A DING from his computer informed him he had a new e-mail. Seeing it was urgent, he opened it, narrowing his stone-gray eyes in curiosity. As he read he became excited. His inertia was about to change, and he relished the action.
“Guys! Get in here!”
Four other people lounging in the next room sprang to their feet and rushed over in response to his excited tone.
“What is it, Kirk?” Barbara asked. A long white dress covered her pale, skinny frame while her white-blonde hair was pulled carelessly into a ponytail.
Kirk spun around in his computer chair and grinned fiercely. “We finally have a fucking assignment, that’s what.”
“About time,” Miles said. He was a bland man with skin, hair, and eyes the same shade of dark brown. “I was almost thinking they’d forgotten about us.”
“What does the assignment entail?” Robyn asked. She was a striking, curvaceous brunette beauty with flawless deep umber skin whose parents had emigrated from the Caribbean. Robyn could charm information out of anyone. Though that wasn’t her special ability, the one handed down by her fae ancestry. Her ability was healing, and that made her perfect as a nurse.
“We’re to be on the lookout for these people.” Kirk tapped the keyboard, and two photos popped up on screen.
Barbara hissed. “Agents.”
It didn’t surprise Kirk that Barbara knew agents on sight. She had an eidetic memory and had gone through all the files the Knights acquired on the Agency. Though that was before the Agency invaded their headquarters, forcing them to destroy most of the files—both those about the Agency and the Knights’ own. So much precious information lost. But it was a needed sacrifice to keep their secrets from those fucking busybodies.
“And there’s an A for Barbara,” Kirk said. “They’re Agents Pan and Jin. But we’re also looking out for two shifter teens named Tommy and Stacey. Got their descriptions right here. Hmm. Apparently the boy’s a wolf and the girl’s a… hawk? Thought birds were extinct. No matter.” Kirk waved that away. “They’re traveling from Washington and could be coming here.”
“Any idea as to their destination?” Allen asked. He was a pasty white, portly man many would see as weak—until he reshaped a metal pole as if it were a balloon animal. Controlling metal was his ability.
Kirk shook his head. He looked proudly at his team as they began to discuss plans and strategies. The five of them had been stationed in Portland, Oregon for going on five years now. They were the biggest unit the Knights had in Oregon. He’d been directed by the commander—Gregor Whitefield himself—to choose four other knights and set up in the large city. They were to put themselves in places of authority or where they would have the greatest interaction with the public. They were to be eyes and ears only, unless otherwise directed. Kirk had become an expert on spotting a shifter upon first viewing, in either of their forms. The same could be said for the rest of his team.
Kirk was a sergeant of the local PD, Barbara and Robyn were nurses at two different hospitals, Miles was a custodian at the university—giving him access to the entire community—and Allen worked for ODOT, giving him access to all the traffic cameras.
“What’d they do?” Miles asked. “Why does the commander want them?”
“They have an object of importance to Arcas,” Kirk said, scanning the e-mail again. “We aren’t to approach the subjects. Once spotted we contact Gregor, and he gives us further commands.”
“Doesn’t sound like fun,” Miles said gruffly.
“Better than sitting on our asses,” Barbara said, her tone scolding. “I’d rather do this than help the weak. You have no idea how fucking stupid it is to work in a hospital. Ill people everywhere. Makes me sick.”
“It’s not that bad—” Robyn said, trying to soothe.
“Speak for yourself, princess,” Barbara said acidly. “You like the attention you garner from saving lives. The invalids disgust me.”
Kirk smiled at Barbara. “The price we pay.”
Barbara scowled at him. Kirk always found that scowl sexy and would show her just how much when night fell.
Kirk stood. “Look alive, people. It’s showtime.”
