Neratiti

A mysterious island off the shores of Australia

At least for the moment...

Dante Pontis paused to get his bearings as he materialized into the large circular chamber that was decorated in burgundy and gold. Through the open windows that spanned from the black marble floor to the gilded ceiling, he could see and hear the ocean on all sides of the room.

Savitar, their dubious and mysterious mediator, liked the water...

A lot.

The room was reminiscent of an ancient sultan's tent. It was lushly decorated, with an enormous round table in the center that had always made Dante wonder what the rest of the palace looked like. But no Were-Hunter had ever received an invitation to venture into the rest of the palace.

Their mediator seriously guarded his privacy. To the point of extreme paranoia.

The human saying that "curiosity killed the cat" actually came from the Arcadian panther who had once tried to sneak past the council's door to take a look around the palace.

Savitar had killed him on the spot.

As a point of interest, satisfaction didn't bring the cat back. There wasn't enough magic in the world to reanimate the big black, smoldering spot that had once been a living creature. That one incident had gotten Savitar's point across with panache. Don't screw with the big man.

He didn't really have a sense of humor.

For all his laid-back persona, Savitar could break medieval on your ass at a moment's notice. And since Dante had once lived in the Middle Ages, he understood that concept better than most.

Dante let out an aggravated breath as he heard the seagulls cawing outside. The summons to appear at the Omegrion couldn't have come at a better time... insert all intended sarcasm.

His brother Romeo had been down with a bad case of the flu for the last three days while the panther's cubs ran amok through Dante's house without their daddy there to corral them.

Dante's wife, Pandora, was about to drop an entire litter of panthers any second, and his other two brothers, Mike and Leo, had decided they could run his bar without him.

Yeah, he needed to get back home before they burned the place down or, worse, Pandora went into labor without him. In which case his pantherswan had promised to see him thoroughly gelded. He cupped himself at the mere thought. Knowing his spunky little pantherswan, it would be most painful indeed. And given the discomfort of her pregnancy with his cubs, she would thoroughly enjoy it.

He scanned the small crowd that was already gathered there for the meeting. Eight members, all of whom appeared as thrilled to be there as he was. The only ones here so far were all Katagaria. Not that that surprised him. The Arcadians tended to appear at the Omegrion together, as if they were afraid to face their animal cousins alone.

And well they should be. There wasn't a Katagaria family who didn't owe a blood debt to the Arcadians who loved to hunt and kill the animals.

It'd always amazed him that the Arcadian and Katagaria leaders or Regises of each clan could come and sit together without fighting. Not to say that there hadn't been outbursts in the past. But those transgressions were dealt with swiftly and painfully by the Omegrion's mediator.

Savitar didn't play. If anyone breached his rules, he quickly toasted them.

Literally.

And with great relish.

Some of Dante's ire faded as he saw Fury and Vane Kattalakis in one corner, talking to each other. Dante had met the wolves years ago, but what he found odd was that they were here together. The Omegrion was a meeting where only the Regis, or head, of each animal-were branch was sent to represent all of their species.

Only one Katagaria wolf should be present.

A fierce creature like Dante, Vane had long, dark brown hair that he wore loose around his shoulders.

Fury had his blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. Like Dante, Fury was dressed all in black, while Vane wore a pair of jeans with a white T-shirt and brown leather jacket.

"Wolves," Dante said in greeting as he neared them.

Vane shook his hand first, then Fury. Dante grinned as he noted Vane had a mating mark on his palm.

"Looks like we've both been tagged since last we met," Vane said.

"Yeah," Dante said with a laugh. "Hell hath frozen over, eh?"

Fury laughed. "You've no idea."

Dante eyed the two brothers. "So how is it that the Katagaria Lykos have two reps?"

Vane gave him a sinister smile. "They don't."

Dante frowned.

Fury's blue eyes danced with humor. "I'm the Katagaria Regis. Vane's the Arcadian Regis."

That news stunned Dante. It wasn't possible. Vane was Katagaria. "No way in hell."

Vane nodded. "As you said, hell hath frozen."

Dante shook his head. "Yeah, but how is that possible?"

"Birth defect," Vane explained. "I switched from being Katagaria to Arcadian at puberty, but I never told anyone until recently."

