Pam had awoken to a number of interesting alarm clocks in her thirty years of life, but none had ever worked quite so well as the liquid heat of her scar mark. Comforting warmth, slowly rising in degrees, suffused the serpentine network of copper-colored filaments. The upper temperatures flirted with the edge of pain. Despite overwhelming exhaustion, when the fourth cycle veered into scalding territory, she came instantly alert in the backseat of the speeding Alpha Elite's truck. Panicked hands flew to her nape, unable to resist the instinctive response to check for burns. Finding no physical evidence of a wound, she turned to glare at Shane.
Pam did not appreciate his casual abuse of the scar mark. She didn't know if it was the passage of time or level of use that strengthened the bond, but she didn't want to take any chances. Shane narrowed his haloed eyes at her from the neighboring seat. He seemed agitated with her, almost threatening, but Pam knew that couldn't be the case, or at least it shouldn't be. She opened her mouth to speak when her mark flared again. The forgotten metaphysical tether made its presence known. Seconds later, she broke through her seat belt clasp, whipping across the bench seat toward the Komodo. Pam collapsed in a boneless slump against him, the tugging strain at her navel impossible to ignore. The lightning fast motion made her nauseous, but worse was the horrible all consuming fear of becoming a human marionette. What the hell was going on?
With infinite care, Shane enveloped Pam's slouched body. His languid slide against her form created an impenetrable wall between her and the front seats. The tether's pull dissipated while the mark sustained a maddening tingle; its soft russet glow teased her peripherals. Her breath came in short pants. Shane's all encompassing proximity was a looming black hole siphoning oxygen from her lungs. He straddled her lap, and then leisurely lowered his knees, his lithe chest gliding smooth against hers. Despite Pam's complete lack of mobility, every nerve ending was on fire. Her skin vibrated, loosed from its skeletal moorings by the electric barrage of Shane's preternatural power.
He stopped descending when their faces nearly aligned, his Elite-uniform clad thighs making no accommodation for Pam's exposed legs underneath. In the limiting dark, her vision tunneled to a slender, grey nose and a pressed, thin-lipped mouth. His unhurried movements flowed in sensuous contrast to her inanimate sprawl. Pam silently raged, her tongue stilled by some invisible force. With casual grace, Shane rested his index finger against her parted mouth: the universal signal for "do not speak."
Pam was so out of sorts that she could hardly process the demand. She understood that Shane did not want her talking, but had no idea why, and at this point, it was the least of her concerns. That Komodo son of a bitch was controlling her! How was this possible? None of her previous research had so much as hinted about this kind of preternatural ability. Pam started to hyperventilate in fear and anger. Had she known Shane was capable of human puppetry, neither job assignment or sympathetic sentiments would have saved Miranda from his scar mark. There was no question about it. Pam would have left the young enumerator to her fate.
She felt feverish grey hands grip her face, thumbs grazing her cheeks in a convincing parody of a lover's gesture. Shane was so close; she could see the steady pulse of passing street lights reflected in his dilated pupils. Her erratic breathing began to still, but not of her own volition. She tried to close her eyes, but they remained open. If it weren't for the incredible physical sensations of Shane's preternatural power, Pam would have believed she was paralyzed: not a single muscle responded to her command. She felt herself spinning out of control, but had just enough wits about her to fight Shane's horrible corruption of their tenuous trust.
Pam searched within herself, concentrating on the foreign wrongness of the scar mark. She knew the mark technically ran both ways, as it was nothing more than a conduit for preternatural power. Shane was linked to her as much as she was linked to him. If she could figure out a way to disable the mark's conductivity, perhaps it would be enough to overcome the puppet-master routine. Of course, Pam had no idea what she was doing. The stupid scar was still glowing like a firefly on steroids and the tingling sensation had matured to a steady crackling buzz. Pam lay there, imagining in her mind's eye the mark falling into dormancy, waiting for something to happen…nothing did.
