Razvan came aware slowly. At first he thought he was dreaming, but dreams such as lying in soil had long ago disappeared from his imagination. He was certain though, absolutely certain, he could feel loam, rich in minerals, surrounding him like a warm comforting blanket, the earth cradling him, his body warm, hunger a distant memory. And that made no sense.

His eyes snapped open, power consuming him, shaking him, more than he'd ever imagined, more than he'd ever conceived of or dreamt. It ran through his body like a rising tidal wave, rushing through veins, pumping through his heart, exploding through organs and sinew until he was filled with power. Light radiated from his body as he burst through the layers of soil to the surface. Dirt geysered up, hitting the high rock ceiling above his head and spraying across the room.

He landed in a crouch, senses flaring out, scanning, his mind racing, trying to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. He had escaped at last. His mind almost couldn't grasp the truth of it. He remembered running through the snow, shivering, his strength so far gone he couldn't control his body temperature, but he forced himself to keep going until he didn't have a single ounce of strength left. He had to get far enough away that Xavier and his servants wouldn't find him before the sun rose. The sun. Every Carpathian's last resort was to cleanse their soul with the bright white light. Even that had been denied him.

Xavier had been careless. Fear had been his downfall. Fear that if he fed Razvan too much, he would lose control of him, so the mage had forced his grandson to go for weeks without blood. Yet Xavier took from him daily-until finally Razvan was too weak and sick to stand, or to supply the greedy mage with the life-giving Carpathian fluid.

He remembered that empty, weak feeling, the near insanity of hunger, his body crying out, his teeth sharp and needy every moment that he was awake. Chained, he couldn't hunt for his own food. There were not even animals near to call to him. Every cell, every organ cried out, until his brain was nothing but a red haze of need. Now he felt only mildly hungry, not the constant gnawing hunger that had ruled his life for so many centuries.

He looked around him, realizing he was still deep beneath the earth, but it was warm. Somehow, glittering moonlight streamed in from above, yet he was deep beneath the earth in a rock cavern. He heard the sound of water but little else. He waved his hands, and candles sprang to life all over the room, instantly transforming it into a feminine sanctuary. The layers of rock above them were intricately carved with beautiful pictures, sweeping landscapes and trees and shrubbery, as if the outside world had been brought inside one small piece at a time, until the walls were a thing of beauty.

Feminine-the woman-the reason he was seeing in blazing color. The light and the color dazzled his eyes, burned after so long of seeing in gray and black and white. He remembered the soothing touch of her hands; her voice, soft and compelling; the way her blood tasted, addictive and hot as though made specifically for him. She had saved him when he'd told her not to do so. She'd worked a compulsion on him in spite of all his warnings, and now . . .

He felt. Everything. All of it. The guilt and the rage and the sense of absolute loneliness. He had no idea how to behave in civilized society. He had no knowledge of much other than deceit and torture, and now here he was, completely unprepared to be alive and well for the first time that he could remember in his centuries of existence.

Razvan stretched, feeling the play of muscle beneath his skin. His body felt so different, warm, alive, steel running beneath skin, so much power he trembled with it, uncertain how anyone could wield such strength without harming everything around him. He drew in a shaky breath and looked around again.

The woman-his lifemate-must have taken hundreds of years to carve out her home. It was unusual, but it appealed to him. There was something safe and comforting about it. He was upset with her for saving him. He couldn't stay to reprimand her or be tempted by her, of course, but at least he now had a fighting chance when he went after Xavier, and he knew he would. He couldn't allow the mage to continue spreading his evil through the world. He had to stop him, and now he might have the ability.

Razvan knelt to examine the large basin of soil. The depression was made of sheer rock. Impenetrable rock. The circular hollow that was her bed had been carved out, deep and wide, and then filled with the richest, purest, most heavily mineraled soil he'd ever seen. Unable to resist, he sank his hands into the black loam, feeling the soothing, rejuvenating properties.

Where had it come from? He sank back on his heels and studied the wide, deep hole. This soil had been brought here, one small bit at a time, yet now it was so many feet deep, he almost hadn't realized there was a bed of rock beneath it.

Who had the kind of patience it would take to first carve out a large chamber in a rock bed and then fill the basin with soil? It must have taken hundreds of years, yet she had conceived the idea and then painstakingly done it. He stood in one fluid motion, shocked at the way his body responded to the strength running through it, but he was more interested in the woman and what she had wrought than in how his body worked.

