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Joe Ryan took a heady breath of hot, pine-scented air, basking in itthe scents so much stronger to the cougar, so subtly layered. Dirt and fallen pine needles and the scrub oak beside him, tangy and sharp as he barely brushed against it each scent heated by the rising afternoon temperature and intensified by the moisture in the gathering monsoon clouds.
The humans he followed through this national forest probably noticed none of it, just as they'd missed the red-backed Abert's squirrel shooting away from their blundering dog and the birds gone quiet overhead.
Joe noticed them allbut it was the humans he stalked.
The humans and their dog.
Joe loved dogs. He'd had one in Nevada, a big lunky hound mix who'd been bitten by a rattlesnake shortly before everything else went so bad. So much loss
This was his turf nowthe western slopes of the San Francisco Peaks. From peripheral Vegas to high-altitude desert. He couldn't say he regretted the move. But the circumstances? Oh, yeah.
Still, he protected the area as best he could. Today, that meant ghosting along beside this chattering, trail-bound couple and their loose dog, unseen until he was good and ready to show himself.
There. Up ahead. He trotted a few rangy strides, big paws silent against the ground. He fought that ever-present instinct to hunt, to play with the dog like the prey it could be
Down, boy-o. Dean's voice in his heador the memory of it. He slipped out through a sun-dappled spot between two oaks, crouching down tight behind the base of a giant old Ponderosa. He could shift in an instant if he had to.
The couple had stopped. "Did you see?" askedthe man.
"I'm not sure what I saw," the woman said, alarm in her voice. "Bunky-Dog, come here."
"Yeah," the man agreed. "Let's get him on the leash."
Joe squeezed his eyes half-shut in practiced patience as the couple cajoled and chased and finally lured the oblivious Bunky-Dog with a treat. If he'd been a wild cougar drawn by the noisy, gamboling canine, they'd be good and mauled by now.
Finally. Their voices faded as they headed down the trail with haste. Mission accomplished. He'd work on saving the world tomorrow.
Joe stood and stretched, yawning hugely and letting his claws slide in and out of the soil, allowing himself some satisfaction. Now he could turn his attention to the power surge he'd felt on his way outjust like the one he'd felt yesterday, and a week earlier, when he'd been so felled by a cold that he hadn't been certain he'd perceived it at all. The Peaks, turning and grumbling and rolling off power in disgruntled waves. Not a good thing.
He couldn't let things go wrong on his watch. Not again.
He turned to cross the trailand froze.
Ocelot. Cleverly upwind, as silent as he could ever be. She sat, stiff and offended, her tail tucked around her front legs, rich black lining her chained rosettes and striping her legs and that thickly furred tail. She sported black-tipped ears and a pink nose, with black lines defining her delicate face along the inside corner of each eye. In comparison to his tawny cougar's bulk, she was little more than dog-sized house cat.
A house cat who didn't belong hereand whose intelligence shone from her eyes with an intensity that made him wince. Now that he'd seen her, she dropped the wards concealing her etheric presence; her power flowed over him, smooth as weightless silk.
He fought the startling impulse to lean into the sensation, to let it trickle over his whiskers and ruffle his fur. And yet his ears flicked forward back indecisive. She was Sentinel; he knew that much. Those eyes gave her away, that indignant posture the silky power. That she was here at all, an ocelot out of place and time.
Decision made. He flicked a shake down his spine, quick and sharp, and shed the cougarsleek and efficient, blurring from one form of tawny and lean to another and assuming the organically made clothes that came with him. Faded jeans and a cotton flannel shirt, moccasin-like ankle boots, his knives enclosed in treated, warded fabric pockets.
Quite a few of those, when it came right down to it.
He stood beside the tree and waited. She gave him a flat up-and-down stare and obliged with her own shift to stand with quick grace, wearing undyed linen summer pants and a scoop-necked, cap-sleeved shirt of some fine mesh weave.
