“How many deaths will it take?” The distorted voice circled through the well-appointed home office, creating a pervasive menace that curled around the warm woods and plush leather, leaving behind an unsettling chill. “A real alpha protects the pack. Who are you protecting, Vidis?”
Warrick Vidis, the most powerful shifter of the Northwest Kyn and alpha of the Motoki Pack, leaned forward and jabbed the disconnect button on the phone, silencing the taunting voicemail. He quashed the impulse to throw the phone across the room and alleviate the anger and frustration roiling in his stomach. Instead, he resettled in his chair, his movements ruthlessly controlled. Across the desk his pack’s Second, Ryuu Kern, watched him.
Ryuu frowned. “I don’t recognize the voice.”
“Neither do I,” Warrick answered. “I’m assuming they’re using a voice modifier.”
“It’s a threat.” Ryuu tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. “Even you can’t deny it this time.”
“It’s a challenge,” Warrick corrected. “Someone wants to let the humans know we’re here.” Restless, he rose to his feet and strode around the large desk to the huge bank of windows.
Oregon’s trademark rain was misting the winter-bare branches of the surrounding forest. His home, unlike his office at Taliesin Security, was an oasis of privacy. Something both he and his inner wolf craved, especially now when someone was threatening their territory.
“Revealing our existence to the masses isn’t a smart move,” Ryuu muttered.
Warrick’s lips tightened at the comment. No, there was no possible scenario where the humans would welcome his kind with open arms. His kept his back to Ryuu as he said, “I think Neil Eilers is tied in somehow.”
“Eilers is a maverick, Vidis. He chose to remain outside of the pack.”
Warrick tilted his head in acknowledgement, never turning from his view. “Yet he said nearly the same thing, word for word, when he threatened me.”
Ryuu snorted. “He’s a barely controlled pup. He challenges you and he might as well dig his own grave.”
Under his skin, Warrick’s wolf agreed and he barely suppressed the low growl rumbling in his chest. “If he was truly working alone, perhaps.”
“You think someone’s using the mavericks to create problems for the pack?” Ryuu asked.
His Second wasn’t really asking. He could follow a trail as well as his alpha. Warrick watched a doe step delicately between the trees lining the edge of the forest surrounding his home. Her head jerked up when she caught scent of his territory markers and she froze, her tail twitching. As the deer bounded back into the foliage, he answered, “I think someone is using any tool they can find to damage us.”
“Including the two Bitten wolves Xander had to kill in the last couple of weeks?”
Warrick was glad his back was to Ryuu, in case something showed on his face at the mention of her name. Xander Cade. His lover and now reluctant mate. The one woman guaranteed to drive him and his wolf insane. Every since their return from Arizona a few weeks ago, it had been harder than ever to sit back and let her continue her job as the pack’s Tracker. It kept her front and center on the firing line, something the man respected, but his wolf had a hell of a time allowing.
“Highly probable,” Warrick said, pushing his personal issues aside to focus on the immediate threat. “The full moon’s already passed, yet both of them managed a partial shift when confronted.” It was an anomaly that was setting off all his warning bells.
“The Bitten aren’t suppose to be capable of holding a partial shift.” Puzzled disbelief sharpened Ryuu’s words. “Hell, for that mat- ter, I’ve never heard of one shifting when it wasn’t a full moon.”
“Neither have I,” Warrick answered.
“To mess with a wolf’s ability to shift would require some serious magic.” There was an underlying thread of worry in Ryuu’s voice.
Warrick turned to face his Second, one of the few men he trusted, and shared his growing suspicion. “Or some serious science.”
“You think the humans are behind this?”
“I don’t think we should discount them.” Warrick knew for a fact that humans had managed to alter the very nature of some Kyn. “We need to find out where the threat is coming from, and to do that we need Neil Eilers alive.”
Ryuu stood, his face grim. “I’ll call Xander.”
Ignoring his wolf’s internal howl of protest for putting Xander in danger yet again, Warrick nodded, his movement stiff. “As soon as you have a starting point, call me.”
Something perilously close to sympathy flashed across Ryuu’s face. “I’ll watch over her.” He didn’t wait for Warrick’s answer, but slipped out of the office.
