|Home > Christine Feehan > Dark Series > Dark Blood (Chapter 38)|
|Dark Blood(Dark #26) by Christine Feehan|
Since Fen’s hair was streaked with a very impressive silver, Zev couldn’t help but laugh at his statement. “Wait, you’ll be the one with quads. Has it ever happened? Four little Dragonseeker girls all with a penchant for revenge.”
Dimitri thumped his older brother’s head. “That would be suitable punishment for you.”
Skyler winked at Branislava. “I’ll bet we could make it happen, too.”
“I’d help,” Gregori volunteered.
“Hey,” Tatijana protested. “I’d be the one carrying them. I’d be a balloon.”
“But cute,” Fen said, pulling her close. “Very cute.”
Mikhail held up his hand, and the dancers immediately stopped dancing as the music faded. He stepped into the middle of the clearing, a smile on his face. “We have a newborn. Sara and Falcon have a beautiful—and healthy—baby girl.”
A cheer went up and Branislava found herself yelling with the others. She hugged Zev close. “I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to this night’s fun,” she whispered.
“They have chosen the name Isabella for their daughter. Isabella Sara,” Mikhail announced.
Branislava stared into Arno’s room, her heart sinking. She should have known Xaviero wouldn’t wait long to strike at them. The Lycans were under lockdown and watched at all times, so who had committed such a terrible crime?
“At least we had last night together,” she whispered to Zev, and reached behind her to make contact with him. She needed to feel her rock, her anchor when the world around her spun into madness.
The night before had been perfect, and even later when they sat around Mikhail’s home, they had discussed the three mages only very lightly, as if all of them knew they needed to take a brief respite from touching too close to evil.
Zev started to move her out from in front of him, his arm pressuring her to step behind him, but she shook her head.
“Not yet, Zev. Something isn’t right, and I need to figure out what’s wrong before anyone enters. Skyler was bringing a meal to him and discovered the body. She didn’t go in or touch anything. She said when she started to step through the entrance to check, her skin crawled and inside she felt jittery.”
“Arno’s obviously dead,” Zev pointed out. “There’s a silver stake sticking out of his chest. Skyler’s young. Of course she felt jittery.”
“She may be young, Zev, but she’s sensitive to any magic and there’s magic here. Black magic. Evil. I can feel it.”
“The moment the other council members find out Arno is dead, they’ll want answers,” Zev insisted. “They’ll expect me to have them.”
“I’m just asking for a minute to assess the situation,” she insisted, biting back a snappish tone. She was already nervous, fearing she already knew who had been there and why.
Zev immediately brought his hand to the nape of her neck, fingers easing the tension out of her. “I’m sorry, Branka. I had no right to take my emotions out on you. Arno has been my friend for many years. I liked him very much. He was a very wise man and he never jumped to conclusions. Even when his own beliefs said one thing, he tried to keep an open mind and really listen and give credence to the other side of issues. He leaves behind a loving family who counted on me to keep him alive.”
She leaned her head against his chest in an effort to comfort him, even as her restless gaze searched the room. Floor to ceiling. All four walls. The room looked untouched, and if it hadn’t been for Arno’s body in the exact center, his body in a pool of blood, laid out with his arms and legs spread wide and a silver stake protruding from his chest, she might not have been so cautious.
She raised her arms outward and drew symbols in the air.
I call upon Thurisaz, that which reacts,
I call upon Kenaz, that which gives vision and insight,
I call upon Algiz, that which gives protection and safe harbor,
I call upon Ansuz, that which reveals what is unseen.
Immediately runes appeared all over the walls, climbing high, up to the ceiling and spreading across it. Her breath caught in her throat. “Zev, he used blood. This is a very dangerous spell. Until I can undo what he’s wrought, we don’t dare enter.”
“Who is he?” Zev asked, his fingers tightening around her nape.
“Only a High Mage could do this. He’s here. Close. This is Xaviero’s work. He preferred to use the old alphabet to cast, unlike Xavier or Xayvion. I would recognize this anywhere.”
