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Between Bloode and Wolf
Author: Marie Harte

 


CHAPTER

ONE

 

 

Outskirts of Crimson Claw territory

Noblewood, WA

February

 

 

It didn’t take a genius to realize she was being followed.

Riley twitched her ears and lifted her muzzle but didn’t detect anything more than snow and pine.

Despite not scenting, hearing, or seeing anything in the thick forest, she felt, deep in her bones, that a predator lurked nearby. Riley hadn’t lived through nearly a century of infighting and the constant need to prove herself only to fall prey to whoever, or whatever, thought it could take her on and emerge unscathed.

The notion she might have been followed by one of those creatures from that strange house on Mercer Island lingered at the back of her mind. Just the thought caused a shiver, then she snarled at herself for that shadow of fear that remained.

But no. It had been over two weeks since she’d rescued her cousin, and she’d had no inkling of pursuit since returning home with him.

Besides, had any of those creatures found her, she’d be dead already. Drained of every drop of her blood after being tormented and brutalized. Though the local upir clan in Seattle tended to keep to themselves, every now and then vampires ventured out into the wild to screw with the packs. With no love lost between blood-drinkers and lycans, the two species typically kept to themselves.

But not always.

The new clan of vampires in Seattle bothered the hell out of her. Dangerous, evil, and up to no good, they should have been exterminated on sight. Instead, the pack leaders didn’t seem to mind that a new faction of fangers had moved into the city. The upir clan was bad enough. The new Night Bloode clan had kidnapped her cousin and no one seemed to care.

She wanted to rip throats out. But her uncle would make no move until he’d resolved their issues with the Wildridge pack making threats and eyeing the proverbial throne.

Her alpha had his priorities seriously out of order. She’d once seen a vampire tear the arms off a witch, just because he could. It had taken all the pack’s enforcers—including her now deceased parents—to destroy the mad monster while the pack leaders had bargained with mages to hide the deed. A debt the pack was still paying off, as evidenced by their unfortunate association with the Rainier mage council.

Vampires never minded warring with each other, but they turned on any non-vampire with prejudice. Kill one and expect death to be waiting on your doorstep before you could blink.

The crackle of a branch pierced the eerie stillness of night, and she froze, her legs and tail stiff, her ears erect, her hackles up. She did her best to capture the scent of whatever pursued her. But no. Nothing but pine, snow, and...blood? No, not blood, exactly. Something tantalizing though. Sandalwood and copper, and a hint of spice she wanted more of.

Interesting.

She sniffed, looking all around.

The smell faded as if it had never been, and though she tried, she couldn’t recapture that sultry tang in the air.

The moonlight made the snow glisten, too bright to ignore while pale shadows caressed the undersides of the pines providing cover for whatever might have trailed her.

She snarled low and turned all around. Impatient to tear into an enemy, she wanted nothing more than to sink her teeth into battle and rid herself of her building frustration.

After the past week spent dealing with raving direwolves out west, she’d had enough lycan drama to last through her next century. And now this ghost of a stalker?

She barked a warning, waited, and saw nothing but a clump of snow fall off a tree limb and sink into a foot-deep mound. The wind whispered, and the moonlight promised life and strength.

Nothing else moved.

Annoyed with herself and with no help for it, Riley turned and continued toward home, wondering if she’d been imagining things. But as she neared the outskirts of Noblewood, deep in the heart of Crimson Claw territory, the scent of blood grew stronger.

She increased her pace, wondering at the unnatural silence.

A thickness in the air warned her to be ready for the subtle pop of sound and color. Between one breath and the next, all hell broke loose as she crossed the boundary of the spell shielding the mess before her.

Gone was the empty, peaceful forest, replaced by an open field covered in half-naked lycans in human and direwolf form along with a bunch of robed mages, everyone fighting over muddied and bloodied snow. Spells of fire and water flew in the air. A host of dires snapped and snarled; others laughed their human asses off while toasting each other with full tankards of beer. The noise grew into a cacophony of curses, growls, and threats from both canine and human voices.

What the hell?

About to jump in and help her aunt, who fell under the meaty fists of a lycan from the Nightguard pack, she paused when her cousin—who should still have been in his sickbed—leaped into the fray, taking a few lycans down with him.

“Get’ em, Max,” his mother ordered while punching a blond in the face. Several times.

“Take that, you cheating scum. The rights to the hoard belong to the Crimson Claw!”

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Not that stupid game again.

Howling and barking joined the chorus, a familiar refrain from the battle song the pack had recently adopted, straight from the video game they embraced as their new field of play—Arrow Sins & Siege.

Idiots.

Seeing her, Max grinned and waved before his younger brother knocked him over and claimed victory in the name of the barbarian savages of Winterwind—more silly game references.

“Stay down, Max.” Flint nodded to her. “Hey, Riley. You’re late.” Before he could say anything more, a blast of water hit him in the face and knocked him flat. He tried to rise, only to be tackled by two rowdy dires and the water mage, all of them laughing as they held him down. Then Max whaled on him. Typical brothers.

She growled under her breath, ignored the morons playing at war, and trotted past them toward her cabin. Max better not have screwed with anything in my personal quarters.

Shifting on the move back into her clothed, human form, she entered the back of her comfy one-bedroom cabin and glanced around, pleased to find it undisturbed.

Located between Packwood and Ashford in Northern Washington, Noblewood (population 542) boasted the largest lycan town in the Pacific Northwest and sat at the nexus of three packs.

Noblewood existed mostly off the grid. They did get the occasional lost tourist making a wrong turn off a hiking trail in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but only those with some affinity for magic ever made it through the many spells and totems protecting the town.

Known for their arts and crafts, her pack dealt with the city dires, liaising from Seattle, to sell their goods and used those funds to keep the town alive. Since lycans tended toward creative endeavors and lived for hundreds of years, Noblewood had been thriving under the current pack’s leadership. Forty years of peace and prosperity had filled Noblewood’s coffers, minds, and hearts.

Life had been just about perfect until they’d uncovered that blasted artifact. Now the Wildridge pack kept hinting at a civil war while the Raven’s Eye dires nipped at her alpha’s heels, warning of unrest.

So when Max, the alpha’s heir and her favorite cousin, had gone missing a few weeks ago, she’d been sent to bring him back. Berserker for the Crimson Claw pack, Riley was used to cleaning up messes. But her efforts usually resulted in the offender permanently disappearing, which hadn’t been an option when dealing with blasted vampires.

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