Authors: Marissa Farrar
The Spirit Shifters: Book Four
For my wonderful family. Without you, the rest of it would be meaningless.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
*You can click on the title to be taken to the selection. Additionally, clicking on the chapter titles will bring you back to the table of contents.
VIVIAN WINTERS STARED at the series of massive screens that ran around the walls of her operations room. Her face was blanched white with fury. Her hands balled at her sides, her nails digging into her palms, deep enough to draw blood.
At least twenty people worked on the communications floor, sitting at consoles, pressing buttons, and corresponding with teams of soldiers working out in the field. After the spectacular failure of the shifter compound, tension crackled in the air, and the men and women buzzed around like nervous flies.
The huge screens showed a variety of situations. Riots were occurring throughout the inner city. Soldiers were breaking into individual homes where the residents were putting up resistance. On one screen, she could see the area in the forest where her people had failed. The place was quiet now, though the fence had finally been fully erected. Not having it up before housing more of the shifters at the cabin had been an oversight on her part. She’d underestimated the strength and intelligence of these ... people ... but she wouldn’t do so again. Her plan to round up shifters and keep them away from regular human folk still stood. She refused to live in a world where she was supposed to tolerate monsters walking among them like normal people. They were beasts, and she planned to control them as such. If they didn’t work for her, and do as they were told, they would be housed like stray dogs in a kennel.
They’d finally managed to get satellite signal at what was supposed to have been the shifters’ holding pen. Though she’d known for several hours now that the shifters had escaped and taken a number of soldiers down with them as they left, actually seeing the destruction for herself made it even more real and infuriating. To make matters worse, the bitch Doctor Autumn Anderson was also missing, and it appeared Calvin Thorne had helped her escape. Vivian struggled to believe it of Thorne. He’d always seemed committed to the cause, someone who, like her, wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of what they wanted. She could imagine what Autumn offered him in order to get him to help her. Vivian knew women like that—pretty, blonde, able to pout and flutter their eyelashes. She just hadn’t realized Thorne would be so easily swayed by the promise of a good time once they’d been freed.
“How could you let this happen,” she snapped at Damien Wale, the man standing beside her. He was supposed to have been in charge of security at the animal pen.
“I ... I don’t know. They caught us by surprise,” he stuttered.
“You’re useless, the whole lot of you. One simple job, keep them contained, and you couldn’t even do that, even with a God-damned army behind you!”
“We were occupied trying to get the fence up. You only gave us a few hours to do so, and—”
She lifted a hand sharply, silencing him. “I don’t want to hear your excuses. I want to know what you’re going to do about it.”
“We’re doing everything we can, Ms. Winters. And we brought you back a couple of captives.”
“Hmm,” she said, starting to walk away from the screens, toward the main door to the rest of the building. “And what do you know of these captives?”
He spoke hurriedly. “Not much, but one, the woman, seems to be caught between shifting and staying human.”
Vivian turned to him, her eyes lighting with interest. She wondered if this new arrival was similar to Romero, who was still stuck shifting between animal and man, or something different. Romero appeared to be in constant pain. If they didn’t find a way to fix him, she thought he would probably lose his mind. “Is that so? And what about the other one?”
“He appeared to be the leader of one of the groups. We haven’t been able to get anything out of him yet. He’s not regained consciousness.”
“Don’t the medics have some kind of injection to resolve that? Adrenaline or something?”
“Well, yes, but we don’t know how much damage has been caused yet. He’d been shot several times when we found him. He’s still barely alive now. Extra adrenaline could stop his heart.”
“Since when do you think I give a shit about one man’s life?”
“He was the leader. He could have information for us about the location of the others.”
“Hmm, or perhaps he might know where Autumn Anderson is. When I find that woman, I’m going to string her up in front of all her little shifter friends and slit her fucking throat.”
Damian shook his head. “You can’t do that. We need her.”
“I’ll drain her of her blood first. We’ll have enough to achieve what we want.”
“If you kill her in front of everyone, you’ll make a martyr out of her. People are already taking her side—even the fully human ones.”
