Copyright 2013 Bianca D'Arc. All Rights Reserved.
The Priestess raised her arms to the morning sun and gave thanks to the Lady she served for the good friends she'd found in this new shifter community. Kate had been on her own too long. It was good to find welcome among the odd collection of shifters of all species. They were quickly becoming close friends, even if she lacked the fur to run with them when the moon was full-or any other time they wanted to prowl the desert.
The day had dawned clear, the desert wind softly blowing tiny bits of sand around her feet as she performed her ritual, calling on the magic that was hers by gift of the Goddess she served. It was a cleansing ritual, meant to purify the land surrounding the small house she'd been given to live in by the Alpha. Griffon was a good Alpha, watching out for all his people-the cougars of his immediate Clan, as well as the large numbers of shifters that worked for him. He treated them all like family and made sure they had nice homes and good pay for the work they did.
Kate felt the energies rising at her call. The rhythm of the desert was new to her, but she liked it. Life was so much closer to the edge of survival here in the unforgiving wild lands, even if they were slowly being tamed by the human sprawl only a few miles away.
Regular people couldn't really feel the magic all around them, and she could only guess at what the shifters could sense. What she wouldn't give to know what they knew.
But that was not her path. She served the Light and helped the Lady's followers wherever she could. That was her mission and her duty in the life she had forged for herself. It had been a long, strange path that had led her here, but she liked the life she was creating among the cougars and wolves, bears and raptors who had gathered around Griffon Redstone.
She felt the energy rise and welcome her to the neighborhood, as it were. The energy of the land and the shifters who lived there. The power of Mother Earth. Welcoming. Sacred. Alarmed?
Something shifted in the energy of the Earth. A sudden change from good to…evil? There was no evil inherent in the area. Kate had checked. Visiting evil then. Someone - or something - intent on doing something bad. Serving the dark. Not the Light.
She needed to...
A sudden crescendo of power caught her unaware. Kate doubled over in pain as her magical senses took a blow she was totally unprepared for. A pulse of evil power so intense, it almost blacked her out.
She'd let down her shields to touch the heart of Mother Earth and been caught off guard. She'd been foolish to think that nothing could harm her-or anyone - in a development full of shifters.
Something bad was out there. Something that had just killed.
Oh, dear Goddess.
"There's been some trouble at the Redstone homestead," Rafe announced as soon as Slade walked into the office the Lords shared. Rafe and his twin brother, Tim, were standing behind their desks, clearly agitated.
"What kind of trouble?" Slade asked, stopping to shut the door behind him. From the looks on their faces, he could already tell the news was not going to be good.
"Bad trouble," Tim growled.
"Someone killed the matriarch of the Redstone Clan." Rafe paused, his eyes narrowing to steely slits. "She was skinned."
Slade said nothing but the growl that rose in his chest could not be denied. He was both sickened and angered at the thought of what had happened to that poor woman. It was desecration. Defilement at the most basic level.
The Redstone Clan was one of the most prominent bands of cougar shifters in North America. They also ran a huge construction company with nationwide reach that employed many, many shifters of all kinds. They treated their people well and had the highest standards of both services and protections for their employees. The shifters who worked for them were free to be themselves-to use their preternatural strength and skill without fear of betraying exactly what they were to the human world.
Redstone Construction was a place where shifters could be shifters. They could use their skills without fear of discovery, and were paid well-and treated well-for it. The Redstones were beloved in the community and it was abhorrent to think someone would treat the family-especially the dearly loved matriarch-in such a way.
Skinning a shifter was the highest insult. The most disgusting desecration. It was evil. Pure and simple.
"You want me to hunt the killer?" Slade asked, unable to control the gruffness of his voice. His inner cat wanted to rend and tear. To kill those who would treat a female so brutally.
"Yes," Tim answered.
"As you can imagine, the Alpha is beside himself," Rafe explained further. "He's just lost his mother and the entire extended Clan depends on him. Redstone Construction covers more than just cats. It's cross-species and far-reaching. Which may be why they were targeted. The Alpha is hunting already, but it's clear from our telephone conversation with him that he's not stable."
"He's out there with his brothers and not one of them is thinking clearly," Tim added.
"They believe the killer is hiding in the city. Their current base is outside Las Vegas. The cougars' tracking skills are good, but not that good. They're more used to wilderness, not pavement. We need you to keep a lid on the situation. You're a cat and for some reason nobody has seen fit to explain to us, the other felines respect you more than anyone else. Hell, it's like they revere you or something." Rafe ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "One day, you'll have to explain that to us, but for now I think you're the only one they'll listen to."
Tim picked up the thread of his twin's words. "Go to them. Help them find the killer. Get justice for the matriarch. But most important of all, keep our secret. Don't let those cougars get so out of control in their grief that they betray us all to the humans. You're on the hunt, but you're also on damage control. Those boys are just unstable enough to not care who sees them shapeshift or use their other natural abilities. They're dangerous to us, to themselves, and to every single shifter who works for them right now."
"If humans realize Redstone Construction is run by a Clan of cougar shifters, we have no doubt that everyone who works for them will come under suspicion," Rafe added. "That puts a hell of a lot of our people at risk."
"We'll be stretched thin without you to oversee security here and the new bear cubs are of the highest importance. I hope you understand that we can't spare any of your team. They know our setup best, and this could all be some kind of feint. But we're sending for other resources," Tim said with a bite in his voice. "The Spec Ops group in Wyoming is on call for you. And some of those seals in the Northeast have pledged to come running, if needed. That's your call, Slade. Do your thing. Track the killer, or killers. Assess the situation."
"And if you need reinforcements, our best warriors are at your disposal," Rafe completed his twin's thoughts. "Call them. They can be there in a matter of hours. And if you think it's wise, feel free to pre-position them just in case. We're covering the costs. This could be too important to leave to chance."
Slade realized at that moment just how explosive his mission might be. The fate of not just the Redstone Clan, but of hundreds-possibly thousands-of shifters of all kinds was riding on his shoulders.
He knew he was up to the challenge. Slade hadn't met an obstacle yet that he couldn't climb over, barrel through or go around. A couple of grief-stricken cougars was something he could handle. Especially with the cavalry at his beck and call. He knew most of the shifter Special Operators Tim and Rafe had put on alert. Slade had worked with a lot of them over the years and knew they were the best of the best.
Would he need that kind of backup? Slade wasn't sure yet. But it was good to know he could call upon his brothers-in-arms should the need arise.
Subtlety was Slade's stock and trade, though. He usually preferred to handle his missions alone. He was a cat, after all, and liked to prowl solo. He enjoyed the hunt, the chase, and ultimately, the kill. Slade would take great pleasure in disemboweling the humans who had caused such grief among shifters and put so many lives on the line.
Justice would be served and Slade was just the cat to serve it up. Sliced. Diced. And very, very cold.
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