Hunting Ground Chapter EIGHT

CHARLES was most comfortable by himself or, if that wasn't possible, with his pack in the wild. Talking for hours in a crowded auditorium was not on any list of things he enjoyed-or things he was good at. At least no one had died. Yet.

The Germans had settled down as soon as the Italians' Omega had stalked off with offended dignity. The Italians, for their part, did a good job of concealing their glee and got down to business. Deals were hammered out.

By two in the afternoon, Charles and the Finnish delegates were finally bringing to fruition a complicated dance of issues further confused by translation problems. They claimed to have no one who spoke English. He didn't speak Finnish. So they translated through a Norwegian wolf who spoke Finnish and Spanish, and a Spaniard who spoke English. He suspected it was a ruse to give them time to think-and he had no objection.

He agreed to a no-interest loan for the Finns to use for positive publicity, fronted by the charitable arm of the Marrok's company. Though Charles himself would be in charge of the distribution and would expect results for the money-it was still a good deal.

The Finns weren't the only ones smiling as they finished up. Everyone had been following the negotiations closely, many of them even taking notes as they finally decided to believe that the Marrok had no intention of leaving them high and dry-and was willing to sign contracts, legal contracts that could now be taken to courts just like anyone else's: a benefit none of them had thought of until now. Gradually, as the day progressed, a spirit of cautious optimism had begun spreading through the wolves.

"We are agreed?" Charles asked the man who'd been acting as the Finnish lead.

As the translation worked its way through the language barriers, and the Finn began to nod, Jean Chastel stood up, and said, "No."

The Frenchman waited until the Finn, who had come to his feet in the middle of negotiations, slowly sat down before he continued. "We won't accept guilt money for this betrayal of all the treaties we've signed with the Marrok in which he agrees to keep his nose out of our business."

And damned if he didn't open up a slick briefcase and start piling up paper-and parchment that looked as though it might have been older than Chastel, and was ancient enough to smell of dust rather than lamb. "We do not need the Marrok's money. We are not under his 'protec tion.' He has no jurisdiction in our territories."

There was a grim triumph in Chastel's face. The French wolves-including Michel, bruises and all-looked stolidly supportive. They had no choice.

Quiet settled over the room, an uncomfortable quiet as they focused on Chastel. The Beast couldn't keep the Marrok from bringing the wolves into the open. But he could keep him from helping the European wolves cope-and in the end that might be disastrous for everyone.

Chastel ruled the European continent when he chose, and he'd just marked it as his territory, leaving Charles the choice of letting Chastel's claim stand or challenging him outright.

"Yes," said Dana in a motherly voice. "Thank you for that, monsieur. You have been heard." The fae smiled congenially at Chastel, then raised her eyes to the rest of the world. "On behalf of the Emerald City Pack, I have an invitation to all of you who have gathered in Seattle for this conference. As a part of our hospitality, we have organized a hunt tonight on the pack's own hunting grounds. There will be no blood-the Marrok asked me to extend his apologies. But since there is more than just one pack hunting, we felt that no blood would keep the threat of violence down..."

Charles might not be comfortable or particularly good at public speaking, but Dana was. When his father had asked her to moderate, Charles had worried because she didn't know wolves. His father had smiled. "She knows men," he'd said. And he had been right.

Everyone already had the information about the hunt. She was robbing Chastel of his limelight-and his power-and everyone knew it. Without her, Chastel could have taken the meeting over, leaving Charles... and maybe, just maybe, Arthur to face him down or back off and let him run with it.

And if they had challenged him and killed him, Dana would be honor-bound to destroy them. He wasn't sure she could manage it, not if he and Arthur were working together. But he didn't know that he and Arthur would be working together either; Arthur could be very difficult to predict.

And none of it would have worked if she hadn't already proven herself more powerful than Chastel before them all. The Frenchman let her take over because he was afraid to challenge her. And as she droned on with information everyone already had-Charles had e-mailed them all the details of the hunt a week ago-every wolf in the room understood what she was doing.

Chastel stood up and stormed out of the room, leaving his papers behind. Angus took a step to the side and blocked the door.

It was a foolhardy thing to do. If Chastel chose not to remember that Angus was under the Marrok's protection, Angus's life could be forfeit. And maybe, just maybe, he counted on it. If Chastel spilled blood first... But the Frenchman held his temper. Just.

