Chapter Seventeen


Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop was dark and mysterious, the perfect setting for the beginning of such a fun adventure. Savannah laughed softly as a couple of locals shook their heads at the pack of crazy tourists crowding into the tavern to join the vampire hunt. She could feel Gregori inwardly wincing, the desire to dissolve and be invisible paramount in his mind, but he hung in there grimly. He turned heads with his impressive stature, the power that sat so easily on his broad shoulders. His expression was stoically impassive, the silver eyes restless, merciless, missing nothing.

Within the bar's darkened interior, the peculiar night vision their species had gave them an advantage. Gary flanked them, astonished at how many tourists actually went on these hunts. Savannah shot him a glare. "We're here to have fun, Gary. Don't start acting like Gregori on me. One grump raining on my parade is enough."

Gary leaned close. "If you wouldn't read people's thoughts all the time, snoop, you might not get so bent out of shape."

"I was not reading your thoughts," Savannah objected with an injured expression, her lush mouth in a frankly sexy pout. "It was written all over your face."

Gregori was definitely having a hard time. Carpathian males rarely allowed other men near their lifemates, certainly not unattached males. He hated the press of bodies. Savannah attracted men the way bees went for honey. Heads turned, and hot gazes followed her progress as they wound their way through the throng toward the back room of the building. Savannah exuded steam. Even in a room filled with bodies, so many that there was really nowhere to sit, Savannah made men feel as if she was the only one there. Dimly lit, with flickering candles, the room held a faint trace of mystery, and she was part of that.

It was inevitable that someone would recognize her; it always happened. Gregori was surprised the press hadn't gotten wind that she was somewhere in the city and had every tourist spot staked out waiting for her. He gave a little sigh as the first wave of fans swarmed them, pressing close to Savannah, wanting to get near her. Gregori instinctively placed his solid frame between her and the crowd.

You are going to start a riot.

She signed several autographs, a hard enough feat with Gregori acting like her bodyguard. Gary walled her in from the other side, recognizing the menacing glitter in the cold silver of Gregori's eyes. Savannah paid no attention to the two of them; instead, she was sweet and friendly and entered into conversations with people.

When their guide entered, a faint hush followed him. He was impressive, with his long, thick braid, his walking stick, and his dramatic appearance. Gregori raised an eyebrow at Savannah, but her fascinated gaze was on their host. He lit a candle, held his audience for a moment in a theatrical pause, then delivered a warning about the dangerous journey they would be undertaking. He made it clear that drinkers weren't welcome and emphasized that it was not recommended that small children go on the tour.

He's good, this guy, Savannah whispered softly in Gregori's mind.

Hegrabs everyone right away and holds them. Good showmanship. He is a fake. This isn't meant to be real, Gregori, she scolded it is fun. Everyone is here to have a good time. If you prefer not to go, I can meet you later. It isn't as f it's really dangerous. We aren't going to meet any real vampires. Like hell I will meet you later. If I left your side, every man in the room would be swarming around you.

Gregori knew the moment the two society members entered Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop. He felt the dark compulsion of the kill, knew they were searching for a likely target. He scanned the darkened interior of the bar. The vampire was alive and well, and his dark army was spreading out to do his bidding. No one else could have known they would be here. He sighed. He had not realized until that moment how important a night out for Savannah was to him. A single night without incident.

He followed the group through the door, dropping money into the outstretched hand as he did so. Savannah was close to him, his hand on the small of her back. Three teenage boys were flirting outrageously with her, and her laughter turned heads and earned her the sudden attention of their host and the two society members.

Gregori watched them shift into position, trying to work their way through the crowd to her side, but it was impossible. He concentrated on them, dulling the compulsion, fogging their thoughts so that they found themselves entering into the spirit of the hunt Savannah ended up with a sharpened stake and a conspirator's grin from a fellow showman.

They started walking through the streets at a brisk pace, and as they did so, the crowd stretched out into a long line. Their guide stopped at a home, perched on a fence, and began a dramatic tale of love and murder within. He wove the story brilliantly, putting in enough truth mixed with melodrama to make it credible. Savannah's blue eyes were shining. As the crowd moved forward to follow the swirling cape of the fast-paced host, she bent down to fiddle with the strap of her shoe. Gregori felt her slip away from him and turned to wait for her.

