In the attempt to unearth the Magicks that control their future, Tasia’s house of cards comes crashing down. When Pandora’s Box is prised open, can the man who holds her heart push back the darkness …
Tasia is finally at home in San Francisco. With powerful friends and allies by her side, she’s finding her feet in the Pack, contributing to the investigation and feeling her way with the fiercely guarded and daunting Alpha. But she has a major decision to make, one that goes to the root of the chains of history that hold her future hostage to the past.
The Oracle’s interpretation of his prophecy raises questions about the allegiances of powerful Chosen. Lady Bethesda’s attempts to entice Faoladh to her side, the tangled history of the CoC, the shadowy presence of an Archmage, the growing role of a powerful Vampire Master and the latent fissures among the First Ones force the team to reconsider their strategy. But a devastating bombshell tears apart a rock-solid partnership, just as Tasia is ready to break the shackles that bind her. As the past comes home to roost, the Alpha must grapple with the darkness he holds at bay. Can he conquer his demons or will the past color the present?
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The Paladin continues the saga.
BOOK 4, Saga of the CHOSEN
If it has been a while since you read The Rainmaker, this Glossary of the cast of characters is available as you read The Siren.
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The chessboard comes alive
“Something is blocking me” a feminine voice declared in unmistakable alarm. “I can’t see anything.”
Her reverie interrupted, she glanced at Tasia. They were on edge; acutely conscious of the peril that confronted them. Culled from the herd, they’d been corralled here. And now, cornered and vulnerable, they faced the prospect of holding off an army on their own. While their friends would leave no stone unturned to reach them, the Pack and its allies might not make it in time. Until their friends came to their rescue, they must hold their own against the hordes circling them.
“What do you mean?” she asked Tasia. Her friend’s urgency disconcerted her. When they’d first become aware of their predicament, Tasia had taken it in her stride — cool, collected and confident. It had been a balm, for she knew that Tasia was to be tested soon under trying circumstances. In the past few weeks, her friend had come into her own, no longer a reticent and retiring Wizard with a predilection for side-stepping confrontations. But now, panic simmered in Tasia’s eyes.
At the sight, dread and foreboding ratcheted up in her. “What is it, Tasia?” she pressed the Wizard, trying to not give in to her own fears.
Tasia hesitated for an infinitesimal second, before capitulating. The explanation came in a rush, her words tumbling over each other in her eagerness. “I’m able to sense Chosen in the vicinity. It’s almost like magic wafts in the air and I see it. But suddenly, I can’t. There’s nothing! Something’s interfering with my ability.”
Despite the garbled explanation, she grasped the gist of the admission. And took a moment to digest it. There had been hints before, even magic feats under extraordinary circumstances, that suggested exceptional, even fantastic, power. Thus, she’d been aware for a while now that Tasia had a lot of magic in her the Wizard chose to keep secret from their brethren. But this was something else. The power to distinguish between human and Chosen was singular and deadly.
Beside her, Nandini’s stifled gasp made it clear that she was not the only one grappling with the declaration. Like her, Nandini was no stranger to Tasia’s Magick capabilities. Yet, the Indian Ancient was staggered by the disclosure.
“You’re sure?” she questioned, trying to feel her way.
“I can’t even sense you guys” Tasia said vehemently. “Something’s horribly wrong.”
Momentarily lost for words, she gaped at her friend.
Tasia drew a shaky breath, her face deathly pale. “I cannot defend us” she whispered. “Not if I don’t see them coming.”
There was an exclamation from behind Nandini and the Indian Chosen, frozen in shock, came to life again.
“I can” Nandini declared. “Sense them coming, that is.”
Tasia turned to the Ancient. “How?”
“I’m Naga, bonded to the earth” Nandini said simply. “I’ll know if a horde approaches us. It’s harder with a single person or a small group, but luckily for us, that’s not likely.”
No, indeed, she mused. They had been isolated, segregated and herded here for a reason. Their mother meant to use them to rally her troops.
Wild hope flashed across Tasia’s face. “Are you sure, Nandini?”
“Yep.” The Indian girl’s response came confidently. “They’ll come for us in numbers, Tasia. The larger the crowd, the easier it is for me to read the vibrations.”
“Thank the Forebearers!” Tasia breathed, immensely relieved. Color surged back into the Wizard’s face. “Whatever’s blocking my magic senses has not affected my other powers. If Nandini can warn us, we’ll hold them off.”
“Of course, we will” affirmed an unfamiliar voice from behind Nandini. “Tasia and I have outwitted the Blutsaugers before.”
Startled by the youthful voice, spiked with such assurance and certitude, she craned her neck to peer around Nandini. But before she could catch a glimpse of the girl, the dream ended abruptly.
Sienna awoke to a dark room, disoriented by the abrupt change of environs. It took her a few minutes to get her bearings. She was in her room at the Lair in San Francisco. Hopping off the bed, an agitated Sienna paced restlessly around it. Had that been a dream, she wondered uneasily? Or another vision? If so, it would only be her second one. Given that she had not yet succeeded in making sense of the first vision, a monumental glimpse of the future that had shaped her choices, Sienna didn’t know how to feel about yet another omen.
Clearly, her Seer gene had been inherited from her Da, the great Oracle himself. But unlike him, her record with interpreting visions was abysmal. She could barely distinguish between a dream and a vision, she reflected in despair. And though every instinct screamed that this had been no ordinary dream, it was difficult to be sure.
Sienna replayed the short interlude in her mind, calling up the memories while they were fresh. The taste of grave threat and impending danger still lingered on her tongue, along with the rush of adrenaline and the fierce determination to hold out until their allies could even the numbers. A conversation with Nandini and Tasia, no matter how unusual, could easily be conjured up by her subconscious. They were teammates on the investigation and all three currently resided at the Lair. Also, they were friends united on a mission to thwart a ruthless, cruel and ambitious adversary hellbent on taking the Chosen down the path of no return. But it was the final comment from the youthful, unfamiliar and feminine voice that threw Sienna for a loop. Try as she might, she could not reconcile that bit with a dream. Then, there was Tasia’s extraordinary admission about her magic. While some of the conversation might easily be a byproduct of her subconscious anxiety, about her mother’s ability to influence the future, the shocking confession was highly unlikely to be a figment of her imagination.
A power such as that was unique, rare and lethal. Sienna frowned, pausing her perambulations as another realization struck her. No Spell Caster, even one off the charts on the Magic Level Scale, could possess such an ability. The product of an elite San Diego school, catering to Wizards, Sienna was keenly aware of both the range and the limitations of her brethren’s propensities. A Wizard’s power was derived from the ability to cast spells and the inherent magic in his blood. While training and experience could improve and fine-tune a Wizard’s artistry at spells, his power would always be limited by the magic he was born with. Spells fell into four broad categories, but every one of them was fueled, as well as checked, by the magic in a Wizard’s veins. Though many did learn, over the course of their lifetime, to use their resources cleverly and punch above their weight, the power to sense the magic inherent in a creature was well beyond the grasp of any Spell Caster.
As the import of her thoughts hit her, Sienna collapsed into a chair. Despite the occasional glimpses and hints of Tasia’s abilities, she’d never questioned that her friend was a Wizard, merely assuming that the Magic Level Scale was inadequate when charting the magnitude of Tasia’s magic. But the power to discern Chosen from Si’ffa could never be inherent to a Wizard. Of more significance, a Magick with such a gift was no ordinary Chosen. It had been years since high school. Yet, Sienna had not forgotten the lessons from Chosen lore. Magic like this would elevate a Chosen to Mage territory. And a very powerful Mage at that. If history was any indication, Mages, at least the known ones, tended to always travel down two wildly differing paths. Either they hunted other Chosen, seemingly drunk on their own powers; or they became the hunted, a prey to other ambitious Magicks bent on exploiting their extraordinary gifts. Sienna’s heart sank at the ominous ramifications. If what she’d seen tonight had not been a dream but a glimpse into the future, it was a momentous clue to her original vision. This would explain how Tasia might, one day, end up in the arena before the Council of Chosen, to answer to charges from her brethren.
While Sienna reeled in the privacy of her room, down in the newly converted Pack Room on the first floor, Nandini was engaged on a different endeavor altogether — attempting to soothe her twin.
“Are you sure about this, Dini?” her brother persisted over the phone.
“I’m very sure” she said firmly. “I have to see this through.”
“This sounds dangerous …”
Nandini interrupted him. “She is dangerous, Mahen. And if even half the allegations against her are true, she must be brought to justice.”
Her twin sighed. Dini was fired up and determined to stop their mother. A mother they barely remembered — one who, to all purposes, was a stranger to them.
“There will be no evidence of her hand in Papa’s assassination” Nandini asserted grimly. “She’s paranoid, careful, and lets nothing stand in her way — it would be like her to have her minions do the dirty work while she kept her hands clean. I can’t just let her walk away from this, Mahen.”
He gave in to his sibling. If she believed that their mother had a hand in the death of their beloved father, then Dini would do everything in her power to ensure that Lady Bethesda was given her just deserts. Mahen, who knew his twin better than anyone else, accepted that she would not be swayed on this. But he wished fervently that he could be by her side while Dini embarked on a crusade.
He changed the subject adroitly, no longer attempting to dissuade her. “The Wyrs trying to stop her — what are they like?” It wasn’t an idle query. Mahen wanted to get a sense of her allies. Without him to watch her back, the job would be up to Dini’s new friends. Until he could tie up the loose ends and join her on her quest.
As intended, his query succeeded in diverting his twin. “Very focused on the goal” she said thoughtfully. “It’s an efficient and tightly-run operation. And they take very good care of Sienna and me.”
Her twin, who had done his research into the Northern California Pack the moment Nandini had set up residence at the Lair in San Francisco, reflected on what he’d gleaned. Raoul Merceau had quite the reputation. Though chasing down Wizards belied it. Mahen wondered if the Alpha was merely following orders. The Wyrs were fanatical about fealty and the chain of command. His sister had indicated that Faoladh was involved. Perhaps, the Alpha’s dedication to this cause could be explained by it. Though there were bits that puzzled him, what Mahen had discovered calmed some of his fears for his sibling. If Raoul Merceau considered Nandini an ally, she would be well-guarded.
“What do you make of Sienna?” he asked, curious about the half-sister they’d had no knowledge of for most of their lives, but whose future seemed strangely intertwined with theirs.
“She’s nice.” Nandini’s response was prompt, a thread of affection ringing through her voice. “Quite wonderful, actually. But troubled about the past.”
She paused before admitting something that had preoccupied her recent thoughts. “In a way, we were lucky, Mahen. Not knowing about her was the best thing Papa did for us. Sienna has not been that lucky.”
He said nothing, though the quiet emotion in her words struck him forcefully.
