Hearts of Warriors Ch. 01


"I'm in," he smiled at Demetri. "Just point me where you want me and I'll get all the intelligence you need."

Demetri nodded turning his gaze to meet Mac's. He wondered if he would need to use his ace card to convince the other Elder to take up the reins of The Praetorians. He didn't want to but the children were at risk. If he had to bring up the past to secure their future then he would.

"So you want me to run this elite guard, train up loyal vampires and protect a wolf pack without being seen by them or our charges?" Mac finally asked staring into the dying embers of the funeral pyre. "Just how is that supposed to work, Demetri, if we have to stay hidden from the very people we're meant to protect?"

Demetri smiled, relaxing completely as he watched his friend. The tone of Mac's voice told him everything; his request for more information a clear indicator that he would accept the task given to him.

"By scent," he answered. "The children are extraordinarily talented, Mac. They can mask their true scent and are receiving instruction in how to do so as quickly as possible. The Praetorians will be given their true scent. Only when they leave the compound will you have to track them. They will release their scent for a fraction of a second before they mask it, allowing their guardians to follow their 'new' scent at a distance.

They will have no idea why they're doing it, but this practice will be taught until it becomes an ingrained habit. It's imperative they have a normal childhood, not just for their sake but for everyone who loves them. You know how volatile the Romanovs are. They've become worse since they've had children."

Mac did know the Romanovs well, though it had been many years since he'd been in their company. The fallout of anything happening to their offspring would be catastrophic.

He'd known instantly he was going to accept control of The Praetorians. Demetri had known it too, the moment the children were mentioned. Memories flashed unbidden; a babe in a bloody gown with her throat ripped out, a woman lying dead at her side.

Mackenzie pushed down the memories ruthlessly, his face a hard mask, no sign of the gut wrenching pain he was experiencing coming to light. He had failed a child once before, so very long ago when life had been much simpler. He would never fail a child again. He would die before another babe was destroyed because of his inaction.

"What else do I need to know?" His voice was as unemotional as his expression, acceptance in the words he spoke.

Demetri's deep green eyes glowed with respect, his nod conveying his thanks. He knew what Mackenzie was thinking of, knew his hard mask hid an agony he would never personally understand.

He'd been there that day so very long ago, had seen the madness of grief in the human male's eyes as he'd discovered his wife and child dead. It was one of the very few times Demetri Bozic had ever chosen to Sire another to the life of a vampire. He had stopped the man from taking his own life, had healed his wounds and mentored him past the bloodlust.

Then he had taught him everything he knew about how to protect and how to kill. Mackenzie had been honed in a fire of fury and revenge. His entire life had been consumed with the need to fight for a cause, to right any wrong he came across.

Without realising it, Demetri had carefully crafted the ultimate killing machine on the side of good. The children could have no better protector, of that he was certain.

The sun slipped low over the horizon as the three male vampires huddled together talking in low voices despite their secluded location. High in the mountains in the wilderness of Romania, the Praetorians were once again born.


Present Day

A quarter of a century had passed since that day and Mac was standing in the outer courtyard of a secluded building high in the mountains surrounding the Armand-Hanlon pack. He was staring at five men and three women who had applied to join the Praetorians, vampires whose loyalties had been checked rigorously before they reached this point of their induction.

The Praetorians' one objective remained the same. Protect the Vârcolac, the Romanian title given to Vampire/Were children. Technically the word could be used for either a vampire or a Were. There was no true name for a hybrid, but someone had decided they didn't like the term hybrid being used for the children so Vârcolac has been as good a name as any.

Whatever their charges were termed made no difference to The Praetorians. They were to be protected at all costs; nothing was more important than that, even though the children were now fully grown adults.

The Praetorians were above the normal chain of command, answerable only to three people, the members of the triumvirate. Before final selection occurred, one of the three would arrive and scan each candidate using their magic to determine any deception hidden deep within. No one could hide from the power they wielded no matter how skilled they were.