* * *
Xander Cade crept through the shadows of the wooden pavilion perched next to the tranquil, lotus-strewn lake. She followed the erratic path of her prey, one Neil Eilers, a dangerously enraged shifter, whose scent wound under the swaying willows. Drawing in a deep breath, she automatically catalogued the smells—wet earth, with a jarring hint of fish, and the spicy bite of moisture-laden fir and pine from the structure next to her. Quivering under it all, like a shy rabbit, was something not quite right.
Between the wispy clouds and the dancing branches, the light of the half moon played along her face, calling to the wolf crouched beneath her skin. She tilted her head back, taking a moment to bask in the ethereal call. The faint tang of copper teased her nose, the familiar scent of spilt blood made her stomach clench, even as her wolf struggled to rise.
Not yet, she soothed the wild half of her soul. Work now, play later.
Dropping her head, she scanned her night-shrouded surroundings. Portland’s Classical Chinese Gardens were quiet. Much like her natural wolf counterparts, she was able to detect the smallest nuances in the various shades of gray. A helpful skill as she slipped among the heavy greenery. Light didn’t stick around long during Northwest winters, which meant the popular tourist attraction closed at five. A small blessing. In a couple more months, spring would take center stage, bringing in meandering crowds, which would’ve made tracking the rogue shifter a nightmare, not to mention offering him an all he could eat dinner buffet.
The longer it took to track Neil down, the more her hope of stop- ping him before he killed again whimpered into oblivion. She followed his subtle scent trail, making her way deeper into the forty- thousand-square-foot garden.
She kept her footsteps light, nearly silent, as she crept over a small bridge leading into the darkened interior of stone and trees that made up the northwest corner of the Gardens. Bamboo posts, connected by thick ropes, were meant to keep visitors on set paths, but she ignored them. Skirting small pools of water, she scaled the rocky outcrop- pings and their surrounding foliage. Working her way around, she stopped just outside three small caverns created by the craggy structures. Muted thunder of falling water from inside the caverns help mask the sounds of her movements.
Large, flat stepping-stones lay in a shallow pool, offering a dry path to the grotto. Her booted foot slid off the first one and water beaded over the cuff of her leather pants with a soft splash. She reached out to steady herself, her fingers brushing against the Chinese characters etched into the stone. But even the crisp combination of moisture from the merrily tumbling mini-waterfall and the dense greenery couldn’t drown out the bitter scent scraping across her senses.
She was close.
Crouching down, she traced a visible smudge on one of the stones and some of it transferred to her fingertips, leaving a dark smear. She brought it to her nose, inhaling the scent and matching it to the one she’d been tracking. The sharp stench of shifter blood assailed her nose, the pungent odor making it twitch. Her quarry must be injured.
Perched on the stone, she dropped her hand into the icy water, let- ting it wash away the stain. She straightened, shaking the moisture from her skin, and eyed the three adjoining niches in front of her. Enie, menie, minie, moe. Deep shadows wrapped around the left one, making it the perfect place to hide a kill. Anticipation hummed under her skin, setting the fur of her inner wolf on end.
Carefully, she made her way closer, until she stood on the last stepping-stone. She was fairly certain her prey wasn’t waiting to pounce, but in case the dead decided to rise, or Neil was indulging in more than his lust for blood, she tapped into her intrinsic magic. Small pinpricks ran from her wrists to the tips of her fingers as her bones elongated. Fur sprouted on the back of her hands, covering the pale skin. In moments, her hands had shifted into a weird mix of human and wolf. The partial shift left her with instant weapons—thick, sharp claws.
She slipped inside the carved entrance, grateful for her small stature. There wasn’t much room inside the rocky recess and the shadows had given her the impression that it was deeper than it actually was. Two steps in, her biker boots skidded against the slick ground, send- ing her into ankle deep water. A gasp of surprise escaped before she could hold it back as she scrambled for purchase. Uttering a soft curse, she gave up trying to stay dry.
Her vision adjusted to the murky interior and snagged on the crumpled form sprawled against the back wall. There was no imminent threat. Neil had struck and left. Sighing, she released her partial shift. Under the sleeves of her brown biker jacket her wrists and hands returned to normal.
Xander shook away the resulting tingle then tapped the earpiece nestled in her right ear. “Ryuu. You copy?”
There was a brief crackle of static, then a growling, “Yeah. What’s up?”
“Found a body in the Gardens.” She turned it over. The surrounding water made a soft sucking sound as it released its victim. Reaching over carefully, she pushed damp hair off the ghostly pale face.
