Xavier." Her fingers stroked his hair and began to make small circles over his temples. "And you have revealed far more of Xavier and his spells than you know."

He didn't like the speculation in her voice, but her hands worked magic, holding anguish at bay along with physical pain.

"You cannot best him. Believe me, I have tried over the centuries and I've always failed." He should have pushed away from her, but found he could not. Her hands were inducing a magic all their own. How long had it been since someone had touched him with such gentleness?

"As did I," she replied. "I knew Rhiannon and her lifemate. And when Xavier cast a holding spell over me and dragged me into the deep woods, he told me of his plan to kill her lifemate and force her to breed with him. He already had everything in place. Of course I knew the Carpathians would defeat him; we were too strong."

She paused. Her voice had gone singsong, lower pitched, almost velvet. He felt the soft notes sliding inside of him, stroking at the painful memories, pushing them back ever so gently. Everything about Ivory seemed soft and smooth and so peaceful.

"No one defeats Xavier."

She leaned close to him and whispered in his ear. "Because he has help. He always has help. Every memory you have shown me, a lesser mage first found the platform for the spell he cast. When he took me, and then later took Rhiannon's lifemate and murdered him, it was not Xavier who committed the actual murder-although I have heard he took the credit. It was Draven, Prince Vlad's eldest son. He betrayed our people to Xavier. He delivered Rhiannon's lifemate, dead, into Xavier's hands."

Razvan tried to stir, but his limbs were heavy. He felt his mind drifting a little as she built up doors, then slowly and gently pushed them shut to trap the pain and guilt where it couldn't reach him. One by one, the memories of his defeat and his crimes were slowly blocked until his mind could accept, from a distance, the centuries of failure, of torture and of self-revulsion. Her voice was the most beautiful thing he'd ever heard and he concentrated on it, on that soft, sweet melody that seemed to take him somewhere far away from the stark brutality of his existence.

"I remember Draven. He is a distant memory. A murderous, treacherous man who demanded young mage women from Xavier in return for his information. He disappeared one day and Xavier was furious, spewing vile curses on Gregori Daratrazanoff for weeks after. I assumed Gregori had finally found out his betrayal and administered justice." He tried to open his eyes to look at her, but his eyelids were too heavy and he didn't want to disturb her soothing fingers. "Why would Draven kill Rhiannon's lifemate?" He choked a little over his grandmother's name. He had his father's memories of her, the soft-spoken woman Xavier had fed off of until his children were old enough to take her place.

"Draven was obsessed with me. I was not his true lifemate, but he wanted me. He had the sickness in him that some of our males get, and he believed, because he was in line to be prince, that he should have any woman he wanted. My brothers refused him when I told them I knew I was not his lifemate. When they were gone in battle, Prince Vlad sent me to Xavier's school, I think to keep me away from Draven."

"So Draven bought you from Xavier with the body of Rhiannon's lifemate." Razvan made it a statement.

His mind seemed at peace, drifting with the stroke of her fingers and the soft melody of her voice. It mattered little that the subject they discussed was abhorrent, his mind could process without fear or guilt or the overwhelming emotions that had poured into him at the sound of her voice. Now, his mind simply accepted and for the moment he was at peace. He didn't want that ever to end. He imagined this moment must be close to heaven, a haven where nothing bad could happen, even for just a brief interim.

"Yes, but Draven didn't count on the fact that I had ten strong warriors who had spent my lifetime teaching me to fight in battle. My five brothers and the De La Cruz brothers." Ivory rubbed the strands of his hair between her fingers and then shifted him, just the slightest of movements, turning him so that his head was facing upward toward hers.

Razvan's eyelids fluttered. He opened his eyes to narrow slits and looked up at her. His breath caught in his throat and he stared at the woman above him. Her face was still that of an angel, skin so flawless and pure, but now he could see the scars-terrible scars that started on her throat and ran down her body as if she'd been pieced together by barbed wire.

"He did this to you?" He breathed out the words in shock, knowing Carpathians didn't scar-not as a rule-yet her body was covered with lines, the disfigurement a patchwork of skin sewn back together almost haphazardly.

"Draven did not like a woman defeating him, the mighty, soon-to-be prince, if his plans with Xavier succeeded. He could not resist bragging, telling me how he was going to kill his own father, because it never occurred to him that I could fight and defeat him in battle. He was so furious."

Her voice sounded far away, a distant song of peace and warmth in spite of the chilling tale she told. He found, try as he might, that he couldn't experience the horror of her words, the extent of Draven Dubrinsky's betrayal of not only his people but his own father. Xavier was the devil himself, a monster unrivaled, and yet Draven had deliberately sought an alliance with him.

"I was caught by four vampires on my way back to my people," Ivory continued, shifting him again, cradling his head to her.

Her body felt warm and soft and so giving against his. She smelled of the forest, of the wilds, deep and green and secret. There was a touch of snow, distant and compelling, an ice princess yielding to no one, yet giving of herself to him. It was fanciful. He'd long forgotten fanciful and his wayward thoughts didn't belong in the midst of her retelling such a traumatic event in her life. Everything seemed so dreamlike, yet he'd ceased to dream, knowing Xavier extracted information from his sister when he dreamt. He hadn't even been able to stop that and save Natalya such grief. He knew she'd been attacked by Xavier, but four vampires? Four?

