Ivory drew a wicked-looking, circular, crystal-centered weapon and held out her arms. "Now," she called to her pack.
The wolves leapt into the air, diving for her back. Ivory was already plunging, straight down, hands in front of her face like a modern-day Olympic diver, changing form as she went, pushing through the dirt to follow the path of the large worm dragging Razvan deep.
Look to me. At me. I am with you.
No! Go back. He cannot have you.
Nor can he have you. Ivory blocked out everything happening on the surface. Gregori would fight his way clear of Xavier's mutations and get the prince free; he had to. She had one duty, and that was to her lifemate-keeping him out of the hands of the high mage.
I cannot shift and get away.
You have seen the worm, bred to travel through the earth. Once his teeth meet in the middle, he holds your form. She knew. She'd extracted that very venom to use with her own combination of chemicals to make the coating on her weapons to prevent vampires from shifting. He cannot have you. Do not struggle. Stay very still so it injects less poison. Keep your mind in mine. You have to trust me.
She felt him holding himself utterly still. It had to take a great deal of courage not to fight the worm dragging him deeper beneath the earth. It was easier for the worm to go through its tunnel, already carved through the layers of soil as it headed back to its master to deliver its prize. Razvan had to know where and to whom the worm was taking him, yet he ceased fighting.
Razvan had never been able to trust anyone once his father had died and his sister was lost to him. To give her that-to put his life, no, his soul in her hands-had to be nothing short of a rebirthing by fire because never before had he put his very soul into someone else's keeping.
I trust you.
It would take trust. Fighting a worm was extremely dangerous. Practically everything about the worm was venomous. The spikes that ran along his body to dig and propel himself forward and back through the tunnel, and the barb on the end of his lashing tail, all contained the same poison as the fangs and double rows of serrated teeth. The tail itself could break every bone in a warrior's body. The hide was tough and could slice through a hand or arm if brushed against.
Close your ears, Razvan. You cannot listen. The sound will be bothersome to you. It was the only way she could think to describe it, but she had to slow the worm down, disorient it. With the tunnel already dug, it could warp time with alarming speed. When it releases you, you will have only seconds to push the poison from your body so you can shift. You have to be ready. Seconds only. She had to trust that he would feel the urgency in her and obey.
Knife in one hand, arms outstretched toward Razvan, eyes locked with his, she began to chant.
I call to the element of air used for sound. Drum to the heartbeat of evil that digs through the ground. Pitch, harmonics, combine and align, Fight by attaching to warp evil's mind.
The notes she used were pitched to vibrate and disorient, triggering vertigo and time loss in the worm. The earth responded to the discordant notes of her command. The cadence of her song continued, but Ivory's tones altered, changing the vibrations of the earth so that they became in tune with the surrounding soil, drawing it inward so that it began to collapse and fill the tube. The wave of sound moved through the earth. The ground shuddered, trembled. Dirt rained in all around them.
Keep looking at me. Ivory kept moving toward Razvan, propelling herself down the long, wide hole. Remember, push the poison out fast when the worm releases you.
She had shifted form and was nothing but molecules traveling at a high speed but still not fast enough to catch up.
Keep your arms outstretched above your head, toward me, toward the surface.
More soil tumbled into the tube. A clap like thunder roared down the tube behind the worm and the creature hesitated. It was enough for Ivory to close the gap between them, her hands materializing. She shoved the weapon into Razvan's right hand and caught his left wrist. At once she began to sing again, this time the notes resounding through the earth. The sound was painful, crashing through their bodies and minds, turning their insides to jelly.
The worm completely stopped moving, opening its mouth wide in a scream that reverberated through the ground, releasing Razvan at the same time.
Now! Now! Shift when you can, holding the weapon. Follow me in. Fearlessly, Ivory became vapor only, streaming inside the giant opening of the worm's mouth.
Razvan pushed the poison from his body, ignoring the wrenching pain, closing off his mind to anything but following her. He felt the disc in his hand vibrating as he shifted and knew he still held it, which meant it was no mere illusion, but was constructed of natural earth and gems. He followed her without hesitation, past the double rows of serrated teeth, past the dripping fangs and pockets of thick amber venom, down the very throat of the beast.