Mac knew that from personal experience. He could still remember that day as if it had just occurred. Demetri had taken him stateside straight to Caleb Cullen's home after Pietro had headed off to begin his mission.

He'd heard of Cullen before, though he hadn't met him. The sheer power oozing from the towering Ancient had been impressive, the way his golden brown eyes had bored into his soul intimidating even to one as confident as Mac.

The Guardian had been equally as impressive, with flaming auburn hair and age oozing from his skin. His glowing lavender eyes were piercing as he too dug deep within Mac's soul.

But it was the petite redhead standing beside them that had brought a true chill to Mackenzie's soul that day. Rhianna Armand was but a babe, a Youngling not even a decade old. But by God, her eyes had held such power, flashing lavender like her brother's but with an intensity that had stripped him bare and left him feeling helpless.

One glance and he was hurtled back in time, screaming in raw agony over the bodies of his wife and child, wanting to die with them, unable to stand the thought of never seeing them alive again.

The vampire queen's eyes had suddenly brimmed with tears as she pierced every barrier he'd ever had, a muffled sob escaping her and drawing the eyes of the males who'd flanked her.

"Such suffering for one so noble," she'd whispered shakily, moving to stand before him and reaching a hand up towards his face.

He'd found himself leaning down without conscious thought, allowing her to cup his cheek gently and soothe some of the inner anguish he'd felt. The pain had dulled slightly, had become more bearable. He'd instinctually known she would be able to soothe him.

She wept for him. This small woman with eyes so old they told a thousand tales of her own loss and suffering, her own heartbreak at what had befallen her people. She had stolen his allegiance in that very moment. He'd been ready to sink to his knees before his queen but her eyes had told him not to.

"You will be the perfect guardian for our children, Mackenzie," she'd said softly. "One day you will know peace again, proud warrior. I don't know when that will be but I do know it's fated for you. Welcome, my Praetorian."

And his new life had begun that day, blessed by a queen and her king and guardian. The males had used their powers to assess his loyalty but he'd sensed Rhianna's acceptance was all they'd required to accept him as the right candidate to lead the elite guard.

He had pledged himself wholeheartedly to his task, and to date he had been worthy of his queen's trust. Not one hair on the children had been harmed since they came under his care. They'd seldom left the compound as they grew up and were zealously protected by their parents when they did. The Praetorians had followed discreetly on those occasions, close enough to be available if required but always far enough to escape the children's notice.

Not one Praetorian had ever sighted one of the Vârcolac even though they knew where they were every second of every day. Their charges had been able to grow up happy and carefree.

Mac was proud that he'd achieved what was asked of him. For some unknown reason, no new children had been conceived in the last twenty-five years. Rhianna had told him once that it was a puzzle to everyone why this was the case.

The current train of thought was it had something to do with the hybrid nature of the parents. With both being effectively immortal there was talk of it possibly being nature's way of balancing out the numbers.

The Were doctors believed that once the current generation reached full maturity, the reproduction cycle would likely begin again. If that was the case then the possibility of new Vârcolac being conceived was highly imminent, which meant Mac needed to increase the number of Praetorians.

Sometimes the elite guard were also called on to come in contact with the Weres directly though their counterparts had no idea they were in the presence of one of the Praetorians. They were usually disguised as mere bodyguards for a Were/Council meeting, something so ordinary none of the Weres thought anything of it.

To this end, Mac had two of his most trusted people in close proximity to the Alphas of both the Armand-Hanlon and Hanlon packs, though they never entered the compounds so they could avoid being detected by the children.

All candidates went through rigorous training by his lieutenants, but Mac had final say on all who came under his command. And he wasn't easy on those who thought they could hack it.

Now his cold, black eyes surveyed those gathered before him. He'd already discounted two of them. Neither had held his gaze for the required length of time he demanded of them. If they couldn't look him in the eye for more than ten seconds then it showed they were weaker than they thought.

Holding Mac's gaze was a chilling experience. He knew others saw death when they looked in his eyes. Most vampires had to be in their feral state to have irises the same hue as his, but Mac wasn't in his feral state. His eyes were a bottomless pit of utter darkness, disconcerting and deadly in appearance.