Dante went cold as one-half of Vane's face showed the stylized markings of an Arcadian Sentinel. They were the human soldiers sent out to murder their Katagaria cousins. As such, Dante despised them with every piece of his being.

"Easy, Dante," Fury said. "Vane grew up as one of us. As Katagaria. He's not like the other Sentinels, who kill without reason."

"You better not be," Dante said as his humor fled. "I might run a limani, but I have no love for a Sentinel."

"That makes two of us," Vane said as the markings faded. "Believe me, I've lost a lot in my life to insane Sentinels and I have not taken up their crusade. Peace?" He extended his hand to Dante.

Dante hesitated before he shook it. All things considered, he did respect the wolf. "Human, huh? I'm really sorry for you."

Vane gave him a wry grin. "Yeah, me, too."

His humor restored, Dante smiled at the wolf. "Man, I have to respect you, though. Two votes in the Omegrion. That's impressive. Maybe I'll luck out and one of my cubs might switch to Arcadian at puberty, too, and give me another vote."

Fury arched a brow at that. "Your mate's Arcadian? Does she know how you feel about her people?"

Dante sobered. "She knows. But the only thing that matters is how I feel about her, and that she never doubts for a minute."

Fury and Vane nodded in agreement.

Dante looked around as a couple more Katagaria flashed into the room. "Do either of you have any idea why we're here?"

Vane sighed. "I heard it's about a Katagari with trelosa."

Dante sucked his breath in between his teeth. Trelosa was a disease that was somewhat similar to rabies. It was a madness that infected their kind during puberty. No one was sure what caused it. But once in the blood, it consumed the host, making them an indiscriminate killer. There was no known cure. Once a Katagari or Arcadian was determined to have it, then they were hunted down and killed.

"Who's bringing the charge?" Dante asked.

Vane indicated a tall blond man in the corner. "One of the tigers."

Dante studied the man, who was dressed in an expensive tan silk Versace suit. The tiger dripped money and sophistication from every pore.

Dante's gaze narrowed on him. "That's not Lysander." Lysander Stephanos was a dark-haired tiger who was about as surly as anyone Dante had ever met and wouldn't be caught dead in tan anything, unless it was tanned black leather. "Was he replaced as the Tigarian Regis?"

"Oh, hell no," Fury said in a disbelieving tone. "I'd like to meet the tiger with the balls and skill to take down Lysander. That boy eats bear for breakfast."

"Better bear than panther," Dante said with a sinister laugh.

Vane rolled his eyes. "That one is named Zack. He's waiting for Lysander to show, but apparently Sander isn't as convinced of the charge as Zack is."

"Why do you say that?"

"If Sander thought his claim had merit, I doubt Zack would be here."

That made sense to Dante. As was typical among the tiger species, Lysander was very solitary and didn't like anyone or anything treading on his space. "Then who's backing him?"

"I'm not sure," Vane said, "but it should be interesting."

Dante hoped so. There was nothing worse than a boring meeting.

A bright light flashed, making Dante flinch as Lysander appeared on the far side of the room. Dressed in loose black Indian silk pants and a long sleeveless black vest that was heavily embroidered in gold, the tiger was bare from the waist up. His entire right shoulder and bicep were covered with a colorful tattoo of a heart pierced by a sword. His black wavy hair fell haphazardly around his face.

The blond tiger sneered as he saw Lysander's unorthodox appearance. "Fresh from the jungle?"

Lysander narrowed his gaze threateningly on the shorter tiger. "Don't fuck with me, hijda. I only like human form, for one thing, and since I'm not attracted to men, I'm not happy about being here."

Dante exchanged an amused look with Vane, who had been right about Lysander not backing the other tiger. He particularly liked the Hindi insult to the tiger's manhood that had gone over his head.

Lysander pushed past the tiger to take a seat at the large round table, but it was obvious he was as anxious to leave as the rest of them.

No sooner had Dante turned away than something flashed just to his right. Dante watched as Damos Kattalakis appeared a few feet away from them. Damos was an Arcadian Drakos. The dragon was dressed in medieval armor, which made sense, since most of the dragons lived in the past where open fields and unchartered regions made it easy for them to hide from the humans.

Like Fury and Vane, Damos was a direct descendant of the royal brothers whose father had magically created their races.

