This is a free sample of the first chapter of Shifter's Storm (Ice Age Shifters Book 5), a paranormal romance by Carol Van Natta.
Location Unknown ~ Present Day
Dauro ya Ketumino da’Nok de Mar lumbered up onto the bank of the impossible river and snorted forcefully to open his nose and ear flaps. The pretend sun was more than halfway toward the far horizon. He shook up and down to help his fur shed water.
The world shook. Even the distant orchard trees to his left swayed.
Dauro’s giant aquatic sloth form was massive, but not that massive. Certainly not massive enough to shake an entire magical fairy demesne.
The world shook again, longer this time. Water sloshed onto the river’s banks, lapping at his back paws.
When Nessireth, the ancient fairy who created the private fantasyland to house the collection of aquatic exotics she’d captured over the years, went on a rampage, the wind blew heat and the central castle trembled. But she’d died and turned to fairy dust two months ago.
A memory surfaced of feeling something similar a couple of hundred years ago, soon after Nessireth moved the demesne from the high, cold place to a warm island location. The demesne’s anchor had been tugged by a violent real-world storm she’d called a hurricane. After a second one a few years later, she’d used her then-abundant magic to add more anchors. That cured it.
Dauro also remembered a recent comment from Kelvin, the young pygmy hippopotamus shifter who had been Nessireth’s final acquisition. Humans were now living everywhere, and they’d been burning forests and fossils. According to Kelvin, scientists said it changed the climate, and they predicted more hurricanes.
Dauro believed it. Heat and magic were similar—increased energy in a stable spell guaranteed unstable results.
More shaking. The river water surged in a wave, wetting his front paws.
Fairy demesne magic made the circular river flow constantly to provide habitat and feeding grounds for him and the other aquatic shifters and creatures. It hadn’t ever changed… until today.
That brought home to him that he and others needed to get serious about escaping. Nessireth had bragged about spending millennia to construct her demesne, but it was decaying daily without her active magic to maintain it. The false moon wasn’t as round as it used to be, and had a noticeable pink tint. Just last week, the constant breeze had taken to gusting chaotically.
None of the captives knew what would happen if the demesne collapsed with them still inside. Dauro was certain it wouldn’t be good.
His giant sloth side liked solitary peace and quiet, but his suppressed human side knew he needed to check on the rest of his friends. Nessireth’s death had given him more freedom than the others. And his limited telepathic skills as a sloth meant he had to visit them himself. Nessireth had forced each of them to remain in their animal form, and the demesne would keep them that way forever… as long as the magic held.
As the oldest of Nessireth’s acquisitions, he’d become the sinchi, the temporary champion of the collection. In his opinion, formidable size, war experience, and a talent for magic while in animal form didn’t make him a leader, but he was the best they had.
Before his energy-saving sloth succumbed to the lure of a nap, he plunged back into the water. Digging his strong, clawed toes into the silty bank, he let the water flow over him for a minute while he thought. Downstream was the long way around the river, but wouldn’t tire him out as fast. So far, the magical protein-enriched sea grasses he depended on for food still grew overnight, but for how long?
He shoved off and let the current help him swim toward his friend Sunscar’s territory. The closer he got, the more the magic in the water felt as agitated as the river itself.
And no wonder, because the lake’s wall was breached. Instead of an orderly river running next to a placid pool, the whole area was now a flooded swamp. The demesne’s castle was already repairing the wall, but the water had no natural way to drain back into the lake.
Even worse, the damage had activated the water-based defensive spells, which were fighting with the castle’s defenses. Grab-weed tried to strangle the broken pieces of the wall, as if they were attackers. Two of the animated castle statues tore at the weeds so the wall could heal.
Dauro projected his thoughts as loudly as he could. Sunscar! Are you hurt?
After a long moment, Sunscar’s answer came as clearly as if they were in physical contact. No need to shout. Stay away from the wall. I’ll come to you.
Dauro didn’t need his friend’s warning. The semi-sentient castle had strict orders to assume that interference by the captives was another escape attempt, and to react with painful consequences.
Dauro lumbered away from the churning and sat on the lawn. The water now covered his haunches.
The temperature in the demesne was never cold enough to suit him. According to old Nessireth, he was valuable because his animal side was a very rare giant throwback to the age of ice. No wonder the river always felt like being in a volcano-heated spring.
Moments later, visible arrows of surface water waves heralded the arrival of Sunscar. His giant eel form was more versatile than it looked. He could navigate through surprisingly shallow fresh or salt water by flattening into an ovoid shape and twisting like a snake.
This is a clusterfuck. Sunscar’s disgruntlement came through his thoughts loud and clear.
Yes. Dauro didn’t know many modern human curses, but that one had been Nessireth’s last favorite. She’d learned it from one of the mercenary hunters she hired to track and capture creatures to collect or trade. How is your farm?
Clusterfucking earthquake tore apart my fences. My dinner is swimming free in the lake.
The demesne magically stocked and replenished all the water habitats with edible fish for Sunscar and the other piscivores. Dauro admired Sunscar’s scheme to corral them so he wouldn’t have to chase them around his lake when he was hungry.
I’ll look for branches and help you rebuild. But we should plan on escaping soon. The demesne is falling apart.
Sunscar’s tail thrashed. You go. There’s no place for me in the real world.
Dauro-the-sloth’s gusty sigh vibrated his nose flaps. How do you know? 1879 was a long time ago. The world has changed a lot since you came here. Maybe there’s a perfect place for you now.
More tail thrashing. Don’t worry, I promise to help the rest of you escape.
Thank you. Dauro worried about his friend but couldn’t make him go if he didn’t want to. I’m checking on the others. Do you wish to come with me?
