Flakes of snow drifted down as they streamed across the sky away from their home and toward the mountains where Razvan knew Xavier had taken up residence. They had found a small group of human hunters tracking deer through the forest miles from the village nearest to the Carpathian territory and fed well. With the pack sated and everyone at full strength, they immediately began the journey to the glacier mountain where Xavier had gone when his labyrinth of caves had been destroyed months earlier, allowing Razvan to escape.
They traveled through the sky, careful to leave no tracks, but stayed low so they could examine the ground carefully. Once out of the trees near an icy stream, a splash of color caught Ivory's eyes. The wolves reacted with unease. Ivory and Razvan hovered just above the ground, resuming their physical forms in order to study the tracks.
"There is a blood trail here," Ivory pointed out unnecessarily. "You can see where the carcass of a deer has been dragged from the shelter of the trees through the snow and toward the mountains. It is not wolves who killed the deer, nor human hunters." She pointed to the spike marks in the snow. "Bats."
She stood for a long time just studying it. Razvan said nothing, enjoying watching the huntress in her puzzle out the trail. It was highly unusual for Xavier's mutated bats to feed any distance from the caves, but this had definitely been a bat attack. The evidence of the creatures walking on their wings was clear in the snow.
"They ambushed the deer here," she said. She pointed overhead. "Some dropped from above, some came from below, and they obviously surrounded it. The poor thing had no chance."
He didn't point out that she hunted with various wolf packs, aiding them in getting through the winter.
Ivory glanced up sharply, her gaze narrowing. "It is not the same thing. They take the blood to their master for evil purposes."
"That is true," he agreed. "Why do you read my mind when it just annoys you?"
"It only annoys me when you get that secret little smirk on your face. The male one." Because he melted her insides with it, and that just wasn't acceptable. Like he thought she was cute or something. Cute. What an irritating word. She shot him a look, a mixture of annoyance and embarrassment. There it was again, that little male smirk that made her want to jump his body right there in the snow and ice, with danger surrounding them. "You are distracting me."
His white teeth flashed. "I am simply paying close attention to the expert so that I might learn."
"You are deliberately distracting me and I-" She broke off, her eyes widening.
The smile faded from Razvan's face as he followed her gaze to an overhead tree limb. It looked fine to an untrained eye. The snow clung to the needles and weighed down the branches. He caught the flash of alarm in her mind.
"What is it?"
"Up there. High in the very top branches." Her voice was very low, barely a thread of sound. "The snow is disturbed."
It took a moment to see what she was talking about. In four small places, as if a bird had landed lightly on the thin branch, the snow had flaked off, revealing a smudge of bark.
"No, they scratch lines in the snow but the bark does not show through. Hunters followed the bats." A note of fear crept into her voice. "They do not know who dwells in this place and what they face. We weakened Xavier with our ritual. We turned his hatred back on himself. If he manages to find a hunter . . ." She trailed off.
His stomach lurched at the idea of Xavier getting his hands on Carpathian hunters. Not only would the hunter suffer, but Xavier would be extremely powerful with a Carpathian's blood.
"Are you certain?"
In answer, Ivory shifted, streamed as vapor up to the treetop. She hovered in the air while she examined the branch and dropped back to earth beside him, careful not to disturb the snow. "Definitely Carpathian. There is no scent. Nothing else, just those two small telltale marks."
Razvan rubbed his hand over his jaw. "We have to follow them all the way in, Ivory, if they followed the bats. You know we will have no choice. We will not be able to leave them to Xavier. If we are very lucky, they will be very strong, experienced hunters."
"Xavier will not be alone," Ivory added.
"No, he will not. And he has many abominations to guard him, not the least of which is the undead," Razvan said.
She reached out to him, her fingers connecting with his. "We go then."
"All the way," Razvan agreed.
