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Sound came to him first. A low, drumming beat growing louder. Zev Hunter felt the vibration of that rhythmic booming throughout his entire body. It hurt. Each separate beat seemed to echo through his flesh and bone, reverberating through his tissue and cells, jarring him until he thought he might shake apart.
He didn’t move. It was too much of an effort even to open his eyes and figure out what that disturbing, insistent call was—or why it wouldn’t go away. If he opened his eyes he would have to move, and that would hurt like hell. If he stayed very still, he could keep the pain at bay, even though he felt as if he were floating in a sea of agony.
He lay there for a long time, his mind wandering to a place of peace. He knew the way there now, a small oasis in a world of excruciating pain. He found the wide, cool pool of blue inviting water, the wind touching the surface so that ripples danced. The surrounding forest was lush and green, the trees tall, trunks wide. A small waterfall trickled down the rocks to the pool, the sound soothing.
Zev waited, holding his breath. She always came when he was there, moving slowly out of the trees into the clearing. She wore a long dress and a cape of blue velvet, the hood over her long hair so that he only caught glimpses of her face. The dress clung to her figure, her full breasts and small waist, the corset top emphasizing every curve. The skirt of the dress was full, falling over her hips to the ground.
She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Her body was graceful, fluid, an ethereal, elusive woman who always beckoned to him with a soft smile and a small hand gesture. He wanted to follow her into the cool forest—he was Lycan, the wolf that lived inside of him preferred the forest to the open—but he couldn’t move, not even for her.
He stayed where he was and simply drank her in. He wasn’t a man clever words came easily to, so he said nothing at all. She never approached him, never closed the distance between them, but somehow, it never mattered. She was there. He wasn’t alone. He found that as long as she was close to him, the terrible pain eased.
For the first time though, something disturbed his peaceful place. The booming beat found him, so loud now that the ground lifted and fell with an ominous, troubling thump. The water rippled again, but this time he knew it wasn’t the wind causing the water to ring from the middle of the pool outward. The drumbeat throbbed through the earth, jarring not only his body, but everything else.
The trees felt it. He heard the sap running deep in the trunks and branches. Leaves fluttered wildly as if answering the deep booming call. The sound of water grew louder, no longer a soft trickling over rocks, not a steady drip, but a rush that swelled with the same ebb and flow as the sap in the trees. Like veins and arteries flowing beneath the very earth surrounding him, making its way toward every living thing.
You hear it now.
She spoke for the first time. Her voice was soft and melodious, not carried on the wind, but rather on breath. One moment she was on the other side of that small pool of water, and the next she was sinking down into the tall grass, leaning over him, close to him, her lips nearly skimming his.
He could taste cinnamon. Spice. Honey. All of it on her breath. Or was it her skin? His Lycan senses, usually so good at scent, seemed confused. Her lashes were incredibly long and very dark, surrounding her emerald eyes. A true emerald. So green they were startling. He’d seen those eyes before. There was no mistaking them. Her bow of a mouth was a man’s perfect fantasy, her lips full and naturally red.
The booming continued, a steady, insistent beat. He felt it through his back and legs, a jarring pulse that refused to leave him alone. Through his skin, he seemed to follow the path of water running beneath him, bringing life-giving nutrients.
You feel it, don’t you? she insisted softly.
He couldn’t look away. Her gaze held his captive. He wasn’t the kind of man to allow anything or anyone to ensnare him. He forced his head to work—that first movement that he knew would cost him dearly. He nodded. He waited for the pain to rip him apart, but aside from a little burst through his neck and temples that quickly subsided, the expected agony never came.
What is it?
He frowned, concentrating. The sound continued without a break, so steady, so strong and rhythmic, he would have said it was a heart, but the sound was too deep and too loud. Still, it was a pulse that called to him just as it called to the trees and grass as if they were all tied together. The trees. The grass. The water. The woman. And him.
You know what it is.
Zev didn’t want to tell her. If he said the words, he would have to face his life again. A cold, utterly lonely existence of blood and death. He was an elite hunter, a dealer of death to rogue packs—Lycans turned werewolves who preyed on mankind—and he was damned good at his job.
