Book of the Day: Into the Shadows – A Dark Chosen series novel # 3 by Christina Dodd

Prologue
On the border between Tibet and Nepal
“Ye’re not normal.”
“You know, Magnus, when you get drunk, that brogue of yours gets so thick I can barely understand you.’’ Warlord’s voice was as soft and smooth—and as deadly—as the single-malt Scotch they’d stolen.
‘‘Ye understand me verra well.’’ Magnus knew he would never have had the guts to make comments about Warlord, no matter how true, if it weren’t bloody damned dark out here in the middle of the Himalayas in the middle of nowhere, and if he hadn’t imbibed a wee bit o’ that fine whisky—that is to say, most of a bottle all to himself. And if he weren’t second in command of the mercenary troop, with a responsibility to point out the trouble a-brewing. ‘‘Ye’re not normal, and the men here, they know it. They whisper that ye’re a werewolf. ’’
‘‘Don’t be ridiculous.’’ Warlord sat high above the camp, silhouetted against the night sky, his arm crooked around his knee, his rifle in his hand.
‘‘That’s what I said, too. Because I’m a Scotsman. I know better. There’s no such thing as werewolves.’’ Magnus nodded wisely, and broke the seal on the second bottle. ‘‘There’s things much worse than that. Do ye know why I know?’’
Warlord said nothing.
He never said a word more than necessary. He was never kind. He was never friendly. He kept his secrets, and he was the meanest son of a bitch in a fight Magnus had ever seen. Yet while the lads were celebrating their latest plunder, he took the watch on the highest spot overlooking their hideout. For a man who excelled at stealing from rich tourists and government officials, and never caviled at killing when the occasion called for it, he was bloody decent.
Magnus continued, ‘‘I grew up on the bleakest of the Outer Hebrides islands, far to the north, where the bloody wind blows all the time, not a plant dares grow, and the old tales are repeated and repeated through the long winter nights.’’
‘‘Sounds like a good place to be from.’’ Warlord took the bottle from Magnus’s fist and tipped it down his throat.
‘‘Aye, that it is.’’ Magnus watched his leader. ‘‘Ye dunna usually drink.’’
‘‘If we’re going to reminisce, I could use something to blunt the pain.’’ Warlord was a dark blot against the stars—an unnaturally dark blot.
In the morning, Magnus knew, he’d be sorry for nattering on like this. Like every man up here, he’d been scarred by cruelty and betrayal, the only damned thing he excelled at was fighting, and if he was ever caught by any government in the world, he’d be hanged—or worse.
But whisky made Magnus gregarious, and he trusted Warlord—Warlord made the rules, and he was ruthless in enforcing them, but he was goddamned bloody fair.
‘‘Do ye miss yer home, then?’’ he asked.
‘‘I don’t think about it.’’
‘‘Ye’re right. What’s the point? We canna go back. They’ll not want us. Not with so much blood on our hands.’’
‘‘No.’’
‘‘But today we washed some of the blood away.’’
Warlord lifted his hand and looked at it. ‘‘Bloodstains last forever.’’
‘‘How do ye know that?’’
‘‘My father made that quite clear. Once you take a deliberate step into evil, you’re marked for life and destined for hell.’’
‘‘Aye, my father said the same stuff, right before he took off his belt and whaled on me.’’ Magnus drooped, then perked up again. ‘‘Today those Buddhist monks were grateful, though. They showered us with blessings. That’s gotta help. Isn’t that why you freed them?’’
‘‘No. I freed them because I hate bullies, and those Chinese soldiers are assholes who think it’s funny to use holy men for target practice.’’ Warlord’s voice vibrated with rage.
‘‘You do have a thing about that. But this time we got paid in more than blessings.’’ For the raid had been profitable, bagging them firearms, ammunition, and a Chinese general who had surrendered his liquor and his gold to keep the photographs of his liaison with the local Communist chairman’s young son secret.
