Dark Lycan (Carpathian)(9)

By: Christine Feehan

Chapter 7

Mikhail Dubrinsky’s home was so well-crafted and the safeguards so strong, that even with Carpathian eyes Fen found it difficult to see at first. Deep in the forest, higher up toward the cliffs, the house was both mountain and wood. The air shimmered around the home, a veil not so easily pierced. Abruptly that veil dropped away, and Gregori strode toward them.

Tatijana’s fingers brushed his and he caught her hand without looking down at her. Jacques Dubrinsky jumped out of the uppermost branches of the trees and landed easily on his feet. On their left, Falcon Amiras did the same, essentially creating a funnel—a polite chute—but one all the same.

“Welcome, Fenris Dalka,” Gregori said formally. His silver eyes slashed over them both, taking in far more than either would have wished. “You are much later than anticipated, but I see why. Dimitri?”

“He is alive,” Fen said.

He didn’t know these people. He had never sworn loyalty to this prince, nor would he until he knew the heart and soul of Mikhail Dubrinsky. He certainly wouldn’t trust any of them with the life of his brother without knowing the truth.

“How many weapons do you carry on you?”

“Enough to take down a rogue pack,” Fen answered vaguely, his eyes steady on Gregori’s. He never once turned away. If necessary, Tatijana could fend off the two men flanking them, but he would have to defeat the prince’s second if this was a trap.

“That is not really an answer,” Gregori pointed out mildly, a slight edge creeping into all that charm.

“In truth, I do not know. When an elite hunting pack is in the area during a full moon, I am always fully armed if I am not beneath the ground.” Fen accompanied his answer with a casual shrug. If they wanted him to speak with the prince, it was going to be on his terms. He was exhausted, still not fully healed and was risking his life just to come there. If they wanted him to leave, he’d be more than happy to oblige.

Tatijana’s soft laughter slipped into his mind. I think wolf man has a chip on his shoulder. I will have to remember that when you’re tired, you’re a little bit grumpy.

They invited me. But his mood was slipping away with her teasing. It was impossible to keep a Lycan’s foul temper around her, even if he wanted to. He sent her a small glimmer of a smile and when her eyes met his, his heart reacted with a hard bang. You do get to me, woman.

She looked smug. And pleased. Her eyes took on a sparkle. I know.

Gregori led the way to the large wraparound porch, shaded by a roof held by strong stone columns. The moment he set foot on the exquisite wooden planking, the heavy door opened, and Mikhail filled that entrance.

There was no mistaking the prince of the Carpathian people. His power was raw, yet controlled. The energy burned in and through him, barely contained. Fen had often met his own prince, and yet never had that raw power been so strong in him. Mikhail looked princely with his wide, straight shoulders, tall physique and eyes that held the weight of their world in them. He had seen battle on many occasions. He had seen the decline of his people and had turned them around to grow anew.

“Fenris Dalka,” Gregori provided. “And his lifemate, Tatijana Dragonseeker.”

The prince’s gaze moved to Tatijana. For the first time Fen felt her tremble. It was slight, but it was there. She was just a little nervous to face her prince after she had struck out on her own. Maybe feeling a little guilty even, that she had tried to escape Gregori’s care.

“I see that. You both are welcome. Please enter of your own free will.” He stepped back to allow them both the decision to enter his home.

The house was suspiciously quiet. He was given entrance, but Mikhail’s lifemate, Raven, and their son were conspicuously somewhere safe. He didn’t blame the prince or Gregori. He expected nothing less of them. He was, after all, completely unknown to them and he was bringing a battle right to their doorsteps.

“Thank you.” He stepped across the threshold and knew instantly the house itself was tied in some way to the prince and his powers. With one hand he swept Tatijana behind him, his hand staying there in warning to her as he advanced.

He felt the weight of stone and wood. The walls breathed in and out. The curtains fluttered, drawing his eye. They twisted. He felt the urge to put out his arms and spin in a slow circle, allowing the house to see his cache of weapons. He held firm against that slow continuous push and stood, feet slightly apart, upright, arms loosely at his sides.

Gregori’s laughter was soft. “I told you he was a warrior through and through. He isn’t a man I want to tangle with.”

