Weekly Serial Lion’s Pride Chapter Three

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Chapter Three

My nice, long run should have tired me out. Instead, meeting Piter had just keyed me up. At first, I just stayed awake, excited to have met a shifter, maybe even a friend, who wouldn’t awkwardly treat me like a princess. Unless he was from Glenhela, I wasn’t his princess anyway. And there was a very slim chance he was actually from Glenhela. There were only a handful of wolves in the kingdom.

Somewhere along that train of thought was when I realized that Caernen was the closest wolf kingdom. The odds were good, too good, that Piter was from Caernen.

After that, I just stared into the darkness, up at the ceiling above my bunk. I couldn’t decide if making a friend from Caernen would be good or bad. It could be quite positive. Becoming friends with Piter could give me a look into Caernen that I couldn’t get from Danica, or even my brother. Piter would be a source outside of the palace. Heck, he could even talk to Danica and my brother and help them understand what the people of Caernen were thinking.

Or it would be terrible. If I announced my brother’s wedding to the future Queen of Caernen and people opposed to it found out I had gone to school with someone from that city. Would they think it was a conspiracy? What if Piter himself was against the wedding?

It was just all one massive headache. So much for escaping to school…

I felt like I was up the entire night, head spinning. I was almost dreading our next romp.

***~***

“You look tired,” Amanda said to me, while we waited in line for breakfast.

“Couldn’t sleep.”

“That sucks.”

I nodded in agreement. After our plates were loaded up, we joined Olga and Janice at what had become our “usual” table. Partway through breakfast, a couple of male humans and a female came over.

“Mind if we join you?” one male with blond hair asked.

“Of course!” said Janice. “This is Devon,” she pointed to the blond. “And Alan and Edith. They’re in my English class. Guys, this is my roommate, Olga, and our friends Amanda and Lani.”

Devon sat down next to me and smiled.

“What are you studying?” he asked me.

“Undeclared,” I said. “I’ll figure something out eventually.”

“Laid-back, I like it! I’m doing Computer Science.”

“Sounds tough.” Shifters kept it simple. We had access to the same technology, but had kept our lives much less advanced than humans. I liked it that way.

Devon nodded. “Worth it though, I think.”

The two of us talked for the rest of the meal. He seemed like a fun human. The university had an Ultimate Frisbee club that Devon had joined. They met every Thursday and he convinced me to give it a try.

When breakfast was over, all seven of us walked across campus together, gradually splitting off for our classes. As chance would have it, Devon and I had class in the same building.

“Three hour class?” he asked me. When I nodded he said, “Me too. Wanna get lunch after?”’

“Sure.”

I assumed he meant at the dining hall, but when we met up after class, he started walking the other direction.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“There’s a little shopping center up here, right off campus,” he said. “They have a good pizza place.” Devon stopped walking and turned to me nervously. “If you… like pizza.”

I laughed. “Yeah.”

“Great then, okay.” He kept walking and I hurried to catch up to him.

It was the first time I had left campus since the semester started. Although the shopping center was literally right next door. We crossed a street that led into campus from the main road and boom, we were there in the parking lot. The restaurant was a small, family-owned pizza parlor. Cozy, in fact. The walls were painted with scenes from Italy, mostly obscured by university memorabilia. It looked like the place had been open nearly as long as the university had existed. They had tons of black and white photographs from old college events and things like old jerseys and pennants. They even had a retired crew boat hanging from the ceiling.

Lunch was served by an extremely friendly woman who insisted we call her Mama. She asked our names and I had a feeling that she’d remember them if we came back. When the check came, Devon snatched it and paid for both meals.

“You don’t have to pay for me!” I cried.

“I invited you,” he said with a smile.

Had I just… wasn’t that what people did on dates? Had I just gone on my first ever date? And with a human at that! Could I ask if this was a date? Would that be weird?

“Fine,” I said instead. “I’ll just owe you.”

His smile turned shy. “You can pay next time… if you want to do this again.”

A second date? If that’s what this was. Well, why not? “That’d be great.”

Devon’s shoulders visibly slumped with relief. It was a date! “Awesome.”

We walked back to campus in comfortable silence. Was I crazy to go on a second date with a human? I half expected a kiss when we split up for our classes, but it didn’t happen. I couldn’t decide if I was disappointed or not. It would be my first kiss, after all. Did I really want to share that with a human? Did it matter that much? Maybe first kisses weren’t all they were cracked up to be.

I was still feeling a little torn when dinner time rolled around. Devon wasn’t in the dining hall, which didn’t help my indecision whatsoever. As I ate, I glanced around. It had become habit to look for the guy who had been staring at me the first night. I hadn’t seen him since. At first, I looked for him because he made me nervous. I wanted to catch him staring again. But, as time went on, I felt more like I was keeping an eye out just to be sure I hadn’t imagined him. Where was he? One paranoia-fueled possibility was that he was deliberately staying out of sight. I hoped not.