Vivian narrowed her eyes. “Well, I’ll find some way of punishing her. I won’t have anyone breaking out of my facility and taking one of my best men with them without making them understand who they are messing with.”
“We have to find her first.”
“And you think this leader is going to tell us where she is? You already said he was practically dead when you found him. He might not even know his own name, never mind plans they might have made.”
dead. We had to resuscitate him on the scene. That’s why I don’t think you should rush in to trying to bring him around. Shutting down is his brain’s way of healing itself. If you interfere with that process, you might lose your only chance of getting inside information.”
Vivian glanced to Damian. A muscle ticked in his jaw. “Just do what I tell you, Damian. You’re not paid to think. I want that man conscious and talking. Now take me to where they are being held.”
Leaving all the people and screens behind, she stalked to the door, knowing Damian would follow her. She was a person who always got what she wanted, and she didn’t intend for Autumn Anderson to ruin her plans.
AUTUMN LOOKED OUT over the crowd of people, vehicles, and bikes, and tried not to panic. Had she really just agreed to organize everyone, and try to stop what was happening to the shifters? The task was so monumental her head swam with the enormity, her heart taking up a frantic patter.
She closed her eyes briefly and took a deep breath. She needed to think of this like one of her projects. When a massive problem was put in front of her and she had no clue where to start, the first thing she would do was break it down into sections. If she tackled things individually, they wouldn’t seem so overwhelming.
Autumn opened her eyes and tried to forget everyone was staring at her. The main issue in the front of her mind was a selfish one, perhaps, but one she needed to undertake.
Mia and Peter stood, hand in hand, watching her. Chogan stood at her side. Peter’s friend David waited near the car they’d arrived in, but she wasn’t sure how much she could trust him. And Lakota, poor Lakota, stood with his people. This wasn’t just for her own peace of mind, she realized. Others were hurting as well.
“Before we do anything else,” she said, raising her voice so as many people as possible could hear, “I want a couple of people to go back to the area where Chogan last saw Blake.” She glanced at Lakota. “And Tala, too. We need to know what happened to them.”
Chogan shook his head. “Blake was dead when I left him. I’m certain of it. I’m sorry, Autumn. I know it’s not what you want to hear.”
In her heart, she struggled to believe him. “He deserves to be brought home for a proper burial.” Her eyes flicked to Lakota. “And we need to know what’s happened to Tala.”
The older man’s weathered face gazed toward her. He gave her a nod of approval, and the tiniest part of her heart lightened.
“I should go back,” said Chogan. “It’s only right that I’m the one who does it.”
“You were the one who left Blake there in the first place,” Peter said, his tone cool, his whole body tensed.
Chogan spun to him. “I had no choice! You think I would ever have left my cousins there if I had any other option? You can’t judge me. You hardly know me.”
“I know what Blake’s told me about you this whole time, and believe me, none of it has been good. He said you only ever thought of yourself. I guess you proved him right.”
Autumn watched pain form like a mask over Chogan’s features. His dark eyes shone with unshed tears, his jaw in a spasm of contained heartache. There weren’t many times she’d felt bad for Chogan, but now was one of them.
She reached out and touched Chogan’s arm. “I’m sure you did everything you could,” she said softly.
He turned to her, and she was surprised to see a single tear pool from his eye and slip down the curve of his cheekbone. Embarrassed, he turned his face from the others and wiped the tear on his shoulder.
Part of her felt she should be angry at Chogan as well, that she should hold him to blame for Blake’s death. But the other part of her worried just how much Chogan had been damaged by the experience himself. Despite all his faults, she didn’t doubt Chogan cared about his cousins. He’d been captured and hurt as well. Chogan seemed different now from when she’d first met him; he was no longer the cocky, brash man who’d sauntered alongside her down the street in Chicago. He could be traumatized, and she didn’t think sending him back to the place where he’d suffered would be good for anyone involved.
“Peter,” she said, turning to Mia’s man, “will you go back to the place Chogan left Blake and Tala?”
Mia’s eyes widened. “Autumn, no!”