He realized that his gaze had lingered on her body like the ocelot, it was petite and understated and yet lithe and perfectly balancedand stared at her face instead. Her hair was black, her eyes deep brown neither reflected her Sentinel form. But the ocelot was there, in the sharp nature of her chin, her strikingly large eyes and he would bet that was a natural smudge of darkness around her lashes, and not mineral makeup applied before she'd shifted. There was intensity in those eyes purpose. It spoke to him.
She stared back without welcome. "Have you no sense at all, putting us to the change out in the open?"
Joe bit down on irritation, knowing his nostrils flared anyway, catlike, and that his eyes narrowed. Of course she didn't like him. She was a Sentinel with a mission and that mission was probably him.
So he kept his voice even when he said, "There's no one here to see us." And he squashed his regret, that he'd never had any control over his heart. Foolish thing, heart.
She was oblivious to it. "I can't imagine what you were thinking, exposing yourself to those hikers."
He leaned a shoulder against the tree, as relaxed on the outside as he wasn't on the inside. Cat-lazy. "When loose dogs lure cougars into human contact, it's the cougar who usually ends up dead in the end. A little reminder that they're not the only ones here generally straightens them up." Training humans, that's what he was doing.
And he'd been doing it since he got here, without incident. He thought about saying that, too, but he'd learned the hard way that vigorous self-defense only made things worse. Made it seem as though there was indeed something to be guilty over.
Especially if someone already believed that you were.
"I'm Joe Ryan," he said. "But I suspect you already know that."
"Yes." She made no apology for it, or for the other things she already knew. "Lyn Maines. Can we talk?" As if he had any choice.
"Sure." He took the short drop to the trail with loose-limbed grace, hesitated long enough for her to join him, and headed up a narrow dirt path littered with volcanic cinders large and small. Raucous Steller's jays followed them through the trees, unheeding of the bright, building clouds above the trees and the heat.
He moved just as she'd imagined he would balanced, easy, holding himself with authority. But she also sensed a hint of restraint in his movement, and she didn't blame him. He might have gone dark, but he was no fool. He knew she was there for him.
Even if that wasn't the whole of it. Not with the mountain surging power, or the Atrum Core prince this region's drozharretreating here after losing a confrontation with Sentinels at the southern edge of the state. Retreating, or just moving on to the next greedy, wreck-the-world-along-the-way scheme?
"It can't be a surprise that I'm here," she told him.
"You must know about the power surges in the area even though you've said nothing to the brevis consul."
He stopped short, clearly impatient with the hardly veiled accusation. In the gathering humidity of the afternoon storm, sweat darkened the tracings at his nape and temple. "That's worth a phone call, not a personal visit. And not worth finding me in the woods when you could have waited for me at my place."
"I" She gathered herself. Of course he wouldn't mince words of course he'd be blunt. Maybe she should have hidden her bias when she'd met him.
Or maybe she shouldn't have spent so much time familiarizing herself with his file on the flight from Tucson to Flagstaff, looking at those photos until she found her fingers brushing over his image, there with the wilds of the high desert reflected in his eyes.
Then she would have had the distance she needed, and not had to create it with her own frank, hard words.
Take a breath. Do this right. Stop the power drains, nail the dark Sentinel. So she said simply, "I wanted to stretch my legs."
At that understandable truth, he relaxed slightly. When he spoke, she couldn't read his voice at first, or his expression. "Thirteen tribes revere this mountain," he said, looking up the incline where aspens now mingled with the pines. "Not so much these lower slopes, but the Peaks. The Navajo call them Dook'o'oslíídShining on Topfor the snow pack. The Hopi Katsinas live there. The Havasupai used to live on the northwest slopes." She heard it, then. Anger. Not at her, this time. At
The situation. Because what had been wasn't any longer.
It startled her. She hadn't expected the depth of his feelings. She held her silence, simply keeping up with him for a moment, watching the whimsical roll of cinders beneath her soft, laced black-leather flats. This trail was more suited to the ocelot than to her travel outfit.
He slowed without comment, just enough to ease her way. It gave her the breath to say, as neutrally as possible, "Are we still talking about the power surges?"
He glanced at her, his dusky hazel eyes an exact match for those of his cougar self. "The Tucson office should have known better than to give you a Caucasian-only assessment of this area."
