Lost City Shifters Book One
“…rich with details of the Amazon jungle and the rituals of the shifter tribe. However, Stone turns what could be a light paranormal into a much deeper story when Gabriel forces Iada to confront the old-fashioned beliefs that are tearing her people apart.” – RT Book Reviews 4 stars
“…fast paced in its telling, quick to steam up the pages… I highly recommend.” – Night Owl Reviews 5 stars Top Pick
“This book is going on my favorites pile. It was an amazing story.” – Once Upon a Twilight
To the Yaguara, an ancient jaguar shape-shifting people living deep in the Amazon jungle, nothing matters more than strength. Iada is their champion; genetically pure, she has been trained since birth to fight. Her destiny is to become the next Queen of the Yaguara by winning the tournament of succession—a battle to the death.
Her opponent is Gabriel, a half-blooded outcast whose mother was human. To everyone’s shock, he defeats Iada but does not strike the death blow—instead, he extends mercy, thereby claiming her as his mate.
Despite their enmity, the attraction between them is powerful, and soon they are mates in more than name only. Their mutual distrust serves only to fuel their passion—two champions bested only by their overpowering desire for each other.
But Gabriel has an agenda that threatens the most basic tenets of Yaguara society—and that will force Iada to choose between her people or her King.
Iada flicked her long black hair from her face and deftly twisted it behind her head, securing it tightly with two ebony needles that could be used as weapons in a pinch. She would leave nothing to chance. Her opponent was large. In his human form, he outweighed her by at least seventy pounds, all in the form of sleek, firm muscle. Her first impression was of the wide expanse of golden skin across his chest, long black hair tied at the nape and unusual gray eyes.
“Name’s Gabriel Alvarez. His mother was human,” Mateus said as he slicked oil over her skin. That explained the eyes, Iada thought, but not his presence in the pit. Access to the city was generally restricted to those of pure blood, and judging by the vicious nature of the insults coming from the crowd, there were many who were outraged by the violation.
“He shouldn’t be here,” she muttered, watching as the stranger paced restlessly, moving as much to avoid becoming a target for the crowd as to keep his muscles loose. No one stood beside him. She felt a pang of pity. He was even more alone than she was.
Mateus wiped his hands on the damp rag hanging from his waist and straightened slowly, gesturing toward the wall that enclosed the pit. Light from the torches cast wild shadows over the carvings, stylized figures changing from man to jaguar to man again in a running sequence around the circle. In the flickering light they almost seemed to be moving. The glyphs below were nearly worn smooth but she knew what they said. They detailed the sacred law of their people, a law as simple, brutal and direct as the Yaguara themselves.
When the old king died, a tournament was to be held within the fortnight. Any Yaguara could enter. The fights were restricted to human form with the contenders challenging one another until there was only one left standing and the champion was named the new king. He controlled the city, the coffers and the warrior guard. His word was law for the duration of his reign.
Mateus pointed to a stone halfway around the circle and Iada named it. “Any Yaguara may compete.”
He nodded, clearly pleased that she recalled the old lessons. “The laws of the tournament say he can fight. Not even your uncles could stop him.” His black eyes glittered. “Though they did try.”
“Vin said that no one would accept a mutant as a true Yaguara.” And she’d believed him. After all, there was a cold black hole in the temple floor where only two centuries ago they were still sacrificing the children of mixed blood to the fires.
“Vin was wrong.” Mateus chuckled. “The mutant went before the interim council and recited all the arguments your uncles used to get you in as the first female. They had to concede or give you up.”
Iada smiled tightly at that. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had outmaneuvered Vin and Arturo. She rarely attempted it herself. They would be furious. She pushed aside the bone-deep weariness that came with the thought and scanned the crowd for her uncles, seeing no sign of them yet. They would time their entrance for the most dramatic effect, entering just before the thick golden doors swung closed to give the illusion that it was their presence that signaled the beginning of this final battle. As she turned her head, her eyes caught on the stranger again, paused in his pacing, facing down the crowd of full-blooded Yaguara with no sign of fear.
“How did he even make it so far?” she asked with a touch of bemusement.
Mateus’s gaze hardened and he tapped her lightly on the cheek, drawing her complete attention. “That one is nasty as Vin and ruthless as Arturo. Don’t underestimate him. He’s earned his right to be here.”
