|Home > Christine Feehan > Dark Series > Dark Blood (Chapter 33)|
|Dark Blood(Dark #26) by Christine Feehan|
He had no memories of the Sange rau, but he had carefully begun to enlist followers for his army, recruiting those who were fanatical about keeping to the old ways. Over time he had a tremendous amount of followers. Unfortunately, Arno had helped, without realizing it, adding his voice to the ones preaching in the Sacred Circle meetings.
Branislava left Lyall’s depraved and twisted mind abruptly. “He’s fanatical and likes to hurt women, but he doesn’t know about the Sange rau assassins Xaviero had made. He built an army with the idea that he would get rid of the council and the Sacred Circle would rule in its place. He, of course, would be the head of the Sacred Circle. He planned on having many young women attending him.” She said the last with disgust.
She wanted to leave. To go back home and sit on her porch in the middle of the forest, listening to the wolves and the night creatures. She needed to be cleansed after being inside such a vile mind. “Lyall has no real sense of morality anymore, nor does he remember loyalty. He’s addicted to the sadistic things he does to the women he sleeps with. If they protest, or if he grows tired of them, his good friend Rannalufr takes them off his hands. He’s never thought to ask what Rannalufr does with them at his laboratory, nor does he care.”
She rubbed her temples, realizing she had a headache. The man sickened her, and he’d been far too close to Xaviero for her comfort. Xaviero had found an apt pupil and disciple, although Lyall had believed it was the other way around.
“Rannalufr is definitely Xaviero and he found a corrupt, greedy man with a weakness for women and exploited it. Lyall went willingly down that path of destruction.” She couldn’t keep the distaste from her voice. “He knows nothing of Xaviero’s plans, or of the Sange rau, although there is a laboratory where his lovely friend, Rannalufr, takes the women Lyall discards after hurting them. My guess is they endure torture and are eventually killed. After a few hours in Xaviero’s company, the women probably welcome death.” She’d seen it more times than she cared to remember.
Mikhail waved his hand toward her and she felt a little less covered in the stench of evil. “All three of the High Mages were very adept at choosing the right target for their enlistment. They had patience and they waited to discover the weakness of their victim. Lyall liked women and had he never met Xaviero, he might never have given in to his baser impulses, but the moment he was targeted by the mage, he didn’t stand a chance.”
“Are you expecting us to feel sympathy for the man who tried to kill us?” Randall demanded.
Branislava shook her head. “No, of course not. I want you to understand your enemy, and I don’t mean Lyall. Xaviero spent years breaking him down, conditioning him to accept more and more violence toward women. That wasn’t quite as hard as turning him against friends, but their political talks eventually had Lyall believing he was superior to all of you and could lead the Lycans back into the ‘right’ way of living.”
Rolf sighed and sat back, hanging his head. “If you look too long at something evil, eventually you become evil. Minds are funny things. Lyall was a man of strong faith. He believed in the sacred code and the old ways, but he always kept an open mind. Becoming friends with Rannalufr and listening to him clearly allowed the mage to slowly corrupt Lyall’s own values and morals.” He shook his head sadly.
Branislava noticed Rolf used the past tense as if Lyall was already dead. He didn’t look at him, as if that man sitting there on the floor rocking back and forth, hands over his eyes, was not the same man he’d known all those years—and in truth he wasn’t.
Lyall couldn’t bear to see his own crimes and depravities so exposed; on some level, whether he had convinced himself he was right or not, he knew the things he’d done were wrong.
“Bronnie.” Mikhail’s voice was gentle. His tone was like pure water, clean and fresh like a mountain stream, running over her and cleansing away some of the grime of evil. “Who directs his army? Who is in charge of these attacks against us? Is it Xaviero?”
“He is the puppet master. He would not issue orders himself. He will always appear innocent of any crime, so if caught, those around him will fight for him, truly believing his actions were never anything but kind.”
Her legs trembled and she made an effort to steady herself. She was tired. Not from the battle or from using her spirit to fight off the mage-shadows, but from this—the ugliness of Lyall’s mind. Of touching far too close to Xaviero and feeling the depth of true evil once again.
