Prologue
When destruction hit the world, it came in stages and at a pace that did not allow time for contingency plans. Events that happened weren’t as experts predicted; however, the result was devastating. Most towns and cities were completely destroyed. Of those that remained, almost all were abandoned as power and services failed.

The volcanic activity came first, destroying cities, towns and roadways. The resultant ash covered the continents where super explosions happened, as well as smaller eruptions. The effects of these super eruptions were globally felt. Acid rains became the norm for a long time, and weather patterns were disrupted for years.

Massive earthquakes followed. Mountains arose where none had been, and many valleys and vast canyons were created by collapsing fault lines and fissures. Coastlines broke away; some falling into the ocean and others becoming islands. Some mountains crumbled back into the earth, while some only shook slightly, if at all. Sea levels rose around the world. Snow and ice covered much of the northern continents and temperatures fell to an average of -30 degrees for a prolonged period.

Essentially, the Earth shook, burned, drowned or froze off most of the civilizing efforts of mankind. Few remnants of civilization survived, those that did were mere skeletons of a time whose end had come than livable cities. The intermittent destruction allowed skilled survivors to gather supplies and preserved food. Some were wise and others were unlucky. Darwin’s theory prevailed.

Approximately twenty years after the main destruction, small groups of humans began emerging from their sanctuaries, some lived in caves, some in what was left of abandoned buildings. Temperatures stabilized and the weather settled into regular cycles. Ice and snow receded. Much of the land was fertile. The volcanic ash, that had killed so many, now enriched the soil. With little equipment available and gas and oil hard, if not impossible to find, farming was done using the hand tools of the past. Yet the new ground yielded a bountiful harvest for the effort. Life was hard, but there was hope.

Packs of were-beasts fared better. Being natural hunters, they were able to shift to their animal form to find food or shelter, if their homes were damaged. This gave them an advantage over their human cousins who depended heavily on eating what food was stored or scavenged. They no longer had to hide their differences in fear of extermination, most weres were willing to live alongside their human cousins, if they could find any that had survived.


Chapter 1

 The morning air was heating under the canopy of trees. Rissa moved fast but quietly through the thick brush and trees despite the panic of being chased. She shifted her shoulders to ease the strain of the pack and weapons she carried on her back, adrenalin pumped through her veins, her heart pounded. She paused, looking around carefully, her hand on the bark of a large tree. She breathed deeply while listening for sounds of pursuers and felt the tingling across her skin that came with the feeling that someone was watching her. She stilled and let her eyes roam the heavily wooded area, saw no one around her, but the feeling of being watched still crawled up her spine.

She was far from their home village, they’d been traveling into new territory, exploring and looking for more survivors when they were attacked by a group of armed men. They’d been cautious in their trek through the woods and brush, but a two of her group walked into a small clearing in the trees, while she and the others followed slowly. The two in front were immediately surrounded on the front and sides, by the band of armed men. The attackers began shouting and fired several shots at the group. None of the shots actually hit anyone, but it caused confusion and panic. Those of her group in the lead dropped to the ground and hid in the tall grasses, while those behind ducked into the nearest trees and moved back into the forest. The attackers yelled for them to lay down their weapons and surrender, but she and her friends were not the type who surrendered easily. She’d watched as those in back of her retreated farther into the cover of the heavier trees and provided cover fire for those in the open grass to move backward toward safety, but the two in the tall grass couldn’t move.

The attackers advanced with automatic weapons firing short bursts. She backed toward thicker cover. Rick and Michael were behind her and retreating in the opposite direction from her. She saw young Jules, running full-out back the way they’d come. She looked again toward the clearing and saw Melinda and Luke crawling in the grass, trying to get back into the trees, but the men were firing close to them. Luke had slung the strap of his weapon over his shoulder so he could help Melinda move. Rissa watched, fear and heat making a sheen on her skin, as they struggled toward the trees, she took a deep breath and sighted her rifle on the men nearest the couple and got ready to defend them. As the men drew closer, she put a shot at the foot of the largest man. It wasn’t a miss, but they hadn’t killed or hit anyone and she didn’t want to draw first blood if she could avoid it.

