Dark Lycan (Carpathian)(4)

By: Christine Feehan

Chapter 2

Fen went very still while the earth under his feet seemed to tremble and the trees surrounding them shook. He had all but forgotten being Carpathian. He had lived so long as an abomination—the most hunted of the Lycan kind—considered worse than any rogue wolf or pack who had to be hunted and destroyed. His kind could not be tolerated in the Lycan world.

He was both Carpathian and Lycan, and the combination made him an outcast. He had lived under a death sentence for centuries. There was no question of having a lifemate, no chance for him. He had long ago given up on that fairy tale. His lungs burned and he realized he was holding his breath. She was looking up at him with her amazing green eyes. The color changed, going from that deep emerald to a fascinating multifaceted aquamarine.

She knew. The signs for both of them had been there all along but they’d ignored them, misread them, or just plain didn’t believe them. On some impractical level he’d been waiting for this one moment his entire life. She existed. His lifemate. The one woman who held the other half of his soul. She was the light to his darkness. She brought back real color and real emotions.

Everything hit him at once, all of it. Feelings. Vivid color. Her hair was red gold yet changed in the shadows to deeper hues or streaks of color blending together. For one moment, he just let the emotions wash over him. He wanted to go where love would be, with this woman, this incredible miracle standing in front of him, staring up at him with wide, shocked eyes.

There was fear in her eyes and if she knew the half of it, she would run for her life. Fen cupped the side of her face gently, rubbing the pad of his thumb over her satin-soft skin. His heart stuttered and thunder roared in his ears.

“My lady,” he said softly. Regretfully. “I would give anything to bind you to me, but your protection must come first. You can’t be anywhere near me. I’m under a death sentence and anyone giving me safe harbor or aiding me will be killed with me. If they find you and know who you are, they will not take chances. They will kill you, too.”

Tatijana blinked up at Fen. His declaration was the last thing she expected. She’d braced herself for the claiming, the words that she knew would bind their souls for all time. There would be no living without him, and no precious freedom—the thing she wanted above all else.

“Why would someone want to kill you?” She sounded just a little accusing, a little miffed. She glanced toward the three men secreted in the trees in the distance. They were waiting to ambush the couple and wouldn’t creep through the brush—at least not until they got a lot more courage. “What did you do?”

A faint smile appeared on his face at the slight accusation in her voice. “Don’t pretend you wanted me to claim you. You did everything in your power to keep me from knowing that you’re my lifemate. I don’t think outraged feminine ruffled feathers are the appropriate response. You should be jumping for joy.”

“Well I’m not. Jumping for joy, I mean, that you’re my lifemate. I can’t have a lifemate right now. I’ve got issues.”

His grin turned into a smile that warmed his eyes and that made him all the more attractive. His eyes were amazing. In the tavern they’d been ice-cold blue, like the ice in the caves that had been her home for so long. She’d been drawn to his eyes. Now they were even a deeper, richer blue, like the glittering sapphires that she’d seen in Xavier’s cache of gems and artifacts he’d used for his magic. She didn’t feel in the least that it was her fault she was acting like a ninny, not when he had those blue eyes.

She held up her hand. “But, here’s the thing, Fen. I’m not going to leave my lifemate, or any Carpathian in trouble. So why are you under a death threat and from whom?”

He shook his head. “Woman, you do know how to complicate things, don’t you?”

She liked the idea that she did. She liked the idea of complicating his life. She’d never had that experience before and she found she was quite proud of her abilities.

His smile widened, and she realized she hadn’t taken care to guard her mind from him. He was there before she realized, pouring warmth into her, filling every barren lonely place, fusing with her mind, joining them together. She caught glimpses of his memories, but she found them strange, not Carpathian.

“You like messing with me,” he accused, but the laughter in his voice and the warmth in his incredibly blue eyes belied any anger.

She’d never “messed” with anyone before. It took a moment to translate the modern jargon in her mind, but yes, she quite liked “messing” with him. He was providing several new and exhilarating experiences. “I do, yes.” The smile faded from her face. “Those three men waiting to jump me don’t really present a threat to either one of us, but you’re very serious about this death threat. Is Zev hunting you? Is that why you said he was so dangerous?”

He sighed and tucked her hand against his chest. “You’re really going to insist on an explanation, aren’t you? If anyone finds out you know, they would come after you.”

