As they race to unearth the Magicks that control their future, Tasia’s house of cards comes crashing down. With Pandora’s Box prised open, can the man who holds her heart push back the darkness …
Tasia is finally at home in San Francisco. With powerful friends and allies by her side, she’s finding her feet in the Pack, contributing to the investigation and feeling her way with the fiercely guarded and daunting Alpha. But she has a major decision to make, one that goes to the root of the chains of history that hold her future hostage to the past.
The Oracle’s interpretation of his prophecy raises questions about the allegiances of powerful Chosen. Lady Bethesda’s attempts to entice Faoladh to her side, the tangled history of the CoC, the shadowy presence of an Archmage, the growing role of a powerful Vampire Master and the latent fissures among the First Ones force the team to reconsider their strategy. But a devastating bombshell tears apart a rock-solid partnership, just as Tasia is ready to break the shackles that bind her. As the past comes home to roost, the Alpha must grapple with the darkness he holds at bay. Can he conquer his demons or will the past color the present?
… March 30, 2020
The Siren is Book 3 of Saga of the Chosen.
Some early excerpts from the book are below. Early reader copies will go out soon.
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When fate tangles up two unlikely & improbable Chosen in a complicated knot neither can sever, their brethren are in for a wild ride. Will they ally, against all the odds, to keep the peace or face off on opposite sides of an ideological battle for the soul of the Chosen …
A hunted wizard with immense power & deadly secrets. A dangerous Shifter Alpha with a ruthless streak, a tangled past & an aversion to wizards.
A divided people, held in check by a complicated web of traditions, norms and rules, cobbled together over centuries. A band of unlikely Chosen determined to save their world from a vicious enemy & a disastrous fate.
A mysterious prophecy that promises to change their world for the better.
But tangled pasts, deadly secrets & powerful magic make for strange bedfellows!
“Something is blocking me” a feminine voice declared in unmistakable alarm. “I can’t see anything.”
Her reverie interrupted, she glanced at Tasia. They were on edge; acutely conscious of the peril that confronted them. Culled from the herd, they’d been corralled here. And now, cornered and vulnerable, they faced the prospect of holding off an army on their own. While their friends would leave no stone unturned to reach them, the Pack and its allies might not make it in time. Until their friends came to their rescue, they must hold their own against the hordes circling them.
“What do you mean?” she asked Tasia. This urgency in her friend disconcerted her. When they’d first become aware of their predicament, Tasia had taken it in stride — cool, collected and confident. It had been a balm for she knew that Tasia was to be tested soon under trying circumstances. In the past few weeks, her friend had come into her own, no longer a reticent and retiring Wizard with a predilection for side-stepping confrontations. But now, panic simmered in Tasia’s eyes.
At the sight, dread and foreboding ratcheted up in her. “What is it, Tasia?” she pressed the Wizard, trying to not give in to her own fears.
Tasia hesitated for an infinitesimal second, before capitulating. The explanation came in a rush, her words tumbling over each other in her eagerness. “I’m able to sense Chosen in the vicinity. It’s almost like magic wafts in the air and I see it. But suddenly, I can’t. There’s nothing! Something’s interfering with my ability.”
Despite the garbled explanation, she grasped the gist of the admission. And took a moment to digest it. There had been hints before, even magic feats under extraordinary circumstances, that suggested exceptional, even fantastic, power. Thus, she’d been aware for a while now that Tasia had a lot of magic in her the Wizard chose to keep secret from their brethren. But this was something else. The power to distinguish between human and Chosen was singular and deadly.
Beside her, Nandini’s stifled gasp made it clear that she was not the only one grappling with the declaration. Like her, Nandini was no stranger to Tasia’s capabilities as a Chosen. Yet, the Indian Ancient was staggered by the disclosure.
“You’re sure?” she questioned, trying to feel her way.
“I can’t even sense you guys” Tasia avowed vehemently. “Something’s horribly wrong.”
Momentarily lost for words, she gaped at her friend.
Tasia drew a shaky breath, her face deathly pale. “I cannot defend us” she whispered. “Not if I don’t see them coming.”
There was an exclamation from behind Nandini and the Indian Chosen, frozen in shock, came to life again.
“I can” Nandini declared. “Sense them coming, that is.”
Tasia turned to the Ancient. “How?”
“I’m Naga, bonded to the earth” Nandini said simply. “I’ll know if a horde approaches us. It’s harder with a single person or a small group, but luckily for us, that’s not likely.”
No, indeed, she mused. They had been isolated, segregated and herded here for a reason. Their mother meant to use them to rally her troops.
Wild hope flashed across Tasia’s face. “Are you sure, Nandini?”
“Yep.” The Indian girl’s response came confidently. “They’ll come for us in numbers, Tasia. The larger the crowd, the easier it is for me to read the vibrations.”
“Thank the Forebearers!” Tasia breathed, immensely relieved. Color surged back into the Wizard’s face. “Whatever’s blocking my magic senses has not affected my other powers. If Nandini can warn us, we’ll hold them off.”
“Of course, we will” affirmed an unfamiliar voice from behind Nandini. “Tasia and I have outwitted the Blutsaugers before.”
Startled by the youthful voice spiked with such assurance and certitude, she craned her neck to peer around Nandini.
In the newly converted Pack Room on the first floor, Nandini attempted to soothe her twin.
“Are you sure about this, Dini?” her brother persisted over the phone.
“I’m very sure” she said firmly. “I have to see this through.”
“This sounds dangerous …”
Nandini interrupted him. “She is dangerous, Mahen. And if even half the allegations against her are true, she must be brought to justice.”
Her twin sighed. Dini was fired up and determined to stop their mother. A mother they barely remembered — one who to all purposes was a stranger to them.
