Authors: Christine Feehan
Tags: #Fiction, #Paranormal, #Horror, #Vampires, #Love Stories, #Occult & Supernatural, #Occult fiction, #Fantasy, #Romance
Nicolas shook his head. "We were wrong, Mikhail, as you are now to think that way."
Mikhail sent him a small, twisted smile. "I thought to end my life. Before Raven, before I found my lifemate, I thought to end my life so I would not have to see the complete extinction of our species. You and the other warriors who served my father are far older, have hunted longer, endured longer, yet I could not continue under the weight of my failures. Was that not far worse? Was that not an act of cowardice?"
Nicolas shook his head. "I believe it was an act of desperation. I walked the streets this very night intending to meet the dawn, yet I did not trust myself to make it one last night. It is the way of our people, Mikhail. Every hunter faces that moment, yet we do not have the added burden of an entire species resting on our shoulders."
Mikhail clapped him on the shoulder. "We are flawed men, my old friend. Every last one of us. We sin and our women redeem us."
Nicolas answered with a wry grin. "That is the truth."
"Tell me of your lifemate. Where did she come from? The Dragonseeker blood runs strong in her."
Nicolas's white teeth flashed in a real smile, one that lit his eyes. "She is the daughter of Razvan, and she is amazing. I cannot even begin to describe the way I feel inside. I barely know her, but I want to spend every moment with her. She just came out of nowhere at the perfect moment and saved my life, my sanity and my soul. I look around and I don't know how I survived all these centuries without her. The world is alive again for me. I had forgotten the beauty of nature. In truth, I had forgotten what it feels like to truly love my brothers."
Mikhail let out his breath. "Another child with Dragonseeker blood is most welcome. As for the joy of lifemates, I have had Raven in my life for many years now, and yet each time I awaken from the earth, I am overwhelmed anew by the gifts she has given me."
Nicolas cleared his throat. "I am uncertain that my lifemate sees a reason to be with me."
"There is no reason for our women to be with us other than the way we are able to bind them. They are light to our darkness and the darker our souls, the stronger the woman must be. Guard your lifemate well, Nicolas. She is a treasure beyond price."
Nicolas turned Mikhail's words over in his mind. There was no reason for their women to accept them other than the binding words that locked their souls together. His hold on Lara was fragile at best. He needed time to establish his bond, to form some sort of trust between them, although truthfully, he felt she should follow his lead without question.
He glanced around him, feeling the subtly flowing influence, the focus of the crystals, the energy of the cavern with the magma flowing far beneath it and the snow gathering a thousand feet above. Nicolas spread his arms wide. "And this place of power. I had forgotten the beauty of this cave. And the clarity one has when in it."
Mikhail nodded. "There is no other place on earth quite like this. Ice and fire meet as one. Passion and control. The earth always holds the answers for our species." He looked around him at the wondrous display of nature. "Hopefully we will come closer to finding answers this night."
As Mikhail spoke the Daratrazanoff brothers arrived. Four of them. All tall with striking looks, flowing black hair held back with leather ties. Faces cut from the same classic mold. Wide shoulders, broad chests, narrow hips, a warrior's straight posture and easy, fluid movements.
Darius, the youngest brother, every bit as battle-experienced as the eldest. Intelligent, cunning, able to do the impossible. He had the black eyes of the Carpathian race, and the grim mouth that came with too much knowledge of death. Beside him were Lucian and Gabriel, legendary twins who had hunted and battled for the Carpathian people. Gabriel flashed a smile of greeting as he clasped arms with Nicolas. Lucian and Darius remained expressionless, although their eyes held genuine warmth when they greeted their prince.
The very petite woman beneath Lucian's shoulder was his lifemate, Jaxon. Pixie face, short platinum hair, dark shrewd eyes, she had been a cop, maybe even still was, but now hunted the vampire alongside her lifemate. Nicolas disagreed violently with the modern idea that women—even trained women with the ability to fight—should ever be allowed to place themselves in danger, but Jaxon wasn't his woman. She belonged to Lucian, their most legendary warrior, and yet he allowed her to fight beside him. Perhaps it was sheer arrogance on the warrior's part, a confidence that he could protect his lifemate no matter what, but Nicolas felt she should be kept far away from the vile creature that was the undead.