“When this is all over, I’d like to invite her to Nagalok for a visit” Nandini said. “You should get to know her too.”
“I’m going to try and sort things here, Dini” he explained. “I want to see this through with you. But it might be a while before I can wrest myself away. Things are a little tricky right now.”
“We have time and I’ll keep you updated” she assured her twin. With their father’s unexpected demise, his affairs had been left in an uncertain state. For most Chosen leaders like their father, the succession of the heir was carefully planned well in advance. This one had not been because their father’s time had been cut short by assassination. A thought that ate at her in her unguarded moments.
“Do not worry about me, Mahen” she reassured him. “I’m guarded by Wyrs. And surrounded by a Guardian and even a First One — though, you know how I feel about him.”
Mahen let that pass. He was keenly aware that Dini did not trust TorElnor’s First One but was nonetheless willing to work with him as long as the Alpha Protector led the investigation. This was because Nandini trusted Raoul Merceau. It helped to assuage Mahen’s concerns. The Alpha had won his twin’s trust with the refusal to abandon her to the Undead, when Nandini had made her long-shot bid for freedom from their mother’s Oregon house.
“What about SivoTar?” he nudged Nandini. “He might be willing to help.”
“He’s been very kind, Mahen. If I request his assistance for me or my friends, he’ll jump in. But to ask him to bring his Eru into this, we’ll have to convince him that she’s a threat to the Chosen.”
“Hmm.” Now that he was the leader of the Kabila, Mahen understood this better. Offering his personal assistance was one thing but leading the people, who trusted him to look out for their welfare, into an unjustified war would be unconscionable for any leader. SivoTar would never do that. None of the First Ones would. Only the Wyrs and the Vampires tended to follow their leaders unquestioningly; one, because it was ingrained in their code and the other, because their blood ties to their Master compelled them to do so.
Far from San Francisco, Sienna’s restless thoughts and Nandini’s assurances to her brother, their mother plotted her path to glory. Lady Bethesda was seriously rattled by Faoladh’s stubborn recalcitrance to join forces with her. When it had been about retrieving her locket, she could forgive Faoladh his seeming reluctance. Now that two of her daughters had disavowed her to side with the Wyr Lord investigating her, she was less inclined to overlook Faoladh’s foibles. Raoul Merceau had confronted her, to walk away unscathed from their encounter. He’d even landed a few blows on her. The Lady did not like it one bit. She seethed silently, and she blamed Faoladh for the debacle. It was the Wyr who had chosen this Alpha Protector to dig into the past, and she was determined that it would be Faoladh who would put the kibosh on reviving old grievances against her. If the Alpha Protector was to be involved in this endeavor at all, it would be to do her bidding and to deploy his acumen, skills and resources to her cause, not to opposing her. Perhaps, she mused grimly, it was time to be more proactive with Faoladh — to jog his memory with old history he seemed to have conveniently forgotten. She did not intend to wait anymore at Faoladh’s pleasure. She was the heart of The Prophecy — the one with the power to change the Chosen’s future. She would not allow any other Magick, no matter how influential, to dictate the timing or events that would herald her glorious future.
An outpost in the Canadian Rockies, Alberta, Canada
Faoladh glanced up as a young Shifter strode into the room with a phone in his hand.
“There’s a Guardian asking for you, Faoladh. She’s a friend of the Oracle.” There was a subtle question mark at the end of the Shifter’s statement. He was too young a Chosen to be familiar with the illustrious Seer. And historically, Shifters were less likely to be aware of Chosen with no significant role in Wyr affairs.
Faoladh held out his hand for the phone. “Thank you, Ralph.”
The young Shifter made an unobtrusive exit, to leave Faoladh wondering why any friend of the legendary Seer would reach out to him now.
“Hello” he spoke into the phone.
“Faoladh” greeted a voice once very familiar to the Wyr. “You’ve been digging up the past.”
“Bethesda” he greeted her politely, doing her the courtesy of using her Magick Façade. “I have.”
She did not mince words. “Why?”
He gave her the simple explanation. “Esmeralda requested my assistance.”
“I’ve done no wrong to the Wyrs, Faoladh” she said evenly.
“You targeted our children” he averred.
“I harmed no Wyr children” she retorted.
“You harmed Chosen children, Bethesda. And Wyrs are Chosen too.”
There was a short silence.
“You chose well, Faoladh.” She changed the subject, not particularly abashed by the Shifter’s pointed rebuke. “The Alpha will make a formidable foot soldier for the cause.”
This time, the Wyr let out a chuckle. “I wish you luck, Bethesda. Raoul will never be a foot soldier. And certainly not for your cause. But you’re welcome to try.”
“I won’t have to try very hard.” She was complacent. “He’s a Wyr at heart and will follow you without demur, Faoladh.”
“Don’t be too sure, Bethesda” the Shifter asserted. “He’s a more complicated man than his reputation suggests.”
“He’s a Shifter, isn’t he? Complicated or not” she remarked, a purr of satisfaction in her voice she did not hide from him.
“That he is” Faoladh acknowledged easily.
She tried to goad the Shifter into saying more. “To listen to him, he has no Wizard blood in his veins.”
But the Wyr said nothing, refusing to indulge her.
“Have you read the Seer’s interpretation?” she inquired dulcetly, artfully directing the conversation to where she wanted it to go.
Faoladh sat up, his anticipation rising. He sensed this was why she had opened communications with him.
“Since when have I cared about prophecies, Bethesda?” he countered suavely.
“I was his wife, Faoladh. I know how much you once cared about a prophecy. Why should this one be any different?”
This time, Faoladh remained silent.
“Whether you believe in prophecies or not, you believed in him” she asserted cannily. “I know that. Read it, Faoladh. You might yet embrace a different course.”
On that note, Lady Bethesda hung up, satisfied at having accomplished her task. She’d planted the seed in his mind. And if nothing came of it, she would prod him some more. She had intimate knowledge of the past when it came to Faoladh and the causes dear to his heart.
Faoladh set the phone down to stare into space, flooded with memories of a time when a young Guardian had been more than an acquaintance while he sought to make his dream of uniting the Chosen a reality.
But he was not the foremost Wyr in the world for nothing. After indulging himself for a few minutes, he shook free of the memories determinedly to reach for his cell.
“Raoul, have you the records for The Prophecy?” he asked, without preamble.
“In a few days, Faoladh” came the Alpha’s answer.
“You’re sure, Raoul?” he persisted.
“Yes.” There was a short pause. “Has something happened?” inquired the Alpha, picking up on Faoladh’s restlessness.
“Bethesda reached out to me.”
“She’s recruiting for the cause, I presume” the Alpha said perceptively. Raoul wasn’t surprised by this. There had been an air of desperation to her at their encounter. The Lady was off her game and starting to unravel at the setbacks. It made her deadlier than ever. And given that she still held too many cards for his comfort, she posed a threat Raoul did not take lightly.
“She believes I’ll change course if I read the Seer’s interpretation” Faoladh remarked.
The Alpha’s silence was evocative.
“I won’t, Raoul” Faoladh proclaimed. “But if there’s something in there that hints at it, I want to know. Forewarned is forearmed.”
“You’ll have it the minute I do” the Alpha assured him, without hesitation.
“Bethesda thinks she knows something we don’t, Raoul. I’m starting to wonder if we should have pushed the GCW for the records earlier.”
Unbeknownst to Faoladh, far away in San Francisco, the Alpha frowned. Not a man given to fancy, the subtle undertone of concern in Faoladh’s voice had him take notice of it.
At the Lair in San Francisco, Raoul stared at his desk absently after Faoladh had signed off. He was interrupted by the rattle of the heavy door, before Duncan strode into the Alpha’s Room. The English Shifter, the bearer of news, went silent as he caught a glimpse of the Alpha’s face. Poker-faced he might be to the rest of the world, but Duncan knew Raoul better than most. He’d watched over the Alpha during his darkest days.
Duncan closed the door to advance into the room. “Something the matter?” he inquired.
“I’m not sure” the Alpha answered, pinning his friend with his unusual gold-colored eyes. “Faoladh is suddenly keen on the details of The Prophecy.”
Attuned to the Alpha, Duncan grasped the subtext immediately. Faoladh, though invested in this examination of the past, had never professed much interest in The Prophecy before. Even though, he’d been the one to inform Raoul about its potential relevance to their scrutiny of Lady Bethesda.
“His interest is unusual — I’ll give you that” Duncan acceded. “But par for the course, given the prominence it plays in her ambitions.”
“For the first time, I heard something in his voice” Raoul said slowly. “A note of self-doubt.”
The gold eyes tangled with the English Were-Alpha’s. “Faoladh, as you know, doesn’t do regrets. Yet, he’s questioning not pushing the GCW before.”
Duncan pursed his lips, reflecting on what they knew. During their encounter, Lady Bethesda had intimated to Raoul that Faoladh was slated to join her; to shield her from her past crimes and presumably, to bring his Wyrs to her side in the upcoming battle for the soul of the Chosen.
“You think this has to do with Lady Bethesda’s declaration that Faoladh will be her champion?” he asked.
The Alpha leaned back in his chair. “He’s worried about something to do with The Prophecy, Duncan. Before, he’d laughed at the very idea of allying with her in any form.”
The English Shifter was not a man to worry about that which might not come to pass, but this was not something to be taken lightly. Faoladh was no mere bystander in this clash. His allegiances held the power to make or break their efforts to thwart Lady Bethesda. And derail this investigation into the past.
“It’s a good thing we get the records soon” Duncan remarked prosaically. It had been a long road to getting any kind of co-operation from the Guardians. Sienna’s friend was a last-ditch attempt. Otherwise, Raoul would mount a siege of Wizard Headquarters to wrest information the Shifters considered crucial to their investigation.
“Sienna’s Guardian is on course?” the Alpha asked. Raoul was aware that his friend had offered up his residence for a party. Sienna wanted to introduce the Guardian to her new allies. He suspected that it was her way of breaking the ice, as well as a careful orchestration of Bergdahl’s first impressions of the company Sienna currently kept.
“He flies in the day after tomorrow, Raoul. He’ll spend the evening with us and is scheduled for the morning after with Sienna and Jason in the supplementary Pack Room.”
“He’s confirmed that he has what Sienna asked for” Duncan assured him.
Raoul met his friend’s gaze. “I’m mighty keen to read the Seer’s notes.”
Duncan shared the Alpha’s sentiments. Like everyone involved in the investigation, he was eager to find out how the Oracle explained his own prophecy.
