Eight days ago
Kieran twisted, avoiding the male’s kick, then swung out with his own, slamming his opponent to the hardwood floor.
“Good, try!” Kieran said, holding his hand out to the male and helping him up. “Again.”
The male groaned but nodded, shoving a sweaty lock of hair out of his eyes. The gym, on the outskirts of Dublin, was unairconditioned and hot despite the late-spring temperatures outside, smelling of sweat and hard work. Inside, more than forty new recruits sparred.
As the two men circled, Kieran called to the larger group, “Watch your opponent’s hands. Always know where they are. Hands are a Mage’s most dangerous weapons.” He didn’t have to add that a Mage could enthrall a Therian with a single touch, rendering him a puppet to be turned on his fellows. Or to be captured or killed. The Therians had been at war with the Mage for millennia and his recruits knew it all too well.
Fortunately, Therians had the advantage of muscle mass few Mage possessed. Once they’d had far more advantage than that. At one time, all Therians had been shape-shifters, able to shift into their animals at will. But those days ended five millennia ago when, for a brief period of time, the Mage and Therians banded together, mortgaging the bulk of their power to defeat the Daemons, who were terrorizing the Earth. They’d succeeded. The Daemons had been locked in a mystical blade from which they’d never escaped. But the power the two races had mortgaged never returned. When the dust had settled, only one Therian of each of the animal lines had retained the power of his or her animal, and the ability to shift. Those few had banded together, the strongest and finest of the race, and become known as the Feral Warriors.
The rest of the Therians, Kieran included, shifted only in their dreams, fighting their enemies the human way. With their fists and knives.
His opponent leaped at him, too high, and Kieran easily flipped him over his shoulder. “Keep your center of gravity low, boyo. Try it again.”
The male looked thirty but could be anywhere from twenty-five to a thousand or more, as all immortals ceased to age once they were fully grown. The man hunched over for a moment, catching his breath. “Any word on the new fox?”
The fox Feral Warrior had died last month in a Mage attack of some sort. The Feral Warriors tended to be a tight-knit and tight-lipped bunch, and the details had never been leaked to the greater Therian community. But the death itself had not been kept a secret. When one Feral died, the animal spirit flew to the next in the line, the strongest Therian with that animal’s shifter DNA, marking him to take the dead shifter’s place. The marking could take weeks, even months, but ultimately, another would be marked. And the entire Therian world was abuzz with excitement, each of them wondering if he . . . or she . . . might be the one.
Kieran shook his head. “No word.” A flicker of hope danced in his chest because the truth was, it could be him. Unlike most Therians, he knew he possessed fox-shifter DNA. After five millennia, most Therians no longer knew their ancestral makeup. But Kieran’s father was old, born only a few hundred years after the Sacrifice. And his father’s mother had been born a fox shifter.
Both had been talented intuitives, often knowing things before they happened. Kieran had inherited that ability to a lesser degree. To a fairly useless degree, unfortunately. His own gut offered him truths that were generally so vague as to be worse than nothing.
He could be the one marked this time if the animal spirit deemed him the strongest and finest of those who possessed the fox-shifter DNA. The thought filled him both with a wild excitement and mixed emotions. Being chosen would be a tremendous honor. And being able to shape-shift as his ancestors had? Incredible. But being chosen to become a Feral Warrior was a life’s commitment. There was no turning it down and no going back. All Feral Warriors lived together with the Radiant, the one woman marked by the goddess to pull the energies from the earth that empowered the Ferals. The new fox would have to move to Great Falls, Virginia, and live at Feral House with the other shifters. He would become part of a greater whole, one of the warriors on the front lines of the battle to protect the world from the threat of the Daemons’ return.
Kieran looked up at the wooden rafters above, his mind across the Atlantic. All things considered, would he choose to be the new fox shifter if the choice were his?
With a low chuckle, he nodded to himself. Hell, yes.
