Taking the stairs two at a time, I panted as I climbed to the top floor for my appointment. This day had started terrible and had only gotten worse. First, I forgot to pay the water bill. Early this morning, my car got two flat tires, and now I was already ten minutes late because the stupid elevator decided not to work in this rundown building. Why did the shifter Council elect to have their meeting here? I had no idea. Not like they called me regularly; just for hexes that needed broken. Weres trusted me better than any witch or wizard, but barely.
Shifters came in all forms, from wolves, bears, to leopards. The only thing they had in common was their carnivorous and predatory nature. Even though I was half-shifter and half-witch, I doled out my services for payment. I helped out the shifter community with any nasty witch spells ‘cause shifters had a way of pissing off magic-users and then came running to me with their tails tucked between their legs. The High Council of shifters had never summoned me before. As far as I knew, they only called meetings when shifters were in trouble.
An odd sensation sent my stomach lurching as I climbed another flight of stairs. Anticipation mingled with the strong desire to run flooded me. Now what? I checked my charm bracelet for any hints on what set off my instincts, but the copper sigils were silent. Tingles of anticipation zinged through me anyway. Maybe it was nerves setting me off, like a big assignment that might finally earn me a permanent spot in the packs’ hierarchy.
Wonder what had happened that I had to come here? Had a pride offended a witch and they couldn’t change into their animal at will or something? If it wasn't for my witch heritage on my mom’s side, I wouldn’t even know about the High Council of shifters. My animal is a coyote, and I have a few extrasensory abilities, like smell and sound. Many thought me an outcast because I couldn’t transform.
Four flights above me, the scent of shifters drifted down. Wet fur, pine, and heavy cologne hung in the air.
My silver talisman bobbed against my chest and warmed suddenly. Odd. That was one that alerted me to danger. I paused, holding my hand over it, but it didn’t give me any sense of where the threat came from. Was it the meeting? Had they decided I was too much of a misfit to be an honorary member?
Shit, I wasn’t even a full-fledged witch. My magical ability was limited by spells and herbs and the few magical talismans I’d scrounged up from garage sales and occult shops to increase my power enough to be a stronger witch. For example, my cloud charm could conjure a mini-tornado and thunderstorm but without it, I might get lucky to have a sprinkle for three minutes.
No one explained the various shifter-were communities to me, much less my own Coyote heritage. I grew up in Arizona and lived with my Aunt Jess, who was a witch. The only thing I discovered about my dad was that he was a silver and gray coyote who showed up at Aunt Jess’ home with a basket in his mouth and me inside it as an infant. He howled until Jess opened the door, then ran off and hadn’t been seen since. Guess I should be thankful he didn’t leave me out in the woods that winter night.
At the next flight of stairs, my side burned. As much as I had a hard time trusting shifters, they were the only ones that paid for my abilities. Despite Aunt Jess’ connections in the magical community, no one wanted to employ a half-breed witch much less a coyote one. In some Native American history, they were believed to be tricksters. Add in that I had a smidge of magical ability and I might as well have the plague.
I pushed aside my unease as only nerves.
Finally reaching the top floor, I tried to hide the fact I was out of breath from climbing fifty flights by leaning on the banister and pretending to take in the massive white-washed walls and outlines of paintings long removed. I turned down the only hallway and spotted two shifter guards standing outside the door. I could tell by their scents that they were silverback gorilla. Neither looked at me when I approached the door.
“Hi, I’m Karen Martin. I've been summoned for meeting with the High Council."
When neither moved or looked my way, I placed my hands on my hips. "Well, if you're not going to let me pass then I guess you need to tell the high Council to give me the passcode or something next time. But I seriously doubt they’d appreciate you wasting their time."
One of the guards snickered, but didn’t glance my way. Were these guys auditioning for the Queen’s guards in England?
Guess I’d have to do this the hard way. I fingered the sigil on my charm bracelet that was the shape of a tiny doorknob. Softly, I drew the charm off and as I turned away from the two gorilla shifters, I tossed it behind me to the door. When the metal tinkled against the wood and the guards gasped, satisfaction filled me. Bye-bye door.