Nine weeks ago, deep in the Belizean Rainforest
The dark-haired man watched the action in the pit below with an air of detachment, his striking slate-gray eyes fathomless pools. A curious kind of stillness marked him. No one looking at him would guess at the seething impatience he reined in. This tier of the arena was not deserted. Yet, the other spectators made sure to keep their distance from the man. Some knew of him, many guessed at what he was and the others merely possessed a healthy instinct for self-preservation. Good judgement, an aptitude for sensing impending danger and the ability to read opponents and audience alike were prerequisites for both spectator and participant at The Games. Much like the Chosen diaspora, one did not survive very long at The Games without well-honed instincts.
Down below, the big Chosen with the lumbering gait shrugged off his opponent’s magic with a grimace, to deliver a brutal blow. The challenger went down like a sack of potatoes. The umpires rushed into the pit to check the lumbering giant. While most bouts were to the death, the rules said that no opponent could be attacked if he chose to surrender. One of the umpires blocked the giant, while the other checked on the injured Magick on the ground. Though unmoving, the collapsed opponent managed to raise an arm feebly in a gesture indicative of surrender. It was the signal the umpires had been waiting for. Two Chosen, attired in the uniform of The Games, strode into the pit to carry off the injured participant, while the victor lumbered away to his corner to await his next bout.
The man refrained from drumming his fingers on his knee, his pale eyes missing nothing of the action below. The pit had long lost its lure for him. Once, he’d reveled in showing off his prowess against powerful opponents. Those exploits had only added to his reputation. No one dared to call him an assassin behind his back anymore. Instead, his notoriety had become synonymous with the Magick Façade he’d proudly adopted. He had been wildly successful, tales of his feats whispered far and wide. But those days were behind him. The irony was that the very reputation he’d once worked hard to build continued to shadow him years later. It had brought a strange, foolhardy and brash young Chosen to his room last night, piquing even his jaded interest. He’d delayed his departure by a day to satisfy his curiosity about her. Though he knew that a few pointed queries to some of his fellow spectators would elicit information about her, he was reluctant to make any inquiries. There was only one reason for her to brave his den by herself under the stealth of darkness. She did not want anyone to know about the conversation.
Down in the pit, commotion reigned. A slip of a girl had vaunted into the ring to challenge the lumbering giant, whose response was to gaze speechlessly at her in bemusement. With Magicks, appearances could be and were often deceptive. Power required no conspicuous shell to dress it up. Thus, it wasn’t the girl’s apparent youth or slight build that disconcerted her opponent. The giant’s bemusement was a reaction to the remonstrations from the spectators. Three men argued with the umpires below, while the girl ignored everyone to study the giant, who continued to stare down at her with a frown. Of medium height, she was reed slim with long red hair that hung down her shoulders in a thick plait.
A flash of triumph gleamed in the man’s slate-gray eyes. It was her! The sprite from last night. He’d been searching the tiers for her among the spectators, not having expected her in the ring. A fierce sense of satisfaction gripped him. He’d found her. Now, he would make her answer his questions. Once he had, he’d move on from this dreary affair that bored him so.
Around him, the other spectators leaned forward to avidly observe the tableau, their interest piqued by the raging argument below. However, the girl was not in contravention of the rules. Soon, the men protesting her presence in the ring were ejected and the umpires cleared the pit to signal the start of the bout. Throughout the proceedings, the girl ignored all disruptions to focus on the giant, an overgrown Blutsauger fast gaining a reputation as a relentless and indefatigable bruiser with a knack for dodging powerful magic.
The bout that followed was fast and furious, with no quarter given on either side. The girl, clearly no match for her opponent, used her petite size to surefootedly slip away, time and again, when the giant got too close. Using a clever combination of magic and skills to land glancing blows on her opponent, she seemed to always slide away just a little beyond his reach. Observing her intently, the pale-eyed man reflected, with approval, that someone had taught her the rudiments of defending herself against a physically stronger opponent. But he knew that she could not keep this up for long. Her tactics served only to frustrate the giant. After ten minutes of her dodging and dancing around the ring, the Blutsauger came after her with a snarl, pushing forward aggressively. In response, tiny gashes seemed to open up all over the Vampire, with blood oozing sluggishly from his nicks. At this evidence of exotic magic, the dark-haired spectator’s eyebrows shot up. The sprite possessed power aplenty, he mused. Yet, she avoided inflicting serious injury on her opponent. With the ability to open up wounds on a Chosen, she could seriously handicap her larger adversary. Something she seemed disinclined to do. A faint line furrowed his brow as he reflected on her strategy.
The scratches did not check her opponent for long. When the Blutsauger charged again, the girl was driven back, no longer able to dance out of his reach, as she had so many times before. Then, with the slate-gray eyes watching, her foot seemed to slip on a turn. She went down, unable to right herself, her arms flailing. The man in the audience noted her thin-soled shoes for the first time. His eyes narrowed. Her entire ensemble was ill-suited to the ring. In lightweight trousers and a silk shirt, she looked like she should be paying a social call, not tangling with the hulk in the pit for the entertainment of the enthusiastic onlookers.
As she went down, the sense of anticipation in the arena ratcheted up. The spectators, on the edge of their seats, fell silent, their eyes on the two below. Yet, the man, the others were careful to keep their distance from, was unmoved. The fall had not been a particularly hard one. With her dexterity and magic, the girl had a huge advantage over the lumbering giant — a Blutsauger who employed his physical strength over his other reflexes. The dark-haired man was confident that the girl had ample time to spring up and dodge her opponent, before the hulk could land any blows. He was a veteran of the pit. In his day, he’d been hell on wheels in this very arena, drawing huge crowds to watch him destroy opponents. In those days, he’d exploited the ring to manage the violence and aggression in him.
In the pit, the girl attempted to rise. The man’s eagle eyes caught the very moment she seemed to give up on the attempt, clenching her hands into fists as she lay sprawled on the ground. He took note of the streaks of dirt that marked her expensive shirt even as her eyes closed in the expectation of a blow. For the first time, the man tensed as a wild suspicion bloomed in him. Men rushed into the ring below, to physically hold back the giant from pounding on his slumped opponent. A roar of disapproval rose from the spectators at this blatant breaking of the rules. The two umpires joined the fray as the hulk’s allies argued vehemently from their ringside seats.
Indifferent to the pandemonium, the man viewed the spectacle with academic interest, the frown deepening on his brow. He recognized one of the men in the ring advocating for the girl. His profession had afforded him the opportunity to tangle with many disreputable and dangerous Chosen — a veritable roster of the Magicks to be avoided. Thus, he knew that the Blutsauger arguing for the girl owed fealty to the powerful Master of a Pure Blood Family. His brain churned furiously to ponder this new discovery. It gave impetus to his burgeoning suspicion — suddenly, it seemed more than crazy speculation, fantastic as the idea was. He’d read it correctly the night before, he brooded. It was desperation that had driven her to take such an enormous gamble — even powerful Magicks hesitated to beard ElMorad in his own den. But at the same time, he’d misread her proposition to him. Wild and insane as the concept was, she’d set out to strike a very different bargain with him — an unholy pact that left him furious and gritting his teeth. He tamped down the spike of rage. If nothing else, the girl had guts, he reminded himself. Or perhaps, she had nothing left to fear.
His mind played through the encounter in his room again, as it had so many times since, trying to make sense of the discrepancies. In the ring below, the girl was being led out, even as arguments continued impassionedly around her. With her head held high, she marched ahead, looking neither to the left nor right. It was that very stoicness that pushed him into a decision.
Vladivostok, The Russian Federation
The door swung open, and his sister strode in, her face flushed with excitement. He put down his pen to give her his full attention. Alya was a force of nature — not to be ignored and never to be underestimated.
“I’m going to Vienna in a few weeks” she announced, coming to a stop before the large walnut wood desk he sat behind. “I want you to accompany me, Alexei.”
“Why Vienna?” inquired her brother mildly. Where his sister was animated and always on the move, he was unflappable and restful, a man who knew his place in the world and had made his peace with it.
“The CoC is to try a Chosen.”
This time, he showed emotion. “The Council?” he repeated, considerably astonished. “What kind of trial?”
“I don’t have all the details, Alexei.”
She moved restlessly to the window, to feast her eyes on the garden. White blanketed everything. Spring was only months away and she couldn’t wait for a hint of the upcoming blooms. “Something to do with an assault on a Wyr.”
Her brother looked confused. “Since when do we care about the Wyrs, Alya?”
“It’s not the Wyr” she said slowly.
He took in her rigid stance and the lines of strain on her. Alya had had a shock, he concluded. She was usually hard to ruffle and he wondered what had rattled her. But Alexei knew her well. He changed tack.
“Is the trial in Vienna?” he asked.
She shook her head, her eyes on the barren garden.
“Then, why are we headed to Vienna?” he persisted patiently.
“The trial will be transmitted live, to a handful of locations for Chosen that wish to follow it. The nearest First Ones location is Vienna.” She answered absently, almost by rote.
“I’ll make the arrangements” he offered. “Is it to be the two of us?”
“I want to keep this between us for now, Alexei.”
Puzzled by the cryptic remark, he waited for her to explain further.
“ElThor reached out to me” she murmured, fixated on the snow-covered landscape outside.
Alexei was aware that, though infrequent, such communication was not unusual. While their numbers were few, they were very much the custodians of old magic and the First Ones prized ancient mystic powers above everything. Well, he amended silently, almost everything. But why keep this a secret, he wondered.
She turned, to look him in the eye. “Like father, the others don’t give a damn about the Council or facilitating Chosen solidarity.”
He knew that she had it right. As far as the others were concerned, the First Ones had failed them in every way that counted. And no Council of Chosen would ever be able to rectify the injustices of the past or heal the gaping wounds of the present.
But now that he had Alya’s attention, Alexei asked her the question he was most curious about. While his sister was as bitter about the past as everyone else, she had faith that one day, their brethren would correct the injustice. Alya had not given up on the First Ones. But neither had she ever expressed any interest in the CoC.
“Why the sudden interest in the Council, Alya?”
“It’s not the Council.”
He frowned. “Not the Council or the Wyr. Then, it must be the Chosen on trial” Alexei concluded, only to straighten in alarm. “It’s not one of us, Alya?”
She shook her head. “The Chosen on trial is a Guardian.”
Stumped by her words, he stared at her in confusion. They had even less to do with the Wizards. At least, with the First Ones, they kept up appearances.
“I know him, Alexei” she admitted, her eyes skittering away from him.
He waited patiently.
“He’s friend to the one that took Aleka away from the Blutsaugers” she atteste
Pack Lair, San Francisco
Tasia let everything recede into the background, to focus on the man stalking her. Though every instinct screamed at her to flee, she forced herself to stand her ground. She would never evade him by running away. Her advantage lay in her powers. All she needed was one square hit with a blast of her magic. That would suffice to stop him in his tracks. Easier said than done. He moved like a cat — a sleek, lethal predator with his prey in his sights; single-minded, inexorable and dogged at stalking his game. And, he moved fast, so preternaturally fast that she had to be careful to not blink lest she lose him. To test her reflexes, she directed a few experimental blasts of magic at him. She would only get one chance — once he picked up on her strategy, she would lose her advantage. To her dismay, he skirted her blasts effortlessly. The magic bounced harmlessly off the walls, not even within touching distance of the target. As she’d suspected, her reflexes were no match for his speed or dexterity.