“Switch partners!” he called, and three female recruits rushed him at once, all with that look in their eyes that told him they’d be happy to partner with him in any way he wished. With a grin that encompassed all three, he motioned one to approach him and the other two to face one another. All three laughed. The one he’d chosen to work with gave him a beaming smile that quickly turned to surprise as he swept her feet out from under her. She slammed onto her back on the wood floor with a sharp cry of pain.
He refused to train his recruits on mats. Therians were immortal and indestructible. They might break something in the fall, but they’d heal within a minute. It was better if they learned to deal with the pain right from the start. If they weren’t suited to the Therian Guard, he wanted to know it now.
“Keep your mind on the fight, pet,” he told the woman, helping her up.
She threw him a look that was part wary smile, part feminine speculation. “You’ve got good moves, Kieran.”
He laughed. “Aye, I do. But the only moves I’m showing you here, pet, are the ones that might keep you alive if the Daemons return. Come now,” he said, crouching low and beginning to circle her. “Let’s see what you can do.”
Fifteen minutes later, he took a break, letting one of his subordinates lead the training as he grabbed his towel and wiped the sweat from his brow and the back of his neck. Jill, one of his lieutenants, joined him, her long legs encased in black fighting pants, her smile as warm and inviting as an Irish pub on a cold winter’s night as she handed him a cup of water.
“I’ve never seen so many female Therians wanting to learn to fight,” she murmured. “Most of them have no business here.”
Kieran shrugged. “They want to learn how to defend themselves.”
Jill snorted. “What they want is a chance at your bed. You’re a legend, you know.”
Aye, he did, though he was well used to it.
He glanced around the room and found nearly two-thirds of the class paying more attention to his movements than to their opponents’. No coincidence, two-thirds of the class was female. He’d been blessed or cursed—he often couldn’t decide which—with the ability to draw females like bees to honey whether he wanted to or not. They watched him with eyes full of invitation, the bolder ones offering themselves freely.
“When the call went out to the Therian enclaves to get their people in fighting shape, every female in the British Isles chose our group to train with. I wonder why,” Jill added dryly.
Kieran took a long swig of the cool water and smiled. “You jealous, pet?”
Her expression turned serious. “I could be, Kieran. If I thought I could ever truly win your heart.”
Inside, he squirmed. This was the discussion he loathed, for he truly hated the thought of hurting her. Of hurting any of them.
“I’ve no heart to give you, Jill,” he said quietly, regretfully.
“So you’ve told me many a time, but you’re wrong, Kieran. You’ve a big heart in that finely hewn chest. You just haven’t met the right female, yet. And as much as I wish otherwise, I’m not the one.”
No, she wasn’t. No woman was, as he tried to tell them all. He’d watched one woman whom he’d loved more than his own life die. It didn’t matter that she’d been his sister, not his lover. Over the centuries, he’d watched good friends take mates in a ritual that bound one to the other body and soul, and watched as one died and the one left behind suffered untold agony, unable to fully live again. Mating bonds between the immortals was far more than a simple promise to love and cherish. They could not be severed. No, he would never take a mate. If losing his sister could hurt so much, how much more would losing a wife? He’d long ago decided that love of any kind led to heartache and nothing more. He was better off without it.
He hooked his arm around Jill’s neck and placed a kiss on her cheek. “You’re a fine thing, pet. And I love you in my way, you know that.”
“Aye, I know it, Kieran. I know it.”
Releasing Jill, he turned his attention back to the class, ignoring the females, too many of whom were still paying him more mind than they were their opponents. Two of the males caught his attention, one of the smaller men whom Kieran had already pegged as a future leader, and a beefy Welshman with a look in his eye that Kieran didn’t like—a hard gleam Kieran suspected revealed a mean streak. Either the attitude or the male were going to have to go.
As Kieran watched, the Welshman’s opponent, quick and tough, managed to throw the bigger man. A flash caught Kieran’s eye, light reflecting on metal, as the Welshman, still on his arse, swung out. A knife, dammit. The blade sliced through the smaller man’s thigh in a spray of blood.