No sign of him. Now, I was free to start thinking about my upcoming run with Piter. Great. One more thing to worry about; a wolf who might have been from Caernen. Less than a month and I had a potentially imaginary stalker, a human who might want to date me, and a shifter who could be from the worst kingdom he could possibly be from.

“Only me,” I muttered.

When I got back to my room, I called my brother.

I opened with, “I need advice.”

“Okay.”

“So, there are three guys.”

“Good lord, Lani. You’re skipping the love triangle and going straight for the square?”

“Larkin,” I groaned. “Not like that… not all of them.”

“Then, like what?”

“Well… one I only saw once.”

“Um… okay?”

“He was staring at me. Like, creepy staring.”

I could hear concern in my brother’s voice. “You think he recognized you?”

“I don’t know. But I haven’t seen him since. It was only one time. I just… I dunno, I can’t forget it.”

“Keep your eyes open, I guess. Don’t let Mom’s paranoia rub off on you though.”

“Yeah,” I laughed.

“Next?”

“He’s human and… I think we went on a date today.”

“Whoa!”

“Is that a bad idea?”

“Why? It’s not like you’re going to marry the guy.”

“Well, no.”

“So? Date. Have fun. Isn’t that what college is all about?”

I flopped back onto my bed and smiled. Talking things over with my brother always made me feel better. Sometimes I just needed a second opinion. I hoped that wouldn’t change when we got older. Once I was Queen, I’d need him more than ever.

“You really are helpful, Larkin.”

“I know.” We both laughed. “Sooo?” he finally drawled.

“He’s a shifter.”

“Ouch. Does Mom know there’s another shifter there?”

“No.”

“Where’s he from?”

“I didn’t ask! I know better.”

“What is he?”

I sighed. “He’s a wolf.”

“Oh…”

“Yeah.”

“How far from you is Doreva?” Another wolf kingdom.

“Further than Caernen.”

“What do you guys… do?”

“So far we just shifted and went running. Doing it again tonight.”

“Remember what I said about a love triangle…”

“No! He is not on the table. He’s just another shifter.”

“What if he wants more?”

“I’m the Princess of Glenhela.  I can’t get involved with him, especially if he’s from Caernen.”

“He doesn’t know that.” Larkin hesitated. “Uh… does he?”

“No!”

“Well, then that’s what your human boyfriend is for. Now you have an excuse to not date the wolf.”

“I don’t know if I want a human boyfriend either.”

“Sucks to be you.”

“Brat.”

“Jerk-face.”

“Punk!”

“Butthole… don’t tell him you’re from Glenhela, Lani.”

“I won’t.”

“And I know it’s hard, but don’t do anything stupid.”

“Aww, it’s almost like you care, Larkin.”

“Almost.”

My door opened and Amanda came in with Olga.

“Gotta go. Love you.”

“Yeah, you too.”

I hung up and smiled at them. “Hey.”

“Who was that?” Amanda chirped.

“My brother.”

“Ahh, I thought it was Devon.”

“What?!”

“I saw how he was looking at you during breakfast,” she teased. “You guys would be a cute couple.”

I laughed nervously. She and Olga exchanged a knowing look. I considered just skipping running. How had things gotten so complicated so quickly?

~~~*~~~

In the end, I decided that I needed the exercise. I met Piter back on the stairway.

We talked, briefly, as we walked toward the woods. Just about our classes and how we were enjoying school. Nothing about where we were from. In fact, we could have been humans for all we talked about being shifters. And then, we ran. No words at all. Sometimes we kept pace, other times we spread apart. Wolves were marathon runners, lions were sprinters. When it was over, we walked back to the dorm together.

I felt relieved. This was the level of relationship I could safely maintain. Maybe even a bit more friendly. I hoped that Piter felt the same way. With any luck he didn’t want to get too close to a lion.

“I don’t think we should risk this three days in a row,” he said when we reached the stairway.

“I agree.”

“Tuesday, again?”

“Perfect,” I said in relief. Nothing as humans. Keep it shifter-business. I liked it.

“Night then.”

“Goodnight.”

I lay awake again, tumbling it all around in my head. Maybe I was overcomplicating things. I didn’t know the guy was staring at me. And, even if he was, what were the odds that it was because he knew my identity?

And Piter… I’d deal. I came to college to get away from the worries about the future. Who cared, really, if he was Caernen? One lone college friend wouldn’t affect the fallout from the marriage one way or the other. If we even stayed friends. Maybe he’d transfer after this semester. Maybe our schedules wouldn’t line up. Maybe another wolf shifter would show up and they’d become best buddies and forget all about me.

As for Devon… who cared? It was just as uncertain as Piter. And what was the harm of having a human boyfriend?

Feeling much better, I snuggled under my covers and fell asleep.

~~~*~~~

Breakfast was just me and Olga, until Janice’s classmate Edith joined us.

“You cool if I sit here?” she asked.

“Of course,” said Olga. “So, where are you from?”

