“Your only other option, Hunter, is death.”
The low, rumbling words echoed through the chamber, meeting Neko’s ears with a shock. She spun around, searching out the person who’d spoken.
At the end of a dark, arched hallway stood a man. Tall, clad in black from head to toe. His long, straight hair was as dark as his clothing, his eyes as light and stunning as Lumen’s. Dancing, ice blue. Colder, though, and hostile.
But something told Neko that this one wasn’t so friendly.
* * *
Lumen thrust himself between Neko and the other shifter. For a moment, the Hunter had almost forgotten how huge her self-proclaimed guardian was, how daunting and powerful in his human body. And now, seeing him act so reflexively and protectively, a pulse of hot pleasure flowed through her.
But it shouldn’t have. No pleasure should have been derived from anything this man did. For God’s sake, he was also her captor, after all. Warm feelings were better reserved for people who hadn’t broken into her house in the middle of the night.
Though if he hadn’t brought her with him to this place, it was entirely possible that she would now be dead. He’d gone from being her prey to her protector over the course of just a few hours.
And damn him for that.
Never had Neko required—or wanted—protection from anyone or anything. But something in Lumen’s willingness to offer himself as a shield against any threat, even that of his own kind, filled her with an affection she’d never known for anyone, human or otherwise.
“She’s with me, Minach,” he growled at the dark-haired man, his voice even deeper than usual. “Escorted personally to the Heath, on my Dragon’s back. And no one touches her.”
“Except you, from the looks of things.” The expression on Minach’s face altered to one of amusement, and Neko found it impossible to tell if he was joking around or if he flat out hated Lumen, and by association, her.
Good lord. These Dragons were difficult to read, at best.
“It would appear that you two are quite close,” he added. “But fair enough. I won’t hurt her. Unless you command it, of course.”
“This…man…is one of my kin,” said Lumen, turning to Neko, his voice painted with strokes of spiking annoyance as his pale aqua eyes met hers. “He’s an absolute plonker, but we tolerate him well enough. Even when he makes idiotic and unwarranted threats against the lives of those we care about.”
Those we care about. So, he was making another admission of feelings for her, this time in front of someone else—a fellow Dragon shifter, at that.
Another surge of pleasure swept through Neko, all but weakening her already reeling mind and body. She was almost learning to give in and to enjoy these moments. But still beyond reluctant to let Lumen know of her evolving fondness for him. To do so would be to accept—and admit—what was happening; that she was essentially surrendering to a fate that had all but attacked her like a virus. Wrapping itself around her soul and taking hold, beyond her control.
She was the one who was supposed to control her life and her fate, damn it. Though giving in to him, even for a few hours, had all the potential to be exquisite.
“You do know the rules, Lumen,” said the dark-haired man, his voice cutting through Neko’s brief fantasy as he stepped towards them from the hallway’s entrance. “No humans in this place. Not even beautiful ones.” He eyed the Hunter aggressively, his eyes moving down her body and back up again.
If Lumen’s seduction technique was slow and smooth, this man’s was invasive and bold, his gaze almost violently undressing her. Hunger was written all over his face, transparent, feral. But rather than feel complimented by it, Neko found herself tightening the grip on her dagger.
“Minach,” said Lumen, his voice powerful. “Don’t forget who’s in charge here. I know perfectly well that uninvited humans are not welcome—I was the one who came up with that law for the Heath, after all. But Neko is my guest, and she’s potentially helpful to us. I brought her here for her safety, mine, and that of the Dragon Guild. It is for the best for us all. End of the bloody story. Oh—and if you look at her like that again, I’ll tear your fucking throat out.”
“Fine,” said Minach, finally surrendering to the man who was, admittedly, his leader. Neko was beginning to see what Umbra had meant when he’d said that Dragons clearly didn’t like to work together. This guy wasn’t at all happy to watch Lumen dictate the rules.
Minach turned again to face the young woman who stood bemused next to his Commander. This time his face denoted a surrender to his duty, rather than carnal desire. “Neko, then, if that is in fact your name—would you be so gracious as to hand over your weapons so that we can be certain that you don’t plan to remove our livers? We quite like them where they are. And besides, you’re far too sexy for me to want to kill you in this place. I’d sooner do it under the warm rays of the sun.”
A low growl emerged from Lumen’s throat, and Minach smiled. It seemed that he enjoyed irritating the boss. Not to mention that he had a death wish, judging by the look he’d inspired in Lumen’s eyes.
The Hunter’s back was flat against the wall now, her right hand squeezing the narrow hilt of one of her stiletto daggers. Lumen turned to her again, and their eyes met in a moment of silent understanding. His own pale irises attempted to reassure her, counteracting the wariness of her own stare.
“You only need to give them up for the time being,” he said softly. “He’s right, you know. We can’t have armed humans roaming our halls, and I would hardly be a wise leader to allow it of someone who only a few hours ago was plotting to take my life.”
