Etched in Honor
Book 1 in the Aspen Pack Series
I thought I’d lost my fated mate until he shows up years later. Only with no memory of me. Or us.
As Beta of the Aspen Pack, I was forced to watch our former Alpha turn to dark magic and destroy the bonds of our people.
I nearly died trying to save us, but I broke the biggest taboo: I told the others that cat shifters existed and almost lost everything in return.
Now we have a new Alpha, a new future, and a dangerous and mysterious enemy threatening our stable balance. And a new Tracker.
The man who looks like my dead mate.
Etched in Honor
I dodged the blacked-tipped talons handily but nearly tripped over the wolf to my side. I winced as I jumped over Ronin and didn’t let the fact that he cowered beside me insult my cat. After all, he was a new wolf. And he didn’t know exactly how to fight yet. This wasn’t exactly the training I had planned for the day, but there was no going back now, not when I needed to fight whatever these things were.
It looked like a man, a normal man, with excessive strength. Its eyes were dark-rimmed, but I couldn’t see its irises to tell what color they were. And its fingernails had turned into claws, or perhaps the talons I had once thought. But they looked as if they had been dipped into black ink. The nails were black for sure, but even the fingertips seemed to radiate that darkness.
I had never seen the like, but as I was part of the Aspen Pack, I knew that not all was what it seemed, and there were many unknowns out there.
I let my claws push through my fingertips and raked the nails down the back of one. The man in front of me let out a shocked gasp, then fell to his knees. I didn’t want any of that black tar or whatever it was to touch me. My cat didn’t like the scent of it, and frankly, neither did the human part of me.
I was a lion shifter in the middle of a wolf Pack, a wolf Pack that was like none other.
And my cat already had enough and arched its back up.
There were two of these creatures in front of me, and they didn’t scent of the rogues that we had been fighting for years, nor did they scent of wolf.
I wasn’t sure if they were a witch gone bad or not, but whatever they were, we needed to deal with it before it was too late.
I grumbled a bit, then found a branch to toss at Ronin. Ronin gave me this odd look, his human face looking puzzled, and I sighed before I made sure he held the stick, and I pulled the dagger out of my boot.
I used my claws on the creature’s back, but I wasn’t about to get anywhere near its mouth.
My senses told me it wasn’t a good idea, no matter what it was.
I used the dagger to stab the closest creature at the base of the skull and twisted. It let out a scream, one abruptly cutoff, before it fell to its knees, its body at an odd angle on the ground.
I went to the other one, but it came at Ronin quickly, ignoring me. I cursed under my breath, my cat ready to slice at those who endangered our people. Ronin was under our watch, and we refused to let him get hurt because we weren’t strong enough.
I kept moving towards it, but Ronin smacked the thing with the branch.
Well, that was one way to fight it. Probably not the best way, but we were getting somewhere. At least I hoped so.
Ronin smacked it again, but then the creature gripped the branch and shook it. He tossed Ronin twenty feet back, and my brows winged up.
Well then, that was some strength. He probably could even beat Hayes when it came to strength, and that polar bear was the strongest person I knew.
It seemed it was time for me to stop pussyfooting around, as it were, and take care of this thing.
It was bleeding from the claw marks, and the blood was red, so I counted that as something to take note of, but I wasn’t sure what it meant.
I didn’t want to wait to find out, so I moved forward and tossed my dagger directly into the creature’s eyes.
It screamed, pulling at the dagger but not falling down.
That image would haunt my nightmares for years to come. Considering the number of things that already haunted my nightmares, that was saying something.
“Okay then. Why won’t you die?”
“This is only the beginning,” the creature growled as he pulled the dagger out of its eye.
I swallowed hard. I hadn’t been aware it could talk. I had no idea what it was, but it wasn’t dead from a dagger to the eye, and it stepped forward once, twice, and fell.
Oh good. It was dead. Thank the goddess because I wasn’t sure exactly what I was supposed to do now.
I sighed and then went to take my dagger back.
Ronin sat on the ground and looked up at me before lowering his gaze.
His wolf was in the golden glow surrounding his iris, and my cat wanted to reach out, bat him on the head, and then hug him close.
