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Nya knelt, her fingertips grazing the embedded paw print in the dark soil. Deep grooves on one side revealed the mountain lion had been favoring its right flank. The impressions were fresh, which meant they were closing ground.
Her prey had led her deep into the heart of the dense forest.
She slowly rose from her crouched position. The bright moon's light broke through the thick clouds, casting a soft glow on the path ahead. The cat's lopsided tracks wove between the trees, skirting dangerously close to the mountain's ledge.
She glanced over her shoulder, watching Jax weave through the trees. He chose to stay a few hundred yards back. She had mixed feelings about the gesture. Tomorrow was her last challenge before graduating from the academy, and Jax was giving her the rare gift of space, which she appreciated. But he also insisted she lead, which made her leery.
In her culture, being treated as an equal was a dangerous thing.
Nya picked up the pace, following the path until it ended at the edge of a bluff. She stopped for a moment to watch the brooding mist that crept along the valley's floor. From this vantage point, the streetlights looked like fireflies trapped under frosted glass.
The average human, or Allos as her people called them, knew little of her kind. They stayed on the forest's fringe, consumed with the newest technology, choosing instead to take in the mountain's beauty through windows and distant porches. Most Allos lacked the physical stamina to reach her compound, and those foolish enough to venture too close never came back.
Her stomach flipped as the hair on the back of her neck prickled. Even though Jax hadn't made a sound, she knew he was behind her.
"Do you think the cat fell to his death?" His deep voice, always so calm, muttered in her ear.
She shivered. Jax officially was the academy's weapons expert, but he also carried a Ph.D. in psychology and had been her counselor since her first year. He knew she hated people getting in her space. Until a few weeks ago he'd always respected the boundary. Now, he seemed to go out of his way to cross it.
Her brow lowered. "What do you think?"
"You're the tracker. You tell me."
The tension eased as she stepped closer to the ridge, putting some distance between them. She looked at the steep angle leading to the small town below. "I don't think it's down there."
"And why not, Vtachi?"
Nya scowled, hating the nickname only he used. He'd given it to her the first time she snuck out of the compound. It meant 'little bird' in her native language, Dacian, and it made her feel small and weak. "Stop calling me that. I have more in common with that mountain lion than I do a helpless vtachi."
Jax's perceptive eyes held her gaze. He sighed. "Sadly, that may be true. But it's become my priority to help you change that. Now, how do you know the cat has not fallen to his death? Answer the question, please."
The stubborn part of her wanted to stay silent, but knowing Jax, he'd keep her there all night discussing the finer points of tracking. Or worse, he'd delve into the significance of her having more in common with a wounded predator than an animal gifted with flight.
Better to just answer the question and get it out of the way.
"Fine." She pointed to the slope of dark green foliage and black soil. "See that? Nothing's been disturbed. If the puma had slipped off the ledge, we would see signs of it — somewhere along here, or here." Motioning for him to follow, she turned and walked a few yards back. "And look at the way her tracks are growing heavy, particularly this last half mile or so. See how she's dragging her back paw?" Nya pointed to the deep print and then and dark smear along the right side. "She's smart enough to try and throw us off by going close to the edge and then jumping back inland, but she's too weak to have gone far."
"She?" Jax grinned. "Why do you think the cat's female?"
Nya shrugged. "Makes sense. She's wounded, and yet she is making her way here. I believe she's protecting something."
"And where do you think she's gone?"
His calm voice usually soothed her. Tonight, it grated on her nerves.
"How the hell should I know?" she snapped.
Jax's eyes flashed. "Language, Vtachi."
Scythians, as barbaric as they were, rarely used obscenities. Their high intelligence allowed little tolerance for such crudity. Of course, the fact that the Allos tossed around vulgarity like candy at Mardi Gras proved the theory that only dull-minded, unimaginative people used foul language.
Words were to be chosen carefully. They were the instrument of scholars, philosophers, and lovers.
Personally, Nya couldn't give a shit.
She looked away. "If you're tired of being around me, why did you come? Wasn't like I asked you to."
Jax spread his feet apart and rocked back on his heels. "You volunteered to track some mountain lion two days before the championships."
She hated it when he turned into a shrink. "So?"
"You don't find it odd the top contender in her class would choose to hunt instead of rest before a challenge that will decide her future?"
Nya squared her shoulders and forced herself to meet his gaze. "Not at all. Hunting relaxes me."
He smirked. "Nice try. But I know you, Vtachi. Whether you admit it or not, you're afraid. On the one hand, your mind craves seclusion, wanting only to be left alone. But your heart." He stepped forward. "Your heart wants to win the challenge and choose what is rightfully yours. An equal. A rovni. A mate." His eyes, always so astute, watched her like a hawk.