Touch nothing inside; not the walls, nothing. These worms have two vulnerable spots, and both of them are deep inside Even going for their eyes does nothing. Look for scar tissue inside the throat-you will know it when you see it. Everything else is coated. The spot is where Xavier attaches himself to give instructions. The second place is much deeper and much more perilous to find.
Razvan didn't want to know how she'd discovered this information, but there was no doubt in his mind it had been hard-won through first-hand experience. She was too confident in her assessment, and her voice was tight with tension.
He scanned the walls of the worm's throat. Bumps and ridges in dark purple and black covered the membranes above and all around them. The worm pitched and bucked, fighting to get out of the collapsing tunnel, making it doubly difficult to avoid accidentally skimming along the wall. Venom dripped from the ceiling, raining down around them. As vapor, it was easier to avoid the drops.
There! Above and to your right, on the roof of his throat. Razvan spotted the small circle and recognized the stamp of Xavier. Welts and splotches made tiny rings and whorls, damaged for all time after contact with the mage.
We will only have seconds to get out again. The disc is iolite, a violet stone that enhances vision on the astral realm. Follow what I do and then move fast out of here.
Razvan realized there was a thin thread of blue-violet light emanating from the disc. Ivory took her normal form, hovering in the center of the worm's throat, dodging the strings of poisonous saliva. Hairy fibers sprang into action, reaching like tentacles toward the heat source. Ivory grimly eluded them and, using deadly aim, struck hard and fast with the light, using it like a spear or a laser, penetrating into the worm's tough wall, anchoring deep. She let go of the disc and it followed, slamming hard into the ring of scars.
Razvan mimicked Ivory's actions, releasing first the light and then the disc within a heartbeat of hers. Light burst from the two discs and lit up the walls of the throat, bathing them in a violet wash. Sound came next, high-pitched, the notes threatening to shred all reason, so that Razvan hastily muted the sound.
Ivory was already streaming back toward the mouth of the worm. The huge, cavernous body thrashed back and forth, rolling and bucking harder than ever. Hurry. The urgency in her mind convinced him to double his speed as nothing else could. Behind them, the violet light spread like a cancer, staining the venomous throat bluish-purple. Steam rose.
Ivory hovered just behind the double rows of teeth. Be ready.
Razvan had no idea what he was ready for, but the worm seemed more unstable than ever as all around them smoky blue-violet vapor curled, pouring from the two discs. He heard Ivory mentally counting, concentrating hard. Deep in her mind, he felt the exact moment she began to burst forward.
The worm opened its mouth to cough. The throat contracted, muscles squeezing down behind them, closing the gap as they shot from inside the worm.
Move. Move. Ivory didn't slow down, but kept driving through the soil, back up toward the surface.
Razvan followed, amazed at her skills, at her knowledge of the enemy and at the fast, efficient and utterly calm way in which she went about destroying it.
When we surface, the bats will be attacking. Come up near the prince to add to his protection. All of Xavier's twisted abominations will be fighting to get to him.
Around him he could feel the unstable ground quivering, rolling, as the worm thrashed and fought, sending shock waves undulating deep beneath the earth. The ground sank all around them, falling in on itself.
Faster. Ivory hissed the command in his mind. Take the lead.
She might be one of the best warriors he'd ever encountered, and by far the most knowledgeable dealing with Xavier's army, but he was still a Carpathian male and her lifemate. She wasn't going to be protecting his back, not when he could be protecting hers.
Keep moving. We are close to the surface, he informed her. Whatever is up there is not as bad as the evil Xavier had inside of me. Watch yourself.
He will go for the prince, Ivory reiterated. The one sure way to destroy the Carpathian people is to destroy the prince.
Razvan burst through the surface, emerging into a night filled with the sound of battle. Thunder cracked and lightning streaked across the sky, slamming into earth as bolts hammered into the crushing crowds of bats swarming over the ground. It looked like a living sea, bats walking on their wings, baring teeth at anything in their path. Flesh eaters, he'd seen the mutations in the caves Xavier occupied, placed there to guard, to sound the alarm and to provide blood from the animals they killed and dragged to the lairs.
