No one could’ve predicted this moment in time.
And, as the clock ticks onward in 2082, no one knows what is to come. The world has changed in countless ways since the day a cardinal empath sat across from a changeling alpha, the empath trying to hide her emotions, the alpha trying to see under her skin.
There has been war, destruction, piercing love.
Loyalties have been tested.
A way of life overturned.
Blood has run red as those who would hold onto power cut down innocent lives.
Soldiers have died.
Children have been born.
Bonds have formed.
Hearts have entwined.
Old enmities have been forgotten and there is a fragile peace . . . and the world stands at a critical crossroads.
Will the bonds hold?
Or will chaos reign?
Lucas Hunter, alpha of the DarkRiver leopards, ended the comm call with a touch of his index finger against the screen. The outwardly calm action belied his current state of mind: his jaw was a grim line, his claws shoving at the insides of his skin as the black panther within snarled.
He was still battling the urge to release that snarl when one of his sentinels stuck his head into the room. That room was Lucas’s private office at the pack’s Chinatown HQ, from where they ran their myriad business enterprises. Pitch-black hair and dark green eyes vivid against the deep brown of his skin, his shoulders solid, Clay was officially the Chief Construction Supervisor at DarkRiver Construction, but before that, he was one of the most trusted members of the pack, a man Lucas knew would always have his back.
Today, the sentinel was dressed as if he planned to go to a site, his pants of a tough black material appropriate for the outdoor environment and his T-shirt wild green with DarkRiver Construction in white on the back. But when he spoke, he said, “Jon and his friends found something down by the piers.”
Lucas scowled, not in the mood for juvenile high jinks today. “Why aren’t they in school?”
“Half day off. Some big citywide teachers meeting.” Clay’s right T-shirt sleeve lifted as he braced his hand against the doorjamb, revealing the slashing lines of the tattoo that echoed the hunter marks on the right side of Lucas’s face. Lucas had been born with those jagged, primal marks that identified him as a changeling hunter, born with the ability to track down and execute changelings who’d gone rogue, submerging totally into the animal side of their nature.
Unlike wild animals, however, rogue changelings couldn’t be left to roam, because despite their animal skin, they weren’t animals. Rogues always came after the people they had loved when whole, as if part of them remembered who they’d once been and envied their packmates and lovers for still living that life. Lucas hadn’t had to execute a rogue for over seven years, and he hoped that record held for another seven and another and another.
No alpha wanted to kill his people.
Clay’s tattoo denoted something far different; like the rest of DarkRiver’s sentinels, he’d had the mark inked as a silent symbol of his loyalty to Lucas. That loyalty was a truth Lucas never took for granted. An alpha who didn’t value the respect of such strong men and women shouldn’t be alpha.
“Anyway, I’m heading over to see what’s up,” Clay said now. “Kid sounds worried.”
“I’ll come with you.” Lucas walked around his desk, shrugging his shoulders back to loosen muscles that had bunched up at the start of the comm call and stayed that way. “Could do with the fresh air. You want to walk?” It wasn’t far to the waterfront.
Clay glanced at the heavy black watch strapped to his left wrist. “Better drive. I have to be at a work site within the hour.”
“I’ll walk back so you can head to the site straight after we speak to the boys.” Sliding out his phone, Lucas sent a message as they walked out of the building and hopped in a pack vehicle.
The reply that made his phone buzz thirty seconds later helped with his feral tension. As did the emotions that kissed him through his mating bond with Sascha. Nothing calmed his panther as quickly as her touch. And though she was a woman who could heal emotional wounds, her empathic gift a treasured one, he knew she wasn’t trying to manipulate or influence him. It was Sascha’s love itself that settled him, along with the knowledge that she and their child were safe and sound.
Beside him, Clay stayed silent until after they’d pulled away from the HQ. That silence held no dark emotional undertones as it once had—the big, heavily muscled sentinel was simply quiet.
“A pool of silence,” Lucas’s mate had said not long ago, the white stars on black of her cardinal gaze lit with the sparks of color that appeared only in the eyes of empaths. “But it’s not emptiness. Clay’s just so calm, so centered, and so very, very content that I feel an untainted peace when I’m near him.”
Clay hadn’t always been that way. He’d come into DarkRiver as a strong but undisciplined eighteen-year-old who’d never before been part of a pack, who’d never even known another changeling leopard his entire existence. More than that, he’d spent years in juvenile detention. It had left him angry and lost and aggressive, a big, dangerous cat who’d had no idea how to handle either his strength or the fury riding him.
It was Nathan, DarkRiver’s most senior sentinel, who’d found that lost boy and hauled him into DarkRiver. But it was Clay who’d done the hard work to become a sentinel himself, earning his place at Lucas’s side. Emotionally, he’d still been broken for a long time, his duties to DarkRiver and his loyalty to Lucas and the other sentinels the only things that kept him from surrendering to his demons.
Then had come Talin.
In mating with her, then adopting Jon and Noor, Clay had truly left behind the loneliness and pain of his past.
“Trinity Accord?” The sentinel glanced at Lucas before returning his attention to the road.
Putting down the passenger side window, Lucas tapped his fingers on the edge of the door. “Yes and no.”