Pam wracked her brain for any possible solution. Pure humans were physically the weakest of the advanced life form species, but they did have some advantages: namely greater mental stability. That advantage only increased the further up the preternatural power line one went. Shane, in all his Elite Second glory, was much more susceptible to a mental breakdown than Pam. She would have laughed at that notion if it weren't for her current state of involuntary torpor. Waiting for Shane to succumb to a psychotic meltdown was well beyond even her tolerance for wishful thinking.
There had to be something else. Rather than concentrating on the unresponsive mark, Pam decided to focus on Shane. He was staring into her vacant eyes like they were the biggest, highest definition television set in the big screen store. She decided to give him a dose of his own medicine by zeroing in on his breathing pattern, willing it to follow her command as opposed to Shane's.
Again, nothing happened, but Pam kept at it. Less than a minute later, she was rewarded with his loud exhalation of air. Seconds ticked by. Then Shane landed on her chest in a graceless flop. He'd stopped breathing. His eyes were glassy and unmoving. He looked dead. Pam could feel her ribs creaking under his crushing weight and she fought hard not to panic. She hadn't thought he would react like this to her breaking his control. Then it hit her like a ton of bricks. The crazy puppeteer powers, Shane's freak out; it all stemmed from the unnatural mark. They had all made a very dangerous and stupid assumption. Shane was bespelled, which meant that neither he, nor the mark, were playing by regular Shifter rules. Worse yet, Pam might have just managed to manipulate the spell, and if even one of the preternaturals so much as suspected her of casting, she was as good as dead.
Moments after her sudden realization, the truck came to a screeching halt. The fishtail movement propelled both unbelted passengers into mid-air. Shane flew up into the windshield, smashing the safety glass before slamming into the front seat, crushing the headrest straight into the truck bed. Pam followed a similar trajectory, except she managed to land back on the bench seat, her flesh riddled with bits of broken glass.
A door was wrenched open and the Lion Alpha Elite grabbed the unresponsive Shane, carrying him with some difficulty to the side of the road. Pam tested her ability to move and cried out in pained happiness when her arms and legs obeyed her commands. Rolling to her side, she exited the vehicle with much difficulty. Aside from numerous cuts leaking blood like tears from a newly crowned beauty queen, and a lot of bruises, Pam was fine. As she bent to remove a large piece of glass sticking out of her calf, the Lion Alpha zoomed up to her with that famed Elite hyper-speed she had only read about. It was disorienting to watch, like she had lost a few seconds of consciousness. He stopped short of actually touching her, but that didn't save him from looking like he wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake until her head popped off.
The Alpha leaned down close to Pam with his hands curled into fists at his side. His body shivered and quaked with restrained power, exhibiting an awesome amount of control. If he decided to let go of that careful restraint, Pam didn't think her body could handle it. Already her skin rippled with the Elite's power, the pain magnified by hundreds of embedded glass pieces shaking like popcorn kernels on the verge of combustion. As much as she despised Shane right about now, this Alpha Elite was a complete unknown and the only protection between her and all this contained fury was an unconscious Komodo and an inactive scar mark. The odds were not in her favor.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you?" the Lion Elite growled with a previously hidden accent altered by anger. Pam's eyes immediately went to Shane, willing him to wake up and come to her rescue.
The Alpha growled again, louder this time, and stepped even closer. "No, you look at me when I talk to you."
Pam was so tired of this Shifter bullshit, especially Elite Shifter bullshit, an entirely new brand of hell. The 24/7 testosterone-fueled mood swing tightrope walk was not how she wanted to spend her weekend. She had no idea why, out of the blue, the Alpha wanted her dead. One minute she had lost all control of her own body, the next she was accidentally potentially casting human pincushion trying to talk her way out of a premature death from a half crazed Lion Elite. She didn't even know his name. Shane hadn't thought to tell her and Pam, in her disdain for all things Shifter, figured she needn't bother since this was likely the last time she'd have to deal with the Mid-Atlantic Lion Elite Den. Now she was alone, unprotected, and completely at the mercy of a very angry Alpha Elite on his own turf. Somehow, she had to figure out why this guy wanted to kill her before he actually did.