The man looked up and tried to see into the woods to find her, but she was deep in the cover of the trees and brush. Rissa took aim again, laying on the ground covered by bushes and leaves, her elbows on a low fallen tree trunk, her legs stretched out behind her. Her attention was on what was happening in front of her, but the prickling up her spine was still strong, and while it was just a feeling, a ‘niggling’ in the back of her mind said it wasn’t caused by the immediate danger. Minutes ticked away and Luke and Melinda didn’t manage any progress toward the woods. They were being surrounded by the men spreading wide around their position. Rissa couldn’t wait much longer, “If they get into position, I won’t be able to help them, I have to do something...” she whispered to herself trying to remember all her father’s advice, “maybe a leg shot will slow them down...” She drew the nearest man’s leg into her sights and began to release her breath, moving her finger to the firing position on the trigger, sweat running down the side of her cheek.

Just as she would have pulled the trigger, she heard snarling low, almost whispered, just behind her. Head snapping around to the sound as her rifle lowered, she let it go as she turned, she was shocked to see a wolf, a really huge wolf, was standing just over her feet, its head lowered and its eyes fixed on hers. Its lips pulled back exposing long white fangs. He silently stepped forward as she finished turning over to face him. It was too late to retrieve the gun. She tried to crawl backward but the log she had used to steady her aim, prevented it. Rissa lowered her hand slowly toward the knife strapped to her thigh. The wolf growled harder and flicked a glance at her hand. She stopped her movement and the growl receded, his eyes never left hers as he came to stand over her chest, looking down into her eyes.

She could hear the men, surrounding the couple a few hundred yards out and demanding they lay down their weapons, she desperately wanted to help them. The captive couple had no choice, and gave up. The armed men ordered them to put their hands behind their backs and Rissa knew they were being tied, but the growling wolf was her immediate problem and her eyes couldn’t leave him as she wondered when he would attack, her heart pounding so hard, she thought the wolf could probably hear it.

Wanting to help her friends, she tried to move, but the wolf pushed her to the ground as he lowered his body downward onto hers. The weight was tremendous, pinning her to the ground and making breathing difficult. It was still cool near the ground but the wolf’s massive body size and heat, as well as her fear, had sweat now running from her brow and down her neck. He placed his bared teeth near her neck and again let out a whisper of a growl. His body held hers still while his eyes stared into hers, a strangely mesmerizing effect. She stared back unable to look away, her lungs working hard to get air. She thought of rabbits mesmerized by a snake until it could strike. She stared into the clear moss green color of his eyes with tiny streaks of amber and gold. Surprisingly, she saw a slight ring around his outer iris, it was a cool vivid blue. A thought flickered through her mind, how silly it seemed to think about the color of the eyes of the animal that was going to kill you.

She wondered if he was waiting until the men left before ripping her throat out and feasting on her flesh. As if he could read her thoughts he pressed his nose against the moist skin of her neck as he breathed in her scent with what felt, at least to her, like hunger. She held her breath, and closed her eyes briefly, opening them wide again as she felt his tongue slowly lick up her throat tasting the salty moistness. The fear of both the attack, that she thought was coming, and a strangely exciting warmth at the feel of his soft tongue on her hot wet skin, sent shivers through her body. Staring into his eyes, she thought she saw a flicker of amusement, but decided it was her imagination...after all, this was a wolf, and wolves didn’t have a sense of humor, did they? She tried to move her arms without notice and get them loose, but his weight had her firmly captured.

She could faintly hear the men talking and laughing as they taunted and moved the couple toward the other end of the clearing. The men shouted and laughed at how the rest of the couple’s group had hightailed it out of there. They made lewd comments about finding such a pretty woman and how she’d soon learn to appreciate them. She could hear Luke struggling and calling them names that earned him punches, followed by Melinda’s cries for them to stop and not to hurt him which only served to increase their laughter.