"Madame?" Angus said diffidently.

The Beast turned his head toward the fae. "I need fresh air. Something stinks in here."

Dana's smiles were weapons, even when they were gentle. "By all means," she said. "Leave."

Angus stepped aside and opened the door for him.

And the Beast retreated. But he retreated triumphant. None of the foreign wolves would challenge Chastel's right to make this decision for them. And, just as when the Marrok revealed the werewolves, it would reflect on Europe -so, too, would the failure of the European wolves to persuade the human population that they were no threat reflect upon the Marrok's territory.

Charles couldn't help but wonder if matters would have been different if his father had been here.

ANGUS had over a hundred channels on his TV: sports channels, news channels, comedy channels, cartoon channels, science channels, and about fifty shopping channels. The only thing either Anna or Ric could stand to watch was a South Park marathon.

The kids were being chased by the Nazgul fifth graders-and the station switched to a commercial for male enhancement products.

"So," Anna said to distract herself from the silly grin on the face of the man on TV, "you think entering the hunt will be useful how?"

The man must have bothered Ric, too, because he jumped up from the couch and turned off the television before settling back on the desk again. "I don't think that my Alpha understands the difference between submissive and Omega. Now that I do, I would like him to also. I think the hunt will help-a game where I can face down the dominants with impunity."

"You think that would work? Charles would just strangle me and put me out of his misery."

He leaned back and waved his hands. "Hello, psychologist, yes? Or almost. Of course I don't know. I believe it will help me-and I think that participating in the hunt will help you with this issue you have with dominant wolves."

"Like throwing the kid who is afraid of water into the deep end to sink or swim?"

He grinned. "Not so bad as that. I think that if you have something to do, some task-like finding this bait that the fae lady and Angus have hidden in the pack's hunting grounds-I think you won't be so afraid. And if you are not afraid, they will not crowd you. And by the time you have a moment to worry about them"-he snapped his fingers-"they will have been surrounding you, hunting with you, and it will seem silly to be afraid."

She looked at him. Charles had suggested something similar, she remembered. Though he hadn't intended her actually to participate. "The ocean. Like throwing a two-year-old into the ocean. With sharks."

He laughed. "Look. I am not long a wolf, but I observe. My mentor at the uni-university to you-he says I am a genius. I will give you his number, and he will tell you so." He paused, and he grinned a little self-consciously. "Of course he will also tell you I died tragically in a skiing accident. Anyway, it means this: you should listen to me.

"We wolves are more resilient than when we were human. The wolf is always in the present, it does not worry much about past or future. Your wolf will keep you from panicking if she can. The hunt will give her the help she needs. By the end, you will be better because she will help you."

"Unless they do kill me," Anna said.

"No blood," Ric said. "It is in the rules. Did you see the way that fairy made the Beast shut his mouth yesterday, or was that after you left?"

"Before," Anna said. "And they prefer fae. A fairy is a specific kind of fae whose actual form is about twelve inches high-and I'm pretty sure that Dana is not one of those."

"And she will be on hand to keep things safe: they will behave themselves."

She knew Charles wouldn't be happy if she chose to be in the hunt. Accidents happen. Especially when they are on purpose. Charles had enemies, and it would do her no good to be avenged after she died. She didn't want to make Charles unhappy with her.

"Look," said Ric seriously. "Isaac, my Alpha, will be in this hunt, too. I think he'll agree to bodyguard you with me. No one else is going to be working together. Can you imagine Alphas cooperating with each other? The three of us, we stand a better chance at winning. And we can keep you safe."

"I had two people get hurt trying to defend me yesterday," Anna said. "And that was on a shopping trip."

"Someone tried to hurt you?"

She knew Charles had called his Alpha last night to warn him about the possibility that the vampires had been targeting her because she was an Omega-rather than because she was Charles's mate. Apparently he'd decided not to pass on the news.

"You should have been told," she said-and then she took care of it.

"We are viewed as weak," Ric said grimly when she had finished. They'd decimated the nuts, eaten the lunch delivered by a pair of Angus's wolves, then found a secret stash of trail mix. Ric picked through the bag and took a couple pieces of dried peach. Then he threw them up into the air, catching them in his mouth on the way down in two quick snaps. "Maybe it is not just my wolves who need to be told but everyone else as well. It is not safe in our world to be seen as weak. It makes us prey."

