The search for Razvan had been intense over the past three weeks. Ivory crouched below the snow-covered slope, raising herself just enough to study the forest beneath her. She couldn't see anything, but the wind had shifted enough on its own to bring her the scent of blood and death. Along with that scent came the soft sobbing of a child.
She had been careful to feed far from her lair, but then her travels had taken her closer to the Carpathian world where Mikhail Dubrinsky, the prince of the Carpathian people, and his legendary guard, Gregori, made their homes. There seemed to be far more Carpathians than the last time she'd been this close. That meant, when she hunted for food enough to feed her pack, she had to avoid not only vampires, Xavier and his servants, but the hunters as well.
She knew the vampires and Xavier searched for Razvan. They had visited the cabin where she'd fed from the human in the forest, but, thankfully, the human had been long gone. The stench of vampire remained in the cabin, and fortunately the vampires were unable to track her. They found the spot where Razvan had fallen. Footprints circled the area and the foul stench of vampire radiated from that central spot for days before they'd moved on.
She'd made certain neither she nor her pack set foot on the ground close to her lair after that. She'd even resorted to visiting the village to bring rich blood back to feed Razvan, barely rousing him, healing him each night and keeping his mind free of the damaging images and memories that haunted and tormented him. If, after he was at full strength and fully healed, he chose to meet the dawn, she vowed to herself that she wouldn't stop him a second time. But night after night, holding him in her arms and singing the healing chant, her blood flowing into him, she knew it would be difficult to let him go. She would though. She would set him free, with no guilt, because saving him had been her choice. Staying to help her defeat Xavier had to be his.
The child's cry drew her attention back to the forest below her. Why hadn't an adult answered that distress call? What kind of parents would leave a young one to the dangers of a snow-covered wood at night? Even the villagers crossed themselves, hung garlic and crosses in the windows and over doors, believing in the persistent rumors of the undead walking the night.
She sank back on her heels. She didn't do children. She hadn't even held a baby, not once in her entire life cycle. She couldn't remember interacting with children when she was younger-before-in the before. If a child saw her in her true form, especially a Carpathian child used to the perfection of form, the child might run from her.
She touched her neck. In this form, she never gave a vampire the satisfaction of seeing her scars. The vampires and Xavier had done their worst to her, but she remained flawless, untouched, unmarred by their barbarity. If nothing else, it gave her a psychological boost to know they were so shocked by her beautiful appearance.
The child's voice crescendoed and Ivory winced. She was going to have to at least check that the little thing wasn't injured, but that meant exposing herself when she was certain there were both vampires and hunters in the vicinity. She took a deep breath and shrugged, allowing her pack to merge with her skin in the form of tattoos. They would watch her back, and could draw more information from the wind than even she could. With six pairs of intelligent eyes and six noses gathering every detail around them, she felt more secure.
Let us get this done. And when we find the child, no scaring it. We will take it back to its mother and be done with this.
The pack didn't seem anymore enthusiastic than she was. She hadn't let them run free for some time, knowing the vampires often searched out the wolf packs, hoping to find evidence to track them back to her lair. Soon, she assured.
She dissolved into vapor and streaked over the snow, staying low to the ground, giving the wolves every opportunity to take in every scent.
Foul ones. Humans. Carpathians. Blood. The walking dead.
Ivory processed the information and directions as fast as the wolves fed it to her. Foul ones was the wolf name for vampires. But the walking dead were puppets-nonpsychic humans given vampire blood and promised immortality. The vampires often used them to attack during the day. They were nearly as foul as the vampires themselves.
She moved even faster, suddenly afraid for the child. For one moment, below her, she caught a glimpse of a man running through the snow, and then he disappeared in the trees. The child's father? If so, he was arriving a little late.
She spotted a little boy, thin, with a mop of dark hair reaching his shoulders, struggling against the type of snares that had trapped the wild wolves. Her heart dropped. Another trap. She wasn't fool enough to believe that the boy had walked into the mass of snares himself. He'd been forcibly taken from somewhere-she knew by the smell of death and blood-and staked out like a sacrificial goat, the thin wires cutting into his hands and ankles. There was one around his neck. He was crying, but he stood stoically, refusing to fight and worsen the already deep cuts.
