"I know, but there’s a massive number of Daimons converging around Miller’s Well. They’re coming for your pack, Vane."
Vane went cold at the news as he looked to Fang to see if his brother had heard the words as clearly as he had. "Are you sure?"
"I’m positive. Looks like they want a supercharge before the Mardi Gras festivities with us so you guys have got to get out of there. Pronto."
How he wished it were that simple. "Anya’s in labor. We can’t move her. But I’ll make sure the others get out."
"All right," Ash said. "Sit tight and I’ll have some reinforcements to you ASAP."
The implication insulted every animal part of Vane. "I don’t need your help, Dark-Hunter. We can take care of our own."
"Yeah, just the same, we’ll be there shortly."
The phone went dead.
Snarling, Vane returned the phone to his pocket. He met his brother’s stony gaze. "Get the others mobilized."
Fang nodded, then ran off to spread the word.
Acheron Parthenopaeus, leader of the Dark-Hunters and an immortal Atlantean god under a massive crisis situation, not the least of which was his own brother trying to kill him, cursed as he hung up the phone. This was not good and it was getting worse by the heartbeat. If the Daimons got a hold of those pregnant wolves and augmented their powers, there would be no stopping them and the streets of New Orleans would run red from the blood of its human occupants.
He walked quickly down Bourbon Street toward Canal, which was where his Dark-Hunter was supposed to be patrolling for Daimons out to munch on human souls.
There was no sign of him.
And where the hell was Talon?
The Celt was supposed to be in his swamp, guarding the human, Sunshine Runningwolf, and instead there had been no sign of him when Ash had gone there.
Closing his eyes, Ash sensed the Celt was fine. But he didn’t have time to fetch him away from the woman he was protecting. The Daimons were moving fast and he didn’t have long before they’d reach Vane and his family.
Then it would rain rainbows and rose petals on them. . . .
He flipped his phone open and called Valerius who was still at home. The ancient Roman general was a major pain in his ass on his best day, but in a crisis, there were few better fighters. "Val, I’m on Bourbon-"
"I will not venture down that street of crass iniquities and plebeian horror, Acheron. It is the cesspit of humanity. Don’t even ask it."
Ash rolled his eyes at the Roman’s arrogant tone. "I need you in the swamp."
Silence answered him. He could just imagine Val at home with his lip curled in repugnance. Not that the general hadn’t been in worse places back in the day when he’d commanded a Roman army. He was just cranky in his old age.
"We have a situation, Valerius," he said sternly. "A group of Daimons are after a Katagaria pack and they have women in labor-"
"Where do you need me?"
Ash smiled. The Roman had his moments. Good and bad. Luckily, this was a good one.
"I’ll be right there." Ash hung up the phone. He dashed into a nearby doorway where no one could see him and flashed to Val’s side in his mansion.
Valerius did a double take at seeing Ash in his living room before the Roman could even return his cordless phone to its pedestal. Dressed in a black Armani suit and black silk shirt, and with his shoulder-length dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, Valerius was the epitome of a privileged, well-bred man.
Patrician to the end.
The only hint of shock Valerius showed was a slight arching of his right brow.
"We don’t have time for conventional means of transportation," Ash explained.
Before Val could ask him what he meant, Acheron grabbed him and they materialized close to the Katagaria den.
Val scowled at him. "How did you do that? Are you some odd Were-Hunter hybrid like Ravyn?"
Ash gave a dark half-laugh. None of the Dark-Hunters knew he was a god and he really wanted to keep it that way. The less they knew about him and his sordid past the better. "Long story. The pertinent part is that I have to be careful using my powers around the pregnant Katagaria. If the pregnant wolves are forced into human form by my powers, it’ll kill them and their babies instantly. So, I’m fighting strictly hands-on as a human just to be safe. Your powers aren’t ionically charged so you should be safe to fight as always."
Val nodded in understanding.
