This lonely mountain was where the leopard king had come to die.The house built atop the desolate aerie might as well be a fortress, as the only land approach came by way of the steep, foreboding steps carved into the cliff, worn smooth by decades of wind and rain, green with moss. Overhead a leaden sky threatened to dump a deluge on her, and Pru shivered. It might even be cold enough for sleet or snow.
Hunching deeper into her down jacket, she started the long climb. The Ash Valley pride hadn’t seen their reclusive leader in almost three years. When he delegated day-to-day affairs to his second, Slay, they’d all expected Dominic to grieve and return. So no one had protested when he packed his things and left his quarters at the hold, eschewing companionship in favor of the solitude at the retreat ancient seers had used for meditation.
But true to his nickname, Slay didn’t excel at diplomacy, and with the conclave approaching, they couldn’t afford to have him in charge of peace talks with the Golgoth and the Eldritch. There was resentment over the way the territories had been divided, and border skirmishes since then had claimed lives on all sides. Delegates from the Pine Ridge pack and the Burnt Amber clan were already waiting to discuss strategy, concerned that the Animari would lose ground in the coming negotiations. So far, Ash Valley had avoided any admission of how completely Dominic had withdrawn, but she only had a few days, a week at most, to accomplish the impossible—to bring him home.
Pru understood why he’d left. The hold echoed with emptiness for her too. Dalena had been her best friend, and the silence after her death sometimes seemed unbearable. She hadn’t wanted this mission, either. In fact, she’d argued with Slay when he ordered her to go.
“Why does it have to be me?”
“You know why.”
Then Slay had given her a look that made Pru wish she hadn’t asked. Heat washed her cheeks, and she dropped her gaze. Two reasons, then. As Dalena’s closest friend, she had the best chance of reaching Dominic, and if she couldn’t, if he’d gone feral, well… As a Latent—one who’d never mastered the art of changing forms—she was also the most expendable. So if she pushed their grief-maddened leader too far, Ash Valley could afford to lose her.
Still, she’d tried to protest. “You should go. Dominic trusts you, or he wouldn’t have made you second.”
“If I go, we’ll fight. And we both know how that ends. I don’t want to kill my best friend. I want to lead Ash Valley even less. Please, Pru. Do this for me?”
Slay had known she couldn’t resist a pleading look, not that he deployed it often. He also knew she was weak where he was concerned, a truth she could neither change, nor deny. As his golden gaze softened, she remembered how her parents had attempted to match them and he passed. She couldn’t face Slay for a month afterward, and he was the first of four rejections. After that, Pru had begged her parents to stop trying. Her heart pinched.
Of all potential partners, he was the only one whose answer had truly mattered. It was also why she’d reluctantly agreed to this fool’s errand—because she’d do anything for Slay. So she’d sighed.
“Fine. I’ll go.”
Slay had smiled. “It’s been more than long enough. Cats don’t mate for life, so he needs to stop wallowing. Bring Dom home, all right?”
Easier said than done.
Pru’s thighs burned as she approached the summit. The air was thin and crisp. A panoramic view offered some compensation as she gasped for breath, then she turned to study the house. Built of ancient stones, it looked about as inviting as the stairs leading up to it. There were no lights on, no signs of life within. Nobody had seen Dominic in six months, the last time Slay had come to report, though he sent guards to stock the fridge regularly. Setting her shoulders, Pru hurried toward the heavy front door. There was an actual brass knocker, so she slammed it repeatedly against the wood.
She hadn’t expected it to be that easy. The door was locked, naturally, but circling revealed two more entrances. They held firm too. Someone else could have kicked down the door, but she had only human strength, a result of Latent status. The first shift enhanced speed, strength, and agility, but she’d never joined that elite group. She’d nearly killed herself more than once, trying to force the change.
The stinging cold reminded Pru of the slap Dalena had delivered, knocking the razor out of her hand. Metallic clink as the blade tumbled across the bathroom floor—Dalena was strong enough to leave Pru’s head ringing. Firm fingers settled on her shoulders, shaking her.
“You may not care about your life, but I do. Understand? I won’t let you kill yourself. You’re too precious. Please, please stop this. Shifting doesn’t matter. You do.”
Tears burned in contrast with the bitter wind as Pru wrapped her arms about herself, just as Dalena had done, rocking her on the bathroom floor. She’d cried a lifetime of tears into her friend’s shoulder, letting go of an impossible dream. After that, she loathed her Latent status but she didn’t carve any fresh scars. Dalena saved me. I wish I could’ve done the same for her.
Now she accepted her limitations, but she was still shivering in the cold when she should be inside, starting her well-rehearsed speech. She banged on all the doors for an hour. By this time, the threatened rain arrived, only it came in a mixture of water and ice, lashing at her like stinging needles.
Desperate measures it is.
Pru grabbed a stone from the rock and topiary garden and chucked it through the nearest window. She expected an alarm to sound, but after the shattering glass, there was only silence. Dread rose in her like floodwater as she reached over the jagged shards and unlocked the frame; she lifted it easily and scrambled over the sill onto the counter, toppling the stacks of dirty dishes piled everywhere. You could tell a lot about a person from their kitchen, and it looked like Dominic was in disarray that bordered on complete destruction.
Other people expected him to be recovered by now, but she understood how much he’d loved Dalena. Not every Animari was lucky enough to find their fated mate, but Dominic and Dalena’s magnetism had been instantaneous. Though Dom had gone to her parents for permission, if they had objected, Pru had no doubt he would have carried Dalena off and started his own pride. From the moment their eyes met, their love was magical… legendary, even. Dominic and Dalena weren’t just perfectly matched; they were also the ideal leaders of the Ash Valley pride.
And then everything ended.
The kitchen reeked of rotting food. She stepped over the glass fragments and picked a careful path into the next room. Overturned furniture, more broken glass, and claw marks made the place look as if a fight had gone down, but she didn’t smell blood. Some of the damage was obviously days or weeks old with dust settled on the wreckage. Her pulse kicked up a notch when she glimpsed a flicker of movement farther into the gloom.
She steeled herself. “Dominic…?”
At first, he didn’t answer, but she recognized the sound of him prowling closer. Once she’d spent almost as much time with him as Dalena. Pru’s first glimpse of the leopard king in exile stole her breath. He’d always been lean, but now he’d dwindled to gaunt with pain lines carved into a face that looked more like granite than flesh. Sunken eyes gleamed with a febrile light, glinting citrine from beneath heavy brows. At his best, Pru wouldn’t have called Dominic Asher handsome, but he’d radiated a certain calm strength, and his smile could quicken anybody’s pulse. Now, he was all angles and anguish. Not long ago, he must’ve shaved his head, resulting in ebony and silver bristles. Her throat closed at his aura of pure intimidation.
“What the hell are you doing here?”