There was something extraordinary about the room, and not just the sheer work it had taken. The feel of it intrigued him. He placed his hands palm out toward the walls. Power crackled. Warmth and peace filled him. He frowned and dropped his hands, turning his head to study the rich carvings. Each wall, about thirty feet high in the shape of an oval, was carved with intricate drawings. A forest took up one wall, each needle and limb and gnarled trunk in rich detail. He moved closer. A second wall held a waterfall spilling into a pool of water, a pack of silver-tipped wolves, six of them, was etched in various positions in and around the forest and pool. He noted the shrubbery and flowers and the round moon and stars. Along the bottom of the wall, near the chamber basin where she rested, she had carved a single phrase.

Kuc3ak es kune jelaam es andsz entolam sielerauhoet, andsz entolam pesadet es andsz entolam kontsiverauhoet: May the stars and moon be my guiding light and grant serenity of the soul, protection from all harm and a warrior's heart-peace.

It was more than a work of art. Embedded into each letter, every loop and whorl, the vines running in and out of each word, was the feeling of tranquility. When he ran his hands over the sentence, an inch away from the wall, he could feel vibrations and knew that woven into those words, into the very rock itself, were powerful safeguards.

Razvan laid his hands on the rock wall. Again the wall hummed with life. The walls were solid rock, impenetrable like her basin of soil. But more than that, each wall held safeguards, potent ones. He recognized the beginnings as mage, but they were so different it would be nearly impossible to unravel them. Nothing was going to get through those walls. No one would ever find her, and she was perfectly safe.

He groaned aloud. She had brought him to her sanctuary. He was probably the first person to ever see her home, and with him, he brought an enemy beyond all others. Xavier could possess his body, and now that it was strong and fit and filled with power, the evil mage would want Razvan's body for his own more than ever.

Razvan touched her violin, and felt the joy and artistry of her music. Her emotions were everywhere, buried in the art she created in the warmth and sanctuary of her home. He went up smooth, polished rock steps and through the narrow opening into the largest room. This was obviously her living quarters, where she spent the most time. The cavern walls had been etched out one inch at a time until she had created a round tower, rising up a good forty feet. Although relatively small, the chamber appeared spacious in its simplicity.

There were a couple of chairs and a thick rug of wool with a bit of wolf hair clinging to it here and there, giving evidence that her pack often lay in this room. He found a book of poetry and another on samurai battles and strategy and code of honor. Both were old and lay on the small carved table by a chair. He picked up the samurai book, told in an ancient language, and thumbed through it, noting the small writing in the margin and the underlining of phrases on every page. The book was worn, and obviously read often.

As in the bedchamber, the walls were covered in drawings, each stroke carved into the wall, which must have taken years to complete. The craftsmanship told him something about her. She was patient. She was meticulous. And a perfectionist. She was an artisan whether she knew it or not. The faces of ten young men stared out at him. Each face held an expression of love. When he lifted his hand and ran his fingertips over the smooth etchings, he felt the love. Her love. Their love for her. Anguish and sorrow at her loss of them. This, then, was her monument to her lost family.

Razvan had known love. His father and mother. His sister, Natalya. He carried those memories long after his emotions had faded-and it had taken a long time, even when he embraced that darkness in him, reached for it, desperate to be numb so he couldn't feel loss and guilt and an overwhelming sense of failure and despair. The blood in him ran strong whether he wanted it or not. When he touched those faces, the love there, the sorrow, nearly drove him to his knees. Every single stroke of the implement used to forge those beloved lines from memory was done with tears running down her face and absolute love in her heart.

As the pads of his fingers traced over the hair and foreheads, down to the eyes, noses and mouths, he felt the difference in her. At first those hands had been innocent of knowledge of the fate of her brothers. Little by little, the knowledge had been gained over centuries, until she knew of the betrayal of her five older brothers. His hands stilled and he drew in his breath sharply. Vampires. Betrayers. Master vampires banding together and plotting the downfall of the Carpathian people with... His heart sank. Her enemy. Her worst enemy. Xavier.

It was all there in the stone. Every detail, every emotion, the blood and the tears and every ounce of love and forgiveness she had in her. She resolved never to see them as they were now, only to remember them with love in her heart where she could touch their faces here on this memorial and remember nothing but love from them.

