It was early morning, the sun barely peeking over the mountains. Darkness still clung to the deserted, dilapidated buildings around Minka Pajari as she slunk through the village. She was only one rugged mountain pass away from home. Four or five hours of walking, and she would be back with her family and this terrible nightmare would be over.
But when she heard the men who had been following her for the last ten minutes break into a run, part of her realized that the nightmare wasn’t over yet. Another part insisted the nightmare would never be over. Not for her. Not after what she had become.
Minka wanted to run, but the beast inside her demanded that she turn and fight. She was so tired, and really didn’t want to do either of those things. She’d been going for so long without food and barely any water. All she wanted was to be left alone. Instinct told her they wouldn’t leave her alone.
Minka had escaped her captors weeks ago, or at least it felt like it had been weeks. Getting home to her village had been much harder than she’d thought it would be, though. It had taken her many days to even figure out where she was, then many, many more days to slowly traverse the mountainous terrain between where she’d been held and the small farming village near Khorugh where she lived with her parents. This part of the country—the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region—was very rugged and rural. Strangers, especially women traveling without male companions or money, weren’t treated with kindness, and she’d been forced to dig for food scraps in piles of garbage and sleep in caves or abandoned buildings. What she’d endured during her captivity taught her that she no longer had to fear these minor, momentary forms of discomfort, though.
No, the only thing she truly feared now was the beast the doctors had unleashed inside her. During her slow journey home, she had learned that the creature’s appearance was hard to predict. At the slightest provocation, her claws and teeth would extend and her sight
would change, making nighttime seem like daytime and daytime painfully bright.
If she was frightened, startled, or threatened, the changes went even further. Her muscles would throb with power, and her face would change. She’d seen her reflection once in a stream and been startled to see that she looked almost catlike.
Sometimes the changes came on for no other reason than because she was sad or lonely or afraid. Those times truly terrified her, for with a curse like this, she couldn’t imagine a time when she wouldn’t feel those things.
Worse than the physical changes was what she felt happening to her soul. Where once she’d been a calm, compassionate person, now all she ever felt was anger and rage.
She had taken to traveling only at night, seeking cover in wooded areas, and avoiding villages and people whenever she could. While she feared being attacked or mistreated by people, she feared what the beast inside her would do to those people more.
Now, Minka wasn’t sure if she’d be able to keep from hurting someone. She’d wanted to go around the village, but it was squarely in the middle of the path that headed toward the mountain pass. Two of the men following her had swept around, to get ahead of her, and she had to turn into the village to avoid them. Minka said a silent prayer, hoping she could pass through without incident, but she feared her prayers weren’t even being heard anymore.
She was so busy second-guessing herself that she didn’t see the men who’d arrayed themselves in a line along her path until she was almost on top of them. Her heart beat faster at the ugly expressions on their faces.
She stopped and slowly backed away from them, but it didn’t matter. Two more men closed in from behind.
Minka didn’t scream as they converged on her, afraid it would only spur the men to do something even more violent than what they already had planned—and afraid it would bring out the monster inside her. So she just stood there.
Two of the men grabbed her and lifted her off the ground while a third grabbed her ankles. As they carried her toward an abandoned building, she begged them in Tajik and in Russian to leave her alone, but they only laughed and called her horrible names. The man on her left shouted at her for being out alone without a male chaperone.
Inside the building, she tried to shove them away and get her back to a wall, but they continued to taunt her. When one man tore at her tattered shirt until it completely ripped away, they grew silent, their eyes latching on to her nearly naked body. She moved back against the mud wall behind her, trying to cover her bra with her arms.
But Minka knew her hands wouldn’t stop these men from getting what they were after. After all the pain and suffering she had already endured, she was going to die just a short distance from her home in total disgrace and humiliation. She was never going to see her family again. That might be for the best, though. She didn’t want her parents to see what she had become, what she was turning into even now.
The men didn’t notice the change. Not at first, anyway. They were too interested in other things. But they noticed when the first man tried to kiss her and she sent him reeling back, his chest ripped open to the bone.
Minka thought for sure the rest of the men would run then. But they only cursed and came at her all at once. They threw her to the ground, one of them kicking her while the other two pulled out knives.
She hadn’t wanted to hurt them, and if they had killed her quickly, she would’ve almost been grateful. But it was clear they wouldn’t get around to killing her for a while. They would toy with her the way the doctors’ guards had toyed with her, making her scream in pain.
But the beast inside her would never let her be tortured again.
Minka was off the floor in a flash, slashing and biting, pushing the men back to give her space to move. For a moment, she saw the door, clear of attackers and open to her escape, but she ignored it. The beast wasn’t interested in running now. It was interested only in tearing and ripping and killing.
The men’s shouts of pain and terror got louder as they ran for the door and scrambled toward the windows. But their cries only made her anger flame hotter, driving her into a fury she’d never felt before.
Minka desperately tried to rein in the beast, but it was like she was on the outside of the abandoned house looking in. She knew she was the one tearing the men apart, but she was no longer in control. She wasn’t sure she ever would be again.
