The vampire jerked the remaining arrows from his body and tossed them contemptuously onto the floor. "So be it," Sergey said and thrust his sword straight toward her stomach.
Ivory parried, jumping to the side. Too late she realized the vampire had deliberately driven her away from Razvan. She lunged back, but Sergey struck again, slicing through Razvan's leg a second time, the cut deep enough to go through bone. Her blade raced toward the vampire's skull, but he dissolved and materialized across the room.
Stop thinking about me and fight him the way you always fight.
In the moment that Razvan spoke, every agonizing stroke of the blade flooded back to her, as the vampires chopped her into pieces much the same way Sergey was doing to Razvan. Methodically. Relentlessly. Mercilessly.
Do not try to save me. Think only of killing him.
I cannot defeat him. He was a great warrior. He taught me to fight. He is a master vampire. Even our strongest hunters rarely can defeat them alone.
Who better than you to fight him? You know his every move before he makes it. You have changed over the centuries. He will be expecting that young woman he taught, not the seasoned warrior you have become. He is preying on your emotions. Do not be tricked by one such as he. You are a great warrior, and you, better than any other, can defeat him.
Around them the house began to shake, the walls undulating and breaking apart so that debris rained down on the vampire. Ivory knew Razvan couldn't move with his agonizing, mortal wounds, but was buying her time to regroup, using what remaining energy he had, not to attempt to burrow into the ground, but rather to use his powers to aid her.
Ivory took a deep breath and let it out. Razvan may have been inexperienced, but he had the heart and soul of a warrior-like she did. Never had she seen another warrior so courageous, so stoic. She took another deep breath and let it out, allowing a mantle of calm to settle over her. Razvan was right. She could not allow her feelings to interfere with her primary job. She was a warrior first, a woman second.
She forced herself to look only at the vampire-to see only the vampire. As long as she could keep Sergey focused on her and away from Razvan, she might be able to keep her lifemate alive and slay the vampire. What weapons could be used against this master? Vanity was the one trait that not only all the undead shared, but her brothers in particular.
She changed her appearance subtly, very slowly, softening her features to take on a younger, more girlish look-as in the old days, long before the centuries had passed, when her brothers had loved and cherished her more than their own egos.
Sergey lifted his sword and touched it to his forehead in a mock salute, allowing her to see Razvan's blood running down the blade to the hilt. The ruby drops coated his hand and, with his gaze locked with hers, he licked at the blood.
Her stomach knotted, but she tilted her head to one side and laughed, a taunting, tinkling sound, like that of a young, giddy girl. "You have grown old, Sergey. I thought with all your intelligence and experience, you would become, at the very least, a master vampire, one so powerful it would take our strongest hunters to ban together to defeat you. Yet here you are, struggling to vanquish a woman, your baby sister."
His eyes glowed with fire. She could actually see tiny flames burning in the dark depths. She had been correct in thinking the way to shake him was through his enormous ego. Sergey swung the sword at her neck, slicing through the air with such force that when she ducked and ran her own sword into his side, the momentum from his swing actually carried him away from her. He screamed, the sound a mixture of pain and rage.
The floor erupted beneath her feet, splintering, so that she nearly fell through. But thanks to her many lessons from her brothers, she was dancing out of the way of the falling floorboards. She could smell the rich soil beckoning from the various holes in the floor.
"Oh dear, you have gotten slow, haven't you? You are nothing more than a weak, withered shadow of your former self. In the days past, one look from you would have crushed me, let alone the might of your sword, but now you play games like the puny coward you are, the way a shriveled and fading old man might play chess with trembling fingers and a mind forgetting the moves."
Can you bring the rest of the roof down on him? she asked Razvan, hating for him to use up his strength, but needing a distraction.
Of course. There was no hesitation, but she was beginning to know Razvan and his iron will. He wouldn't hesitate, no matter the cost to him.
The roof crumbled with a thunderous roar, the wood and dirt once more falling on Sergey's head and shoulders. It wasn't nearly as effective as the first time, but it bought her the seconds she needed. Ivory tossed the sword to the ground beside Razvan's hand and jerked out the small, handmade laser. It was powered by a diamond she'd cut herself.