She didn't believe this boy had been set out as bait for her-more likely for Razvan. He had a child and he had given his soul, or at least a piece of it, to save her. Xavier would know he would risk everything to save a child. She was in for a fight, but she couldn't leave that child. The vampires were expecting a starving, sick, tortured Razvan, not the slayer, scourge of all undead.
She formed close to the boy, noting that he didn't wince or scream out in fright, which meant he'd seen a Carpathian before and they had allowed him to retain his memories. "It's a trap," he mouthed. He stared at the wolf tattoos with their bared teeth and lifelike eyes covering her shoulders and arms as she bent to gently set her crossbow in the snow and withdraw a pair of cutters.
She nodded her understanding. "Keep crying," she hissed as she snipped his left wrist free. It was brave of him to try to warn her when he must have been terrified.
The boy didn't miss a beat, keeping up a lively rendition of wailing while she cut loose the wire on his neck and carefully removed it. Her fingertips brushed the thin necklace of blood circling his neck. Her fingers crept up to her own neck, fluttered there for one moment as she remembered the bite of the sharp blade.
The boy couldn't be more than eight or nine, with his thin face and large, intelligent eyes. He was watching her carefully, studying her closely as she reached across him to snip at his other hand.
The alpha gave her the warning and she felt the large wolf shift in preparation for the attack. Raja's head lay across her neck, his eyes looking straight back. Ever so slightly he turned his head and the movement made the boy gasp. Ivory thrust the cutters into his hands and held out her arms away from her body, bending her knees until she was in a crouch, her right arm slowly dropping to reach for her crossbow.
The child's eyes widened in alarm and fear as he looked over her shoulder and saw the large man coming up behind her with an axe gripped in his hands. The woodsman's face had a blank look and he shuffled, his eyes a strange red. He lifted the axe above Ivory's head, still several feet out. The boy opened his mouth to call a warning, but no sound emerged.
Ivory felt the slight wrench of pain that always accompanied her pack separating themselves from her as the savage wolves leapt, completely silent as they made their concentrated attack, the communication in their minds only. Her fingers closed over the crossbow and she grasped it, winking at the boy to reassure him as she dove away from him, somersaulted and came up on one knee, her crossbow aimed at the attacker. The boy stared openmouthed at the six silver-tipped wolves, more shocked at the sight of them than the soulless attacker.
The wolves drove the ghoul backward, teeth clamped around each arm, the alpha going for the throat while the other wolves grasped legs and held him. Vampire puppets were extremely strong, programmed by their masters for one task; very few things could stop them once they were set on a path. The wolves tearing at him did little other than keep him on the ground beneath the writhing mass of silver fur.
Ivory felt the surge of power crackling in the air and rolled closer to the boy. "Hurry up. We are about to have some very unpleasant company." She kept her body between the child and the snarling, writhing ghoul and whatever else was coming at them.
A man broke from the trees, sprinting fast. "Travis! Trav! Are you all right?" He skidded to a halt, taking in the ghoul, the wolves and the woman aiming the very lethal-looking crossbow right at his heart.
"Gary! That's Gary," the boy yelled, his voice bursting with relief.
"Stay away from the wolves," Ivory cautioned. Her gut tightened. Now she had two humans to protect. Neither seemed shocked at the ghoul, nor at her appearance, as if a female hunter, a pack of wolves and a mindless assassin were everyday occurrences. She knew little about Carpathian politics, and didn't want to know more. She was a slayer. And a vampire was close.
One of the wolves yelped, and out of the corner of her eye she caught movement as the ghoul flung one of the smaller females. The body dropped almost at the feet of the man called Gary. He leapt back, eyeing her warily.
"You have a vampire coming down on top of you," Ivory pointed out. "Move or die."
Above his head, in the whirling mist of snowflakes and fog, she could see the outline of the grisly form of a vampire. Power radiated from him, and her heartbeat ratcheted up a notch. This was no lesser vampire; she'd fought enough of them to know.
Gary dove toward the boy, landing belly down, crawling the rest of the way. Travis sank down in the snow in an attempt to cut the wires from his ankles.
The vampire struck at her wolves, raising his hand to call down the lightning, thrusting the white-hot bolt at her pack, uncaring that the monster he'd created might be in the path of destruction. She slammed the bolt with a second one, driving the sizzling, crackling energy away from the writhing bodies. A tree exploded just beyond the wolves, the splinters and debris raining down on the ghoul and the pack. Her pack leapt back, circling the puppet, paying no attention to the vampire, leaving him to Ivory.
