“Vampirism is caused by a virus,” Aylin said, wondering where this line of questioning was leading and wishing he’d cover himself again. Those broad shoulders and thickly muscled arms were way too distracting. Even Rasha kept stealing glances.
Which annoyed Aylin more than it should.
“A virus that was created when the blood of a raven and a crow mixed with the blood of two fallen chiefs,” Rasha added, as if Aylin didn’t know the lore that was drilled into all vampires from the moment they were born or turned.
Aylin shrugged. “Scientists think the virus mutated from an already-existing virus in ancient Native American tribes.”
Rasha threw Aylin an exasperated look. “Who the hell told you that?”
“I read,” Aylin shot back. “You should try it sometime.”
“Both theories are bullshit,” Hunter said gruffly. “Vampirism is caused by a virus, but it’s not a naturally occurring one originating with mutations or birds. It was created by a demon ass**le named Samnult. It’s forbidden to speak about and something only the Originals and first- and second-generation vampires know. I’m telling you both because Samnult gave me permission.”
Demons? So… Hunter was crazy. Maybe Rasha would be a good match for him after all.
“I don’t expect you to believe me right now,” he continued. “But I’m still going to need you to listen.” Inhaling deeply, he looked up at the ceiling, as if searching for his next words in the rafters. “Hundreds of years ago, twelve tribal chiefs met in a peace summit. The white man had invaded and defiled the land, and the chiefs wanted it to stop. They summoned the crossroads demon Samnult, who promised them greater strength, speed, and special gifts to fight against their enemies. In return, the firstborn children of all mated chiefs through two generations must be given to the demon.”
Hunter paused, maybe to give her and Rasha time for their brains to catch up, but Aylin didn’t see that happening anytime soon.
“This,” Aylin muttered, “is insane.”
Hunter’s intense gaze met hers. He might be crazy, but he believed what he was saying. “I thought so, too, until I met Samnult in person.”
So he truly thought he’d come face-to-face with a demon? “After inhaling what herbs?”
Rasha stared at Aylin, in shock that she’d spoken to a chief that way, considering her lowly status at ShadowSpawn, but something about Hunter… and maybe this clan… brought out Aylin’s voice. Hunter was dangerous; of that Aylin was certain. But she was also certain that he wouldn’t hurt her. In the short time she’d been at MoonBound, she’d seen too much evidence that he wasn’t a brutal leader.
And sure, she’d been outspoken with her father, too, but she had long since learned to choose her battles very carefully. She’d also learned that when you didn’t hold a lot of power or physical strength, you had to use patience and brains to get what you wanted.
Right now, though, patience was in short supply, and she tapped her foot while she waited for Hunter to respond.
He studied her, his eyes going dark with warning. Had she been wrong to think he wouldn’t hurt her? “Are you calling me a liar? Or are you saying I was hallucinating in a drugged stupor?”
“Uh… ignore her.” Rasha stepped between them the way she always did when Aylin got into it with their father. “She doesn’t understand a chief’s responsibilities and rituals.” Rasha glared at Aylin. “And she sometimes forgets her place.”
Yeah, Rasha’s methods of protecting Aylin could use some refinement. The my sister is an idiot, so give her a break thing might work, but it was getting really old.
“I don’t need your help, Rasha.” Aylin pivoted out from behind her sister to face Hunter again. “If what you’re saying is true, then explain to me how Rasha isn’t with this Samnult demon. She’s firstborn. Why didn’t he take her a long time ago?”
“There’s what Samnult calls a ‘warrior’s worth clause,’” Hunter said. “If the chief passes a series of tests, he and his mate can keep the baby.”
Horror and disgust made her stomach churn as endless scenarios involving demons and innocent children played out in her head. Great Spirit above, it would take more than a demon to pry her child out of her hands.
“That’s sickening,” Aylin hissed. “Tell him to go screw himself.”
“Aylin!” Rasha gasped. “Never speak that way about a demon. He could be listening.”