Acheron manifested his warrior’s staff, then led Val toward the den.
The camp was in total chaos as the males, mostly in human form, tried to gather up the pregnant wolves and pups and move them without using their magic.
Vane and Fang stood over a pregnant wolf in labor while another male, who bore a striking resemblance to Vane, knelt by her side. The man was quite a bit older than the brothers.
It was Markus.
Ash remembered him well. The ruthless Katagari ruler hated everyone outside the pack.
Then again, Ash amended, as he looked at Vane and Fang, their father hated many who were in the pack as well. Including his own sons.
"Do us proud, Anya," Markus said sternly. "Know I will raise your pups under my full protection."
The wolfswan whined.
Their father stood up and raked a sneer over Vane and Fang. "This is your fault. I curse the day I ever had werewolf sons."
Fang growled at the insult that implied they were more human than animals, and started for his father, but Vane caught him.
Markus curled his lips. "You’d best protect her young. The gods better help you both if something happens to them." He stalked off toward the others.
Acheron and Val headed toward the brothers.
"What are you doing here?" Vane demanded as soon as he saw them. "I told you we can handle this."
Acheron planted the end of his staff in the ground and eyed him with a patience he didn’t really possess. "Don’t play hero, Vane. The last thing you need is to fight Daimons off your back while Anya labors."
Vane narrowed his eyes at them. "Do you know anything about delivering a baby?"
Ash nodded. "I do indeed. I’ve helped deliver more than my fair share of them over the last eleven thousand years. Human and otherwise."
In spite of his earlier words, Vane appeared relieved by Ash’s answer.
Vane looked at Val. "What about you?"
Val’s answer was as out of character for him as his presence here. "I don’t know nothing about birthing puppies, Miss Scarlett, but I can cleave the head off a Daimon without breaking a sweat."
"All right, you can both stay." Vane crouched down beside his sister and nuzzled her snout with his face while the she-wolf panted and whined. "Don’t worry, baby. I’m not going to leave you."
Ash sat down by her side and held his hand out for her to sniff him. "I’m a friend, Anya," he said gently. "I know you’re in pain, but we’re going to stay with you and help you deliver your young."
She looked up at Vane who made wolf noises back to her.
A loud curse sounded.
"Vane!" Fang shouted. "We got gators moving in all over the place."
Ash smiled. "It’s okay. They’re with me. They won’t attack you unless you hit them."
Fang cocked his head in doubt. "You sure? They don’t look friendly to me."
The last of the Katagaria pack moved out, except for two. Ash had seen them both before, but he didn’t know them. . . .
No, not entirely true. Since he could see into their minds and hearts, he knew instantly that the blond one was Vane and Fang’s brother. A brother neither of them knew they had.
The dark-haired wolf was a friend. Liam.
Fang narrowed his gaze at them as they joined the brothers. "What are you doing?"
Fury shrugged. "Wolves don’t fight alone."
"Since when do you give a shit?"
Fury glanced quickly to Anya and Ash felt not only his pain, but his longing to be counted among their siblings. It was so raw and deep that it brought an ache to his own chest.
It was also a pain he could more than relate to.
"You two need a level head to help fight." Fury indicated him and Liam. "That’s us."
Vane looked up. "Leave them alone, Fang. If they want to stay, let them. The more we have to help protect Anya, the better."
Fang stepped back while the other two wolves gave them distance. They went to stand off to the side with Val and the gators while Ash, Fang, and Vane were huddled over Anya.
The quiet stillness of the swamp was broken only by Anya’s pants and whines.
As they waited, Ash felt the grief in Vane’s eyes. He remembered a time when he’d listened to his own sister’s screams as she birthed her baby. There was nothing more disturbing.
But all that faded when the first cries of the baby were heard. Then the focus became one of joy at the new life that had been created.
"She’ll be fine," Val assured the brothers as he noticed their discomfort as well. "We’ll get her through this."
