Black Beast (Shadow Thane #1) : chap 1
Finn pored over the file on the desk. His heavy breathing stirred the papers. In his head was a snarl of forbidden thoughts and desires.
To hell and back with this, he thought.
Before him was a roster of all the Otherkind in Barton, a small California town of no consequence that had become a hotbed of strange Otherworldly activity. The files were classified and meant for Council use only, though he did not limit his usage and perusal of them as such.
He had paged through it several times and could have recited the information inside from memory. Slayers were migrating to Barton in droves. That was odd in and of itself, since the Slayers were normally content to stay in the bigger cities. More quarry there, to make quota. And a bit of petty lucre.
Finn knew a thing or two about that. He was well-acquainted with ill-gotten gains as both the trader and the goods. He often worked in the capacity of a bounty hunter and before that, once, he had been a slave. Sometimes, he could still hear the screams.
Pray to your gods. Perhaps they will turn over in their graves.
Or perhaps not.
Otherkind were leaving. Or disappearing, in some cases. No forwarding address. Nothing. Witches and shape-shifters both, vanishing without a trace.
Finn rubbed at his lower lip in thought. That could be construed as hostile. By law, all Otherkind were required to keep the Council notified of their location at any given time. Part of the truce that had been negotiated after the War. Supposedly it kept the dissidents from organizing.
In reality, the law was intended as a choke-chain to curb the shape-shifters, whose territoriality made them difficult to reckon with. Witches had no such problems. They didn't used to, anyway.
Karen Shields's name leaped out at him from the file. Many knew her as the daughter of Lincoln Shields, one of the esteemed members of the Council. She was also in the running for a seat, although if one were offered to her it was unlikely that she would ever take it.
She was Finn's fiancee. They had been betrothed at a young age. Informally, though there was nothing casual about the arrangements at all. Their union would be heralded in all the great houses for many years to come.
Heritage was everything: it was a golden skeleton key, gleaming with power, able to get the wielder through any number of locked doors; it was the christening of the marriage bed with virgin blood on snow-white sheets; it was the benediction of a pristine pedigree, refined through ages of selective breeding and the occasional mercy culling.
It was life, and death, and all that spanned between.
It was his birthright.
The Riordans were an ancient and noble line of witches who could trace their lineage all the way back to the nobility of fifth-century Ireland. For hundreds of years, the most powerful witches of each clan had been wed to one another, knowing that with each successive generation they were one step closer to creating perfection.
Most witches could only master one element. The dedicated could usually manage two, and they were known as Diads. Triads could master three elements. Then Quads, the rarest, had command over all four.
Phineas Riordan's father, Royce Riordan, was a Quad. He never let his son forget it—especially since Finn was not. No, he still struggled with earth. The filthiest element, the element of the wilds, of the base…of the shape-shifters.
A shudder tore through him.
And yet, the element eluded him, resisting capture, slipping through his fingers like so much water. It was an irony made more cutting by the fact that water, for him, was so fluently commanded. Only air was simpler. Even fire, the most difficult and mercurial element of all, had been a cinch in the face of this stubborn, unprepossessing element.
We hunger in earnest for that which we cannot consume.
The sycophantic masses praised him for his considerable prowess, responding to his power with the jealousy, awe, or even outright fear that were all his due. But until he could master earth, he would never be good or worthy enough.
He had been born to and bred for success. Finn slammed his fist on the table, rattling the various paraphernalia set out for him to do his work. Failure was not an option. To even consider it was blasphemous. Had anyone suggested it to him, even in jest, he might have killed them on the spot, and the Fourth Rule be damned.
Royce's word was law and none dared oppose him, not even his own son. On the day of Finn's inauguration, when he finally claimed his own seat on the Council, his father had only said one thing to him:
“Don't make me regret this.”
It was as if his father had cracked him open, to examine all the faults that lay within. As if they were no more than so many twisted, degenerate pearls before one pompous, vainglorious swine. If Royce knew how deeply ingrained his debauchery was, he would have amputated him from the line before the rot could take root, and lead to gangrenous family ruin.
One day, Finn would take his father's place. But when that moment came, he wanted to make damn sure that he was a Quad. Damn sure. The legacy of the Riordans would carry on. No one would compare him to his paterfamilias and find him lacking. That was his duty.