Savannah smiled at him, that sexy, mysterious smile that hardened his body and tripped little bombs off in his head. Her hair slid over her shoulder in a fall of cascading silk. The sight of her literally took his breath away. By the time she fixed her shoe, the two society members were right beside her. Savannah straightened, and that infuriating smile curved her soft mouth. "Where are you two from?" Her voice was beautiful and pure, a blend of seduction and music. "I'm Savannah Dubrinsky. Isn't this fun?"

They felt her impact immediately, the mesmerizing snare. Gregori heard their hearts slam unexpectedly, then begin to race. Her blue eyes caught and held their gazes, trapping them in the silver-star centers. "Randall Smith," the shorter of the two answered eagerly. "I moved here several months ago from Florida. This is John Perkins. He's originally from Florida also."

"Did you come here for Mardi Gras and just stay for the fun?" Savannah inquired.

What the hell do you think you are doing?

Mon Dieu, ma femme, you are enough to drive me crazy. I forbid this.

Savannah fell into step between the two men easily, her enormous eyes wide with interest. Gregori felt the beast lifting its head, roaring for release. The red haze spread, and hunger beat at him.

"We came here to help out a friend of ours," Randall admitted. He began rubbing his suddenly pounding temples. His head was hurting and felt as if it might shatter.

Savannah leaned in closer, her eyes holding his captive. The crowd had once more stopped while their host began his tale of ghosts and unexplained mysteries. His voice cast a spell over the group, adding to the appeal of the story, to the haunting illusion of the night. Randall felt as if he were drowning in her eyes, as if she had trapped him forever in the illuminating starlight. He wanted to give her anything, everything. His head said no, but his wildly beating heart and raging soul needed to confess his every thought to her.

"We belong to a secret society," he whispered softly, his voice so low that only the two Carpathians could possibly hear. He didn't want his partner to know he was betraying the members. There was a curious buzzing in his head, like a swarm of bees. He broke out in a sweat.

Savannah touched him lightly, a brushing of fingers across his arm. Curiously, she brought a refreshing breeze with that touch, one that cleared his head for a moment so that the oppressive pain lightened. Her smile sent a shiver of excitement through him, of such desire and need that he wanted to fall at her feet. "How exciting. Is it dangerous?" She tilted her head, an innocent seductress luring him closer and closer.

Randall was aware of the smallness of her waist, the fullness of her breasts, the sway of her hips. He had never wanted anything more in his life, and her enormous eyes were focused only on him, saw only him. He swallowed hard. "Very dangerous. We hunt vampires. The real thing, not this nonsense."

Her perfect mouth formed a small O. She had beautiful lips, rose-petal soft, moist, pouty, kissable lips.

Savannah, stop now. He is dangerous, whether you think so or not. His mind stinks of the vampire. I might find out where Morrison is. I said no.

Gregori reached out and shackled her wrist, yanking her from between the two men to the protection of his body.

I will not use you to find the undead. He will trace the path back to you. I have no choice but to destroy this one.

Her face paled visibly, long lashes sweeping down to conceal her eyes.

Why not heal him as you did the captain? I cannot heal what is essentially evil.

His thumb feathered gently back and forth across the pulse beating so strongly in her inner wrist.

He is a servant of the vampire, and you know it, Savannah. You knew it the moment you touched his mind. What you can find and trace, so can the vampire. And he is more adept than you. I cannot allow such a risk to you.

Randall crowded close, wrapped in the thrall of mental compulsion. He perceived the hand on Savannah's wrist as evil, a coiled snake dragging her away from her rightful place at his side.

Gregori focused on the partner, John Perkins. The man's mind was stronger than Randall Smith's. The vampire's hold on him was much blacker, as if Perkins had been in close contact for a longer period of time. He was staring at Savannah suspiciously. Gregori could easily pick out the dark lust, the jealousy that she chose Randall for her attention instead of him. Perkins was twisted inside, the vampire's compulsion working on his already depraved mind.

Morrison knew how to choose his servants. The vicious, ugly nature of malicious men, those without friends or relatives, those hungry for violence and depravity. He sent them among the curious, those like Gary, people with quick, intelligent minds open to the paranormal. People isolated by their very intelligence and open-mindedness. The vampire was able to use those intelligent men by luring them with false hopes, false promises, using them for research and the legwork needed for his legions of true servants.

