Prologue

Calum paused when the voicemail came on. Devin was probably busy with his mate, again. He grinned, “Guess your busy with… royal mating... stuff.” He chuckled, “I’m at the bottom of some mountain, in the middle of the back-country nowhere—even more than your camp nowhere kind of deal. I’ve tracked my missing clan members to here.” He glanced up the incline to the dense, foliage-covered mountain. “I’ll let you know when I find out more.” He hung up and sighed. Maybe being away right now was a good thing. With Devin newly mated and Kelsey coming home to Gage… it was going to be messy with a whole lot of true-mate issues that Calum didn’t have, couldn’t relate to, and hoped he’d never have to go through himself. His responsibilities with the alliance didn’t leave him time for those distractions.


Turning off his phone, he stuffed it into the waterproof bag and sealed it, then jammed it into his pack. Normally he didn’t take his phone with him, but this was an unknown area and knowing he’d have it, just in case, made him feel better. The challenge would be not to lose his pack, as he’d been known to do occasionally.

The small village he’d stopped at had warned him away from coming here, despite confirming they’d seen the men from his clan in the photos he’d shown. They’d said there was bad juju on this mountain, and few ever came down off it. Calum wasn’t sure about the juju garbage, but if there was even a small chance of the males from his clan being on this mountain, he was going up to find them.


That little village was on the strange side. The way the people watched him gave him the creeps. He wondered if they could smell an outside shifter in their territory, but he picked up no scents that led him to believe there were any shifters among them. He may be paranoid, and they could only be watchful of strangers. With the missing males from his clan, and Tomas’ association taking females from other clans, he was allowed to suspect everyone of nefarious intentions. If anyone had a problem with his suspicious nature, they could eat dirt as far as he was concerned.


It had taken him over an hour to get this far up with his car. He was definitely considering getting a truck when he got back. His car hadn’t been much good for off-roading. He looked around the area he’d parked. It may have, at one time, been a parking area or rest stop, but it was long deserted, overgrown and ignored. If anyone managed to get up here on the not-really-a-road trail he’d taken, they were more than welcome to break into his car. Locking it, he tucked the keys behind the front tire’s rim. He’d learned a long time ago to never take keys on trips into the great wilderness. Losing your clothes or pack was almost always a certainty, losing your keys left you trapped.


He looked back down the way he’d come again before turning toward the incline. “This should be fun.” He sighed and started climbing.

His senses were on overload, so many scents, all familiar, but not, at the same time. He took his time moving through the thick vegetation, checking for anything that might set off his animal instincts. His cat was already on full alert, which wasn’t necessarily unusual, but it made him more aware of what was around him, and a little jittery as well. As soon as he found something to follow, he’d shift and let his animal side take over the tracking.


He walked along a flat area, happy for the break from the upward climb, watching for somewhere he could stow his pack so it wouldn’t be found, not that he anticipated this being a high traffic area, he just couldn’t take it with him. Nothing said ‘not a normal wild animal’ like a big black cat carrying a pack around his neck. He chuckled at that thought.


A few times his cat moved against his skin, telling him to hurry up. He wasn’t sure if it was the new area to explore, or if he sensed something, but it wasn’t like he was drawing this out like a holiday or anything.


When he finally found a spot he’d be able to locate again, he stripped down and stuffed his clothes in the pack. For half a heartbeat, he thought about pinging his location to Devin, just in case, but doubted there would be any signal here.


Shifting, he stretched to his full length and then wasted no time getting moving. This was more like it, four paws meant for this terrain carried him faster than inflexible boots and man-length strides ever would.


When he cleared the dense growth, he paused and scented the area around him. There was a faint smell that tasted familiar, but it was too difficult to tell where it was coming from. He crept through the plush leaves along the ground, trying to see if he could pick it up again. At least one of the missing men had been this way, but not recently enough to be able to pinpoint their every step. The growth here was like it was at Devin’s camp, but on steroids. The leaves a deeper green, the trees were twice as thick and taller. All this made staying out of sight easy, but seeing what was around him more difficult.


As soon as he located the members of his clan, he was going to find out what had led them here. They had enough area to run and roam, that was a hell of a lot closer to home. There was no reason to come this far and trek up this stunning chunk of dirt. If it turned out to be for some stupid hormone-enticed reason… he was going to smack them in the head. With a large paw. A few times, at least. He had enough going on right now with Devin learning the ropes to lead the Alliance, he didn’t need to be traipsing around some damn mountain looking for stray cats.


Stopping, he sniffed the air. There was… Crouching low, he tried to identify the scents. A nervous twitch moved over his coat, something was off. He inhaled and took more time trying to analyze what he was smelling. Slowing his breathing, he listened. Ears flat, alarms going off in his head, he looked around him. With years of carefully honed animal intuition, he knew he needed to get the hell out of here. Now.


Spinning back in the direction he’d just come from, he paused for a heartbeat and realized he was too late.