The newly marked Feral Warrior, Black Panther, prowled the wide, flat stone overlooking the raging Potowmack River. Snow swirled around him, driven by a harsh wind as he waited for the ritual that would, goddess willing, transform him into a shape-shifter, one of the most powerful creatures on Earth.
Months ago, the animal spirit of one of the deceased Ferals had marked him as his own. A bare week later, as he'd set out to find Feral House, the Mage witch Ancreta had tricked him, capturing him. For long months he'd endured her torture as she viciously tried to pry loose the animal spirit inside him, burning a rage into his soul that never eased.
Now the time had come to know if she'd succeeded.
Around him, the six Feral Warriors paced bare-chested, a thick gold armband snaking around each man's arm as they raised the mystic circle. In their midst stood the Radiant, the lone woman accompanying them - the one through whom they pulled their power from the Earth. The mystic circle would enclose the great rock and hide all within it from the prying eyes of the Indians that still occasionally hunted these woods.
The day was dreary, the cold biting against the bare skin of his upper body, a body broken too many times beneath Ancreta's torture.
Hatred curled in his belly. Fury lived in his blood. For seven months he'd been her captive, the third of three newly marked Ferals the witch had captured over the past two years.
Only two had survived, Vincent and him. Ten days ago, Vincent had escaped. Nine days ago, he'd risked capture and death to return. Black Panther tilted his head, letting the wind brush his long black hair from his face. Vincent had returned for him. And finally, this very day, they would complete the ritual, the Renascence, to be reborn as Feral Warriors in truth.
Vincent stood beside him. The leather strip that bound his blond hair at his nape had loosened, and his hair whipped around his face, hiding and revealing eyes lit with a humor that never died, even when Ancreta had done her worst. The two newly marked, soon-to-be shifters stood as one, their wary, fascinated gazes taking in the Feral Warriors, the pride of the Therian race. To a man, the warriors were as tall as they were - all well over six and a half feet, with strong, powerful bodies. Black Panther remembered and relived the awe he'd felt the morning he'd woken to find the claw-mark scars across his eye and known he'd been chosen to join them.
As he watched, the warriors took their places around the circle, raising their voices in chant. The magic might keep out prying eyes, but it did nothing to dissuade the weather. The biting wind raked across his skin, the snow swirling around his ankles.
The woman pulled her billowing cloak tight around her, a petulant look on her face. "Why we cannot wait a mere day or two to perform the ritual, I do not understand. 'Tis snowing!"
The Chief of the Ferals, Lyon, met her discontent with calm command. "The warriors have been through much, Oudine. They need your radiance, and I need their strength added to our numbers. We've been six for too long."
The woman huffed. "You said yourself they may be too damaged by the witch to shift. They may be useless."
"Silence, Oudine." Lyon's voice was no less harsh for its quietness.
Black Panther's hands fisted at his sides. Useless. The word ripped through him like a cold steel blade, chilling his blood with sharp crystals of frost. Had Ancreta destroyed everything he'd lived for?
From the moment he awakened to find the feral marks across his eye, he'd waited for this moment. No, in truth, from the moment he was born. His grandmother, the Tauxenent tribe's seer, the woman who had given him the name Black Panther, had predicted at his birth more than 140 years ago that he would someday walk the Earth as both panther and man.
All these years he'd believed. All these years he'd waited.
Yesterday, arriving at Feral House at last, he'd learned that the Feral Warrior killed by the Mage shortly before he himself was marked had in fact been the black panther. The prophecy would, at last, come true. But only if Ancreta had not destroyed his ability to reach that animal as she'd sought to do. A Feral Warrior who could not shift would not live long.
"We shall shift as we were meant to," Vincent said quietly, curling his arm over Black Panther's shoulder. "Never doubt it."
Black Panther met his friend's level gaze, feeling a deep and abiding bond, deeper than any he'd felt for another. It was Vincent who'd kept him sane and strong through the months of shared torture. It was Vincent who'd shared his grief when the third of their number, Frederick, had finally died. And it was Vincent who'd found his way out, yet returned, risking everything for his friend.
He owed the man his life.
