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Mia Bowman’s full human lineage decrees her off limits for knowledge of Guardian’s secret race. But her uncontrollable nocturnal visits to Turen’s prison cell and her strong sense of justice leave her with little choice but to help. She can heed Turen’s warning and stay clear of his people’s problems or she can ferret out the lies and unravel an ancient tale of murder and deceit. As the complications escalate, the two forbidden lovers race to stop a fatal end to the Guardian line. But it may require their ultimate sacrifice to stop the betrayal and save the Guardian race.
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Romantic Urban Fantasy - The Guardians of Eden Book 1
What would you do to save your people from extinction?
Descended from a race of Guardians created in the far edges of Eden, Turen’s people have survived the last two hundred years, quarantined by plague to Eden’s Sanctum. Risking death to save his people from eternal damnation, Turen chooses capture at the hands of his enemy to seek answers to change the future. Living in secrecy with no mates and no offspring, they fail to deliver on their covenant for mankind, the ability to replenish and heal human souls through the birth of their Guardian children.
What if your race held the key to mankind’s future?
One Guardian will risk hell to change the future.
And humans were cast from the Garden of Eden
To work the lands far from their blessed origins
To survive outside the comfort and glory of God’s original design.
Mankind came to know both good and evil
To suffer under the consequences of free will.
For their salvation, God enacted a covenant with other beings of His creation.
Beings whose convention and purpose would be the release and healing of souls
Beings empowered with select skills to guide humanity from the perils of their own making.
Beings birthed in the far edges of Eden’s Sanctuary.
Though not God’s chosen people, these wardens would be gifted for their service.
Bonded in time with those who would match them in commitment.
Gifted with one mate and rewarded with the sharing of one soul for eternity.
A sonic crack followed by searing fire along Turen’s shoulder blade shattered his resolve. He snagged the leather tail on its next pass, twisted around, and yanked, hard. The seven feet of bullwhip wrenched out of his captor’s hand and snaked across the floor to coil at Turen’s feet.
Wrists manacled, bound by two feet of chain, he still managed a hard strike to Shank’s thick jaw and a swift jab with the whip’s handle to the guard’s stomach. He backed away into a crouch and rolled the whip in his hand, waiting on the next assault.
Two months in this prison hellhole were about to end his two hundred and fifty years of peaceful co-existence with humanity. He’d endured abuse for the sake of his guards’ entertainment. He’d tempered his anger. He’d camouflaged his strength and skills in exchange for access to even the smallest bits of information. Yet he had learned nothing.
No more. With Shank’s attack, he let his anger and festered frustration feed the raw black desire to dish back some pain. As the sweat dripped down Turen’s face and stung at the corners of his eyes, he met Shank’s glare. The shift of the man’s meaty fingers registered as they twitched near his holstered gun.
Shank issued no warning, no order that would alert anyone listening on the intercom of his intent. From the gleam in Shank’s dark eyes, he didn’t intend to allow anyone to stop him from adding Turen’s death as a notch to his ego.
So be it. Turen wasn’t leaving this world alone. He flexed his fingers, circled Shank and edged toward the chamber door, the whip and his nerve his only tools of defense. No internal surge of Guardian power responded to the summons his mind issued. His powers were dead, or at least crippled. The composite alloy of the manacles stemmed the natural flow of his energy, though the chain’s closest link quivered a fraction of an inch at his attempt.
Not enough to count as headway or success.
Shank raised the gun. Turen let loose a strike with the whip and dove for the door. Splinters of rock fragments from the wall by his head shattered over his shoulders. He turned to gauge Shank’s next move as a sizzling wave of current speared above his kidney and echoed through every nerve in his body. The impact vaulted him into the air and slammed him to the stone floor.
Turen drew in a harsh breath, kept his eyes closed, and listened for the clipped strike of leather boots closing in on his personal hell. A hand fisted in his hair and yanked his head up, but he refused to meet the gaze of his tormentor. While Shank’s attentions were brutal, Rasheer brought a new meaning to the word torture. Unlike the guards who reported to him, Rasheer modified his abuse with each session as if Turen had become his personal test lab for pain.
“Be insolent and see what that buys you.” Calm and contained, Rasheer’s voice resonated with aggression as he turned on Shank. “Secure him and report to the loading docks.”
