This is a free sample of the first chapter of Heart of a Dire Wolf (Ice Age Shifters Book 2), a paranormal romance by Carol Van Natta.
Location Unknown ~ Present Day
Skyla Chekal wrinkled her nose when she got a whiff of herself as she rolled over on the thin pad to face the cell bars. Despite the forceful ventilation system, despite periodic hose-downs, and despite the heavy-duty suppression spells and magical dampeners, prison stank.
She was definitely adding to the stench. The shapeless gray sweatpants and loose T-shirt issued to her clung to her in uncomfortable places. She desperately needed a thirty-minute hot shower to wash off the pervasive odors of fear, rage, despair, and confinement stress. She was lucky. Unlike most shifters, she could tolerate small, enclosed spaces for long periods. She’d have never completed her doctorate without being able to practically live in dorms and library study rooms, some a lot smaller than her thirteen-by-tweny-foot holding cell.
Every high-pitched whine of a miserable fairy or keening shifter increasingly grated on her nerves. The magical sound dampeners had obviously been designed and cast by wizards with normal human hearing. It apparently hadn’t occurred to them that shifters and other magical creatures had a wider range.
None of the unwilling guests she’d talked to in the underground complex had any idea where in the world they all were, and she’d lost track of time. She didn’t know if it had been four weeks or five since she and her older sister Rayne had been ambushed in a Los Angeles alley.
It had been only chance that she and Rayne were together at all. Rayne’s job as an investigator took her away from her Los Angeles apartment more often than not, and Skyla lived in Santa Barbara while she finished her doctorate. She’d driven to L.A. for a dinner with Rayne to celebrate the submittal of her dissertation just that morning. Getting her doctorate was the first big milestone on her plan for a teaching career mixed with research. If she lived through this, she hoped the university would grant her an extension for missing her dissertation defense appointment. Not every student could say they’d been kidnapped to be sold into magical slavery.
She’d only glimpsed Rayne a few times since awakening in the sterile exam room and being shoved in a cell, and she worried about how her active, outdoorsy, do-it-now sister was handling being caged. Their jailers did everything possible to keep their magical prisoners off balance and under control, including shuffling cell assignments, and unpredictable schedules for feeding time and lights out. The trips to the auction block, where shifters were poked, prodded, bullied, and sometimes bloodied by prospective buyers, seemed equally random.
In the semi-darkness, Skyla inched herself as close as she dared to the dangerous bars. Their magical punch could knock her out for hours, but she’d discovered that very power created a neutral zone for some of the suppression spells. Knowledge had power of its own. The more she knew about the magical protections, the mix of human and non-human guards who had defensive spells and weapons galore, and what kinds of shifters were in the holding cells, the better chance she had to reunite with her sister and escape. Skyla wasn’t fearless or a natural leader like Rayne, so even if she could figure out how to escape her cell, she couldn’t leave without her sister.
And, if the moon goddess cared anything for the lives of individual shifters, Skyla also wasn’t leaving without her mate.
At least, she thought that singular, toe-curling, breathtaking scent had to be that of her mate. It was just like her mated friends described—the most attention-getting, enticing scent in the world, that made her want to roll in it, until it saturated every cell in her body. That made her want to jump his bones before even finding out his name. That made her ready to embrace whatever species he was.
Because, of course, the best possible time to run across one’s true mate was as a prisoner, under constant threat of death or worse, and looking—and smelling—like something a buzzard stole from a lizard.
She’d moved her sleeping pad close to the deadly bars just to catch occasional whiffs of that scent. She was pretty sure her mate was male, because while she liked women, she’d never desired sex with them. She wished she knew what he looked like, or at least knew his name, but she’d take what she could get. She was fortunate; some shifters went centuries, or even a lifetime, without ever finding a mate. Her well-hidden inner beast stopped its near-constant howling whenever she smelled his scent, and she even managed a few hours of sleep when the overhead lights were out.
From the far back corner of her cell, she heard the low-pitched growl of her latest roommate. The guards who’d shoved her into the new cell warned her that, despite his pronounced palsy, he was feral—human-shaped but with the mind of his beast—and dangerous.
She had the impression he’d been captive for a long time. Apparently, no one had wanted to buy a shifter who couldn’t talk, shook like he was having a seizure, and couldn’t be forced to shift into his animal shape. Bad dreams visited Lerro often, and the guards kept him drugged to the eyeballs and magically compelled just to get him to and from the auction block without a knock-down, drag-out fight.
To honor Lerro’s bravery and stubborn defiance, she’d been sharing what little magic she could spare to help his own shifter strength counteract the drugs and fight off the compulsion spells. She sent him a thread now, too low-level to trip the multiple magical alarms, but enough to help him relax into dreamlessness. She wished Rayne was there to help. She’d know what to do.