Following instructions, Pam brought her eyes up to the Elite, focusing on his mouth to avoid inciting a dominance battle she wouldn't win. He wore the standard Elite uniform, an all black slim fit ensemble distinguished by the marsh reed symbol of his territory. Short sleeves exposed tawny arms covered in the downy soft hair of the mammalian-based Shifters. His eyes were narrowed and she knew they would shine like mirrors if a light were to hit them in the dark. Pam had to be careful. The Alpha was lethal and she knew he was a hairsbreadth away from acting on his instincts, however wrong they might be.
"I have no idea why you want to kill me," Pam murmured, playing the meek submissive to the hilt.
Her little girl lost act didn't work. The Lion got even closer. He crouched down, getting right in Pam's face. She felt rather than saw a disturbing amalgamation of a paw and hand. The mutant appendage was tipped with vicious claws, and it rested upon her exposed throat. "I smelled it in the truck. For the rest of my life I'll never forget that metallic stench." Pam made a face that must have shown her confusion. "Caster magic," her interrogator elaborated.
Pam almost nodded in agreement, heartened to hear that her suspicions about Shane's actions were correct. Still, that particular movement was ill advised, considering her jugular was now next door neighbor with a razor sharp fingernail. It was all starting to make sense, or at least the part where this Alpha Elite wanted to kill her. Somehow this guy had been around when the last spell casters walked the Earth, and he remembered the scent of controlled magic. Someday she would have to ask him how he was alive and kicking at almost twice the life span of a normal Shifter, but not today.
Using his superlative powers of deductive reasoning, the Alpha had assumed that Pam was a caster. Considering that pure humans were the only species known to successfully channel universal magic, it was a reasonable inference. According to historical texts, not just any human could cast. It required some natural ability, a good amount of training, and in the modern era, a suicidal death wish. Upon further reflection, Pam seriously doubted her little episode in the truck was a spell. It was anybody's guess if this Alpha even knew what he was talking about. It had been so long since the last recorded bespellment that Pam was certain most preternaturals either weren't alive at the time or forgot what it smelled like. Unfortunately for Pam, the Lion Alpha Elite was convinced he wasn't one of them and she was about to lose her head for a forbidden casting she didn't commit.
Pam kept her gaze on the Lion's mouth, her voice pitched low and calm. She told the truth. "I am not a caster-"
"Are you calling me a liar?" the Alpha interrupted.
"No," Pam said, "I'm just telling you it wasn't me. For what it's worth, I think you're right about the magic."
The Alpha snorted. "How can I be right about the magic if you're not a caster?"
Pam mentally sighed, hoping the Lion's intellectual acuity was better than most of his brethren. It didn't even cross her mind to lie, since the Alpha would have smelled it and gutted her before she had time to utter the first word.
"I believe Shane is bespelled. The circumstances of my marking are unusual. You obviously know that much, considering what's happened to your Second. The way Shane was acting in the truck just before you stopped- that's not normal and you know it." When the Lion still looked unconvinced, Pam added, "And his bespellment allowed the scar mark to control my every move. I can assure you; I had nothing to do with that."
The Lion retracted his claws and stepped back, giving Pam some much needed breathing room. He stared at her, curious, almost like he was debating something. She watched as his half shifted hand-claw reformed into a nondescript human hand. The transition was seamless, as natural as ice melting into water. The Elites were masters of their shift, so it should be no surprise how easy it came to him, but Pam was enthralled nonetheless.
She was still staring at the hand when the Alpha said, "Let me see it."
"See what?" Pam asked, wary.
"Your mark," the Lion said, obviously enjoying her discomfort. Pam noticed his strange accent was gone too.
Skeptical, Pam frowned. She did not want to show her back to him. Unlike Shane, this Alpha had no compulsion to keep her safe. If he decided he didn't like what he saw, he would have no qualms about killing her. Unfortunately, her would-be savior was still lights out on the side of the road and Pam didn't wish to press her luck. One isn't likely to survive round two with a pissed off three-centuries-old Alpha Elite.