Everything else came second.
He ran his fingers over the edges of Karen's picture. The photo on file did not do her justice. She was as beautiful as she was ruthless. A mate, the shifters would say. A union based less on love and more on sex and dominance. The phrase had a grain of salacious truth to it, although any real interest she had in him was superseded by her desire for power.
Not that she was without her charms. She had many, most of which he was intimately acquainted with, and she was a powerful Diad. But women were as pernicious as a bed of vipers.
And speaking of vipers—
He flipped to the section on shape-shifters.
The facial features of those profiled became less fey, more robust. He was fascinated and repelled in equal parts. Witches were gracile and androgynous, whereas shape-shifters had a wild, blatant sexuality that was almost obscene, making it impossible to look away.
No matter how much he wanted to.
Finn exhaled slowly.
He didn't, though. That was the problem.
Each section opened with backgrounds on the family, with multiple indexes identifying extended family members. Marriages and children were tracked, listed in long, winding footnotes that appeared hastily tacked-on.
He turned past several families that were well-known to him in his perusals. A number of shifters preferred to live as their beasts, switching to human form only as a necessity. The Glamors, however, were shape-shifters who preferred to live as humans and assimilated to human lives, trading freedom for security.
The Van Sants, the Vasquezes, the Trans, the Pierces. There were only a handful of Glamors in Barton. The fact that Barton could claim four families despite its size was quite a feat considering their relative scarcity.
Finn frowned. The last entry had a tag denoting an edit. I authorized no edits for this file.
There were several notes delineated in the margins. Handwritten memos, glittering with trace elements of magic. Frowning, Finn leaned closer.
He knew this part of the file well. The Pierces had a delinquent daughter, guilty of multiple infractions of the First and Third Rules. She was several years his junior, attractive by their standards. That wasn't what had caught his attention—at least, not at present.
All fully developed shape-shifter had a beast, and the girl's should have been recorded. She was of age. He knew she was of age. But in the space where her animal should have been, it said only UNKNOWN.
The word, with its faint ringings of failure, rattled him. Unknown. How did I not notice this before? The gods knew he had studied this file more times than he could count. Was it a clerical error, perhaps, or something far more careless? Even sabotage? His eyes hardened. Whatever it was, it needed rectifying.
It was time to pay the little shifter a visitation.
A voice had been screaming into Catherine Pierce's ear the whole way to work. A field mouse, specifically. Prey never liked being out in the open. A harmless walk in the park became a march to the death. Enemies were everywhere, lying in wait. One only need let their guard down for a second before getting torn to pieces.
She paused, tilting her head in a twitchy, mechanical way that looked decidedly not human—though thankfully no one is around to notice, she added to herself—performing a cursory scan up and down the empty street.
The Prey alarms went off a lot while she was outside. Every time a car whizzed by or a shadow passed overhead; every time a loud noise sounded with no discernible cause; every second of every day, that little voice was nattering at her, flooding her nervous system with adrenaline, as it was so certain it was about to die.
Catherine was surprised Prey's caterwauling had made it so far past her highly discriminatory thalamus. She was used to tuning Prey and the other voices out. She would have gone mad otherwise.
The DNA of countless beasts lay dormant inside her, waiting to be accessed. All Catherine had to do was look at a photo once, although video or real life worked better, and form the animal's image in her head.
Then, the Change came, as swift and fast as a cobra. She would know—after all, she had been one.
The trouble was, the voices of the beasts spoke to her, whispered to her, all the time. So often, and in such great number, that she was forced to divide the voices into two distinct categories for brevity's sake.
Predator and Prey.
Prey was being unusually aggressive today. Ordinarily it was content to curl up into a terrified ball in the back of her skull and whimper quietly.
Not today. No, Prey had been chattering at her from the moment she took her first step out the front door this morning. Was something wrong?
Yes, Prey whined, Danger everywhere, all around us.
I wasn't asking you! She imbued the thought with a bit of Predator's fury and Prey cowered, receding.
Good, she thought. Still channeling Predator, she whipped her head towards the rustling bushes, hazel eyes glinting with filaments of light.
The bush in question was a juniper hedge. Its branches stretched over the grainy sidewalk like the grasping arms of a panhandler. Furtive, nervous sounds came from within. Probably small birds or mice.