Damos inclined his head to them. "Wolves. Panther."

"Dragon," Dante said, but he didn't offer his hand to Damos. With the exception of his wife and Vane a few seconds ago, Dante never touched an Arcadian by choice.

Damos seemed amused as he held his hand out to Vane. "Good to see you again, Cousin."

"You as well," Vane said, shaking his hand.

While Damos shook Fury's hand, the other nine Arcadians flashed into the room and took their seats at the large round table without acknowledging any of the Katagaria.

Dante tsked at their actions. "Look at the scared little children. I'm surprised they had the balls to show before Savitar was here to protect them."

"Who says I'm not here?"

Dante jerked his head at the deep, lightly accented voice behind him. Standing at six feet eight, Savitar was an imposing sight. Not that Dante was afraid of him, but he did have a hefty amount of respect for the ancient being.

There was a mutual gleam of respect in Savitar's black eyes. His long dark brown hair brushed his shoulders, and his skin tone was as dark as Dante's Italian complexion. Savitar wore a small, well-trimmed goatee. No one was sure of Savitar's heritage, but he could easily pass for either Spanish, Italian, or even Arabian.

As always, he was dressed in a long, dark blue flowing robe that reminded Dante of an ancient Egyptian design. But what stood out was the pair of dark brown Birkenstocks on his feet.

"Let me guess," Dante said with a laugh. "The big one is due in on the north shore?"

"Yes." Savitar's tone was deadly earnest. "So let's make this quick. I have a board, a wave, and a babe with my name on them and I would like to take advantage of all three."

Savitar left their side.

"Animals. People," he said as he strode through the room with a gait that announced him as the very top of this food chain. "Cop a squat."

Dante grimaced at Savitar's choice of words. He really hated that expression.

Constantine, an Arcadian jackal, sneered at Savitar, which was a very bad move. "We don't listen to-"

His words were cut off instantly as Savitar waved his hand in the jackal's direction. The jackal began gasping for breath as if an invisible hand was choking him.

"You're a new little punk," Savitar said in a sinister tone as he neared the Were-Jackal. Savitar narrowed his eyes on him. "You'll learn."

The jackal sat immediately... as did the others. The poor animal continued to wheeze as he rubbed his bruised throat.

Dante was a little more leisurely, but even he knew better than to test Savitar's extremely limited patience. Savitar's powers made a mockery of every creature here.

Savitar took his throne, which wasn't at the table. It was off to the side, much like the seat of a lifeguard... or referee. Rather fitting, since that was why Savitar was here. To guard all their lives as well as those of the people and animals they represented.

Leaning back on his cushioned throne, Savitar passed a bored look to each of them. "Okay, folks and animals, we have exactly forty-two minutes and thirteen seconds until the next great wave comes my way, and I expect this to be finished in time for me to be on my board, waiting for it."

Savitar let out a long-suffering sigh. "But since we have several new faces among us, let me dispense with the ridiculously boring pedagogy... Hear ye, hear ye, welcome to the Omegrion Chamber. Here we gather, one representative from each branch of the Arcadian and Katagaria patrias. We come in peace to make peace." Savitar snorted as if the very thought of that made him want to laugh. "I am your mediator, Savitar. I am the summation of all that was and what will one day be again. I make order from chaos and chaos from order-"

One of the women sneered, interrupting him. "Who is this guy and why do we have to listen to him? Since when do any of us take orders from a human?"

Dante looked across the table to where a petite brunette sat in the Arcadian Litarian seat. The poor lioness had no idea what she was saying.

He half-expected Savitar to zap her into dust.

Instead, Paris Sebastienne, the Katagaria Litarian rep, leaned over and spoke to her. "Hon, he ain't human. You see Leo over there?" He pointed to the old, gray-haired Arcadian bear who was three seats down from Dante. "He's sat here on the council for what, Leo? Nine hundred years?"

"Nine hundred and eighty-two, to be precise."

"Yeah," Paris continued. "And Savitar predates him. He has presided over this council since the very beginning, and notice, Savitar looks about thirty. We don't know what he is, but he ain't one of us and he ain't human. And trust me, you don't want to mess with him."

"Thank you for that highly unamusing summation," Savitar said drily. "Next time I have insomnia, I know who to call. In the meantime, little lioness who would probably like to live another year, don't interrupt me again. I don't like it and I tend to kill the things I don't like."