She had other abilities, Tasia reminded herself — unique and powerful magic that he could not counter as easily. But she must be smart about deploying it against him. Tasia forced herself to slow down and study him, her gaze steady even as her mind worked furiously through the options. He was a blur now, moving so fast that all she glimpsed was a flash every now and then. The long narrow chamber allowed him plenty of room to stalk her. It was his black tee that allowed her to pinpoint him occasionally, a bright splash of color against the stark white walls, despite the dizzying speed with which he circled her. He was playing with her, like a cat with a mouse. Against her better judgement, Tasia found herself retreating, slowly but surely. It was now or never, she told herself fiercely. He was almost upon her. The trick was to keep it simple. She worked magic even as she retreated, spinning herself a shield quickly with skill and efficiency. Yet, she wished she had the time to build herself proper armor. No Chosen could penetrate her magic.
The fast-moving blur, with the occasional dark flashes, moved inexorably closer. Tasia had only a few seconds to feel relieved by the partial magic shield she’d conjured to defend herself. She was to be proven wrong almost immediately. The blur ground to an abrupt halt beside her. Her eyes shot to him, adrenaline pumping through her. A powerful leg shot out to trip her, in a move so quick and unexpected that she had little time to even attempt to evade it. Tasia gasped, trying to draw her magic closer. But her shield was incomplete and he slipped under it to sweep her off her feet. She went down with a cry, the sound echoing off the walls in the silent hall. Flailing wildly, she let go of her shield to focus on regaining her balance as the room tilted on its axis.
Before she could crash into the ground, the momentum was interrupted by a muscled arm clamping around her waist. The band of steel clasping her strained as a large palm between her shoulder blades righted her. Swung off her feet to momentarily dangle over the floor, Tasia felt the hard warm body of the man who clasped her to him. With minimal fuss, she was set back on her feet and released. Tasia glanced up to meet familiar gold eyes, set in an attractive face with striking features and tawny hair framing his skull. He would always stand out in a room; exuding a kind of animal magnetism that drew people to him, despite the coldness and the aura of restrained violence that clung to him like a second skin.
The gold eyes, coldly enigmatic as usual, contemplated her.
“You let me get too close” he remarked.
“I protected myself” she countered, wondering how he’d guessed at the magic armor.
“You cannot allow me to get that close, not unless you’re willing to unleash the heavy artillery” he pointed out.
Tasia bit down hard on her tongue. Truer words had never been spoken, she mused.
Yup, I should never have let him get so close. If only I’d recognized the threat before.
The gold eyes blanked abruptly, his face an arctic landscape without the merest hint of vulnerability. “We’re talking about the bout” he said evenly.
Tasia roused herself. “Of course. What else would we be talking about?”
His jaw flexed, the only sign that he’d heard the undertones in her response. “Again” he directed. “This time, don’t allow me within touching distance.”
Now he tells me.
Tasia waited while he strode to the opposite end of the vast hall. He’d demonstrated indubitably that a partial magic armor was no counter against him. Her best option was to keep him at arm’s length, she concluded. Otherwise, none of her powers would be effective against him. Also, she must try and throw him off his game: make stalking her not as easy as he’d made it look.
He turned to face her. Before he could transform into a speedy blur she must work hard to track, she sent two bolts of magic whizzing at him, one to each shoulder.
An eyebrow arched sardonically, as the gold eyes pinned her. “What the hell was that?”
Tasia stared at him. “Magic.”
“That pinch?” He looked incredulous. “It won’t stop anyone.”
“You can do much better, witchling. Throw some real power at me.”
Despite herself, Tasia directed an uneasy glance at the door.
“No one can hear us” he assured her, catching the glance. “Duncan checked it out himself.”
The hall, they sparred in, was the last of an interconnecting set of four vast and windowless spaces that adjoined the enormous gym on the second floor of the Lair. She’d been told that this extended space had always been noise-proofed to protect the sensitive auditory senses of the Lair’s inhabitants from the frequent bouts in here, training and otherwise. Duncan had merely had a heavy stainless steel door, much like the ones that guarded the Pack Room and the Alpha’s Room, installed to separate the last hall from the rest of the space.
“Hit me” he reiterated. “We’re private in here.”
Tasia directed another blast at him, cautiously dialing her power one Magic Level up. Escalating the potency of her magic in controlled increments was not an easy proposition. She knew how to stay within the role designated for her — a nondescript Magic Level Two. That was the easy part. Now, he was asking her to not pretend in this room while they sparred.
“That one felt like a mosquito bite” he said bluntly. “Come on, witchling.”
She dialed up her magic again, to send a few more blasts, always careful to stay in control. It’s what she had done all her life. She could not bring herself to let go. Not here and not with him.
He watched her, a hint of puzzlement on his face.
“I’ve seen you subdue a nestful of leeches” he said pointedly. “Why’re you holding back?”
Prodded thus, Tasia hit him with a blast close to what she guessed was Magic Level Seven. This time, she knew she’d hit her mark. The force of her blast spun his shoulder back before he righted himself.
“Better” he purred, sounding pleased. “Much better. What you need is a little incentive.”
He stalked towards her, leaping high into the air, before a stupefied Tasia could react. She retreated hastily, directing another blast of magic up at him. In her haste to back away, her foot slipped. With her distracted, the blast released without her usual formidable control over it. Raw power surged through the air in an arc, sparks rising to sizzle.
“No” she screamed, fighting desperately to regain her balance. “Watch out. It’s too much!”
The panic in her voice gave him fair warning, though he’d already taken note of the incredible power in the magic streaking towards him. It didn’t take Spell Caster heritage to comprehend that the blindingly bright flashes in the air pointed to magic likely to be off the charts.
He swerved to avoid her blast. But he was in mid leap and it wasn’t easy to skirt with his balance precarious. Yet, unlike most Shifters, he’d run wild in his beast form for a few years under Duncan’s aegis, and he was an expert at using his physical attributes to steer clear of trouble. With a superhuman effort, he managed to dodge most of the magic, except a trailing edge that brushed his shoulder. Agony like he’d rarely experienced speared him, and the force of the blast spun him around in midair, to shove him forcefully towards the wall. He made no attempt to fight the momentum of his body. Instead, he hit the wall high like a cat, his palms and feet keeping the brunt of the impact from his torso, to bounce off it nimbly. The thrust carried him deep into the hall. Tasia, who had run forward in her panic, turned tail to get out of his way again. But her reflexes were nowhere as good as his. As he landed on light feet to spring fluidly back up, whirling around to face her, his shoulder caught her in her headlong dash away from him. Tasia’s world shifted on its axis again, as she fell backwards.
“Not again” she muttered. This was getting old.
He made a hasty grab for her, but unlike before, he wasn’t steady enough on his feet to haul her upright. So, he did the next best thing. Swinging her around and over with his phenomenal strength, he put himself between her and the ground. They went down together, slamming into the hard floor in an untidy tangle of bodies and limbs.
Stunned by the quicksilver fall of dominoes, a dazed Tasia took a few seconds to catch her breath. And realize that, while miraculously unscathed, she was entangled far too intimately with the man under her, who had cushioned her fall with his body.
“Damn” she said clearly.
From below her, he chuckled softly, the sound filling the hall.
She felt the vibrations, as the muscled chest and stomach, plastered against her, rippled with his laughter.
Way too close again, Tasia.
She made to roll off him onto the floor, and his arms tightened reflexively around her.
“Watch those knees” he warned. “We don’t want a repeat of the cage.”
Tasia squirmed in his grasp. “I did not knee you in the cage” she protested.
“You came close, witchling.” There was a note in his voice she picked up on.
Recognizing that she was being teased, Tasia renewed her struggles to disentangle herself.
“Witchling” he said huskily. “Less squirming please.”
This time, there was a different note in the even tones. Sensing the sudden tension in the large body intertwined with her, Tasia stilled.
He took a deep breath. “I’ve got this” he said brusquely.
Quickly and efficiently, he helped untangle her from him, enabling her sit up before he came off the floor.
Tasia slid away from him, to fold her legs under her. Cross-legged on the floor, she eyed him warily.
He made no attempt to stand. Instead, sliding the long legs before him, he addressed her. “That last blast would take care of a leech. Hell, it should fell any Chosen. That’s what I mean by heavy artillery.”
Tasia’s eyes flickered to his shoulder, where a tiny bit of her magic had brushed him. “Does it hurt?”
He caught the lightning glance. “No worse than a blow from a powerful Shifter. You land one like that squarely on a leech. And you’ve bought yourself the time to deploy more sophisticated magic.”
Tasia remained silent.
The gold eyes, that missed nothing when it came to her, read her hesitation almost as clearly as if she’d voiced it herself.
“Witchling.” He drew her attention. “What do you think we’re doing here?”
Tasia answered readily. “Teaching me to use my magic effectively.”
“Remember, if you ever have to rely on your magic to protect yourself, it’s because you’ve become separated from your friends.”
Yes, I know what the stakes are.
“If that happens, you do what you have to” he asserted, his voice hardening. “Use anything and everything you have, to survive until the Pack can get to you.”
Her eyes shot to his face, where the gold eyes glittered like chips of ice.
“You have magic in you” he said forcefully. “Use it, ruthlessly if you have to. Don’t allow your heart to soften.”
Or you’ll be done for. The last was unspoken, but Tasia didn’t need to hear the words to know what he meant.
She sighed. “I understand the stakes” she assured him. And she did. In his way, he was trying to prepare her for the worst case scenario — a situation where she must make a stand alone. But the way he was going about it had one huge drawback.
His brows snapped together. “What?”
“I can be ruthless about using my magic” she told him.
“But?” he prompted, confident that there was one.
She worried at her bottom lip, her hesitation almost palpable. He waited, holding his impatience back with an effort.
“This isn’t going to work. Between us, I mean” she murmured.
An arrested expression flashed across his face. The gold eyes narrowed on her.
Tasia shook her head. “That came out wrong” she said hastily.
“What’re you trying to say, witchling?” he demanded in a hard voice, not masking his emotions this time.
“I have no trouble deploying heavy artillery against a Blutsauger” she said.
He said nothing, the gold eyes boring into her. The expression in them drove her to explain herself.
“But I can’t use the really powerful magic on you. Even in a training session. I don’t want to … hurt you.”
