STORY


As they race to untangle the past and thwart a ruthless enemy, Tasia must face her toughest decision yet. Can she take a leap of faith to follow her heart – and risk her deadliest secret?

Tasia Armstrong is no longer a nondescript, friendless and naïve Wizard flying under the radar on the fringes of Chosen society.  Now publicly associated with a powerful Shifter Pack, she must navigate the minefield of Pack politics while guarding her secrets from the Chosen who hunt her.

With a Pack to defend her, a powerful Alpha to protect her interests and friends to watch her back, her life is a far cry from before. But living with the Shifters holds new challenges for a Chosen more used to the shadows. Pack gossip leaves her floundering, her equation with the enigmatic Alpha teeters on the brink, her unique affiliation with the Shifters draws unwelcome attention and the mysterious terrifying nightmares have her constantly on edge. But, it is the investigation that poses the greatest threat to Tasia.

The stakes have never been higher as old fault lines, long-buried secrets, Wizard dysfunction, and Lady Bethesda’s ambitions bring the Chosen ever closer to a civil war. While Tasia grapples to avoid the pitfalls and confront her demons, it is an unlikely nemesis who forces her to face her moment of truth. Tasia finds herself at the crossroads – at stake are her carefully constructed house of cards and her tangled relationship with the man who holds her enemies at bay. Will Tasia risk opening Pandora’s Box or will she walk away to disappear into the shadows again?

 

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The Rainmaker is Book 2 of Saga of the Chosenan urban fantasy epic.
The books are not standalone and are intended to be read in order.

The Siren will continue the story.

 

Author’s Note


If it has been a while since you read The Prophecy, this Glossary of the cast of characters is available as you read The Rainmaker.
It does not give away any spoilers, but is intended as a quick reference to jog memories.

 

 

A house, suburb of Chicago

The elegant lady perusing the document glanced up at the knock on the door. This is what she had been waiting for.

“Come in.” She allowed no trace of her impatience to seep into her voice.

A palely handsome man walked in to greet her.

“My Lady.” There was deference in his voice. “I hope your trip was successful.”

“Yes, Rafaelo” she responded imperturbably.

The man directed a searching glance at her. Had the Lady been informed about Belize, Rafaelo wondered. She seemed unperturbed. Since the Lady had never evinced much interest in the girl before, perhaps Monseigneur had kept the news from her.

News of the turmoil in Venice had reached his ears. The nest’s grapevine was abuzz about Belize. By all accounts, Monseigneur was furious at the incompetence of his Pure Bloods. And rightly so. Heads had rolled, literally and figuratively. Rafaelo couldn’t help but wonder at the rumors that Monseigneur’s intended had been stolen from under his very nose again. That would make it the second time Monseigneur had been thwarted in his choice of bride. The Master of the Lombardi Family, not a very understanding man at the best of times, must be livid. Rafaelo was glad he wasn’t the Pure Blood responsible for either mishap, the one now or the one a quarter century earlier. Monseigneur’s punishments were notorious for the terror they instilled in his Pure Bloods. The Lady he now served at the Master’s orders was a lot more willing to forgive small missteps.

“Make arrangements for a trip to San Diego, Rafaelo” the Lady directed authoritatively. “It is time to retrieve the object.”

Rafaelo knew what object she referred to. He had, after all, had a hand in creating the artifact. Unfortunately, he knew that its retrieval might have to wait. There was a minor snag.

“Sienna McAlister is not in San Diego, My Lady” he said.

“Not in San Diego.” She looked puzzled. “Then, where is she?”

“She’s in San Francisco at the local Lair.”

This time he had succeeded in surprising the lady.

“The Shifter Lair?” Her eyebrows arched up in astonishment.

“Yes.” Rafaelo’s response was succinct. Her astonishment was well justified. Rafaelo had been just as bewildered and mystified by the news. This strange alliance between the Shifters and Wizards confused him no end. The Spell Casters had always looked down on the Wyrs. Rafaelo knew the Wizards considered the Wyrs only one step up from the Undead. Yet suddenly, the Spell Casters seemed to be inexplicably courting an alliance with the Wyrs. And to his great astonishment, the Wyrs seemed responsive. To add fuel to the fire, the Wyrs at the center of this strange courtship were led by an Alpha Protector who made no bones about his very strong dislike for Spell Casters. Something weird was brewing here that made Rafaelo very curious.

“My Pure Bloods are keeping tabs on her” he explained. “She does not venture out of the Lair by herself.”

“What is Esmeralda up to, I wonder.” The Lady was thoughtful, leaning back in her chair to give the matter her full consideration. An invitation to a Pack Lair was rare enough for anyone not Pack, let alone a Wizard. How had the First Wizard managed such a feat? Could there be more to Esmeralda’s alliance with Faoladh, she wondered. Faoladh was more than the Wyr Representative to the Council of Chosen. He was the Wyr his Shifters looked up to as the foremost Alpha of them all. Respected widely throughout the Chosen diaspora, no Shifter, not even a powerful Alpha Protector, would dare deny a request from Faoladh. Had the First Wizard requested Faoladh’s assistance to guard Sienna, the Lady pondered. If so, that certainly spoke volumes for the First Wizard’s faith in her Guardians, she mused with a touch of glee.

“Any rumblings from the GCW on this?” she asked Rafaelo. The Lady had her own sources amongst the Guardians who kept her remarkably well-informed on the latest from San Diego. But since she had been out of the country for a week, her information was a little out of date. The Vampire, she knew, had his own sources of information and gossip in their world.

“Plenty of rumblings, My Lady” Rafaelo confirmed gleefully. Nothing like watching the turmoil in the world of elite Wizards, he mused. The Guardians were as elite as they got. “Jason LaRue, the Guardian assigned to liase with the Shifters, has also chosen to make the Lair his temporary residence. That is not going down well with his fellow Guardians.”

“Hmm” she murmured thoughtfully. This was interesting. Infinitely interesting. There was something more going on here, something more than safeguarding Sienna. What was Esmeralda cooking up, she couldn’t help but wonder. Whatever it was, it certainly had Faoladh’s support. This the Lady was confident of — the Shifters had not invited a Guardian into their Lair without being taken kicking and screaming to the well. While she’d ignored the early reports of Esmeralda cozying up to Faoladh, now the Lady wondered if there wasn’t a bigger game afoot. Faoladh was a canny operator, and deserved to be watched more carefully. She wondered if Faoladh was testing her faith. If so, she’d give him a sign that she was watching from the shadows, waiting for him to make his move.

Perhaps, it was time to test this alliance between Faoladh and the First Wizard. An uneasy partnership, it would be easy to rip apart. It might even force the elusive knight out of the shadows. The Lady was content to let the minor skirmishes play out now, as long as the Knight Protector revealed where his true allegiance lay before the real battle commenced. That was why she was biding her time. Once she had retrieved her artifact and forced the knight to show his hand, she would make her move.

“The Alpha that leads the Pack in San Francisco?” she prompted.

“Raoul Merceau.”

“Yes, Merceau.” She had heard of him — a Shifter fast gaining a reputation as a formidable Alpha Protector at an unusually young age.

“You say that his dislike of Wizards is well known, Rafaelo?”

This bit from Rafaelo had rather surprised her. It made absolutely no sense for Faoladh to handpick a Shifter, with a reputation for despising Wizards, to lead an investigation into a long dead Guardian. Unless, Faoladh was playing a devious game, she mused. She wouldn’t put it past Faoladh to put a younger upstart Alpha, dogging his heels, publicly through his paces. That would certainly kill two birds with one stone.

“Yes” Rafaelo assented. That the Alpha had Wizard heritage on his mother’s side was less well known. A heritage the Alpha had turned his back on to build himself a formidable reputation as a Wyr not to be messed with.

The Lady pondered the matter shrewdly. If the Alpha was sheltering two Wizards at Faoladh’s behest, then manipulating him to release Sienna into her custody shouldn’t be too difficult. But first, they’d need to dig more into this Alpha. It would help her decide which buttons to push to bring him to heel.

“What do we have on his mother’s family?” she asked.

“Nothing yet, My Lady, but I hope to have something for you soon. My Pure Bloods are on it.”

“Also dig into why he dislikes Wizards so much. It might be time to test his allegiances.”

“My Lady?” Rafaelo looked puzzled. He was all for teaching the Alpha a lesson for messing with their business in Chicago, though he had a bad feeling that it would take something spectacular to teach this particular Shifter a lesson. This one was as smart as they came. In Chicago, the Beast Lord had outsmarted the Vampires adroitly, by whipping up and holding together an unlikely coalition to stare them down. The feat had won Rafaelo’s grudging respect, but it had made him more cautious.

“Let’s see if we can make it unpalatable for him to host Wizards in his Lair” she directed imperiously.

“Understood, My Lady” the Vampire responded enthusiastically. This should be fun. This was the kind of thing he enjoyed.

“You have news of the other matter?” she asked.

“The old man died a week ago. His son has been crowned the new chief of their people.”

“I see.” She was not noticeably perturbed by the demise of her one-time husband. “Any fallout from the circumstances of his death?”

“No inquiries have been made yet, My Lady.”

“Good. Get me the information on the Alpha as soon as you can.”

“Unless you have need of me, My Lady, I’ll head to San Francisco tomorrow to dig some more, while my Pure Bloods check up on the Alpha’s background.”

“Go, Rafaelo. And let me know when you have news for me.”

Nagalok, Himachal Pradesh, India

“Dini.”

Nandini blinked awake from her silent contemplation of the beautiful vista before her. The mountains in the distance rose majestically, their snow-capped ridges glistening silvery white in the sun. This view never failed to soothe Nandini. But today, even the beauty of the mountains could not calm the turmoil in her heart. A turmoil that her brother shared, even though he’d never allow it to be revealed to the world. But she knew better.

Nandini patted the bench beside her in silent invitation. Her twin joined her on it, a small wooden bench set amidst the garden that their Ayah, Sita Amma, lovingly tended.

“I’m fine, Mahen” she assured him, responding to his silent question. “Don’t worry about me. What about you — how does it feel to lead the Kabila?”

“I’m learning every day” he answered in his quiet way.

She looked him over, affection shimmering in her eyes. Mahen was strong, a core of determination and resilience running through him. A man of few words in the mold of their father, he was thoughtful and deliberate in his decisions.

“I get good advice from the elders, and I had a very good teacher.”

“The best” she agreed soberly.

It had been a week since they’d cremated their father. Mahen had been allowed no time to grieve the father who had brought them up single-handedly after their mother’s death. Instead, he had been grappling to deal with the Kabila he now led as their king. They were twins, but Mahen was the older by ten minutes — he had been designated as the hereditary heir to their Kabila from birth. All his life, he had followed their father like a shadow, watching and learning how to handle the matters of the Kabila he would one day lead. That day had come a lot sooner than either of them had ever imagined. She, on the other hand, had enjoyed a more normal childhood. Relieved from the burden of expectations, Nandini had been freer to make her own choices in life.

“I need a favor, Dini” he said abruptly.

Nandini glanced at the only person in the world she knew as well as she did herself. He looked very like their father – a big man with an angular face and a shock of thick dark hair that sprung forth from a widow’s peak. His only inheritance from his American mother was the color of his eyes, an unusual indigo that looked almost black so dark was the blue in it. She shared the unusual eyes with her brother, as well as a strong, unshakeable bond that only twins could claim. He was a man of few words, shackled by his responsibilities and determined to put the welfare of his Kabila over his own. She preferred to live her life amongst the humans.

“Of course” she assented promptly.

“Do you remember what Papa said that last night?” The indigo eyes were very sober.

Nandini nodded. That night would be forever etched in her memory. There had been the bad news about her father, the desperate dash to make it home in time to be with him, and finally, the long night spent in vigil by his bedside with Mahen and Sita Amma.

“Something about Ma being alive” she said slowly. So much had happened since that night that Nandini had not had the time to process everything. Papa had been confused and in bad shape, and a part of her had believed it was a dying man’s delirium talking that night.

“Dini, he left something for us with Sita Amma” her brother said gravely. “A letter and some documents. Ma did not die like everyone said she did.”

“But all those stories they told us about her” she protested, bewildered by his words. “We visit her grave in Shimla, for God’s sake, Mahen. How could she still be alive?”

“I don’t know, Dini. All I know is what Papa said in the letter. She left us when we were young. Just walked away from us.”

“Walked away” she exclaimed. “What do you mean, walked away?”

“I’m confused too, Dini” he said gently. “Papa’s letter makes it clear that he did not go after her. Instead, he crafted the story of her death for us, you and me. No one except Sita Amma and a few of the elders know the truth. Everyone else believes in the same story we did.”

“I don’t understand any of this” Nandini reiterated. “How could Ma have just walked away from us?”

Her brother put his arm around her to hold her close. “I know, Dini” he soothed softly. She was always the one to wear her heart on her sleeve, this sister of his. Where he was grave, sober, and too mature for his years, Dini was a ray of sunshine, with a friendly word for anyone whose path she crossed.

Mahen wished that he could hide this from her, just handle the matter himself and save her from the heartache. But he couldn’t. She deserved to know the truth. And, he had too many responsibilities here to abandon right now. He would need her assistance to dig into a past that seemed to have come to their doorstep again.

