United States East Coast, 1814
THE FALCON shape-shifter stood on the beach, gazing at the ocean with weary eyes. He was tired. He was very, very tired. Not one month before, his mate, Quincy, had passed beyond the veil of this world. Old age had claimed Quincy, but he’d had a good, long life. Con hoped to join his beloved wolf soon. He had many years ahead of him, but he couldn’t bear to live them alone. So he planned to live the rest of his days as a falcon. It lessened the pain of his loss when he was in his other form. It was the only type of relief left to him.
Now he stood upon the beach where, many years ago, his fate had changed. He’d been a scroll guardian for only a short time, but he’d taken that duty to heart and had devoted his life to protecting two ancient scrolls that contained the means of destroying the world. But because of a storm that had capsized their ship to the New World, he’d lost them to the wide blue ocean.
Con wrapped his arms around himself as he relived those terrifying moments. He remembered thinking he would die as he sank deeper into the water. But he hadn’t. Neither he nor Quincy had died that day because of a master shape-shifter named Imelda and her pack.
But the scrolls were still down there, somewhere. They’d sunk along with the ship, and though Con had turned his back and left them behind, he’d never stopped thinking about them. At least once a day he’d remember them and wonder.
Something suddenly caught his eye, and Con turned his attention to what he at first thought was a ghostly apparition. But as he stared harder, he realized the pale woman walking along the beach was just as flesh and blood as he was. The wind ruffled her silver hair and caused her dress to twine around slender legs. The moon shone down, full and bright, giving him enough light to realize that this woman wasn’t ordinary. In fact, even from this distance, he sensed her strength and dominance. It was very similar to the aura exuded by Imelda.
Before he knew what he intended to do, Con strode toward her. As he approached, she stopped and turned her head, watching him. It was then that he realized her eyes were completely black. He swallowed hard but couldn’t stop walking. As he stepped in front of her, Con inclined his head respectfully. A small smile, perhaps of amusement, graced her lips, and she inclined her head to him.
“Pardon my boldness, my lady,” Con said, heart pounding. “But would you be, perhaps, a master shape-shifter?”
That smile of hers grew, the moon reflected in those black eyes, and reminded Con of a deadly predator. He repressed a shudder. His falcon fluttered anxiously, determined to shift in a heartbeat if needed.
“Indeed, I am, young changer of the skin. What is your need?”
“What is your other form, my lady?”
She tilted her head. “You are bold for one so young.” Even as Con flushed, she added, “I like bold.”
She looked at the sea. “I am the ghostly predator that stalks in the darkest waters, that has no equal, and whose visage crumbles the courage of the bravest man.”
Con stared at her, his eyes widening. “Shark.” It was said in a whisper.
“Young, bold, and clever. I like you.” She turned back to Con. “I am Creusa. What is your name?”
She nodded slightly. “There is a reason for your boldness in approaching me, Con. What is it?”
Con took a deep breath before telling her about the scrolls. Secrecy about them had been deeply ingrained, but now he knew he had to speak. Traditionally, all scroll guardians had been birds of one type or another, but that wasn’t an option this time. And to his mind, what better guardians than sharks?
When he’d finished his tale, he couldn’t read Creusa’s expression. She stared at him with those blank, black eyes, no longer smiling.
“I have sensed them,” she said softly. “I have sensed something within my oceans, not far from this beach, in fact. It is a pulsing, like that of a heartbeat, and it throbs inside.”
Con knew about the pulse but not how she could have sensed it unless she had actually touched them. By the quietness of her tone, he knew she’d never known the source of the pulse before his telling.
“You ask much of me, Con.” She focused on him again. “You ask much of my children. Protecting those scrolls makes us targets.”
“I know,” he said. “But still I ask, my lady.”
“Yes,” she said. “Still you must ask. You have a right to ask. Though I bear little love and loyalty for other changers of the skin, I know the price if even one family perishes. We resonate with each other, connected by a single thread of life. When one is in peril, the rest are as well.”
While Con didn’t completely follow her words, he understood her answer to be yes.
He bowed his upper body. “You have my profound thanks, my lady. I shall never be able to repay your kindness.”
“No, you will not.”
But when Con raised his head, he saw that her small smile was back.
“Go, young skin changer. Go and be at peace. Those scrolls shall not leave my protection, or that of my children.”
Con nodded again as she stepped away toward the waves lapping at the beach. He couldn’t resist watching her as she walked, without hesitation, into the cold water before diving in. Only a heartbeat passed before he saw a large pale fin rise out of the water. While Con knew little of sharks, he suspected none grew so large as Creusa, the master shifter. As the fin descended below the waves, Con turned away. With a lighter heart, he stripped off his clothes and called to his falcon. The air shimmered and pulsed, and soon a peregrine falcon flew into the night sky, sending out a piercing cry of farewell.