“He—” Shank’s growl sputtered to a halt at a grating shuffle and the clank of metal on metal.
Turen slid a glance to the door. Thick gray six-foot tentacles supported a clear jellied head, round and flat, the shape of a three-foot wheel of cheese. Saliva dripped from beneath the head; rows of razored teeth ground in the circular maw as lights danced from a computer implant surgically connected to its neural pathways. The hybrid creature slithered back and forth in an overexcited dance.
He looked away. The altered aquatic creature, somehow mutated for land, was lethal. It was impossible to believe that any of his comrades could sink to the creation of such an aberration. However, the creature’s appearance and potential threat had at least blocked Shank’s plans for retaliation.
And Turen’s exit.
Pain ripped across Turen’s shoulders as Shank forced him to his knees and clipped his chains into a hook on the wall behind his back. Despite the violent show of dominance, Turen clenched his teeth, refusing to allow even a glimmer of emotion to cross his face.
Shank’s breath beat hot at his back, but the hybrid creature Rasheer had brought into the room as his personal guard encouraged the six-foot, two hundred and fifty pound bulldog of a man to leave as ordered.
Rasheer squatted before him, gripping in one hand the whip Turen had dropped when he was Tasered. “You cause a lot of trouble here in my master’s cells.”
The comment didn’t require an answer.
A smirk of satisfaction split the long, pale scar that ran from Rasheer’s chin through the corner of his mouth and ended just shy of the right eye socket. Combined with the narrow-set black eyes, Xavier’s Captain of the Guards exhibited a fair depiction of hostile and deadly.
Turen swallowed back the urge to spit in the man’s face. Death wouldn’t achieve his goals. What was a little pain and humiliation compared to freedom for his Guardian race?
“I should leave you to Shank’s influence.” Rasheer said with a humorless laugh.
Influence. Right. Each day four guards escorted him from his cell to Rasheer’s interrogation room, each trip an exercise in survival. Always chained, always outnumbered. His human guards found a bound captive sporting. He would shown them sporting. This time Turen had left two guards unconscious, broken ribs on the third and a visible streak of blood on Shank’s chin from the whip strike.
Guardian twenty-five, humans two.
Turen maintained the running count. It kept him sane. He awarded them one point for his capture, another when they rendered him unconscious during the first long trip through the compound’s hallways. No points for them since. He refused to add to his people’s mortality rate.
With a glance over Rasheer’s shoulder, Turen recalculated the odds of escape. A repetitive exercise he used to kill time while in this room. Futile, maybe, but only for now. Once free, he would give his jailers a taste of something worse than the Taser they’d become so fond of.
Rasheer pushed the bottom of his boot into Turen’s shoulder. The motion rocked him against the chain’s pull and wrenched his arms. “You can spend forever in Xavier’s dungeons. You can die here. But first, I’ll extract what you are and what you know.”
Turen gritted his teeth and glared at Rasheer. He would never give this human weasel the time of day, much less divulge information on his people or his reasons for seeking out Xavier. Evidently, Xavier had shared no information with his second in command either.
Not that Rasheer didn’t already have more information than was safe. Several months ago, Turen had agreed to a meeting in an absurd hope to enlist Xavier’s aid.
Rasheer had appeared instead, not Turen’s former leader. In a split-second decision, Turen allowed his own capture, hoping to gain an opportunity. He had pitiful little to show for his sacrifice after months of confinement and abuse.
No information, no details to help his people, and even less indication as to whether Xavier could be brought back from the brink of madness to fight for their cause. There were days when Turen wondered if Xavier orchestrated this abuse at Rasheer’s hands as the ultimate punishment for a comrade trusting enough to fall into his custody. That hypothesis assumed Xavier gave a damn.
Drug lord and leader of this den of thieves, Xavier never attended these sessions. Turen had yet to see more than a quick glimpse of him. Only Rasheer’s references confirmed this was indeed Xavier’s base of operations.
“The woman who betrayed you would have proved more malleable.” Rasheer turned away, one hand fisted around the whip. “Someone else delivered their bit of justice before I was able to question her.” He glanced over his shoulder.
