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Rae's job on the day of the Choosing was to stand behind her foster father and hold the absent Guardian's sword. Absent, because the Guardian was dead, had been for months.
The woods were quiet, dark, and cold. Any sane Shifter would still be in bed, snuggled under a few blankets, looking forward to a warm shower and a hot cup of coffee.
But no, the Shifters of the Western Montana Shiftertown had crept out just before dawn, following Eoin, Rae's adoptive father and leader of this Shiftertown, to see whether the Goddess was in a good mood.
Four times in the last six months they'd trudged out here in the gloom and cold, waiting for the Goddess to pick a new Guardian. They'd come at a full moon, a new moon, a waxing moon, a blue moon. They'd turn toward wherever the moon happened to be and wait.
All the young men of the Montana Shiftertown who were past their Transition were required to attend, including Rae's foster brothers. They formed the now-familiar circle, some excited, some fearful, some simply wanting to go back to bed.
Eoin, a Feline Shifter who was mostly mountain lion, sent Rae an encouraging look. Rae was a Lupine, black wolf, but she conceded that her foster dad was handsome-for a Feline. He was currently mateless, which made him a target for every female Shifter near and far. What some of them would do to try to sneak into his bed was beyond ridiculous. Rae sometimes felt like his bodyguard rather than his daughter.
"Not long now," Eoin said to her. Even speaking softly, his voice was a full rumble.
"Then we can go out for breakfast?" Rae asked. "I could use a stack of waffles. With bacon."
"Sure, sweetie," Eoin answered with a smile, then turned to the circle. Beyond the young males, the rest of the Shifters waited, anxious and impatient.
Months ago, their Guardian, Daragh, had been killed by humans, his sword stolen. Rae still fumed over that terrible deed. The humans had been found, punished, the sword returned by an unlikely messenger and Daragh sent to dust, but no new Guardian had been chosen. The Goddess had not answered their call.
The faintest light came through the stand of trees, turning the mist that had gathered ghostly white. The Shifters dropped into silence as Eoin raised his arms.
"Goddess, mother of us all, lady of the moon," he began in a loud voice, "we beseech thee. Send us your light to touch the Guardian, that most holy of men, so that he may do thy work."
Rae loved listening to her father speak. Her earliest memories were of Eoin reading her books, soothing her to sleep, wrapping her in comfort, letting her know she was protected when he was near. The sword, which she held point down by the hilt, vibrated in time with his words.
The sword gave her the creeps, but no one else would touch it-it had burned those who'd tried, as though it were red-hot. Even Eoin's trackers, the bravest of the brave, refused to put their hands on it. For some reason the sword didn't burn Rae, so she'd had to step up. She didn't mind so much when it was sheathed, but for the ritual the sword had to be naked, the runes on the silver blade catching the dawn light.
They'd done this four times. Rae prayed to the Goddess that the fifth time was the charm, so she could hand the sword to the new Guardian and never hold it again.
Eoin went on chanting. He repeated his plea to the Goddess, his arms high.
In the old days, Shifters had worn robes and crowns of leaves and crap like that for these rituals. Eoin wore jeans, a sweatshirt, and thick-soled boots, sensible attire in the Rocky Mountain woods. Rae, and every Shifter here, wore something similar.
Maybe they should have donned robes and painted themselves with moon goddess symbols, she decided. Or danced naked at midnight. It would make the same difference. The Goddess wasn't coming. She never did.
"We beseech thee!" Eoin shouted.
His words echoed through the woods as the sun climbed higher, brushing the treetops with golden light. The mists thickened and the air became colder.
The sun kept climbing. The mist turned to fog. The Shifters shivered and rubbed their arms, wanting to shift, cuddle up to something furry, or at least go the hell home.
Eoin finally lowered his arms, letting out a sigh, defeated. A whisper of breeze echoed his sigh, then died.
The Shifters didn't look happy. Eoin, as Shiftertown leader, was supposed to solve problems like this. He should ask the human government to bring in a Guardian from another Shiftertown or figure out a way to use the sword himself-something.