VIKTOR PICKED up his cell for the hundredth time and put it down for the hundredth time. Where was she? Worry knotted his gut, but he didn’t want to be a nag. Besides, he had only himself to blame for Stacey running off with Tommy. He didn’t have anything horrible to say about the kid other than his attitude at times. He liked Tommy—he really did. But he never approved of them together. He admitted his biggest problem came from the fact Tommy was a wolf shifter. He wasn’t biased toward other shifters—far from it! But others were. Many others were loud proponents of “pure” matings: wolf with wolf, hawk with hawk, etc. Some made their opinions known with extreme violence—more so these days than in the past. There wouldn’t be natural children from their union either, and he knew Stacey wanted kids someday. Adoption for shifters was dicey considering the complications in finding orphaned shifter children, or risking the adoption of nonshifter children.
Yes, he’d taken Tommy in, fed him, and clothed him. It was the decent thing to do. The poor kid had obviously been through hell, and Viktor was in a position to do something about it. But then Stacey began to hang around Tommy, and something seemed to click between them. But he worried. Tommy obviously had a past, and Viktor didn’t want anything to bring his sister to harm. She could be flighty and impulsive sometimes. He loved his sister to death and knew himself to be overprotective, but what could he do? There was a fifteen-year age gap between them, and with both parents gone, he had to make sure she grew up to be a dignified hawk shifter.
He wondered if he would survive the stress of being a parent to his little sister.
Viktor picked up his cell again. Scowling deeply, he slammed it back down on the kitchen counter and stood. He began to pace the first floor of the cozy house and knew he should have opened his antique shop an hour earlier, but how could he concentrate when Stacey could be who the hell knew where? What had Tommy dragged her into?
Viktor stopped pacing and ran his fingers roughly through his dark hair. Had they really run away? Run to Vegas and married? His stomach pitched. Oh God, please, anything but that!
Why did he have to nag her so? He swore to himself that when—please God, when—she came home, he would make a stringent effort to accept their relationship. It was obvious how much they loved each other. He once hoped it was just a passing fancy, but in his gut, he always knew better. He needed to look beneficently on their relationship, or he would lose his sister. Tommy wasn’t bad, but he was trouble. However, Viktor admitted, his sister had found enough trouble on her own before Tommy came into the picture.
Viktor scowled again, berating himself. It was his fucking fault for arguing with her right before he traveled to New York… then leaving them alone for a week. Damn conference! He came home to find her gone, with a voice mail on his home phone from the local high school asking about the teens. He called the school and claimed a family emergency had taken them away, and could the school be understanding and send by the needed homework? He avoided scheduling makeup exams until he was certain Stacey and Tommy were coming home.
He should call her. But would she even answer?
The sound of a key turning in the lock of the front door had Viktor spinning around. He rushed out of the kitchen and stopped short in the living room as the door opened. His eyes widened as Stacey walked in. She looked tired, strained, and like she obviously hadn’t slept recently, but she was blessedly unharmed. She carried a backpack slung over one shoulder, and only after shutting the door and locking it again did she look at him. Her sharp eyes held uncertainty.
Viktor’s breath caught at the sight of her. Relief flooded through him, making him weak.
He swept her up in a hug—easily accomplished since she was a petite 115 when wet, and he was a giant at six feet five inches—and nearly crushed her.
“Stacey, I am so sorry. I am so glad you are home!” His Russian accent thickened from the emotions overwhelming him.
It thrilled him when she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck and held on. They argued more often than not, and foul words were said in spite, but at the end of the day, they loved each other. It was good they both remembered that.
“Please do not run out like that again,” he said softly against her ear. “I am so worried.” Then he spoke in a long spat of Russian, his heart thudding in his ears.
“I won’t. I’m sorry. I won’t.” Stacey pressed her face into his chest. “I’m sorry I worried you.”
Viktor stroked her hair. It wasn’t uncommon for people to be skeptical when told they were brother and sister. They didn’t look much alike. They were both pale, but Viktor had black hair and pale blue eyes while Stacey’s hair was a rusty bronze and her eyes a light brown. Viktor had spent most of his life in Russia and still retained the accent, but Stacey had never set foot in the motherland and sounded firmly American.