Other Preys. Predator was dismissive. Small Preys. Not worth the time it takes to catch them.
Prey slouched off, leaving jagged, fitful spurts of baleful fear in its wake. Catherine was concerned. Prey was rarely so adamant. Not while Predator was there.
She shook herself. Her hands, when she thrust them into the pockets of her jeans, were cold.
The air grew heavier, thicker as she walked. It wasn't due to the humidity. No, this was more forceful, more tangible. It was almost as if someone—or something—were physically holding her back.
Who would dare?
Beneath the sleeves of her flannel shirt, her skin buzzed and prickled with gooseflesh. The air was cracking with enough static to spark a flame and her own aura was discoloring, reacting with electrical and chemical bursts. As she watched, the nebulous haze surrounding her split off into hair-thin fibers.
Only magic could do this.
Only a witch would dare.
She stiffened. “Is someone there?”
Her voice came out as a squeak. She winced, cleared her throat, and tried again.
Over the pounding of her heart she thought she could make out soft breathing. Measured. Not quick and halting like hers. Breathing like a hunter.
I'm not Prey.
Catherine fingered her cell phone.
She could call the police if she needed to. If someone was following her with the intent to do harm they would quickly find out she was nobody they wanted to mess with. Those who had underestimated her small stature in the past had not made the same mistake twice.
Her small smile disappeared, and her lips turned down. If what she suspected was following her was actually following her, the cops wouldn't do much good.
But what would a witch be doing here, of all places?
Hunting, Prey whispered back. Hunting us.
Witches weren't predatory. They hid behind their magic as a shield to compensate for their lack of physical prowess. Also, they were arrogant, Machiavellian.
In a fight between a shifter and a witch, the shifter would often win—but only if they could keep the witch from speaking, usually by severing the throat or tearing out the tongue. If the witch was powerful enough, and quick enough, physical size didn't matter. Catherine had heard of the horrible ways the witches could kill their victims. Cooking them alive from the inside out, restricting oxygen flow through the nasal and oral passages by creating a vacuum, drowning them with vapor pulled from the very air.
It made fights between shifters look almost humane by comparison.
Of course, the Fourth Rule forbade all that.
But there are always exceptions.
Not me, she decided. I'm not going to be the exception.
She quickened her pace, trying not to rub at her arms and make her unease known. Her pursuer followed, and so did his electrifying presence. It was all she could do not to run.
Soon, her breath came quicker, and all she could hear was the rhythmic pounding of her blood in her ears and the sibilant whispers from the trees. Runrunrun.
Before walking through the automatic doors, she glanced over her shoulder. The bushes across the street were still. Silent. Everything as it should be.
Except for a faint whiff of ozone, carried on the wind.
You're losing it.
She didn't feel delusional.
But then, she thought, wasn't that the point?
His first move in Barton was to see Karen. He didn't particularly wish to, but he knew the move was expected of him, and it would placate her and her powerful family.
Karen didn't sound surprised or pleased to hear from him but readily agreed to meet. He wondered at her distance, whether she'd taken up with another lover.
But no, she had too much to lose, too little to gain.
Also, she wouldn't dare.
Karen's domicile was above a small hobby shop called Mystique. Filled with power beads, healing crystals, and aromatherapy candles, it was all completely useless and all meticulously overpriced.
Finn shoved past the beaded curtains that sectioned off the back room and ascended the staircase.
Clever of her, to hide in plain sight like this.
But then, he had expected nothing less.
His thoughts then returned to the missing parts of the Pierces' file, and he frowned. Few had access to the records, and of the archivists he was the most well-known. The thought that somebody might be trying to frame him for criminal negligence had not escaped him.
The scent of candles dissipated, replaced by the electric, hazy smell of ozone. Finn couldn't smell it—at least, not as well as a shape-shifter could—but he could see the glowing particles. Swirls of shimmering mist wrapped around his wrist as he rapped sharply upon the paneled wooden surface.
The door swung open with a heavy groan, and a dark-haired woman with pale blue eyes regarded him intently before she allowed her fierce expression to relax into a close-lipped smile.
