Five millennia ago, the Therian race of shape-shifters joined forces with their magic-wielding enemies, the Mage, to defeat and imprison the High Daemon, Satanan, and his vicious horde. They succeeded, but at a terrible cost, both races forced to mortgage the bulk of their power. All but one Therian from each of the ancient lines lost the strength of their animals and the ability to shift. Only nine shape-shifters remain.
They are the Feral Warriors.
Their duty is to protect the race, to hunt and destroy the dangerous, mindless, Daemon dregs called draden. And, most importantly, to guard the Daemon blade, in which Satanan and his horde are imprisoned, for the Daemons’ return would bring hell to the races of the Earth.
The Feral Warriors were in a world of hurt.
Tighe lifted his face to the night wind, trying to cool the frustration lodged beneath the surface of his skin as he traversed the rugged, rocky woods high above the Potomac River.
The Mage had lost their freaking minds and were apparently trying to free the Daemons. After sacrificing so much five millennia ago to imprison them, Tighe couldn’t fathom why, but there was no denying at least one Mage, the witch Zaphene, had been determined to free Satanan. Zaphene was dead, but she’d left a hell of a legacy.
One of the Ferals, Vhyper, was missing. The Daemon blade itself was gone. And one of Zaphene’s creations had run off with half of Tighe’s soul. Literally.
Where the Mage witch had come by the magic to split souls, no one knew, but she’d done so to make clones of the Ferals. Clones who would raise the Daemons from the blade in the real Ferals’ stead, since the real Ferals weren’t stupid enough to want that plague freed again. What were the Mage thinking?
A growl rumbled deep in his throat as he climbed the last of the stone outcroppings onto the cliffs above the river. The night was clear, the brightest stars little more than a dull glow, thanks to the damned humans and their incessant need to battle back the dark.
His clone was, by all indications, currently wreaking havoc on the human population. Tighe and two other Ferals had been tracking him for three days as he’d left a path of dead between Great Falls, Virginia, and nearby Washington, D.C.
And while, yes, the clone’s deadly rampage needed to be stopped, Tighe’s stake in his capture was a lot more personal. He needed his damned soul back. No one knew for sure how long he could survive with it split like it was, but the consensus was, not long. At least not with his sanity intact.
Which was why he returned to Great Falls and Feral House each night instead of remaining on the trail of his clone. He’d seen what could happen to a Feral with a split soul, and it wasn’t pretty. Hell, it gave him nightmares. He was determined to hold on to his sanity, even if every Feral watched him as if he expected to have to lock Tighe up in the prison deep below Feral House at any moment.
Wulfe stepped onto the rock beside him. “Any sign of draden?” Wulfe was the biggest of the Ferals, a monster of a man close to seven feet tall, with a face that looked like it had once been used as a cat’s scratching post.
Tighe released his frustration on a huff. “Not yet. They’ll come.” Then he’d rip their hearts out, as he did every night, and release some of this gut-eating frustration. Enough to feel relatively safe returning to the hunt for his clone in human-infested D.C.
“I’m surprised Lyon let us take you out without a leash,” Jag drawled behind him.
A growl rumbled in Tighe’s chest. The idiot wasn’t satisfied until he had every Feral ready to rip his throat out. And Tighe was in a foul enough mood to accommodate him.
“Shut up, Jag,” Wulfe snarled. “The last thing he needs right now is your needling.”
The last thing he needed was everyone treating him like he was filled with gunpowder, a lit fuse dangling from the corner of his mouth. He was fine.
But the burn in his fingertips gave the lie to that little assertion. He struggled for control, struggled to pull back from the feral rage engulfing him. Under normal circumstances the feral state was merely a place of lost tempers and healthy fighting. The place halfway between man and beast, where human teeth elongated into fangs, claws erupted from fingertips, and human eyes no longer looked human. A place where a hawk and a tiger could access their wilder natures yet fight on equal footing.
But these were not normal circumstances. Thanks to the rending of his soul, he didn’t know how much longer he’d have the strength or control to pull himself out of that state again.