"Should have," she repeated in agreement. "Didn't. There was some rush." An understatement. For all the relief over the victory near Sonoita, it had been a close thingDolan Treviño's victory more than anything. No, the consul did not take this particular drozhar lightly.
"There's been a power struggle in place on this mountain for years," he said. "The tribes didn't want the Snowbowl ski area built. It was. Now they don't want recycled wastewater used to create artificial snow but the courts are stomping all over the American Indian Religious Freedom Act." His tone made it obvious where he stood on the matter. How he felt about this land.
Maybe how he felt about the power here. Wanting it. But she didn't go so far as to say those words out loud. "Maybe I don't yet understand the nuances of the situation"
He gave a short laugh, turning from a short, steep section of barely a trail to offer his hand; she took it without thinking. "Of course you don't. How can any of us? How can white man's courts make judgments on the validity of religions they can't possibly understand?"
She topped the rocky section and released his hand or thought she had. She could still feel it, warm and calloused, against hers. She shook out her fingers. "You feel strongly about it, for someone who can't possibly understand."
Something flashed in his eyes, darkened them. "I understand being stomped on."
Point to him. Supposing he hadn't deserved being stomped on. Supposing he didn't deserve it again. Way to play the wounded innocent.
Except if she'd been that easy, the brevis consul office wouldn't have sent her. "Still not getting your point here, with the local interest story."
"The point," he said, as easily as if he hadn't just thrown such intensity at her, "is that if you listen to the mountain, you'll know that there's just as much power in those ancient religions as the tribes believe there to be. It's what drives this place." He glanced up at the sky gone suddenly, truly threatening, and increased his pace. "I don't think it's any coincidence that the push to expand Snowbowl has escalated. The Atrum Core knows what's here. They want itthey're probably looking for a way to convert it. And they're stirring things up on one front to obscure what they've been doing on another."
Lyn pulled a suede ribbon from her pocket and tied back her hair, feeling it gone curly with the humidity of the building storm. "Apparently the Atrum Core isn't the only one with a reason to go after that power. Or didn't you think we'd notice your trace on the power fluctuations?"
He stopped short, one hand on the huge granite rock beside their path. "No," he said, just as surprised as she'd meant him to be. Full of reaction, a swell of power she felt against her skin as if it were heat added to the storm. "It's notthey're twisting"
And then, as if he realized he'd said too much even in those incomplete thoughts, he shut down, his jaw working, the defined nature of his lower lip going hard for a moment.
For it was the same excuse he'd used in Las Vegas over the body of his dead partner. They're framing me. I didn't do it. It wasn't me.
Except it had been.
The Sentinels had enough proof to believe it and not enough to pronounce judgment. Not through Sentinel Justice, not through the mundane justice system which had released him. So the Sentinelswary of him, yet unwilling to waste his remarkable ability to monitor and manipulate subtle power flowshad sent him here, where the brooding power of the Peaks kept things stable.
Or used to.
"Storm's coming in," he said shortly, turning away from her. "I'm going cougar to beat it homethe strikes come down thick around here." Everything about his body language suggested that she could stay human and get soaked if she wanted. The scathing look he threw over his shoulder confirmed it. Scathing and something else. Something dark and powerful and warning. She blinked as the impact hit home, sending her a literal step backward.
"If you're going to walk," he informed her, his voice gone flat, "then be prepared to duck the lightning."
Whoa. Way too late for that.
They ran through the rugged terrain, four legs and fur, easing downslope. He loped along with rangy strides that made Lynhunt vertical shortcuts. Lightning flickered above them in regular strokes; thunder shook the pines.
A sudden sweep of wind roared through the trees; Lyn flattened her ears, crouching against it. He tipped his head in a gesture she interpreted as encouragement and she squirted forward in an unhappy slink of a run, already ducking against anticipated rain and the next crash of thunder. Thin, dry soil beneath her paws, thick pine-needle patches, abrasive cinders
this was rugged terrain, with rough, unpredictable rocky outcrops that changed the nature of the ground with little warning.