This is a free sample of the first chapter of Dire Wolf Wanted (Ice Age Shifters Book 4), a paranormal romance by Carol Van Natta.
California ~ Present Day
Arvik Inuktan tapped the icon for patient notes on his tablet as he assessed the woman on the clinic bed. The unconscious shifter looked like something the dog dragged in. It was a distinct improvement over five days before, when she’d looked like death. Arvik smiled wryly at his own dark humor, because both comparisons were true. Her broken, bloody body had been delivered by the auction house guard, who happened to be a force-changed wolf shifter who virulently hated all other shifters. He’d clearly believed she was dead, because he’d left her unchained on the prisoner transport cart in the hall outside the clinic without a word.
Arvik felt the spark of life even before he’d touched her. His auction-house bosses, facility manager Aldenrud and the wizard Balton, thought they’d hired a thirty-five-year-old human academic wizard from Andorra named Arturo Muntanya de Vega Díaz. His knowledge of both technology magic and healing spells saved them the cost of hiring two people.
If they or the owners knew who they’d really hired, they would have killed him instantly. Fortunately, they hadn’t looked past the sneering, entitled, clothes-horse façade they’d all expected from his prestigious résumé and references, and his supposed need to lie low for a while owing to mundane European politics. They thought they had him pegged.
It gave him the freedom to save Rayne Chekal’s life. The guards had clearly intended to end her by their savage beating. In the course of the five days and the considerable magical energy it had taken to heal her, he’d made three impossible discoveries.
First, she had more free magic than most shifters, and he’d been able to direct it to help heal her without her shifting, which should have been impossible. All shifters had superb recuperative powers, but recovering from catastrophic injuries usually took shifting to their non-injured form to heal them.
Second, he couldn’t figure out her true animal form or her scent. Her records said maned wolf, with a bad photo of a tall, slender, stilt-legged wolf with a shoulder mane, but his magic said subtle illusion, which made no sense. The intake examiner had completely missed it. Her scent varied from one whiff to the next, which should be impossible. At that moment, she smelled of viburnum and granite. The auctioneer complained that customers wouldn’t buy her because she smelled like rot. Arvik had studied and practiced magic all over the world but had never come across anything like it.
Third, the usually dormant and thoroughly hidden parts of him had woken up to insist she belonged to him, and he to her.
Never mind that he’d been taught that his kind weren’t true shifters and couldn’t have true mates. Never mind that in nearly five hundred years of living, he’d never found reason to doubt it. Never mind that exposing his true nature would get him murdered, probably by her. True shifters hated his kind, with good reason.
Chekal’s eyelids twitched. She’d exhibited increasing signs of regaining consciousness for the last half hour, and he couldn’t let her see or smell him. Mating instinct might already be compromising his judgment. When the auction house unraveled, they’d each be lucky to get out alive on their own, without being a potential vulnerability to each other.
He closed his tablet without making any notes, then pulled back the sheet so he could wrestle her floppy limbs into the unisex sweatpants and T-shirt that constituted the prisoner uniform. He might not be able to acknowledge her existence, but he’d be damned if he’d leave her undressed for the guards to ogle. Shifter indifference to nudity still titillated some of them. He lifted her and placed her gently on the cart, arranging her limbs to look as if he’d shoved her onto it. Attaching the cart’s shackles and chains to her ankles and wrists took but moments. Rather than add the chained, charmed collar, he used magic to render it unrepairable, as he’d done with any cart he got his hands on. Maintenance—and morale—in the facility were at all-time lows.
He brushed her wavy dark bronze hair back and memorized her beautiful brown face, which had faint laugh lines visible even when she slept. He allowed himself one long moment to imagine a different life path. Strolling in sunlight, instead of sneaking in shadows, with a smiling woman by his side.
He stood, grinding his teeth, sliding into his perpetually prickly persona, Arturo Muntanya de Vega Díaz, the man the world owed recompense for being forced to live in an underground compound full of low-life shifters and small-minded guards. Arturo might be stuck in a menial job for the time being, but he was destined for better things than illegal auction houses that sold kidnapped shifters and other magical creatures to unscrupulous buyers.
Arvik clomped down the administrative wing hallway in his heavy boots, pulling the wheeled cart behind him. Cracks and dust everywhere gave mute testimony to the strength of the earthquake four days ago that changed everything and sped up his timetable.
All the fairies, elves, and other ancient-race captives, and easily three-quarters of the shifters, had taken advantage of the damaged cells and ruptured magical spells to escape. The hunters only recaptured about fifteen shifters. Aldenrud and Balton hastily moved up the date of an exclusive cash-only collectors’ sale to get top dollar for the remaining inventory before word got out.
Despite a memo from the executive board declaring they’d build again elsewhere, Arvik knew the business was fatally wounded. Not even Aldenrud, with his fabled financial-turnaround specialist skills or the powerful wizard talents of Magister Balton could save it.