“The northwest,” said Edith. “Little podunk town that nobody has ever heard of. This is the big city for me.”

We laughed.

“Some big city,” said Olga, who I knew was from Boston. “You’re likely to get eaten by a coyote here.”

I bit back a snicker. Or a lion.

“Come to my town, you’ll get eaten by a bear,” Edith said.

“Bears?” Olga cried. “Not like in town?”

“Yeah, they go through the garbage and stuff. See ‘em all the time.”

“Jeez!”

Edith grinned. “So, either of you have a homecoming date yet?”

Olga snorted. “No way. Dances aren’t my scene. I’ll be at the football game though!”

I was excited for homecoming. Not so much the dance, but the entire package of celebration and school pride.

“Not yet,” I said.

“Going to the dance?” Olga asked, wrinkling her nose.

I shrugged. “No reason not to.”

“Except for the dance part,” she said dryly.

Olga’s reaction didn’t seem to dim Edith’s enthusiasm. “It’s going to be fun! Just gotta get my guy to ask me…”

“Ask him,” I suggested.

“He doesn’t even know I exist,” she sighed.

“You have two weeks,” Olga told her.

Edith nodded. “I do. I’ll just bide my time and wait for the right moment.”

We finished eating and headed off to our classes. My stomach was a nervous knot by the end of class. Lunch, English, and then Ultimate Frisbee… I counted down in my head.

~~~*~~~

Ultimate Frisbee, as it turned out, was nothing to be nervous about. In fact, it was a blast! Devon showed me the basics before the game started and then we weren’t even on the same team. I was a little stronger and faster than the average human, but none of that was an advantage in the unfamiliar game. I thought that, at first, I’d have to act more normal. By the end of the game I was using my supernatural skills just to keep up! Some of the humans made the most incredible catches. Devon, in particular, was quite agile.

Tired, but giddy, I accepted Devon’s invitation to dinner after the game ended. We ate a quick bite in the dining hall, much later than I usually had dinner. We were heading toward the doors when they opened and Piter walked in.

“Oh, Lani,” he said, looking surprised.

“Hey.”

And then he walked in. The guy who had been staring at me. His eyes widened. If he didn’t know who I was, he sure looked stunned to see me. He stopped in his tracks, then his shocked expression cooled into a neutral one.

For a moment, none of us spoke.

“Who’s your friend?” Devon finally asked. Did I hear a hint of jealousy in his voice?

“Sorry, this is Piter,” I said. “And this is Devon.”

They shook hands and I was glad to see that Piter didn’t display any tell-tale signs of possessiveness. My brother’s love triangle joke seemed like just that. What a relief.

“This is my roommate, Jory,” Piter said. “This is uh…” He cleared his throat. “Lani.”

Jory looked at me with piercing dark blue eyes. They flicked to Devon, narrowed, and then burned back into me.

Undeterred by Jory’s reaction, or perhaps unaware, Devon stuck out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Same,” said Jory flatly. He pushed between us and stalked off into the dining hall.

Piter smiled awkwardly and hurried after him.

“Great guy,” Devon said.

“Piter is,” I said, compelled to defend another shifter. “His roommate… not so much.”

“Is he now?” Devon asked. “How uh… how great?”

He was jealous!

“Well, I mean. A friend.”

“Just a friend?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey, you wanna…” Devon sighed and trailed off.

“Yeah?”

“Gotohomecomingwithme?”

“What?”

Devon laughed nervously. “Homecoming. Do you want to go with me? To the dance?”

~~~~

I hope you liked Chapter Three!

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Weekly Serial Lion’s Pride Chapter Two

If you missed it, head back to Chapter One!

I hope you enjoyed the previous chapter! Thanks for coming back for more!

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Chapter Two

Amanda, my roommate, kept up a steady stream of chatter as we walked to the dining hall together. It was refreshing to be with something who wasn’t a family member actually talking to me. Most people I met either weren’t sure how to talk to their princess or wanted to woo me into giving them stuff. But Amanda just wanted to be friends. She was genuinely nice to me. I admit, I sort of tuned out as we walked, just basking in how different and how great college was going to be.

“Right, Lani?” she said.

“I… uh… sorry, what?”

Undaunted, Amanda gestured to the forest that our path had brought us closer to. “I said, it’s creepy, right? All dark and spooky.”

Dark was the only part I thought she had right. The only word I would have associated with the forest less than “creepy” was “spooky”. “I guess?”

She shuddered. “I don’t know why the path comes so close to it. I wonder if there’s a better route to the dining hall. That or we’re just going to have to get dinner before the sun goes down from now on!” She pulled out her cell phone and opened her flashlight app, in spite of the sporadic streetlights along the way.

“You’re that freaked out?” I asked.

“Aren’t you? Who knows what’s in there! I heard there are coyotes around here.”

“If we’re attacked by a coyote, I’ll protect you,” I promised, trying not to laugh. Being afraid of an animal was absolutely baffling to me.