“Two months ago, some men began asking about Ma in the village. The villagers reported the inquiries to Papa. I don’t know what tipped him off, but that is when he wrote the letter he left for us. For some reason, he suspected that Ma might be in danger. That last trip to Shimla was about this. He went to meet with someone he thought might know Ma’s current whereabouts, so he could get a message to her — this I got from Sita Amma. He came back from Shimla in very bad shape. You know the rest.”

He held her tighter in his arms as he prepared to give her the bad news.

“Doctor Uncle just gave me the news, Dini. Papa did not die of natural causes. He was stabbed in Shimla.”

“Stabbed.” Nandini was stunned, not just by the act of violence against her father but also that it had proved fatal. Their people were descended from the First Ones, the Magicks the Chosen referred to as the Ancients. Powerful magic pulsed in their veins. Killing one of their brethren was a difficult feat. Killing their king, a Chosen with dollops of power, was near impossible. He had died young for a powerful First One. But while Nandini had known at a subconscious level that his death had not been natural, murder was not something she had ever considered.

“His body was able to heal from the knife wound, but it didn’t recover from the poison released in him” Mahen continued.

“Poison” Nandini whispered. This had been cold-blooded murder, she realized.

“He might not have been aware of the poison in him until it was too late for him to heal himself, Dini.”

There was a moment of silence between them. Then, Nandini’s arms came up to hug her brother tightly.

“You think Papa was right, Mahen? Ma is alive somewhere and she might be in danger?”

“That’s what he was trying to tell us that night when he was dying. He made us promise to warn her.”

“I’ll go, Mahen” she offered immediately. Nandini knew how hard it would be for her brother to leave the Kabila and make the journey to a different continent on a quest to find a woman believed dead for over twenty years now. He was the new leader of their people and his first duty would always be to them.

“It might not be easy to find her, Dini” Mahen warned. “And it could be very dangerous if the people searching for her came after you.”

“I’m Naga too, Mahen” she reminded him. Though she did not often choose to exercise it, she was a powerful Eru trained to use her powers.

Mahen smiled slowly, an attractive smile that lit up his face, transforming it to boyish and appealing when moments ago he had been sober and grave. “I know what you can do, Dini. Otherwise, I would insist we find Ma together once things calm down here.”

She could hold her own, this sister of his. But Mahen was uneasy. Their father, a powerful First One, had been blindsided by the men who hunted their mother. Nandini, forewarned of the threat, would still need to be very careful. He had taken steps to ensure that his sister was protected by one of the more influential Eru in their world. Yet, he was still disquieted by this venture. Only the death bed promise made to their father held him back.

“Be very careful” he reiterated. “Stay in touch and come home if things get too dangerous.”

“Remember” he said gently, as he met her gaze. “I’m trusting you to recognize the danger to yourself, Dini. I would never forgive myself if anything happened to you.”

No, he wouldn’t. Not Mahen, her responsible, sober twin and the conscientious leader of their people. Nandini knew that.

“I’ll be very careful. I promise, Mahen” she assured him earnestly.

He nodded soberly. Dini was very powerful — she had their father’s blood in her veins, just as he did. The difference between them was one of training and experience. While he’d been groomed from an early age to be king, Nandini was no shrinking violet. She knew how to use the magic that was her heritage.

“There’s not much to go on from the documents Papa left with Sita Amma. A copy of Ma’s American passport and a copy of the document used to apply for a marriage license in Shimla. In it, she lists an address in Portland, Oregon. Also, Papa’s letter tells us that she was a Level Two Wizard.”

“Wizard, hmm” Nandini murmured. “Perhaps, Wizard Headquarters might have some record of her.”

“I talked to SivoTar” Mahen said. “He called to offer condolences for Papa. He’s offered to provide any assistance you require, Dini. His people will meet you at Portland Airport.”

“Portland?”

“You’ll go much further with his assistance, Dini. And, I would sleep easier knowing that you weren’t alone. See if you can trace Ma’s whereabouts in Portland first before you head to Wizard Headquarters” he suggested.

Nandini found herself acquiescing to her twin’s request. Mahen was right — this endeavor would not be easy. If her Ma had been presumed dead for twenty years, she would not be found that easily. Especially, if Ma suspected that she was being hunted.

Amongst all the factions, the First Ones were the most disparate group of Chosen, with vastly differing powers and abilities. As they had for centuries, these groups of First Ones continued their ancient traditions and customs, passing the old ways down to their descendants, reluctant to dilute their legacy in any way or form. Most Ancients primarily considered themselves to be custodians of their illustrious heritage — very old magic from when the first Chosen walked the earth.

Centuries earlier, at a time of great upheaval in their world, the First Ones had banded together to form two loose confederations, based on their brand of magic, in a bid to protect their dwindling numbers and to keep their existence a secret from the humans. Like other Chosen, the Ancients too held the Supreme Edict to be paramount. Mostly self-classified, the Ancient identity was based on the origin of their power — Setik’Aar or Eru’Aar. Eru’Aar literally translated to ‘of the soil’; the First Ones who identified as Eru received their power from the various elements of the earth. The Setik, on the other hand, were a group of First Ones whose magic was derived from other sources. This very loose division persisted even today.

The Nagas identified as Eru. SivoTar, a powerful and influential Eru, had been a friend of their father’s. Every few years, Eru from around the world were known to meet in seclusion to discuss threats to their kind and explore ways to further their interests. SivoTar and their father had struck up a friendship at one such conference. A friendship that had stood the test of time much after their father had stopped attending the conferences, following the death of his wife.

“Once you’ve warned her, as Papa wished us with his last breath, Dini, we’ll track down the people that poisoned him.” There was an implacable determination in Mahen’s voice.

Nandini had no doubt that her brother could carry through on the promise. Mahen was a man of his word.

Nandini met her brother’s eyes, her own a mix of mingled grief and confusion. She would track down their mother to deliver the warning from their dying father. And, she’d demand answers from the mother who had walked away without a backward glance. Then, she would join Mahen on the quest to hunt down their father’s murderers.

Pack Lair, San Francisco

Tasia’s attention wandered to the charismatic tawny-haired man with the remarkable gold eyes, currently engrossed in conversation with Jason LaRue. Those gold-colored eyes, superbly skilled at screening his thoughts from the world, could flash cold fire when displeased. She had seen him bring his Were-Alphas, powerful Shifters in their own right, to heel with one fulminating glance from those unusual eyes. The man was an enigma — dangerous, ruthless and inflexible, but also complex, unfathomable, impenetrable. In short, a walking mass of contradictions.

Even as myriad conversations drifted around her in the Pack Room, Tasia ignored them to silently ponder the conundrum of Raoul Merceau. At first glance, he embodied the uber testosterone-fueled Shifter Alpha of Chosen lore — aggressive, dominant, territorial, autocratic and ruthless; intolerant of dissent and capable of swift and brutal retaliation when faced with anything but absolute fealty from his Shifters. Unlike other Magicks, Shape-shifters derived most of their power from their physical prowess. The Were-Alphas of yester years, who had once run their were-packs with complete autonomy and absolute control, had been notorious in their day, too. But the Alpha Protectors of today, who led the new paradigm of Shifter Packs, had taken control and power over their Packs and territory to a different level altogether.

Her front row seat at a Shifter Lair had given Tasia an appreciation for the onerous and often Herculean task that faced an Alpha Protector. She was beginning to understand that the nature of the role left no room for ambiguity. That perhaps, a scorched earth approach was the only way to control such a fractious and volatile group of Chosen. Given that Shifter collectives tended to be populated by belligerent, violent and paranoid Chosen, often an Alpha’s only recourse was to wield control and power with brutal and ruthless ferocity.

The most self-controlled man she had ever met, he was coldly distant and curiously detached from everything and everyone around him. Theirs had been a thorny and difficult relationship of dramatic ups and downs. Since the night Hawk and his Alpha had crashed into a darkened room to rescue her while she lay terrified and bleeding from a Blutsauger’s bite, Tasia found herself engulfed in a world alien to her. That night had forged a peculiar bond between them. She trusted the Alpha to defend her, to keep his word to her and to safeguard the secrets she revealed to him. In all other matters, Tasia made sure to keep her distance from him, wary of the intimidating Shifter with the cold eyes capable of a whisper-soft menace that frightened her.

Theirs was a strange relationship, one forged out of necessity and compulsion on her side, and a sense of obligation on his. A part of her trusted him instinctively, while another feared the violence she sensed buried deep within him. There was a darkness and a coldness in him that put Tasia on her guard, making her circumspect around him. Like a tightly-leashed volcano holding its fire within with an iron-will, he possessed the ability to obliterate everything in his path if the control over his inner aggression ever unraveled. This sense of a tight leash over his self was the first thing she had noted about him. And, that this man would make for a very bad enemy.

The Chosen world whispered Raoul Merceau’s name with a mix of fear, awe and respect. And Tasia, decidedly bruised by some of her encounters with him, believed everything they whispered about him — and then some. Dangerous and relentless, he could be ferocious when crossed. Yet, amidst the strains, there had been the occasional glimpse of a different man under the mask, one at odds with his reputation. The man was an enigma, an uber Wyr at his heart and yet, one that continued to surprise her at every turn.

She had lived at the Lair for seven weeks now, a roller coaster of a ride. And Tasia could admit to herself that the experience had been enlightening and enriching, despite the many moments fraught with fear, uncertainty and wariness. She had forged a few relationships in the Pack. Sara, Hawk’s twin who had a strained relationship with her own Pack, had become a friend. Duncan, the powerful Were-Alpha with the Alpha’s ear, could always be counted on to ply her with sound advice on navigating the pitfalls of a Pack. Above all, there was an unshakeable bond with Hawk, formed on a dark night when she had risked everything to release a wounded Shifter in beast form.

All her life, she had adhered to her father’s advice to keep her distance from the Chosen. She had heeded his warning because Tasia understood only too well the catastrophic consequences of becoming a powerful Chosen’s prey. Once, she would have run in the opposite direction to avoid any association with the Shifters. Now, circumstances had left her little choice but to accept the Alpha’s bargain. For a girl unused to her Chosen brethren, this experience with a Shifter Pack had been a difficult journey with a tough learning curve. Having abandoned her father’s adage, Tasia knew her path forward was likely to be challenging, treacherous, and strewn with pitfalls. On this unchartered excursion, she would be guided only by her abilities, instincts and wits, and, assistance from her new friends and allies. She could not afford to take a false step, or trust in the wrong ally. The stakes were now abnormally high for her, even more so than before.

“Hey Tas.” Hawk plopped himself down on the couch beside her, his handsome face lit up with a smile he seemed to reserve specially for her.

“How’s the party prep coming along, Hawk?” Sienna inquired from her seat across from Tasia. “Let me know if I can help in any way.”

“I could use some help with the catering” Hawk admitted easily, his glance encompassing both Wizards. “Alph’s extended an invitation to the local Wizards. It warrants some variety in the cuisine.”

Sienna arched her eyebrow, taken aback by Hawk’s words. The party was a celebration to mark their success in Chicago. Three Wizards, Sienna, Jason and Tasia, had been part of the team in Chicago, though Sienna supposed that Tasia’s Wizard status took a backseat to her Pack status, especially to the Shifters in the Pack. The local Wizards had played no part in the investigation. Moreover, the Alpha’s dislike of her kind was no secret. Given that, why on earth had the Alpha extended an invitation to the local Wizards, Sienna wondered.

“No Guardians have been invited” Hawk remarked mischievously, correctly interpreting Sienna’s astonishment. “Except for Jason, of course.”

Guardians were the elites of the Wizard world, responsible for policing and protecting their brethren. The Alpha had publicly thrashed a Guardian a few weeks ago for daring to kidnap Tasia. And, the Chosen world still buzzed with gossip about the humiliation meted out to the powerful Wizard.

“But invitations have been sent to some local Wizards and a few local Ancients. Your friend Caroline will be here” Hawk directed at Tasia. “She RSVP’d.”

Magicks, beings with magic in them, believed they had been chosen to be bestowed with special powers. These Chosen organized themselves into four factions, based on their brand of magic — the First Ones or Ancients, Wyrs known in the vernacular as Shape-shifters, Wizards and the Undead, also known as Vampires, Blutsaugers or collectively as the Clan. The four factions kept to themselves, were responsible for policing their own, objected vociferously to outside interference, and followed their individual and contrasting traditions, customs and rules cobbled together over centuries of existence. The only thread to hold all factions together was an absolute belief and adherence to the Supreme Edict — thou shallst not reveal your brethren to the not Chosen. The ramifications of breaking the Edict would be fatal to their very existence. No amount of powerful magic would save the Chosen if the humans ever discovered their presence amidst them. Until the advent of the Council of Chosen, these Chosen factions had kept their interactions with each other to a minimum. The CoC had come into existence twenty-five years ago as a forum to foster communication, co-operation, understanding and unity between the factions. The Council, meant to usher in a new era of co-operation between Chosen, comprised of four representatives, one from each faction. Faoladh represented the Wyrs, the First Wizard her brethren, ElThor his First Ones, while the Vampires had a system whereby the Masters of their illustrious Pure Blood Families rotated on the Council to represent the Clan.

“I can certainly help with that” Sienna piped up good-naturedly. The Shifter diet consisted almost exclusively of hunks of meat since their super-active metabolism demanded a high protein diet. No wonder Hawk needed help with catering for the diverse group expected at the party, Sienna mused in amusement.

