After the bloody murder of her brother, Rei finds herself on the run from the coven that killed him. A powerful Earth witch, Rei searches for a natural well of magic to avenge her brother’s death, even if costs her life. However, standing between her and her goal is an alluring wolf.
Aidan never took the time or interest to look for his mate, but when the young witch shows up on pack hunting grounds his solitary life is turned upside down. Now, he must find a way to protect his pack and the woman that fate has handed him.
High above the ground of man, the moonless night sky was calm. Bright stars dotted the darkness, and peace had settled. Suddenly a scream shattered the silence, and startled birds flew from the trees. The scream had rung out from a young woman far below, standing by a large flickering fire. As quickly as the scream had burst to life, a swift hand struck the woman across the face.
Rei fell to the ground, her voice silenced. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth, and her world blurred over. As her eyes began to focus, Rei saw her brother only a few feet away. Blood rushed from his throat, and Rei, with her hands bound behind her back, could do nothing but watch. She could barely even make out the voices chanting around them.
The dark-clothed man who had hit her put his hands high in the air, mirroring a woman who held a bloody knife above her head. Rei ignored their ritual and struggled to her brother’s side. Leaning her forehead to the top of his, Rei whispered, “Richard, I’m sorry.” Tears streamed down her face as she felt her brother’s life force racing from his body.
Surrounding them, a dozen people called to the natural power in Richard’s blood. They pulled it from every drop, and the High Priestess who held the knife was funneling most of it into herself. Rei looked up at them and then back to her brother. Richard’s dark blue eyes found hers, and suddenly an image of a feather fluttered through her mind. In that instant Rei knew what she had to do. She felt the magic forming in the circle growing and knew that once they were finished with Richard they would turn to her. For Rei, death was one thing, but being killed to increase the power of a blood cult was beyond reasonable.
Rei needed no words to steal her brother’s magic back from the air, but her heart ached at the sin. Closing off the guilt, she began to reach out her magic. The blood that had swelled at her busted lip was enough. Blood called to blood, and Rei simply called out to the power of her brother. For an instant a battle between the will of the coven and Rei raged, but the love of her brother and the guilt of his death won. Rei’s head snapped back, and she stared blindly at the star-speckled sky. Behind her the High Priestess dropped her arms, breaking off the war of magic and dashed toward Rei, ready to drive the knife into her.
Time slowed as Rei began to stand. Her knees began to unbend and change. She felt the texture of her legs begin to roughen, and in the flicker of the fire, feathers began to ripple over her skin and clothing. As her arms shrank and formed hollowed-bone wings, the rope around her wrists fell to the ground. When time returned to normal, Rei was a small bird flying upward into the sky. Below her, the knife the High Priestess wielded stabbed into a small pile of cast off rope.
Rei heard a rage-filled scream from below her and then the stern command from the High Priestess, “Spread out! She can’t stay in that form long!”
High above the coven, the feathered Rei skimmed across the once again silent and still night. She felt fear gripping at her throat, threatening to weaken the power her brother had given her. Rei swallowed back her grief and flew onward.
Below her she knew the coven was scattering through the forest in their search. Rei was happy that the coven had not stolen the ability to change their shape. Shape changing was a rare gift for a witch. It may have been the only advantage she held over them, but holding a different form was hard. Speeding her way over the trees, Rei tried to focus on the image of the bird she had formed. She forced her will into the shape and prayed she could hold it long enough to put many miles between herself and the blood witches.
Thoughts of her beloved brother filled her mind, and it was only the determination of his power that had forced the image of the small bird into her mind. Quickly the face of her brother was morphing into the bird to help her hold the form long enough to escape. Richard, I’m so sorry, Rei whispered in her mind.
Months had passed since that night, and Rei was still running. She had escaped that night only to be hunted by the horrible coven. Rei knew if she stayed more than a few days in any one area they would find her. A long and bloody string of dead park rangers and innocent hikers were proof enough that they would kill whoever stood in their way. Rei had spent the last long month searching for a place to stop and make a final stand, but alone, she would stand no chance against the coven’s stolen power. That was unless she found a powerful, untainted spot of magic to draw from: a pure place where the wild flow of energy within nature would allow her to use its power. Such a place where the energy lines crossed would have enough power to help her end the game of cat and mouse once and for all.
