Hunter Cross, the Konig prince, is relegated to running the Crossbearer range while his sister, Erin, is the unwilling belle of the ball. Neither of them is happy with their places in the scheme of things.
When the last elder decides he wants both Erin and Sarah, the most powerful human sensitive ever encountered, as his mates, it's up to their men to protect them. Or is it? Erin is not what she seems. She is a force beyond all comprehension.
Erin isn't content to submit to the stone. For Erin, autonomy means freedom not to mate. If she can avoid Curt Maher, she can make her plan work. Curt has waited eight years for Erin to come to him. He's played by her rules for far too long. He will have Erin as mate, even if he has to conquer her in battle to get her. Little does he know that Erin wants to be conquered.
He cannot be lied to. He can see into your soul. He is Mikel Cross, the Konig prince, and Holly is destined to be his bride.
"One of the best fantasy worlds available to readers on the current market. I recommend the whole of the Night Warriors series. If you haven't read Brenna Lyons yet--go and buy her books today." Jaynie Ritchie for Romance Junkies
Nineteen-year-old Hunter Jonas of Crossbearer, the Konig prince, stared at the book in his lap and sighed.
His grandfather raised an eyebrow over his own volume. "Problem, Hunter?"
Hunter panned his gaze over the old man. It wasn't hard to see Corwyn Lord Hunter, elder hunter and Stone lord, as every title he had. The man was strong--even into his seventies, bold, practically fearless, wise, and had seen more hurt than even a Cursed Warrior deserved in his lifetime.
"I'm just not sure I'm prepared for this. I always assumed that I'd live like the other Konigs forever--traveling, seeing everything." He shrugged. "I never thought I'd be called to be a house lord of any house but Konig."
Then the Stone--the inconstant, self-serving Stone--had made the latest of many life-altering decrees. The mysterious plan to save Haus Kreuztrager revolved around the Konig prince taking his father's place as lord of the house while Talon remained head of Konig.
The reason was obvious. Konig was to be the women's house. The Blutjagdfrau were destined to be wanderers, to mate and drag their husbands into Konig. Hunter, as the prince, could be relegated to more mundane tasks. He was Krieger der Nacht, a Night Warrior, something the women would never be permitted to be. Hunter could--and should--hunt the night, which made him the perfect answer to Crossbearer's problems.
When Talon married his mother, Jayde Marie of Hunter-Crossbearer, elder killer and Blutjagdfrau, he was forced to relinquish his place in Crossbearer range to protect his wife. It looked as if the Cross family would die as its own house with that match. The last of his line, the family was willing to make the sacrifice of Talon in exchange for the birth of the true elder killers that would come from the mating between a Blutjagdfrau and Warrior, the foretold end to this seemingly endless war. But the Stone likes its puzzles, and this puzzle meant that the freedoms Hunter loved were about to be lost to him forever.
True elder killers-- Hunter almost laughed at that. The Konig name was something hard to live up to. His grandfathers, Corwyn Hunter and Piers Cross, were both elder hunters. His mother had the distinction of being the only Warrior in history to kill the first elder she ever encountered. Talon almost died at the elder Veriel's hands before Jayde intervened, but that was his priming run. Since that time, Talon had killed three elders--one in single combat and two with the help of other Warriors. It was jokingly said that Hunter had the assist on the last of those kills, since his newborn screams had distracted the elder long enough for his mother to plant a blade in him from her birthing bed and his father to deal the killing blow.
Hunter shook his head hopelessly. "It's just..."
Corwyn nodded in understanding. "Frightening," he decided.
Hunter's eyes widened in surprise. "I wouldn't say," he began proudly.
"It's perfectly normal, Hunter. I was terrified when the seal passed to me. At least Piers will be actively grooming you for the job over the next few years. Jonas acted as if he would live forever. I was unprepared for the duty of house lord in the extreme."
Hunter nodded slowly. Unprepared-- Yes, Corwyn still blamed his youth and inexperience for the loss of his wife and daughter. It took twenty-four years for the fickle Stone to bring Jayde back home to the Warriors...with no memory of the few hours she'd had in their midst at birth. Jayde's indoctrination into the life had been a hard one, but Talon had been there for her. In the end, that was enough for her.