“Tell me it’s not the ex-girlfriend.” Faint street noises leached around his demand.
“Nope. It’s a male.” She leaned down and inhaled. The water diluted the coppery stench of blood, leaving behind the familiar odor of raw meat. Crouched within, her wolf perked up. “Human.”
A low string of curses danced in her ear. “Damn it!” Then a sigh. “Wounds?”
She dug into the inside pocket of her jacket, pulled out a small penlight, then played it over the victim. One side of the male’s skull sported a very large dent. The semi-dried blood added a macabre touch to the frozen features. “Heavy bruising, no claw or teeth marks. Looks like Neil bashed the poor guy’s head in against the rocks.”
“So he hasn’t shifted yet. I guess we should be grateful for small miracles.”
“Maybe,” she muttered, pity moving through her. The victim had been no more than a boy, maybe mid-twenties. Once upon a time, he’d been attractive. Now, death and fury had left him a broken version of who he’d been in life. “From the amount of damage, I’d say Neil was furious.”
“How much you want to bet our vic was flirting with the ex?”
“That’s a sucker’s bet.” From her position, she ran her penlight over the confined space. Dark crimson marks splattered the far wall. “Considering he stashed the body where it wasn’t likely to be found easily, I’d say Neil stalked him first. The chase would’ve appealed to his wolf, but the beating was all man.”
“Since he didn’t dine out, you think the human side is still in control?” Ryuu asked.
“Maybe.” She clicked off the light and stood up. The last two wolves she’d hunted hadn’t been completely Feral, a condition where the human intellect was devoured by the wolf within. But they had been oh so close, enough to pull an unexpected partial shift. Here, it looked as if the one they were chasing had stayed human. That small realization didn’t quiet her internal alarms. Maybe he just hadn’t been pissed enough. Yet. She squashed the nightmarish flash of claws, screams, and blood before it could grab hold. “If he catches up with the girl and she challenges him, his wolf will rise.”
Ryuu sighed. “Sara is human.”
Xander grimaced. “What the hell is the allure of dating a human? They’re way too fragile.”
Ryuu’s snort sounded in her ear. “Variety is the spice of life, Xander.”
“Whatever.” She paused. “Do we know if Neil was Born or Bitten?”
“Bastard’s another Bitten.”
“Lovely,” she said. The Bitten had two forms—human or, under a full moon, completely wolf. If he or she followed the rules. Lately, the rules had been on an extended vacation. “It’s a waning moon, so if we’re lucky, he’ll be stuck playing hunter in human skin. Keep your eyes peeled.”
“Do you know how many people are out tonight?”
She began making her way out of the cavern. “It’s Saturday night, Ryuu. Most people aren’t running around chasing psychotic furballs.”
“Instead, they’re all trying to get laid,” he groused.
His obvious disgruntlement had her lips twitching into a small grin. “Jealous?”
“Please,” he scoffed. “Even if I was, I’ve had plenty of offers tonight.”
She didn’t doubt it. Ryuu’s mixed heritage left him with the alluring combination of almond eyes, dark hair and gold tinted skin from his Asian mother, while blessing him with the whipcord physique and height of his Anglo father. Add in his inherent confidence of being the Motoki Pack’s Second, and he was catnip for women.
“The night’s still young, so there’s a chance to take one of your pretties up on her offer,” she teased, quickly retracing her steps through the dark garden. “Maybe it’ll mellow you out.” She made her way to the back fence where the trees stretched over the garden’s walls. “Where are you?”
“Third Avenue. Over by Hobo’s.”
“Where they do the tunnel tours?” she asked, stopping beneath the spreading branches of a tree guarding the stone wall. She easily leapt to the top of the six-foot wall and leaned around the overhanging branches of a tree to check that no one was coming down the sidewalk on the other side.
“Yeah,” Ryuu confirmed. “Sara’s neighbor said she and her friends were hitting some of the bars around here.”
When the sidewalk remained empty, Xander dropped lightly to the ground on the other side. To anyone watching, the heavy shadows from the dense trees camouflaged her sudden appearance. She brushed some loose leaves from her shoulders and strode out to the sidewalk. “Are you working your way north or south?”
“North,” came the answer. “Forget Drucilla’s.”
