Lion Shifter – Lucia Ashta

I HURRİED to emerge from the portal that bridged the fae’s Golden Forest and Sedona, that city of red mountains nestled in the southwestern desert. Though the fae-created portal was the only way for a shifter like me to travel to the alternate dimension that served as home to all the fae, I couldn’t stand another moment of the circular tube of flashing lights. It reminded me of one of those rickety amusement park rides that spun and flashed until my vision and stomach swirled with their particular brand of sensory overload. I stepped onto pavement and stumbled out of the way of the ragtag group of fae prancing through the portal behind me. Yeah, they pranced, I stumbled. Life wasn’t fair. I bent over, hands on knees, breathing hard as if I’d run the distance between the fae’s Golden Forest and Sedona. The sun was bright and hot already even though it was early morning. Most of all, it was gloriously steady, as was the asphalt beneath my Converse. “Oh, thank God,” I wheezed, begging my stomach to keep its contents down. Puking was not the way I wished to start my second term at the Magical Creatures Academy. And I especially didn’t want to throw up in front of Leander Verion, prince of the elves, not after the summer we’d shared together. My brother Ky plodded over next to me, where he proceeded to bend over in perfect imitation of my elegant pose. “You okay, Rina?” he breathed in between pants. I chuffed.

“As well as you, I think.” He groaned. “How the hell do the fae do it? They’re just as cheery as usual. Well, Leo isn’t usually cheery…” No, he wasn’t. The elfin prince was as mercurial as they came, a fact that shouldn’t have endeared me more to him—it really shouldn’t have. “Boone,” my brother grunted, as the large werewolf plopped down onto his butt next to us, clutching his knees against his chest. “Y’all right?” “Mmm,” Boone replied noncommittally, then focused on pulling deep breaths in through his nose, out through his mouth. “I hope I never have to do that again.” I nodded, my long golden hair sliding around my down-turned face. “I hear ya.

That sucked.” “It totally did,” Boone said. “At least it’s over.” He sighed loudly—then his breath caught in his throat. “What is it?” Ky asked. He and I turned around to figure out what had made Boone go rigid. But all I could make out were the multi-colored sparkling lights of Leander’s portal. They were as bright as the sun overhead, and obscured everything beyond them. Boone rocketed to his feet, wobbled a bit, then tramped toward the others with heavy, lumbering footfalls. Ky looked at me with wide eyes before lurching off after his friend.

I remained where I was. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary—well, beyond a couple dozen fae of all types and sizes. The fae we’d traveled with spanned between a foot tall to the size of Leander, who was six-feet-two-inches of solid, yummy man … er, elf. All of the fae had pointy ears, and most of them had wings, though not all did. Adalia, who’d become a close friend during my stay with the fae over the summer, was wingless. I was still learning the many different pedigrees and types of fae. Their race was the most varied among all magical creatures. “Stand down!” Boone’s booming voice rang through the parking lot that should have been empty except for us. 6:30 AM was a little too early for the rest of the students of the Menagerie to begin arriving for the start of the new school term. “Stand down, or we’ll make you!” Boone was next in line to inherit the alpha rule of the Northwestern Werewolf Pack; his thunderous voice already possessed a ring of authority.

I wanted to obey him, and he wasn’t even talking to me. I scrambled toward the others, ignoring how unsteady I was on my feet. Some words, barked in response, filtered through my awareness, but I couldn’t quite make them out. Leander’s portal sparked and sputtered loudly as it faded from sight. The moment it did, my heart took off in a thunderous beat. Four men and one woman, all large and bulky with bulging muscles, were staring Boone, Leander, and my brother down, our motley crew of fae forming a loose half circle behind them. Shifters, they had to be, unless a group of body builders had decided to show up at the trailhead for a random showdown—yeah, not freaking likely. “What do you want?” Leander challenged, his voice a level mixture of authority and power. The woman took a step forward and began to prowl in front of the four men at her back, her face turned toward us. Her shoulders bunched as she hunched into them, rounding her back and reminding me of a hyena.

