"There are shifters, then there are Gallize shifters."
Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, eastern border of Russia
Elianna squatted in a dark cranny between two buildings, which was as good a place to hide—or fight—as any. Not a good place to die, though. Her little brother, Nico, needed her alive. She forced herself to calm down and stop sucking in noisy gulps of cold air as if the Grim Reaper was hard on her trail.
That wasn’t far from the truth.
“Where wolves now?” she muttered softly and kept watch for any movement. Even alone, she practiced her English and French for the day she hoped to use those languages.
Her hands hadn’t stopped trembling since she’d hidden Nico.
The cold didn’t bother her. Low forties in early May was normal and her body generated more heat than a human’s.
It was fear, driven by the vision she kept having of a grizzly shifter standing between her and Nico—that chilled her to the core. Not just any bear shifter, but a powerful one.
Her visions always came true. Her mother knew that, but still had ignored her warning.
At the moment, though, wolf shifters were Elianna’s main threat and they were hunting only her.
Crazy shifters probably hopped up on Jugo Loco. Their Black River pack had brought the drug, originally made from a hallucinogenic tea in South America, to Russia. It affected supernatural beings in different ways, and never good ones.
Her mother had picked a bad group to cross and died for her mistake. If only her mother had listened when Elianna warned of her vision.
Her mother had refused to take the vision seriously, though, and now an innocent six-year-old child was in danger.
Elianna tried to recall the last time her mother had been happy. Too many years to count. Her mother’s mind was broken, thanks to Elianna’s biological father. The poor woman dragged strange men home more and more often lately, anything to make her feel loved, but it was false love. Elianna had begged her mother to stop until she found a place to live with Nico.
Then her mother could put out a sign for men if she wanted.
Her mother, a polar bear shifter, had gone to her regular Friday drinking hole last night and turned down a wolf shifter. She’d believed that by sleeping only with humans, she was being true to Elianna’s father, a man Elianna had never met and never would if she had any luck left.
He was the most powerful grizzly shifter in this part of Russia, which was why the vision weighed heavily on her mind.
In the vision, Elianna had seen wolves all around her mother, but not what happened in the end. That vision had ended with blurry darkness.
Sadly, she now knew how the end of that vision played out.
The rejected wolf’s pack had paid her mother’s crappy little third-floor apartment a visit just before dark.
Wolves did not accept no, especially from a shifter who took a human to her bed.
Elianna could still smell the fresh blood. She’d scented it as she neared the apartment building over an hour ago with Nico’s tiny hand in hers. She’d asked a friend to watch him today or he would have been with Elianna’s mother and would also be dead. Standing out of sight near the apartment, Elianna had listened as the wolf shifters descended the stairs and laughed about killing that ‘bear bitch.’
Then one of the wolves brought up smelling a second female and young male in the apartment.
He still had a taste for bear. The wolves howled, ready to hunt.
Elianna had gone into protection mode.
She’d taken her coat off and wrapped Nico in it, then carried him as she ran to a restaurant dumpster filled with table scraps. Disgusting, but it would camouflage his scent. She’d rubbed her hands on everything at the entrance to the alley, then left to find the wolf shifters. When she did, she found an upwind spot and lifted the tail of her shirt to give them plenty to smell, then started walking away.
When she heard a wolf howl, she’d taken off running.
Now she waited a kilometer from Nico, hoping to survive.
How close was that pack of five shifters?
Glancing around, she familiarized herself with the area she’d chosen to take a stand. Moonlight danced over large, earth-moving equipment, creating long shadows across the open space in this fenced-in storage lot behind a construction business.
Any other shifter in her shoes would probably consider changing shape right now.
Her bear would be of no help in a fight.
Also, even though she’d be stronger as a bear, she could blend in better and escape more easily as a human if she had to run. Having had no chance to change clothes for her night job, she still looked like every other dockworker in her dull-gray pants and long-sleeved pullover stained with diesel oil and mud. Smelled like them, too.
A shifter could identify her true scent, but humans had no idea she was anything more than a low-paid laborer like they were. They would have known about her if a bear clan had accepted her.
Invisibility among humans was the only benefit she’d derived from being an outcast among her own kind.
Shifters were first revealed to humans in America eight years ago. Elianna suspected many of the old-timers had been aware of the Romanov Kamchatka bear shifter clan even before then. Elianna’s genetic father ruled that clan. His family had descended from royalty and had been in power long before the general human population of this country found out that monsters walked among them.
With her father’s reputation as a powerful alpha and his family’s royal ancestry, no one in this part of the world dared cross him or his clan.