No. I have to catch all the clusterfucking fish before sunset, or I’ll starve this evening. The false moon is dark tonight.
Okay. That was Dauro’s favorite word from the modern languages he’d overheard.
He raised himself up to as tall as he could stand on his hind legs to look for the faster current. The false bright sunlight of midday made him blink, as always. I’ll come back around later with wood for your pens.
Hmph. Sunscar turned and swam away. Niceties weren’t among his talents.
Dauro wished he could help with Sunscar’s sadness, but he and all his friends were hanging on by threads, in one way or another. Some days, he barely remembered his own name.
Old Nessireth had known perfectly well that her collection consisted of thinking, feeling, intelligent beings. She just hadn’t cared. The collection displayed her wealth and power. She relished being feared and envied by her rivals, especially the rock fairy tribe that had rejected her long ago.
Once he got back to the flowing part of the river, Dauro relaxed and let the water help him along. Sometimes, he traveled the river all day, swimming back and forth. The buoyant water helped soothe his sloth’s aversion to exercise and made his human half feel like he was going somewhere.
If he was honest, he also worried about finding a place for himself in the real world. As best he could guess, he’d been in captivity for four hundred years, most of them lonely. Eagerly befriending and seeking out tales from the newer members of the collection about how civilization had grown and changed hardly prepared him to live in it.
Humans reproduced far more prolifically than magical folk, and they’d been busy. Technology gave them the edge. The hidden magical community still only agreed on one thing: Disclosing their existence to humans would be fatal. Dauro had been locked in his sloth form so long, he could barely remember walking on two legs or what it felt like to be touched on smooth skin. And the pleasures of loving were such distant memories that they felt like dreams.
The current took him around the mid-river island with a jumble of rocks that had once been a statue of Nessireth herself.
Beyond the ruined statue, away from the castle, the unfinished rainforest stood tall and unchanging, even though rain fell each afternoon. Maybe his new freedom of movement would allow him to scour it for fallen branches and to finally find out if it had a hidden door like the old rumor said.
Up ahead in the river, the castle’s broad, arched bridge loomed. Both decorative and functional, it was wide enough for fifteen armored, sword-carrying human warriors to walk abreast. Except modern human warriors now carried something called assault rifles that could kill from a distance even farther than an atlatl sling could throw a spear. So much to learn about the real world.
Dauro slowed and projected his thoughts. Nibi’ikwe, I give you greetings. May I come closer?
Amusement threaded through Nibi’s faint reply. My river is your river. I promise not to drown you.
Is the shaking bothering your home?
Nope. The river is agitated, but the bridge is steady. Do you know what’s causing the turmoil?
Real-world hurricane, I think. The anchors might be failing.
Dismay colored Nibi’s reply. That’s not good.
No, agreed Dauro. He grabbed a huge gulp of air, then pushed off the bank to add to his momentum and dove downward, heading toward the huge, ornate bridge footing.
Nibi swam toward him as far as she could. A harness of magical Alfar metal around her neck and chest connected to an Alfar chain embedded in the rock of the footing.
Nibi had been caught by Nessireth’s hunters in the late 1950s, a real-world time Dauro couldn’t even imagine. After several nearly successful escape attempts, she’d been cruelly chained and bespelled to serve as the metaphorical troll under the bridge in the event enemies came to call. They never had, not even in the four hundred years Dauro had been captive, but fairies lived for millennia and diligently nurtured grudges.
Trolls were supposed to be ugly, but to Dauro’s eyes, Nibi was stunning. She called herself a Mishipeshu, a mythical shifter from a family clan of them in the Great Lakes area of North America. Her body looked like a dark copper-colored underwater cougar with horns. Tiny scales mimicked fur, and long flat scales along her spine could rise up to make her look threatening and inedible. Her tail was long and lithe, arrow-tipped like a ray, and her paws had webbed toes with sharp claws.
Nibi’s green-gold eyes glowed like gems. Let’s go up so you can breathe.
Dauro accepted her offer with alacrity. Between the stirred-up mud and the magic, the water was prickly and uncomfortable on his eyes and nose.
He rested on the footing edge, letting the water carry his weight, with only his head above the surface.
Nibi climbed up on the ledge above the waterline. Her scales shed water quickly, making her look like an exquisite copper figure by a master artisan.
You always think the best of us. She sent an image of a Mishipeshu who had eyes of brilliant sapphire blue and whose scales glimmered like the polished gold of kings. My sister had males of all species after her for centuries. Imagine their dismay when she life-mated with a female undine from Lake Superior.
I like your darker color better. If Dauro were better at telepathy, he could keep his thoughts private, but he’d rather be an open book than alone.
I’ve been testing my limits, like you asked. I’ve got much more access to my water magic and I think I could shift to human, but I don’t dare. The Alfar metal will burn me alive. If I’m going to escape, I still need the key. Scales rippled along her body, mirroring her agitation.
Yes, that’s the thorn in the paw. Nessireth had centuries to invent spells and acquire magic charms to keep us controlled. Tomorrow, I will ask everyone to come here. We must pool our treasures and work together.
The world shook again, roiling the river. Pebbles on the shore danced with the vibration. A gust of humid wind chilled his snout.
One of Nibi’s ears cocked forward. Tell them I’ll send whirlpools to fetch them if they don’t come.
Dauro snorted in amusement. Bad idea. Young Kelvin already thinks you want to eat him.
You’re a compassionate man. Warmth accompanied the thought.
I love you all. The shaking tapered off, but he could sense the start of another tidal wave coming in the water. We’re running out of time.
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