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  • Home > Christine Feehan > Dark Series > Dark Blood (Chapter 41)     
    Dark Blood(Dark #26) by Christine Feehan

    The tree shook violently, leaves churning in the air. Below them, they heard pitiful cries and pleas. Zev wasn’t waiting around for the tree to change its mind. He’d been the one to zap its trunk with lightning and he couldn’t blame it for being angry.

    They sped through the branches, dodging the worst of the flailing limbs, and quickly entered their own bodies. Zev, as he collapsed, reached for Branislava, holding her body in his arms to prevent her from hitting the floor hard.

    The fight had cost them strength, but that was all, both were intact. He could feel Branislava’s sense of triumph. Together they had faced both Xavier and Xaviero and they had triumphed.

    Branislava turned over, looking up to his face. “I can’t believe you thought of forcing him into a physical form. That was brilliant.”

    “Don’t give him a big head,” Fen cautioned. “Both of you need blood. You’re in the middle of a protection circle. You might want to let us in.”

    Zev drew in his breath. “I still need to attend to Arno’s body and then inform the council members,” he told Branislava. “I suppose we have no choice but to let them give us blood. You’re looking a little pale. Did Xaviero’s demon shadow hurt you?”

    “I feel a little ragged around the edges,” she admitted, “but I’m alive and you’re alive, and that small piece of him was destroyed. Xavier was sent back down into the depths of hell and he can just stay there.”

    Ivory crossed herself and gave them a small smile. “You two work very well together, a true alpha pair.”

    “Don’t even think it,” Razvan cautioned, his arm sliding around Ivory’s waist. “No more wolf pups. Mikhail will not turn a blind eye forever.”

    “I know.” She rested her head against his shoulder briefly. “But they would be perfect, just like Dimitri and Skyler are.”

    “So would we,” Fen said, daring to tease her when no one else but her lifemate did. “Don’t listen to Razvan, Ivory.”

    Branislava waved her hand and the protection circle opened. Zev made an effort and got to his feet. He didn’t want to sever Arno’s head, but it had to be done. The man needed to be given peace. He drew his sword and waited for Branislava to step back. Fen and Dimitri drew her to them, Dimitri steadying her while Fen offered her his wrist.

    “Good journey, old friend,” Zev whispered as he swung his sword.

    The wrench in his gut was expected. The burning behind his eyes not so much. He looked away from the others, unable for a moment to catch his breath. At once, she was there. Soft. Warm. Pouring into his mind, filling him with her special brand of love. How had he ever done without her?

    “Zev,” Razvan said softly. “Take what is offered freely.” He held out his wrist.

    Zev didn’t look at him, although he was fairly certain courtesy dictated that he do so. Razvan’s voice was too gentle, too understanding. He didn’t want sympathy, or even understanding. He let himself consume the hot nutrients, without actually tasting or even thinking about what he was doing. He had to get through the next few hours and do what had to be done. He’d grieve for his friends later.

    “We’ll need to prepare a pyre for the bodies,” Zev said when he had drunk his fill. “The other members of the council will want to be there to send them on their journey. A private place, but big enough for the Lycans to gather.”

    “Zev,” Fen said softly. “It isn’t a good time to have a large gathering, not now that we know Xaviero is close by. He’ll know the Lycan traditions and he’ll be expecting a funeral pyre.”

    “He’ll be angry,” Tatijana added. “No one ever defied them, or outsmarted them. He’ll be so maddened, he might try to bring the mountain down on top of all us.”

    “No one move,” Branislava said suddenly.

    Zev froze in place. Her voice had gone still. A warning. He wasn’t the only one who believed her low, incredibly soft voice. He looked down at Arno’s body and the severed head. For a moment he could see nothing out of place. He was a man of small details and the only thing different was that the necklace had dropped onto the floor. What had she seen that he hadn’t?

    “What is it?” Fen asked.

    The room had flooded with tension. All of them were well aware of what a High Mage was capable of.

    He saw it then. One strand of the cord had dropped into the pool of Arno’s blood and was now thoroughly soaked in it. The blood had begun to travel down the cord on one side and up the other so that the red stain spread slowly through the rest of the cords.