She lifted her chin. “I’m not afraid, Fen. I’ve faced monsters you cannot conceive of . . .” She studied his rugged features, the lines in his face. “Maybe you can. But the point is, I will not run from trouble. I’m not going to hide. Just tell me why.”

“Centuries ago, I was hunting a particularly savage vampire. I’d never run across one so powerful and brutal. He was destroying entire villages, killing everyone in them, and for some reason I couldn’t feel him at all, not his energy, or any of the usual means of finding a vampire. Sometimes, when hunting vampires it’s what’s not there that gives them away, yet I was always one step behind. I could track him by his destruction, but I couldn’t get ahead of him.”

Fen turned his head toward the three men waiting. Tatijana immediately realized he had been listening to them the entire time. Carpathian hunters had enormous skills, aware of their surroundings at all times, even when they seemed totally focused on one thing—one person.

She was a little disappointed that she hadn’t kept his entire attention when he’d kept hers. “Seriously, those men are annoying me now.” She marched toward them, forgetting that Fen was on the other end of her hand. She managed three steps and came to an abrupt halt. She swung around, scowling at him. “What are you doing?”

“Wondering what you’re planning,” he replied, one eyebrow raised.

She swung back to face the threat. “I’m so disgusted with the three of you,” she called out. “If you’re planning on jumping us, get it done already. I’m trying to have an important conversation and Fen here is having difficulty concentrating. So either gather up your courage and come out into the open where the two of us will annihilate you, or slink on home.”

Fen burst out laughing. The rich, husky tone was so unexpected, so masculine that the sound seemed to reverberate through her body, sending little shock waves of electrical current sizzling through her bloodstream.

“I’m not having difficulty concentrating,” he said, his voice dropping an octave. “I’m hanging on your every word.”

She gave a little delicate sniff. “You’re supposed to be explaining yourself. When one’s lifemate refuses to claim his woman, there should be a reasonable explanation.”

“You have no desire for me to claim you,” he pointed out.

“That’s beside the point.”

Fen found himself grinning. The three humans waiting in the brush were discussing what to do next now that the element of surprise was gone. The one continued to try to persuade the other two that they were drunk and going to get into trouble. That he couldn’t have them hurting a woman.

Fen didn’t care one way or another if they attacked, but he was truly fascinated by the woman who all but stamped her foot at him. As a rule, Carpathian women were tall with dark hair. Tatijana was on the diminutive side, with light ever-changing hair and her amazing emerald eyes.

The vivid colors, after centuries of no color and then spotty, muddy hues, were almost blinding. The joy of feeling filled him even as the intensity of emotions nearly overwhelmed him.

“I want the explanation and I think, as your lifemate, I deserve to hear it.” She sounded both snippy and regal if that combination was at all possible.

“And no matter what, you aren’t going to do the practical thing and leave me, are you?” he asked.

She had him. The mystery and intrigue surrounding her drew him almost as much as the call of her soul to his. The pull between them was very strong, and he wasn’t certain, in the end, he would have the strength to watch her walk away.

“Of course not. Do you think I’m a coward?” She tossed her head like a fractious filly, indicating the three men now arguing in low tones they thought couldn’t be overheard. “Like them? I am Carpathian. I may not have practical experience in a battle, but I certainly have knowledge of every kind of enemy and how best to defeat them. I will never run from a fight, nor will I accept another’s command over me.”

She was . . . magnificent. The moon was mostly obscured by the veil of mist, yet her long braid seemed to give off sparks.

“How did you get your knowledge?” Fen asked.

She shrugged. “Perhaps you know the name of my father. He was the most powerful mage ever known, Xavier. He was a false friend to the Carpathian people, tricking them for years into thinking the alliance between mage and Carpathian was strong. He wanted immortality and the Carpathians did not give him their secret. He killed my mother’s lifemate and held her prisoner, as only the most powerful mage could. He forced her to have his children, triplets, two girls and a boy. My sister, Branislava, my brother, Soren, and me. He needed us for our blood.”

Fen was shocked and he knew it showed on his face. “I studied with this man, centuries ago. We all did. No one knew of his treachery?”

She shook her head. “My sister and I were held from birth in his lair deep beneath the ice where he fed from our veins, keeping us weak. Our mother had turned us completely when she realized what Xavier meant to do, in the hopes that we would find a way to escape. He killed her the moment he felt we could provide the blood he so craved.”