Women were to be protected and cherished, not put at risk on a battlefield. A hunter couldn't be worried about protecting a lifemate when he battled the vampire. In ancient times, most lifemated pairs ceased hunting altogether rather than risking death for both. It was one of the main bones of contention between the De La Cruz and Manilov brothers and Vladimir Dubrinsky. Even then, their birthrates had been declining. None of them had believed the women should be allowed to fight when they didn't have the edge the males had. Not strength—but darkness itself.
Nicolas hid his true feelings behind a calm mask as he greeted the fourth Daratrazanoff, Gregori. Second in command to Mikhail, the man was without mercy when it came to enemies of the prince. He was a ferocious guardian, yet was known far and wide as the Carpathian's most gifted healer. Instead of the glittering obsidian eyes of his brothers, his were slashing silver, eyes that weighed and judged a man. He looked fit and healthy, not at all pale from fighting to save a human from parasites.
"Thank you for what you did this night for Lara's friend," Nicolas said. "How is he doing?"
A frown flitted across Gregori's face and was gone, a huge show of emotion for him. "I did my best to rid his body of the parasites, but how much damage they did, I cannot say. I am hoping for a full recovery, but not expecting it. His friend is staying with him and Slavica, the owner of the inn, will check on him periodically. Should he have need, she will call." Gregori looked around the cave, warmth creeping into his pale eyes. "It is long since I have come to this place—too long."
His brothers nodded their agreement.
New arrivals forestalled further conversation as Jacques Dubrinsky, the prince's brother, entered. He had midnight black hair, black eyes, a thin white scar circling his throat, another on his jaw and cheek and it was said a jagged rounded scar on his chest. Carpathians rarely scarred, which meant the wounds dealt him must have been fearsome indeed. He had been a victim of torture that had nearly driven him insane. Even now, he stayed mostly to himself.
Nicolas stepped forward to greet him, clasping arms.
Bur tule ekämet kuntamak
," Jacques said. "Well met, brother. It has been a long time since I have seen you. How is Manolito?"
"Manolito is very well and has found his lifemate. Her name is Mary-Ann Delaney. I believe you know her. And your woman? And the child?"
"Shea is doing fine and we are having the naming ceremony in a few days. Our son grows strong."
"That is good news," Nicolas said. "The best of news for all of us."
The flutter of wings heralded two more Carpathians. Vikirnoff Von Shrieder and his lifemate, Natalya, shifted together. Nicolas clasped Vikirnoff's arms, a little taken aback that Natalya had answered the summons to the warrior's counsel. It had not occurred to him that Vikirnoff, an ancient warrior of tremendous prowess, would allow his woman to place herself in harm's way.
He glanced at her. The woman had bright red hair and eyes that changed from brilliant green to blue. She had the mark of the Dragonseeker stamped all over her, the classic looks, the brightness illuminating her skin, the bands of color in her hair. She was known to be a fighter—and also the sister of Razvan, Lara's father. He stepped away from Vikirnoff, afraid he would be unable to maintain silence on the subject of women fighting when Natalya would be such a prize to Xavier should she be captured.
Nicolas shook his head and then caught Gregori watching him with his piercing silver gaze. He knew exactly what Nicolas was thinking.
"And I agree," Gregori said, as he walked past Nicolas to position himself beside Mikhail.
"Agree with what?" Mikhail asked, turning away from where he'd been talking with Darius. "And with whom? It is not all that often you agree with anything."
"I think one of the topics we need to place under discussion is the welfare of our women and children—
of them—including the women who believe they have the need to fight vampires."
Mikhail bared white teeth. "
O jelä peje terád
. Sun scorch you, Gregori, you are not getting me in trouble with my lifemate and daughter. I am not doing your dirty work for you…" He included Nicolas in his glare. "Either of you."