But he would in spite of everything he was saying so smoothly. Gregori was laughing. Looking comfortable. Luring Fen in, making him feel comfortable. Fen had met a few like him. There was nothing humorous whatsoever about a man like Gregori Daratrazanoff. He would have already gone through the kill a hundred times in his mind, planning every move out in his mind until he would be smooth, fast and deadly should Fen prove to be treacherous. His backup plans had backup plans. He was dangerous and anyone who couldn’t see that was an imbecile. Fen didn’t count himself among the imbeciles.

Fen made no attempt to approach the prince or anything else in the house. The game of high stakes chess had begun. Their move. The prince waited courteously for Tatijana in the open doorway. She remained motionless, waiting for Fen’s signal. If it was a trap, she could better aid him from outside.

Time seemed to stand still. Somewhere an owl hooted. A wolf called. A slight breeze moved through the forest, sending leaves quivering.

Mikhail sighed. Extending his hand to Tatijana, he gave her a small, old-world bow along with a charming smile. “Come, my dear. There seems to be posturing going on and I would very much appreciate your help in defusing this situation.”

Tatijana kept her gaze on Mikhail, but stirred in Fen’s mind. Yes? No? It was his decision. He barely inclined his head. She took Mikhail’s hand, smiled up at him and stepped over the threshold into the house. There was no reaction from the house and Mikhail led her over to a ring of comfortable chairs and gallantly seated her.

“Thank you, Tatijana.” He waved his hand toward the chair beside Tatijana’s in invitation to Fen.

The location of the chair was the least vulnerable seat in the room, positioned for the best defense, designed no doubt to make Fen feel even more comfortable with them, but it had been long since he’d been enclosed in a room with four walls meeting. He was, however, used to meeting with many possible enemies—but this time, he had a woman to protect.

Worry about protecting yourself. I can take care of me, Tatijana assured.

She had that little mischievous tone he found himself listening for. I’m becoming quite partial to you, my lady.

I know. Smug.

He wanted to laugh, but he kept his expression pure stone. “How can I be of use to you?” he asked the prince.

Mikhail sank into the chair opposite him. Jacques and Falcon both took their seats, but Gregori stood, and from his angle, he had a commanding view of nearly every window in the house. The house reminded him of an eagle’s nest, perched up high, where weather could protect it, yet they could see anything—or anyone—coming at them.

The house was warm and felt friendly, but Fen knew it was designed for a single purpose—to protect those residing in it. There was a faint scent he couldn’t quite place, a blend of something that confused his Lycan senses. He couldn’t quite smell Mikhail’s true scent, an interesting form of protection. He would be hard-pressed to distinguish the prince from the others if tracking him.

“This is the first time in my lifetime that the Lycans have openly entered our territory.” Mikhail sat back and carefully folded his hands together. “You have been long gone from our people. While you have been gone, our women dwindled until there was no longer hope of lifemates for our males. What few women we did have could not carry a child, or, if by some stroke of luck, one did, they could not nurture the child. We lost nearly all babies in that first crucial year.”

Fen frowned. Dimitri had shared that the Carpathian ranks had fallen well below safe numbers. The fear of extinction was always present, but he hadn’t described the problem. Most likely, Dimitri feared if he told Fen that finding a lifemate was nearly impossible, Fen would give up and choose to meet the dawn.

Mikhail continued in a low, even voice, almost musical, a very powerful weapon should he choose to use it as such. “We have discovered, over time and with a great deal of blood-spill, heartache and tears, that Xavier, our greatest mage, had secretly and over centuries worked to bring about our downfall. He even went so far as to introduce microbes into our soil to contaminate it and kill our women and children before they were born. Each time we find one threat and destroy it, another has arisen.”

“I had no idea this was happening,” Fen admitted. “I have been gone from these lands for centuries. My only contact has been my brother, and then only when I sought a safe haven in the refuges he created for my wolf brethren when I needed to rest.”

Mikhail inclined his head. “Your brother’s wounds are healing?”

Fen couldn’t stop himself from glancing at Tatijana. For comfort? He didn’t know the answer to that question—only that having her with him made it easier to bear the idea of Dimitri’s pain and suffering. “We have hope.” There was nothing else to say.

Mikhail leaned toward Fen suddenly, his dark eyes penetrating deep. “We’ve had a period of relative peace after the De La Cruz brothers and Dominic defeated the vampires in South America. The vampires scattered with few leaders to direct them. I’m certain they will rise again, or perhaps they have been waiting to see if our children survived beyond their first year.”

