Dark Lycan (Dark #24)

by Christine Feehan

Chapter 1

Mist drifted through the trees. The moon, not quite full, was a yellow halo, dull and yet glaring. Around the moon a red ring gave off an ominous glow. A dangerous time, this cycle of the moon, especially when the mist came in thick and heavy, covering the ground a foot or so high, winding in and out of the trees as if alive. The mist muffled sound, dulled the senses, giving advantages to the shadowy figures that preyed upon the unwary.

Tatijana of the Dragonseekers woke beneath the earth with layers of dark, rich healing loam surrounding her. Vital nutrients, rich in minerals, cushioned her body. She lay for a long time, panicked, listening to her own heart beating, feeling too light, too trapped, too exposed. And hot. So hot. Above her, she sensed the guardians. Watching over her, they said, and it was probably true, but she'd been a prisoner for so long-she'd been born into captivity-and she trusted no one other than her sister, Branislava. Bronnie lay sleeping peacefully, very close to her, her only comfort.

Her heartbeat grew louder until it was thunder in her ears. She couldn't stand being trapped beneath the earth. She had to get out, to find freedom. To feel free. What was that like? She knew nothing of the world. She'd lived underground her entire life, deep in the ice caves, never seeing or speaking to anyone other than those who tortured and tried to terrorize her. She knew no other life, but that had changed-or had it?

Had Bronnie and she exchanged one cold, frightening prison for a silken cage? If so, their wardens had made a huge mistake putting them in the ground to recover. She hardly knew what it was like to be in her real form. She'd spent centuries in dragon form and dragons could move through earth fairly easily.

Bronnie, she whispered into her sister's mind. I know you need your sleep. I will continue to explore our new world and come back at dawn with new information.

Branislava stirred in her mind as if she might protest as she had each time Tatijana told her she was going.

I need to do this.

I will come with you, Bronnie answered, her voice far away, even though she was in Tatijana's mind.

Tatijana knew Branislava would force herself to awaken, although she wasn't truly healed inside, where they both needed it. They'd done everything together-been through the worst together. They'd never actually been apart, even when encased in ice, when they could only stare at one another. They still had telepathic communication.

Not this time, Bronnie, I need to do this for me. She whispered the words as she did on the occasions she awakened to explore their new world. She always gave Bronnie reassurance that she would be careful.

No one would ever imprison either of them again. Every rising she made that simple vow. She was growing stronger with each passing night. Power ran through her body and with it, confidence. She was determined they would stand on their own and be beholden to no one.

Tatijana didn't know how to tell her sister she didn't want to live under the rules of another. They were Carpathian. Dragonseeker. That meant something to the prince of the Carpathians and to all the others. The males were lining up in the hopes of claiming either Bronnie, or her. She could not live under the rule of another. She just couldn't do it. She didn't want anyone telling her what to do ever again, even if it was for her own good. She rose when she wanted and explored her new world on her own terms.

Tatijana made up her mind that she would find her own way, learn her own way, make her own mistakes. Bronnie was always the voice of reason. She protected Tatijana from her impulsive nature, but no more. As much as she loved Branislava, this was something Tatijana needed.

She sent her sister love and warmth and the promise she would return at dawn. Shapeshifting into the appearance of a blue dragon was easy-she'd been in the form for centuries and the structure and shape felt more familiar than her own body.

She burrowed deeper, going into the earth rather than rising where her guardians would see her. She'd already dug a tunnel, and she moved quickly through the packed soil. She'd chosen to exit several kilometers away from her resting place in order to ensure Branislava's safety and to make certain the guardians would have no idea she'd risen early. The blue dragon moved through the tunnel like a mole, digging when necessary, packing any dirt that had collapsed as she hurried steadily toward her goal.

Tatijana emerged in a deep forest. She was very careful to scan the earth above her before the blue dragon poked her wedge-shaped head out of the hidden entrance. She surfaced in the midst of a thick gray fog. Trees appeared as giant misshapen scarecrows with outstretched arms, swaying slightly, just enough to give them the appearance of monsters.

Tatijana had known real monsters and the dense forest of trees veiled in gray didn't alarm her in the least. Freedom was amazing. Her eyes were terribly sensitive, but other than that, the world felt as if it was hers and with the fog covering the ground, her eyes didn't even burn.

She shifted to her physical form, donning modern clothing, a pair of soft cotton pants that allowed her freedom of movement. She'd chosen a blouse she'd seen on a woman in the village a couple of nights earlier. She'd followed the woman, studying her style of clothing so she could reproduce it at will. Everything seemed strange to her, but that was part of the excitement of discovery. She wanted tactile learning, not just pulling information from another's mind.

She made her way through the forest, enjoying the way the fog wrapped around her legs and made her feel as if she was walking through clouds. She remembered at the last moment to add shoes, something that was still very uncomfortable for her. She felt as if the shoes weighed her down and felt very foreign on her body.

The wind rushed through the trees, kicking up leaves and swirling mist around tree trunks. The mist began to rise from the floor as she walked toward the only light at the forest's edge that she could see. Music poured from the building, singing to her, beckoning, but this time she knew she wasn't going just to hear those beautiful notes. She normally chose a different location every night to glean more information to share with her sister.