Gregori shrugged. "Swear all you want, it is an issue you have to face."
"Me? Oh no, you don't. I refuse to take all the heat on this. If we are getting into it, all of you are voicing your opinions loud and clear. The women would rise up like my worst nightmare."
"I am serious," Gregori insisted. "If we are going to bring in the full counsel, then we should address all issues."
Mikhail nodded his head. "I know it must be discussed, Gregori, but you and I both know the old ways are long gone. Even then we had a few women warriors."
"Not lifemates," Nicolas interjected. "Never women who could bear us children, or that when lost would take their mate with them."
Mikhail shrugged. "In the old days very few lifemates were warriors. Times are different. Our species is on the brink of extinction."
"All the more reason to protect the few women we have," Nicolas said. "Sometimes old ways are good, Mikhail. Our women did not take up arms just to show they could."
"These women did not start out as Carpathians. Our species
human and when we bind a human woman to us, although she is converted by blood, she thinks like a human. Through the centuries human women have had to fight for their rights…"
"That is a weak argument," Gregori broke in. "What do we do here in this chamber? We swear our loyalty to our people. We swear to serve them, whatever the sacrifice calls for. Our lifemates have never done that. They do not understand that in order to save our species from extinction, they must sacrifice, too. We have a handful of couples, less than thirty, Mikhail. Our children do not mature for a good fifty years. Do you really believe that we can afford to lose one woman? One pair?"
"No, but I also know that we are in a war with enemies surrounding us from all sides. We cannot afford to be divided either."
"We are not divided," Gregori said. "No man wants his woman fighting."
Mikhail shook his head, a slow smile touching his mouth. "So you think we should tell our women to be quiet and let us make decisions for them? It is not the men who will be divided, it is our women. From us. Free will. Have you forgotten that small little detail? We take that away when we bind them to us, do we continue to do so after they are our lifemates? I suppose we can reduce them to little more than puppets who do our bidding at our will. But I know both Raven and Savannah would walk into the sun before submitting to such enslavement."
O jelä peje terád
. Sun scorch you, Mikhail," Gregori growled. "You have become modern and liberal in your old age."
Nicolas turned away from the prince as another couple entered. Nicolae, Vikirnoff's brother, with his lifemate, Destiny, hurried in. Nicolas wanted to get a good look at the woman who had been captured by a vampire when she was just a young child. She had endured the torture of a vampires blood, riddled with cell-eating parasites, for years. Medium height, very curvy, with sculpted muscle, thick dark hair and enormous blue-green eyes, she flowed with grace and the fluid step of a trained fighter. He noted her eyes were restless, moving around the cavern, taking in every detail, noting exits and entrances, the chimney and labyrinth of tunnels.
Destiny was best friends with Manolito's lifemate, MaryAnn. She saw each person in the room, sizing them up, her gaze resting on him just a little longer. Nicolae, her lifemate, was very tuned to her, Nicolas noted with approval, placing himself between her and the men without lifemates in the room. Like most Carpathian males, Nicolae was tall and muscular with long black hair and cool dark eyes.
"You are Nicolas, brother to Manolito." Destiny greeted, moving toward him, forcing her lifemate to keep pace in order to protect her.
It was a classic mistake women made, forgetting that anyone could be a danger, even here, in this sacred place of power. Nicolas sighed and shook his head. His woman would learn her place and every security measure he could think of for her.
"How is MaryAnn?" Destiny asked.
"She is happy," Nicolas answered. "I have news to share, but want to wait until we have all gathered. I brought you a letter from MaryAnn." He slipped his hand inside his shirt.
Destiny's eyes narrowed, became cool and watchful. She shifted slightly onto the balls of her feet, turning just slightly, a subtle movement that put her in a good position to defend herself and attack if necessary. As if choreographed, her partner shifted at the same time, a few steps between them, giving plenty of room. This was a fighting team. Even Nicolas, for all his absolute opinions on the subject of women hunting vampires, could see they were in perfect sync. It still didn't make it right.