Somewhere outside Lobo’s cabin, a lone shot rang out.
A hunter, probably. Or a poacher. Either way, he was going to check it out. He investigated all gunshots, a habit left over from his life at MoonBound clan, when he’d been part of the security detail.
Now, as an outcast, he still patrolled Washington’s damp state forests, avoiding MoonBound warriors as best he could. For the most part, they avoided him too. And who could blame them? He was damaged goods and, as far as their chief, Hunter, was concerned, a traitor as well.
Hunter was also a huge asshole.
Lobo looked over at the sleek silver wolf lying on the rug in front of the woodstove. She wagged her tail, her ears perking when, in the distance, wolves howled into the twilight, their songs joining a symphony of hooting owls, screeching jays, and chittering squirrels that didn’t seem to be bothered by the gunfire at all.
“You wanna go see what’s out there, Tehya?”
She jumped up and rushed to the door, nearly knocking him over in her excitement. Once outside, she slipped away into the brush, disappearing like a ghost as he started jogging in the direction the shot had come from. He didn’t worry about her; she’d catch up eventually.
He stopped atop a rocky ridge to search for signs of human activity in the thousands of acres of Pacific Northwest forest he called home. A welcome breeze blew in from the north and he lifted his face into it, letting it chase away the day’s spring heat like a cougar sprinting after a herd of elk.
As a vampire, Lobo didn’t feel heat and cold the way humans did. His body was designed to tolerate temperature extremes that would kill wimpy-ass humans. Not that the weather was a concern at this time of year. No, the concern, as always, was that humans were hunting the creatures that lived in the forest.
And that included vampires.
Reaching out with his mind—a talent forbidden by most vampire clans—he located the closest pack. As far as he knew, the wolves couldn’t feel him the same way he felt them, and unless they were within a hundred yards or so, he couldn’t communicate with them either. But once he connected with a wolf face to face, he could locate it with his mind in a matter of seconds no matter how far away it was.
He mentally counted the members of what he knew as the Sequoia pack; satisfied that they were all accounted for and hadn’t been poached, he let them go and started off again.
He hadn’t gone more than a couple of hundred yards when Tehya’s presence prickled his skin and whispered through his mind like the soft rustle of leaves on the ground.
She was unique, this wolf, an individual the likes of which he’d never encountered in his nearly hundred and twenty years of life. He pivoted as she stepped out of the brush.
The instant her intense yellow eyes met his, an image flashed in his head, something that had happened once or twice a day for the last twelve years. The image was always the same: a tall, willowy vampire with dark shoulder-length hair and yellow-amber eyes. She was beautiful. Mysterious. And always naked.
“You know,” he said softly, “I really wish you could tell me about this woman you keep projecting into my brain.”
Tehya stepped closer, her huge paws landing silently on the soft ground, her powerful shoulders rolling. Another image of the woman popped into his head. She was walking toward him, her gemstone eyes holding him captive as her long, bare legs covered the distance between them.
Perspiration coated his palms, and he found himself actually reaching for her, curious to learn if that skin was as soft as it looked.
Then the image was gone, and Tehya’s tail was wagging, her tongue lolling out of her mouth as she bounded toward him in big, goofy hops, wanting to run and play. Mystery woman forgotten, he braced himself for impact, and a heartbeat later, wolf paws the size of his hands slammed into his chest as Tehya bathed his face with her tongue.
Laughing, he ruffled his fingers through her fur and scritched behind her big ears. Sweet Maker, he loved this girl. She’d come to him at the lowest point of his life, when he’d realized he had nothing to live for.
Nearly dead when he found her, she was so weak from starvation that she couldn’t stand. She’d been covered in ice and wounds, likely from other wolves or coyotes, and for days he’d wondered whether it would have been kinder to put her out of misery instead of nurse her back to health.
But she’d survived, and it hadn’t taken him long to figure out that she wasn’t . . . normal. For a while he thought she might be a skinwalker like himself, able to shift form into that of an animal.
It would explain why, even though she was at least twelve years old, she possessed the physique and energy of a yearling wolf. The problem with that particular theory was that, as far as he knew, skinwalkers couldn’t remain in animal form for more than a few hours. Not even Lobo, who was an extremely powerful skinwalker, perhaps the most powerful ever to have existed, could maintain a morph for more than a day, and even then the form he chose had a lot to do with how long he could remain in the transformed body.
There was, he supposed, another explanation for Tehya’s uniqueness and the image of the woman. Within the dank underground walls of MoonBound headquarters, he’d been an orphan raised on tales of vampires whose totem animals could take physical form, and it was said that the vampire who was linked to the animal could communicate through it. If so, and Tehya was one of these physical totem animals, her vampire counterpart could be anywhere in the world.
She might even be a slave in some human’s household.
The idea that the female Tehya projected into his mind was a slave made him snarl viciously enough for Tehya to back away, her ears drooping.
“That wasn’t for you,” he said, giving her another ruffle on the head.
Transgression forgiven, she wagged her tail and bowed playfully, doing her best to entice him into a run.