However, the coven was not the only danger Rei had to deal with. Along the way she also had to dodge the witch hunters. This government-funded group had been born from a fear of an unethical and almost uncontrollable populace control in the early 1990s. Laws had been set into place over the last few decades prohibiting all forms of religion beyond the “One True God” faiths. These laws had begun as fines on non-believers and other minor offenses but had rapidly evolved into jail and then death sentences. Federal squads of detectives, also known as burners, had free reign to investigate all reported acts of occult practice.
Fear of the burners and the search for a powerful well of magic had led Rei to the backcountry of Montana. Here the harsh laws had been forced on clustered towns. The tight-knit people of the region bulked at the idea of being told what they could do and whom they could worship. Here, even the police seemed to have an almost personal grudge with the witch hunters and happily hindered them when they could. Hidden from the burners among the independent towns, surely Rei would have time to find a place to fight the blood coven.
The kind, slightly overweight trucker who had picked her up miles before was jabbering away on his CB while Rei stared out the window. She felt the wild energy of the surrounding forests growing stronger as they rolled down the obscure highway. Surely this last scrap of wilderness would offer at least some refuge for a short time.
“We got another hour ‘fore we reach the park, missy. You sure you don’ wan’ to go som’r else?” Rei snapped back to reality and turned to look at the man. It took her a moment to register what the man had said, but then he continued, “You got som’en waiting for you, I’m sure, but it can be dangerous for a woman to hike in ‘lone.”
Still wondering where the man’s accent had come from, Rei smiled at him. “I’m sure I’ll be fine, thank you. My friends said they would wait for me at the second campsite. That’s no more than a mile hike past the ranger offices.” Rei knew she sounded like she knew the area because she had studied the maps of all the local campgrounds over the last few weeks on the road. After a few more questions and concerns, the man nodded and went back to his CB.
When the truck pulled to a stop on the side of the highway, the man offered to drive her right to the ranger station, but Rei said, “Thanks, but I know getting this big truck out of there would be more trouble. Thanks for the ride.” With that, she opened the door and swung out of the truck, her hiking bag over one shoulder. Rei shut the door, waving her hand high in the air as she started up the park road. The trucker blew the loud horn as he pulled away, and Rei let out a loud sigh of relief. Looking up and down the road, Rei hurried into the thick forest ahead of her.
Letting even one ranger or camper see her could be dealing out a death sentence, and Rei wanted no more guilt raining down on her head than she already had. The list of missing and deceased people following behind her credited Rei’s paranoia. She had gone on a prayer allowing the trucker to drive her across state lines, and as she wandered among the trees, Rei said a soft prayer that he would be safe. Just as she allowed the thoughts of people who’d died after seeing or helping her to drift back into her mind, the thin layer of energy that floated through the forest began to thicken.
After trekking miles into the trees, Rei came across a large sunbathed creek. The bank dropped off sharply, and Rei focused on pushing all her guilt to the back of her mind as she looked up and down the stream. After a quick search, she found a low bank upstream and made her way across the running water. Traveling through the trees, Rei noted that the weather was nice for early fall. It was still warm enough to walk around during the day without a jacket, but she knew once the sun dropped so would the temperature.
Rei hiked for over half the day before she felt she had reached a safe distance from any other people. Even though she had passed through no campsites on her trek, there was still a feeling of humanity in the air. It was not until she was miles into the thick forest that the feeling began to dull, and as she shifted her pack off her shoulders, she felt nothing beyond the power of the wild. The well must be nearby, Rei thought as she began making herself at home by setting up camp.
The trees and earth around her welcomed her easily and almost warmly. Even as Rei dug up large rocks and lugged them to the center of the small clearing, a calm peace filled her. It did not take long for a fire pit to take shape and less time for a stack of wood to pile up beside it.