Xander’s lips quirked. Drucilla’s boasted a raunchy drag-queen show. One in which Ryuu had played a prominent role the week be- fore. She came to the end of the street and made a left on to Third Avenue. “Afraid you’ll be asked to do an encore?” she murmured, passing an older couple. The male gave her a short nod, his companion tucked lovingly under his arm as they hustled by. She ignored the tiny pang at the image they created.
Ryuu’s low growl distracted her. “A purple wig, Xander? I looked like a damn Anime character.”
“Not my fault your team can’t hold onto their football.” Lights from the various clubs and restaurants chased away the cloying dark- ness. Small clusters of young people wove down the sidewalks, their energy turning the night bright and sparkly. “Besides, I warned you not to bet against me.”
“Whatever,” he answered. “I’m coming up on the Boiler Club.”
“I’ll check out 88 Ivories across the street. If you spot either of them, holler.” She twisted, narrowly missing being trampled by an obviously inebriated male in jeans and a Storm-Trooper T-shirt proclaiming, I had friends on that Death Star.
Her quick move caused him to stumble. “Whoa, man—sorry,” he slurred, lurching to the side.
“Watch it,” she snarled, before turning back to her hunt.
“Hey!” Unexpectedly, the drunk managed to snag the back of her jacket. “Don’t rush off, baby,” he leered. “Why doncha come with me and my friends? We can show ya a good time.”
She pivoted on her heel and grabbed his wrist. She might be small, but one advantage to being a shifter was that even if you looked like you couldn’t lift a feather, you could bench press a small car and barely break a sweat.
“A good time?” She slowly increased the pressure on his wrist, feeling his bones creak under her grip.
“Hey, man! That fuckin’ hurts!” he yelped, twisting to get away from her.
“Dan, you okay?”
The question came from behind her. She turned, ignoring his pro- tests as she dragged the inebriated Dan with her. “This belong to you?” she asked the three approaching males. Recognizing pack mentality, her wolf prowled close to the surface, changing her voice to a growl.
They drew up short, uncertain of who, or what, they were facing. She knew what they saw. A small blonde woman with short, spiky, purple-tipped hair, wearing a battered brown motorcycle jacket over a fitted fluorescent green T-shirt. Soft leather pants were matched with heavily soled biker boots, complete with silver chains. Add in the intricate tattoo trailing over the right side of her face and you had Hell’s-Angel-meets-Goth-fairy-princess.
“Let him go,” the taller blond male said, taking an aggressive step forward. A wanna-be alpha.
“Gladly.” With a little shove, she pushed the drunken idiot into his friend.
The blond stumbled back as his friend tumbled into him. “You don’t have to be such a bitch.” He passed his friend off and closed in on Xander.
“I haven’t even come close to being a bitch,” she said as he loomed over her, as if his height gave him some sort of advantage. She rocked back on her heels, keeping her body loose. There really wasn’t time to teach these kids a lesson but, seriously, they needed to learn some manners.
“You think you’re some kind of bad ass with that stupid tattoo?” he sneered, his fists clenching at his side.
Keeping a pleasant smile on her face, she decided to let her wolf come out and play, changing her eyes to a burning amber. “Oh, it’s a lot more than that. Haven’t you heard? Dangerous things come in small packages,” she drawled.
“C’mon, Matt,” one of his friends called. “Let it go. She’s not worth it.”
“Yeah, Matt,” she taunted softly, “let it go.”
Fear flashed over Matt’s face as he stumbled back. She took a step forward, to chase, when the beep of her earpiece pulled her up short. She hit the button to talk but kept her gaze on Matt and his friends. “Yeah?”
“Boiler Room is clear.” Ryuu’s voice filled her ear. “I’m heading over to 88 Ivories. Where are you?”
“Just visiting with the local nightlife,” she answered. The little pack of college boys scurried away, but Matt kept shooting her looks as they retreated. She flashed more teeth and he hurried after his friends down the sidewalk, disappearing into the crowd.
“Well, when you can tear yourself away, perhaps you’d like to see if our little monster found his way to the club?” Ryuu drawled.
“They started it. I just finished it,” she said, turning around to resume her hunt. Inside, her wolf chuffed with satisfaction at making the boys run. “I’m almost there.”
She threaded her way through the milling crowds and stepped through a brick entryway to an open patio. Small clusters of people dotted the area while music pulsed into the night air. Scents wove around her—alcohol, sweat, perfumes, soaps, fabrics—a maelstrom of odors. Years of practice had her picking through them until she found the distinctive musk of shifter. Bingo. Somewhere inside was her prey.