Like I wanted, the door had vanished, revealing everyone inside.
I strolled past the two dumbfounded guards who stood with their mouths hanging open. Everyone turned to stare as I entered the chambers to the leaders in a circle of chairs and suddenly I felt like the dessert everyone had been waiting for to gobble up. Dread slid underneath my skin, but I resisted the urge to bolt. Running only enticed many of them to chase and attack—that much I’d learned from studying and my previous encounters with them.
Shifters of every kind were present, their scents rolling over me. At the back of the room, there were twelve chairs present, one for each of the twelve types of shifters: wolves, bears, large cats, foxes, gorilla, and more. Besides a few council members, I was the only female here. That put a pause in my stride. What exactly was this meeting about?
The energy in the room sizzled to an almost tangible level. Many of the men gazed at me openly, their lust-filled thoughts easily discerned as they ogled my breasts then down to my hips and back up again. Strangely though, warmth spread through me at their masculine aroma that hung heavy in the air. There had to be at least sixty virile shifters in here.
Was this a private meeting and I’d got the information wrong? But Aunt Jess said a member of the wolf pack had come personally to request my presence and help with an urgent matter. I knew better to believe that I’d ever be accepted as a full-fledged member, not with my half-witch heritage. There was an uneasy alliance between witches and shifters that often was ignored, which is why neither trusted the other entirely. Was that why I was the only female here? As some type of crazed, secret blood ritual? They had another think coming if they thought I wouldn’t fight back.
Inside the circle of elder chairs, a man with a white beard and bald head limped forward. He waved off the two gorilla guards who had now regained their senses and were stomping toward me.
“Where’s Solomon or Travis or Cecilla?” Hell, I’d even take bitch Amii who flirted and hooked up with every male she could, even married ones, and her boyfriend was clueless. But I didn’t recognize any of these elders.
"Thank you, Karen, for seeing us on such short notice.” The old man’s voice was soft and crackly and reminded me of a Santa Claus who said Ho-Ho-Ho too many times during a cold wind.
“You’re welcome…but where’s the high council? No offense, but I’ve never seen any of you before.”
“That’s because you’ve been summoned to help on trivial matters that are handled by the lower council.”
Cool, a high and lower council and all this time, I thought I’d been dealing with the top when in fact, they’d handed me off to the squabble-dealing lowlifes. Well, that explained Amii then.
“We've asked you here for a very essential task, one that we do not take lightly nor should you. Hear us out before you make a decision."
Okay, this sounded weirdly dangerous. What could the council members need to enlist my help, but also call all of these male shifters here, too?
"How can I help?"
There were a few snickers from the crowd, and someone whispered, “Nice ass."
I turned to find the source. In the corner of the room was a man in a leather jacket and sunglasses. How could he even see with those on? I inhaled to figure out what kind of shifter he was but it was nearly impossible with all the other animals’ scents jostling in this cramped room. I pulled out one of the few empty chairs near me and sat. "As I said, I'll help in any way that I can." With payment, of course.
The elder nodded and scratched his cheek, looking mildly uncomfortable.
In front of me, a burly guy twisted in his chair to stare at me. His long hair hung over his ears. Had his barber gone on vacation when the guy really needed a trim? "We've called you because of a serious matter that is come to our attention.” The elder cleared his throat. “One that few outside of the shifter community are even aware of."
Wow! Inside information. I’d gathered what I could from libraries and begging my few shifter friends. I sat up straighter. In order to locate my father, I’d done extensive research on shifters during my teens. Later, I gave up the idea of a long-lost reunion and studied so I wouldn’t have my ass handed to me if I had to fight one. So if it wasn't in the history books or archives, then I wasn't aware of it either. And I was excited at the idea of learning something that might help me find out where my father was. Hell, I might say payment was Intel…nah. I crossed my arms and hoped I appeared nonchalant.