The heavy stainless steel door that provided the only external access to the Pack Room squeaked shut, leaving the vast room sound-proofed from the rest of the Lair and the Shifters with superhuman ears that inhabited it.

“The Alpha has asked me to summarize my findings from the Chicago Registry’s investigation into the explosion twenty-four years ago” Jason announced, taking up a stance beside Duncan.

The English Shifter sat in his usual chair by the fireplace, while the Alpha leant against the mantel in his favorite pose. Tasia glanced around the room at the team handpicked by the Alpha to investigate Lady Bethesda. Besides the Alpha, Hawk and Duncan, it included three Shifters, all Were-Alphas — Luis Beltran, Stefan Simeonov and Elisabetta De Luca. Jason LaRue, deputed by the First Wizard to liase with the Shifters on this investigation, and Sienna McAlister, the daughter of the powerful Wizard they investigated, completed their team. And, then there was Tasia, with one foot in each camp and ties to both — Wizard and Pack.

“I was able to confirm that the Registry investigation did not conclusively identify Lady Bethesda’s remains at the site of the explosion” Jason opened.

“And that didn’t concern the Registry investigators?” Elisabetta inquired, clearly incredulous. “A bomb goes off in the Registry, while a powerful Wizard is being questioned on its premises by a contingent of Guardians. Yet, the investigators don’t raise their eyebrows at the lack of her remains at the site. I find that hard to believe, Guardian.”

“I said conclusive evidence, Elisabetta” Jason responded in his unflappable way. “Not lack of any evidence. They did find traces of her DNA at the site. Remember, she was presumed to be at the epicenter of the explosion” he said with a sidelong glance at Sienna, who had on the usual poker face she wore during discussions of her mother’s alleged misdeeds. “And unlike the others, there was no family clamoring to hold a funeral in her case” he added quietly.

“What of the Guardian Council’s investigation — did they identify her remains?” the Alpha prompted. The GCW, engaged in an escalating power struggle with the First Wizard, had refused the Shifters any access to their records. With time, as the Guardian and the Alpha had slowly built an unlikely partnership, Jason had agreed to help the team get access to records from the GCW archives that the Alpha deemed necessary for their investigation.

“No.” Jason shook his head. “They assumed that the Registry would deal with her. Instead, the GCW investigation focused on identifying the remains of the ten Guardians sent in to interrogate her.”

Raoul held the Guardian’s chocolate brown gaze soberly. Jason’s parents had been amongst the ten Guardians killed by the explosion, as had the Oracle, Sienna’s father and a Guardian revered for his phenomenal abilities as a seer. The Shifters attempting to unravel this mystery were doing so at the request of Faoladh. But for the two non-Pack members of their team, this affair of Lady Bethesda was more personal. The events long ago had shattered their lives and helped shape their futures. Every revelation they unearthed during the investigation had the power to affect Sienna and Jason. Raoul was always conscious of this.

“Anything on Raoul’s notion of Lady Bethesda using a magic armor to escape the explosion?” Duncan interjected in his precise way. Now that they had conclusive evidence that the Wizard had escaped the blast at the Registry, the next approach was to figure out how she had accomplished the feat.

“You believe she’d already depleted her magic before the Registry confrontation?” Jason inquired. A magic armor required powerful and precise magic. Only a rare Wizard, one with the perfect combination of power, training and experience, would be able to build and hold a personal shield to emerge unscathed while a powerful explosion ripped through everything around her.

“Don’t you?” Duncan asked quizzically of the Guardian.

Jason’s eyes skimmed over the locket around Sienna’s neck. “I do.”

“But it implies that any magic armor would have to come from an external power source” Jason added. “There are artifacts that might be used for such purposes, though not many. I’ll work on a list.”

“Something even a Chosen without significant power could work” the Alpha reminded him.

“Agreed” Jason acknowledged. “Let me see what I can dig up. Then, we’ll make inquiries to see if anything is missing or went missing during the Registry affair.”

“Sounds like a plan” Raoul assented. “I also have news from Faoladh’s men in India. The man Matilda Redmayne married in India died last week. His death is being treated as suspicious by his son who is now the new leader of his people. Tribhuvan Rathore was a Chosen — an Ancient who led a group of Magicks called the Naga Log, the snake people.”

Someone gasped in the room. The snake people were a mystical sect of Ancients believed to worship and receive their powers from a Snake God. Over the centuries, their numbers had dwindled down to nothing. Many even believed that these mysterious First Ones had died out, like so many of their brethren capable of working very old magic.

“As Duncan predicted, Lady Bethesda chose carefully and well” the Alpha remarked. “Faoladh’s men are attempting to trace her whereabouts after India, now that we know The Prophecy calls for a third daughter.”

“Is there a daughter in India?” Sienna asked softly.

“Yes, she had twins. The son is the new leader.”

“What of the daughter?”

“All we know so far is that she’s an engineer who works and lives in the nearest city, from where the Naga reside in, at the foothills of the Himalayas. From the early reports we have, she doesn’t seem very involved with her people.”

Much like her, Sienna mused with a pang. Once the blasted locket no longer hung around her neck like a noose, she’d talk to Aunt Minnie about reaching out to her half-siblings, she determined.

“This suspicious death.” Luis asked the question. “Does Faoladh believe it has anything to do with Lady Bethesda?”

“They’re looking into it” the Alpha admitted. “It seems too much of a coincidence.”

Raoul glanced at the Guardian who wore a thoughtful expression on his face. “Now that we believe Lady Bethesda set out to fulfill her husband’s last prophecy, I’d like access to the official version of The Prophecy. It’s the only way to ensure we don’t miss any detail Lady Bethesda has based her ambitions on.”

All they knew about The Prophecy was what Faoladh had shared with the Alpha when he’d first asked Raoul to look into the break-in at The Vault. Three powerful Chosen sisters, born of different fathers, would one day come together to change the very foundations of the Chosen world. Vague and dissatisfactory in the details. And yet, a powerful Wizard had seen something in it, enough to go on a killing spree before faking her own death in an explosion that had killed both Chosen and human alike, including her own husband and nine other Guardians. A prophecy that had inspired an elaborate scheme to birth three powerful daughters the Oracle had foretold would one day wield a lot of influence in the world of Magicks.

While Raoul was confident it was an audacious power grab by the Wizard, he hadn’t yet worked out the details of how she planned to make the play. One thing he had learnt from the investigation so far was that their adversary was meticulous, cunning, ruthless and ambitious. And Raoul intended to make damn sure that they didn’t miss a single trick in the book when it came to thwarting Lady Bethesda. The only way to do so successfully was by understanding the Wizard and her motives.

“I’ll let the First Wizard know that you’d like access to the official records. But I have to warn you that the GCW is going to resist this tooth and nail” Jason remarked.

“Does not the First Wizard supersede the Guardian Council?” Hawk asked with some surprise. To Shifters like him, brought up to believe that the chain of command was paramount to the life and longevity of Wyrs, the infighting within the Wizards was incomprehensible. How did they ever get anything done, he wondered, if they didn’t know whose directives superseded the others’?

“She does.” Jason smiled. “But it is more complicated than that, Hawk. Ever since the election of a First Wizard, there has been a constant power struggle between her and some of the older Guardians. The situation is particularly bad right now.”

For centuries, the Guardians had been the sole protectors entrusted with the welfare of all Wizards, until the post of First Wizard had been created twenty-five years ago to represent their kind on the CoC. Guardians old enough to remember a time when they were accountable for their actions only to their peers resented the First Wizard’s position in their world.

“Is it because Sienna chooses to live in a Shifter Lair?” Hawk asked shrewdly. “Instead of entrusting her safety to the Guardians.”

“That, and the fracas at the San Francisco Registry does not help, of course” Jason admitted candidly. “But the simple fact is that the GCW disapproves of the First Wizard requesting Shifter assistance to investigate one of theirs.”

“One of them!” Elisabetta’s voice rose incredulously, punctured by anger. “Lady Bethesda killed ten Guardians and a Registry full of Wizards. And you’re telling me that the Guardians still consider her one of them?”

Jason shrugged in his easy way. “I’m the wrong person to direct this question at. I believe the Alpha’s team is the best one to lead this investigation. You’ve managed to uncover more in the past few weeks than all the investigations twenty-four years ago. That’s the reason why the First Wizard assigned me to this team.”

There was a short pause as the Shifters pondered his words. Sienna attempted to hide a smile, the grim mood precipitated by a recital of her mother’s misdeeds forgotten at Jason’s statement. Trust Jason to disarm them with simple honesty, she mused in silent amusement.

“Hmm, perhaps, it might be better if the request for official records for The Prophecy came from Faoladh” the Alpha remarked perceptively to Jason.

Jason’s chocolate brown eyes gazed back at him good-humoredly. “Certainly can’t hurt, Alpha. Faoladh’s request will definitely carry more weight than mine.” Unsaid were the words that the First Wizard owed Faoladh big for what his Shifters had already uncovered about Lady Bethesda.

“I do have some good news” Jason continued. “The First Wizard has agreed to release all documents from the investigations over the years into Lady Bethesda’s various sightings, as well as some of the original inquiries early on regarding the allegations of murder against her. She would like your team to have access to the reports.”

The Alpha wondered how the First Wizard had managed this in the teeth of the Guardians’ opposition.

“These are all investigations by the Office of First Wizard” Jason explained. “She’s been unsuccessful in persuading the GCW to give you access to any of their investigations. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to look through these reports — we might get lucky and find something they missed the first time around.”

“It’s a good idea.” Raoul agreed whole-heartedly with the Guardian on this. This was a particularly wily and shrewd opponent they faced; it would not do to leave any stone unturned. And he knew just the right person to comb through the documents: someone who’d already demonstrated a surprising knack for getting under the skin of Lady Bethesda to help understand what drove her.

The gold eyes zeroed in on Tasia where she sat with Hawk and Sienna. “I want you to review the documents and summarize all pertinent information in a short report for us.”

“Me?” Tasia was taken aback by his unusual directive.

“You’ve done well so far in piecing together the puzzle.” His voice was very even, the gold eyes direct.

That was a compliment, wasn’t it? That had to be a compliment.

Tasia stared at the Alpha, her astonishment evident. Elisabetta’s beautiful face reflected her surprise while Simeonov merely looked taken aback. The rest of the room simply waited for Tasia to respond, seemingly unsurprised by the Alpha’s statement.

Sure, I can do that. How hard can it be?

“Okay” Tasia assented.

“I can help, Tasia” Sienna offered from beside her. “That is, if it’s okay with you, Alpha?”

“I assumed this might dig up unpleasant memories for you.” He chose his words with care.

“No.” Sienna shook her head firmly. “It’ll give me something to sink my teeth into.” Especially given that she was effectively a prisoner in the Lair until the locket could be plucked off her neck.

“I’ve no objections if …” he glanced at Tasia to leave the sentence unfinished, clearly leaving it up to her to make the decision.

“I’d love your help, Sienna.” Tasia shook off her consternation to accept the offer without hesitation.

A brusque compliment. And, allowing me to make the decision on Sienna. Wonders will never cease. Woke up on the right side of the bed this morning, did he?

Accepting Sienna’s assistance was a no-brainer. Tasia liked the other Wizard and could empathize with Sienna’s predicament. Being locked up in this place with a bunch of Shifters was no walk in the park, as she knew. Plus, Sienna’s insights into politics and Wizard machinations would be an asset to any investigation into a Guardian. While Sienna had chosen to make a life away from the Wizards, she had grown up in the bosom of that world. She was Wizard royalty, with connections to many of the major players their investigation touched upon.

“One more thing, Merceau” Jason interjected. “I have confirmation that Gabriel Azevedo, the Guardian who walked away from the GCW a few years before Lady Bethesda, left us to work for the Lombardis — the same Vampires now allied with her. I’m digging more into that connection as we speak.”

Tasia lowered her gaze to the floor, and focused on regulating her breaths. An experienced Shifter could pick up on her heightened emotions, and there were many Shifters in the room tonight, not all of them privy to her secret. Gabriel Azevedo was her father. The Alpha, Duncan and Hawk were aware of this connection — the Alpha had blown up spectacularly at Tasia for keeping it from him after her father’s name had cropped up in their investigation.

“You’re probably catching flak from the other Guardians for accepting Pack hospitality” Raoul commented later to Jason in the privacy of the Alpha’s Room — the smaller sound-proofed room, set aside for his use, accessible only from the vast Pack Room. After the discussion in the Pack Room, the Alpha had pulled Jason in for a private word, away from the rest of the team.

Jason shrugged. “It’s to be expected.”

“I was surprised when you accepted the invitation to stay here at the Lair.”

Jason met the enigmatic eyes of the Alpha with equanimity. “I was certainly surprised when you extended the invitation. Why did you?” he inquired curiously.

Raoul studied the steadfast face of the man before him.

“We make a good team on this investigation. And you’ve shown a willingness to do the right thing, even if it means going up against your fellow Guardians.”

Jason let out a soft chuckle in response. “Yeah, that’s exactly why I’m so popular with my fellow Guardians, as you put it.”

“This is going to put a little kink in my attempts to get you the dirt on Anderson” he warned, a tad soberly.

“How so?” Raoul inquired. Anderson was the Guardian who had let loose Shifter mercenaries on Wizards in San Francisco, culminating in an attempt to harm Tasia in the local Wizard Registry.