He wanted to weep for her, for her lost family. He couldn't imagine what strength it must have taken for her to go on, so alone, so lost, the pain of her loss nearly intolerable, the strength of her love enduring. The other five faces were family-yet not blood. He felt her deep love for them, the caring, but fear was woven in there. She dreaded knowing their fate, and so he had stopped looking, afraid that they had taken the path of her brothers. The love shone through along with her dread of the truth.

Below the faces of the ten men were six wolves, carved in exquisite detail, so real looking he touched the rock to see if the fur was really of stone. Each face was different, as if she'd studied a wolf and transformed the living creature into part of the earth for all time. The room was beautiful yet very simple and felt like home and love.

He studied each face carefully, both man and wolf, knowing these were the important beings in her life. He wondered, if things had been different, whether his face would have been on the wall, immortalized with her family.

Along the bottom of the wall she had carved sentences in the Carpathian language, the letters intricate with vines and leaves weaving in and out of them along with finely etched flowers woven into the sentences.

Siv pide kod. Pitaam mustaakad sielpesaambam. Love transcends evil. I hold your memories safe in my soul.

Once again, as he passed his hand over the words, he felt the emotion pouring from the wall, so much so that he felt burning behind his eyes. Her love for her brothers, for her family and her pack, was tremendous and unwavering. Even with the knowledge that her brothers were dead to her, that they had betrayed her memory in the worst possible way, she not only was determined, but she succeeded in remembering them only as the family she had loved and adored.

There was courage in those words, he decided. Courage and strength and determination. If there was a way to recover the lost souls of her brothers through sheer love and forgiveness, she would find a way. He traced the small crosses cut deep beneath each of her brothers' faces and those of the De La Cruz brothers. Protection sparked back at him, as if that wall held the safeguards to protect her loving memories should she encounter the evil that her family had chosen to become.

A short tunnel veered off to the right and an open arch led through to a third room. He glanced inside the third room, which was nearly an extension of her family room to find a soothing pool, with a small real waterfall spilling out of the rock. This room had carvings, but just the faint beginnings of them. He could make out a huge tree trunk, with many long, sweeping branches reaching across the rock as if to shade the pool. It was a work in progress and he wished he'd be there to watch her work.

He ducked his head and entered the tunnel. His shoulders scraped against either side. Above the archway leading down into another room there was a cross cut deep. Already, before he even entered, he sensed a difference. Where the other rooms were feminine and homey, filled with soothing peace, love and comfort, this room was all about business and purpose. This was a workroom-a war room-and just as she had been meticulous in detailing her art, she was the same way with her weapons.

She forged her own swords and knives. Even the bullets in her gun were made by her. She appeared to be a master craftsman, her weapons as carefully and patiently forged as her carvings on the rock walls. He was amazed at the variety of weapons; some he'd seen before, others he was uncertain how to use. Books were scattered among the shelves of tools, again, well-worn and often read.

One wall held shelves of books carefully penned in a feminine hand, and, opening them, Razvan recognized mage spells Xavier often used. Beside each one was penned a second spell, countering or corrupting the first. Book after book appeared to be dedicated to finding a way to defeat Xavier's spells. Razvan found it very interesting and became lost for a while, reading her notes, and her conclusions and the twists she put on the words to counter everything Xavier had ever taught. She'd obviously spent hundreds of years detailing Xavier's deeds, poring over the spell books she had used when she'd attended his school so many centuries earlier and working to find ways to defeat the mage at every turn. And it all made sense.

Excitement coursed through him. He had come to believe, after centuries of captivity, that Xavier was invincible. The Carpathians had failed to defeat him. The Lycans had failed. The jaguars. Humans had been trapped and tortured and made into ruthless puppets. And the worst scourge of all-the undead-had made an unholy alliance with him. Razvan had seen it all. Yet, right here in this room, one person, one woman, had dedicated her life to stopping Xavier.

Razvan looked at the walls, knowing he would find an inscription. Each wall contained a single word and one held three lines. Feldolgaztak. Kumalatak. Kutnitak. Prepare. Sacrifice. Endure. There were no fancy letters this time, no vines and flowers interwoven in those stark words. Her mantra.

He walked across the room and crouched down beside the wall where she had carved her code, using the Carpathian language, deep into the rock wall. Four lines this time.