Fen had been centuries gone from the Carpathian Mountains and his brother hadn’t had time to give him much news. To know that a mage as formidable as Xavier had betrayed them and committed heinous acts against a Carpathian woman and his own children chilled him to the bone. He’d seen deceit in the form of vampires, but someone his people had considered such a friend and ally—Xavier’s betrayal seemed far worse. They had all trusted him.

“How long were you held captive?”

For the first time he saw her hesitation. Her hand trembled when she reached up to push back stray strands of hair. Fen covered her hand with his.

“My entire life. Centuries. We never left the ice caves until nearly two years ago. We’ve been in the Earth healing,” Tatijana admitted.

“And the prince allows you to go unescorted? Unprotected by his hunters?” He didn’t bother to conceal the edge—or disgust in his voice.

Tatijana hastily shook her head. “He has no idea that I’ve awakened. None of them know. My guardians believe we are safe beneath the ground. I needed to feel freedom.” Her gaze met his. “I needed this.”

He understood what she was trying to convey. She hadn’t slipped away out of spite, or because she frivolously wanted to outwit her guardians, she really did need to feel freedom—and he understood that. In a way, Carpathian hunters lost their freedom when they lost all emotion and color. They had one purpose after that—to find their lifemate. If they didn’t manage to do so, as the years went by, they would run the risk of becoming nosferatu—the undead. The only thing left for hunters was to hunt and destroy the vampire and search for their lifemate.

“I told you about me,” she said. “Now it’s your turn.”

“I think we’re about to have company. Two out of three. The third one chose to abandon his friends when he couldn’t talk them out of their drunken idiocy—and I must say—he definitely tried.” He wanted to laugh at the expression on her face. She looked absolutely pained—and adorable. He’d never considered using that word, but now he knew what it meant.

“You have got to be kidding me.” She threw her hands into the air and whirled to face the two men creeping out of the bushes. “Are they really that stupid? What’s wrong with them?”

“It’s called alcohol. You spit it out when you tried it, but many humans like and are very affected by it. The more they drink the less inhibited they are, and they make really stupid decisions sometimes.”

“They aren’t even coordinated,” she pointed out. “One can barely stand. Do they really think they would have a chance against you? I can see them making the mistake about a woman, but they have to have seen you in the tavern.”

“Alcohol impairs the ability to think straight.” Fen turned to face the two men coming toward them, shifting position to place his body just a little in front of hers.

Tatijana pressed her lips together, an ominous warning. Fen caught the look on her face out of the corner of his eye. She suddenly looked both irritated and determined. He felt the burst of energy, and then she moved with blurring speed.

You must appear human! he warned quickly, moving with her as he pushed the warning into her mind.

At the last moment she emerged out of the mist as human, leaping through the air to land a perfect roundhouse kick, her foot slamming into the most aggressive man’s gut, doubling him over so that he folded in half. He swayed and slowly sank down onto the ground, blinking up at Tatijana.

Fen whistled softly as the second man staggered to a halt and stood swaying, staring at his companion with blurry eyes.

“Nice,” Fen commented. “I’m impressed.” He held out his hand to Tatijana. “Get along home, boys. The woods can turn dangerous very fast at night.”

Tatijana took his hand and went with him into deeper forest. He took the narrow path leading back toward the village. She wouldn’t show him her resting place, but she would be much safer in the village than the forest. His last glimpse of the two attackers was of one trying to help the other off the ground.

The mist enfolded them once again. Tatijana cleared her throat. “You said you were chasing a particularly violent vampire. Please continue. I’d really like to hear.”

Fen glanced down at the top of her head. She didn’t come up to his shoulder, but already she was a force to be reckoned with. She hadn’t put any compulsion in her voice, yet there would be no resisting her. He had no experience with lifemates, so he had no idea if the spell she’d cast was one any woman could easily place on her Carpathian lifemate.

“The vampire was named Vitrona and I could not get ahead of him no matter what I did. I never felt him. Not once. I could only follow in the wake of his total destruction. Entire villages, so many people and mostly Lycans. He was wiping them out. More than once he doubled back and caught me off guard, something that had always been impossible. I have hunted the vampire long centuries and even back then I was no beginner.”

“I have seen vampires and the cruelty they exhibit,” Tatijana admitted. “Xavier had an alliance with one.”