Sergey dissolved to avoid the wood and dirt raining from the roof as the house shook apart. He materialized just behind Ivory, but three wooden boards with jagged points came hurtling at him with breakneck speed, forcing him to dissolve again. Each time he flowed past Razvan the blade sliced another deep cut. Ivory timed him this time, letting loose a blast of white-hot energy that did some slicing of its own. The blade of light didn't cut all the way through his skull, but the letter T was very prominent.
Black blood splattered across the crumbling walls. A foul stench filled the air, as if a corpse was rotting from the inside out.
"The stamp of a traitor. Wear it proudly. It will not come off." Ivory inclined her head, the princess acknowledging something crawling beneath her feet. She ran toward him, firing the crossbow rapidly, the arrows running up his body and preventing him from shifting, giving her a straight line up his chest to the wizened heart.
Thin lips peeled back in a snarl, Sergey sprang to meet her, ripping at one of the arrows and slamming it home just over her heart as she plunged her fist into his chest. As her hand burrowed deep, his intestines wrapped around her fist and wrist, sawing away at her skin, opening deep lacerations, allowing the poisonous vampire blood to pour inside the wounds.
Sergey stood toe to toe with her, the black holes that were his eyes staring mercilessly down into her eyes. He twisted and dragged the arrow out of her body and plunged it in a second time. "Feel that?" he hissed. "Dear sister. Beloved sister. This is how much I love you. I will bring you to our side. We will rule the earth soon and you will be part of us, one with us. I do this for you."
The tone was very much that of the brother she had lost, but his face was a mask of evil, his eyes two hot coals glowing deep ruby-red. His breath was fetid in her face, burning her skin, singeing her eyebrows. She tried to keep her hand moving forward to find the shriveled heart, but the cuts were too deep and she was in danger of losing her hand. Gritting her teeth, she pushed harder, trying to move through those heavy muscles to gain the heart.
Sergey slammed his fist into her chest, intending to drive not only the arrow deep into her heart, but his own hand, using his strength and speed to outrace her for her heart. For a moment the crosses coated in holy water burned through his hand, straight to the bone so that he howled and screamed in rage, spittle running from his mouth. He flung back his head, enduring the pain, trying to push past that holy line of defense.
A flame burst from the sky above them, a fiery blast that slammed hard into Sergey's back. The vampire was driven forward onto Ivory's arm. Her fingers scraped the edge of the withered organ. Elated, she ignored the agony as the razor-sharp bands tightened around her hand and wrist and dug deeper.
Sergey screamed, the sound blowing apart the rest of the house, reducing the wood to spears, hundreds of them flying through the air from every direction at both Razvan and Ivory. With his last remaining strength, Razvan threw a barrier around Ivory's back and the top of her head to prevent penetration of the sharp spears. Half a dozen drove through his body, staking him to the floor.
Sergey swept Ivory's legs out from under her. She went down hard, slipping in the pools of blood covering the floor. Sergey staggered back, his face a twisted mask of hatred. Before he could slam his fist deep into her chest, she surged to her feet, leaping in the very motion Sergey had taught her as a young child.
Ivory smiled at him, deliberately locking her gaze with his as he had when he'd licked at Razvan's blood. She knew there was a gaping hole in her chest where he'd tried to reach her heart. Blood dripped steadily, yet she taunted him with a smile. She took a step and went down on one knee, still holding his gaze, watching his eyes narrow, watching the cruel thoughts move through his mind. Keeping their gazes locked, she drove her hand and wrist deep into the welcoming soil. She knew the soil intimately, knew the healing properties. She had lain companion to the minerals and elements for a hundred years.
She whispered to the earth in the ancient language, the language she knew better than any other, a language close to the earth.
Ema Maye, en, lanad, omasak Teteh. Jalleen jamaak-Mother Earth, your daughter stands before you wounded once again.
Maye mayed-Earth to earth.
Siv sived-Heart to heart.
Me juttaak elidaban es kalmaban-We are bound together in life and death.
