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19

"Kirja?" Vikirnoff swung around, slipping the photo into his shirt next to his heart. "He is the vampire?" There was a thoughtful note in his voice. "No wonder this one is difficult to find. Kirja was a great warrior."

"I fear he is involved in a conspiracy to kill the prince."

"I have spoken recently with Gregori and all of us suspect that a large army is massing against us. What of Kirja's four brothers? Do you have news on them?"

"I believe they are all involved, but I do not know for certain. When he talked, he implied it was so."

Vikirnoff examined a pile of boulders that had shifted slightly out of position. "What is off in that direction?"

Rafael studied the landscape. "The mines." His dark eyes blazed with grim realization. "Vikirnoff, he has gone to the mines. Colby told me they boarded the entrances up years ago because they were dangerous. No one goes there."

"So he wouldn't have access to ready prey?"

Rafael shook his head. "No, but he would be able to call the unwary to him. He is incredibly powerful."

Vikirnoff nodded. "I remember all of the Malinov brothers. They were very powerful even while young." His cool black eyes studied Rafael. "As was your family."

"We were good friends, and yes, we tested the limits of the law, but we agreed, all ten of us, my brothers and Kirja's brothers, that we would follow our prince and live with honor. I do not know why the Malinov brothers chose the dark path." There was a lingering sadness in his voice.

Vikirnoff glanced at him sharply. "He is no longer your childhood friend. Let us hunt the undead, and remove the threat to you and your lifemate before the sun rises too high and forces us to ground."

They shifted at the same time, Vikirnoff choosing the owl and Rafael, the harpy eagle. Both flew low to the ground, scanning as they quartered the most direct route to the mines. Kirja would have stayed beneath the ground. However he had managed to be awake after the first light of dawn, Rafael was certain the effect couldn't last too long. Kirja would have prepared his escape route before he had launched his attempt on Colby's life.

Vikirnoff? Do you think it strange that the male child of Rhiannon died and yet there is no word on the fate of the females? Colby said she was told her father died, but not how or when. There was open speculation in Rafael's mind.

Wizards were not immortal. They had longevity, but ultimately, death claimed them. It is one of the reasons they came to resent us. For all their abilities and power, they could not sustain their lives. The prince believed that was the motivation for kidnapping Rhiannon. Xavier wished her to breed with him, to give his children immortal life. Xavier wanted her blood for himself and for his heirs.

Through the harpy eagle's keen eyes, Rafael noticed a slight shifting of dirt, still fresh, as if a mole had pushed upward and dislodged the soil. He circled it. What if Xavier succeeded? Rhiannon would not have willingly converted him, but he may have found a way to use her blood to convert himself. Colby is proof that the Dragonseeker blood was passed to what appear to be humans. We do not know for a fact that Xavier died or that his son and his grandson have died. The women have been told this, but there are no details.

Vikirnoff considered the possibilities. You are saying it is possible that our greatest enemy is alive and has adult children to help him continue his work.

Rafael spotted the mines just ahead and flew higher, taking in a wider range. Kirja would not go into the mines without safeguards and numerous traps. He studied the ground and the entrances to the two shafts, both blocked with massive boulders. I think it is possible, yes. I do not believe that any child of Xavier would easily be killed. And if they carry Dragonseeker blood, it would be more difficult than ever.

Rafael landed in the branches of a large fir, a short distance from the mine entrance. Vikirnoff settled beside him. They studied the area around them with sharp eyes before settling to earth and shifting into their Carpathian forms. From their position, they sent their acute senses in every direction, paying particular attention to the position of the boulders blocking the entrance as well as the structure of the sloping mine.

"This woman I am following," Vikirnoff ventured, "has vampires hunting her. Is it possible they know she carries the blood of the Dragonseekers?"

"I do not know. Colby carries the blood of the Dragonseekers, but Kirja did not seem to have knowledge of it." Rafael studied Vikirnoff's weathered features. "We are surrounded by treachery these days, making it impossible to tell enemy from friend quite often. This woman may be leading you straight into a trap."

Vikirnoff shrugged. "It is of little consequence. I am no fledgling and have been long in this world. I have acquired a few skills along the way." There was a hard edge to his face, a darker shadow moving in the black eyes. "I am not so easily killed." He shook his head. "Something about this is not quite right."

