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Moonlight struggled to shine through clouds heavy and swollen with rain. The breeze, once light enough to be held back by the towering spruces, became a steady wind that swayed the trees and turned the mist coming off the Drina River into icy daggers. Dalvin instinctively tried to fluff his feathers to warm himself, but he was in the wrong form for that, so he flipped up the collar of his leather jacket instead.
He wished the collar went high enough to cover his ears and mute the jackhammer snoring of the delegates sleeping in the cabin nearby. Maybe earbuds would be better. But he wasn’t certain even the loudest rap could drown out the reverberating bass thrum.
Babysitting bears on the ground. Hell of a waste of a Wolven agent who can fly. I should have been the one they put on aerial patrol.
Branches cracked in the distance, and his senses went on high alert. The peace talks were contentious, objected to by both sides and by who knows how many other packs. He had to check out the sound. Dalvin slipped through the trees, keeping his footsteps light on the carpet of needles. After a few hundred yards, he blinked, concentrating, forcing the pupils of his eyes to completely dilate. The trees took on an almost surreal texture as fragments of light turned the darkness into a million shades of gray. It was easy to make this change in owl form, but it always earned him a splitting headache when in human form. Still, being able to see better usually helped him ferret out thugs pretty quick, which made the pain worth it. He forced himself to slow his breathing, to listen and sniff.
The scent of fruity perfume intensifying an underlying musk of sweet raspberries revealed the intruder moments before her pale face popped out from behind a tree. Another false alarm—just one of the delegates. “Hello, Dalvin. I thought you might be out here.” As usual, her low, sultry voice seemed to make his pulse pound.
Tonight she was wrapped in a fluffy lamb coat dyed dark brown, nearly the color of her fur in bear form and her hair in human.
He didn’t move closer, though he wanted to. Really, really wanted to. “You need to go back to the lodge, Larissa. I’m on duty. I have to get back to the cabins.”
Lips that would put Naomi Campbell’s to shame dropped into a pout. “But it’s so cold out here. We could stay warm … together.” Larissa opened the front of her jacket to reveal next to nothing underneath. As the chilled mist touched her skin, she gasped and let out a little moan, somewhere between pain and pleasure. Her body swayed under the thick fur, but she didn’t close the coat.
He bit at his bottom lip, almost unconsciously. Tempting. So very tempting. In the distance, the snoring continued, loud even this far away. It would keep going until dawn, just like the six previous nights. Plus, the framework of the agreement was already done. The negotiators were working on the last fine details.
When Larissa started to walk forward, her open coat revealed a long line of light brown skin that led down to a tiny yellow thong that didn’t cover much. Wide black eyes beneath lids coated with golden shadow transfixed him. It was wrong to get involved with one of the delegates. Dalvin knew that. But Larissa was hard to resist, and she had been flirting with him for days. Rubbing up against him, blowing in his ear, running painted nails along his arm when nobody was looking. It had been driving him mad.
I need to stop this. This is wrong. But he didn’t step back, didn’t stop her when she glided barefoot along the forest floor and wrapped those fur-covered arms around his neck. Her mouth found his, and he couldn’t help but kiss her back. When she pushed him against the tree and pressed her hips against his, his hands lifted and glided over her chilled breasts, and he felt his arousal grow.
Their kiss deepened and her hands began to roam over his body. When she started to unzip his pants, he realized he was losing the battle.
A pair of cries of alarm, in rapid succession, made Dalvin’s head turn back toward the cabins. He tried to pull away, but Larissa wouldn’t let go. She wrapped herself around him and started using raw magic to keep him steady, trying to pull his erection out of his pants.
It wasn’t the time for fun. He had to get back, was already kicking himself for getting distracted. “Larissa, stop it!” He pulled her hand away, pushed her back, then headed toward the cabins as shouting in several languages filled the air. He hopped a few steps, trying to get his trousers zipped up and realized her scent covered nearly every inch of his clothing. The only way to keep people from knowing what he’d been doing was to change forms.
Dalvin jumped high into the air, summoning enough raw power from the full moon hidden by the clouds to burst through his clothes. Now in his preferred form as an eagle owl, he spread his wings wide, caught the wind from the leading edge of the storm, and rose quickly above the tree line.