Silence filled the room and with it came tension, stretching nerves tight. Fen could feel his every Lycan sense activating. His muscles ached. His jaw. He felt threatened in some primal way, but wasn’t certain what they expected of him.

“I don’t understand.” He made the statement without a hint of fear, but he was beginning to wish Tatijana had remained outside the four walls where he knew she had a chance of being safe. They weren’t safe locked in a relatively small space with four lethal predators.

“My son is now two years of age. And my brother, Jacques’s boy is growing and thriving at three. Gregori’s twins survived those critical first years. Gregori’s brother Darius has twins, a boy and girl, both healthy and past the two-year mark. I am certain you must have grown up with Gabriel and Lucian, two other of Gregori’s brothers. Gabriel has a little daughter, again, she is healthy.”

“This is the first time in centuries such a thing has happened,” Gregori added.

Mikhail gestured toward Falcon. “You crossed paths as children with Falcon. His lifemate, Sara, has announced she is once again pregnant and the pregnancy appears to be a healthy one. There are others and perhaps ones not yet known. The point is that in over five hundred years we have never had it so good.” His eyes went steely, pupils dilated and pitch-black. “And now, at this time when all is beginning to look up, the Lycans have shown up in my backyard. I would like you to tell me what that means.”

Fen could see the damning arrow. How could he not? Carpathians finally beginning to recover and suddenly they are overrun with a species so elusive one nearly forgot their existence. Had it been just coincidence that the rogue pack had run this way? Led by Bardolf, Fen might have believed the choice had been a random one. But Abel, not Bardolf, really led the pack.

“Fen?” Mikhail prompted.

“I don’t honestly have an answer for you. I ran across werewolves committing murder and knew I’d discovered a rogue pack. A single hunter can’t take on a small pack by himself, let alone a large pack. And this is a very large pack. I followed them and began picking them off one at a time. It’s dangerous and time-consuming, but believe me, it’s the only way if you want to survive.”

Fen sighed, shaking his head slowly. “I traveled this way only to be close to my brother once again. I felt drawn here. In doing so, I ran across the kills.” He looked at Tatijana. “I had resisted for well over eighteen months. I found I had to come, although I felt it dangerous to do so.”

“Did you think we wouldn’t welcome you? Gregori tells me you are of mixed blood. You thought this would matter to us in some way?” Mikhail inquired, his tone deceptively mild.

Fen spread his hands out in front of him, fingers wide. “People like me are called Sange Rau, literally bad blood in the Lycan world. We are hated and hunted the instant it is known we exist.” He shrugged. “I could live with that from the Lycans. I understand their reasoning. The only mixed bloods they have known have been vampire-Lycan. To them, that is what I am should I be discovered. The idea of my own people condemning what I’ve become did not sit with me so easily.”

Gregori turned his head, those pale silver eyes moving over Fen in a careful study. “You are not so easily killed, even by one of us.”

Fen gave him a slight nod in response to the compliment. Gregori only stated the truth, he wasn’t out to flatter Fen. Clearly Gregori had made a show of Jacques and Falcon’s presence because he knew they would need more than one hunter to try to kill him. And then whose side would Tatijana come down on? She had sworn her allegiance to the prince, and no Dragonseeker would ever break their word after giving it.

He took another slow look around the room. There were others. There had to be more than just these three warriors protecting the prince. He had allowed the house to confuse his senses while they distracted him with talk. He was happier to be in his homeland, surrounded by his own people, than he’d let himself believe. That had also thrown his guard off a bit. And then there was Tatijana . . .

He sighed. “You may as well tell the insect in the rafters to come on down. The mouse in that tiny hole over there”—he indicated his left—“and the knot directly behind me is concealing a beetle of some sort. If there are others, they certainly are adept at hiding, but being in the body of something so small for so long, makes for slow fighters.”

The flying insect in the rafters responded first, shimmering into the form of a tall, broad-shouldered male with strange-colored, nearly aquamarine eyes. His hair was very long, nearly to his waist, thick and tethered with a single long leather cord winding all the way down to secure even the ends, a typical way to bind hair for battle. Fen recognized him immediately and to his shock, relief spread through him. Mataias had been a childhood friend.

Fen had known Falcon, but he’d grown up close to Mataias and his brothers. They’d run wild together in the mountains, learned battle skills and shifting on the run. They’d been like family, and he’d lost track of them. He came to his feet and clasped Mataias’s forearms in the age-old traditional welcome between two warriors.

