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"Another Feral shifter." Hanging up the phone, Simon Caldwell dragged his hand across his face and tried to smile at his fellow Protector and friend, Anton Beckham, known as Beck. "There's been a murdera professor up at CU, in Boulder. They think a Feral killed him, so it's another search and destroy. The Feral's been locatedliving up on a nearby mountain. Your assignment, this time." There was moremuch more, but Beck would receive that info in the case file.
Beck frowned. "Doesn't the Council realize how burned out I am? Hellhounds, I had to eliminate my last three."
"Let me talk to Ross." Simon should have seen this coming. Burnout. All the telltale signs were there. "I'll take the job. You need a break."
"You've killed your last seven," Beck pointed out. "If anyone should have burnout, it's you."
"I don't get burnout."
"Right," Beck said, grimacing. "You're the Terminator."
Grinning, Simon shrugged and poured himself another cup of coffee. Returning to his seat at the polished steel table, he took a long drink. "Unlike you, I don't let emotions get in the way of what I have to do."
"Emotions have nothing to do with it. One of those last three Ferals could have been rehabilitated. I know it."
"You knew it, huh? When did you realize you might be wrong? When he attacked you and you nearly lost your arm?"
"The Council wouldn't give me enough time," Beck insisted. "Come on, man. Show a little compassion."
Simon said nothing, knowing any further argument would be pointless. Beck knew The Protector's Creed as well as he did. Drumming his fingers on the metal table that had always seemed more appropriate in a laboratory than a kitchen, he sipped his coffee and stared at nothing.
"You really don't give a wolf's ass, do you?" Beck sounded faintly accusatory.
"Of course I do. But let's look at the stats." Simon took a long drink from his chipped mug. "Out of the last forty-seven Ferals encountered in the past year, only six were able to be saved."
"Grim statistics, true. But you know as well as I do that some of the Protectors are trigger-happy, particularly the European and Middle Eastern contingent."
"First threatening move, you shoot." Simon hated pointing out the obvious. As soon as his friend left the room, he was going to call in a recommendation that Beck be sent on enforced medical leave. An uncertain Protector was a dead Protector. He didn't want that to happen to Beck.
"You have to give them more of a chance."
When Simon didn't comment, Beck pushed himself away from the table.
"You know what your problem is, Caldwell?"
"I'm sure you're going to tell me." Simon couldn't keep the weariness from his voice. "Let me take a wild guess. I'm too hard. Unfeeling. Too old."
"Nope," Beck said, surprising him. "You're not too old. You're only thirty-four, a year older than me. I can tell you think I shouldn't take this assignment, because you're worried I'll fail. But you've got a worse problem than I do. I think you identify too closely with the Ferals. 'Grass is greener' type of thing. That's why you terminate them so quickly. Because they scare you."
Simon snorted. "You're wrong."
"Maybe I am." Beck sounded tired. "But honestly, Simon. Sometimes you seem dangerously close to Feral yourself."
"The end result is all that matters." Eyes narrowed, Simon slammed his mug on the drainboard. "I'll ignore your insult. This time. Remember, I'm the one the Council always calls to clean up the mess guys like you make."
Beck sighed, head in hands. "Sorry."
"I'm going to take this case," Simon told him. "Not only because you need a break, but because this seems particularly intriguing. The murdered professor is rumored to have been keeping two shifters captive for years. One of them is the Feral."
"How'd we locate this one?"
Simon knew his grin looked savage. "How do we always? Rumors of a werewolf, sightings. Thefts, appearances. Humans talk. Then finally, a shifter reports to their local council."
"What about the other Feral, the second one?"
"The Society hasn't located her yet. She's either very careful, or very lucky."
"Her?" Beck looked even more troubled now.
Simon nodded. "Two females. Oneor both of themis likely the killer."
"Kept captive? Hounds know, they had reason."
"There you go again." Shaking his head, Simon didn't bother to hide his disgust. "I'm taking this case."