Air stopped in Turen’s lungs and a heavy weight pressed with his attempt to breathe. Isabella, dead? He’d assumed her safe at the Sanctum. The undercover cop who had helped Isa track down Xavier had left with her before Turen arrived at the meeting point. A tiny sparkled outline of her mark on the alley’s brick wall was the only sign he had that she had been there and left.
He closed his eyes with a grimace. The little information he’d gleaned in this compound wasn’t worth Isa’s death. Nothing justified the death of one of his own people, much less the youngest.
“The whore would have been easy to break.” An odd vibration altered Rasheer’s voice, lending a sickening lilt to his words. The slight rise in pitch and cadence disturbed Turen more than the torture Rasheer meted out.
He scrutinized Rasheer’s face, examined every muscle twitch and gesture for some confirmation that Xavier’s second hadn’t executed the kill. The reflection of disappointment in Rasheer’s expression was reassurance enough. Yet he’d kept Isa’s death a secret for two months, withheld the information until now as fresh torment. What else had he withheld?
Turen didn’t credit Rasheer with such patience. Or intelligence.
“She wouldn’t have broken for you.” Turen provoked Rasheer’s ire. His reward—a closed-fisted strike to his mouth.
“Fool. You live only by my choice.” Rasheer’s face, infused with a mottled flush of deep red, almost vibrated as he stepped away.
“Is that your version of mercy?” He forced a laugh. Rasheer whipped a quick lash against Turen’s stomach in retaliation.
He withheld a flinch, slowly spit blood from between his split lips, and maintained Rasheer’s gaze. The more he pushed, the more Rasheer lost control. Less control provided more options and sometimes information. It would also drive a faster end to this session.
“No matter.” Rasheer turned away and then back in an instant. “If you won’t break for me, then you can watch me break others.”
Turen couldn’t stop the growl that erupted from his throat or the lunge forward against his restraints.
“You’re an open book,” Rasheer whispered with a smile that didn’t reach his glistening black eyes. “I will flay you, Turen. Make you watch the fragile light fade from the eyes of others.” Rasheer stepped back, his hands fisted at his hips. “I’ll bring their bodies to the brink of death before I shatter them. Tear them to pieces until they beg for their end—from you. Because I will make it clear, you are the key to their escape. One word from you and I will stop their suffering. Quickly.”
Muttering a silent curse, Turen was unable to repress the twitch of anger in his cheek. Power boiled beneath his flesh. It churned and fired, pulsing for release only to meet in a puny sizzle of heat from the manacles around his wrists and ankles. Impotent rage coursed through him instead, until he let loose a harsh breath and exerted effort to decompress.
No force within him could break his power free despite the trigger of Rasheer’s cruelty. The damn manacles relegated him to mere human strength. Strength he needed to maintain in case the sadist provided an opening.
Rasheer was more astute than Turen had credited—a deadly underestimation in his abilities.
Turen couldn’t bear the burden of more souls, and Rasheer had known, had seen deeper than he should have been able. Not clearly, but with enough insight to know his methods caused a grievous effect. No matter how many more souls Turen might save, Rasheer would burden him with the death of innocent beings, a mental anguish more potent than any lash of the whip.
“You have extraordinary resilience, for a man. But then, you endure like no normal human.” Rasheer paused. “You make me wonder about immortality. Where is the ultimate challenge if one can’t die? Not in the petty human issues of life and death, pain and suffering.”
Balanced on the rigid edge of control, Turen waited.
Rasheer pressed the end of his whip along Turen’s shoulder. “You may not consider me your equal, but I promise you, I can keep your attention.”
“Maybe this time I’ll die and rob you of your prize,” he snapped.
“Really? My master is happy to let you rot in his cells. He’ll never notice you’re gone, much less care. However, he believed the woman’s note—that you carry answers of value, some resolution, some closure. To what?” He spoke the last to himself and moved away. “I could have pulled the answers from her had I not wasted the time to deliver you here.” With a low grunt, he turned back, the sneer a solid fixture on Rasheer’s face again.
His moods were mercurial. What Turen wouldn’t give to permanently remove that smirk.
“Xavier recognized her and that she wanted something from you—something you refused her.” Rasheer made a cluck with his tongue and moved his whip in a caress down his hip and thigh. “I would have given her what she needed.”