“Then he shouldn’t be eavesdropping,” she shot back.
Hunter cursed. “It doesn’t matter what I tell Samnult to do. He’ll still take my child. I won’t let that happen.” He shifted his focus to Rasha. “But there’s a catch. I need you to accompany me.”
His announcement fell like an ax, along with a long, tense silence. Finally, Rasha said, “I need to think about this.”
“Think?” Hunter asked, as incredulous as Aylin was. “You need to think about making sure our child will be safe?”
“That’s what I said.” Rasha’s gaze was cold as ice. “Can you give me a minute?”
Hunter’s expression went thunderous, his hands fisting at his sides, but he gave a curt, shallow nod and left. The moment the door closed, with an ominously soft click, Aylin rounded on her sister.
“You’re kidding, right?” Aylin snapped. “Tell me you’re just screwing with him.” That would be cruel enough, but at least Rasha wouldn’t be a complete monster.
“No,” Rasha said, almost offhandedly. “I really need to think about it.”
If Rasha had spontaneously sprouted wings, Aylin wouldn’t be more stunned. “What’s there to think about? If what Hunter is saying is true, a demon wants your firstborn child.”
“It’s true,” Rasha muttered.
So… Aylin was wrong about not being more stunned. “You… you knew?”
“Father told me everything before I left,” Rasha said slowly. “He expected Hunter to ask this of me.”
Aylin rubbed her temples, as if doing so would make all of this go away. Hell, she’d be happy if it simply made sense. “Okay, so you’ve had time to think about it. Tell him yes.”
Rasha sank down on the back of the sofa with a sigh, as if the conversation about saving the life of her child was exhausting. “It’s not that simple.”
“But you’re not thinking of refusing, are you? I mean, obviously, our parents went through the trials even though our mother was a young vampire —”
“They didn’t do jack shit,” Rasha interrupted. She paused before saying in a clipped tone, “We had a brother.”
Aylin’s gut dropped to her feet, leaving her off balance and reaching blindly for the wall for support. “You’re lying.”
“He was born three years before we were.” Rasha bent to unlace her boots with jerky motions that seemed more than a little angry. “Samnult came for him while he was still wet with birth blood.”
Oh, Great Spirit, no. “Our father told you this?”
“Yes,” she said as she kicked off a boot. “When he was explaining Samnult and our origins.”
Son of a bitch. “So our parents willingly gave up our brother to a demon? Did they fail the quest or something?”
Snorting, Rasha went to work on the other boot. “They didn’t go on the quest. Father didn’t think our mother would survive.”
So he hadn’t thought she was strong enough. Like mother, like daughter, Aylin supposed.
“Still, I can’t believe our mother would have gone along with this.”
“What choice did she have?” Rasha made a helpless gesture. “If even half of the gossip about how our father treated her is true, she had little say in the matter. He told the clan the baby was stillborn, and she went along with it, probably out of fear.”
That made sense. From everything Aylin had heard, their mother had been little more than a prisoner of Kars’s obsession.
“I still don’t understand why you have to think about this,” she said. “You aren’t a newly turned vampire like our mother was. You’re a warrior, born and raised. You and Hunter can complete the quest. I know you can.”
“Maybe.” Rasha averted her gaze, suddenly interested in a crack in a floorboard. “But I’m not going.”
Aylin’s jaw dropped. “Dammit, Rasha! You have to. Who knows what the demon will do to your baby? He could eat it, for all you know!”
Rasha hissed. “You think I don’t get that? But I have to do what I must for our race, and that means not dying on some stupid demonic quest. Your weakness – and Hunter’s – is making you blind to the practical side of this.”
Irrational rage crashed down on Aylin like a rockslide in a mountain pass. “You heartless bitch.”
Suddenly, Rasha was on Aylin, knocking her into the wall, her hand clamped around her throat. “How dare you question my decision? I’ve been groomed for leadership since birth, while you… your job is to keep your mouth and your legs shut until you’re mated off and no longer our problem.”