He fought against the fury engulfing his body, clenching his teeth even as he willed himself calm, but it was too late. Claws unsheathed from the tips of his fingers. Fangs dropped from the top of his jaw. Daggerlike incisors rose from below as a backload of dammed-up rage ripped free of his control. In a rush of feral anger, he lunged, tackling Jag to the rocky ground.
In a haze of bloodlust, he felt the slash of claws and the ripping of flesh as Jag went feral, too. Blood spilled into his mouth, both his own and Jag’s, tasting warm and fine. His vision hazed in a wild bloodlust that had him suddenly longing to sink his teeth into Jag’s neck and rip out the bastard’s throat for real.
His logical mind recoiled. He was losing it. He could almost see the dark, swirling waters of chaos lapping at his sanity. As his sane mind clawed its way back from the precipice, Wulfe wedged himself between the two warriors, jerking Jag out of his grasp.
Tighe slowly struggled back to his controlled, human, form. As his claws and fangs retracted, Wulfe balled up his fist and hit Jag in the jaw with a hard right hook.
Jag went sprawling. “What’d you do that for?”
“You can be such an ass,” Wulfe snarled. “Do you want to see him locked up? Now? Would it be too much to ask you to not hasten the destruction of one of our strongest warriors?”
Jag scowled and pushed to his feet. “Fuck you.”
“I’m not heading for destruction,” Tighe growled, standing and adjusting his ripped shirt so that it continued to hang, barely, from his body. He wouldn’t let it happen. He refused to let it happen.
But he couldn’t deny he was shaken.
“Let’s kill some draden, then,” Wulfe said.
Tighe compressed his mouth and nodded. They hunted draden by waiting for the little fiends to smell their Therian energy, energy the Ferals emitted in their human forms. It wasn’t much longer before a faint dark cloud appeared over the cliffs across the river.
“Incoming,” Wulfe said quietly. The draden had found them.
Wulfe yanked off his tee shirt and unzipped his jeans, tossing his clothes onto the rocks. Jag stripped out of his camouflage pants and army green tee. Tighe did nothing. He was one of the Ferals who possessed the ability to retain his clothes when he shifted. A handy trick, especially when he hunted among humans.
The dark cloud of draden moved quickly toward them over the gleaming river, a smudge against the stars and the shadowy distant cliffs. A huge smudge.
“Holy shit.” Jag whistled low. “Is it just me, or is that five times the usual number?”
There had to be hundreds coming at them. Maybe more than a thousand. Holy shit was right. They’d known the draden were multiplying faster than usual, but the evidence was alarming. If they didn’t get them under control, there wouldn’t be enough Therian energy for them to feed on. They’d turn on the humans.
And if that happened, they’d decimate the population in no time, without the humans ever knowing what hit them.
“Then let’s get ’em, boys,” Jag said.
“I’ll take first bait.” Tighe pulled his knives. One of them had to remain in his human, or Therian form, or the draden would fly off. But as first bait, he would absolutely be fighting for his life.
In a sudden, heart-jarring instant, a veil of darkness dropped over his eyes, swallowing everything. Tighe’s blood went cold.
He couldn’t see. “What the hell?”
“What’s the matter?” Wulfe asked beside him, as if nothing were wrong.
Shit. His pulse began to pound in his ears. This must only be happening to him. His vision was gone. Totally. Was this the first step to losing his sanity?
As quickly as his sight vanished, it reappeared, but his relief lifted and plummeted in the same instant. He wasn’t actually seeing. Like a movie lighting a dark screen, a scene appeared before his sightless eyes.
A harsh, bright light lit a rough room, nothing but half a dozen washers and dryers on a cement floor. A public laundry room. Two heavyset women worked, one shoving wet laundry from the washer into the dryer, the other standing before a nearby table, folding clothes. The standing one glanced toward him, her expression at once appreciative and wary.
“Hi,” she said cautiously.
Suddenly, her face grew in his vision as if a camera lens were pulling in close. Her eyes widened with terror as the room lurched dizzily. As if he’d attacked her and taken her to the ground.
Was this a premonition, heaven help him, of what he was to become?