She re-sheathed the dagger and pulled off her jacket, removing the bandolier housing her other blades as well as the curved Khopesh at her waist. Silently she handed the entire arsenal to Minach, trying not to shiver in her sleeveless top.
“Don’t lose them,” she said, her voice stern as she tried to meet his icy stare.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” the shifter replied, clenching the items in his large fists.
“Come, let’s take you to meet the others,” said Lumen, pressing a warming hand to Neko’s shoulder. “They’ll be waiting for us.”
“The others…you mean Dragons? They know we’re here?” she asked as they began to walk. So, I’m going to meet more of these daunting creatures. If only Bertie could see me now.
“Of course they know,” said Minach. “We know as soon as the water’s been breached. And we know by whom.”
“Is that a scent thing, or a mind thing?” Neko suddenly wished she’d managed a shower that morning. The thought of a group of these beings sniffing her out was rendering her self-conscious, to say the least.
“A little of column A, a little of column B,” said Minach. “We’re rather skilled, Hunter, at assessing what’s happening around us. You’d best remember that, for your own good.”
“Yes, so I’m learning. It seems that my kind has become a little redundant. Dragons seem like better trackers than Hunters are, even.”
“In some ways, yes, we are,” Lumen interjected. “But remember that we are most effective in our Dragon forms, and you in human form. Imagine a Hunter and a Dragon, tracking together.” With that, he gave her a quick glance, a now familiar glint in his eye filled with mischief and humour. There was an intimacy to the look that brought Neko back to the memory of straddling his enormous Dragon’s back only a few minutes earlier. She’d felt, during their flight, as though they’d become one entity. Joined, somehow. Together, yet separate.
He spoke again. “It would be a very, very effective combination, and one that I hope we can explore further, you and I.”
Neko came close to smiling at the thought before reminding herself again where she was, and why. This wasn’t a pleasure outing, after all.
And it wasn’t the first reference he’d made to the idea of their budding partnership, of course; he’d told her in no uncertain terms that they would eventually be together. That they would be lovers, even. Though at the moment such a thing seemed beyond impossible. They were from different species, with different sets of rules dictating their behaviour, their very lives. She hunted Lapsed and shifters alike. He was her prey, not her friend.
Though once again she felt drawn to him, as she had the first time they’d met. Visions danced through her mind of a life as his lover, his partner in crime. Of giving in, telling him again that she wanted him. Because the truth was that she craved him even now, even as she was being led into the mouth of danger. She wanted his hands on her. And to touch him back, to feel the hardness of his chest under her fingertips.
Again she banished the thoughts, stiffening, an inner battle waging as she tried to mask everything that was going on inside her. The situation was too volatile; she was at the mercy of the Dragons and had to remain on her guard—particularly now that her weapons were gone.
* * *
Minach led the way down the hall, which turned out not to be so dark as it had seemed at first. Light generated in a cool glow from the walls’ glistening dampness, green moss growing luminescent over the stone walls. The occasional iron lantern hung on chains suspended from the highest point of the arch overhead, flickering flames adding to the glow surrounding them.
Neko walked behind the two shifters, her eyes fixed on Minach’s back. He was as tall as Lumen, though perhaps a little thinner. Also incredibly handsome, of course. But he had very little of Lumen’s kindness about his features; his was a face that suggested a little anger, even. As though someone or something had hurt him in the past and he’d never quite forgiven them—or anyone—for it.
“What news from London, Lumen?” he asked, his voice rough as they walked down the long hallway, the walls revealing a series of presumably locked doors embedded in their thick stone encasements.
“A Controller is on the move,” said Lumen. “He’s been enlisting the Lapsed to take me down, and I suspect that he’s behind Conlon’s death last week, as well. Neko here killed one of his zombified minions a couple of days back—defending me. Of course, that was before she was hired to murder me.”
“Ah,” said Minach, turning his head to look back at Neko. “So begins every fairy tale romance.”
Neko scowled. Minach was the last person to whom she’d admit her developing feelings. “Romance? Hardly. This is more of a Stockholm Syndrome scenario than Snow White.”
“The plot thickens. Did my brother here kidnap you, then?”
“Brother? You two are siblings?” she asked, too distracted by the notion to answer the question.
“Only in title,” said Lumen. “The Dragons form an extended family of sorts; we prefer to think of it that way, as it keeps us from wanting to kill each other. Not to mention that there are likely some blood ties in our distant past. That’s one of many reasons that we don’t find our mates within the Dragon Guild.”
“I see,” replied Neko, recalling what she knew of the legends of the Kindred, of their strange mating rituals and their legendary bonds that ran deeper than the Atlantic Ocean. “Anyhow, no, your brother here didn’t exactly kidnap me. Unless you call breaking and entering, then forcing me to stay in my house and sleeping with me in my bed kidnapping. I call it something different entirely.” Thrilling. Sensual. Arousing.