Gregori sighed softly. He was what he was. Guilt could not be a part of his existence. He was responsible for the continuation of his race and for Savannah's safety. He thrust into John Perkins's mind, past the vampire's control, and planted the seeds of destruction. His hand on Savannah's wrist tightened, and he quickened their pace to put distance between the society members and his lifemate.

Once again their guide stopped them all and was weaving a tale of debauchery, and murder. The crowd was silent, captivated by the interesting history of the city. Gregori inserted Savannah into the throng, his larger frame protecting her from the impending violence.

Out on the street, John Perkins stared malevolently at Randall Smith. "You always have to ruin everything, Smith. You always have to be the one to talk to Morrison. I'm closest to him, but you just have to prove you're the big cheese."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Randall demanded, his gaze frantically searching the crowd for Savannah.

Gregori was shielding her, the haze he created making it impossible to detect her in the night. Randall craned his neck, worked to get around his partner, going so far as to shove him out of his way. His heart was beating frantically, his one thought to find Savannah.

"What are you doing, Gregori?" she demanded softly.

Gary inched through the crowd of tourists until he managed to push his way to the Carpathians' side. He was as enthralled by the storyteller as the rest of the crowd. He studied the building with its history of sexual misconduct, fire, and murder with rapt attention.

Gregori bent his dark head down to hers. "I can do no other than eliminate the threat to you. The vampire has a clear trail leading straight to you from this one's mind. It is a trap,

ma petite, and we cannot afford to fall into it."

"You don't mean we, " she said, "you mean me"

Perkins shoved at Randall hard enough to cause the other man to sprawl in the middle of the street. Randall erupted into obscenities, disturbing the storyteller. Their host paused for the best dramatic effect, heaved a sigh, and strolled toward the two combatants.

Gary had noticed police patrol cars cruising the area often and wondered if it was a courtesy to their tour guide. It was possible he even had some way to signal them if there was trouble.

Before the guide reached the two men, Perkins produced a gun. Everyone froze instantly. "You traitor. You were going to betray us all!" he screamed, his face a twisted mask of fury and hatred.

The dark compulsion of the kill was on him, and on Randall, who retaliated with a gun of his own. The crowd ran in all directions, seeking shelter, hiding behind parked cars, and jumping to the other side of fences. Wild cries rose, and the air was thick with fear. Gregori shoved Savannah into Gary and toward the comparative shelter of a brick wall. He stood tall on the walkway, watching the drama unfolding before him.

The guide, clearly torn between the need for safety and the need to protect his tourists, hesitated in the open. Gregori waved a hand to erect a barrier between the man and any stray bullet. The two society members were raging at one another, then Perkins fired a barrage of bullets to meet the ones Randall sprayed at him.

A dark shadow passed across the sky, blotting out the stars, stilling the wind. Both men fell slowly, shirts splattered with what looked like red paint. They landed like rag dolls in the middle of the street, sprawled out, motionless. Their guns clattered to the pavement to look like harmless toys where they lay. The dark shadow hovered, as alarming as the sudden violence that had erupted.

No one moved, no one spoke, no one made a sound. It was as if they knew the dark, sinister shadow clouding the sky was far more deadly than the guns lying so silent in the street.

The large stain spread across the stars, then began to gather itself ominously into a smaller, much blacker and heavier cloud. Dense, compact, it moved slowly, as if surveying the group with an obscene red eye. In its very center a vein of jagged light streaked continually.

Someone gasped. Someone else began a low prayer. After a moment, a few others joined in. The shadow darkened until it blotted out every bit of light above their heads. The lightning veins, jagged and threatening, increased in activity.

Gregori realized the vampire was searching for them. He knew his enemies were near, but Gregori had automatically cloaked his presence, something he did without thought. The undead should have been able to detect Savannah's presence, having followed the faint psychic trail through his servant, but Savannah had been busy, too. Running around so much in Gregori's head, she had utilized the lessons he had learned through hard experience, through trial and error. She was masking her presence every bit as deftly as Gregori was able to do.

It won't make a difference, lifemate.