"I agree. It seems off-kilter, but I cannot say how."

"There is a substantial wind, yet the leaves of the bushes near the entrance of the mines do not even waver. They remain still when the leaves all around us are moving. The breeze should move all the leaves, not just those near us," Vikirnoff pointed out.

Rafael studied the phenomenon. "Are we perhaps looking at an illusion? A scene Kirja set up as a safeguard?"

"If so, it is one I have not seen in all my centuries of hunting. It is an extremely large illusion to hold while he lies sleeping beneath the ground."

"Kirja is no ordinary vampire," Rafael said. "He was never ordinary as a hunter, but showed exceptional skills as did all of his family. If any of the undead could do such a thing, it would be Kirja. And I doubt if he is resting."

Vikirnoff shifted, and in the familiar image of the owl, spread wings and took flight, spiraling over the area, dropping lower and lower as he circled the mines. If it is an illusion, it is a good one.

"It is," Rafael said aloud. He shifted once again into the eagle form, leaving the safety of the trees to fly over the massive boulders at the entrance. They looked real enough, but Rafael no longer trusted his sight.

The owl flew toward the largest boulder, feet extended as if to land. At the last moment, he veered off. There is nothing there. I would have hit the ground.

Rafael landed on the ground off to the side of the mine entrances. "We are going to have to forget sight and use our other senses to tell us where the actual entrance is."

Vikirnoff shifted beside him. "We could try going underground. Kirja has already made a tunnel beneath the earth."

Rafael shook his head. "Not his tunnel. He is a master at fighting beneath the ground. The opening is here. I will find it." He shifted once more, becoming a small unassuming bat.

Vikirnoff watched the dipping and wheeling of the bat. The night creature would be able to feel any objects in its path and know the exact distance to them. Very simple, but very clever.

It is an illusion. The entrance to the mines is ten feet to the left. We can go in through the cracks using mist. At least we know we are in the right place. He must be in there to have set up such an enormous safeguard. He could not hope to keep it throughout the daylight hours.

Vikirnoff joined Rafael in the same form, using the bat's radar to judge the distance to the boulders at the real entrance to the mines. They moved with care, streaming as a vapor trail through a large crack between rocks, making their way into the dark tunnel. It was safer to proceed as vapor, not touching the walls or ground where they might trigger a trap. That worked until they turned a corner and encountered a giant spider web. The strands of the web were closely woven. It was impossible for even vapor to slip through without disturbing the silky threads. A very small spider sat in the corner of the web.

The hunters shifted into Carpathian form to study the design of the thick web. It looked silky and fragile, a delicate work of art, yet Rafael felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise in warning.

"Have you seen this before?" Vikirnoff asked, keeping a wary eye on the harmless-looking spider.

Rafael inched closer, bending to look at the fibers. They appeared that of a normal web, yet there were no holes, no lacy effect. The design was solid and tight. He looked at the small spider to identify the species. It stared back at him. The bubble eyes blinked and Rafael found himself staring into the eyes of evil, of intelligence. Kirja stared back at him, venomous hatred and malevolence roiling in the depths of his glare.

Rafael leapt away from the web, dragging Vikirnoff with him as the tiny spider burst into a thousand spiders, all springing at them with poisonous fangs. Rafael incinerated the arachnids quickly, but not before quite a few of them managed to sink their poisonous fangs into his and Vikirnoff's arms and legs. The tiny bites left bloody swollen sores, seeping with venom, burning through flesh and tissue.

"He definitely knows we are hunting him," Rafael said as he pushed the poison out through the pores of his body. Beside him, Vikirnoff did the same. "Every step we take is going to be dangerous. Not only is he good at illusion, but he is a master of mutating a species." He scorched the last remaining spiders.

Vikirnoff nodded grimly. "In all my centuries of battling the undead, I have never faced a vampire this powerful. I think he is strong enough to kill us both if we come at him one at a time."

"Unfortunately, I think you are right," Rafael agreed.

They began to follow the tunnel as it slanted downward, taking them deeper beneath the ground. They tested each step with caution, all senses alert to impending danger. The beams were rotted and split above their heads. The large timbers supporting the ceiling beams also showed dangerous signs of age. An old track lay half buried along the ground. A collection of dusty, forgotten tools lay scattered across the ground.