It hadn’t exactly been unpleasant, after the initial shock of his presence in her kitchen, at least. A sudden flash went through her mind: the memory of his face between her legs, his tongue sweeping along her most sensitive places. She shuddered quietly as they walked, a sharp pulse hitting between her thighs.
“Lumen, I’m impressed,” said Minach, turning to the other shifter. “Normally you’re far more reserved. You moved very quickly with this one.”
Neko tightened. “This one? So you do this sort of thing often, do you?” A pang of envy struck her in the chest; envy of any woman who’d ever had the pleasure of Lumen’s mouth on her.
“He’s being a giant tosser,” said Lumen, turning his head to glance over his shoulder at her. “A ladies’ man, I am not. And the tactics that I employed with you—and you with me—are not exactly commonplace.”
“Tactics?” said Minach. “Tactile tactics, perhaps the sorts involving tongues?”
How the hell did he know that?
“What occurred between us is none of your concern, Minach,” Lumen said simply.
“Quite true,” his fellow shifter replied. “And just so that you know, Neko the Hunter, he’s a solitary one, this bastard. A real waste of good looks and raw talent, if you ask me.”
The relief that surged through her in that moment was enough to drive her crazy. She shouldn’t have cared one whit if Lumen had slept with women by the boatload; it shouldn’t have been any of her concern. They weren’t a couple, and she should, in fact, have been scheming to get far, far away from him.
But the awful and simple truth was that it did concern her—in fact, the thought of him with someone else made her ache brutally. He was hers, damn it all.
And she was his.
And there was no denying it. Not for long.
* * *
She shook her head violently, trying to force the thoughts and emotions away and to bring herself back to the present: the reality that she was currently imprisoned deep under Hampstead Heath with two men who could alter into Dragons at the drop of a hat. Not to mention that they could turn her into a pile of charcoal if they so chose.
“The Controllers,” she said, addressing both men. It was time to remember who she was: a Hunter, seeking answers, if not looking for her next victim. “I know from Lumen that they use the Lapsed for their own means, but what are they, exactly?”
Both men stopped, turned, and looked at her.
“They are everything and nothing at once,” said Minach. “And their presence here, in London, is disturbing. The Controllers are ancient yet ageless. Men who could have been great warriors, great shifters. But somewhere along the way, they became power hungry. Addicted to their déors, their shifted forms, choosing to remain in that state in order to take lives, to kill humans and other shifters, often for mere sport. Sometimes for years, decades at a time they roam in those forms: Dragons, Bears, Wolves. Choosing brute strength, rather than succumbing to the weakness of their human sides. They have a great disdain for emotion, for kindness. And so they’ve lost something of their humanity. More animal than person, more cruel than kind.”
“They’re like the Lapsed, then?” asked Neko. She recalled her client Umbra, sitting upright and stiff in her office. Neither entirely human nor anything else; he’d seemed to float somewhere in between, his flesh pale, his hands skeletal. Transparent and whole at once, somehow. She hadn’t known that there was a name for his kind; only that he was strange and otherwordly.
“Not entirely like the Lapsed,” said Lumen. “As you know, the Lapsed aren’t solid entities when in their human forms. Whereas the Controllers are—more or less. And of course they can speak, unlike the Lapsed; they’re capable of rational thought and of acting on their desires. But there’s so little human in them that they’re essentially psychopaths, unconcerned about the harm they do to those around them. Empathy isn’t exactly their forte.”
“Why do they want the Dragons dead?”
“That’s a very good question,” Lumen replied, his eyes turning to those of his fellow shifter. “And in all likelihood, they don’t. Not yet, at least. Not until they’ve gotten what they want from us.”
“Want from you? But Umbra—he hired me to kill you. He didn’t mention wanting me to steal anything. He said that he wanted you dead to help protect humans—though I still have no idea from what. I’ve been watching you Dragons, and it’s not as though you’re grilling people and eating them for breakfast.”
Lumen and Minach continued to make eye contact for a moment, their faces tense, even sorrowful.
“Umbra lied to you, Neko, as you know now,” said Lumen, turning her way. “About everything. I’m afraid that you are simply a pawn in a much larger game, as am I. As are we all. But we’ll need some information in order to sort through all of this. And I think I know where we’ll find some of it.”
As they began to walk again, Neko swallowed hard. In that moment all of Lumen’s lightheartedness had left his eyes and voice. It was difficult, somehow, to see him looking so deeply concerned; a man who seemed invincible shouldn’t even be capable of such an expression.
As for her, she was now part of something ancient, heavy and important, it seemed. A battle that had been raging for centuries, and she’d only begun to scratch its surface.
The question was, which side was she on?
Grab it here: Dragon Hunter Book Two is Live!