Wiping away a bead of sweat that began to roll down her temple, Rei plopped down beside her pack, exhausted and hungry. Pulling a bag of jerky from her pack, she began to focus her thoughts on the ritual she knew she had to do. The land is so peaceful. It has no fear of humans, she thought to herself with some wonder. Tripping over the idea of causing a fear to begin within the forest, Rei tore into another piece of jerky. Tonight I must prove myself to the Huntsman. He must come to trust me. There is no other way.
* * * * *
Aidan was pacing the hardwood floor of his small cabin. A gruff voice was streaming from a speakerphone. “Aidan, the boy can’t be alone on the full moon. You’ll have to watch him.”
“What does Sissy have to say about that? His first moon and all?” Aidan asked, running his hand through his long brown hair. He already knew the answer. His sister would demand she be with her son for his entire run. The silence over the speaker was all the response Aidan needed. “I’ll have a talk with her. Just tread softly, Glean, and send her over.” Aidan brushed his long hair back into a tight ponytail.
On the other end of the line, Glean chuckled. “All right. I’ll let you go then. Later.” Aidan heard a click and turned off the phone. His mind was drifting over what to say to his sister. A boy’s first full moon was always the hardest. New wolves had a bad habit of losing their human mind and returning to deep-embedded instincts. The boy would need to be watched and could prove a danger to any other wolves that ran with him, a double danger to any females. For this reason, Aidan’s sister would need to run a different path. Having a mother wolf whine over her pup could damage any young male’s pride.
Aidan moved around his small home, turning the problem over in his mind for a while and finally realized that the only thing to do was to speak to his sister bluntly. With the discomforting thought in his mind, Aidan grabbed a few beers from his fridge, stuffed them into a cooler of ice, and headed to his front porch to enjoy the rest of the evening before his sister arrived. Plopping down in the worn porch swing, Aidan twisted the cap off the beer. With the first shiver that comes from the day’s first cold beer, Aidan’s mind cleared, and he settled himself in to stare at the sinking sun.
The sun dropping low behind the mountains made a perfect backdrop to the little cabin. Trees towered high over the land as if they were reaching for the sky. To him, it was a much better place to live than the large hunting house. In a few nights, the house that sat high on a hill some half a mile away from him and his cabin would be filled with other wolves restlessly waiting for the moon to rise. The young pups would start to nip at each other, anticipating the run. Letting out a deep sigh, Aidan took another deep gulp of beer.
A slight breeze began to blow, and Aidan caught a deer scent drifting on the wind. However, tangled within the scent was another smell. Aidan’s brow furrowed as he took a sniff of the air. It smelled like a human. Aidan stiffened and had begun to stand when he heard the loud rumbling of his sister’s truck driving down the gravel road. Aidan’s eyes narrowed as he glanced back toward the road. The truck was coming into view, and the faint scent was no longer in the air. I’ll worry about it later, Aidan thought as he began to prepare himself for the talk with his sister.
Sissy stepped out of her beat-up old Ford truck just a few yards from where Aidan sat on the porch. She was a short woman with dark brown hair that hung down past her waist. Aidan saw the strong line of her jaw, a trait inherited from their father. Even though she was some twenty years his senior, Sissy looked as though she was in her early thirties. Sometimes Aidan was amazed at how slowly the pack aged compared to the small town that surrounded them. After forty years, he himself still looked as if he was in his twenties.
Aidan watched his sister throw up her hand in greeting and walk up to the cabin porch. “Evening, little brother,” she said sweetly as she plopped down on the rustic bench beside him. “So, you going to tell me I can’t run with Cullen?” Aidan handed her a cold beer from the cooler and grinned.
“That’s what I was planning on. You going to tell me you don’t care what I say?” Aidan asked before turning his beer up.
Sissy popped the lid off the beer and turned it up, emptying a quarter of the beer in one long chug. When she lowered the cold bottle, she looked out over the mountain landscape. “You know, I tried for so long to have a cub. Just one cub. Cullen is strong. He won’t hurt me.”
“Sissy, all the new males need to run with other males the first few times. You know this. It’s the way of the pack,” Aidan said quietly. He knew that his sister sheltered her son out of fear, but he also knew that sheltering him on a run could lead to problems later. “Think about it from his perspective. This is his first run. He’ll be running with the big boys and having mom hovering around isn’t exactly the manliest thing.”
