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The scent of snow on the wind raised the hairs on my skin like distant lightning. I lifted my nose into the icy breeze that rushed past me through the open window of the bus. The moon was hidden behind a thin barrier of clouds, but I felt it. Its weight pressed me with a sensuous, almost sexual, insistence. It reached for the wolf beneath my skin. I started at the realization that all sound had stopped in the bus. Just moments ago it had been a party on wheels with liquor flowing freely among the poker and dice games. Now, as the bus reached the edge of the park near Wolf Lake, the others began to snuffle and writhe. A woman's high pitched whine made me shiver.
A deep voice like liquid velvet reached my ears. "Soon, my wolves. Very soon I will let the moon take you."
I glanced to the front of the bus. Nikoli Molotov's eyes glowed yellow, revealing the effort he was expending. He had told me he would use the Sazi magic inside him to keep the pack members from turning to their animal shapes until we were well within the state park. But the thin shell of magic could barely contain the power that welled up inside of me. I felt like an overripe fruit, threatening to burst through my own skin.
This was my first full moon since moving to Chicago. There are few actual wooded areas here, and none that aren't accessible to the public. Still, I was told that the lakes and the parks can be sealed with magic so that no humans would want to enter while the pack hunts the animals native to the park. I'd never been hunting with a pack. Until recently, I'd only known of one werewolf besides myself - the one who'd turned me.
Who'd have believed that there were real werewolves among us in modern society? I certainly hadn't. I'd spent my first Sazi year in partial denial. I sealed myself away each month so I could turn into a wolf at will in the privacy of a private hotel suite. I hadn't tried to find others like me. I hadn't wanted to. Until I met Sue, I had pretended - had hoped - that this disease would just go away.
The hissing of the air brakes interrupted my thoughts. The whines and whimpers around me brought a deep throated growl from my throat. The magic roiling through the close confines of the bus was stifling. You could walk on the tension. The scent of musk and fur was overpoweringly sweet. It was hard to breathe. My muscles were twitching in earnest now. At the front of the bus, Nikoli smiled.
"Come, my wolves," he whispered. "It is time. Join the hunt." He exited the bus. We followed in his wake. I scanned the area with my vision pink-hazed from blood. I fought not to howl. Shuddering, I pulled the clothes from my body, reveling in the feel of the wind against my overheated skin. My eyes moved constantly, watching the others - my pack.
Some of the men had to turn their eyes away from the lithe nude forms of the women in the group, but I felt nothing for them. My mate was elsewhere. I glanced past the sign identifying the William. W. Powers State Conservation Area. In the distance, I smelled the sharp hot and sour soup scent of abject fear. I quickly wiped a small line of spittle from the side of my mouth. I tried to appear composed but it was a lie.
"So, how does this wor . . .?" I began, when Nikoli interrupted.
"Let the hunt begin!" he boomed and released the magical shield protecting me. The moon's force struck me like a sharp blade, shattering my control and sending me to my knees. I screamed in pain as a thousand pinpoints of light and magic erupted from my skin. Fur raced over my body and twisted my limbs. A full-grown, hungry wolf leapt out from inside me. I couldn't have stopped it if I wanted to.
I didn't want to.
The world suddenly shifted. Color disappeared, giving way to a thousand shades of grey and black. I stood on four feet, basking in the finger of moonlight that pried its way through the cloud cover. Beside me were over a dozen snarling wolves. I'd met one or two of them as humans. I couldn't tell who they were as wolves by sight, but my nose knew. Human or wolf, their scent was the same. I scanned the group for the leader of the pack. He wasn't hard to find. I felt my eyes go wide.
Nikoli had transformed into a huge black timber wolf. He easily stood three foot high at the shoulder. The only white on him was two spots on his knees. They glared like headlights in the darkness beneath the amber lights in his eyes. I realized that I didn't own a gun big enough to defend myself had I met him in the woods as a human. Not a comforting thought.
A single howl rent the night, quickly joined by other voices. The sounds were deep and throaty, not at all the high-pitched yelp of a coyote.