Stopping outside the door where repetitive bass beats rattled the walls, she tapped her earpiece. “Ryuu?”
A brief spurt of static cleared, replaced by a faint echo of the beat and a gruff, “What?”
“I’m on the Ivories’s patio.”
“You waiting for an engraved invitation?”
“Aren’t you a funny one?” she quipped. “Wanted to make sure you wouldn’t miss the party.”
“I’ll be there in a minute. See if you can spot him.”
She stepped through the double doors. There were no screams of horror, no flying debris or body parts. Just wooden tables and chairs surrounding the dance floor. Most were filled with one, sometimes two bodies to a chair.
The miasma of fried food, alcohol, and perspiring bodies hit her like a battering ram. There would be no using her nose in this mess. She shook her head and made her way deeper inside. The dance floor was packed. At the far end sat the bar’s infamous, dueling, black baby grand pianos. But tonight, no one tickled the ivory keys. Instead, the DJ was lost in the rhythmic beats of the pounding music, spinning his vinyl. The club’s lighting leaned heavily on a strobe effect, which guaranteed a rousing headache by the time the night was over. The snaps of brightness stung her eyes but she did her best to ignore it and tried to make out individual faces in the heavy crowd.
Needing to get an aerial view of the packed room, she found a lone empty chair sitting against the wall. Climbing up, she stood on tiptoe, stretching to see over the sea of bobbing heads. Between bursts of light, a disturbance in the rhythmic mass caught her attention. Two burly bouncers were making their way from the bar to the back of the club. Patrons stumbled out of their way, leaving a visible path. The bouncers pushed through with identical grim expressions. The strobe lights flashed off the taller one’s bald head, while his buzz-cut partner pointed toward something ahead of them.
Following the gesture, Xander found Neil arguing with a pretty, honey-brown-haired young woman. She tapped her earpiece. “Ryuu?”
“How long before you get here?”
“I’m almost there.” There was a pause. “You found him.”
“Oh, yeah. And it’s going to get ugly. Quick.” Xander watched the woman jerk away from the tall, lanky, dishwater blond, shaking her head. “I think I’ve found Sara, too.”
Xander jumped off her chair just as Neil reached out to snag the girl, fury evident in his bared teeth and curled hands. “We’re out of time,” she told Ryuu, pushing her way through the dense crowd.
“Be careful.” Ryuu’s warning was lost as she hit a broad shouldered form in front of her. The answering bump knocked her hard enough she lost her earpiece. Screw it. Done being polite, she gave him a shove, sending him into the arms of his buddy as she continued toward the impending showdown at the back of the club.
Through the sea of gyrating bodies, she caught glimpses of the confrontation playing out. Sara was verbally ripping Neil a new one, while the club’s security duo drew closer to the arguing couple. Sara’s tirade wasn’t the reaction Neil had expected. Under the strobe lights, his face contorted into something not altogether human.
Dread morphed into grim acceptance as Xander continued to shove her way through the crowd. The distance between her and the impending epic disaster might as well have been miles instead of feet. “Damn it. Damn it,” she muttered.
So much for keeping the existence of monsters on the down-low from humans. Neil was going to shift and she was too far away to stop it. If she didn’t get to him before he tore his way through the surrounding club goers, the good people of Portland were going to have irrefutable proof that the Kyn, all those creatures they had relegated to scary campfire stories, were shockingly, violently real.
The song switched, the music’s driving beat ramping up faster and louder. In response, the crowd surged and she lost sight of her targets. Forcing her way through, she ignored the litany of complaints and shouts. She made it a couple more feet when the first terror-filled scream cut through her withering hope, and the heavy music, like a blade.
Another scream, this one deep, agonized, male, accompanied the tang of freshly spilt blood perfuming the air. Before the cry faded, the sea of bodies turned into a herd of panicked prey. A chorus of screams drowned out the music. As panic set in, some of the club’s patrons fell under the press of the fleeing crowds. As hard as it was for Xander to ignore the cries and pleas from those being trampled and crushed, she fought her way forward.
It took her precious minutes to break through the battering throng and stumble free. She wiped away the blood from a shallow cut that something—probably the sharp edge of a purse—had opened along her temple.