“Arwa-arvo olen isäntä, ekäm—honor keep you, my brother,” Fen greeted.

Mataias’s answering grip was strong. “Arwa-arvo pile sívadet—may honor light your heart.”

“It’s good to see you,” Fen said, meaning it. He truly felt as if he had come home, seeing Mataias, knowing he hadn’t succumbed to the ever-present darkness.

The fact that Mataias was there meant the other two guarding the prince had to be his brothers. The siblings were never far from one another. Coming from a long line of respected warriors, they had traveled together to see each other through darker times. They were lethal hunters, calm, experienced, and coordinated their attacks with expertise, much like the packs of Lycans. A master vampire had killed their parents when their mother was pregnant and they’d hunted the vampire across two continents, with a ruthless, implacable purpose, never stopping until they had found and destroyed him.

“Lojos and Tomas may as well show themselves,” Fen added.

“Did you smell them?” Gregori asked.

Fen glanced over at him. Clearly he’d been testing something new. He shook his head. “No, not even with my Lycan senses heightened.”

Gregori nodded. “Good. We’ve got a couple of brilliant researchers working for us, and this was one product I thought would be good to use if the Lycans are invading.”

Fen shook his head. “They aren’t like that. They’ve never been like that. They remain in the background, working quietly to keep their packs as strong as possible, but they’ve integrated into human society well. I can’t see them making a decision out of the blue to suddenly go to war with Carpathians.”

The small mouse grew and kept growing fast, until another Carpathian male, looking very much like a clone of the first one, came forward to greet Fen with the traditional forearm clasp. His eyes were as brilliant aquamarine as his brother’s. His hair was identical as well as body frame, but Lojos had a web of scarring running down his left shoulder and arm, all the way to his hand. It was very unusual for any Carpathian to scar. The wounds had to be near fatal, the suffering great.

“Well met, brother,” Fen said, meaning it. “Veri olen piros, ekäm.” Literally the greeting translated to blood be red, my brother, but figuratively, it meant “find your lifemate.”

They stood eye to eye, staring into each other’s pasts. Fen knew what it was like to struggle against the darkness, to be alone in the midst of others—even those you could only cling to the memory of loving.

“This is your lifemate? A Dragonseeker?” Lojos shook his head. “You are a very lucky man, Fen. This Lycan hunter you call Zev, the one so badly wounded, with his belly ripped open. I have watched him, and he is healing at a remarkable rate for the extent of his injuries.”

Fen knew they all were listening for every detail. “Lycans regenerate very quickly, which is one of the reasons, when you take them on, you have to know how to properly kill them. They aren’t easy. Zev is an elite fighter, one of the best I’ve ever seen. He was willing to take on the rogue pack alone in order to allow me to get Tatijana out of harm’s way.”

The men looked at one another, secretly amused that a Lycan thought to protect a Carpathian, especially one who was Dragonseeker.

“Obviously he didn’t know what, or who she was,” Fen said.

“You admire this man.” Gregori made it a statement.

“Yes, very much. You don’t get to his position without seeing hundreds, if not thousands of battles with packs. The moment he and Dimitri realized the one leading the rogues was one of the Sange rau, they held off the pack in order to allow me the opportunity to destroy the demon. Zev didn’t hesitate to put himself in a very dangerous situation. He knew he could die, but he didn’t back down.”

The small beetle fit snugly in the knot landed on the floor and grew with alarming speed into the shape of the first two brothers. When he clasped Fen’s forearms in the warrior’s greeting, Fen could see the droplets of scars down the right side of his face, almost like tears, all the way to his jaw. The same strange scars ran up his temple and disappeared into his hairline.

“Bur tule ekämet kuntamak—well met, brother-kin,” the third brother greeted Fen. “It is good you found your lifemate. I have thought often of you over the last centuries, and hoped I would never have to meet you in battle.”

“I felt the same, Tomas,” Fen admitted honestly. “So many of us have been lost to the darkness.”

He took another careful look around. The prince had these three experienced warriors, Gregori, Falcon and Jacques to protect him against an unknown Lycan/Carpathian combination. In his house. Close quarters. Gregori had an inkling of what he could do. There was another somewhere. Someone extraordinary, their ace in the hole. There was one other from his childhood. A little older, only by a decade or so, which was nothing in the years of Carpathians. He’d always been a little odd, but he’d been a source of vast knowledge. Andre. Some called him the ghost. He often passed through, wiped out any vampires in an area and was never seen or heard from. But he left his mark, and Fen had tried to keep track of him. He’d heard that he often was near the triplets, banding to hold on in order to keep the darkness at bay.