The voices faded slowly into the distance, then suddenly loud roaring noises were heard, she vaguely recognized them as engine sounds. Part of her wanted to see what machines had caused the noise, she’d heard engines before, but it had been long ago. With the wolf on top of her and her own death imminent, she refocused her thoughts on herself. The noises got louder and then faded off across the clearing. The woods again grew quiet. The wolf had quit growling but continued to stare into her eyes.

“So, are you going to eat me now?” trembling, she looked directly into the wolf’s eyes with her question, of course not expecting an answer, and wondering if she’d seen her father, village and friends for the last time.

The wolf chuffed, his tongue licking his lips. He took a few seconds to continue to stare into her eyes, she thought he seemed reluctant to move but didn’t make any effort toward attacking.

“Well, get on with it or get off me.” she said growing angry waiting for his attack, “Do what you can wolf, but I promise you, I’m not just going to lay here and die.” Her words gave impetus to her motion, knowing she didn’t have much of a chance, given his size and her knife still in its sheath, she jerked hard on her right arm, pulling it from under and pushed her forearm into his neck to keep his teeth from her throat as she twisted and tried to push her body out from under his.

Instead of attacking, he lifted his weight off her and jumped to the side with such speed, she realized he hadn’t had his full weight on her at all. Amazed, confused and still frightened at the beast’s actions, she came to her feet and pulled the knife from its sheath, faced the wolf ready to defend herself.

The people were gone now, but he hadn’t attacked and he no longer bared his teeth or growled at her. His fur was a mixture of silver grey and black fur, but his bottom muzzle and neck were a snowy white with a mixture of all his colors around his eyes, he had white tips scattered over his massive body. He looked powerful and well fed, not lean or hungry. He backed up and looked at her, lowered his head and chuffed, she thought it sounded almost like he was laughing at her. He stared at her, and she could swear he winked an eye, but chided herself for giving him human-like actions. He turned away and walked into a thick stand of brush. Surprised at his leaving, Rissa rushed to pick up her rifle. Shuffling sounds and leaves moving reached her ears as she checked her rifle while keeping an eye on the bush, backing up slowly, raising the rifle.

It was only a moment and a man stood from behind the bush. He pushed his dark ash and blonde hair back from his face, while watching her intently. He was tall, well over six feet and a powerful frame. He wore a tee shirt and jeans; both were molded to his body making it obvious he was not a small man anywhere. Her mouth dropped open, the rifle lowered slightly as she took in the sight, her blood seemed to heat as she watched him move slowly out from the bush. What the hell’s wrong with me? she thought to herself, but looking at him made her core ache as the flush of heat coursed through her veins. Surprised and pissed at herself for the lustful thoughts, she took a tentative step forward.

“Wh-who are you? And where did the wolf go?” she demanded, her voice cracking as her eyes scanned the outside of the brush for signs of the wolf.

“Beautiful, I am the wolf. My name is Gage, by the way.” His voice was confident and deep, he smiled, his green eyes sparkling with mischief in the afternoon light.

“Tha...a...no, what the hell are you talking about, there was a real wolf here, the biggest one I’ve ever seen. I thought he was going to rip out my throat and eat me, then those men left and he just got up and walked away into the brush. You...you’re a man, not a wolf... you...what the hell are you saying, you’re no wolf?” confusion had her shaking and her voice rising in exasperation.

“I’m a shifter, a wolf shifter. I can use my wolf form when necessary, but I’m also human.” He smiled, his lips curving into a half smile, that was sultry as well as amused, and moved forward, his hands open and out to the side.

“You’re a…what?” She raised her rifle at his movement shifting sideways as he followed, “What, you think I’m crazy or maybe stupid? Men do not turn into animals.” She paused as an idea occurred to her, “Wait…are you with those other men? The ones who took my friends? You think because you say you’re a wolf...you can scare me and make me just forget they took them?” She raised and lowered her rifle a couple of times, still moving slowly circling, until she was by the bushes and he was near the log. He didn’t answer, he just took in her words and smiled, tilting his head sideways…like a dog…or wolf?  Her mind was racing, she was unsure of exactly what she should do, so she chattered, “My friends are gone, taken, and I have to get them back. I need to get back to my village and gather a rescue team together, but I’m going after them. Why would you want me to believe men can turn into wolves?” Rissa’s eyes were wide, everything felt surreal as if she was caught in a nightmare and couldn’t wake up.