* * * * *
Sergeant First Class Angelo Rios glanced at his watch. They needed to get moving, or it’d take all day to get back to camp. He and his Special Forces A-team had been doing a recon sweep back and forth through the rugged terrain of southern Tajikistan when they’d heard about a small town near the mountain pass that had been hit hard by a recent storm. Repairing buildings damaged by high winds and torrential rain wasn’t the kind of work Special Forces usually did, but Angelo and the team’s new lieutenant figured it’d be an easy way to gain a little goodwill with the locals, which definitely was an SF mission.
Angelo squeezed the last of the cheese onto a cracker from his MRE—meal ready to eat—and shoved it in his mouth. With breakfast done, he stuffed the empty wrapper into his rucksack and swung the pack over his shoulder. The rest of the team got the message and did the same.
“So, do you think Kendra will ask you to be the godfather?” Staff Sergeant Carlos Diaz, the team’s communications expert, asked Derek, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Angelo let out a snort. Diaz had been ribbing the team’s medic, Staff Sergeant Derek Mickens, for a month straight about his most recent crush, Kendra Carlsen. The Department of Covert Operation’s admin assistant turned kickass field operative had married Declan MacBride, the DCO’s freaking huge bear shifter, after spending a week alone with him in the jungles of Costa Rica a few months ago. And to top it all off, the couple was now expecting twins.
Derek gave Diaz a less-than-amused look. “Give it a rest already.”
Diaz grinned, his teeth a flash of white against his tanned skin. “No way. After all the time you spent trying to convince us that you and Kendra had a connection after dancing with her at the captain’s wedding, I’m going to be reminding you about this when we’re all old and gray.”
Derek muttered under his breath as he tightened the straps on his own rucksack. “Yeah, well tell me this: What does that big bear shifter have that I don’t?”
Angelo chuckled along with everyone else. The only member of the team who didn’t laugh was Second Lieutenant Ben Watson, and that was only because he was the new guy and didn’t know why the whole thing was so damn funny. Angelo felt bad about Watson being out of the loop, but it wasn’t like he could just come out and tell the lieutenant about the secret government organization called the Department of Covert Operations; or about humans known as shifters who possessed naturally occurring genetic mutations that gave them certain animal traits, like claws, fangs, enhanced speed and reflexes, and improved senses; or about man-made versions of shifters nicknamed hybrids; or any of the other crazy crap the team had been involved with in the past year or so. How did you explain to someone that there really were monsters in the world, complete with sharp teeth and even sharper claws? Worse, how did you explain that some of those monsters were actually the good guys?
Angelo was about to point out to Derek that the DCO’s resident bear shifter had seventy-five pounds of muscle and six inches on him, not to mention a face that didn’t scare small children, when screams of terror from the far end of the village silenced the words in his mouth.
Angelo had his M4 in his hands and was running toward the sound as the rest of the guys spread out behind him, checking for incoming threats. He rounded the corner of a dilapidated building and was heading down a dirt road lined with more crumbling buildings when a man covered in blood ran toward him. Two more men followed, fear clear in their eyes and blood staining their clothes.
At first, Angelo thought it was an IED—an improvised explosive device—but that didn’t make sense. He hadn’t heard an explosion. He slowed down anyway, worried he was leading the team into an ambush.
One of the men pointed behind him, shouting something in Tajik. Angelo’s grasp of the language was pretty good, but the man was speaking way too fast for him to make out what he was saying. Then he figured it out.
He opened his mouth to ask where the “monster” was, but the man was already halfway down the road. Angelo picked up the pace only to skid to a stop in front of a mud-covered shack a few moments later. He knew he was in the right place because there was a guy who looked like he’d been sliced up by Freddy Krueger on the ground in front of it.
Angelo got a sinking feeling in his gut. He’d seen damage like this before.
He jumped over the dead guy and was through the door before he even thought about what he was doing—thinking only slowed you down in situations like this.
Angelo raised his M4, ready to pop the first threatening thing he saw. If he was right about what had attacked those men, it would take multiple shots to kill the thing.
But what he found stopped him in his tracks. Derek and Lieutenant Watson skidded to a stop right behind him.
There wasn’t a square foot of wall space in the one-room shack that wasn’t splattered with blood, and in the middle of it stood a pretty, dark-haired woman, gazing down at two dead men at her feet. Her shirt was on the floor beside them, one of her bra straps was torn, and her skirt was ripped. Her feet were bare and covered in dirt, and her long hair hung down around her face, almost to her waist.
Angelo felt a rage build inside him like nothing he’d ever felt before, and he was torn between staying where he was and going after the rest of the men who’d tried to rape her and killing them, too.
He glanced at her hands, hoping to find a knife there and praying he was wrong about what she was. But she didn’t have any weapons—unless you counted the wickedly sharp claws on each slender finger. And given the amount of blood in the room, those hands certainly qualified as weapons.
As if just realizing he was there, the woman lifted her head and looked at him with glowing red eyes. She growled, baring her teeth and exposing some seriously long canines.