"Why do I feel as if we are entering the devil's lair?" Rafael asked. He pitched his voice low.

"Because we are," Vikirnoff answered. "What is that noise?"

Rafael glanced at the ancient hunter. "It sounds like miners."

They rounded the corner and saw a dozen men working with pickaxes on the walls of the shaft. Several lanterns hung from the overhead beam, casting a dim yellow light over the workers below. As Vikirnoff and Rafael watched, two men manipulated a heavy, ore-filled car into place on the rickety rails. No one seemed to notice the presence of the two Carpathians.

The two hunters looked at one another. "It has to be an illusion," Vikirnoff said.

None of the miners turned at the sound of his voice. The men continued to work industriously, the sound of the picks hitting rock ringing through the shaft.

"They are wearing modern clothes," Rafael pointed out. He studied the scene in front of them, looking for the hidden trap he knew had to be there.

"It could be he is slowing us down, making the point we cannot trust our own senses."

"How did he set them in motion?" Rafael wanted to know. "If his illusion can tear into the rock, it can just as easily tear into us."

The pickaxes continued to ring out against the rock in a steady rhythm. Vikirnoff tapped his hand against his leg, following the pattern. "Do you hear that? Maybe something in the beat?"

Rafael crouched down, studying the scene from every angle. "Could be. He is tricking more than one sense. Sight, smell, hearing. He has done a superb job." There was admiration in his voice. "Look at the ground. There are no footprints in the dirt. They do not leave any evidence of their existence. See where the picks hit the rock?"

"The scene repeats itself as if it's looped," Vikirnoff said. "If we disturb it, by entering into it, would that trigger a trap, or dispel the scene?"

"He would not have gone to this trouble without some kind of a trap." Rafael rubbed his chin. "Unless it is a delaying tactic."

"If it is, it is a darned good one. You stay clear just in case I trigger an attack." Vikirnoff approached the miners with caution. None of them looked up. No one spoke. They continued with their work as if he wasn't walking in their midst. He glanced at Rafael. "Any ideas?"

"Take the pickax out of one of their hands and see if that disrupts the scene," Rafael suggested.

Vikirnoff stepped up beside a miner and easily pulled the tool from the man's hands. There was a brief moment of eerie silence as the ringing of the picks abruptly stopped. Immediately the tools fell to the ground and the men dissolved into skeletons, the bones sprawling all over the floor of the mine-shaft. Scraps of clothing lay rotting and the smell of decomposing bodies immediately filled the already foul air.

"Well, now we know for certain what happened to the missing people from the town and outlying ranches," Rafael said grimly. "This is definitely Kirja's lair." He stepped past the grotesque scene, careful not to disturb the bones.

They moved down the tunnel in total darkness. Almost at once there was a rustle behind them followed by the rattle of bone clicking against bone. The hunters whirled around to face the army of skeletons rising from the floor, bones reassembling to form warriors wielding the pickaxes with menacing intent, the eyeless skulls staring straight ahead.

"The sound of the picks on the rocks had to be the trigger," Rafael said in disgust at himself. "If we had not disturbed the scene, the trap would not have been sprung." He moved away from Vikirnoff to give them both fighting room.

It was a disturbing thing to see the dead rise up to defend the very creature that had brutally murdered them. It seemed so wrong, so obscene, that Rafael actually winced when he gathered his power into a ball of energy and sent it careening into the midst of the skeleton army. The explosion rocked the mines, cracked rotten timbers, splintered beams overhead, and sent dirt and rocks falling on the dead.

Vikirnoff and Rafael hurried away from the avalanche of debris. The three remaining skeletons that had not been caught in the force of the explosion rushed the hunters, brandishing their pickaxes. Their bones clacked and scraped in a gruesome manner and their mouths widened into a horrible gape. All the while the eyes stared straight ahead, pitiless holes in the empty skulls. Lights sprang up along the walls, lanterns swinging as if set in motion by an unseen hand. A wind rushed through the tunnels, awakening the guardians of the undead.

"Not good," Rafael murmured.