He struggled to get up, to try to go to his sister's aid.

The singsong voice soothed him. "Not Natalya, Dragonseeker, the vampires attacked me. Xavier wanted the most horrendous death he could envision for one like me. He had them chop off my head and then cut me to pieces, scattering me across a field so the wolves could consume me. They should have incinerated my heart. I did not have the will to die, not when I needed to see Draven and Xavier gone from this earth."

For a moment the horror and agony of what she had endured was in her mind-and his-and then, before he could possibly assimilate and process what she had given to him, it was gone, replaced once more by the soothing touch of her fingers stroking over his temples and her whispered, seductive voice.

You are so hungry, Dragonseeker. You have been starved for so long and kept without true strength. I am offering you life. Strength. A chance to join me in defeating the devil himself. You have only to take what is freely given. If, when you are at full strength, you choose to walk away, I will take you from here and you are free to go your own way.

The thought of separation from her gave him pain somewhere in his tattered soul. She was his lifemate; once found, he could not simply abandon her, yet he knew-frowning-that there was a reason he must not utter the words that would bind them together.

She rubbed gently at the frown lines between his eyes. Be at peace. You are safe here.

He shook his head, although it was difficult to do so. More than anything he wanted the touch of her magic fingers and the warmth of her body after he'd been cold for so many centuries. He'd existed in the ice caves with so little blood to live on, Xavier determined to keep him from strength, that he had all but forgotten warmth-or kindness. He didn't want to destroy the illusion that someone cared enough for him to render him aid without strings.

It wasn't true, of course; he'd learned that painful lesson over the centuries. No one could be trusted, least of all himself, but the illusion could sustain him when his starving body and his shredded mind could no longer function properly.

She leaned closer. Her breast grazed his face and his body tightened strangely in reaction. Hear the beat of my heart. Match your rhythm to mine.

He could hear her heart, steady, like an unfaltering beacon, a signal for him to find his way home.

Ivory looked over his ravaged face and her heart contracted painfully. She hadn't felt compassion for another in centuries. She'd been careful to avoid the traps and pitfalls of emotion. Her beloved brothers had betrayed her. Her own family. She would never forget how she sought them out, crawling out of the ground, her flesh barely intact, fighting every inch of the way back home, only to discover that centuries had passed and her brothers had joined the very ones who had chopped her into little pieces and left her for the starving wolves.

Hearing Razvan confess to the betrayal of his own sister and aunts, of his child, she had thought to aid him to find the dawn, even though it would mean condemning herself. But once inside his mind, she realized more than he did the centuries of struggle, of fighting to protect everyone around him from a monster. And he had held out in spite of torture and starvation and anything else she could ever conceive of.

In some ways it scared her to think what his will and determination would be when he was at full strength. Never once during the time Xavier held him captive had he been at full strength. He'd been a youth when Xavier had taken him, and even then, as a mere boy, he'd protected his sister. He didn't consider himself good with spells-his sister was a far better mage-but he was Carpathian male through and through, strong and protective and unflinching in his fight, no matter how weak he had grown.

Hear the blood rushing in my veins. It flows like the tide itself, like sap in the trees, nectar of life, flowing for you. Can you smell it? Do you feel your body crying out for life?

She drew a line across her breast, one of many lines, but this one welled bright red blood. Shifting him again, she pressed his mouth to her. There was a heartbeat. Two. Everything in her stilled. Veri olen elid-blood is life. Saasz han ku andam szabadon-take what I freely offer. She put every ounce of compulsion she had into her soft entreaty.

She felt him stir. His tongue licked over the raw wound and her womb clenched. Teeth sank deep, a biting, burning pain that gave way to a rush of heated pleasure.

She stroked back his hair and began to chant the Carpathian Lesser Healing Chant. Her voice rose, soft and melodious, filling the chamber with the rich gift of song.

Kunasz, nelkul sivdobbanas, nelkul fesztelen loyly-You lie as if asleep, without beat of heart, without airy breath.

Ot elidamet andam szabadon elidader-I offer freely my life for your life.

O jela sielam jorem ot ainamet es so?e ot elidadet-My spirit of light forgets my body and enters your body.

O jela sielam pukta kinn minden szelemeket belso-My spirit of light sends all the dark spirits within fleeing without.

Pajnak o susu hanyet es o nyelv nyalamet sielametsivadabat-I press the earth of our homeland and the spit of my tongue into your soulheart.

Vii, o verim so?e o verid andam-At last, I give you my blood for your blood.

Weary, Ivory closed her eyes. She dared not give him more blood than she was able. One healing session and one feeding was not going to be nearly enough. A week, a month... time mattered little, but she would heal him. For now, she'd done all that she could do.

Find peace, Dragonseeker.

Pressing her hand to his mouth, she whispered for him to stop before placing him in the deep, rich loam of her bed. Calling to her pack, she signaled them to take their places around her lifemate-claimed or not-and she pressed close to him before allowing the dark soil to engulf them, her protections around their bedchamber the strongest she knew.