Magnus grinned up and toward the east, where a glow on the horizon marked the rising moon. ‘‘You and me—we’ve whored together. We’ve fought together. And I still dunna understand how ye always seem to know where the money is hidden and the liquor is stored and the scandals are richest.’’
“It’s a gift.”
Magnus shook his finger at him. ‘‘Dunna distract me with yer blather! How did ye come to be such a creature?’’
‘‘The same way you did. I killed a man, ran away, and ended up here.’’ Warlord lifted the bottle and toasted the snowcapped peaks that dominated their lives. ‘‘Here, where the only law is what I make, and I don’t have to beg forgiveness from anybody.’’
‘‘That’s not what I mean, and ye know it. Ye’ve got a bad way about ye. The shadow ye cast is too black. When ye’re angry, you sort of’’—Magnus made a wiggling motion with his fingers—‘‘shimmer around the edges. Ye have a way of appearing out of nowhere, without a sound, and ye know things ye’ve got no business knowing, like that the Chinese general was buggering that lad. The men swear ye’re not human.’’
‘‘Why would they say that?’’
‘‘Because of yer eyes . . .’’ Magnus shivered.
‘‘What’s wrong with my eyes?’’ Warlord had that smooth, deadly tone in his voice again.
‘‘Have ye looked in the mirror lately? Bloody spooky, they are. That’s why the men have followed ye. But now there’s grumblings. ’’ Magnus braced himself for a wee bit of unpleasantness.
‘‘Why would there be grumblings?’’ Warlord asked with deceptive smoothness.
‘‘The men say ye’re not paying attention to business, that ye’re distracted by yer woman.’’
‘‘By my woman.’’ Warlord’s obsidian eyes gleamed in the dark.
‘‘Did ye think no one would notice that ye disappear nights? They see you go, and they gossip.’’ Magnus tried to lighten the atmosphere. ‘‘Bunch of old women, our mercenaries. ’’
Warlord was not amused. ‘‘Are they not happy with the results of this raid?’’
‘‘Aye, but there’s more to business than merely having a good fight and stealing a glorious amount of money.’’ Magnus got down to business. ‘‘Our boys are worried about their safety. There’s rumors that the military on both sides of the border are tired of us thumbing our noses at them, and they’re bringing in enforcers. ’’
‘‘What kind of enforcers?’’
‘‘Canna get that answered, exactly. They’re being bloody secretive, they are. But they’re equal parts gleeful and, well . . .’’
Warlord leaned forward. ‘‘Gleeful and . . . ?’’
‘‘I’d say they’re scared, too. Like maybe they started something they can’t stop. I’ll be frank with ye, Warlord. I don’t like any of this. We need ye to stop fooking the girl and find out what’s going on.’’ There. Magnus had passed on the message, and Warlord hadn’t ripped his head off. Yet.
Magnus settled his back against the rock. The granite was cold. Of course. Except for the brief summer, these mountains were always cold. And in this valley, bound as it was on three sides by cliffs and on the long side by a gorge that dropped straight into a raging river, the constant wind whipped through his thinning hair and cut deep into his bones. ‘‘I hate this fooking place,’’ he muttered. ‘‘Nothin’ good ever came out of Asia except spices and gunpowder.’’
Warlord laughed, and it almost sounded as if he were amused. ‘‘You’re right about that. My family’s from Asia.’’
‘‘Pull the other one, man. Ye’re not a Chinaman.’’
‘‘A Cossack from the steppes, from what is now the Ukraine.’’
Magnus knew his geography; he’d worked that area of the world as a con man and a soldier. ‘‘The Ukraine—that’s close to Europe.’’
‘‘Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.’’ Warlord looked up at the stars. He sipped the whisky. ‘‘Have you ever heard of the Varinskis?’’
Magnus went from mellow to murderous in a few seconds. ‘‘Those bastards.’’
‘‘You have heard of them.’’
