Home > Branded by Fire (Psy-Changeling #6)

Branded by Fire (Psy-Changeling #6)
Author: Nalini Singh



Change can kill.



But it can also save. The Psy know this better than any other race on the planet. With the imposition of Silence, the protocol that wiped their emotions even as it saved their minds, this race of telepaths and telekinetics, foreseers and healers, a race both gifted and cursed, clawed its way back from the edge of the abyss.

As they stood looking down into the horror they had escaped, they shivered and turned away.

Years passed. And when the Psy Council declared that their once catastrophic rate of insanity had lowered to negligible levels, that there was no longer any violence in the PsyNet, they knew they'd made the right decision. The only decision.

Love. Happiness. Joy. What did any of that matter when the flip side was murderous rage, blood-soaked anarchy? The Psy preferred to leave such things to the "animal" races - and while the humans and changelings buried themselves in the viciousness of emotion, the Psy evolved into the most powerful beings on the planet.

Cold. Pitiless. Silent.

But now, in the year 2080, more than a hundred years after the "miracle" of Silence, the animal races are beginning to rise. And change is pulling the Psy back into the abyss. Into emotion and chaos . . . and nightmare.

Chapter 1

Mercy kicked a dry branch out of her way and glared. "Stupid stick." Of course, it wasn't the defenseless stick she was mad at - it just had the bad luck to be in her path as, shoulders hunched, she made her escape from the Pack Circle and the continuing revelry of Dorian's mating ceremony.

It was sickening how much her best friend was in love with his mate. In fact, all the other sentinels were starting to make her gag. "Clay making goo-goo eyes at Tally, and don't get me started on Luc and Sascha."

Then there were the worst offenders of all - Nate and Tamsyn. How dare they still be so crazy for each other after all these years! "Should be against the law," she snarled. She wasn't even going to think about Vaughn and Faith.

She decided to go for a run instead.

An hour later, and deep enough in the pack's heavily for ested territory that she couldn't hear anything beyond the cautious whispers of nocturnal creatures moving about in the dark, she sat down on the smooth trunk of a fallen tree and blew out her breath. The truth was, she wasn't mad at any of the sentinels or their mates. Damn, she was so crazy-happy for them it hurt. But she was jealous, too. Everyone was paired up now. Except her.

"There," she muttered. "I admitted it. I'm a big ol' jealous baby."

Being a dominant female wasn't a bad thing in changeling society. Female alphas were as common as male ones. But being a dominant female in a leopard pack where none of the dominant males pushed her buttons, that was bad. And being a dominant female in a state controlled by leopards and wolves - where only the wrong one pushed her buttons - that was extra cherry-on-top bad.

Not that she was limited to their territory - Dorian had been nudging at her to go out of state, see if she couldn't find someone in one of the other packs, but she couldn't bring herself to leave DarkRiver, not when things were so dicey. Sure, life had calmed down a little since the failed kidnapping attempt on Dorian's mate, Ashaya, but it was an edgy sort of calm. Everyone was waiting for the next ripple in the pond - whether it would come from the suspiciously quiet Psy Council or the newly violent Human Alliance was anyone's guess.

That it would, was certain.

As a DarkRiver sentinel, she should've been considering their defense strategy, working out possible scenarios. Instead, she was going so insane with need she couldn't think of anything but the fever in her body, the hunger in her throat, the clawing want in every cell, every breath. Intimate touch was as necessary to her predator's soul as the forest she called home, but things might not have been so bad if she hadn't also been trying to cope with the impact of a conversation she'd had with the pack healer, Tamsyn, a few days earlier.

Mercy was the one who'd said it. "There's a strong possibility I'll remain unmated."

"You don't know that," Tammy had begun, frown lines on her brow. "You could mee - "

"It's not that. I might not be able to be with anyone. You know that happens."

Tammy had bent her head in a reluctant nod. "The chances are higher with dominant females than males. It's an inability to give in . . . to surrender. Even to your mate."

And that was the hell of it, Mercy thought. She might want a mate with everything in her, but if he appeared, and he was the strong, take-no-shit partner she knew she needed, she might refuse to acknowledge him on the level necessary for a true mating bond. Oh, the mating urge would probably overpower her into taking him for a lover, perhaps more . . . but if the leopard in her didn't truly accept his right to her, then she might go roaming for months at a time, coming back to him only when she could no longer fight the need.