The world-spanning and groundbreaking cooperation agreement had gone from idea to fruition in an impossibly short period of time, thanks to the existence of the Consortium. The shadowy group’s aim of destabilizing the world in order to take advantage of the ensuing chaos had ended up having the opposite effect when the various disparate parties began to talk and realized they had a common enemy. Unfortunately, while Trinity was a critical asset in the fight for a stable world, the speed with which it had been cobbled together had resulted in more than one critical hole.
The fact that the rush had been unavoidable didn’t mean the resulting issues weren’t still a pain in the ass. Especially since, with the ink barely dry on the names of the first signatories, Trinity had no administrative structure, which meant everything was being handled on an ad hoc basis.
But that wasn’t what had a growl building in the back of Lucas’s throat, his panther bristling with aggressive protectiveness once again as the comm call came to the forefront of his mind. “Aden called to pass on some intel,” he said, referring to the leader of the Arrow squad. Assassins and black ops soldiers without compare, the deadly bogeymen of the Psy race had of late become quiet heroes.
It was Aden who’d set Trinity in motion.
Clay shot him another quick look. “Your claws are out.”
“Fuck.” Lucas retracted them with conscious effort of will, then shoved his hair out of his eyes; the black strands reached his nape at the moment. He’d have had it cut shorter except that Sascha loved running her fingers through it. He might wear a human skin at times, but he was also very much a cat—he wasn’t about to do anything to lower his chances of being petted.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t such pleasurable thoughts on his mind right then.
“Aden’s people picked up chatter about Naya in the back channels of the PsyNet.” Sascha had explained the psychic network that connected all Psy on the planet except for the renegades, as a giant repository of knowledge. It was fluid and so big that no one could ever know every part of it.
The Arrows, however, walked its darkest alleys. Heroes or not, someone still had to hunt the monsters that prowled the PsyNet, the twisted minds that wanted only to murder and to hurt. Because despite over a century of cold emotionlessness that had been meant to erase mental instability and turn them into a race without flaws, the Psy still had an abnormally high number of serial killers. The Arrows alone had the strength and the skill to take down those vicious monsters.
“Why are strangers talking about your cub?” Clay’s question was a growl. “Naya is none of their fucking business.”
“Exactly.” Lucas’s protective urges had never been anything but violent. Part of it was simply who he was—he’d been born with the potential to be alpha and that included a powerful protective drive.
In his case, that drive had been honed to a razor’s edge by the horror of the childhood attack that had left his mother dead and his father critically injured, Lucas a prisoner of an enemy pack. Young and weak and heartbroken from watching his mother die in front of him, he’d fought desperately to escape his bonds, save his father. He’d failed.
That boy, however, hadn’t existed for a long time. Lucas was a man now. An alpha christened in blood. Anyone touched a hair on the head of any of the people under his protection, and he’d rip their arms off. That was just for starters. “Aden didn’t have too many details,” he told Clay, “says the speakers didn’t specifically reference Naya by name, but their mention of a Psy-Changeling child with a leopard father makes that a moot point.”
At this instant in time, there was only one child in the world who had a Psy parent and a changeling parent: Nadiya Shayla Hunter. Naya. Lucas and Sascha’s fierce, intelligent, mischievous daughter who was a couple of weeks away from turning one.
Less than a year of life and she’d already changed Lucas on a fundamental level.
He understood now why his father had passed in peace. Carlo Hunter had fought alongside his beloved mate, Shayla, to protect their son, then fought the agonizing pain of losing her and the effects of brutal torture long enough for pack to come. But despite his massive injuries, he’d left this world in peace. Death meant nothing when his child was safe.
“You think it might just be curiosity?” Clay asked. The sentinel was clearly fighting to keep his breathing even, his hands flexing and unflexing on the steering wheel. “Now that Silence has fallen and the Psy are free to feel emotions, have relationships, they have to be wondering about the future. Naya’s a living, breathing symbol of that future.”
“No.” Even had it been curiosity, Lucas still wouldn’t have liked that his daughter was being talked about by strangers, a dangerous percentage of whom were virulently against the fall of Silence and the “dilution” of Psy “perfection,” but this was far worse. “Aden said his people heard mentions of ‘purity’ in the chatter.” Not everyone liked change, especially when that change challenged their worldview of their own race as superior.
“Fuck.” Clay’s voice was harsh. “I thought Pure Psy was dead?”
“They are.” The violent pro-Silence group had been hunted out of existence. “But their ideas are still floating around being absorbed by fanatical, ugly minds. No proof, but the Consortium’s probably stirring that rancid stew.” What better way to destabilize the world than to slyly encourage hatred among the races?
It was, after all, a tactic they’d already attempted on a bigger scale.
“It had to happen,” Clay said unexpectedly. “With the Es suddenly becoming so powerful, there’s got be a hell of a lot of resentment simmering in the minds of folks that previously considered themselves top dogs. Suddenly, all these ‘inferior’ Psy are being held up as heroes.”
Lucas nodded. His own gifted mate had once called herself flawed, been taught to see herself that way. “Aden’s people only caught fragments, but there was definite mention of the fact that Naya’s mother is an E—and discussion of how to get to them both.” Fists clenching, he forced himself to think. “I’m going to review every security protocol around Naya and Sascha.”
