The Nine – C. M. Stunich, Tate James

A fox didn’t stand a chance against a wolf. I knew that going in, but I still stood my ground, legs splayed wide, one hand at the bone knife on my belt, the other dripping blood across the hard-packed earth beneath my feet. I’d be worried about having been bitten—if I were human, that is. The werewolf circled around me, his paw pads almost the same size as my human hands. If I shifted, I’d be able to outrun him if I got enough of a head start. But the way he was licking the red from his lips, I didn’t think I’d get one. This is pack land, Thea, I reminded myself. But of course, I already knew that. Most of Colorado was. Those fuckers thought they could just piss on everything and bam, they owned it. Problem was, they actually had the manpower to back their claims up. “I’m just passing through,” I said, but I was already floundering for a way out of this mess. One werewolf was bad enough, but a whole pack? I’d be torn to shreds before I could even think of dialing the cops. I mean, I was considering it now, but getting humans involved in shifter business? Bitch move. I’d end up not only ostracized but despised as well.

I was already miserable with the first half of that equation. As far as the supernatural police, the NHSC, were concerned … well, I’d rather die than ask them for help. Taking a shortcut through the woods had been a bad idea, fucking terrible, but I had places to go and people to see. Mostly, people to see. Okay, so a very specific group of three to be exact. There were only so many people in this world who knew how to bind a kitsune’s tail. To be quite honest, there were only so many people in this world who knew what a kitsune even was. Werewolves got all the love and attention, but I was a canidae shifter just like the rest of them. You know, canidae—wolves, foxes, coyote, jackals, that sort of thing. Nobody was offering my kind TV specials or movies with vampires though.

We were the unwanted vermin of the shifter world—and I was a rat among rats. The wolf—this big, gray hulking mountain of muscles and teeth and claws—circled me again, probing at the edges of my mind with magic, looking for a way to communicate with me. If I opened myself up to him though, I’d be more vulnerable to other types of magic. I kept my brain to myself and decided to use my words instead. “I’m on my way to see the Vail Valley Skulk,” I told him, hating the use of the word skulk. Only a group of vermin would be called a skulk, but we were fucking foxes. Better yet—we were kitsune —and our group was called an Earth. Wolves were bastards though; of course they preferred the word skulk. Fuckers. The wolf looked back at me from eyes as yellow as the moon, then crouched back and bunched his muscles for an attack.

I had a split-second to make a decision. It was a risk to use my tails when I still had one unbound, but what choice did I really have? It was either risk getting eaten alive by my own magic … or kick this werewolf’s ass. Shifting nine long, white, luxuriously fluffy tails, I stepped back and lifted up a single palm, using the magic from the woods to put up a small shield of sorts. I drew the power in through my tails, each one a tether binding me to the unseen in the world, the wild magic running through everything and everyone. As soon as the wolf hit it, he was knocked back and sent sprawling through pine needles and old leaves, his back slamming into a fallen log with a yelp. I licked my lips, did a quick fist pump of self-congratulation, and then shifted into my fox form— darting through the snow speckled forest in the direction I needed to go. If only it’d snowed more, my white ass would blend into the surroundings. As things stood, with only a few slushy piles here and there, I needed to run fast. I could hear the wolf behind me, his head raised in a mournful howl. If I didn’t book it fast, I’d be torn to pieces and eaten.

Ending up in the bellies of a bunch of werewolves was not how I wanted to celebrate my first day being whole. As the saying goes, a kitsune is only as good as her tails, and I now had all nine of mine. My paws scrambled over the unfamiliar terrain as I picked out a path that was easier for me and a fuck of a lot harder for the wolf to follow. He had to be a good two hundred plus pounds while I skimmed about half that. Being a small Japanese girl was coming in handy today. Still, I was the biggest damn fox you ever did see. Humans might’ve known about our existence theoretically, but they were never prepared for it. Darting through thick brush and keeping my belly low to ground, I headed north, toward the territory line that separated the Vail Valley Earth from the Vail Valley Pack. One location, two different groups of shifters. One of them wanted to kill and eat me; the other begrudgingly allowed me to live outside their borders.

I was welcome in neither. My heart stopped when I slipped underneath a cluster of roots and came out the other side to find wolves fucking everywhere. A yelp ripped from my throat as one of them clamped his jaws around my neck, dragging me forward as I scrambled and fought for purchase. Lashing my tails out, I tapped the magical essence in the air and sent a wave of foxfire into the pack. But they had their alpha now, and I was screwed. The wolf that’d grabbed my neck tossed me down, just as my flames bounced uselessly off another barrier, similar to the one I’d just used on the lone wolf. Hot, sticky blood coated my fur as I forced myself to rise to my feet. How in the hell I am going to get out of this one? I’d been in scrapes before, but nothing that quite compared to this. Shifting back into my human form, I gritted my teeth against the stinging pull of my magic weaving my injured flesh back together while I met the alpha’s eyes without a hint of submission. Fuck them.