Ivory emerged from the ground, shrugging, arms outstretched. The wolves leapt from her back and into the midst of the bats, snapping necks as they grabbed and shook their prey, fighting their way through the mass to the circle defending the prince. Ivory followed them, drawing one of her many homemade weapons, tossing it to Razvan and pulling another.
Razvan discovered the strange gun fired light, not bullets. He had never participated like this in a battle, with blood spraying across the snow. But he didn't hesitate, staying in Ivory's mind. She was a warrior through and through, wading through the bats, kicking them aside, spraying the bright light fed by a diamond across a wide path, severing heads.
"Keep the spray level with their necks," she advised, and then called out, "Gregori! We're coming in."
One of the bats seized Razvan's calf and tried to tear open his leg. Blaez, the second largest wolf, caught the malicious creature in strong jaws and ripped it away from Razvan, tossing the bloody body into a group of bats that tore into it with a viciousness that reminded him of Xavier.
Gregori slammed bolts of lightning into the center of the bats, opening the way for them. Razvan followed Ivory through the sea of bats, staying close to protect her back, his gun spewing the blade of light behind them in a wide arc. When the wolves hesitated, preferring to stay to the outside, Ivory hissed a command.
You will get eaten alive. Come! She held out her arms and the wolves leapt over the mass of furry bodies and merged with her back.
Ivory continued to wade through the bats, running toward the small group, fighting to keep from being overpowered. The group refused to just dissolve and abandon Gary, their human friend. It would be nearly impossible to protect him from the air.
"Get the prince off the ground," Ivory yelled above the din to Gregori. "The attack will come from under the ground. This is a diversion."
Falcon jerked Gary off the ground, no questions asked, as Mikhail rose as well. The hordes of bats went crazy, flying at them with renewed frenzy.
"I lost sight of Xavier's fragments," Gregori warned. "They're probably in the bats."
Ivory thrust one of her light guns into Sara's hands. "You have to sever them right at the neck or they really go psycho on you." She pulled a strange-looking object, much like a grenade, from a loop on her belt, readying herself.
"Have you seen these mutations before?" Gregori asked, continuing to use the thin whip of lightning to incinerate the bats.
"I study everything the mage does," Ivory answered. "There is a portal close. I must find it and close it or they will continue replicating. It is in the ground, not in a cave."
"You've seen these creatures before?" Mikhail asked.
Ivory nodded, her gaze scanning the ground. It was rippling beneath them, undulating, like a wave in the sea. "They get away from Xavier sometimes and they would be a huge threat this close to the village. They are major carnivores and attack in a group." She gripped the disc in her hand tighter as she saw dirt bubble up from the ground.
Gregori and Falcon were in constant motion, slamming white-hot energy through the mass with strike after strike. Mikhail slammed his fist hard, punching through one flying at Gary's face. All of the Carpathians and Gary had numerous bite marks and scratches from the continual assault.
"Give me one of those weapons," Razvan said. "You are not going alone."
Ivory frowned, her eyes still scanning the ground. "Going inside their lair is worse than the worm. Stay here and help guard the prince."
Now the ground bubbled ominously. Various sections sank several inches.
"Ivory." He waited until she glanced up to read the determination on his face. Razvan was not a man to back down. "Give me a weapon."
She tensed, seeing the ground shift in the sunken areas. One hand flicked to her waist and she tossed Razvan a duplicate of her grenade as she jumped, feet first, into the center of the spot where the sinking ground was the most active. Razvan followed her beneath the ground, shifting to vapor to go through the layers of dirt. The grenade shifted with his body, becoming nothing but molecules, telling him it was another of her homemade natural weapons. It had been oval-shaped and bumpy, not at all smooth.
A stench rose, a combination of fetid rotting meat, dead carcasses and sulfur. His stomach lurched, but he didn't hesitate to follow her deeper into the tube. Bats rose from beneath and he had to resist the urge to strike out at them as he dropped onto the rockier ledges where the colony dwelled. He kept his mind firmly in hers, following her exact movements. She was a warrior, well versed in the ways of Xavier, determined to defeat him and the mutations he set loose on the world. He had firmly joined her war, and what better way to learn than from the expert.