A terrible wailing came from somewhere just ahead of them, the sound swelling in volume until it was a symphony of screams. Dark shadows slipped through the cracks in the rock and dirt forming the walls of the tunnels. Vikirnoff turned to face the skeletons and Rafael took up a position at his back, facing the shadows. The Carpathians waited, back to back, for the attack.

It came in a rush of wind and bones. Dark shadows crept over the beams and rock, wailing loudly as they came with outstretched arms and clawed fingers, grasping for the hunters. Rafael answered with a burst of shattering white-hot light. The shadows screamed in fear and horror, retreating from the brilliance into the deeper recesses of the mine.

Vikirnoff smashed several lanterns over the heads of the skeletons, dousing them with flames. The pickaxes lay harmlessly in the dirt, but the burning bones continued forward, determined to kill the hunters. "Mist," he ordered.

Rafael shifted simultaneously with Vikirnoff so that the skeletons rushed past into the brilliant light. The bones disintegrated, exploding into splintered fragments. The flames flickered and died. There was another eerie silence.

The hunters moved further through the tunnel, proceeding with caution, shifting back to Carpathian form in order to utilize all of their senses. Rafael reached out with every sense he had, gathering information, allowing his brain to assimilate every smell and sound that came back to him. "We are running out of time. If we do not find him soon, we will have no choice but to seek rest and we cannot do so in these mines. It is his lair and it is well guarded."

"He is counting on that fact. All he has to do is keep us from finding his resting place until the sun is high," Vikirnoff agreed. "I have never fought a vampire with such safeguards."

"He has had centuries to perfect his skills." Rafael turned his head, listening to the rustles coming from behind them. "Do you hear that?"

"The skeletons are trying to re-form for another attack."

They were in a maze of tunnels and for a moment remained motionless, trying to get a feel for Kirja's resting place. "He is also very good at leaving no trace of his existence," Rafael added. He indicated the fungus growing on the walls of one of the tunnels. "That would be my best guess. That fungus is not growing anywhere else and I would venture it is another safeguard."

Vikirnoff peered closely at the strange warted growth. "I do not like the look of this, and there are millions of centipedes covering the floor. The timbers are rotted almost completely through. I say we do not touch anything as we go down this tunnel."

Rafael took one look at the carpet of centipedes. He swore in the ancient language. "Kirja is well aware we are close. I can feel him now. He cannot hide his hatred of me. He takes my hunting him far too personally."

Vikirnoff raised his eyebrow. "I cannot imagine why."

Rafael flashed a brief grin. "He knows my aversion to centipedes. A childish thing, but of course he would use it."

The eyebrow rose higher. "We are of the earth. How could a creature such as a centipede bother one such as you? You have dominion over such things."

"I had four brothers, Vikirnoff," Rafael pointed out. His form shimmered, became transparent, and shifted to that of a very small bat.

Vikirnoff followed suit, but not before he glanced back toward the tunnel where the bones were making frantic scratching noises as they tried to re-form to carry out their master's orders. We will have to watch our backs.

Only if we do not get to him. Once he is gone, all of his servants will cease to exist. I say we move fast. Watch that fungus near the entrance to this shaft on your right. There is something strange about it. Rafael used the bat's radar to calculate the distance to the plant, but it kept changing, as if the plant moved.

Something struck at the bat hard, clipping a wing and knocking it to the ground. The centipedes immediately began to feast. Vikirnoff shifted one wing, reaching down to drag the small bat from the grasp of the greedy insects. Bite marks covered the body and small patches of blood seeped from various wounds.

Rafael shook off the clinging centipedes, flapping his wings to gain height. Thanks. Now we know what that fungus is. It has teeth.

Probably poison.

I felt it go in. Burns like hell. He is close. Go to the right, Vikirnoff. Watch yourself. The fungus is everywhere. There is a pocket of gas here.

He is behind that mass of boulders. I feel him. The centipedes are frantic to get at us and the fungus is snapping teeth like mad dogs. He has to be inside the chamber.

Rafael. I am trying to tell you gas is seeping out into this tunnel and filling it.

A trick. He is up to his old tricks. He loved to play with fire.

I do not want to get cooked. Vikirnoff was adamant about it.

It is time to let him work for us. I have an idea. Go back to the tunnel entrance. Rafael followed Vikirnoff and shifted back to Carpathian form just out of reach of the fungus and centipedes.

