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Friday, January 3, 2014

Excerpt from 'Grip of Mortality' by CL Foster

Chapter 1
The forest seemed ominously and uncharacteristically still. The powerful leopard slowly crept down the tree, face first. Her coat was shiny, sleek and beautiful. The other animals and insects sensed her movement and stopped all actions so as not to be her next meal. She looked as if she were on a mission as her intense descent continued. When she reached the forest floor and shifted back to her human form, the serene smile on her face was captivating. What was she up to?
He had watched her climb down the tree but at the last second managed to look away while she dressed. She had stashed her clothes in a hidden hole on the side of the tree. She was intriguing and he was in full stalker mode, but watching her get dressed was breaking his own rules. He was sent to do a job. Being a creeper was not one of them.
He kept his position and tried to not even breathe so she wouldn't detect him. His plan seemed to work.
She hummed a song he didn't recognize and tossed her mound of oddly gorgeous bright pink hair over her shoulder. Definitely a dye job? He continued to watch as she touched almost everything as she walked by. It was as if she were memorizing her way. How intriguing his newest subject was. Every second he spent watching her, he was more and more confused as to why she was the enemy. How could this beautiful, sweet ray of sunshine be anything more than just that? In their world, it was rare to find a shifter that didn't live to hunt. In all of his time watching her, he hadn't seen her kill one thing.
He wasn't sure why his boss had asked him to complete this mission, but it was his favorite job to date. Watching the incredible woman and her family made him both smile and ache. Sure, her family could all turn into giant cats that could rip his limbs from his body without a moment's notice, but they were amazing. He envied how they worked together, lived, spent time together, nurtured and cared for one another. It was something he had never experienced but had craved all of his life.
She paused and slowly looked around for a moment as if she heard something. She shot a look directly into his hiding spot, giving him a perfect look at her eyes. The blue that painters use to express oceans or waterfalls was captured naturally in her gaze. He had seen her in leopard form and while her clouded body and fierce golden eyes were incredible to witness, her human form was just as intoxicating to him. He caught himself just as he was about to step from his hiding spot and announce his location.
She quirked an eyebrow and slowly took a step forward.
"I hope you enjoyed the show. Next one will cost you." The giggle she gave after was so soft it made his insides melt. He really needed to get this job finished so he could speak to her. He knew that was impossible, but a guy could dream, right?
"Mama, how many extra people have been tracked lately in the forest?" Rozar asked her mother when she stepped into the kitchen. She had raced from where she felt the man was watching her and made it back to her family's home in record time. She padded to the refrigerator and grabbed a glass of water, draining it quickly. She finished off the last bite of the apple in her other hand and, without looking, she tossed the core into the recycle bin.
"You know this already, mija. You worry too much. The last count was none. It seems that they are scared to come into our territory. I can hope so anyway." Her mother stopped cleaning fruit on the counter and turned to face her daughter.
"Well, that's because we mark our territory and defend it regularly, Clara," Vander chimed in, while popping a handful of freshly cleaned berries into his mouth. Mira, his mate, slapped his arm and rolled her eyes.
"Why do you ask, mija? Did you see someone while you were out? Are you well?" Clara went to her daughter to check for wounds and other signs of distress. Rozar pushed her mother away gently after giving her a quick hug.
"No, Mama, I didn't see anyone, but I felt someone there. It was a male. He was all over the place there before he settled on a hiding spot really close to my perch. His touch signature is dark and vicious at first, but soft and endearing after. I'm not sure what to make of him. He doesn't feel like one of Fath- err, Moreno's people, but I don't want to be too careful," Rozar explained, taking a seat with her family in the kitchen.
"Well, you are a smart woman, mija. If something tells you to be careful, then you do that. There is no such thing as too careful. I cannot imagine losing one of my girls and no one from that side," she pointed to the west and scoffed, "wants that sort of crazy on their hands. Yes?" her mother asked her, eyeing her for the proper response.
"Yes, Mama. I'm always careful. That's why I am here already. He was watching me too closely and I couldn’t relax anyway. I had originally gone out to scout and make sure all was well with our traps and alarms, but when I felt him, I needed to make sure he couldn't follow me home or would injure me."
"You knew he was out there and stayed? Dios mio, you can't do things like that! You were alone!"