"If your Alpha didn't look at you as some sort of super-submissive, he'd have told you about the threat of the vampires, and you'd have been alert to the danger," Anna agreed.

He tossed her a couple of banana chips, and she snatched them out of the air without her hands as well.

He saluted her. "Though, mind you, I think that's a piss- poor way of protecting even the submissive ones. They are not children-they are werewolves."

He closed his eyes, tossed a cranberry into the air, and ate it on the way down. "You say we are like submissive wolves who do not obey. I wonder if there are dominant wolves who do not protect?"


Anna looked up, but Ric had to turn all the way around to see Chastel standing in the doorway.

"They call us beasts." He smiled at Anna, his eyes hungry. "Are you afraid of me, little girl?"

Ric might as well not have been there for all the notice Chastel took of him. His focus was all on her, his eyes wide and golden. A faint flush over his cheekbones told her that he was excited-he looked just as Justin, the wolf who had Changed her, had looked before-

She swallowed that thought. This man was looking for prey. And she would not be sport for him. Nor for anyone. Not ever again.

She called up her wolf, not so much to start the change but to borrow the wolf's courage and let it settle into her bones. When she was certain her knees wouldn't shake, she stood up as the silence gained weight like a brewing storm. She took her time before answering-he displayed the patience of a good hunter.

"You're the one who should be afraid," she said finally, letting her matter-of-fact voice carry the message she wanted to give him-that she wasn't afraid of him. Because she was afraid of him, she couldn't tell him she wasn't. But she could lie with the truth and make it stick.

"If you touch me, Charles will hunt you down and eat your marrow while you are still alive to scream." She called upon her two acting classes and let her mouth turn up. "I'll be happy to watch." She licked her lips.

The smile dropped off his face, and he growled.

She wasn't helpless, not like she'd been in Chicago when Justin hunted her down-or later, when the pack helped subdue her to his will. Here, the only other person in the room was Ric-and he would help her, not Chastel. Chastel would best her, probably best them both. But she would make sure he was hurt-and then Charles would kill him. Her wolf approved, and her fear slid away, leaving her balanced lightly on the balls of her feet and ready for blood and death.

There was only now, between this breath and the next-and that left no time for fear.

"Your vampire was lovely. She died too quickly." Anna imitated the motion she'd used to snap the woman's neck. "Hopefully you'll make a better show."

"My vampire?" He dismissed her words with an impatient hand. "You are a fool, and your mate is a thug, lacking in intelligence. Nothing but his father's lapdog, who fetches and kills on command."

She let her smile bloom. "Is that what you think? How foolish of you."

With the hand that the Frenchman couldn't see, Ric gestured sharply, trying to get her to stop baiting the Beast. She knew it was stupid, but Ric couldn't know that her alternative was cowering in a corner. So she baited him.

"Salope," Chastel snarled.

She knew that much French. "Thank you."

And suddenly, because she had neither seen nor heard him, Charles was there, standing directly behind Chastel. "Be careful whom you call a bitch, Jean, mon cher," he said in a voice that was too calm to be believable. "Someone might feel it was an insult."

Chastel turned around, giving Anna his back so he could face the more dangerous one. "Ah, here he is. Your woman tells me you will hunt me down and eat my marrow while I live."

"Did she?" Charles looked at her, and she saw the approval in his face. She doubted anyone else would have read anything at all. His voice was a caress, just for her. "Would you like that, love?"

She clasped her hands under her chin in her best silent-film-star pose. "Only if I can watch."

Charles laughed and, on the tail end of the sound, rounded on Chastel, using the motion to place himself between the Frenchman and Anna-and he wasn't laughing at all. "Go."

She couldn't see her mate's face, but she saw Chastel flinch and drop his eyes. His hands fisted, but it didn't keep him from taking a step back. With a low oath, he turned and stalked away.

Charles tilted his head, obviously listening to Chastel leave.

"While he was still alive?" he said.

"Women are the bloodthirsty sex," said Ric sadly. "We get the reputation, but it is only because the women stand behind us, and say, 'Kill it. Squish it.' "

Anna thought it was time for formal introductions. "Charles, this is Ric-I'm sorry, I didn't catch your last name."

