Josette Monier stood motionless in the faint moonlight beneath the spreading limbs of an ancient hickory. It was spring in Arizona, and the field smelled of moist earth and fresh new growth. But even at night there should be sounds . . . the fluttering of birds in the trees, or mice moving through the thick tufts of grass. Instead, there was nothing but the rustling of tiny new leaves. The small animals were utterly still and she knew why. They were hoping remaining quiet would keep them from drawing the attention of the killer in their midst.
It was not her they feared right now, although she was frequently a danger to them. No, something else had made them afraid. Josette turned her head, straining as hard as she could to catch any hint of the other predator hunting this night.
There, she heard it. There was no mistaking the soft rasp of scales moving across stone. She was in human form, but her senses were no less keen. Tilting her head back she sniffed the breeze. Even over the scents of soil and wildflowers she could smell the musty, acrid bitterness that was a venomous snake. But this was not just any snake—certainly not one of the native rattlesnakes that made their home in the area. No, there was a subtle difference to the smell that told her that this reptile could claim more than one form. He was a shapeshifter like her, and probably a Sazi.
It seemed odd to her she hadn’t known ahead of time she would be attacked out here. Usually, her psychic gifts gave her plenty of warning of such things.
Maybe I’ve become just as arrogant as my attackers, thinking my visions will tell me everything I need to know. Stupid pride: she was lucky it hadn’t gotten her killed before now.
Soft and silent she moved across the sand, deliberately leaving human footprints until reaching a small rock outcropping where she started removing her clothing.
It would be nice if I could just burn them off with magic like normal, but I can’t afford for him to catch the scent of the smoke. She shifted form until, with a whisper of motion, she became a bobcat. She could fight a snake in either form, but it was easier with teeth and claws, and her feline shape was easier to camouflage in the night. Let him look for the human on the other side of the rock. He would find another predator instead.
Moving with graceful economy, she used her claws to climb into the wide lower branches of the tree. She lay in the shadows, nearly invisible from the ground below—even from the cautious tongue of a snake—and planned her attack. A viper was a real threat, because while it took lethal damage to both head and heart to kill an alpha shapeshifter, the venom of most Sazi snakes was potent enough to do just that.
Silvered grass shifted with a rustle of sound below. She felt her pupils widen to pull in light from the crescent moon and watched to see if she could spot what sort of snake she was dealing with. Not that she really needed the light . . . she was a cat, after all. Her night vision was excellent. But the fact that he was in snake form told her he was an alpha like she was, capable of changing at will using just his own personal magic. And alpha snakes she’d encountered had their own peculiarities of fighting, depending on the species.
Her enemies always sent their best after her. It was almost flattering. For the assassins it was at the same time an honor and a punishment. They knew that, should they succeed, they—or their family if they died in the process—would receive untold wealth. But it was equally well known that no one, thus far, had survived an attempt. She was still alive, despite regular attempts to kill her over hundreds of years. The prospect had to be daunting.
She stilled, waiting and watching as the movement in the grass stopped. The snake’s head lifted slightly, until its blunt nose was barely visible. Oblong pupils, opened to their fullest point, scanned the area as its tongue flicked out, searching for her scent.
Josette stared at the pattern of scales on the visible portion of the snake’s head and body. Her ears twitched a bit in surprise. She had expected an asp or cobra, one of the Middle Eastern snakes that had always hunted her before. But the pattern of dark brown and black splotches on the snake’s body was unmistakable even if she hadn’t seen the multiple rattles on its tail. She was being stalked by a rattlesnake native to either Central or South America.
But I don’t have any enemies in either of those places . . . that I know of. She’d never been to the southern continent. But vivid images of the jungles and rain forests had dominated many of her recent visions, causing her to read up on the region.
Unless. . . there was always the possibility of a killer for hire. Zealots fought with a hot passion to their last breath, almost embracing their chance at martyrdom. A professional, however, would approach the situation very differently. Judging by the one assassin she’d met personally, this contest could be all cold logic and skill. Tony Giodone was an attack victim. He had never planned to be either a werewolf or a seer, but he was dealing with it admirably and she respected his resourcefulness and attention to detail.
She’d best assume the snake below her would have similar traits.
Who sent you? Josette peered down at the reptile sliding in near silence through the tufts of dried grass between the stones. He wasn’t big by Sazi standards. But size wasn’t everything.
Adrenaline pounded through her veins, leaving a metallic taste in her mouth, making it hard to think. She took a deep breath, gathering her will and concentrated as she waited for the snake to move forward once again. Her hindquarters began to sway from side to side slightly as she gauged the distance and planned her jump.
The viper’s head dropped from sight, and she saw the grass shifting. He was moving away, circling around, hoping to cut her off and meet her face to face. He must have caught her scent. She bided her time, waiting until he was just past the tree’s trunk, facing away from her. With the power of her mind she froze him in place. He couldn’t move, could barely expand his body enough to breathe.
Josette leapt down from the tree, landing just behind the last button rattle. She felt him struggle against her magic, his power flaring with white hot intensity, as he fought against her with everything he had. It was nearly enough to break her hold. For just an instant she saw the powerful body start to move…to turn and strike.