Pam moved with infinite care, every muscle protesting the effort it took to push away from the truck and turn around. Reluctant hands reached up, parting her hair to find the dress's hidden zipper at the top of her collar. The material was loath to separate, the staccato release a precursor to its snagging no more than four inches down. Pam tugged, her arms aching and bleeding, but the stubborn zipper wouldn't move. Frustrated, she yanked the pull tab so hard it broke, the sound of cheap plastic snapping a harbinger of its demise.
She turned to the Lion Elite, making a strangled sound between a whimper and a scream. "The zipper's caught. Can you help me?"
The Alpha took his eyes off Pam for a moment to glance in Shane's direction. Pam knew the Komodo was still alive because her mark still existed, but beyond that his medical status was unknown. Finding the Shifter unchanged from his incapacitated state, the Lion moved toward Pam.
Snick. Slice. Tear.
In three seconds, Pam's naked back was exposed for the Lion's perusal. The bastard had sliced the zipper seam all the way down to its end so the top of her striped cotton underwear peeked out. Even her bra hadn't been spared, as if that had been necessary. What did she expect asking for his help, the same delicate extraction of cloth from a seasoned seamstress? Clenching her jaw to bottle a scream of indignation, Pam concentrated on tucking the left strap of her dress under her arm so the mark was fully uncovered. God forbid a cop show up right now, her imagination running wild with what conclusions could be drawn from this unusual scene.
In the waning moonlight, the Alpha inspected her mark like an art dealer verifying an authentic Picasso: searching for signs of authenticity, combing for any hint of wrongness. Pam could feel his power charged breath on her skin, irritating the jagged cuts. She thanked every god she could remember that he didn't feel the need to touch her.
"It looks normal enough to me. I don't smell caster magic."
Pam rolled her eyes, thankful he couldn't see her. "That's because it's dormant now. Back in the truck, it was humming and glowing like a bug zapper on the fourth of July."
The Alpha started to say something but he was cut off by the sound of overtaxed engines flying up the road. Pam watched two black SUVs careen onto a nearby plot of land, less than twenty feet from where she and the Alpha stood. Six Elite Lions, in full battle mode, poured out of the vehicles to form a perimeter around her and the Alpha, the truck serving as an inadequate shield. Six others surrounded the still unconscious Shane. Pam had never seen a troop of Elites in action. Most humans never would, since they rarely conducted these sorts of operations in populated areas. Even rarer was that a human would be their target. Their agreement with the federal government left human targets to the human justice system. That is, unless a human had committed an illegal act against one of their own. With three gun barrels, two throwing knives, and an honest to God crossbow aimed directly at her, Pam had the distinct impression she was falling into the latter category.
The Elite with the crossbow spoke first. "Osorsen, I need you to tell me the code."
So the Alpha finally had a name. Had Pam not been convinced she was going to die any second, she might have taken a moment to chuckle. The Lion Shifter Egyptian naming tradition existed even when this Dorian Gray of Elites was born.
"I'm not bespelled, Kef," Osorsen answered. There was a clear command in that statement, although it lacked the backbone of preternatural power behind it. The Alpha was not used to explaining himself.
Pam watched Crossbow flinch. He looked pained about what he was about to say. "You told me yourself, if we ever suspected-"
"Twenty three, Albuquerque, Turquoise, Ocelot, Okenite," Osorsen barked.
Crossbow had been keeping a steady hand on the trigger, but as soon as Osorsen said the last word, he clicked the safety and holstered his weapon. Pam's mouth fell open as she realized that their arsenal was never actually trained on her, but on the Lion standing slightly behind her. Wouldn't have mattered much anyway -with an Alpha suspected of bespellment in the company of a pure human, she would have been next in line. Good thing the Mid-Atlantic Elite Den had a special code for just this occasion. Sometimes acute paranoia was a good thing.