She glared at Mateus but he only stared at her in grim expectation until she dropped her eyes in respect. To Mateus she would always be a child in need of a guiding hand. But she owed him her respect. He’d taught her to fight. He’d taught her right from wrong and he’d taught her how to avoid becoming her uncles’ slave. His voice gentled and she could hear a thread of amusement in the deep, familiar tones. “No one expected him to make it past the first round but he kept winning and the fools kept challenging him.”
No one had dared to challenge her. She’d already fought them all a hundred times and beaten them all a hundred times in training. She wondered how many fights the mutant had won within the last two days to bring him here. A dozen? Maybe more. What she’d taken as a shadow along his right flank she could now see was a bruise. He’d broken at least one of his ribs. She noted it as a weakness before tearing her eyes away to refocus on Mateus. “You watched him fight?”
He snorted. “I should just let you find out for yourself. It would serve you right. Why weren’t you there?”
“Vin was afraid that someone might try to eliminate me at one of the public venues.”
Mateus swore softly under his breath. “They locked you in again.”
She didn’t answer because she didn’t have to. Mateus knew how things stood between her and her uncles. They’d provided for her since childhood, pampered her even. They could be severe, manipulative and controlling but they were still family. Besides, there was nothing that she could do about any of it until she won this match. She folded her arms over her chest and fixed her gaze across the pit. Mateus turned slightly and his shoulder bumped comfortingly against hers.
“You don’t want to end up a punching bag for him so take him down early if you can. He’s decent on the ground but you’re better. I don’t know what other advice I can give to you,” he said roughly. “You’re the finest warrior it has been my pleasure to train.” The smoke made her eyes sting and she blinked.
“I think he has a spy in the city.”
She turned her head sharply. “What makes you say that?”
“He kept Adrian on his feet and dropped Carlos within the first minute. He knew Daniel favored his left fist and lowered his guard for a split second after every jab. He was ready for each one of them and then he went in and hammered at their weakness until they broke.”
“He can’t be ready for me.” It wasn’t a boast. She wasn’t the best fighter or the strongest but she was virtually indestructible.
Most of their kind shifted fully or not at all. Once the change began, it swept through a person’s body in one long, irresistible wave of transformation. But not for Iada. It had taken her years of intense and often excruciating trial but she’d eventually mastered her unusual ability. She could isolate down to a single broken bone, shift only that specific area, mend the break and shift back in a matter of seconds. She could shift her hands to claws but remain in human form. She could manipulate muscle and sinew in a way that others could not hope to match, a clear advantage in this tournament of succession restricted to human form. The law didn’t account for her peculiar ability. It only forbade a full transformation. It was the whole of her value. Her uncles had groomed her from childhood to win this tournament and become their puppet queen.
A pebble was digging into her heel and she shifted her bare feet, watching her opponent. She’d never been permitted to leave the jungle and she’d never actually seen a mutant before. He was larger, everywhere, but otherwise he looked much the same as any of the other warriors. People called the children of mixed human blood abominations and she’d always imagined shriveled deformity when she bothered to imagine them at all. This abomination was flawless so far as she could tell—strong bones, thick muscles and sharp eyes. She was momentarily entranced by the play of torchlight across the long muscles in his back when he turned to yell out his defiance to the crowd. The corners of her mouth twitched into a smile of reluctant admiration. No, she wouldn’t call this man an abomination, and despite Mateus’s warning she’d never been in danger of underestimating her opponent. She knew how deceptive appearances could be.
He turned around as if he felt her eyes on him and shot her a bold smile, smug and openly appreciative. She was accustomed to the look and did not turn away. She crossed her arms over her chest and tipped her chin up. Let him look if it gave him a moment’s pleasure. He had so very few moments left to him now. She was small. Ethereal, they called her. Fragile. Her early instructors had lamented these flaws until she learned to use them as weapons. If he looked at her and saw an easy kill, all the better.
“Soon,” Mateus said. The sky had lightened and she could see the expressions on the faces of the people watching from above, sharp and hungry. She could feel their tense anticipation and smell the rich scent of their bloodlust. The law of succession didn’t demand that she kill her opponent, but this was the final match and they would expect it.
The doors closed with a bone-stunning clap, Mateus left her side to vault over the short wall into the audience and Iada uncrossed her arms, shaking them loose as her opponent stalked across the pit. She stood her ground and watched him come, taking in the easy grace of his movement, the promise of strength in those thickly corded muscles.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” the man said, his arms still open in that mockery of an embrace.