Fen shook his head. “Centuries ago, vampires did not make alliances. They have evolved into even more of a threat, but this one, Vitrona, killed not only for the rush, but for pleasure. It seems he was not only vampire but Lycan—well—not Lycan—werewolf as well.”

She gasped, one hand going to her throat. “Lycans can walk in sunlight. They can go undetected by Carpathians and Mage. Lycans are the one species Xavier had difficulties obtaining because it was so hard to locate them.”

“The Lycans kept to their own villages back then, but that policy changed when Vitrona tore through their ranks, killing everyone, man, woman and child. No one could stop him.” Fen ducked his head, the memories of finding so many brutally murdered families washing over him. “Not even me.” For a moment, sorrow choked him—sorrow he hadn’t been able to feel until his lifemate had brought intense emotions back to him.

Tatijana’s fingers tightened around his. “I didn’t think when I asked you to tell about this that you might have to relive it with emotion this time. Please forgive me. You don’t have to continue.”

Fen was a little shocked at how the psychic connection between them continued to grow stronger with each passing moment in her company. He touched her mind, brushing lightly, and found she was distressed at the thought that she had caused his discomfort. No one had ever been upset on his behalf that he could remember.

He brought her hand to his chest, pressing her palm close over his heart even as he continued walking with her toward the village—and safety. The veil of mist blanketed the forest now, making it nearly impossible to see the trees until they were right up on them, but he could feel them through the hair on his body and the energy radiating from the living plants.

He guided her unerringly along the path, cutting through the interior and picking up his pace. His warning system was beginning to give off little ripples.

“You gave me a gift beyond measure, my lady. Walking with you is both peaceful and exhilarating. Just to have your interest in my past is a miracle I did not expect.”

She gave him a glance from under long lashes, a brief glimpse of her astonishing green eyes. “I have an interest in your future as well, Fen. From what I’ve gleaned about lifemates, one does not do well without the other for long.”

“Then I will continue with my story. I followed Vitrona for a full, very long year, and during that time, I became aware of another hunter tracking him—a Lycan. He was an elite hunter, one who tracks down and kills rogue werewolves, those who kill humans and their own kind, just as we destroy the vampire who preys upon humans. The Lycan’s skills were formidable. I found myself having great respect for him. He came closer than me on two occasions and yet, he, too, missed Vitrona.”

“How awful for both of you,” Tatijana said. “What was so different about this vampire?”

“When one hunts the undead, there are certain signs to look for, but this vampire was nearly impossible to find by any of the usual means. There were no scorch marks in his passing unless he deliberately made them. There were no blank spaces indicating he was hiding. The Lycan, his name was Vakasin, eventually hunted him solely by scent. We joined forces, knowing that would double our chances of executing the monster. Many times we engaged him in battle, and both of us sustained terrible life-threatening wounds.” Fen hesitated, uncertain how to tell her the rest—fearing her reaction.

Tatijana stopped walking and turned to stand directly in front of him, blocking his path, forcing him to halt. “I told you about Xavier. He was the most hated criminal the Carpathian people had. Women lost their babies and eventually couldn’t have children. The high mage who committed such treachery against the Carpathian people was my own father. I think whatever your secret is can’t be as bad. Whatever happened, you need to tell me.”

The only person Fen had trusted enough to tell his secret to was his brother. He had just met Tatijana, but she was his lifemate, and one couldn’t lie to one’s lifemate. She could slip in and out of his mind at will, just as he could hers, making it impossible to hide anything.

He found it strange that he was already so comfortable, as if they’d been together for a long time, yet the mystique surrounding her was as strong as ever, drawing him with a magnetic pull as strong as their obvious connection.

“I often needed blood and there was no one else to provide it but Vakasin. I sometimes provided blood for him when our hunt took us places where there was no sustenance for either of us, or our wounds were too many and we had to wait to heal. In a battle, we both sustained life-threatening injuries and we had to have large amounts of blood to survive.”

Tatijana continued to look up at him, wide-eyed. Unblinking. Holding him captive so that he could not look away from her even though his next words might turn her against him.

“Vakasin and I both became an abomination—what the Lycans refer to as the Sange rau, which is literally bad blood, a mixed blood. We became like Vitrona. Both Lycan and Carpathian. We had no idea how it happened, probably over time, our blood mixing, yet not mixing, changing us, yet not really changing us.” He confessed his sin quickly, in a rush to get it over.