With a nod, Sissy rolled the bottle between the palms of her hands. “All right, but you have to run with him. It’s your place. If I can’t be with him, I need you to keep him safe.”
“Of course I will, Sissy. I wouldn’t dream of missing his first run, and I promise not to let him get into any real trouble,” Aidan assured her. He could tell his sister hated the idea of her son running wild with the other males in the pack. She had always wanted the best for Cullen. Aidan knew by the way Sissy’s eyes glazed over with motherly tears that her thoughts were turned to her baby boy, but he knew that soon enough she would have to let him grow up. “It’ll be okay, Sis. Just let it happen.”
Looking up at him, Sissy narrowed her eyes. “You’re one to talk. ‘Just let it happen’ he says. What about you and finding a mate, huh? Maybe instead of worrying over Cullen you should be tracking down someone to give you your own cub.” Aidan felt a touch of heat spread over his cheeks when he heard his sister’s picking. “You know Tessa has set her eyes on you,” said with a slight warning in her voice.
Remembering the leggy woman, Aidan shuddered. “Yeah, she has her eyes on me all right. Tessa also wants her hands, legs, lips, and every other body part on me.”
Sissy chuckled for a second and then, growing serious again, warned, “Be careful with it, Aidan. She’s still hurting. The sooner you find a mate the easier it will be for her.”
Aidan shook his head and downed the last of his beer. The thought of hurting any member of the pack broke his heart, but Tessa was different. She had been mated to Aidan and Sissy’s brother, Gene. Gene had died before they could have any children together. It had left Tessa in a frantic state for over a year, and then suddenly, she began to believe that Gene had never been her real mate. After that she traveled to the other packs, looking again, but had never found another mate. In recent months she had started finding reasons to “bump” into Aidan when he went to town or calling at random times needing help with a leak in the roof or a clogged sink and just about anything in between.
He let out a long sigh. “My mate isn’t in the pack, Sissy. I’d have to go off to find her. Tessa will have to deal with her grief at some point, but I can’t help her with that.” Aidan went quiet for a moment, staring off into the distance. “You know I don’t think I’d mind another decade without a mate. It’s nice out here alone. No one bothers me, and I couldn’t find a better view,” Aidan confided in her. Sissy smiled at him and nudged her shoulder into his. Aidan rocked to one side and then back to bump her shoulder in retaliation. “So how fares the bar? Made a million yet?”
Her face transformed into a thoughtful look, and she let out a little hum. “It goes, but the bill collectors keep stealing away my millions by the truckloads.”
They both shared a few more laughs watching the sun dip lower behind the mountains, and finally, Sissy stood up and stretched. “Well, Aidan. I need to get home. Glean still can’t cook, and I don’t think I could handle fast food again.” Aidan gave his sister a hug and watched her drive off. Just as he was about to step back into the log cabin, he caught a trace scent on the wind.
He had forgotten about the human out in the forest while his sister was there, but with her gone, Aidan’s full focus went to that slight smell. It smelled like sandalwood and female musk. He could just barely make out the scent of dried meats along with the very human scent. This isn’t any good, he thought. If a human woman was camping out in the forest, she could be in danger if she stayed too long. He took a moment to look across the tree line at the edge of the clearing before removing his clothing. Standing on the edge of the porch, Aidan reached down deep inside of himself and called to his wolf.
The air around Aidan began to heat up like a furnace as the wolf began to tear out. His broad chest moved evenly with his breath, and his muscled stomach tightened as the air rippled over him. Goose bumps popped up on Aidan’s tanned skin as he suddenly bent over and went to his hands and knees. Fur flowed easily over him, and his bones began to twist into new shapes.
Once the transformation was complete, the wolf that was Aidan trotted off the porch and into the middle of the clearing. Lifting his nose high in the air, he searched for the faint scent of sandalwood. He found it drifting in from the east, and in a blinding flash, his muscles instinctively slingshot him through the field toward the trees, toward the smell of sandalwood.