Savitar indicated the seat to her left that was empty. "That's where the Arcadian jaguar Regis used to sit. Notice no one's there now."

The woman frowned as she saw it. "What happened to him?"

"He pissed me off."

She looked confused by that. "Why hasn't one of the other jaguars taken his place?"

"He pissed me off... big-time."

Paris leaned over to whisper loudly, "There aren't any Arcadian jaguars left. Savitar destroyed their entire bloodline."

Her eyes widened as she made a large O with her mouth. She cleared her throat and made a placating gesture. "Please, Savitar, continue."

"Yeah-h-h," Savitar said, stretching the word out and inflecting it to show his agitation. He checked his watch. "We're running out of time, kids." He pinned his stare on Nicolette Peltier. "So why was I called?"

Nicolette stood up slowly to address them all. "Forgive me for wasting your time, my lord. But I have distressing news. It appears we have a Slayer in our midst, and I need help dealing with him, since he is housed in one of our protected sanctuaries. As our laws dictate, I cannot kill him without sanction."

"We'll be happy to care for your problem," Anelise Romano volunteered. An Arcadian Niphetos Pardalia, or snow leopard, the woman had a glint in her eye that reminded everyone there that women were far more bloodthirsty than the men.

Savitar shook his head. "And who is your Slayer, Lo?"

"Wren Tigarian."

Savitar arched a brow at that. "Where is Wren? As the last Katagaria Niphetos Pardalia, he has a seat here in the Omegrion. Why hasn't he taken it?"

"He can't if he's a Slayer."

Savitar turned to look at the blond tiger who'd spoken out of turn. The tiger moved forward.

By Savitar's face Dante could tell the man wasn't amused. "And who are you?"

"I am Zack Tigarian, cousin to Wren."

Anelise frowned as she sniffed the air. "But you're not a snow leopard. You're a tiger."

"I'm related to him on his father's side. His father was a tiger."

Savitar stroked his chin as he narrowed his black gaze on the tiger. "And what do you know of this matter?"

"I know that Wren murdered both of his parents in cold blood. Both."

Savitar gave him an arch stare. "If you knew this, why did you wait to bring it before the Omegrion?"

"Because I was afraid to come forward. I was young then and afraid of my cousin. Not to mention that the human Bill Laurens snatched him away and hid him in Nicolette's Sanctuary before I could tell anyone. Once Wren was ensconced there, I was powerless to pursue him for justice."

Savitar looked less than convinced. "And now you're all better?"

"I no longer fear him. No. The time has come for him to pay for his crimes. Not to mention that he is showing signs of the trelosa which runs rampant through his species. He must be stopped before he kills anyone else."

Dante shook his head as anger went through him.

"What is it?" Fury asked in a whisper.

"He's lying."

"I don't smell a lie from him."

"Yeah, but when this much money is involved..." He shook his head glumly. "I don't trust Mr. Versace."

Savitar let out a long, tired breath. "Well, it appears that this is a Katagaria problem. Arcadians, go home."

As they started to object, Savitar zapped them out of the room, back to their respective time periods.

All but one anyway.

Vane Kattalakis.

Nicolette came to her feet as Vane moved to sit beside his brother Fury. "Why is he still here? He is an Arcadian."

Savitar arched a brow at her. "Truly you are one hell of an observant bear, Lo. But Vane technically straddles the fence. He is by all rights the head of the Katagaria Lykos."

Fury passed an evil grin toward the bear. "I'm just a figurehead and I have no desire to challenge Vane and get my ass kicked by my own brother."

Her gaze narrowed angrily at the two wolves. "He's partial to the tiger."

Vane shrugged. "I'm partial to the truth, Lo. Good, bad, or indifferent."

Zack moved forward to stand behind Nicolette's chair. "The truth is the trelosa is borne through Wren's mother's family. Almost every member of her family succumbed to it. It is why Wren is the last of their kind. Even she was going mad there at the end of her life. Some say that Wren killed her only after she attacked him first."

Dante watched Savitar's face as he considered the tiger's words.

"Maybe," Savitar said after a brief pause, "but Wren isn't pubescent now. He's long into his maturity."