The same airflow that lifted him tried to tumble him end over end. He fought against the quickly shifting wind as rain started to rocket out of the clouds like icy daggers. Before the rain got any worse, he opened his eyes fully and tried to take in the situation. People were moving around the cabins and the lodge, running with purpose. The bad weather kept him from making out faces, but could see at least one stretcher being carried toward the cabins. He let the wind take him higher to see who was trying to leave the scene. His first circle around the area didn’t reveal anything during the brief flashes of lightning, so he made another loop.
Wait—there! Something running away from camp! Whatever it was, it was too big to be a rabbit or a deer, so perhaps a person? Narrowing his wings and tipping into a sharp dive, Dalvin spun and danced through branches being whipped by the storm.
Soon he was close enough to see that he was chasing a man who was dressed all in black, including a stocking cap and gloves. Somehow, the runner realized he was being pursued and turned to face Dalvin, revealing that a black face shield covered his features. The man pulled something from his pocket—all Dalvin could tell was that it wasn’t a gun or crossbow—and made a sharp movement of one elbow.
The owl shifter heard no sound over the howling wind and thunder, but pain erupted in his wing and he let out a screech, twisting in the air. A second missile from the weapon barely missed Dalvin’s ear; he could hear a sizzling sound as it passed. Suddenly things added up: the man was using a slingshot!
The attacker was good with it … really good. As Dalvin tried to get behind him, his enemy turned and fired again, striking him on one clawed foot and sending a bolt of pain up into his chest. Getting clumsy. Stay focused. He dove quickly and tried to grab the man’s face mask with his good leg.
Maybe if he was closer in, the slingshot wouldn’t be as effective. When he tried to swoop nearer, the man produced a knife the size of a machete and slashed at him, only narrowly missing.
Another dive, another flash of the blade across his path.
When Dalvin tried to gain altitude again, he realized the second slash hadn’t missed—the blade had cut a hunk out of several feathers on his right wing. Tufts of white, like cotton candy, soared across the forest on the wind.
Tightening his wing to limit the disruption, he went around again. The man wasn’t holding the knife anymore—had he dropped it, or did he have some other plan?
Better play it safe.
Diving, at the last second Dalvin twisted sideways, reaching for an arm. It wouldn’t be easy to lift the man in black with a bad wing, but maybe Dalvin could get him high enough that being dropped would stun him.
Once again, his opponent was ready. With speed that marked him as a Sazi of high alpha level, he grabbed Dalvin’s leg and used the owl shifter’s own momentum to spin them both around. When he let go, Dalvin shot across an open space in the woods, completely unable to control his flight. A massive tree rushed toward him. Twisting, he just barely managed to avoid knocking into the trunk skull first, but his body took the full force of the impact. Gasping for breath, in pain everywhere, he dug his talons deep into the wood, clinging desperately to the tree.
He scanned the nearby forest without success. The attacker had escaped. Damn it!
Letting go of the tree and flapping for all he was worth despite the bad wing, Dalvin tried to rise above the tree line and find the man’s trail. But it was no good. With his wing clipped, he couldn’t get enough altitude. Frankly, he was lucky he was still airborne at all. Breathing was a struggle. Every inhale felt like fire burning him from the inside.
The icy rain became a heavy, drenching downpour. It was hard to see; even closing his inner lids didn’t help. He knew his only option was to return to base. When he finally got back to the camp, his wings were completely numb and he was exhausted. He could still barely breathe. The entire episode had been humiliating.
When Dalvin fluttered to the ground, fellow agent Tamir Marovik, a Russian black bear, raced to greet him. Tamir’s hands and sleeves were stained with blood.
“Where the hell have you been, Adway? We’ve got a dead negotiator on our hands. Drugged, then stabbed. Each sloth is blaming the other. Who the hell managed to get past you? I thought you were on perimeter duty.”
Dalvin honestly intended to tell the truth and apologize, but when he opened his beak, to his own surprise, a half-truth came out. Displaying his wounded wing, he said, “I heard an intruder and gave chase. He damned near cut my wing off and I lost him when I tumbled. I thought you had the inside covered.”
Tamir stared at him for long moments, eyes narrowed, sniffing the breeze, scenting for falsehood. What Dalvin had said wasn’t a lie, not completely—it just wasn’t as expansive an answer as it could have been. Tamir’s reputation wasn’t good: it was well known that he handed out harsh punishments, including death, to Wolven agents who fell down on the job. Dalvin had no desire to die over a moment’s inattention.
The owl shifter tried not to breathe or move as Tamir stepped forward.
Copyright © 2016 by Cathy Clamp