"No," Vane said, shaking his head. "All we can hope for is to save her puppies. As soon as the last one leaves her body, she’ll die."
Val frowned at him. "Don’t be so fatalistic."
A muscle worked in Vane’s jaw. "I’m not, Dark-Hunter. She was claimed by her mate. They bonded their life forces. Had she not been pregnant and carrying new life when he died, she’d have died with him. As soon as the puppies are born, she’ll be off to join him on the other side."
Ash’s stomach drew tight in sympathetic grief as he heard the pain in Vane’s voice. He knew how much Anya meant to both of her brothers. He also knew what was about to happen and though he wanted to change it, he knew he couldn’t. Fate was what it was and in trying to avert it, he could worsen the outcome for all of them. "I’m sorry, Vane."
"Thanks." Vane brushed his hand through his sister’s white coat.
Fang sat off to the side, his gaze haunted as he remained silent. How rare for him not to be making offhand and even asinine comments. That told Ash more than anything just how upset Fang was.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a horde of Daimons attacked.
Vane shot to his feet to confront them. "I don’t know how to birth the cubs," he told Ash. "You stay with her and I’ll fight."
Ash nodded and remained crouched by Anya as she snapped and whined.
Fang transformed into a wolf, his stronger form, to fight, as did Liam and Fury, but Vane remained human.
Ash heard the Daimons scream as they found the alligators lying in wait for them.
Anya began thrashing as the fight broke out. Ash kept his attention focused on the she-wolf and only looked up to make sure the Daimons weren’t making their way any closer to Anya.
Fang, Fury, and Liam were doing a remarkable job keeping them off in wolf form while Valerius and Vane fought them with knife and sword. The bad thing though was that the wolves couldn’t use their magic any more than Ash could. Any random shot of their energy could accidently hit Anya and her pups and kill them.
Ash started at the human noise from the wolfswan. He looked up to see a Daimon about to attack Vane’s back. Forewarned, Vane saw the Daimon and whirled around in time to stab the Daimon through the heart and kill him.
Anya lay back.
Ash held her still as the first of her puppies crested. "That’s it," he said to her in a calm, soothing voice. "We’re almost there."
A Daimon came up through the hedges beside them. Ash sprang to his feet and whirled to defend Anya as Fang caught the Daimon and knocked him away from them.
"Take care of my sister," Fang shot to him in his mind.
Ash quickly returned to Anya.
With the Daimons so close now, he was having to watch the coming cub, Anya, and the Daimons.
It wasn’t easy.
"Push," he said to Anya. "Just a little bit more."
The next few seconds happened rapidly and yet they seemed to move slowly through time.
Heartbeat by heartbeat.
Two Daimons rose up from their fight with Fang. One of them shot Fang with a Taser, immediately turning him human. Fang let out a howl as his body convulsed uncontrollably back and forth between wolf and human.
Vane went after the second one at the same moment the first one aimed the Taser at Vane, who dove at the ground. The Daimon pressed the button and the electrified prongs missed Vane by a fraction of an inch.
They struck Anya instead.
Ash cursed in anger as Anya was transformed from a wolf to a woman and back again. Her screams echoed in the trees and then she fell eerily silent.
Back in her wolf form, she didn’t move at all.
Vane ran to her, but it was too late.
She was dead.
Ash let out his battle cry and rushed the Daimon who had killed her. He punched the Daimon hard in the jaw, then used his bare hands to finish him off. He pushed his hand straight into the Daimon’s chest, piercing his mark.
The Daimon shattered into a spray of golden dust.
Now that he could use his powers without restriction, Ash made short work of the remaining Daimons.
Fang’s transformations had slowed down, but he was still alternating between human and wolf forms as he dragged himself slowly toward his sister’s body.
Vane walked stonily toward Anya and sank down beside her. He gathered her wolf’s body up into his arms and cradled her as if she were a baby. Tears streamed down his face as he rocked back and forth with her and whispered to her.