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    Chapter One

    The fight club had moved since Jace Warden had last visited the Austin Shiftertown. The Shifters used to meet for their forbidden bouts in an abandoned hay barn nestled into folds of a hill, but the land had been purchased, and a developer had built over it.

    On his borrowed Harley, Jace turned from the discreet plane that had flown him this far and headed down a highway that led to drier country away from the river. The world had darkened while he’d flown east from Nevada to land at an airfield that had supposedly been closed.

    Dylan Morrissey, the Austin Shiftertown liaison, had left a message for Jace to meet him at the fights, and he’d also left the bike for Jace’s transportation. Tired and hot, and having hauled himself halfway across the country at Dylan’s request, the last thing Jace wanted to do was to ride out to the fight club. But Dylan had summoned him to work on the problem of getting the Collars off Shifters once and for all, and had extended his hospitality, so Jace hid his irritation, thanked the humans who had helped him get this far, and mounted the motorcycle.

    Jace turned off where the directions had instructed, the paved road quickly turning to dirt, the bike bouncing and skidding over gravel and through ruts. The road grew narrower and narrower, until it petered to nothing. Jace continued down a short hill and around a bend, and found the Shifter fight club behind a slight rise that hid it from the road.

    He smelled it long before he saw the electric lanterns, fire dancing in garbage cans, and flashlights. Anything that could be quickly doused was being used to illuminate the scene.

    Jace would have known it was a place of Shifters, even in the pitch-dark. Shifters working off adrenaline rushes and fighting instincts had a certain interesting—and pungent—odor.

    Jace killed the engine of the bike, parking it among the pack of motorcycles, pickups, and smaller cars. He hung the helmet from the seat and made sure his backpack was well stashed in the saddlebag before he approached the fight area. He wasn’t worried about Shifters stealing his change of clothes and toothbrush—Shifters didn’t steal from one another, because a simple snatch could end up in a fight to the death. Possessions were territory, and territory was respected. But humans also came to the fight clubs, and some liked to abscond with things.

    The new fighting arena was a broad slab of concrete about a hundred feet long and just as wide. Probably an old building or an event area of some kind, abandoned by its owners when money ran out. Everything had been pulled away except the slab.

    Rings were outlined by concrete blocks, and firelight flickered wildly, making it a scene from hell, complete with demons. But the demons were only Shifters having fun and working off steam; those not fighting were cheering, drinking beer, or finding hook-ups—human or Shifter—and sneaking into the darkness to work off steam a different way.

    Jace made his way around cars—a few of them being used for liaisons—and toward the firelight. He didn’t worry about locating Dylan in the chaos, because Dylan, a Feline Shifter who was mostly lion, always made himself known.

    What Jace didn’t expect was the wolf who sprang out of the shadows in a deserted stretch of the parking area and landed on Jace full force.

    Jace swung around with the impact, hands coming up to dig into the wolf’s fur and throw him down. The Lupine landed in the dust, his Collar sparking and sizzling. The Collar’s shocks didn’t slow the wolf much, because he rolled to his feet and charged Jace again.

    Jace didn’t know who the hell the wolf was. Not that he had much of a chance of identification as the Lupine landed on Jace again, his Collar’s sparks burning Jace’s skin. The wolf went for Jace’s throat, and Jace’s hands turned to leopard’s paws to rake across the wolf’s face. The wolf took the blow, landed on his feet, shook himself, and sprang again.

    Jace’s Collar hadn’t shocked him yet, but he felt the build-up. Collars were made to spike pain into Shifters as soon as they became seriously violent, but Jace had learned techniques to fool the Collar and keep it dormant. It was tough to do, however, especially when he was taken by surprise. Jace had to focus in order to keep the Collar quiet, and right now he was busy trying to keep this bloody Lupine from killing him.

    Jace whacked the wolf aside again, spinning around as he shed his denim jacket and half shifted to his wildcat. His shirt split, jeans falling as his back legs elongated into powerful feline haunches. He emerged from his shredding clothes as a fully formed snow leopard—creamy fur, black spots, ice blue eyes—and thoroughly pissed off.

    Jace went for the wolf. The wolf was bigger, almost twice Jace’s bulk, but leopards hadn’t made it to the top of the wildcat pyramid because of size. Leopards might be among the smaller big cats, but they were swift, agile, and smart, and they didn’t take shit from anyone.

    This wolf wanted to give him shit, though. He came at Jace again, fur up, his canine jowls frothing, his golden eyes filled with rage. The scent that hit Jace reeked of challenge. This was a wolf who wanted to move up in rank, never mind that Jace was a different species and not even from this Shiftertown. Dominance challenges weren’t allowed inside the ring at the fight club; one of the biggest rules was that fights were for recreation and showing off—that, and no killing. Outside the ring was a different story.

    Jace got ready to teach him a lesson.

    As he drew back to renew his attack, another wolf sprang from the parking lot and hurled itself at the first wolf. A female, Jace scented, one he hadn’t met before.

    She wasn’t rushing to defend the wolf, however. She attacked the Lupine in fury, teeth bared, near madness in her eyes.

    The first Lupine swung to meet her, and the two went down in an explosion of fur and snarls. Jace sat back to catch his breath, surprised. The two wolves were evenly matched, the male a bit larger than the female, but the female was plenty strong and agile. Probably dominant to the male too.

    Jace let the female get her first anger out of her system, then he waded back in to rescue his rescuer.

    The male Lupine had the she-wolf on the ground by now. He pinned the female with one big paw, snarling as he turned to Jace.

    Jace gave him a warning growl. The growl said that, up until now, Jace had been holding back; that Jace was dominant in his pride, his clan, and his Shiftertown; and the wolf might want to think about it before continuing the fight.

    The Lupine ignored the warning and went for the kill. Jace met him head-on, his lithe body and fast paws taking the wolf down to the ground before the Lupine could use his superior weight to his advantage.

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