Living on the remote Kamchatka Peninsula on Russia’s lower Pacific coast offered her father a perfect location. Alexandre Romanov was treated as the king he believed himself to be.
As for her, she was fair game to any threat, be it human or shifter.
Something clanged close by.
Lifting her nose, she sniffed for wolf scent mixed in with the aroma of stew being cooked in a nearby tavern and the smoky tinge of burning logs. She trusted her extremely sharp sense of smell over any other sense. Nothing yet.
The waiting was nerve-racking.
She was not known for her patience.
Maybe she shouldn’t have run across the tops of two buildings, then shimmied down the water drain and through a small window into a ladies’ bathroom that opened into a bar and ... she smiled at the obstacle course they’d been forced to take to follow her.
She knew this town inside and out.
They were the outsiders.
A tabby cat stalked by, explaining the noise. If it looked her way, the cat would see only a dark figure, if anything. Elianna still wore a navy-blue rag tied around her cinnamon-colored hair, hallmark of being the bastard in her mother’s family of polar bear shifters. Her hair was only one difference between her and others in a polar bear clan that possessed shades of blonde hair and eyes so dark brown they looked black.
Once the polar bears had seen Elianna’s mixed-blood bear, it hadn’t taken long for them to boot Elianna and her mother from their clan fifteen hundred miles north of here.
Among the bear shifters in this town, her pale-blue eyes marked her as not belonging to her father’s clan.
She missed living in her first home, a cold wilderness where, as a child, she had survived on the land and faced few real threats.
Miss fish. Eat fish. Swim.
Of course. Her bear says nothing about being threatened by wolves, but let Elianna make the mistake of reminiscing, and her bear starts whining.
Speaking to her bear with her mind, Elianna said, Please sleep. I fight bad wolves. No interfere. She’d been speaking to her bear in English for a while now, but still added, Understand?
Her bear grumbled and pushed at her, but settled down, which was as much acknowledgment as Elianna would get.
Twice a month, she shifted into her animal abomination to allow the bear freedom to run in a remote section of the mountains west of the city.
After a last, half-hearted snarl, the bear ignored her.
They had a relationship of tolerance. It was unlike those of other shifters who actually enjoyed friendships with their animals, but it worked.
Elianna accepted half the fault for the wall between them, but who could blame her? Should she be happy to have a bear inside of her that her own clan found disgusting? Her father had never even tried to meet her, and her mother had refused to share much about him.
Ironic, considering the fifteen hundred miles through rugged mountains her mother had forced Elianna to travel to be close to the man she wanted as her mate.
But he already had a mate.
Small details often escaped her mother.
Like humiliating a wolf shifter.
Elianna and her half-breed bear would forever be outcasts here. She had to find a way out of here with Nico.
Swim, swim, swim. Eat fish, her bear grumbled.
No, Elianna replied. Go sleep.
“Life not fair,” Elianna muttered softly. She studied everything she could about life outside Russia, always preparing for any chance to leave a land where she no longer felt welcome. In Canada, she could vanish with Nico into the wilderness. She needed no clan and no man. As a bear shifter, she would never have a life in PK, the name locals used for Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky.
She refused to turn twenty-three in this place.
Of course, losing to the wolves would take future birthday concerns off the table.
Her thumping heart could handle the demand of running through knee-deep snow and scrambling over boulders to outrun her enemy, but it couldn’t take anything happening to Nico. He might not be her blood brother, but he was hers to protect.
A sharp smell on the wind yanked her head to the right. She sniffed again to be sure. Wolf.
The pack was close by. Just as she’d planned.
Good. Nico was safe. He had to be.
But ... what would happen to Nico if the wolves killed her?
Her bear rumbled at her, attempting to convince Elianna she had options if she’d let her bear out.
Elianna rolled her eyes. She had never put her bear in a life-and-death situation, because the silly animal would rather swim—or chase that tabby cat to play with—than fight a pack of wolves. Did her bear think she actually believed this attempt to help?
Me swim, me swim, me swim, her bear said in a singsong voice.
See? Her bear was never serious. Even if Elianna could bring a bear to this fight, being exposed as a shifter in this city could blow up in her face if humans found out her true identity.
She and Nico would be hunted to sell for experiments.
The Black River pack was rumored to pay top dollar.
Shaking off that thought, Elianna sharpened her attention. Survive tonight first, then figure out how to leave this place immediately.
She’d met Lubov, a merchant ship captain, when she’d been hired at the docks to unload the smaller vessels, and the old guy liked her. As a walrus shifter, something she’d never heard of before she’d met him, he would understand her dilemma better than a human would.
He’d once told her if she was ever in trouble to come to him.