Confident that, for now, he had Anderson believing that Tasia Armstrong was not the Wizard the Guardian hunted, Raoul was nonetheless convinced that Anderson had been looking for the witchling all along. Somehow, Anderson had discovered that his former best friend, Azevedo, had fathered a powerful Chosen who lived incognito in San Francisco as a Wizard with little magic. To find her, the Guardian had unleashed a reign of terror in San Francisco with hired thugs who had almost torn apart the Pack’s relationship with the local Wizards, as well as the local Vampire nest. Raoul fully intended to teach Anderson a lesson for the transgression — more than the humiliation he had already heaped on him publicly. But more importantly, he wanted to know why the Guardian had been searching for Tasia here, and how he had come by the information about the witching. He had given the witchling his word to unravel this dangerous mystery that posed such a threat to her.

“The Guardians know that I’m working with you on this investigation, Merceau. Before, they could dismiss it by telling themselves that I had not been able to deny the First Wizard when she’d chosen me for the task. But now, the news of my taking residence at your Lair has spread like wild fire and some Guardians are rethinking my motives. They’re leery of discussing matters they think might get back to you. Anderson’s friends will clam up the moment I make inquiries about him — they’ll guess you’re the one interested in the information.”

Raoul sighed silently. He hated Wizards and their politics with a vengeance. Yet, he needed this information, and Jason was by far his best bet to dig up any dirt on a fellow Guardian.

“I can still get you the information, Merceau” Jason reiterated. “There are other ways of getting it. I’ve friends in the GCW who don’t judge me as harshly as the rest do. Just bear with me and I will get you what you want. It might take a little more time than I’d anticipated though. That’s why I wanted to give you a heads up.”

Raoul contemplated the Wizard silently. He did not trust people easily, and made it a point to never trust a Wizard. His faith in a Wizard’s word had died a horrendous death, in a broken-down barn almost a decade ago. But Duncan had asked him to trust this one, and he tended to give Duncan’s words a lot of weight. Plus, Jason had surprised him with a willingness to work with the Shifters in good faith.

“I owe you for Sienna” Jason added soberly, as the Alpha remained silent. “And I’ll make good on the debt.”

A few days ago, Duncan had perspicaciously remarked on the Guardian’s feelings for the Wizard he protected. Now, Raoul realized that Duncan had been right, as usual, when it came to matters of the heart.

“Alright” Raoul assented.

“There’s another problem” Jason continued. “The locket around Sienna’s neck is proving a lot harder to remove than I thought.”

He sighed wearily. “I’ve informed the First Wizard and she shares my concerns about it. We need to get it off Sienna urgently but Vampire magic, though not powerful in the traditional sense of the word, is hard to counteract with Wizard magic. Or any kind of magic, for that matter. No matter what we try, the inherent magic encased in it causes Sienna to hurt herself.”

Raoul understood the Guardian. Leeches might not have powers in the traditional sense, like the other Magicks, but their magic could be just as effective as that of other Chosen when used appropriately. There were many aspects that separated the Clan from the other Chosen. Many in their world did not regard the Undead as Chosen, although now that a leech sat on the CoC as one of the four representatives, other Magicks tended to stay silent on the matter.

“What do you intend to do about it?” Raoul inquired. There was nothing any Shifter could do to help Sienna — their magic was very different. The witchling might be able to help, but Raoul was damned if he’d allow her to place herself in danger by doing so. It would raise the suspicions of the Wizards. They didn’t come any more aristocratic than Sienna, for the Spell Casters. Her blood lines were impeccable, and the Wizards took such things very seriously. Raoul was confident that the Wizards would never allow the locket to hang around Sienna’s neck a second longer than necessary.

“The First Wizard has reached out to ElThor” Jason said steadily.

Interesting, Raoul mused. The First Wizard had obviously lost confidence in her Guardians. ElThor stood for The First One in the tongue of the Ancients — it was the moniker the Ancients had given to their representative on the Council of Chosen. Faoladh had a good relationship with ElThor and his Ancients. They respected the Shifter for his achievements in providing harmony and structure to his brethren, as well as his efforts at bringing all Chosen together under the umbrella of the CoC. The First Wizard, on the other hand, enjoyed a pricklier relationship with the Ancients. From what Raoul had gathered, this had more to do with the Guardians than her, though. Perhaps her request for assistance might improve the Wizards’ relationship with the Ancients. Not that he gave a damn about any of it. The Wizards looked up to the Ancients but down on all other Chosen. Raoul considered it poetic justice for them to be given a cold shoulder by the only Chosen the Wizards considered worthy of them.
Vancouver, British Columbia

“Send him in” TorElnor directed at the grizzled old retainer who guarded the inner sanctum zealously.

A tall man in his early thirties strode in unhurriedly.

TorElnor” he greeted the First One politely, his good humor seemingly undisturbed after being kept waiting for the better part of an hour.

“Roman” the Elder responded. “I apologize for making you wait.”

The handsome face relaxed to break into a charming grin. “Figured you had more important business than me to deal with, Chief.”

TorElnor suppressed a smile. He liked the boy. He was whip-smart, shrewd, ambitious, and a natural born leader, able to inspire others to follow him. A little young yet, with a youngster’s penchant for casual disregard of centuries-old traditions and the ways of their people, but TorElnor had never held that against the boy. The boy was as comfortable amongst Si’ffa as he was with his First Ones brethren. That is what had first brought the boy to TorElnor’s attention. To the Elder, this was a quality worth its weight in gold and this young boy before him possessed it in spades. Roman would make a good leader of his people one day — that is why TorElnor made sure to keep an eye on the boy. Man, he should call him man, the Elder reminded himself. To someone a little over four hundred years, though, a thirty-two year old would forever be a boy. The boy was aware of the august responsibility he was being groomed for, of course. That was how it should be, to TorElnor’s mind. The First One to lead their people into the next century would require a steady hand, a shrewd brain, the ability to cobble together coalitions with other First Ones, the acumen to protect his Chosen and enough power to keep his people from straying from the path he chose. And, of course, as always, the leader should posess the charisma to inspire his people to follow him. The ability to work well with others, both Chosen and Si’ffa, had assumed a greater importance in recent years. He was an old man now, by any comparison, but even TorElnor knew that with the advent of the CoC, their world had changed forever. Co-operation with their Chosen brethren was the order of the day now. It would be good for the boy to start young, while still unfettered by any responsibilities. That way, when he did become the leader, he’d have already made his mistakes and hopefully learnt from them.

“I have a job for you, Roman” the Elder announced, gesturing the young man to be seated.

“Of course.” Roman moved to take a chair.

“The First Wizard has requested ElThor’s assistance.”

Roman’s piercing blue eyes snapped to his, an expression in them that caused TorElnor to shoot the boy a look of approval. Roman was keeping a close ear to the ground when it came to Chosen matters, TorElnor mused approvingly. Gossip and rumors were like air in their world — you could never have too much of it. It was the only way to keep abreast of the political machinations and changing alliances in their complicated world, where Magicks constantly jostled for power and influence over each other.

“That must have come as a surprise to ElThor.” Roman restricted himself to a simple comment. It was an understatement. The relationship between the Wizards and the First Ones had been icy for generations. Though the First Ones had made no overtures to overcome it, the First Wizard had attempted, in her way, to foster a better equation with ElThor, who spoke for the First Ones on the CoC.

“He turned her down, until Faoladh intervened with a personal appeal” TorElnor explained.

The First Ones held Faoladh in great esteem. That Faoladh would intervene on behalf of the First Wizard was very interesting, Roman mused silently. Rumors of an unusual degree of co-operation between the pre-eminent Shifter in their world and the Wizard representative to the CoC had been swirling for months. Confident that the partnership would be short-lived, Roman had paid little attention to the whispers. Now, he realized for the first time that there might just be more to this than he’d assumed at first hearing.

ElThor has asked me to take care of this” TorElnor continued. “The Wizards require someone with the ability to asunder an artifact melded with old magic.”

ElThor was Setik. While he represented all First Ones on the CoC, it was natural for him to reach out to TorElnor, the powerful leader of the Setik in the Americas.

“Old magic, hmm” Roman murmured. “How old?”

“That’s all they’re willing to tell us, Roman. If we agree to the request, we can ask more questions.”

“You want me handle this?” Roman inquired. He could do this stuff in his sleep, old magic or not.

TorElnor nodded. “I want you to find out what’s going on.”

Roman arched his eyebrow, his blue eyes meeting the Elder’s perceptive gaze.

“Don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of ElThor owing us one.” TorElnor’s shrewd eyes held the younger man’s gaze. “You know what I’d like even more, Roman? Finding out what the hell the First Wizard is cooking up with Faoladh’s Wyrs. I’ve been hearing rumors of some very strange goings on between those two unlikely allies. Then, this request from ElThor fell into my lap, and I thought of you.”

“You want me to find out what the Wizards and Shifters are doing in bed together, as a precondition to using my abilities to help the Wizards” Roman spelt it out precisely.

“In a nutshell” TorElnor assented. “The Wizards would never have come to us if they could handle the situation themselves. So, let’s make the most of it, Roman.”

“Got it, Chief. I’ll have them singing to me in no time” Roman stated with a cheeky grin.

“I know you will. That’s why I asked for you.” TorElnor had an answering twinkle in his eyes. The boy had confidence in spades, confidence that occasionally bordered on arrogance. Not that it worried TorElnor much. He was sure it would get ironed out in time, as the boy matured. Experience had a way of doing that to you.

“I can be ready to travel in a few hours. Where am I going? Wizard Headquarters, I presume.”

“No.” TorElnor shook his head, attempting to suppress his mirth. He knew very well what he told him next was going to flummox the boy. “The Wizard who requires assistance is in San Francisco.”

“San Francisco. I’ll start packing.” Roman stood up, assuming the meeting to be over.

“She’s a guest at the Lair” TorElnor remarked casually.

Shock flashed on his face as Roman sat back down abruptly. “The Pack Lair?” he confirmed, his consternation clear.

“Yes.”

“What the fuck!”

“A little crudely stated, but I do share your sentiments, Roman. From what I hear, this Wizard who lives at their Lair is protected by the local Wyr Pack.”

Roman stared at him incredulously. Whispers about Shifters running an investigation for the Wizards, at Faoladh’s request, had periodically reached his ears, but this was something else.

“San Francisco” he muttered. “That’s the Northern California Pack. Who’s the Alpha?”

“Raoul Merceau” TorElnor said calmly. He was having way too much fun shaking up the boy.

“Merceau” Roman shook his head in bewilderment. “What the hell! The man hates Wizards.”

“Now you know why this old man is curious about the brewing partnership between the Wyrs and the Wizards” TorElnor said calmly.

“I’m beginning to understand, yeah” Roman murmured, a thoughtful look on his face.

“Good. But that can keep for a day or two. Let the Wizards stew a little. Should make them more amenable to answering questions when you show up to help them. I’ve another job for you before San Francisco.”

Roman settled in comfortably. There was more, it seemed.

“Something strange is going on with the Nagas.”

“The snake people — the First Ones in India?” the younger Ancient inquired knowledgeably.

“Yes. Their leader died a week ago.”

“Old age?” Whatever old age meant to the First Ones with old magic in their veins.

“No” TorElnor shook his head decisively. “He died very young for a First One. The death is suspicious.”

“Murder?” Roman queried, a tad incredulously. Murder of a First One was tough to pull off and hence very rare. The Nagas came from very old magic — their king had to have been very powerful.

“Looks like it” TorElnor assented. “Their new leader is dispatching an envoy to Portland. SivoTar will have the envoy met at the airport. That’s all the information I have. I want to know what the envoy is here for.”

Roman nodded. SivoTar was a prominent leader of the Eru. Setik and Eru, while not enemies precisely, had always been competitive and liked to keep tabs on one another.

“It might be nothing more than a simple courtesy call, Roman” TorElnor warned him. “The previous king was a friend of SivoTar’s. But if there’s more, I want to know.”


 

Magic skittered over her body, nearly overwhelming her, as she fought for control. The beast roared, demanding to be let out, the sound reverberating in her mind. Ill, her body weakened, she suspected the end was near. Soon, despite her best efforts, she would succumb, ceding to her beast. That would also spell the end for her. Her Shifter peers would snuff her out once she lost control of her beast. It was the way of her world. She had fought so very hard to not succumb, determined to deny the blue-eyed witch the satisfaction of a victory.

The shed door rattled. Perhaps, it was time for the witch to check up on her. She opened her eyes to crane her neck with some difficulty towards the door. It slid open in a flurry of snow and howling wind. It must be winter now, she mused dreamily. The silver manacles on her ankle pulled as she attempted to swivel her head, drawing a moan from her. She had lost all sense of time, she realized dazedly. Months of starvation, agony, the witch’s brew of magic and silver had sapped her strength, but not her determination to survive.

A shuffling sound heralded a new presence. A huge black bear, speckles of snow on its thick fur, shuffled forward to peer down at her. She could sense its bemusement at finding her shackled on the dirt floor. At first, she blinked up at the bear, unafraid of the large animal. Then, both her beast and she seemed to come to the same conclusion simultaneously — this was no bear. Her beast roared, aggression ratcheting up in the presence of a competitor. Her beotan had finally broken through. Dimly, as if in a dream, she wondered what was to become of her now while the roars echoed through the barn. The bear moved, drawing her attention back to the animal. Without warning, a huge fist swung towards her and the world went dark.