"I just wish my father would take his place first. He's the next in line."
Corwyn set his book down and steepled his fingers in front of his face. "You know he can't. When he and Jayde married, Talon had to relinquish that life. He can never be Talon Cross without being Lord Konig now. Even if Jayde died, there's Erin to protect."
Ah, yes...Erin. The Stone threw them another loop, in the form of Erin. One Blutjagdfrau wasn't trouble enough. It marked Erin, too. She was the belle of the ball. Their princess was twelve now, and that was no easy age. Though Hunter loved his sister dearly, Erin could try the patience of the Stone. Not to mention, being the young princess meant Erin would have the life Hunter wanted and was being denied. She would never have the drudgery of running a range.
Hunter scowled. "Until Erin mates, and a Warrior relinquishes his range for her."
"You don't understand why she seems favored." His grandfather smiled crookedly.
"Seems, hell! Erin is favored. I'm capable of producing elder killers, too. I'm marked. I'm chosen."
"You aren't hunted--not like Erin will be. Remember why your mother named her Erin. Being hunted cost Jayde her life with us."
Hunter felt his cheeks heat at the rebuke. His mother had been born as Erin Allison Hunter, but Veriel's attempt to take her before she could be freed resulted in her complete loss by both sides for all those years. She came back as Jayde Marie Albright, the name her adoptive parents had given her, based on the Jager seal on her amulet.
"I seem to remember that there was a war the day I was born," Hunter reminded his grandfather. "You were injured in the fight, as I recall."
"You won't be forced to serve as a sexual slave to a beast elder if you're defeated. You won't be pursued as a mate by every Warrior of marriageable age. You have no choice but to marry a human. Even if you meet the freed daughter of a house that you desire, she will still be human."
"Is that why you sneak in training for Erin?"
Corwyn darkened, and his eyes hardened. "It isn't formal training, Hunter. You know that. Your parents won't allow it yet. The first cursed were permitted to play at battle together from the time they could hold a wooden blade, and Regana was permitted to play with them. As Stone-Chosen, Sibold permitted it."
"She was Regana. She was Raga," Hunter countered. "That was different. Erin doesn't have the mark of Ani like our mother does. She isn't Raga."
"The Stone says it's no different. Erin is Stone-Chosen and marked, though the damned thing won't tell me what she's chosen for. It does insist that she should be treated as all Stone-Chosen women have been treated so far. Jayde's upbringing was orchestrated for her survival to mating. Erin's must be as well. So, I do what must be done."
More Stone secrets? Hunter shook his head in annoyance. The Stone had a love of puzzles. It would give riddles or remain silent to amuse Itself, until a Warrior figured out what was so damned funny this time. So, Erin needed training that the sanctions and her parents didn't approve of. What was so funny this time?
"What makes Erin's children so important?" Hunter asked suddenly. Hadn't Corwyn said that often enough? Hadn't he proclaimed how important her children would be?
"The Stone says they are, and I can't speak for the Stone, but I imagine that each generation of Blutjagdfrau that intermarries with the Warriors will produce a stronger stock. Your children will be superior, because they're yours, but Erin's will be more so."
Hunter nodded. "I suppose that makes sense."
Their heads swung around as Erin charged into the room, looking rather jittery. Hunter groaned, wondering what trouble she had gotten into this time.
"What is it, Erin?" Hunter asked in exasperation.
"Something's coming. Coming fast," she replied urgently. Erin looked over her shoulder and back quickly, swinging the fan of small braids she loved so dearly around her head in a wave.
Hunter groaned again. "Erin, please play Warrior somewhere else. The adults want to talk."
His sister narrowed her eyes and darkened in anger, looking very much like Corwyn had a few minutes earlier. She shook her head furiously, tossing the braids in a cloud around her face. "Are you dense?" she demanded. "Can't you feel it?"
"Erin! Just stop it. There are two Warriors sitting right here. If something was coming, we'd feel it, not you. Your curse isn't even due for another four years," he muttered. "Now, go away."
She stamped her bare foot in annoyance. "Fine. Ignore me. It's your skin, Warrior. I'm going to the training room. At least I'll have weapons available to me when they take you out." Erin turned on her heel and ducked his hand as Hunter reached for her.