Peter looked down at her. “You said it yourself, Mia. Someone needs to go back to look for Tala.”
She stared beseechingly at him. “I know, but I didn’t want it to be you. I just got you back.”
He leaned in and kissed her. “We’ll be back together soon. You know it’s important we do this.”
Her mouth twisted, but she nodded.
“You too, Thorne,” said Autumn. “You know the area better than anyone.”
“Anyone except me,” Chogan interrupted. “No one knows it better than me. And Thorne isn’t a shifter. He doesn’t have the senses I do.”
“That didn’t make any difference before,” said Thorne.
Chogan snapped at him. “If your men hadn’t been chasing us with guns and helicopters, no one would have gotten hurt in the first place. This whole thing is your fault. We’ve lived peacefully for hundreds of years until the God-damned government decided to use us, and make monsters of us!”
Thorne at least had the decency to glance away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know how far Vivian Winters was going to take things.”
Chogan glared at him. “You should have left us in peace.”
“Chogan, you wanted this,” Autumn said, unable to keep her mouth shut. “You are at least partly to blame. If you hadn’t shifted on television, it would never have escalated to this level.”
“No, but the government still would have been using shifters. They would have taken you captive, and no one would have known about it because they would have silenced everyone who loved you.”
She suddenly remembered something. “Shit.”
“What’s wrong?” he asked, taking her in with those dark eyes.
“I told my father to make his way to the reservation. He knew I was in trouble.”
“I called him from the place they held me at. Shit, shit, shit.”
Worry for her father filled her. How could she not have even thought about him since leaving? She’d been so worried about everyone else, and then the news of Blake had occupied her thoughts.
Chogan’s arm slipped around her shoulder and he gave her a gentle squeeze. “Don’t worry, we’ll find him as well.”
She wanted to ask him how.
How will we find him when he could be at any point in the hundreds of miles between the reservation and the city?
And her father had never been one to carry a cell phone. What if Thorne had reported that she’d spoken to her father and Vivian had sent her men after him?
She turned to Calvin. “What did you do with the phone I stole from you? Did you put it back together again?”
“I don’t know what happened to it. I put it in the trash.”
“Did anyone see you? Could anyone have fished the pieces back out again and figured out what number I’d been calling?”
“I wouldn’t rule it out.”
She locked a hand in her hair. “Jesus.” She’d spent so much time worrying about the shifters, she’d forgotten her own father. Sudden tears were close again, but she blinked them back. She needed to be strong, not just for herself but for all the people who were looking toward her for support.
She couldn’t send people on a hunt for her father. He could be anywhere, and she needed as many people as possible if they were going to take on the city. She just had to hope she’d hear from him somehow, or that he’d make it to the reservation and, upon telling people his identity, someone would help him.
Turning her attention to the numerous bodies still awaiting her instructions, she climbed up onto the roof of Lakota’s truck and lifted her voice. “We’ll be moving out in fifteen minutes, everyone.”
People nodded, turning away from her to get back in their vehicles and prepare to move on once again.
Autumn jumped back down onto the road to stand next to Chogan.
“I’m worried about you going,” she said, trying to be honest.
He misunderstood. “I’ll be okay, this time. They won’t have people hunting me like before.”
She shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. You seem different, Chogan. I think what happened really affected you. If you came up against trouble again, I would hate for you to put the others in jeopardy.”
She’d expected him to bristle, but instead, his shoulders slumped. “You think I’m a danger to others.”
“I need someone who is going to be strong.”
“I’m still strong, Autumn. I’m hurt,” he clenched a fist against his chest, “right here, but I’m still strong. No one else knows the exact location of Blake’s body except me.”
She hesitated. He had a point about being the only one who knew the precise point at which he’d left Blake’s body.
A man in his mid-twenties stepped out of the crowd. “I’ll go with them. I’m a shifter—a falcon—and I can be of use scouting for any of the army guys who might be lying in wait.”
Someone else stepped forward, a young woman this time, with thick, black hair, and who appeared to be about the same age as the man. Her eyes were red and puffy, as though she’d been crying. “I’m going too,” she said. “Tala was ...” She corrected herself, “Is, one of my closest friends. I hate that she took off like this, that she got so involved in this mess without feeling she could turn to me.”