She didn’t change expression or step away from him. She just looked at him as if expecting more. He cleared his throat. “Perhaps you don’t understand what I said. I am not Carpathian and I am not Lycan. I am both. An outcast that cannot be tolerated by either species. The Lycans have elite squads that hunt and kill someone like me on sight.”

Tatijana frowned. “Why would that be? Lara is lifemate to Nicolas, and his brother Manolito is lifemate to MaryAnn. Manolito and MaryAnn are as you are, and no one is hunting them.”

Fen shook his head. “That cannot be.”

“I heard Nicolas telling the prince that MaryAnn was Lycan and they were as you describe. No one seemed upset by it.”

“No one can know. They cannot. This has not been made common knowledge or my brother would have told me. They are in terrible danger. If the Lycans hear of this, they will send their hunters. They hunt in packs and once set on a trail, they do not stop until they kill their targets.”

Tatijana drew in her breath. “If the Lycans killed or attempted to kill MaryAnn and Manolito, his brothers would start a war. As I understand it, the De La Cruz brothers would take on the world for one another. Lara and Nicolas gave us quite a bit of information when they would come to give us blood while we were healing in the earth.”

“It is important, Tatijana. You have to warn them. Once the death sentence is handed down by the council, the elite hunters will spend centuries, if necessary, to find and destroy them. There are only a couple of us. Vakasin was killed by his own kind after he helped me to rid the world of Vitrona. They were savage with him when he had done nothing wrong. He tried to tell them that Vitrona had turned vampire, that he didn’t represent what we could be, but they wouldn’t listen.”

“Could Vakasin have turned vampire?” Tatijana asked. “That’s what they were afraid of, wasn’t it?”

Fen nodded slowly with a small sigh. “He didn’t have time to find out. Like Carpathians, Lycans live long lives. I don’t know what the consequences of a Lycan-Carpathian cross would be. Obviously, I could turn without my lifemate, but staying in Lycan form helped throughout the long, empty years.” He hesitated. “The gifts grow stronger over time, mutating, and as one grows more powerful, that aid disappears and the call to darkness grows.”

He shook his head, sorrow nearly overwhelming him. He had respected Vakasin as a hunter and a man, but until this moment he hadn’t realized he’d felt affection for him. Camaraderie. The bond between two men who shared battles and watched each other’s backs. He’d been unable to feel those things until Tatijana. Emotions, he found, were both a blessing and a curse.

“From the Lycan’s point of view, I can see why they would condemn such a powerful being. It took years to bring Vitrona to justice. During the long centuries he nearly single-handedly destroyed the Lycan world. He killed pack after pack in brutal and vicious ways.”

“He was vampire,” she pointed out. “It’s unreasonable to think every single Carpathian-Lycan cross would do the same, any more than it would be reasonable to think every mage is evil because Xavier was.”

“Surely there must be some suspicion when Carpathian meets mage,” Fen replied. “You know there would be. The Lycans are fully integrated into the human world. They take jobs in the field of law enforcement and they keep small packs within the cities, all with jobs of humankind. They are ruled by a shadowy government of their own and those who rule use human resources. Nearly all the elite hunters are considered wildlife experts or specialists and they travel the world secretly hunting rogue werewolves.”

“How many are like you?”

Fen hesitated. He didn’t know exactly what that answer was, and he feared the truth. “As far as I know for certain, there is only me, and now Manolito De La Cruz and his lifemate.” He had a small suspicion that his brother might have already crossed into his world as well, but he didn’t know for certain.

“So few,” Tatijana mused. “That does present a problem. If there were more, perhaps the Lycans would think twice before they decided to try to kill all of you, but with only three, they could strike and no one would know.”

“You are kin to this Lara?”

Tatijana nodded. “She is the daughter of my brother’s son, Razvan. My brother, Soren, was killed by Xavier and Xavier held Razvan and Lara prisoner as well.”

“Get word to the De La Cruz family through Lara to be very careful and do not let anyone know of their cross-species.”

“Did you think that I would leave you to face this alone?” Tatijana asked. “What kind of a lifemate would I be if I abandoned you?”

He felt an unexpected urge to laugh. “The kind of lifemate who does not want to be claimed.”

“That was before I knew you were in trouble.” She tossed her long braid over her shoulder, her eyes glittering like emeralds. “I am Dragonseeker. We do not run.”

“I’m beginning to understand how true that is,” Fen conceded. “Still, the Lycans have existed for centuries, adapting and evolving with each new generation, and they are well integrated into human society. They use their human counterparts to aid them in investigations and tracking down those they deem criminals.”