He nodded to his companion. "We shall shift." Tempered excitement lifted his pulse as he prayed to the goddess of the Therians that his hope wasn't in vain.
"It is time," said one of the Ferals, a man with cold pale eyes, the one called Kougar.
Lyon turned to the woman, the Radiant. "Prepare yourself, Oudine."
With a disgusted huff, the woman sat in the middle of the wide rock, her woolen skirts and cape billowing in the harsh wind.
As the men formed a broad, loose circle around her, Lyon motioned to the two newest members. "Join us."
Vincent at his side, Black Panther stepped forward, into the circle, with a mix of tense anticipation and pride. As he watched, Kougar slashed a knife across his own chest, slapped his palm against the bright red ribbon, and curled his fingers into a fist around the blood. Then he handed the knife to the warrior at his side. One by one, each man did the same until all held a fist damp with his own blood. The last of the six handed the knife to Vincent.
His friend took the blade with a rueful frown, then cut himself as the others had. "Bollocks," he muttered. "Have they been taking lessons from Ancreta?"
"Silence," Kougar said evenly.
When Vincent handed him the blade, Black Panther cut his own chest with the bloodied knife, the pain radiating through his body in an arc of fire, but dulling rapidly as his body healed the insult to his flesh. He slapped his palm to the warm stickiness and fisted his hand. As the others shoved their fists into the air, he did the same.
Lyon nodded. "It is time, Oudine."
Sitting at their feet, the Radiant pushed back the sleeves of her gown and raised her arms above her head.
The chief turned and met his gaze, then Vincent's. "New Ferals, you cannot drink the radiance directly until after your first shift. If you touch her, you will die."
The six moved to stand between the newcomers and the Radiant. Lyon opened his fist and pressed his bloody palm atop Black Panther's fist. A second pressed his palm atop Lyon's and a third atop his. The other three gathered around Vincent in the same manner.
Kougar began to chant, and the others joined in. "Spirits rise and join. Empower the beasts beneath this sky. Goddess, reveal your warriors!"
Thunder rumbled. Black Panther tensed as the rock beneath his feet quaked and trembled. Power raced through his body in an arc of excruciating pain. He clamped down against the unwarrior-like urge to yell his misery to the heavens and hung on.
His vision clouded with small, sparkling lights as something started to shift deep inside. Pain erupted within his body as if he were being stabbed by a thousand knives. Only by sheer dint of the strongest will did he remain upright and not fall to his knees in agony. In the distance, he heard the sound of Ancreta's laughter. He fought the pain, embracing the power that rushed through him, transforming him.
And suddenly his vision shifted. No longer was he standing at the height of men, but far lower, on four legs. His sight sharpened. Sounds bombarded his ears. Scents overwhelmed him - the snow, the forest woods, the river, and the men and woman surrounding him. Each carried a different scent, each heart beat at a different pace, and he was suddenly, strikingly, aware of them all.
Joy coalesced within him, rare and pure, despite the pain that continued to stab at his body. He threw his cat's head back and roared in triumph. He was, finally, incredibly, a black panther in truth. Ancreta had not won after all.
"Shift back to a man, Black Panther." Lyon's low voice landed softly on his ears.
He stilled. How was he supposed to shift back?
As if hearing his question, Lyon spoke again. "Will yourself a man, warrior, and it will be so."
He did. He wished himself to be a man once more and in a second burst of colorful lights and mind-ripping pain, he returned to his human form. Panting from the dulling pain, filled with an odd mix of rage and elation, he turned to Vincent.
A strange flatness lay in his friend's eyes.
"Henceforth," Kougar intoned at Lyon's side, "you will be known among us as Paenther."
Vincent studied him, his eyes hard as his gaze dipped. "You accomplished the feat, B.P. You bear the armband."
Paenther looked down at the thick gold snaking around his upper arm. At one end, a panther's head glowed with emerald eyes. His gaze snapped to Vincent, to his friend's arms, devoid of gold. And with piercing, painful clarity, he understood.
"You did not shift." The realization came out on a hard burst of disbelief.
Vincent shook his head, his expression as grim as Paenther had ever seen it. Even during all those miserable months, Vincent had been the one who believed they'd eventually get out of there. That they would eventually become Feral Warriors. Now it seemed even that was to be stolen from him.