The booming grew louder, more insistent, a dark heralding of life. There was nowhere to hide from it. Nowhere to run even if he could run. He knew exactly what it was now. He knew where the sound originated as it spread out from a center deep beneath him.
Tell me, Hän ku pesäk kaikak, what is it you hear?
The melodic notes of her voice drifted through his pores and found their way into his body. He could feel the soft musical sound wrapping itself around his heart and sinking into his bones. Her breath teased his face, warm and soft and so fresh, like the gentlest of breezes fanning his warm skin. His lungs seemed to follow the rhythm of hers, almost as if she breathed for him, not just with him.
Hän ku pesäk kaikak. Where had he heard that before? She called him that as if she expected him to know what it meant, but it was in a language he was certain he didn’t speak—and he knew he spoke many.
The drumbeat sounded louder, closer, as if he was surrounded on all sides by many drums keeping the exact beat, but he knew that wasn’t so. The pounding pulse came from below him—and it was summoning him.
There was no way to ignore it, no matter how much he wanted to. He knew now that it wouldn’t stop, not ever, not unless he answered the call.
It is the heartbeat of the earth itself.
She smiled and her emerald eyes seemed to take on the multifaceted cut of the gems he’d seen adorning women, although a thousand times more brilliant.
She nodded her head very slowly. At long last you are truly back with us. Mother Earth has called to you. You are being summoned to the warrior’s council. It is a great honor.
Whispers drifted through his mind like fingers of fog. He couldn’t seem to retain actual words, but male voices rose and fell all around him, as if he were surrounded. The sensation of heat hit him. Real heat. Choking. Burning. His lungs refused to work, to pull in much needed air. When he tried to open his eyes, nothing happened. He was locked in his mind far from whatever was happening to his body.
The woman leaned closer, her lips brushing against his. His heart stuttered. She barely touched him, featherlight, but it was the most intimate sensation he’d ever experienced. Her mouth was exquisite. Perfection. A fantasy. Her lips moved over his again, soft and warm, melting into him. She breathed into his mouth, a soft airy breath of clean, fresh air. Once again he tasted her. Cinnamon. Spice. Honey.
Breathe, Zev. You are both Lycan and Carpathian and you can breathe anywhere when you choose. Just breathe.
He was not Sange rau.
No, not Sange rau, you are Hän ku pesäk kaikak. You are a guardian.
The breath she had exchanged with him continued to move through his body. He could almost track its progress as if that precious air was a stream of white finding its way through a maze until it filled his lungs. He actually felt her breath enter his lungs, inflating them.
I’m not dreaming, am I?
She smiled at him. A man might kill for one of her smiles.
No, Zev, you’re not dreaming. You are in the sacred cave of warriors. Mother Earth called the ancients to witness your rebirth.
He had no idea what she was talking about, but things were beginning to come back to him. Sange rau was a combination of rogue wolf and vampire blood mixed together. Hän ku pesäk kaikak was Lycan and Carpathian blood mixed. He wasn’t certain what or where the sacred cave of warriors was, and he didn’t like the word rebirth.
Why can’t I move?
You are coming to life. You have been locked away from us for some time.
Not from you.
She had been with him while he was locked in that dark place of pain and madness. If there was one thing he knew for absolute certain, she had been there. He couldn’t move on, because he hadn’t been able to leave her.
He remembered that voice, soft and pleading. Stay. Stay with me. Her voice had locked them both in a sea of agony that seemed endless.
Not endless. You are awakening.
He might be waking, but the pain was still there. He took a moment to let himself absorb it. She was correct, the pain was subsiding to a tolerable level, but the heat surrounding him was burning his body. Without the air she’d given him, he would be choking, strangling, desperate.
Think what body temperature you wish. You are Carpathian. Embrace who you are.
Her voice never changed. She didn’t seem impatient with his lack of knowledge. Before, when she was a distance from him, she hadn’t been aloof, she simply waited. Now she felt different, as if she expected something from him.