“You’re just full of questions, aren’t you beautiful?” He chuckled, then slowly answered her questions, holding up a finger for each one. “No, I don’t think you’re crazy…I think you’re confused and I’m not surprised. My people have been turning into wolves since the beginning of time. We used to hide our abilities to keep us safe, but now...well, let’s just say it’s a different world. No, I’m not with those rogues...men.” Gage took a couple of steps in her direction, his hands still splayed in front of him, “Look, I’m not going to hurt you. If I was, I already would have, wouldn’t I?” He nodded his head at the spot by the log. “Do you have a name, beautiful?”

She thought over his answers quickly, still not believing this was possible.

“Umm...R-Rissa, I’m...Rissa.” she said as she backed up, staying ahead of him, her rifle still held at the ready. She moved back behind the bushes the wolf disappeared into...nothing was there but some trampled grass. Mystified, but unable to come to terms with a wolf becoming a man, the barrel of the rifle dipped as she stared at him. Baffled by all that had happened and unsure of herself, she backed to a nearby log and sat abruptly, pulling her rifle across her knees.

“See, no wolf. I’m the wolf that held you down and kept you quiet. If you’d have fired at those men, they’d have surrounded you and taken you too. I couldn’t let that happen.” He watched as she shook her head, he knew she needed to see for herself to believe.

“Okay, I’ll do this again just to show you…so you can believe me.” He began to remove his clothes, folding them and dropping them to the ground, he stood still so she could fully see him.

She stood, “Hey, what do you think you’re doing…?” She raised the rifle, ready to shoot.

“Don’t shoot. I can’t change with the clothes on…it’s awkward. Just watch…I won’t come closer.” He turned around and faced away from her, he wasn’t embarrassed by his nakedness, but he didn’t want to frighten her more. He raised his head and took a deep breath.

In a matter of seconds, his form had shifted. It was fast, almost a blur, just a shrinking and shifting blur as he melted into a wolf, the very large wolf that had held her down. The clothes were on the ground, he turned around and stared at her. He tucked his hind legs in and sat and looked at her, cocked his head and yipped. He rose and slowly walked over to stand in front of her.

Rissa sat there and stared in wide-eyed amazement, her body trembling. “You…you really are a wolf. Oh. My. God. You…it’s true, you really can become a wolf!” She paused gasping in air, “How? Why didn’t anyone ever tell us about this?” Her shoulders shook and slumped, she sat the rifle against the log, “I just saw you do this, and it’s…I just…how is this possible?”

He moved slowly up to her, his head lowered, not quite a crawl, but close. He touched his nose to her hands and she flinched at the chilly wetness, then slowly raised her hand to his head and touched him. He pushed his head into her palm, looked into her eyes and licked her face.

She huffed and released the breath she didn’t realize she was holding, “Are you still a man in there? Can you still understand me?” Her voice was shaky, low, and she spoke her words slowly as if she wasn’t sure he could understand her.

He looked at her and nodded his head. She smiled and laughed a tentative but relieved laugh.

“This is incredible…you’re incredible.” She kept shaking her head in amazement, “How do you do this?”

He opened his mouth and his tongue lolled out in a wolf smile. He licked her again, then turned and picked the clothes up in his mouth and went back behind the bushes. She watched as the man reappeared, his chest bare and the bushes hiding the rest as he redressed.

Walking back over to her he smiled, “So… now you believe me, yes?”

She smiled and puffed out a little air, “Well either I’m crazy, or you can turn into a wolf. It’s just so…” she shrugged, eyebrows raising and mouth open to speak, but no words came out.

“Yeah…I know…I get it.” His smile was warm and handsome. Her blood warmed and her heart fluttered. She liked his smile, there was something so genuine about it. She wanted to see that smile more and closer.