What the hell. They could run while he searched for whoever had fired the weapon.
Grinning, he closed his eyes and concentrated, and a moment later the familiar burn of his muscles stretching and contracting began. Pain racked him and blackness stole his vision as his bones broke and reformed and his skin sprouted fur. Gradually the pain faded, and he opened his canine eyes to find a different view of the world.
Tehya nipped his furry shoulder and took off at full speed, ears pinned to her skull, tail streaming behind her. Reveling in his black-furred wolf body, he chased after her, his tail high, his giant paws digging into the soft, moist earth.
Elation sang through him. This was what he lived for. The sheer joy of the wind in his face and a friend to keep him company.
It would be even better if I had a female two-legged friend too.
He stumbled like a cub learning to use its legs, and he swore Tehya laughed. As she should. He wasn’t cut out to be with other people, and he had no business having those kinds of thoughts. He was too dangerous, and no one let him forget that.
Tehya slowed to snatch up a stick to tease him with, and after a few playful attempts to take the stick from her, he let go of his regrets and surrendered to the simple life he’d learned to love since Tehya entered his world as an emaciated, half-frozen wretch more than a decade ago.
They ran for miles, chasing deer and rabbits along the way to find the shooter, and once he had to plunge into a river to avoid a grumpy black bear sow with cubs. Tehya went in the opposite direction, and as he pulled himself out of the stream, her howl, maybe half a mile away, rose up into the darkening sky.
He shook the water out of his fur and started trotting in her direction, but as he cut through a valley that had recently been the site of a massive battle among three vampire clans and humans, another gunshot shattered the air. A gut-wrenching howl of pain cut through the forest, freezing him in his tracks.
Terror turned Lobo’s marrow to jelly as he morphed back into his vampire form and sprinted in a mad rush through the trees, smashing through branches and leaping fallen logs and low-lying gullies. The sickening, metallic tang of wolf blood hit him even before the stench of the human who had fired the gun.
He burst over a ridge, and there, writhing in a rapidly expanding pool of blood, was Tehya, her hip blown open, bone and flesh spilling out through the ragged wound. And standing a few feet away, a man was taking a picture of his handiwork as the wolf flailed in agony.
A fucking picture.
What kind of sick asshole allowed an animal to suffer? And took photos of it?
With a roar of white-hot rage, Lobo slammed into the poacher, knocking him into a tree with so much force that he heard the crack of both wood and bone before the guy crumpled, unconscious, to the ground.
Unwilling to waste even the fraction of a second it would take to kill the scumbag, Lobo rushed over to Tehya. His heart clenched at the fear and pain swimming in her soulful eyes. Her chest rose and fell with her uneven, shallow breaths, and blood bubbled from her mouth.
“No,” he whispered. “Sweet Maker, no.”
She’d been the light in his life for the last twelve years, the reason he’d gone from merely existing to living. The reason loneliness hadn’t been the catalyst for a swan dive off the nearest cliff. He had to save her.
But it wasn’t as if there was a veterinarian hanging out over the next hill. The nearest town between here and Seattle was still at least an hour away at top speed. Carrying Tehya’s hundred pounds of dead weight would slow him considerably, and he didn’t think she’d survive the trip even if he could fly. And even if by some miracle a veterinarian could save her, he had little money. He got his food, clothing, and other necessities by trading venison, fish, or handmade bows and arrows.
His mind spun with alternatives, but it always came back to one option. The only option.
The vampire clan that had banished him decades ago had a doctor.
Very gently, he gathered Tehya in his arms. She didn’t protest or even whimper in pain, which wasn’t a good sign. As quickly as he could, he tore through the forest until he reached the hidden MoonBound entrance carved into the side of a stone mountain face.
Memories assailed him, both good and bad but mostly the latter, as his time as a MoonBound member came back to him. He no longer possessed the mark that would allow him entrance, and he knew no one would let him inside. But there was a way around that.
A dangerous way. A forbidden way.
In his arms, Tehya took a deep, shuddering breath. The sound of her blood dripping onto his boot was louder than it should be, and his gut wrenched in anguish as her life drained from her body.
Screw the danger. Fuck the forbidden.
He had to do this.
Closing his eyes, he summoned the image of MoonBound’s chief, a powerful vampire descended from the original twelve who, centuries ago, had spread the vampirism virus through North American native tribes. The familiar pain washed over Lobo as his body morphed, but unlike earlier when he’d shifted into a wolf, the pain was mild. He and Hunter were similar in size, weight, and, most likely, heritage, lessening the discomfort of his bones breaking and reforming, his joints popping and contorting.
When it was over, he was, theoretically, the spitting image of the black-haired, sharp-featured clan leader—right down to the MoonBound symbol that would allow him to enter the clan’s residence.
He didn’t waste another heartbeat standing around, but as he stepped across the threshold, he wondered how much longer he had to live. Merely impersonating another vampire had been bad enough to get him banished from MoonBound seventy years ago. But impersonating a clan chief?
That was a death sentence.