Dav didn't end up waking me up; a nasty yowl followed by a roar did that instead. I sat upright on the sofa, my heart instantly racing. My head swam from the sudden movement and I clutched at my head.
"Everybody needs to shut the fuck up. Keep him over there Velaku; I mean it. Ahsran, take your mate over to that corner before I kick his ass. He just woke his twin up, and I fucking swear that if any one of you gives him a migraine by stressing him out I will rip your god damn head off."
The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was Dav rushing over to me.
"Hey baby, you okay?" One of his hands went to the back of my neck while the other settled on my chest. My breathing slowed as I took in his scent, my tongue flicking out.
"What's going on?" I asked thickly, sleep still making me stupid.
"It's not posturing," Natham contested hotly to Velaku who was speaking quietly.
I looked around Dav to the lynx. He was standing against the wall with Velaku standing in front of him. The Falcon's body was much slighter than that of his mates but his white wings took up quite a bit of room. The bright red spots that looked like blood on each tip made him very intimidating in appearance. I’d met him though, and all the Carthera I’d spoken to thought he had been a very fair leader since he took over the clans the previous year.
I could hear the anger in Natham’s voice and growling from across the room. I looked over to see Isiah standing behind Ahsran who was pushing him against the wall with his body.
I watched as Velaku reached out with one hand and tugged on the long braid Natham wore to keep his long dark hair out of the way. "Stop it. I'm just as upset as you are, but attacking someone is not the answer. No matter how much you want to." He cast a glare at Ahsran over his shoulder. "I remember you, don't think I don't. You told your father about us that day you saw us on the field; I know you did."
He turned his attention to my brother and then looked at me. "And obviously we're looking at the mysterious twin that Mishtar caught on film murdering an innocent human. You weren't supposed to be flying in until tomorrow." His gaze shifted to stare at Dav's back.
"What exactly are these people doing with you in my territory, Retic? I want answers, now!"
"You'll have them, once everyone calms down." Dav pulled the blanket off me. "But Ellis is still in danger; stress is bad for him. I promised him no one else would get hurt. That means I will stop you from attacking each other. We have bigger problems."
Dav had an evil glare of his own, his strange snake eyes falling on each person in the room until they nodded in agreement. His strength was more than every single one of theirs in the room, and none of them would make an enemy by attacking The Snake. I leaned against Dav’s hip, watching everyone cast glares at each other, though they didn’t say anything.
"First off, sit down Velaku, Natham." He waved his hand at another arrangement of couches and chairs in a room to one side with a sunken floor. "The den is set up for a little video presentation of our own."
It wasn't until that moment that I caught sight of an older Falcon female shifting nervously just inside the front door. I pulled away from Dav and stood up. "I'm fine," I said in answer to his protest.
I walked over to her and offered her my hand. "It's nice to see you again, Elalera." The quiet female was Velaku's mother, and lately I'd sensed her pulling further and further away from us. She was fidgeting; looking at the door like being inside was painful. She looked at my offered hand but didn’t take it. I let it fall to my side.
"Mother, come sit down," Velaku called to her softly. "I need you here."
I watched as she moved over to the blue couch, her brown wings drooping a little. Velaku gave her a hug. Her behavior hit me hard. Would I become like that if I lost Dav? I was human; at least I thought I was, so could I go feral? Would Isiah if he were to lose Ahsran?
I shook my head. I couldn't think like that, especially knowing that our mates would soon have to fight against the true enemy facing them. They had to stop Mishtar and someone who had hurt innocents the way he had would not be convinced with words not backed by violence.
Dav held out his hand and I went to sit by him, nestling under his arm on the middle couch. Natham and Velaku sat on our right with Elalera while Isiah and Ahsran sat on the left. Natham's ears were flat to his skull as he watched Ahsran with narrowed eyes.
"You said you had proof. Show us." His voice was a deep snarl.
Isiah looked at Dav who nodded back at him. "We hooked up the laptop to the TV." He pressed a button on the computer and the blue screen changed to a series of documents. "Do you recognize this number?"
Velaku frowned. "Of course. It's Mishtar's cell phone. So what?"
I stared at the phone record, trying to figure out how this was proof that Mishtar was a traitor to Velaku's family.
