I stared down the big, hairy, mouth-breather. “Bring it on,” I growled menacingly.
All one thousand pounds of Kenai, a shifter grizzly bear, barreled straight at me like a snowplow, ignoring petty laws like physics. The beast rose up on two tree-trunk thick legs, towering over me as he roared.
Starlight, the impish black bear, clapped excitedly from the sidelines, and Claire emitted a nervous gasp. I was still unsure where Starlight stood in the hierarchy of the bears. The Cave of shifters listened to his opinion even when it contradicted Armor, their Alpha, who was sitting beside Starlight in bear form, leaning forward as he watched. He was a ten-foot-tall brown bear, but his hair was longer and shaggier than a typical bear. More than a dozen other bears watched the bout from various places around the ring.
Claire was the referee for this particular matchup, one of many that would progress throughout the day. Their idea of a relaxing vacation. Kenai’s jaws were alarmingly wide, and his long, ivory fangs were designed to rend flesh from bone. Standing against him in the ring was my fault. Too many drinks last night at the campfire had made this encounter inevitable. Drunken pride had brought me to this place.
A figurative cage-match in the middle of the snowy Alaskan tundra with a freaking grizzly bear. The upside was that shifters healed fast, and they had Claire in case I got too overzealous. On the other hand, I had no such protections. I hoped that wouldn’t be my downfall.
He swiped at me, testing my fear.
Rather than staying back, I lunged within his swipe and scored a direct hit on his inner thigh with my blade. I wasn’t using magic…yet. I wanted to push myself, and using magic seemed unfair—even though he was ten times my weight. Still, I wanted to wait as long as possible because Beckett was sparring next, and he had none of my special abilities since he was a Regular human. He wasn’t a wizard, so no magic. He also didn’t have ties to Heaven.
He only had those ancient abilities that had boosted mankind for thousands of years.
The instinct for self-preservation, improvisation, and sheer grit.
Kenai roared at the slash of pain, but I was already rolling away, using the hilt of my dagger to hammer into his hamstring on my way by. His stance faltered, and I ended up behind him. I immediately sliced and stabbed into his thick hide, knowing that the layers of fat would protect him from serious injury. Still, if I took it too easy on him I would look weak to the rest of the Cave—the term they used for a group of shifter bears—and he would likely beat me, making me look even more unfit to be the self-imposed protector of Kansas City.
Like all men seemed to think, I needed to finish this fast and hard.
Too distracted by my thoughts, I missed the backhanded swipe of his massive paw and he scored a solid blow to my chest, making the belts and buckles of my Darling and Dear coat clank together. I didn’t know much about Darling and Dear, other than that they made magical gear with various types of leather. They had given me the coat and a pair of boots for doing them a favor, and that was good enough for me.
My boots were a thing of beauty. If I focused, I could change them into different shapes and styles, but right now they were calf-high riding boots, because I hadn’t wanted to get snow inside them and soak my socks. Priorities.
The coat was like an armor of sorts, but Kenai’s blow still hurt like a mother-lover. As I flew through the air, I immediately decided to forego my abstinence on magic in favor of survival, casting a blanket of air before me so that the approaching tree didn’t break my face.
I bounced off, landing lightly in the snow, my Darling and Dear boots cushioning my fall. I lifted a smirk to Kenai—the big hairy lout. His eyes narrowed, noting my use of magic, but he didn’t call me out on it. Bears were like that. Honorable, respectable, and not inclined to belittle someone for a mistake—unless there was a lesson to be learned. Still, we both knew I had resorted to magic. Not that it counted against me, but that it was something we were both aware of. Just another fact on the table.
He settled his weight evenly across his four legs, debating whether to attack or wait.
I solved his moral dilemma and charged. Before he could react, I threw one of my blades at the ground near his lead foot, making him flinch in that direction to defend himself as I simultaneously ran up the nearby tree on his opposite side. He was so stunned by the fact that I had given up one of my weapons—and missed—that he didn’t see what I had intended.
I took three steps up the tree trunk and catapulted myself off, flipping backwards to avoid the instinctive swipe of his inches long claws. He missed and I scored a direct hit across the back of the offending paw in the process, making him recoil instinctively.
Which gave me the perfect opportunity to stab him in the shoulder with the blade, using it as an anchor point to swing my bodyweight directly behind his shoulders. With a quick flick of my wrists, my sneaky bracelet became a garrote, and I looped the metal wire around his thick throat in a tight choke, abandoning my dagger in his shoulder. I spun my wrists, crossing the wire for maximum control and then yanked back. Now I had reins for my pony bear.
He tried to roar through his constricted windpipe, claws raking at his throat, but neither the thick pads of his paws nor his claws could find purchase as I choked him. I yanked back even harder, arching my back so that my weight pulled him off balance. I dug my feet into the fat of his back, arms straining as I tensed for the crash, anticipating he would try to use my body to break his fall.
He did try, but I danced across his back so that I wasn’t in the way. He hit like a meteor, snow rippling around us in a wave. He scrabbled in the muddy snow, claws raking and digging for purchase, but he only managed to compact the snow into little barriers. He snarled and huffed desperately, but the lack of oxygen was affecting his muscles, weakening him.
I waited a few more seconds, letting him keep his honor for as long as he chose.
“Peace,” he rasped like a whisper of wind, muscles going completely slack.
I let out a breath of relief and released one end of the wire. It whipped back into my bracelet with a hiss like a school janitor’s key ring.
I hopped off him and took a few steps, shaking the soreness from my arms. Choking out a half-ton Grizzly was no walk in the park. The clearing was utterly silent.
Then a rasping wheeze emanated from the downed bear, which slowly turned into a rattling chuckle, his injuries repairing on the spot. After a few moments, his bellows of laughter thundered across the snow, echoing off the trees and nearby rocks.
Claire rushed over to him, studying his throat, thumbing back his eyes, and checking on the brief slashes from my blade. She shot me a look over his quivering form as she yanked my dagger out from his shoulder, not finding the situation as funny as Kenai did. Because as a veterinarian for the Kansas City Zoo, she was the person who healed wounds, not inflicted them. She ignored the smirk plastered on my face. It wasn’t that she was offended by my win, but that Claire always considered consequences, and knowing my level of lethality, she always wanted me to use the lowest level of violence at my disposal. She didn’t understand that her philosophy would get me killed in the real world.
Someday, it might get her killed, too. Because she wasn’t just a veterinarian any longer. She was also a shifter-bear, and that was one of the reasons we were all out here. To help her get used to that, and to make peace with her first kill—a true son of a bitch named Yuri—the bear who had turned her against her will several months ago.
Kenai gently shoved her away, shifting back to his human form. A large, tanned naked man stood from the ground, his back easily four feet across and rippling with muscles. And back hair. A whole lot of back hair. His human form was even as hairy as a bear. No wonder he was never cold. He turned to face me, his dark beard extended down his neck and under his ears to connect with his jaw-length hair like a helmet. He dipped his head, his pale gray eyes twinkling through the curtains of his dark bangs. “Damn, girl,” he finally chuckled, shaking his head.
“What does it feel like to have your ass kicked by a hormonal little girl?” I teased, using his statement from the night before.
He grinned. “Better than I imagined,” he admitted with an easy shrug.
Then he bowed his head again, lowering his eyes this time. Part of me instinctively waited for a second attack, even though I knew better. Bears were ridiculously noble. To a fault, even. He lifted up his palms in surrender, walking away. “Callie wins.”
I saw money change hands. The losers of the bet didn’t look angry, just thoughtful. I had impressed them.
I made sure I didn’t trip as I made my way over to Claire.
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