Pusmasz ainam, juttad lihad-Heal this body, bring together this flesh.
Te magkoszunam, sivam sivadet-I give thanks from my heart to yours.
She continued, her voice rising and falling with the ebb and flow of the earth's blood.
Twist this root, break and bend, Fit the wood to my hand. Hone the edges, make them sharp, To pierce deep within that which is aged and dark. I name you need, fit to my will, Your making is to stop the evil that would kill.
Sergey came at her as she had known he would, believing her distracted by her wounds, muttering to herself beneath her breath. As he bent toward her, she jerked her hand from beneath the soil, newly healed, all traces of the deep lacerations gone. In her fist was a root, twisted and sharpened to the finest blade, honed down to the finest ice pick, and in one smooth, easy move, she thrust it up and straight into his left eye.
He slammed his fist into her throat, knocking her back and down as he whirled away from her. As he came down he viciously kicked at Razvan's head. Razvan was already wielding the heavy sword, swinging it in a brutal cut at the vampire's calf. Sergey barely moved his leg in time to avoid most of the blade. The edge caught him enough to cut into his tendon. The vampire leapt into the air to escape another blow.
Coming down in a fighting crouch, her weapon already blazing, Ivory added another letter in the word traitor to his forehead. The laser cut the R so deep it dug into the skull itself.
"Before we are finished here, you will bear the mark of the traitor for our brothers to know that they taught me well. They will be amused that you could not dispatch a woman, your sister-child, so easily," she taunted.
Vampires were vain creatures, especially master vampires. Her brothers had always had large egos, believing they would do a better job ruling the Carpathian people than the prince and a better job of protecting the prince than the Daratrazanoff lineage. He knew when word of his defeat, of the damage done to his body, reached his siblings, he would be the laughingstock of the entire vampire world.
As if knowing it was all true, Razvan laughed, the sound low and taunting, echoing through the surrounding fields and sky.
Sergey shrieked, furious, blood and spittle erupting from his mouth. "You are already dead, weak one. You think I do not know how you crawled on the ground like a dog, following after Xavier for his scraps? You are less than a worm and deserve to die writhing in agony. You pathetic weakling. She will die a hideous death before she joins you in the afterlife."
Ivory put every ounce of contempt she had into her voice. "I will go to my lifemate and live in bliss while you walk through the fires of hell, snarling and spitting and crying like a child for blood. You are nothing, the undead, fodder for our brothers who laugh at your weakness and point fingers at your ineptness."
Sputtering with rage, Sergey clapped his hands together and his voice boomed like thunder, sounding as if it came from a great distance away, and surrounding her, echoing from the sky and coming up from beneath her feet.
Remove all sound from her throat! Quiet the words that would be spoke.
Ivory instantly felt the effects, her throat closing, so that even when she opened her mouth, no sound emerged.
He is using a spell Xavier often used on his underlings when he was tired of their questions. He is even using Xavier's voice, Razvan told her. It is effective in frightening them into obedience because his apprentices believe he is powerful enough to remove their voices permanently.
Ivory threw her hands into the air and double-time clapped.
Sound abound. Thoughts race by. Air to lungs, let my voice cry.
She could immediately breathe better, and the air hissed from her mouth in blessed sound.
She replaced Sergey's spell with one of her own, turning his words back on him, although she knew it was temporary and wouldn't last long.
I call to the power deep within, Remove the sound, quiet the din. Take away that which is harmful, seal it tight, Remove the offending orifice from my sight.
When Sergey tried to open his mouth, it was no longer there-a thick scar tissue of skin had grown over the opening, sealing it closed so that he couldn't speak. His face was blank from his nose down. His eyes, widened in alarm, spit venomous hatred at her. The arrows in his chest fell to the ground, eaten through by his acid blood. He lifted his hands and electricity arced from his fingers, leaping at her.
Ivory dodged sideways, firing more arrows, using the same straight up-and-down pattern as before, marking the line over his heart. The hair on her body stood up as the electricity sizzled and snapped, but when the vampire snapped it like a whip, hurling the energy across the room at her, the force struck an invisible barrier and followed a vapor trail back to lash at Sergey.
