Hearts of Warriors Ch. 01byJazCullen©
Here we go again. Buckle seatbelts, hold on tight, and have fun reading LOL!
That break I was having didn't last too long again. Can't keep the stories out of my head or my fingers off the keyboard :-)
This story is probably best read after reading the preceding ones in the FTI saga, the order to read can be found on my Lit profile.
To my regular readers, welcome back. To any new ones, I hope you enjoy.
Special thanks as always goes to the Guild for all their help. Also to the tweeps who I've teased mercilessly with updates on how far I've gotten in this story without posting it up yet (LOL). They've been very patient with me.
Once more mikothebaby is giving up her valuable time to edit for me and I can never say thank you adequately enough to her. You're the best!
Romania -- Twenty-five years ago
The two dark-haired males travelled fast, the scent of blood strong in the air as they ascended higher into the heavily-wooded mountain range. It was well past dawn but the air was cold despite the sunshine piercing the wide canopy of the trees.
Not that either of the males felt the cold. They were vampires; one so Ancient he'd existed over two thousand years, the other an Elder who was barely a handful of years from reaching his thirteenth century. They'd known each other a long time and were comfortable travelling together in silence as they strove to reach their target.
Their passage was silent despite their incredible speed, their eyes completely black, long wicked-looking black talons at the ready. Modern day humans had such a mythical view of what real vampires were. They would have been horrified to see them running in sunshine without burning to ash.
It was what the species had propagated over the years, lies and deception to hide their very existence. Humans had to believe vampires didn't exist and if they did then humans had to feel safe, had to think vampires had Achilles heels like sunshine, (and) holy water, garlic and crosses.
The truth was it was all ridiculous nonsense. Taking a vampire's head could kill him; complete incineration could kill him but that was about the sum extent of what could endanger a vampire's life. They could walk in the sun, their hearts beat just like anyone else's, and they could even drink any beverage they wanted to if they enjoyed the flavour.
The one myth which was true was they required human blood to survive. Most existed by utilising the many private blood banks run by their kind. They did indulge on humans but it was for recreational purposes when they were involved in their second favourite pastime, having sex. Their human partners were never aware of the vampire taking a small sip of the precious life-giving blood in the throes of passion.
They had managed to maintain their secret existence for millennia this way.
With long life came apathy though. The vampire species had become cold, devoid of emotions and incredibly arrogant. Their superiority had set them up as being the only species they cared about and that had led to imbalance and intolerance.
The two males were on their way to seek another of their kind. He was urgently required for a task that was so important it could stop a civil war and possibly avert the destruction of the vampire nation. If he didn't agree to help, if harm came to those who were about to be placed under his protection, then the Ancient vampire with midnight black hair was positive the wrath of a reincarnated vampire queen would spill over.
And heaven help all who stood in her and her allies' way when it did.
Demetri Bozic slowed when the scent of blood became overpowering, signalling Pietro de la Rios to slow his run as they approached the area. The other male instantly obeyed, his dark brown hair swaying in the wind as the sound of fighting reached their ears.
They came across the body of a slain vampire almost immediately. The head of the Youngling was detached and lay a few feet from the mangled corpse. There was still an expression of horror on the face of the male, as if he couldn't quite believe what had been coming his way.
It shouldn't have made Pietro smile but his lips quirked. If you were stupid enough to piss off an Elder then you paid the price. It was that simple for him. The law of the jungle was how he lived his life when he wasn't tending bar for Andrei Romanov.
But even in supposed civilisation the rules were still the same. In a place like The Dive, a seedy club frequented by vampires, the law of the jungle still ruled. Only he was the king in that environment, taking care of the club while Andrei took care of his Council business.
The next body they came across was another Youngling, just as dead and just as surprised that his happy existence had been cut short.
"I'm seriously starting to like this guy," Pietro said with a laugh, his black eyes flashing with a hint of viciousness as the scent of blood became even stronger. He didn't bother keeping his voice low. The other vampires in the area would have heard his quietest whisper.
Demetri allowed himself a smile as he turned to his friend. "Yes, Mac is pretty impressive when he gets pissed off about something," he conceded.