Turen swallowed back bile. Thank God; Isa hadn’t fallen into Rasheer’s hands. He prayed no woman ever did.
A buzz signaled from the phone at the captain’s waist. With a quick glance at the message, he pressed a button on the wall’s intercom and signaled the hybrid guard to take Turen away. “Another time.”
The heavy chains rose in the gray tentacles’ grip. Turen staggered to his feet and followed the creature, while his thoughts churned.
This session had delivered one horrific bit of information—notification of Isa’s death.
For her sake, for his, if there were more to learn here, he would muster the patience to find it.
Mia Bowman toed off her running shoes, pressed the blinking light on her phone cradle, and leaned against the counter to stretch out her legs.
“Hi, Mia. It’s Becca. Hope you’re okay. Haven’t heard from you. Rob and I still want you to come up and stay with us for a show and dinner sometime soon. Let me know if you’re free in the next few weeks. Quit hiding. Call me.” A click signaled the end of the call.
A tame message. Not one of Alex’s friends, thank God.
She grabbed several unassembled boxes propped against the wall and dropped them inside the guest room door on the way to her bedroom. Clothes stripped off into a wad on the floor, she walked into the bathroom and flipped on the hot water.
Steam, thick and heavy, enveloped the walls in mist, covering her image in the mirror. For minutes, she stared at the shades of shapeless color. No flashes of insight guided her thoughts. Her life evidently didn’t merit divine clarity. With a mental shrug, she stepped into the shower.
The water and suds washed over her body and removed the sweat. But dark emptiness and anger remained stuck to her like a second skin no matter how much she scrubbed.
The anger was the hardest. She refused to lash out at unsuspecting friends. Instead, she worked to tamp it down, but strong and unfamiliar, the emotion gnawed at her, unrelenting. She twisted off the water and forced an end to her train of thought.
How typical that Alex wasn’t around to absorb the fallout from his actions.
Wrapped in her long terry robe, she padded into the spare bedroom.
Clothes and belongings littered the bed and floor. She assessed the closet and dresser drawers with bitter resignation. Did she need more moving boxes, or should she just give in to the temptation to open the window and chuck everything out? With an exhale of frustration, she sat on the bed and rubbed her face to dispel the irritation. Ten years of marriage gone to hell.
Twenty-one days ago, after Alex’s death in a car accident, she’d embraced regrets. The divorce papers, delivered the day after, stemmed that emotional bleed. The woman who had introduced herself at the funeral, the coworker Alex had been screwing, snapped the lid on Mia’s self-recriminations. The shiny full carat ring Alex had purchased for the new Mrs. Bowman released her anger anew.
She had no more delusions. She and Alex weren’t soul mates, but their marriage had seemed…normal. No, normal wasn’t the right word. Happy didn’t cover it, either. And obviously, committed didn’t fit.
If she’d bothered to pay attention, she would have recognized the signs of Alex’s infidelity sooner.
That wasn’t what bothered her. Okay, the infidelity bothered her a lot, but it was the glaring lack of loss, the lack of emptiness inside of her. Anger, yes, she had plenty, but no loneliness. No ghosts lingered in the house, no echo of sweet words, no treasured smile missed each day. That the lack felt like her failure only served to fuel her anger more.
With a heavy sigh, she turned back to erasing Alex’s presence from her home.
Several hours later, brown boxes trailed from the center of the room to the doorway, a miniature city skyline outlined against the bedroom’s white walls.
Shoulder muscles tight with fatigue and a tiny drum of pain nagging behind her eyes, Mia sank onto the bed and leaned against the headboard to take stock.
Closet empty. Drawers empty. Boxes sealed and ready to go. She glanced at the clock—two in the morning blinked back in pale green. With a sigh, she closed her eyes and listened.
Pre-dawn stillness hung in the room. No sounds from the birds, no ticks as the house settled, no clicks from the thermostat, not even the sound of her breath. Just a hush of silence.
She rode the rhythm and kept a clear image in her mind. Miles and miles of endless blue unraveled and forced her thoughts to calm. Weariness fought her hold on the image. She curled her fingernails into her palm to focus against the distraction.