"You're not allowed to handle sacred weapons yet," he bellowed after her. Despite what Corwyn was doing, the sanctions clearly stated that.
"Yeah? Well, tell me about it when you learn to sense like a normal person," she shot back sarcastically.
Erin started to storm away, but Corwyn vaulted across the room to her and snagged her arm. Hunter smiled at the thought that Erin was about to get a little well-deserved discipline, but his grandfather knelt to her level with earnest concern.
"What do you feel, Erin?" Corwyn asked. "Quickly now. Tell me. What do you feel?"
"Something mean is comingâ€¦something...dark...cold. The night is moving." Erin grimaced then shivered, shifting her weight from foot to foot nervously, bending her knees slightly and adopting a defensive stance seemingly without noticing that she had. "I don't like it. It's close."
"How close?" he demanded.
"I can't tell. Too close. Let's leave, Grandpa," she pleaded, pulling at his arm ineffectually. "Please, we have to leave. We have to leave, now!" Her eyes were wide and wild and her face pale. Her hand clutched at Corwyn's sleeve, tearing the black fabric at the shoulder seam, her arm muscles tensing, her breathing going ragged.
Hunter watched her, cataloging every move in confusion. "What the hell..." Erin didn't fear anything, but she was shaking in terror, nonetheless. This was panic. It was something primal, something he'd never seen or experienced before.
Corwyn touched her face, gently soothing her. "It's too late for that, Erin. Get your shoes and hide in the training room where the Stone will protect you. Stay in there, no matter what you hear. Unless I come for you...or Hunter does, stay there. We won't call for you. Do you understand me? We won't call; we will come for you."
She nodded sadly and bolted from the room.
Corwyn stood and unsheathed his weapon, taking a deep breath to center himself. "Get up, Hunter," he ordered gruffly. "We'll have an enemy to fight shortly."
"I don't sense anything," Hunter protested, taking to his feet nervously.
Corwyn nodded, his jaw tightening. "Anna-- My wife did this more than once. The Stone had planned for her to bear Jayde for me. Though it never touched her directly, it protected Anna by announcing danger to her." He motioned to the doorway Erin left by with his blade. "Just like that, Hunter. Prepare yourself for a battle. They're coming," he asserted.
"No beast ghosts that perfectly. I always sense something. You know that."
It was a gift Hunter had, a gift that made him invaluable in battle. Despite the scene a month earlier in Armen range, there had been no indications that Erin could sense a beast. Hunter had never believed that Erin's reaction in the woods was more than her wild imagination. He sobered. Corwyn believed her. Their grandfather was the only one who'd believed her that day. Everyone else had acted, because they'd trusted Corwyn's instincts...not Erin's.
Corwyn shook his head. "You've never met an elder before. The last time you encountered one was the day you were born."
"Lorian?" Hunter breathed in shock. "Here?"
It was a quiet confirmation, too calm to be a comfort. Corwyn was ready to die. That unnerved Hunter worse than the older man's usual battle style.
"Why would Lorian come here now?"
"My guess is that he knows how unprotected Erin is. She has only us tonight."
"He intends to take her, doesn't he?"
"But, she hasn't reached change," Hunter noted with a sick certainty that he knew what was coming.
"Does Erin bleed? It's hard to miss her maturing body. Has she started her cycles?"
Hunter blushed and nodded. Erin had started cycling months earlier. He had been teasing her unmercifully about her attendant aches and pains of womanhood, including the bras she despised but Jayde insisted on.
"But, she's still human," he pleaded.
"All the better to pleasure and amuse him until she can bear his child. Lorian wants Erin defenseless. He doesn't want her able to fight him."
Hunter felt bile rising as a foul wave in his throat. "Never!" Blutjagd lit his blood up like a volcano. "Not Erin. He can't have her."
"She's your responsibility, Hunter. Even if Crossbearer dies in the exchange, Lorian must not take Erin."
"Only if I die." An image of Erin stamping her foot and shaking her braids assaulted him, fueling Hunter's rage. "Here they come," he commented coolly.
The first wave of beasts consisted of four high-level turned. Hunter fought in a haze, barely registering their names before taking the lives of three of them to Corwyn's one. By the time the next six arrived, his entire system was humming. Lorian was closing.