How the hell had a hybrid turned up in Tajikistan? More importantly, what the hell was he going to do with her?
“What the fuck is that thing?” the lieutenant asked hoarsely even as he raised his carbine and sighted in on the woman’s chest.
The woman growled again, louder this time, and crouched down on all fours, like she was getting ready to pounce on them.
Shit. Things were about to get ugly.
But instead of leaping at them, her eyes darted around, like she was looking for a way past them. Unfortunately, they were blocking her access to the door and windows, and she knew it. For some reason he couldn’t explain, Angelo suddenly didn’t see a hybrid monster like those he’d fought in Washington State and down in Costa Rica. He saw a woman who was scared as hell.
“Derek, get everyone outside and away from the building,” Angelo ordered softly, never taking his eyes off the woman. “We’re freaking her out.”
“Freaking her out.” Watson snorted. “Are you kidding me? She’s the one freaking me out.”
“Outside, LT,” Angelo ordered again, more firmly this time. “Trust me on this one.”
He knew the lieutenant wanted answers, but he didn’t have time to give him any. Behind him, Derek was herding the officer toward the door.
“LT, remember when we told you that you’d be seeing some weird shit in the field that they never mentioned in training?” Derek asked. “Well, that weird shit just started. But trust Angelo. He knows what he’s doing. He’s dealt with these things before.”
Their voices faded as they moved outside.
The woman’s eyes followed Derek and Watson until they disappeared from sight; then they slid to Angelo. He slowly lowered his weapon, carefully set it on the floor, and raised his hands, speaking softly in Tajik.
“It’s okay. You’re safe now. No one is going to hurt you.”
The red glow in her eyes flickered, then began to fade. Angelo released the breath he’d been holding. Maybe he’d be able to get out of this situation without killing her. He couldn’t explain why that mattered to him all of a sudden. She was a hybrid and clearly dangerous. Some might consider killing her to be a mercy—and the only sure way to keep her from hurting anyone ever again.
From what he’d seen, the woman had had a pretty good reason to attack those men. But more importantly, Angelo knew for a fact that not every hybrid was beyond reach. Tanner Howland from the DCO was one of those. The former Army Ranger had learned how to control the rage that defined his kind, and if he could do it, maybe she could, too. At the moment, she certainly seemed to be trying.
Angelo kept up his calm chatter, reassuring the woman that she was safe, and soon enough, her eyes turned to a normal, beautiful brown. There was still anger there, but there was also confusion, maybe even hope.
Raised voices echoed outside, drowning out Angelo’s soft words. The villagers had worked up their courage and come looking for blood. The woman’s head snapped in that direction, and like a switch being flipped, the veil of calmness that had descended over the female hybrid disappeared.
She tensed, anger warring with what looked like frustration mixed with honest-to-goodness fear on her face. As those emotions ricocheted, her eyes changed from red to green to brown over and over, in a dizzying display like nothing he’d ever seen before.
But then, just as it seemed like she might have a chance, the internal struggle was over, and the hybrid leaped at him.
Every instinct in Angelo’s body screamed at him to lunge for his weapon, or at the very least to pull out his knife. But he ignored his instincts and instead set his feet for impact, blocking her slashing claws with his forearm, then ducking down and tackling her. It wasn’t the nicest way to treat a woman, but considering the fact that she was trying to kill him, he decided she’d just have to forgive him.
He twisted at the last second, letting his shoulder take the impact. He’d planned to immediately roll his weight onto her, hoping to keep her from getting away by pinning her to the floor like a wrestler, but the hybrid didn’t give him a chance. She spun in his grasp, trying to break his hold on her. He wrapped his arms around her, doing his best to trap her clawed hands safely against her breasts as he pulled her back down. She twisted in his arms again, trying to sink her teeth into his shoulder. He hugged her tightly to his chest, whispering over and over that it would be okay, that she was safe, that no one would hurt her.
When she buried her face in his neck, he just about freaked, sure she was going to tear out his throat. He resisted the urge to shove her away and go for his gun, instead continuing to talk to her. Unbelievably, she didn’t bite him. She kept struggling to free herself, though. But after a few moments, she went still, all her fight gone.
Angelo glanced down at her. Her cheek was resting against his chest, her eyes closed, and her fingers curled into the front of his uniform. He wasn’t sure if she was asleep or had simply passed out from exhaustion. Either way, her breathing was rhythmic and even. The sight of her made his heart ache. This close, he was finally able to see past all the dirt and blood. While he’d thought she was pretty when he’d first seen her, now he realized she was absolutely beautiful—and that she looked vulnerable as hell.
“Damn, Tex-Mex,” Derek said from the doorway. “You’re good with the ladies when you want to be.”
Angelo didn’t laugh. “Get on the satellite phone and call Landon. If you can’t get him, try Ivy or Clayne. Tell them where we are and that we’ve stumbled on a hybrid. We need a priority airlift to get her out of here. And whatever you do, don’t let LT get on the line to the battalion.”