He couldn't help but admire her complete concentration and single-minded, no-nonsense purpose. There was no wasted talk, no wasted movements. Ivory was all business, flooding him with information as they dropped to the floor of the lair. The rock surrounding them was dotted with dark holes, the floor covered in bones, fur; old and new blood splattered the rocks and soaked the floor, pooling in thick puddles and hiding in crevices.
This is a slaughterhouse.
Once they escape Xavier's command, they start this behavior, swarming and reproducing, killing everything around them. They'll pick the bones from a horse clean in minutes.
I saw Xavier's first experiments. He fed them human and mage alike. Razvan tried not to remember the sounds of those dying in agony, but the hideous smells triggered the memories and his stomach lurched. Once he threw one into my chamber. I was chained to the wall and it began to devour me from the feet up. I could feel every tooth as it tore into my flesh. I thought if it ate me, I would cease to exist, but I could not stand the agony after a while.
He didn't know why he felt compelled to make the admission, and was ashamed the moment he did. It had been long ago and he'd pushed those memories to the back of his mind until the stink of death and decay brought them crowding back.
Long ago, I had wolves gnaw on me, on my leg bone. Fortunately, they helped bury me.
Her voice was so matter-of-fact, he almost didn't understand what she'd said. She kept talking as if she hadn't revealed anything of importance at all.
What we are going to do is change the composition of air using our homemade grenades. The fire down here will burn hotter than anything you've ever felt, so remember, you cannot draw this chemical into your lungs and you have to protect yourself from the intense heat, even in this form. You will want to panic and go toward the surface, but the fire will race upward and we must wait until the chemical disperses. When you materialize to activate the grenade, they will swarm on us. The feeling is utterly horrifying. You felt one. Imagine hundreds.
Let's do it. The stench was getting to him, and the idea of exposing himself to hundreds, maybe thousands of the demonic creatures would be terrifying if he let himself think about it.
We do it on three. Materialize, pull the pin and count, and then throw it into the center of their lair. You have to hang on for five seconds. It will be a lifetime, believe me. Immediately resume this form and stay out away from rocks, but keep away from the center. Do not breathe, whatever you do, and do not attempt to surface, no matter how hot you get.
Razvan positioned himself to face her, hoping to block her face and the front of her body from the oncoming attack.
One. Two. Three.
Razvan took his solid form. At once his boots sank into the decayed, rotting bodies and, even as he pulled the pin on the chemical grenade and began counting, his arm swinging back for the throw, the bats swarmed over them, hundreds of them, the weight nearly driving them to the floor, teeth sinking deep and tearing at their flesh.
He heard the wolves roar, teeth snapping in return, protecting Ivory's back. The five seconds seemed an eternity as the gas hissed into the air. The bats continuously issued a high-pitched shriek that reverberated through his skull, a call for more to join the frenzied feast. He felt the chunks of flesh being torn from his back and legs. He stepped closer to Ivory, shielding her with his body while her wolves protected her back.
They both lobbed the grenades at the same time and simultaneously shifted. The flash was deafening in the small confines of the rocky cavern, shaking the earth. The light was so bright, even without his body the intensity burned his eyes. The blast blew Razvan back and he had to hastily right himself to keep himself away from the walls.
In purging the lair of every occupant, they changed the composition of the air to gas, igniting it in a raging fire that rocketed up the walls. The rocks glowed orange-red, flames licking greedily inside every hole and tunnel. The extreme pressure hurt every molecule of his body. The noise was terrifying, the crack of the splitting rocks as great fiery chunks gave way, and the death screams of the bats as their furry bodies heated from the inside out and either burst or exploded. Some erupted into flames.
For a few minutes it was worse than any hell he could have ever imagined. Every instinct urged him to take Ivory and surface, but the fire was moving upward, ahead of them, purging every cranny and nook, every single hole and tunnel the creatures had constructed. It felt interminable, as if they were trapped in the center of a volcano. He fought the urge to take a breath while his body was still molecules.