Ivory and Razvan moved with stealth, careful of disturbing even a single snowflake as they approached the outer rolling hills leading to the mountain where Xavier had begun to build his latest fortress. He needed the deep ice caves and network of caverns beneath the earth where he could conduct his evil experiments and wreak havoc on the Carpathian people. He had chosen an optimal location near the edge of the glacier, so he could use nature to carry his mutated extremophiles into the waterways leading throughout the mountainous range where the Carpathians dwelled.
If the hunters came this way, at least they left no other sign, Ivory said, using their telepathic connection, unwilling to risk sound carrying in the night.
A terrible feeling of dread had been growing in Razvan. As they approached the mountain, it grew stronger. He knew they were closing in on Xavier, but worse, he knew who the hunter-or huntress-was.
Natalya and her lifemate are ahead of us.
Ivory gasped. Are you certain?
Razvan looked at Ivory and his midnight blue eyes had gone so dark the pupils had nearly disappeared. Small flames flickered deep in the depths and Ivory shivered a little in reaction, a chill sliding through her.
He cannot have my sister. He bit out each word.
She leaned into him for just one brief moment, surrounding him with warmth. No, he cannot. She was fully committed to hunting Xavier down and ridding the world of his evil.
The wind began to pick up as they moved through the valley leading to the base of the outlying hills, just below the bursting peaks of bluish ice. No trees grew on the slopes of ice. Few ever tried to climb there, the sharp-rising ridges were too sheer and jagged. The winds increased as though in protest, and great spears of ice often came hurtling down upon hapless victims. It was a treacherous mountain and most shunned it.
As they neared the first of the hills, they felt the first impact of the safeguard. A low humming began, growing louder as they continued on their course. The pressure inside their heads grew, a painful burst that shook both of them. Ivory stopped and pressed her fingers to her throbbing temples, trying not to cry out.
Even an animal would feel that. No wonder there is no life close by, she said.
Which explains the tracks we have seen, the drag marks and bloodstains in the snow. Razvan placed his hand to her temple and flooded her with a healing warmth. At once the pressure lessened in her head. She glanced at him sharply. His face tightened only for a moment, and when she touched his mind, it took a moment before he allowed her in.
The bats have to go farther than they did in the other caves to find prey, Razvan said before she could protest.
Ivory shuddered. She really detested fighting the bats. They had nasty little teeth and a liking for flesh. The blood trail led to a spot near the base of a small hill that rolled just in front of the sharper climbing flow of ice cliffs. She knew from experience that the ground near the spot where the bats had gone under would be a trap for some unsuspecting creature. If they ventured too near, the ground would give way.
Xavier has not had time to work out a better system, which means he is not in the best of shape, he continued. I escaped when they moved here. He kept me weak, as he did my aunts, because he feared my resistance, but that also weakened him. He had me drained and could not use me to feed. He made do with mage and animal blood.
Ivory didn't want to think too much about Razvan in Xavier's hands. She sent up a prayer that his sister was not in the high mage's fortress. Keeping her safe had been the only thing he had clung to, the reason he had survived. As long as Xavier lived, he was not going to allow Natalya into his hands. And now . . .
She clamped down hard on the thought. I do not want to drop through the bat lair if we can help it.
She had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as she hovered above the bloodstained snow. The carcass of the deer had obviously been dragged inside, but something else had gone in after it. Flakes of snow partially covered the stains, which meant something had disturbed the snow after the bats had returned to their lair with their prize.
It is an entrance. Razvan was pragmatic. We have dealt with them before.
The ground beneath them rolled. The mountain shivered and a great chunk of ice calved off the sheer cliff towering above them, driving the snow and ice straight down on top of them with little warning. Without hesitation, both reached for the ringed canisters in their war belts and dissolved into vapor as they leapt into the ominous hole covered by a thin layer of bloodstained snow.
The foul stench assailed them first, even before the sounds of highly agitated bats registered. The smell of fetid, rotting flesh burned their noses and offended their stomachs so that they had to fight to keep their present form and not react. The high-pitched angry shrieks swelled in volume as they descended through the narrow tube, scraping like sharp fingernails on the walls of their minds, shredding their nerves to the screaming point.