"Go ahead." Beck didn't argue. Not about that. "But you know what? You're cold. Hard. I think it's time the Council should reconsider their training methods. Like taking us from our parents before we even start school." He didn't bother to hide the bitterness in his voice. "Most of us can't even remember our birth family. There's no reason."
"First off, they don't take us. We're given. You know that. When we exhibit skills beyond those of others our age. Our parents are honored to send us. You know that."
"Maybe." Beck dropped his head. "But I still think we go to training too young."
"Do you? Years of training hones our skills, inspires loyalty. In the end, none of that matters." Simon crossed his arms, weary of the same old argument. "We're born to be what we're born to be. Forgetting that is what gets you in trouble."
Pushing himself up, Beck flipped him the bird before dropping his cup in the sink. "I'm going upstairs. Do you want to make the call, or shall I?"
"I'll do it."
As soon as the other man left the room, Simon picked up the phone and dialed Ross, their unit commander. No way was he letting Beck go on this assignment. Until he got his head together, Beck was a disaster waiting to happen.
Blowing snow and biting wind made Raven shiver, despite the thick pelt gifted to her by the Old One when she died. Raven had cried when the old wolf went still, lifting her human face to howl into the night, exactly like her wolf-family did. The Old One had passed last winter, a season marked by death amid swirls of snow, ice and bitter, bitter cold.
She couldn't stay wolf always, and in her human shape Raven hated the cold. The bone-numbing chill was the one thing that tempted her to rejoin the human world. When she became wolf, she felt warm enough. Human was another story. No matter how many layers of stolen clothes she wore, she couldn't banish the cold from her skin.
After last winter, she'd nearly packed it in and given up. Only her pack of wild wolves had kept her in the cave, shivering when she was human, gritting her teeth and counting the hours until she could become wolf once more.
When spring had finally arrived, the pack had rejoiced. In summer and fall, every day had been a celebration of life, of living.
Until now. This day, winter started again. Early.
Shivering, she cursed her human form, hating the weakness of her olfactory senses, so sharp when she was wolf. Yet even as human, she sensed something was wrong, something more than the icy wind blowing over the mountains, more than the promise of snow in the air.
Beside her, Shadow whimpered.
"You sense it, too." Absently, she stroked the thick pelt of the wolf at her side. Her pack knew her scent, whether human or like them, and one or two stayed with her always. As protection and for company.
Two more heavy-coated wolves glided closer. The animals had started growing their winter coats weeks ago, their internal clock telling them the time had come. As human, Raven had noted the change and stepped up her gathering and storing, remembering the long winter the prior year. This year she'd vowed none of her pack would starve.
Despite her preparations, she still felt unsettled. Something was definitely not right.
Later, she'd change to her wolf-self and scout out the area, but now she needed to gather more wood. She thought she'd beefed up her food rationsnuts, berries, whatever she could findenough. Years ago, in her human time, she'd learned to cure meat, but now she had no way to obtain the salt to make the brine. Yet her pack, always generous with their kills, had not protested when she'd taken choice cuts of meat to try and freeze them, burying them in the crevice areas where her cave dipped deep into the earth.
She wanted to be ready. Yet she worried that despite her hurried preparations, winter had arrived too quickly. She needed human suppliessalt and matches, blankets and a newer thermal sleeping bag to replace the tattered one she'd stolen. A fire would be essential if she wanted to survive the subzero temperatures this high in the mountains. Even her pack liked the warmth, though she needed it. Unlike her furry pack, she couldn't keep her wolf-form with its thick pelt indefinitely. Eventually, she went back to the form she'd been born in, which pained her.
In the summer, when the hikers and campers flooded the mountain, she'd taken what she could, trying her best not to inconvenience anyone. But now, with the icy north wind howling over the mountains, humans no longer came to the mountain. There'd be no choice for itshe'd have to make a quick trip down into civilization to steal what she needed, fast. As soon as the storm passed, she'd do so.
A movement on the horizon caught her attention. The animal beside her growled low in her throat. The other wolves moved up to flank her, circling her with their silent protection.