Tasia awoke with a silent scream, gasping for air, petrified and confused in the semi-darkness. It took her a moment to calm herself. This was her room at the Lair, she reminded herself, and the confusion was merely the aftermath of another nightmare, the same ones that continued to plague her with disastrous frequency since her association with the Shifters.

What was happening to her, she wondered anew, alarm and confusion roiling in her. Wearied by the emotional and physical toll of the nightmares, Tasia was terrified of what they signified. Sometimes, she wondered whether it was possible to slowly lose one’s mind, the line between dreams and reality blurring over time. With the dire thoughts also came a resurgence of her steely resolve. Tasia shook off her fears to slip out of bed, making her weary way to the window to take in the view.

In a different part of the city, a man stirred in his massive bed to turn his face towards the light drifting in from the bay windows. He closed his eyes, willing the past back into its closet while the moonlight anointed him. His pagan ancestors had once drawn their strength from the moon, believing their vigor and power a bounty from the Moon Goddess. Those days were long gone. They had now evolved to a point where their abilities were not dependent on its cycles anymore. Yet, many of his brethren reveled in its luminescence, believing the moon to greatly enhance their powers. For him, the matter was more evocative. The year of hell had taken much from him. He would never again take anything for granted — his life, his sanity, or his liberty; not even the freedom to see the moon or feel its life-giving caress on his skin when he wanted.

It took but a few minutes for his ragged breathing to return to normal and the pounding of his heart to subside. Neither his body nor his mind could forget the past that easily. The lilt of a voice, the hint of a threat, the feeling of being closed in, the howl of the wind, the smell of hay and dirt … innocuous everyday happenings transported him back to the shed and his desperate struggle for survival. He had lived with the nightmares for a long time now, and had a time-tested routine to recover his equanimity after experiencing one.

The unhuman eyes opened abruptly. Sweeping aside the bed sheets, he strode over to the window to lean against it. Muscles bunched with tension on his powerful forearms as he stared at the view. Usually, the memories bubbled up to the surface only when he was less vigilant, like in his dreams. But recently, there had been a few flashbacks even while awake. He knew why, of course. With his head and body arrayed in an epic struggle for dominance, his subconscious was actively trying to remind him of the scars he carried on him. Not that he needed any reminder, he mused savagely.

The twinkling lights of the Bay Bridge soothed him, bringing him a measure of calm. He had always been a man to face his troubles head on, and it was time to deal with this mire, too. He had struggled and fought to keep his distance, all to no avail. That was done. Now, he could admit the truth to himself. He wanted her. It defied logic and reason, went against every instinct and every vow he had made to himself. Yet, he wanted her. Fate, that feckless witch, was playing its tricks on him again. Of all the women in the world, it dangled this one in front of him. A perfect package of naiveté, steel, power, and temptation, all wrapped up neatly with a bow. The hands on the sill clenched until he reminded himself to let go. He had told himself that he could not stand by while another naïve Chosen was put through hell to emerge as a shell of her former self. The perfect confluence of power and powerlessness in her was something he recognized only too well. She would not survive without allies or powerful champions, and he could not bear to see her lie trampled in the dust, broken inside in ways that would never heal again. Not that indomitable spirit, the generous heart, the steely determination or the expressive eyes, a mirror to her soul, that gazed up at him with a lethal combination of vulnerability, trust, desire and hope. He had tried to convince himself that she was not special, just a Chosen who had merely awakened his protective instincts by her circumstances and plight. But now, he was done lying to himself. Even Duncan had seen through him.

As he stood watching the city sleep, he reminded himself that just because fate had played a cruel trick on him, it did not mean that he should accept her diktat. So what if he wanted her? He could still refuse to follow his heart. Fate would find out how strong-willed he could be when he put his mind to it. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face, warned the timely voice in his head. You want to keep your distance from her, then do it for the right reasons. Don’t walk away merely because you want fate to admit defeat. Because, reminded his logical self, that would give fate an easy victory she doesn’t deserve. Not after what she has already put you through.

Reminded thus, he breathed deep, his eyes flickering to the moon again as it loomed large over his city. What did he want? It was time to be brutally honest with himself. A picture of her rose in his mind. Smiling at Hawk, the gray eyes lit with laughter while she teased him gently, suffused with the special affection she seemed to reserve for the young Shifter. In contrast, with him, she could not hide her wariness, trepidation or strain. Why should she? Had he not pushed her away, his subconscious self hard at work to remind both himself and her that they would always stand on the opposing sides of an invisible divide? That first night, despite her agitation and terror, he had managed to get through to her. Those big, expressive eyes had struck a chord deep in him, stirring something he had thought buried for good. Of course, he had then gone on a rampage, smashing to smithereens and stomping into the ground every tiny bit of that emotion by showing her what he was in large technicolor. Confident that this glimpse of his true colors would make her run as far from him as possible, he had set out to do just that. He was no hero. He was a cold, unfeeling and ruthless brute his Shifters followed because they knew how easily, willingly, and pitilessly, he would pound them into the ground if they disobeyed him. His lack of emotion is what made him such a dangerous man and such a fantastic Alpha.

After his lesson, the depths of her gray eyes now reflected precisely the image of him he’d been intent on showing her all along. But now, he asked himself, what did he want? More importantly, what could he live with? He was not a vengeful bastard who’d throw her to the dogs simply because he found it difficult to deal with his burgeoning and complicated emotions after years of emptiness. She was here to stay with the Pack, at least for the foreseeable future. He could keep his distance if he had to, he knew. But could he ignore it if she turned to another man, like Hawk, someone willing to hazard his heart in this deadly game of risk and sentiment? Or would he burn like he had when the images of her in Hawk’s arms had stabbed at his gut, to pierce through his armor of will and control, blinding him with a toxic mix of rage and animus that stripped him bare, taking him back to a dark place that reminded him of the shed?

He had never been a coward, he reminded himself. Even the blue-eyed witch had never been able to strip his spirit from him. He might have lost the fight momentarily to her but never his spirit. In fact, he had felt victorious at knowing that it was his spirit she had wanted to crush, not the hollow victory of inciting a betrayal by his beast. But if he allowed the witch to color his decision now, she would finally win. Did he not deserve a measure of peace, a chance at happiness, a semblance of normal, he asked himself, staring at the darkened city that had always called to him; his heart, mind and instincts engaged in the fiercest struggle for survival since his time in the shed.
Tasia hesitated at the entrance, her eyes taking in the changes while she searched the gathered crowd for a familiar face. She was a regular at the Lair Café. Now mostly confined to the Lair, every meal was eaten there. But tonight, the hall had been transformed from the utilitarian dining space. The usual array of microwaves, refrigerators and glass display cases that lined the room were gone. In their place, brightly-colored decorations and strategically placed arrangements of flowers made the vast space more inviting.  The Café occupied a quarter of the second floor in the building that housed the Lair. The enormous hall seemed even more spacious tonight. Tasia’s eyes wandered over the candles placed in discreet corners to give the room a softened glow. Sienna had been busy, she mused in amusement. Hawk possessed many excellent qualities but a transformation like this, using soft and subtle touches, was beyond him.

“Tasia.” Sara, in company with Sienna, waved at her from across the room.

Tasia wended her way through the crowds to her friends.

“You look wonderful, Tasia” Sara greeted her with a hug. Sara had never seen her friend in a dress before. The simple rust-colored dress made Tasia’s olive skin glow, showing off her petite figure to perfection. Her dark hair had been carefully swept up, with tiny wisps framing her small face. From her ears dangled the silver earrings her Papa had given her — Tasia’s only remaining memento from him.

“So do you.” Tasia smiled at her friend with affection. Sara was an ethereal beauty; the combination of her Italian genes and Native American ancestry made her quite the head turner. Hawk, her twin, had the kind of stunning good looks that caught everyone’s attention when he walked into a room. Sara’s was a more subdued kind of beauty.

Tasia turned to Sienna. “You … you’ve performed a miracle. This room! My jaw almost dropped when I first saw it.”

“I agree” Sara piped up with a grin. “Hawk has been busy beating his chest for dispatching invitations and clearing out the Café of all furniture. Mighty pleased at his accomplishment, he was. Without you, Sienna, this place would like a combination of diner and mess hall.”

“Men.” Sienna rolled her eyes exaggeratedly. “Always great at overlooking the really obvious stuff, aren’t they? I’ve plenty of time on my hands now, and it was nice of your brother to let me go crazy here.” She gestured at the space around them.

“Quite a turnout” Tasia remarked, her eyes wandering the room. The large space teemed with people. Chatter and laughter flowed as easily as alcohol. A bar had been set up in one of the open-air balconies, cleared of the gas barbeques that usually occupied it. At the center of the rectangular hall were tables laden with the spread Sienna had worked with the caterers to order for the night. The tables helped separate the long space into two distinct sections.

“It’s rare for the Alpha to throw a party like this” Sara agreed. “Some of the Shifters have traveled a fair distance to attend.”

“You guys never have parties?” Sienna looked surprised. “Why not? I thought Packs partied together all the time.”

“The individual were-packs celebrate together, every now and then. Usually, other Shifters on friendly terms with the were-pack also get invitations to these events. But something like this, that includes the entire Pack, is rare.”

“How big is your Pack?” Sienna asked curiously.

“Five hundred, give or take. We’re one of the larger Packs in the country” Sara explained as Sienna looked taken aback by the number. “Two hundred reside here in San Francisco and the bay area. The rest are scattered all over Pack territory in northern California.”

“Well, it certainly looks like half the Pack is here” Sienna murmured.

Sara cast a glance around the room. “There’re many I don’t know. We have more than a few non-Shifter guests tonight.”

Sienna’s eyebrows shot up. “I didn’t expect the Alpha to invite these many Wizards.”

The Alpha had never hidden his dislike for Wizards. Given that, the number of Wizard guests at this party seemed notably high. Had they been invited to make Jason and her feel more at home tonight, Sienna wondered. The man had a knack for surprises, she mused. Aloof and disinterested he might appear, but there was a streak of decency that ran strong in the Shifter. His offer of the Lair as a safe haven for her had caught her unawares. His invitation to Jason to join her at the Lair had astonished Sienna, but his decision to give up all claim to her locket, refusing to use it to get more concessions from the Wizards, had stumped her.

“He sent my dad a blanket invitation to include all Wizards in the city” Caro explained, walking up to them. “Anyone willing to celebrate the Pack’s success on a joint mission with Wizards was welcome, was how the Alpha put it.”

“That was very nice of him” Sienna remarked.

“I thought so too. Hi, I’m Caroline. You must be Sienna.”

“Hi” Sienna greeted her with a smile. She knew of Caroline Hamilton. “Tasia never misses her weekly lunches with you, even if it means having her Shifter bodyguards tagging along.”

“Yeah, they’re kind of hard to miss.”

Caroline greeted Sara next before lowering her voice to address Tasia. “I was honored to receive my own invitation to the party, by the way. Separate from the one extended to my dad and his Wizards. I guess I know who to thank for it.”

Tasia glanced around instinctively, wondering if she should remind her friend before Caro said something she didn’t want overheard by ears with extraordinary abilities. The Shifters had phenomenal hearing — an ability inherited from their beasts. This ability forced Tasia to be constantly on her guard, now that she lived with them. Her friend, like most Chosen, might not be as hyper aware.

“Don’t worry, Tas.” Caro directed a mischievous smile at her, correctly gauging Tasia’s dilemma. “Dad gave me a pep talk right before we came in here. Tonight, I won’t forget.”

“Good. It’s quickly becoming the bane of my existence.” Tasia’s words were heartfelt. “Besides, you’re wrong, you know. I had nothing to do with your invitation, Caro.”

“No?” Caro grinned. “Are you sure, Tas?”

“Uh, Tasia.”

A young Shifter stood fidgeting before them, his nervous gaze on Tasia. It was Evgeny, one of the Shifter bodyguards assigned to escort Tasia when she ventured outside the Lair. Evgeny and an older Shifter, Joaquim, had been her designated escorts since the early days of her association with the Pack. It had taken both Shifters a long time to warm up to Tasia. Solitary by nature, Shifters did not socialize much, except with their Pack. Tasia had also come to realize that they did not trust easily, especially other Chosen. After nearly two months, Evgeny had succumbed to chat with her, while his more taciturn partner would occasionally remark on the weather.

“Hi Evgeny” Tasia greeted him warmly. She liked the gangly young Shifter. He had a sunny nature and always seemed very young to her, even though Evgeny was only a handful of years younger than her. “You know Sara and Sienna, right? This is my friend, Caro.”

“I met her at your studio once” he responded laconically.

“Yup, we’ve met” Caro assented. “How are you, Evgeny?”

“Good.” He paused, seemingly at a loss on how to proceed.

Tasia glanced beyond him to note a group of young Shifters watching them avidly.

“What’s up, Evgeny?” she inquired gently.

“Uh … I was wondering if you wanted to dance, Tasia. With me” he added a little self-consciously.

“There’s a dance floor?” Tasia exclaimed.

“Yeah, it’s the other end of this room. The tables of food separate it from this space” Sienna piped up. “Hawk insisted on it. It was his idea.”