She stepped back. "You're wrong. My heart wants to be left the hell alone."
Jax's expression cooled. "I'd hoped after four years you would finally trust me and explain why you're so opposed to love."
"I do trust you. And I'm not opposed to love, I just don't want to claim an equal."
"Ah." Jax smiled. "So, you would take a lover but not a rovni?"
Nya scowled. "Why is it so outrageous that a Scythian female may not want to become a breeding factory? What if I don't want young? Maybe I don't like sex. What if I'm a lesbian, ever think of that?"
"You're deflecting, Nya." Jax ran his finger down her arm, watching her shiver. "We've had too many sessions together. I've seen you play with those little brutes in the village; I know you like vahna. And I think once you have sex, you'll enjoy it enough to want it again."
She blushed, trying to suppress the humiliating memory of the in-depth physical she'd gotten when she first arrived. She didn't find out until later that Jax had access to her records. Virginity wasn't something Scythians coveted, but it embarrassed her that Jax knew something so personal. It made her feel weak like he thought she couldn't handle allowing a male inside her body.
The ugly truth was, she couldn't.
He stepped closer, watching emotions flash in her eyes. His voice grew soft. "As for you being sexually attracted to females, as long as you continue your line by bearing a few offspring, no one will care who warms your bed at night."
Nya shivered as his fingers traced the line of her collar.
He smiled at the reaction. "But I don't think your predilections run in that direction. I can prove it if you'd like."
She clasped her hands together. Her right thumb rubbed across her left palm, like the center of the thing was a worry stone.
Jax glanced down at the movement, and his eyes lost their heat. "Unfortunately, now is not the time to test the theory. Let's find this cat and head home."
Relieved at his sudden change in tack, Nya turned on her heel and jogged up the path, her heart settling as she put some distance between them. It wasn't a minute or two until she found the puma's tracks again. She followed them to a small gorge. Massive evergreen trunks lay scattered like matchsticks along the belly of the ravine, evidence of a rare tornado that ripped through last year.
She held up a fist, signaling Jax to stop.
A deep purr rumbled in the darkness, and Nya pulled her bow off her shoulder. She drew an arrow from the quiver resting on her back. Situating the string between the arrow's nock, she straightened her left arm as her right pulled the bowstring taut.
The moon's light caught two round reflections in the dark forest floor. The cat let out a warning growl.
Nya cleared her mind, took a steadying breath, aimed between the reflections, and released the arrow.
The sickening thud of metal shattering bone sliced through the night.
Light illumined behind her as Jax turned on his flashlight, stepping ahead and walking toward the fallen trees. Numbly, she followed his lead.
The puma's lifeless body slumped over a log, an arrow embedded between her eyes. Her back paw, mangled and twisted, looked as if the poor animal had tried to chew it off before managing to escape.
Tears threatened, but Nya fought them back. She closed the short distance between her and the cat and squatted down beside it. She grabbed the arrow and pulled it from the skull, wiping the blood and brain matter her on pants. Regret bit deep into her belly. The Allos should've tranquilized the mountain lion then taken her to higher ground, away from the general population. But they didn't know how to track like Scythians did, and so they resorted to traps.
Cruel as it was, Nya didn't blame them. They were doing what they thought necessary to protect their children. God knew she understood the importance of safeguarding vahna.
Still, as she ran her fingers through the cat's golden fur, the words she'd spoken to Jax echoed in her mind. I have more in common with that mountain lion than I do a vtachi. This cat embodied the spirit of a warrior. It was a predator, cunning, fast, and intelligent. And yet, something had wounded it so badly it was irreparably damaged and had to be put down while still in its prime.
And wasn't that a depressing thought?
Jax's large palm rested on her shoulder. "Perfect shot, Nya. The mountain lion never saw it coming." His voice warmed like he knew what was bothering her.
"She didn't have to die this way." Nya wiped her nose with her sleeve. "I could have let her fight."
"True. But then the lion's last moments would have been full of panic and suffering. You saved her from dying in the agony of defeat. And that has to count for something."
Nya kept her eyes on the lifeless cat, understanding precisely what Jax meant. Scythians were the secret warriors of the human race. The cat would have struggled until it was overpowered, being forced to submit to the enemy until her heart finally stopped beating.
The only thing worse would be to submit and then live.
At least wherever the mountain lion was now, whether it be Heaven, Hell, or just a black hole of nothingness, she knew her fate and no longer struggled.
Part of Nya thought that might not be such a bad thing. A feeble snarl sounded from the left.
"Did you hear that?" Jax stood, turning the flashlight's beam toward the base of the uprooted tree. Two smaller reflections glimmered in the light.
"Oh, hell." Dread washed over her. "I was right. The puma was making her way back to her young."