Her words brushed softly in his mind.

He means to attack and destroy all of those here in an effort to get at us.

He felt a surge of pride at her ability to learn so quickly, to assess their enemy. Gregori stepped away from the huddled mass of tourists, putting distance between himself and the guide. He walked completely erect, his head high, his long hair flowing around him. His hands were loose at his sides, and his body was relaxed, rippling with power.

"Hear me now, ancient one." His voice was soft and musical, filling the silence with beauty and purity. "You have lived long in this world, and you weary of the emptiness. I have come in answer to your call."

"The evil voice hissed and growled the words in answer. The ugliness tore at sensitive nerve endings like nails on a chalkboard. Some of the tourists actually covered their ears. "How dare you enter my city and interfere where you have no right?"

"I am justice, evil one. I have come to set you free from the boundaries holding you to this place." Gregori's voice was so soft and hypnotic that those listening edged out from their sanctuaries. It beckoned and pulled, so that none could resist his every desire.

The black shape above their head roiled like a witch's cauldron. A jagged bolt of lightning slammed to earth straight toward the huddled group. Gregori raised a hand and redirected the force of energy away from the tourists and Savannah. A smile edged the cruel set of his mouth. "You think to mock me with this display, ancient one? Do not attempt to anger what you do not understand. You came to me. I did not hunt you. You seek to threaten my lifemate and those I count as my friends. I can do no other than carry the justice of our people to you." Gregori's voice was so reasonable, so perfect and pure, drawing obedience from the most recalcitrant of criminals.

The guide made a sound, somewhere between disbelief and fear. Gregori silenced him with a wave of his hand, needing no distractions. But the noise had been enough for the ancient one to break the spell Gregori's voice was weaving around him. The dark stain above their heads thrashed wildly, as if ridding itself of ever-tightening bonds before slamming a series of lightning strikes at the helpless mortals on the ground.

Screams and moans accompanied the whispered prayers, but Gregori stood his ground, unflinching. He merely redirected the whips of energy and light, sent them streaking back into the black mass above their heads. A hideous snarl, a screech of defiance and hatred, was the only warning before it hailed. Huge golfball-sized blocks of bright-red ice rained down toward them. It was thick and horrible to see, the shower of frozen blood from the skies. But it stopped abruptly, as if an unseen force held it hovering inches from their heads.

Gregori remained unchanged, impassive, his face a blank mask as he shielded the tourists and sent the hail hurtling back at their attacker. From out of the cemetery a few blocks from them, an army of the dead rose up. Wolves howled and raced along beside the skeletons as they moved to intercept the Carpathian hunter.

Savannah.

He said her name once, a soft brush in her mind.

I've got it, she sent back instantly. Gregori had his hands full dealing with the abominations the vampire was throwing at him; he didn't need to waste his energy protecting the general public from the apparition. She moved out into the open, a small, fragile figure, concentrating on the incoming threat.

To those dwelling in the houses along the block and those driving in their cars, she masked the pack of wolves as dogs racing down the street. The stick-like skeletons, grotesque and bizarre, were merely a fast-moving group of people. She held the illusion until they were within a few feet of Gregori. Dropping the illusion, she fed every ounce of her energy and power to Gregori so he could meet the attack.

The wind rose, whipping at Gregori's solid form, lashing his body, ripping at the waves of black hair so that it streamed around his face. His expression was impassive, the pale silver eyes cold and merciless, unblinking and fixed on his prey. The attack came from sky and ground simultaneously; slivers of sharpened wood shot through the air on the wild winds, aimed directly at Gregori. The wolves leapt for him, eyes glowing hotly in the night. The army of the dead moved relentlessly forward, pressing toward Gregori's lone figure.

His hands moved, a complicated pattern directed at the approaching army; then he was whirling, a flowing wind of motion beautiful to the eye, so fast that he blurred. Yelps and howls accompanied bodies flying through the air. Wolves landed to lie motionless at his feet. His expression never changed. There was no hint of anger or emotion, no sign of fear, no break in concentration. He simply acted as the need arose. The skeletons were mowed down by a wall of flame, an orange-red conflagration that rose in the night sky and danced furiously for a brief moment. The army withered into ashes, leaving only a pile of blackened dust that spewed across the street in the ferocious onslaught of the wind.