Hovering protectively, he tried to surround her body with his to shield her from the worst of the heat, although the temperatures were so hot he doubted it mattered. The rock still glowed but the flames died down before Ivory began her rise to the surface.
Emerge as close to the others as possible. I will warn them and we will attack the creatures on the surface. It would not have done any good to kill them first without taking out the lair.
He had never admired someone so much in his life. She did what had to be done with no thought for her own safety. She was matter-of-fact about emerging into another storm of flesh-eating bats after her body had been torn up by the creatures. He couldn't feel the least reluctance in her, and something inside him opened and embraced his true destiny. He was meant for this woman. He was a match for her-her other half. He was born Dragonseeker, a warrior, not the evil monster Xavier had tried to shape.
Elation burst through him as he tore through the blackened ring of dirt, emerging into the midst of snapping teeth and fire raining from the sky. He had never felt so alive or free. He caught a bat in each hand and knocked their heads together, flinging them aside, and he was attacked from all sides, the sheer weight of bodies trying to knock him over as they did their best to eat him alive.
"Cover Gary. Cocoon yourselves in an airtight, heat-resistant bubble," Ivory said, then flipped a grenade to Razvan.
There was something very satisfying in being her partner. She hadn't included the other hunters or the prince in her fight. He was her lifemate, her partner, and although he didn't have their experience, she trusted him far more than she did the others, and it was the first time since he had been apart from his sister that anyone had ever given him trust.
"Warn any coming to your aid to stay away. This is the only way I know to kill a colony." She knew they had seen the plume of fire bursting from the ground and probably even felt the heat. "This will be like nothing ever felt." Her gaze leapt to Gary in the midst of the melee. Gary was valiantly fighting. It was obvious he had been around the Carpathians, and even the wicked creatures did little to shake his faith in his friends.
"She is getting torn apart," Razvan snapped. "Do as she says now."
The sight of her with the bats slicing through her arms and legs was more painful than he expected. He fought his way to her side and faced her. "Pull the pin and count."
"Cover them, Gregori," Ivory reiterated. "No one breathe. You will have to do that for Gary. If you can, get any wildlife away from here."
"Do it," Mikhail commanded.
They pulled the pins and the gas hissed into the air. Razvan didn't look at the others, only at Ivory with her brave, calm face and the wolves fighting from her back. He didn't even feel the teeth slicing deep or see the bloody carnage the bats were leaving on the snow, he only saw and felt her. She gave him a half-smile, her eyes soft as they counted and lobbed the grenades into the center of the writhing mass and both dissolved.
He knew what to expect, but still, the explosion seemed worse now that it wasn't contained in a hole in the ground. A mushroom cloud of orange rocketed into the sky. The blast rocked both of them, the force blowing them back and away. The pressure raced through their bodies, feeling like great stones weighing on their chests.
There was a feel of power to shifting, an enormous rush to battle when one was in control of one's own body. Nothing dimmed that elation, not even the exploding trees or the masses of incinerated bats raining from the sky or the stench of foul flesh burning. For the first time in his life, he really felt as if he had done something that made a difference. Because of her-Ivory. He waited while the heat streamed around them, cooking everything in its path, his mind occupied with the woman who knew so much about Xavier.
Was it possible that she might be the key to ridding the world of such a monster? Was there actually a chance? The world around him was on fire, and yet for the first time in centuries, he felt hope. The roar of the flames and the snapping and crackling of the inferno mingled with the last gasping shrieks of the hideous creatures, and he could only hear her soft whisper in his head.
Life can have unexpected high moments.
A sharing. He recognized her willingness to share a small piece of who she was with him. Her love of battle. She loved the fight, the careful study of the enemy, the planning and preparation, the rush of adrenaline when her well-trained body and brain responded like a ballet dancer performing precise, complicated steps and emerging victorious. The feelings flowed from her into him, filling him with her, with her sense of purpose, with the realization that no other knew this complicated, talented woman the way she was letting him.
That realization humbled him, yet bolstered him at the same time. He had never felt as if he could measure up. He hadn't been strong enough to defeat Xavier, or even to get away or to save his child or his aunts. This woman, his lifemate, strong and enduring, offered him, at the very least, friendship.