“There will be no evidence of her hand in Papa’s assassination” Nandini asserted somberly. “She’s paranoid, careful, and lets nothing stand in her way — it would be like her to have her minions do the dirty work while she kept her hands clean. I can’t just let her walk away from this, Mahen.”
He gave in to his sibling. If she believed that their mother had a hand in the death of their beloved father, then Dini would do everything in her power to ensure that Lady Bethesda was given her just desserts. Mahen, who knew his twin better than anyone else, accepted that she would not be swayed on this matter. But he wished fervently that he could be by her side while Dini embarked on a crusade.
He changed the subject adroitly, no longer attempting to dissuade her. “The Wyrs trying to stop her — what are they like?” It wasn’t an idle query. Mahen wanted to get a sense of her new allies. Without him to watch her back, the job would be up to Dini’s new friends. Until he could tie up the loose ends and join her on her quest.
As intended, his query succeeded in diverting his twin. “Very focused on the goal” she said thoughtfully. “It’s an efficient and tightly-run operation. And they take very good care of Sienna and me.”
“What do you make of Sienna?” he asked, curious about the half-sister they’d had no knowledge of for most of their lives but whose future seemed strangely intertwined with theirs.
“She’s nice.” Nandini’s response was prompt, a thread of affection ringing through her voice. “Quite wonderful, actually. But troubled about the past.”
She paused before admitting something that had preoccupied her recent thoughts. “In a way, we were lucky, Mahen. Not knowing about her was the best thing Papa did for us. Sienna has not been that lucky.”
He said nothing though the quiet emotion in her words struck him forcefully.
“When this is all over, I’d like to invite her to Nagalok for a visit” Nandini said. “You should get to know her too.”
“I’m going to try and sort things here, Dini” he explained. “I want to see this through with you. But it might be a while before I can wrest myself away. Things are a little tricky right now.”
“We have time and I’ll keep you updated” she assured her twin. With their father’s unexpected demise, his affairs had been left in an uncertain state. For most Chosen leaders like their father, the succession of the heir was carefully planned well in advance. This one had not been because their father’s time had been cut short by assassination. A thought that ate at her in her unguarded moments.
“Do not worry about me, Mahen” she reassured him. “I’m guarded by Wyrs. And surrounded by a Guardian and even a First One — though, you know how I feel about him.”
Mahen let that pass. He was keenly aware that Dini did not trust TorElnor’s First One but was nonetheless willing to work with him as long as the Alpha Protector led the investigation. This was because Nandini trusted Raoul Merceau. It helped to assuage Mahen’s concerns. The Alpha had won his twin’s trust with the refusal to abandon her to the Undead when Nandini had made her long-shot bid for freedom from their mother’s house in Oregon.
“What about SivoTar?” he reminded Nandini. “He might be willing to help.”
“He’s been very kind, Mahen. If I request his assistance for me or my friends, he’ll jump in. But to ask him to bring his Eru into this, we’ll have to convince him that she’s a threat to the Chosen.”
“Hmm.” Now that he was the leader of the Kabila, Mahen understood this better. Offering his personal assistance was one thing but leading the people, who trusted him to look out for their welfare, into an unjustified war would be unconscionable for any leader.
SivoTar would never do that. None of the First Ones would. Only the Wyrs and the Vampires tended to follow their leaders unquestioningly, one because it was ingrained in their code and the other because their blood ties to their Master compelled them to do so.
Faoladh glanced up as a young Shifter strode into the room with a phone in his hand.
“There’s a Guardian asking for you, Faoladh. Says she’s a friend of the Oracle.” There was a subtle question mark at the end of the Shifter’s statement. He was too young a Chosen to be familiar with the illustrious Seer. And historically, Shifters tended to be less aware of Chosen that played no part in Wyr affairs.
Faoladh held out his hand for the phone. “Thank you, Ralph.”
The young Shifter made an unobtrusive exit to leave Faoladh wondering why any friend of the legendary Seer would reach out to him now.
“Hello” he spoke into the phone.
“Faoladh” greeted a voice once very familiar to the Wyr. “You’ve been digging up the past.”
“Bethesda” he greeted her politely, doing her the courtesy of using her Magick Façade. “I have.”
She did not mince words. “Why?”
He gave her the simple explanation. “Esmeralda requested my assistance.”
“I’ve done no wrong to the Wyrs, Faoladh” she said evenly.
“You targeted our children” he reminded her.
“I harmed no Wyr children” she retorted.
“You harmed Chosen children, Bethesda. And Wyrs are Chosen too.”
There was a short silence.
“You chose well, Faoladh.” She changed the subject, not particularly abashed by the Shifter’s pointed rebuke. “The Alpha will make a formidable foot soldier for the cause.”
This time, the Wyr let out a chuckle. “I wish you luck, Bethesda. Raoul will never be a foot soldier. And certainly not for your cause. But you’re welcome to try.”
“I won’t have to try very hard.” She was complacent. “He’s a Wyr at heart and will follow you without demur, Faoladh.”
“Don’t be too sure, Bethesda” the Shifter asserted. “He’s a more complicated man than his reputation suggests.”
“He’s a Shifter, isn’t he? Complicated or not” she remarked, a purr of satisfaction in her voice she did not hide from him.
“That he is” Faoladh acknowledged easily.
She tried to goad the Shifter into saying more. “To listen to him, he has no Wizard blood in his veins.”
But the Wyr said nothing, refusing to indulge her.
“Have you read the Seer’s interpretation?” she inquired dulcetly, adroitly directing the conversation to where she wanted it to go.
Faoladh sat up, his anticipation rising. He sensed this was why she had opened communications with him.
“Since when have I cared about prophecies, Bethesda?” he countered suavely.
“I was his wife, Faoladh. I know how much you once cared about a prophecy. Why should this one be any different?”
This time, Faoladh remained silent.