“There is a man, a wolf, tall, broad shoulders, a great bear of a man, much like Randall. He moves fast and has been active in the Russian military. He’s highly decorated. His eyes are a deep blue and his hair is closer cropped than that of most Lycans. He commands Lyall’s army.”
Randall closed his eyes briefly, refusing to look at his fellow council members. “Is there a tie to Xaviero?”
Branislava nodded her head. “Yes. All three men have met on many occasions, and it was clear that Xaviero and this other man are friends away from Lyall. The looks between them, the way they smirked—they were planning to get rid of Lyall once his usefulness ran out. Of course, that’s my guess from replaying Lyall’s memories, so maybe not, but it is something Xaviero would do. Do you know this man I’ve described?”
“He’s my nephew, Sandulf,” Randall admitted quietly. “He was elite and then joined the military. He loves the battle and power. I wish I could say I’m surprised because he’s always been a moral man with strong beliefs of right and wrong, but he craves action and above all else, attention and power. No matter how often I counseled him, he ruled his family with an iron fist and any in his pack had to be cautious.”
“He seemed to have no problems with the idea of killing everyone here, the council, Mikhail and all of us.” She swept her hand toward Zev and the other Carpathians in the chamber.
“Is he mixed blood? Sange rau?” Mikhail clarified.
“I have no way of knowing, you’ll have to ask the council.” Branislava swept a hand through her hair in a gesture of weariness.
I’m going to get you home, Zev said, tenderness nearly bringing tears to her eyes. There isn’t much more you can tell them.
“Was he stronger, faster and a little more intelligent than most Lycans?” Mikhail asked.
Randall nodded. “That’s why he excelled in his military career.”
“He must have been made many years ago,” Mikhail noted, with a warning glance at Zev. Xaviero had the blood he had sought—your grandmother’s blood. This Sandulf is more likely full Sange rau and participating more closely with Xaviero in building his army of mixed bloods, although where the mage is getting Carpathian blood now, I don’t know.
She was too close to the truth tonight, Branislava decided. Too close to the answer to the question Mikhail had just posed. Bile rose and she turned to Zev, uncaring if they needed to stay to protect anyone else. She wanted to go home. She needed to be outside and away from these men and the vivid memories pressing too close. She felt as if she had given everything she had to give.
Zev’s arm circled her waist and he brought her under the protection of his shoulder. “We’re a little beat up, Rolf. Daciana and Makoce as well as the others are close. They’re burning the rogue bodies as we speak.” He nodded toward the prince. “Mikhail, if you don’t mind, we’ll let Fen and Gregori take over here. I’m going to get Branka home.”
Mikhail’s dark eyes slid over her. He gave them a slow nod. “Thank you for your help, Bronnie. I know it couldn’t have been easy for you.”
She forced a small smile and let Zev take over, allowed him to say their good-byes to the council. She turned away from the broken man on the floor. Confronted with his crimes, knowing someone else had seen into his rotting, depraved brain and had seen the secret things he’d done to so many young women, he couldn’t bear to look at anyone.
Zev suddenly shoved her aside—pushed her hard so that she staggered away from him and fell against a sharp boulder jutting from the side of the cave. When she managed to turn her head, she saw her lifemate grappling with Lyall, his fists clamped around both wrists, knee rising hard into the man’s groin and then his foot driving into the inside of Lyall’s knee. The council member collapsed, Zev going down to the floor of the chamber with him, transferring his grip from wrists to head.
The crack was audible as Lyall’s neck broke. Zev’s hand flashed with silver and the stake was driven through the council member’s heart. Zev stepped back and drew his sword. Without a word he severed the head, wiped his blade clean and shoved it back into the sheath.
His gaze jumped to Branislava. Are you hurt, Branka?
She shook her head. Her hands smarted a little, along with one hip and part of her shoulder, but all she cared about was getting away from blood and death and the stench of evil. She hadn’t even felt the attack as Lyall had come at her, his energy masked as Lycans could so easily do.
Zev didn’t look at anyone else as he took her hand and walked out of the chamber. Behind them, she heard Rolf comment.