A twinge of hurt went through Aylin, but it was quickly buried in the rockslide of anger. “Believe me, I’m looking forward to that day as much as you are.” Well, she would be, if she weren’t mating with Tseeveyo.
“You have no idea what I’ve sacrificed for you, so I’d watch your mouth.” Rasha shoved Aylin aside, and Aylin stumbled sideways into the coffee table. Her leg gave out, and she crumpled to the floor. She’d have thought she’d gotten over the humiliation of falling down all the time, but nope. Sprawling on the floor like a deer on ice was always embarrassing. “Fuck.” Rasha rushed over and crouched next to her. “I’m sorry, Aylin. It’s just… I’m not worried about it. I’m not going to have to give up my child. Father believes there’s a loophole.”
Aylin forgot her anger and indignity as she sat up. “A loophole?”
Rasha hesitated, as if trying to decide whether Aylin was worthy of hearing about this mysterious loophole.
“Rasha?” Aylin prompted. “What is this loophole?”
“You have to promise not to speak a word of this,” Rasha said, a thread of warning woven into her words.
Stung, Aylin clenched her teeth. “When have I ever betrayed you?”
“Never,” Rasha admitted. “But this could put us both in danger.”
“Then I really need to know,” Aylin insisted. “Tell me.”
Rasha scrubbed her hand over her face, looking suddenly exhausted. “If Hunter dies before the baby is born,” she said in a hushed voice, “the baby will be safe.”
Aylin felt the blood drain from her face. “You wouldn’t —”
“No,” Rasha said, “I wouldn’t. For a mate to kill a clan chief goes against the Way of the Raven. And the Way of the Crow, for that matter.”
“I would think the ways of large black birds would be moot issues if the crow and raven story is utter bullshit.”
“Clans need order. Ideology, even false ideology, provides structure and keeps people in line.” Rasha offered Aylin a hand. “You’re the history buff. You know how it works. Religious leaders have done it since the beginning of time.”
Aylin shoved her sister’s hand away. She had no doubt that Rasha believed what she was saying, but there was more to it than making sure vampires wouldn’t lose their faith if Rasha slaughtered Hunter in his sleep or something. “I think it’s even more important that you keep your hands clean so MoonBound’s clan members will accept you as regent until your child is grown. So you can’t kill Hunter, but I’m guessing that if he meets with a fatal accident while you’re pregnant, you won’t be too upset.”
Rasha stood. “You can guess all you want. But keep it to yourself.”
Aylin shook her head at the odd tone in Rasha’s voice. “No. Something’s off.” Rasha offered her hand again, and this time, Aylin allowed her sister to help her to her feet. “You love a fight, and you love a challenge. I don’t think you’d turn down a chance to best a demon and prove to Hunter that you’re a worthy mate.”
“Let it go, Aylin.”
Yeah, something was definitely not right. “Remember when we were just learning to use our vampire gifts, and your ability to shroud yourself in silence kept failing?”
“No,” Rasha said. “I don’t remember that humiliating time at all.”
Ignoring her sister’s sarcasm, Aylin continued, “You always had a backup plan. You never did anything without a strategy to fall back on. Getting rid of Hunter while you’re pregnant is your backup, isn’t it? I’ve seen how you are with children, and I don’t believe you’d risk your child’s life if you didn’t have to. So what’s the real reason you’re not going on this quest with Hunter?”
“Dammit, Aylin, you’re a dog with a bone, aren’t you?”
“I’m your sister,” she said simply. “I don’t always like you, but I do love you. You can tell me.”
“Fine.” Rasha threw up her hands in defeat. “I can’t travel through portals, okay? Remember when I went with Father to meet with the Elders in Boynton Canyon? Passing through the vortex nearly killed me. The Elders said that the next time I try, I’ll probably die. And naturally, Samnult’s realm is accessible only through a portal.”READ MORE >>