Scorch marks blackened the stains on the walls although bats continued to pour out of the dark, sulfur-smelling holes in the tube, dropping down to join the fierce battle taking place on the floor of the cavern. Bits of rotting meat and splashes of blood and fur clung to the outer edges of each hole where the carnivorous bats dwelled.
Xavier has been warned that his fortress is compromised, Ivory said, irritation creeping into her voice. Even weak, he is a formidable opponent. I had hoped to come on him unaware. I do not want him to escape us.
He will not give up his fortress easily, Razvan predicted. He has fewer and fewer places to go. He has not had time to fully make this one secure. This is our best chance whether he knows we are coming or not.
Ivory refrained from saying Xavier was expecting two hapless hunters who had inadvertently stumbled upon the bats and probably was joyfully preparing for feasting on Carpathian blood.
Hurry, Ivory, they attack Natalya.
Xavier will order his guardians not to slay them-at least not to slay her. He will want her blood for himself, which gives them a slight advantage, she reassured.
They were close to the bottom of the long tube and could see the bats now. Hundreds of them, with black furry bodies and razor-sharp teeth, claws tipping the toes of their feet and their wings spiked at the tips. Swords swept violently through the mass of bats, slicing heads and bodies, but the sheer numbers were overwhelming. Vikirnoff and Natalya stood back-to-back, faces grim, blood streaking every exposed bit of skin. Both Razvan and Ivory had felt the tear of teeth shredding flesh from their bones and, at the sight of the Carpathians, the haunting memories rose up to taunt them.
Coming in, Ivory warned, using the more ancient common telepathic path that Vikirnoff would recognize. What we are going to do is change the composition of air using our homemade grenades. The fire will burn hot, very intense, and you cannot draw this chemical into your lungs. You will want to panic and go toward the surface, but the fire will race upward, she warned, giving them nearly the same instructions as she had given Razvan when she'd first used her chemical grenades with him.
Razvan reached for his sister, feeling her startle when he used their much older connection, one they had made as children. Fight your way out of the center but stay away from the walls. When we materialize we will use the chemical, and then change back to vapor; do the same instantly, but remember, you will still feel the intense heat.
I understand, Natalya sent back.
Razvan tried not to see the mass of bats attacking her. She looked fierce, her grim face a mask of concentration, her hair striped with the colors of a tigress.
Razvan positioned his body face-to-face with Ivory's. As soon as they materialized, he knew from previous experience, the bats would attack, ripping and tearing at their flesh. Ready, kont o sivanak-heart of a warrior?
Let us get it done, Ivory responded, as calm as always in battle. She could handle nearly any circumstance when it came to fighting without panic; yet when it came to emotion, she wasn't so good at hiding her nerves and vulnerability.
One more thing, fel ku kuuluaak sivam belso-beloved, I love you more than life itself. Now, Razvan added.
She wanted to hold him. Wanted to say it back to him. But he was already materializing and she had to match his rhythm. She burst onto the chamber floor, noting that Razvan's body, while protecting the front of hers, was angled to shield his sister.
The moment they donned their flesh-and-blood bodies, the bats went into a feeding frenzy, the scent of prey driving them insane. They ripped and tore, hurling their bodies at the Carpathians. The wolves roared, heads emerging, paws digging, ready to leap.
Stay! Stay! Ivory ordered frantically.
Raja and Blaez subsided, calling orders to the rest of the pack, although they snapped at the bats, grabbing heads and shaking, snapping necks even as the bats' claws shredded skin. Razvan and Ivory pulled the pins simultaneously. They had only five seconds to get rid of the canisters.
Ivory lobbed her grenade directly into the center of the chamber amid the sea of fighting bats. Some pounced on the canister, trying to bite through it with sharp teeth.
Razvan pulled back his arm to throw, and at least a dozen bats, drawn by the scent of Dragonseeker blood, leapt on him, the weight of their bodies pulling his arm down as he went to throw the oval-shaped canister.