“Whether you believe in prophecies or not, you believed in him” she asserted cannily. “I know that. Read it, Faoladh. You might yet embrace a different course.”
On that note, Lady Bethesda hung up, satisfied at having accomplished her task. She’d planted the seed in his mind. And if nothing came of it, she would remind him again of their history. She had intimate knowledge of the past when it came to Faoladh and the causes dear to his heart.
Faoladh set the phone down to stare into space.
Raoul was interrupted by the rattle of the heavy door before Duncan strode into the Alpha’s Room. The English Shifter, agog with news, went silent as he caught a glimpse of the Alpha’s face. Poker-faced he might be to the rest of the world, but Duncan knew Raoul better than most. He’d watched over the Alpha during his darkest days.
Duncan closed the door to advance into the room. “Something the matter?” he inquired.
“I’m not sure” the Alpha answered, pinning his friend with his unusual gold-colored eyes. “Faoladh is suddenly keen on the details of The Prophecy.”
Attuned to the Alpha, Duncan grasped the subtext immediately. Faoladh, though invested in this examination of the past, had never professed much interest in The Prophecy before. Even though, he’d been the one to inform Raoul about its potential relevance to their scrutiny of Lady Bethesda.
“His interest is unusual — I’ll give you that” Duncan acceded. “But par for the course, given the prominence it plays in her ambitions.”
“For the first time, I heard something in his voice” Raoul said slowly. “A note of self-doubt.”
The gold eyes tangled with the English Were-Alpha’s. “Faoladh, as you know, doesn’t do regrets. Yet, he’s questioning not pushing the GCW before.”
Duncan pursed his lips, reflecting on what they knew. During their encounter, Lady Bethesda had intimated to Raoul that Faoladh was slated to join her; to shield her from her past crimes and presumably, to bring his Wyrs to her side in the upcoming battle for the soul of the Chosen.
“You think this has to do with Lady Bethesda’s declaration that Faoladh will be her champion?” he asked.
The Alpha leaned back in his chair. “He’s worried about something to do with The Prophecy, Duncan. Before, he’d laughed at the very idea of allying with her in any form.”
The English Shifter was not a man to worry about that which might not come to pass, but this was not something to be taken lightly. Faoladh was no mere bystander in this clash. His allegiances held the power to make or break their efforts to thwart Lady Bethesda. And derail this investigation into the past.
“It’s a good thing we get the records soon” Duncan remarked prosaically. It had been a long road to getting any kind of co-operation from the Guardians. Sienna’s friend was a last-ditch attempt. Otherwise, Raoul would mount a siege of Wizard Headquarters to wrest information the Shifters considered crucial to their investigation.
“Sienna’s Guardian is on course?” the Alpha asked. Raoul was aware that his friend had offered up his residence for a party. Sienna wanted to introduce the Guardian to her new allies. He suspected that it was her way of breaking the ice. As well as a careful orchestration of Bergdahl’s first impressions of the company Sienna was currently keeping.
“He flies in the day after tomorrow, Raoul. He’ll spend the evening with us and is scheduled for the morning after with Sienna and Jason in the supplementary Pack Room downstairs.”
“He’s confirmed that he has what Sienna asked for” Duncan assured him.
Raoul met his friend’s gaze. “I’m mighty keen to read the Seer’s interpretation.”
Tasia let everything recede into the background, to focus on the man stalking her. Though every instinct screamed at her to flee, she forced herself to stand her ground. She would never evade him by running away. Her advantage lay in her powers. All she needed was one square hit with a blast of her magic. That would suffice to stop him in his tracks. Easier said than done. He moved like a cat — a sleek, lethal predator with his prey in his sights; single-minded, inexorable and dogged at stalking his game. And, he moved fast, so preternaturally fast that she had to be careful to not blink lest she lose him. To test her reflexes, she directed a few experimental blasts of magic at him. She would only get one chance — once he picked up on her strategy, she would lose her advantage. To her dismay, he skirted her blasts adroitly and effortlessly. The magic bounced harmlessly off the walls, not even within touching distance of the target. As she’d suspected, her reflexes were no match for his speed or dexterity.
She had other abilities, Tasia reminded herself — unique and powerful magic that he could not counter as easily. But she must be smart about deploying her magic against him. Tasia forced herself to slow down and study him, her gaze steady even as her mind worked furiously through the options. He was a blur now, moving so fast that all she glimpsed was a flash every now and then. The long, narrow chamber allowed him plenty of room to stalk her. It was his black tee that allowed her to pinpoint him occasionally, a bright splash of color against the stark white walls, despite the dizzying speed with which he circled her. He was playing with her, like a cat with a mouse. Against her better judgement, Tasia found herself retreating, slowly but surely. It was now or never, she told herself fiercely. He was almost upon her. The trick was to keep it simple. She worked magic even as she retreated, spinning herself a shield quickly with skill and efficiency. Yet, she wished she had the time to build herself proper armor. No Chosen could penetrate her magic. Not even him.
The fast-moving blur with the occasional dark flashes moved inexorably closer. Tasia had only a few seconds to feel relieved by the partial magic shield she’d conjured to defend herself. For she was to be proven wrong almost immediately. The blur ground to an abrupt halt beside her. Her eyes shot to him, adrenaline pumping through her. A powerful leg shot out to trip her, in a move so quick and unexpected that she had little time to even attempt to evade it. Tasia gasped, trying to draw her magic closer. But her shield was incomplete and he slipped under it to sweep her off her feet. She went down with a cry, the sound echoing off the walls in the silent hall. Flailing wildly, she let go of her shield to focus on regaining her balance as the room tilted on its axis.