He knew he’d have Sascha’s full support; his mate might chafe at some of the security precautions she had to take as a result of being one half of DarkRiver’s alpha pair, but she was completely onboard with any safety measures when it came to their cub. If anything, Sascha was even more protective than Lucas—he often had to remind her that Naya was a leopard changeling, needed more freedom than a human or Psy child of the same age. Cats didn’t like being caged. Not even little cats with fragile bones and baby-soft hands.
Remember that, he reminded himself. Don’t allow the enemy to force you into a position where you’re the cause of hurt to your own child.
Sascha kept a firm hold on her worry after Lucas’s message alerting her to dangerous talk in the PsyNet about Naya. It was difficult when she knew exactly the kinds of treacherous minds that hid in the dark corners of the Net and how violently some of those minds despised the primal nature of the changeling race.
To them, Sascha and Lucas’s precious child would be an abomination.
Fury churned in her gut.
Wrenching her anger under control with a harsh effort of will, Sascha tightened her grip on Naya’s hands where her baby walked in front of her. Her and Lucas’s green-eyed little girl had good balance for her age and a stubborn determination to walk, but she was still little and the forest floor wasn’t exactly even, so Sascha was helping keep her upright.
Not that Naya hadn’t made a break for it once already.
For the moment, however, her tiny fingers held on firmly to Sascha’s hands, her skin soft and the color a golden honey brown. A meld of Sascha’s dark honey and Lucas’s muted gold. Anglo-Indian, Japanese, Irish, Italian, more, Naya had a beautifully complicated genetic inheritance.
“Naya!” she responded in the same delighted tone, causing her daughter to laugh that big laugh of hers.
Having driven from the aerie, she, Naya, Julian, and Roman were walking the final meters to a border section of DarkRiver’s Yosemite territory; the land had been designated a play area for the regular gatherings DarkRiver cubs had begun to have with Arrow children. The sessions had initially been meant to teach the Arrow children how to play when, prior to Aden taking control of the squad, they’d had their innocence suffocated by training that sought to turn them into pitiless assassins and nothing more.
It had very quickly morphed into a fascinating exchange: The changeling and human children taught Arrow young to laugh and to have fun, while the baby Arrows made their wilder playmates stop and think more often than they otherwise might have done. But the best things were the friendships that had begun to form, with the children talking to one another via the comm between sessions.
The pack had put up climbing frames as well as swings in the area, though there was also an open field for unstructured play. Not many nonpack humans lived out this way, but the rare ones who did knew they were welcome to use the equipment and to join in the play group.
Julian and Roman froze where they were scampering up ahead, two little statues in jeans and T-shirts. Sascha’s lips twitched. It had taken her time to learn that tone, but it was very effective at getting her favorite dose of double trouble to pay attention.
Tamsyn’s boys had been the first changeling children Sascha ever met, and she adored them to pieces, was guilty of spoiling them—but she’d also learned to discipline them as they grew. Not because they were naughty in a bad way, but because both were strong personalities and needed to understand that right now, Sascha was the boss when they were with her.
The rules of pack hierarchy existed for a reason, and for DarkRiver cubs, it existed to give them a firm foundation on which to stand. No confusion, no fear. Just a safe place where they could flex their own strength and grow into their personalities.
Oddly, the tone also seemed to work on the boys’ pet cat, Ferocious, who—thanks to Roman and Julian’s fierce defense of their pet—tended to think of herself as a great big leopard, too. Today, however, Ferocious was at home, so Sascha had to handle only the twins, both of whom were now in their first year of school.
Reaching the two adorable “statues,” Naya still holding onto her hands, Sascha said, “You can move now, but stay close.” These play sessions would only work long-term if everyone felt safe.
Arrows were Arrows because they’d been born with lethal psychic abilities.
The adult Arrows who helped supervise these sessions extended their own impenetrable shields to encompass the minds of Arrow young, so the kids couldn’t strike out by accident and felt free to play without worry of losing control over their deadly powers. Regardless of that, Sascha also always added a layer of protection over the minds of any human or changeling children in the playgroup.
Unlike most humans, changelings had strong natural shields, but there was no point in taking chances.
Ashaya usually attended, too, and between them they could cover the entire group. The rare times the scientist didn’t make it, Faith stepped in. Unlike Sascha and Ashaya, the foreseer didn’t have a child, but she loved playing with the children and was always happy to help out. And since Faith could create hyper-realistic illusions that fascinated the kids, she was a popular visitor.
Today, Sascha reached the play area to find both women in attendance. The rich brown of Ashaya’s skin glowed in the sunlight, her gorgeously wild curls tightly contained in a braid. Those curls were dark brown at first glance but contained so many shades within, from pure black to threads of gold. The other woman was wearing jeans and an oversize UC Berkeley sweatshirt that looked like it must be her mate’s.
Beside her, Faith high-fived Keenan before Ashaya’s six-and-a-half-year-old ran off to play. While the Arrows hadn’t yet arrived, several other DarkRiver cubs, as well as two of their nonpack human friends, were already scrambling over the climbing frames. Today’s morning-only school day would allow for a longer play session, and the children were clearly delighted at the idea. The Arrows had their own school but had been happy to mirror the half-day break.
“Can we go play, Sascha darling?” Julian asked, his impish expression hitting her right in the heart.
“Yes, you can, Mr. Ryder.”