"Who's this, O?" asked one of the gun wielding Elite. He stalked toward Pam, appraising her half disrobed state with appreciative golden eyes. Pam kept her gaze square on the truck's rims, trying not to let her anger overcome her better judgment. She didn't know what the Elite Lion might do. Right about now, she wished she'd gone through with that "Out of Order" tattoo over her uterus. Too bad there wasn't a scar mark for that.
"Stand down," Osorsen ordered, as the Elite leaned down to sniff her. "Don't tell me you can't sense that scar mark big as day. She's the Komodo's."
Pam wanted to throttle "O." She wasn't anyone's property, sure as hell not Shane's, and if she had to be claimed by anyone it would be Ken. Of course, she couldn't say any of this, but the look on her face must have shown her sentiments all too well.
"Hmmm," the Lion responded, "She doesn't seem too sure of that."
Osorsen let out a hearty chuckle, better spirited in the company of his own Elites. "And since when has that mattered?"
Pam glared daggers at the two Lions as they laughed it up over Osorsen's little joke. She wondered if all Elites were such incredible jackasses or if Lions were a special kind of unholy jerk. Then one of the Elites offered to remove the glass from her skin and put bandages on her cuts. Perhaps they weren't all assholes.
The Lioness tending to her wounds was surprisingly friendly. Her name was Aria and she answered all of Pam's clueless questions regarding the roadside rendezvous. Pam asked how the other Lion Elite knew where they were: Osorsen hadn't once contacted them since they left the temple. Aria explained that the Mid-Atlantic Den, "MAD" for short, (how cute), had a special bond amongst members. When they experienced intense emotions, like aggression or anger, even pain, the Den can use it to find each other and offer help. It was an ancient way for Elites to communicate locations without the need for GPS or cell phones, much like those Linked as mated pairs. While the MAD's possession of the link was well known amongst the Shifter races, its origin was a closely guarded secret. Applicable for the first time tonight, Osorsen had created a unique signal for when he suspected caster magic. In an effort to ensure no bespelled Lion Elite entered the MAD, he had established the secret code. If any MAD member got it wrong, they were to be exterminated on sight.
"Lucky for you," Aria said with a wink, "O wasn't bespelled."
Yeah, Pam thought, lucky for me.
Aria didn't talk about the initial reason Pam, Shane, and Osorsen had been heading to the Den to begin with. When Pam asked, Aria stated that, Sepuntepet, the MAD's Second, had just returned from an assignment in D.C. with a miserable pure human, Canadian tourist in tow. The poor guy had been walking to his hotel after a Stanley Cup playoff match at the Verizon Center when he had the misfortune of encountering the Elite Lioness. The MAD hadn't suspected the marking was abnormal, just rare. Too bad for them, Pam thought. Their caster magic sniffing Alpha "O" had been in Virginia Beach babysitting Shane.
Speaking of Shane, he awakened in the midst of Pam getting her skin scraped raw in the back of one of the Lion's SUVs. She knew this before she saw him. The ghost tether had come alive, but at least this time it didn't pull her anywhere. Instead it seemed to reel him in toward her. He walked up to the tailgate, completely free of external injuries, with only his clothing ripped and faint remnants of dried blood streaked across his bald head.
"You okay?" he asked, only after verifying the gender of Pam's nurse. Aria had the good humor to snort with conspiratorial annoyance.
Pam nodded at Shane's question. She felt like she was underwater. Her limbs felt too light: submerged by gravity, yearning to surface like bubbles of carbon dioxide. The adrenaline that had been coursing through her veins had fled all too soon once the weapons were put away. Her body hadn't been trained for the strenuous intensity of the past few hours. She was better suited to sitting in office chairs; her greatest physical talent was a sixty-five words per minute typing speed. Pam indulged in a fantasy of her Olympian commuting skills: routinely pounding twenty blocks of cracked D.C. pavement in three inch heels without breaking a sweat. Pity strong ankles wouldn't be enough to get her through another night like this.