Ronin wasn’t submissive by any means, nor was he a paternal wolf. He was a dominant, but so in the middle of the chain that he could wobble either way depending on who was around him. And my cat was one of the most dominant shifters in the Pack.
It didn’t matter that the rest of them were wolves except for a select few. My cat was Beta of the Aspen Pack and had held that title longer than any other leader within the Pack. Everyone else had gained their connection and responsibility after everything had changed.
I alone remained.
My heart ached, but I pushed away the pain.
Just because the rest of the hierarchy was relatively new in the past year and a half didn’t mean we were falling or breaking.
I just happened to be the only one with experience.
Experience that was met with hatred in some eyes, but I was good at ignoring that.
I leaned down in front of Ronin and gripped the back of his neck as I would a pup. He looked up at me then, meeting my gaze for an instant before lowering his eyes but not his chin.
My cat purred in happiness. That was showing who was more dominant, but not lowering. And that I counted as progress.
“Are you okay? Did their claws or teeth or anything else out of the ordinary touch you?”
Ronin shook his head. “No, I’m fine. I’m fine, but I messed up.”
I shook my head. “Whatever that was, was far stronger than either one of us was prepared for.”
He looked up at me then for just an instant and blinked in surprise. “You don’t know what that was?”
I didn’t want any more lies in my Pack, not after years of pain and sacrifice and nothing but lies. So I told him the truth. Chase would have to find his own path and tell me exactly what he wanted the rest of the Pack to know in general. After all, he was my Alpha and had once been my friend.
I pushed that thought away and squeezed the back of Ronin’s neck again. The younger wolf relaxed marginally, and I knew he liked the action. “I don’t know what that was. We’re going to find out, though. It was strong, so strong that I had to use my dagger rather than my claws or strength. You did what you could, and while you aren’t ready to hold a weapon on you at all times like that, we’re getting there.”
“I nearly tripped you,” he grumbled.
“We were just finishing a long training session when those whatever they were slithered out of the trees as they did. They came on us out of nowhere, and we’re both exhausted after our training.”
He wrinkled his nose, and I knew he smelled the lie on that.
“Okay, you were exhausted. I’m tired. Does that make your wolf feel better?” I asked, putting a lighthearted note in my tone.
Ronin nodded. “Yes. Sorry. I’m still getting used to all these scents and everything.”
My heart ached for him, and my cat wanted to reach out and lick his face just to make sure that he felt better. Doing that in human form with a new wolf, one that didn’t know me well, was probably not the best thing.
“Everything’s okay. We are going to figure out what these are and put them in the basement so that way our Healer can take a look at it.”
“Maybe the other Packs know?”
That made me smile. “Hopefully, the others do. They’ve all dealt with many strange things.”
“Well, we have our own strangeness,” Ronin said with a bit of pride, and I felt it too. The Aspen Pack was unique in that we were not just wolves. Other than a few people who held our secrets, the rest of the world thought the only shifters out there were wolves. After all, they were the ones that had been forced to be revealed to the public. And after a war and scary end of times, humans and wolves lived in a decent harmony. The fact that the government had wolf sympathizers helped. Any scary laws that could have restricted the movements and freedoms of anyone magical in nature were now scrubbed off the table indefinitely.
Wolves and witches were able to live freely.
Cats and bears, on the other hand, were unheard of.
I knew of a couple of cats that roamed the earth as individuals, but I was the only lioness that I knew of near here other than Aimee. There was a lynx shifter as well, and she was my best friend, but other than that, it was just me here.
And there was only one bear that I knew of.
Perhaps there were other secret Packs that held them, and I had the hope in my heart that there were. But even most wolves didn’t know we existed, and that had been for a reason years before.
Now I wasn’t even sure what the reason could be.
I looked down at the two dead bodies next to me, my cat hissing, and ran my hand over Ronin’s back. Then I stood up and helped him do the same.
“We should head back into the den, behind the wards. But we need to tell the others what happened.”
There was no doubt that Chase as Alpha would be able to feel that something had indeed happened.
The others would as well since Steele was the Enforcer, and he could feel outside threats to the Pack. This just felt like such a different threat that I wasn’t sure he would be able to tell what it was.