Gary rolled to finish extracting the boy, shielding the small body with his own as Ivory fired one of her small arrows into the vampire's chest. It hit him just below his heart, and he turned his head, deigning to acknowledge her for the first time.
Ivory's breath caught in her throat. A small sound escaped. Stunned, she could barely stammer, nothing coherent emerging from her.
Gary looked at her sharply, and then up at the vampire as the creature slowly lowered himself to the ground. The caricature of a man had probably been handsome at one time. He was well built, with wide shoulders and long hair that once had been thick and full, but now the vampire obviously didn't bother to hide his evil appearance. His skin was pulled tight on his skull and his teeth were sharp and pointed. He not only looked strong, but the power radiating from him hung in the air. The glowing eyes were locked on the female hunter, but he looked nearly as shocked as she did.
"Sergey," Ivory whispered.
The vampire winced visibly at the sound of her sweet, pure voice. He stood a long moment in silence, his looks subtly changing. In the blink of an eye his teeth were not long, pointed and stained, but white and straight. The face was fuller and the eyes had gone dark. The ghoul moved and the vampire merely flicked a hand toward him to freeze him where he was. Even the wolves didn't move; they were statues, staring at the woman and the vampire as they faced one another.
"Ivory?" The voice grated. He cleared his throat. "Ivory?" he repeated and this time the tone was beautiful. Gentle. Affectionate. His hands came up to cup the shaft of the arrow where black blood dripped down his chest. "You are alive."
Her hands trembled and she took a breath. One. Just held it and then released the air in a long gasp as if she was fighting to breathe. Her gaze dropped to the arrow in his body, the blood slowly dripping down his shirt and welling around the entry wound.
"Yes," she whispered. "I am alive and my soul is intact. How is it that you, my beloved brother, would join the ranks of the evil ones who would destroy your sister? Answer this for me." Each word was squeezed painfully from her heart, constricting her throat, threatening to strangle her with raw grief and the terrible sense of betrayal.
Ivory's throat was clogged with tears. She doubted she could say another word without bursting into sobs. She refused to look away from the vampire, not even for a moment, although it was much more difficult to think of him as an enemy when his form was so dear and familiar. She longed to fling herself into the comfort of his arms and rest her head against his shoulder, crying for her lost past.
She sought the path she might best use to warn the human. Take the boy and slip away. Get far from this place. I am not certain I can defeat this one in battle.
Sergey. He'd been a genius fighter. Few compared. Now he had centuries of battles with some of the best Carpathian hunters, not to mention the vampires that he'd defeated to add to his experience. She tried not to see the sly, cunning intelligence slipping into the depths of his eyes. She didn't want to believe her first vision of him. She had avoided her brothers once she'd confirmed the whispered rumors.
Gary caught Travis by his upper arm and began to slowly ease him back into the woods. The vampire's head turned slowly toward them, and for a moment that soft, dark color was ringed in red and glowed at them like a feral animal.
"Do not look at them, Sergey," Ivory snapped. "Or should I call you han ku vie elidet-vampire, thief of life."
His gaze flicked back to her and he looked sad. "You are my beloved sister . . ."
"Do not call me beloved when you betrayed me. You are in league with those who would have stolen my life."
"They have been brought to justice."
"Have they?" She stood, tall and straight, the moon gleaming off her blue-black hair. "You cannot lie to me, Sergey. Others perhaps might believe you, but I have hunted the vampire for many centuries now and I know the ones who took me to the meadow of our father and chopped my body into pieces and left them for the wolves. I know they live, so do not tell your pretty lies to me."
"Did they really do that to her, Gary?" The boy sounded fearful with his loud whisper.
She caught a glimpse of the man holding the boy closer, trying to soothe him. Each time they moved, the ghoul stepped with them in a macabre dance of death. Every time the ghoul shifted, the wolves circled and darted toward him, teeth bared.
"Leave us, Sergey," Ivory said, "and take your kuly with you."
"What is kuly?" Travis asked.