Vikirnoff leapt forward, swinging his sword, sweeping it across the lot of them, missing Razvan by a paper-thin margin. Razvan sucked in his breath as the bodies toppled from his arm, leaving behind torn flesh. More rushed to feed on the open wounds, but he had already let the canister go.
Now! Now! Razvan warned his sister.
All four Carpathians dissolved into vapor. The chamber rocked with the explosion, the air raining bodies of bats and chunks of rock, ice and rotted carcasses, both human and animal. The flash of light was so bright it pierced their eyes despite them being in a different form. The intense heat ate through their natural shields as the composition of air changed to gas. Fire raged up through the chimney, burning through the holes and cracks in the rock, voracious for the air outside.
The ice melted, turning to boiling, hissing steam as the fire raged with orange-red rolling flames, flashing through the bats' burrows and roaring out and through every crack. The external pressure was so extreme, the molecules of their bodies threatened to collapse inward, imploding like the bodies of the bats. All around them, the mutated creatures erupted into hot flames, exploding as if a bomb had touched them, or simply coming apart.
The noise rushed over them, the thundering violence of a volcano erupting as the fire created its own wind so that it howled through the chamber, looking for hapless victims. The inferno was a fiery hell from which there seemed no escape. Vikirnoff and Natalya stayed only because Razvan and Ivory did, resisting the urge to try to rise to the surface and outrun the conflagration. The rock walls of the chimney blazed an ominous red, but the flames died out, leaving a hideous, blackened flood behind.
Burned carcasses and debris floated in the water pouring down from the melted ice and snow. Ivory led the way out through the chimney and away from the foul stench, taking care to avoid the glowing walls. They turned a corner and the tunnel widened into a large chamber. Ivory held up her hand, halting. The others crowded around her.
"What in the world made you decide to go down the bats' hole?" she asked. She didn't need to look after Razvan's sister, especially if the woman and her lifemate were foolish enough to go chasing Xavier's guardians into their burrows.
Razvan put a restraining hand on Ivory's shoulder, recognizing the cool contempt in her voice. She was standing up for him against the two people who she felt should have believed in him. Some of their wounds were not made by the carnivores.
Ivory took a breath and instantly regretted it as she drew the stench of burnt flesh into her lungs. Now that she took a good look at the two, she recognized the wounds on Vikirnoff. "The undead." She answered her own question. "You followed a vampire."
Vikirnoff nodded. "A master vampire. He dropped into the hole. We knew what we faced, but believed we had a good chance to get through the bats, given they had a fresh kill. They rarely get too far from it without feeding first."
She was grateful he knew that much about the bats. "Xavier has taken up residence here. It is not a place you want to be."
"Did you come here looking for us?" Natalya asked, gripping her sword tighter and looking around the ice cave. "I should have known the moment I came in that Xavier would be drawn to this place."
"You were occupied elsewhere," Razvan pointed out. "You can get out through the tube. That entrance should be clear now."
Vikirnoff and Natalya exchanged a long look. Vikirnoff cleared his throat. He refused to look away from Razvan. "I will be the first to admit I was wrong about you, Razvan. Natalya suffered greatly when she believed you had turned vampire and had allied yourself with Xavier. We both realize Xavier possessed your body and wanted the world to brand you traitor."
"I do not blame you for protecting Natalya," Razvan said and shot Ivory a quelling look when she stirred.
It was the first time he had ever indicated that he might be displeased with her, and it was shocking to Ivory how much it hurt. She moved away from them only to have Razvan catch her arm, circling her wrist with his fingers like a bracelet.
"It is best to leave this place quickly," he continued. "The bats are his guardians and he will know intruders have arrived. If the vampire has come to aid him, this is no place to be."
"Yet you are here," Vikirnoff said smoothly. "You weakened Xavier, didn't you? Last eve, when you turned his spell back on him. That is why you're here today. You're hunting Xavier."
"And we have no time to waste," Razvan said.
"I agree," Vikirnoff returned. "Lead the way."
Ivory wasn't about to stand around arguing. She knew Razvan wanted Natalya as far from Xavier as possible, but they had this one opportunity and she was going to take it. Vikirnoff and Natalya could do as they wished. For that matter, so could Razvan. He could stay and protect his sister, too.