Cruz might be able to tell as well, but he was the Heir and felt so lost that I wasn’t even sure he would know to respond at all. It didn’t matter that he was a dominant wolf. We were all so far out of our depths, it was a little scary.
I rubbed at my chest and then was reminded again that I wasn’t the only cat shifter around. At least the only lioness around. I wanted someone of my own kind, even if it didn’t make sense. I should see Aimee. And check on her. She was a lioness like me because of what I had to do to save her.
I shook my head, remembering the Talon Pack lioness who now lived in a Pack of wolves as I did.
She was strong, mated to the Healer, and could handle anything on her own.
At least, that’s what I figured. It wasn’t like I could truly speak to her often these days, not with my needing to be with the Aspens as much as I was.
I turned to see Steele coming towards me, a glare on his face as always. I didn’t know him well, though that was only because I had to hide my true loyalties for so long that I didn’t know my Pack as I should.
He gave me a tight nod as he looked around at his lieutenants. “What happened here?”
I raised a brow because he wasn’t as dominant as I was. The only person that was within this Pack was Chase, and even then, some days, it didn’t feel like it.
Steele just shook his head, his own wolf understanding that he didn’t get to growl at me like that in front of others. We were all still finding our place, figuring out how to work together as a cohesive unit. The fact that I hadn’t had a cohesive unit with the previous hierarchy spoke volumes. We were taking our cues from the Redwoods and Talons. But even then, the Redwoods had decades of learning to work together and were an actual family. The hierarchy before the current generation was still around, guiding them. They weren’t elders per se, but they were a tight unit.
The Talons, on the other hand, had to rebuild from the ground up at one point, and so we were trying to follow their lead. Much like the Central Pack was doing. Though their Pack had been completely demolished, only coming back with a blessing from the actual moon goddess, the goddess of wolves.
I shook my head and looked over at Steele. “I don’t know. I’m trying to figure it out myself.”
I explained about the dark claws and the fact that it had spoken even after we had shoved a dagger into its eye. Steele raised a brow, then pulled out his phone. “We should talk with the Redwoods and the Talons. They might have seen something when they were down south.”
I frowned, then remembered that nearly a year ago the Tracker for the Redwood Pack had gone down south to meet another Pack of all things and had come up with something similar. The dark smudges and black bite marks.
“Do you think it’s that? I thought that those were genetically modified rogues or whatever that they had found.”
“Not exactly. The dead bodies that piled up happened to be because of that rogue, the wolf that had gotten out thanks to the drug that is no longer a problem within our borders. However, the black marks seemed to be something different.”
I cursed under my breath. “I didn’t know that.”
“I only think I know it because I was talking with Gina.”
Gina was the Enforcer of the Redwood Pack, his counterpart, and had more experience than he did, but only barely.
“Okay. I’ll talk with Chase then. Do you guys have this settled?”
“We do. We’ll meet up with Wren.”
A smile slid over my face at the mention of my best friend’s name. Wren was a lynx shifter and our Healer.
As long as she was connected to the Pack, she could use those bonds to heal those around her. She was also an MD and kept up with her medical studies throughout her years. She had been a doctor before the goddesses had called on her to become the Healer of our Pack. It had fit, and now she worked on the mystical side and the medical side.
“Hopefully, she’ll figure it out, and hey, I hear there’s a new geneticist joining the Pacific Northwest Pack Alliance.”
I grinned. “Is that the name that you’re going with now?” I asked.
Steele rolled his eyes. “I think Cruz is having a little too much fun with the other Packs forming names. But since we’re working so close together, the Pacific Northwest Pack Alliance seems to be working with the four of us.”
That made me smile because it wasn’t just the Redwoods and the Talons any longer. The Aspens were going to bring things to the table, and I knew the Centrals were doing the same. Even though the Centrals had a dark past with the Redwoods, we had just as much of a dark one with the Talons.
My stomach ached at that thought, and my cat scratched at me, so I pushed that thought away and sighed. “I need to go meet with Chase.”
“I take it training’s over then?” he asked, looking at Ronin.