His own feral nature was asking to be set free at the blood and death around him. It was always a tightrope he walked when the hunt was on. But Demetri was Ancient and he'd learned to master the need to kill, only doing so when it was required. He was sure that whatever was going down at the moment, Mac had it all in hand and his help would not be required.
They moved forward past the dead and entered a wide clearing where two vampires danced around each other. It wasn't a natural clearing. It had been created as huge trees had been ruthlessly felled in the heat of battle. The once proud monoliths now littered the area at odd angles.
Demetri clacked his talons together as he watched another dark-haired vampire spin high in the air, his left leg coming out to catch a blond male Youngling across the face sending him crashing into another tree which groaned and shook with the impact.
Mackenzie moved with a lethal grace which was almost hypnotic to watch. His hair as black as Demetri's, his eyes even blacker, he flowed effortlessly towards the stunned vampire, moving in for the kill. Hard muscles flexed under his black silk shirt, his talons ripping through flesh as if it was the most gossamer lace.
The Youngling shrieked in agony as his face disintegrated before he could defend himself. His shriek cut off as the merciless talons ripped through his throat. With almost no exertion required, Mac severed the head from the body and watched dispassionately as it rolled to the forest floor.
"Sometimes it's too easy, Demetri," he said quietly, his back still towards the new arrivals. His muscles were tense but there was no hint of fear in his voice.
"I know what you mean, Mackenzie," Demetri replied, his lips quirking. His friend had felled half a forest taking out three Younglings and he called it easy. He knew he had chosen the right man for the task ahead.
Mackenzie turned then, his thick warrior's plait swaying as he made a subtle shift inside himself and his fangs and talons disappeared. Returning from his feral state should have shifted his eye colour too but they stayed as black as night. He regarded Demetri intently for a long moment then switched his gaze to the other vampire.
"You're not travelling with your usual cohort," he remarked. Though he very seldom made it stateside he was well aware of what was going on over there and knew that his friend was tight with Caleb Cullen, an Ancient he hadn't had the pleasure of meeting.
He didn't know who Demetri's current travelling companion was but he didn't view him as a threat. The Ancient was the only person that Mackenzie came even close enough to trusting. His friend wouldn't bring anyone untrustworthy into his presence.
Mac strode over to Demetri and clasped arms in the traditional greeting of vampires who considered each other friends. "It's been a long time. I take it you need me for something? I hardly think you're here to enjoy the scenery."
Demetri laughed quickly, surveying the area again. "You don't appear to be too enamoured with the scenery yourself, Mac." It had been too long since they'd caught up with each other. He'd forgotten how much he enjoyed Mac's blunt way of speaking his mind.
"Pietro, meet Mackenzie," he continued, getting the introductions out of the way. His gaze met Mac's. "Pietro's a friend, so please refrain from trying to detach his head from his body. I'd hate to have to kick your ass for you."
A rare smile cracked Mac's face, amusement dancing in his eyes. "You could try but I've just had a little warm up session so I fear you may be at a disadvantage." He nodded at Pietro in acknowledgement and then turned to start building a funeral pyre for the dead.
"I am really starting to like this guy," Pietro laughed as Demetri rolled his eyes but didn't respond to the subtle jibe Mac had thrown his way.
The Ancient found a stable tree trunk and sat down as he watched Pietro vanish from the clearing only to return a moment later with one of the bodies they'd passed on their way there.
"So what did these three do to piss you off, Mac?" Demetri knew there had to have been a reason for his friend destroying their kind. The other vampire never did anything without a reason.
"It's wild out here, Demetri," Mac answered as he continued to collect wood for the fire. "You've got it too cushy stateside. There is a lack of mentoring being done for new Sirings. Some cross over like these three and need to be put down. Our kind on this continent has forgotten the old ways; a fair number think they're even superior to The Council. They've lost respect."
Demetri nodded silently, watching the others work. Secrecy was paramount and all remains were always burnt to ash to ensure no humans accidentally stumbled across proof of their existence. The likelihood of anyone coming across remains this high in the Romanian mountains was small but it was ingrained in all of them to cover their tracks.