“I’d love to, Evgeny” Tasia declared promptly.

“You would?” He seemed a tad uncertain.

“Absolutely” Tasia was enthusiastic. “Shall we?”

His young face broke into a happy grin at her response.

“I’ll see you guys back here in a bit” Tasia said with a laughing glance at her friends, as she made to follow the young Shifter.

“That boy is very sweet” Sienna remarked softly.

“Yes, he is” Sara agreed. “He’s a really nice kid.”

“We’re were-pack mates” she explained at Sienna’s inquiring look.

As Tasia followed Evgeny, her eyes fell on the group of Shifters she’d observed watching them. “Your friends, Evgeny?”

“Yeah” he said sheepishly. “They’re just curious about you, Tasia. Most of them have never met a Chosen that isn’t a Shifter.”

Tasia pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Perhaps, you can introduce me to your friends later, Evgeny. I’m going to be living here for a few more months. And, I wouldn’t say no to some new friends.”

“Sure, Tasia” he agreed easily, leading her onto the dance floor.

As Tasia sampled the dance floor, the man who had insisted on it for the party made for the group she had left behind.

“Ladies” Hawk greeted them collectively, his glance encompassing his twin and her two Wizard companions. “Hi Caroline.”

“Typical” Sara remarked. “Ignore us and go for Caro.”

“I could never ignore you, Sara mia” he countered easily, unperturbed by his sister’s teasing.

“Congratulations, Hawk” Caroline remarked, having been to the Lair Café before. “You’ve done a fabulous job in here.”

“Thanks, but this is all Sienna’s doing.”

His eyes wandered the room. “Where’s Tasia? I thought I saw her.”

“She’s on the dance floor” Sienna answered with a straight face.

“Dance floor.” He looked taken aback. “By herself?”

“No.” Sienna was carefully nonchalant.

An arrested expression flashed across his handsome face. “Who?” he demanded peremptorily.

“Evgeny.” It was Caroline who answered him.

“Evgeny! Our Evgeny?” he asked Sara.

“Yes” Sara nodded. “She’ll be fine, Hawk. Let the girl breathe. You’ll suffocate her with your overprotectiveness” she said bluntly, in a manner only a sibling could manage.

“Right” he said absently.

A short silence prevailed. Sienna attempted to suppress her grin while Sara merely gazed at her twin with affectionate exasperation. Hawk’s eyes zeroed in on Caroline, who was watching him, her eyes puzzled and curious.

“How about a turn on the dance floor, Caroline?” he invited.

Caro looked fleetingly surprised as she met the dark eyes of the handsome Shifter. Hawk was the most unlikely Shifter she’d met. Granted, she hadn’t met that many, but this one blew the Shifter stereotypes away. Caro found him fascinating.

“Sure.” She accepted his invitation.

Forty-five minutes later, Tasia was back amidst her friends after an energetic turn on the dance floor. More guests had poured in at a steady clip, the room now more crowded than before. Hawk’s idea, implemented by Sienna, of a makeshift dance floor with dimmed lighting and subdued music, was a roaring success. While the Shifters had mostly kept their distance, the other Chosen had embraced it enthusiastically. Tasia had danced with Evgeny, Hawk and Jason before being introduced to Evgeny’s friends. Eventually, they had all moved back to this side of the hall as the throngs converged onto the dance floor. As guests wound their way to partake of the food and the dance floor beyond it, the crowds here had thinned.

Tasia used the golden opportunity to observe the Shifters she worked with in a more social setting. Her nearly two months at the Lair had served to give her a better understanding of Shifters and Packs. While her original assumption of them as some of the most unpredictable, aggressive, violent and dangerous Chosen still held true, she was also starting to see a different side to them. They adhered to a strict code of honor, prized loyalty very highly and would always rally around their Pack mates in the face of danger, regardless of any individual differences. While there were still moments when she found their Pack culture and traditions alien, these were fewer than when she had first come to live amongst them.

Elisabetta held court with a group of men hanging on her every word. Attired in a green dress that matched the color of her eyes, the stunning Shifter seemed in her element. A powerful and ambitious Were-Alpha, Elisabetta had a habit of dispatching stinging barbs with a sweet smile on her beautiful face. It made Tasia very wary of the Shifter’s sharp tongue. Despite the admiring male attention directed at her, Tasia couldn’t help but notice that Elisabetta was distracted tonight. The beautiful Were-Alpha darted sidelong glances at a tall good-looking man, part of a small group of Shifters and other Chosen. The Alpha looked different tonight, without the jeans and tee that was his usual attire. Engrossed in conversation, he nursed a glass of amber liquid in his hand, seemingly oblivious to the female Were-Alpha’s glances. Like the night she had stumbled upon him brooding into his glass of Scotch in the Alpha’s Room, the drink in his hand seemed more decorative than anything else. Then too, he had taken his time with it. Hmm, he wasn’t much for alcohol, she mused thoughtfully. And, he wasn’t interested in the gorgeous Elisabetta. Or perhaps, he was merely adhering to his principles. As Hawk had explained to Sienna and her, the Alpha didn’t do romantic entanglements with his Pack. How had Hawk colorfully put it? Tends to fuck up the chain of command. It sounded like something the Alpha would say. Raoul Merceau took Pack business and the chain of command very seriously, as Tasia knew to her cost.

Tonight, a mix of his Shifters and other guests surrounded the Alpha. Atsá, the Were-Alpha who was Hawk and Sara’s grandfather, was his stately self. Accompanying him was his usual companion, the brightly-dressed grandmotherly Were-Alpha, Maartje. Duncan, more dapper than usual, was the third Shifter in the group. David and Stuart Hamilton, Caroline’s father and brother, and Jason LaRue made up the Wizard contingent around the Alpha. Caroline’s father, the ranking Wizard in San Francisco, was known to be on good terms with the Alpha. In addition to the six, two other men and a slim middle-aged woman made up the contingent around the Alpha.

“That boy is one handsome devil” Sienna remarked, her eyes on Hawk as he flitted from group to group in his effortlessly charming way.

“And doesn’t he know it” Caroline remarked sotto voice from beside Tasia.

“Oh, the boy has charm in spades and he knows it” Sienna concurred. “But that one can be tamed by the right woman. You mark my words, he’ll make someone a very good partner.” She directed a sidelong glance at Tasia.

Caro, a witness to Hawk’s demonstrative affection with her friend, turned to Tasia impulsively. “Now that you’ve had a taste of Pack life, would you go out with a Shifter, Tas?”

“Me?” Tasia exclaimed in surprise, distracted by the glimpse of a familiar face headed in their direction. For once, she was oblivious to her surroundings, too distracted to pay heed to the subtle undercurrents in the conversation.

“Yeah” Caro reiterated. “Would you date a Shifter, Tas?”

“No.” Tasia’s response was vehement, with absolutely no hesitation. “Never.”

Her association with the Pack was a precarious one. Another disastrous misstep with the Alpha and she might find herself out in the cold, to start all over again somewhere else, far from San Francisco and possibly with a new identity to boot. Tasia was supremely conscious of this. While these past weeks with the Shifters had been daunting, confusing, and difficult, Tasia knew how much having a Pack to watch her back had changed her life. To be fair to him, the Alpha had not intimated anything of the sort to her. It was just a feeling Tasia had, driven in part by her own ambivalent feelings regarding this association with the Shifters. In some ways, she was more wary this time around, with her second attempt at a partnership with the Pack. Tasia liked the way the association was shaping up this time. Barring one particularly bad hiccup, things were better with the Alpha. Yet, the rare glimpse of Shifter traditions and their way of doing things, even the casual violence that seemed so much a way of life for them, gave her pause. Throw in Raoul Merceau, the ruthless and aloof Alpha of immense self-control, capable of terrifying fury one minute and surprising compassion the next, and it did not add up to an advertisement for romantic entanglement with a Shifter. That is, if she was even allowed the luxury of any kind of relationship with a Chosen. That such a relationship would be a dangerous idea, both for her and the Chosen she picked, had been made very clear in unambiguous terms to her. Therein lay singular disaster for her. A relationship with a human was the best Tasia could ever hope for, a Si’ffa who would remain oblivious about magic, the Chosen, and her kitty of dangerous secrets.

Her friends looked taken aback by Tasia’s vehemence, although Sara seemed to be attempting to hide a smile.

An expression of comical dismay spread across Tasia’s face. She should have been more tactful with Sara around, she realized too late.

“No offense, Sara” she apologized contritely, both embarrassed and sheepish. “I … sorry.”

“None taken.” Sara’s response was prompt. “I happen to agree with you, Tasia. You wouldn’t catch me dead going out with one.”

“Why not, Sara?” Caroline was genuinely curious. Here was a Shifter woman saying no to any kind of entanglement with her kind — and a smart Shifter woman at that; one with a good head on her shoulders. Sara was no average Chosen parroting a widely-held view amongst their brethren, based on the rumors and stereotypes that abounded in their world. Her views had clearly been arrived at from her own experience with Shifters.

“Too much aggression, blood and mayhem all the time” Sara said simply. “I see that every day in my Pack. I would prefer less rampaging in my personal life.”

Tasia couldn’t help but silently agree with her friend’s candid opinion. By and large, Shifters tended to be an honorable bunch that adhered to their strict codes of conduct – codes that many Chosen considered archaic. In many ways, they were uncomplicated, forthright and more straightforward than other Chosen she’d encountered. But they were also a throwback to an earlier time. Tasia could see how a woman in a different era might appreciate such a focused protector as a mate, but dealing with one as a romantic partner today would be exhausting.

“What about you, Caroline?” Sienna asked the Wizard who seemed reflective after Sara’s candid response.

“I’d never even met a Shifter until the night …” She paused, conscious of the Shifters in their midst. Caro had met her first Shifter the night she had walked into the Lair to ask the Alpha for assistance. “For Tasia” she continued cryptically, wary of listening ears. Her presence at the Lair that night was meant to be kept secret. “I have to admit that your Alpha surprised me” she directed at both Sara and Tasia.

“Never” Tasia exclaimed incredulously. While invitations to the Lair were few and far between, Caro’s dad conducted business regularly with the Shifters. Plus, the Alpha seemed to know David Hamilton well. Under such circumstances, how could Caro have never met a Shifter?

“This party is very unusual, Tasia.” It was Sara who responded. “Chosen factions rarely mingle socially. For many in the Pack, you’re the first non-Shifter they’ve had the opportunity to interact with.”

No wonder Evgeny’s friends had been so curious about her, Tasia mused. She’d put their curiosity down to youth, but now it struck her that it was more than that.

“That is true” Caroline chimed in. “That’s why this is really nice.” She gestured around her at the party in full swing, Shifters mingling with other Chosen guests.

“Tasia Armstrong” greeted a vaguely familiar voice.

Tasia’s heart sank. It was Justin Markham — the Shifter who’d injured Sara when her friend had tried to warn Tasia about the nuances in Shifter courtship rituals. Tasia could sense Sara stiffen up beside her, but this time, Tasia was prepared. Once, she’d inadvertently provided this Shifter an opportunity to exploit her naiveté and inexperience with Shifter and Pack customs for his own ends. No more. Tasia was wiser to the ways of the Pack now, and she had an ace in the hole, if Duncan was to be believed. She could be as blunt with Markham as she liked and he would never dare retaliate against her for fear of the Alpha’s wrath.

“What can I do for you?” Tasia asked him, her tone discouraging.

Sienna and Caro, already forewarned by Sara’s poker face, exchanged a glance at Tasia’s unusually unfriendly demeanor with the male Shifter.

“Is that any way to greet an old friend” he chided lightly, his smile unaffected by her unwelcoming manner.

“You’re no friend of mine” Tasia retorted fiercely, her mind vivid with memories of Sara crumpled amidst broken furniture before Duncan had swooped down to carry her off to be patched up by the Pack doctor.

Markham contemplated her silently, his good humor unimpaired and his eyes rife with speculation.

“The Lair is abuzz with whispers of your fractious relationship with the Alpha. He’s got a short fuse, our Alpha, and no love for your kind. You’ll be out on your pretty behind in no time. If I were you, Tasia Armstrong, I wouldn’t be so hasty to reject any overtures of friendship.” He paused for emphasis. “You never know when you might find yourself in need of friends.”

Tasia’s expression tightened imperceptively at his allusion to Lair gossip. She had no idea that her difficulties with the Alpha were being talked about, but she knew that it’d never do to let the Shifter know his barb had hit home.

“I have all the friends I’ll ever need” she assured him composedly, her glance encompassing the three women who flanked her.

Before Markham could respond, Duncan and Hawk descended on them from different sides of the room, united in their determination to handle the situation. Hawk wore a thunderous expression on his face while Duncan was his usual unflappable self. To Tasia’s astonishment, Luis Beltran strode up to them too, to take a position beside Sara and her. He said nothing, seemingly content to allow his mere presence to send a message. Sara’s twin and her Were-Alpha hotfooting it to Sara’s aid against a Shifter known for targeting her was no surprise to Tasia, but Luis’ presence by their side was a mystery. The suave and taciturn Were-Alpha had never demonstrated any concern for Sara before. Luis’ presence seemed to catch Hawk by equal surprise, for he directed a frowning glance at the Shifter. Tasia wondered if Luis Beltran was Markham’s Were-Alpha — that might certainly explain his presence here.