Isiah pointed to another line. "Do you recognize this date and time?" Velaku's wings rustled as he shifted on the couch.
He looked over at Dav. "Isn't that the day you raided the warehouse and found Bashta's niece with the smugglers?"
Dav nodded. He kept stroking my back, seemingly at ease with the question. He had to have seen all this already while I was sleeping. He was too sure. "It was."
"Okay, I'm already tired of the twenty questions. Just explain what is going on to me, right now." Velaku’s toned arms crossed over his chest, his vest exposing a deep triangle of remarkably defined flesh.
"This phone took a call from your home at eight twenty pm."
Velaku's foot began to tap on the floor. "I know. I called him after Davis called me and told me that he had destroyed the smugglers and was returning with an infant. I wanted him to arrange security to meet them at the airport and to contact the doctor for some of the serum they'd developed from Bashta's blood."
Isiah tapped another key on the computer and the phone records switched to a map. "My computer guy tracked the phone's gps. Where was Mishtar supposed to be when you called him?"
"At his home, of course. He told me he was reviewing the Falcon's latest Jintue battle exercise."
"Yet, if you look at this map you can see that the cell phone company towers triangulate his location to just a few miles from where Davis discovered the smugglers."
"This is your proof?" Natham asked with a sneer, looking between Ahsran and Isiah. He crossed his arms over his chest.
"No," Ahsran said shortly. "Show them Isiah."
A video montage began to play. Numerous clips of Mishtar committing acts that sickened me. I couldn't watch and buried my face in Dav's chest. The horrors were all committed in the name of power; it was a dangerously seductive force and one that corrupted those weak of will.
Long minutes passed in silence. I was thankful the videos didn't have sound.
I jumped when Natham snarled. "Enough. What is this supposed to prove? We have a video of you killing an innocent human. Though that was before you mated to this piece of offal." He glared at his brother; the disgust in his voice was clear as he refused to say Ahsran’s name.
Ahsran made a sound, but he didn't respond to Natham's insult.
"That was my partner," Isiah said. "The whole delivery and attack was a set up. I won't say that he wasn't hurt because he was a little, but he didn't die. Not even close. We had to get me in with the inner circle of whoever the leader was. Nothing else was working but if I killed in the name of their cause I knew they'd feel like they could trust me. He was willing to make the sacrifice and take the risk."
"It worked too. I got a call telling me that I'd been picked for a special task by the group's leader. I got there early to scope it out and saw him when he showed up. It was Mishtar."
"What was the mission?" Dav asked.
Isiah took a deep breath before he spoke, "To kill you. Both of you."
"What the fuck!" Natham sprang to his feet with a roar. The second he was up Ahsran was on his feet as well. They both stood in front of their mates snarling at each other, their claws and sharp teeth exposed. I had to stop it before someone got hurt.
I leaned forward, but Dav's arm tightened around me to keep me sitting. I didn't fight him but I wasn't going to stand for this stupid male posturing any longer.
"Knock it the fuck off!" I shouted. That stopped the growling as everyone turned to stare at me with wide eyes.
"They haven’t made a single move to kill either of you and they’ve been in town several days. If Isiah and Ahsran were here to harm the clans they would have done so. They had plenty of opportunities. They're here to help. I understand there is a lot of bad blood here, but you have to stop fighting and learn to work together and fast.
"Someone attacked Ahsran and Isiah at the hotel they were staying at. The only ones who knew they were there were me and my best friend Matthew. I asked Matthew to go talk to Isiah and tell him what was happening to me. He left me a message on my phone yesterday saying that he'd talked to Isiah and everything was fine.
"Now Matthew is missing. He's my best friend and I want to find him. I want to find out exactly what Mishtar's plan is and stop him." I turned to Velaku and Natham. "Ahsran hurt you Natham, but he told me he tried to protect you when he could. Your father hurt him too. My brother is not a bad man, and he's mated to your brother. He can help us.
"I know there are things you will need to discuss, personal things, but you have to put this aside for now and be as objective like the situation demands. We may not have much time, and the alphas will be showing up any minute."
I made eye contact with each person in the room. "If we don't work together people are going to die."