Her solemn response made the twins laugh so hard their eyes turned the green-gold of their leopards, before Julian held out a hand to Naya while Roman did the same on her other side. “Come on, Naya!”
Naya grabbed both boys’ hands at the same time in an impressive feat of toddler coordination and off they went. “For two such energetic boys,” Sascha said to Faith and Ashaya, “they’re incredibly patient with her.” As she watched, the twins lifted Naya onto a toddler-appropriate swing and made sure she was secure.
Naya happily kicked her legs.
“They are,” Ashaya agreed with a smile, while continuing to keep an eye on the children. “Part of it is personality, but it’s also a testament to how they’re being raised and how DarkRiver as a pack raises its children.” She frowned as a little human girl almost slipped—only to be hauled to safety by a quick-thinking cub.
“Maureen had to take her baby to the doctor,” Ashaya said, referring to one of DarkRiver’s human neighbors. “She asked us to watch her two girls.”
Sascha had already automatically extended her shields to back up Faith and Ashaya, taking special care to protect the human children. Their minds were even more vulnerable than those of changeling young. “I have them.”
“I love this.” Dressed in a thin V-necked sweater in royal blue that set off the dark red of her hair and looked beautiful against her creamy skin, Faith perched herself on a bench the kids used as an obstacle to jump or clamber over, as a clubhouse for playing under, for whatever else their imaginations made of it. “There’s so much promise here, so much light.”
Ashaya’s pale blue-gray eyes met Faith’s cardinal starlight. “I know exactly what you mean. The children have no concept of race or war or different political ideologies. They just know a good friend from a bad one.”
A car engine sounded, faint but unexpected enough that Sascha instinctively looked that way. Of course she couldn’t see anything through the trees, but she felt a telepathic knock soon afterward. The mind was a familiar one, all cool control and power: Judd Lauren, former Arrow, powerful telekinetic and current SnowDancer lieutenant.
Wondering why he’d driven down from the wolf den high in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Sascha responded to his telepathic touch with a question. Did you come to see how we run a session? The SnowDancers had mostly been involved with older Arrow teenagers to date, but she knew they’d been discussing a playgroup.
I’ve got Marlee with me, the lieutenant answered. She’s curious if there are any Psy kids her age she could play telepathic games with. Toby plays with her but she knows he lets her win.
Sascha couldn’t help her smile at the mention of Marlee’s brother and Judd’s nephew, a sweet just-turned-thirteen-year-old boy with a slight empathic gift and a generous heart. Most in this group are younger but I have a contact number for Vasic. Let me see if he knows a child who’d enjoy having a non-Arrow telepathic playmate.
She and Vasic had finished their conversation by the time Judd arrived with Marlee. The ten-year-old’s strawberry-blonde hair was in a single braid to one side of her head; she was dressed in black canvas pants suitable for the outdoors along with a light blue T-shirt with the image of a cheerful yellow and white daisy in front.
Face lighting up at seeing Sascha, Judd’s niece ran over to hug her.
Sascha’s work helping Toby handle the empathic component of his abilities meant she was a far more regular visitor to the wolf den than most of her packmates. She felt as if she knew all the SnowDancer children. “Hello, sweetheart.” She squeezed this child close. “You know Faith and Ashaya, don’t you?”
“Hi,” Marlee said with a smile, though she stayed tucked against Sascha.
“Marlee!” It was Keenan, calling from his perch on top of the climbing frame.
Marlee skipped over to talk to the younger boy. Like all children who grew up in a pack, she was used to having friends across age lines. As she grew older, she’d be expected to babysit the pups or to help any elders who requested it, so that pack bonds would continue to form between young and old.
It was oddly similar to how Psy family groups functioned, at least in terms of the continuity between generations. According to Sascha’s education records, her maternal grandmother, Reina Duncan, had played a role in overseeing her development when Sascha was younger.
That oversight had been from a distance, in Reina’s position as head of the Duncan family. It had also stopped long before Reina’s death—when Nikita became the power behind the throne. In truth, Sascha wasn’t certain her mother hadn’t manipulated things right from the start, but Reina’s was the signature on her earliest school and conditioning records.
It wasn’t family as changelings knew it, but it was family nonetheless.
She was thinking about the other similarities that existed between the races when Vasic began to ’port in the Arrow children, including a girl and a boy around Marlee’s age. Except for the latter three, who—watched over by Judd—cautiously settled beside a tree to play psychic games Sascha knew were designed to heighten telepathic agility and skill, the children had all played together previously.
As a result, it took no time for them to join in the games already in progress.
The squad currently had no child as young as Naya, and her usual two-year-old pack playmate had a checkup with their healer today. But Sascha’s baby was never alone. The kids took turns pushing her, and a sweet three-year-old child Arrow with chubby red cheeks and light brown curls scrambled into a neighboring swing with Vasic’s help, then seemed to fall into an earnest conversation with Naya.
Sascha could feel her cub’s happiness. Naya soon tried to reach out to her new friend using her telepathic abilities, but Sascha gently reminded her to ask permission first, then showed her how. Even as she did that, she was monitoring the other children under their care for any signs of distress. Not just in terms of an accidental psychic hurt, but because she was an empath, could no more stop watching out for their emotional well-being than she could for their physical health.
It was ten minutes later that she became aware of a kerfuffle in the football game in progress on the field next to the play equipment.