He looked around and sniffed the air, he seemed to quiver for just a second then it was gone, he looked back at her.  “About what you were saying before; you don’t have time to backtrack to your village, even if it’s close, they’d be long gone before you could get back; your friends would probably be dead or worse by then. The only choice you’ve got is to go after them now.” Gage began explaining, his voice calm, soothing. He stood tall, she was not a short woman, but even she had to look up to see his face. She wasn’t sure why, but she liked that.

“I can’t do it alone. I don’t have that kind of fire power...I need more people.” Rissa said as her thoughts spun again, her mind seeing her friends being captured and possibly killed. She didn’t quite understand what he was telling her. She stood and moved toward him.

“I’m not alone, Rissa.” he folded his arms across his large chest. “That means you’re not alone. My hunting party is with me and more’re on their way from our den. My father and uncle are leading a group to us as we speak. These rogues…er…criminals, have started raiding in our territory, we’ve found evidence of people killed while traveling. We’ve only been tracking them for a short time, but we’ve had a hard time finding them. They travel quickly, using ATV’s mostly, and they’re harder to track. However, this time, they’ve got a larger group with them.” He spoke as he turned and moved off toward the break in the trees. “Oh, another thing. The others of your pack’re still here.” He turned near the last trees and looked back at her.

“What do you mean ‘still here’? I saw them leave and we call it a team, not a pack. They’re probably headed back to our village to get help. It’ll take them a couple of days to get back and then a couple more to find us, if they can…it’s not that easy for us to track people.” She followed behind him, her rifle back in her hands, but in the safety position. Men can turn into wolves...this man is actually a wolf… the thought kept running through her mind.

“Sorry, I’m used to talking about my people. We’re a pack, much like with wolves, but there’re a lot of differences, too. Your ‘team’ will meet us in a minute. Some’a my packmates stopped ‘em before they could go far and showed ‘em what I just showed you. They’re as confused and scared as you are, but you’ll all get over it…in time.” He spoke quietly but his confidence was not only visible, it was actually comforting. She was used to seeing these traits in her father, but no one else she knew projected so much power and confidence.

“My scouts are following ‘em, they’ll let us know where they’re going. If we have to, we can explain more on the way, but we can’t let the rogues get too far ahead and you humans are much slower than we are.” Gage continued speaking as he walked back toward her. He stopped briefly and picked up the gear she’d dropped. He held her pack out to her. His nostrils flared slightly as he tested the air blowing from the woods and the clearing. He gave a small shrug of his shoulders, “Sit and rest, they’re almost here, then we’ll have to make up some time.”

Rissa stopped, she was still trying to come to terms with all that had happened. She walked around in a small circle trying to get a grip on her thoughts. She finally sighed, lowering her pack to the ground but holding onto the rifle, she sat on a log near him, her mind whirling.

“Do you think they’ll hurt them? Will they kill my friends?” she asked, she was sure she already knew the answer but needed to hear him confirm her fears.

“I won’t lie to you. They have plans for the woman that are definitely not going to be good for her. Will they kill her?” he shrugged his large shoulders casually. “Probably not, but she may wish they had, depending on her spirit. You’d know the answer to that better than I would. As for the male, it’s anyone’s guess. They might use him for sport before the kill him, or as a slave. “They might even try to recruit him into their group. I just don’t know enough about them to guess.” The look on his face was strained, but his manner was quiet, confident. What he was telling her wasn’t pleasant, but she knew it was the truth. He walked back and sat just across from her as she looked out into the woods. They sat there quietly, waiting for the others, that’s when she noticed his scent, like the storms that blew down from the higher mountains. It was earthy but clean and as fresh as a bracing wind. She blushed slightly as she realized how that scent made her feel. She could feel his gaze on her, even when she wasn’t looking, it felt as if his eyes never left her.
 

*********
Gage sat near Rissa, deep in thought as he watched her, waiting for the others to arrive, it wouldn’t be long. He loved being near her. From the moment he came across her scent on the trail his inner wolf had been urging him to find her. She was his mate, his wolf had told him so, but now he knew it too. Her scent, sunshine and soap, set his blood on fire and it was all he could do to keep his wolf under control. The randy old canine wanted him to claim her now.