This place called to her every rising now. The feeling was so strong it was nearly a compulsion. She had resisted for a few days, but she couldn't stop herself another night. She drew closer to the building. The windows were lit with that same yellow glow, two eyes staring at her through the thick mist. A chill went down her spine, but she kept walking toward it.

The Wild Boar Tavern sat on the very edge of the forest, surrounded on three sides by heavy brush, trees, and plenty of cover for anyone needing to hide quickly. Providing shelter and camaraderie as well as easy exits should the law happen to venture near, the tavern offered regulars comfort by the fire, warm food and plenty to drink. The crowd was rough, no place for the timid, and even the law generally avoided the place. No one asked questions and everyone was careful not to officially notice anything.

Fenris Dalka came to the tavern nearly every night, so why did he feel such a fool sitting at the bar, slowly nursing a beer, pretending to drink it like he often did? He huffed out his breath and kept his gaze forward, using the mirror to keep an eye on the door. From his vantage point, he could see every corner of the tavern as well as the door. He'd scoped out the perfect place to sit some time ago and now, if he came in and someone was sitting there, he just stood over them, staring, until they got up and vacated his seat.

Fen knew he was intimidating and he used his rough, dangerous looks to his advantage. He was tall enough, but it was his broad shoulders and thick chest, his roped arms and five o'clock shadow, the piercing glacier-blue eyes he used to look right through someone into their soul that usually intimidated people. He rarely had to speak and he preferred it that way. The regulars knew him and knew to leave him alone.

Music played in the background and laughter occasionally rang out, but for the most part, the patrons spoke in hushed whispers. Only the bartender ever spoke to Fen when he entered. A few of the regulars lifted a hand, or nodded, but most avoided his eyes. He looked nearly as dangerous as he was. A man with no friends, trusting only his brother and always hunted or hunting. He was even more ruthless and brutal than the whispers said.

His hair was long, very thick and distinctly silver with black strands woven into the waves falling down his back. Most of the time he secured it at his nape with a leather cord to keep it out of his eyes. He had large hands, and his knuckles were scarred. There were scars on his face, one up near his eye and another that ran from his eye halfway down his face. There were far more scars on his body. Centuries of defending himself, every battle and every victory was stamped into his bones.

Whispered conversations were easy enough to listen in on with his acute hearing, allowing him to glean a tremendous amount of information. But tonight was different. He wasn't here for information . . . he was drawn . . . compelled by something altogether different this time.

Uncomfortable, he played with his beer mug, moving his fingers over the handle, gripping with his fist and forcing himself to let go before he shattered the glass. He wasn't a man to do another's bidding. He didn't trust anything he couldn't understand-and he didn't understand the urgent need that kept him coming back night after night, waiting.

This was a tavern for the lawless. For clandestine meetings. He and his brother had discovered the tavern when he'd first arrived back in the Carpathian Mountains. It had been necessary to find a safe place, out of the way, where they could spend time and talk unseen by anyone who might know either of them. He wanted to make absolutely certain that his younger brother was safe. No one could know they were brothers. No one could ever associate the two of them, or he would be putting his sibling's life on the line-something he wasn't willing to do. So many years had passed that everyone had forgotten him-or thought him dead-and for his brother's protection that falsehood had to remain.

He knew every face in the tavern. Most had been coming even longer than he had. The newest patron was the most suspect. He had arrived in the area only a couple of weeks earlier. He had the stocky build of a hunter-a woodsman-yet he dressed more refined. He was not someone to take lightly. Anyone could see by the way he moved that he would be good in a fight. He was definitely armed. He went by the name of Zev, and clearly he was new to the area. He hadn't disclosed his business, but Fen would bet his last dollar, he was hunting someone. He didn't look like the law, but he was definitely pursuing someone. Fen hoped it wasn't him, but if it was, he took every opportunity to study Zev, the way he moved, which hand he favored, where his weapons were carried.

Zev wore his hair longer than usual, just as Fen did. His hair was a deep chestnut color and very thick, much like a rich pelt. His eyes were gray and watchful, always moving, always restless, while his body remained quite still. Fen found it significant that no one in the bar had yet challenged him.

The wind picked up, rushing through the trees, capricious and playful, pushing branches against the sides of the tavern so that they creaked and scraped, a heralding of danger if one could read the information the wind provided. Fen let out his breath and glanced through the window into the dark forest.

The mist snaked through the trees, stretching out like greedy fingers, winding in and out of the trees, closeting the forest in a thick veil of gray. He needed to go-now-he had only five days before the full moon-that gave him two days to find a safe place to ride out the threat to him. The three days before the full moon, the full moon and the three days after were the most dangerous for him. Yet he didn't move from the barstool, not even when self-preservation screamed at him. Every hair on his body was raised, both in alarm and extended as antenna to catch the smallest of details.

He smeared cold beads of sweat on the glass, his gaze drawn to the mirror once again. He did not have the full range of the color spectrum, but the dimmer the light, the more shades of gray he could see. He couldn't tell the difference between yellow, green or orange, they all looked the same to him-a dull yellowish color. Red looked brownish gray or black, but he could detect blue. What he lacked in his abilities to distinguish color, he more than made up with his acute hearing, sense of smell and his long-range eyesight.