Amanda grinned and thanked me, with no idea that I was being completely serious. We shifters liked to keep our existence a secret, but the odd human now and again figured things out. I certainly wasn’t going to let a coyote drag my roommate away when I was more than capable of saving her. I knew it was there, but I semi-consciously felt for the claw under my shirt, like I often did when I thought of shifting. I was pretty sure even the biggest coyote around wouldn’t stand a chance against a lioness.

She picked up her pace and I followed. The path was nearly deserted, which pleased me. I was planning on running wild in the forest when I got the chance. My only concern had been getting out of sight of the students. If all humans were as paranoid about being near the trees at night as Amanda was, it would be easy for me to slip on and off campus.

We made it to the dining hall without any coyote sightings and lined up for dinner. I rarely got to choose what I ate. The cooks stuck to their own menu, amending it now and then to suit my parents’ fancy. The buffet style dining hall was like heaven. In spite of wanting to fit in with the humans, I loaded up my plate with a little bit of everything. Luckily, it looked like everyone else wanted to sample the food too, so I wasn’t the only one with a full spread.

Amanda and I sat down at the end of a long table and were soon joined by a couple more girls. We went around with introductions. Crown Princess Lelania Galonllew of Glenhela was a mouthful that I was happy to shed in favor of Lani Grant. Short and sweet.

Halfway through dinner I got the eerie feeling that someone was staring at me. I looked around, hoping to catch them in the act, but couldn’t see anyone who looked like they might have been watching me. Nobody still staring, no heads rapidly turning away.

Probably guards.

Then again… I cast another glance around. Unless my mother had sent a second pair, there was no way they would already have arrived. Not to mention I didn’t recognize anybody. Surely the guards would at least look familiar. And only students could eat in the dining hall. As worried as she was, I couldn’t imagine that my mother would have gone to the effort of posing a guard as a student just to keep an eye on me.

The feeling kept nagging at me as I ate. I finished quickly. I didn’t like feeling nervous. Maybe my mother’s concern about assassins or kidnappers or whatever was rubbing off on me. As soon as I was finished I grabbed my tray and headed for the nearest trashcan. There was a line of people, scraping off their trays. I joined it, practically bouncing in place, eager to escape.

And then, I saw him.

The tall window next to me was reflecting the dining hall as clearly as a mirror. And there, a few tables away, was a boy. He was staring intently in my direction, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed. If he was a guard, my mother had found one I had never seen in my life.

His eyes moved to my reflection and somehow seemed to meet mine. His shoulders stiffened and he jerked his head back down to look at his plate.

A throat cleared behind me. The trashcan was free and I was just standing there like a spaz. I muttered an apology and quickly slid the trash off my tray. I whirled back to face the boy, but his chair was empty. Shoot. I looked around and spotted him; at the far door, hurrying out of the dining hall.

If he was a shifter, he’d be long gone before I could get to him. Especially with the woods nearby. Not that I wanted to call attention to myself by running across the room either.

I swung by the table where Amanda was still eating.

“Something didn’t agree with me,” I lied, patting my stomach. “I’m going to head back to the dorm.”

“Alone?” Amanda asked in alarm.

Our new friend Olga stood. “I’m heading back, I can walk with you.” She turned back to Amanda and her own roommate, Janice. “If you two are cool alone.”

Janice nodded. “We’ll go back together.”

Good grief. Did all humans flock like this? I understood the benefit of safety in numbers. But shifters mainly formed packs to guard against the threat of rival alphas and other packs. Humans didn’t have the same feral desire to fight and dominate that we did.

Like Amanda, Olga seemed uncomfortable by the trees. If Amanda was so worried about coyotes, I wondered how she would feel knowing that soon a lion would be running around in there too.

~~*~~

Sadly, there wasn’t a lion in the woods “soon”. It was nearly three weeks before I felt comfortable enough to venture out. I wanted to make sure my roommate was a sound enough sleeper and to be certain that, no matter what night it was, the path into the woods was clear. I also wanted to make sure the moon was bright, until I got more comfortable in the strange woods.

It seemed like Tuesdays were the best day. Late nights on Thursdays and Fridays were usually full of people coming and going to parties. Forget about weekends. But early morning classes on Wednesday seemed common enough that campus was empty after dinner on Tuesday. I snuck in and out of the room, pretending to take late night showers, to test my roommate. Lucky for me, she was a sound sleeper.

School itself was great. I was still an undeclared major and taking my ‘gen-ed’ classes. My favorite was an art class, where I could just get my hands dirty sculpting. The rest weren’t so different from my lessons at home, except for the group setting. History, though, was fascinating. I knew so little about human history.

The staring incident had also kept me inside longer. Without outright asking, since I didn’t want to worry her, I had managed to figure out that my mother had not sent more guards. Whoever that guy was, he wasn’t a royal guard. Thankfully, I hadn’t seen him again. I was hoping he was just a weirdo. Maybe he thought I was really pretty or had a bad dye-job or something.