There was so much he wanted to explain, but she was already reeling from what he’d shown her. He knew it would take time to get over the shock. What he didn’t tell her was that several of those they were tracking were also wolf shifters, rogues.

Those packless renegades who chose to go it alone or band loosely together to take what they wanted from anyone weaker. Before the destruction of the world, rogues were often misfits who had left their packs to live alone. In the world before the destruction, they would have been hunted down and exterminated if their crimes warranted it, before they could draw attention to their kind. Now, in this new world, it was anyone’s guess how or why they lived without their pack. This group had been raiding and killing, looting and burning the remains, or sometimes leaving the bodies for the natural animals to dispose of. They’d only recently came into the territory controlled by his father and uncle’s packs. Those packs would not allow these vermin to live. Their packs were not weak, in strength or numbers, and they kept their territory as safe as possible.

Gage thought to his packmates, about the rogues they were tracking and about finding his mate. He was still thinking to them when they appeared out of the trees leading Rick, Michael and Jules between them.

Gage watched, with all the restraint as he could find, as Rissa jumped up when she saw her friends and ran to them excitedly. As she hugged each one he felt a growl low in his throat and worked hard to suppress it. His wolf was furious and clawing at his insides. His packmates’ thoughts were amused at his distress.

“Rein it in big fella, she won’t like you tearing out her friend’s throats.” Jeoff laughed in his mind. Always a joker and full of mischief, he was also one of the best hunters and fighters Gage knew.

“She’s gonna be a hard female to handle, Gage. You sure you’re up to the challenge?” Nia laughed walking in with her mate Gary. She was lovely, but it was her quickness that made her formidable as a hunter or fighter. Her once human mate, Gary, loved her dearly and was extremely protective of her, even though she’d proved over and over again that she could take care of herself.

“Gary, you were human once, don’t I get a little mercy from you?” Gage returned, his humor good, but his discomfort at seeing his future mate with her arms around another male was eating at him and infuriating his wolf.

“I feel for ya, but she’s human. This is all new and strange to her. You’re gonna have’ta suck it up, pal, and hang tough or risk losing her, at least for a while. I’m just saying...” Gary obviously felt for Gage, they’d become good friends since Nia had found him and claimed him as her mate. He’d been weak and starving, now he was filled out and strong, maybe a little bigger. Not as big as Gage or Jeff, but a good sized male.

Gage walked over near Rissa and spoke aloud to Jeoff and Kaleb as he also listened to her talking.

“I’m just glad you’re all still alive and we can go after Melinda and Luke.” She said, passing out more hugs to each. The men looked haggard and confused, their fear still obvious.

“I was runnin’ as fast as I could back to the village, then they jumped out in front of me. I fell on my butt trying to stop, then that big one, Jeoff’s his name, I think. Anyways, he just turned into a man, just like that.” Jules snapped his fingers in demonstration. “I thought I’d pee my pants I was so scared. I ain’t never seen anything like this…I didn’t know men could be wolves.”

The other shifters smiled and chuckled. Gage stayed still, his eyes glued to Rissa.

“Have you ever heard of people who could turn into wolves?” Rissa looked at Rick with her question. The oldest of their small group and Michael’s father, he had lived before the destruction and might have knowledge about these people.

“No. Only in books and movies. There’ve always been stories among the Indians about shape shifters, but I always just figured it was legends. I had no idea they were real, Jules is right, it’s incredibly scary. I felt like I was in a nightmare, still do actually.” He answered thoughtfully and quietly, as Michael, just shook his head in wonder.

“Have you ever seen wolves as big as they are? Did you know they’re naked when they change?” Jules whispered to Rissa. “Butt naked. They carry a roll of clothes tied around their necks to change into. If it wasn’t so scary, it might be cool.”

Rissa looked patiently at Jules, “Yeah, it might be, but right now it’s just too strange and frightening.” she spoke slowly to the young boy, “I’m surprised they could catch you, you had a good start running.”

Jules rolled his eyes and his shoulders slumped, “Oh man, they’re so fast. They run like lightn’n...you’ve never seen anything as fast as them.” The wolves standing around chuffed wolf laughs and turned away or sat down, those that had already changed laughed out loud.

