Nothing broke the morning’s ethereal spell of mist and music like an email alert. I opened my eyes to the green canopy overhead, sighed, and scanned the notification on my watch.
I dug my phone out of my pocket to read the attachment. The job type made me blink. Twice. BODYGUARD. I flicked back to the email. Sent from Lusa Taqukaq to Sialuk Taqukaq. My brother didn’t make mistakes.
I texted: What did I do to deserve this?
I sent my self-pitying reply with a picture of Lu’s three-year-old daughter tasting spinach for the first time. Hakuugi’s adorable screwed-up expression of betrayal and misery summed up my feelings, minus the adorable.
I hadn’t been on a personal mission like bodyguarding in years. Event security? All the time. Secure escort? Sure. Cleaning up other people’s messes? At least five times a year. But always from a secure, offsite location where I didn’t have to keep my powers hidden and could still be useful. I didn’t do the boots-on-the-ground assignments anymore. I’d thrown all of that behind me the moment I was qualified to run operations instead.
Bodyguarding was the opposite of the solitude and peace I’d earned. It meant sleeping at the client’s house. Covering in and out of every car and door. Babysitting a forty-year-old divorcee crying at the makeup counter.
My watch chimed. Lu replied with a picture of their family dog looking guilty after rummaging through the trash bin.
Client Chetna Hill, J.D. Address listed in DC. Sent signed paperwork and double the deposit.
Not DC. Anywhere else.
My fingers gripped the bark at my side, seeking comfort in the tree’s unflinching stability. I returned to my screen and flicked down the document’s attachments. I opened the link with the photos, then scrolled through the faces, looking for the distinctive blue eyes and blonde hair I feared would be there. But Jason wasn’t in any of the photos.
With a sigh of relief, I returned to the first picture. Hill’s cookie-cutter headshot showed a smile that invited me in even through the screen. Next, an eighteen-year-old with chubby cheeks smirked back at me.
The raven flock’s symbol followed her name, with two diagonal lines crossing through. Her parents’ pictures at least presented kinder grins, but the symbols by their names had single strikes.
A failed shifter line. Humans born from shifter blood weren’t uncommon, especially with Earth magic deteriorating day by day. All shifter kin had their own names for them. In the bear sleuth, we called them alaxi, since they would only ever walk on their two human legs. Over time, though, the world gave them an English label: hollows.
A family of hollows helped explain why a human lawyer was my client. I just hoped whatever they’d done to require protection didn’t pit me against their flock, the raven shifters.
Since they were hollows, the raven Alpha’s picture came beneath the parents’s pictures. Her size loomed large, even in the frame. The woman’s black eyes gleamed in the photo. Her gaze intimidated and captivated at the same time. That beady stare seemed so appropriate for raven kin.
In other circumstances, I would have been nervous working in proximity with an Alpha. Too much scrutiny from individuals who always had a tendency to stick their snouts where it didn’t belong. But I’d bet the file included the Alpha as a matter of detail, not duty. Alphas were too busy for hollows.
Since I’d be going to DC, all the CNA’s members were there, too.
The CNA, the Council for North America, had tenuous authority in the shifter world. Maintaining shifter-human peace in the age of modern warfare required the five land-keeping shifter kin to send a representative and an assistant to play politics with the humans. Well, the five remaining land keepers. The CNA’s headquarters were in DC, though they circulated through offices in Ottawa and Mexico City every year.
Humans liked the familiar English name and thought of the organization as the bridge between our mystic animal hierarchies and their structured civilizations. I considered it the help desk where humans could drop off their complaint cards.
I texted: What’s so special about this job besides a double deposit that Aunt A is making me go?
A reply bubble popped up, the bouncy ellipsis teasing me. It disappeared. Returned. Disappeared.
Shaking my head, I flicked back to the file, looking for clues.
My brother was much better at playing with a political crowd. He even liked bodyguarding more than me.
But Lu wouldn’t leave for a job. Kimiska was pregnant. Not as far along as the last time I’d had to step in for Lu—the only other personal level-five I’d done. Shifter births drew on the magic of both parents and the rest of their families, too. He wouldn’t risk leaving the sleuth lands, no matter how much the job paid.