The Carpathians had prepared for a war. They’d spent the last two years of peacetime getting ready for anything that might threaten them as a species. He was just seeing the tip of the iceberg.

“Fen.” Mikhail’s cool voice brought him back to the business at hand. “The Carpathian people know the difference between a Carpathian and a vampire. You are no threat to us. In fact, your added speed and abilities as a Lycan only serve to aid our cause.”

Fen frowned and sank back into the comfortable chair. “The Lycans’ fear of the combination of blood is so deep that they would go to war should they find you are giving aid and harboring one of us. My presence here puts you all in jeopardy.”

He dropped the bombshell quietly, knowing he didn’t need to embellish. The stark truth was enough. Mikhail Dubrinsky was no one’s fool. He would grasp instantly the enormity of what Fen was telling him. He would hear the ring of truth and know Fen had brought a problem of an alarming magnitude to him.

“I see,” Mikhail said, steepling his fingers. “We’re going to need to know everything you know about the Lycans. Everything. The smallest detail.”

“There are very few like me,” Fen cautioned. He certainly didn’t want to be the cause of a war. “The Lycans are essentially good people,” he added. “I like them and respect them. As fighters there are few who could surpass them. They don’t look for power or glory as a rule. They live their lives within their small packs, happy with their families.”

“I am certain they are good people,” Mikhail agreed. “However, they have come to my lands without contacting me, a general courtesy, which I find unusual. A rogue pack with two of these creatures you refer to as Sange rau have also come when it simply has not happened before. We have several children who have survived into their second year. Are these coincidences? I am not such a fool as to believe that. I cannot afford to be that foolish.”

Fen had his own doubts that the timing was coincidental.

“What is your experience with becoming Lycan? What do you know of them?” Mikhail asked.

“I can tell you as the wolf gets older so does the integration between wolf and man. In the beginning the wolf is separate—a guardian so to speak, protecting the host body as soon as the other half feels its presence. The wolf brings with it history and facts it has known throughout its lifespan and that of its ancestors. He passes that information to the man half and he moves to protect that man when necessary.”

“As you grow older and more comfortable, the two, wolf and man, become one entity?” Mikhail reiterated to make certain they all understood.

Fen nodded. “Yes, that’s as close to an explanation as possible. All senses, even when in the form of a man, are heightened beyond all reason. A young wolf often cannot control the transformation—usually before the full moon. He’s clumsy and the pack watches him closely to make certain he or she doesn’t get into trouble. It’s an awkward stage.”

“One of our males has a lifemate who was Lycan but didn’t know it,” Falcon said. “How is that possible?”

“Sometimes members leave the pack, falling in love with an outsider. Their children can carry the Lycan gene, but often it doesn’t develop. Females in particular don’t always know because their wolf doesn’t come forward right away.” Fen shrugged again. “I didn’t stay with packs for long periods of time. It was too dangerous for me. They couldn’t detect the difference most of the time, but during the week of the full moon, any of them could have figured it out. I spent the full moons in the ground as often as possible. Over the last century I traveled outside of packs.”

“When do they begin training?” Gregori asked.

“In a pack, all children are trained almost from the moment they can talk. Education is all important, world affairs, the politics, cultures and running of every country. They are also taught fighting techniques and of course tracking and shifting. They’re fast. Really fast. And they’re taught battle strategy as well, training with all kinds of weapons.”

“Much like what we do with our youth,” Jacques said.

Fen nodded. “They work in the human world. They take jobs and actually serve in the militaries of whatever country they’re in. Always, always though, they answer to their pack leader, and the pack leader answers to the council.”

Mikhail got up and paced restlessly across the room. The stone fireplace was enormous and drew one’s eyes. Fen was still looking for the last warrior’s hiding place. The ghost. He was there somewhere in the room. The house was interesting in that no matter how many tall, broad-shouldered men were at the windows and close enough to guard their prince, the room felt spacious and open. Sometimes he almost felt as if the stone and wood were alive, and breathing, and watching them all.

He studied Mikhail out of the corner of his eye. The man moved with fluid grace and absolute control. Power radiated from him. He was definitely a man to lead and he took his duties very seriously. As did Gregori. Fen kept his eye on Mikhail’s second-in-command at all times.