Behind her eyelids the blue diminished. Darkness wavered in its place, wisps of black interwoven with gray. Smoke and shadows veiled her from any view. She fought to reestablish the blue sky. It eluded her. The effort drained her until she gave up and swirled farther with the currents that pulled her toward the darkness. Smoke dispersed, replaced by a cold, moist chill that shocked her skin as a damp stench assaulted her nose.
She blinked. Fuzziness receded but not the dark.
A dream? No, the cold was too vivid. She searched for the source of the numbness in her legs. Her toes peeked from the bottom of her robe. Her lower body was shaded in gray against a frigid black stone floor. Not home. Not her bed.
“Don’t cower in the dark.” A deep voice growled from the shadows. Mia’s body rippled with an involuntary shudder.
Dim light from slats at the top of a closed door to her left framed a large male body across from her. Coils of chain looped around the floor by his legs and snaked off into the darkness. Dark streaks crusted the visibly mauled, naked flesh of his abdomen above the waistband of his ragged pants. The shadows hid the remainder of him.
Mia released her breath and realized she’d been holding it so tight her chest ached.
Keep still and silent. Blend with darkness. Distance seemed smart too. She scooted backward until a hard wall pressed against her tailbone. The veil of black had reached its limit. No way to put more distance between herself and the only other occupant of the claustrophobic room.
Too real. Time to wake up. Mia gripped her knees and squeezed for control, but she couldn’t pull her eyes away from the man across from her.
Long legs extended across the floor and morphed into thick thighs that stretched the seams of his pants. Hard, corded muscle wrapped beneath the flesh of his wounds and torso.
He was a lot bigger than she was. She glanced between them, comparing the length of her legs to his—taller too.
A surge of sympathy for his condition intruded on her thoughts, dampened immediately by the threat of being stuck here. Or could she leave? She sidled to the door to give it a tentative push. Solid. Yep, stuck.
“You’ll gain nothing in the shadows, whatever your master’s plan.” The chains rattled in concert with his momentary outburst and then silenced.
Mia cringed. The gravel of his voice spoke volumes of his treatment. It wasn’t a natural vocal inflection. The tone was grated and rough from lack of fluid, or worse. Perhaps he was guilty of unspeakable crimes, though the stone cell, the chains, and antiquated door didn’t resemble any form of humane justice. That she was here with him curbed her sympathy. At least until she arrived home safe in her own bed.
To his credit, he left her alone. She couldn’t gauge whether he physically couldn’t move or just had no interest, but he didn’t say another word.
Need to wake up, Mia. She pulled back again and buried her head against her knees. Her ears alert for any movement from the man, she scrunched into the smallest ball she could make, wrapped her arms around her legs, and counted her breaths.
Focus on the inward breath, hold and release slowly.
Dreams didn’t last forever. Right? Whatever reason her mind created this image, this cell, this man, she’d seen all she needed and more than she wanted. It was all her illusion. Whatever the man represented, her dreams couldn’t harm her. She could maintain control.
She fought to regain the gray mist that had ushered her into this nightmare and continued to count her breaths, waiting.
Moments? Hours? She couldn’t tell, yet in spite of her awkward pretzeled position, her limbs expanded with a sense of lightness. She lost count and the darkness took control.
Ansgar spun a chair around to straddle it in front of the thick oak desk in Leonis’s office. Arms crossed on the back of the chair rail, he waited for the old man to finish his scrutiny of the ancient parchment.
Fine, take your time. The conversation they were about to have was one Ansgar would rather avoid. If he were smart, he’d have taken longer to get back to Eden’s Sanctum. Long enough to cleanse the nightmarish images that continued to play in his brain from this last assignment.
With a brief tilt of his head, Ansgar acknowledged Kamau as the man entered the room. Panther at his heels and hawk submissive on the broad, leather-clad shoulder, Kamau radiated Nubian prince as if born to the role. The trio settled beside Ansgar.
The sleek, black feline shifted moss green eyes toward her master. With a ripple of muscle, she sauntered over to Ansgar, and rubbed her head against his leg for attention.
