Check out the first book in Helen Harper’s Blood Destiny series: Bloodfire.
Mackenzie Smith has always known that she was different. Growing up as the only human in a pack of rural shapeshifters will do that to you, but then couple it with some mean fighting skills and a fiery temper and you end up with a woman that few will dare to cross. However, when the only father figure in her life is brutally murdered, and the dangerous Brethren with their predatory Lord Alpha come to investigate, Mack has to not only ensure the physical safety of her adopted family by hiding her apparent humanity, she also has to seek the blood-soaked vengeance that she craves.
A sound came from outside and the waiting pack straightened their shoulders and puffed out their chests as if they were one. I did the complete opposite and tried to hunch down. The wooden doors at the right of the hall swung open and twenty or so people, all dressed from head to toe in designer black, came casually striding in.
As if they owned the place, I thought, gritting my teeth and hunching down lower.
The Brethren stopped and lined up in front of us. All of their hands were resting lightly on weapons that hung from their belts. Even from my lowered position I could see the glint of steel. Flexing their authority, no doubt. I looked fixedly down at the floor instead.
A tall gray haired man stepped forward, eyes sweeping over all of us. The room was so quiet that I fancied I’d be able to hear Anton’s balls finally dropping behind me. I risked a glance up at their new leader. He wasn’t what I’d expected. No obvious outpourings of power or charisma. He didn’t look weak physically but neither would I have thought that I couldn’t beat him in a fair fight. This was just a guy – and an old guy at that. I studied him carefully. There was certainly an air of grace and elegance surrounding him and he held himself with confidence and the suggestion of strength but still…I didn’t see it. Maybe it was a shapeshifter thing.
He started to speak. “The Brethren brings condolences for the loss of the Cornish pack’s alpha. We know that he was a good leader who kept the Way and held you together. Do not fear that we will not uncover the truth of what happened.” His slate gray eyes slid over the room. “His death was untimely and – unexpected.”
I blinked at the sudden unexpected rise of tears and my throat constricted and felt tight. John had kept us safe, all of us safe. He had never treated me differently, despite my non-shifter status, and had even spent a ridiculous amount of time training me to fight so that I could hold my own against the rest of the pack should they suddenly decide that having a puny human amongst them was them was too much insult to bear. And there were some who thought that way – Anton behind me for one.
A memory rose unbidden of my ten year old self and John outside the keep.
I had been crouched down, throwing dagger in hand, shaking in fear.
“Mackenzie Smith, if you give into fear then it will rule you. Take the fear and turn it into focus. Use that focus wisely. Feel for the creature and prepare your mind.”
We had been hunting a small wyvern that had been terrorising local farms. The Cornish pack was generally peaceable and didn’t engage in much fighting (well, very few people or even Otherworldly things came to sleepy Cornwall to fight) but John had insisted that this was the time I put my training to the test in the real world. I had straightened up slowly and targeted my thoughts towards the clump of trees at the far end of the field. No fear.
A huffing sound had vibrated towards us. I had blocked out everything else and focused on the noise, willing the wyvern to leave the safety of the brush and come out.
“That’s it,” came John’s voice. “You WILL do this.”
I remember gripping the dagger tighter and taking a step forward, probing the trees with my eyes until I spotted a sudden movement on my far left. I took a step forward, and then another. Without warning the wyvern had burst out of the copse and flown like a dagger towards me, staying low to the mossy ground. I kept hold of the fear and, as the creature swooped close, I swung up, gripped onto its leathery neck and hung on with one arm. The wyvern had screeched in rage and dragged me up. It had veered one way then another, trying to shake me off before a taloned claw came swiping round to scrape me off. I had raised my leg and snap kicked the claws out of the way. I felt hot inside and knew that the fire, if I let it, would burn out of control. With my free hand I felt for the soft space in between the beast’s shoulder blades and sank the dagger in. Of course once the wyvern tail-spun down I had belatedly realised I was far too high and that hitting the ground was going to be very hard and very painful.
“Focus the fear and fan the flames,” I had whispered to myself, before letting go of the wyvern’s neck at the last minute and rolling to the side to avoid being squished.
My technique had been sloppy and careless but John had run towards me with a huge grin splitting his face. He’d gathered me up in a bear hug.
“See? See? I knew you could do it. You might not be a shifter, girl, but you have got skills, and power. You’re amazing.” His eyes had shone down at me with pride and I had realised in that moment that nothing else mattered. I had killed the wyvern and he was proud. It didn’t matter that I was human; I could focus my mind with more skill than most shifters and I had taken down the little dragon when half of the pack would have been too scared to try. I belonged.
Later we had stripped down the carcass together and burnt it. I still had a tooth from the creature’s mouth in the small chest where I kept my meager valuables. John had not let me fail at anything – but now he was dead and I had failed him.
Not without some effort, I zoned back into the present and realised that the gray eyed man was still talking. “These are dangerous times and you are without an alpha. For thirty years we have left you in peace. We respect the Cornish pack and the work that you do keeping this corner of the country safe, however we also offer you an opportunity to brighten these sad days. We will aid you by conducting the ceremony and appointing a new alpha, as is our responsibility. We will hold evaluations and interviews with every single pack member to ensure the appropriate alpha is chosen.
“And we also extend you an invitation. The best and the brightest among you may join us, come to London and become part of the Brethren, the shape-shifter elite. We have spaces for new recruits. This is your opportunity to join in the battle to keep all of this world, not just Cornwall, safe from all harm.”
A tremor of excitement and fear ran through the assembly. Well, that was interesting. Not only would the individual pack members be able to leave and join other packs around the country but they now could also become part of the so-called elite. I knew that just as there would be many shrinking from this challenge, just as many would rise to it and demand it. My brow furrowed. No doubt the Brethren were really just looking for cannon fodder. I felt my hackles rise while forcing myself to acknowledge that this could be a good thing. As much as I might despise them for their reported brutality and aggression, the Brethren could be doing me a massive personal favour. A new alpha would keep my geas in place, and the Brethren’s recruitment drive would surely allow me to see off the likes of all those troublesome shifters who still couldn’t accept me. And who were probably champing at the bit to show off anyway. I was still contentedly sure that Julia would be named alpha – otherwise why else would her Voice now be working?
Without false modesty I knew that, despite my human shortcomings, Julia was right and the pack benefited from at least some of my skills. I might not able to shift but I was pretty much the best they had in any fight, to the extent that since I’d turned into a teenager and gone into defense full time they hadn’t lost any shifter to anyone or anything. Apart from John. I grimaced and shoved that thought away before it overwhelmed me.
Beside me, I could hear Tom panting like a puppy, patently desperate for approval. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he jumped up then and there screaming, “Pick me! Pick me!” Never mind, I’d manage to convince him otherwise later.
Forgetting that I was supposed to be keeping my head down, I scanned the ranks of the other Brethren shifters. I was curious now about what their feelings were about taking in some of their distant country bumpkin cousins. My eyes travelled down the line. There was a bored looking blonde haired woman with a stance that suggested predator –wolf perhaps – then a slight dark man who was obviously a fox judging by the calculating cunning in his eyes, then there was…uh-oh.
The next shifter was looking right at me. Green gold predatory eyes gazed into mine expressionlessly. I snapped my eyes back to the floor and stopped breathing.
I’m no-one, no-one worthy of attention, I whispered silently, trying to quash the rising panic. I couldn’t endanger the rest of the pack by being discovered. Every sinew in my body screamed but I forced myself to keep my eyes and head trained on the ground.
Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Seconds passed. Minutes.