She took a step away from them, but Razvan didn't let go of her wrist. In fact, his fingers tightened. Ivory glanced down at his hand and then up to his face. His eyes glittered at her, black obsidian with just a hint of blue, but it was his hair that gave her pause. His hair seemed alive, electric almost, bands of black and white sliding through the color. His face was as tranquil as ever, and when she touched his mind, he appeared utterly calm, but his hair, eyes and that tight grasp on her wrist told her something else.
Do you honestly think I care more for a woman who I only held in my memories more than I do you? Because I prefer she is not here? I prefer that you be far from Xavier as well, but I respect your fighting skills and your vow of purpose. This is a path we agreed on, and I will hold to my word, but as your lifemate, as the man who loves you above all else, this is the last place I would want you to be. This is not easy for me, Ivory.
Ivory stood there, heart beating fast, and realized that sick feeling inside of her had nothing to do with standing in an ice cave fortress riddled with traps belonging to the high mage, her mortal enemy, and everything to do with having their first fight.
"We go with you," Vikirnoff said. There was steel in his voice.
Razvan glanced at him, then at his sister. "So be it." He brought Ivory's hand to the warmth of his mouth and held her fingertips there against his lips. You matter, Ivory. You are my heart and soul and everything good in this life. Let us destroy this evil and go home where I can show you just who really matters to me.
Had she been jealous? She hadn't even recognized such a petty thing in herself. Why would she be jealous of Razvan's love for his sister? She wanted him to love and be loved by his twin, by his daughters and his aunts. So what was wrong with her . . .
Razvan abruptly dropped Ivory's hand and reached for the hilt of his sword, looking around the cavern, his gaze clearing enough to see the faint mist drifting like poison, curling around Ivory and Natalya.
"He knows we are here," he warned. "He's attacking, amplifying our fears and emotions."
Ivory's lips firmed, annoyed she'd been caught in one of Xavier's more basic traps. She began moving cautiously deeper into the series of caves. One chamber opened into the next as they went deeper beneath the mountain. The ice walls were thick and rumbled ominously, the pressure from the tremendous weight causing continual buckling so that they had to watch for huge blocks of ice shooting out of the walls, a natural phenomenon Xavier used against intruders.
"He favors traps in the ground," Razvan cautioned. "Be careful. We will be walking through a minefield. Once we find the first one, I may be able to guide us through. He favors certain patterns."
The sound of dripping water was loud, adding to the noise of the ice creaking and rumbling. After a time, the noise drowned out everything else so that Ivory had to remember to keep the volume down and tune in to other things. She had long ago learned to hunt will all senses, but here, in Xavier's domain, the rules had changed and she couldn't count on her instincts.
They rounded another corner and Ivory nearly stepped down onto a floor of rock and ice. At the last second she pulled her foot back, studying the floor. Razvan came up beside her and Vikirnoff and Natalya peered around her shoulders.
"This is classic Xavier," Razvan said. "He always has a back door to escape and it usually is a trapdoor of some kind. This is not a man who will fight to the death. He runs away to fight another day. The squares indicate his pattern. In recent years, he has had trouble remembering, so he uses the same one all the time." He looked over the floor. "Seven squares from the opening and to the left is most likely where his escape route is. This room will be well protected. The floor is a trap. He will have a nasty little pet. And do not step into water or touch it as it seeps from the walls."
Clapping startled them. Above, on the far wall, Xavier appeared, applauding. He looked smaller than Ivory remembered from her youth, and his face was lined and aged, but he was in surprising shape when he should have died centuries earlier. He wore long robes and his beard was a flowing white, perpetuating his reputation as a tremendously powerful wizard. Beside him was his staff, innocent-looking enough, but the crystal ball on the end glowed milky white, and she could make out the dark red spot in the center. Heart's blood, in the shape of an eye, stared back at her, sending a chill down her spine.