Behind him, the other woman screamed, piercing his eardrums.
“No!” His victim threw up her hands, the terror in her eyes churning up rancid memories buried deep in his mind.
Memories of another time, another place.
His gut knotted until he thought he’d be sick. But he couldn’t deny the evidence. It seemed he was finally doomed to become the very thing he’d been accused of being all those long, miserable years ago.
FBI Agent Delaney Randall strode up the front walk of the Potomac Side Apartments in southwest D.C., her hand fisted tight around her notebook, her gut burning with a need to find the bastard who’d killed more than a dozen women and children in the past three days.
To stop him before he killed again.
It was late, nearly 10:00 P.M. The last three murders had taken place in that general neighborhood, and she’d spent all day canvassing the nearby apartments, interviewing residents, searching for clues. Someone had to know something. She was bone tired, but she wasn’t quitting until her body refused to move another inch.
Not while the murderer was still on the loose.
And, unfortunately, that could be a while. Even with more than a dozen victims, there was no real evidence. So far, there had been no witnesses and no DNA left at the scenes despite the teeth marks on the victims’ throats. Even the cause of the deaths was a mystery. It was as if God had pointed His divine finger at each of them, and said, “Time’s up.”
The breeze blew loose tendrils of hair into her face as she strode up the front walk of the apartment building. A man in a polo and khakis walked toward her, the streetlight illuminating a nice-looking face. White male, late twenties, not visibly armed. Her brain clicked a mental picture, filing him away as yet one more suspect.
He flashed her a bleached smile. “Evening.”
But Delaney had already logged him, and her gaze had moved on to the pack of smoking teens sitting on the front steps ahead.
“Bitch.” The muttered word carried to her from the man she’d just passed.
Her gaze jerked back to him, her hand lifting to hover at her waist, a hairbreadth from her gun. But the man never looked back as he strode away purposefully.
Bitch, he called her. As if she had time to flirt when yet another scumbag was prowling the streets, hunting innocents. Moron.
She ran up the steps, past the teens, and tried the door. Locked, as she’d suspected. Through the glass, she saw a balding African-American with tufts of gray hair over his ears running with an awkward gait toward her. The building’s super, she supposed. She’d called a short while ago and asked him to meet her here.
As he neared the doors, the mix of agitation and fear on his face became apparent. Her instinct for trouble kicked into high gear, her pulse speeding up, the fingers of her right hand flexing. Had she stumbled on a domestic situation in progress or finally hit the jackpot?
The instant the man opened the door, a keening cry high in the building raised the hairs on the back of her neck.
She flashed her badge and pushed through the doorway. “Agent Randall, FBI. What happened?”
“I called the cops, but they aren’t here yet.”
“What happened?” Her gun was in her hand now, senses on high alert.
“A lady dead in the stairwell. Her kid just found her.”
Her kid. God.
“How? Who did it?”
“Don’t know. There’s no blood.”
Without waiting for further explanation, Delaney ran for the stairs in the middle of the building, following the sound of the crying.
But as she neared the third floor, the stairwell became so clogged with people she could hardly get through. She holstered her gun, and barked, “FBI!” The nearest residents parted for her to pass, eyeing her with varying degrees of curiosity, wariness, and relief.
Pushing through the crowd, she finally reached the source of the wailing. A little girl of no more than seven lay across the prone and lifeless body of a woman, the teeth marks that had become the trademark of the serial killer in a perfect oval on her neck.
Delaney’s jaw clenched hard.
“Momma!” Tears streaked the child’s brown cheeks, her dark eyes wells of fear as she rose to pat her mother’s face. “Momma.”
Delaney’s heart clenched as the child’s fear flowed into her, echoing deep in her soul. She remembered that fear all too well. And hated, hated, the bastards who caused it. Thirteen people, now, that they knew of. Thirteen females. Seven of whom had left motherless children behind.
As she called in the murder, she pressed her palm to the top of the little girl’s head. “I’m going to get him.” The promise was too softly spoken for the child to hear, but the words imprinted themselves on Delaney’s heart.