Zack contradicted him. "He is only forty-five. Puberty for his kind can last until the age of sixty."

"Not necessarily," Savitar said. "It depends on the genes."

"He came into puberty late," Nicolette said. "I know this for a fact. And he's only become sexually active in the last few days. Since then he has become more and more violent. Unstable. He was even arrested for it and for attacking human police officers."

She shook her head. "This very afternoon, he had his picture taken and was on the local news because the humans saw him running in the zoo as a human in a cage with other white tigers. Tell me that wasn't madness."

She looked at each of the remaining Katagaria members to implore them to her side. "His actions pose a threat to all of us. If the humans were to ever learn..."

"Bullshit," Dante said out loud. "This reeks of greed to me."

"That's ridiculous," Paris said. "We are the animals, not humans. Since when do any of us care about money?"

Dante held his hands up. "Hello? Ever been to my club, The Inferno? I give a major damn about the bottom line. In fact, I'm the second-richest Katagari in the world. And who am I second to? Wren Tigarian. This whole thing smells of a setup." He glared at the tiger, whose stare was completely blank.

Lysander stroked his jaw. "I don't know. If he's exposed us..."

"Wren is not a danger," Vane said. "I know this kid. He is quiet and withdrawn. He would never do anything to draw attention to himself."

Nicolette scoffed at Vane. "And what do you really know of Wren? Has he ever once spoken to you?"

Vane growled low in his throat, but in the end he admitted the truth. "Well... not much."

"Has he even acknowledged you in any way?"

A tic started in Vane's jaw. "No. Not really. As I said, he's withdrawn from the world."

"That's right," she said, curling her lip. She looked at Savitar. "He is completely antisocial. He refuses always to listen to anyone or anything. He has threatened the lives of my sons and me. Now he is dating the daughter of a senator. Tell me what Katagari in his right mind would do such?"

Even Dante had to admit that was living dangerously.

"Are we to wait until he kills an innocent?" Nicolette asked. "Wait until he shows himself as a changeling to the senator? I have already lost enough children. I will not lose another. I want him out of my house. If I try to force him out, he will kill me or one of my cubs. I know it. He has never been right mentally."

"He killed both of his parents when he was only twenty," Zack added. "They were both highly trained and powerful predators. Imagine what he can do now that he has trained, too."

Savitar passed a disgusted look to Dante. "I'm just an observer in this. At the end of the day, the final vote falls to you guys." He looked back at Nicolette and Zack. "But remember this, if you're wrong, it will be my wrath you face. Greed is for humans; it's not for the Katagaria." He gave Zack a gimlet stare. "Force a wrongful hunt and it will come back on you."

"Wren is a killer," Zack reiterated. "I say we call out the Strati and put him down."

"I second that," Nicolette said.

Savitar let out a heavy sigh. "We have two motions to hunt and kill Wren Tigarian. All those in favor, say aye."

Wren sighed as he shrugged his shirt off and ran water to wash his face. He was tired, yet all he could think of was going to see Maggie again. The compulsion inside him was like a madness.

"Why do I feel like this?" he said between clenched teeth. It was suicide to pursue anything else with a woman like her and he knew it. It wasn't as if they were mates.

He checked his hand again. Even now, there was no mark. Why did he feel like this? He'd spent all evening with her and still he wanted more.

It didn't make sense.

He washed his face, then turned off the water and ran his damp hands through his hair. As he reached for a towel, he felt a strange fissure in the air around him...

Wren cocked his head in a very tigerlike pose as he listened and sensed the air around him.

Two seconds later, he smelled the scent of a predator.

Wren turned, but before he could even focus his gaze, something sharp pierced his chest. He cursed as he staggered back.

"Get the collar ready."

The voices seemed to come from far away. His vision dimmed. Wren cursed as he realized he'd been tranked, but he refused to succumb to it.

"Fuck this," he snarled, shifting from human to tiger.

He lunged out to find four humans in the hallway.

"Shoot him!" one snapped.

He jumped at the one with the gun. As he made contact, the human turned into a tiger. Wren felt another sting to his back as two of the humans tried to get a holding noose around his neck. If they succeeded, they would have him.

Shifting to the form of a leopard, he knew his only hope was to outrun them. He ran at the closed window and jumped out to the street below. Glass shattered and shards of it embedded his flesh.