I read the sparse introductions on each of the CNA members. Most of their work circled back to shifters who succumbed to Rot. Nuclear advancement—especially the use of atomic bombs in warfare—infected Earth magic, and its poison multiplied with virulent tenacity. Shifters who didn’t take care to purify their mana regularly could fall prey to irresistible violence and chaos.
It was mostly theft and arson. And then, in the nineteen sixties, one poor pup fell to Rot further than any had before. He escaped before the wolves could put him down. The kid fled to Wisconsin and hid, and ended up becoming one of the most notorious serial murderers in America.
The CNA pledged to monitor American warmongering, but they also shouldered the hate aimed at shifter kin when one of us fell to Rot.
I tried to focus on the already familiar faces, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to keep checking my messages.
I shook my legs out and stood, stretched once to each side, and took in a deep breath of the crisp pre-dawn air. The stench of fungi and decaying bark underscored the paths of rabbits, weasels, and other small critters as they fed. I turned to the old western larch that shaped my favorite nook in the forest. My fingers caressed an exposed root. I gave my thanks, and the larch sang in return.
I had always heard the Earth’s magic as music, just as I’d always been able to hear Rot’s whispers. Earth song urged all shifters to roam, to hunt, an instinctual compulsion that defined our ways of life. But for me and me alone, its force composed a symphony as old as time.
The larch’s simple melody rose above the rest of Earth song, a greeting, prayer, and wish for me all in one, blessing me with safety while I was away from home.
I patted the bark. “I’ll come again soon.”
The larch crooned happiness, and I left with a bounce in my step.
I found my family in the kitchen. Dad worked a pan with eggs while Aunt A sat at the kitchen table. Aunt A shuffled papers next to her laptop and a tablet. Actual hard-copy papers. I joined them, sliding in opposite Aunt A. I scanned the sheets and marveled at the time stamp next to a signature.
“Wow, this contract only came in last night?” I asked.
“And it starts when?”
Aunt A didn’t pause organizing her stacks as she responded, “As soon as possible. Unusual doesn’t begin to describe what we’re dealing with here.”
“Chaos fits better,” Dad chimed in.
No one who needed emergency protection in DC would contact a security company based in Montana.
“Sounds reasonable. Fun, even. What a treat,” I said.
Dad grunted. My aunt kept shuffling.
That wasn’t good. They only worked so quietly if they were late on a deadline. I got up and brooded next to Dad.
“Oh, yeah.” Dad grinned.
“They offered double our usual rate and double the expediency fee. It’s more money in one job than we pulled in last quarter.”
“Am I really going to DC?” I asked.
Aunt A paused, but the papers shivered with the tension in her fingers. Still, her voice was steady. “If you tell me right now you don’t want to go, then you won’t go. None of us wants to force you into this.”
I eyed the shuffled papers. “Doesn’t look like it.”
She rolled her eyes at me. “Lu and I have been working on this since midnight and I thought I’d catch you before you went out, but I got stuck on the phone. We emailed you as soon as we realized you were gone. And even if you tell me no, there’s still paperwork to send back and then I’d have to file a ten-oh-twelve.”
“It’s a ten-oh-twelve level-five?”
My family nodded at me, but the effect looked like a couple of stern bobbleheads. I grinned despite their serious faces.
The form my aunt referenced meant we had to report our rejection of the client to the Shifter Defense Agency, a branch of the American NSA that oversaw shifter trade, travel, and work. Ten-oh-twelves were reserved for shifter-to-shifter jobs with American federal clearances. I hadn’t even bothered to download that form when I completed my initial operations certifications because Bear Claw had never rejected a level-five job. Ever.
This is why I like Canada better.
“Why does a bodyguarding mission for a hollow require reporting to the SDA? Is the raven Alpha actually involved?”
My aunt set the papers down.
“Hill has only stated that she is hiring us to guard the teenager, and that everyone else is listed as required points of contact. She’s unwilling to give any more details until our agent arrives in person.”
“So we don’t even know who we are supposed to keep the kid safe from?”
Aunt A shook her head. “But we all assume that whoever it is, they’re the reason behind the ten-oh-twelve.”
I scowled. Without more information, I presumed the kid had gotten into major trouble with her flock. I really didn’t want to stand between the smirker and her flockmates.