"We are aware of the issues," he finally said. "Alexei had to sort things out in Ecuador a number of years ago. But we've had our own issues to deal with too. We only just managed to stop a civil war not so long ago."
Mac snorted, tossing his blond victim onto the gathered wood as Pietro tossed the other two on top of him. "I love the way you prevent a civil war," he laughed. "Dissolve a Council and set up another to your own liking. Isn't there something a little autocratic about that, my friend?"
Demetri shrugged, and a smile lit up his handsome face. "Times are changing, Mac. You know how resistant to change our people can be. Sometimes the ends justify the means. The last Council was corrupt, ready to start all out war with the Weres. That couldn't be allowed to happen."
Mac straightened and looked him in the eye. His expression was carefully neutral. "Why not? Isn't natural selection the way of the world?"
Pietro barked out a loud laugh as he struck a match and lit the pyre. "Andrei Romanov naturally selected a she-wolf for his mate, as did his twin Alexei. Add in the fact that Nors Eriksson did too and that should answer your question, Mackenzie."
He watched the flames dance for a moment then turned to look at the vampire at his side. "Or maybe I should say their wolves selected them," he amended. "The night Loretta caught Andrei canoodling with Marcia was priceless. I haven't laughed so hard in a long time. Loretta calm as you like just upended a whole bucket of iced soda on the pair of them, right in front of everyone. I don't think Andrei knew whether to kiss her or kill her."
"Pietro," Demetri sighed, trying to stifle down his impatience. If he'd heard that story once since they'd been travelling together, he'd heard it a thousand times. While it had been amusing the first couple of times it was wearing old now.
"You had to be there, Demetri. It was funny as fuck."
Mac watched them carefully, his mind whirling as he tried to figure out what Demetri wanted from him. He knew three Ancients had mated with Weres. He could also tell that, despite his laughter, Pietro was tight with the Romanovs and would view anyone out to hurt them as a personal threat. His amusing anecdote was more than humour; it was a subtle warning to him to be careful what he said.
There was more to Pietro than the easy, relaxed persona he displayed. Stupidity not being one of his character traits, Mac tagged him as one to watch in the future.
"There's more," Demetri said, ignoring Pietro and signalling for them to come and sit down. They both moved gracefully towards different fallen trees and sat facing him.
"What I tell you now is so secret that if either of you utter a word of it you will die instantly," Demetri said calmly. There was no false bravado in his voice; it was a statement of fact. This secret would end a life in a blink of an eye and they had to be under no illusions about it.
Demetri's matter-of-fact tone piqued Mac's curiosity as well as Pietro's. Both of them knew how to hold their tongue and they weren't concerned with his statement.
"Go ahead," Mac said quietly.
Demetri gauged their expressions for a moment and then let out a deep breath. Caleb had told him he could reveal this if he was certain it was safe enough. He trusted Mac a lot and had known Pietro most of his life.
"The Queen of Vampires had been reincarnated."
Silence greeted his words and then a slow smile crossed Pietro's face. "That's a neat trick, Demetri. I didn't even know there was one, let alone that she'd died."
"The Council destroyed all knowledge of the past countless millennia ago," Demetri answered. "But they were unable to destroy the natural way of things. Over six thousand years ago our people lived in a matriarchal society, ruled by a vampire queen. Her name was Anakatrine and her king was Callain. She also had a Guardian in her brother and together they ruled in peace, a triumvirate of power, not just vampiric but also magical."
Mac quirked an eyebrow in surprise; his thoughts were racing at what was being revealed. "I'd heard rumours that the dark arts were once used by vampires. I'd always considered it nonsense."
"To a certain extent it was," Demetri conceded. "Only the triumvirate had those powers, not the entire nation. And I wouldn't refer to them as the dark arts either. They were only used for good, not evil."
"If these three were all powerful as you say, then how could they be destroyed?" Pietro asked. His mind was whirling too, trying to piece together who the players were in his world so he could work out what was going on.