If the more dominant Shifters got too impatient, they'd start challenging, and then things would really hit the fan. The human government didn't allow Shifters to change leaders without their approval but that wouldn't matter if Eoin were dead.
Rae picked up the sword's sheath from the grass, her braid of black hair falling over her shoulder. A thin finger of light made it through the fog to dance on the blade as she lifted it to slide it into the sheath. The runes glittered and seemed to move.
They did that sometimes. The sword was one creep-toid piece of metal.
The tip of the blade jerked out of the leather sheath. Rae's eyes widened in surprise, then she let out a cry as the sword shot upward, dragging her arm with it.
Rae tried to drop the sword but her hand was fixed to the hilt, her fingers not obeying her command to let go. The sword jerked again, nearly pulling her arm out of its socket.
Rae grabbed the hilt with her other hand, holding on while her heels came off the ground.
"Dad!" she yelled. "Help!"
Eoin, who'd moved off to speak to his trackers, spun back to her. At the same time, the sword yanked itself upward and Rae was pulled all the way off her feet.
She yelped in terror, but she couldn't pry her hand free. She had no idea what the damned sword was trying to do-return to the Goddess? Fly to the next Guardian?
Eoin ran for her, his trackers behind him, but before they could reach her, a brilliant shaft of light shot down from the treetops and enclosed Rae, the sword, and the sheath that lay on the ground.
Pain seared through her, as though every cell in her skin, every bit of iron in her blood, suddenly burned hot. Her Collar went off, arcs of electricity driving into her throat.
Rae screamed. The sound echoed up through the trees, crescendoed into a piercing shriek, and swooped back down again. The Shifters clapped hands over ears, some falling to their knees.
The sword lifted Rae a few more feet in the air, then it suddenly went slack, and Rae fell hard to the ground. She lost hold of the sword, and the blade plummeted toward her, point downward.
Eoin dove for it, but he couldn't reach it in time. The sword plunged straight into the earth between Rae's outstretched arms, quivered, and went still. The light died and Rae's pain faded.
"What the hell?" one of the trackers growled.
Rae slowly climbed to her feet, groaning all the way, having to use the hilt of the stupid sword to brace herself.
Eoin had halted a few feet away, his face drawn, his eyes wet. "The Goddess has Chosen," he said in a hushed voice.
"What?" Rae tore her hands from the sword. "What are you talking about? It was a lightning strike, or something . . ."
Eoin seized Rae's hands and turned them upward. Burned into each palm was the symbol of the Celtic knot, the sign of the Goddess. Though Rae's hands were clearly branded, she felt no pain, not even itching.
Her heart hammered. "No way. Dad-no!"
Tears rolled down Eoin's cheeks. "The Goddess has Chosen," he repeated, his voice breaking. "We have our new Guardian."
The Shifters, Rae's brothers most of all, stared at Rae in shock. Dead silence filled the clearing, broken only by the morning breeze that sprang up to clear away the mists.
An elderly Feline male stepped forward, giving voice to the thought in the head of every Shifter present.
"But she's a woman!"
Zander's cell phone rang. "Aw, son of a . . ."
Zander vented to every deity, familiar and obscure, as he hoisted himself from the chair at the stern of his boat. His fishing pole, secured to the deck, went on enjoying itself dangling bait in the water, while Zander trudged down the swaying boat, shading his eyes against the setting sun, to where he'd left the damn phone this time.
He should just throw the bloody thing overboard. The point of being in a fishing boat all alone off the coast of Alaska was being alone.
Zander knew why he didn't toss the phone even as the thought formed. If someone had dire need and they couldn't reach him, he'd never forgive himself.
Zander's two braids swung against his cheeks as he reached for the phone he'd left on top of the cooler. He figured he might as well grab another beer at the same time, and came up with a phone in one hand, a can in the other.
"Go for Zander," he growled.
He stilled as a voice from far away rumbled in his ear. Kendrick, a white tiger Guardian and leader of a band of rogue Shifters, wouldn't call for no good reason. Zander's reflection in the window of the wheelhouse showed his dark eyes growing wider and wider as he glued the phone to his ear and listened.
"You want me to what?" he yelled when Kendrick finished. "Seriously, what the fuck? How am I supposed to teach her to be a Guardian? Hello? I'm not a Guardian."