A cub in leopard form had apparently nipped the butt of an Arrow child, who must’ve struck out psychically, from the way that Arrow child suddenly stilled and looked pale-faced toward the young Arrow who must’ve contained the strike before it did any damage.
Abbot’s blue-eyed gaze met Sascha’s and Ashaya’s in turn. What do I do now? he seemed to ask.
“I’ve got this.” Ashaya strode over to the two miscreants and pointed to a spot under a tree.
Both children trudged over, heads down. Ashaya made them sit there, away from the games, with only each other for company, for fifteen minutes.
Then she made the cub say sorry for biting—after asking him to shift so the Arrow child could understand him.
“That’s okay,” the Arrow boy said with a generosity that immediately caused the DarkRiver cub to smile. “I should’ve thought before I acted. That’s what the teacher says to do. I could’ve hurt you.”
“I’m not supposed to bite,” the cub confided in a shamefaced whisper. “My teeth are really strong.”
The Arrow boy nodded, clearly seeing the parallel.
“Good boys.” Ashaya hugged them both before setting them free to join in the play—which they did together.
Meanwhile, Naya was having fun telepathing her vocal new friend, while Faith and Vasic pushed them on the swings. The teleporter, who’d lost his left arm after a failed biofusion experiment, appeared to be testing a new prosthetic. Its gleaming metal finish fascinated the children, with Vasic often hunkering down so they could touch small hands to the metal, patting at it curiously and asking him questions.
How many is that now? Sascha asked when he bent down for a curious cub, aware the brilliant engineer behind the prosthetic was obsessed with finding one that worked with Vasic’s damaged systems.
This one doesn’t count—it’s a piece Samuel uses to test different components, the teleporter told her as he rose back to his feet and continued to push Naya, who was nowhere near tired of the motion yet. This time, he’s checking a computronic mechanism that he hoped would fix a heat buildup issue.
Is it doing what it should?
A shake of Vasic’s head, his handsome face expressionless but not cold. I can already feel the heat levels rising at the point of the join. In fact, can you and the others handle shields while I leave to remove it?
Of course. With Judd, Faith, Ashaya, Sascha, and Abbot, they had plenty of psychic power at their command.
Vasic had only been gone about a minute, and Sascha was giving a thirsty child a cup of water from the supplies Faith had brought with her, when she caught sight of Roman about to fly off the top of a climbing frame.
“No.” She knew he was going to hit wrong, would probably break his arm . . . but he shifted midfall, landing in a roll that knocked the air out of his feline body but didn’t otherwise do any damage.
Heart thudding, Sascha stopped herself from rushing over. Leopard cubs needed independence, she reminded herself for the thousandth time. But she watched him until she was sure he truly hadn’t hurt himself—a fact that became obvious when he sauntered off, tail proudly up and a smug expression on his gorgeous little face.
That’s when she noticed that Naya’s attention was riveted on the older cub.
She managed to contain her groan until the child who’d come over for a drink ran back to join his playmates. “Naya’s going to start jumping off high perches soon, isn’t she?”
Ashaya patted her hand. “She’ll survive. Keenan’s fine and he’s not a cat. In the interests of transparency, he did fracture his arm the first time his leopard friends tried to teach him the tree road, but it was a one-off.”
“That’s not very reassuring,” Sascha said darkly.
Laughing with a warmth that belied the years she’d spent trapped in chill Silence, the other woman pushed up the sleeves of her sweatshirt, the temperature in the forest relatively cool despite how close they were to summer. “I’m looking forward to seeing what tricks a Psy-Changeling child will come up with.”
A Psy-Changeling child.
Yes, Naya was that. Unique . . . and hunted because of it.
Having been caught in a sudden traffic jam caused by a delivery truck that had spilled its load across the road, Lucas and Clay were still ten minutes out from reaching the piers. It was frustrating when the point of taking the car had been to speed things up, but Jon and his friends had promised to stay exactly where they were until the two of them arrived.
“Can you talk to Teijan?” Lucas asked as he picked up the sharp scent of brine, the water close now. “Brief the Rats to keep their ear to the ground for any mentions of Naya outside DarkRiver and SnowDancer. Even things that seem benign.”
The Rats, only four of whom were actually changeling—three adults and one child—chose to live in the disused subway tunnels beneath San Francisco, but they had the ability to blend into the woodwork in every part of the city. It made them a highly effective spy network—and while that network didn’t work for DarkRiver, the pack had an agreement with the Rats that meant Teijan would pass on any important information.
In return for that loyalty, DarkRiver permitted the far less powerful pack to live in its territory without fear when, as the dominant predators in the region, DarkRiver would’ve been justified in forcing the Rats out. With brutal violence, if need be. A harsh law, but it kept peace between the predators.
As it was, Teijan and his Rats had pledged loyalty to DarkRiver, and the intelligence that flowed to DarkRiver from the smaller group was invaluable. If any of that intel resulted in business deals, DarkRiver passed on a percentage of the income. Over time, the businesslike arrangement had changed into something that wasn’t an alliance . . . but was perhaps as close to it as could happen between two groups with such a wide power differential.
Instead of cowering in their tunnels, the Rats had fought for the city when San Francisco was attacked.
Lucas would never forget that.