She turned her head toward the boy, but she kept her gaze on the vampire. "It is a worm that lives in the intestines, a demon who possesses and devours souls. So really, that is what Sergey is, as he possesses that worm's soul." With her chin she indicated the ghoul.
"I need a weapon," Gary hissed at her.
Ivory sighed. What man would run into the forest chasing a ghoul who had taken a child without a weapon? At least neither was hysterical, and that was a plus when she needed every ounce of concentration she could have. In any case, there was no use whispering; any vampire, let alone a master vampire, had excellent hearing.
"You have forgotten your manners, Ivory," Sergey reprimanded, looking more sorrowful than ever. He dragged the arrow from his body, watched it disintegrate in his palm and dropped the metal scraps in the snow. "Your arrow nearly pierced my heart."
Ivory marked where the pieces fell. "If you still had a heart, those who desecrated my body would have been brought to justice. Instead, you torture a child with your pathetic puppet. Take your servant and go, Sergey. You do not want to fight me."
He laughed, a soaring wicked sound that seemed to fill the skies around them. The trees shivered, shaking the snow from their branches so that ice crystals were flung into the air. The vampire lifted his head and coughed hard. As the icy flakes hardened and changed form, raining down, Ivory threw out her hand and the snow turned to vapor, a great gust of wind blowing it back into Sergey's face.
He coughed again and gagged, choking, holding one hand to his mouth. Behind his palm she could make out a small trickle of blood, then crimson drops stained the snow below him. He coughed and more blood spilled. Above his hand, his eyes glowed bright red and she heard the child give a strangled, frightened cry.
Keep his face against your chest, she ordered Gary. He put his parasites in the snow and they can be lethal. You cannot allow the boy to breathe them in.
Sergey spit into the snow, staining the pristine white powder with tiny wiggling wormlike creatures. "I am losing patience, Ivory. You must join with me now."
She felt her body respond to the sweet compulsion in his voice. Her fingers closed tighter on the crossbow. "Do you believe I am still that young girl you last saw? I do not respond to compulsion."
He opened his arms. "Come to me, sister. You belong here, with us. We fight against the prince-for you. But for the cowardice of his father, but for the sickness in his lineage, none of what happened to you would have. He sent you away, knowing there was danger to you, against the wishes of your brothers. Would you fight for his son? Would you join with the brother of the man who set in motion a war?"
Was he maneuvering closer? She couldn't tell. His body swayed when he talked and she couldn't tell if he was using that to inch forward, not with the snow swirling around her head. Each time the ghoul moved, the wolves reacted, but their attention was centered on the puppet, leaving the master to her. Her vision seemed a little hazy. Or maybe it was her mind. When he talked, his voice conjured up images she kept buried deep in order to keep her sanity. She could distance herself and remember that moment when all was lost and Draven had handed her over to the vampires with a smirk on his face. He'd caught her face in his hands and kissed her. She'd had the satisfaction of biting him hard, nearly tearing off his lip. He'd punched her hard enough to make her lose focus, just as she seemed to be doing now.
Sister! Raja snapped at her.
Sister! Sister! The rest of the pack took up the cry.
Ayame lifted her face to the sky and howled, the sound piercing through Ivory's brain. She blinked. The blood spots in the snow were no longer there, or if they were, she couldn't see them because the undead had glided forward just those scant few inches. She could feel the crossbow in her hand, still loosely pointed at her brother. Her hands trembled. She'd battled a master vampire once or twice in the intervening years, and she'd barely escaped with her life.
She knew Sergey had been considered one of the Carpathian's greatest hunters long before he'd ever turned.
"Back off," she ordered. "You do not want to do this."
"My patience grows thin." Sergey snapped his fingers. "This child is the beginning. We will have the others soon and they will either join us or die. Once hope is gone, we will have little trouble picking off the Carpathians. You belong with us in this. Come here to your brother and feed. I offer you everything."
She noticed he could barely sustain his pleasant tone, one more indication of how far gone he was. Too many years as a vampire had left his memories of better days tattered. The slow rot had claimed even the recollection of what love had been, what family meant. She had run out of time, hoping that by stalling him the Carpathian hunters would feel the dark power so close to their realm. And if the boy was really part of the Carpathian world, where were his keepers?
"My heart and body died a long time ago, Sergey, and now you so graciously offer me the death of my soul. I choose to remain true to the teachings of my brothers."