Her voice was demure—and insincere. Their relationship was not one of affection. Finn pushed past her, ignoring the mocking lightness in her tone. He was not in the mood for being ironic.
Aloud, he said, “Spare me your pleasantries.”
Karen's smile disappeared.
Satisfied for the moment, Finn scanned the room with a proprietary air. There was no furniture. The floor was covered by thick, expensive carpet, with a handful of pillows tossed about haphazardly.
He decided to remain standing since it accorded him greater dignity. Upon finishing his cursory inspection, he turned to her and demanded, “What do you know?”
A gray-winged moth circled the naked bulb overhead in drunken, lazy circles, before alighting on Karen's shoulder. She didn't appear to notice.
“Hello to you, too, my love,” she said dryly.
“Don't toy with me,” he said. “I'm not in the mood.”
“Are you ever?” Before he could respond, she said, “It's as you suspected. The Slayers are moving into the suburbs. Inner cities are getting too competitive. The cost outweighs the gain, so they are taking their business elsewhere.”
Finn cursed. “Why? Why now?”
“Our eccentricities stick out more in small towns.”
Finn took a step towards the window, keeping Karen in his line of sight. Dots of light pinpointed the thousands of human homes in Barton. They were clustered densely in the pit of the valley, and thinned out as they passed nearer to the hazy blue hills.
“You have one particular eccentric in mind.”
“Your shape-shifter. Catherine Pierce.” Karen spoke dispassionately but that couldn't quite mask her disdain. “She is in my biology class.”
Even this concession made her bristle; he knew the signs, and it amused him, to see her debase herself.
“She comes from one of their so-called distinguished families. European and Moorish ancestry. One of the first shifter families to come out of Europe. A mongrel.”
Shape-shifters. Once they had been powerful—a race of fierce warriors with superhuman strengths and senses—but they had lost that edge, and become tame. Or mad.
Intermingling with humans had dulled their senses, made them less formidable, weak. There were few pure families left anymore. It was just one of the many consequences of the desegregation movement. They had become a race of half-breeds. Only the large predators had remained pure, for no other reason than that they would tear apart any human foolish enough to get too close. Their instincts were too strong.
“They have never caused problems for us before,” he mused, fishing for details. “They are not part of the insurgency. At least, not to my knowledge.”
“You don't know their daughter. She is reckless, wild. Liable to do anything.”
Finn felt the magic surrounding him stir in surprise, like a beast awakening. Anything? “I'll look into it.”
“Will you, Phineas?” She gave him a sharp little smile. One that said she had seen his reaction, and registered at least some of the implicit meaning behind it. “Should I be concerned?”
“Just the thrill of the hunt, darling,” he said. “Why? Jealous of a little savage?”
“Are you a vermin-lover?” She asked him, flat-out.
“I'm engaged to you, aren't I?” he retorted, with a cool smile. Revealing nothing. Revealing everything.
She unbuttoned her blouse and let it fall to the floor.
“Shut up and fuck me, Councilman.”
He was only too happy to oblige.
As Catherine rounded the corner she could make out the signature perfume of her human friend, Sharon. Too strong to be trace effects. Catching the scent helped abate some of the surprise when she pounced on Catherine the moment she walked through the door.
“Where the hell have you been?”
Sharon was a curvy girl with brown skin and hair that wasn't meant to be blonde, although it hadn't stopped her from trying. The cloying smell of bleach put her off, which was good, because beneath the chemical odors of hair dye and cheap perfume, Sharon smelled like raw meat. All humans did. And while she held her impulses rigidly in check, Catherine was grateful to her friend for rendering herself so extremely unpalatable.
Even so, shape-shifters were highly territorial and guarded their boundaries jealously. Violation of personal space could be construed as a challenge for dominance if the conditions were right.
This behavior was present in humans as well, but to a much lesser extent. Shape-shifters did not engage in nearly as much physical contact as their human counterparts, at least not naturally, and adjusting to that was an integral part of socialization.
Both Predator and Prey were bristling from the sudden assault. That brush with magic on the walk over had left her beasts feeling restless, agitated.
“What the hell?” Catherine shoved the other girl off her. Not too hard. Just enough to move her. “Boundaries, much?”
Rather than taking offense, the other girl laughed. “Fuck boundaries,” she said. “I had to listen to the Myrna Bird channel Horace Alger for the last half-hour because of your lateness, thank you very much.”