"I know." Kendrick's voice wavered with the bad connection. "But she needs-"
At the end of the boat, the fishing pole started to buzz. "Kendrick, I'm busy. I don't have time to babysit a woman who thinks she's been chosen by the Goddess to be a Guardian, for crap's sake. There are no female Guardians! I'm supposed to be the crazy one. When you regain your sanity, call me back."
Zander moved the phone but Kendrick's stern voice had him listening again. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me," Zander snarled. "You're going to play that card?"
Over the whirring of the fishing pole came the drone of a motor, a boat rushing toward him across the deep waters.
Zander yelled into the phone. "Do you know how much shit you're in right now?"
Kendrick rumbled something Zander couldn't make out, but he heard the amused bite in Kendrick's voice. The man and his cute little mate must be laughing their asses off.
Zander clicked off the phone and tossed it down. The boat moved closer. Three figures stood on its deck-the man piloting it, a tall stern-looking Feline Shifter, and a smaller woman-a Lupine-with a Sword of the Guardian strapped to her back. The sword's hilt gleamed in the light of the sinking sun.
"Perfect," Zander said. "Just effing perfect."
He squeezed the can of beer until the pop-top burst open, then he poured the cold liquid down his throat, wiped his mouth, and strode to meet the intruders.
Rae looked across the tossing water at Zander Moncrieff and couldn't decide whether she should jump overboard or leap onto his boat and smack him.
He was huge, a bear Shifter, with muscles bulging out of a black sweatshirt with a Harley logo and hard legs stretching out blue jeans. He wore a long black duster coat that whirled in the unceasing wind and thick-soled boots for walking around a wet deck. Zander's white blond hair was cut short against his head, except for two dreadlocks that hung on either side of his face, swinging down to his shoulders. He'd braided blue beads into the dreads, stark against the white. His trim goatee beard was, in contrast, jet black.
His eyes were the same black, burning with anger and glaring at Rae. Rae read a boatload of other emotions behind those eyes-pain and a loneliness that ran deep.
Goddess-touched, Eoin had called him. Brimming with power but never quite fitting in.
Like me, Rae thought with a jolt.
Zander's fury reached Rae across the narrowing space between the boats. He was not at all happy Eoin wanted to bring Rae aboard.
Well, tough shit. Rae didn't want to be out here either. One day she'd been an innocuous Lupine Shifter, hanging out with her friends and comfortable with her family, the next she was a Guardian, sent away to the middle of the northern Pacific to be trained by a polar bear everyone claimed was insane. Doesn't play well with others, they'd said.
The boats bobbed up and down out of sync, the waves becoming more pronounced the closer the boats slid to each other. Rae was getting seasick. She'd been fine riding on the boat from the island where the small plane had landed, but now that both boats were rocking in the calm, rising and falling at different rates, she grew dizzy.
Eoin sprang to the deck of Zander's boat with the grace of a Feline and faced him, one Shifter entering another's territory.
Now it was Rae's turn. She paused with her feet on the edge of the speedboat, where a gate in the rail had been opened for her. Rae was wolf, okay with water but not with boats. And by water, she meant streams, lakes, and ponds, not the vast expanse of cold ocean she found herself in now. If she fell into the drink, she'd freeze to death before she could be fished out.
Zander was a polar bear. Super-cold water and ice off the Alaska coast must be paradise to him. Rae liked beaches in Baja or Hawaii, long stretches of warm, empty sand, breezes, and cabana boys bringing her fruity cocktails. In theory-Rae had never actually been in any of these places.
Zander glanced behind Eoin to watch her impatiently, every inch a bear. Arrogant shit.
Rae drew a deep breath and willed her feet to make the jump, but her boat heaved upward while the other dropped. She lost her balance, dancing as she tried desperately not to fall between the undulating decks.
Zander reached Rae before Eoin could. He leaned across the stretch of blue water, grabbed Rae by both hands, and hauled her aboard.
His grip was immensely strong, pulling Rae right off her feet. She floated a few inches above the deck before she landed on the boards with a whump. The Sword of the Guardian banged against her back.