Nya ran ahead and fell to her knees. Two cubs were there, one dead the other barely alive. "Why would she go so far from them?"
Jax rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm not sure. But she must have had a good reason."
The cub scratched and growled in a feeble attempt to ward Nya off, but she picked him up and placed him in her hoodie, zipping him securely to her chest.
Jax shook his head. "What are you doing?"
"I can't leave him."
"And you can't bring him to the compound either. It's best to let nature take its course."
She scowled. "Says who? Is it best for the cub, who will starve to death or be eaten by another predator? Is it best for me, who will agonize over the fact that I've left him here?" She placed her hand on the lump under her jacket. The little cub purred. "Vahna should be safeguarded until they can protect themselves. Tell me, Jax. Why do you think it's best to leave something so helpless undefended?"
Amusement threaded through his tone. "Apparently, we don't need to worry about your maternal instincts."
She closed her eyes and counted to ten. Most of the time Nya knew when Jax was baiting her with his psycho-babble bullshit. But this time she stepped into it with both feet.
A warm palm touched her cheek, and her eyes flew open. Jax's fingertips grazed her neck before slowly unzipping her jacket until triangular ears and a small muzzle peeked out. Nya blushed as he rubbed the cub's head, which happened to be nestled between her breasts.
"And you're right," he muttered. "No young should ever be left defenseless."
"We still talking about the cat?"
Jax's eyes warmed. "Perceptive, aren't you?" He stroked the cub's head a few times. "If you want this little one to survive we can't keep him in the compound. Cassius will feed him until he's big enough to use in a challenge. And we both know that won't end well."
"But we won't have to keep him that long. I'll teach him how to hunt. In a few weeks, we'll ask the forest reserve to take him north and release him in the wild."
"You'll be on a plane to Carpathia soon, remember? If you want to save him, I'll have to take him to the ranger station when we get back."
Dread washed over her at the mention of the Scythian homeland. "Can't you take care of him until I get back? I'll be home soon."
Jax's fingers swept under the cub's jaw, coming dangerously close to Nya's soft flesh. "I know you think of Montana as home, but your rovni might want to live elsewhere. Besides, I won't be here. I'm taking personal leave."
Nya frowned. Jax never took time off. Sure, when she first got here he was gone on missions for weeks at a time. But the Society hadn't called on him since then.
"Why?" she blurted out.
Jax raised a brow. "They call it personal time for a reason."
"Oh. Sorry." She blushed. Maybe he was finally ready to settle down with that female he'd been seeing in the valley.
And didn't that thought feel like hot coals sitting in her gut?
Jax stroked the cub's muzzle, smiling when it tried to suckle his thumb. He slowly zipped up Nya's hoodie, grazing his fingers along the edge of her jaw as he pulled his hand away. "Time to go."
He bent down and picked up the bloody arrow. The shaft had cracked from the impact, and he snapped it in two before taking the razor-sharp tip and putting it in his pocket.
"You led here, so I'll take point on the way back." His voice darkened as he started across the field.
Streaks of pink and yellow stretched across the horizon, waking the birds to another crisp, autumn day. Nya followed Jax, watching his long stride eat up the distance.
Jax had several doctorate degrees, including one in psychology and another in cross-cultural studies. At just twenty- nine, his sharp mind and infallible logic already had given him the reputation as one of the world's best negotiators.
Yes, everyone knew that Jax was amazing. Between his lineage, incredible mind, and physical strength, most female warriors thought he would make an excellent rovni.
But when Nya looked at him she only saw a threat. Her senses heightened when he was around, and her body tingled at his touch. She'd never physically bested him in the arena, and his hyper-intelligence about the human psyche put her on edge. She didn't like anyone messing with her head. Like this morning. How the hell did he get so close to the truth?
She hated to admit it, but Jax was right. A part of her longed for someone who understood her completely. Someone who knew of her past and yet respected her anyway. A true equal.
Snowball's chance in hell of finding it, though.
Jax stopped and waited for her to catch up.
A breeze drifted across her face, pulling a few strands of hair over her lips. Nya tucked them back in her hood and started closing the distance between them.
Most equals settled for friendship and intimacy, which hopefully developed into love. But rarely, equals became something more, something almost sacred — and they developed an Intima bond. It was the most profound connection that allowed mates to form a sixth sense about their partner.
Personally, Nya thought the Intima bond was a wagonload of horseshit. Only Scythian Empaths had the ability to feel another's emotions or pain. Besides, intimacy in any form scared the hell out of her.
Jax stopped in a clearing, waiting for her, his eyes not leaving hers as she drew near.
"Need a break?" Nya smirked. Scythians could run for miles without stopping, and they both knew it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Scythian Trials"
Copyright © 2018 Elizabeth Isaacs.
Excerpted by permission of Vesuvian Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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