"We were wrong to follow the prince. He was unworthy. He allowed his son to destroy all that we held dear." He stretched his hand to her again, beckoning with his fingers. "Maxim dwells in the land of the shadows. As does Kirja, both slain by villainous Carpathian hunters, betrayers of their own people. Ruslan and Vadim need to see their beloved sisar-sister."
Her heart contracted. The pull of the past was strong. She fought the memories, the compulsion, shaking her head to ward off the lure. She didn't change position as she looked guilelessly up at her beloved brother. Her finger squeezed the trigger on her crossbow, releasing the arrow. She tossed the bow to the human male and rushed Sergey, snapping the coated arrowheads hard in a straight line up his chest.
It was an act of desperation to attack a master vampire, but she couldn't wait for his strike. Go! Take the boy and run. My pack will hold off the ghoul to give you a chance. She hoped Gary understood that his chance was slim and he shouldn't waste it. His first priority had to be the life of the child-especially when Sergey admitted they planned to turn or kill the boy.
She didn't look to see if Gary obeyed; her entire being concentrated on Sergey. The arrowheads would keep him from shifting, but then, it didn't look as if he had any intention of shifting. He waited for her with that small half-smirk on his face.
The ghoul jerked up and lumbered forward. The wolves sprang and he tried to smash their bodies together as they tore at his dead flesh.
Gary picked up Travis like a football, tucking the boy under one arm while he grasped the crossbow in the other and raced back into the shelter of the trees, weaving his way through the brush to present a more difficult target.
Lightning slammed from sky to earth, strike after strike as the vampire sought to stop him, slowing the man, forcing him to fall several times in the snow. All the while, Sergey stood his ground, his glowing eyes burning, pitiless holes, glaring at Ivory as she rushed him, sword drawn.
At the last moment, before that tip of a sword could sink into his flesh, he moved so fast he blurred, raking across her face with poison-tipped claws, creating gouges in her skin. She traveled beyond him, somersaulting into the soothing icy powder, coming up on one knee behind him and hurling a much more lethal star toward the back of his neck. It caught him as he spun to face her, a lucky break, the spinning points slicing through the side of his neck, cutting through the jugular.
Black blood sprayed across the snow and all pretenses of civility and sibling affection was gone in an instant. Sergey threw back his head and howled, the sound excruciating, an energy wave that blasted everything in its path, knocking her back and setting the wolves whimpering.
Ivory landed flat on her back, the air rushing from her lungs, leaving her gasping. Automatically she rolled several times, saving her life. Jagged bolts of lightning hit the ground where she'd been and followed her across the snow, leaving great gaping holes where each white-hot strike landed.
She came to her feet a short distance away, blurring her body and sending replicas of her form at him from every direction, rushing in, slamming the sword deep into his chest. Before she could twist the hilt or withdraw, he sank his teeth into her shoulder, clamping his mouth down around the thin bone and grinding. She screamed as pain burst through her, radiating outward, her flesh burning away from the acid blood pouring over her.
"Mmm, sisar-sister, you taste delicious," he whispered, a contemptuous smirk in his voice. "I have not tasted Carpathian blood in a long while. Perhaps I will keep you to myself instead of sharing your delightful taste with my brothers."
Ivory clawed at his face, trying to gain enough leverage to get him off her. She dared not take the wolves off the ghoul, afraid the child wouldn't get away. Her knee came up into Sergey's crotch, the heel of her boot raking down his leg to smash into the side of his knee. His bite deepened, tore at her flesh as if he were trying to consume her.
She fought to stay conscious through the pain, drawing both hands back and smashing her fists to either side of his jaw, driving through bone. His mouth blew open in a screaming gasp and he lifted his head.
Gary fired the crossbow, hitting the vampire in his right eye.
The boy? Ivory gasped as she dropped to the ground, blood pumping from her mangled shoulder. She dissolved as Sergey reached for her, his claws going through vapor. Droplets of blood followed her across the snow as she streaked away from Sergey.
Gary backpedaled when the vampire snarled and turned to look at him with one glowing eye. "I sent him back to the village. I couldn't leave you behind."
"You will wish you were never born," Sergey promised him and reached up to yank the arrow from his eye. Black blood poured down his face. The vampire didn't bother to wipe it away; instead he bared his savage teeth at the human.
