Authors: Christine Feehan
Tags: #Fiction, #Paranormal, #Horror, #Vampires, #Love Stories, #Occult & Supernatural, #Occult fiction, #Fantasy, #Romance
It was, too. The walls were veined with minerals and crystals. Candles of all sizes were everywhere. The pool looked inviting. The air smelled fresh and soothing. Beyond the chamber she was in, she could see a bedroom of sorts set up quite like a room in an aboveground home. Clearly Nicolas had tried to provide a tranquil, safe place to rest.
"The safeguards are in place. They are the newest patterns to keep out enemies trained in our ways. You will be safe. If you have need of me, you have only to reach out," Nicolas said. "I will hear you."
"How is it possible we can communicate the way we do?" Lara asked curiously. "We aren't using the telepath common to all Carpathians. I thought that was established with a blood bond. You took my blood, but I didn't take yours."
He was more than aware of that fact. Need roared in his ears, thundered through his heart, surged through his veins and pounded painfully in his groin in hot demand. He took a breath to keep his body relaxed, his mind calm when the primitive side of him wanted dominance. "You are my lifemate and I have bound us together. The rest will come in the right time."
"And if it doesn't?"
He shrugged. "Then we do not survive this life and will go to the next to try again."
She watched his large frame waver into transparency, and then fade away until he was nothing but mist streaming from the chamber. Only then did she realize she was holding her breath. She stood and stretched, trying to get her tight muscles to relax. She shouldn't be relieved to be here, she should be angry. Nicolas had taken her away from her friends without her consent, but if she was being honest, she couldn't breathe in that room. She couldn't think clearly there. She wasn't a strong enough healer to rid Terry of the parasites. Without her present, the Carpathians would call in more of their kind and Terry would have a better chance.
She sighed, knowing they would erase her friends' memories to keep them safe, but it was the only way. And maybe that was why her aunts had erased her memories, or at least sealed them up. She took off her clothes and folded them neatly, setting them on top of a flat rock before wading out into the hot mineral pool to ease the tension from her body. Water enveloped her thighs, chasing away the chill of bad memories.
Lara swam across the warm bubbling pool, aware of the instant relief of her headache and the terrible knots of tension in her neck. She sighed, lay back and closed her eyes.
* * *
Nicolas circled the forest with a lazy flap of his wings. He had shifted into the form of an owl, better to travel the distance faster. He still had much to do. It was imperative to speak with the prince and deliver the message he had traveled so far to bring. He took his time in the air. For the first time in hundreds of years, he enjoyed the incredible sensation of flying, rather than taking it for granted.
The feel of gently falling snow, the sway to the trees as the breeze whispered through them, even the scent of the crisp air, all brought joy to him as he spiraled down to the forest floor to the appointed meeting place. He had contacted the prince to insure Lara's human male friend was still alive and arranged a meeting with Mikhail while he was there. He had chosen the forest because the Carpathian Mountains had a special magic.
As he shifted, his boots sinking into the icy crystals and layers of vegetation beneath, he felt the instant connection to the earth. His species were of the earth, needing the richness of the soil for rest and rejuvenation. They felt a kinship with the plants and tall majestic trees. The animals and birds were brothers in nature and Nicolas drank his surroundings in, allowing himself to be overwhelmed emotionally by the ability to simply feel.
He waited in the comfort of the thick forest for Mikhail. He almost wished he'd had the meeting with the prince before his emotions had been restored. Overhead an owl settled onto a tree branch, wings fluttering before spreading out and swooping toward the ground. At the last moment, the owl shimmered and took the form of a man.
"You are pacing, Nicolas," Mikhail said as he took the ground in a smooth stride. "That cannot be good."
"I bring news, Mikhail, and no, it is not good. My brothers all send greetings and Zacarias has asked that I renew our family's pledge of loyalty and defense of you and our people."
"That has never been questioned."