“You have not sworn your allegiance to our prince,” Gregori said quietly.

Fen felt the familiar coiled readiness of the Lycan, but outwardly he remained stoic.

“Nor will he,” Mikhail said in that same low tone. “Did you ask him why he didn’t send for the greatest healer the Carpathian people have for his brother? He loves Dimitri, and he’s fought hard to save his life. You were close, yet he didn’t send for you, Gregori. What does that tell you?”

Gregori’s silver eyes slashed at Fen. “I do not know that answer, Mikhail.”

“Really?” One aristocratic eyebrow rose. “He tells himself he is protecting his brother, but more, he is protecting me. He believes no other will guard me as you will. He is just as concerned that we have not one, but two of these Sange rau suddenly close to me and our children. He did not want you to leave my side. Isn’t that the truth, Fenris Dalka?”

One couldn’t very well lie to the prince, but he sure didn’t want to admit he was protecting the man. He said nothing.

“That doesn’t explain why he will not swear his allegiance to you,” Gregori pointed out.

“Doesn’t it?” Mikhail turned cool dark eyes on Fen. “He believes if he swears his allegiance to me, that if the Lycans insist on destroying all like him, he’ll put me in a position of having to go to war with them.”

Fen felt the brush of Tatijana’s hand down his jaw in a small caress. He didn’t glance at her, knowing she hadn’t moved. She saw too much inside of him and that was bad enough. He could share his innermost thoughts with a lifemate but . . . He would have preferred Mikhail didn’t know anything at all about the way he thought. It only made him believe Mikhail Dubrinsky was a worthy leader. He could look into the eyes of a man and know his truth.

You’re just embarrassed because he recognizes you’re not nearly the bad wolf boy you present to the world.

Tatijana’s intimate whisper in his mind twisted his heart. She added so much to him, without even knowing it. After centuries of being utterly alone, continually holding the whisper of temptation at bay, keeping the shadows back, to have her light pouring into his heart and soul was nothing short of a miracle. In his darkest hour, her light would always be there for him.

“Fen, you are not the only Carpathian who is of mixed blood now,” Mikhail reminded in that same, low compelling voice. “I would never give up a single one of my people to make a treaty with any other species. Clearly we will have to address the council and make them understand the difference between a Carpathian/Lycan mix and a vampire/wolf mix. They are intelligent people and once it is made clear, they will see reason.”

“You are looking at centuries of prejudice, Mikhail,” Fen said. “I watched them condemn a great man, an elite hunter, one who had spent years battling and suffering to destroy the Sange rau preying on their packs. They condemned him to a slow torturous death they call Moarta de argint.”

“Death by silver,” Gregori translated.

Fen nodded. “It’s the most painful way a Lycan can possibly die. It takes days. They place hooks of silver through the body and hang them upright. Every move the victim makes trying to get away from the pain of the silver only embeds the hooks deeper. The silver spreads through the body, burning everything it touches until eventually the heart is pierced through. I’m whitewashing this for you, but it’s an ugly brutal way to go. Vakasin had given up his life to protect his pack, yet when they realized he was Sange rau, his own pack turned on him. They killed him knowing he had battled the Sange rau time and again for them.”

Sorrow welled up—the sorrow he’d never been able to truly feel for the man who had been his friend and partner for a full century as they battled the most difficult enemy they’d ever taken on. Vakasin had been a good man. One of the best hunters Fen had ever known. He had found it shocking and unbelievable that his own pack could turn on the elite hunter and condemn him to the Lycan’s most torturous, brutal death imaginable when they knew he was a good man.

Fen nodded toward Tatijana. “She saved Zev a few nights ago and extracted the information on weapons and how to make them properly. I would suggest arming every single warrior and, if possible, even the women just to be safe. Once you know how to kill the rogues, don’t be fooled into thinking you’re safe. They hunt in packs. This rogue pack is the biggest I’ve ever run across in all my centuries of hunting. However many silver stakes you think each person should carry on them, double the number.”

He was uncomfortable within the four walls and getting more uneasy by the moment. Healing and going out of one’s body took its toll. So, apparently, did emotions. “The wolf you see is not the one you’re in danger from. They have a pack mentality and they’ve been hunting all their lives with packs. They’ll go for the belly, rip you open and spill your insides out just to incapacitate you. No matter how high you think they can jump, double it and know it’s still probably higher. You’re never safe just because you take to the air.”