“Consider it done.” Clay slowed the car to permit a pedestrian who’d miscalculated the light change to cross safely onto the sidewalk. “You want to feel out some of your Trinity contacts, too? Ask them to keep an ear open?”
Lucas scowled, his arm braced on the window frame and his eyes taking in the vibrant life of San Francisco. “I’ll think about it, but right now, I only truly trust a tiny minority of those who’ve signed the accord.” All were people he’d known and trusted prior to the formation of the ambitious cooperation agreement.
Lucas wanted the Trinity Accord to succeed, probably more than any other individual in the world aside from Sascha, but at this point, it was far too new and untested. “Trinity has two major issues,” he said to Clay. “The first is how to confirm the sincerity of those who sign it and want to be part of any Trinity-wide discussions. Consortium plants as well as others who have their own reasons to want the accord to fail are a certainty.”
Peace wasn’t good for everyone, including those who manufactured weapons and made their money off the misery of others. Post-Trinity, people had stopped blowing one another up, and, inside the Net, the civil war was apparently at a truce that was holding. The pro-Silence faction hadn’t disappeared, but according to those who understood the complex political situation in the Net, the rise of the empaths had shaken it to its foundation.
Designation E had been crushed under Silence, their ability to sense emotions and heal wounds of the heart and the mind considered unnecessary in a race that had outlawed emotion and that punished any deviation from the status quo with vicious psychic brainwipes. Yet this past winter, the empaths had categorically proven that they were very much necessary.
Without the Es, the PsyNet would’ve collapsed—would still collapse should they be taken out of the equation.
And without the biofeedback provided by the PsyNet, the Psy race would die horrifically painful deaths in a matter of seconds.
It left the most well-known pro-Silence groups in a quandary: How could they re-create a society without emotion when a vast majority of the linchpin members of that society were empaths, emotion their lifeblood? As a result, they’d stopped their vocal protests while they debated the issue; even the unstable fringe elements had halted their spate of bombings and shootings, though no one could predict how long that would last.
Of course, the Trinity Accord wasn’t behind either of those outcomes, but it was currently the focus of the world’s attention. Including that of the malcontents from all three races—everyone was waiting to see what came next, whether Trinity would become a powerhouse or fall flat.
However, it wasn’t just the weapons makers who had to be unhappy with Trinity’s flow-on effects. There were no doubt business owners—Psy, human, and changeling—pissed off because Trinity had facilitated an explosion of cross-racial business networks. Great for the clever operators who were good at what they did. Not so good for those who’d been coasting by with substandard work because the competition wasn’t as accessible to their clients.
Even powerful families with links to large medical corporations had to be looked at with a suspicious eye, because in times of peace, certain types of medicine were either no longer needed—or no longer profitable. “It’s a crapshoot as to who’s sincere and who’s not,” Lucas added. “That’s going to be a long-term issue.”
Clay’s hand moved smoothly on the manual controls. “Ming LeBon really requested to sign the accord?”
“Just to screw things up even more.” Lucas didn’t bother to contain his growl this time. “Hawke might have held off on killing the son of a bitch, but SnowDancer will pull out of Trinity the instant he’s permitted to sign, and so will we.” The wolf pack and DarkRiver were blood allies and Ming LeBon had threatened the life of Hawke’s mate among his other murderous crimes.
“The Forgotten will also leave.” Founded by rebels who’d left the PsyNet at the dawn of Silence over a hundred years earlier, the Forgotten—who’d intermarried with humans and mated with changelings—were beginning to show unique new abilities unseen in the “pure-blooded” Psy population.
Ming Lebon wanted access to those abilities, had been behind the abductions and deaths of a number of Forgotten children.
“Arrows will go, too,” Clay pointed out.
“No question.” Ming had been the squad’s leader for a long time, but from what Lucas had picked up, the ex-Psy Councilor had treated the men and women under his command as disposable pawns, signing kill orders for “malfunctioning” Arrows and using the squad as his personal death army.
Aden might’ve initiated the accord, but Lucas had the feeling the other man—and his squad—would rather rebuild alliances from scratch than be linked to Ming LeBon again in any way, even through the gossamer-thin bonds of Trinity. “And,” he added, “the second DarkRiver and SnowDancer leave, we take a large number of packs with us.” People who might not be allies but who were friends or who trusted the two packs to assist them should they have need, far more than they did strangers in a nascent accord.
There was an unexpected smile in Clay’s voice when he spoke again. “Maybe proof of membership in the ‘Ming LeBon Should Die’ club should be a prerequisite for signing the accord.”
“Funny.” Eyes focused straight ahead but mind on this mess of a situation, Lucas shook his head. “The problem is that certain minority members want Ming to be part of Trinity—and fuck, I see their point.” The ex-Councilor was currently the reigning power in a significant portion of Europe. “It might be better to have him in the fold so we could monitor him a little more closely.”
Clay growled. “He’d still be poison.”
“Yes.” Lucas had the ability to see the other side’s point, his disciplined temper the reason he’d been nominated to speak for a large number of changeling packs on anything to do with Trinity, but he wasn’t ever going to agree on the Ming issue. “I wouldn’t trust any discussion in which he had a part; we’d always be waiting for him to stab everyone in the back—Ming only cares about Ming.”