Arvik had already alerted his real bosses about the perfect opportunity to capture not just the staff and the buyers, but the secret wizard owners, who would surely want their last crumbs of profits before scattering like cockroaches exposed in the bright kitchen light. He stopped in front of the two guards who stood at the top of the ramp that led down to the cells. “Chekal is fixed. Where do you want her?”
Foster, the wolf-shifter guard, looked at a paper list. “Seven. I’ll show you.”
“Not so fast, Mister Wizard,” said Perry, a slender, sallow-faced guard with a utility belt full of weapons she toyed with a lot. “Why didn’t you use the collar? She’s dangerous. Nearly killed Briggs.”
“Broken.” He waggled his fingers and spoke as if to a toddler. “All the pretty magic leaked out.”
“Policy says…” Perry’s expression soured. “Oh, who the fuck cares? Go.”
Arvik followed Foster and trudged down the ramp with the cart into the only prisoner wing not totally ruined by the earthquake or the subsequent flood when the underground water supply system cracked open.
A sharp-edged jangle of dissonant spells assaulted his magical senses. Magister Balton had sledge-hammered shifter-containment spells on top of the existing fairy- and elf-containment spells instead of redoing them. Arvik didn’t have to feign irritation by the time he got to the cell door. Foster put two fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly.
The eight shifters in the cell glared or snarled at him, but complied with his order to move and stand with their backs to the walls. All captives had learned the hard, painful way not to disobey.
Foster used the control panel to open the cell door, then readied a lightning rod, a baton that emitted enough amperage to stop any shifter cold and dead. Arvik warily eyed the cell’s occupants as he rolled the cart in. He recognized them all from pictures, but he’d had two of them in his clinic more than once. Mondo was the berserker gorilla shifter who goaded the guards, even though they often left him unconscious, and Lerro was the crazy, palsied mysterious shifter who couldn’t be forced by anyone or anything to reveal his animal.
Privately, Arvik couldn’t imagine why Lerro was still alive. The guards had to shoot him with tranquilizer darts just to get him to the auction block without a vicious fight, and no one was buying.
Arvik removed the shackles. He sent a wordless apology that Chekal would never get, then unceremoniously rolled her off the cart onto the floor.
Foster whistled again for attention and thumped the lightning rod against the heel of his hand. “Don’t damage her, or we’ll fry you.”
Arvik took the cart without a backward glance, using the reflection in the opposite cell’s mirror spell to watch the shifters. Everyone eyed Chekal and Foster except shuddering Lerro, who watched Arvik in the same reflection.
A wisp of subtle magic brushed Arvik’s senses, even through the magic-charged atmosphere of the prisoner wing. He’d been in the spy game a long time for a variety of causes, and recognized confluence magic when he felt it. Rare and dangerous, especially if the catalyst couldn’t control it, but unlikely events suddenly became more possible.
Whether it would be to his advantage, or Rayne Chekal’s, or the other captives, was anyone’s guess.
Foster closed the cell door and activated the mirror spell, then led the way back up the ramp to the central hub, where the spokes for the various wings intersected. Arvik followed sullenly behind.
At the top of the ramp, Arvik looked around. “Just you two on shift? What happened to the Armadillos?”
Most of the human guards were gone, either from death and injury or simply abandoning their jobs, despite the promised pay raise and cash bonus. From his snooping, he’d learned the kreshiks, the non-human, armor-plated, tusked guards, had all been pulled for a special raid in northern Canada, but he wanted to know what the remaining staff knew.
Perry shrugged. “Two died when E Wing collapsed. Rioting shifters killed Roazer during the esca…, uh, recent blowout sale.” She rolled her eyes at the last descriptor, which management had insisted they all use.
Foster plopped himself on the stool in front of several tables and carts with mismatched security monitors. “Good riddance.” He jiggled a cable in a wired hub. The facility’s sophisticated control room hadn’t survived what a dragon acid and an otherworld fairy portal did to it. “She started more fights than she stopped.”
Arvik pushed the cart to where the others were lined up against the wall.
Perry’s mouth twisted. “The rest of the Dillos got sent yesterday for some newly discovered glory prize up north.” She made a disgusted noise. “Not like we needed them to catch runaways or anything.”
Foster shook his head. “Might have helped if those stupid chips we had to shoot into shifter asses worked better and we caught more of the escapees. No way the goddamn Shifter Tribunal can look the other way now.” Popular rumor held that the Shifter Tribunal had been paid well to ignore the auction house’s activities.
Arvik wiped his hands with his white linen handkerchief, which he carefully folded when he was done. “How very like this place not to have tested them regularly.”
When he’d discovered that fact, he’d taken advantage of it to destroy the spell-laden chips in himself and every captive he healed. He’d removed Rayne’s altogether. The rest of the staff could fend for themselves.
Foster made a derisive noise. “You got that right.”
Arvik pocketed his handkerchief, then turned and clomped away toward the clinic. Arturo Díaz, talented wizard destined for greatness, was done talking to know-nothing guards.
The hidden parts of him mourned their separation from the magical shifter female they’d claimed as their own. He shut himself off from the distraction. Arvik Inuktan, elite agent of the Wizard Imperium, had a raid to plan, and less than six hours to do it.
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