A hapless hiker. A rogue cougar. An outcome no one expected.
Wyatt took a dead-end job in his hometown for two reasons: hiking, and being close to his family. When trekking over the trails he loves, he comes face to face with a cougar he cannot avoid.
As the pre-eminent hunter for the Shifter Nations of North America, Gabrielle isn't surprised when the Shifter Council calls her. A rogue cougar has been killing hikers. The job: put the beast down, and do it fast. She has never failed a hunt.
The trail leads her to the site of a fierce, bloody battle. She finds a wounded hiker, a dead cougar, and one inescapable conclusion.
There's a new cat in town.
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"Robert is on my list of fave authors. This series is a great start. Personally i wish he'd finish other series first but he seems to have caught the multiple ongoing series bug. I reckon some authors do this to avoid boredom or keep the literary juices flowing. Whatever works i suppose. Still none of his genres repeat. The worlds he creates are also great. He doesnt write a 'bad' story, so whatever you get will be pretty cool. Read it! I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy it."– Amazon Review
"I can't wait to read more of this series. I read it in one sitting because it wouldn't let me go. I loved all the characters he introduced and I am eager to read more about them: their adventures, their development as people and leaders, and how they will track down and triumph over an evil organization that kidnaps and sells children to order. Awesome! Thank you for so engaging my imagination that I was happily out of lockdown for hours. Please write more quickly and well, Mr. Kerns."– Amazon Review
"This book is fantastic, the world building is deep and intriguing. The dialog is fun and had me laughing out loud several times, enough to get a look from my wife while reading. Can't wait to read what comes next."– Amazon Review
A cool breeze rustled the leaves of the surrounding trees, tugged at my clothes and brushed my face to say hello as it made its way on down the valley. The breeze smelled of pine, spruce, and a fresh rain. I always loved the smell of a forest after a good rainstorm. That's why I took the day off from work to go hiking.
I stepped out of the partial shade created by the tree cover and stood on the rock shelf I knew so well. It overlooked the valley sprawling below me, and like so many times before, the sheer magnificence of nature lightened my soul. I eased my backpack's straps off my shoulders and removed the belt carrying my grandfather's knife, because the knife's length was such that it jabbed its pommel into my ribs when I sat on the ground. In form, it resembled the Bowie knife, but the strange markings engraved into the blade gave it an almost sinister character. Grandpa always told me those engravings were magic runes, but I'd seen nothing to make me believe that, of course. Magic—like Santa Claus—didn't exist. I slid the sheathed knife through the carry handle of my backpack and returned my attention to the vista before me.
There was no explaining the complete and total peace this place inspired in me, and it was because of this very trail—more than any other reason—that I refused to leave the dead-end tech job at a company that forgot to pay me as often as not. This valley was home. It was where I belonged.
I don't know how long I sat there. Well… not precisely. The sun warmed my back when I sat, and it glared in my eyes and heated my chest when I stood. So several hours at least. I would have stayed, but I still wanted to reach the small lake at the end of the trail and make it back to my car by nightfall. As much as I loved this trail and the surrounding woods, there was a reason it didn't have any campsites. Weird stuff happened in this stretch of the national forest. The stories dated back beyond when my grandfather had been a little boy. He said those stories were why he gave me the knife and made me promise to carry it whenever I hiked this trail.
I stretched one more time, rolling my shoulders and twisting from side to side. I wasn't as young as I used to be, and my body was stiff from sitting on the rock shelf for so long. I guess the human body really was made to move.
A rustle in the underbrush behind me drew my attention as I leaned over to grab my backpack. I could tell something stalked just out of sight, but there wasn't enough of a gap in the foliage to see what. Unfortunately, I didn't have to wonder long. A massive mountain lion stepped onto the edge of the rock shelf, looking right at me. Both of us froze. Well… I froze. The mountain lion just stopped. What struck me most were its eyes. In all my years volunteering at nearby zoos and animal hospitals or rescues, I had never seen a mountain lion that carried such intelligence in its gaze. I tried to angle myself to put my back toward the trail I'd just hiked and took a half-step backward, giving the big cat a little more space. It complemented my movement with a half-step of its own, and what's more, it bared its teeth in a silent snarl.
I bit back a sigh. This would not end well.
* * *
Gabrielle barely swallowed a snarl as she led her team through the national forest. They were tracking a rogue cougar, and he'd already killed ten people so far. She was the best hunter for the job—the best hunter period full stop—and a part of her seethed that the Shifter Council hadn't given her this task when the toxicology report came back on the first person mauled to death. The rogue cougar stalking the national forest was a shifter, and no human hunting party from the Forest Service had any hope of finding him, let alone dealing with him. Not unless they fielded the better part of a battalion to get the job done.