Ansgar worked his fingers in the short, soft fur of the panther’s head until loud purrs rumbled through the windowless granite room. The skull was twice the size of his palm, yet the dangerous and wild creature sat docile and eager beneath his ministrations. He envied Kamau his power, a talent paired with companionship. Animals didn’t talk back, an added benefit. Then again, to a master of beasts they probably had their own way of mouthing off.
At least his power didn’t carry the responsibility of additional lives.
“Two more minutes,” Leonis said without a glance.
Ansgar perused the stacks of fragile books and yellowed parchments tumbled across Leonis’s desk, littered on chairs, and piled on the floor. The tomes covered almost every inch of the sterile, cold room hewn from the rock of Eden’s protective bowl of mountains.
The golden glow from the cylinder of memory crystals on the desk provided the only warmth in the room, besides the heat from the panther’s head beneath his hand.
Leonis’s finger traveled down the ancient pages. Flashes of glowing script illuminated briefly between the written lines of human text. The shimmering bits constituted history hidden by Ansgar’s descendants and secreted into the ancient human documents. With a brief swipe, Leonis gathered the luminescent script, lifted it into the air, and dropped it into the solid glass cylinder housing the crystals. Light sparkled. The script swirled inside the cylinder, searched until it reached some predestined section of crystal, then condensed, and disappeared.
Ansgar shook his head. Human computers handled data storage and retrieval, but Guardians had possessed the intrinsic skill organically for millennia without the use of chips and circuits. Yet it had taken the devastation of plague and death to rip the inherent skill from his people, leaving them with this paltry substitute to search for information.
“You find her?” Kamau’s deep voice was somber. The thick black forearms crossed over his chest contradicted the patience in his words.
“Isabella’s body? Yes and no. I tracked her to a morgue in Tucson. She’d been cremated.” Ansgar had trouble releasing the words and managed a shake of his head at Leonis’s surprise.
“There was nothing to bring back. They have too many bodies. After a few weeks, they need to make room. The police reports were detailed, though disturbing.” Isabella’s cold, mutilated body listed by number, another Jane Doe casualty on the Tucson Police Department’s unsolved roster, was too raw, too painful.
Leonis’s fingers stilled.
Kamau waited for additional explanation, his expression hidden while he pressed folds into his leather falconry gloves. On unspoken command, the panther shifted from Ansgar to settle at Kamau’s feet in a deceptively casual pose. Her head covered one of his feet and her eyes fixed on the open doorway.
The perfect lookout.
Ansgar turned his head to the side, stretched his neck, and avoided Leonis’s gaze. “The police report indicated twenty to thirty shallow stab wounds, five deep and fatal. There wasn’t a medical examiner’s report on record.” He gripped the chair rail. “Her personal effects fit in a ziplock bag.”
The crime scene photos had been bad, but he struggled to overlay them with his memories. Isa as an infant. Isa playing with the other Guardian children in the Sanctum’s gardens. Isa, stubborn and innocent, flirting to get her way. She’d possessed spirit and energy, characteristics too much like his sister, Briet.
“Xavier?” Leonis’s question held weariness.
Bristling at the implied assumption, Ansgar fought down a reaction. He knew the purpose here wasn’t to commiserate, only to provide impartial delivery of the facts. Ansgar and Kamau’s job was search and retrieval. It wasn’t Leonis’s fault he got the fun job of asking the hard questions before briefing Salvatore and the rest of the Guardian council.
Better him than me. “No evidence to link him to her death. Once I got past the human police personnel to search, there was no sign of the creatures Xavier used previously against the Sanctum or his usual attack patterns.” He swallowed back defense of his fallen commander and continued. “Her body was found with a dead undercover cop. Same wounds on him.”
“You conjecture that this is a random act of human violence?” Leonis asked.
Random, hardly. Ansgar ground his teeth on the words. Some details would have to wait. “There’s nothing to prove otherwise.”
“Any remains?” Leonis tapped his fingers on the table.
“They buried the ashes. No risk of exposure for us.”
Leonis and Kamau both grumbled.
The council would be relieved with the lack of exposure. However, the lack of details to probe further into Isa’s death would leave other questions. No help for that.
“Was she …” Kamau’s sour expression and his hand tightened enough around his glove to cause permanent wrinkles in the leather signaled the direction of his comment.