Ivory made a second try for the heart, smashing her fist deep, but Sergey turned to the side, catching her wrist and snapping the bone, flinging her from him. As he followed her down, Razvan yanked a spear from his leg with his only hand, impaling Sergey as the force of his momentum carried the undead right onto the spear.
It missed his heart by inches, tearing through his gut. Sergey yanked the pole free and hurtled it at Razvan with vicious force. The warrior knocked it aside with the edge of his hand and retaliated with a weak sweep of the sword.
"You will be known to the vampire world as he who has no voice. They will ridicule you for all time, long centuries should you survive, because a woman defeated you along with her pathetic dog of a lifemate."
Sergey's eyes widened, spun, his nostrils flaring, black blood pouring from his wounds as he nearly exploded in his anger. He threw his arms out wide and energy surged, blowing out the remaining walls. The heavily laden clouds overhead spun and churned, twisting into a long thick spear of lethal ice.
Sergey ripped the arrows from his chest and dissolved, streaming away from them, leaving behind droplets of acid blood. Everywhere the blood fell, it burned through the wood and flooring of the farmer's house.
Ivory took to the air after him. Across the sky, storm clouds gathered in force, lightning rimming the edges, turning the once clear sky an ominous gray. The clouds boiled with activity, bursting upward like mushrooms exploding. The ice spear moved away from her, lightning sparking from its tip as it traveled across the sky.
Sergey must have sealed off his wounds, because the droplets ceased almost immediately. She could give chase, follow that telling spear. He was wounded, yes, but he wasn't really in such bad shape, and without Razvan to aid her, she wouldn't fare nearly as well. The spell would wear off fast and Sergey would have his fangs back and a burning need for revenge. In the meantime, she would lose Razvan, if she hadn't already.
"Choose who lives and who dies!" Sergey's voice boomed across the sky.
The sound waves burst through her, nearly knocking her backward. Rage poured over her, filling the sky, squeezing hard on her chest. Obviously the spell wore off faster than she'd hoped.
"Give chase. Follow me, little sister, and you may have a chance to save the puny mortals and their disgusting whelps. If not I will kill and feed on them as well as your precious wolf pack. Follow me and your dog of a lifemate dies if he is not already gone from this world. Choose. And live with the choosing."
Ivory reached out to her wolf pack. They were carrying the two children and the two adults across the miles of rugged terrain on their backs, racing toward Mikhail's home deep in the mountains. The pass was still open, but with the terrible storm brewing, she doubted if it would be for long. If they were forced to take a longer route through the upper mountains, they would be at a disadvantage as Sergey streaked across the sky to intercept them.
The vampire is after you. Call to the prince. Call to the hunters. I cannot aid you. She sent the warning to her beloved brothers and sisters. It was all she could do, she realized with a sinking heart. She could not allow Razvan to die.
There was a stirring in her mind. Weak. Flickering. Save the children.
She refused to argue, to answer. She would not let Razvan die. Ivory turned back, circling the farm once to make certain there was no feel of danger before she dropped down into the remains of what once had been a snug house. There was blood and flesh and bone, splintered walls and mud and debris. There was Razvan lying on the floor in a pool of blood, his arm and hand a distance away.
Ivory returned the pieces to his body. Five spears remained in his body, along with a large hole where the sixth had been. She drew a deep, shuddering breath. His sides heaved as he tried to drag in air. His eyes were closed, and all wound sites were sealed, although there was enough blood on the floor to make her think it was too late to seal anything off.
I need to know that you live. His voice came into her head from far away. Heal your wounds quickly so I can leave you in peace.
"You cannot go. I will not allow it. I mean it, Razvan, you must live." She bent close to him so that her breath was warm against his cold skin. "I need you. Do you hear me? I need you. You must live for me."
Remove the spears.
"I know they hurt, Razvan, but you will die if I do. Give me a minute."
I am already dead.
"No, you cannot think that way." Ivory knelt beside Razvan, pulling his head into her lap. She bent low over him again. "Listen to me. You cannot go from this life. We have not done what we know is possible together."