Kieran reached him in a dozen angry strides, slammed his fist through the wanker’s face as he ripped the knife from his hand, then threw the blade hard, burying it deep in one of the wood ceiling beams.
“What did I tell you on the first day of training?” he shouted. “No knives! No. Knives.”
The Welshman leaped to his feet, fury in his eyes. And suddenly those eyes began to change to animal eyes as only a true shifter’s ever would.
As Kieran stared, fangs dropped from the blackguard’s mouth, and the wanker began to laugh. Though he’d yet to shift, and wouldn’t until he’d been brought into his animal during a ritual performed by the rest of the Feral Warriors, it was clear the fox shifter had been chosen. Even the newly marked could pull fangs and claws—what the shifters called going feral.
He stared at the wanker. The finest in the fox shifter line? Well, bloody fecking hell.
The new Feral Warrior swung, for once catching Kieran off guard. Too late, Kieran realized that the hand coming for him was now filled with sharp claws. He felt those claws rip down his face, from temple to jaw, removing skin and muscle, showering him in his own warm blood.
Pain burned through his face as he healed. Fury roared through his mind at the fact that this ass**le had been chosen to defend the race. Over him.
With a growl, Kieran threw a punch, intending to show the bastard he could still take him, but his hand didn’t . . . wouldn’t . . . close and he wound up scratching the Welshman instead. No, not scratching . . . clawing. He stared at the flesh now hanging from the man’s shocked face. And at the bloody claws where a moment ago his own fingernails had been.
What the feck? Had he turned into a bloody monster?
His tongue snagged on the teeth suddenly crowding his mouth. No, not teeth. Fangs. Like the Welshman, he’d gone feral.
But . . . two new Feral Warriors? Impossible . . . unless another had died without them knowing. Dismay, shock, and elation all warred within him, all trying to find purchase.
People crowded around them, gaping, silent. It wasn’t every day a Therian got to see a Feral Warrior. Kieran himself had never laid eyes on one, not in the entirety of his over three hundred years. Now, apparently, he was one.
The others all started talking at once.
“I thought only the fox had died.”
“Maybe the Ferals were attacked again, and we didn’t know.”
“You have to call Feral House.”
Kieran met the Welshman’s gaze, glad to see the male’s eyes were once more human, his fangs and claws retracted. Kieran’s own slid away as well.
Jill joined him, her eyes wide in her face, drenched in dismay. “You’re leaving, then. To join the Ferals.”
“Aye.” The thought sent a thrill through his body.
“It’s a dangerous business,” she said, her voice uneven. “They’re on the front line of the battle. Two are dead.”
But the front line was exactly where he wanted to be. Fighting back evil, making a difference. He met the Welshman’s gaze and saw again that look in his eyes that he didn’t like. Maybe the male was one of those who didn’t take well to authority, in any form. Or maybe he was just an ass**le. Either way, apparently they were now brothers. For the rest of their immortal lives.
As he pulled out his phone to call his enclave and get the number for Feral House, goose bumps rose on his arms, the telltale sign that his intuition was kicking in with some tidbit of knowledge that would likely be of little use.
Wrong? And what in the hell did that mean? That he was wrong in thinking his “gift” would be of little use? Wrong in trying to call Feral House right now? The time in Washington, D.C., was . . . about 7:30 A.M. Too early?
Or was his gut trying to tell him something more profound?
Who knew? There was no use worrying about it. What was done was done. He’d been marked to join the exclusive ranks of the Feral Warriors, and there was no turning it down. Nor did he want to.
All his life, he’d dreamed that this moment might someday be his, and he was damned well going to celebrate it. Even if his gut continued to whisper that one word over and over.
Three days ago
Just before dawn on a cloudless night, Kieran strode through the woods that hung high above the rocky falls of the Potomac River in Great Falls, Virginia, surrounded by Feral Warriors, both old and new. He’d thought that the fact that he and the Welshman had both been marked meant two of the Feral Warriors had died, but that wasn’t the case, thank the goddess.