Someone or something watched me from the darkness. I felt their stare press upon me like a physical burden. Moments dragged by, with minutes in tow. After a while I glanced at my watch. It had stopped.
Somewhere in the darkness the Beast Lord prowled. I didn't know what he looked like. I didn't know the species of his beast. Few people outside of the Pack claimed to have met him and nobody seemed willing to discuss the experience. The only thing certain about him was power. By the latest count, he commanded a force of three hundred and thirty-seven shapechangers in Atlanta alone. He wasn't in charge because he was the smartest or the most popular; he ruled because of those three hundred and thirty-seven he was unquestionably the strongest. He was in charge by the right of might; that is, he had yet to meet anyone who could kick his ass.
Among the shapechangers, wolves were the most numerous, then came the foxes, the jackals, the rats, and then the hyenas and the smaller felines: lynxes, bobcats, and cheetahs. There were the exotic forms too, the were-buffalos and wereserpents, but the buffalos formed their own Herd in the Midwest and the serpents were solitary. All of the beast-forms were larger than their natural counterparts; an average shapechanger in a wolf form came close to two hundred and twenty pounds while the natural gray wolf weighed a hundred pounds less. From a biological point of view, the transformation of a hundred-and-seventy-pound human into a two-hundred-and-twenty-pound animal made no sense, but then when it came to shapeshifting, the fluctuating mass was the least of the anomalies. Magic could not be measured and explained in scientific terms, for magic grew through destroying the very natural principles that made science as people knew it possible.
Another howl ruptured the quiet, still too far away to be a threat. The Beast Lord, the leader, the alpha male, had to enforce his position as much by will as by physical force. He would have to answer any challenges to his rule, so it was unlikely that he turned into a wolf. A wolf would have little chance against a cat. Wolves hunted in a pack, bleeding their victim and running them into exhaustion, while cats were solitary killing machines, designed to murder swiftly and with deadly precision. No, the Beast Lord would have to be a cat, a jaguar or a leopard. Perhaps a tiger, although all known cases of weretigers occurred in Asia and could be counted without involving toes.
I had heard a rumor of the Kodiak of Atlanta, a legend of an enormous, battle-scarred bear roaming the streets in search of Pack criminals. The Pack, like any social organization, had its lawbreakers. The Kodiak was their Executioner. Perhaps his Majesty turned into a bear. Damn. I should have brought some honey.
My left leg was tiring. I shifted from foot to foot...
A low, warning growl froze me in midmove. It came from the dark gaping hole in the building across the street and rolled through the ruins, awakening ancient memories of a time when humans were pathetic, hairless creatures cowering by the weak flame of the first fire and scanning the night with frightened eyes, for it held monstrous hungry killers. My subconscious screamed in panic. I held it in check and cracked my neck, slowly, one side then another.
A lean shadow flickered in the corner of my eye. On the left and above me a graceful jaguar stretched on the jutting block of concrete, an elegant statue encased in the liquid metal of moonlight.
Homo Panthera onca. The killer who takes its prey in a single bound.
The jaguar looked at me with amber eyes. Feline lips stretched in a startlingly human smirk.
He could laugh if he wanted. He didn't know what was at stake.
Jim turned his head and began washing his paw.
My saber firmly in hand, I marched across the street and stepped through the opening. The darkness swallowed me whole.
The lingering musky scent of a cat hit me. So, not a bear after all.
Where was he? I scanned the building, peering into the gloom. Moonlight filtered through the gaps in the walls, creating a mirage of twilight and complete darkness. I knew he was watching me. Enjoying himself.
Diplomacy was never my strong suit and my patience had run dry. I crouched and called out, "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty."
Two golden eyes ignited at the opposite wall. A shape stirred within the darkness and rose, carrying the eyes up and up and up until they towered above me. A single enormous paw moved into the moonlight, disturbing the dust on the filthy floor. Wicked claws shot forth and withdrew. A massive shoulder followed, its gray fur marked by faint smoky stripes. The huge body shifted forward, coming at me, and I lost my balance and fell on my ass into the dirt. Dear God, this wasn't just a lion. This thing had to be at least five feet at the shoulder. And why was it striped?
The colossal cat circled me, half in the light, half in the shadow, the dark mane trembling as he moved. I scrambled to my feet and almost bumped into the gray muzzle. We looked at each other, the lion and I, our gazes level. Then I twisted around and began dusting off my jeans in a most undignified manner.
The lion vanished into a dark corner. A whisper of power pulsed through the room, tugging at my senses. If I did not know better, I would say that he had just changed.
"Kitty, kitty?" asked a level male voice.
I jumped. No shapechanger went from a beast into a human without a nap. Into a midform, yes, but beast-men had trouble talking.
"Yeah," I said. "You've caught me unprepared. Next time I'll bring cream and catnip toys."
"If there is a next time."
I turned and there he stood, wearing a loose T-shirt and sweatpants. A modest shapechanger, how refreshing. You wouldn't even know that he had changed, save for the glistening sheen of dampness on his skin.
He looked me over slowly, judging, taking my measure.
I could blush demurely or I could do the same to him. I chose not to blush.
A couple of inches taller than me, the Beast Lord gave an impression of coiled power. Easy, balanced stance. Blond hair, cut too short to grab. At first glance he looked to be in his early to mid-twenties, but his build betrayed him. His shoulders strained his T-shirt. His back was broad and corded with muscle, showing the power and strength a man developed in his early thirties.
"What kind of a woman greets the Beast Lord with 'here, kitty, kitty'?" he asked.
"One of a kind." I murmured the obvious reply. Eventually I had to look him in the eye. Better sooner than later.
The Beast Lord had a strong square jaw. His nose was narrow with a misshapen bridge, as though it had been broken more than once and hadn't healed right. Considering the regenerative powers of the shapechangers, someone must've pounded his face with a sledgehammer.
Our stares met. Little golden sparks danced in his gray eyes. His gaze made me want to bow my head and look away.