Kod elava es kod nime kutni nimet. Sieljela isanta. Evil lives and has a name. Purity of soul triumphs.

Turelam agba kontsalamaval-Tuhanos loylyak turelamak sa?e diutalet. Patience is the warrior's true weapon-a thousand patient breaths bring victory.

Todhan lo kuraset agbapaamoroam. Knowledge flies the sword true to its aim.

Pitasz baszu, piwtasz igazaget. No vengeance, only justice.

All of this-everything she did-was in preparation for her ultimate battle with Xavier. This place was a safe haven, protected by extraordinary safeguards with no way to penetrate the miles of rock. The mage books, the weapons. She was assembling every possible weapon against the high mage and waiting patiently to strike while she gathered information against him. The war room was a tribute to her vast knowledge of the enemy, her patience, determination and discipline. A picture of his lifemate was emerging, and he felt a sense of pride and respect for her.

Razvan lifted his head and looked around the room. A long, narrow table and workbench covered in tubes and handblown glass of all shapes and sizes caught his attention. He recognized herbs and plants, roots, dried and hung around the room. Sage was prevalent, and various plants to ward off evil. What was she making?

He peered at the book lying beside a twisted tube containing a dark, thick liquid. He sniffed cautiously toward the glass tube as he glanced over the neat, feminine scrawl. The formula had been crossed out and rewritten over and over until she seemed satisfied and had underlined the resulting mixture in thick, dark lines. He couldn't detect any odor at all. When he lifted a carved, smooth ladle, the mixture was clear, not dark. He frowned and looked at the glass tube, certain it was dark.

Along with everything else, she appeared to be a chemist. He examined several of the trays and baskets holding a variety of dried herbs. The workmanship on each of them was incredible, the patterns unique. When he touched them, he knew she had crafted each of them.

He left the room and went back to her family room, trying to think, to form an idea of what he should do. This woman-his lifemate-was patiently assembling the tools to defeat the world's greatest enemy. His memories of her rescuing him were very hazy, but he remembered her eyes, and the feel of her hands, the silk of her hair, the softness of her skin. Most of all he remembered her kindness.

He wanted more than anything to stay to help her achieve her goal, but he knew he was more dangerous to her than any other being on the face of the earth. Through him, Xavier could find and destroy her. Death was far from the worst that the high mage could do to a person; Razvan had learned that through bitter experience. He had been helpless to protect his sister and daughter-even his aunts-but he could protect his lifemate by staying away from her.

He looked around the comfortable lair-a masterpiece of beauty and courage, grateful that, before his death, he'd had a chance to meet her, to see what true light in one's soul was. He'd known only darkness and cruelty, but here he was surrounded by something altogether different-the complete opposite-and he wanted to just stay and bathe in her soul for as long as he dared before he had to leave.

He had never understood what being a lifemate truly was. Two halves of the same soul uniting. Light to darkness-darkness to light. They each needed the other. Just standing in her living quarters with the memory walls rising above him, he felt comfort and warmth, not of the body-he had that now; for the first time in centuries he wasn't shivering-but he felt warmth inside, deep where it counted. She'd given him something he hadn't known and he hadn't yet claimed her, hadn't actually bound their souls together. How much more powerful would these feelings be then?

The temptation shook him and he quickly pushed it away. He'd had no control of his life for centuries. This one moment, when he had choices, he would make the one necessary to protect this woman. Xavier would never get to her through him. She complicated things though. His first thought had been to try to kill Xavier, but he dared not risk falling into the mage's hands again, not when he would know the location of Ivory's lair.

Something stirred in him. A questing. A seeking. Something alien brushing at his mind with sharp talons, scraping at the walls. He stiffened and, without thinking, slammed a barrier so hard, so fast, it shocked him. He hadn't realized he could do such a thing. He recognized that perverted, vile touch. Xavier. The high mage was seeking him, reaching out to find him and possess him.

His heart beat so hard in his chest he thought it might explode. Fear for his lifemate lived and breathed in him, strengthening his resolve to fight Xavier's possession. He raced through the rooms, looking for a way out, fearing that Xavier might be able to see through his eyes. He kept his mind as blank as possible, knowing the mage, when merged, could read his thoughts. He couldn't remember how she'd gotten in. Everything about the journey was so hazy.