You ask the impossible.
She switched to telepathic communication, as it was easier for him. I asked it of myself first. I know how difficult it is when no one else does. I know what I ask, know what I demand of you, of my lifemate. If you go, we go together. Bind us. Bind us now. It will give me what I need to save you.
Razvan didn't open his eyes. His hand moved in hers, the fingers slippery with blood. You wish me to live through this?
We can defeat Xavier. We must defeat him. Bind us together. I will lead you now and follow you in the years to come. Bind us now, before you are gone from me.
Ivory forced back the burning tears, the terrible weight in her chest and the feel of her own wounds so little in comparison. He had to want her enough to live. Had to want to defeat Xavier enough. His will, so strong, had to match her own. Warriors, after so many centuries of loneliness, often embraced death. They could rest at long last, but she wasn't giving him up without a fight.
Razvan moved in her mind, searching. Whatever he found there, he came to a decision, even knowing the agony he would suffer. I can think of no other I have met in my lifetime who I would rather have. If you accept me . . .
Absolutely I do. Time was running out. He had lost too much blood. He had cauterized the wounds, so many, as Sergey sliced him into pieces, making his body a patchwork imitation of hers. But the blood loss was severe.
You are certain you wish to bind your life to mine with all it entails?
She answered without hesitation. I am.
So be it. His voice strengthened. You are my lifemate. I claim you as my lifemate. I belong to you. I offer my life for you. I give you my protection. I give you my allegiance. I give you my heart. I give you my soul. I give you my body. I take into my keeping the same that is yours. Your life will be cherished by me for all my time. Your life will be placed above my own for all time. You are my lifemate. You are bound to me for all eternity. You are always in my care. He opened his eyes and looked into hers. Te avio palafertiilam.
Ivory felt the threads binding them together. The two halves of their souls merged as one. She pressed a kiss to his forehead, her voice a soft whisper. "I accept with my heart and soul your offer. I take your soul. I take your body. I take your heart. You are one with me. I take you into my keeping and bind you for all eternity with my strength and will and our combined determination. Te avio palafertiilam-you are my lifemate and I refuse to allow you to leave this world. Let your soul dwell within mine."
Razvan closed his eyes with his impossibly long lashes. A small satisfied smile curved his mouth. I have given myself to you, lifemate. Do what you must.
Long ago, when Xavier and Draven had sentenced her to die a horrendous death, it was not only her Carpathian blood and body, driven to repair itself and heal in the soil, that had saved her. It was a combination of those things, along with her will and Xavier's teachings. Xavier would have torn out his hair had he known how she had taken so many of his hexes and made them her own, putting her faith of a higher power into the weaving of each spell, twisting the curse into something for good.
This will hurt as much or more than the worst torture Xavier thought to put you through. Let yourself drift away, your soul and spirit in my safekeeping. She tried to warn him, choking back a sob. She knew from experience what she was asking to put him through.
She wept when she felt the flickering of warmth move through her mind, his life spirit a flickering dim light she now held in her soul. She began the work of removing all parasites from his body before closing off each wound and cauterizing it. All the while she worked, she switched between the Carpathian healing chant, and the healing spell she had used on herself when asking Mother Earth to aid her.
I call upon the power of earth, she who creates us all. Hear my call, Mother.
I ask for clear sight-the ability to see that which seeks not to be seen.
Guide me, Mother. Take my hands make them your own.
Use them to mend that which has been broken, torn.
Guide me, Mother. Provide rest and healing to a tortured soul.
Embrace him, Mother. Heal him of all injuries. Guide him, Mother.
I call upon the higher power. Use me as your vessel. See through my eyes.
Look into my soul. Use me as a tool. Guard us great one. Take us into your care. Nurture us as you would a child. Guide us with your knowledge.
So that we may arise once again to fight.
Her voice rose and fell as she called to the powers who had aided her centuries earlier in her need, rocking back and forth, heedless of her own wounds, caring only that Razvan, her lifemate, was spared.
