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I cannot lose you, little one. You are my best half. I love you more than I can ever express.Mikhail rubbed his face over hers and kissed her damp hair.

She touched her tongue to a bead of sweat, smiling up at him tiredly. “I think I would always recognize you, Mikhail, no matter how damaged my mind.”

He rolled over, taking her with him so that his weight would not crush her smaller body. “That is how it should be, Raven. You suffered much these past days, and it will stay fresh in my mind for all eternity. Tomorrow night we must leave this region. The vampire is dead, but he has left behind a trail that could destroy our people. We must move to a more isolated area, where perhaps our people can survive the coming persecution.” He brought up her arm to examine the long, deep scratches left by Andre.

“You’re so certain it is coming?”

A faint, bitter smile touched his mouth as he waved to snuff out the candles. “I have too often in my lifetime seen the signs. They will come, the assassins, and humans and Carpathians alike will suffer. We will retreat for a quarter of a century, perhaps a half century, give ourselves time to regroup.” His tongue found the angry marks, and bathed them gently with his healing touch. It was comforting and felt right to her.

Her lashes drifted down, their combined scents lingering in the bedchamber, a soothing fragrance. “I love you, Mikhail, all of you, even the beast in you. I don’t know why I became so confused. You aren’t evil; I can see so clearly inside of you.”

Sleep, little one, in my arms where you belong.Mikhail drew up the quilt, wrapped protective arms around her, and sent them both to sleep.

It was a small group that gathered in the darkness of the tiny churchyard on consecrated ground. Jacques was wan and pale, his wound a raw scar still in the stages of healing. He slipped his arm around Raven’s slender shoulders, swaying a little unsteadily. She glanced up at him with a quick reassuring smile. Behind Jacques, Byron stood close to make certain his friend didn’t fall. Off to one side Aidan stood alone, tall and straight, his head bowed slightly.

The churchyard was on the castle grounds, old, with exquisite ancient architecture, the chapel small but beautiful. Stained-glass windows and a high rising steeple threw a darker shadow across the small graveyard. Scattered tombstones, angels, and crosses were silent witnesses as Mikhail waved a hand to part the welcoming soil.

Out of respect, Gregori had fashioned a wooden box, intricately carved with ancient figures of reverence. He lowered the box slowly into the waiting arms of the earth and stepped back.

Mikhail crossed himself, recited the burial ritual, and sprinkled holy water on Edgar Hummer’s coffin. “He was my friend, my guide when I was troubled, and he believed in the need for the continuation of our race. I never met a man, human or Carpathian, with more compassion or light in him. God shone in his heart and through his eyes.”

Mikhail waved his hand and the earth filled in until it was as if it had never been disturbed. He bowed his head, fought unexpected grief, felt the blood-red tears that escaped unchecked. It was Gregori who secured the headstone and Gregori, a nonbeliever in Mikhail’s faith, who led the final prayer. Their voices, so beautiful and mesmerizing, rose in a Latin chant in the priest’s honor.

Mikhail inhaled the night air, sent regret to his wolves. The answer was a chorus of mournful howls echoing through the dark forest.

Gregori’s body bent first, feathers shimmering iridescent in the moonlight. A six-foot wingspan spread and he glided to the high branch of a nearby tree, razor-sharp talons digging into a branch. The owl’s body went motionless, blended into the night, simply waited. Aidan was next, a peculiar golden color, powerful and lethal, just as silent. Byron’s form was shorter, more compact, his feathers a mantle of white. Mikhail’s solid form wavered in the shadows and he launched himself into the night sky, the other three following.

As if in perfect understanding they soared higher, shimmering feathers beating strongly as they raced silently toward the clouds high above the forest floor. The wind rushed against their bodies, under their wings, riffling feathers, brushing away every vestige of sadness and violence left behind by the vampire.

In the air they wheeled and banked sharply, four great birds in perfect synchronization. Joy erased dread and the heavy weight of responsibility in Mikhail’s heart, lifted guilt and replaced it with rapture. The powerful wings beat strongly as they raced across the sky together, and Mikhail shared his joy with Raven because he couldn’t contain it, not even in the owl’s powerful body. It spilled out, an invitation, a need to share one more pleasure of Carpathian life.

Think, my love; visualize what I put in your head. Trust me as you have never trusted me before. Allow me to give you this gift.

There was no hesitation on her part. With complete faith in him, Raven gave herself into his keeping, reached eagerly for the vision. The slight discomfort, the strange disorientation as her physical body dissolved, did not faze her. Feathers shimmered, sprouted.

Beside her, Jacques stepped back, allowing the smaller female owl to hop onto a tall stone angel before his own large frame compressed, reshaped. Together they launched themselves into the night, soared high to join the other four powerful birds circling above them, One of the males broke formation, circled the female, and dipped close to cover her body with one wide wingspan. Playfully she dropped low to slide away. The other males walled her in, curbing her antics as she learned the joys of free flying. The male owls stayed in close formation, the female in the center, circling above the forest, climbing high into the mist. For a space of time they dipped and swirled, clearly playing, soaring high, plunging toward earth, pulling up to fly through trees and over the heavy blanket of fog.

After some time they settled into a leisurely flight, once more with the males protectively surrounding the female. Mikhail felt the night remove every vestige of tension and dissipate it to the four corners of the earth. He would take Raven far away from the village, give her plenty of time to learn Carpathian ways. She represented the future of their race, his future. She was his life, his joy, his reason for existing; she was his hold on all that was good in the world. He intended to see that her life was filled with nothing but happiness.

Mikhail dropped lower to cover her feathered body with his, touching her mind, feeling her joy. Raven responded by filling his mind with love and warmth and a child’s wondrous laughter at the new sights and sounds and smells she was experiencing. She raced him across the sky, her laughter echoing in all their minds. She was their hope for the future.

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

About this Title

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