“Markham” Duncan greeted the Shifter in his usual placid manner. The huge English Shifter was dressed impeccably, as always, in a blue shirt and dark trousers, his sleeves rolled down to hide the colorful ink on his brawny arms. His brown eyes sized up the other Shifter with no discernible expression in them, but Markham seemed to get the message.

“Time to move on, lad” Duncan suggested mildly, and Markham directed a short nod at Tasia before striding away.

There was a short silence before Caroline piped up irrepressibly. “Who was that bozo?”

Busy directing uncertain and wary glances at Luis Beltran’s impassive presence beside her, Sara was prompt to respond. “A prime example of why I’ll never date a Shifter” she said smartly.

Sienna laughed aloud, Caroline giggled, and the tension was broken. Hawk’s thunderous visage relaxed and even Luis cracked a smile.

“You can’t judge us all by Markham, Sara mia” Hawk protested, his good humor restored.

“I have to concur with Hawk on this, my dear” Duncan remarked in his precise way, though Tasia noted the twinkle in his eyes.

“Ladies, I hope the Pack’s hospitality finds favor.” Duncan’s comment was directed at Caroline. All three of the other women present were currently affiliated with the Pack, in one form or another.

“Yes, thank you, Mr. Hawthorne” Caro replied primly.

“Duncan, please” he insisted.

“I’m enjoying my first glimpse of a Pack Lair” she said limpidly. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine an invitation.”

Duncan hid a smile, amused by her tactics. This, he guessed, was her attempt at bamboozling the crowd gathered here tonight. Caroline Hamilton had been introduced to Duncan the night she had walked into the Lair to ask the Alpha for help. Tasia had been kidnapped and Caroline had come to the Pack as a last resort to request assistance for her friend. It had led to a showdown at the local Registry between the Pack and a Guardian holding Tasia hostage. To ensure that no Wizard censure fell on either Caroline Hamilton or her father, Raoul had commanded the Pack to silence over Caroline’s visit. The Alpha had also given orders for Caroline to be allowed to visit with her friend while Tasia recovered at the Lair, after the Guardian’s ill-treatment of her.

“You should ask Tasia to give you a tour” Duncan suggested blandly, playing along. “This is likely to be her home for the foreseeable future.”

Caro contemplated the big Shifter. He had very subtly reinforced Tasia’s ties to the Pack after Justin Markham’s innuendos had raised questions about it. No wonder the English Shifter was held in high esteem within the Pack and by those who knew him, Caro mused.

“I will, thank you” she said softly.

Duncan gave her a courtly nod of his head in acknowledgement. He glanced at the silent Were-Alpha in their midst. “Luis Beltran, this is Caroline Hamilton. She’s a friend of Tasia’s.” He made the introductions.

“That one is intriguing” Caro whispered, as the English Shifter strode away with Luis in tow. “Him, I wouldn’t turn down necessarily.”

“Duncan.” Sara looked startled, her eyes contemplative as they followed the English Were-Alpha’s heavily-tattooed form. “He’s not your typical Shifter, I’ll give you that. He’s different. And very decent.”

“You know him well, Sara?” Caro inquired.

“He’s my Were-Alpha.”

Caro, curious about the ways of Shifters, hesitated all the same. She knew Sara well, having bonded over their mutual friendship with Tasia. She just wasn’t sure how comfortable Sara would feel answering questions about Shifters while her Pack mates listened in.

“Duncan mentored Sara and me when we first joined the Pack” Hawk offered, his expression unusually solemn. Caro had never seen this side of Hawk before. “He taught us everything we know about being Shifters and has always looked out for us.”

“Duncan is a treasure” Sienna chimed in quietly. “Wise, steady, unflappable and inherently decent.” Jason and she had both come to trust in the big Shifter’s judgment and level-headedness.

Tasia couldn’t help but silently agree with both Sara and Caro. Duncan had been unfailingly kind to her from the moment the Alpha had extended Pack protection to her. He had given her good advice, unwavering support and even helped bolster her in his way when her new life had overwhelmed her.

Hawk seemed to abruptly spring to attention, his expression hardening. Both his and Sara’s heads snapped to where a young Shifter whispered something urgently to the Alpha.

“What’s going on?” Caro inquired, as a sudden hush descended on the room. Conversations paused as Shifters everywhere directed their heightened attention to their Alpha.

“The Vampire Mistress is downstairs” Sara explained.

Blutsaugers. At the gates of the Lair.

Tasia’s heart quickened its beat abruptly, her body’s subconscious response to the presence of Vampires. Staying off the Clan’s radar had been the driving force of most of Tasia’s decisions her whole life. Some habits were hard to break. She took a deep breath to remind herself of her changed circumstances. There was no danger to her here. This was the Pack Lair. The Shifters were unlikely to allow any Blutsauger to step foot in here, she told herself.

“Tas” Hawk called out softly. I have you, his eyes said silently, as he seemed to move infinitesimally closer to her. Hawk thought he knew why Tasia feared the leeches. Her father had once walked away from them after a dispute, causing the Clan to go after him with a vengeance. What Hawk didn’t know, and what Tasia had not told his Alpha, was that there was a deadlier reason for her to keep her distance from the Blutsaugers. Her kind was an abomination to them. They would not hesitate to hunt her down and exterminate her if so much as a hint wafted to them of the blood that flowed in her veins.

Across the room, Raoul contemplated the young Shifter who’d brought him news that leeches waited at the Lair gates. This was uncharacteristic of Franciszka, he reflected. Especially after their last encounter, when he’d given her a taste of what he could do when crossed. That whole incident was still something of a mystery to him, though Raoul had managed to successfully shove the matter to the back of his mind. So much had happened since that fateful meeting with the Vampire Mistress that the Alpha could be forgiven for putting that little detail, shocking though it had been, on the back burner to deal with more important matters.

“Escort her up in ten minutes, John” he directed. “She’s only allowed to bring one of her entourage with her. The rest stay in the parking lot.”

“Got it, Alpha.” The young Shifter nodded before turning on his heels to stride away.

“Luis” the Alpha remarked conversationally, waiting just moments for the Were-Alpha to materialize. “Make sure those leeches stay in the parking lot, and that Franciszka and her leech are properly escorted every second they spend in the Lair.”

“I’ll take care of it.” Luis was succinct, as was his wont. He strode to the door, followed by his Shifters who’d overheard the Alpha’s commands as clearly as him.

“Duncan.” The Alpha turned to his friend, only for the other Shifter to forestall him.

“I’ve got it covered, Raoul” Duncan assured him.

The Alpha watched Duncan stride towards where Tasia stood with Hawk and her friends. Initially alarmed by the presence of leeches, the witchling had calmed down. The throng of bodies packing the room made it hard for his Shifter senses to pick up on physiological signs, but Raoul could sense her emotions in the strange way he’d noted in recent weeks. That had been another puzzle for him, one superseded by the jolting shock he had received just this week. He was still reeling from the vision of her with Hawk on Telegraph Hill.

“Problems, Raoul?” David Hamilton inquired from beside him.

“No.” He shook his head. “It’s just Franciszka throwing a tantrum.”

“That woman is impossible to deal with” the middle-aged woman beside Hamilton interjected. “You’re the only one that has a relationship with the local Clan, Raoul, amongst us all.” Her glance encompassed David Hamilton and some of the men by her side.

“That’s because Raoul is the only one who engages with her” David stated evenly. “The rest of us choose to leave the local nest to their own devices, as long as they stay out of our way.”

“She’s not that bad for a leech” Raoul said. “I’ve always found it better to engage with them than to leave them to their own devices.”

“It helps that she has a healthy fear of crossing the Alpha” Maartje remarked, her grandmotherly smile belied by the sharpness of the faded eyes. “Unlike other Chosen, we Wyrs do not hesitate to demonstrate the savagery we’re capable of when the need arises.”

“In my book, that makes the Wyrs the best of us all. We Chosen are all capable of great savagery, although some of us disguise it better” the middle-aged woman, who spoke for her kind, countered. “That the Wyrs refuse to dress it up is to your credit.”

David Hamilton said nothing, studying the Ancient, who led her brethren in the city, as if seeing her for the first time.

“Raoul” the Vampire Mistress greeted him from a few feet away. “How could you forget to invite me to your party, moj drogi?” she pouted prettily.

A pasty-faced Vampire stood impassively beside her, his wary gaze on the crowd in the hall that watched them avidly. Two Shifters flanked the Vampires. These were two of Luis’ most experienced Shifters, Raoul noted with approval.

“Franciszka.” Raoul strode forward to greet her politely.

The Mistress’ eyes skimmed over the group of Shifters, Wizards and Ancients who surrounded the Alpha.

“Did I lose my invitation in the mail, Raoul?” she inquired, her manner imperious, though Raoul could detect the hint of uncertainty in her eyes. “The Spell Casters and the First Ones are here at your invitation. Am I to assume that your invitation to us Pure Bloods has somehow gone astray?”

Raoul studied her, as the room waited in hushed silence for his response. She was insulted, he realized. Possibly even hurt by his rejection of the leeches, when every other Chosen faction he dealt with in San Francisco had received an invitation. The Pack and the leeches had a decent relationship, even though their last interaction had not gone well for Franciszka. It had taken serious moxie for Franciszka to bring along her entourage and demand entry into the Lair. Her relationship with the local Wizards and Ancients was almost non-existent, like most local leech nests. Leeches tended to be defensive about being looked down upon by other Chosen. Raoul didn’t blame them for it — they had good reason. As he studied the Mistress’ defiant stand before the gathered guests, the memory of another Chosen, who had deemed herself superior to him and had been hell-bent on proving it, flashed through Raoul. With it came the old blinding burst of rage. More than most, he knew what it felt to be discriminated against, to be regarded as an inferior Magick by another Chosen. He had suffered unbearable agony for his supposed crime.

“You’re very welcome here, Franciszka” he invited her graciously. “I apologize for the invitation going astray.”

For a moment, she simply stared back at him, nonplussed by his response. A quiet murmur rippled through the room at the Alpha’s statement, but the Vampire Mistress seemed unaware of it, her attention focused on Raoul’s inscrutable face. Her Vampire companion seemed equally taken aback, his eyes keenly searching the Alpha’s expression.

“The Pack values our relationship with you, Mistress, just as it does with the Wizards and Ancients of this city” the Alpha said firmly.

That seemed to throw her even more off balance. Raoul met her eyes, his own impassive as he returned her regard. She was a tall, pale and bony woman who had once been a great beauty as a mortal. Now, the fine bones of her face just made her features look angular and sharp. Like most Undead that could afford it, she liked to live well. It usually reflected in her attire. Today, she had on a low cut floor-length gown of a color that could only be described as blood red. Rubies glittered in her ears and neck while a bracelet encircled her bony arm. Her dark hair had been elaborately dressed in an old-fashioned and complicated arrangement. She could be a formidable adversary, as Raoul knew, a shrewd and cunning leader with the trust of her nest. In the Undead world, leaders tended to lead the leeches like a cult — by overwhelming fear or by unfailingly inspiring their followers. Raoul knew that Franciszka led her leeches by inspiration. Not that she didn’t inculcate a healthy fear in her leeches should they choose to disregard her commands, but mostly, they followed her because they believed in her vision for their nest. Raoul didn’t trust her as far as he could throw her, but she certainly didn’t deserve to be humiliated for being who she was.

“My Pure Bloods value our relationship with your Pack too, Alpha” she said formally, her manner suddenly more assured.

“Will you make the introductions?” she asked, her eyes on the silent group flanking Raoul.

“Of course. You know my Were-Alphas, Atsá and Maartje. David Hamilton too, I believe. This is DiZeyla.”

“She who leads the First Ones in this city” the Vampire Mistress acknowledged. “We finally meet.”

From a distance, Tasia watched the Mistress intently, her attention focused on the woman to the exclusion of everyone around her. Calm now, her initial spurt of alarm drained away. She was part of this Pack. Despite any ambivalence regarding her future with them, she was here to stay for the probationary period. And she was confident that while the Alpha might not know exactly why she feared the Blutsaugers, he knew enough to make damn sure no Vampire got close to her tonight, or any other night, while she was under Pack protection.

Tasia sent Hawk a reassuring smile as she caught his watchful eyes on her. Caro and Sienna were too busy staring at the two Vampires. Caro had probably never met any of the Clan before, but Sara cast concerned glances at her friend, her Shifter senses having picked up on Tasia’s initial alarm. Duncan, in his observant way, took note of the twins’ concern for their friend. It was time to distract them all, he decided. He didn’t intend to let the leeches’ presence spoil the party for the twins he had mentored since they’d joined the Pack as callow teenagers.

“Ladies, have you sampled the fare yet?” he inquired.

Tasia’s eyes snapped to his, recalled to her surroundings by his question.

“No.” She shook her head.

“Shall we?” His voice was mild, the brown eyes steady on her.

Tasia agreed with alacrity. Duncan’s presence hovering reassuringly by her side signified protection. The Alpha had sent his trustiest Shifter to watch over her.

“Does that woman always dress so …?” Caro inquired in a sibilant whisper as they made their way to the feast laid out for the guests.

“Always” Hawk assented, his eyes dancing with mischief. “This is one of her more tasteful attires.”

“Hawk” Sara protested laughingly.