Ric hopped off the desk, where he'd been crouched and ready to pounce if needed, and held out his hand. "Postinger. Heinrich Postinger."

Charles shook his hand. "I am Charles Cornick."

Ric looked at Anna. "Your defiance is admirable, but it was not the most brilliant thing I've ever seen anyone do. He's going to come after you now. He must do this."

"Ric is a psychologist," Anna explained.

"He was going to go after her no matter what she did," said Charles.

Anna grinned. "There's a certain satisfaction in knowing that I deserve it, you know? Better than thinking he's coming after me because I ran like a chicken."

Charles kissed her. "Yes," he said, pulling his mouth away. "There is that, isn't there? I have to go back- everyone is still in the auditorium waiting on me. Would you please lock the door this time? It doesn't do you any good hanging open so anyone can walk in, O-Woman-Who-is-Not-a-Chicken."

"Of course." And with a sudden burst of confidence, she rose on her toes and kissed his chin-which was as high as she could manage. He didn't help, but his eyes were smiling when she finished.

"Good," he said, though whether to the kiss or to her agreement to lock the door he left deliberately up in the air.

He'd reached the door when she remembered there was something he should know. "He didn't know anything about the vampires."

When Charles looked back at her, she said, "I told him I killed one of his vampires, and he didn't have any idea what I was talking about."

"Chastel never was a good suspect for bringing in vampires," Charles said. "But it is good to know for sure."

He smiled at her. Then, with a nod at Ric, he left, shutting the door behind him. She waited a moment.

"Anna." Charles's voice carried through the metal door, and so did the exasperation.

She grinned at Ric and turned the dead bolt. Charles tapped the door and left. She couldn't hear him, but she could feel him move farther away from her.

It had felt good to defend herself against Chastel, even if it was only with words. She was tired of being afraid of her own shadow-and for a little while she hadn't been afraid at all. She liked it.

With the fae supervising the hunt, not to mention Charles observing (he wouldn't join the hunt; like Angus, he was one of the hosts), she would be as safe there as she would ever be surrounded by Alphas.

She turned to Ric. "If your Alpha agrees to help play bodyguard, I'd love to join the hunt tonight."

He nodded. "I'll ask him."

SUNNY frowned at the nail she'd chipped as she took the elevator down to the parking garage. Arthur was tied up in werewolf functions tonight, so she'd taken the opportunity to have dinner with some friends.

She didn't have any close female friends-it is a hard thing not to tell a friend that the reason your husband looks so young is because he's a werewolf. And friends you have for a long time tend to notice things like your husband's not aging at all. So she had condos in various cities, and when she'd lived in a place off and on for a decade or so, she would uproot and move somewhere no one knew her. She'd write letters or e-mails for a few months, then let the friendship drift away.

These women she'd known for a couple of years, casual friends who liked to go out without husband or boyfriend once in a while and talk girl stuff. She'd met them at the gym, and they shared no real interests, but they were smart, funny, and easy to talk to on a superficial level. They made her feel connected, not so alone.

She'd left them before dessert, though, because she didn't trust herself not to indulge. The restaurant they'd chosen was justly famous for its exotic cheesecake. She hadn't kept her figure by allowing herself to sample food she might like too much-and she'd noticed it was getting dark. Arthur didn't like it when she was out too late, he worried about her.

The elevator opened onto the right level for her car. The light next to the elevator was out. She hurried through the darkness until the next light, then felt silly for her anxiousness.

Someone on the other side of the garage was arguing with his girlfriend. Neither of them was very upset. Probably foreplay, she thought. She and Arthur indulged, and she recognized the tone.

She looked, but she couldn't see the couple because an SUV was in the way. Before she got a clear view, the sound of car doors shutting cut off the sound of their bickering. A car engine started, and a silver Porsche passed by, its lights momentarily blinding her.

She dropped her keys and started to kneel and pick them up. Someone's hand was there first.

"Allow me." The man was taller than her Arthur, though not as wide through the shoulders. For a minute she was worried-as any woman alone in a parking garage with a stranger would be. But then she saw the cut of his wool coat: thugs wouldn't wear expensive coats and white linen shirts.

"Thank you," she said as she took her keys out of the leather-gloved hand that held them out to her.

"No troubles," he said. "You'll forgive me the question-but what is a lovely woman like you doing out here all alone?"