    “The necklace,” Branislava whispered, her voice almost hoarse. “Arno’s necklace. Tatijana, it’s inside the circle with us.”

    The cord had remained still under Zev’s watchful gaze. As far as he could tell, it was simply a weave of twine now soaked in blood. He believed Branislava’s fear, but he couldn’t see the why of it. Of course the necklace would get blood on it if it fell into the pool beneath Arno. Still, he waited, touching her mind. She was frightened.

    Tatijana moved first. She stepped into the circle of protection that Branislava had made earlier. Ivory and Skyler joined her. The three began to walk together, following the circle, chanting softly. Zev didn’t allow himself to get distracted. He kept his gaze on the necklace, now pumped up from the blood. The strands of twine appeared to have swelled, nearly doubling in size. When the three women began to move, one piece near the medallion seemed to break off enough to turn toward the movement.

    Fen’s breath hissed out. “It’s alive. That thing’s alive.”

    Branislava reached out very slowly and touched Fen’s arm to quiet him. He was standing closest to the blood-filled creature and at the sound of his voice, it swung its head toward Fen. The movement was fast, as if sound and motion triggered aggression. The organism appeared to be listening again.

    Zev could see the head now. It was round like a swollen bulb, but the strands at the top were frayed as if some of the twine was embedded within the head and stuck out like spiked hair. The blood continued to fill the strands so that it doubled, then tripled in size. The three women stepped away from the circle, and again the creature swung its head toward them. They froze halfway to the door.

    How do we get rid of it? Zev asked. He used the common Carpathian path of communication, rather than his private one with Branislava.

    I’m trying to think. I’ve seen this before, but only once. The tension in her voice indicated the creature was extremely dangerous. No one talk or make a move. It’s lightning fast. You won’t be able to outrun it. Tatijana, do you remember?

    No. No, I don’t. There was terror in Tatijana’s voice, so much so that Zev feared Fen wouldn’t be able to stop himself from going to her. He must have said something privately to her because some of the fear on her face eased.

    It’s okay, Branislava said to her sister. I’ll figure it out. I just need a minute.

    Zev detested the fear in Branislava’s voice. He wanted to wrap his arms around her and hold her safe, to keep her from having to deal with mage magic and blood and death. She’d had enough of such things in her childhood and the years that followed, trapped as she was in dragon form watching an endless parade of tortures.

    Branka, you can remember. Your fear is a childlike fear. Go back to those days. That is where you will find the memory.

    He realized the moment he gave her the information that she already knew it. She didn’t want to remember. Whatever memory was associated with the wormlike blood-filled creature, had been traumatizing and she didn’t want to recall it.

    I’m sorry, mon chaton féroce. I should have known better. I’m with you this time. You won’t face it alone.

    He might not be able to fight the thing physically, but he could stand in front of her.

    Branislava shut herself off from the rest of them, but not Zev. She sank into his mind, merged deeply with him, drawing on his strength. He was a rock, a steady anchor, and she knew she could count on him to keep her just as steady.

    Tatijana and Branislava had turned ten. Xavier had let them out of their dragon forms as an unexpected birthday present. Xaviero and Xayvion had arrived with packages wrapped in brown paper and twine.

    We both were so happy to be in our natural forms that we ran around, holding hands, just grateful for the opportunity.

    They wanted their father to see them as something other than objects to feed on. He understood how they must have latched on to any kindness from him, needing to hope.

    Every time he seemed to make an effort, we put blinders on and fell for it. There was a birthday cake. And presents. Xavier had us sit in the center of the room on the floor. He said he wanted to watch us open our presents.

    He felt her give a mental shudder. Her body was tense, the memories affecting her physically. She was nauseated and fighting it. Still, she had the control to remain still.

    First, he had a special surprise. He brought in our only friend. He was thirteen, a mage and apprentice. He was always kind to us. He sneaked food to us and would talk about the world outside.

    Zev’s stomach lurched. He feared what would come next. Branislava was pale. She looked lost. Look at me, Branka. Only at me. No one is moving. That thing has no target. Just keep looking into my eyes.