Before she could crash into the ground, the momentum was interrupted by a muscled arm clamping around her waist. The band of steel clasping her strained as a large palm between her shoulder blades righted her. Swung off her feet to momentarily dangle over the floor, Tasia felt the hard, warm body of the man who clasped her to him. With minimal fuss, she was set back on her feet and released. Tasia glanced up to meet familiar gold eyes set in an attractive face with striking features and tawny hair framing his skull. He would always stand out in a room with a kind of animal magnetism that drew people to him, despite the coldness and the aura of leashed aggression that clung to him like a second skin.
The gold eyes, coldly enigmatic as usual, contemplated her.
“You let me get too close” he remarked.
“I protected myself” she countered, wondering how he’d guessed at the magic armor.
“You cannot allow me to get that close, not unless you’re willing to unleash the heavy artillery” he pointed out.
Tasia bit down hard on her tongue. Truer words had never been spoken, she mused.
Yup, I should never have let him get so close. If only I’d recognized the threat before.
The gold eyes blanked abruptly, his face an arctic landscape without the merest hint of vulnerability. “We’re talking about the training bout” he said evenly.
Tasia roused herself. “Of course. What else would we be talking about?”
His jaw flexed, the only sign that he’d heard the undertones in her response. “Again” he directed. “This time, don’t allow me within touching distance.”
Now he tells me.
The Alpha followed his friend into the Pack Room. A quick glance around the vast room confirmed that the team was all accounted for. Including Maartje, who at his request had joined the investigation.
Roman hailed him. “Prepare to be blown away, Merceau.”
The Alpha’s lips quirked. “Let’s have it” he said, taking up his usual stance by the mantel.
The Ancient waited for Duncan to take his favorite chair by the Alpha, before he addressed the gathering.
“As you know, The Games are held every year at the same venue in Belize. Five years ago, the eco-resort and the arena changed ownership to Setik. I’ve been working on persuading the owners to give me a sneak peek into their investigation of the explosion.”
“What have they found?” the Alpha asked.
Roman almost vibrated with excitement. “It was what they didn’t that is significant, Merceau. They found no traces of explosives at the site.”
Raoul straightened, his eyes flashing to Duncan. Here was a massive hint to the identity of the perpetrator. No wonder Durovic was pumped up. They’d caught an unexpected break, thanks to Roman’s influential First Ones connections.
“I don’t understand.” Hawk looked confused. “Why is this significant?”
It was Atsá who answered his grandson. “It implies that magic was used to set off the explosion, Hawk.”
“Magic” Elisabetta exclaimed bemusedly. “Is that possible?”
“Improbable perhaps, but not impossible, Elisabetta” Duncan contended thoughtfully, a pucker between his brows. “But it would take a very powerful and singularly skilled Magick to pull off something like this.”
Jason pointed out the obvious. “And thus, easier for us to track him down.”
“Yes, Jason.” Roman did not hide his enthusiasm. “Especially, if I can get access to guest list for The Games.”
“Assuming he was a guest” Simeonov countered.
“The resort is surrounded by thick rainforest. The only way to access it is a private airstrip, Stefan. It’s what makes the location so perfect for us Chosen. Whoever set off the explosion was at the resort.” Roman was confident. “They’ll have a record of him, though it might take some sifting through the nom de guerres.”
“A Mage, Roman?” Atsá inquired knowledgeably.
“Definitely Mage” Roman affirmed. “And not a garden variety one, Atsá. One of the Deadlies. That should help us narrow him down.”
“Mage!” a startled Hawk repeated.
Roman shot Duncan an amused look. “What are the Wyrs teaching their young, Were-Alpha? Clearly not Chosen lore or history.”
The English Shifter smiled at the sally. “It’s your Black Mage who gives rise to such confusion in our young, Roman. Not Wyrs.”
A hitherto silent Nandini proffered Hawk an explanation. “First Ones with serious power have been addressed throughout history as Mages, Hawk. But after the Black Mage’s mad rampage, the term acquired a certain notoriety in Chosen circles. It’s not widely used anymore, except by students of Chosen history.” She cast a glance at Atsá, one he acknowledged with a gracious nod.
“And Roman” she murmured.
Durovic looked thunderstruck by the comment. “What do you mean by that, Nandini?” he demanded.
The Indian Ancient deigned to meet his gaze. “What would I mean?” She shrugged. “You’re not an Elder, yet you use the term.”
Roman’s expression darkened, but before he could respond, an amused Sienna jumped in to adroitly divert the two Ancients spoiling for a fight.
“I’m familiar with Mages — the result of an elite Wizard school education.” The comment was directed at Hawk with a smile. “But I’ve never heard of the Deadlies, Roman.”
Controlling his temper with an effort, Roman switched his attention from Nandini to her half-sister. “It’s how First Ones refer to the Mages with deadly magic — Archmages capable of inflicting devastation.”
“How many in the category?” Luis Beltran asked curiously.
“Not many. Living, that is.”
There was a short silence as the Pack Room digested the information. It was a crucial nugget to track the whereabouts of the third sister, but also a complication. A Mage that powerful would change the dynamics of the investigation even by a peripheral involvement in it. Plus, they knew nothing of his motivations, which added another layer of complication to an already complex endeavor.
“Might be worthwhile to pursue this from a different angle” Duncan suggested. “What kind of Mage could set off an explosion with his magic, Roman?”
“Many Mages could rig a small one. But this was not a minor explosion — a chunk of the building collapsed.” Roman looked apologetic. “I’d need more details to answer your question, Duncan.”
“Take an educated guess” the English Shifter encouraged him. “Who’d possess such magic?”
Roman pursed his lips. “A powerful Elemental would be my best guess.”
“An Elemental Mage with the power to cut a building in half” Duncan mused aloud. He wondered how easy it would be to find the Mage. While there were few Magicks capable of the feat, such a Chosen would also know how to cover his tracks well.
“For us Shifters without such vast knowledge of Ancient powers, Roman” Elisabetta chimed in tartly. “What is an Elemental Mage?”