A sharp hiss escaped her lips as she felt a second power join his, emanating from within him. It threw her power to the side for the first time in many years. Her ears flattened, eyes narrowing in purely instinctive rage. She leapt sideways, out of the reach at the same time as she clamped down hard with her mind, using fierce effort.
The snake’s body slowed in mid-strike. He was suspended in mid-air, his muscles straining, jaws opened wide to reveal wicked fangs. The enraged red-gold eyes had an almost physical weight to them.
Josette backed carefully around him, always keeping those eyes, those fangs, in sight. He’d been strong, much stronger than she’d expected. Last winter, the leader of all the snakes, had himself not had the power to break free of her grasp the way this man could. This assassin, and whoever was aiding him, was a force to be reckoned with.
She circled slowly until she stood just behind his head. The snake’s eyes rolled backward as he tried to watch her, tension singing through his taut muscles as he fought with renewed strength against the mental bonds that pinned him. He smelled both angry and pleased, which confused her.
But then a panicked alto voice sounded in Josette’s mind through the connection she’d forged with the male snake. My love, tell her nothing. You must say nothing, or all will be lost. The words were in Spanish, but she could understand them as though she spoke the language.
“Who are you working for?” Josette leaned forward, opening her jaws to grasp his spine at a point just behind the head. She closed her jaws slightly, squeezing just hard enough for him to know she could sever his head, but not hard enough to actually do so. Still, the bitter taste of blood and flesh filled her mouth, the rough texture of scale and bone grated against her tongue.
The snake winced in pain, but gave a small hissing laugh that told her questioning him further would be useless. And unfortunately, any attempt to pull the information from his brain with her mind would just destroy it. She had no talent for that sort of thing, unlike her younger sister Fiona.
Abruptly, a flood of images filled her mind, rolling from his thoughts to hers like a movie played on fast-forward: a jungle, the air thick enough to drink, the dense foliage passable in human form only with the liberal use of a machete. She could hear birds and animals moving through the dense undergrowth as she followed a guide down a barely visible path—
The snake panicked, and the burst of adrenaline gave him a sudden strength to break the mental bonds that held him. Josette let out a high-pitched, rolling growl, trying to tighten her physical grip, but he pulled strength from outside himself. She saw an image of a tiny woman with dark hair and liquid brown eyes, her body compact, muscular, but with soft curves that camouflaged a cold, calculating mind. The perfect oval of her face was superimposed over the image of Josette’s own bedroom, the contents of the room tossed about from a hasty search. The woman looked up, and her face zoomed into sharper focus in front of a scene showing hundreds, even thousands of other snakes converging on an ancient temple in the middle of a jungle.
There was a surge of magic as the snakes somehow added to the power of the one under her and the scent of a hundred bodies, thick sweat and a powerful metallic chemical filled her nose. He lunged hard against the iron grip of Josette’s teeth and slammed his tail into the side of her head, throwing her nearly a yard away. Rattles sizzling angrily, he spun around and shot toward her before she could shake the cobwebs from her head. His scent had moved to confidence and she had no doubt worry had started to fill her own pores.
This time, she really was in over her head.
She barely moved away from the flashing fangs and leapt sideways and up before landing on the snake’s broad back to dig in her claws. He hissed and twisted and beat at her with his tail. She lost her grip again and went sailing, but landed on her feet this time, allowing her to jump out of the way of his next strike.
A feline roar to her left vibrated her ears just as orange stripes flashed by the corner of her vision. A massive tiger grabbed a second snake by the neck just before it sunk its teeth into her hind leg. Shit! I didn’t even realize it was there! What the hell’s happening to my foresight?
Josette didn’t dare take her eyes off the attacker in front of her, praying that the new cat was on her side, since she didn’t recognize the scent. Sounds and smells erupted around her as natural enemies fought for dominance in the cool night. Minutes slipped by as she parried and slashed with teeth and claws, and threw nets of magic that were shrugged off with annoying ease. She could still see and sense the other snakes in the jungle, and it was difficult to concentrate on the here and now. But her opponent had no such difficulty. He moved with a clarity of thought that surprised her. It wasn’t until long moments later, when the coppery scent of blood and a tiger’s roar of triumph filled the air, that the viper got distracted.
She took the opportunity to attack with every ounce of her strength.
With a snarl she threw herself toward the snake, opened her jaws wide and closed them around the back of his neck. The snake frothed and shot venom from its fangs, forcing her to close her eyes to keep them from getting burned. Deeper she sunk her teeth and then twisted sharply. The images in her mind shattered as his back broke, and bitter blood flooded her mouth. The snake’s eyes went flat and empty, his head hung limp from a narrow strip of scaled flesh.
Josette let the carcass drop from her mouth and spat out the venom-laced blood. The smell wouldn’t go away as easily. She’d be smelling traces of the choking acrid scent for the next week.
“Viper blood is awful, isn’t it?” She turned her head toward the new cat, and realized she recognized the voice.
“Tasha?” Could this massive Bengal tiger be the lovely redheaded Wolven agent who was her twin sister Yvette’s frequent roommate at medical conferences?