Eyes narrowed at the thought of the ex-Councilor, Lucas was stretching out his denim-clad legs when a couple of men on the sidewalk caught his eye. “Jamie looks like he’s over his jetlag.” The senior soldier had flown home straight from the Solomon Islands, the distant country the last stop on his roaming of the world.
Nearly every cat roamed at some point in his or her life. Some for weeks, others for months, a rare few for years. It was part of their nature, part of what made them as feline as they were human. That time exploring the world helped them grow, helped them settle into their skin. Almost all returned home, however, their humanity tempering the more solitary inclinations of the leopard within.
In the thirteen years he’d been alpha, Lucas had lost only three of those who roamed. One in an accident that could’ve happened anywhere in the world, two others in much happier circumstances: they’d found their mates in different corners of the globe, decided to stay. In doing so, those two had connected DarkRiver to a pack in India and one in Botswana.
“I saw him this morning,” Clay replied. “He’s asked Nate to put him back on full active duty, and he’s back to his tech position at CTX.”
“Tech” was a broad shorthand term used by any number of specialists. In point of fact, Jamie was a highly qualified sound and holo-imaging specialist. First, though, he was a DarkRiver dominant and trusted senior soldier on the cusp of becoming a sentinel. Walking beside him had been a younger packmate who held incredible promise.
Lucas didn’t think it was chance that Kit was talking to Jamie.
“The Ming situation.” Clay bared his teeth at a double-parked car in front of them, before managing to swing around it. “Is it going to be majority rules?”
“Trinity has no official voting system.” One of those things that had been skipped over in the rush to create a united front against the Consortium. “Those of us Aden pulled in right at the start, we didn’t consider that we might want to keep people out of the Trinity network. Discussions were all about how to convince people to have faith in it.”
Lucas often wondered why the hell he’d volunteered to be the first point of contact for overall Trinity business for more than twenty-five packs and counting . . . and then he’d remember Naya. His and Sascha’s smart, funny cub who’d smacked big kisses on his face today before he left the aerie, and who collapsed into giggles when he tickled her. Half Psy, half changeling, all mischief—and as Aden’s intel had put into sharp focus today, a threat to those who abhorred change and wanted to freeze the world in time.
His gut tensed again, claws shoving at his skin. He’d permit no one to dim her light.
He also wanted her to grow up in a united world, not a divided one. Naya should never have to choose between the two sides of her heritage.
Lucas would fight to his last breath to make that happen.
“What’s the second problem?” Clay brought the car to a stop in front of an Embarcadero warehouse owned by DarkRiver. “You said two.”
“Let’s walk and talk,” Lucas said. “You might still make the site in time.”
Stepping out into the salt-laced air of the waterfront after putting up the passenger-side window, Lucas shut the door, then joined Clay as the other man headed in the direction where the boys were waiting. The sun rained down on them out of a cloudless blue sky, the winds light. Lucas could hear the faint buzz of voices in the distance, feel the vibration of the vehicles on the road, smell the saltwater taffy made fresh in a nearby boutique candy shop.
The sunshine made the panther within Lucas stretch out into a lazy sprawl; he had to resist the sudden temptation to shift and sun himself on the pier. That was not alpha behavior—on the other hand, it would be amusing to see people’s reaction to a black panther in their midst, especially if he walked into a butcher’s and pointed to a prime cut of meat.
Changeling cats being bigger than their wild counterparts, he’d make quite an impression.
“Gotta love this sun,” Clay said right then. “Makes me want to curl up and go boneless like that tabby over there.”
Grinning, Lucas told the sentinel what he’d been thinking. Clay’s smile was slow, deep. “Let’s do it for Halloween. Give the tourists a shock. We can chase the ones who are mean to the shopkeepers.”
Deeply amused in a way only a feline could be, Lucas skirted a tiny yapping dog on a leash that thought it was a mastiff. A single hard glance from Lucas would’ve shut him down, but why spoil a tiny dog’s dreams of glory?
“Second issue is connected to the voting situation,” he said as they walked. “It all arises from the lack of a governing charter or constitution.” Something that was deeply necessary to the success of such a diverse body, one with members scattered across the world.
Right now the accord was an agreement to communicate, and they had vehicles in place for that. But to become a truly stabilizing force that would lead to the United Earth Federation, it needed to become far more cohesive. Especially since trust remained a huge, complicated question for the entire membership.
“There are the boys.”
Lucas nodded, having already caught their scent, recognized them as pack. Shoulders tensed and legs bouncing nervously on sneakered feet, the four teenagers were huddled in a small group, their faces unusually solemn.
Spotting Clay and Lucas, Jon said something and the boys jogged across to meet them in the middle of the pier. The four sixteen-year-olds were dressed as boys their age currently dressed—white T-shirts under open shirts of various hues and types, atop baggy board shorts that reached past their knees, and brightly colored sneakers they’d all personalized.
However, though they were wearing shorts meant for the surf, they were carrying hoverboards. All in all, an ordinary sight.
“We were hanging out when we saw it,” Jon said, his extraordinarily beautiful face shadowed under the bill of a battered gray cap and his distinctive violet eyes hidden by hazel contacts.
Certain dangerous people knew the teenager existed and was part of DarkRiver, but there was no reason he had to make himself a high visibility target. Right now, he looked like a thousand other boys in the city. He wasn’t. Jon was one of the Forgotten, part of the young generation that was displaying striking new psychic abilities.