She was in much trouble.
He might let her owe him for the fare.
With each breath she drew, icy air spiked her lungs and stung like tiny needles, but still, she preferred the cold.
Her nose twitched. The stink of wolf came from the left this time.
They were surrounding her, hunting as a pack.
In fact, this particular bunch was rumored to pass a woman around, which meant they’d probably done the same to her mother. They must have drugged her mother or they’d have faced a polar bear who would have crushed their skulls. Elianna wouldn’t shift, but these wolves would lose body parts, favorite body parts, before she went down.
She looked longingly at where moonlight dusted the mountains and volcanoes in the distance. She could have led the pack out there where she would have had the advantage of knowing the land better than a visitor, and also of shifting if she’d decided to make that gamble, but the wolf shifters might have lost patience and come back to hunt for Nico instead.
No, this was it. She would make her stand here.
Rising to her full height, all five foot eight inches, she prepared for the attack.
Then she heard them moving in.
They weren’t being quiet. They didn’t care that she heard them coming. They wanted to terrorize her.
She stepped out of her cubbyhole and put her back to the brick wall, which felt like a block of ice.
Two figures emerged from behind one of the frontend loaders. They’d probably jumped the fence on that side.
Two more dropped to the right of her from the roofline, like demons spit from the night. Fifty-gallon, steel drums were stacked in a three-high pyramid on her left.
The wolves smelled of her mother’s death.
Blood splattered their faces and clothes where they’d ripped apart her body.
Elianna’s heart quivered at the horrible pain her mother must have suffered.
She hadn’t been the best example of a mother, but she didn’t deserve to be shredded by a pack of lunatic shifters.
Sharp fingers of worry clawed at Elianna.
Where was number five?
Not that she wanted one more wolf shifter to take on, but she did want every one of them here, far from Nico.
“Come on little cub,” the bald one with tattoos all the way around his neck taunted in English with a Spanish accent.
“Who is leader?” she demanded while she tried to think her way out of this alive. She began to doubt the possibility unless some guardian angel hanging around wanted to perform a miracle.
Nope. No flutter of wings.
Elianna had been taking care of herself for a long time. This was no different.
The wolves looked at each other, then at her with confusion.
Stressed, she had reverted to Russian.
She repeated the question, but in English this time so they would understand her.
“Me. Call me Varga. I am in charge,” bald guy replied, laughing as he pretended to introduce himself.
Looking past their baggy pants and nylon jackets, she could see that they were skinny, dangerously thin. Also, she had one to two inches in height on these guys, but hungry shifters of any size turned into vicious killing machines.
She’d bet their lack of muscle was due to drugs and not to going hungry.
Regardless of their size, they had soulless eyes that glowed more yellow than the amber color she’d have expected.
Plus, there were four.
“We are good guys. We give you chance to do this easy way, bitch,” Varga said without a bit of sympathy in his tone.
Lies. Always lies from men.
The pack began easing forward.
She sidestepped to the left.
They smiled, clearly happy to herd her toward the stacked barrels. She wasn’t as fluid as a wolf at jumping high, so they could reach the top of the barrels ahead of her. She had only one choice and that was brute strength.
She fisted her hands to hide any tremors and asked, “Why kill woman?”
Varga shrugged. “We like to kill. She deserved it. Consider her death service for community.”
“She harmed no one,” Elianna countered.
He sneered. “She was slut, which I would not hold against her, but she refused wolf shifter. She was whore for humans.” He spit on the ground. “Worse than slut.”
Elianna said, “Mistake to kill that one. She was under Romanov Kamchatka alpha protection.” That might be a complete lie, but Elianna had always wondered why Alexandre Romanov had never sent a bear shifter to demand her mother declare herself to their clan and king.
She’d asked her mother about his clan once and received no answer, only a sharp warning that Elianna avoid asking questions about that clan or their alpha.
Elianna had done as her mother asked.
Just look where that had landed both of them.
The half circle her attackers formed pulled closer every second.
With Elianna’s next step back, her heel bumped a metal drum.
“No shifter king protects a whore,” Varga scoffed. “If he did, he would mark territory.”
She was running out of anything to say, but had one more critical question, one that required arrogance to get an answer.
“Where is other wolf? Is he coward, afraid to fight female?” That came out sounding like she had a sick stomach instead of ringing with confidence.
She had no play left. She smiled in the face of death.
Stupid, maybe, but it made her feel better to not show the bone-cold fear inside her.
One of Varga’s pack members answered her. “That one? He has best nose of pack. Someone had to find brat we saw in picture with you.”
Nico! “You all die!” she yelled.
The one on the far left attacked first.