Nicolas met the knowing black gaze of his prince straight on. "When your father ruled, and we were young and filled with arrogance and importance, we often sat around the campfires discussing options other than blindly following traditional Carpathian ways. My family and the Malinov family were close. We protected one another in battle and we shared memories as our time came and emotions faded. We spent a great deal of time together."
Mikhail nodded, but remained silent—waiting—knowing that Nicolas rarely carried on conversations unless he had something important to say.
"The Malinov brothers had a sister, a bright, beautiful girl totally revered by all of us."
"Ivory," Mikhail said and instantly pulled up her image in his mind. Tall, slender, hair like black silk flowing to her waist. She had been beautiful inside and out. Wherever she went, she brought a fresh soothing breeze with her that could bring peace to the hearts of even the eldest warriors, the darkest hunters. Of course he remembered her. Poems had been sung about the legendary Ivory.
"Her parents died soon after her birth and our two families raised her together," Nicolas continued. "Ten elder brothers, battle-hardened and stern. It must have been difficult for her, but she was always smiling and singing and making the world seem a cheerful place even as colors and emotions faded from our world. Ivory could restore a semblance of what was lost to us when we were in her company. But she wanted to study, to go to the school the mages provided. She was so bright and her mind demanded stimulation. Power hummed in her veins and she needed the knowledge to better use such a great gift."
Mikhail knew the story, but didn't stop Nicolas, knowing instinctively he needed to retell it, to remember the small details that needed to be said, but more important, to give his news the only way he could.
"We believed Xavier was betraying the friendship of the Carpathian people. The debate raged among our people and we wanted our women to be protected. Vlad tried hard to keep peace when many of the ancients were becoming bothered by his increasingly erratic behavior. We could not stop the others from allowing their daughters and lifemates to study, but we refused Ivory unless we attended with her. And we were called to battle so she was left alone."
. Nicolas didn't say it aloud, but the thought was there in his mind. Even now, hundreds of years later, he remembered that moment as if it was yesterday. Ivory, his sister-kin, the only relief from the stark barren existence, smiling at them bravely, tears in her eyes, yet warmth and love seeping into minds and hearts as she watched them go. She kept her fears to herself, leaving them all with what comfort and happy memories she could provide.
"I am telling you so you know our frame of mind, Mikhail, at the time this dark deed was done," Nicolas said. "Not to offend you or place blame on your name. I know you gave the order to destroy your own brother when it was necessary. But in truth, Vlad should have given that order years before."
A muscle ticked in Mikhail's jaw, but he said nothing, simply waiting.
Nicolas rubbed the bridge of his nose and met Mikhail's gaze. "Your brother was twisted and Vlad knew it. Your brother wanted Ivory, even knowing he wasn't her true lifemate. Your sister Noelle carried the same strain of madness."
Mikhail nodded. He hadn't ordered his sister's death any more than his father had ordered his brother's—and Jacques had paid the price. "So much power running through our veins can corrupt and twist, Nicolas, just as in any other family."
Nicolas nodded. "It is true. When we learned a vampire had killed Ivory, we searched for her body to attempt retrieving her from the shadow world, but we could not find her. We had lost the one bright light in our lives, and there was no relief from the madness of our existence. So late at night, around the campfire, we plotted how to bring down the Dubrinsky family and end the reign of a man who was no longer fit to lead. Our two families had discovered the ability to link and share power in the way the Daratrazanoff bloodline can do. At the time, we believed that because we could do as the Daratrazanoff line could, that there must be another family that could be the living vessel for our people."
"A living vessel must be able to hold all knowledge and power—past and present—for our people. He links all Carpathians together telepathically as well as physically through his mind," Mikhail said. "I know of no other family who can do this."
Nicolas sighed. "It stood to reason if we could do as the Daratrazonoffs could that there would be another family that could hold power. We know your family carried madness, tainted with a need for control over the opposite sex, and we believed we could find another more worthy leader."
"And you came up with a way to destroy us?" There was quiet acceptance in the prince's voice.