Paenther frowned, his head moving in denial. "You shifted before. You should not have been able to, but you did."
"Perhaps 'tis why I cannot now. Ancreta and her dark magic have fouled...destroyed...the one good thing in my life."
"We shall try one more time," Lyon said, drawing their joint gazes. The Chief of the Ferals' expression was grim.
Paenther stilled. "And if he fails to shift a second time?"
Lyon shook his head. "A Feral Warrior who cannot shift cannot receive radiance and will eventually die."
He knew it to be true. The third captive, Frederick, had been trapped in Ancreta's dungeon for nearly two years when his immortality began to wane. He'd bled to death from one of Ancreta's tortures as an immortal never would have.
"We are at war with the Mage," Lyon continued. "We cannot wait two years to replenish our ranks."
The rage boiling beneath Paenther's skin found an outlet as he whirled on the Chief of the Ferals. He lunged forward, stopping a mere yard before the powerful chief, baring his human teeth. "You shall not destroy him."
Lyon growled low in his throat, a sound of warning. "Then he must shift."
Paenther whirled back to his friend with fierce determination. "Did you feel anything? Anything at all?"
Vincent shook his head. "I heard Ancreta's laughter."
"As did I. In the distance."
"No. I heard it as clear as if she stood at my side."
Paenther's lip curled. "She still has her claws in both of us. More so in you." He turned back to Lyon. "The witch must die. This day. Before we try again."
Lyon held his gaze, his own hard. "The Earth retaliates when we kill the Mage. The Elemental has already died this day. The witch is safely locked away in our prison. It is enough."
Paenther held firm. "She must die. Her power over us must die for Vincent to shift."
The Chief of the Ferals shook his head, unbending. "We shall try again, this moment."
Fury and denial stole Paenther's fraying control. Before Lyon could turn away, Paenther ripped the knife out of Kougar's hand and plunged it into Lyon's breast, pressing it against his heart.
In a lightning-fast move, Lyon grabbed him around the neck, his claws sprouting and sinking deep into Paenther's throat until the blood ran warm down his chest.
Animals growled all around him, the tension on the rock turning thick as tree sap in winter. If Paenther killed their chief, he'd never take another step. But none dared tackle him when doing so might cut out their leader's heart.
Lyon's fangs dropped, his eyes turning the glowing amber of a lion's. "You would kill me?" he growled, his voice calm, but deadly.
"Not unless you give me no choice. I will do whatever I must to save his life as he saved mine."
For long, breathless moments, the two bleeding men stared one another down. On some dark level of his mind, Paenther knew he was sacrificing his status as a Feral Warrior in order to preserve Vincent's. The devastation of that thought was nothing compared to his desperation to save his friend.
Finally, never taking his eyes from Paenther's, Lyon spoke, his voice clipped and tight. "Get the witch. She'll die this day. Before we try the ritual again." In those hard amber eyes, Paenther saw the truth. The Chief of the Ferals had made the choice to comply with his demand. If he had chosen to kill his attacker instead, Paenther's throat would be gone, and he would be the one with the blade in his chest.
Paenther withdrew the knife and offered the hilt to Lyon. He'd won the concession he'd wanted. Now he would suffer the consequences. He understood all too well the law of the pack, as he'd been raised by the law of the tribe. If you challenged the chief, you killed him. Or expected to die.
If Lyon chose to take his life for the attack, he would accept his death like the warrior he was.
Vincent stepped beside him, shoulder to shoulder, his tone hard as granite. "You'll only destroy him through me."
Lyon growled, a low, threatening rumble, his hand tightening around Paenther's neck, his claws digging deeper with a fiery pain. Abruptly, Lyon released him, his gaze traveling slowly between the two newest Ferals.
"I would punish you severely, both of you, if I did not believe the witch had already done so. You've emerged from that hell with a rare loyalty toward one another. Turn that loyalty toward the nine, and you'll make fine Feral Warriors. If you do not..." His eyes glittered with warning. "...if either of you ever threatens one of us again, I'll clear the way for your replacements without a second thought."