“A First One with power over the elements, Elisabetta.” Roman was unperturbed by the gorgeous Were-Alpha’s sarcasm. He did not expect the Shifters to know the ins and outs of how First Ones classified their magic.
“They’re Eru, correct?” Jason confirmed. As a Guardian, he knew more about the Ancients than the Shifters did. But much like other Chosen factions, the First Ones did not share certain information openly with the others, so Jason used the opportunity to indulge his curiosity.
“Usually, Jason. But not always.” Roman’s gaze wandered to the other Ancient in the room. “We have one amongst us. The Nagas are Elementals.”
Hawk looked stunned. “You can command nature, Nandini?”
The Indian Chosen shook her head. “Not command, Hawk, more like pick up on subtle hints others cannot. The Nagas can read certain signs in nature — interpret slight vibrations of the earth, for instance. I’d say we are sensitive to cues from the elements, much like Wyr senses are hyperaware.”
“But there are Ancients with power over the elements?” Hawk persisted, immensely astonished. Wyr powers came from their physical attributes. And Hawk, young for a Chosen, had not yet experienced the old magic that many First Ones could command.
“Yes” Nandini admitted quietly, not shying away from the question.
Sienna interjected, drawing the young Shifter’s attention. “Mastery over the elements is deadly, Hawk. But there are Ancients who possess more potent magic than that.”
“Sienna has it right” Roman professed soberly. “There are First Ones, there are Mages and then, there are the Deadlies — each with exponentially more devastating magic than the previous.”
“Magic with the power to cause such destruction is too dangerous to keep secret from the other Chosen” Hawk remarked baldly, not mincing his words.
“Out of the mouths of babes” Duncan murmured, sotto voice.
She waited for the last second to leap out of bed, springing for his throat. He stood his ground, letting her come to him. As he felt the nick of a sharp blade at his throat, he smiled. This was an eery replay of her clandestine visit to his room. And though on first glance, she held the advantage, it was he who held the cards. Unlike the night before, the imbalance in their respective heights had her stretching on her toes to hold the knife to the strong column of his throat. She was off balance, and he knew how to leverage that against her. Plus, he had another advantage over her. He’d seen her fight the hulk in the arena this afternoon. The avid spectator had studied her tactics keenly and could gauge her weaknesses in a physical altercation.
“You’re awake” he remarked, throwing a curve ball to distract her. “Good.”
Before she could process his statement, he sent her knife clattering onto the ground with a practiced flick of his arm.
Already on shaky ground, she staggered. Regaining her balance, she launched herself at him again.
“Took you long enough, little girl” he said calmly. “I’ve been making enough noise to wake the dead.”
Side-stepping her lunge neatly to shove her away, he used her own momentum against her. She flew back to land in an ungainly heap on the bed in a tangle of linen.
This time, he did not allow her to regroup. Striding to the bed to loom over her, he kept his face in the shadows.
“You’ll be sorry if you use your magic to slice me up, like you did to your brutish opponent in the ring this afternoon.” The warning was delivered casually, almost conversationally, but the underlying note of steel in the rich tones stilled her.
She made no move to fight him, merely peering up at him from the bed. Fueled by adrenaline, she had fought back. But now, she steered clear. She was out of his league. Not because he’d disarmed her so easily, but because she recognized the deep voice with its smooth cadences and the hint of an exotic accent she could not place. Dispassionate tones that nevertheless flowed over her like expensive aged wine, incongruous in a man of his reputation.
Her fear retreated, usurped by bafflement and curiosity. His presence here confused her — she’d approached him for assistance previously and been roundly refused for her troubles. Untangling herself from the bedclothes, she sat up, her eyes searching his shadowed face.
He stepped forward, to deliberately bring himself into the light. The streak of moonlight fell on his face with its shock of dark hair, the etched features, the hard jaw and the firm unsmiling mouth. In the silvery light, the pale eyes she remembered glittered like jewels in the harshly hewn face.
She sighed. “You.”
A dark eyebrow arched sardonically. “Were you expecting someone else?”
The thought popped into her head that he was not the same man from last night. This man was willing to engage, while the other had shut her down ruthlessly and deliberately. But she had no time to ponder the contradictions. Despite herself, her eyes shot to the door. She was never left unguarded, especially not away from the Nest.
He caught the glance, swift as it had been. “There’s no one to hear us. They’re busy chasing shadows.”
This was ElMorad. If he was confident that they could not be overheard, she would not cavil. Immensely relieved, she chose to ignore the rest of his cryptic statement. Instead, she allowed her eyes to take him in. Unlike their previous encounter, he was fully dressed. Yet, somehow, he seemed more intimidating clothed than he’d been the night before. Or perhaps, that was because he loomed over her while she hunched on the bed. She must rectify that, as soon as possible. While her mind pondered the problem, she noted the jeans and the simple tee that hugged the honed body. As well as the speculation in the light-colored eyes that watched her, like a puzzle he intended to solve. She grit her teeth, her insides clenching at the realization. Of all the luck, she cursed silently. She was already under the hammer for her madness this afternoon — her recklessness in the arena would cost her dearly. But if the Blutsaugers ever discovered that she’d dared to approach ElMorad, there would be hell to pay for her. Monseigneur had nary a sentimental bone in his body. And, took immense pride in his legendary appetite for crushing all dissension.
“Didn’t recognize you with your clothes on” she taunted him, wondering how to get rid of him.
Astonishment flashed across his face, before the eyes softened with something akin to amusement.
“I’m going for my knife” she warned, hoping he would step back to give her room to do so.
He didn’t, merely watching her with that mix of amusement and interest.
So, he wasn’t going to give her even a quarter, she mused. She’d have to deal with him while he loomed over her. But she was determined to hasten his departure from her room. Sliding to the edge of the bed, she retrieved the knife he’d disarmed from her like it was child’s play. She stashed the knife under her pillow before she glanced up at him again. The pale eyes took careful note of the fact that she slept with a knife under her pillow.