“Horatio. It's Horatio Alger.”
Sharon put her thumbs together and made a W with her index fingers. “Whatever.”
Catherine gave her the finger in return. These human rituals, filled with mock aggression wrapped in affection, were difficult for her to accept, and she never really felt she got them down right.
She grabbed the lanyard with her name tag from the closet and clipped it to her shirtfront. The cord was too much like a collar, and the cheap material chafed her sensitive skin. “I was late because I had to walk, bitch.”
“Your mom wouldn't lend you the car?”
“Not while I'm failing fucking biology, no.”
Her eyes landed on the toppling mountain of books beside the register and she groaned.
“You couldn't have started without me?”
“What are you talking about? I totally did.”
“Could you be more lazy?”
“Hey, don't go there,” said Sharon. “That's racist.”
Catherine allowed her gaze to say what she thought of that. And if a little bit of Predator happened to slip through the barriers she couldn't be faulted.
The Predator in question was a mountain lion. The intensity of its gaze could be a bit much, especially when the subliminal message was, “I could eat you.”
“You know I can't listen and work at the same time.”
“She's so distracting.”
“So's a cell phone,” Catherine shot back.
She would have bet all of this week's gas money that Sharon had spent the duration of the lecture texting beneath the desk instead of pricing the books.
The little used bookstore where they worked was situated next to the library and entirely nonprofit, kept running on the donations of the town. All the proceeds went to maintaining the library and paying its employees.
But not nearly enough to put up with this bullshit.
Catherine sat in the chair with a growl and picked up the nearest book. Dotted it—chartreuse, for December—placed it on the top of the pile. Book. Dot. Book. Dot. Book. Dot.
Sharon, meanwhile, continued to play with her phone, dotting new releases only when Catherine stopped to glare in her direction.
Three hours a day, Monday through Friday.
Gas was expensive, though, and Mrs. Pierce had decreed that if Catherine wanted to drive the family car, she would have to get a job. Thinking her daughter's spendthrift ways would deter her from driving. She had even smirked a little as she said it, so sure of her victory.
Being indentured to the humans was almost worth her mother's expression when she had announced her joining of the human workforce. Almost.
It was a petty fight for dominance, but still, Catherine reveled in it. Family politics were excellent practice for dealing with real-world pragmatics. Like the fact that you're a shape-shifter and need a car to get around?
Catherine let out her breath, and heard Sharon stiffen in her seat in the resulting pause. Beneath the noxious smell of her perfume, Catherine could smell revulsion.
“Is that Chase Hill outside? Ugh. Tell me it's not. Tell me that loser is not fucking outside.”
Catherine emptied out another sack of books.
“Um, hello? Catherine? Did you hear me?”
“You told me not to tell you.”
“Well, what do you want me to do if it is, huh? Forbid him from going outside? It's a free country.”
“I sure as shit don't want him coming in here.”
“Too bad about anti-discrimination and all that.”
“Don't even talk to me about discrimination, white girl. You don't know shit.” She snapped her fingers. “I know. I'll tell you what we should do. I think we should put up the CLOSED sign and take an early lunch break.”
“That would be a great idea. Except, since he's a person with feelings—you know, those things you don't have, I'm pretty sure he'd notice. And complain.”
“God, you are such a bitch sometimes.”
“I'm not a bitch,” said Catherine. “You're the bitch. I'm just practical.”
She had to be.
Her parents had seen the aftereffects of the War firsthand. They had seen humans being preyed upon by the shifters, and shifters being preyed upon by the witches. They had heard of shifters being collared in silver to rob them of their powers, and forced to do backbreaking labor. Or worse, sold to the vampires as blood slaves for the witches' own profit.
Not that the witches hadn't been victims, either, her parents had grudgingly admitted. A shifter who was wily enough could betray a witch to the Slayers, who hunted them for their blood. Witches weren't as good at hiding their nature as shifters; they were too arrogant to let themselves pass for humans, whom they saw as mundane and common. Pride was their downfall.
Catherine was very careful about her alliances. She did not make any in vain. Certainly, not for spite.
She was aware of Sharon watching her, curiously, and said, “No breaks—get back to work.”