Their parents had been young when they met. Their father, a native Russian, visited America and became enraptured by their mother. As with most infatuations, it didn’t last, but their mother was already pregnant with Viktor. They married and moved to Russia. Then they moved to the US when Viktor was fourteen. Stacey was conceived by accident, and by then, their parents were firmly out of love with each other. Instead of divorcing, they simply separated. Viktor returned to Russia with their father, and Stacey was raised alone by their mother. During those years, Viktor only saw Stacey in photos and Skype sessions. He finally reunited with her in person five years ago when he moved permanently back to the States after their mother died in a vehicular accident. Their father had already died from a heart attack a couple years before that.
They both still chafed at the setup, but Stacey was only seventeen, and Viktor was determined to do right by her.
“I am sorry for what I say to you,” Viktor said. “And for what I say about Tommy. I will not say such things again.”
“I called you some things too,” Stacey said. “For that I’m sorry.”
Viktor smiled. “We both have tempers, da?”
“Da,” she said. Stacey pulled back and smiled. But then Viktor felt something. He frowned and looked around before realizing the strange pulsing sensation was coming from Stacey’s bag. He stared at it for a moment before gazing at Stacey. Stacey saw where his attention had been, and her eyes widened.
Viktor narrowed his eyes. He didn’t need to say a word.
“I… I…,” Stacey said, stumbling. “There was a reason Tommy and I left.”
“And Tommy? Where is he?” He mentally kicked himself for not inquiring sooner. Worry, so lately relieved, bloomed forth again.
Stacey took a deep breath. “Don’t get pissed, okay?”
Viktor crossed his arms over his chest. “Speak.”
Stacey huffed out a breath. “Don’t get all Russian on me.”
Viktor grunted, glaring. His inner hawk ruffled his feathers and clicked his beak in irritation. Neither he nor his hawk appreciated her challenge to his authority. It was impossible to balance being her superior and her friend. He had a sinking feeling in his stomach his sister had done something horribly stupid and/or dangerous.
“Do you remember those legends you told me once? That night, a couple years back, when I was sick? You told me about bird guardians and magical scrolls….”
The sinking feeling became a cramp. “What of them?”
“Well….” Stacey opened her bag and pulled out a long, thin tube. It was evident the tube was the origin of the pulsing.
Viktor gasped and backed away, heart pounding. “Stacey! What did you do?”
TOMMY CALLED dibs on the bathroom after Pan emerged from it. It was a small hotel room, but they wouldn’t be staying long. The clerk had leered at them, but Pan gave him enough money to keep his mouth shut. Pan limped over to where Jin stood, wondering when Lila would arrive. They were finally in Portland, Oregon, and after Lila healed him, they would go find Tommy’s girlfriend, and hopefully the damn scroll.
“How do you want to play this?” Pan asked Jin as he carefully sat on the bed. His ribs were killing him.
Jin regarded him silently. Pan knew from personal experience Jin’s placid Japanese features hid a quick and deadly mind. Pan liked to tease Jin that he was a modern ninja—which seemed to fit since he always wore tight black clothing—but his partner of five years never seemed pleased by that comparison. One time he said he’d rather be a samurai.
“Know all the players,” he said simply.
Pan nodded. “Agreed. What did Tommy say Stacey’s brother’s name was again?”
“Right. Hawk shifter.” Pan sighed. “He’s not going to give up that scroll easily, Jin. With any other shifter, we stand half a chance. But with a bird shifter? They see it as their duty, if the legends are to be believed.”
“We always believe the legends,” Jin said.
Pan smirked. “And this scroll has been lost for centuries. I really don’t know what Captain Odin expects us to do. I mean, we want shifters as allies, right? We’re fighting this war for them.”
“For the world,” Jin said softly. He didn’t often interrupt, and it always threw Pan off his stride.
“Right. The world.” Pan shook his head. A few strands of dark hair fell out of his ponytail into his brown eyes, and he absently brushed them away. “Got any ideas how to convince a bird shifter to abandon his sacred duty?”
Jin shrugged elegantly.