He discounted one of the women when she looked away after less than five seconds and turned to the final woman at the end of the line. There was something unusual about this one. He'd known it instantly because he'd noticed her the second he'd walked out of the large house the Praetorians used as their base.

She'd drawn his eye as he made his way down the six steps to stand before them, his agile mind flicking through what he knew about her. Andrea Ruminskey, an Elder of just under one hundred and fifty years old. She was the sole survivor of a European coven massacre a decade ago.

Not a lot was known about her other than that, except she was fast, deadly, and was the top candidate out of the eight wanting to join him. He'd tasked Pietro to find out as much as he could about her. His report hadn't thrown up any red flags.

She appeared to be just what her file told him. What his eyes told him was she was five foot nine inches tall, had thick, wavy brown hair with traces of gold hidden within. She currently had it tied back in a high ponytail and the style accented the graceful sweep of her high cheekbones and exquisitely beautiful features.

Sleek, toned muscles graced her body clad in black cargo pants and tank top. She was dressed as a soldier but had none of the butch look some fighting women could develop.

No, the generous handful of breasts beneath her tank top screamed woman at him and his cock had fisted hard as he'd walked down the steps to come and stand before the gathered candidates.

That was an interesting development. He hadn't lain with a woman for a couple of weeks, having been away on assignment. He didn't usually fuck the women in his team either. Maybe Andrea Ruminskey would fail his test. He could fuck her before he tossed her out on her ass.

Mac stiffened as he stared into chocolate eyes that appeared to be amused. How long had he been ruminating? How long had he had her gaze trapped with his as his cock twitched at the thought of fucking her? He knew the answer to that question even though he hadn't been paying much attention at the time. Their gaze had been locked for at least twenty seconds.

Fuck, that put paid to thoughts of fucking her. He was irritated to note she was not only holding his gaze. She appeared to be silently laughing at him, as if she knew the direction his mind had wandered. He would have to put her in her place, make sure she knew just who was in command here. Over confidence was just as dangerous as being too weak.

Turning from her, he pointed out the three he'd marked earlier and one of his men marched forward and motioned them to follow him. They would be gone within five minutes. He could feel the brunette's eyes on his back and forced himself to disregard her, as he did the others, to have a quiet word with Karn, his second in command.

Liliana Rose Romanov watched the tall vampire turn away from her and fought hard to keep her expression neutral. Her lips were so tempted to curve into a wide smile, but she didn't think that would go down well with the male she wanted to impress.

Mac was glorious, everything she had been told and then some. His physique was that of a seasoned soldier, all hard muscles and lethal grace. He wore his inky-black hair long and secured in a thick braid but the best feature about him was his eyes. They were black as midnight, devoid of any light or softness. They were the eyes of a predator.

When she'd made the decision to join the Praetorians, she'd researched its leader carefully and had been intrigued by what she'd discovered. He was an Elder just past fifteen hundred years old and he was the perfect vampire. Unlike most of their kind who had some affiliation to at least one or more people, Mac appeared to have none.

There was no family lurking in the background, no friends or acquaintances he aligned himself with. He appeared completely alone though she wasn't fooled by the knowledge she'd unearthed about him.

Yes, the man was cold and remote, ruthless in his dealings with everyone but she'd managed to ferret out that he classed Demetri as his friend. As her adopted uncle had impeccable taste and didn't give his friendship lightly, that spoke volumes about just what kind of man Mac was.

That information earned him her respect and she'd delved deeper, loving everything she'd managed to uncover about Mackenzie. She was very good at ferreting out things, which was how she'd come to discover the shadowy world of the Praetorians in the first place.

She was eighteen the first time she'd become aware of something not quite right around the compound. Her inquisitive nature had kicked in and instead of telling anyone she'd began working harder on her shadowing technique until she could shift to her wolf form and shadow herself deep within the forest.