"What is the plan?" Vikirnoff asked.

Rafael gestured toward the heavy boulders guarding the entrance to the chamber at the end of the tunnel. "That is."

Soon, clones of the two hunters stood near the chamber entrance, centipedes swarming up their bodies and fungus striking viciously while Rafael directed the clones to unweave the complicated safeguards the vampire had erected around his lair.

As the clones worked, Rafael removed the remaining poisons from his body. The process went more slowly than normal; Rafael fed most of his power into the illusions he'd created. He had to make them real enough to generate body heat. "If we are lucky, Kirja will believe those clones really are us and if he does, he'll try to kill us by igniting the gas. We will not risk triggering another one of his traps and it will leave us free to unravel the safeguards."

"I hope he hurries because I can hear the skeletons heading this way," Vikirnoff said grimly. "I would recommend we levitate to keep away from his warriors, but he would have thought of that." He didn't say what they both knew. Time was running out on them. The sun was climbing higher outside the mine and both of them would soon be hit with the terrible lethargy of their species. They could not go to rest in the mine with Kirja so close. It would be far too dangerous.

"I cannot sustain the illusion and make it realistic and work the safeguards. You will have to unravel the guards. Stay well back from the entrance," Rafael cautioned.

Vikirnoff began the complicated procedure of unlocking the spell guarding the vampire's lair. Behind them the clack and rattle of bones grew louder. The floor rustled with dark, malevolent insects, and the shadows wailed at them, held off only by the white-hot light Rafael continued to maintain.

The explosion came without warning, rocking the entire mine. The trapped vampire had ignited the pocket of gas. A red-orange fireball roared down the length of the tunnel, incinerating everything in its path. It blew out everything inside the long tunnel, killing the carnivorous plants and searing the carpet of centipedes, leaving the shaft burned and foul smelling, but clear for the two hunters.

As the hunters moved cautiously down the now-empty mine shaft, Vikirnoff's hands flowed gracefully in the air as he hurried to unravel the vampire's safeguards. Rafael continued to feed energy into the white-hot light surrounding them, keeping the shadows at bay. More than once, the dark, amorphous shapes lunged at the Carpathians only to shriek and fall back when Rafael struck at them with the lasered beam of light.

"The last safeguard is down," Vikirnoff said.

"Stand clear. He will have something waiting in the chamber." Rafael pressed his body against the blackened side of the tunnel and waited for Vikirnoff to do the same before waving his hand to send the boulders rolling away from the entrance.

Gas and steam poured from the interior, carrying with it a noxious, foul odor. Bats with sharpened fangs followed, a dark cloud of them, swarming the hunters instantly. Vikirnoff flung up a barrier as he and Rafael peered into the heated cavern. The bats crashed into the invisible barrier over and over, smashing their bodies in frenzied need to carry out the commands of the undead. The hunters stepped onto the steaming floor of Kirja's lair.

The chamber was hot and the vaporous gas held traces of sulfur and poison. The Carpathians floated upward as the acids in the soil melted their boots, seeking to penetrate to their skin. "Good one, Kirja," Rafael muttered, shaking his head to rid himself of the lethargy seeping into his body and mind, making him careless.

They began to quarter the ground, seeking the exact position where the vampire lay beneath the poisonous brew of acid and foul soil. "Here, Vikirnoff," Rafael said, indicating a spot directly below him. "He is here."

The two began to unravel the final safeguards, going fast, but being careful to remain alert. Movement on the ground caught Rafael's eyes just to the left of where the vampire lay, a small spewing of dirt, a disturbance beneath the soil. As he watched, the same thing happened in a half dozen other places, until he and Vikirnoff were surrounded by a loose circle. The soil burst open in a dozen spots and ghouls poured out of the earth.

"Keep going, Rafael," Vikirnoff said. "I will hold them off." He was already dropping low, flying at a ghoul with tremendous speed. He wrenched at the ghoul's head, knocking the creature off its feet so that it landed hard in the poisonous soil.