Pan snorted. “You’re no help.”
The mission was complicated from the start. From the moment Derek’s pack called the Agency to request assistance against the Knights, Pan felt like he’d been jumping from one foot to the other, never finding his balance. The Agency only recently found archival evidence of the existence of four ancient scrolls, but the accounts were vague and incomplete. All the information was garnered by second- or thirdhand sources. No agent had ever seen one of the magical scrolls.
What information they had came from an agent’s chance encounter with a shark shifter and his human mate in the late 1970s. The pair had hunted for one of the scrolls. A scroll in the possession of Diana Knight—Arcas’s mother. The mother of the man who started this entire war. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. There were always those who feared and hated shifters, who sought their annihilation. Then there were those like Pan and Jin, people with special abilities, who always tried to stop them.
But Arcas organized those haters. Trained them. Gave them missions and purpose. And he was still out there. Plotting. It was ironic in a fucked-up way that knights and agents were descended from the same ancestors: the fae. An ancient tribe of magical creatures that eventually mated with humans, diluting their powers. While most humans had some fae DNA, only some manifested powers and could become either a knight or an agent. They were essentially family on opposite sides of the war.
Pan clenched his hands into fists. The four scrolls were said to be keys to a weapon of destruction—a weapon that would eradicate shifters from the face of the Earth. But Pan suspected it would do more than that. He doubted Arcas only wanted shifters gone. He wanted world domination. Who was to say he wouldn’t use the weapon against all those he didn’t like? Genocidal maniacs didn’t just stop, especially when they tasted power. They found new targets for their hateful rage.
That was why he and Jin were in Oregon. That was why their captain had charged them with the task of finding one of the scrolls—one Tommy and his girlfriend, Stacey, had stolen from a museum—and returning it to the Agency for safety. Arcas’s right-hand man, Gregor, was still at large, as were an unknown number of knights. For any shifter to have possession of a scroll was to paint a target on their back.
“We could inform them of the immediacy of the danger,” Pan said. “Gregor knows what Tommy and Stacey look like. He knows who you and I are and what we can do. There’s no way the scroll can stay hidden with Viktor.”
Jin’s mouth, often immobile, twisted as though he tasted something disgusting. “Yes. Anu made sure to expose us all.”
Pan’s jaw tightened at the mere mention of their traitorous former chief. Anu had been in league with Arcas. He fed Arcas information on the Agency that had helped Arcas stay hidden and free from capture. But now the bastard Anu was imprisoned, and they had a new and better chief in charge.
Chief Hera was once captain of the women’s squad of international agents. She’d competently taken the chief’s mantle and decisively taken steps to broaden the Agency’s effectiveness and networking. Where before they worked in the shadows, even out of sight of the shifters they helped, now they were contacting large packs, clans, and herds, attempting to set up a network of allies and observers. The Knights were disbanded and their headquarters raided, yet there were still units working globally, carrying on their ugly campaign.
Pan rubbed his sore ribs in memory of the fight with Gregor. He’d nearly lost. He would have died if not for Jin. Pan was no pushover—he was at the top of his class—so the reminder of his mortality was humbling. He lifted his shirt and noted the nasty bruises over his olive skin. He couldn’t stop himself from poking them and winced at the tenderness.
“We need to be honest with Viktor,” Jin said, yanking Pan out of his troubled thoughts and from aggravating his injuries. “Chief Hera wants us to build relationships of trust and respect between the Agency and shifters. The only way we can do that is to give some trust and respect ourselves.”
That was probably one of the longest speeches Jin had made in months. He wasn’t a talker.
Pan nodded. “Cool. I’m in.”
Tommy walked out of the bathroom just then, looking a little better but still too pale, his skin whiter than its normal shade. His blue eyes also showed the strain and exhaustion they were all feeling. His shaggy black hair had been stuck up everywhere when they arrived, but now he’d smoothed it back.
“Why are we waiting here again?” he asked as he approached them.
“Lila’s coming,” Jin said.