“Why are you here?” she asked bluntly, making no attempt to shield her disinterest. She’d already played this particular card and lost. This was not the night she wanted to be reminded of her failures.
A dark eyebrow shot up at the tart question. “Oho, the goose doesn’t like the sauce she served up last night.”
She sighed deeply. “Look, did I cross some sacred line by approaching you? If so, I apologize. Now, may I please get some rest. I have an early morning.”
The Forebearers save her from egoistic Chosen, she reflected savagely. And here she’d been under the impression that she had experienced them aplenty. No one beat the Blutsaugers when it came to raging egos.
“Apology accepted” he responded in his smooth, rich voice. “But you’ve piqued my interest, little girl.”
Right. Of course. She’d been born with the proverbial bad luck penny stuck to her and it refused to fall off, no matter what. Now, to add to her troubles, she’d somehow managed to attract the attention of a man whose reputation made Monseigneur look like a rookie unMagicked Chosen.
“Hooray” she muttered, under her breath.
He ignored her snarkiness.
“Who did you want me to kill?” The pale eyes were steady on her.
“It doesn’t matter.” She shrugged, refusing to dwell on what could not be. “You refused me.”
Silence descended on the room. The pale eyes skewered her, like burning embers in the ghostly light. She suppressed a shiver, unwilling to show any fear before him. Instead, she gave free rein to the flash of anger surging through her. Jumping off the bed, she squared up to him, careful to keep a healthy distance between them.
“What is this?” She did not hide her fury. “You refuse my proposition. And still subject me to an inquisition.”
He met her gaze squarely. “Don’t play games, little girl. You started this last night. Now, you will answer the question.”
She shook her head. “No, I will not.” She was damned if she’d get herself into even deeper waters than the ones already up around her neck.
At her response, the pale eyes clouded over. And though he did not move or say anything, she felt her heart begin to pound as alarm threaded through her.
“The Guardian seems nice” Sara remarked to the group.
Tasia did not disagree with her friend. At first glance, Trevor Bergdahl was not unlike his old pal and current colleague, Jason LaRue. Soft-spoken and articulate, his demeanor was unlike the stereotypical Guardian of yore that most Chosen were familiar with — arrogant, pompous and high in the instep when it came to what he considered his due. But Tasia, on her guard, had nevertheless made sure to give him a wide berth.
“The younger crop is not that different from you and me, Sara” Caro explained. “But the senior Guardians can be very old-school.”
Sara, who had plenty of experience with such attitudes from the Shifters, made a face. “Know exactly what you mean.”
She directed a conspiratorial wink at Tasia. “If Hawk ever gives you any old-school attitudes, you set him straight, Caroline.”
“I’m an enlightened millennial” Hawk protested to his twin as Tasia laughed, her face suffused with affection for her friends.
“He doth protest but I had to nudge him, Sara” Caro explained with a straight face. “Your brother had some very strange ideas when we met.”
Sara looked intrigued. “Share please, Caroline.”
The Wizard leaned forward conspiratorially. “For our second date, Hawk invited me to the Muir Woods to howl at the moon.”
Though she’d spoken softly, there were Shifters around them. As her words died away, an abrupt silence descended on the room. Sudden and pregnant, the silence was unmistakable. Caro grimaced, before carefully blanking her expression. She’d walked into the party tonight with a stern reminder to herself to watch her tongue. And though her words were not a solecism of any kind, they’d drawn the attention of the Shifters — not what she desired or intended for she was merely teasing Hawk.
Tasia, who understood exactly how Caroline felt, exchanged a glance brimful of sympathy and commiseration with her friend. She knew that Caro, much as the Wizard tried to hide it, was sheepish at having drawn the Shifters’ attention. The remark had slipped out inadvertently in the convivial company of her friends. More than the others, she empathized with Caro’s chagrin. It had taken Tasia multiple run-ins before she’d learned to always mind her tongue in the Shifters’ proximity.
For a moment, no one said anything. Sara smiled at Caroline, trying to put her at ease. To Tasia’s surprise, Hawk was remarkably unperturbed. The Ancients were behind her, so she couldn’t tell if they picked up the undercurrents in the room. But Tasia noted that at the far end of the room, Duncan appeared startled and Luis somewhat amused.
Across them, Elisabetta and Simeonov turned their attention to the quartet on the rug. Noting their interest, Tasia cursed silently under her breath.
“Hawk, my man, you’ve much to learn when it comes to women” Stefan Simeonov drawled. Beside him, Elisabetta smiled, readying to enter the fray.
Caro looked confused by the barb, but Sara shot Tasia a look that screamed alarm. This could get ugly real soon. Though accustomed to such jabs from the Shifters, Sara was reluctant to expose Caroline to the sniping and politics within the Pack. Knowing how much her twin liked the Wizard, Sara wanted to keep Caroline far away from the ugliness for as long as possible. Tasia, who did not share Sara’s particular concerns, nevertheless hoped fervently that Hawk would not allow the Were-Alphas to goad him.
But for once, neither his twin nor his friend had cause for worry. Hawk rose to the occasion magnificently. Tasia’s presence at the Lair had wrought changes in Hawk. Before, he’d only ever been responsible for his twin. And even that endeavor had been tempered after Duncan had asked him to keep his distance. But with Tasia, he felt both protective of and responsible for. The past months watching over her while shepherding Tasia through the mine-fields in the Pack had not been completely without any lessons for him.
Hawk ignored Simeonov to address Caro.
“I wasn’t asking you to give the moon her due, babe. The invitation was to watch me howl.” He gave her his devastating grin, seemingly unfazed.