"Good then, boy. You have come home and you've brought guests with you," Xavier greeted. The mage's voice boomed out, and the walls rippled.
Razvan stepped forward, his body partially blocking Ivory's, keeping clear of her arms, but still putting him in a position to stop the force of the staff. He'd seen it too many times not to recognize the real threat to them all.
The floor pitched, threatening to throw them into the room, but Ivory, Razvan and Vikirnoff steadied themselves. Natalya was on a slight incline and the sudden roll sent her staggering. She flung out her hand and her palm brushed the wall.
Instantly the ice cracked and the weight of her body falling forward sent her hand and arm deep into the crack. The ice closed around her limb hard, slamming together, crushing bone, holding her tight. She tried to turn to mist, but her arm was held fast. She struggled as Vikirnoff whirled around to try to help her, frantically trying to dig her free while Natalya tried to heat the ice surrounding her arm to make it melt.
Ivory's gaze never left Xavier, watching for his next move. She was pleased that Razvan continued to watch as well. The mage deliberately had used Natalya to try to distract them. Already ice spiders poured from the cracks in the ice, rushing toward Natalya with their poisonous fangs.
Lara was friends with the ice spiders, Razvan said. Turn them back on Xavier.
Ivory, her gaze never leaving Xavier, immediately lifted her hands, tracing a pattern in the air.
Spiders, spiders of crystal ice, We are not the enemies you seek. We seek no malice, Look to our hearts, see that which is pure Remembering Lara, a friend who was dear.
At once the spiders halted, then turned abruptly, quickly crawling away from Natalya and back into their cracks.
Tiny spiders of crystalline ice I call you now to weave and splice. Send forth your minions as to war To seek out evil, to banish it ever more.
Spiders dropped silken nets from the ceiling, enfolding Xavier even as thousands poured from the ice in a rush to get him. The nets came up empty. Xavier appeared on the closest ledge, laughing. A second and a third Xavier appeared-all laughing-all three identical and all with staffs. The three wizards raised their arms and a wind rose, rushing through the chamber. The spiders immediately retreated, seeking the cracks in the ice and safety.
Ivory refused to flinch or look away as the howling wind tore through the ice cave and straight at them, carrying ice missiles, large and small spears with deadly points. Watch for the vampire, she warned Razvan, never once taking her eyes from the wizard. Her hand swept up in a dis missive motion.
That which is ice, I now command Bring forth a shield to protect and stand. Stand as guard, protect us all, Deflect these spears that evil calls.
The ice missiles shattered and fell harmlessly to the ground at Ivory's feet. She didn't so much as flinch or glance behind her to see if Vikirnoff was making progress freeing Natalya.
"I see you paid attention in my classes," the three wizards said with a mocking bow.
Behind them the wolves suddenly roared, their heads coming out of the skin. Vikirnoff heeded the warning, whirling to face Sergey as he flew at them from above. His face was a twisted mask of hatred. Dressed in war gear, he wore a vest of armor, thin yet tightly woven of a fabric Vikirnoff had never seen before.
Natalya stopped struggling to free her imprisoned arm, pushed down the excruciating pain and caught the sword that Vikirnoff tossed to her with her free hand.
"Vikirnoff," she cried. "Be careful. The walls are creeping forward." Every few moments she had to take a small step as the ice spread into her, the wall nearly bumping her foot in an effort to trap all of her. "I see two small shadows, splinters really. Look out for them, everything in their path withers."
The fragments Gregori drove from me, Razvan sent on the ancient pathway. They have to be making their way back to Xavier. We have to destroy them, too.
Leave Vikirnoff and Natalya to it, Ivory cautioned Razvan. We have to trust them to keep Sergey off our backs. He is reaching for the staff. The one on the right is really Xavier. Watch where that staff aims. That will be the real target.
How do you know?
The wind. It flowed past him without touching his beard. He has some kind of barrier erected around him to protect him. Watch the pattern of the wind flow.
Razvan didn't question her judgment. She had studied Xavier's ways with great care, and that was just the sort of thing the mage would do.