Savannah felt Gregori's wince, the pain that sliced through nun just before he shut out all sensation. She whirled to face him and saw a sharpened stake protruding from his right shoulder. Even as she saw it, Gregori jerked it free. Blood gushed, spraying the area around him. Just as quickly it stopped, as if cut off in midstream.

The winds rose to a thunderous pitch, a whirling gale of debris above their heads like the funnel cloud of a tornado. The black cloud spun faster and faster, threatening to suck everything and everyone up into its center where the malevolent red eye stared at them with hatred. The tourists screamed in fear, and even the guide grabbed for a lamppost to hang on grimly. Gregori stood alone, the winds assaulting him, tearing at him, reaching for him. As the whirling column threatened him from above, sounding like the roar of a freight train, he merely clapped his hands, then waved to send a backdraft slamming into the dark entity. The vampire screamed his rage.

The thick black cloud sucked in on itself with an audible sound, hovering in the air, waiting, watching, silent. Evil. No one moved. No one dared to breathe. Suddenly the churning black entity gathered itself and streamed across the night sky, racing away from the hunter over the French Quarter and toward the swamp. Gregori launched himself into the air, shape-shifting as he did so, ducking the bolts of white-hot energy and slashing stakes flying in the turbulent air.

On the ground there was a long silence, then a collective sigh of relief. Someone laughed nervously. "No way, man. What a show!"

Savannah latched on to that reaction, fed it quickly, built the idea in their minds, and softened the impact of what they had seen.

"Great special effects," murmured one teenager.

His father laughed a little reluctantly. "How the hell did they do that? The guy just disappeared into the air." He looked over at the carcasses lying a distance away and swore softly under his breath. "Those are real. They can't be part of some show."

"This is crazy." One of the men knelt beside the two men lying in the street. The guide was checking the pulse of the other one. "They're both dead. What the hell happened here?"

Savannah jumped in again, feeding answers to the collective audience, building their memories of what was real and what was illusion. The two tourists from Florida had argued, then fought before pulling their guns. It was in the middle of an impromptu magic show the guide had asked Savannah to put on for his clients. The pack of dogs had come out of nowhere, frightened by the sound of the guns.

It was the best she could do with so little time. Already the police were swarming around them, taking statements. She had to work at blurring people's memories of Gregori. All the time she was mentally locked with him in flight high over the city and bayou, heading for the most dangerous place of all, the vampire's lair.

Gary stayed close to her side, worried as her face grew more pale by the moment. The strain of being in two places at one time was showing on her. The effort to hold together an elaborate illusion on such a number of witnesses was tremendous. Small beads of perspiration dotted her forehead, but her chin was up, and she was as regal as ever. She captivated the police officer taking her statement.

Gary was certain she had succeeded with the tourists. The entire thing was too bizarre to comprehend, and the memories of Gregori had been eradicated, so the gunfight and dogs were their reality. It was only the tour guide who looked up at the sky with a faint frown and examined the scorch marks some distance from them. Several times Gary caught him staring at Savannah in bewilderment, but the man was far too experienced on the streets to tell such a wild tale when no one else seemed to have seen what he had.

Savannah worked at keeping focused on the monumental task on hand. Her mind was really with Gregori, a part of her merged deep, a haunting shadow in the corner of his mind.

Gregori could feel her presence, her worry for his injury, the loss of blood. He sent her reassurance even as he approached the heart of the swamp. From La Rue's description, he recognized the area. Insects swarmed to do the master vampire's bidding, rising in black clouds to sting and bite anything that came within his boundaries to disturb him. Gregori threw a protection barrier up and continued downward toward the bogs and the black, murky pool. The putrid smell was in his nostrils, the decay and death of centuries seeping insidiously into the surrounding air.

There was no wind to carry away the stench. Sinkholes gurgled and lay waiting for one wrong step. Patches of vivid emerald-green grass beckoned the unwary into their deadly trap. Wildlife and human alike would be attracted to the spots of brilliant, life-affirming color, lured to a slow death as they sank, trapped in the sucking mud the tufts of green hid so successfully.