Ronin lowered his head, and if he were in wolf form, his tail would’ve been tucked between his legs. I moved forward, went on my tiptoes, and ran my hand through his hair. “You’re fine. We’ll finish up the day after tomorrow. I know you have your studies.”
The kid, and he really was a kid, only in his early twenties, beamed at me. “Yes, true. Thank you so much for your help. I know I’m getting better, right?”
“You are. You fought well today. We weren’t expecting this, but we made it out because we had each other. So thank you.”
His eyes widened before he walked away, speaking with another wolf his age that was a Lieutenant. That Lieutenant was far stronger in dominance but had just an edge of maternal nature to her that she seemed to ease Ronin’s wolf.
“You’re good with him.”
I looked at Steele. “I’m trying. Sometimes I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing.”
He swallowed hard. “I feel like that too. Even though you’ve been Beta for longer, you had to be a different Beta before.”
I knew he’d said it as a compliment, but it felt like a slap nonetheless. “I know. But we have new wolves joining the Pack every week, it seems.”
“We do. And that’s something that Chase is going to want to talk to you about,” he added with a grimace.
I blinked at his mention of the Thames Pack Alpha. The Thames Pack was over by the actual Thames River in England. “I didn’t realize he was visiting.”
“He wanted to meet with our alliance, or whatever else he wants to call it. And in doing so, he brought with him a lone wolf that’s been with them for a while but wanted to come back to the United States. And since the Centrals and the Aspens are pretty much recruiting for Pack members at this point, he figured this guy would work out well with us.”
“Oh. Okay. What does it have to do with me?”
“As Beta, Chase wants you to help him get acclimated to the den. He’s going to blood him in later today.”
“Him? Just one?”
“There are two women that are joining the Central Pack, from what I can tell. But we get the Tracker.”
My lion perked up, her tail swishing back and forth. “He’s a Tracker?”
“He is, and has the talent for it, and since our Pack doesn’t actually have one as part of the hierarchy, Chase says the moon goddess will bestow the new guy with the title.”
A Tracker was someone who could follow the Pack lines and use extrasensory abilities to find anyone within the Pack. If magic or other impediments were in the way, it didn’t always work, but a Tracker was great to have. We hadn’t had one in a decade. Not since our former Alpha had killed him for daring to disobey him.
I swallowed hard, thinking of another Tracker that I’d met in my lifetime. One I didn’t want to think about too hard because it hurt even to imagine.
“I guess since I’m the Beta, it’s my job to see to the needs of the Pack.”
Steele saluted me as he turned back to work with the dead bodies that I had left behind, and I shook my hair out before making my way towards the den.
The den was situated in the northern part of California, amongst the Redwood trees, much like the Redwood namesake Pack that was a little more north of us. We took over Washington, Oregon, and California once you put all of the Pack territories together. We were a large group, but insular.
Our wards protected the den itself, but a lot of our Pack lived outside the den, within the communities of humans and witches. That was how it should be. A den was a place to come home to.
It hadn’t been like that for so long that it almost felt odd to think that now this den could be healthy once again.
I walked through the wards, past the sentries, and let the magic settle over my skin. My cat preened, enjoying the tingles of magic, and I shook my head at it.
She wanted to run, to let the world look at her glorious golden pelt, but I ignored her. We had things to do. We could laze in the sun later.
I turned the corner, my cat perking up, an odd scent hitting her nose.
I frowned, wondering why it scented so familiar.
“Audrey. You’re here. Good,” Chase, my Alpha, stated as I came towards him, but my heart stuttered, my skin breaking out into a cold sweat. I couldn’t focus. Not on him.
It couldn’t be.
This wasn’t him.
It was a ghost, a death. This was nothing. I was dreaming. Maybe I had been bitten by whatever I just fought, and now I was dead.
Because this couldn’t be true.
“Audrey, you know Allister, and this is Gavin. He’ll be a new member of the Aspen Pack.”
Gavin. That was the name of the stranger, the stranger with the eyes.
This wasn’t Gavin.
No, the man before me was the replica of Basil.
My dead mate.
Etched in Honor
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Battle, Attacks, Grief