* * *
Lucas returned a few minutes after five to find Sascha and Tamsyn standing in the yard.
"The juveniles?" the healer asked the second he got within earshot.
Sascha looked up, face drawn. "Are they all right?"
"They were already on their way back by the time I tracked down their whereabouts."
"They heard?" Tamsyn's relief was obvious.
Lucas saw Sascha frown as she realized that something was going on beneath the surface. It had been inevitable. She was too smart to miss much. "They were stopped by a SnowDancer patrol and told to haul ass back home."
"Were your packmates injured?"
He shook his head. "They treated the kids as if they were wolf pups." That was very unusual. When they'd first decided on a truce, Hawke had put out the word that the leopards were allies, but letting them pass without trouble and doing what the soldiers had done was something entirely different. Lucas had been alpha too long not to understand the implied message, but it was an offer he couldn't accept without considerable thought. "They'll be home by nightfall."
Tammy smiled. "I'll leave you two to catch up."
He waited for Sascha to ask what was going on but she shook her head. "Don't trust me." She rubbed at her eyes. "My mind is vulnerable as long as I'm uplinked to the Net."
He had far more faith in her skills than she had in herself, he thought. "What did you find?" They'd discuss her connection to the PsyNet another time.
"Nothing." Fatigue dulled her tone.
He moved close enough to caress her cheek with his knuckles. "It exhausted you."
She didn't pull away and when his hand dropped from her face to entangle with one of her hands, she curled her fingers around his. He had to stifle the panther's satisfied growl.
"There was nothing useful in the public files."
"But?" He could read the confusion, the bewilderment in her face. Whatever she'd learned had shaken her enough that she was no longer able to maintain her usual mask.
Ebony-dark eyes looked up at him before glancing away. "I felt the shadows of violence," she whispered. "Like someone had left behind a mental print in certain places."
"Could you use it to track them?"
"No." She shook her head. "The print is faint. Most Psy wouldn't even be able to detect it."
But she had, he thought, because she felt. Instead of making her confront something he was convinced of but she was clearly hiding from, he used his free hand to tuck an errant strand of hair behind her ear. "So the info's been buried deep?"
She nodded. "I'm going to try a few other things tonight."
He smelled fear in the air. "Will it be dangerous?"
"I'm a cardinal Psy."
"That's not an answer."
"It's all I have to give you." She pulled her hand from his.
Some time later, Lucas sat in the huge kitchen of their largest safe house, talking to Tamsyn and two of the most dangerous males in his pack. Dorian had fought his inexplicable handicap by skilling himself in human martial arts to such an extent that he could take down a fully grown leopard with his bare hands. Nate was perhaps even more lethal - he had cubs to protect. "How many here?" Lucas asked.
"Fourteen maternal females, twenty cubs, eight juveniles, and six other soldiers aside from you three," Tamsyn said from the counter, where she was organizing medical supplies.
He turned to Dorian. "Is everyone accounted for?"
"Yes. Over half the children are already on their way to safe harbor."
"Let's start moving the remaining cubs and the vulnerable females tomorrow morning." The soldier females like Rina would remain behind. Many of them were far more deadly than the beta males. "Continue sprinkling the elders in among the evacuees." Their old ones would ensure DarkRiver's traditions were passed down no matter what.
"Why wait till tomorrow?" Nate leaned forward.
"If we move en masse, we might tip off the Psy that something's up."
"What about Sascha?" Dorian asked. "Is she going to help us?"
Lucas looked at the sentinel, trying to gauge whether he was really as calm as he sounded. Mere days ago, he'd been willing to gut Sascha where she stood. "She's trying but we have to plan for the worst-case scenario."
"That she fails and Brenna's body turns up." Nate shoved a hand through hair starting to show faint signs of gray. "If that happens, whatever Sascha might've found becomes a moot point."
Tamsyn walked over and put a hand on her mate's shoulder in silent support.
"I don't want that." Dorian's tone was as sharp as a blade. "I want the killer's head. Ripping out random Psy throats isn't going to be enough."
"No," Lucas agreed.
"I spoke to Riley and Andrew." Dorian's eyes were suddenly full of such anguish that it was a physical ache. "I convinced them to stay away from the Psy and give us time to find their sister. They listened to me." Unspoken was the terrible reason why.
Lucas didn't say anything about Dorian going into SnowDancer territory on his own. "Then we have a few days' grace. Let's get our people to safety and hope Sascha can find us the clue we need." His worry for her vied with his need to protect his pack. But he knew the choice wasn't his - she wasn't a woman who'd ever take orders from him.
"You trust her?" Nate asked.
"Yes." It was no longer a question. He knew.
The sentinel stared at him and then put his hand on the table, palm up. "Then I'm with you. For Pack."