I leaned back into Dav's arms. He rubbed one hand on my shoulder. "Well said, baby."
He fixed his unnerving slit eyed stare on the two cats who were still standing in front of their mates. "Sit down," he ordered them.
Reluctantly they both sat, avoiding eye contact with everyone. I watched Velaku shift one wing to trail it down his mate's arm. Natham shivered. Isiah took Ahsran's hand, twining their fingers together.
"I think Ellis is right," Velaku said, "but so is Natham. How are we supposed to believe that these videos aren't edited or staged? You already admitted to staging the attack on the human."
Ahsran looked at Isiah, his shoulders slumping. Isiah spoke softly, "We have to show it to them. I know you didn't want to, but we have to. It’s the only thing they can’t deny the truth of."
Ahsran stood abruptly. "I can't watch this again."
My heart began to race as Ahsran left the room. I didn't really want to see whatever it was that drove him from the room, but if this was the final proof that would convince Natham and Velaku, we needed to see it. Dav took a deep breath and let it out in a sharp exhale.
"Play it, Isiah."
Did Dav already know what they were going to show us? I could feel his disgust and anger through our bond. He must have seen it while I was sleeping too. I gasped and grabbed his hand when the video began.
Chained to a table, Natham's naked body was held down at his neck, waist and legs by thick metal links that did nothing to hide his body. Standing at his head, Mishtar stared down at him with a sneer on his face. He looked toward a sound from one side of the room.
"About time you got here. He should be waking up soon."
"I wanted to make sure I was ready for him." A Snake Carthera walked into the room, his bare torso exposing his clan markings to the camera as he walked past it. His cobra markings shone in the bare light from the bulb dangling from the ceiling, and in one hand he held a short leather bullwhip.
"Did you shower?" Mishtar asked in an incredulous tone. He had one eyebrow raised as he stared at the Snake.
"Oh yes . . . I want our last time together to be perfect." The Snake sounded like he considered Natham a lover and was preparing for a romantic assignation.
I felt my stomach churn. I wasn't sure if I would get sick or not but if I had to watch him torture Natham, I knew I would.
"You are one sick fuck," Mishtar said laughing. "I knew there was a reason I kept you around."
The Snake just shrugged, his eyes sliding up and down Natham's captive body.
"Whatever. Just make sure he dies. I don't care how you do it as long as you've killed him within the next six hours. I can't stall the Falcons any longer than that. Once his mate is dead Velaku will go feral, and I can claim I had to put him down for his own good. It’s the only way the clan will follow me. "
"I thought you were going to trap Ahsran and tell the clan he killed Velaku so you'd have a scapegoat."
Mishtar made a noise of disgust, "That useless leopard let him get away. I told him I thought the boy was a liability and he should be locked up, but he didn't believe me. You worry about killing this piece of trash; I'll worry about taking out the fledgling. He'll die just like his father did!"
Velaku shrieked, jumping to his feet. His wings flared as he stood rigid in the middle the floor, his whole body trembling in rage. Isiah had stopped the video the second he reacted. Dav's body was tensed and he pulled my arm off his stomach. Everyone stared at the leader of the clans as he faced the incontrovertible proof that not only did his second in command want to take over his clan but had actually ordered their torture and death.
"I'm sorry," Isiah said quietly.
He wasn't speaking to Velaku though; his eyes were fixed on Natham. The lynx was somehow curled in on himself. His mouth was a flat line but it was his eyes that were the worst. The desolation and horror in them were more than I could take.
Hot tears spilled down my cheeks and I fled the room, escaping to the bathroom. I curled up in a corner by the tub, hugging my knees to my chest.
How could anyone be so evil? How could we all miss the cruelty and madness that twisted Mishtar into the monster that video revealed? What had happened to him to make him that way?
The questions spun in my mind but the answers eluded me.
I had known that Dav wouldn't let me hide very long. Our bond was too strong, and I could feel his concern over my distress. He knocked on the bathroom door about fifteen minutes later.
"Ellis? Can I come in?"
I got up and turned the lock, letting him in. I leaned up against the bathroom counter, wiping my cheeks with the heels of my hand.