DarkRiver had promised to back the boy should he want to ditch the contacts, stop dyeing his white-gold hair, but Jon had decided it was safer for his buddies and his little sister if he stayed under the radar until he was older and stronger. “Stops people from staring at me, too,” he’d said to Lucas, rubbing the place on his neck where he’d once had a Crawlers gang tattoo. “I just want to be one of the juveniles, you know?”
Lucas understood, even better than Jon likely realized. Clay, Talin, Noor, and DarkRiver were the first real family Jon had ever had, the first time he had people around him on whom he could rely no matter what. He hated being reminded that he was in any way different from his packmates.
“Is the thing you saw in the water or caught under the pier?” Clay asked the boy he’d adopted. It could’ve proved problematic, given Jon’s past, but of all the men in DarkRiver, it was Clay who best understood what it was to be a lost boy.
He and Jon had connected like two puzzle pieces.
Now, the boy shook his head, while around him, the other teenagers looked anywhere but at their alpha or Clay. “We were goofing off and it looked interesting, so, um”—his golden skin pinked—“these guys hung me off the pier by my ankles and I plucked it out.”
His panther impressed by the group’s ingenuity and huffing in laughter at their very cublike behavior right then, Lucas took the small bottle one of the other teens held out. He could see why it had caught their attention. The bottle was crafted of lime green glass and partially covered by barnacles. Bobbing on the water under the piercing sunlight, it would’ve sparkled like a jewel. “You boys opened it?”
Again, Jon was the one who spoke. Definitely a dominant and one Lucas was certain would grow up to become a cornerstone member of the pack. Lucas wouldn’t hesitate to leave Naya in Jon’s care; that said everything about his trust and faith in the boy.
“Yes, sir.” Jon’s voice was as clear as a bell. “We saw the stopper and were joking about finding a message in a bottle. And then . . .” Lifting a hand, he passed a thin, curling piece of paper to Clay. “I didn’t want to try and put it back, maybe tear it.”
“You did the right thing.” Unrolling it with care, Clay held the flimsy paper so he and Lucas could both read it.
My name is Leila Savea and I’m a marine biologist. I was kidnapped while working alone in the Pacific Ocean a mile off the coast of Samoa and I’ve been held in a cold, gray prison since. They scarred my face, cut it up, said it was so a teleporter who uses faces to go places couldn’t find me. I don’t know if that’s true or if they just wanted to hurt me.
I’m often drugged but they’re late with the dose today. I can write today.
A week, maybe ten days ago, they took me out of this room to test drugs on me and when they weren’t looking, I stole a bottle that was on the shelves outside. There were lots of bottles. Like it was someone’s collection once, but they’re all covered with dust now.
I took the paper and pen another time, when one of them forgot his lab coat in my room.
I’m going to hide this letter in the bottle and if they ever take me outside this place, I’m going to look for water. Water will carry it somewhere. Carry it to my people.
They won’t break me.
There was a subtle change in the ink on the following line, possibly indicating that the next part had been written some time after the first. The words, the tone, it too implied enough of a passage of time that the writer’s defiant spirit had begun to crumple under the pressure.
Miane, please help me. I’m so far from home and I hurt. It’s cold here. There’s snow everywhere but no ocean to feed my soul. I listen so hard for it, but all I hear is the wind and the trees and my captors. The sea doesn’t speak here.
Even if I escape this prison, I won’t get far before my body gives up. I’m not meant for this kind of cold. They want me to swim to places, do bad things. They think no one will miss me because I prefer to swim alone.
Please miss me. I miss you.
They’re trying to break me, turn me into an automaton, a slave.
I don’t know where I am. But I saw things when they first brought me here. They miscalculated the drug and I was almost awake. It’s a square concrete building in the middle of snow and trees. So much snow that it hurts my eyes when I look out the narrow strip of window at the top of my prison.
The building has this symbol on the side, faded and old.
A painstakingly hand-drawn symbol followed. A triangle with the letters CCE on the inside, the font blocky and squat.
I hear ducks sometimes. As if there’s a river or a stream or a lake nearby. I can’t see anything but I hear them. And—
The letter just ended, as if the writer had run out of time or been interrupted. What Leila Savea had written was chilling enough.
Lucas’s eyes met Clay’s before they both looked at the bottle in Lucas’s hand. Barnacles crawled up over a quarter of the bottle’s surface, betraying a long sojourn in the ocean. The chances of Leila Savea still being alive were low to negligible.
That didn’t matter.
His anger a cold, icy thing that burned, Lucas turned to the teenagers who’d had the intelligence and heart to understand what they’d found. “I’m proud of you,” he said because cubs needed to hear that from their alpha. “We’ll take care of it now.” He’d get the bottle and the message to the BlackSea water changelings, to the people Leila Savea had hoped to reach.
“Will we find her?” Jon’s fingers were bone white on the edge of his hoverboard.
Lucas gripped the side of the boy’s neck, anchoring him in pack skin privileges. Jon might’ve been born Forgotten, but he was DarkRiver now. And Lucas didn’t lie to his packmates. “I don’t know, but we’re sure as hell going to try.”
No one deserved to be tortured and tormented and trapped in the C