Night fell around Lenna, and her ass had long since gone numb. Her camera was full of new pictures but she didn’t have anything for night photography. The equipment was bulkier and heavier than she was willing to carry through the Pantanal.
As she prepared to dismount from her tree, she tried to see how awake her legs were. Not very, judging by the tingling in her feet. She scanned the riverbank for her boat while she kicked her heels against the tree trunk and spotted two others. That was odd. When had someone else shown up? Maybe it was Valente and Luciano looking for her. But she had taken their only boat, and they would never venture this deep into the Pantanal unless she’d been missing for at least a day, not just a few hours. They didn’t know their way around like she did.
It was probably just wildlife photographers trying to get shots of the nocturnal animals. Something made her feel uneasy, though. She looked around for the occupants of the boats and spotted them approaching her jaguar.
The two men were not wildlife photographers. She knew hunting equipment when she saw it. She also knew the hunting regulations for the area. The regulations were pretty simple: no fucking hunting. Which meant there was no way these men were allowed to be killing anything out here. Which meant they were poachers. Their faces were only just visible in her camera. She doubted anything would happen to them if she reported them. Nothing ever happened to poachers.
The poachers found a spot close enough to the jaguar to hit it, but not close enough to attract its attention. She had to do something before they fired. At this distance, they wouldn’t miss.
She thought of her own shotgun tucked uselessly in the back of Luciano’s truck. She’d never needed it before, and there didn’t seem to be any point lugging it with her. It would have done her a hell of a lot more good than the machete at her hip. It looked like she was going to have to get creative.
Her voice carried over the Pantanal, farther than she would have thought possible. The deep shout certainly got their attention. They shot at her, grazing the trees around her.
Lenna couldn’t stay up here. She’d be a sitting duck. She climbed down the top branches to avoid breaking her legs and jumped down from the tree. It was still too high, and she hit the dirt with bruising force. She pushed herself back up without a moment of hesitation. She could have lost them in the wooded area, easy. But the odds of getting lost or eaten by an anaconda were higher than the odds of getting shot before she made it to her boat.
Camera still in hand and binoculars thumping painfully against her tattooed chest, she took off across the grassy plains of the Pantanal. The silencers on the guns muffled the shots, making them sound more like thumps than bangs. Though, that might have been her heart pounding in her ears. The still-rational part of her brain that was still working told her to run in a zig-zag to make herself harder to hit. The animal part of her brain told her the shortest distance to her boat was a straight line run as fast as physically possible. She had no idea where the bullets were or whether or not they were even close to hitting her, and she sure as shit wasn’t going to stop to check.
A roar that sounded more like a throaty cough filled her ears. For a split half-second, she thought the jaguar was on her. But that wasn’t her screaming. No, it came from behind her. She didn’t dare look back, not even as she heard more gunshots, not even as she heard the jaguar cry out in pain.
They shot it! They shot her jaguar!
Rage filled her, and she had half a mind to turn around, but self-preservation won out. Her boat was right there. Right there, just eight, six, four feet away. Keys, where the hell where her keys? Where were her goddamn fucking—
Lenna shoved her keys into the ignition, her eyes scouring the Pantanal for the jaguar and the poachers. The jaguar was limping away, and the poachers’ bodies were lying on the grass. One was shifting, dragging itself away from the animal. The other was not. Lenna had no sympathy for them, and she wasn’t about to stick around to make sure they were okay. They could be eaten by caimans for all she gave a fuck.
The boat started without any issue. Though the poachers were down and the jaguar was obviously in no state to come after her, Lenna couldn’t wait to get as far away from here as possible.
She ran on foot through the brush, never wanting to leave her horse alone with the night predators, until she found her truck, the green paint chipping to show the silver metal underneath, in the same place she always left it. The roar of her engine drowned out the shriek of birds. Muscle memory alone guided her back to the ranch house. She practically threw herself through the front door and slammed her bedroom door hard enough to rattle the walls.
“Lenna?” Vidonia called.
Lenna leaned against the door. She knew Vidonia wouldn’t hurt her. Nobody in this house would, and not just because she could practically bench press one of their cows. She was safe here. So why did she feel the urge to push the dresser against the door and hide under the bed?
“Lenna? Honey are you okay?”
No, no she wasn’t.
She slumped down against the door and pressed her forehead to her knees. Exhaustion washed over her. This day suddenly felt so long. The solace she’d found watching the Pantanal was gone. She just wanted to curl up somewhere safe. Home should have been safe, but the memory of Ansen Peters’ standing just down the hall from her room with that sly smile made her shudder.
“Lenna, please talk to me. Did something happen? Luciano!”
There was panic in Vidonia’s voice. She was afraid for Lenna.
This place was safe, Lenna reminded herself. Nobody would get past Vidonia and Luciano. Nobody could hurt her here.
“I’m fine,” Lenna said, though her voice cracked and she wasn’t sure she believed herself. “I’m fine, I’m just tired.”