‘‘Eight years ago I was working the North Sea, doing a little pirating, picking up a few things, and three Varinskis caught up with me. Informed me it was their territory, said they were taking everything.’’ Magnus stuck his finger against the indentation in his cheek where he was missing that molar. ‘‘I told them not to be greedy, I had enough for everybody. And listen, I’m no stranger to beatings—my father took the belt to me every day of his life— but those guys . . . They’re why my nose is crooked. They’re why I’m missing three toes and both little fingers. They about killed me, then tossed me into the ocean to drown. Doctors said that was why I didn’t bleed to death. Hypothermia. Varinskis.’’ He spit their name like venom. ‘‘Do you know the reputation those monsters have?’’
‘‘Yes.’’
‘‘I hate those sons a’ bitches.’’
‘‘They’re my family.’’
Cold fear trickled down Magnus’s spine. ‘‘The rumors about them are—’’
‘‘All true.’’
‘‘They canna be.’’ Magnus clutched at his rapidly evaporating liquor-induced bliss.
‘‘You said the men claim I’m not human.’’
Magnus dismissed that with as much bombast as he could summon. ‘‘The men are a bunch of ignorant savages.’’
‘‘But I am human. A human with special gifts . . . the most marvelous, pleasurable, enticing gifts.’’ Warlord’s voice wove a spell around them.
‘‘No need to tell me. I’m all for a man keeping his secrets.’’ Magnus struggled to stand.
Warlord’s hand clamped around his arm and jerked him down with a thump. ‘‘Don’t leave, Magnus. You wanted to know.’’
‘‘Dinna want to know that bad,’’ Magnus muttered.
‘‘You wanted reassurance. I’m giving it to you.’’ Warlord handed Magnus the bottle. Handed it to him as if he would need it. ‘‘A thousand years ago my ancestor, Konstantine Varinski, made a deal with the devil.’’
‘‘Fook.’’ Magnus had always hated stories like this. Hated them because he believed them.
He wished that the moon could wipe out the shadows, but it was barely half, and the bleak white light poked at the shadows but could not vanish them. He wished for some more of the men to keep him company, but the fools were in the valley, gambling, drinking, playing their stupid video games, and puking. Nobody knew he sat up here, unearthing secrets better left buried, and now in fear of his life.
‘‘Konstantine had a reputation on the steppes. He delighted in killing, in torture, in extortion, and it was whispered that his cruelty rivaled the devil’s.’’ Warlord’s voice warmed with humor. ‘‘Satan didn’t like those stories— I’d guess he’s a little vain—and he sought out Konstantine with the intention of removing him from the competition.’’
‘‘Dunna tell me Konstantine defeated the evil one,’’ Magnus said incredulously.
‘‘No, he offered himself as Satan’s best servant. In return for the ability to hunt down his enemies and kill them, Konstantine promised his soul, and the souls of all his descendants, to the devil.’’
Magnus peered at Warlord, trying to see him, but as always the shadows around his leader were thick, dense, impenetrable. ‘‘You’re his descendant?’’
‘‘One of many. A son of the current Konstantine. ’’ Warlord’s strange eyes gleamed in the dark.
‘‘I told ye. Long winter nights, and all the old tales told to frighten the children.’’
‘‘The children should be frightened.’’ Warlord lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘‘They should shiver in their beds to know creatures such as me are abroad in this world.’’
Magnus knew what evil was. His father had preached to him every day while he tried to beat the rebellion out of him. That was why, now . . . Magnus could almost feel the flames of hell scorch his flesh. ‘‘That’s a fantastic tale.’’ He cleared his throat. ‘‘In a thousand years, I imagine it’s gathered some frills. Some story-teller spiced it up to make it more exciting in the telling . . . don’t ye suppose?’’
A low growl rumbled out of Warlord’s hidden form. ‘‘Why else do you think men seek me out when they want their enemies tracked down? Why do you think they hire me? I can find anyone, anywhere. Do you want to know how?’’
Magnus shook his head. He did not want to know.
But it was too late.
‘‘To Konstantine Varinski and to each Varinski since, the devil bequeathed the ability to change at will into a hunting animal.’’