Skyla stayed still for as long as she could bear it, using her magical senses to investigate the set of spells that controlled the cell doors. She’d never met another shifter with as much free magic as she had, and she hid it well, so the slave traders’ intake staff hadn’t noticed her talent. She’d worked out the rest of the spells in place in the prison area and knew how to unravel them quickly, but the door spells were cleverly linked to the central monitoring room and the identity charms and weapons the staff carried. She needed one of each to be sure she could break them all, and sadly, the guards weren’t cooperating by carelessly leaving them behind for her to study.
She finally sat up, frustrated from wanting to be enveloped by the man who owned that scent, and her human form aching from the cold that radiated from the concrete floor. She considered shifting, but as stressed as she was, she couldn’t be sure her illusion would hold for any length of time. Her true beast could tolerate being far colder. Since being captured, she’d only shifted once using her illusion, and briefly, to avoid a cattle prod. The auctioneers thought they were selling a shy, skittish South American maned wolf. She and Rayne had improved the illusion spell over the years, to where it was almost built into the marrow of their bones, but it hadn’t been designed to be undetectable to prying wizards. Remedying that was high on her project list, right after breaking out with her mate and her sister and getting as far away as possible. Visualizing her goals helped keep paralyzing fear and spiraling worry at bay.
The harsh overhead lights hummed and blinked on. She stood and stretched, then crossed to the small plastic sink and cold metal toilet. She used the toilet, then drank from the sink and rinsed off her face. She finger-combed her filthy hair, which felt like a bird’s nest.
It hadn’t taken her long to figure out the auctioneers weren’t selling shifters for their beauty; they sold them for their inherent magical strength. Humans with shifter-mate potential got showers, soap, and new clothes to make them attractive to shifter groups who were too incompetent or corrupt to find mates on their own. Shifters, if they were unbearably stinky, got sprayed down with industrial hoses. She knew that better than most. Before she’d been separated from her sister, she’d tweaked their illusion spells to make them both smell subtly of decay and rot. She’d been hosed down eight times since her arrival, after would-be buyers complained.
So far, she and Rayne had managed to keep their secrets, but every new day increased the likelihood that some asshole wizard would take a closer look.
She rolled up her thin sleeping pad and stowed it on the narrow ledge at the back of the cell, per the rules. She approached her roommate and extended her toe cautiously to nudge his outstretched foot. “Lerro.”
He gave a half-snort and turned his head. A shudder racked his torso.
She nudged harder. “Rise and shine.”
Lerro sat up in a blur of motion, snarling through unnaturally elongated teeth and striking out with fists and feet. Expecting it, Skyla jumped out of the way. She hadn’t been fast enough the first time. Her jaw had hurt for hours.
He’d growled and glared at her every day since, but she refused to treat him like an animal. “You just aren’t a morning person, are you?” She pointed toward the cell door.
“Unless you want to miss feeding time at the zoo, get up.” The guards only offered meals to awake, human-shaped, compliant prisoners.
Lerro hissed at her, but the effect was ruined when he yawned. He clumsily rolled up his pad and put it on the ledge.
She watched as he stumbled toward the sink. He seemed to be moving better than he had been before lights-out, after another failed trip to the auction block. She belatedly wondered if she was doing him any favors by helping him with her magic. If he seemed more alert and less damaged, someone might take a chance and buy him.
She turned away to give him the illusion of privacy, even though shifter senses left little to the imagination. Every shifter was always aware of the private business and intimacies of others, whether they wanted to be or not.
A phantom magical sensation alerted her to the proximity of her sister. Relief flooded her, because it had been much fainter for the last week, like when Rayne had been in Kenya last year. When they’d been young and untamed, their parents had traded with a golden elf in Wyoming for a magical locator link between all four of them. Her mother was dead, and their father had vanished off the face of the Earth two years ago, but the link still worked between her and Rayne.
When she heard the chains of the shackles, she moved close to the bars. The shadow spells that blocked prisoners from seeing into the nearby cells didn’t block their view of the wide corridor.
Shock froze her at her first glimpse of Rayne, who was surrounded by four guards and trailed by a fifth. Her sister looked like a feral version of herself, with unkempt frizzy hair, a bloody nose, and torn sweats with visible bloody whip welts underneath. Nothing sane remained in her half-shifted, solid brown eyes.
Skyla whimpered. “Rayne…” Only the painful warning tingle stopped her from reaching through the bars.
A husky guard accidentally stepped on the trailing chain of Rayne’s ankle shackles, causing her to stumble.
A dark-skinned, black-haired guard thumped her hard on the hip with a metal nightstick. “Bad dawg!”