The frizzy chin-length hair that puffed out around her face and stood up around her crown only contributed to the image. She bared her teeth in a sinister sneer. “You know what I want, and if you’re smart, you’ll hand them over without causing problems for yourself and your little friends.” Leander laughed, hollow and mocking. “You actually think we’ll hand over two of our own? Then you don’t know much about us. You especially don’t know anything about me.” “Oh I know everything about you, Leander Verion, Prince of the Elves.” Her lip curled as if she smelled a particularly foul odor. “I also know everything about your father, Dillmon Erion, King of the Elves.” The way she said it, I half expected her to use air quotes around the king’s title.

“You talk a good game, but we all know there are holes the size of craters in the infrastructure of the elves. Your father is king of a weak race.” Boone growled and took a step toward the woman with the striped and over-dyed hair. Leander held the wolf back with a hand on his shoulder. “Whatever misguided opinions you have of my father, me, or our people, is not my concern. You’ll retreat immediately and allow all of us to progress without interference.” “Or what?” “Or we’ll make you.” Boone’s words were barely comprehensible over the snarl that colored every syllable. Dye Job glared at Boone, then Leander, and finally Ky. When she moved on to pick me out of the crowd, her thin lips spread into a menacing smile.

The men behind her jeered, reminding me once more of a pack of hyenas. “Oh, I don’t think we’ll do that. We take what we want, don’t we, boys?” The men whooped and grunted their agreement. “Exactly,” Dye Job continued. “So hand over Kylan and Rina Mont, or pay the price of shielding them.” Her smile widened. “Trust me, the price of defying us is steep. We leave no survivors, do we, boys?” “Not a one!” hollered one of the men, whose shoulders were twice as wide as mine. Dye Job beamed while scrunching her brows low around her eyes, making her appear deranged enough to attempt to wipe out twenty-some creatures all to get to Ky and me. I shifted from foot to foot.

Should I just hand myself over? It had been one thing to allow Leander’s father to protect Ky and me over the summer. He had the resources to do so without placing undue pressure on him or his people—or at least I thought he did. But the fae and werewolves that surrounded my brother and me weren’t soldiers. They were students, still coming into their magical potential. Before I could speak, Ky stepped forward. Leander lunged for him, but my brother swept his hand away. My brother moved halfway between the two opposing forces and rose to his full height. As tall as Boone and Leander, strength radiated off him. Shoulders straight and strong, back tense, and biceps bulging as he flexed his muscles, he was every bit as formidable as Boone or Leander. “If I turn myself over to you, will you leave here peacefully without harming anyone else?” he asked.

“No,” I gasped as Leander and Boone took several steps toward him. He put a hand up, halting their further approach. “You’ll leave my sister alone and leave here and never come back.” “Suuuure,” Dye Job said. “That sounds exactly like something we’d do.” The men at her back erupted in wheezing cackles—like a band of octogenarians with a lifelong two-pack-a-day habit. That ratcheted up my unease. By the way Boone bent his knees and cracked his neck to either side, he also realized these creatures had no intention of leaving here without a fight. Leander didn’t visibly react, but over the summer I’d discovered that the prince rarely revealed his thoughts. Adalia moved to my side and offered me a nervous half-smile.

I returned the gesture, my own half-smile twice as nervous as hers. There was no way I could allow Ky to sacrifice himself for me. “So you’d rather risk the death of your entire team instead of taking me up on my offer?” Ky asked. “It’s a really good deal. You should take it. My friends and I will tear you to pieces if you don’t.” “Is that why you’re making the offer, then? Because you don’t want to hurt us? That’s so considerate of you.” She spread mockery thick across her words. “Let me tell you how this is going to go down. My boys and I are going to take you and your sister, and we’re going to kill anyone who tries to prevent us from doing our jobs.

Is that clear enough for you?” “Clear as it needs to be,” Boone snarled as he stalked toward Dye Job. Ky lunged forward and made a desperate grab for Boone, catching hold of him by the shoulder. “Last chance,” my brother announced. “Take me and you all leave in one piece.” “No can do, buddy boy,” Dye Job said. “Rage wants both of you, and we give Rage what he wants.” A few seconds passed during which Dye Job stared at Ky, Boone, and Leander, and the three guys stared right back, scooting closer together to form a wall to separate the rest us from Dye Job and her cronies. Dye Job leaned around the guys to flick a final look at me before calling over her shoulder, “Let’s git ‘er done, boys.” A chorus of growls and snarls erupted on both sides, before the crunching and snapping of bones and cartilage silenced the four “boys.” They hunched further in on themselves, their features distorting with pain, as the mottled fur of a hyena rippled across the exposed flesh of their arms, necks, and faces—I’d been right.

