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Tate shifted the pack on his shoulders, the muscles under his shirt rippling with irritation. Sweat beaded on his forehead beneath the brim of his Stetson, threatening to drip down his brow and into his eyes. He'd lost track of how many miles he'd covered since sunup, but it wasn't enough. His prey was still ahead somewhere. Lurking in the abundant trees maybe, or skulking in shadows behind the thick shrubbery lining these empty Pennsylvania back roads. He couldn't be sure how far behind he was, but it couldn't be long before he found it. He could almost taste the scent now, faint as it was on the breeze.
Despite the impending capture, he felt none of his usual anticipation. This prey wasn't really his, a detail that set his sharpening teeth on edge. His orders had been to start where this old highway met the river and follow it on foot to track the stray. In fact, this whole journey to the next safe house had to be on foot, per the orders from the Sibile. The only thing that kept him from driving in rebellion was that he couldn't completely catch the scent even while walking. He'd miss it entirely if he moved any faster. Sometimes he couldn't even be sure if he'd simply imagined it other than the impression of something that didn't quite belong. Not until the next subtle taste
Something about it made his spine itch. Made him feel like running, and not in human form. For the last five miles, it had teased him, occasionally slamming him to a full stop from his brain to his feet, trying to grasp the impact. Urgency set every hair on his body standing on end, but hell if he could figure out why. The few treads he found on the ground were even, unhurried. No blood scented the air. Not a thing out of the ordinary explained the strange need, but it was unmistakable. And getting stronger.
His senses rang with another marker on the wind, slightly stronger. Wolf. Distinctly female. A faint scent, tickling at his senses. Still too light to truly grasp, but he knew without a doubt he'd finally found the oracle's stray.
Get to her. Protect. Get to her.
He jolted in response to the Instinct's ruthless whisper. Usually, that Voicethe one every shifter grew up withreserved itself for times of utmost urgency. Self-preservation, protection of a loved one. He'd never heard it while simply tracking.
The urge to rush pushed at his blood, but he discarded the prospect and the warning of the Instinct with it. He wasn't about to risk losing this female now, and rushing was a sure-fire way to lose his prey. Every step was measured, the sun overhead forgotten. The hunter he was shed every thought but what was necessary to find her.
He scanned the area carefully, taking in every shifted rock and leaf, positive he'd find something that gave her away. Next he searched the trees for any sign she'd cut through them or if she'd climbed up. He'd need every clue he could find to decide if she was friend or foe. Even steps and attempts to hide her trail indicated a rational thinker. Wild tracks, broken branches or gouges in the wood would tell him if he was dealing with a feral. She wouldn't be the first to snap from the horrors of life as a shifter, but hyper-aggressive females made for some vicious hunters. Some of them killed simply to feed their desire for blood.
Still, she didn't smell like a demented killer. No sickness overwhelmed the flavor, nothing foul to sting his nose. Just something fresh, enticing in its elusiveness. Almost tempting.