The sole bright spot in the cougar's rampage was that he killed his victims. Shifters—like vampires—could turn humans into shifters. A turned shifter was never as powerful as a born shifter, with a few exceptions so rare they were almost fables, but they still made humans seem like weak, undeveloped children in comparison. If life had existed in any of the victims—even the minutest sliver of life—they'd now have ten new cougars on their hands… and if whatever drove the rogue in its slaughter was a sickness, he could pass that sickness to anyone he turned.
She spied tracks in a stretch of mud that was still damp from the recent rain, and Gabrielle stopped and knelt. The stride here was closer to a walk, and by the far end of the mud, the stride looked closer to a stalk. Gabrielle glared at the tracks for just a moment. Then, she closed her eyes and reached out to the part of her that wasn't human… and never had been.
The wind had shifted at some point. It no longer drifted down the valley. Now, it blew into their faces, and there was… something. She identified the normal scents of the forest and set them aside. There was something there, but she was too limited in human form to identify it. A very feline-like huff escaped her.
So be it. There was more than one way to chase a cat.
"Hey," Gabrielle said, as she pushed herself back to her feet. The other members of her team all turned to her. "I'm going over behind that big oak to shift. There's something on the wind. Bring my pack, please, and try to keep up."
Nods and affirmative vocalizations came back to her, and she nodded once. She turned and made her way to the large oak tree that was more than sufficient to grant her some privacy. She never understood why all the humans writing shifter fiction just seemed to assume shifters would take a casual approach to nudity. Sure, sometimes one didn't have other options, but no shifter she'd ever met liked to walk around naked as the day they were born.
It was a quick task to strip and stuff her clothes into her pack, tying her boots to a convenient carabiner she kept for such an occasion. Then it was a simple matter to touch the part of her mind that had never been human, for unlike a couple of people in her party, Gabrielle was a born shifter.
The change was also unlike most shifter fiction depicted. Everyone seemed to think it would hurt… or the human would just wink out and the animal would appear. But for Gabrielle it was neither uncomfortable nor immediate, and every born shifter she asked described an experience like hers. The change was as normal as standing up, sitting down, or walking across a room. Yes, she felt her physical form shifting. Her limbs shortened. Her muzzle elongated. But there was no pain. There was no discomfort. In fact, there were times it felt like she was coming home, becoming the truest version of herself.
The change complete, Gabrielle enjoyed a moment to luxuriate in her form. Stretch all four legs. Flex her claws. Lash her tail. She only took a couple of heartbeats, though. She had an important task.
Cats did not have the same quality of olfactory sense that canines do, but cats weren't exactly nose-blind, either. She opened her mouth and took a slow, deep breath, drawing the air across the roof of her mouth. She closed her eyes and concentrated. A second breath. The forest was normal, not important. She didn't care about the scent of pine or mint or spruce. The cougar's scent was faint, hours old but still recent enough to identify. And there it was. Human. The cougar had new prey.
Gabrielle hoped she would be in time as she darted out from behind the oak.
* * *
It was always an experience hunting with Gabrielle. Almost every predator shifter was a natural hunter, but Gabrielle was in a class by herself. She held several medals and titles from various shifter hunting games or contests. Several of her hunting party turned toward the tree as a four-legged shadow shot across the track they'd been following and disappeared into the forest's undergrowth.
A melanistic jaguar. One type of the so-called black panther. Gabrielle.
One of the veteran hunters stared at the patch of foliage where the jaguar vanished and sighed. He muttered, "Keep up, my ass," even though every shifter around him heard it with ease. Then, at a normal volume, "Well, gang… we just became the clean-up crew."
* * *
My arms ached. I just finished the third run-through of all the ways they say to drive away a mountain lion. On the bright side, it wasn't snarling at me anymore, but I'd swear the thing was smiling at me. Like I was funny. Like it knew what I was doing and why… but didn't care. I took a half-step backward while waving my arms. I knew my backpack was behind me somewhere, and Grandpa's knife could mean the difference between being a survivor or cat chow.
Then, the scariest thing yet occurred. I watched the mountain lion shift its gaze from me to something behind me. Its eyes seemed to narrow, almost like it glared at the object of its focus, and then it shifted its eyes back up to mine. In that moment, I knew it wasn't just looking toward me. It stared directly into my eyes. The snarl came back with more force, and it made a standing lunge.
The cat's forepaws hit my chest, and its weight and momentum drove me to the ground. My head struck the butt of my grandpa's knife and continued down to slam into the rock shelf. The mountain lion screamed and came in to rip out my throat, but I jammed my left forearm between its jaws. Yeah, I know… stupid move, but I could survive a broken or amputated arm. I haven't known the human yet that could survive a ripped-out throat.