The outlines of Boone and Ky’s bodies blurred. Their entire forms vibrated so hard their teeth clattered for a few seconds before their bodies began to flicker in and out of focus. The flickering was the final stage of their shifts. Their bodies solidified and ceased moving, revealing a glorious mountain lion and a wolf with thick, dappled gray fur, the same height as my brother’s lion. Ky and Boone completed their shifts while the “boys” were still halfway through theirs. The larger-than-normal wolf and the golden, desert-colored lion lunged toward the halfshifted creatures. Ky swiped a massive paw at one of the hyenas, slicing him open along the gut. Blood gushed from the wound as the creature whimpered and retreated from my brother. The wolf pounced on a second, clamping lethal teeth around the neck of the one-third man, two-thirds hyena. His eyes glazed as Boone crunched down on fur and flesh.

I risked a glance at Dye Job; her eyes were wide. Obviously she hadn’t expected Ky and Boone to complete their shifts faster than her boys. The stronger the magic within the shifter, the more seamless the shift, and the Menagerie only invited the most magical shifters in the world. She should have realized. From a baldric draped across her back, Dye Job drew a sword that must have weighed a good forty pounds and rushed to intervene. Leander ran forward too, and several of the fae among us moved to aid their prince. The rest of the fae were too small and delicate to offer much help, though Adalia, who was approximately my size and unable to shift into any fierce animal—that I was aware of anyway—pressed herself against me in a fairy shield. I appreciated the intention, but I wasn’t going to let a friend sacrifice herself for me, so I gently slid her to my side. The two remaining hyenas completed their shifts and met Ky and Boone’s attacks head-on. Leander cut off Dye Job’s intervention, facing off with her without a single visible weapon of his own.

My breath caught in my chest. I reached for Adalia’s arm without looking away from the showdown in front of us. I squeezed her hard; she squeezed back with equal ferocity. She adored her prince. I adored him too … for entirely different reasons. Still, I wasn’t prepared to admit it to anyone yet, especially not Leander. Dye Job wrapped both hands around the hilt of her massive broadsword and swung it at Leander. He whipped both hands forward to pulse a flash of silvery power at her. The arc of her attack didn’t stop, but it did slow. Her cheeks scrunched toward her eyes, and she pressed her mouth into a tight grimace as she put all her strength into the swing of her sword.

Leander spread both palms open as he pulsed more magic the color of moonlight. Dye Job waded through the fog of his power as if she were waging her attack through a vat of thick molasses. Her sword finally aimed for Leander’s head when he sidestepped the blade—and released his hold on his magic. Her sword sank toward the ground with unexpected momentum, throwing her off balance when the sharp tip clanked heavily against the asphalt. Leander rounded behind her as the three human-sized fae who’d moved to his defense drew up at his back. He had her—for the time being at least. I cut my attention to Ky and Boone, my pulse leaping in my throat. Adalia clutched at my arm as Boone and Ky faced off with the two uninjured hyenas. They circled each other, teeth bared, a constant snarl rumbling from their throats. The two remaining hyenas were unusually large, as some shifter animals were.

Though the same in appearance as a regular hyena, they were fifty percent bigger, which meant they were a head taller than the mountain lion and wolf. My breath hiccupped in my chest when Ky swiped a paw, claws extended, at one of the hyenas. The animal dodged the attack, squealing repeatedly in that disturbing way hyenas did—like a deranged man laughing up a storm in a psych ward. The wolf and second hyena growled viciously and charged at each other, maws wide and paws smacking at each other in an attempt to clamp onto flesh before the other. I stopped breathing while I waited to see which of the two would overcome the other. My heart couldn’t take this shit. Ky leapt onto the other hyena, knocking him to the ground, where the two rolled on the pavement, swiping and baring teeth in a desperate attempt to land on top. A gunshot rang out into the morning. My heart missed a beat entirely as Adalia shrieked and pulled me into a full embrace, clutching at my upper arms while she craned her neck to see who else had shown up to threaten us. “Jacinda, order your crew to stand down right this second or I’ll mow them all down.

.

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