Shane echoed her thoughts. "Sometimes I forget how fragile humans are."
She cringed in pain as Aria extracted a piece of glass buried deep in Pam's right shoulder. She was in no mood for reminders about her human fragility and she hadn't forgotten Shane's actions in the truck, spell induced or not. "And I saw firsthand how susceptible preternaturals are to caster magic. Enjoy your nap?" Even Pam could admit it was a low blow.
For a few short moments, Shane's usually blank face melted into a persuasive vision of hurt. Pam had just publicly chastised his inability to protect her. If there was a worse insult to a marking Shifter out there, she hadn't heard it. She felt Aria gasp, her ministrations stilled by shock. Too late, Pam realized how ill prepared she was to be the pretend girlfriend of an Elite Second. Few mark recipients would so much as entertain such an offense; much less declare it out loud in front of a rival Den. There were many reasons as to why Pam never dated Shifters and Shane now knew that their disregard for human resiliency was one of them.
Osorsen walked over, carrying Pam's purse in his hand. The sight of the Lion Alpha Elite brandishing a shiny silver clutch was just what they needed to break the tense mood, and the spectacle wasn't lost on Aria. Even Pam could hear her muffled laughter while pretending to tape the same piece of gauze for the third time.
"Found this in the truck. Lucky for you, your Komodo didn't land on it."
Both Shane and Pam winced when Osorsen said "your Komodo." Her jibe was too fresh, and their trust not yet mended. The tell tale beep of a cell phone's voicemail broke the silence.
"Thanks," Pam replied, taking the small purse from the Alpha. She dialed her mailbox and wondered when it became normal for a gravelly voiced Fay Ambassador to leave her business messages.
"Change of plans," Pam said to Shane. "Tundr wants us to meet him tomorrow."
Shane blinked at her. Pam took that as a sign to continue. "He's coming to Baltimore. We better get moving if we want to catch some sleep before he shows up."
She probably shouldn't have brought up sleeping again but this was no time for hand holding. When Pam received no response, she added, "Are you suggesting we ignore Fay Ambassador Isliefson?"
Crickets chirped. Leaves rustled. Shane said nothing. She couldn't tell what was going through his head. He was, however, eyeing her phone with the intense stare of a marksman.
Aria lightly pulled Pam's hair to get her attention. "You're all set. I'm amazed nothing needed stitches, but you'd be smart to avoid tearing the scabs. It's going to itch like crazy in a few days. Don't scratch it!"
Pam offered her profuse thanks to Aria as the she packed up her medical supplies and left to join the departing SUV. Pam was genuinely glad to meet the Shifter's acquaintance. For all the talk about the Elites' insular Den lifestyle, their feral nature too volatile for human interaction, this well adjusted Lioness was a revelation. She thought it was a terrible shame that all Shifters, Elite or otherwise, weren't more like Aria.
As she walked away, Pam saw the Ω emblazoned on the back of Aria's uniform and nearly slapped herself. Of course Aria was the Den's Omega, why else would she be so relaxed around a human? It was just another reminder: don't get too comfortable, these Elites are dangerous.
She turned to Shane, tired of his mute routine. "The Fay Ambassador is coming to my house at noon and I intend to be there when he shows up." To punctuate the seriousness of her remark, Pam hopped to the ground, thankful that Aria had gone the extra step of closing her dress with safety pins: dignity did not come easy to a half clothed woman covered in surgical gauze.
Shane finally spoke when Pam hobbled over to him. That jump from the tailgate was higher than it looked. His mouth was pressed in a thin line, black eyes pinning her, frustrated and angry at the same time. "I heard everything Tundr said, Pam. I'm a Shifter. I can hear your heartbeat half a football field away. You forgot to mention he was bringing some 'friends' along, whatever that means."
Pam winced at getting caught. She had deliberately left that out. It wouldn't have helped her cause.
Osorsen laughed, clapping Shane on the shoulder like they were old college roommates commiserating at a bar. "And this is exactly why Lions don't work with the fay."