Rafael concentrated on unraveling the last lock to get to Kirja while Vikirnoff's battle with the ghouls raged ferociously around him. Several times he heard Vikirnoff grunting as he took a particularly nasty hit, but Rafael remained focused on disassembling the vampire's final safeguard. The moment the last element clicked in place, the ghouls howled and shrieked in fury, redoubling their efforts to destroy the hunters. Vikirnoff kept the dozen zombies away from Rafael, giving him the time needed to peel back the layers of soil from the vampire's resting place.

And then the last of the soil fell away and Rafael found himself looking down into Kirja's hate-filled eyes.

For a moment there was an eerie silence. The vampire was utterly motionless, trapped in the earth by the terrible lethargy of his kind. You will never win, Rafael. You are doomed. The voice rasped with hate even as Rafael plunged his fist through the vampire's chest cavity and ripped out the blackened, rotted heart of his childhood friend.

Kirja screamed, and Rafael hissed as the acid from the vampire's blood burned through his skin and muscles right to the bone. He threw Kirja's heart to the ground, but before he could call fire to incinerate the decayed thing, it burrowed deep into the soil, making its way back to its host. Black hatred vibrated in the air between them, then triumph as the heart reunited with its host. Cursing, Rafael drove his fist a second time toward the vampire's chest, staring down into the red-rimmed eyes.

But it was no longer Kirja lying helpless in the earth. Rafael stared down at Colby, her beautiful face, her wealth of red hair, her incredible soft skin. For a moment he hesitated as he leaned over the undead.

"Rafael," she cried softly, "help me."

"Colby?" Rafael blinked in confusion and shook his head and for one uncertain moment, he hesitated.

Kirja struck. Rafael screamed and the illusion of Colby dissolved as the vampire's razor-sharp talons pierced Rafael's chest. Breathless with agony, he could feel the hand of the undead clawing for his heart, shredding through muscle and sinew with murderous intent. Kirja shrieked in triumph and Rafael screamed again as the tips of the vampire's nail gouged at Rafael's heart.

Pain swamped Rafael, excruciating pain the likes of which he'd never known in all the centuries of his existence. For one agonizing moment his muscles locked in spasms of torment, then he screamed again from another driving pain as Kirja's talons pierced the outer walls of his heart.

Blood spurted from Rafael's heart. There wasn't much time. He had to finish this now. Quickly.

He dragged himself over Kirja's body. The vampire once again assumed Colby's shape, but this time Rafael didn't hesitate. Once more he drove his fist deep into the vampire's rotten chest, crying out as the acid blood ate through the flesh of his already wounded hand. His chest was on fire, the vampire's razored claws shredding the muscles of Rafael's heart. Blood jetted out of his chest in great deadly spurts, but Rafael could not afford to stop his heart and shut down his body's functions to save himself. Kirja must be defeated.

Rafael would protect Colby and those she loved with his last dying breath. As long as Kirja remained alive, he would retain his hold on Paul and put Colby's family at risk. It had to end here. Now. Rafael would remove this threat to Paul, give the boy back to Colby in sanity and health. He would not fail her this time with yet another in a long line of selfish choices. He could give her this one gift even if it meant the loss of his own life. She was Dragonseeker, she was strong, she could go on without him as Rhiannon had. For a moment he wavered. Had it been a spell of Xavier's that had prevented Rhiannon from joining her lifemate? Would Colby survive his death? He had to believe it.

He felt Kirja's fingers close around his heart, the nails digging deep, lacerating, shredding. He heard his own screams echo through the chamber, but he hung on tenaciously. He would not fail her. His death was the only thing he had left to give her.

No! Nicolas shouted the command.

Faintly, from far away, Rafael heard his other brothers, but maybe that was an illusion, too. The voices of Carpathians near and far seemed to melt into a single voice crying protest.

Rafael held on grimly, dragging the black vampire heart from Kirja's chest. Blood loss had made Rafael extremely weak and the heart struggled wildly to get out of his possession and back to its master. He fought to keep the rotted organ caged in his hand. The acid burned through his skin to his bones, but that pain was nothing compared to the agony of Kirja's fingers literally ripping Rafael's heart to pieces.

Deep beneath the earth, Colby felt the rending and tearing of Rafael's heart. Her eyes flew open, her heart shuddering in shared pain and slamming with relentless terror against her chest. The pain nearly shattered her. Rafael!

The undead will not get your brother.