Part of her preened under his obvious admiration-she knew her aging distressed Arthur. The honest appreciation in a handsome man's eyes soothed a growing wound in her heart. This man looked to be a few years older than she, and his manners were gallant.

"I was dining with friends," she told him. "My husband is waiting for me."

"Ah" He opened his fingers as if he'd held something precious he had to let go. It was so artfully done that she was certain he had to be an actor or maybe a dancer. "I should have known that such a lovely woman would not be left free-but a man lives on hope. Your accent is charming-you are British?"

"Yes. And so is my husband. Thank you for the keys and the compliment." She smiled at him and headed for her car with brisk strides that would let him understand that, although she appreciated his admiration, she was not available. The smile stayed on her face, warmed a little, as soon as she had her back to him.

She pressed the button that unlocked her car and opened the door-and a hand closed around her mouth.

"Forgive me a little harmless flirtation," he said in her ear. "It seemed a kindness I could give. I regret that your death will not be so kind. My employer failed me-and so I no longer have to follow his so-explicit instructions. My friends are sad, and a little play will make them feel so much better."

She screamed, but the faint noise that escaped his hand wouldn't travel far.

His free hand petted her face as he whispered, his breath smelling like peppermint, "I'll see to it that your husband knows that you didn't flirt with me. That you were faithful to him unto death. Will that soothe him, do you think?"

He was strong. He controlled her struggles effortlessly even though she worked out on a daily basis. Werewolf. He must be one of the werewolves.

"Come, my children," he said, and she realized he wasn't alone. She heard people move behind them, but the only one she could see was the woman who hopped onto the roof of her car. A beautiful woman with honey-colored hair caught up in a ponytail.

"We can play with our dinner?" the woman asked, and terror made Sunny's knees give way. The woman had fangs.

Not werewolf. Vampire.

"We're going to see if she is his mate-or merely his wife, Hannah," her captor said.

"That means yes." The voice came from her left, but she couldn't see the man who said it. But she felt him pull her arm straight and sink his fangs into the inside of her elbow.

It hurt.

THE Emerald City Pack's hunting grounds were in a warehouse district that had seen better days. Those warehouses nearest the water were lit up and, if not hives of activity, still obviously running with a full shift of people. As the ground rose away from the water, the warehouses began to look less and less prosperous.

Following Charles's directions, Anna continued up the battered asphalt road to a pair of huge buildings surrounded by a twelve-foot-tall chain-link fence, hospitably topped by razor wire.

The whole property looked as though no one had done anything industrious there for fifty years-and none of the other warehouses in the immediate area looked any more occupied. Adding to the general disreputable air, the metal roof of one of the buildings was missing a sheet or ten of roofing material.

The people at the gate must have recognized the car because they had it opened for her to drive right on through. As she drove closer to the warehouses, the buildings looked bigger and bigger, and, as she passed between them, they shut out the night sky until it was a narrow ribbon with the Hunter's Moon, just a sliver of silver, in the sky above them.

There were thirty or forty cars in a space big enough to park a hundred. Most of them were parked next to the larger of the two warehouses, so that was where Anna parked, too.

"You're quiet tonight," said Charles.

She looked at her hands and flexed them on the steering wheel, easing her grip when the wheel creaked.

She'd meant to keep quiet about joining the hunt, but as the time approached, springing it on him in front of everyone seemed more and more stupid. "I have an idea-and you aren't going to like it."

He looked at her for a long time, long enough that she finally looked back.

"I am dominant," he told her, as if she didn't already know. "And that means I am driven to take care of those who are mine."

She met his gaze, held it, and realized slowly that it pleased him that she could do so. It pleased her, too.

"You want to go into the hunt."


She expected him to forbid it outright-and realized that part of her had been counting on using that as an excuse to bow out.

Instead he simply asked, "Why?"

"Because Ric thinks that it might help with this..." She dropped her eyes and then raised them again and firmed her voice. "With the baseless fear that had me shivering in my seat yesterday when the auditorium filled up with Alphas-who were ready to kill each other to protect me. It made me feel stupid and weak. I was less frightened when Chastel came into Angus's office-and I had a lot more reason then."

His eyes flared gold, and he said, in a voice that was lower and rougher than his usual tone, "It's because you fought Justin once, and your pack caught you and held you for him."