Mikhail Dubrinsky, prince of the Carpathian people, heard the call of wolves long before they reached his house deep in the forest. Gregori. He summoned his second-in-command and best friend. I have urgent need of you. Hunters, heed my call. I have urgent need of you. He sent the command out on the common Carpathian telepathic pathway, summoning all who were close.
Safeguarding his home, Mikhail took to the air to intercept the wolf pack. They were still miles away, but the distress in their calls was profound. He sped through the thick canopy of trees, sending his senses out before him, trying to discern the danger following the wolf pack.
There was blood on the wind, and a foul stench that could only be attributed to the undead. Rotting flesh and poison. Humans.
Wait for me, Gregori demanded. I am but a few minutes behind you. It could be a trap.
I feel children. Blood. Terror. The wolves are calling. Which meant he wasn't waiting.
As Mikhail flew, another owl came up on his right, a second on his left. He identified both. Natalya, sister to Razvan, and her lifemate, Vikirnoff. Neither asked questions as they raced across the night sky with him toward the calling wolf pack. Overhead the storm clouds thickened, rolling and churning-boiling with anger. Flecks of white-hot energy lit up the edges of the cloud formations. Ice rained down, sharp spears meant to slow the fleeing pack.
Vampire, Mikhail identified. He pursues the wolf pack and whatever they guard. He was already moving with blurring speed, and he pushed himself, forging ahead of the other two ancient warriors.
Mikhail. Gregori hissed a warning. We do not know what we face.
I believe it is clear enough. Mikhail ignored the rumblings of his bodyguard and slipped lower in the trees as the ice began to penetrate even the thick canopy.
A wolf howled, a child cried out. A woman screamed. Mikhail could hear them clearly now.
"Go, take the children. Leave us. You will travel faster," a man's voice rang out. "We'll try to slow him down."
The pack gave voice again, whether in protest or agreement, Mikhail couldn't guess. The wind rose to a howling shriek, blasting through the trees with hurricane force, uprooting several trees. As the large trunks struck other trees, they fell in a domino effect, pointing like an arrow in the direction the wolf pack had gone.
The force of the biting cold wind flung the three Carpathians back through the sky and into the path of the falling ice. Mikhail felt a sharp point pierce his arm and he dissolved instantly, although the wind pushed him farther from the pack. The storm increased in strength, dumping huge amounts of snow from the sky until the ice was so thick and dangerous they could not continue forward in the air.
Drop down, we will have to run to meet them from the ground.
Gregori growled at him, this time much closer. Vikirnoff said nothing at all as his prince hit the ground running, but he moved into a better position to protect the man. Natalya paced just behind him, watching their back-trail.
This wolf pack is unusual, Vikirnoff ventured. They are using the ancient path of telepathic communication to call for aid. And they call us, not other wolves.
These have to be the wolves that travel with Ivory Malinov, Mikhail explained.
He had, of course, given the news to Natalya that her twin brother was alive and had escaped at long last from Xavier. He, along with Gregori, had informed her of everything that had happened, and of Gregori's firm belief that Razvan's crimes had been committed when Xavier either possessed his body or his mind. The news of both Ivory and Razvan's appearance, and that they were lifemates, had spread through the entire Carpathian community.
He knew they were all suspicious of Razvan, particularly Vikirnoff, who had shielded Natalya so many times from her brother in the past. She had suffered emotionally, finally accepting the loss of her brother, and now both were distressed. He could only give his opinion that Razvan had been wronged these years, and was not the criminal and traitor the Carpathian world believed him to be-but he knew they would all have to make up their own minds about the man.
I do not sense a Carpathian traveling with them, man or woman. Vikirnoff kept exact pace with the prince, shielding him as they moved in and out among the snow-laden trees. How can the wolves understand and call to us? How is it they can carry such heavy burdens on their backs and run with such speed?
It appears they are Carpathian. Mikhail had no explanation for how that had come to be, but he knew Ivory had one. If she had converted the wolves, it had been a dangerous venture. Intelligent wolves craving human blood could be the biggest nightmare of all-especially if they bred. He would have to weigh the fate of that pack.