There was a long silence. Lenna struggled to keep her sobs quiet. She didn’t want them to know. She didn’t want to get in trouble.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure, auntie.” Her voice trembled, and cleared her throat. “I’m— I’m going to sleep. I have an early morning.”
She changed into a pair of boxers, crawled into bed, and pulled the pillow over her head to drown out the screams ringing in her ears.
☆ Exclusive Excerpt ☆
The jaguar’s head snapped up. In the trees. There was a girl. Human girl. She was staring at him. No, not at him, at—
Hunters. They always had a distinct smell. Metal and death. The kind of smell that made him bare his teeth.
The first one lifted his gun.
Not quite. The bullet rushed past him. Click, reload. Too late. The jaguar was on him, bones crunching beneath the weight of his heavy paws. Claws tore through flesh. Soft, exposed throat no match for his teeth. Less than a heartbeat and dead.
The second hunter shouted after the girl. She was fast, powerful. More shots fired. Boat engine. Metal on metal, bullets hitting her boat. Metal cutting through water. He was trying to kill the girl. He didn’t see the jaguar. The jaguar shifted, pounced.
Scream in his ears. Flesh of the face beneath his claws.
Blood. Blood and pain. The taste of it in his mouth, the stench of it seeping into his fur. He stumbled away from the second hunter. He was shot. So much blood gone. Soaked into the ground. He caught the gun between his teeth. Clenched jaws together until it broke. The hunter scrambled away from him. Would be easy to kill the hunter when his back was turned. Coward’s strike. He never would have done it. He had Honour. They had planned to shoot him from behind. They were cowards themselves.
He was losing too much blood. Human would not make it far. Had to pick his battles. He stepped through the dead hunter’s blood and pushed every ounce of strength he had left into his legs and ran. Water would hide him but smell of blood would attract danger. He had not many predators. Blood was blood, though, and hungry animal was hungry. He didn’t have strength to fight off caimans. Woods were better. Farther but safer.
Woods were barely thick enough to hide him when he lost strength. He collapsed on the dirt, small body trembling, and roared up at night sky.
His God didn’t answer, and he roared again, weaker this time.
It had been a long time since he had seen his God. Centuries. Did the Aztec gods even have power this far north? It had been long time since he had been chased from his home by the Spanish and their guns and their greed. Monsters, humans were. Not all of them. Some were good. But most of them. Selfish animals.
His thoughts drifted to the girl. She reminded him of the last human he’d been bonded to, the last human he’d lent his powers to. He hadn’t had a human in a long time. Not since he last fought for his God. They were good Warrior. They made their God proud together. But his human had been shot through chest, and Aldo couldn’t save him. He hadn’t stood a chance. There was no Honour in guns. Breaking their bond had been the only way to save himself. Age wouldn’t kill him, but a bullet through the chest would.
It still hurt, deep in his heart, but not from the old wound.
“Are you ready to suffer that again?”
The deep voice made the ground rumble like an earthquake. The jaguar opened his eyes. Tezcatlipoca stood before him clad in jaguar pelts with black and yellow lines painted across his face. If he weren’t already lying down, he would have bowed to him. If he had the strength…
“Loneliness is not a reason to grant a human the powers of the Jaguar.”
Aldo gave a weak roar in attempt to mimic her shout. It had Warrior spirit.
“She is of Mayan and Portuguese blood, not Aztec. They are not interchangeable.”
He pawed at his own blood pooling in the dirt beneath him. His own blood was Aztec blood. That was all that mattered.
“That girl does not know what you are asking of her.”
It was true. Most Jaguar Warriors had been trained to harness the power of the jaguar from childhood. Years of rigorous training, and not all were chosen. Not all were powerful enough to bear it. She was, though. She was made to be Warrior. Even if she was not Aztec like him, she was a Jaguar. He felt it in his bones.
And even if she wasn’t…
Aldo lifted his eyes to Tezcatlipoca.
“Dying is not so terrible. You have fought well and with honour.”
I want live.
Tezcatlipoca knelt before him and scratched his ears. He mewled. It was weak sound. He didn’t have strength to be louder. Fiercest hunter of all, dying in the dirt. There was a long silence in which he assumed Tezcatlipoca contemplated, stroking Aldo’s head all the while.
“Very well. I will allow it.”
The jaguar closed his eyes as the pain began to recede, rubbing his head against his God’s large hand in thanks. He curled up a little into his lap, feeling very much like a cub. Sleep crept over him, and the wound began to stitch itself together.
By morning, the wound was healed save for the knot of scar tissue at the base of his ribs, and he was alone.
When not trying to figure out what kind of day job an incubus would have or what a Necromancer would go to school for, Amir enjoys visiting the nearest Dairy Queen, getting killed in video games, absorbing the contents of comic books, and freaking out over how fluffy the neighbour’s dog is.