Anna nodded jerkily. It hadn't been just for Justin, and it hadn't been just once-and she wasn't about to tell him that with Brother Wolf looking out through his eyes.

"How does Ric think this will help?"

"Because I'll be focused on the hunt. He thinks that my wolf will help, that she'll keep me from panicking."

"He is a psychologist?"

She couldn't help but smile. "Almost, he says. But not to worry, his mentor thinks he's a genius."

"I cannot join the hunt," he said heavily. "If I won, it would be a political disaster. If I lost, it would be worse. If you hunt, there are those who will be hunting you rather than the prize. Because you are my mate and because you are an Omega."


"Chastel is not the only enemy my father has here-and I have a few myself."

"I actually thought about that possibility. Ric is hunting tonight. He says that he will keep an eye on me, and thinks his Alpha-someone named Isaac-will agree to do so also."

Charles nodded and opened his door.


He bent and looked back into the car.

"Can I join the hunt?"

His eyebrows went up. "That was never up to me. You've assessed the benefits and the possible problems. It is up to you." He closed his door.

Anna unbuckled herself and got out of the car. "So what happened to 'I am dominant and I protect those who are mine'?"

He propped a hip on the front of the car. "If it would benefit you, I would kill every wolf here. But there are things that you need to do-and interfering with that is not protecting, not in my book. The best way for me to protect you is to encourage you to be able to protect yourself."

He gave her a sudden, rueful smile. "I admit it doesn't make me happy. But with Dana and me on watch, and Ric and his Alpha on the floor, you are as safe as you are going to be in a hunt full of dominant wolves. You've killed a vampire and a witch-you are hardly helpless."

She straightened her shoulders as his confidence lent her courage. So she walked to him and put her arms around him, burying her face in the sweet-smelling warmth of his chest. He wore one of his favorite flannel shirts over a plain red T-shirt and the cotton was soft against her skin. "You are a remarkable man, Charles Cornick."

He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and put his chin on the top of her head. "I know," he confided lightly. "And often underappreciated by those who don't know any better."

She poked him with a finger and looked up at him. "And funny-though I expect that is another facet of your character that goes unappreciated even more often than your remarkableness."

"Some people don't even notice," he said in a mock-mournful voice.

THE main room in the bigger warehouse was more than twenty feet tall and large enough to swallow all the wolves who had chosen to hunt and leave room for twice as many more. The rest of the wolves-a strong majority-stood on a platform ten feet above them. Everyone was still in human form. One wall of the room was covered with flat-screen TVs, which were off.

Dana stood in the center of the raised platform and spoke. "The rule is no bloodletting-which rule I will enforce. The walls and floors of these buildings and the earth beneath will tell me if there is blood. You will start out human and change when the bell is rung. There are three leather bags, hidden several days ago, containing a handful of pig sausage each-and one of them also holds a two-carat star-ruby ring provided by the Marrok."

As she spoke, the last the monitors all turned on to show a woman's hand holding a ring in its palm. The setting was plain enough so that the ring could be either a man's or a woman's ring-it was the gem that made the ring beautiful. The ruby was a deep semitranslucent red, with a star that was almost white.

It was beautiful and doubtless valuable-and Anna was pretty sure there wasn't anyone standing on the wooden floor with her who was here for the prize. The hunt was all that was important. How often did an Alpha get a chance to pit himself against other Alphas without risk to those they must keep safe?

Angus spoke while the ring was still on display. "Our hunting grounds encompass both buildings, which interconnect via layers of underground tunnels. This building has between two and six layers of maze aboveground, the other three and four, and both have three basement floors original to the structures and two more beneath those that we have added. The three bags are hidden here, and one contains the ring."

Anna glanced at the people around her. Chastel was there, and she recognized Michel and several of the Spanish wolves she had met at the barbecue restaurant. Arthur, though, was standing just behind Dana, with the ones who had chosen not to hunt.

Angus's instructions continued. "Once you find a bag, bring it here. The rules are finder's keepers-no thieves. Any wolf carrying a bag is untouchable. We have monitors, we have people hidden, and Dana has given the bags a little extra fae magic to ensure this is the case. Anyone interfering with a wolf carrying a bag will be eliminated from the competition and the bag will be returned to the finder. You will not be able to open it-Dana has made certain of it. When all three bags are here, we will sound an alarm that you can hear from anywhere on the grounds. Return here-and when everyone is accounted for, Dana will open the bags, and the winner will be announced."