Hunter's muscles burned as he fought, but visions of Erin--newly-born and placed in his arms while their mother shielded them both with her body and her blades--stoked his bloodlust for more. It was him now. Hunter was placing his body and blades between the beasts and Erin. She should be safe in the training room. The Stone was there to protect her, as long as she stayed put.
He watched Corwyn out of the corner of his eye. The Lord Hunter was in his seventies now, and though honor demanded he never reveal it, he was flagging. A beast would take him soon, as one took Colin only a few years before. Hunter only hoped it wouldn't happen that night.
So far, Erin had been well-insulated against the harsher realities--at least in practical experience. She read every volume she encountered ravenously, but Erin hadn't seen, with her own eyes, how the beasts killed and died.
Part of it was the fact that the Konigs were hard to track, but even more was the fact that the beasts avoided their family like the plague. Unless forced to battle by an elder, no beast sought out the elder killers. Since Erin's birth, the Konigs had only had a half dozen encounters with beasts that they hadn't specifically sought out.
A beast suddenly materialized behind his grandfather, and Hunter shouted Corwyn's name in warning. As Hunter took the heart of the beast in front of him and his grandfather did the same, the new beast--the elder Lorian--thrust his hand through Corwyn's back and ripped out his beating heart. Hunter tramped back his nausea painfully. He had never seen such a vicious, cold attack. Lorian smiled as he sank his fangs to drink from the still-leaking organ. Having drained it, he dropped it with a sickening splat next to Corwyn's fallen form.
"A barbaric way to kill that I picked up from Resten," Lorian informed the young Warrior. "It doesn't give the rush of truly feeding, but it is quick and effective."
"And doesn't allow your mind to wander," Hunter noted evenly.
"That does tend to leave one open to attack," he admitted.
"I should probably remind you that Resten died at Pauwel's hands for his barbaric ways," Hunter warned.
Lorian scowled. "A lie told for more than fifteen centuries and no better a lie today. Jorg had all but killed Resten already. Only the fact that he was constrained from doing so stopped him from taking the killing blow himself. He gifted your great-sire Pauwel with the killing blow on a half-dead beast elder to avenge himself."
"Avenge? Why would Veriel want to kill Resten? You can't even tell plausible lies."
Lorian laughed bitterly. "For the loss of his woman, Jorg would kill anyone in his way. It was fitting that he should go beast. He always was a beast," he finished distastefully.
"What woman? Veriel went beast before the battle. He had no woman," Hunter countered.
"Oh, he did--taken deceitfully and in a beastly manner, but Jorg had her, again and again. Gawen would have killed him for it, but luckily for Jorg, he went beast before that could happen."
"You're saying Veriel went beast because he would have faced Gawen's blades for taking Regana?" Hunter asked in disbelief. Some part of him ached that Corwyn hadn't lived to uncover the knowledge he'd sought for so long, the secrets of Regana and Veriel.
"No, Jorg didn't care if he faced Gawen's blades. Such was his madness, but Resten and Marclef threatened him with Regana's death as well--for baiting him to madness. It was a lie, of course. Jorg was the source of his own madness."
"Why tell me this, now?" Hunter asked in confusion.
"Marclef made promises to get his beasts."
Hunter set his jaw angrily. "Your promised mates are long dead. You will not take my sister in the place of the one you were promised."
"She is Stone-Chosen to bear my children," he decided quietly.
"She is Stone-Chosen to bear children for whatever man she chooses," Hunter countered furiously. "Do you honestly believe she'll choose a beast that just slaughtered her grandfather?"
"With the proper incentive, I believe so."
"What? Lies like Veriel tried to offer my mother?" Hunter scoffed. "Erin knows better."
Lorian smiled rows of perfect, white teeth, his fangs retracted, looking charming in the illusion of a white mandarin shirt and dark gray suit that showcased his dark features, all traces of the blood that stained his face and hands moments before eradicated. "Call to her, Hunter of Kreuztrager-Konig."
A chill rushed through Hunter's gut. "Never. I will never betray Erin," he gasped, praying he was strong enough to take what punishment Lorian was about to dish out for his refusal. For Erin. If Erin is safe, I can take whatever he does in stride.
"As you wish. Fight me, then."