The elder clapped his hands and called for silence as more whispers filled the room. I felt everyone’s gaze on me and some— not in mere curiosity, but in licentious— sizing me up.
“None of the shifters here have been able to find a mate.”
Explained why they were horny and practically drooling over me, the only single female, though half-shifter, in the building. I raised an eyebrow and crossed my arms despite the apprehension swirling in my gut.
"Sorry, but I'm not in the matchmaking dating service. If that's why you’ve asked me here, you're out of luck.” I dusted off my jeans and stood, making my way to the exit. “Maybe one of the other witches can give you a locator spell or something." If they asked super nice and gave her a big enough reward. Most love spell witches had a soft spot and might be willing to work with shifters.
“Wait,” the elder called after me. “We don't call you here lightly. You are our last hope."
Shock froze me as my stomach dropped. How was I supposed to help? I had no love magic. Once I tried getting over the aversion of having an intimate relationship with a non-shifter and puked in the guy’s mouth. Jess told me that my mom had woven a powerful counter-spell so that she and dad could make me. But when I was born, it backfired, killing her. Not worth the risk.
I turned back to the elder.
The intensity of the room raised a level with the men stirring or edging to the end of their seats and a few rose. Guy in the back corner with the shades hadn’t moved and appeared bored.
Maybe I should’ve told the council to send me a query before I agreed to take the assignment. A chill of having all these men want me sent lustful visions racing through my mind. Here among the alpha males in their lustful stares began to heat up my own sexual drive.
"Are you aware of the twelve signs of the zodiac?” he questioned.
What did that have to do with anything? But I nodded and the elder smiled.
“And you know that each pack or pride is governed by a zodiac sign?"
"Yes, of course." In the human world, the astrology charts were fun, for love interest or things like that. For the shifter community, they went deeper, like the bottom of the ocean deep. The signs were slightly different, so instead of people, they were animals. Those born under the sign of Leo were actually from any type of cat-shifter pride. Those born under the sign of Cancer were actually the bear shifters, not crabs, and so on. It was based on animal species rather than birthdates.
"What you don’t know is there is a thirteenth sign that connects all twelve and is the foundation for the Council’s future generations. It is essential to keeping the peace among all shifters."
What in the world was that sign? Now that I was here, I got the distinct feeling that maybe I really didn't want to know what the extra sign was or why it was so important. Was the thirteenth zodiac so special that they wanted to do a blood sacrifice or some crazy shit to keep the peace? "What exactly are you needing with this thirteenth zodiac?"
“Only once a generation or so, a female is born under our Chimera sign. However, this time it’s been fifty years since we had someone to take her place among the packs and prides.
"So you want me to find this thirteenth gal and bring her to you?” And as soon as he said sacrifice, I was out of here. Let someone else do their dirty work.
"No," the elder shook his head, "we've already found her."
"So what the hell do you need me for?" I asked with a hand on my hip. "You need me to try to talk her into taking one for the team? Uh, no thanks." I twisted to the door and the gorilla dudes from earlier blocked my path. "Sorry, guys, but I'm done here."
I pulled the bird charm off my bracelet for a quick exit, but more shifters stood up. Their leering looks didn't make me feel any better. One winked at me and ran his tongue over his lips like I was chocolate pudding with a hidden yummy center. Strangely, I was both repulsed and turned on. What the fuck was wrong with me?
From the front of the room, the elder called out to me. "We've no need for you to find her because you, Karen, are her."
I spun around, my fist tightened around the silver charm. "What?" How was what he said possible? I was a coyote shifter, well half, but I certainly wasn't some thirteenth zodiac symbol. I would know, right? Had they lured me to only bleed me out for some bizarre ritual? If they had, they would have a fight on their hands. I rounded my shoulders and mentally checked which spell charms on my bracelet would be the most effective. I had one shaped like an ice cube for a quick freeze and escape.
“Please,” the elder said, “we mean you no harm, but we do need you prepared for what is to come."
Now that sounded even better than being a freaking blood sacrifice. My sarcasm spilled over into my pursed lips.