The tiger paused from licking her paw and cleaning the red stains from the short orange fur on her nose. As she got closer, Josette realized Tasha smelled like sweet cream and tangy citrus, but right now it was difficult to smell anything over the venom. “Aren’t you glad I happened to be wandering by? Looks like you had your hands full. Oh, and I found your clothes. I put them over behind the tree.”
She shook her head and spat again. “Not right now. I need to get home. I saw his mate ransacking my house.” She put a subtle emphasis on the word saw, so that Tasha would know it had been a vision. His mate. The woman had loved him . . . no doubt of that, and now he was dead. Likely the woman would be too, from the shock of losing him. Josette’s voice was flat, almost emotionless. It made Tasha cock her head slightly and pitch ears forward curiously.
Josette shrugged and motioned with one paw toward the headless snake. “I was just thinking that this should probably bother me. But it doesn’t.”
A deep sigh threw mist into the chilling air that enveloped the wide tawny head. “There have been too many attempts on your life, for far too long. I wish I knew what to do about it, but I don’t even know the cause of it all.”
“It’s a long story. But if you have time, I could use your help at the house. If this man’s mate didn’t die with him, maybe we can learn who they worked for. For the first time, I don’t think it was Ahmad who sent this killer.” Josette took off at a run, leaving the tiger to catch up or not.
Tasha’s voice sounded surprised as she easily kept pace with the smaller cat. “Really? Who could it be if not him?”
Josette didn’t answer. She just increased her effort, forcing the tiger to speed up. They ran full out, their furred forms blending in the shadows as they moved like the wind over rough scrub grass, sand and cactus. Josette didn’t hesitate. She knew each rock, each plant from long years of experience living here in the desert. It was nice that Tasha trusted her enough to blindly fly through the night at her side.
It was too late, though, as she suspected it might be. The woman was already dead, just outside the front door. But she could smell again, after the cleansing breeze from the run, and she knew the woman hadn’t been alone. Tasha realized it too and, with head high and nostrils flared, the tiger began to slowly circle the tiny cabin.
Josette sighed and stepped onto the covered porch. “You won’t find anyone. They always leave after I kill the first one. Cowards.” She shifted forms as she walked the few steps to the door, so she was in human form when she walked through the entrance.
The sight that greeted her made her want to both scream and cry. Her pretty home had been ransacked, and obviously by professionals. Lights were on all over the house, revealing furnishings shattered or shredded. Curtains drooped from twisted rods, and even the picture tube of the small black and white television had been smashed. Worst of all, her favorite clock—a special gift from her sister that told the time in multiple zones and had the present year—was in pieces.
Tasha walked in behind her and touched her shoulder in sympathy at the sliced upholstery, broken vases and upended bookcases. “Oh, Aspen! I’m so sorry!”
The name didn’t surprise her. Aspen was the name she’d chosen for herself to match her twin’s choice—Yvette became Amber, and Aspen seemed to fit at the time. But she’d never really thought of herself as Aspen, even after this many years of bearing the name. Changes in identity were common among the longer-lived Sazi, but they didn’t always stick.
A growl escaped her while walking through the mess toward the bedroom, skirting glass and nails that could puncture her bare feet. She didn’t have many things . . . lived a simple existence here in the desert, but the few things she did have were important to her. Killing her was one thing, but this—
“Damn it! Why would someone do this?” She picked up the cracked lid to a painted music box she’d had for over a century and carefully placed it back on the broken dresser top.
“Could they have been looking for something?” Tasha’s voice was loud from the next room. It was a logical question for the law enforcement agent to ask. “You were at the council meeting in Chicago before Christmas. Did anyone ask you to keep something for them?”
The question was innocent, with no teasing inflection to it, meaning that not everybody in the entire shapeshifter world had heard what happened at that meeting. Thank heavens. It was going to be hard enough to live down within her own family. She shook her head, even though Tasha wouldn’t see it. She remembered the meeting of the Sazi council rather . . . vividly and that wasn’t one of the things that happened. “I didn’t stay long enough. I’d just barely arrived when all hell broke loose. You probably heard about the spider attack, right?” Or did that just happen? She furrowed her brow. “What year is this?”
Tasha told her and she breathed a sigh of relief. Things hadn’t gone too far yet. There was still time. She barely noticed when the redhead continued. “Uh . . . yeah. That’s definitely been a topic of conversation in the Wolven offices.”
No doubt. Spider shifters had been presumed by many Sazi to be a myth . . . the magical equivalent of a boogeyman. Even Josette had presumed them at least extinct. But now they were back—thanks in part, according to Amber’s research, to double-recessive genes in human/shifter descendants.
She turned to see Tasha standing naked in the doorway and realized she was still nude as well. She lifted up the chest of drawers from where it was face down on the floor and pulled a fluffy grey stack of fabric from inside. “Here, I’ve got some sweats that will fit you if you want. No reason for you to be uncomfortable while I clean up.”
Tasha nodded and took the clothes from her grasp. “I’ll give you a hand. We can get this place shaped up in no time. Then we can have a drink and I’ll tell you why I’m here.”