Not content with gnawing on my arm, the mountain lion shredded my jacket and shirt with its claws. It wasn't long until those claws found my torso, and I let out a scream of my own. Panic tried to set in, and I struck the mountain lion's neck with my right fist while it continued to maul me. I felt the claws rake across my bones, and I knew I wasn't leaving this rock shelf alive. But that didn't mean this cat wouldn't earn it.
Beating the thing's neck wasn't making any headway, and as I tried controlling the cat's head with my forearm it was gnawing on, I figured why not? With all the panicked force I could muster, I drove the toe of my hiking boot between the cat's hind legs. It rewarded me with a pain-fueled scream and jumped back. Yeah… I don't care what species of mammal you are, no male enjoys getting kicked in the balls.
The pause in the fight gave me the few necessary heartbeats to grab my grandpa's knife, open the retaining strap, and flick the sheath into the underbrush. Since I still figured I wasn't living through this fight, I didn't really care what happened to the knife's sheath… as long as I had the knife.
I brought the blade around, and the movement drew the cat's focus. It snarled at the sight of the knife. I glanced at it myself and gaped. Those engraved runes on the knife's blade glowed with an eerie silver radiance. Well, damn… I guess the runes were magic after all.
For what felt like the longest time, the big cat just stared at me, its eyes shifting from me to the knife and back again. I would've sworn it recognized the knife and was gauging its chances. As I grew weaker with blood loss, it must've decided its chances were still good, because it returned its eyes to mine and lunged at me.
The pain of wedging my savaged left forearm between its jaws again drowned out any remnant of the agony I felt merely lifting my arm into position. But I didn't care. If I was going down, I wanted to do everything I could to take this cat with me.
I thrust the knife toward the cat's side, expecting I'd have to force it through its hide and muscles and tissue. The moment the tip of the blade touched the cat, that eerie radiance flared, and the knife slipped inside with almost no resistance at all. The cat screamed around my forearm, much louder and much more anguished than when I'd kicked it, and it redoubled its efforts to kill me just as I redoubled my own.
Stab after stab. Claw swipe after claw swipe. Our reason for existing came down to ending this fight and taking the other with us. I regretted not taking Biology now. Several stabs in, and I still hadn't found the damn cat's heart. It breathed heavy and labored, though, so I hoped I'd at least punctured a lung. But still, it wouldn't let go.
It wasn't long before my strength waned. Darkness rimmed my vision. I was dying. I could feel it. The oddest part was the sudden clarity. The lack of panic. Well, damn. I had a knife, and the cat had a throat. I picked a point as close to halfway between the cat's jaws and its shoulders as I could and raked my blade across its throat. Blood erupted from the gash and threatened to drown me in the deluge.
Now, the fight left the mountain lion. Finally. I used its collapse as its own strength waned to push it to my side. If I had to die, I didn't want to die buried under a massive cat corpse. Something about that just seemed like adding insult to injury.
My last thought as the world faded around me was that, at least, the mountain lion would harm no one else. I heard my knife striking the rock shelf, and then there was nothing.
* * *
Gabrielle ran at a pace she could maintain for miles; she didn't want to face the rogue fatigued after a long sprint. She heard the cougar's screams, and she smelled the blood in the air. She wanted to believe she might still arrive in time, but in her heart, she knew she was too late.
She broke through the foliage onto a rock shelf and almost skidded to a stop. The scene was gruesome. A cougar with multiple stab wounds to its torso and a vicious slash across its throat lay beside a man with a shredded chest and mangled arm. Blood drenched the man, and a smaller pool formed around the cougar's corpse.
Something about the scene felt wrong. No shifter would die of the wounds she could see on the cougar. Yes, a throat slash would take a shifter out of the fight, but unless you followed up with a beheading or used a shifter-bane weapon, the shifter would heal. The cougar's wounds showed no sign of healing, and the man… oh, shit. The man's wounds were closing. He was still alive.
Her eyes fell on the knife laying just outside the man's right hand, and she padded closer for a better view. When she saw the runes in the blade, she hissed and almost jumped back. It was a shifter-bane blade. But the man couldn't be Magi. Shifters couldn't turn Magi; they were not technically human.
She moved closer, low and slow. Stalking the blade as if it were alive. Reaching a vantage point for the crossguard, she saw what she sought. The blade's artisan stamped the family mark into the blade just below the crossguard, and for the first time in a long while, Gabrielle felt true terror. That family mark was the Magnusson Glyph. The Magnusson clan was old, old power… ancient, even. No one really knew how far back their family went. This man—whoever else he might be—was Connor Magnusson's family.
Shit. This would not end well.