"Anakatrine formed the first vampire council. She thought our people were ready to govern themselves. Instead they rose up against her when the very first Vampire/Were mating occurred three thousand years ago. She was destroyed along with Callain but their souls have been reborn."
Mac took the news the way he did everything, in stride. He knew it had to be true because it was Demetri who was regaling him with the knowledge. His faith in his friend was absolute. It was the only thing he could be totally sure of in his life. "Do they wish to reinstate this ancient royal hierarchy?" he asked curiously.
Demetri laughed. "Quite the opposite, my friend. They wish to live their lives on the sidelines, enjoying the peace they craved so badly long ago. But to do that they must nudge our people in the right direction. The first steps have been taken and change is coming, but they need good people to help create the world they envision."
"Fuck me!" Pietro exclaimed loudly jumping up from his perch, his hazel eyes going wide with shock. "It's Caleb and Annie, isn't it?"
Demetri's complete loyalty to the other Ancient and his mate was renowned. There was no one else in their world the Ancient respected more, no one else he would follow. Putting two and two together had turned out to be easier than he'd anticipated.
Demetri's slow nod confirmed the identity of the royal couple. "The Guardian survived the cull at the time, as did the first hybrid child," he told them gravely. "They are now mated and live within the Armand-Hanlon pack, which brings us to the reason why I've sought you out, Mac."
Mackenzie waited silently, digesting the news and mulling things over slowly as he waited to hear what else was to come. He would have to be very careful with how he proceeded. He had no doubt Demetri would try to take his head if he made the wrong move. Pietro was an Elder too, a couple of hundred years younger than himself but he no doubt had strong skills to be travelling with his friend.
"There was an incursion recently against the Armand-Hanlon pack," Demetri continued. "The consensus is it was instigated in Europe and has something to do with the recent births of a number of hybrid children. This is unacceptable. No harm can be allowed to come to the children; they are our future, our most precious treasure. Pietro has been tasked to try and infiltrate this shadowy body who would try to hurt them. You, Mac, are being asked to protect them as they grow."
It was the last thing Mac had expected and his surprise clearly showed on his face before he could mask his expression. "You want me to be a babysitter?"
Demetri laughed at his dry tone. "Not as such. They have an entire pack and half the stateside vampires to babysit them on a daily basis. No, the triumvirate wish you to head an elite team of guardians they intend to resurrect from the past."
He rose and paced across the clearing, tensing slightly as he scented the night air before he relaxed and returned to his seat. "The Praetorians were once the queen's elite guard. She disbanded them when she raised the first vampire council. If she hadn't maybe she would have survived what was to come, but the decision was made at the time and it proved fatal.
They were unknown to anyone who wasn't in their ranks with the exception of the triumvirate. The same restrictions would be in place this time around. The pack would know about you but not who you are. The children would be unaware of your presence."
Mac shot a pointed look in Pietro's direction. "Is he supposed to be my first recruit?"
Pietro looked stunned at the prospect, glancing from Demetri to Mac and back again. No one had said anything to him about being part of some secret organisation when he'd been asked to take on his current mission.
"Pietro will be loosely aligned with The Praetorians though not a full member. His own task is vital, so we need him in place as soon as possible. He will report to you anything he discovers and you will then update the triumvirate. It's an added cloak of secrecy to protect them and the children should Pietro be discovered."
The clearing fell silent as both vampires mulled over Demetri's words. Pietro had no issue with anything he'd heard. Caleb had come to him, placed his trust in him, and pissed off Andrei big time when he'd stolen him from tending bar. His amusement alone had been enough to make him want this mission. He so enjoyed seeing Andrei having to back down when he didn't want to. It was one of his favourite pastimes.
And he adored the wolves. He knew his views on Weres went against the grain for most of his kind but he couldn't help it. When Loretta had come into Andrei's life, it had set the Ancient's head spinning. She had saved Andrei's life as surely as if she'd taken a sword aimed at his head. For that she would always have Pietro's allegiance as would any child of hers.
Loretta had taught him that wolves had a fierce nature, steadfast loyalty(,) and were sassy as hell. He loved all those character traits, hell he might even end up with a wolf bitch as his mate too one of these days. Stranger things had happened.