You are right about those unexpected moments. It was definitely an unexpected high moment. While wind generated from the blaze roared around him, while heat blasted through his body and the world went up in flames, purging the last of the mutated bats, he felt at peace. He felt whole. And he was happy.
He felt her small, shared smile and held it to him, secreting it away in his heart-the heart she had given back to him.
When you go back to your natural form, I will be singing the revealing spell. The four splinters that were removed from you will need a host, and the bats are dead. He will have fled their bodies, Ivory cautioned. He will be looking for another host. Warn Gregori to watch the rest of them.
Of course. Vigilance was everything now. This was a chance to destroy a small part of Xavier. Even if it took one piece at a time to rid the world of him, it would be well worth it.
Razvan took his natural form and signaled to the others to do the same. "She is using the revealing spell. Watch for Xavier's dark spirit," he warned them.
Ivory shimmered into her physical form, watchful, already singing the revealing chant, sending the notes scattering across the charred field and into the sky. It was still raining debris. Smoke and ash swirled together and drifted on the slight breeze. Snow drifted from the heavy clouds, mixing with the falling remains, nature already attempting to cover the signs of battle.
I call to me all that is good to aid me in my desperate plight.
I plead for the song that I may sing to reveal evil stalking the night.
Light of sky, burning bright, find that which is dark and bathe it in light.
Evil one, I call forth the blight you left behind.
Light spilled across the remnants of the battlefield, illuminating four dark shadows sliding among the dead toward the small group of Carpathians shielding Gary. Gregori threw out his hand, fingers spread wide, and lightning jumped, sizzling and cracking, toward the four fragments. Three burrowed into the ground, but the tip of the whip slashed into the fourth, incinerating it.
The ground rolled and pitched. A shriek rose. Black blood bubbled up from the ground and a noxious smell burst from the center of the ooze. The shriek rocked the trees, sent leaves trembling. Gary put his hand over his ears to muffle the hideous sound.
Gregori tried following the remaining shards with the lightning tip, sinking strike after strike into the ground, but with no results. There was no following them into the ground itself. Three small slivers would be impossible to track, and all of them knew they would eventually find their way back to Xavier.
Ivory swayed with weariness. "The dawn will break soon, Razvan. I need to rest. Do you come back with me or stay?"
It was almost a challenge, he decided, studying her face. She didn't know if she wanted him to remain with her or join the others. He touched her mind and realized she had not been in company for so long that she found the contact with him-and so many others-overwhelming.
"We would be happy to provide you with shelter," Mikhail offered. "We have several safe resting chambers."
Razvan felt Ivory instantly recoil from the idea. She trusted no one that much. She would never rest where others knew of her sleeping chamber. Razvan was her lifemate. She recognized him and yet was wary still.
"I think it best that we return to our own resting place," he said.
Ivory sent him a small grateful smile and nodded her head. "Xavier will not stop his hunt for Razvan. It is evident he has puppets in the area. I would make certain my children were protected both during the day and at night."
Sara slipped her hand into Falcon's. "We will double their protection."
Falcon clapped Gary on the back. "You look a little worse for wear. Thank you for going after Travis for us."
Ivory ducked her head, the color sweeping up her pale skin. "I did not mean to imply your friend was not valiant. I am certain he takes excellent care of your children during the daylight hours, but Xavier is desperate to find Razvan and get him back. He will need Carpathian blood. I doubt he can go long without a blood supply. No one is safe, least of all the most vulnerable."
Mikhail's piercing eyes moved over both Ivory and Razvan. "Perhaps our healer should take a look at your wounds before you leave us."
Razvan took a good look at his lifemate. There were scratches and bite marks up and down her arms; a few on her face and her legs had blood running down them. He was certain he didn't look much better. He didn't want to stay any longer. He feared his sister or daughter might come to the aid of their prince, and he had been through enough without facing them. He didn't know how he would feel or what he could possibly say to either of them, but when he looked at Ivory's weary face, he refused to be selfish. She needed care, and her needs came first.