“Report said she bled out, along with the human. No other sign of violation.” No, Isa hadn’t been raped. Just attacked and then left to die slowly in a dark, narrow alley without the comfort of her brethren. Ansgar took a slow breath to battle the anger he seemed unable to lock in place.
His people trained in defense against random human violence, though to repel an assault required diligent training and a mindset to retaliate. Many of the Guardian women were gentle creatures. Isa had been such. His sister still was.
“And Turen?” asked Leonis.
Ansgar caught Kamau’s gaze as his eyes narrowed at the scribe.
“Too much, Leo.” Ansgar didn’t curb the bitterness in his voice. “Turen would never have hurt Isabella. He rejected being her mate, but he would have died for her. Any of us would have. Just because we aren’t all tied by blood, doesn’t discount each of us as brothers and sisters for our race.”
Leonis closed his eyes and nodded.
“Turen is too skilled to kill in such a petty, painful fashion. Xavier as well.” Kamau kept his gaze on his gloves, but the hawk rustled its wings and flexed its talons restlessly against Kamau’s leather vest. “If Turen or Xavier were to attack, it would be with one merciful strike. Not that Turen would ever turn on his brethren.”
Leonis blew out a strong breath, scrubbed at his face with one hand and then gave a quick shake of his head. “The question required asking.”
“An accusation requires proof.” Ansgar snorted. “It’s disgusting that we jump to credit Turen with Xavier’s sins. One horrible fall from grace doesn’t signal downfall for us all.” The room fell silent.
Ansgar allowed the void to grow. Xavier, the oldest and most admired, had turned on his people and fled. He’d plunged so deep into a life divergent in purpose with the Guardian’s covenant, it rattled every member of their small race, driving each of them further into solitude. Turen had been the single, vocal holdout for the possibility of Xavier’s redemption. Turen’s disappearance for the last several months had resurfaced the old doubts in the council. Now his character and loyalty were in question as well.
Only the warriors of Turen’s personal team refused to give up on him without strong, irrefutable proof.
Leonis shifted. “This issue won’t be resolved before the council without Isabella’s remains. Granted, that is minor compared to the loss of her unique powers and the souls her children would have someday delivered for mankind.”
“The forty or so of us remaining are the council. Don’t you mean Salvatore?” Ansgar let loose his anger. He didn’t intend to direct it at Leonis.
When the man raised a brow in censure, Ansgar dropped his gaze first. This argument would get them nowhere. “We lose Isa’s powers and so what?” he continued. “The likelihood that any of us will find our mates and conceive children has become only a dream. Decades we’ve lived hiding here in the Sanctum, safe from the plague but without a future. Except for Xavier’s brief success, and his blessing ended in tragedy.”
“We can’t give up,” Leonis chided.
“No. We don’t have that option either, since we live for frigging ever without our mates. No normal circle of life, no children, no fulfillment of our covenant. Hell, we can’t even just grow old and die.” Ansgar raised a hand to fend off Leonis’s rebuke with a heavy exhale. “I apologize.”
A creak of wood signaled Kamau’s movement. “Isa’s loss and Turen’s disappearance, both are adding to the schisms in our collective.”
Leonis nodded. “Have Kaax or Grimm found any answers?”
“They’ve both searched for traces of Turen. However, the issues of random failures along the Sanctum’s security field have derailed those efforts. Kaax is working with Tsu on a resolution. Grimm is searching in the human population alone, tracking city by city. It’s impossible.” Kamau frowned and tapped his finger restlessly on his leg. “Where does this leave us?”
Leonis patted the parchment before him and focused his attention on the illuminated cylinder with a frown. “This new information gains us nothing.”
“Perhaps it is time to reconsider our options?” said Kamau.
“Don’t even try. We can’t put the women at risk.” Leonis shook his head. “If Isabella had gone into cryo with the rest of our women, as requested, she’d be alive now. The situation is far worse than when our sisters accepted cryo. Isabella’s request for a mating with Turen will be only the beginning of the problems to surface if the women awaken.”
“You can’t believe that!” Ansgar snapped. “You can’t judge all the women by one situation. Isabella was lucky Turen had the sense to refuse an attempt at mating. The rest of us know it’s not a try-it-on-for-size connection with our people. He bent over backwards to protect her feelings. The women would have supported him. For the record, it was Salvatore who decided Isa could remain out of cryo and serve him. Where is his responsibility for her death?”