“He couldn’t have sent an apprentice to do his dirty work?”
She shook her head, fighting to keep her heaving stomach in place. There had never been a doubt in her mind that Xaviero had produced the mage-shadows in the Lycans. She had heard his voice, but he’d been far away—so she thought. He had to have been present in the room to place such a spell.
“No. He was here.” Her mouth was so dry she could barely get the words out. She touched her sister’s mind to make certain she was safe. He’s here, Tatijana. In the Carpathian Mountains. He’s killed Arno. Go to ground where he can’t enter. The sacred warrior cave perhaps, but get to safety.
She knew Zev heard her, he was merged very deeply with her. She felt him in her mind, pouring strength into her.
“Why would he risk everything and come here himself?” Zev gestured toward Arno’s body. “Why kill him and not come after me?”
“He needed to know his enemy. If you’ve been inadvertently a thorn in his side, pouring water on the fires he’s created among the council members and among the packs, destroying rogues and killing his assassins, he will want you dead. He knows now that I’m with you, that by killing one of us, he’ll kill us both,” she explained.
“Arno told him, of course. Arno, no matter how he tried, would never have been able to hold out against the High Mage, any more than Lyall was able to do with me questioning him.”
“I can find out exactly what Arno told him, and perhaps even his plans,” Zev said. “I can access Arno’s memories.”
“Don’t you think Xaviero knows that? He left the head intact. He wanted someone to come into the room and try to save Arno. The room is a huge, dangerous trap. Arno’s brain will be as well. Once we get in there, it will be far better to sever the head and burn the body as quickly as possible,” Branislava objected.
“Can you remove the danger?” Zev asked.
She realized he hadn’t agreed with her. She turned to look at him over her shoulder, her heart sinking. Zev was a man of integrity. Of loyalty. Of duty. He would find his answers one way or another, and danger wouldn’t play a part in whether or not he did his job.
“I can get us into the room,” she said slowly, her gaze clinging to his. She didn’t want him to do this, but he would, and if he was going down that path, she was going with him.
Gregori came in behind them. “Skyler and Dimitri just told me. Mikhail’s on his way.”
“No!” both said simultaneously.
Zev sighed. “The mage was here. Xaviero. Branka’s certain he killed Arno and has set traps in the room and probably on the body as well.”
Gregori looked past them to the walls, ceiling and floor covered in bloody runes. He frowned. “Can you unravel that? Or find a way to counter it? Is there even a spell for that? Maybe we should just burn it all down, Branislava.”
Zev shook his head. “You know we need the information Arno can give us. If Branka really can’t find a way in, we’ll burn it all, but we need information. Anything at all to give us clues to where Xaviero is and what his plans are.”
“He wouldn’t tell those plans to Arno, knowing you’re going to try to access his memories,” Gregori protested.
“That’s true,” Zev said. He slipped his arm around Branislava and held her for a long moment. “But the clues will be in the traps. He won’t be able to set them without giving something of himself away. Isn’t that how it works, Branka?”
She didn’t want to admit he was right. In order to get the information, they needed to face each trap, dismantle it and move to the next one. The more traps, the more information Xaviero would be forced to leave behind, whether he wanted to or not. First, she would have to be certain she had made the room safe and that the information wasn’t a red herring planted by Xaviero. No one else, other than Tatijana, knew him that well. She had to be the one facing the mage’s work, because she wasn’t about to let her sister do it.
“Yes,” she answered reluctantly. “That’s how it works.”
“Is it possible for you to instruct us telepathically?” Zev asked. “You look at his work and then tell us how to unravel it? I’m merged with you, won’t I be able to see what needs to be done when you are figuring it out?”
Branislava shook her head. “To pit yourself against a High Mage spell is too dangerous without knowing what you’re doing. It’s very complicated and detailed, layers upon layers. Anything this dangerous can’t be managed that way, Zev, but thank you. I know you’re just trying to spare me his presence. Arno will have told him about me. He saw me question Lyall, and no doubt, Xaviero already knows who I am. There isn’t any point in trying to hide from him.”