    Her gaze jumped to his. He felt the impact of her green eyes. Two jewels pressed into a stark white face. Her red-gold lashes stood out against her pale skin.

    His name was Jules and he sat between us, right where Xavier told him to. He brought us a present as well.

    There was a hitch in her voice and tears burned in her eyes. He surrounded her with warmth and love, the only thing he could do when he couldn’t physically hold her.

    We opened his gift first. He gave us bracelets he’d made himself.

    Don’t! He said it sharply, knowing she was about to rub her wrist where she’d first put the bracelet. He felt her involuntary movement start in her mind.

    Branislava drew herself up sharply mentally. She had to keep it together. If Zev hadn’t stopped her she would have drawn the attention of the blood worm and it would have attacked. Already it had grown more, feasting on the blood of the dead man.

    Tell me, Branka, but you don’t have to remember anything but the way to kill this thing.

    She wanted that to be the truth. She stayed drowning in his eyes. He had beautiful eyes. Calm. Steady. There was never panic in him. She wondered how such a man had come to be. Still, she had no choice but to remember the sequence of events, because she had to see Xaviero in the background as he cast the spell upon the twine and then later, destroyed his blood worm.

    Xavier gave us both a conjuring ball made of fine crystal. We tore through the other wrappings, scattering them on the floor. I remember we were laughing. We’d never had presents or cake. Xavier gave us the cake as we opened Xaviero’s present. It was a very ornate dagger. The hilt was covered in jewels and the blade actually had three diamonds going down the center of it. I thought it was fake, just because it was so beautiful.

    The tension in her was explosive. Zev tried to hold her to him, using steady calm in his eyes. This memory is from long ago, Branka. You were a child then. He cannot touch you now. I’m standing between you.

    His voice would always steady her. And those eyes. She took a breath and let herself fall deeper into his eyes. She could be safe there.

    Tatijana lifted the dagger from the wrapping. Xaviero told her to cut her palm and to let the blood drip over the wrapping and twine. I heard the laughter in his voice—that cruel laughter that I’ll never forget—and I knew something bad would happen. Tatijana refused. She tried to drop the weapon, but Xayvion was behind her and he forced her to carve an X into her palm. She still has the scar.

    Zev didn’t glance over toward Tatijana as she assumed he would. He didn’t so much as blink. He kept his gaze squarely on hers, holding her to this time and place when she could so easily have slipped back.

    Branislava swallowed. They made her drip her blood all over the wrapper. Xaviero took the knife and handed it to me. I didn’t want Xayvion to touch me, so I did it myself. I didn’t cut nearly as deep as Tatijana because I did it myself. I didn’t wait for them to tell me what to do. I just allowed my blood to mingle with Tatijana’s on the wrapping paper.

    You both must have been so frightened.

    We knew something horrible was going to happen. The birthday, presents and cake were long forgotten at that point. At first we stared at the wrapping paper, expecting something there, but then the twine began to absorb the blood and we knew it was alive. The three of them, Xavier, Xaviero and Xayvion, were so gleeful. They rubbed their hands together in anticipation. I remember thinking they did it exactly at the same moment and that their expressions were the same.

    Zev sent her another wave of reassurance and she realized deep inside panic was beginning to set in. She didn’t want to remember what happened next. She took another calming breath and tried to distance herself.

    Tatijana moved when she saw the body doubling in size and the thing swung its head toward her. We could see the teeth, serrated and sharp. Xavier hissed at her to be still or it would eat her alive, starting with her feet. We froze. So did Jules. For a few minutes everyone just sat there on the floor, afraid to breathe, with that horrible creature growing in size. It consumed the blood fast.

    Zev frowned at her, but he didn’t move a muscle. Could the three mages talk without drawing its attention?

    And move. Somehow it seemed the creature was a part of them and wouldn’t attack them. They each moved behind one of us. Xaviero chose me. I could feel him there and knew something terrible was about to happen. He whispered to me that we were playing a game, that games were always played at birthday parties. I couldn’t move or speak. The one who did lost the game and was eaten by the blood worm.