Aunt A winced.
I groaned. “It’s worse?”
“Yes. They requested you, specifically. I told them you were no longer a field operative, and that we had other people, but this Hill woman demanded it be you. It’s part of why she offered double upfront.”
I dreaded being requested. I always feared someone had found out about my perks, or at least was fishing for them. There were only five people outside my immediate family aware of my innate powers, and I trusted all of them except for the one who lived in DC.
I knew Jason was involved in this somehow.
I dialed Lu, switched it on speaker, and set my phone on the table.
“I’m guessing you talked to Aunt A, huh?”
Even over the phone, the sound of Lu’s irritated greeting brought a bittersweet smile. I ached for home. I’d missed the birth of my first niece and was already missing most of Kimiska’s second pregnancy.
Dad stopped bustling about the kitchen to listen. Aunt A folded her hands over her precious documents.
“You’re up to speed on the lack of details?” I asked.
“And the ten-oh-twelve?”
“Feels off, doesn’t it?”
That was why my brother and I made such a great team. Our instincts were so similar, and our complementary skill sets made us quick and fluid. With him on the ground and me behind the helm, we were unstoppable.
Until Mom got in our way. I heard her huffing on the other end of the line.
“Off how?” Mom asked.
“Come on, Mom,” Lu said. “This has to come back to that blonde prick somehow.”
“Lusa, that was rude,” my father intoned in the weary way of patient parents.
“I agree,” I jumped in. “Jason has to be a part of this.”
Mom started, “I know it’s suspicious—”
I cut in. “He has his own company in DC separate from the CNA and the ravens, and there’s a ten-oh-twelve involved. Until we know more, it’s at least a fifty-fifty chance that he’s the reason we need to report to the SDA.”
My aunt pursed her lips and tilted her head back, musing. “He has broad human connections, so it’s possible he’d know Hill through his network. Maybe the hollows, too, given his history.”
“See?” I waved my hand at my aunt. “If Aunt A thinks there’s a chance, why aren’t we doing something about it?”
“Give us a little credit,” Mom burst out. “We’ve done what research we can, given the time limits. We can’t track down any other relatives to this hollow family, probably because they are protected by raven privacy laws. There are no digital connections we can trace between Hill, the hollow family, or Jason so far.”
I glared at my phone. “Then why does Hill require me? I don’t trust him, and he lives in the same city. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”
Dad’s measured voice broke through my frustration. “Whether he is or isn’t part of this job, I think you should see him if you go.”
I heard the wistfulness. Both my parents had loved having a third child. Both of them had been understanding but tight-lipped when I’d confronted them over Jason’s sudden disappearance.
Lu made an exasperated sound. “Absolutely not. If he isn’t involved, then he’s a distraction. If we think he is a risk, we deal with him, but not by sending Lucky into an unknown mission on her own and armed with a grudge, no matter the size of the check. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
I pictured landing on a tarmac. The DC monuments frame the sky as I bound across a field toward the man who was once my brother, too. I leap past his outstretched arm and wring his stupid blonde head from his stupid thick neck and—
Dad poked my shoulder. “Lucky, Lucky. Focus.”
“Sorry,” I grumbled.
“Weighing your options?” Aunt A asked.
“Thinking about strangling Jason.”
My aunt humphed as my parents frowned. Lu at least chuckled, a spark of joy compared to the rest of my family’s pouting.
“Well?” Aunt A asked again.
“We won’t get any more answers unless I go, will we?” I asked.
“We’ve already filed procedural requests with the raven flock and the CNA, but they’re not picking up when I call.”
“Think if I talk to her, Hill would tell me more?”
“No.” Aunt A frowned. “I already offered, and she’s adamant. Full discretion.”
“There’s one more thing,” Mom said.
“Oh, come on,” I said. “I won’t strangle Jason if I see him.”
“Not that,” she said. “If you decide to go, you must be presented to the CNA.”
It was common shifter diplomacy to introduce yourself when crossing into another shifter’s territory, doubly so for a collective of kin like the CNA. At least the boring ritual was quick.
Aunt A shook her head. “Sorry, not presented as in the common courtesy. As in a formal right of asking to stay in their lands.