“Like you.”

“Vakasin did not tell his slayers about me and they have not discovered my identity. Elite hunters tracking a rogue pack came across me when I was hunting the rogue pack as well, but they have no knowledge of my identity. Perhaps Zev suspects what I am, but he doesn’t know. There is only a short window of opportunity for hunters to find me. They can identify me only one week out of every month. It’s only during the weeklong cycle of the full moon that my energy feels different to the Lycans and they know immediately what I am.”

Tatijana frowned, her delicate eyebrows drawing together. “Why are you here? In the Carpathian Mountains? You didn’t come back to inform the prince of your duality. And you didn’t come back to swear your allegiance to him. You’re a hunter. You hunt the vampire. Ancient hunters don’t change their ways.”

Fen sighed. Tatijana looked a fragile flower but she had a spine of steel, and she was highly intelligent. She might not know about fire, but she hadn’t wasted her time during her centuries-long incarceration. She had studied each of her father’s victims carefully. She had learned to read them and draw on their abilities and experiences. She had looked for hunters and those who knew how to fight in order to further her chances of escaping. He could almost feel her brain putting the pieces of a puzzle together with lightning speed.

“You suspect there is another—the one you call Sange rau,” she said, shrewdly. “You followed him here, didn’t you? By doing so you put yourself directly in the path of that hunter, the one from the tavern you said was dangerous.”

He took her hand and turned her back toward the village. They had to get out of the woods—at least she had to. The blanket of mist had begun to churn and roil—fast-spinning eddies within the heavy fog. He held still for a moment, listening, his every sense tuned to the threads of information whirling in the mist.

“It is a suspicion, no more, but yes, I suspect Zev is here hunting the same rogue pack I was trailing when I ran across a strange, but familiar pattern. I believe Zev is Lycan and very lethal—especially to one such as me.”

“This week of the month wouldn’t be during the full moon would it?” she asked.

He found himself grinning in spite of the seriousness of the situation. His lifemate had a little bite to her tone. She had just a bit of an attitude. He nodded his head. “Why, yes, my lady, it would.”

She shook her head. “If the big bad wolf is coming for you, do you really think it’s a good idea to be walking through the woods with me?”

Fen did laugh. Her coat was red and had a fleece-lined hood. “Where in the world did you hear the story of Little Red Riding Hood?”

“We had reading materials. Scrolls. Skins. Thin parchment. And then books. In the beginning, he thought we would become like him, only subordinate to him. He didn’t realize that our mother had also left us a legacy before he murdered her. She made certain we were fully Carpathian but she concealed what she had done from him. We had the ability to communicate telepathically and to draw memories from Xavier’s victims. When he realized we were not going to aid him in his efforts to wipe out the Carpathian species, he kept us drained and weak so we had no chance of escape.”

“He made a mistake educating you.”

“Yes he did, and we learned far more than he realized. His spells, the ability to counter them, shifting, the strengths and weaknesses of each species. We acquired a great deal of knowledge and waited for the moment we might be strong enough to strike at him—or defend ourselves. In the end, we were able to get Razvan’s child free. Lara was so young, and we had hoped to go with her to protect her, but Xavier used Razvan to stab Bronnie and I couldn’t leave her there, although she begged me to go without her. We were imprisoned for many years again until Lara came back for us.”

The wind shifted again, sending the mist spinning around them. They both stopped abruptly and looked at one another.

Blood, Fen identified. Human. Death. The rogue pack was there in the forest. He’s just ahead, but I fear he’s dead. He used telepathic communication and the moment he was in her mind, he felt flooded with warmth—complete. All those empty places were filled with her. The terrible blackness receded and light poured in.

He’s the third man from the tavern, the one who left when I called out to them. She was intelligent enough to follow his lead. There was sorrow in her voice, guilt even. This is the man who tried to talk sense into his friends.

The pack smelled like wolves, animals, tearing at their prey for fun, not food, and then rushing on their way to wreak more violence just because they could. Real wolves would be blamed and human hunters would destroy entire innocent packs because the rogue werewolves took joy in killing.

He squeezed her hand hard. You are not responsible for this.

I drove them out into the open and he left the safety of the others.

Fen’s gut twisted. Take to the sky. Get out of here. I need to go back and find the other two. The pack will sniff them out and kill them just for the fun of it.