His eyes flickered, once, before they blanked completely. They stared at each other; the air charged with awareness. This was an admission from her. Not the one he’d asked of her. But nevertheless, it was an admission. The first acknowledgement from her of the invisible but strong threads that drew them to each other.
Tasia was the first to blink, glancing away to break the spell. “This was a disaster” she muttered, a tad forlornly.
His lips quirked in response, the words coming easier. “I wouldn’t go that far. But it’s clear that this requires some fine tuning.”
Before Tasia could respond, the door to the hall slid open without warning. Two people strode in together — an attractive man with bright blue eyes and a gorgeous woman in yoga pants and a top that matched the exact shade of her green eyes.
They came to an abrupt stop as they caught sight of the two on the floor. The man’s stunned eyes goggled at the pair on the ground, clearly at ease with each other. The woman’s reaction was harder to read. Despite her astonishment, she studied them with a rather calculating look in her beautiful green eyes.
Not entirely displeased by the interruption, Tasia nevertheless cursed silently. She’d known that, sooner or later, the training sessions would generate gossip. The Lair was a hotbed of rumors and innuendo. But she wished fervently that it had not been these two to walk in on them. Elisabetta had been keeping unnaturally close tabs on her in the past few weeks, though Tasia had no clue what had drawn the attention of the sharp-tongued Were-Alpha. As for Stefan Simeonov, he’d developed the uncanny ability to appear out of thin air near her orbit. Tasia, who remembered the early days of her association with the Pack when she’d rarely encountered the Were-Alpha, wondered at this new state of affairs, even as she went out of her way to keep her distance from him.
Across her, the Alpha sprang to his feet to stride over to the two Shifters studying them.
“Is my time up?” he demanded, clearly annoyed at being interrupted.
This was the real Raoul Merceau, Tasia mused. Coldly reserved and brusquely demanding. A man alone, standing apart from the crowd around him. Used to getting his way, accustomed to unquestioning fealty from his Shifters and liable to swift, ferocious retaliation against his foes. A potent and incendiary mix of ruthlessness, coldness and aggression, held in check by fierce determination, iron will and absolute control. Though the most self-controlled man of her acquaintance, there was an aura of tightly-bridled violence about him that had terrified Tasia. Still did occasionally, if she were honest, she admitted to herself. There had been a subtle change in demeanor when it came to her. But the essence of the man remained the same. She had not misread him before, Tasia knew. A warning that nagged constantly at the back of her mind.
Stefan Simeonov’s eyes swept away from her. “It’s Tasia’s name on the door, Alpha” he said easily. “Her forty-five minutes are up.”
Tasia dusted herself off the floor. She did not intend to linger here a second longer than she must.
“Stefan and I can come back later, if you’re not done, Alpha?” Elisabetta offered smoothly, her eyes taking in Tasia’s attire of sweats and tee.
The Alpha turned to Tasia. “Are we done, witchling?”
Tasia nodded mutely, making for the door. She wasn’t going to be left behind to answer any of Elisabetta or Simeonov’s questions. It was clear that they were curious. And why shouldn’t they be, she admitted ruefully. The Alpha Protector was renowned for his aloofness and for trusting his own counsel. He kept his distance from everyone, including his Pack. Only Duncan was known to occasionally break through the legendary reserve. To find him in a tête-à-tête with the Wizard he’d thrown the mantle of Pack over, going against his well-known unflinching dislike for Spell Casters, was worthy of notice. Especially, when his Shifters knew only too well that the equation between the Alpha and the Wizard, he forced his Pack to associate with to repay his Wyr sense of obligation, was thorny and difficult. Rumors had been rampant for weeks that the relationship was strained to breaking point. Whispers that had gained in prominence since Tasia had walked away once, after a furious confrontation with the Alpha over her intransigence in flouting Pack norms and his bidding.
“I’ll have a solution for you before the next session” he directed at her, with immense confidence.
Tasia hid her smile. The man had confidence in spates. Confidence that frequently bordered on arrogance. But she would not cavil at it. When it came to her and the unique challenges and threats her abilities and unusual heritage exposed her to, he’d proven more than up to the task. With a dexterity and subtlety, she had not associated with him, he’d steered her safely through some seriously murky waters. And continued to do so. If it wasn’t for the dilemma that confronted her now, she’d be content with the choices she had made since the night she’d risked everything to free Hawk’s wolf from a silver cage. After a long time, she felt centered, safe and confident out of the shadows she’d clung to for most of her life, and at ease among her new friends and allies. The Pack would always be a challenge for her. But she was learning to ignore the gossip and rumor, and to navigate the various centers of influence and ambition without burning any bridges in the process. This she owed to Duncan’s excellent advice and tutelage, and the encouragement and support from Hawk and Sara. The roles played by other non-Shifters in the investigation had made it easier for her to blend in. Sienna, Jason, Nandini and occasionally, even Roman Durovic, now called the Lair home. Their presence and the Alpha’s willingness to accommodate them had diverted some of the Shifters’ attention away from her. Not all of it though. For she was the only one accorded Pack status. The others were merely guests the Alpha offered temporary sanctuary at his Lair while they dug into the fraught past of Sienna and Nandini’s mother, a powerful Guardian risen from the dead to stake a no-holds-barred claim over the Chosen.
“Session?” Elisabetta’s voice held overt curiosity.
In the process of skirting the trio to make a quick getaway, Tasia sighed silently as the Alpha ignored the question. Evidently, he had no intention of satisfying the Were-Alpha’s curiosity. Tasia wished she could give vent to her frustration. He would continue to stride down the halls barking orders, doing as he pleased and ignoring anyone he wanted to, but she could not afford it. With more to lose if any rumors about the Alpha and her churned through the Pack, she must nip this in the bud.
She flashed Elisabetta a quick glance. “The Alpha’s giving me tips on surviving a skirmish” Tasia explained succinctly, staying deliberately vague on the details. Only three members of the Pack were aware of her powerful magic and some of her dangerous secrets — Hawk, Duncan and the Alpha. She suspected that Sara had guessed some of it, but her friend would never betray Tasia.
“With the investigation heating up, I must learn when and how to duck” she added, hoping to use a measure of the truth to satisfy the Were-Alphas’ curiosity.
True to their respective personalities, Simeonov seemed to accept her explanation without further ado whereas the female Were-Alpha merely looked intrigued. Tasia knew that Elisabetta was a shrewder and more astute opponent. No L2 Wizard had a hope in hell of escaping an altercation with a powerful Chosen, least of all any confrontation that involved a horde of rampaging Vampires or a ruthless Guardian like Lady Bethesda. But Tasia had done her part. Elisabetta would have to be satisfied unless she was intrepid enough to demand more answers from the Alpha Protector.
Leaving the Alpha to deal with his Shifters, Tasia exited the hall. She had watched him deflect Elisabetta’s advances for months now, without a hint that he was even aware of them. She knew he was. It suggested a certain adeptness when he chose to bestir himself. Besides, no one ever questioned Raoul Merceau, especially not his Shifters. Alpha Protectors, Tasia knew, tended to give their fractious Shifters little rope, reining them in with a lethal combination of ferocity, aggression and violence the Wyrs understood only too well. This particular Alpha could shut down his Shifters without a single word, a mere glance from the arctic gold eyes sufficient to quell them. He was a man used to keeping his counsel and answering to no one. Elisabetta would get nothing from him.
Raoul watched the witchling walk away with an amusement he kept under wraps. She was learning, he mused. Becoming adept at walking the tightrope — deflecting uncomfortable questions and dousing potential fires with the right dose of ammunition. She’d given Elisabetta just enough to dampen the Shifter’s curiosity and left him to deal with any fallout, knowing fully well that he would shut down any further queries. And she had done it publicly. Before long, the Pack would be buzzing about the training sessions. But now, the sessions would be a two day wonder — no Shifter would gossip about the time spent secluded in the hall off the gym.
“The room’s all yours” he said to the two Were-Alphas, striding away without a backward glance.
Elisabetta turned to watch the Alpha go, only to catch her companion eyeing their resident Wizard. A few halls down from them, framed under the open archway, Tasia conversed with Joaquim and Michael, two of Duncan’s Shifters she was friendly with.
“Spar, Stefan?” she offered.
“Yes” he answered a little absently, his eyes on the Wizard.
Elisabetta scribbled her name on the board by the hall to reserve it for an hour, before closing the door with a sharp click.
Cut off from the object of his interest, Simeonov turned to her. “Want to be private with me, Elisabetta.” He smiled with practiced ease. “Why didn’t you say so?”
The bright blue eyes crinkled at the corners, the attractive face lit up by a high wattage smile.
His companion directed an amused look at him, unaffected by the masculine beauty before her. “Save it, Stefan. Your routine doesn’t work on me.”
Simeonov subsided, without rancor. He knew that Elisabetta had her eyes on a bigger prize. He felt no affront at her ambition. The way he saw it, they were like two peas in a pod. They each understood the other’s ambition, and appreciated the ruthless moves, relentless manipulations and unswerving drive required to achieve their respective goals.
She moved to one end of the hall and he made his way to the other. Elisabetta was a powerful Were-Alpha and they had fought and trained together before. But as he prepared to engage her, she surprised him.
“You’re playing with fire, Stefan” she cautioned him.
Simeonov arched an eyebrow lazily. “Which one?”
“That pretty little witch you have your eyes on.”
He laughed, amused by her rare caution. “Who’s going to stop me from amusing myself — Duncan?”
She vouchsafed no answer to his rhetorical query, simply shrugging in response.
“Duncan has no grounds to object” Simeonov retorted. His voice hardened subtly. “I’d like to see him try.”
Elisabetta’s sharp eyes searched his face. Duncan would wipe the floor with Stefan if the English Shifter ever decided to exert himself. But Elisabetta let the comment pass. In her way, she liked Stefan Simeonov. There was naked ambition in him she understood and appreciated. So, she did her best to caution him. She was good at reading people and she had a strong suspicion about what was afoot in the Lair.
“It’s not Duncan I’d worry about, if I were you” she said mildly.
Simeonov looked puzzled. “Then, who?”
Elisabetta pursed her lips. It wasn’t like Stefan to be this obtuse. “The one Wyr every Shifter in the Pack fears, Stefan.”
Stunned surprise flashed across his face and Simeonov looked incredulous.
Elisabetta chose her words carefully. “Do you not note how he keeps a surprisingly close eye on his witchling?”
“Like a pet he feels obligated to watch over” Simeonov said dismissively. “The Alpha’s never had anyone under his care, Elisabetta. He’s just going through the motions for a hapless witch he brought into the Pack.”
“She’s not hapless” Elisabetta said quietly, a subtle warning he did not heed. “Nor is he going through the motions. Watch yourself.”
Simeonov shrugged, clearly unconvinced. And Elisabetta, after another sharp glance at him, changed the subject.