Greeting her was a scene that would have done any horror flick proud. Neil was crouched near the back wall, sporting a bastardized version of the Born’s half form. Instead of the graceful meld of wolf and human, he was a monstrous mix of beast and twisted human features. Thin lips curled back from a hairless muzzle, revealing elongated canines nestled among other sharp, pointy teeth. Tufted ears rose above lank blond hair, hair that merged into patches of heavier fur belonging to a wolf’s pelt.
His chest and shoulders had expanded with inhuman muscle, tearing his T-shirt along the seams and leaving it hanging in tatters from the collar. The mishmash of human and wolf was downright disturbing, almost as disturbing as the surrounding carnage.
Blood smeared the back wall with the abandon of a child’s finger- painting. Baldy twitched on the floor, his severed right arm lying a few feet away in its own puddle of gore. His partner was curled into a fetal position, in a futile effort to keep his pale gray intestines from spilling onto the floor. Sara cowered against the back wall, as far from the wreckage as she could get. Her arms, scored with deep claw marks, were wrapped around her head as she tried to make herself smaller, attempting to disappear.
Not everyone in the club had the intelligence to get the hell away from the monster. While the majority of the crowd kept trying to make it to the exits, there were those foolish few who remained be- hind, either too stubborn or too dense to understand the danger they were in. A couple of very buff males were trying to keep Neil’s attention off of Sara and the two downed bouncers.
They succeeded. Unfortunately, they were woefully unprepared to face the nightmare in front of them. Improvised weapons of broken bottles didn’t do much to dissuade the shifter. Lethal nails, tipping what had once been human fingers, glinted under the sporadic lighting, leaving more red ruin and agonized screams behind.
Xander shoved past the last ring of shocked onlookers and stalked forward, drawing the monster’s attention. His nails scraped against the floor as he pivoted to face her. His amber gaze, awash in a demonic red glow, filled with single-minded murderous purpose as he focused on her. His threatening growl flashed deadly fangs and raised every hair on her body. She stilled, but didn’t look away from the feral intelligence staring back at her.
Around her, the human on-lookers scrambled back, finally realizing what stood before them was something they had no chance of defeating. The music cut off, leaving behind the low moans of the injured and dying. Sara’s piteous mewls of terror and the discordant sounds of fleeing masses played like a ghostly chorus while the tension between her and Neil stretched, creating a small well of eerie quiet.
“Come get me,” she taunted.
It was never smart to bait the insane, but she had one chance to stop this before it got any worse. Just one.
She’d probably get hurt.
Okay, scratch that. She was definitely going to get hurt.
Small price to pay for getting some answers as to what the hell was turning wolves into psychotic furry monsters. Hopefully she’d bring Neil in alive. The last two wolves hadn’t given her a choice. She was tired of dragging broken bodies back to her alpha.
Neil darted forward, forcing her backwards as he swiped out. Yanking back, she sucked in her stomach, but not in time to miss the burn of his nails against her skin. Dammit, the one area her open jacket didn’t manage to cover. Even as she spun out of reach, the warning kiss of heat filtered through her thin T-shirt to the skin beneath. Pivoting to follow her, he turned, keeping her trapped between the back wall, the torn bodies, and him.
She held her position, trapping his maddened gaze with her own and let her wolf join the fight. He paused, his nose twitching, taking in her altered scent. His muscles tensed and a cunning intelligence emerged under the insane fury, twisting his features, as he realized who he faced.
Without enough time to shift into full warrior form, she kept her transformation localized until her fingers mirrored the same deadly talons as her opponent. His rumbled snarls echoed through the club as he closed the distance between them, one stiff step at a time.
Xander curled her lip and met him halfway. Their bodies hit and her heavy leather jacket shredded under his claws. His fetid breath fanned her face as the warped wolf snarled and snapped, trying to find an opening. She managed to rip her claws across his ribs, causing him to grunt, as she momentarily forced him to retreat. Undeterred, he rushed back in.
Xander’s focus narrowed to the whirlwind of fangs and claws as they grappled for dominance. All her training took a back seat to instinct as she faced the maddened creature.
Skin, hers and his, tore under the merciless attacks. The sound of snapping teeth was punctuated by menacing growls and painful yips. She managed to block his repeated attempts to tear out her throat by slashing her nails over his distorted muzzle, forcing him to pull back. Her jacket sported a collection of ragged tears, and her T-shirt was a poor layer of protection between his lethal swipes and her skin.