The ice rained down, but the group was at least afforded some shelter from the vicious wind and the stabbing icicles by the twisted branches overhead. Vikirnoff added a protective buffer, weaving the branches tighter so they formed a tunnel.
They carry humans on their backs, Natalya said.
Her heart pounded hard. A part of her was desperate to see her brother, desperate to believe he wasn't the monster she'd come to believe him to be, but the sane half of her whispered that none of the rumors could be true. As she ran with her lifemate and the prince, she found herself praying.
Beneath their feet the ground rolled. The weight of the heavy snow toppled a large tree, the roots springing up from the ground, forming a tangled barrier.
The vampire delays us, Mikhail said. Gregori, swing around to the north. Come in from the other side with Falcon. His goal seems to be to reach the wolf pack before us. He must mean to slay the humans, but for what purpose I have no idea.
I am put on this earth to guard my prince, not save the lives of mortals we do not know.
Mikhail sighed. You grow more stubborn with each passing year, old friend. Vikirnoff is guarding your helpless chick. Come in from the north. Direct the others to come in from the other side. And stop giving me trouble.
Gregori gave the equivalent of a telepathic snort. I would not count on that happening anytime soon. The vampire races to close the pass. You cannot be caught on the ground if that should happen.
It will not happen, because you will be stopping him. There was every confidence in Mikhail's voice.
You do not ask for much.
No. A chance to practice and hone your fading skills.
Gregori's amusement burst over Mikhail as the prince increased his speed. It felt good to be a warrior instead of a ruler, rushing through the forest in answer to a call of distress. His muscles stretched and contracted, and his body rejoiced in the exercise, running tirelessly, weaving in and out of the trees.
Overhead, a thick ice spear burst across the sky, shattering clouds of ice and snow, raining glittering sparks of gold and silver down on the trees as it arced above them and then fell toward earth out of sight. Everywhere the sparks touched, the trees froze, turning a ghastly white, the color spreading like a disease along branches and needles, down the trunks to the ground itself, where the forest floor buckled under the icy pressure.
The heaving ground cracked, jagged fissures opening, so they were forced to leap over the widening cracks as they ran. Sharp ice towers erupted from the ground. Trees cracked and splintered as the spreading cold snapped brittle branches.
Where's it coming from? Mikhail demanded. We have to find the source.
He is trying to slow down the wolf pack, Gregori hissed. I have heard, but never seen, an ice spear that freezes everything in its immediate vicinity. You must be close to it. Break off and deal with it, and I will find the pack.
We're too close to the pack, Gregori, closer than you are. You're better equipped to work your magic against an ice spear capable of freezing a forest. Break off and go after it.
Not on your life. Send Falcon. Nothing is going to stop me from fighting at your side.
For one, I am supposed to command. You do not listen to my orders.
Was that an order? I didn't hear an order in there anywhere. I've sent Falcon to deal with the ice spear.
Mikhail found himself laughing again. It was impossible to be frustrated with Gregori; he'd known him too many years, and Gregori's primary job would always be to see to the safety of the prince. He was still smarting from Razvan shoving a knife to Mikhail's throat. There hadn't been nearly as much danger as it appeared, but Gregori still didn't like that Razvan had gotten close to the prince.
The wolf pack raised their voices again and he lifted his head and answered as he raced over the frozen river. With each step they took, more jagged ice towers erupted, so they were forced to dodge as they ran, but Mikhail could feel the strength of the attack weakening. The vampire was close to the pack and wanted to direct his energy there. Not knowing what the wolves were capable of, Mikhail redoubled his efforts to reach them, taking to the air, avoiding the higher skies where the icicles could hinder them.
He caught sight of the running pack as they came around a bend in the river, streaks of silver with the burden of humans on their back, running tirelessly toward them on the ice. One child was slumped over the alpha's body, and blood streaked his thick fur. Out of the corner of his eyes, Mikhail saw a massive black cloud moving fast across the sky toward the wolves.
Get into the trees. Get off the river and away from the open, he warned.