“I can see why the Lycans would worry about a blood mix between the two species if you gain the assets from either species.” Gregori’s voice was thoughtful. “That’s what happens, isn’t it? That’s why the vampire/wolf mixture is so deadly.”

Now someone finally understood. He looked up slowly until Gregori’s strange silver eyes met his. They stared at each other in complete understanding. Fen hadn’t claimed his lifemate. He was still a threat and would be up until the moment he bound Tatijana to him with the ritual binding words imprinted on his Carpathian brain far before his mother had given birth to him. Even then, if he were being honest with himself, he didn’t know if he would still be safe.

“You need to claim your lifemate,” Gregori advised. “It would be much better for everyone.”

Tatijana squirmed. She didn’t move, but Fen felt her reaction to the healer’s reprimand.

No one can tell us when the time is right for us, my lady, he assured. We’ll know. I’m not in danger of turning. Now that I have you close, your very light keeps the darkness at bay. Don’t let him make you feel bad. I would not want you to come to me until you are ready. In any case, I was the one who said I wouldn’t claim you. If there is blame, it is mine.

Tatijana turned her head and looked at him, her large emerald eyes glittering with many facets. She could rob him of his breath so easily. One look. One touch. Her lips parted slightly, drawing his attention. Everything in him stilled. She was amazing. A miracle. Sitting only a scant few inches from him, the scent of her surrounding him and her warmth filling every cold space in his mind.

He smiled at her. Not outwardly of course, his smile was far more intimate, brushing across her mind to reassure her she was the most important person in his world and he didn’t want anyone to make her uncomfortable.

“I am not in danger of turning, Gregori, if that’s what you’re implying,” he said, perfectly calm. “I’ll be hunting both Abel and Bardolf as soon as I’m back on my feet. They should have moved the pack fast, but they haven’t. While Tatijana was checking on her sister, I picked up their trail. The majority of the pack headed south. They hit a farm just on the other side of the ridge, close to the ravine. No one was home, but the animals were slaughtered.”

“And the farmer you helped earlier?” Mikhail prompted.

“He will be attacked.” Fen sighed and resisted pushing his hands through his hair. He feared the farmer would be killed. He’d taken measures to try to protect him, but if Bardolf or Abel accompanied the pack, the farmer wouldn’t have a chance. “He’s a good man.”

“So Gregori tells me. Perhaps, if we know the pack will attack this particular farm, we should find a way to use that to our advantage,” Mikhail mused.

“Or better yet, allow the elite hunters Fen has spoken of to get this information. We can watch them in action and help prepare our own warriors,” Falcon offered. “Although, I could never sit out when there is work to be done.”

“It is necessary for me to avoid Zev’s pack a few more days. He’ll be looking for me soon,” Fen said.

Mikhail nodded. “He made inquiries at the inn. His pack appears to number six. Five men and a woman. Is it common for a woman to be a hunter?”

“Any child, male or female, who shows promise in the packs as being above average in intelligence and faster in reflexes is sent to a special school as soon as the pack deems them old enough to go. It’s a great honor for a pack to have elite hunters emerge from its ranks,” Fen said. He looked around the room. “Don’t underestimate the female hunter. She wouldn’t be traveling with them if she wasn’t just as capable of a fighter as the men. Each one often has to take on several rogue pack members alone.”

“Do any of them have experience killing a Sange rau?” Lojos asked.

“I doubt it. I came across the first one several centuries ago and then when Bardolf’s pack was decimated by Abel. Until now, I’ve never heard of or come across any other.”

“Zev recognized that the vampire was of mixed blood?” Gregori asked.

Tatijana nodded. “Immediately. He and Dimitri both knew, at least I think so. Fen shouted out Sange rau, but they were already sacrificing themselves to give Fen a chance at killing it. Of course, at the time, we didn’t realize there were two of them working together.”

“There’s a feel to them,” Fen said. “You’ll know immediately as well. I can’t describe it, but in the way you know a vampire is foul, you’ll recognize that the Sange rau is more. They have the capability of hiding themselves. Vampires leave a distinct trail most of the time. The very plants and trees shrink from them. They leave blank spots in their wake when they try to conceal themselves, but the Sange rau don’t. They also don’t give off energy before they attack, but if you come across one, you’ll know,” he reiterated.

“And yet you can track them and know they are present before they attack,” Gregori said.

“I am also considered Sange rau. I am of mixed blood.”

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