He couldn't get through miles of rock, not without knowing where he could safely emerge. He felt trapped and panicked, cursing his fate, that he would once again be the downfall of someone who needed and deserved his protection.

Finding himself in the bedchamber, he rested his hand on the wall, head down, eyes closed, trying to orient himself. To have another possess his body was a wrenching, sickening experience; the details of Xavier and his vile greed and extreme depravity were uppermost in his mind. He would keep him out.

Without warning, pain hit him-excruciating pain. Razvan's eyes snapped open and he looked around, trying to determine what was happening to him. The soil was there, in the deep depression, a rich, beckoning treasure he couldn't resist. He went to his knees in it, but the pain didn't subside.

His body was often taken on journeys through soil, but he had never rested in the rich, rejuvenating loam. Xavier had never dared to allow him that luxury. The soil might have healed his body and restored his strength, which Xavier could ill afford. He was left to languish in a kind of half-life in the ice caves. Razvan wasn't even certain he could survive beneath the earth, or even above it after so many centuries of cold, yet the soil filled him with strength-it just didn't stop the pain.

Xavier, unable to enter his mind, had to be attacking him from a distance. Teeth tore into his shoulder, the serrated edges slicing through bone, sinew and flesh, sawing deeper and deeper, injecting the burning parasites into the wound. He was being eaten alive-fitting justice for one such as him. His own teeth had sunk into his daughter's tiny wrist, and he had watched in horror, unable to protect her, while Xavier had done this very thing, gnawed on her as if she were a bone, a piece of meat to be consumed, his teeth tearing her delicate skin open to get at blood and bone.

He felt the spray of acid burning through his skin, deep-deeper still, vampire blood running in rivers over his flesh, long streams of it branching out over his hands and forearms and down his shoulder, and running down his arm and chest. He recognized the feeling-his wrists and ankles and even his back had often burned from the vampire blood-coated manacles. He had earned that for his failure to keep his family members safe from Xavier. Time after time, he had fought the demon mage, but he'd never been strong enough or wise enough to defeat him.

A burst of pain through his ribs shook him, radiating through his entire body. Pain was a way of life to him. He could push it away now, absorb it into his body and let it consume him. He had long ago learned how to live with agony.

The pain was not his pain. It was too far away. Too distant, the reaction stoic but definitely feminine. Ivory was in trouble. Everything else ceased to matter. He had one reason for his existence-to protect her from any enemy at all costs.

He cleared his mind and fought back the all-consuming emotions he still found difficult to deal with. He built the image of her in his mind, the image of her as he saw her. Soft and feminine, the loving woman who belonged here, in this home of raw beauty.

Ivory. You have need. Tell me how to come to you.

There was the smallest of hesitations. They are hunting you.

He didn't argue with her. She was hurt and she was surrounded by enemies. He could feel the burn of the vampire blood, the pain gnawing at her shoulder and ribs, and the trepidation that she was weak and might not be able to fight her way clear, although she was absolutely determined to try.

Razvan filled her mind with his strength and power, feeding her while he searched her memories and found the information he needed.

Stall them. I will be there soon. Do not fight. They will not attack you as long as you talk with them.

I do not have much time. The admission was humbling to her. My strength is waning.

I will come. I will be there, Ivory. Do not lose hope. He poured his determination and resolve into her mind, knowing she distrusted everyone, and with good cause. And she had every reason to fear and hate him. Xavier's genetic code was in his body.

There was another small hesitation, and then he clearly saw the crack cleverly hidden in her bedchamber where she could slip in and out of the narrow, inches-wide chimney. There was caution in her mind.

Razvan hastened to reassure her. I will scan carefully before I emerge so there will be no trail leading back to your lair.

Now he had the information in his head and he had to be doubly careful that Xavier could not enter his mind. Before he moved, he took that moment to build every possible defense, thickening barriers, making himself stronger than he'd ever been. Stronger than before he entered the thin crack that most would never notice. He streamed to the surface, a threadlike trail of vapor moving upward, weaving back and forth through the layers of rock bed for what seemed an interminable amount of time before he saw a sliver of sky overhead.

I will come. I will be there, Ivory. Do not lose hope.

In hundreds of years she had never relied on anyone but herself and her pack. She was Ivory Malinov, slayer of the dark ones, and she trusted no one, believed in no one. That way, no one could tear her heart out, physically or figuratively. She took a breath and pain nearly blinded her, made her stagger so that the dark one leapt toward her.