Ivory materialized over the ghoul, slicing through his neck with one hard stroke, sending the head bouncing obscenely across the slope. The wolves pinned the thrashing body to the ground, holding him there while she gathered energy from the sky.
Move! Already she hurled the bolt toward the soulless creature, striking just as the wolves leapt back, in a move they'd perfected countless times.
Orange-red flames erupted, turned black, a foul stench filling the air as the carcass burned. Ivory kicked the head into the flames and faced the vampire over the rising fetid smoke. Her sides heaved for air; her body was covered in her blood-and his. Trails of blackened flesh streaked her shoulder and went down her arm, but she faced him stoically, with one eyebrow raised.
"You look a little worse for wear there, brother," she commented. "You must be getting old and feeble to allow a human to creep up on you like that."
As she spoke she circled around to try to put her body between Sergey and the human male. The man had risked his life for her and he was still standing there, waiting for another shot, when he had to know that her crossbow wasn't going to take down a master vampire. She'd rarely had dealings with humans, but she had to admire his courageous stand, even though she feared for his life.
"One of mine for one of yours, little sister," Sergey hissed, his body suddenly moving with blurred speed.
Even with her specially coated metal in him, she could barely follow his path, the master vampire moved so quickly. She saw him grasp little Farkas and slam the wolf 's body over his knee. There was an audible crack and the animal screamed. Cackling, Sergey threw the wolf away from him so that the body hit a snowcapped boulder where the animal lay broken and panting in pain.
The metal arrowheads fell to the ground in pieces, and already the vampire's body was regenerating, while her own grew weaker from blood loss. She dared not close off the wound and trap parasites in her where they could take hold. For a moment she just faced her brother, trying to decide the best way to get luck on her side-it was the only possible chance she had of defeating the vampire.
The air around them charged with electricity, making the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She felt the compression in her lungs and thought it was the undead attacking, but he stepped back, giving a wary glance right and left and then upward toward the sky.
"Another time, Ivory." Sergey raised his hands and the ground erupted into violent upheavals, sending both Gary and Ivory pitching forward. Gary went down headfirst and Ivory leapt to try to cover him against whatever form Sergey's latest aggression would take. Snow burst into the air in a spinning cyclone so that everything went white. She felt the impact of his blow on her left side, slamming her down and over the male. The blow might have killed a human; as it was she felt bones crack under the force.
Ivory rolled and rocked forward, allowing the momentum to take her to her feet in a half-crouch, ignoring the waves of pain coursing through her body. She turned in a circle. Sergey was gone. There was silence, broken only by heavy, ragged breathing. Ivory sagged, the strength leaving her body in a rush.
On hands and knees she crawled to Farkas as the other wolves circled around them. Ivory gathered the wolf into her arms, judging how much time she had to heal him. She was definitely weak and needed blood.
Gary pushed himself to his feet. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. Thank you." It came out stiffer than she intended. "How did the ghoul get that child? Why was he not kept safe?" She cast him a swift look of reprimand, her hand stroking gently along the back of her wolf, finding the breaks along the spine.
"He is the adopted child of Sara and Falcon and, although psychic, is human. During the day the children attend school and participate in the regular activities other children in the village have. Falcon and Sara have guardians in place. I was with several of them in the schoolhouse, but Travis had gone to attend a function with a woman who helps us out. We had no idea there was a threat in the area."
Ivory sighed. "Master vampires have learned to hide their presence from hunters. Some of the lesser vampires have slowly been acquiring the skill as well. Your hunters should know that and take better precautions."
Above them, thunder boomed and an answering crash blasted across the sky as if two powerful forces met and clashed in the heavens above them.
Sergey had sent another blast toward them, hoping to score a hit from a distance, but an unseen hand had sheltered them. The energy was much closer, and she knew she didn't have much time. She had to leave before the Carpathian hunters arrived.
Another burst of energy swept through the area, rocking the earth and making the trees tremble. Several rocks dislodged and rolled, drawing Ivory's attention to the pieces of metal strewn through the snow. She raised her palm, calling them back to her, careful that each piece was found and placed in a small pouch on her belt.
Gary frowned. "What are those?"
"Weapons." She shrugged her shoulders, not wanting to draw attention to her secret. "I have to take care of my wolf. You can leave the crossbow here and go with my thanks."