"Hey baby." Dav pulled me into his arms and I sagged against him, leaning into his comforting strength. My head rested on his shoulder, and I just breathed his scent in. I gradually felt better; the comfort of my mate being with me made everything a little easier to handle.
I pulled back and gave him a small smile. "Thanks. I needed that."
He leaned down and kissed me. "I'll always be here to give you what you need."
"I'm afraid you won't be," I whispered. "People are going to die. It's going to be a mess, isn't it?"
Dav sighed. "Yes."
His simple answer, so direct and exactly what I knew as the truth, didn't help my anxiety. I swallowed hard as tears filled my eyes again. I looked away. His finger lifted my chin until I met his eyes. Full of reassurance and love, he smiled at me.
"I'm not so easy to kill though. I'm not afraid for me; I just never want anything to happen to you. You are worth more to me than my own life. You are my mate, my soul. My death would hurt you, so I would never let anyone take me from you."
I tried to return his smile. I didn't really feel any better, but he was right. Dav had lived through many things. "You have been through worse than this, right?"
"Of course." I caught the lie through our bond instantly, but I didn't say anything. My mate was so strong. I had to be strong too.
"Are the others here?" I asked.
"I thought so, I could taste their scents on you," I said.
Dav's face got worried. "You could taste them? Your senses are getting that strong?"
I shrugged in answer.
"We really need to go see the doctors when this is all over. I want these changes you seem to be going through monitored."
"Okay Dav." In truth, becoming more like my mate was the least of my concerns, but I knew he would fret over it if I said I didn't want to go see the doctors. If I had my way Dav and I wouldn't leave my apartment for a week after this whole mess ended.
"Who is here?" I asked as I followed Dav out of the bathroom.
"Bashta and Cavel, Merrianne and Sorca, Benny, and Frisz and Eve."
“Where’s Jerret and Calix?” I was surprised Dav hadn’t mentioned them.
“I left them to lock down the bar. I wanted them there just in case Mishtar gets it into his head to look for us there. I don’t need any of the humans who work or visit my bar to get hurt.”
Walking back into the living room was like running into a hard wall of tension. Ahsran had joined Isiah. Benny was staring at them. The similarity of their marks was striking, but they stood across the room from each other. Dav began introducing me to everyone else.
"This is Ellis, my mate. I'd like you to meet Cavel and Bashta," Dav said as he pointed out a pair of males standing by the TV. Cavel was tall and had wide shoulders; Bashta was smaller and much leaner, but they had identical markings and black hair though they wore it in different styles.
"Frisz and Sorca." He pointed out a big burly male with small eyes and a wide nose. His hair was even more striking than his enormous size, the long white strands hanging loose down his back aside from one thick braid by his right ear. The other man could have been easy to ignore, his slim form was almost eclipsed by the other male. Glasses hid his golden brown eyes and I could have discounted him if I hadn't been able to smell that he was a wolf. I could almost taste the aggression pouring off of him.
I desperately wanted to ask Dav if the moon was almost full. Wolves weren't like irrational animals like mythical werewolves but the phases of the moon did affect their mood. Carthera were more tied to nature than humans, and the Wolf clan I'd researched had many ceremonies for that night. It was also when they had their matings.
"Their mates, Eve and Merrianne." Both of the females were sitting on the couch. It looked like they were the same species as their mates. Eve was a polar bear like Frisz, her body a curvier version of his strong bulk. Even sitting, I could see she was almost as tall as Dav. Merrianne seemed delicate; she was fine boned and even shorter than I was. I couldn't help but stare at her; her eyes were an almost burnished gold set off by her reddish hair.
"Sorry," I said, blushing. "It's nice to meet you all, though I wish it were under happier circumstances."
Sorca settled down when I stopped staring at Merrianne. I looked from Frisz to Eve. "I didn't know there were polar bears in Velaku's territory. I thought you guys liked it better up north."
"My Eve needed some medical treatments she couldn't receive in Alaska. We moved here with Velaku's blessing until Dr. Pannar finished treating her. By then, she had fallen in love with this place." Frisz's voice was a deep rumble, just like a bear's. He shrugged one massive shoulder.
One of Eve's hands came up and she slapped at Frisz's hip where he leaned against the couch. "Right, I fell in love with this place all by myself. You don't like the weather or city here at all."