Ivory pulled a knife from her belt and stood facing him. She knew his reputation, but thankfully, he didn't know hers. It was an advantage, no matter how small. He wasn't aware the wolves were Carpathian and all the more lethal. He would try to control them-it was standard defense-but it wouldn't work, and that would also give her a small advantage. Ordinarily she would have rushed to attack already, not wait for him to make the first move, but a part of her didn't want to start a war with the Carpathians.

Mikhail held up his hand. "Gregori. There is no need for this." It was a warning, delivered in a soft, almost gentle voice.

She remembered that same tone-his father's, so gentle and benevolent, the kind eyes, the compassionate, caring wisdom. The voice of reason. He wanted only to help her. An unselfish, gentle man who lived to serve his people. Whatever was best for them. She remembered that voice all too well. The eyes looking at her, looking through her, piercing her soul, seeing her need of knowledge, her need to learn when her brothers couldn't-or wouldn't. That voice soothing her, telling her he would make it right, that he would talk to her brothers when they returned and explain why it was necessary for her to go to the school and learn.

The prince understood. How could he not, when he knew so much more than everyone else? How could he not, when his reasons for doing everything were to serve his people. He had known that she hungered to do more than sit in her home and wait for her lifemate. She wanted to be something, to do something. The prince understood and helped her as she had known he would.

Something twisted inside her stomach. For a brief moment she couldn't feel the throbbing pain in her ribs or the terrible agony of her shoulder, not even the burn from the acid blood or sharp stabbing of the parasites as they bored into her cells. It had never occurred to her in her naivete that the prince had another agenda altogether-that he wanted to get rid of her, send her away because he knew his sick and twisted son would never leave her alone, and that her brothers or the De La Cruz brothers would kill Draven. Instead, she had happily gone off, believing the prince, in all his wisdom, knew so much more than her own family. She'd felt so grown up, so validated. She'd been hopelessly young and trusting in those days.

You have to hurry. I cannot hold out much longer.

She didn't know if her weakness was as much physical as mental. Seeing her brother had shaken her more than she'd realized. She'd vowed to avoid them and hadn't prepared herself mentally for seeing Sergey in his state of evil. He had changed his appearance when he recognized her, giving her a glimpse of her past, of a beloved man who'd held her and rocked her and spent hours teaching her to fight.

It had made her physically ill to shoot him with an arrow. She thought she had successfully separated the past from the present in her mind, but seeing him in person wasn't the same as thinking about him abstractly.

I am coming to you. Stall for time. Use the wolves if you must.

"Allow our healer to help you," Mikhail said, his voice dropping another octave, becoming almost hypnotic.

She couldn't help but feel the pull of that pure voice, even though over centuries she'd trained herself not to fall prey to sound. Farkas pressed closer to her legs, his body trembling. He was in the same shape as she was.

"I have no need of your help, Dubrinsky," she said, her voice haughty. "I neither ask nor want anything from you or anyone connected to you."

Gregori's breath came out in a long, slow hiss.

Her gaze jumped to his face, to the storm gathering in his eyes. If an attack came, it would come from him. She was weak from blood loss and pain, and was running out of time. "You evidently have never learned, in all your years of existence, how a voice can be sweet and pure to the ears, yet hide the truth behind the mask. My brothers chose the path of evil, but they were not wrong in their judgment of the Dubrinsky line. The prince you follow is not at all what you believe him to be."

Her gaze flicked to Mikhail, holding absolute, utter contempt. "You cannot deceive me, karpatii ku kod-liar, I am only fooled once, and your father was a champion. I wish to leave. Are you holding me prisoner?"

There was a small silence and Gregori slowly shook his head. "Do you believe you can fight all of us and emerge the victor? You are a woman, a Carpathian woman without anyone to protect her. I am sworn to carry out my duty whether you wish it or no."

Ivory took a breath, and let it out. Be ready, Raja.

The pack bared teeth and faced the threat of the Carpathian males without flinching.

Gary moved then, deliberately placing his body in front of hers, standing between her and the guardian of the prince, ignoring the threat of her pack.