‘‘Change . . .’’ The light of the moon had reached them now, and Magnus stared at Warlord. Stared because he was afraid to take his gaze away. ‘‘So ye are a werewolf?’’
‘‘No, we Varinskis are not stupid beasts ruled by the phases of the moon. We are ruled by nothing but our own wills. We change when we wish, when we need to change. We live long lives, breed only sons, and nothing less than another demon can kill us. We leave a trail of blood, fire, and death wherever we go.’’ Warlord laughed, a throaty purr. ‘‘We are the Darkness.’’
‘‘Aye, that you are.’’ Magnus saw the darkness every time he looked into Warlord’s eyes. Still he argued, because he didn’t want it to be true. ‘‘But ye’re not Russian. Ye’re from the US.’’
‘‘My parents ran away, got married, moved to Washington state, changed their last name to something that sounds good, solid, and all-American, and raised my two brothers and my sister and me. They don’t approve, especially not my dad, of that Varinski blood-fire-and-death thing. He said we had to control ourselves. ’’ Warlord’s bitterness was thick and angry. ‘‘I suck at control. I like the blood, fire, and death. I can’t fight my real nature.’’
Try. For the love of God, try. ‘‘Can the pact be broken?’’
Warlord shrugged. ‘‘It’s held for a thousand years. I imagine it’ll hold for another thousand.’’
Magnus’s head whirled, and the rice and lamb he’d eaten for dinner now warred with the Scotch. ‘‘But ye’re not like the other Varinskis I met. Are ye sure ye’re a Varinski?’’
‘‘I want you to reassure the men that they don’t have to worry. I can keep them safe from any enforcers the military has hired.’’ Warlord placed his rifle on the ground. He removed his boots, tossed aside his coat and shirt. He unbuckled his belt, dropped his jeans, stood up, and let the feeble moonlight bathe him.
On those long winter nights when the whores visited the camp, Magnus had seen Warlord naked and in action. He was just a man, a guy who made his living fighting.
But now, all around the edges, his form grew less . . . defined.
Magnus lifted the bottle to his mouth. His hand shook, and the glass rim clicked against his teeth.
‘‘I’m going to hunt . . . and kill.’’ Warlord’s bones melted and re-formed. His dark hair spread, sprouting on his neck, his back and belly, down his legs. His face changed, grew cruelly feline. His spine shifted; he dropped onto all fours. His ears . . . and his nose . . . his hands . . . and his feet . . .
Magnus blinked again.
A great, sleek ebony panther stood before him with white, sharp claws and teeth, and fur as black as a shadow. And his eyes . . .
Magnus found himself backing away, screaming and screaming, while the great hunting cat stalked toward him, his paws never making a sound, his familiar black Warlord eyes fixed on his prey . . . on Magnus.

Chapter One
It started as it always did, with a gust of cold Himalayan air striking Karen Sonnet’s face.
She woke with a start. Her eyes popped open.
The darkness in her tent pressed on her eyeballs.
Impossible. Tonight she’d left a tiny LED burning.
Yet it was dark.
Somehow he’d obliterated the light.
The constant wind blew through this narrow mountain valley, buffeting the ripstop nylon canopy that protected her—barely—from annihilation, and ringing the holy bells hung across the tent flap. Her interpreter had left behind the scent of tobacco, spices, and wool. The menacing cold slipped its cold fingers into the tent. . . .
Karen strained to hear his footfall.
Nothing.
Still, she knew he was here. She could sense him moving across the floor toward her, and as she waited each nerve tightened, stretching. . . .
His cool hand touched her cheek, making her gasp and jump.
He chuckled, a low, deep sound of amusement. ‘‘You knew I would come.’’
‘‘Yes,’’ she whispered.
As he knelt beside her cot, she breathed in his scent: leather, cold water, fresh air, and something else—the smell of wildness. He kissed her, his cool lips firm, his breath warm in her mouth.
She hung suspended in time, in place, in an ocean of pleasure. As his kiss lingered her body stirred, her breasts swelling, the familiar longing growing deep inside.