“That takes care of what to do with Lyall, doesn’t it?”
Sadness overwhelmed her. Once, Zev, very long ago, Lyall was actually a good man. He had a weakness for chasing women and he knew it and tried hard to curb it. He believed in the sacred code strongly, because, like so many other of the old ones, he nearly lost everyone dear to him when the first known Sange rau destroyed so many of the packs.
Zev pulled her closer to him. They stepped out of the cave into the night. At once the fresh breeze touched her face and made her feel as if she could breathe again.
“I’m sorry for him, Branka,” Zev said gently, “but the man you describe has been dead for a long time. There was no redeeming him or the things he’s done.”
She shuddered. She knew better than anyone—no, that wasn’t true. She looked up at his face, her hand smoothing those lines etched deep into a face of masculine beauty. Zev had been with her. He had seen the fall into depravity just as she had. She didn’t have to carry that burden alone.
“I’m very much in love with you, Zev Hunter,” she whispered, and circled his neck with her arms, leaning into his strength.
She laid her head on his chest, her ear over the steady beat of his heart. He felt solid and strong, like a great oak tree with roots that went deep. He was a steady man, one she could always rely on. I appreciate you so much. I really am lucky to have you.
“You’re very tired, mon chaton féroce,” he replied, his voice even more gentle than it had been. “Perhaps it is time to go to ground.”
She shook her head. “Not yet. The night is nearly over, Zev, but I need to be out in it. Somewhere beautiful and clean, somewhere I can breathe.” Without lifting her head, she looked up at him.
He smiled down at her and her heart turned over. “I think I know just the place. It’s a distance, but well worth the travel.”
She wasn’t going to warn him that they only had a couple hours left before the sun began to climb into the sky. She wanted to go with him, somewhere new and exciting, somewhere fresh and clean where she could breathe properly. Somewhere . . . away.
Zev stepped away from her and shifted, so smooth, so easily. She admired that fluid way of his. He learned fast and never hesitated once he made up his mind. Branislava followed his lead and shifted into the form of a night owl. She followed him into the sky, her wings spread wide, the air rushing around her and ruffling her feathers so that she felt free and a little wild.
Below her, everything on the ground dropped away. She left behind the carnage of battle. The smoke rising in the air couldn’t find her as she hurried after Zev. He led her over the forest and up over the first mountain ridge. Below them the glacier-fed lake appeared deep and ice-blue. Small farms dotted the countryside and she spotted the animals, cattle sleeping, horses moving slowly, chickens roosting.
Life was normal around them. She needed to see that. In those houses, children slept with their parents watching over them. Zev kept going, along another mountain ridge where the trees were so close together that it was impossible, even with the eyes of an owl, to penetrate to the floor below.
A waterfall burst from the side of a mountain, crystalline and shiny, tumbling to the wide pool beneath it where giant ferns ringed the water and shrubs and plants congregated close. Water formed bright ribbons dissecting the ground below them as they continued to fly over the next mountain ridge. She followed him, caught up in the rapture of soaring through the sky, the wind on her body and the ever-changing scenery below her breathtaking.
The caps of the mountains ahead were snowy white, a pristine world of icy beauty. The part of the mountain Zev sought had long ago been a volcano. The glacier followed the deadly eruption, creeping over the fire-lit mountain, turning the red rock to an icy blue. The effect where the ice thinned was stunning.
He dropped down into the crater. She could see the surrounding mountain was all snow and ice, but in the cradle, trees and plants and even flowers grew, birthed by the years of wind bringing seeds to the rich soil inside the shallow crater. A fine green grass lined the floor, tiny little shamrocks of ground cover. A few trees grew, their limbs healthy and strong, reaching for the sky in their warmer nest, unseen and untouched by anyone. Protected by the ice and snow, the little oasis had gone unnoticed.
Zev settled on the floor itself, waving his hand to cushion the ground with a bed of petals. Branislava shifted, taking her human form, turning in a slow circle to inspect their surroundings. When she had first seen the snowy mountains, her heart had given a little jerk of apprehension, but she should have had more faith.