Her eye roll made me smile.
Introductions made, Dav sat down in an empty chair. He pulled me onto his lap and I went, only blushing a little. His arms came around my waist as he held me to him.
"Do you want to tell us exactly what is going on now that we are here?" Sorca asked impatiently.
"First, did you all get rid of your cell phones like you were instructed?" Natham looked at each of the Carthera. They all nodded except for Frisz. His eyebrows drew down and he looked a little guilty.
"My beta's wife is in labor. I had to leave my clan in the hands of his brother. The man is competent, but he's young and we've been having some issues with some local hate groups."
Dav hissed, and I could feel his rage. "You brought a cell phone into my safe house? Are you fucking insane?"
"They can track you with your phone. Do you really think our enemies won't be trying to find out what is going on when none of the alphas can be found?" Velaku's anger filled the room. "Give it to Natham, now!"
Natham took the phone Frisz held out. He opened it up and pulled out the sim card, his claws puncturing it to destroy the dangerous object. He threw the phone back at the polar bear with a disgusted look.
Dav urged me to my feet and stood, motioning for me to sit back down. He moved swiftly to a cabinet set in the far wall of the living room and dialed in a number combination in a recessed lock I hadn't noticed. My jaw dropped and I gaped when he opened the doors.
"I'd hoped for time to plan, but I don't know if we're going to get it now," Dav said. "The bear's mistake means that they could be coming for us before the others can get here. Mishtar has to know something is going on by now."
"Mishtar? Why isn't he here?" Merrianne twisted in her seat. "Come to think of it, why aren't more of your guards here, Velaku? I thought you weren't leaving the eyrie unprotected after the way you and your mate were abducted last year."
Dav began to walk around the room passing out weapons. "My guards are not trustworthy at the moment," Velaku said quietly. "Mishtar is a traitor. We’ve known for some time that a Carthera was guiding these attacks against the clans, but we didn’t know who it was. I've seen proof from Isiah and Ahsran that leads me to believe that he plans to killme for the leadership of the clans."
"A challenge should be answered. No Alpha can claim to rule his clan if he will not face challenges," Frisz objected.
Isiah snorted. "Challenges? Fighting to rule? That's not even close to what Mishtar has planned. I've been working undercover with his group and his plan was revealed the day I camehere. He has many Carthera that he's found exiled from their clans, criminals and ferals, just waiting to attack. He led several Falcons, a Hyena, and a Wolverine in an attack on my mate and me earlier today.
"He's not planning to formally challenge Velaku and fight fair. He plans a massacre. First your leader, then the alphas of each clan. Then he’ll take over when the confusion is greatest. Once he has control ge will attack the humans until a great war will erupt. He sees Carthera as the victors, but I can tell you the government hasn't been ignoring the possibility of someone trying to do this. They will eradicate all Carthera if they feel the human race is at stake." Isiah glared at Frisz who couldn't meet his gaze. The bear looked away. "As the alphas of your clans, your lives are already forfeit in his mind. He will send assassins and killers after your mates and your children. Face reality, there is nothing honorable about what is going on here!”
"What do we do?" Eve asked.
Velaku took a deep breath. "We stop him today. He has to be put down along with any followers he leads against us. If they are not standing besides us ready to fight, we have to assume they are part of the plot."
The guns and knives Dav handed out filled the air with a bitter tang. I could smell the powder in the bullets and the cleaning oil on the guns. I swallowed hard.
"I can't fight," I said softly when Dav tried to hand me a knife. I hoped he would understand I wasn’t judging him. I just couldn’t take that knife. “It’s not in me.”
"I know. You can help anyone who is injured. But I cannot leave you defenseless." Dav still held the knife out to me. "Please take it."
I shook my head, standing up and avoiding the knife. "Do you have a first aid kit or anything?" I asked.
"Bathroom. The black bag in the cupboard."
I knew Dav wouldn’t let this go, but I had to get out of the room. I could feel my muscles tightening.
I dug the bag out of the cupboard and opened it up. The bag was full of everything I could need to treat small injuries. That fact that it was so well stocked chilled me even more than the matter of fact way that Dav and Velaku assumed that Mishtar would be coming for them . . . and for the rest of us too.
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