The mage snatched up his staff and aimed it, not at them, but at the far wall. The other two mages aimed their staffs at Ivory and Razvan. Neither moved, standing their ground as the wall close to them exploded with a thunderous blast. Chunks of ice and rock rained down, the falling debris triggering numerous traps as they hit the floor of the cave. The battle behind them was loud, Natalya fiercely trying to enter the fray, Vikirnoff blocking the vampire from getting close to her. The wolves raged, wanting to leap free, but Ivory restrained them, commanding them to wait-as she waited.
A single sound swept through the cavern. A roar of rage. Behind them, the hunter and vampire faltered. A chill went down Ivory's spine. Her skin itched as the wolves' hair stood on end, prickling her with a thousand sharp needles.
I cannot take my eyes from Xavier, Razvan. This is for you to deal with.
Consider it done.
It was his calm that settled her stomach. They were being attacked from all sides. Sergey battled with Vikirnoff ferociously. The ice walls continued to close inch by slow inch. Xavier had his staff in his hand and now something big was moving out of that rubble into the main part of the floor.
The head emerged first. The skull quite large, the large, curved teeth prominent as the large cat leapt into the room. It landed on a chunk of ice, keeping his claws from the floor, suggesting Xavier directed his movements away from the traps buried beneath the surface. Shorter than a lion by a foot or so, the cat was at least twice as heavy, all muscle and lethal-looking teeth.
Razvan. Get me out of this ice. I know what to do, Natalya said unexpectedly. Hurry.
Razvan whirled around, his gaze moving over the solid wall holding Natalya prisoner. Xavier had used such things to imprison the aunts. He wasn't the best at spells, but Natalya was. He threw his enormous strength behind hers. Without hesitation, Natalya lifted her one hand, palm toward the ice and chanted.
I call to Mother air, earth, fire and water, Come to me now, fill my desire. Set free now that which is caught in ice. I name thee fire, bring forth your breath.
Water poured from the wall around her arm and she tugged until she was free. Thrusting her sword into her brother's hands, she leapt into the air, her hair striping as she shifted, making the change-a beautiful, glorious tiger, a little more modern but all female, her alluring female scent filling the room. She landed hard, her front paw obviously injured as she favored it, holding it up off the ice block. The male roared and she answered.
Sergey leapt toward Vikirnoff as he half-turned to look at his lifemate. He slammed the sword aside and punched through Vikirnoff's chest, reaching for his heart, standing toe to toe, grinning evilly. Blaez and Rikki dug paws into Razvan's back and pushed off, hitting Sergey hard, from the side, driving him back away from Vikirnoff, who staggered, blood spraying across the ice. Raja and the rest of the pack leapt free to circle Vikirnoff protectively as he healed the great gaping hole in his chest.
The vampire had little time to lick his fist to get a taste of Carpathian blood and power. Razvan threw a vial of holy water over him. Sergey screamed as the water burned through his skin all the way to the bone, leaving behind great holes in his flesh. Smoke rose, the stench fetid. Razvan followed the water with a series of arrowheads, snapping them hard so they buried deep, going up the vampire's chest.
The vest stirred as though alive, the fabric parting as if torn and then smoothly going back into place. Razvan rushed him, following the arrows. Sergey tried to shapeshift, but the coating on the arrows prevented him from doing so. Razvan punched through the vest. The moment his flesh touched the fabric, the threads came alive, winding around his fist, racing up his arm toward his shoulder and face. Tiny parasitic worms with sharp teeth, ripping and digging into his flesh. He stepped back, trying to sweep the creatures from his body. Sergey flung himself at Razvan but the wolves interceded, slamming into the vampire with full force, driving him over backward and going for his throat.
Ivory never moved. Never looked back. She had one purpose, and he was in front of her. The tigers snarling at one another, the battle raging behind them-none of it mattered, only Xavier, only the man lifting his staff with hatred on his face and his gaze fixed on Razvan. She knew he would go for her, not Razvan. He wanted her lifemate to suffer for his perceived betrayal, for the Dragonseeker blood that had held out for centuries against him. For his escape and his newfound strength and power. Razvan was the symbol of everything he hated. And she was Razvan's lifemate.