Vikirnoff actually swerved into him before he could turn toward the riverbank, packed high with snow. Mikhail shot him a quelling look as he streaked through the trees toward the running pack. The two alphas with the children made it into the thick trees. Mikhail caught the little girl as Raja skidded to a halt beside him, tongue lolling, sides heaving. The vampire had bitten into the child's neck and had not closed the wound.
Natalya dropped to her knees beside the girl. "Can you save her?"
The moment the two alphas were relieved of their burdens, they whirled around and raced back to defend the rest of their pack. The first strike hit perilously close to the wolf carrying the adult farmer. Blaez didn't even try to swerve. He ran steadily in a straight line toward the Carpathians.
Vikirnoff stepped out of the trees and faced the raging vampire. While Natalya and the prince worked to save the life of the little girl, he streaked toward the spinning black cloud. Gregori burst into view, coming up on the vampire's right, slamming bolt after bolt of lightning at the undead. Caught in the crossfire between two experienced hunters, already wounded, Sergey retreated, thrusting one last bolt of energy toward his ice spear, hoping to destroy the ground beneath the prince, wolf pack and humans.
Falcon struck at that exact moment, sending a fiery blast of heat through the brittle spear, shattering it, obliterating its potency.
Gregori! Mikhail called back the hunter. Do not give chase. The wolf pack says we are needed at the farmer's home. Ivory and Razvan had been fighting the vampire. The fact that he escaped them bodes ill. Natalya, escort the family to safety with Falcon and see to it that the child is well cared for at the inn. Ask Slavica, the innkeeper, to put them up for me. She will take good care of them.
I wish to go with you to see my brother.
I need you to do this for me. If the vampire doubles back, they will need the added protection.
Natalya hesitated, and then touched her lifemate's mind. Tell me the truth, Vikirnoff. Does he need me for this task, or is he trying to protect me from what you might find?
Vikirnoff, Mikhail and Gregori were already in the sky, moving quickly toward the farmhouse, while the wolf pack circled back, running across the snow-laden ground.
He worries. The undead is a master vampire. Look at the havoc he has wrought on the earth. The wolf pack worries for Ivory. I feel their fear and Mikhail, as prince of our people, feels it doubly.
Natalya sighed. It is done then. She waited for Falcon to lift the two adults and she took the children, whispering a command to ease their fears as they raced for the village.
It seemed an endless journey to Mikhail. He felt the tear in the fabric of his people. The injuries were great. He knew Gregori, a healer of tremendous skill, would not fail to feel the agony the two fallen fighters were experiencing. The fact that the energy was not concealed told all of the Carpathians what shape to expect Ivory and Razvan to be in.
Still, none of them were prepared for the horror of that sight. The farmhouse was a pile of rubbish. It looked as if a massacre had taken place, a slaughter. Blood was everywhere, and in the midst of it all sat Ivory, her wounds massive, yet she sought to heal the man lying in her lap. Two spears still remained in his body, while four lay broken and bloody a distance from him. His body was hacked nearly to pieces, with his arm in segments.
As they neared, it appeared as if Razvan was still breathing and Ivory's voice sang the healing chant softly, interspersed with another song none of them had heard before.
This cannot be, Gregori whispered in awe. He cannot still live. No one could live through that. He listened to the ebb and flow of Ivory's voice, melodic and tuned to the very heartbeat of the earth.
Mother, dear Mother, I plead with thee now. Daughter to mother, heal me and mine somehow. I am his light, he is my warrior strong. Challenged and scarred, he stood alone so long. Mother, I beg you to look deep within, try to see My soul gives light to his darkness, setting him free. Lifemates we are, two halves of a whole. Standing united, fighting evil, aged and old. Mother, dear Mother, hold us close in your arms. Provide us with shelter, with healing, hold off all harm. Mother, please bring balance, darkness to light Allow us to live, go forward to fight.
Ivory sang the words in the ancient tongue, the notes moving in and out of the rippling earth, twining with the ebb and flow of the sap in the trees and the heartbeat that was the earth itself. As she sang, the soil moved over their bodies, as if a living blanket, or the tide itself, always in motion, pouring over and around them, flowing into their wounds and encasing them in rich, black loam.