"I was not alone, Mama. Audire was there as well."
"Oh, very well then," Clara said, letting things go. She trusted her daughters were properly trained and smart enough to handle things.
"I'm going to change and then help you start dinner. Be right back," Rozar said to the people piled in the kitchen as she skipped off to her room to change.
As she rounded the corner, she nearly bumped into Audire.
"Liar!" Audire spat at her sister in a low tone so no one in the kitchen would hear. "Why did you tell Mama that I was out with you? I was not here all day and you know that."
"Yes, but if she thinks the great hearer" Rozar said with way more emphasis than necessary, "is near me, she will think I am safe. Get your panties out of a bunch. I just need her off my back while I figure out who this dude is. I don’t like how close he was to our house. He didn’t set off any alarm yet. He's really smart and has done his homework. I am not sure of his plot yet, but I don’t want to wait to find out about it later." She headed down the hall and then began climbing the stairs toward the bedrooms.
"Yeah well, don’t use my name in your lies again, okay?" Audire said, keeping in stride with her sister. "Mama finds out you lied and I have covered for you, she will lose trust in us and that's too important in our family."
"You're right. I'm sorry. I won't do it again." Rozar's eyes were pleading with her sister.
"Okay good. I am going out now, too. I need to meet Dale soon at the river. Which way is your new admirer?"
"Again? You are so addicted to that boy! Anyway, he's to the east about two acres out from the border."
"Oh, he's really smart. Guess he wanted to stay far enough away so Nidor didn't pick him up. I don’t know if I like when those that hunt us are quick-witted."
"Not more cunning than we are though. I'm not sure he was hunting us at all, but he was watching me closely and trained himself to only breathe every few minutes. He seems like a soldier but I don’t know what kind. We will figure it out though," Rozar announced with a grin as the girls reached her room.
"Yeah, we will," Audire agreed. Her eyes narrowed slightly, she turned her head, and then added, "Umm, I gotta go. Be back late. Don't wait up." She blew a kiss to her sister a moment before rounding the corner and flying down the stairs.
"Uhh, 'kay. Bye. Weirdo."
"She was alone?"
"Yes, sir. She came out alone, played, and then went back home."
"Played?" Moreno's eyes jumped to the man's face.
A blush crossed his features and he shifted his weight while standing in front of the desk. "Yes, sir. She seemed fascinated with everything. She touched every plant, tree, root, anything. It was interesting to watch."
Moreno frowned a bit, leaned to the man standing to the right of his chair, whispered something and then nodded.
"Very well. Thank you, Shade. You may be excused."
"It doesn't seem to me that she is up to anything, sir. She was sweet and just out for a walk. She appears to be the most harmless of them all, sir."
"I said that you are excused. Unless you have something new to report," Moreno asked as he tilted his head in expectation. When nothing new came, he added, "As I said, I am finished with you. Thank you."
"As you wish, sir." Shade bowed slightly and left the room.
When the door gave a tiny click, Moreno's companion whispered, "She is touch, hermano." The nervous look on his face made Moreno annoyed.
"I knew that already, fool!" Moreno belted to his cohort. "She is my daughter and is named in my language. Don't you think I know that?"
"Sorry, this whole thing makes me nervous."
"Leave worry to me. Shade has orders that he is following; it is clear she has not touched him. I wanted to know where the traps were or what they are up to over there. My men keep vanishing and they are all prancing around like a bunch of fairies or something. Not a care in the world. It's as if they have no fear of me. Have they forgotten that I own them?" His voice went from a soft tone to a bellow that shook the walls of the small office. He slowly rose from his chair and began pacing in the tiny space.
"Perhaps this is a game they play? They are not stupid and know you are to be feared."
"A game? Yes. Maybe. Is there any word on Severa?"
"Not that I know of. Last anyone saw her, she was heading back in toward South America. I'm sure she's taken up residence somewhere in Brazil to hide. I can find her if you wish."
"She was warned to stay away. That girl is much smarter than I ever gave her credit for. We will send someone to bring her back to me before they can get to her."
"What about Celeste? Won't that upset her?"
"Celeste is dying. I have loved her and paid my dues to her loyalty. Severa is her daughter and my ally. We should be united in this battle."
"Perhaps Shade…?"
"Shade is doing his duty."