Rafael's voice was ragged, frayed with pain. In that instant she saw him in the dark of the mine with the ghouls fighting to get to him, with his arm and hand burned raw from the vampire's blood. And she saw the vampire's fist buried deep in his chest. She felt the fingernails ripping and gouging at Rafael's heart in an effort to kill him. For a moment time stopped. The world went utterly still. Realization struck her in that blinding moment.

She loved him.

All this time when she thought she was fighting him, she'd been fighting herself as well. Pitting her enormous will against her heart, the heart that had begun to love Rafael when he had rushed into a burning building on her behalf.

Rafael had freed her to be who and what she was born to be. She would finally be able to use her extraordinary gifts she had spent a lifetime hiding. She would be accepted for who she really was, not who she pretended to be. And in that moment of realization, Colby knew she could bear anything, sacrifice anyone or anything else, but not Rafael.

Tell me what to do! She issued the order to Nicolas. And it was an order. She began to claw her way through the earth to the surface. Every ounce of iron will she possessed, the will that was her birthright, that had been honed in her sweat and tears, the unbending will that had refused to let her believe she could come to love Rafael, that will she now focused on reaching him. She would save him. There was no other choice.

Stay with him. Do not allow him to separate himself from you. He will hold on with everything he is, not wanting to chance that you will die with him.

Colby concentrated on holding Rafael to her. She could see through his eyes and hear the wailing of the ghouls and the horrible cries of the vampire.

Deep in the vampire's lair, Vikirnoff continued his battle with the relentless ghouls, but he could sense how close Rafael was to death.

"Rafael," he commanded, "throw the heart to me now." He kept his voice calm in the midst of the chaos reigning. He knocked back another ghoul, but it rose to confront him again as the others closed in.

Kirja's razor-sharp fingernails worked to drag Rafael's heart from his body, a slow but extremely painful process. The strength was ebbing from the vampire, but it was draining almost as quickly from Rafael. He could barely move, barely think, his body failing to obey the dictates of his brain as blood loss and lethargy from the rising sun sapped his remaining, rapidly dwindling strength.

He felt Colby moving in him, searching for a way to aid him. He couldn't protect her from the pain in his body. He felt the blow of it, nearly driving her to unconsciousness, felt her regroup, accept the pain. Then her strong will rose up, the unwavering determination of the Dragonseeker blood.

You will not die! She made it a decree. An order. Throw the heart to the hunter. Take my strength and rid the world of that disgusting creature. Now, Rafael. I won't let you go.

Using the burst of strength, he did as she commanded, tossing the vile organ through the air to Vikirnoff. At once Rafael's strength ran out and he began to topple. It was too late for him. His heart was shredded, his blood loss too great. But Colby and Paul would be safe and Vikirnoff would get out of the mines alive. Rafael closed his eyes and let go.

Colby merged her mind with Rafael's. She was strong. She'd always been strong, so much so that her powers couldn't be managed in her human state. She felt them now, running through her body, and she took a quick inventory of her abilities. Everything was different now, with the special gifts of the Carpathian blood running through her veins. She reached for the power, embraced it instead of shrinking in fear from it. She would save Rafael, hold him to her with her last breath even though his life force was no more than a small, dim light flickering weakly, all but extinguished. She held him to her with all of her strength, preventing him from falling to the acid inferno of soil in the chamber, at the same time, keeping his spirit from fading away.

Bring him to me. Hurry. She sent the order to Vikirnoff, on the mental path she found in Rafael's mind. The soil is rich in minerals and it is our only chance.

Vikirnoff incinerated the vampire's heart, stoically ignoring the acid burning his hand and arm as the blood ran down his skin. Kirja screamed horribly, his body going limp, his fist falling from Rafael's body with a horrible sucking sound. The Carpathian's lifeblood splattered over him. He grimaced and licked at it in a last, vain attempt to heal himself.

Vikirnoff directed a second white-hot ball of energy at the vampire.

Blackened noxious smoke rose and Kirja gave a final hideous, wailing shriek and his foul life at last found its end. Vikirnoff caught Rafael in strong arms before Colby could let him fall to the poisonous ground and sustain further burns.

The moment the vampire was fully destroyed, the ghouls dropped to the ground, lifeless without their master to give them orders. The soulless shadows ceased their continuous wails and the bones dropped back to the ground.