“Yeah, it was pretty much that way for us too,” Rick said nodding at Michael. “We were circling around to see if we could get to Luke and Melinda to help, when two of them stepped out into our path. We were just about to shoot, then one just changed into a man and it practically scared the life out of us. He held out his hands and just said ‘We’re not here to hurt you, we’re here to try to help you save your friends. Don’t be afraid, we’re only here to help.’ It was that big auburn haired guy over there.” He pointed to one of the large men with Gage who was smiling back at him.

“I think he said his name’s Kaleb...” Michael muttered. “It was scary, the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen, but now that the shock’s fading, I think it’s kind of interesting. I mean how awesome would it be to be able to become a super huge wolf? Haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like to be an animal? I have, well…not since I was Jules’ age, but I did.”

Rissa shook her head at her friends, “This has been….I don’t even know what to call it. They say they’re going to help us get Luke and Melinda back. There’s supposed to be more of them coming and we’re all going to go get our friends, I think we’re leaving soon.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Rissa,” Rick began, “I think we should go get Henry and some of our men. I mean…we don’t really know these people.”

They all looked up to see Gage and Jeoff heading toward them, looking serious. They turned and watched as they came near.

“Our scouts say that most of the raiders are traveling slowly. The leaders are the ones riding the ATV’s. They’re out ahead and they don’t seem to be waiting for their people to catch up. They may be heading to a stronghold or den. If they leave the larger bunch unattended it would make it easier to rescue your friends. It’s still dangerous, but we may be able to do it before your friends’ve been too badly hurt.”

“Hold on.” Rick straightened to his full height, “I think we need to go get some of our own people to do this. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but we really don’t know you and we certainly have never met anyone who could turn into wolves before…”

Gage just looked at him calmly, no emotion crossed his face. With his wolf’s hearing, he knew what Rick had said to Rissa and had to address it quickly. She was his mate, his wolf was insisting on claiming her, but she was human and he wanted a chance to let her get to know him and win her heart and loyalty. The problem was that time was slipping by and the rogues were getting farther away, so he quickly cut to the chase.

“Rick, that’s your choice, do whatever you need to do, but let me ask you a couple of things. How long do you think it’ll take you to get back here with the men you need?” He didn’t wait for Rick to answer, “Two, three days…four at the earliest, I’m thinking. How many times do you think your female friend can be raped or beaten by then? How long do you think they’ll let the male live?” He paused to let those thoughts sink in and for Rick to respond.

“I…I didn’t think of that.” Rick stuttered in response.

“No, I didn’t think you did. Rissa wanted to do the same thing, we’ve already been over this. I told her we were going after this group, it’s why we’re here. They’re criminals and they started raiding in our territory, that’s why we’re hunting them. We can try to save your friends while you go get your people, or you can come help rescue them yourselves. There isn’t time to wait. We need to get moving. We have a large pack coming to help, but they won’t be here in time to help your friends. What is it you want to do?” Gage stared at the group of humans, he needed an answer, now.

“Rick, I’m going with them. I need to help get Melinda and Luke back, I won’t abandon my friends because I’m uncomfortable with who wants to help me.” Her voice was calm, but her chin was held high, her shoulders back and straight. She’d made up her mind and no one was going to change it. She was going with the wolves, with or without the others.

Rick blinked and nodded his head once, “You’re right, there isn’t time to go back for more men. We need to come with you, Luke and Melinda would do the same for us.” Rick looked at Michael and Jules, “If either of you want to leave and go back to the village, it’s okay. Just tell them what happened and to send help.”

“I’m coming with you, Dad.” Michael said immediately. Jules gulped and nodded he was coming along too, although he seemed a bit more reluctant.

Gage wasted no more time, “Since you can’t travel as fast as our wolves, we have to leave you with Nia and Gary to guide you. We’ll get there and look the group over, find the best way to take ‘em down. If it looks like your friends are in danger, and if we can, we’ll try to get them out. If not, we’ll wait for you to catch up before we do anything. We can certainly use your rifles and bows covering us.” Gage explained the situation thoroughly, not trying to minimize the danger.