I slipped quietly out of bed, already wearing my “running” clothes. My roommate didn’t stir as I tip-toed out of the room and eased the door shut. Home free. I practically skipped down the hall, giddy with the thought of finally shifting.

I jogged down the stairs and nearly crashed into the door that led to the third floor as it swung open in front of me.

“Sorry!” a guy gasped.

You have got to me kidding me. I almost never saw people on the stairs. Why now?!

He stood there, looking at me like he had been caught doing something wrong. I was sure I had the same expression. Relax, I told myself. He would never, ever suspect that I was sneaking out of the dorm to turn into a lion and go gallivanting around in the woods. I wasn’t even sneaking, really. There was no curfew, we weren’t forced to stay in the building all night.

The boy slipped past me and went up a couple of stairs, toward the girls’ floor. He was wearing only a t-shirt and boxers. “Don’t tell the RA,” he said with a wink.

He had just unknowingly given me a great excuse. I caught the door to the boys’ floor before it shut and matched his sly grin. “Only if you won’t.”

We both laughed and he jogged up the stairs. I waited a moment, then hurried on my way. There was nobody else around and I made it outside without another incident. The windows from the rooms looked right down onto the path, so I did a few token stretches, just in case anybody was watching. They’d think I was a bit weird going for a midnight run, but with luck wouldn’t read into it further. Then, I broke into a brisk jog down the path. As soon as an empty building was between me and the dorm, I veered off the path and into the woods.

The nearly full moon made it just bright enough for my weak human eyes to see where I was going. After I felt like I was far enough away from the path, I stopped. For a moment I just took deep breaths, inhaling the crisp air and getting back in touch with nature. It wasn’t necessary for shifting, but I liked to get in the mood. I could hear a couple of owls and a whip-poor-will calling in the distance.

At last, I pulled out my claw and clutched it in my fist. I closed my eyes and focused on the image of a lioness. Shifting wasn’t painful, but it wasn’t exactly painless either. Since it had been so long since my last change, I felt especially stiff. My body ached as my bones and muscles stretched and rearranged. The small patch of fur over my heart itched more and more, until it suddenly rippled and began to spread out over my skin. I felt a weird tugging sensation as any clothing the fur touched was pulled taut and absorbed into it. It was almost painful as my tail sprouted and my spine elongated.

Done. I was shifted. I shook myself off and stretched. Then I took a deep breath, opened my mouth and… crap. I couldn’t roar, not this close to campus. I let out the breath as a growly-sigh and shook again instead. I set off slowly, getting my feel for the forest floor and enjoying the crunch of leaves under my paws.

Being a lion always felt… right. Even though I spent most of my time in human form, there was something indescribably perfect about shifting into my animal body. I didn’t mind being human. In fact, I enjoyed. But there was a sense of contentment, inner peace, that I felt when I was a lion. I knew that my family felt the same way, and assumed that most shifters did.

I picked up my pace into a brisk trot, then a lope. I jumped a fallen tree and broke into a flat-out run. Lions were made for sprinting, not distance running, so I didn’t go far. I eased back into an easy jog and alternated between that and sprints for a while.

As I explored, I wondered if any shifters did spend more time as animals than humans. There was no reason not to. I could, if I wanted to. It just wasn’t convenient. Our home, heck our entire kingdom was built to accommodate our human bodies. It had plenty of room to shift, but our buildings were all human friendly. We had human sized doorways, and chairs, and beds, and everything had to be manipulated with fingers, not paws. Where there any shifters out there who did the opposite?

I was so busy imagining what my room would look like if it were designed for a lioness instead of a girl, that I almost didn’t notice the deer. I spotted her at the last possible second and froze. The doe was drinking out of a small stream. She jerked her head up, wide eyed, and lifted her tail in alarm. I held perfectly still until she bent to drink again. Slowly, slowly, I lowered myself into a crouch.

Should I?

I certainly could. It would be easy. I measured the distance. A quick step-step-step-step-step-step- step-step-step-step-pounce! A single bound would take me over the stream and onto the deer. If she ran, it would be easy to turn my momentum into a second strike and catch her.

But should I? We followed three rules for hunting.

Pick your prey carefully. We weren’t animals. An animal would kill whatever prey was easy. Young, slow, injured. If it was time to hunt, an animal would take what it got. This deer was young, probably her first winter. She looked healthy and strong. Killing her would impact the population. A hungry lion would strike, a shifter wouldn’t.

Only kill what you’ll finish. I wasn’t that hungry. A rabbit would do, if I saw one. Not a whole deer.

Never kill for sport. We weren’t animals, but we weren’t humans either. Humans took trophies. Shifters took only for food. Even if I wanted to break that rule, I’d leave evidence behind. I didn’t want to chance on a human finding it and thinking the kill was suspicious. The last thing I needed was humans swarming the woods looking for some big predator.

The doe was safe tonight.