There was an eerie silence followed by an ominous rumble that grew louder as the maze of mine tunnels began to shake. Cradling Rafael in his burned arm, Vikirnoff streaked through the tunnels, away from the lair of the vampire. Dirt and rock poured down and smoke spewed through the shafts. Walls closed in behind them as he winged his way to the surface with the wounded hunter. I am on the way with him. The sun is climbing rapidly. He is mortally injured. In truth, I do not see how you can save him.

Colby burst from the ground, the sun nearly blinding her. It didn't even slow her down. She cast around for the richest soil. What do I need, Nicolas? Tell me what to do to save him.

He told her, naming several plants, sending her images of what they looked like, and directing her where to find them. Ignoring the terrible burning inside her body, her streaming eyes and sensitive skin, Colby raced to locate the plants hidden in the dense forest. The trees helped to shade her from the sun's burning rays and Vikirnoff supplied cloud cover as he traveled toward her. As Nicolas guided her hands, instructing her in what she must do to save Rafael, another voice joined his, and then another and another. She couldn't get all of their names, but healers gathered from around the world to talk her through the process of saving Rafael.

If something should go wrong, Nicolas, you watch over Paul and Ginny. Colby was fully aware she was risking her life. She would be giving everything she was to Rafael, and should she fail, it would mean both of their lives.

There cannot be failure. Nicolas decreed it.

And then Vikirnoff was there, Rafael's torn, mangled body in his arms. Colby closed her eyes for one brief moment as tears welled up and horror clutched at her throat. She had been prepared for his terrible injuries, but not for the sight of her proud, invincible Rafael ravaged so utterly. Her heart and soul screamed a protest.

She reached for her powerful will, grasped her strength with every fiber of her being, and shook off the despair and pain and terror. There was no time for emotion, no time for hesitation or fear. She listened to the soft voices giving her instructions and she felt her power moving through her. Kneeling beside Rafael's torn body in the mineral-rich soil where Vikirnoff had opened the earth for her, she set to work. It was easy enough to work on several levels, using her telekinesis to mix the plants and soil while she shed her body, her sense of self, and became the healing ball of energy needed to enter Rafael's body.

All the while she held him to her, bound by her determination, refusing to allow him to escape into another world. His heart was all but destroyed, savaged by the vampire's talons, lacerated and shredded. She hesitated in dismay.

It can be done. The assurance came from one of the healers, a male named Gregori. I will be with you every step of the way.

I am here as well. A feminine voice, Shea, a healer.

A third voice, very distant and ultra feminine, added her support. I am Francesca. You are of the Dragonseeker clan. Few have the gifts you have. It can be done.

She heard Nicolas and his brothers urging her onward. Voices swelled in volume in her mind, chanting an ancient healing ritual. With determination, Colby bent to the task. It was no longer impossible-it was simply a matter of will, and she had that in abundance. Slowly, meticulously, she repaired Rafael's shredded heart. Her physical strength waned several times, but Rafael's brothers fed her every bit of energy they possessed. She even felt Paul's touch through Nicolas.

She was as ruthless in her demands on Rafael, forcing him to endure the pain as she repaired his heart then set to work on his other numerous grave injuries. She shared her mind with the healers, following the instructions they whispered in her mind as she closed every wound, removed every drop of poison. She would not relinquish Rafael to Kirja's power. The sun continued to climb in the sky and the effects were devastating on the Carpathians, but she was relentless, driving herself and the others beyond their endurance.

Vikirnoff, following the dictates of the healers, lay down beside his fellow hunter in the rich soil. He gave Rafael as much blood as he could spare, and helped Colby to pack the terrible wounds with the mixture of plants, mineral-rich dirt, and saliva. Colby was swaying with weariness, covered in blisters from the sun, and sagging to the ground when she was finally finished.

I have never remained this long awake. Vikirnoff looked at her with surprise. You held us all together, refusing to allow even our strongest to give in to the lethargy of our kind. Rest now. If you can hold us, you will not allow him to die.

"Damn right I won't," Colby murmured and slumped over Rafael.

Vikirnoff had just enough energy left to close the soothing soil over all three of them before they succumbed to sleep.


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