“On guard, Stefan.”
An Archmage enters the fray
“What’s up?” Raoul looked up as Duncan strode into the Alpha’s Room.
“Roman is agog” the English Shifter responded. “Something to do with The Games.”
The Alpha followed his friend into the Pack Room. A quick glance around the vast room confirmed that the team was all accounted for. Including Maartje, who at his request had joined the investigation.
Roman hailed him. “Prepare to be blown away, Merceau.”
The Alpha’s lips quirked. “Let’s have it” he said, taking up his usual stance by the mantel.
The Ancient waited for Duncan to take his favorite chair by the Alpha, before he addressed the gathering.
“As you know, The Games are held every year at the same venue in Belize. Five years ago, the eco-resort and the arena changed ownership to Setik. I’ve been working on persuading the owners to give me a sneak peek into their investigation of the explosion.”
“What have they found?” the Alpha asked.
Roman almost vibrated with excitement. “It was what they didn’t that is significant, Merceau. They found no trace of explosives at the site.”
Raoul straightened, his eyes flashing to Duncan. Here was a massive hint to the identity of the perpetrator. No wonder Durovic was pumped up. They’d caught an unexpected break, thanks to Roman’s influential First Ones connections.
“I don’t understand.” Hawk looked confused. “Why is this significant?”
It was Atsá who answered his grandson. “It implies that magic was used to set off the explosion, Hawk.”
“Magic” Elisabetta exclaimed bemusedly. “Is that possible?”
“Improbable perhaps, but not impossible, Elisabetta” Duncan contended thoughtfully, a pucker between his brows. “But it would take a very powerful and singularly skilled Magick to pull off something like this.”
Jason pointed out the obvious. “And thus, easier for us to track him down.”
“Yes, Jason.” Roman did not hide his enthusiasm. “Even quicker if I can get access to the guest list for The Games.”
“Assuming he was a guest” Simeonov countered.
“The resort is surrounded by thick rainforest. The only way to access it is a private airstrip, Stefan. It’s what makes the location so perfect for us Chosen. Whoever set off the explosion was at the resort.” Roman was confident. “They’ll have a record of him, though it might take some sifting through the nom de guerres.”
“A Mage, Roman?” Atsá inquired knowledgeably.
“Definitely Mage” Roman affirmed. “And not a garden variety one, Atsá. One of the Deadlies. That should help us narrow him down.”
“Mage!” a startled Hawk repeated.
Roman shot Duncan an amused look. “What are the Wyrs teaching their young, Were-Alpha? Clearly not Chosen lore or history.”
The English Shifter smiled at the sally. “It’s your Black Mage who gives rise to such confusion in our young, Roman. Not Wyrs.”
A hitherto silent Nandini proffered Hawk an explanation. “First Ones with serious power have been addressed throughout history as Mages. But after the Black Mage’s mad rampage, the term acquired a certain notoriety in Chosen circles. It’s not widely used anymore, except by students of Chosen history.” She cast a glance at Atsá, one he acknowledged with a gracious nod.
“And Roman” she murmured.
Durovic looked thunderstruck by the comment. “What do you mean by that, Nandini?” he demanded.
The Indian Ancient deigned to meet his gaze. “What would I mean?” She shrugged. “You’re not an Elder, yet you use the term.”
Roman’s expression darkened, but before he could respond, an amused Sienna jumped in to divert the two Ancients spoiling for a fight.
“I’m familiar with Mages — the result of an elite Wizard school education.” The comment was directed at Hawk with a smile. “But I’ve never heard of the Deadlies, Roman.”
Controlling his temper with an effort, Roman switched his attention from Nandini to her half-sister. “It’s how First Ones refer to the Mages with deadly magic — Archmages capable of inflicting devastation.”
“How many in the category?” Luis Beltran asked curiously.
“Not many. Living, that is.”
There was a short silence as the Pack Room digested the information. It was a crucial nugget to track the whereabouts of the third sister, but also a complication. A Mage that powerful would change the dynamics of the investigation, even by a peripheral involvement in it. Plus, they knew nothing of his motivations, which added another layer of complication to an already complex endeavor.
“Might be worthwhile to pursue this from a different angle” Duncan suggested. “What kind of Mage could set off an explosion with his magic, Roman?”
“Many Mages could rig a small one. But this was not a minor explosion — a chunk of the building collapsed.” Roman looked apologetic. “I’d need more details to answer your question, Duncan.”
“Take an educated guess” the English Shifter encouraged him. “Who’d possess such magic?”
Roman pursed his lips. “A powerful Elemental would be my best guess.”
“An Elemental Mage with the power to cut a building in half” Duncan mused aloud. He wondered how easy it would be to find the Archmage. While there were few Magicks capable of the feat, such a Chosen would also know how to cover his tracks well.
“For us Shifters without such vast knowledge of Ancient powers, Roman” Elisabetta chimed in tartly. “What is an Elemental Mage?”
“A First One with power over the elements.” Roman was unperturbed by the gorgeous Were-Alpha’s sarcasm. He did not expect the Shifters to know the ins and outs of how First Ones classified their magic.
“They’re Eru, correct?” Jason confirmed. As a Guardian, he knew more about the Ancients than the Shifters did. But much like other Chosen factions, the First Ones did not share certain information openly with the others, so Jason used the opportunity to indulge his curiosity.
“Usually, Jason. But not always.” Roman’s gaze wandered to the other Ancient in the room. “We have one amongst us. The Nagas are Elementals.”
Hawk looked stunned. “You can command nature, Nandini?”
The Indian Chosen shook her head. “Not command, Hawk, more like pick up on subtle hints others cannot. The Nagas can read certain signs in nature — interpret slight vibrations of the earth, for instance. I’d say we are sensitive to cues from the elements, much like Wyr senses are hyperaware.”
“But there are Ancients with power over the elements?” Hawk persisted, immensely astonished. Wyr powers came from their physical attributes. And Hawk, young for a Chosen, had not yet experienced the old magic that many First Ones could command.
“Yes” Nandini admitted quietly, not shying away from the question.
Sienna interjected, drawing the young Shifter’s attention. “Mastery over the elements is deadly, Hawk. But there are Ancients who possess more potent magic than that.”
“Sienna has it right” Roman professed soberly. “There are First Ones, there are Mages and then, there are the Deadlies — each with exponentially more devastating magic than the previous.”
“Magic with the power to cause such destruction is too dangerous to keep secret from the other Chosen” Hawk remarked baldly, not mincing his words.
Beside him, a silent Tasia wished she could jump in and second Hawk. Throughout history, the Supreme Edict had been threatened by the actions of Magicks who believed their power made them infallible. Something about potent magic drove Chosen to lose their heads and flirt with darkness. In some ways, she was glad that circumstances forbade her from using the weapons in her kitty capable of devastation. But it also meant that her arsenal must be protected so no one else could weaponize her magic. With her heritage, the stakes were much too high. This is why, though she wished she were free to follow her heart, Tasia understood exactly why Chosen mates had been declared off bounds for her.
“Out of the mouths of babes” Duncan murmured, sotto voice.
Roman met the English Were-Alpha’s eyes ruefully but did not defend the Ancient position on old magic.
“I’m with Hawk on this” Elisabetta proclaimed, to challenge the First One. “We Wyrs have taken our eye off the ball on such matters. But the Ancients don’t exactly make it easy for others, do they, Roman?”
“No, they don’t” the Ancient agreed. In their own way, the First Ones, while not as arrogant about their powers as the Wizards, tended to close ranks. The rightful heirs of the Forebearers deemed themselves the custodians of magic, treating their non-Ancient brethren, with a few exceptions, as children to be guarded and cossetted from the consequences of great power and even their own mistakes. Faoladh was a rare exception — he’d won the respect of the First Ones by his deeds over the centuries.
“Be that as it may, no Chosen, including the Wyrs, is ignorant of the most notorious of the Mages Roman calls the Deadlies” Maartje pronounced. “The consequences of his actions live on.”
Nandini remained silent. An Ancient, she was keenly aware of what a thorny issue this had once been. It had nearly torn apart the First Ones before better sense prevailed.
Roman sighed. “We did not cover ourselves with glory on that business” he acknowledged.
“Vampires” Jason murmured. They had been given a violent birth, followed by an even bloodier baptism by fire.
Maartje nodded, an acknowledgement that the Guardian had guessed the Mage correctly.
“You mean the Ancient who created the leeches?” Hawk, following the conversation intently, seemed to finally get it.
“It was a Blood Mage who created the first Vampires, Hawk” Nandini explained. “Some say he was the most powerful Blood Mage ever born. Though many First Ones disagreed with that assessment and his actions.”
The Shifters ignored the rest of her explanation to pick on what intrigued them the most.
“Blood Mage?” Luis inquired before Hawk could.
Tasia, more than familiar with different types of First Ones magic, Mages and the Deadlies, gave herself a stern reminder to not reveal her knowledge of any of it. What bad luck, she reflected in dismay. First, the Blutsaugers had wormed their way into the investigation. Now, it looked like a Mage, and no ordinary one at that, was involved too. Add in the inexorable tug of her heartstrings towards a man completely off bounds to her and a strong-willed, tenacious Alpha determined to not allow her to deny the attraction, and she had a perfect storm on her hands.
What a tangled web I find myself caught in. Must tread lightly and look out for the spider!
“Blood Mages are First Ones with the ability to manipulate a Chosen’s blood” Roman explained. “Since our blood is redolent with magic, you may imagine the kind of power a Blood Mage wields.”
Hawk looked stunned. “A Mage created the leeches by playing with Magick blood?” Like all Magicks, Hawk was aware that the Vampires, unlike other Chosen, were not descended from the Forebearers — the first Chosen to walk the earth. Instead, they’d been artificially created some thousand years ago. This was why many Chosen regarded the Clan as an abomination that should have been nipped in the bud at birth. But, like most Wyrs, Hawk was not cognizant about the details of how the Vampires had been birthed and allowed to thrive.
“By altering the blood of Chosen” Roman confirmed. “Seven of the original Vampires created by ElBlodMagin survived. They form the genesis of what the Clan calls their Pure Blood Families today — descendants of the first Blutsaugers.”
“Incidentally, Hawk, if I’m not mistaken, Blood Mages also classify as Elementals.” The only Guardian amongst them offered the explanation.
“They do, Jason” Nandini backed him up. “Blood is the most powerful element on earth for a Chosen — it gives us our magic and holds the secret to our powers. Thus, for the First Ones, Blood Mages fall under the umbrella of Elementals.”
Raoul, silently mulling over Roman’s words while the conversation drifted around him, cut to the chase. “I want a look at the site of the explosion, Durovic. Can your Setik connections swing it?”
Roman looked surprised. This was not an avenue he’d been pursuing. “Absolutely! The team or just you?”