I felt the lips pull back from my fangs in a smile. Until I'd mated, my nights as a wolf had been lost to me. My thoughts inhuman, memories nonexistent. The difference is phenomenal. Now wolf or man - I'm me. That's thanks to Sue. I could feel fragments of her warmth and anticipation in the back of my mind. I knew she would be enjoying every minute of this new experience. The thought of the hunt was getting my mate turned on.
I like that in a woman.
She had believed in and accepted the mating bond even before I did. The sex had been incredible from the start. Not surprising since we can feel each other's pleasure through the bond. Still, I had struggled and fought the tie between us. I hadn't wanted to give up what I believed was my identity. But when she was dying of a gunshot wound, I made my choice. I accepted the bond, accepted the fact that we are truly a part of one another - just in time to have them cut me off from her for weeks while she's been healing in Colorado. It's a struggle now to share our thoughts, and I can't sense what she's doing at all. I hate it. I miss her. I want her home with me.
One of the wolves spoke. It's still weird hearing human speech coming from a furred muzzle. "Where's dragon lady tonight, Nikoli?"
A decidedly evil chuckle erupted from the black wolf. His eyes turned and locked on mine. "Our lovely Asri did not trust herself to ride on the bus and attend the pack meeting around our newest acquisition."
Now, what the hell did that mean?
"Which brings me to business," he continued. "Let us all please welcome our newest member of the pack. Anton, please step forward."
I sighed. I had tried repeatedly to get my new pack leader, a former member of Czar Nicholas II's court, to call me Tony. That's me, Tony Giodone, former high-end assassin, catering to both the paying public and the mob. I'm good enough to have never been caught. But a stupid mistake on my last job caused me to go underground and assume a new - or more precisely - a former identity. Here in Chicago, I'm Joe Giambrocco. But Nikoli keeps Russian-lizing everything. I'd finally decided that Anton was better than Yosef, if I was going to be stuck with a Russian name.
I stepped forward and the other wolves parted like water to let me pass, reforming in a circle around me and Nikoli. I stopped a few inches short of his muzzle and looked up into his face. He towered over me. His yellow eyes narrowed, as he watched me coldly. I stood steady, giving no sign of fear, despite the muscles rippling under his sleek black fur.
"You are Sazi," he said. "Blood of my blood. But to be of my pack, you must swear fealty to me and mine. You must give of yourself so that the others will recognize you as brother."
This was starting to make me nervous. It's one thing to be part of a club, but another thing entirely to swear some sort of blood oath.
I felt my eyes narrow, "Just what are you asking me to do?"
Nikoli smiled, baring fangs. His scent changed, but I couldn't pinpoint what he was feeling. I'd have to go by his words alone.
"I rule here. You will accept my authority over you. Yes?"
I had no problem with that. "I accept your authority as the pack leader. Yes."
"Excellent." I had just turned to leave when I froze completely. I literally couldn't move. I felt a flash of panic in the back of my mind that wasn't mine. Sue knew something I didn't, but it was a struggle to keep connected with her. The magic that flooded my body and mind was overwhelming. It was a pounding ache with sharp edges.
Nikoli stalked toward me. His lips had pulled back even further to reveal pink gums.
"Then know my power, whelp." He came at me in a rush of fangs and fur. I could do nothing to defend myself. He bowled me over and his teeth found my neck. A flash of pain seared my mind as his fangs broke through skin and I was thrown bodily to the ground. But the pain washed away as quickly as it began. My mind was floating suddenly as a wave of magic filled me. Suddenly, I could hear his voice in my mind. It was as thick and sweet as honey.
"You are pack of my pack, young one," said the voice. I knew I was bleeding, but I couldn't seem to feel it. I could hear Sue trying to call to me. It was a struggle to hear her.
f0The liquid baritone continued. "You will live for me, through me, and we all will live for you. We will protect you and you will always be fed. Be now one with the Sazi, Anton."
I came to myself with a dozen noses sniffing my head. I abruptly remembered part of my training on Carmine and Linda's island after Sue's near-death. One of the Sazi psychiatrists explained that the packs only functioned in the modern world because one person can control the individual wolves.