Duncan merely shook his head, attempting to suppress a grin, though Tasia noted that he didn’t censure Hawk for his loose tongue. The Vampires’ hearing rivalled that of the Shifters’.

“You’ve met her before, Hawk?” Caro exclaimed, her astonishment clear. Caroline had assumed that, like her, Hawk had few opportunities to mingle with other Chosen.

“A few times” Hawk acknowledged.

Caro stared at him, rendered speechless by his answer. In response, Hawk gave her one of his singularly attractive smiles.

“What about the jewelry?” Sienna asked curiously. “Is it real?”

Hawk shrugged. He had little interest in and absolutely no clue about jewelry.

“Very likely” Duncan answered the question. “She likes the finer things in life, like most of her kind.”

“Hmm.” Sienna turned around to direct a thoughtful glance at the Mistress.

Tasia, who had met the Vampire Mistress before in a rather terrifying encounter, tried to ignore her presence to take in the spread before her in awe. Sienna had done a fantastic job. A vegetarian, Tasia’s daily attempts to configure meals from the mostly meat options available at the Lair Café were always a challenge. Tonight, she realized joyfully, offered her a feast with the plethora of available options.

“They won’t venture here” Duncan remarked in a low voice to her, gesturing at the tables laden with food. The leeches got their sustenance from other sources, as Tasia knew.

Tasia glanced at up at the English Shifter. “I know that I’m in safe hands, Duncan.”

“Enjoy yourself tonight” he said softly. Duncan, who spent a lot of his time in the library he had created lovingly in the Pack Room, knew how much the forced isolation at the Lair chafed at Tasia. He’d taken note of her restlessness while she worked long hours perusing and making notes from the reports that the First Wizard had released to them.

Forty minutes later, Tasia was back at the table, perusing dessert options carefully after a fantastic meal. Engrossed in making the difficult decision between tiramisu and a bright passion fruit mousse, she failed to observe the man striding towards her.

Duncan, ever watchful, took note of the Alpha’s approach with sharp eyes that missed nothing. Directing his attention back to the plate of food in his hands, he relaxed his vigil for a few minutes.

“Enjoying yourself?” the Alpha inquired softly from beside her.

Startled, Tasia jumped, losing her grip on the plate in her hand. Quick as a flash, his hand shot out to grasp the plate, steadying it as a mini chocolate cup teetered at the edge.

Tasia glanced from the upright plate in his hands to the inscrutable face, her expression awed.

“You’re fast” she whispered.

“I’m a Shifter” he quipped impassively. “Didn’t mean to startle you” he said as she continued to stare up at him mutely.

Tasia’s eyes fell to the plate in his hands. She held out her hand for it, unthinkingly. The Alpha’s gold eyes snapped to the hand she held out to him before he placed the plate carefully on the table, his movements deliberate. He held her gaze, his eyes glinting with amusement.

“If you’re not willing in private, I think it’s safe to assume that you don’t intend to do so with the eyes of the world on you” he reminded her.

For one stupefied moment, Tasia stared at him in confusion, before the import of his words hit her. She flushed scarlet, snatching her hand back, reminded of the night in the Alpha’s Room when he’d offered her a sip from his glass.

With more hindsight now, Tasia understood that he had been attempting to distract her from her fears that night. In his own way, he had been rather kind.

Watch yourself, Tasia. He’s right about the eyes of the world on you. This is no time to make missteps with Shifter traditions. Especially when the Pack is already gossiping about you, if Markham’s to be believed.

Tasia reached for the plate on the table, playing for time to compose herself.

“Thank you for the timely reminder” she said with remarkable composure to the man who watched her with hooded eyes.

Those hooded gold eyes skimmed over her from head to toe, taking in the upswept hair, the dangling earrings and the simple knee-length rust-colored dress. The big gray eyes had been highlighted with subtle makeup that made them the focus of her fine-boned features.

“Witchling” he said softly, conscious of the Shifters listening in, and possibly the two leeches.

Tasia glanced up to meet his gaze, a question in the gray eyes as they met his. For the first time, Raoul allowed a hint of his interest to show, for just a moment. It was deliberately done. Tasia stared at the light in the depths of the gold eyes, bewildered and confused by it.

Whaaat? Is he …? No, it cannot be. This is the cold and aloof man who doesn’t allow even his Pack to get close. Get a grip on yourself.

The gold eyes, now back to their inscrutable depths, searched her face.

Had she imagined that look in his eyes, Tasia wondered uncertainly.

He’s probably checking out the smudge on my face.

“Enjoy your chocolate and the party” he said. “And, don’t worry” he added as she remained silent, his lightning glance directed at the Mistress who mingled with the other guests, in company with her Vampire, Maartje, and two of Luis’s Shifters. “I’ve got this.”

The next morning, Jason LaRue asked for an audience with the Alpha.

“You’re not going to like this” Jason warned bluntly as the Alpha closed the door to his sound-proofed private room.

Raoul studied the Guardian’s candid brown eyes. “Out with it, LaRue” he said mildly. “I’m in a good mood. Let’s have it.”

Jason lost his somber expression as his eyes lit up with amusement. No wonder Merceau was in a good mood. Why wouldn’t he be after successfully pulling off a coup of sorts last night, Jason mused. All without expending much of an effort to keep the peace, from what Jason had seen.

“I told you that the First Wizard had approached ElThor for assistance” Jason reminded him.

“Yes, to extract Sienna’s locket.”

“In return for his assistance, ElThor is asking more questions about the locket and its origins than the First Wizard is comfortable answering.” Jason relayed the information tactfully.

Raoul studied the Guardian for a moment, his gold eyes glinting with unholy enjoyment. “So, the Ancients are giving the Wizards an uncomfortable time as the price for their assistance. Couldn’t have happened to more deserving folks, if you ask me. You’re wrong, LaRue. This is highly entertaining. What’s not to like?”

Jason sighed silently. He didn’t know where the Alpha’s animosity for Wizards stemmed from, but this particular opinion was hard to rebut. Much as he would’ve liked to, Jason couldn’t deny that the Wizards wanted to keep Lady Bethesda’s crimes and machinations a secret from the other Chosen, and even their own people. It would bring down too many recriminations on their leadership and its decisions, past and present.

“It’s what comes next that you won’t like” Jason remarked. “The First Wizard would like a contingent of Guardians to take a stab at removing Sienna’s locket before she’s forced to divulge secrets to ElThor’s people.”

“That’s Wizard business. Why would I have an opinion on it?” Raoul countered.

“You know how I feel about entrusting Sienna’s protection to the GCW. After Chicago, I’m not sure which Guardians to trust. The First Wizard agrees with me on this.”

Raoul’s eyes searched Jason’s face. Now he understood where this was going.

“No” he stated unequivocally, the gold eyes blanked of all expression. “Before I extended the invitation to Sienna, I told you that no Guardians would ever step foot in my Lair.”

Jason’s chocolate-colored eyes remained steady on him, but he said nothing.

“I made an exception for you, Guardian” Raoul said softly. “But therein ends my dealings with Wizards. No other Guardian will set foot here and I’ll stop this joint investigation if the First Wizard insists on involving any other Guardians in it.”

Jason said nothing. There was nothing to say. This was exactly the reaction he’d anticipated from the Alpha. Merceau had been crystal clear about the parameters of his co-operation with Wizards before. Although, to be honest, Jason was taken aback by the Alpha’s additional threat to put a stop to the Lady Bethesda investigation at the first sign of more Wizard involvement in the matter. While the Alpha had accepted this assignment at the behest of Faoladh, he seemed now to be drawing a line in the sand — there was only so far he would go, even for Faoladh. Jason knew that it would only be to the Wizards’ detriment if the Alpha followed through on his threat. Merceau’s team had gotten much further in their two weeks of investigation than the multiple Wizard investigations over the course of twenty-five years, ever since the first allegations against Lady Bethesda.

“Alright” Jason countered mildly. “Would you be willing to consider a compromise, in that case?”

“I won’t compromise when it comes to Wizards” the Alpha declared with absolute conviction, his voice hard.

“I only ask that you hear me out, Merceau. Haven’t I earned that right?” Jason asked evenly, the brown eyes meeting Raoul’s gaze directly.

There was a moment of silence before Raoul nodded.

“The First Wizard is a powerful Magick in her own right. Would you be willing to host her at the Lair if she’s escorted by Faoladh?” Jason asked. “If she’s unable to undo the locket, she’ll be more amenable to giving the Ancients what they want.”

Taken aback, Raoul contemplated the Guardian thoughtfully. The First Wizard represented her brethren on the Council of Chosen. Her seeking any Shifter’s hospitality could only bring prestige to the Pack. He knew the news would be tough to keep hush-hush, no matter how hard the Wizards attempted to do so.

“Your First Wizard is welcome here, but no others may accompany her to the Lair.”

“I’ll convey the invitation to her, along with your conditions, Alpha” Jason said. “And thank you. Again” he added after a short pause.

There was a short silence as the two men, so very different but united in a temporary alliance for a common cause, contemplated each other.

“You’re an unusual man, Raoul Merceau” Jason remarked with a wry smile. “You surprise me constantly, an ability that few people in the world possess anymore. You dislike our kind and yet, you offer Tasia the protection of your Pack, and Sienna the sanctuary of your Lair. And you don’t do anything by half measures, either. I’ve seen how you protect Tasia. You have your Shifters watch over her like hawks all the time.”

“Shifters take our debts very seriously. The Pack owes Tasia, and this is our way of returning the favor” Raoul said impassively. There were other reasons why the Pack protected the witchling, but the Guardian didn’t need to know them.

“You didn’t turn away the Vampire Mistress last night either, something everyone in the hall expected. Don’t tell me the Pack owes her, too.”

“No, the Pack owes nothing to the leeches. Franciszka is what she is because she’s a leech.” Raoul shrugged. “She knows no other way to be. I’ve met many Chosen much worse than her. She was humiliated at being excluded from our celebration last night, when every other local Chosen leader had been invited. I wasn’t going to throw her out for the simple crime of being a leech. I’m a Shifter, you’re a Wizard, and she’s a leech. Not one of us had any choice in the matter. The only factor in our control is what we do with the power bestowed upon us. Isn’t that why we call ourselves the Chosen? All we can do is be true to ourselves.”

Jason stared at the Alpha, astonished by the simple and yet profound words. This man had more depths to him than what his Chosen brethren credited him with. His reputation did not do him justice. It was a thought that had occurred multiple times to Jason in the past two weeks while he observed the Alpha operate closely. He’d chosen well, Jason realized with relief. Entrusting Sienna’s safety to this man had been the best decision he’d made in a long time.

More than ever, Jason was determined to convince Sienna to talk to her Aunt Minnie. The Alpha and his team needed to hear the original prophecy to make further progress on the investigation. Sienna’s aunt could make that happen, one way or another. This investigation was crucial. Without it, Jason was afraid the Wizards would split apart at the seams, a danger Sienna’s aunt had realized before everyone else. There was also the personal component to it. He wanted answers about the past.

“Speaking of leeches” Raoul remarked abruptly. “I made sure they were escorted every second they spent inside the Lair, but I’d feel better if we swept this place for traces of leech magic.”

“I can do that” Jason offered.

“You’re sure, LaRue? A lot of Guardians might consider this type of work beneath them.”

“I don’t” Jason assured him in his easy-going manner. “I live here now. You might as well put me to good use” he added with a smile. “I also have some news on Azevedo.”

The Alpha looked inquiring.

“Azevedo fell out with the Lombardis over a prisoner. The rumor is he helped her escape the Clan.”

“The leeches can hold grudges with the best of us” Raoul acknowledged. “Perhaps, it was a matter of loyalty for them.” Loyalty to the nest and the Master was prized very highly by the Clan, he knew. Much like a Pack, in that respect.

“Perhaps. But I believe the Vampires considered Azevedo’s transgression more serious than disloyalty to the nest. The woman he helped free was no ordinary prisoner. She was to be bride to the Master.”

“What!” Raoul exclaimed, gobsmacked by this piece of information.

“Yup” Jason reiterated succinctly.

Azevedo had stolen the woman intended for the Master away from under the leeches’ noses. Suddenly, their animosity towards Gabriel Azevedo made more sense to Raoul. He had wondered idly, his interest more academic than anything else, why the leeches had chased after the Guardian with such single-minded animosity. So much so, that the man had resorted to faking his own death to escape them, as well as hiding the birth of his daughter to free her from the Vampire’s grudge against him. This would certainly qualify as a blood feud for the leeches.

“Not only did the ex-Guardian dare to walk away from them, he helped the Master’s intended to escape. From all accounts, the Vampires went after him with everything they had, hunting him for six months until they caught up with him” Jason continued. “He died in the ensuing attempt to escape them.”

This part, Raoul knew from the witchling. Her father had faked his own death, and that of the woman he had assisted in escaping the leeches, to throw those hunting him off their scent. What the hell, Raoul wondered silently in consternation. Every bit of information that dripped out slowly about Azevedo only seemed to increase the danger to the witchling, if any leech ever suspected her heritage. The leeches made for deadly enemies that stopped at nothing. They had, after all, elevated exacting vengeance to an art form. Her father’s sins would be taken out on his daughter if they ever caught up with the witchling. This was in addition to the danger she courted by the nature of the extraordinary magic that flowed in her veins.

End of excerpt ...