Raven stareduncertain whether what she saw was real. If not a vision, she had a problem. Despite the blizzard, a human climbed the mountain, heading directly toward them. The furious wind and blowing snow had carried away his scent and he'd gotten way too close to her pack's sanctuary.
Of course, he might be lost. A lost human and a blizzard usually equaled death, unless she led him to safety. She preferred to do the latter. Two winters ago another man had died on her mountain. The search teams had nearly found her cave and her pack before locating his body.
With the human here, she'd be better off as wolf.
She dropped low to the ground and stripped off her clothes. Then, muttering her usual prayer, began the change from human to wolf. Over time, she'd learned to shape-shift in seconds. Now she'd track the stranger and find out what he wanted on her mountain in the midst of a blizzard.
Two of her pack flanked her, Shadow and Myst. The instant they stepped from the cave, snow and ice coated their fur, helping them blend into the wintry landscape.
Here, the human with his bright blue parka should stand out like a wolf in the city. But she and her pack could find no sign of him. The intruder had vanished into the storm.
Lifting her head, she scented the air. Nothing but snow and ice and cold. She knew sniffing the snow would be equally futile. Either the man had fallen into a snow-filled crevice or he had taken shelter somewhere. Most likely the former, which wouldn't be good for her pack.
No choice but to find him. Raven hadn't survived seven winters on her own by taking chances. The man had to be close. No one, not even wolves, moved fast in a blizzard like this. Though the wind and blowing snow would have erased his tracks, she moved slowly and cautiously as she neared the area where she'd last spotted him.
With her keen sense of smell deadened, she had to rely on only her sight. If the man had been wolf, he'd have hunkered down under a tree, curled into a tight ball and let the snow cover him, making a nice pocket of warmth.
But he'd been only human.
Thereshe inched closer. She spied a bright yellow tent partially covered in snow. His own way of creating a pocket of warmth.
Making a wide circle, she checked the perimeter. Downwind of her cave with the view obstructed by a long line of trees. Satisfied, she put her head down and made her way back home. As usual, she'd remain in her wolf-form as long as possible, until her body betrayed her and forced her to return to her human shape. She much preferred being wolf. No reasoning, no fears, nothing but sensation. Easier, more exhilarating. And a hell of a lot warmer.
Inside the cave, her pack waited. The stranger's intrusion had caused the wolves to become agitated. As soon as she entered and shook off the snow, they surrounded her. Making guttural sounds and low whines, which she wished were actually a language, they communicated their unease.
Warmed by them, she let them huddle close until the frost that rimmed her fur melted. Then, slipping among the others, she touched noses, sidling wet fur against them and letting them sniff her, knowing her enforced calm and authority would eventually push away their anxiety. She was Alpha here, even though she wasn't wholly, completely wolf like them. Still, they always followed her lead. Today was no exception.
Outside, the storm continued to rage. The howl of the wind sounded ten times more chilling than any noise made by beast. Snowdrifts piled up at the entrance to the cave, blocking out the wind. Gradually, the pack settled down and, as Raven had known they would, curled up in a huge pile around her and slept. She fell asleep as wolf, knowing she'd probably awaken as human, naked and freezing.
Despite the massive blizzard and near whiteout conditions, Simon knew his exact location. The GPS system he carried, along with the satellite link to base, ensured that. Yesterday, before the storm had started, he'd done a flyover. The sophisticated, heat-seeking instruments had revealed a possible human somewhere on this slope. Despite the weather warnings, he'd decided to go ahead with the search, knowing he could always change into his wolf-form and hunker down under the snow.
But he wouldn't change unless he had to. This particular type of hunt was better done as a man. Until he knew the mental state of the person he hunted, he had to remain constantly on guard. As he had pointed out to Beck, too many careless Protectors had lost their lives to Ferals. Simon didn't intend to become another statistic.
He stopped, turning slowly to gain his bearings. To his left, he glimpsed the snow-covered valley he'd noted from the plane. That meant the Feral's lair would be to his right, higher up on the slope. He looked for caves, or tried to, but the shifting veil of snow made the search impossible.