"If individual wolves were autonomous," Dr. Betty had said, "The world would quickly learn of us. Close to the moon, most lesser wolves can't control themselves when prey is near. Humans were once prey to our kind. Now if we were to attack them, it would be war. The humans would slaughter us. People always destroy that which they fear. Only by having a leader strong enough not to be affected by the moon can the natural instincts of the wolves be restricted to proper prey. We insist that lesser wolves remain with a pack so that the pack leader can maintain control."
It made perfect sense. But I hate the others thinking that I am a "lesser wolf." I knew I was going to have a hard time going from being on the highest rung of the food chain to just slightly above dirt. I also disliked that I had to struggle even harder to reach Sue when Nikoli was in my head. I promised myself that I wouldn't be a lesser wolf for long.
I stood shakily. It was unnerving to see Nikoli's face painted with my blood, and the other wolves tentatively licking at it.
"Now, my pack, let us begin the hunt!" He turned, launching himself into the woods in a blur of speed. I found myself following behind him with the rest of the pack before I even realized I was moving. It was like being in a slipstream behind a semi. Where he moved we followed.
We ran silently over the carefully tended grass toward the trees of the park. My senses were sharper than I could ever remember. I heard a small mouse scurry under the leaves as we approached. Birds ducked their heads and hunkered down in their nests. Even the great horned owl flew higher into the trees. We were a force of nature to be reckoned with as we moved through the woods. A panicked pounding of hooves sounded to the left. Nikoli turned fluidly toward it. I felt my body move left in a silent command that required no words. An image flashed in my head. The pack would split and cut off the prey. I was to surge forward and overshoot the deer the pack herded toward me.
My feet barely touched the leaves and fallen logs of the deeper woods. I skirted rocks I couldn't see in the darkness and followed unknown paths effortlessly. My body seemed to know this place. Or perhaps it was Nikoli who knew the way.
A small clearing appeared. This is where the feast would take place. The pack would push the deer to me and I would take the lead animal down. The rest of the pack would attend to the other two. There were three deer. I could smell them now and hear the breaking of branches in their frantic flight for survival. But they would not escape. I would see to that.
I waited patiently as the thundering hooves grew louder. Just a few moments more. I crouched on a fire-blackened log to spring from above as moonlight surged power through my veins. The power fed my hunger. The hunger intensified the power and then rolled back on itself, like a snake swallowing its own tail.
"Tony!" The voice was a shout in my head. I struggled to keep my mind on the prey. "Tony, Bobby's here with me. We're back in Chicago. He has to see you right away. He needs your help. It's urgent."
The words had no meaning to my animal mind. I knew Sue's voice. I was glad. It was good that my mate would be here for the kill. So close. Just a few moments more.
Sue seemed to understand that I couldn't think. She tried to make it simpler. "It's Bobby, Tony. The snake from the island."
An image came to my mind. A python. We'd hunted together for birds. But there was no time to respond. With a crack of breaking branches the first russet form bounded out of cover. The scents of musk and fear were nearly overpowering.
I leapt with all my might and grabbed the lead deer by the throat. It turned and screamed as the other two animals tried to get around our battle. But it was too late. The pack had them. I rode the stag to the ground, twisting quickly to avoid taking a head shot with its hooves. It struggled to right itself but my teeth dug in deeper. Hot salty wetness filled my mouth. It was the finest thing I'd ever tasted in my life. I could feel Sue's pleasure in the background as she too forgot where she was or what she wanted to say. There was nothing beyond the moment. Time slowed until everything had a crystalline sharpness and didn't start again until the deer's eyes stared blankly into space.
Blood lust took me. I gorged myself on the still warm flesh and sweet metallic taste of blood. I was ravenous, insatiable. Never before had my hunger been so great. Snarls and growls erupted behind me. One of the others tried to push me away from the kill, but I bared bloody fangs before turning back to the feast.
I heard the soft pad of footsteps as my pack leader moved behind me.
"No, Alena. Let him be. It is his first kill with the pack. You enjoyed the same luxury." I felt Nikoli's hot breath right next to my ear as I tore and swallowed as fast as I could.
"But be very clear, young one. This will be the only time you will ever feed above your station." He moved his face so that our eyes were almost touching. His lips pulled back in a toothy snarl. The magic he raked across my skin made me gasp with pain.
"If you ever again attempt to feed before I have had my fill, it will be my great pleasure to sate my hunger with your flesh."