What the hell? If she said to think about a different body temperature other than the one burning his flesh from his bones, he could give her that. He chose a normal temperature and held that in his mind. She spoke to him without words, telepathically, so she must be able to see he was doing as she asked.
At once, the burning sensation ceased to be. He took a gasping breath. Heat filled his lungs, but there was air as well. He knew her. Only one woman could speak to him as she did. Mind to mind. He knew her now. How could he have ever forgotten who she was?
How had she gotten trapped with him in such a terrible place? He sent up a small prayer of thanks that he hadn’t left her there. She had been the one to whisper to him. Stay. Stay with me. He should have recognized her voice, a soft sweet melody that was forever stamped into his bones.
You recognize me. She smiled at him again and he felt her fingers brush along his jaw and then go up to his forehead, brushing back strands of hair falling into his face.
Her touch brought pleasure, not pain. A small electrical current ran from his forehead down to his belly, tightening his muscles. The current went lower, coiling heat in his groin. He could feel something besides pain, and wouldn’t you know it would be desire?
It seemed absurd to him that he hadn’t known all along whom she was. She was the one woman. The only woman. The woman. He’d known women, of course. He’d lived too long not to. He was a hunter, an elite hunter, and he was never in one place long. He didn’t form attachments. Women didn’t rob him of breath, or put him under spells. He didn’t think about them night and day. Or fantasize. Or want one for his own.
Until her. Branislava. She wasn’t Lycan. She didn’t talk much. She looked like an angel and moved like a temptress. Her voice beckoned like a siren’s call. She had looked at him with those unusual eyes and smiled with that perfect mouth, inciting all sorts of erotic fantasies. When they danced, just that one unforgettable time, her body had fit into his, melted into his, until she was imprinted there for all time, into his skin, into his bones.
Every single rule he’d ever made about women in the long years he had lived had been broken with her. She’d robbed him of breath. Put him under her spell. He thought of her day and night and fantasized far too much. He wanted her in every way possible. Her body. Her heart. Her mind. Her soul. He wanted her all for himself.
How did you get here? In this place?
It alarmed him that he might have somehow dragged her down into that sea of agony because he’d been so enamored with her. Could a man do that? Want a woman so much that when he died, he took her with him? The idea was appalling. He’d lived honorably, at least he’d tried to, and he’d never hurt a woman who hadn’t been a murdering rogue. The idea that he might have taken this woman into hell with him was disturbing on every level.
I chose to come with you, she replied, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to do. Our spirits are woven together. Our fate is entwined.
I don’t understand.
You were dying and there was no other way to save your life. You are precious to us all, a man of honor, of great skill.
Zev frowned. That made no sense. He had no family. He had his pack, but two of his pack members, friends for so many long years, had betrayed and tried to murder him. He was mixed blood now, and few of his kind would accept him.
Us all? he echoed. Who would that be?
Do you hear them calling to you?
Zev stayed very still, tuning his acute hearing to get past the heartbeat of the earth, the flow of water beneath him, reaching for the distant voices. Men’s voices. They seemed to be all around him. Some chanted to him in an ancient language while others throat-chanted as the monks from long ago had done. Each separate word or note vibrated through him, just as the heartbeat of the earth had.
They summoned him just as the earth had. It was time. He couldn’t find any more excuses and it seemed no one was going to let him remain right where he was. He forced himself to open his eyes.
He was underground in a cave. That much was evident immediately. There was heat and humidity surrounding him, although he didn’t feel hot. It was more that he saw it, those bands of heat undulating throughout the immense chamber.
Great stalactites hung from the high ceiling. They were enormous formations, great long rows of teeth of various sizes. Stalagmites rose from the floor with wide bases. Colors wound around the columns from the flaring bases to the pointed tips. The floor was worn smooth with centuries of feet walking on it.
Zev recognized that he was deep beneath the earth. The chamber, although enormous, felt hallowed to him. He lay in the earth itself, his body covered by rich black loam. Minerals sparkled in the blanket of dirt over him. Hundreds of candles were lit, high up on the walls of the chamber, illuminating the cavern, casting flickering lights across the stalagmites, bringing the muted color to life.