In a flash, Rayne crouched and grabbed the nightstick with both hands, then used it to ram the guard’s belly. He folded and collapsed, but two other guards attacked in practiced unison, each going for Rayne’s knees with their batons. Rayne dodged by jumping, as if the heavy shackles weighed nothing.
The trailing guard, a sadistic creature with tusks, horns, and an armored hide, hurled a sparkling magical fireball into Rayne’s back. Magical shockwaves sparked against the cell bars up and down the corridor. Rayne grunted and fell to her knees. She bared her elongated teeth and growled a bone-chilling threat. Shifters up and down the cell block howled.
Skyla clenched her fists. “Rayne, stay down!” Skyla couldn’t use magic to help, or she’d set off the alarms.
Rayne sprang to her feet and grabbed the heads of the two human guards, then rammed them together and slammed them to the floor.
Caged shifters cheered when Rayne bent a metal nightstick and used it to hook the arm of the hated, thick-hided guard. The fireball the guard had been about to cast skittered across her own armored skin like lightning, leaving a chaotic pattern of scorch marks on her arm and chest. The guard roared louder than a freight train. More guards appeared to wade into the fray.
In the end, it took eight fully-armed guards to subdue one maddened shifter who had finally lost herself to mindless instinct.
Skyla dropped to her knees in helpless horror as the guards continued to savagely beat her sister into a barely recognizable mass of blood spatter and broken bones. The final blow was a fireball that left a blackened scorch mark on Rayne’s stomach as her T-shirt burned away.
The tiny magical connection between Skyla and her sister faded to nothing.
A guard bent to check the carotid pulse, then shook his head.
The blood-soaked, armor-hided guard held out her hand with another sparking fireball in her palm, glaring triumphantly at each of the cells. “Who elssse wantssss to die?”
From deep within the heart of Skyla’s beast arose an implacable rage, drawing her to her feet. She shuffled slowly backward to the far back wall of the cell. Taking two centering breaths, she focused all her attention on the bars as she gathered her carefully hoarded magic. Once she blasted through the bars, she would show the guards what she really was…
The next thing she knew, Lerro tackled her to the floor. With his full weight on top of her, he hissed softly in her ear. “Do not die.”
She snarled at him. “Let me go!” She borrowed her beast’s strength to buck him off so she could twist away.
He tackled her again and put his mouth next to her ear. “No one to live for?” His body shuddered, but he held on. “No friends?” His words were more breath than sound. “No mate?”
A powerful scent memory flashed through her, piercing the blind, black anger of her berserk beast. If she succeeded in killing the armor-hided creature, the guards would kill her as a warning to the others. Then she’d never even find out if her mate felt the call, or if he liked snow, or tasted as divine as he smelled. Her sister had died before ever finding her true mate. How could Skyla throw away her own chance?
Lerro must have felt her relax, because he rolled off her and crawled away. He fell onto his side, trembling and panting.
Rage and loss threatened to drown her, so she turned her focus to Lerro. She wasn’t all that surprised to learn he could talk. She very badly wanted to pepper him with a million questions, but that would expose one of his secrets.
A loud clatter from the corridor had her climbing to her feet. Everyone in the shifter holding cells knew that sound. “Oh look, the maids are here.”
Within minutes, a pair of guards dragged a four-inch hose in front of their cell. “Hug the walls. Now!”
She and Lerro flattened themselves against opposite walls. The guards opened the valve to unleash a forceful spray of soapy water onto the cell’s floor. Her bare feet ached from the cold. Lerro caught her eye, a newly intelligent gleam in his. He looked to the guards, then back to her again. A shudder racked him, and his eyes rolled back in his head. Skyla looked at the burly human guards. As usual, it took two of them to hold the hose steady so it didn’t buck like a bronco. As usual, the water had a bit of magic mixed in with the soap and smelled of chemicals and metal. What was she supposed to be looking at?
She was about to risk a questioning glance at Lerro when it hit her. She’d seen it a dozen times and never thought about it. The magic of the bars should have repelled the water but didn’t.
She opened her magical senses wide and sent low-level probes to test the bars and the water, to see how they worked together. Unlike most of the lazy, brute-force spells she’d encountered in the underground prison, the interconnected security spells for the cell bars and doors were subtle and elegant. She sure as hell didn’t want to meet the dangerous and gifted wizard who’d created them.
She made herself look away, as if uninterested. Lerro was very much more than he seemed. She owed him twice, once for showing her the water magic, and once for preventing her from committing suicide.
Skyla wasn’t the right person to plan a great escape, but with Rayne gone, she’d have to do. She still planned to avenge Rayne’s death and do as much damage to the prison as possible, but she’d do it on her terms, and help as many people as she could in the process. Only together did they have a chance at freedom.
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