Autumn quickly glanced to Lakota, who gave the briefest of nods. “Okay,” she said. “Thank you. What are your names?”
”I’m Sahale,” the young man said.
The woman gave her a smile. “My name is Nadie.”
“Are you a spirit shifter, too, Nadie?”
She glanced away at the ground, her foot scuffing the dirt. “Yes, but my connection to my spirit guide isn’t strong. I can use her to get glimpses of other places, but I can’t command my own shift. Sometimes, it only happens when my spirit guide wants it.”
“But do you think you’ll be able to control it well enough if you encounter trouble?”
The girl lifted her chocolate brown eyes back up to Autumn. “My spirit guide will know if I’m in trouble. I trust her to do what is best.”
Autumn smiled. “Well, I guess that’s good enough for me.” She looked to the others. “Chogan, Thorne, and Nadie, take one car—”
“I’m not getting trapped in a car with him for hours,” protested Chogan. “I mean it, Autumn. We still don’t even know if we can trust him. He might contact his men near the perimeter and use them to come after us.”
She looked toward Thorne, but the other man just shrugged. He obviously wasn’t bothered about not going. “Okay, fine,” she relented. “Peter and Sahale, you take another car. I know you won’t be able to drive right into the forest, but the vehicles will take you closer, and then you’ll have to walk the rest.”
“We can all just fit into one car,” Peter suggested.
“But if something happens to that car, you’ll be stuck. It’s safer to have two.”
Peter nodded his agreement, and Autumn tried to ignore the pleading stare Mia was shooting her.
Chogan spoke up. “Why don’t we take a couple of motorbikes instead of a second car? The bikes will let us get deeper into the forest, and we’ll be faster.”
“Very well. You know what direction we’ll be heading,” she told them all. “Whatever you find, come back here and then follow this road back down. We have some other things to attend to before we reach the city, so you’re guaranteed to come across us again.”
Peter’s gaze traveled across the sea of people and vehicles. “I’d say you’re going to be hard to miss.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” She hoped they didn’t draw the attention of Vivian Winters before they’d even reached the city.
“We’ll go now then,” said Chogan, though his voice was strained.
She took his hand. “Are you sure you’ll be all right going back there? I can’t imagine how hard it must have been, watching—” Her voice broke, and she struggled to say the words. “Being there when Blake ...”
He squeezed her hand. “It’s okay. Yeah, it was terrible, but if I don’t go back, I’ll never forgive myself.”
Her mouth twisted, trying to hold back tears.
Chogan stared into her eyes, and she thought he was about to say something else, but instead he leaned in and kissed her cheek, his long hair brushing her face.
“Thank you for not hating me.”
“I care about you, Chogan,” she said, softly.
“Yeah, I know, but you love my cousin.” He shook his head briefly. “
“Love,” she said. “It’s still love.”
He gave her a repressed smile, and turned his back and headed to the cars. “Which one are you guys taking then, ’cause I’m riding a bike?”
“We can go in mine,” said Sahale, nodding to his ten year old, silver Honda Accord.
A couple of people from the reservation donated their bikes to the cause, catching rides with others with larger vehicles. Chogan took one bike, Peter the other, while Nadie climbed into the car with Sahale. The motors roared to life, and they began to move down the road, picking up speed as they went. Chogan lifted a hand in a farewell, backward wave.
Autumn stood and watched them go. She was numb with grief, hollow, as if someone had carved her heart right out of her body and left only a ticking clock.
She didn’t want them all to be separated again, but she had no choice. She couldn’t leave Blake’s body out there for the animals, and, however badly she felt toward Tala, she understood the other woman had people who loved her.
Mia stood at her side, but as soon as Autumn glanced down at her, she saw her friend’s eyes swimming with tears. Mia shook her head at Autumn and walked away.
This was the problem with choosing to be the one in control. She had promised to lead these people, but doing so would mean making choices not everyone liked, and possibly even losing her friends because of it.