At Hawk’s riposte, Tasia directed a relieved look at Sara, whose expression mirrored her friend’s. Hawk, it was clear, would not be baited. At least, not easily.
In the corner, Duncan murmured something to his companions and Luis grinned in response. The Alpha still had his back to Tasia, but she suspected that he was amused too.
Caro smiled at the Shifter, clearly amused. “Whether I howl at the moon or watch you do it — it’s all the same to me, Hawk. Not my idea of a date.”
“Not me, babe. It’s my beast that would do the howling” Hawk retorted flirtatiously.
Tasia relaxed as Hawk bantered with his Wizard girlfriend. Like Sara, she had a stake in the blossoming relationship between Hawk and Caroline. But unlike Sara, she knew that Caro was made of sterner stuff and would not turn tail at a few barbs from Hawk’s Packmates. It’s Hawk she worried about. Elisabetta was a master manipulator who always seemed to know which of Hawk’s buttons to push. And he tended to rise to the beautiful Were-Alpha’s bait very easily.
Taken aback, Caro stared at Hawk. She knew what a Shifter’s beast meant to him. “Your beast?”
“Yes, and he’s a handsome one. Just ask Tasia.”
From the corner of her eye, Tasia saw a tawny head whip towards them. He moved so fast that it was a wonder he didn’t suffer whiplash, she mused wonderingly. Across her, Simeonov’s eyes narrowed on Hawk, though Tasia didn’t note it. It was all she could do to not hold her head in her hands.
Jeeesus, Hawk! Don’t bait the Shifters like this. Not here.
But Hawk was not done yet.
“Has Tasia seen your beast, Hawk?” inquired Elisabetta dulcetly.
“Yup” he admitted, without missing a beat. “Both of them.”
As the two Were-Alphas readied to pounce on their prey, Tasia decided that she’d had enough. It was time to put an end to Hawk’s recklessness.
But Elisabetta chimed in before Tasia could.
“Getting mighty cozy with the Spell Casters, Stripling” she remarked, a note of unmistakable censure mingled with the other emotions in her voice.
This time, Hawk did not ignore her. He turned to face her, his face reflecting amusement. “You run your love life the way you see fit, Elisabetta.” His eyes flickered ever so gently to where the Alpha watched them with Duncan by his side. “Or lack thereof” he amended softly. “And I’ll run mine.”
Elisabetta’s expression tightened. Hawk had hit his mark.
Simeonov jumped in smoothly to engage Hawk, giving his partner time to regroup. “Your sister, at least, has the guts to publicly declare she dislikes her kind, Hawk” he taunted.
Sara, unperturbed by the jab, nevertheless looked alarmed as fury flashed across Hawk’s face. Elisabetta’s taunts about him he could ignore, but those directed at his twin made Hawk see red.
As the silent confrontation in the room seemed to ratchet up, surprisingly, it was Nandini who got the first word in before anyone else could.
“Roman and I are working around the clock, strategizing to convince the First Ones to join us” the Indian Ancient addressed Simeonov, her words measured. “It will be hard enough to convince them about Lady Bethesda without you adding to it. You know exactly what’s at stake here, Were-Alpha. How amenable do you think they’ll be to our pleas if you taunt a Wyr for associating with other Chosen?”
For a moment, no one said anything. Tasia mused silently that Nandini’s blunt admonition reminded her of a fired-up Sienna, though the Ancient’s rebuke had been deliberate and restrained. Predictably, it was Elisabetta who recovered first. Simeonov seemed nonplussed by Nandini’s curt reprimand.
“We’re Shifters, Nandini” Elisabetta said sweetly. “All discussions, including differences of opinion, remain within the Pack. Caroline understands what getting involved with a Shifter entails. She won’t blab to any outsiders. Will you, Caroline?” she challenged the Wizard.
Before Caro could respond, Atsá chimed in, self-possessed and dignified to a tee. “Caroline is here as Sienna’s guest. She’s under no obligation to keep anything she hears this evening to herself. This is not Pack business, Elisabetta.”
The Alpha did not stray from his side, making no move to play a more active role as the clearing filled with reinforcements. Roman peered into the darkness. He caught a glimpse of Duncan hammering a Blutsauger with Maartje by his side. To his amusement, Jason flung Wizard magic enthusiastically, with Stefan Simeonov tearing into the Undead beside him. It made for an incongruous pairing.
The Wyrs would protest but Roman knew where his duty lay. “Can’t have much blood letting tonight” he said to the Alpha.
Raoul cocked his head. “You want Shifters to show restraint, Durovic?”
“You leave a bloody mess on their front lawn and we kiss goodbye to any co-operation from the Setik” Roman said bluntly. “I’ve been sweet talking them for two days now. They’re about ready to give me access to the guest list.”
The Alpha studied him silently, gold eyes glinting in the moonlight.
“Dude, I’m good” Roman protested, raising his arms in surrender. “But even I can’t affect miracles. First Ones don’t react well to this type of mayhem.”
Raoul did not protest this time.
“Shifters, you heard the Ancient” he directed without raising his voice. “Keep the spilled blood to a minimum.”
Roman sighed resignedly. He knew this was the best he was going to get from the Wyrs.
“Spoilsport” Simeonov threw in Roman’s general direction, even as he rammed into a Vampire. But it was directed good-naturedly.
Raoul shot a frowning glance at the woods behind them that hid the resort from view. Something felt wrong about this though he couldn’t put his finger on it. The leeches would not mount an assault without a goal.
Roman glanced at the man at the center of the chaos, calmly giving the orders to his able lietenants. The Shifters and the Guardian were doing an admirable job of cutting a swathe through the Blutsauger army. Yet, the Alpha’s restraint puzzled Roman.
He waved his hand at the pandemonium. “You don’t intend to partake, Merceau?”
“Other fish to fry, Durovic. Watch our flank.” Raoul knew the Ancient would take the hint.