Even as I made up my mind, she flicked her tail in alarm again. This time, she bounded away into the woods. The bushes on the other side of the stream moved and a huge coyote stalked out.

No, not a coyote. It was a wolf! It saw me and froze. I wasn’t afraid, I could take a wolf. Then again, I had only ever done basic self-defense sparring. I had never actually fought another predator. I hoped a wolf would have the sense to not mess with me.

Unless…

“Good evening,” I said. A real wolf wouldn’t understand me. But a shifter…

The wolf looked surprised, then its tongue lolled out in amusement. “I was wondering if mountain lions range this far.” Its voice was distinctly male.

“I’m not a mountain lion.” I was slightly insulted by being compared to a small cougar.

“I see that now.”

“You go to school here?” I asked.

The wolf nodded. “You?”

I nodded too. Meeting another shifter without your pack was often a delicate process. It was something I was taught to handle, but had never experienced. Everyone I met in Glenhela knew I was the princess. And I often met them while sitting next to my mother’s throne.

The first rule of thumb was that we wouldn’t ask where the other was from. Shifters stuck together. While feuds between packs were rare now, it was better for us to be allies, not enemies. Finding out we were from packs that weren’t on great terms would only lead to problems. There were still a few roaming Alphas and wild packs out there. They’d force you to join if they could. I doubted any were nearby, but this wolf and I could protect each other from them.

Luckily, even if this wolf was an Alpha, we wouldn’t be compelled to fight since I was underage. Then again, he was probably younger than twenty-four as well.

Our next step was to shift. As the stronger shifter, I was supposed to go first. Sort of a trust-submission thing. I slowly began to change. If he attacked or didn’t shift soon, I’d quickly return to my lion form. After he realized what I was doing, he started too.

Once we were both human, we laughed at each other. It was incredibly dark, but I could see just well enough to recognize him. It was the boy from the stairway.

“I thought you were going up to the fourth floor,” I teased.

“I thought you were coming down to mine.” He smiled at me. “I’m Piter.”

“Lani.”

“I’m jumping over,” he warned, gesturing to the creek. I backed up to give him some space.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, as we shook hands.

“Likewise. I thought I was the only shifter at the school.”

“So, you don’t know any others?”

“No. No, just me. I’m the only shifter. Do you know more?”

“Nope. As far as I know, we’re the only ones.”

“Good,” he said. “That’s good that… you know, we met.”

I laughed at his sudden awkwardness. “Yeah.” A cool breeze made me shiver. My light clothes weren’t meant for standing around in the cool night air. It had gotten colder since I had left the dorm. In fact, it was probably getting quite late. “I should get back soon. Before my roommate wakes up.”

“Yeah, that’d be tough worrying about your roommate finding out.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Yes, of course. I meant it is tough.” Piter rolled his shoulders and started shifting. “We should get back, you’re right.”

He stood patiently while I shifted and soon we were trotting through the woods together. It was obviously a much better environment for a wolf. He set a brisk pace that I found almost challenging to keep up with, as he wove through gaps between trees and bushes, and ducked under things I had to jump.

But it was still nice to be with another shifter. Even though we didn’t talk as we went, the companionship was there. All too soon we reached the path and changed back. We continued in silence, back to the dorm.

“Well, goodnight then, Lani,” he said as we stopped on the stairwell where we had unofficially met.

“Goodnight, Piter. Guess I’ll see you around campus.”

“Yeah. And if not, same time tomorrow night?”

“That’d be great.”