Zev stiffened, his arm tightening around her. “If he knows you, his trap will be very specific to you, won’t it?”
She shrugged. “That would make sense, but I think more likely, it will be specific to you. Perhaps not the first one, the first snare is set to use Arno’s body to lure another victim into the room. If Skyler hadn’t been the one to find the body, Xaviero may have done just that. You almost entered the room. He would have triumphed right then.”
Mikhail appeared in the hallway behind Gregori. “Arno is dead.” It was more a statement than a question. The question was for Gregori, asking what happened.
I thought you were going to keep him away from here, Zev said.
Gregori shook his head and gestured to the runes written in blood covering the walls and ceiling of the room. “He had a visitor. A mage can slip past guards during the day.”
There is no controlling Mikhail. He is responsible for the Lycan council and carries that weight heavily on his shoulders. I can only protect him, not control him, Gregori replied to Zev.
I do not envy you your job, Zev said to Gregori.
Gregori looked into the room and the bloody symbols covering the walls. At this moment, I do not envy yours.
“Who specifically was assigned to protect him?” Mikhail asked.
Branislava’s gaze jumped to the prince with sudden apprehension. She could feel the change in Zev. His face remained expressionless, but deep inside, there was a small ripple of unease. She hadn’t considered who might have been guarding Arno and what happened to him—or that the Lycan would be someone close to Zev.
“One of my best,” Zev answered slowly. “Arnau. And he’s Arno’s son. He’s an elite hunter and a member of my pack. His room is right there.” He indicated the door just to the left of Arno’s sleeping quarters.
Gregori stepped to one side of the door and waved his hand to the prince, as if shooing him aside. Branislava would have laughed at the gesture if the tension wasn’t so high. The prince didn’t move a step. Gregori thrust his hand toward the door and it sprang wide open.
Arnau leapt through the open space, already half man, half wolf, his muzzle dripping with saliva, madness in his red-rimmed eyes. He had one target and he landed squarely on her, driving Branislava to the floor, his claws tearing at her stomach and his teeth clamping down around her left shoulder, up high, toward her neck.
Zev reacted first, hurling through the air at a blurring speed, both boots hitting Arnau squarely in the ribs, driving the Lycan off of Branislava. The Lycan rolled and came back to his feet, his gaze targeting Bronnie. Clearly for him, there was no one else in the narrow hallway. He made no sound, just attacked a second time, propelling himself forward, closing the distance between them fast.
Mikhail stepped in front of Branislava, a silver stake in his fist. The Lycan used his claws to go up and over the prince, raking flesh from his chest and shoulders as he whipped past him. Gregori swore and yanked Mikhail back and away from the mage-maddened Lycan.
Arnau hit Zev squarely in the chest as Zev materialized right where Branislava had been. They stared into each another’s eyes. The stake in his fist penetrated right through the chest wall, through muscle and tissue, straight to the heart. Zev put his arm around Arnau and gently lowered him to the ground. He went with him, crouching low.
Arnau tried to speak. Zev nodded several times. His sorrow was palpable, so intense Branislava felt tears burning behind her eyes.
“I know,” Zev said softly to Arnau. “Good journey my friend.” One hand around Arnau’s, he held the Lycan’s gaze with his own as the life faded from the elite hunter’s eyes.
He stayed beside the body for a long minute, his hand smoothing back the hunter’s hair and then slipping his fingers over the mask of death to close Arnau’s eyes. He stood slowly, as if the weight of his friend was heavy on his shoulders. Taking a breath, he drew his sword and severed the head from the shoulders in one smooth movement.
There was silence in the hall. Gregori was the first to move. “Mikhail, this will be a long job for Bronnie and Zev. Perhaps it is best if we take care of other matters and allow them to get to it. I’ve sent for Fen and Dimitri. They work well with Zev, and if their lifemates are present, both are powerful in their own right. The combination of these six could very well defeat Xaviero’s plans.”