Iada smiled with amusement but also felt a twinge of pity. No one had ever said anything like that to her before. It was oddly touching, really. She waited, following him with her eyes as he circled her slowly.
“It’s the way of things.” She shrugged. “Neither of us has a choice now. The pit’s been sealed.”
He shifted his weight and she sidestepped the swift, darting kick he aimed at her knee. He moved with a supple grace that was unusual for a man of his bulk and she cocked her head to admire the slide of muscle along his thighbone as he tensed to attack again. This time when he missed, she landed a blow to his back, near the kidney. A flicker of surprise. A flinch of pain. It always began thus. He would be more cautious the next time but it wouldn’t make a difference.
“You can fight,” he murmured, and she repressed the shiver of pleasure at the way his voice warmed with approval.
She could see the way his eyes focused and dilated as he reassessed her as a threat. She could hear the kick in his pulse. She loved the thrill of that, when her opponent first recognized their danger. “What did you expect?”
“Silveira trickery. A poisoned dart.” His eyes lifted to her coiled hair and his lips thinned. “A hidden weapon.”
The ebony hairpins had been a gift from Arturo. She’d never intended to use them. Not unless she had to. No point in trying to explain that to this man. It would take less time to simply kill him. She feinted left and he let her, swiveling at the last minute to grab her knee and jerk her leg out from under her. She shifted the muscle beneath his fingers and slipped free when he lost his grip.
Usually this was when they panicked but it wasn’t fear she saw on the mutant’s face. It looked more like regret. “It is true, then,” he said, shaking his head. “Ah, beauty, I do hate to have to kill…”
She leapt nimbly into the air and cracked her foot against the side of his head before he finished the sentence. “Don’t worry, you won’t have the chance.”
She was coldly methodical, ruthless as she had been trained. He was good—smart, unpredictable and so very strong. But she was better. No matter how strong he was, he couldn’t pin her down for long. No matter how hard he struck, she healed before the next pass. It hurt. It always hurt and it was tiring, but she had the edge and she could tell by the look on his face that he knew it too.
A shallow scratch above his eye was bleeding profusely, blood streaming into the socket and partially blinding him. He came in low and she hit him again in that exact spot. The spray of blood caught her in the eye and she blinked. Just that instinctive reaction but it was enough of a hesitation for him to take her down. She found his wrist even as she was falling, jacked her body to swing her legs around and rolled as she landed. She locked his arm in a submission hold, using her body as leverage, and she had him. In that golden moment, the crowd hushed and their eyes locked.
While she was grinning into those resigned gray eyes, somehow he managed to slip out. It was the blood, she thought, making him slippery as a fish. She felt him twist and slide behind her, one arm curled under her shoulder, his other arm reaching for her neck. She would need to shift. Just there. Just enough to dislodge his grip.
His thick body pressed her to the ground from behind. She tilted her hips and gathered her concentration to shift and he thrust against her, just a subtle tensing of his hips that pressed the hard ridge of his cock against her ass. Startled, she froze, and his arm snaked around her neck, solid and unyielding. He took the heel of his other hand and rammed it in hard against the base of her skull. She was dead. It was her one weakness—the spot high on her neck that most submission holds missed. She couldn’t shift there without triggering a full transformation, the delicate network of nerves and blood confounded her.
“Yield and I will allow you to live,” he growled.
“…to the death.” was all she could get out.
Her voice was barely audible, thready and hoarse. Her last breath, she thought numbly. The roar of blood in her ears was louder than the crowd. His grip was too tight. Entwined as they were, if she shifted now it would kill them both. While her uncles might prefer that outcome, it wouldn’t be right.
“There’s precedent,” he said. “Quilla and Capac.”
He spoke of fables and fairy tales, a legend of their people older than the Temple or the law. She surged violently to the left, twisting her head. He dug his knee deeper into her spine, keeping her head pinned to the ground while he slowly choked her with his other arm around her neck. He flexed his biceps and her vision went black at the edges.
“Yield and I will make you my queen. Speak now or die.”
She signaled her submission and he released her. Dropping her forehead to the dust, Iada let the roar of the crowd’s disapproval roll over her as they called for her blood. What had she done?