Gregori hovered in the air above the murky pool. Layers of rock formed a shelf beneath the surface of the water where the grotesque beast anchored its victims to rot the meat. The water itself was thick with sludge, completely unlike the waterways leading to it. There was no sign of the alligator or the vampire.

Gregori scanned the area carefully, cautiously. This vampire was cunning and vicious. This was his home ground, his lair. It would not be an easy thing to trap him here. Gregori felt the presence of evil, knew the vampire was close. He chose the most solid-looking ground he could find as far from the dark, dead waters as he could get.

He used his powerful voice. Soft. Insistent. Impossible to ignore. "You must come to me. You have waited long to face me, and I have come for you. Come to me." Each word was pure and musical, sifting through the air to reach any and all within hearing and draw them out Each note was mesmerizing, hypnotic, a sorcerer's spell. Gregori stood with a lazy casualness, his solid frame masculine and invincible despite the blood staining his shirt high on his shoulder.

He began to murmur softly in the ancient tongue, repeating his command for the vampire to show himself. Reeds swayed along the embankment, then bent like a rolling wave. There was no wind to cause the movement. Out of the corner of his eye, Gregori could see a second wave start, and from a third point, another wave. They came at him so that he was surrounded, the unseen enemy converging from all sides. He waited. As patient as the mountains. As still as granite. Merciless. Relentless.

The hunter.

The assault came from above. The sky filled with so many birds, the air groaned at the unexpected migration. Talons extended and razor-sharp beaks ready, the birds came in fast, raking at his face and body. Gregori melted into mist, but droplets of red marring the green reeds gave evidence that the vampire had scored a second hit.

Gregori had no choice but to materialize to stop the blood flow weakening his body. There was a soft hiss of satisfaction, a grating, rumbling bellow of challenge. The ground beneath Gregori's feet was spongy, sucking at his shoes with a greedy sound. While he searched the moving reeds, the enemy attacked from beneath him, erupting out of the ooze with gaping jaws and jagged teeth. The vicious snap grazed his leg as he jumped backward to sink knee-deep into the muck. He slammed a flimsy block between himself and the alligator, the best he could do as he struggled to free himself. A small reptile lunged at him from behind, another from the left. The smallest one ripped his leg open with a vicious slash of teeth.

Gregori went down in the oozing mud with the small creatures rushing to feed on their prey. They drove in, ripping and tearing in a feeding frenzy. The swarm of insects descended on him, biting and stinging. As he fought his way up, there was a sudden eerie silence. The insects veered away, and the small alligators slithered quickly toward the swamp.

Gregori half sat, the muck seeping into his clothes, blood dripping steadily from his leg, arm, and chest. He heard a single sound in the sudden silence of the bog. A rasp as the enormous creature approached him was his only warning. The beast moved quickly, fast and efficient even in the soggy muck. The powerful tail switched back and forth. The eyes glowed a wicked red, evil and cold. The snout was armor-plated and covered with algae and furred streamers of green goo. It lunged toward Gregori, its fetid breath hot with anticipation of the kill.

A streak of white heat, electric energy, slammed down from the sky and sliced through the bony plates and the thick skin and seared the inner organs. The lunge carried the creature forward despite the solid hit by the bolt of lightning. Smoke poured out of the gaping jaws, carrying the smell of burned meat. The beast drove forward, straight at Gregori's chest, determined to rip and tear, the only thought to kill and devour.

Gregori simply disappeared. The powerful jaws closed on empty air. The beast, mortally wounded, roared and shook its massive head from side to side, looking desperately for its enemy. The vampire abandoned the smoking, scorched carcass, rising into the air with a scream of defiance and hatred. Even as he rose, preparing to flee, to leave his centuries-old sanctuary and run for his life, he encountered a barrier. He was struck hard, the blow knocking him from the sky to the ground.

The vampire lay breathless for a moment, shocked at the incredible strength in that blow. Cautiously he got to his feet, sinking a bit into the dark muck of the swamp.

He had always been larger than legend, larger than myth. Now the vampire knew that the whispers, the rumors, were all true. There was no escaping the Dark One. Gregori had used himself as bait to bring the vampire out into the open. What hunter would do such a thing? Believe so much in himself that he would risk his life? The vampire could feel the blow through his entire body. It shook him as nothing else could.

