Jessica is excited about starting college in the fall, already enrolled at the University of Oregon. Every year for as long as she can remember, she has enjoyed spending a week camping with her father before school started, but this year is special because her best friends are coming with them. She has no way to know they will all be walking into a nightmare straight out of a horror movie.
Eighteen years before, Jessica’s mother died under mysterious circumstances right after giving birth to her. Her dad refuses to speak about it, though his eyes grow haunted every time the subject comes up. All Jessica knows is that it was a violent death. Her answers will come from a stranger, one who knows far more than he should.
Nethaniel is a Lycaeonian from the planet Laizahlia, a wolf shapeshifter. He is taking his first trip off world with his father when he runs across Jessica fly fishing at the lake. Though it shouldn’t be possible, he recognizes her immediately as his fated mate. Unfortunately, Nethaniel’s father has enemies, and three have followed them to Earth, vengeance on their minds. Jessica and her friends are considered little more than collateral damage.
Naijan leaned against the rough bark of a pine tree and took in his unobstructed view of Crater Lake, impressed with the magnificent sight before him. The top of the rim had been an ideal place from which to appreciate its beauty. These rugged mountains of Oregon reminded him a great deal of his home world of Laizahlia. As an assigned tracker for one of the Council’s Hunters, he’d enjoyed visiting this planet many times before. Once, nearly nineteen years ago, Naijan had spent stolen hours with a female from this same area, an extraordinary creature. He wondered if she still lived, and if so, would she remember him?
He laughed. Of course she would. How could she ever forget?
He would try to free up a little time while here, track her down and spend a few hours reminiscing. The idea pleased him.
It took hours to fully recover after being transported from Laizahlia to Earth. With his body in agony, Naijan had decided to hole up in the back country, far away from any accidental meetings with clueless humans. He might have blindly attacked and risked exposing himself to a Hunter from his world. Also, though not likely, it was possible to run into a human with a weapon. Even without the silver bullets of legend, a well-placed shot through the heart or head could still kill him.
Growing bored after the worst of the pain passed, Naijan decided to stroll down to Crater Lake’s lodge. He enjoyed mingling with the tourists there, the mindless human cattle clueless to the predator walking among them. He kept them off guard with his inquisitive questions, always a wide smile in place. It amused him when a few of the more sensitive to his true nature shivered and stepped away. And always he visualized sharp fangs tearing through tender flesh, the spray of warm blood leaving a thick coating in his mouth and throat.
Another shiver of anticipation rippled down his spine. “Soon, my pets,” he whispered, lifting his nose to the soft breeze, testing the warm currents. He craved the scent of their terror even more than the taste of their flesh and blood.
Tired, and slightly out of breath after the steep climb back up the trail, Naijan slid down next to a tree and stretched out his trembling legs. He detested weakness of any kind, but especially so this drain of energy after being transported. He softly snorted, using his palms to knead the heavy muscles of his thighs. The thick braid down the middle of his back caught against the rough bark and pulled against his tender scalp. Snarling, he reached for the tip, slipping free the leather tie. He shook the thick black strands free, sighing with relief as he leaned back against the tree.
A tiny chipmunk released a single high-pitched chirp, distracting Naijan. The rodent sat motionless a few yards to his left, watching him, front paws resting on both sides of its puffy cheeks. “What do you want?” he asked, a tight-lipped smile twitching the corners of his mouth. “I’ve nothing for you to eat.”
On the walk to the lodge earlier, he’d stopped to watch a few humans feed the greedy rodents. A female child noticed him and offered Naijan a few shelled nuts. She took pleasure in showing him how to feed the chipmunks. Under the watchful eye of her parents, he’d knelt beside the child with his offering of nuts, but the rodent shied away at the last second, sensing the predator lurking inside him.
“Perhaps you mean to feed me, eh?” Naijan said, laughing at the chipmunk that watched him now. Curious, he allowed his beast to step closer to the surface, gathering the energy toward his core. As the current grew in strength, the chipmunk whirled and dashed behind a log. “Ah, not so brave or dumb as you first appear.”
Naijan flinched when a piercing pain sliced across his ribs. His wolf half didn’t appreciate being teased. “Be still,” he whispered. “Only a few minutes longer.” He would release his animal to hunt as soon as the sun dropped below the mountains. His wolf’s shiny black coat would be a perfect camouflage in the dark shadows of the forest.
Growing increasingly tenser, his body twitchy, Naijan knew it was time to contact Chephras (one of two trusted Lycaeonian he’d sent a few days ahead). Time to see what he’d learned. After all, he hadn’t made the jump to Earth for fun and games. Telepathy came naturally to a Lycaeonian, but the brain suffered with the body when transported. It temporarily disrupted the electrical currents. It caused even more pain if sensory receptors used for telepathy were forced to fire prematurely.
Naijan almost pulled back when the first sting exploded in his head. He pressed the heel of both hands hard against his temples, eyes closed. Growling, he pushed through the pain, searching for a line to Chephras.
Finally, after what felt an eternity, he found him. “Have you located Jendigh?” Naijan growled when Chephras sensed him and dropped his mental shields.
“Yes, but Jendigh is not alone. He brought his son. They arrived yesterday, just before sunset. The whelp is still suffering the ill-effects of being transported. What do you wish for us to do?”
“Nothing, keep him in sight until I arrive. Take no unnecessary risks. Jendigh must not sense your presence. I should arrive no later than tomorrow night. Earlier if I can find a ride from a human.”
Naijan broke the connection before Chephras could respond, desperate for release from the pain. It took several long minutes before the throbbing eased enough to think straight.
A young couple caught Naijan’s attention, walking hand in hand along a trail that would bring them dangerously close to where he sat. He grinned, grateful for the distraction, almost laughing when the female raised a hand to rub nervously at the back of her neck. The pup with her chattered on, clueless to the danger he walked his female toward.
Less than thirty feet away, hidden in the midst of deep brush, the couple didn’t notice Naijan sitting at the base of a tall pine. He waited until they disappeared around a bend and then stood and began to strip out of his clothes. After hiding them in the brush, he began to pull up his energy for a second time. No longer fooling around with a chipmunk, his animal rode the powerful current free of his human body, the transformation completed in seconds. The wolf raised his nose toward the darkening skyline and howled with anticipation. The hunt would be easy tonight, no sport involved, but the hungry animal would accept the offered gift with gratitude, ravenous after being transported.
Panting softly, the shiny black wolf stepped onto the narrow path, trotting to catch up with the human couple, his light blue eyes glittering in the twilight.