I will go with you.

The resolution in her voice had him swinging around rather than trying to dissuade her. He could feel the absolute determination in her mind. Perhaps if he wasn’t basking in her company, enjoying everything about her, he would have been far more firm—not—he was certain—that it would do him any good.

They broke into a run, using blurring speed to retrace their path back to the two drunken men. It took only minutes. The two sat beside a tree passing a flask back and forth, one occasionally bursting into song.

Tatijana instinctively broke away from his side, moving to his left and allowing him to approach the two men alone. Fen was grateful to her. Already, he knew the pack was hunting. The rogues had both heard and smelled the men. They knew both men were physically impaired, drunk from the alcohol they’d consumed, and would be easy prey. Tatijana and he could take to the skies if necessary, but the two men were extremely vulnerable.

He muted his appearance, blending with the mist until he was directly in front of them, sending a swirl of mist ahead of him so that he could emerge naturally out of the fog. Both looked up at him.

“Fen, what are you doing out so late? You want a drink?” One held out the flask.

“You’re Enre,” Fen greeted. “Do you live far?” He projected his voice directly at the two men, although there was really no hope that the pack wouldn’t know Tatijana was in the forest. He had known, from the moment the werewolf pack leader had given his hunting cry and the others had answered that the rogue pack was close by and hunting. To them, he would smell human.

“Gellert here, too,” the other said drunkenly, opening his eyes and removing the flask from Enre’s hand. “What are you doing here?”

“Let’s get you two home,” Fen encouraged. “It’s too cold to stay out all night. Your families will worry.”

“My woman kicked me out,” Gellert said, his words slurred. “She said I drink too much.” He was indignant. “I don’t drink too much. She accused me of sleeping with the barmaid, Faye.”

“You did sleep with Faye,” Enre said.

Gellert took a long pull from the flask. “There was no sleeping,” he said slyly.

“He’s staying with me,” Enre admitted. “I’ve got no family.”

He didn’t sound quite as drunk as he had been earlier. He struggled to his feet and reached down for Gellert. Gellert groaned and let both Fen and Enre help him up.

“You shouldn’t have let your friend talk you into attacking the lady,” Fen said to Enre.

Enre shrugged. “It was all just talk. I wouldn’t have attacked her. I would have just given him a good clout upside the head and dragged him home if he’d really gone through with it.”

“The redhead wants me,” Gellert slurred. “She comes back night after night, and dances for me.”

“The redhead is my woman,” Fen said. “It isn’t a good idea to say those kinds of things in front of me.”

Gellert peered up at him with red, runny eyes. He burped loudly, the smell wafting toward Fen like a green cloud. “Sorry man. Didn’t know. Come on, Enre, let’s get on home.”

A sound broke the night. Chilling. Close. Too close. The howl of the werewolf on the hunt. Enre, the more sober of the two, shivered and looked around warily. That joyful, frightening note floated on the wind, full and round-bodied, different from that of a normal wolf, far more unnerving.

“We have to go now,” Fen urged, gripping Gellert on one side while Enre took his other arm. “Tatijana, leave us now while you can. Defending against a pack, even for one such as you, is not easy.”

She lifted her chin, but her eyes stared out into the night. Like Fen, her senses had reached out far beyond the immediate area in an effort to locate the pack individuals—something he knew would be impossible. “I will not leave you to this fight alone. They won’t be of any help.” She indicated the two men with a jerk of her chin, still not looking at them.

“Do either of you have a weapon?” Fen hissed. He glanced toward Tatijana. They weren’t going to make it out of there without a fight. Depending on the pack size, they could be in real trouble.

Above them, a large owl landed in the branches of the neighboring tree. He folded his wings for a moment, surveying the small group below him. A burst of mist rose around the tree and out of it, a man emerged. He strode toward Fen, tall, his shoulders broad, and his eyes every bit as piercing, intelligent and ice-cold blue as Fen’s. Hair as black as midnight flowed down his back, and he moved with a smooth, fluid step.

Fen stepped forward and they clasped forearms in the centuries-old greeting of warriors.

“Kolasz arwa-arvoval—may you die with honor,” the tall warrior greeted. “I would not want to miss such a battle with you, ekäm—my brother.”

“Kolasz arwa-arvoval—may you die with honor, Dimitri, ekäm—my brother,” Fen said. “You are most welcome to this battle.”

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