Ivory stepped back several paces. "These are mere scratches. My lifemate can attend to them. An inconvenience only." She inclined her head, a regal gesture, toward Mikhail. "I am certain we will cross paths again."
"Please do come and meet Raven, my lifemate," Mikhail invited. "She cannot travel at the moment and will be sorry she was not here. You are truly an inspiration to our women."
Gregori cast him a smoldering look before turning to Ivory. His strange silver eyes gleamed at her as she slid back into the shadows, and she knew he recognized the sudden dangerous stillness of a warrior in her. "If you have need, lady, call and I will come. I do not give my word lightly."
I guess you might want to rethink your position on women in battle, Mikhail sent telepathically.
The women are with this one for five minutes, old friend, and it will be anarchy.
Mikhail sobered. What of Razvan?
The boy has more honor than good sense.
That boy is older than you are, Mikhail was compelled to point out.
He has suffered greatly and he is no traitor. Less so than I am. There was a small silence and Gregori lifted his silver eyes to his prince and oldest friend. When the woman, Lara, was so terrified of my eyes, I knew she had seen Xavier. We share the one lasting testimony, branded always for meddling with things best left alone.
It was an apology and they both knew it.
Mikhail clapped Gregori on the shoulder, affection in his gesture. It was long ago, as many things were, and in the end it came to good.
That is what Razvan said.
Gregori stepped close to Ivory. She didn't back away, but her eyes went as watchful and as still as her body, as if she half suspected he might attack her. He clasped her arms in the greeting of highest respect, one warrior to another. "Kulkesz arwaval-jo?esz arwa arvoval-go with glory-return with honor."
Without waiting for her hesitant reply, he gripped Razvan's forearms in the same respectful clasp. "Kulkesz arwa-arvoval, ekam-walk with honor, my brother. We have only recently learned of Xavier's existence, and probably know far less about his ways than either of you, but if you wish to pool our information, we would be grateful."
Ivory's uneasiness was more apparent to Razvan than ever. She edged away from Gregori and looked to the sky several times. Razvan took her hand and began moving a distance from the others with her.
"We will meet again," he said, knowing it was true. Right now, Ivory didn't want to face the fact that they had inadvertently become part of the Carpathian world when she had saved the child. Gregori and the others would look toward her, a warrior of their own, as an immense and invaluable vault of knowledge on their greatest enemy.
He could feel her withdrawing into herself. Her expression didn't change, but remained serene and distantly friendly. Inside she was quaking. He kept moving across the snow, leading her away from the others, making the responsibility for choosing to leave his alone. He cared nothing for what others thought. Long ago he'd learned to accept condemnation from everyone. He was the most despised Carpathian alive, worse than the vampires, and although Mikhail and Gregori chose to welcome him, he saw distrust in the eyes of the others. He didn't want nor need acceptance from them-only from Ivory.
Keep walking away from the direction of our home. The snow will cover our tracks, but anyone will be able to track the blood scent. Just up ahead, we will have to close all wounds.
Razvan almost couldn't hear past our home. His stomach tightened. Home. Our home. The idea of it was comforting and frightening at the same time. He glanced at her through the thickening snow. Her face was turned away from his. She looked ethereal striding through the snow, like an ice princess, not the warrior he knew her to be.
They stopped beneath the shelter of several large trees. The high canopy kept the snow from falling on them while they examined themselves for poisonous parasites and took a few minutes to close every wound and scratch. The ones on their legs were the worst.
"The bats are more effective attacking from the ground," Ivory explained.
Razvan glanced at her. She studiously avoided his gaze. His heart gave a funny little wrench. She was nervous. The slayer, a warrior beyond measure, was nervous being alone with him. He hadn't considered that she might be more nervous than he was.
"Xavier wanted them to bring back blood," Razvan explained. "That was his original purpose, but they were so vicious he began to expand his ideas."
When they were both finished, Ivory insisted they look one another over a second time.
"You are very thorough," he commented.
"It is how I stay alive. How we will stay alive. You have to learn if you are going to stay with me. And you are free to go, if you wish."