“They were notified when the contract was filed with our firm to comply with level-five transparency. While the ravens didn’t get back to us, the CNA did. Within minutes. The address on the contract listed is for Hill’s legal practice, but the CNA said they cannot allow you to come unless you formally present yourself to them and state your intentions.”
All shifters only had one unbreakable law: do not hunt humans. Beyond that, all kin wrote their own rules. We had adopted a few common rituals, though. The right of asking was the most fundamental; all shifters deserved to ask for… anything. More land. More money. More medicine. The right of asking founded as much of shifter culture and power systems as did consuming mana. From minor improvements in daily life to contesting the chain of command under the Alpha, shifter quality of life depended on the inherent equity in the right of asking.
If the CNA demanded my introduction through the right of asking entry into their lands, it meant they expected me to be working in their lands. Even though the address was Hill’s firm.
Curious, considering the teen is a raven hollow.
“Do I have to?”
“If you want to take the job, then yes.”
“It feels like a trap,” I whined.
Dad put an arm around my shoulders.
“That’s what we thought, too,” Mom said. “We don’t want you running through CNA lands without backup. So, I’m going to call in a favor.”
I looked at the phone warily. “What kind of favor?”
“An Elder once in the hierarchy owes me from way back in the day when he thought my over-night babysitting cured one of his sisters of pneumonia. I did nothing except keep her company and comfort her, but you know how it goes.”
“Seems like a long-standing favor to call in for an introduction to the CNA.”
“Well, if we can’t send you with backup into their territory, then we give you equal footing. I’ve asked to induct you into the hierarchy, and the Elder is backing my right of asking. Power-gap solved.”
The hierarchy was the collective of shifters acknowledged by Earth magic as the strongest and wisest to carry out the Alpha’s leadership. Joining that echelon meant responsibility, authority, and the public eye, and it could only be earned through Earth magic based on a shifter’s natural instincts and qualities or, as we could sense it amongst ourselves, dominance.
My dominance, though, was one of many things I wanted to hide from the hierarchy.
Not even my family knew about all my perks.
“Are you out of your mind?” Lu exploded.
“I don’t want to be hierarchy, Mom. What if… what if I can’t stop? What if the hierarchy finds out about me?”
“We can’t expose Lucky like this,” Lu agreed. “It’s bad enough Jason might be blabbing.”
Mom looked sympathetic. “It’s a risk, I know, but it would only be temporary, love. Ayutxin can’t speak mind to mind with the sleuth like some Alphas can, so you wouldn’t need to shield your thoughts. And you’ve already made it through your childhood evading their nosy snouts. Besides, you’ll spend most of the time in DC. I know you could do it.”
It’s so much more than a risk.
My aunt drummed her fingers. Dad gave me an encouraging nod.
“It is ultimately up to you, but I think it is the best way to give you an advantage this time,” Mom said.
“It’s smart. There’s more at stake here,” my aunt said. “Joining the sleuth’s hierarchy means Kanuux has to treat you as his social equal. He, at least, will have to deal with you, even if the other CNA members try to brush you off. And it will give you the boost you need to stand your own against the CNA if it ever came to that—which it shouldn’t, mind you.”
Kanuux Qanaxtusix served the sleuth as the bears’ representative to the CNA. He was also hierarchy, and strong enough to have been second to my grandparent’s Alpha.
That part made sense. “Anything else?”
“Well, that depends on you. I can’t think of any other angle that could shed light on why Hill’s hiring us and what’s going on with the hollow girl. Are you going to go?” my aunt asked.
The money mattered. Making sure Lu stayed home mattered. Taking the job was the greatest gift I could give my future niece or nephew.
And if I said no, I would never know why Hill wanted me at all. I feared joining the hierarchy because of exposure, but I was furious at the implication that Jason might have told a human what I kept hidden.
Neither fear nor anger helped ease the growing knot in my stomach, but they fueled a rather hasty decision.
Lu made a disapproving noise on the other end of the line. I felt even less enthusiastic.
But I had to go. I needed to know if Jason had broken my trust again.
I sighed and slumped down so my chin rested on the table. “So what shenanigans do I have to do to join the hierarchy?”
Dad pulled my limp torso upright and squeezed my shoulders.
Mom’s voice radiated enthusiasm. “First, we get you home.”