At Tommy’s confused look, Pan expanded on Jin’s explanation. “Lila is an agent who has the ability to heal most any injury. She can speed up the body’s natural healing process. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m kinda banged up here. So are you, by the careful way you’re walking. I don’t know what the next days or weeks will bring, so we need to be at the top of our game.”
Tommy’s mouth had dropped when Pan mentioned Lila’s ability. Now he snapped it shut and nodded. “Got it.”
“I know you want to see Stacey,” Pan said gently. “You will. Lila should be here any minute. Just be patient a little longer.”
Tommy nodded, this time more reluctantly. Tommy had called Stacey the day before on Pan’s cell to reassure her he was fine. But Pan cut the conversation short and made sure neither of them exposed their location. Perhaps he was being paranoid, but Pan didn’t want anything to jeopardize anyone’s safety. It relieved him to know Stacey was safe and on the way to her brother. That meant the scroll was safe.
“What can you tell me about Viktor?” Pan asked.
Tommy sighed and was silent for moment, obviously giving the question a lot of thought.
“He’s a good man. A little gruff and cynical at times. But really good. He didn’t have to take me in and care for me, you know? I, um… Well, I tried to steal from his shop. He runs a high-end antique shop, and I tried to steal a rare Roman coin. I think it was Roman. Anyway, he caught me. He could have called the cops on me, but….” Tommy shrugged.
“How old were you?” Pan asked.
Tommy scratched the back of his head. “Fifteen.”
“We’ve all been there.”
Tommy frowned at Pan, who kept his smile light, though inside, memories tried to break free. He firmly stamped them down.
“So after that he made me a deal. If I worked around his shop for free—without stealing anything—he’d give me free room and board and teach me some skills to help me survive in the ‘civilized’ world. Those were his exact words. He also insisted I go back to school.” Tommy snorted. “Oh, he’s from Russia too.”
A Russian hawk named Viktor, Pan mused. Something tickled, like a faded memory, at the back of his mind, but he brushed it aside to focus on the here and now.
“Viktor’s real protective of his sister,” Tommy said emphatically. “He adores her. I think that’s why he’s so against me being with her. No one’s good enough, you know?” He grimaced. “And this whole situation is going to make it so much worse. I really don’t think he’s going to be pleased to see you guys. Especially if he thinks protecting the scroll is his duty. From the way Stacey kept going on about the connection between bird shifters and the scrolls, I have to think it’s the truth. Just a warning: he’s big, burly, and… well, Russian.”
Pan snorted a laugh. “We’ll keep that in mind.” He looked at Jin. “Why don’t you call Mac and see if he can find any info on possible units in Oregon? It’d be nice to know what we might encounter.”
Jin nodded and stepped away as he pulled out his phone.
“What do you mean?” Tommy asked.
Pan winced as he tried to find a comfortable way to sit on the bed. He wouldn’t usually answer such a question—he was sworn to secrecy regarding Agency business—but times were changing, weren’t they? And Tommy should know what they were up against. Pan wasn’t sure how much longer Tommy would be involved in this mess. None of them were out of danger yet. And he firmly believed preparation for anything and everything was the key to success. Knowledge was truly the greatest power in the world.
“A few months back, the Agency raided the Knights’ headquarters. We fractured the organization and captured a lot of knights, but even more escaped. While they destroyed a lot of their own files, we recovered about half. Since then we’ve been working around the clock, trying to organize them. Some are encrypted, and you can’t decipher a code without a key. Anyway, there might be info in one of those files that indicates if there’s a unit of Knights stationed in Oregon. If we can locate that, then we can prevent a problem before it becomes a problem. You get it?”
“A good defense is a good offense.”
Pan smiled with approval. “Exactly.”
Someone knocked at their door. Tommy grew tense, and Pan gave him a reassuring smile. Jin got off the phone and opened the door. Lila, a young woman of plain looks but keen eyes, stepped inside. She zeroed in on Pan.
“Time to play Doctor.”
Pan grinned. “My favorite game.”