“The team.” Raoul intended to let the witchling loose at the site. If there was any magic residue left behind, she would find it. Then, they’d have a better shot at picking up the Archmage’s trail. But it would look a damn sight less suspicious if he took the entire team along for the ride.
“I’ll set it up, Merceau” Roman assured him. “They’re not busy this time of year and will accommodate us easily.”
He paused as a thought struck him. “If nothing else, I can be more persuasive in person. I’ll get us access to the guest list.”
The Alpha cast a swift glance around the room, his remarks pointed. “Make sure passports are current. As soon as Durovic gives the word, we take off for Belize.”
The gold eyes swept over Tasia who understood what he wanted from her. Her magic senses were to be deployed again.
Roman turned to Sienna, reminded of her request. “I haven’t forgotten what you asked me. I’m slated to meet someone who was at The Games. I’ll ask for a physical description of the girl with the Lombardis.”
“Thank you, Roman.”
Taking advantage of the lull, Sienna glanced around the Pack Room.
“I hope to see everyone at Duncan’s to meet Guardian Bergdahl” she remarked, a determined glint in her eyes. She’d made sure to extend the invitation to everyone on the team.
“We’ll be on our best behavior, Sienna” Elisabetta drawled, noticeably amused by the subtle warning.
“I’m counting on it, Elisabetta” the Wizard reiterated bluntly. “Trev’s doing me a favor and I want him to see my friends for what they are, not what the GCW brands them to be.”
Jason muted his grin, as the female Were-Alpha blinked at Sienna’s candor.
Roman ignored the byplay, to address the Alpha. “Nandini and I have put together every scrap of evidence we have. We’re ready.”
“I have a suggestion, Roman” Jason interjected. “Before we attempt to convince any influential Ancients about Lady Bethesda, pitch to someone you know. Fine-tune the presentation.”
“Good point” the Alpha agreed without hesitation. “We’ll only get one shot at this. Let’s make sure we get it right.”
“Who should we pitch to?” Nandini asked. “First on our list were SivoTar and TorElnor.”
“You have to convince TorElnor?” Maartje looked astonished. She’d assumed that Roman’s involvement in the investigation and the assault on him by the leech guards would drive the Setik leader to oppose Lady Bethesda.
“TorElnor is all for punishing the Vampires for Portland, but there’s no confirmation that Lady Bethesda was behind the assault on me” Roman responded. “Or that she’s even alive. Until he believes she threatens the Chosen, he will not involve his First Ones in the cause.”
“We’ll face the same reluctance from the other Ancients, Maartje” Raoul asserted. “It won’t be easy to sway them. But we need the First Ones to oppose her, or it’ll be a harder road to hoe.”
“Perhaps, an Ancient closer to home” Duncan suggested to the Alpha.
“DiZeyla?” Roman looked skeptical. She had little influence over any First Ones, except the Ancients in San Francisco.
“She might not possess the influence of TorElnor or SivoTar, Durovic” Raoul countered. “But she’s well-respected, knowledgeable and shrewd about Ancient matters. She could give us pointers to sway the more influential leaders.”
His glance encompassed both Roman and Nandini. “Include David Hamilton in the briefing. I promised him a recounting when the time was right. It is time.”
“You have a visitor” the receptionist explained. “From the Northern California Consortium.”
Sara’s brows drew together. The Consortium was a front — an umbrella corporation for Pack businesses. Why would the Pack send a Shifter to her office, she wondered? The Pack was always careful to keep its distance when a Shifter’s world intersected with that of the Si’ffa. Her job definitely fell under Si’ffa purview.
“I’ll be right down” she said into the phone.
In the cramped lobby downstairs, Sara was astounded to find Luis Beltran waiting for her. His unlikely presence had her momentarily forget her issues with the Were-Alpha.
“Is it Hawk?” she asked anxiously, her heart in her eyes.
“No, no. Nothing like that, Sara” Luis hastened to assure her. “I’d like a few minutes of your time, without drawing the Pack’s attention.
Sara stilled, suspicion rising in her. “You want to talk to me?” she verified, not hiding her skepticism.
“I’d appreciate it very much” he said gravely. “Twenty minutes. Just hear me out, please.”
He waited patiently while Sara struggled with the decision. Eventually, she acquiesced to the request. If Luis Beltran desired a conversation with her, then Sara was determined to get some answers from him. Watching Tasia navigate the Pack had reminded her that if she wanted things to change, she must fight for them. She could remember the early years when she’d been grateful just to be alive. There had been an innate sense of obligation to the Pack for giving Hawk and her a chance by accepting them into the fold. It wasn’t until much later that she’d learned the true story. It wasn’t the Pack they owed a debt to. It was the Alpha. The newly triumphant Alpha Protector had stared down the Shifters, to invite the Manotti twins into his Pack. Barring Duncan, the Were-Alphas had all refused to accept Hawk and her. Yet, the sense of obligation from the early years had shaped her interactions with the Pack to a great extent. She’d tried to get along with her packmates. In the early years, she’d mingled almost exclusively with her were-pack, while she focused on mastering how to shift and control her beast, and the myriad other skills adult Wyrs must learn. When she had expanded her circle to the larger Pack, it had been a colossal shock. By the time Sara could fathom what a Pack entailed, it had been too late for her. She was considered weak in her packmates’ eyes and for some Shifters, that had been enough to target her. But Sara understood that no matter how much she wished otherwise, one thing would never change. A Wyr must live with a Pack. Perhaps, it was time to stand up and demand some changes, starting with Were-Alpha Beltran and his games.
It was a blustery day in San Francisco, with rain pelting down in sheets. They dashed into a cafe, nearly deserted except for a few customers. To keep up appearances, they ordered coffees, before choosing a corner table, away from the other customers. Sara studied the Were-Alpha while she waited for him to open proceedings. Luis was a sober man, a Shifter who tended to gravitate towards the company of Duncan and Atsá, not Simeonov or Elisabetta. That was why his actions had confused her. Today, he looked even graver than usual.
“I’d like to tell you a story, Sara, about a Shifter born in the Mexican province of Jalisco” he began. “The son of a local Were-Alpha, he was blessed with a relatively happy childhood. Until, at seventeen, the unthinkable happened. A Shifter challenged his father for the were-pack. Suddenly, without any warning, his strong and infallible father was no more. Sorrow engulfed him, until he realized that the threat to him was graver than he’d suspected. His father’s friend gave him the unpalatable truth. The new Were-Alpha did not want him. He must join another were-pack and leave everything familiar behind, to build a new life somewhere else. Friends of his father rallied together and before he knew it, arrangements had been made. A were-pack near San Francisco had agreed to accept him. Thus, still grieving his father, the young Shifter found himself supplanted; banished to a strange city in a foreign country. He did not speak the language, knew no one and had no prior ties to his new were-pack mates.”
Sara, who remembered her early isolation and confusion with the Pack, understood him only too well. Unlike most Shifters, Hawk and she had been brought up by their human relatives. But when adolescence had hit, they’d found themselves in need of a Pack. By Faoladh’s dictum, adult Shifters without a Pack were condemned to death. But at least, she had not been alone — she’d always had Hawk with her.
The Were-Alpha continued his tale. “It was a lonely existence, but the young Shifter persevered for he had nowhere else to go. About a year later, everything changed. He tagged along to an event that drew Shifters from other were-packs in the area. And met her. She was a year older to him, the daughter of an influential and respected local Were-Alpha. But she was unlike any Wyr he knew. That evening, he watched from afar as she flitted between groups, effortlessly charming, her radiant smile never slipping. He believed that his fascination with her had gone unnoticed, but towards the end of the evening, she found him in his corner. And he discovered something about her. She was like a light that drew everyone in her orbit towards her. But she was also kind and patient, willing to listen and draw out a young Shifter who didn’t fit in and who still grieved for the life he’d been forced to abandon. There followed long conversations, walks, outings and hikes. Gradually, she drew him out of his shell. The young Shifter seemed to blossom and engage with his were-pack, where he’d cared little before to make the effort. They talked about their dreams and shared their hopes and ambitions with each other. He was intrigued and endlessly fascinated by her and considered her his best friend. She was a powerful Shifter and it was widely believed that that one day, she’d be a Were-Alpha to be reckoned with. But she had other dreams. She wanted to study and go to college — Shifters consider such matters as Si’ffa pastimes. He knew that she’d been working to persuade her father for years — a father who thought the world of his brilliant and radiant daughter.”
Luis’ eyes had a faraway look, as if he’d forgotten who he talked to. Sara found herself unable to look away, even as he recounted the tale in a clinical voice that could not hide the profound emotion under the prosaic story-telling.
“A year later, she finally won her father over. She was off to a college on the East Coast, preferring to go where her were-pack would find it hard to keep tabs on her. She told her friend excitedly that it was the start of a new adventure. The boy, on the verge of manhood, knew he would miss her. It would be like cutting of a limb to sacrifice it. But he loved her and wanted his friend to see her dreams to fruition. She made him promise to write to her and he did. In the end, it would be ten years before she came home. But all the while, they wrote to each other, sharing their triumphs and commiserating their failures. She visited her father every six months and they’d spend all her free time together. And it would be like they had never been apart. But the boy was now a man, a strong Shifter quickly climbing the totem pole of his were-pack, even as he waited for her to return to him. Then, a few years later, a newly-arrived European Shifter challenged his Were-Alpha and won. By now, high up in the command chain of his were-pack, he had to work closely with the new Were-Alpha. He grew to respect and like the Shifter, only a handful of years older to him. Soon, a friendship flourished. The man was now content with his lot in life, though he continued to hanker for his best friend. A year later, he received the news he’d been waiting for. She was coming home. He was over the moon. To him, it felt like he’d been waiting for her his entire adult life. He couldn’t wait to tell her how he felt. Once in San Francisco, she communicated excitedly that she too had important news to share. They met at one of their old haunts, the man with his heart full. But the news was bittersweet for him. She was back for good but she had met someone — it was this man who’d been the impetus for her to come home. Before he could recover from the jolt, she dropped another bombshell. The only reason she’d kept this a surprise from him was because she was sure that he’d approve of her choice. The woman he’d loved, since he was a teenager, was in love with his Were-Alpha and friend.”
Luis paused his rendition to contemplate Sara, who looked confused, even as a kernel of what he was trying to tell her seemed to seep through to her.
“Her name was Aiyana and she was my best friend, Sara” the Were-Alpha said softly. “The man she loved was also a good friend — Stefano Manotti.”
Sara gaped at him. “You were in love with my mother” she stuttered. Her father had never talked about his life before them — the one with a were-pack. Hawk and her time with their father had revolved around the Si’ffa. Until a year before his passing, the twins had been unaware of their heritage and oblivious to the Chosen.