"Yes." Nicolas said honestly, still unflinching. "With the Malinov brothers. And they are implementing that plan. We believe they have been doing so for hundreds of years. First as Carpathians and now, perhaps, as vampires."
Mikhail paced a short distance from Nicolas and returned. "I will call in our hunters."
Nicolas reached for Lara, found her floating peacefully in the pool chamber. He nodded. "I think we have no choice."
Warriors, heed the call to council
. Mikhail sent the call immediately.
The two Carpathians exchanged a long look, took two running steps and leapt airborne, shifting into the bodies of owls, racing across the snow-laden clouds to the ancient cave of council. The two predatory birds dipped wings as they flew threw the entrance and raced down the long corridor to the council chamber.
Nicolas hadn't been in the cave for centuries but it still gave him the same sense of pride, honor and camaraderie as it had in days of old. The sacred council chamber was large, rounded, with a narrow, natural chimney in the center. Script on the wall was in the ancient language, the code of the warrior, the one he had lived by throughout the centuries. Honor. Mercy. Integrity. Loyalty. Deadly purpose. Their code—their way of life.
The walls of the cave were a deep midnight blue, almost like the darkest sky, great stalagmites rising from the floor in a semicircle, tall, nearly shooting up to the high ceiling where stalactites grew in downward spirals, each glistening with sparkling deposits of colored minerals. Crystals in various geometrical shapes erupted from walls and covered the floors in giant prisms. The interior blasted them with heat from the magma chambers beneath them, forcing the Carpathians to regulate their temperature.
At one time, the cavern had been flooded with hydrothermal water, rich in minerals, leaving the deposits behind, until great, glowing crystals had formed. The crystals aided the warriors in focusing clearly on the coming battles, strategies and solving problems as well as the daily rigorous mental and physical training all Carpathian warriors were sworn to continue.
The first chamber opened into a second one, much smaller, completely enclosed and ringed inside with lava rocks. Purifying steam curled from the inside of the second chamber, beckoning to them.
Many single males crowded the cavern, dark, tall, eyes cold and distant. With his new emotions, Nicolas felt despair for them. Warriors without hope, who lived on honor only, battling not only the vampire but—worse—the call of the vampire. He took a breath and let the cave work magic on him.
Nicolas stood in the center of the crystalline cavern, in the place so many legendary warriors had stood before him. "It will be difficult to face my brother-kin when shame hangs over our family name for the first time."
Mikhail shot him a look of exasperation. "It is a little arrogant to feel shame for things that happened hundreds of years ago, Nicolas, as if you are the only ones to ever make a mistake. You and your brothers have proven your loyalty over and over. Manolito saved my life and then the life of Shea and her unborn child. Should I hang my head in shame for all the errors in judgment I have made over the centuries? If I did, I would never see the sky."
Nicolas shrugged, a small humorless smile flitting across his face. "We came up with a plan to overthrow your father, a way to bring down the reign of the Dubrinsky family. Mikhail, the things we planned were idle, angry talk to begin with, but when we sat around that campflre and fleshed out the details of a long-term battle plan, we committed treason against you and our people. There is shame in that."
Mikhail frowned. "If you had destroyed the Dubrinsky line, who did you believe would carry the power and knowledge of our people?"
"As we are able to perform the duties of the Daratrazanoff family we were certain there had to be another family and we intended to search them out. Of course, later we abandoned the plan, so no one ever approached any of the other lines to see if they could be a living vessel."
"And did you suspect any other lineage of being capable?"
"You sound as if you would step down immediately."
"In a heartbeat," Mikhail said and then sighed, shaking his head. "There is no one right way, Nicolas, and just because my family's line must bear the leadership does not mean we have all the answers. I am as fallible as any Carpathian. Every time we lose a child. Each time one of our women miscarries or a child dies. I consider it my failure and my shame that I have not found the answer to our dying race. I sit protected in my home while my warriors go out to battle evil, losing pieces of themselves along the way. Good men, better than I, stand between me and danger at every turn. Would I step aside and allow another to lead? In a heartbeat—especially if they were smarter than I."