I grinned and jogged up the stairs to my floor, pleased to have made friends with a shifter.

~~~~

Chapter Three

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Weekly Serial Lion’s Pride Chapter One

Welcome to the first chapter of my weekly serial novel! For news and the latest chapters, head over to The Weekly Serial Page.

I hope you enjoy!

Disclaimer: This has not been edited and may contain typos. Formatting may be off after being pasted into my blog. The final version which I am compiling into a book may have slight alterations.

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Lion’s Pride

Chapter One

There.

All done.

I stood back to admire my half of the dorm room. My drawers were full, my bunk was made, and my desk was organized.

“Home sweet home,” I said.

The sun was just starting to set. My first sunset away from home. Leaning my elbows against the windowsill, I watched as the campus started to turn pink. Carrying my things up to the fourth floor had been a pain, but at least it gave me a decent view. My bedroom back home was much higher up. A hill stretched out away from the dorm, sloping down gently into a parking lot. Beyond the parking lot was a forest and beyond that, just barely visible, the mountains. And on the other side of the mountains lay my home; the city I had rarely left.

I lowered my gaze to watch a lone human hiking from his car up to the dorm. The parking lot had been buzzing with cars, students, and parents earlier today, but aside from him, it was just full of parked cars and growing shadows.

Wait no, he wasn’t the only person there.

There were two men, loitering under a lamppost.

I practically shoved my nose against the glass, straining for a good look at them.

They weren’t loitering. Oh no. They were watching.

They were watching me.

I pulled out my cell phone and punched in my mother’s number. No answer. I tried the land-line. Same thing. My little brother was glued to his phone, so I tried him.

“Hey, sis!”

“Where’s mom?”

“Gee, not even a hello for-”

Where is mom?” I growled.

“Hang on.”

Larkin yelled for our mother, without bothering to cover his phone. I pulled mine away from my ear with a wince and replaced it in time to hear a shuffling and a muffled “It’s Lani, she sounds pissed.”

“Honey?” came my mother’s voice.

“You promised!” I snarled.

“I’m sorry?”

“You promised. No guards.”

“I know. I didn’t send any.”

I glared out the window at the parking lot. “Then why are there two royal guards standing in front of my dorm?”

A pause. “You must be mista-”

“One of them is Shea.” I leaned closer to the window, trying to make out the faces. “And I’m pretty sure the other is Robinson.”

My mother sighed. “I didn’t think you’d recognize them…”

“I’ve only been stuck in the palace my entire life. I know every guard. Send them away.”

“They aren’t bothering anyone, Leilania.”

“They’re bothering me.” I took a deep breath, bracing myself for the same argument once again. “I just want a chance to experience a normal life for a little while before I ascend. I’m pretty sure queens don’t take time off from ruling to go to college. I want to see the world and pretend for a few years that I’m nothing special. Just an average girl. No palaces, no crowns, and no royal guards.”

“But you aren’t an average girl,” my mother said. “You’re the crown princess of Glenhela. What if somebody recognizes you?”

I knew, honestly, that she wasn’t wrong. And it made arguing that much harder. It probably wasn’t the best idea for the future queen to leave the safety of the palace, not to mention the barrier, and go running around with humans without any guards. But, it was my only chance. I could count the number of times I’d been allowed to go beyond the barrier around the city on one hand. I needed to get away for a while and college seemed like the perfect chance.

Besides, it wasn’t that dangerous. I could handle any human threats on my own. I hooked a finger on the chain around my neck and pulled it up out of my shirt until the ancient lion claw hanging from it slipped free from the fabric. The chain glinted in the fading sunlight and the claw twisted slowly in the air. I looked up at my reflection in the window.

I don’t recognize myself, Mom.” Not with my hair chemically straightened and dyed so brown it was almost black. I tucked the claw back into my shirt, fingers brushing against the tiny patch of fur over my heart. It was the same golden-blonde my hair should have been and the only outward sign I wasn’t human. “And so what if somebody does? No Glenhelian would want to hurt me.”

It was true. I doubted there were very many shifters outside of our kingdom that even knew what I looked like. And since everyone in Glenhela had sworn submission to my parents, hurting me would never cross their minds.

“You’re an Alpha.”

“I’m an underage Alpha, Mom. Nobody is going to even know.”

“What about someone who opposes the marriage?”

“The secret marriage?”

She snarled into the phone in irritation. “You know that not everyone on the Omega Council agrees with it. And the ones who are opposed are the ones who are most likely to talk about it!”

“I’m not the one getting married, Mom,” I reminded her.  “Plus, they don’t know what I look like either.”

“But what if someone from Caernen –” she started.

“Assassinates the future sister-in-law of their princess?” I cut in. “Because of a wedding in six years they don’t know about yet?”

“What if they want your claw?”

I lifted my claw out again and clutched it in my palm. The ancient tip was still sharp enough I could feel it pressing painfully against my skin. It was one of only nine surviving lion claws from the first King of Glenhela; one of the original members of the first Omega Council. Any shifter with one of these nine claws could control the magical stone that protected our kingdom. Any shifter, that is, who was also an Alpha Lion.

“Again, Mom, any lion who knows what I look like is probably from Glenhela. They’re not going to come after my claw in some crazy attempt to overthrow our family. Plus, you’d know the moment they cross the barrier with it. And any lion from a different kingdom would probably try to take a claw from their royal family. Not ours. And I’m not of age yet. Taking my claw is pointless while someone else is ruling the kingdom.” Before she could say more I added, “We’ve had this argument again and again, Mom. I dyed my hair like we agreed, I went to the school you chose, and I’ll call you every night at nine.”

“Eight?”

Nine.”

She sighed and I knew I had won. Of course, I had already won several times before. I wouldn’t be at the school if I hadn’t. “You know I just worry. With the stones failing…”