If this was how I was going to die, at least I’d be going down with my dignity intact. “Really?” the alpha chuckled, also shifting to his human form, but unlike kitsune, the wolves lacked the magic to carry their clothing and belongings into a shift with them. I stood there, my long twin braids brushing the backs of my thighs as I held my head high. My black bodysuit and thigh-high, laceup boots always made me feel invincible, but he simply stared back at me, confident and totally naked. “Usually I have to chase my prey down. Rarely is it stupid enough to fall into my lap.” He was handsome, startlingly so, with shaggy black hair brushing his shoulders and a careless dusting of stubble on his strong jaw. And those eyes, as gold as the morning sunshine. Too beautiful to be such a prick. Then again, I always did have a weakness for assholes.

This was my first encounter with this particular pack, and my heart thundered with terror as the alpha’s hard gaze bored into mine. Considering that my mother had been torn apart by werewolves, I felt I was doing a damn fine job of keeping my cool. “Stupid fox, did you lose your fucking mind as well as your way?” he tsked, stepping closer to me as his pack parted to allow him through, forcing me to crane my neck up to maintain eye contact. How friggin’ tall is this guy?! “Or maybe your mother never taught you to beware of the big, bad wolf?” Stubbornly, I clenched my jaw as I held his gaze, and I refused to bite. If he wanted to play with his food, that was his choice, but I would not give him the satisfaction of snivelling and crying for my life. My mom did, in fact, warn me about the big, bad wolf. Pleading with him would be pointless. Wolves, or even dogs really, were the natural enemy of kitsune and a major contributing factor to our near extinction. As it stood, there were less than twenty-thousand kitsune in the entire world, compared to several million wolves. “Girl, you’re going to want to look away before I decide to teach you a lesson in submission,” the alpha growled quietly, having approached close enough to touch.

“Aren’t you going to kill me anyway?” I whispered, trying desperately to hold firm and not tremble with adrenaline; I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “So why should I submit? Does your food not taste as good when it’s defiant?” While my mom had warned me about wolves, she’d also died before she could teach me to hold my tongue or my temper. “Kill you?” The alpha’s eyes held a wicked gleam with a hint of a smile. I didn’t dare break his gaze to see if that same smile had reached his lips. “Now, why would I want to kill the youngest white kitsune in history? We simply wanted to meet you. Didn’t we, boys?” The wolves surrounding us panted and yipped in unmistakable laughter, and a chill of dread raced down my spine. “Your boys just tried to tear my throat out,” I snapped, steeling myself for whatever was about to come. Kitsune became white when they received their ninth tail, something that had only just happened to me, and about seventy years too soon. According to the kitsune elders, a white fox held the magic of foresight and prophecy, but mine must be taking a while to kick in or I never would have taken this damn shortcut. “That little scrape?” the alpha mocked, reaching a hand out to my neck and brushing a rough thumb pad over my still healing throat.

“That was just a friendly hello.” His thumb stroked across the tender flesh, then stopped on my pulse point, his golden eyes flashing with something as I held his gaze, defiant and determined. “You’re terrified. I can feel your heart racing like a little bunny being chased by a hungry predator.” His analogy was too specific to my current situation not to elicit yet another ice-cold shiver of fear from me, and his eyes sparkled in response. Wolves could smell fear. Everyone knew that. He was just playing with me now, and I wasn’t okay with it. “I will give you one last chance, little fox,” he whispered, as though his pack couldn’t clearly hear him. “Look away, and submit.

” It was said as a command, not a suggestion, and a threatening growl underscored the order. There was no doubt in my mind: regardless of whether I submitted to him or not, I wouldn’t be making it off pack land in one piece. Now or never, Thea. Without blinking, I unfurled my tails and drew hard on the magic of the earth. My palms both snapped out to the sides, flinging the magic in a net to ensnare the entire pack and hold them immobile. It was a desperate, dangerous move which, five days ago, would’ve been way beyond the scope of my ability, but what did I have to lose by trying? The alpha made a surprised grunt, his thumb freezing against my throat where he’d been stroking my skin in a threatening sort of way. A way that, oddly enough, my body seemed to like. Seriously, I was a total perv. “Score one for the little fox,” I gloated, then shifted back into my vulpine form and tore out of there like my tails were on fire. I wasn’t stupid.

There was no way my magic was going to hold the entire damn Vail Valley Pack for more than a few moments, but a few moments was all I needed for my enhanced speed to carry me over the border into Vail Valley Earth territory. Not that I was totally safe there, either. The second I smelled the change in ownership, from wolf to fox, I slowed and risked a glance over my shoulder. Dozens of enraged, overgrown dogs snapped and growled at me, but not one of them dared step paw over that invisible line. “Stupid move, kitsune bitch,” the alpha snarled, still in human form as he approached on foot. “You’re going to regret that move later, I promise you. And I always keep my promises.” The smile he gave me with those full lips turned my blood to ice. No way was I sticking around to see if he might be brave enough to cross the border and come after me. As I tore through the snow and brush, his words echoed through me with the unmistakable taste of prophecy, and I cursed the elusive magic for waiting so long to kick in.

Or had it? Was there a higher purpose to me meeting the Vail Valley Pack? It was a question for the kitsune-tsukai—the sorceresses—of the Vail Valley Earth. After I convinced one of them to bind my ninth tail for me, that was.

.

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