The night she’d arrived here, she’d come awake to the touch of a man’s kiss. Just a kiss, tender, curious, almost . . . reverent. In the morning she’d thought she had dreamed it. But the next night he’d been back, and the next night, and every night he’d taken her further into passion. And now . . . how many nights had he visited her? Two months? More? Sometimes he didn’t come for one night, two, three, and on those nights she slept deeply, worn out by hard work and the high, thin air. Then he’d return, his need greater, and he touched her, loved her, with an edge of violence sharp as a knife. Yet always she sensed his desperation, and welcomed him into her mind . . . and her body.
This time he had been gone almost a week.
He slid down the zipper on her sleeping bag, each tooth making a rasping noise, each noise making Karen’s heartbeat escalate another notch. He started at her throat, cupping it, pressing on the pulse that raced there. He pushed the bag aside, exposing her to the cold night air. ‘‘You wait for me . . . naked.’’ He pressed his palm between her breasts, feeling her heart beat. ‘‘You’re so alive. You make me remember. . . .”
‘‘Remember what?’’ He sounded American, without a hint of accent, and she wondered where he was from and what he was doing here.
But he didn’t want her to think. Not now. Greedily he caressed her slight breasts, one in each palm. His hands were long, rough, calloused, and he used them to massage her while with his thumbs he circled her nipples.
She made a raw sound in her throat.
‘‘You’re in need.’’ His voice deepened. ‘‘It’s been a long time. . . .’’
‘‘I’ve been waiting.’’
‘‘And that was my torment, that I could not be here with you.”
It was the first time he’d ever suggested he needed this as much as she did. She smiled, and somehow, in this pitch dark, he must have seen her.
‘‘You like that. But if you’ve tormented me, I must torment you in return.’’ His head dipped. He took one pebbled nipple in his mouth and suckled, softly at first, then, as she whimpered, with strength and skill.
He made her go crazy.
Yet any woman who welcomed a midnight lover was already halfway to insanity.
She grabbed a handful of his hair and discovered how very long it was . . . and soft, and silky. She tugged at him, pulling his head back.
‘‘What do you want?’’ His voice was a husky whisper.
‘‘Hurry.’’ She was chilled. She was desperate. ‘‘I want you to hurry.’’
‘‘But if I hurry, I won’t get to do this.’’ He pushed the sheet down farther, caressing her belly and thighs. Lifting her knees, he spread her legs, exposing her to the cold, shocking her, making her suck in a startled breath.
‘‘Let me see.’’ He tilted her hips up. ‘‘Are you really ready?’’
His fingers glided from her knees along the tender skin on her inner thighs to the dampness there. With a delicate touch, he opened the lips and dabbed a touch on her clitoris. ‘‘I love your scent, so rich and female. The first time, it was your scent that called me to you.’’
Horrified, she tried to draw her legs together. ‘‘I bathe every night.’’
‘‘I didn’t say you smelled. I said you have a scent that calls to me.’’ His nails skated up and down her thighs, pushing them apart again . . . and they were sharp, almost like claws. Almost a threat. ‘‘Not to any other man. Only to me.’’
‘‘Are you a man?’’ The question slipped out, and she regretted it. Regretted injecting reality into this delicate, lovely dream of passion.
‘‘I thought I had conclusively proved my manhood to you. Shall I do it again?’’ The hint of warning was gone; he sounded warmly amused, and the finger he pushed inside her was long, strong . . . and clawless.
The impact made her fling her head back, and when he pushed a second finger inside, her hips moved convulsively. ‘‘Please. Lover, I need you.’’
‘‘Do you?’’ Slowly he pulled his fingers back, pressed them back in, pulled them out . . . and as he pressed them in, he pinched her clit between his thumb and forefinger.
She screamed. She came. Orgasm blasted her away from this cold, bleak mountainside and into a fire pit. Her thighs clamped around his hand. Red swam beneath her closed eyelids. Heat radiated from her skin.