She shook her head, trying to come to terms with it. “Did Dad know?”
“If he did, he never let on about it.”
Luis sipped his coffee silently, while a reeling Sara grappled with the revelation. It was a lot to take in.
When she finally broke her silence, it was to ask him the question that puzzled her the most. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because it has been brought to my attention that you’re questioning my motives in smoothing your way” he said candidly. “My apologies if I made you uncomfortable, Sara. After Aiyana was gone, Stefano isolated himself from the Wyrs. His extended family helped him to care for his children and he had to be careful to keep his two worlds from intersecting. Si’ffa could never know about the Chosen — it would break the Supreme Edict. Eventually, Faoladh folded the were-packs into a larger Pack. But Stefano was gone by then. When his children eventually petitioned to join the Pack, I had no say in it because my Were-Alpha, Jerome Carter, wanted nothing to do with Stefano’s twins. I believed that Atsá would set aside old animosities and do something about it. In the end, the Alpha accepted you into the Pack and Duncan became your Were-Alpha. I could not have chosen a better man to guide Hawk and you, as a Wyr and otherwise. So, I kept my distance from you both. There was little point in rehashing old history, especially since it appeared to me that Hawk and you had landed on your feet. It was only when Tasia joined us that I realized you were struggling to fit in. That while Hawk had found his place, you were discontent and bewildered. In a way, your situation reminded me of my early days in San Francisco. I wondered if perhaps, your struggle to fit in had been right under my nose, but that I’d chosen to ignore it before. In any case, I did not intend to ignore the situation any longer. So, I did what little I could to smooth things for you.”
Sara blinked, caught by the naked emotion in Luis Beltran’s eyes.
His lips twisted wryly. “In my clumsy way, I was merely attempting to assist Aiyana’s daughter, Sara.”
End of excerpt ...
Beings with magic in them have lived incognito amidst humans for time immemorial. Bestowed with special powers that set them apart, the Magicks call themselves the Chosen. The Chosen are organized 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 keep to themselves, are responsible for policing their own, object vociferously to outside interference, and follow their individual and contrasting traditions, customs and rules cobbled together over centuries of existence. However, every Chosen believes in and adheres to the Supreme Edict – thou shallst not reveal your brethren to the not Chosen.
The Council of Chosen
The CoC was created twenty-five years ago as a forum to foster communication, understanding and unity between the factions. Meant to usher in a new era of co-operation between Chosen, the Council comprises of four representatives, one from each faction. Faoladh represents the Wyrs, the First Wizard her brethren, ElThor his First Ones while the Vampires have a complicated system whereby the Masters of their illustrious Pure Blood Families rotate as representatives to represent the Clan.
Guardian Council of Wizards
The elites of the Wizard world, the Guardians are responsible for policing and protecting their kind. For centuries, this responsibility rested solely with the Guardians. However, since the advent of the CoC, the GCW has been forced to share the responsibility with the First Wizard. This has led to a faction of Guardians being locked in an escalating power struggle with the First Wizard.
The Chosen with the most conventional form of magic. The inherent magic in a Wizard is represented on a Magic Level scale. At the local level, Wizard Registries in cities handle the day to day affairs of Wizards. At the global level, Wizard concerns are handled by the GCW and the First Wizard.
The Chosen who possess a beast form, in addition to their human one. Organized into Packs with clearly demarcated territories, each Pack is led by an Alpha Protector. A Pack is usually a collection of smaller were-packs, each led by a Were-Alpha. A Wyr’s power is derived from his physical attributes. Possessed of phenomenal strength, jacked-up senses and the ability to heal from almost any injury, they are territorial, aggressive, unpredictable and paranoid, preferring to keep to their packs.
The Chosen with the oldest magic. Also known as the Ancients, they are the descendants of the very first Chosen to walk the earth. Most Ancients primarily consider themselves to be custodians of their illustrious heritage. They are also the most disparate Chosen faction, with vastly differing powers and abilities, though they self-classify into two loose groupings – Eru and Setik. As they have for centuries, the various groups of First Ones continue their ancient traditions and customs, to pass the old ways down to their descendants, reluctant to dilute their legacy, in any way or form. Enigmatic and driven to preserve the old magic of their ancestors, they tend to keep their distance from the cut-throat politicking of the Chosen world.
Organized in a hierarchical command structure, with a handful of Pure Blood Masters at the top of the food chain, they keep to themselves and away from other Chosen. Their lives are governed by social standing, elaborate customs and their nests. The Undead are hard to kill and live a long life, but otherwise possess little magic when compared to other Chosen. Most Chosen do not regard Vampires as their brethren and some look upon them as an abomination. Vampires are also known as Blutsaugers or collectively, as the Clan.
The very first Chosen to walk the earth.
The term for human or non-Chosen in the language of the First Ones.
The Canons are a collection of precedents, compiled over centuries, that guide how Chosen magic is classified.
A mysterious Wizard in an uneasy and unusual alliance with the Northern California Shifter Pack. Her bargain with the Alpha Protector safeguards her cover, secrets and abilities. In return, she helps with their investigation into the past and eschews the use of magic.
The powerful, enigmatic and formidable Alpha Protector of the Northern California Shifter Pack. Cold, hard to ruffle, distant, and reserved, he makes for a very bad enemy and makes no bones about his dislike of Wizards.
The preeminent Wyr of his time, the Alpha of all Alphas. Of Irish ancestry, he believes that the continued existence of the Chosen rests on greater unity and co-operation. Also responsible for the advent of the CoC, after a decades-long effort.
A powerful Guardian and contender for First Wizard, she was believed to have died in an explosion at the Wizard Registry in Chicago. Responsible for pulling the strings from behind the scenes in a power grab over the Chosen, based on The Prophecy.
Hawk Manotti : The Shifter responsible for befriending and bringing Tasia into his Pack. Second in the totem pole of his were-pack, with a complicated heritage.
Sara Manotti : Hawk’s twin and a reluctant Shifter.
Duncan Hawthorne : An influential English Were-Alpha with the Alpha’s ear.
Luis Beltran : A taciturn Were-Alpha trusted by his Alpha. Was once led by Hawk and Sara’s father, Stefano Manotti.
Atsá : A highly respected Were-Alpha, with Navajo heritage, he is Hawk and Sara’s estranged maternal grandfather.
Maartje : An influential Were-Alpha and Atsá’s ally. Her grandmotherly looks belie her political acumen.
Elisabetta De Luca : A beautiful Were-Alpha with a sharp tongue who has her eye on the Alpha.
Stefan Simeonov : A handsome Were-Alpha, with bright blue eyes, who makes Tasia wary.
Owen O’Brien : A Were-Alpha.
Justin Markham : A Shifter with a history with both Sara and Tasia.
Evgeny : One of Tasia’s Shifter bodyguards, the young Shifter is friendly with her.
Joaquim : Tasia’s second Shifter bodyguard, he is older and more taciturn.
Caroline Hamilton : Tasia’s friend and a powerful Wizard in her own right.
David Hamilton : Caroline’s father and the ranking wizard in San Francisco.
Sienna McAlister : The daughter of Lady Bethesda and the Oracle, she walked away from her heritage to make a life away from the Wizards. Offered sanctuary in the Pack Lair by the Alpha, she works with the team investigating the past and her mother. Like her father, she is a seer who has had visions that involve Tasia. The visions have only been shared with Jason LaRue.
Scot McAlister : An influential Guardian and husband of Lady Bethesda, he’s a respected Seer known as the Oracle. One of the contingent of Guardians sent to Chicago to question Lady Bethesda, he was killed by the explosion at the Registry. His many predictions include the Council of Chosen and The Prophecy.
Jason LaRue : A Guardian hand-picked by the First Wizard to liaison with the Shifters investigating Lady Bethesda. He’s also responsible for Sienna’s protection. The son of two Guardians who perished in the explosion in Chicago, he’s an old acquaintance of Sienna’s from high school and is the only one aware of Sienna’s vision.
Lady Esmeralda : A Guardian, she defeated Lady Bethesda and now represents her brethren on the Council of Chosen. She is Lady Bethesda’s twin and Sienna’s beloved Aunt Minnie.
Gabriel Azevedo : A Guardian who defected from the GCW to work with the same Lombardi Vampires now allied with Lady Bethesda. He is believed to have been killed by the Clan when he rejected them to run away with one of their prisoners. Very few know that he is Tasia’s father and the prisoner he helped rescue from the Vampires was her mother.
Ted Anderson : A Guardian responsible for unleashing Shifter mercenaries to terrorize low level Wizards in San Francisco, as a means to ferret out a Chosen. He was once best mate to the erstwhile Gabriel Azevedo and the Alpha suspects that the Wizard Anderson seeks is Tasia.
Sebastian Thorne : A senior Guardian, at odds with the First Wizard. At Wizard Headquarters in San Diego, he led the Guardians who refused to give up Anderson to the Pack, insisting that any trial of a compatriot be conducted by the GCW.
ElThor : Represents the First Ones on the Council of Chosen. His moniker means The First One, in the Ancient tongue.
TorElnor : A First One who leads the Setik in North America.
Roman Durovic : Handpicked by TorElnor to be his successor, Roman gets involved with the investigation into Lady Bethesda. Due to his missteps with her, he also has a prickly relationship with Nandini.
DiZeyla : The leader of the First Ones in San Francisco.
JaRol : DiZeyla’s deputy in San Francisco.
SivoTar : An influential Eru leader and a friend of Tribhuvan Rathore.
Nandini Rathore : The daughter of Lady Bethesda and her second husband, the Indian First One, Tribhuvan Rathore. She’s believed to be the second daughter from The Prophecy.
Tribhuvan Rathore : A powerful First One and leader of a mystical sect believed to worship and receive their powers from a Snake God. Their group, referred to as the Kabila, is headquartered in Nagalok at the foothills of the Himalayas in India.
Mahen Rathore : Nandini’s twin and heir to the Kabila.
ElDarZin : A powerful First One, once investigated by the Elders. Was known to be working with the Venice Nest when he disappeared under mysterious circumstances. He’s believed to be the father of the third daughter from The Prophecy.
ElMorad : A legendary enforcer of the Elders’ decisions, with a reputation for slipping into fortified castles to mete out justice to powerful Magick immortals.
Franciszka : The Mistress of the local Vampire nest in San Francisco. She has a relationship with the Alpha and his Pack, but not the other local Chosen factions in her city.
Monseigneur : The powerful, influential and brutal Master of the Pure Blood Lombardi Family, with his seat of power at Venice. He is allied with Lady Bethesda.
Rafaelo Bianchi : A shrewd, canny and ruthless Vampire who serves Lady Bethesda, at the command of his Master, the Pure Blood who leads the Lombardi Family in Venice.