It was a special kind of torture reserved for those female leopards who got strangled up at the mere idea of giving a male any kind of control over them. And put it any way you would, unless her mate turned out to be a weak submissive - and she'd never be attracted to someone like that, so that was a no-brainer - he was going to try to dominate her.

"I don't need a mate," she muttered, staring up at the bright circle of the early autumn moon. "But can't you send me a nice, sexy, strong male to dance with? Pretty please?" She hadn't had a lover for close to eight months now, and it was starting to hurt on every level. "He doesn't even have to be smart, just good between the sheets." Good enough to unsnap the tension in her body, allow her to function again.

Because sex wasn't simply about pleasure for a cat like her - it was about affection, about trust, about everything good. "Though right this second, I'd take plain old hot sex."

That was when Riley walked out of the shadows. "Got an itch, kitty?"

Snapping to her feet, she narrowed her eyes, knowing he had to have deliberately stayed downwind in order to sneak up on her. "Spying?"

"When you're talking loud enough to wake the dead?"

She swore she could feel steam coming out her ears. Everyone thought Riley was quiet, practical, grounded. Only she knew he had a mean streak that delighted in annoying her as much as possible. "What do you want?" It was a growl from the heart of the leopard and woman both.

"I was invited to Dorian's mating ceremony." A slow smile that taunted her to retaliate. "Pretty hard to miss you burning up the place. And I'm not talking about your hair." His eyes lingered on the long red strands stroking over her br**sts.

Mercy didn't get embarrassed easily, but her cheeks flamed now. Because if Riley knew she was in heat - like a freaking wild cat! - then so did the rest of her own pack. "So what, you followed me hoping I'd lower my standards and sleep with a wolf?" She intentionally made "wolf" sound about as appetizing as "reptile."

Riley's jaw tightened under a shadow of stubble a shade darker than the deep chestnut of his hair. "You want to claw at me, kitty-cat? Come on."

Her hands clenched. She really wasn't this much of a bitch. But goddamn Riley had a way of lighting her fuse. "Sorry, I don't beat defenseless puppies."

He laughed. He actually laughed. She hissed at him. "What's so funny?"

"We both know who's the dominant here . . . and you're not it."

That did it. She was a sentinel. So what if he'd been a lieutenant longer? That didn't change the fact that she occupied the same place in DarkRiver that he did in SnowDancer. The wolf had crossed a very defined line - and since she couldn't have sex, she'd settle for violence.

Feeling more than a little feral, she pounced.

Riley was ready for her. He took the kick on the thigh without flinching, but stopped her punch with a single hand. She was already shifting, sliding into the next position, ready to take advantage of any vulnerability. He blocked every one of her moves, but made none of his own. "Fight!" she yelled. She needed a good, sweaty workout - it would take some of the edge off the gut-wrenching fury of her need. Her booted foot connected with his ribs.

She heard a grunt and grinned. "Not so fast are we, wolfie?"

"I was trying," he said, blocking her next set of blows with his arms, "not to hurt you."

"I'm not a frickin' princess," she muttered, aiming for the most vulnerable part of a man's body - yeah, yeah, it wasn't fair. But Riley had asked for it. Oh, man, had he asked for it. " 'Kitty' this, Kincaid."

"Damn it, Mercy!" He grabbed the foot that had been about to connect with his crotch and flipped her. Effortlessly. Gasping as she realized exactly how much he'd been holding back, she twisted in midair and came to an easy landing on her feet.

"I'll give you one thing," he said, crouching opposite her as they circled each other. "You know how to move . . . kitty."

Adrenaline shot through her, a hot, liquid fire. "Better than a jumped-up sheepdog anyway." She kept her tone even, but she was sweating under the slinky black tee she'd changed into for the dancing, her heart beating at a rapid pace. "Claws out," she said and that was the only warning she gave as she went for him.

She didn't even see it coming. One moment she was about to slash his face - okay, so she would've just scratched him, it wasn't like this was a fight to the death - and the next, she was flat on her back with her wrists slammed to the earth, gripped in one strong fist. "Ooomph." All the air rushed out of her as Riley's lower body crushed hers to the ground. The bastard was heavy, pure muscle over solid bone.

"Yield." His nose was almost touching hers.

"You wish." She smirked into chocolate-dark eyes. "Come closer."

"So you can bite me?" A flash of teeth. "First you yield. Then I'll come closer."

"Not on your life." If she yielded, she'd be acknowledging his dominance, at least for tonight.

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