It is a generally accepted fact that anticipation is half the fun of an event; or that dread is half the horror.
Tonight, in the ever-so-cleverly-hidden heart of Caelen Von Traske, it seemed that an equal balance of these two emotions existed. Each half fought the other for supremacy, and he was quite undecided as to which would win. It also seemed that lately, ('lately' being within the last two decades of Caelen's rather expansive lifetime), he had run into more and more of these little dilemmas. A harsh and rather unwelcome side effect of 'emotion'.
Sometimes he really did long for a return to the simple existence he had enjoyed for so many centuries. Free from moral ties and troublesome mortal feelings. An ancient should not be bound by such things. Particularly an Adianti, one of the sacred brotherhood. They were the ancient of ancients, the keepers of light, protectors of the dawn...
Caelen smiled at the memories invoked by his formal title. Carpathians could be a little nostalgic, and maybe perhaps even melodramatic when it came to their traditions. When he had taken his oath as a boy, Caelen had promised to 'stand fast in the dawn', 'face evil with valour', 'keep innocence chaste', 'pay the blood-price of peace', and 'remain a light in darkness and obscurity, when all other lights fail'.
They were beautiful words, but in truth, merely a poet's sentiment. Caelen knew nothing of 'chaste innocence ' and 'keeping the light'. He was a healer, an advisor, a warrior, and a con artist. He fought the fights that must be won, he deceived those that must be deceived, he disposed of the things no eye must see, he covered the trails of the vilest evil, and kept those terrifying secrets that none must know.
He was the soul of discretion and the archangel of cursed destiny.
And now he found himself facing his biggest challenge.
With her nose in the air and the gentle caress of night breeze ruffling the fur on her neck, seventeen-year-old Nicolette Charla Matthews turned her elegant crimson head and twitched one ear towards the sound that had enticed her into the night.
In the fox's dexterous form, she padded to the edge of her rocky vantage point and leapt off into beautiful, star-lit darkness. A mountain stream burbled to her right, and the sound soothed her sensitive ears.
Gregori would be furious if he knew she was out here. Especially alone. Especially following the wolf.
Gregori hated her wolf, she knew that quite definitely, because she had seen it enough on his mind. Yet, the hate didn't stem at all from anything the wolf had physically done to hurt Gregori. As a matter of fact, Gregori had never even seen it.
And perhaps that was the trouble. For we all fear the most what we cannot understand, and we all invariably hate that which we fear most.
And Gregori did not understand. The wolf's plaintive cry sounded again, and Nicolette checked her progress, her dainty black paws dancing in anticipation. He didn't understand at all. She couldn't help herself. The wolf was her friend. He had taught her everything. He had found her after the death of her parents, after Gregori and Savannah had taken her in, and together they had helped to fill the void. In this way, Nicolette had always thought of Gregori and the wolf as secret cohorts, working together towards the same goal. It was that chain of thinking that led to her hurt and confusion when, after she had finally told her adoptive father about her silver friend (for some reason the wolf had always advised against this particular plan), Gregori had abruptly forbade her ever to see him again.
With the wisdom of her wolf proven once again, Nicolette turned from Gregori, hurt and indignant with all the tenacity of a child. And when Gregori dared to inquire as to how she had suddenly learned how to morph herself into an owl, or set up mind blocks so powerful he found them hard to penetrate, Nicolette answered with a quiet, lofty patience; that is, when she deigned to respond at all.
"The white wolf taught me."
And Nicolette would say no more.
Still, the simple statement from a nine-year-old Nicolette had disturbed Gregori far more than he cared to admit. He himself, when Savannah was a child, had befriended the girl in the form of a wolf. He had recklessly used the trusting innocence of a babe to bind his lifemate, and he was not proud of his actions, but they had been necessary.
However, if someone, or something, was using a similar method to manipulate Nicolette, there would be unholy consequences.
But Savannah dismissed his theories, stating quite simply that children would be children, and it was far likelier that Nicolette had imagined the wolf to fill up her lonely days. For although they treated her as a daughter, and their twin girls were like Nicolette's own younger sisters, she was still a very isolated child. And as for her developing power, well, what did they really know about her heritage? Practically nothing. Neither of her parents had been known to the Carpathians. She had been found alone at the scene of a slaughter, too young to remember, and brought home by the young hunter Fabien Drake. She was part mage, she bore the dragon, but that was all.
And even now, while Gregori sat at home worrying over his protégé, Nicolette's lithe form flitted and danced independently through miles of happy, moonlit mountain range.
She was a bird overhead, a mountain cat below, a whisper in the wind.
Shifting quite suddenly from the light summer breeze back into a bounding, sleek crimson fox, Nicolette turned her whiskered nose to the wind and again drank deeply of mountain air. She was certain that she would never get enough.
She blew out a breath and contemplated the night. The white wolf with piercing green eyes forced itself inexorably into her thoughts. It had been seven years since their last meeting. Seven years since she had felt his quiet presence in her mind. How odd it was to hear his call now. But she remembered the lessons he'd taught her. He'd shown her how to use her powers. How to weave basic safeguards and call on the elements, even how to open her mind to private mental paths. And to close it. He had been a friend, a companion in a lonely world, and she missed him.
Without warning, a sudden, horrid premonition of danger surrounded Nicolette, and she whirled to face it, cursing herself for her lack of vigilance, but it was too late. A hard, strong grip fastened itself around the fox's tiny neck, and she felt herself being hurled through the air. She shape-shifted mid-flight, landing crouched on the ground in human form. Thick curls fell softly into burning eyes as she straightened carefully to face her attacker. A shadowed figure stood in the small clearing, and she sought out his scent automatically.
Carpathian. A male, close to turning, enveloped in darkness. Her instincts told her to turn tail and run, but she was too angry to pay heed. She snarled and flung herself at him, using supernatural speed and agility. She sliced out with fingernails that lengthened and sharpened into claws, and felt them connect with skin. But in a blinding flash the male retaliated. He didn't appear to change his position in the slightest way; but suddenly Nicolette found herself in a crushing grip, and felt sharp fangs tear at the flesh on her neck.
She cried out, and it stopped as quickly as it had begun, her body hurled away with a brute strength that was astonishing.
"You are a foolish child."
The voice was low, and calm, matter-of-fact; scarlet silk sliding smoothly over honeyed inflection as he stepped out of shadow and into moonlight.
Nicolette rolled over in the grass, the sense of danger and urgency suddenly gone as she surveyed her former opponent. A bitter sullenness dulled her fiery eyes as she stood once more.
She was realizing that she had been tricked. The man before her was not a threat. She could not explain her certainty, but she knew. He had been testing her, and it infuriated her that she had failed. Quietly correcting the earlier mistake, she utilized her psychic connections to touch his mind, and read his energy.
She pressed a shaky hand to her neck, where blood still flowed.
"An Ancient," She commented softly, "should know better."
The male inclined his head.
"And," He countered calmly, "a student of mine would not leave herself vulnerable."
Nicolette's eyes snapped up sharply, ethereal red matching emerald light. Caelen smiled, fangs flashing in a deadly amusement.
"Have I left you alone so long, little one, that you do not recognize your white wolf?"