"I think I'll wait until I'm certain you're all right."
Ivory gave a dismissing grunt, closed her eyes and laid her hands over the wolf 's broken bones, drawing as much energy as she dared to heal Farkas enough so that he could at least travel. Light burst from beneath her palms and radiated heat along the animal's spine.
"Would you give him blood?" Ivory looked up at the man standing above her.
"I am not asking for myself. He needs blood to heal. He will not harm you, I guarantee you." She kept her gaze locked with his. "I would not force you. It is solely your choice."
Gary crouched down beside the woman, aware of the five large wolves pressing close to him. None of them acted threatening, but they were big brutes and fierce looking. Some had burns in their fur and around their muzzles from the acid blood where they'd taken the ghoul down. Up close he could see numerous old scars from other battles. He laid the crossbow next to her hand and nodded, rolling up his sleeve.
Ivory handed him a knife. Gary took it and without hesitation cut across his skin and pressed his wrist to the wolf 's muzzle. The wolf licked at the blood while Ivory murmured a soft healing chant. "Enough," she said, only minutes later. "That will get us traveling. I am in your debt."
"Let me give you blood," Gary offered. "If you wait, the others will be here soon and they can heal your wounds."
"We are here," said a voice behind them.
Ivory gasped and spun around, taking up her crossbow and aiming the arrow at the heart of the newcomer. She hadn't heard him approach, nor had the wolves. One moment there was no one and the next he stood there, tall and powerful with slashing silver eyes. He kept his gaze on her, and she had the feeling he took in everything-her wolves, Gary, the battle scene and every wound.
"Are you all right, Gary?"
"She saved our lives, Gregori," Gary explained.
Ivory had known exactly who this man was the moment she'd laid eyes on him. She'd known his elder brothers, Lucian and Gabriel, but Gregori was a legend in his own right-and she wanted no part of him. She stood slowly, careful not to make any sudden moves, keeping the arrow trained on him. She signaled to the wolves and they all moved behind her.
"We are in your debt, lady," Gregori said, inclining his head. "I am a healer. Perhaps I could aid you in return for the great service you rendered."
She knew he was deliberately formal in his speech, recognizing her as an ancient, but she refused to allow him to lull her into a false sense of security. She didn't trust him any more than she had Sergey. Behind him another man materialized and she heard herself gasp. For one horrible instant she was certain Draven was alive and had come for her again. It took her a moment to realize this had to be Mikhail Dubrinsky, Draven's younger brother, the reigning prince of the Carpathian people.
She took a step back, the arrow switching immediately to cover the intruder's heart. Gregori stepped deliberately in front of the prince, holding his hand palm outward toward her. "No one wants to hurt you. We are in your debt."
Behind him, the prince gently guided Gregori to one side. "I am Mikhail Dubrinsky and we are in your debt."
"I know who you are." She couldn't keep the bitterness from her voice. "I gave my aid freely to the child, and this man has more than repaid any debt owed to me." Farkas, on your feet now.
The wolf rose obediently and stumbled, nearly falling again. She cursed, knowing he was too weak to cross the distance on his own. She couldn't go back to her lair, not wounded and bleeding. She'd leave a blood trail in the sky. It wouldn't be visible, but the droplets could be scented and anyone who wished to could find her.
Gregori took a step closer and her other hand went to her holster. Ivory shook her head. "I do not wish to do battle with you, but if you insist, I will do so."
"I wish only to aid you."
"Do so by giving me free passage through your land. I will take my pack and go."
"You are a Carpathian woman without a lifemate and in need of our protection," Gregori said, his voice soft and compelling.
"I am an ancient warrior with a lifemate and I fight my own battles. I have no allegiance to your people and none to your prince. Know this, dark one-I will fight to the death to retain my freedom. I wish only to be left alone." She took another step back.
"If you leave without aid, you will be vulnerable to any attack," Gregori answered, his voice more gentle than ever. "As a Carpathian warrior, a male, the healer of our people, I cannot allow you to go without first seeing to your care."
Her sword swung up, her dark eyes catching fire even as despair swept through her. "Then know it will be a fight to the death. I want no help from you or from any of your people."
Her wolves spread out, even Farkas, facing the Carpathian males-enemies now-circling the men with teeth bared.