After Angus conducted a brief question-and-answer session, it was Charles's turn. He looked at her, then at Ric and his Alpha, who stood beside her.

"The hunt," he said, "is on."

There was a metallic chunk, the lights went off, and Anna had her shirt halfway off before the last of the light died. On the wall, the monitors switched their display from the ruby ring to black with small red letters on the bottom right-hand corner of each, which abruptly provided the only light in the room.

Clothing ripped and soft, pained sounds echoed as several dozen werewolves began the change from human to something more. Laughing, breathless, she stripped off her pants and shoes, socks and underwear before she began her own change.

Shards of agony spread over her, beginning at the base of her spine and spiraling out to her fingers and toes. Wet pops announced the reshaping of joints and bone as her wolf slid over her skin. Claws and fangs, muscle and fur-wet tracks slid down her face as her eyes watered. Strength surged like the tide rolling in, and she came to all fours with a grunt of effort.

The room was too full of others for her to pick up a scent, and her eyes were blind with the last wave of white-hot pain. She stood shaking, then threw her head back and sang.


Because she was the first to change-it must have been a gift from Brother Wolf and the mate bond they shared. She'd never been able to change that fast before. She could have started her hunt, but Ric and his Alpha were still caught in the change. So she stood over them, ready to protect them if they should need it.

By ones and twos, other wolves rose. When they got too close to her, she displayed her fangs, and they let her be.

Ric's Alpha, Isaac, now a winter white wolf who was only a little larger than she, stood up, and they both waited for Ric, who was finished only a few minutes later. He wobbled like a newborn lamb when he came to his feet, not experienced enough yet to wait for brain and muscle to reconnect. She put her shoulder against him and let him lean on her.

In his human form, he was average height and build-maybe even a bit lean. His wolf was on the large side, certainly bigger than she or Isaac. In the dark her eyes gave her shapes, but not colors. He was darker than his Alpha but several shades lighter than she, but she couldn't tell if he was gray, brown, or red.

He shook himself as though he were wet and, as if that were a signal, his Alpha surged forward leaving Anna and Ric to follow. They ran first through a hallway and into a narrow stairway that led down and down, and the scents changed from fresh air to musty and moldy.

AFTER a minute or two the stygian blackness resolved into something more fathomable to Charles's wolf-enhanced vision. A hole in the ceiling let in some starlight, and the monitors began to show orange and red and gold as wolves passed by the infrared cameras scattered throughout the maze and lit the big room with the warmth of their bodies.

Even though he couldn't see her, Brother Wolf told him she'd already completed her change. The first to do so, he thought. He expected her to run immediately, but she waited.

For her guards, said Brother Wolf approvingly. He wasn't happy about Anna running this hunt while they were stuck with the wolves who chose not to go. He wasn't especially happy about missing the hunt himself-particularly with Chastel out there somewhere. Only the knowledge that Anna had allies kept Brother Wolf under wraps.

Groans of pain turned to howls and the sound of claws digging into wood as the last of the wolves entered the hunt, and finally silence descended upon the room. Charles heard a rustle and a click-and a bank of dim lights illuminated the room.

"Lights are still off everywhere else," said Angus. "It'll be a while before we see any of them again, and we might as well be comfortable. Come, my wolves are setting up tables and chairs on the main floor, where we can watch the action.

It took a while, but most of the watchers caught the trick of identifying friends and enemies even on the infrared. Hoots of laughter as traps were sprung and wolves fell into water or garbage or foam packing peanuts. Nets dropped unexpectedly, and one caught six wolves in a net meant for one. When they were finished with it, there wasn't a scrap bigger than eight inches long.

"Way to kill a defenseless net," said Arthur dryly, his crisp English voice carrying over the crowd.

Charles stood in the back, his arms folded and his eyes tracking the heat-trace image of three wolves as they left one monitor only to reappear in the next.

Arthur stood up suddenly, and staggered, knocking over the table next to him. The occupants turned on him with surprised snarls, but he didn't seem to notice them.

"Sunny?" he said, his voice cracking like an adolescent boy's.

The wolves who'd been knocked about stilled their protests. And when his eyes rolled up in his head, and he fell, one of them caught him before he hit the planks of the floor.

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