“You got it” Roman assured him.
“Bianchi” the Alpha called out lazily, his voice deceptively soft. “Don’t hide behind your leeches.”
Roman’s brow arched as the Italian Vampire strode out of the forest. He should have guessed that Rafaelo Bianchi was involved.
As Jason caught sight of Bianchi, he ignored the other Undead, leaving them to the tender mercies of the Shifters, to remind the Alpha. “He’s mine, Merceau.”
“All yours” Raoul conceded. “But first, I want a word with him.”
Ignoring the fierce skirmishes around him, Bianchi sauntered leisurely to the Alpha, flanked by a small coterie of Undead. Though the Vampire was his usual cocky self, Roman sensed that the Italian had not expected to be called out so quickly. He wondered whether Bianchi was surprised to be countered in such force.
“Beast Lord” the Vampire hailed the Alpha genially. “I was hoping to run into you.”
At the greeting, the fighting in the clearing paused momentarily as the antagonists turned their collective attention temporarily to the brewing confrontation. Bianchi’s eyes wandered around him to take stock. Inert bodies of his Pure Bloods lay strewn everywhere, piled unceremoniously on the ground. The Wyrs were a blood thirsty bunch, he reflected. And indefatigable. Plus, they relished physical confrontation, unlike other Chosen. He knew that the melee could go on all night. But Bianchi hoped that his Pure Bloods could buy him the time to play mischief. He had bigger ambitions this night.
“Inform your Mistress to set up a meeting” the Alpha proclaimed brusquely. “She knows how to reach me.”
Bianchi prepared to wrestle with the Wyr in a battle of wits.
“My Mistress deals with Faoladh” he said suavely. “Not his minions, Beast Lord.”
Raoul was unperturbed “She has dealt with me before. Faoladh will not grant her an audience.”
Against his better judgement, Bianchi allowed his curiosity free rein. “Why not?”
“Faoladh is learning to delegate. I’ve been tasked with cleaning up Chosen scum.”
Bianchi’s expression tightened at the insult. But before he could respond, Raoul waved at Jason. “Have at him, LaRue. Just remember, Durovic’s gone all squeamish and wants no blood spilt tonight.”
Jason took the message in stride. “I can punish him without spilling blood.”
Two quick blasts of magic at Bianchi’s entourage had a Vampire shriek in pain and the others move back in alarm.
“Bianchi is LaRue’s, but his leeches are fair game” Raoul authorized his Shifters, before the Vampire’s entourage could target the Guardian.
The command had Maartje and Simeonov swinging for the leeches flanking him, to leave Bianchi facing the Guardian alone. Jason stood his ground, letting the Vampire come to him. He raised his hand as Bianchi flew at him. Something seemed to strike the Vampire in mid-air, a jolt powerful enough to spin him around. He crashed down in an ungainly heap, only to bounce up again to face the Wizard. Watching keenly, Raoul noted that the leech had been brought down by a burst of concentrated magic.
Some of the Clan felled in the clearing struggled to sit up while the Shifters engaged their peers. Before Bianchi could charge him again, Jason directed a hail of blasts that had the Vampire hopping in place to avoid them. The magic, invisible to the naked eye, made it tough for the Undead to swerve them. Bianchi snarled at the Guardian, humiliated before his leeches by the ease with which Jason made him hop and skip in place.
Raoul sensed that LaRue was toying with the leech, building up to a crescendo. He’d never witnessed Jason using his powers before. Engrossed in studying the strategy as Jason demolished Bianchi with ease, Raoul missed the leech behind him. His senses alerted him to the threat just as Roman screamed a warning, but it was too late to react. The Vampire dug his claws into Raoul’s shoulder to draw blood, before the Alpha sent him flying with a mighty blow. The leech landed across the clearing but sprang up quickly, his eyes on the Alpha as he brought his dripping claws to his mouth in a subtle taunt.
Raoul, more interested in the the bout between Bianchi and the Guardian, ignored the leech to turn back to the skirmish. Only to be distracted as a keening sound filled the clearing, echoing over the high-pitched screeches of his companions. Raoul flashed around as the leech toppled over. For an instant, no one said anything, too stunned to react even as the Vampire continued to shriek in agony until Duncan put him out of his misery with a well-directed blow.
All ruckus ceased as the forest went eerily silent. While his Vampires stood shell-shocked, Bianchi staggered like a drunk. Under the light of the moon, he was ghostly white.
“Impossible, Alpha!” the Blutsauger muttered, his gaze unfocussed.
“My patience is running low” Raoul retorted. Now that LaRue had had his pound of flesh, he was ready to get rid of the leech. This whole interprise had the wheels turning in his mind. Something was afoot tonight. “Away, Bianchi. Tell your Mistress that the next time she sends you, I won’t stop the Guardian when he’s done playing with you.”
For once, Bianchi ignored the threat. The Vampire had experienced a monstrous shock. Stunned and dumbfounded, he fixated on it.
In a trance, his eyes sought the Shifter. “This is a dangerous heritage, Beast Lord” he stuttered, his face pale.
Raoul sauntered forward, his eyes narrowed. “Is that a threat, leech?”
This time, the unsubtle menace in the Shifter’s words seemed to pierce Bianchi’s stupor. Throwing around wild accusations against the Beast Lord was liable to get him killed. The Alpha, while cold and restrained, was no machine.
Bianchi drew a shaken breath. “No, Beast Lord. Just a warning.”
The Alpha cocked his head to contemplate the leech in the moonlight, much like an insect under the microscope.
“Remember, Bianchi, I have a debt to collect. When you conspired to put me in a cage, the clock started ticking down” he reminded the Vampire, his voice even.
“I had nothing to do with that” the leech protested.
“You passed along gossip to the Guardian to use against me. I don’t forgot.”