“One thing,” Rick looked at Gage with curiosity, “You said the scouts told you they’re traveling slowly. How? I haven’t seen anyone else...” Rick asked.

“Our people are telepaths. We can hear each other in our minds, farther and stronger as wolves, but we’re close enough now to hear them in this form.” Jeoff explained.

The humans just looked at each other. Only Rissa dared to voice her thoughts, shaking her head in amazement, “So…you not only change into large dangerous animals, you can talk to each other without words too?” She paused as her eyes glassed over, “This’s a dream, it’s got to be a dream, or a nightmare…I need to wake up.”

Rick looked at her and a weak smile spread across his face, “It’s not a dream, I wish it were.”

She sighed heavily and turned to Gage, “When will that other group you talked about be here?”

“They’ll be here late tomorrow. They’re traveling as fast as they can, but they can’t do that for days, then go immediately into battle. So, we may need to do what we can while the leaders of this group are gone, then wait for the others to finish up.” Gage looked to the wolves and the humans to see that everyone understood the situation.

“What can we do to help?” Rick asked also with a deep sigh.

“Tell me honestly, how good are you with that rifle and bow? No exaggerations or modesty, please, I need to know the truth.” He asked while he looked them over, his wolf sensing their truthfulness.

Rissa was thinking and seemed about to answer when Michael stepped closer to her side and put his arm around her, “My Rissa is the best shot in our village.” He looked around beaming. “We’re all pretty good, but she’s the best.”

Gage felt his wolf’s stiffen in challenge, his hands clenched as claws began to emerge, denting the skin of his palms, his eyes flashed and he was trying not to change and attack the male with his arm around his future mate. Rissa, not even noticing his building rage, pushed Michael’s arm from her shoulder and stepped away, her own anger flaring as she faced Michael, her eyes flashing like blue fire.

“What the hell do you mean ‘your Rissa’?” she raised her voice and glared at Michael’s face, which was no longer beaming. “I’m not ‘your Rissa’. Michael, we’ve been over this before. I’m not anybody’s. You don’t own me and neither does anyone else. Keep your fucking arm off me and don’t you ever try to act like you own me again. We clear?” Her shouting stopped and took on a more dangerous low tone as she looked into his eyes. “I said, Are. We. Clear?”

Michael swallowed deeply and his face grew sullen, “Yeah, we’re clear. I thought we were friends.”

“Yeah, we’re friends, but we’re just friends. I’m not your girlfriend and you don’t have any claim on me. Keep that in mind. I’m the only one who’ll decide who gets any claim on me.” She glowered at him, then walked heavily back to her gear, stopped suddenly and whirled around stared at Gage, her eyes still flashing with anger.

“To answer your question,” she said firmly and clearly, “I’m good. I’m real good with the rifle and the crossbow. I can use a compound bow as well. I can shoot handguns with accuracy, but I don’t play around with that silly fast draw shit. My knife throwing is good, but could use some work.” She looked him in the eyes daring him to object. He didn’t need his wolf’s sense of smell to know she was angry, frustrated, and also telling the truth, it was more than apparent.

“Good.” he nodded once, claws retracted, “Are the others as good as you are?” he stared back into her raging eyes, his own anger still very near the surface, but her anger at the young male gave his wolf enough relief to rein him in.

“No,” she said honestly and flatly, “but they’re close enough.” she answered while calmly lifting her pack and weapons, “When are we leaving?”“Now.” he said looking at his packmates, “Nia, Gary, stay with our friends and lead them as fast as they can manage. Stay in touch.” he nodded his meaning, “Everyone else with me.” The wolves stripped their clothes, not hiding from the humans and rolled them into small bundles. Tied them with leather strings and hung the pack around their necks. With one look back at Rissa, watching her watch his naked form, he was suddenly the huge wolf again. He yipped twice and as one they jumped into their ground-eating stride disappearing into the brush and woods.e your paragraph here.

Heart of an Alpha Prologue and Chapter 1

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