At once he changed tactics, his harsh coldness changing from reptilian to soft warmth. "I do not wish to fight you, Gregori. I acknowledge you are a great hunter. I do not wish to continue this battle. Allow me to leave this place and go to my lair in the Florida Everglades. I will stay hidden for a century - more, if you wish it." His voice was beguiling, fawning.

Gregori materialized a few feet away. Blood dripped steadily from several raw, gaping wounds. His face was impassive, implacable, the pale eyes like steel. "The Prince of our people has sentenced you to death. I can do no other than carry out justice."

The vampire shook his head, a grim parody of a smile on his face. "The Prince does not know of my existence. You do not have to carry out a sentence he has not commanded. I will go to ground."

Gregori sighed softly. "There can be no discussion, vampire. You know the laws of our people. I am a hunter, a bearer of justice, and I can do no other than to carry out our laws." His eyes never left the vampire, never blinked. The wind was rising, and it blew strands of black hair around his face so that he looked like a warrior of ancient times.

The vampire's eyes went flat and vicious. "Then it begins." Lightning zigzagged across the sky, jumping from cloud to cloud. The wind whipped and roared.

Gregori glided, a fluid motion, gentle, lazy, non-threatening. His head tilted, the lightning reflected in the silver sheen of his eyes. Blood dripped steadily from his wounds. The vampire caught the scent of fresh blood, and his gaze rested greedily on the powerful, ancient liquid of life. Gregori struck so fast, the vampire never saw him move. Distracted by the sight of the lush feast of an ancient's blood, the vampire comprehended he was in mortal danger only when he felt the impact of a tremendous blow to his chest.

Gregori was already gone, standing tall and motionless some distance away, regarding the vampire with cold, empty eyes. Slowly he extended his arm, turned his palm up, and opened his fist.

The vampire screamed and screamed, the sound high-pitched and ugly in the night. It traveled out over the waterways and canals. The undead slowly, reluctantly, looked from the pulsating object in the hunter's palm, down at his own chest. There was a gaping hole where his heart had been. Stricken, he took two steps forward before his body crumpled and he fell face down into the muck and slime.

Gregori's face paled visibly, and he sat down abruptly. Allowing the poisoned, withered heart to fall from his palm, he examined the burns and blisters on his skin from the contact with the tainted blood. He concentrated on gathering energy from the sky, focused, and sent a fiery ball into the vampire's body. The second strike incinerated the contaminated heart. Gregori sank back into the muck and lay staring up at the night sky. It blurred and faded. A strange lethargy took over, a heavy, drowsy sensation. He was floating on a sea, disconnected, watching the dawn streaking the dark sky gray.

His long lashes swept down, and he relaxed into the soft mud. He felt the disturbance in the air above him. He smelled the fresh scent dispersing the stale stench of the swamp. Savannah. He would know her anywhere. He tried to rouse himself, to warn her the dawn was approaching and it was dangerous to be so far from shelter.

Savannah's gasp was audible. "Oh, Gregori." She touched one of the seeping gouges in his chest. It was a measure of his weariness, the damage to his body, that he could not find the energy to close his wounds. She merged with him and tried to force his obedience in the same way he often did hers. He would close those lacerations, would seek the healing sleep of their people, and leave the rest to her.

She searched in his mind for Gary's mental trail, then reached for their human friend.

Hear me, Gary, we are in trouble. Find LaRue. Beau LaRue. He captains a boat for the bayou tours. Tell him to go to the old man alligator's pool. You must come before the sun gets high and get us to a dark place. Even if we appear dead, take us there. We are counting on you. You are our only hope.

She searched the area for the most stable stretch of land. Working quickly and hard, Savannah was able to levitate Gregori's body to the small mound, but there was no relief from the sun. As she bent over Gregori, she realized he had not put himself into a healing sleep. Her heart slammed hard against her chest. Her heart stuttered. Gregori was too weak from loss of blood to comply, to heal himself. Quickly she sealed the wounds herself, once more utilizing the information in Gregori's memories. Jerking off her jacket, she lay beside her lifemate, covering both their heads with the material. Slashing her wrist, Savannah laid her arm over Gregori's mouth, allowing the life-giving substance to flow into his depleted body, stroking his throat to coax him to swallow.

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