She'd caught her very first glimpse of Mac that day. Her heart had faltered as he'd stridden into a clearing obviously meeting up with his soldiers. He'd reminded her of some great general from the past commanding his people with short clipped sentences. He'd been nothing short of a God in her eyes, the first unattached male to catch her inexperienced eye.

She'd had an ill-advised crush on Aaron the month before but Jen had sat her down and been very kind even as she'd politely advised her she'd kick her ass all over the compound if she came anywhere near her mate. Lily had wanted to die of embarrassment but Jen had finished her warning with her customary warm hug and a promise that one day she'd find her soul mate so she should practice patience until that happened.

The problem was Lily had a bit of an issue with patience sometimes, which was how she'd found herself deep in the forest, listening to Mac talk with his people, learning all about the Praetorians and their mission. She was amazed and pleased to discover that Jen had been proven right and she'd had barely a month to wait.

As her eyes had feasted on the delicious male in front of her, the need to growl loudly had almost overcome her and given away her presence, but she'd managed to contain her wolf as the stupid thing had started screaming mine at the top of its lungs.

She hadn't needed her wolf to tell her that, she'd known the instant she'd seen him that Mackenzie belonged to her. It was then she understood Jen's words of wisdom about having patience.

A man like Mac needed a strong woman and she was barely into maturity. She'd need a little more time to grow up and work on becoming the kind of woman Mac would find irresistible.

Today, the final phase of Operation Mackenzie would begin. Lily didn't even entertain the possibility that she would fail to win this proud warrior's heart. Failure was just not an option. He belonged to her; it was as simple as that. She was everything he desired even if he didn't know it yet.

Lily continued watching him as he kept his back to the waiting candidates. Everything about him screamed danger; the way he moved, the dead black eyes he used mercilessly against everyone. Most people would shy away from a man like him but Lily wasn't most people. She was used to dealing with feral males with lightening tempers which could spring up out of nowhere. Her father was a prime example of that.

Lily couldn't stop her lips from twitching fractionally as she thought of her dad. She adored him even when he drove her to act impulsively as she was doing now. Her mother tried her hardest to temper his over-protectiveness but the man still managed to be everywhere Lily turned around.

Not one male in the pack had been brave enough to come near her. Any that had even dared look in her direction quickly averted their gaze once her father noted their interest. The man could be so insufferable at times, pigheaded and frustrating. No one was good enough for his little girl and it had driven her insane.

That was the second reason she'd carefully constructed a personal history for 'Andrea Ruminskey.' Apart from the obvious one - the Praetorians would recognise her name and send her home with a flea in her ear - her false identity made it harder for Andrei to track her down. She'd had to use every bit of her computer skills to create the fictitious woman so she could get past the stringent checks done on all candidates for the Praetorians.

Thankfully she wasn't well known in the vampire community because of Andrei's paranoia that someone would hurt his children. They'd been kept to pack lands the majority of their lives. It had taken her a good decade of slipping away using her shadowing abilities to 'live' a secret life as Andrea. She'd only needed to put in small appearances here and there so people got to know of her.

Having the ability to mask her scent was an added bonus. She'd carefully practiced her skill until she had it down to a fine art. Anyone could scent her now and all they would sense would be her vampiric half. Her Were side was hidden deeply within her. That pissed off her wolf a bit but she understood. She was just as frustrated at being caged by their father.

Lily knew her parents were probably furious with her right now, but she was determined to go through with her plans. She'd left them a note to say she was fine and would be in contact soon. She didn't want them to think she'd been kidnapped and call out the Praetorians to try and track her down. That would be too ironic.

Andrei's overpowering protectiveness had caged her, stifled her adventurous spirit so much she'd had to get away. She was almost thirty and had never truly experienced life. She knew her father loved her, was terrified something terrible would happen to her because of her heritage. But he was incapable of seeing that he was smothering her and denting her self-confidence. She needed to prove to herself what she was capable of, learn who she was as a person and not just a Vârcolac.

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byJazCullen© 115 comments/ 178340 views/ 180 favorites

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