His entire body throbbed as he hit the ground hard.

He lay on the asphalt for only an instant to catch his breath before he forced himself to get up and sprint up the back alley, toward the convent down the street. He could hear the others giving chase.

Blood was pouring from his cuts as he raced. He had to get away from them. They would kill him if he slowed down. But at the rate he was going, he couldn't last much longer. Between the trank and his cuts, he was fading fast.

His heart pounding, he knew he'd have to find a new haven or he was dead.

Marguerite was finishing up her dishes when she heard me sound of someone knocking on her back door.

She frowned, half-afraid of going to it. No one should be in her backyard at this late hour, and she'd watched enough episodes of America's Most Wanted to know not to even peek outside.

Instead, she reached for her phone to call the police.

"Maggie?"

Her frown deepened as she recognized Wren's voice from outside. Why would he be in her backyard?

Maybe she was imagining it.

"Maggie, please let me in."

Still clutching the phone just in case, she pushed the curtains aside to see him on the patio completely naked. But more than that, he was covered in blood. His breathing ragged, his face was scratched and bruised. It looked like he'd been in some sort of accident.

"Oh my God, Wren," she breathed as she opened the door to let him inside. "What happened?"

He didn't speak as he stumbled into her kitchen.

"Wren?"

He fell to his knees and looked up at her as he continued to pant. "I'm sorry, Maggie. I didn't know where else to go."

Her heart hammering in panic, she knelt beside him. "I'll call-"

"No police," he said with a groan. "No doctors."

"But you're-"

"No!" he snapped, grabbing the phone out of her hands. "They'll kill me."

"Who'll kill you?"

She watched helplessly as his eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out at her feet. An instant later, instead of a man on her floor, there was...

Something.

She staggered back, away from the creature. It looked as if it was a strange mixture of snow leopard and white tiger, and it was huge.

Marguerite had never seen anything like it. Part of her wanted to scream and another part of her was held transfixed by what she saw.

"This isn't happening..."

She had to be dreaming.

Yet there was no arguing with what was on her floor. She looked to the bloody footprints that led inside her house. They were human.

They were Wren's.

And they stopped at the tigard...

"I'm having a nervous breakdown. I'm delusional." That was it. She was having a flashback.

You don't take drugs.

"Well then, mind, please explain this shit to me, huh?"

But there was no explanation. At least not a logical one. Wren had come into her house, looking like someone had beaten him up, and now there was a bleeding animal on her floor.

A big bleeding animal on her floor.

"Okay, Marguerite, you live in New Orleans. You read Anne Rice and Jim Butcher. You've seen Silver Bullet... But he ain't no werewolf."

No, he was something else.

And now she understood what he'd been trying to tell her without saying it explicitly. Then again, he'd told her exactly what he was and she'd stupidly brushed it aside.

Now she understood why he'd been able to jump into the tiger cage and not get hurt. How he had healed from that bullet wound so fast.

He wasn't human.

At least not entirely.

"I didn't know where else to go."

His words went through her. Most likely, he'd known what would happen the minute he passed out-it was probably why he'd refused to spend the night with her before. Yet he had trusted her enough in his hour of need to seek her out.

His life was now in her hands. If she called the police, an ambulance, or even animal rescue, they would lock him in a cage and never let him out.

Or worse, as he'd pointed out, they would kill him.

Her heart pounding, she moved closer to the large cat on her floor. With a shaking hand, she reached out to touch his soft pelt. It was like stroking a thick, silky cat. She'd never felt anything softer. Impulsively, she buried her face in the fur and let it caress her skin.

"Is it really you, Wren?"

He didn't respond in any way.

And he was still bleeding.

Terrified of him dying there on her floor, she tried to move him, only to learn that he seemed to weigh about as much as her car. With no other idea of what to do, she went to her bathroom to get alcohol, antibiotic cream, and bandages.

"What the hell," she said as she gathered them. "He healed fast enough after the gunshot. All freaky Were-People heal quickly, right?" If she bandaged him up, he should be up and around in no time.

At least that's what she hoped.

But as she returned to his side and started cleaning his wounds, she couldn't help but wonder who or what had hurt him and why. Most important, she couldn't help wondering if whoever had done this would be able to find him.

And her.



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