Her lashes lifted and she flicked him a quick gaze. He couldn't tell from her expression whether she hoped he'd choose to go. He shook his head. "I will stay, and Ivory, have no fear, I am a quick learner. I can play dumb if need be, but I am not."
"I have kept my lair safe for hundreds of years, even when I was slowly carving out the passageways. There are no traces of anyone around or near my resting place. I do not hunt close by. I never leave tracks. I am careful there is no scent. I do not go out every night. I live quietly and avoid people as much as possible." She looked at him, for the first time meeting his eyes. "When I do go out it is for one purpose only: to gather information on Xavier. If it takes a hundred lifetimes, I will find a way to destroy him."
He nodded his head. "I understand."
"I am not certain you do. It is my sole purpose for existing. I care nothing for society. I do not want friends. I do not know how to be civil other than for the purpose of obtaining information. Are you prepared for that?"
A slow smile welled up from the pit of his stomach and settled on his mouth. He saw her catch her breath, and then she looked away from him.
"I do not have friends, nor will society welcome me. I have more reason than any other to want to destroy Xavier."
"If you truly want to learn from me, then heed this. You cannot let this become personal. It is a duty, a sacred duty. You must pray and meditate until you are absolutely certain that you are on the right path. Will you give me your word of honor that you will do that?"
Razvan waited until she looked at him. "You have my word. Let us go home." He dissolved before she could find another reason to protest.
She led the way, choosing a route high enough that they were a part of the dark clouds moving in silence across the sky.
Razvan took note of the landmarks, the rising mountains, the lakes and streams and surrounding countryside. The snow was dazzling white, the air crisp and clean, refreshing after so many centuries of smelling blood and death, yet the wide-open spaces were disorienting. His life had been underground, confined to a small prison room unless Xavier was using his body.
Ivory's voice interrupted his thoughts. We are coming up on the lair. Always approach it from a variety of directions, never the same one. Scan carefully. Better to sleep elsewhere for one night than lose our fortress to the enemy. There is a warning system in place. I have to reprogram it to allow you entrance. This system is made of gems, Ivory explained. I called the gems and asked for aid. Once I embedded them in rock, each about three feet apart, zigzagging down the crack, from one side to the other, the gems not only bring light to the lair, but they act as a warning system for me. She hesitated and then corrected herself. For us.
He felt the rightness of her words, joining them together, but also the reluctance, as if she couldn't quite get around the fact that they were meant to be lifemates.
The safeguard is actually the way the gems work. They measure the weight of my molecules, with the wolves on me of course, as I am drifting down through the crack. If the weight is too heavy, or too light, the crack would close below and stop the intruder. If I am in the lair, I would hear the rocks closing and could prepare for an attack. Nothing can penetrate the rock from below us or either side-it is too thick. Not even the worms can drill through. In order to carry you in, I had to change it once already, and it was difficult with the sun so close on my heels.
How was I able to get out?
It only works in one direction; a warning system is not needed in both. I would not keep anyone a prisoner. Again there was that slight hesitation. In truth I have never thought to bring anyone down here.
He thought it best to ignore her nervousness, and he did not have to feign his interest in her system. It was as unique and brilliant as the inventor. He waited while she disappeared into the crack and added a few more of her gems. The light worked much like an ancient mirror system, one prism working off another. He realized she used the gems for her weapons as well, that her experiments were sophisticated.
It is safe for you to come and go as you please.
Ivory floated down, avoiding the light spreading slowly across the sky, screened by the now-heavy snow. Once she hit the living chamber, the wolves leapt from her back and padded after her to the bed of soil.
"I do not do well, even under the ground, when the sun has risen." Again Ivory appeared uneasy. "I spent too many years in the soil trying to heal."
"I spent many lifetimes in the ice caves," Razvan assured, watching her curl up, the wolves surrounding her. He waited for an invitation.
Ivory gestured toward the side of the large basin. "There is plenty of room."
He envied the wolves pressed close to her, but said nothing, knowing she was being more than generous. He closed his eyes and allowed the breath to leave his body, his heart to slow and then stop while the soil poured over them like a living blanket. It was the first time he could clearly remember being totally relaxed and infinitely happy.