"Please," he said. "No one wants to take you prisoner. I'm offering my blood freely to you. My life for yours. I'm not certain of the formal words, but if you take what I offer, we'll know you'll at least have a fighting chance should you run into another vampire. No one wants to imprison you."71

"She is infected with the vampire's blood," Gregori explained. "The parasites have to be removed."

"I am well aware of the infestation," Ivory retorted. "I am perfectly capable of healing myself."

Another male and female materialized just beyond the prince, and Ivory heaved a sigh, wishing she could just sink down into the snow and rest. She recognized the male, with his strong, handsome features, and a smile nearly broke out. Falcon. A friend of her family, of the De La Cruz brothers. He was a loner but a good man. She was grateful to see him, to know that at least a few of the older males still survived with their souls intact.

"Ivory!" Shock registered, shock and happiness. "You are the mysterious woman who saved our son?" Falcon glided forward but stopped abruptly when she stepped back and waved him off with her hand.

"Pesasz jelabam ainaak-long may you stay in the light, Falcon," she greeted. "It has been many years."

"You're injured," the woman exclaimed, hurrying forward.

Falcon stopped her by putting a restraining hand on her arm. "What is going on here?"

Ivory noted that he didn't sound judgmental, just cautious. "I wish to leave and your prince and his servant have dictated otherwise."

"Only to see to your health, lady," Gregori said with a slight bow, ignoring her taunt.

The woman frowned. "I'm Sara, Falcon's lifemate. You saved our son and we're indebted to you. No one here wants to harm you." She sent a small glare toward Gregori. "I can't imagine that anyone here would want to do anything but reward you for your help. I offer freely my blood to help heal you. Both Falcon and I will do our best to heal your wounds, although Gregori is a healer without comparison. He may look intimidating, but he is really a gentle, caring man."

"I am not intimidated by the dark one," Ivory denied. "I wish only to go my own way." The woman tempted her with her offer. A healing would certainly go a long way toward strengthening her, but if she took the dark one's blood, he could track her all the more easily. Blood called to blood. And she would be so vulnerable. He could easily take her blood and then she would always have to worry that he could find her lair. As it was, Sergey knew she lived. He might get it in his head to try to find her.

She sighed and shook her head. "I regret that I cannot take you up on your generous offer, but thank you," she said to Sara.

Raja growled a warning and she realized that Gregori had moved closer. The dark one halted when she swung toward him, angling the knife up toward the softer parts of his body.

"You would be very foolish indeed, dark one, to try it."

"You are swaying with weariness," Gregori said. "If I said anything to make you think I wish you harm, I apologize. Surely you can see my only concern is your health. While we stand here, the parasites have had more of a chance to spread their poison through your body."

"I am well aware what parasites can and cannot do."

She reached for Razvan, desperate now. The healer was closer than she was comfortable with, perhaps within striking distance. Ivory wasn't foolish enough to disregard the man's reputation. He was known far and wide throughout the community as a dangerous, ruthless defender of the prince and of the Carpathian people.

Unless I allow him to give me blood, I have no choice but to fight my way out.

You will not have to fight. I give my life for yours. Follow my lead. Talk to the woman, distract them for another couple of minutes.

There was something reassuring in his tone. She had left him a broken, fallen warrior, but he had risen something altogether different. There was confidence in his voice. Razvan was Dragonseeker, one of the oldest and most powerful of all Carpathian lineages, and he had endured torment and suffering for hundreds of years without succumbing to darkness. She had been in his mind, and his memory was long. He had absorbed fighting skills, techniques and strategies. He knew more about Xavier than any other living being and he had more cause to destroy him than any other. She wanted to believe in him. Shaken and weak, she needed to believe in him.

The healer is trying to outwait me. He knows I cannot last.

You will last.

Strength poured into her. "Sara," she said softly. "I appeal to you. Ask the dark one to step aside. I have done harm to no one here and I want only to leave in peace. You indicated the need to repay me for saving the life of your child. This is what I ask. Simply have your healer step aside."

Sara looked up at Falcon and then to Mikhail. "I think she sounds reasonable. Please, Gregori, just step aside."

All of them looked at Sara, who angled closer, more protectively, toward Ivory.

Dirt geysered beneath the heels of the prince and a body materialized behind him, one arm locked tight around Mikhail's neck, the blade of a knife pressed against the heart of the prince. Stormy, merciless eyes locked on the face of the dark one with absolute resolve.