Fresh blood began to decorate the floor at their feet. She used her smaller stature to go in low, trying to hamstring him. He twisted and spun away from her. Changing direction, she sprang up, curled her nails into lethal hooks, and dug them into his muscled back. With a wrench, she dragged them down his spine, leaving scarlet slashes be- hind.
His pain-filled yelp quickly turned into a low threatening growl as the iron rich scent of blood flooded the air. With unexpected speed, he grabbed her arm, yanked her over his back, and flung her to the floor. Her spine met the concrete, slamming the breath from her chest, and slowing her reactions.
She struggled to sit up, barely getting her arms in front of her to hold Neil off. Time slowed. Razor sharp teeth snapped inches from her face. Inch by precious inch, she forced him back, her arms trembling under his weight. He was so close, there was no way to miss the moment when his bloodlust rose, sweeping away what little remained of the man and leaving behind a homicidal-crazy wolf. As he turned Feral, her option of bringing him in alive took a flying leap.
Done with the kid gloves, she let the pressing weight of her attacker drive her back and down to the ground. Distracted by the potential meal, he didn’t notice as she curled her legs and tucked her feet against his stomach, while keeping one claw-tipped hand wrapped around his neck. Then she shoved with her feet. Neil went airborne. The force of his flight left her holding a chunk of bloody meat, what had been part of his throat.
Before the gravely injured monster could hit the ground another shape sprang out of the shadows and sailed over Xander, crashing into the rogue and sending him sprawling across the blood-slicked floor. Xander rolled to her hands and knees to find Ryuu crouched over the downed shifter. A series of low, dangerously serious noises trickled from Ryuu’s throat.
“A little late to the party, aren’t you, Ryuu?” Xander asked, care- fully getting to her feet. Her movements pulled her torn skin, causing her to grimace. Needing a minute to get her breath back, she examined the tattered remains of her leather jacket. “Damn it, I loved this jacket.”
Walking over to the two men, she released the magic holding her partial shift. She shook out the pins and needles of her hands as she brushed past Ryuu, who didn’t take his eyes off Neil. Kneeling beside her injured prey, her fingers drifted over the wound in Neil’s throat.
“Why isn’t this healing?” she murmured. When Neil tried to snap at her, she whacked his distorted muzzle. “Settle down.”
Shifters were notoriously fast healers, unless silver was involved.
Blood continued to pool from the wound, a dark puddle that sucked the club’s muted light into its abyss. Murmurs grew around them, but no one dared to come forward. Yet.
She was about to lose her only lead. If he took his human form, maybe he’d heal enough to keep breathing. She grabbed his snout and forced him to meet her gaze. “Change, damn you!”
Savage madness stared back.
She shot Ryuu a look. “You need to take over.”
The slender Asian man knelt next to her and pushed her hand away. He grasped the warped face in his hands. Xander scooted back to give him room while the warm brush of magic rose. Movement on the edge of her vision had her looking up in time to spot some brave soul making her way over to one of the bleeding men who had faced Neil with a broken bottle.
Pale and shaken, the young woman met Xander’s gaze briefly be- fore dropping her eyes. “I’m a second year med student,” she said, her glance flicking up again.
Xander gave her a short nod. As the med student scrambled to the wounded man, Xander felt the energy gathering around Ryuu. The wolf inside her pressed against her skin, wanting to get closer to the familiar warmth of the pack. She fought her instinctive reaction to the magic Ryuu was drawing on to heal Neil. As the Motoki Pack’s Second, the amount of power he was using would normally force an injured shifter to change, allowing them to heal. Yet, the form under Ryuu’s hands quivered, but didn’t transform.
“Ryuu?” Alarm rose. This wasn’t making sense.
“Not now, Xander,” he gritted through his teeth. The magical energy deepened, like electrical currents before a lightening strike. Neil’s misshapen hands began to churn, his nails scraping against the rough floor. A great shudder wracked his grotesque body.
Ryuu let go and sat back on his heels, his face grim. The frantic scrapes and magical energy stopped, leaving an odd, uneasy silence in their wake. He met Xander’s gaze and shook his head. She turned to watch Neil’s eyes dull as death crept in. His twisted body dissolved into a battered young man with longish, dishwater-blond hair and a torn throat. His chest rose once more, then stilled.