"I was only going to say that perhaps he can get information from the girl. Give him permission to speak to her. Maybe she will open up to him. She has not found her mate yet."
"My daughters are not childish fools. She was not in the forest playing. She was checking traps and keeping an eye on who was out there. Shade does not understand how adept they are yet. Clara has trained them very well and they come from powerful, royal blood. Rozar is not about to be out in the forest with no backup just to hang out. I need you to focus on the problem we are having and not assume that things are just going to blow over. This is not a high school fight. This is war." Moreno pounded his fist on the desk to punctuate the end of his sentence and continued to pace.
"Then it is a game she plays to test us?"
"They all are playing games, it seems, Marco. They want to think they are more keen. We will see who plays the bigger, better game."
"What is our next move? Maybe we should try to get a man on the inside?"
"They don't trust anyone enough for that. They are not stupid. What part of that do you not understand?"
"I am only trying to help. I want this to be over just as bad as you do."
"Do you know that I trust no one? I don’t even trust you and we are brothers. You will not win my kingdom from me by groveling at my feet or kissing my ass when you think it will benefit you."
"I - " Marco began.
"No, no need. I do not want to hear your story or explanation. What do they call it? Excuses! I do not want that. You waste your breath. I know you want the throne, but you will not have it. Not now or ever. Do you understand?" Moreno's features darkened as he became more enraged.
"Some of us are not focusing on the throne or politics. I just want my family to stop killing each other and be safe. There is no need for this violence or drama."
"Drama? You make it seem as if I am upset that someone stole the last fudge pop. These people threaten our livelihood!"
"You threaten their lives!" Marco yelled back. "You are worried about looking strong and maintaining rule over something that doesn't need to be ruled anymore, Moreno. These people know how to act and live. They don't need you bossing them around anymore."
"Bossing them? I am protecting them."
"They are powerful wereleopards. They do not need you to protect them. If they must, they can fight their way out of a problem. You have trained them well. Just look at them! They are successful people with happy lives."
"See, Marco? You miss the point of what I do for my people. I have us living in a nice community surrounded by forest, water, and everything we need to be happy and safe. We can hunt when the urge calls to us and go to work the rest of the time. We live life just like all of the humans that surround us each day. We are not secluded in the middle of the Glades like Clara and my girls. We are different. We own businesses and your children participate in sports at school and are just like everyone else. Our secrets are protected by how I rule. We are safe because everyone abides by my laws. We are powerful because we stick together. We are successful because we do not perish from our enemies attacks."
"But we do perish! You are sending your familia out on missions to spy on people that have done nothing to you. If they are not a threat, leave them alone. We can thrive without bothering them. Make a truce. Do something. This is crazy."
"I am crazy? My choices for our community and lives are crazy? Without me, you people would be nothing."
"You are our brave and clever king," Marco said, giving a slight bow. "I trust in you. I'm not trying to anger you. I just want everyone to be safe. This is madness. People are dying. There is no need for this."
"People are dying because they are weak and cannot follow rules. I want to protect us. That sometimes means that I have to send people to make sure our enemies are not a step ahead of us. That is what happens in war." The growing frustration on Moreno's face was intense. He was so livid; his hands began clenching into and out of fists.
"My point is, we do not need war. Send someone to make amends with Clara. They are very powerful. If you continue to fight with them, things will get worse. You can lose your kingdom to her if she has enough anger. You know what they say about a woman scorned." Marco held his hands up as if to concede defeat.
"You are right," Moreno agreed. "I really should learn to calm down a little and handle problems in a better way. I am very uptight about this whole situation and appreciate your guidance in this. I'm sorry," he reached out for his brother and locked arms for their traditional brotherly shake.
The sharp intake of breath from Marco made Moreno smile.
"I told you that no one will take my kingdom from me. Not even you, brother," he said, as he twisted the knife in his brothers gut to finish him off. He twisted it back, removed it and let his brother fall to the floor.
He took a handkerchief from the pocket of his tailored suit and began wiping the blade clean, then nudged his brother over a bit so he could sit in his chair.
With his pinky finger, he touched the intercom button on the phone on his desk, "Mindy?"
"Yes sir?"
"Please send Shade back to me. I have a new job for him. Also, send Nathan and Miguel in to clean up this mess in my office, please?"
"Right away, sir."
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