As if in slow motion, she saw him bring the staff across and down his body. Time slowed down, her world narrowing. The end of the staff began to glow bright as he pointed it at Razvan. Ivory noted the red eye in the center of the crystal fixed on her, not on her lifemate. She felt power move inside of her. Everything she was. Everything she had ever been. Was it enough?
Razvan poured everything he was into her, leaving the pack to deal with Sergey while they merged, trusting Vikirnoff to guard their backs along with the wolves. Trusting Natalya to lead the tiger away from them.
The staff glowed bright orange-red. Ivory lifted her hands, palms facing the wizard. A flash of bright light hurt her eyes as the crystal shot out a bolt of energy directly at her. Razvan stepped up beside her, lifting his hands to the exact same height as hers.
I call to Hell's Gate, Ivory chanted.
Let lightning strike, Razvan invoked.
I call to the power that which is light, Ivory chanted.
Take form from this darkness, Razvan invoked.
Let angels walk forth, Ivory pleaded.
Opening their arms, draining evil's force, Razvan chanted.
Take that which is heart's blood. Power filled Ivory's voice.
Straining it pure. Razvan merged completely with Ivory.
They chanted together: Let it only abide in one that is pure.
Already weak without Carpathian blood to sustain him and from her previous spell, the combination of Razvan and Ivory together was too much for Xavier. The dark blood in the center of the crystal exploded outward and Xavier clutched his heart. Blood burst from his chest. Snarling, cornered, terrified he was losing his final chance at immortality, the mage used his last, most secret weapon. He dropped his staff, clutched his chest in an effort to stem that black, bubbling blood and unleashed his wrath on the Carpathians.
The sun burst overhead. Bright. White-hot. A turbulent, seething, volcanic mass. Winds roared, tearing through the ice caves as the heat blasted them from all sides, melting the ice faster than anything possible. Water poured down on them, searing, boiling water. Steam rose, but as the orange-red ball spun, it flung threads of fire. Dazzling light radiated through the chamber.
Skin smoked. Blistered. Melted. Sergey screamed and tried to dissolve again, and this time the arrowheads fell from his chest as his acid blood ate through the coating. The two fragments seeped into his pores just as he shifted.
To my back! Ivory ordered the pack, holding out her arms.
The wolves leapt for safety as the water rose fast, rushing through the chamber, boiling everything in its path, including the saber-toothed tiger. The Carpathians shifted to vapor, their only hope of escaping, just as Sergey had done, but even in that form, the sun burned the molecules that made up their forms.
Ivory flowed toward Xavier as he crawled along the edge, leaving a trail of black blood behind. The blood bubbled and burned into the fast-melting rock. He opened a crack that was spewing water wide enough for his body to pass through, but she was on him, her hands coming out of the vapor. The burns went to the bone, her skin dissolving first into a mass of blisters and then melting. Still, even with her bones, she held him, preventing his escape.
Razvan's fist came out of the vapor, suffering the same fate as Ivory, the skin burning off as he slammed it deep into Xavier's chest and extracted the burst heart. He threw it into the raging fires and then followed it with the body.
The four Carpathians streaked out of the rapidly collapsing cavern using Xavier's escape route. The spinning mass of heat and light stayed behind them as they shot down a tube and into the cool darkness of the caves. The mountain rumbled ominously as they made their way through the tunnels to the outside hills.
All of them rolled in the snow, trying to ease the burning, vicious pain.
"We need to go to ground right now," Vikirnoff said, his teeth chattering, his body in shock. Gregori, we have need of you. Healers! Come to us!
"Not here. Not anywhere near his evil," Ivory advised. "Find a clean spot and let Mother Earth have you."
"Gregori and Francesca are on the way. They will meet us," Vikirnoff said.
Shivering with the terrible pain, Ivory and Razvan took to the air together, leaving Vikirnoff and Natalya to do the same.