He laughed, one compelling stroke following another, feeding her madness until she collapsed, shivering and gasping, too weak to move.
He covered her with himself.
‘‘I can’t,’’ she whispered, and her voice shook. ‘‘Not again.’’
‘‘Yes, you will.’’
‘‘No. Please.’’ She tried to struggle, but he stretched out on top of her. Her head was buried in his shoulder; obviously he was tall. His body, heavy with muscle, pressed her into the cot. His flesh was cool and firm. His shoulders, chest, and stomach rippled with vigor, and his heart thrummed in his chest.
Power hummed through him, and he easily held her as he probed again . . . but not with his fingers.
She was swollen with need, and his organ was big, bigger than both his fingers. As he worked himself inside her she whimpered, her .body gradually adjusting to the width, the breadth, and all the while the aftermath of climax made her inner muscles spasm.
He held her wrapped in his arms, clutching her as if she were his salvation.
And she embraced him, her arms gripping him against her chest, her legs clasped around his hips, giving him herself, absorbing . . . absorbing all his ardor, all his need, knowing this was a dream and wanting nothing more.
When the tip of his penis touched the innermost core of her, they both froze.
Darkness held them in a cocoon of heat and sex and emotions stretched too tight for comfort.
Then their passion flashed bright enough to light the night.
He pulled out and pushed back in, thrusting fast and hard, dragging her with him on his quest for satisfaction.
She held on, rapture flowing through her with the heat and intensity of lava.
The tempo built and built until, above her, his breathing stopped. He gathered himself, rising high above her, holding her knees behind him . . . then plunged one last time.
Ecstasy exploded her into tiny fragments of being. She came, convulsing with pleasure, until she was no longer an austere, lonely workaholic, but a creature of joy and light.
Unhurriedly, he dropped back on top of her, bringing the silk sheets and sleeping bag up to cover them. Reaching down to the floor, he pulled a large blanket over them . . . but no. She touched it with her hand and discovered fur, thick and soft. A skin of some kind, then.
Had he taken her on a trip back in time, back to a century where a man brought the woman he desired proof of his hunting prowess? Wasn’t that a better explanation than madness?
As the perspiration cooled on their bodies, as their breath and heartbeats returned to normal, she slid easily into sleep.
She stood on the edge of the cliff, the blue sky surrounding her. The wind blew hard, tumbling her hair around her face, and in its voice she heard the wails of mourning women, the hoarse sobs of lonely men, and a child’s anguished wail. She tried to back up, to get away, but her feet were too heavy. She fell. . . .
Just before she hit, she started violently.
She woke to find him leaping to his feet. She heard the click of a gun’s safety.
‘‘What’s wrong?’’ he asked. ‘‘What did you hear?’’
‘‘Nothing. A nightmare.’’ A phantasm of her mind, one that had threatened her since she was a child.
Since the day her mother had fallen from that cliff.
Slowly her lover placed something beneath the bed—a firearm of some kind, she now realized—and slid back between the covers. ‘‘You weren’t completely asleep.’’
‘‘That’s when I . . . That’s when it always comes.’’
‘‘A monster?’’ He pushed the short, straight strands of dark brown hair away from her face.
‘‘Death.’’ Shivering, she wrapped herself around him.
She reclined on her narrow cot in her tent at the foot of Mount Anaya. The darkness pressed down on her; the sense of wrongness in this place oppressed her. She hated everything about it.
And tomorrow she would rise. He would be gone. And she would go to work, another day spent in hell.
So she wept.
He caressed her face with his fingertips, found her tears, said, ‘‘No. Don’t do that.’’
The tears only flowed more quickly.
He kissed her. Kissed the dampness from her cheeks, her lips, her throat . . . He kissed as if they hadn’t made love only ten minutes before. He kissed her with passion. He kissed her with intent. Finally she forgot to cry, and remembered nothing but desire.
Afterward, as she slid off to sleep, she thought she heard him say in a slow, hoarse voice, ‘‘You make me real again.’’
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