“Isa was warned to remain within the safety of the Sanctum’s perimeter. Instead, she pursued secret activities in the human cities,” Leonis countered with a frown. “She’d have been safe here.”
Kamau continued despite the argument over Isa. “The cryo option was for our women’s protection, to ease them through the lack of mates, to avoid the fate of Xavier’s mate. None of us intended for it to be a permanent cocoon. Our covenant requires we coexist with humankind, not stay safe forever in the Sanctum.”
“It has only been ten years. Why such a strong opposition? You do not even have a sister in cryo, Kamau,” said Leonis.
Ansgar was glad Leonis had the good grace to wince with the callousness of his remark.
“They are all sisters of my heart. As they are to you, Leonis, and to every male warrior of our race. Turen included.” Kamau’s brows pulled together; his jaw clenched. “The years divide us from our true mission. I know our sisters wouldn’t appreciate being considered fragile or their contribution minor. Their loss in our community creates too much disparity.”
“And they deserve a voice,” Ansgar added. As a scowl clouded Leonis’s features, he cut him off. “Be honest, Leo, the women will be angry to find Isabella and Turen are lost to us. That we considered them too vulnerable to consider their input.”
“They would never have supported Salvatore’s decision to back Isabella’s request to pursue Turen,” added Kamau.
Ansgar rubbed his chin and looked away. “Ironic, Turen didn’t support the renouncing of Xavier or advocate the cryo option or condone Isa’s pursuit of mating, and now he’s disappeared.”
“Do you have proof of what you imply?” Leonis responded slowly. “Be careful, Ansgar, our people have enough difficulties without unjustified accusations.”
“The accusations against Turen and Xavier have little proof as well, yet they are supported.”
Kamau’s hawk stepped back to the chair rail and pattered back and forth as the tension rose in the room. Kamau stroked his finger down the bird’s spotted breast feathers to ease her. The gesture did nothing to dispel the friction from the conversation.
“Salvatore’s approach has been to safeguard our women. Sisters,” Leonis said pointedly. “He saw no harm in allowing Isabella to try. If indeed Turen has fallen or joined Xavier, then the women would be at greater risk now.”
“By the same token, if Xavier and his mate were turned to madness by a drug secretly given, as Xavier claimed, then the cryo won’t protect the women. It means we have a traitor, and that leaves them, us, vulnerable.” Ansgar tried to rein in his anger and failed. His frustration over too many tragedies and no sound solutions made him want to break something.
Leonis sighed. “Being out of cryo didn’t protect Isabella.”
With a shake of his head, Ansgar countered, “She was stubborn and willful in her pursuits. Her immaturity put her in harm’s way, not her physical freedom. She’d have benefited from the other women’s guidance.”
“You discount any involvement from Turen,” Leonis added quietly.
“I’d trust him with my life.” Ansgar glared back.
“Would you trust him with your sister’s?” Leonis’s question dropped like a stone. “We have no proof of Xavier’s accusation. He attacks his own people. He exists in the human world in a manner of defilement, mimicking a human mobster. His creation and use of genetic anomalies, the hybrids, obscure any credence his allegations may have had.”
Ansgar shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
Discussion of Xavier’s charges had developed a silent rift among the Guardians. Turen’s team refused to lose hope for their former leader, even as they rallied in defense against the forces he brought down upon their heads.
Whether Leonis could feel the right of their sentiment didn’t matter, because he’d always push for proof of Xavier’s claim. Ansgar didn’t have any. Turen had found none. The Guardian race was no better off now than when Xavier’s wife and baby had suffered their horrific deaths.
Leonis continued. “The agreement was not to bring the women out until there is a change. The situation has only degraded. We have to trust they are safer where they are, for the time being.”
“I will take care of Isabella’s belongings.” Kamau rose, slid on his glove to gather his bird, gave Leonis a nod and left.
Determined not to glance Leonis’s way, Ansgar stood, prepared to follow his comrade from the room.
He tensed and halted at Leonis’s call, but didn’t turn back.
“Bring me proof. I can act on proof.”
Ansgar gave a tight nod and pulled the door closed behind him.