“Look at it this way, if the stones fail while I’m away at school, I’ll be the safest member of the family.”

She laughed weakly. “I love you, Leilania. I miss you already.”

“Same here, Mom. I love you too.”

I hung up and slipped the phone into my pocket. As I watched, Shea pulled out his cell phone and answered it. A moment later, he said something to Robinson. They both looked up toward my dorm room. Shea grinned and tilted his head, just slightly, into a bow. I had been exaggerating, I didn’t know every palace guard. But, I did know Shea. He was one of the younger ones who – respectfully – treated me more like a friend than his future queen. I smiled and waved, unsure of whether or not they could actually see me. The pair turned and walked away. I watched until they got into a car and pulled out of the parking lot.

Much better.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my mother sent replacements. As long as I didn’t know they were there, I supposed it wouldn’t bother me as much.

As much as I hated to admit it, she was probably right. Coming here was reckless and just a bit stupid. I was needlessly putting myself in danger. It would probably have been easier if I just opened up and told my mother the truth about why I wanted to get away so badly. I hadn’t. I wouldn’t. It was still complicated, even to me. I was a mess of emotions and – one reason I did want to go to school – I needed a big change to get my mind off of things and reset myself.

On my twenty-fourth birthday I would gain the ability to control the golden stone that shielded Glenhela from danger. At the same time, the magic that bound the loyalty of the people of Glenhela to my parents would divide between the three of us. Shifters, particularly Alphas, needed a ruling Alpha to keep the peace. When the bond divided, it would weaken and could lead to fighting, rioting, even attempts to overthrow our family. The only solution would be to perform a submission ceremony that would transfer full loyalty and power to me. It had always been a bit daunting, knowing the exact, inevitable day I would ascend the throne. But now…

The magical golden stones that protected every shifter kingdom were failing. Nobody knew where they had come from. Dragons made them, they say. Assuming dragons ever really existed. It didn’t matter. The stones were failing and no one knew how to fix them or make new ones.

Some claimed their stones had visible cracks. Others said the golden glow was fading. Still more ruling families said they had even noticed a weakening in the barrier; weather was getting fouler, humans were straying closer, it was even getting harder to sense all of the shifters within the barrier.

The stones did more than just protect us. They allowed the Alpha who controlled them to dominate other Alphas. Thanks to the stones, we could live in huge, peaceful packs filled with Alphas. Everyone was afraid that if the stones grew too weak, that power would fade. We’d be left with a pack full of rival, feuding Alphas and everything – the kingdom itself – would fall apart.

Would they continue to fail gradually? Or would each stone just suddenly crack one day and lead to a sudden, massive civil war within each kingdom?

The state of our stones was a carefully guarded secret among the royal families, certain trusted court members, and the Omega Council.

That alone made the prospect of becoming queen downright terrifying. How long would I rule before the stones failed? A day? A year? Ten? After my reign was over?

I wasn’t sure how to express it to my mother, she’d probably tell me not to worry, but that was part of why I wanted to go to college. My life had been planned out ahead of my from the moment I was born. Every detail, down to the minute, was laid out before me. Classes all day on reading, writing, history, and politics, and being a good queen, and everything in between. Everything except what to do when the barrier fell. I had learned how to rule a peaceful kingdom, protected by a powerful stone. Not how to cope when the stone failed and I was left with chaos. I thought, maybe, getting away would prepare me somehow. I could learn how to fend for myself and think outside of the box. Even learn what life outside of the barrier was like. And… maybe forget for a few years what waited for me in Glenhela.

Of course, it didn’t end there.

The Omega Council was going crazy trying to figure out how to save the stones. They had come up with desperate, last ditch hope: a wedding. I guess they were trying everything. Different types of shifters rarely married. It happened in smaller packs, usually those outside of the kingdoms. The stones only let us control Alphas of the same species. Our kingdom was nearly all lions. There were scattered Betas of other species, but if any of them gave birth to an Alpha, that child would be forced to leave before they turned twenty-four.

So, a wedding between kingdoms was absolutely unheard of. And that was exactly what the council was hoping. They chose at random from neighboring kingdoms with eligible heirs. The lucky winners were Glenhela and Caernen. Since Caernen’s only royal heir was a girl, they picked my brother for her mate.

A lion and a she-wolf. It made me laugh just thinking about it.

Princess Danica would become Queen of Caernen, with my brother by her side. And then I would be forbidden from having children. When I died the loyalty of my pack would pass to my brother or his children. And, assuming the stones lasted that long, there would be a child who would be able to control one of the stones and both kingdoms. In theory anyway. I guess the Omega Council was hoping that suddenly doubling the size of a pack would give the stones some sort of power boost.

The wedding was the other reason I wanted to go to college. Was I running away? Maybe, sort of. Even though it was six years off, not a day went by when someone didn’t bring it up. Always followed by sympathy for my brother. Poor Larkin. What a burden. How scary. How brave. What a challenge.

It wasn’t that I didn’t agree. I did feel bad for my brother. It was a burden and a challenge, not to mention daunting. All those things and more. But, it seemed like people forgot that it would be my burden too. I’d be the queen of a potentially doomed kingdom. Danica and I would do more co-ruling and collaborating than she and Larkin would. We’d have to figure out how to guide our kingdoms toward a union, while my brother was more like a figurehead.

And oh yeah, no children for me. I didn’t want them yet, but the option would have been nice.

Nobody, ever, stopped and told me I was brave or expressed sympathy about my upcoming challenges. Poor Larkin, bravely marrying a she-wolf from Caernen to unite the kingdoms. What about poor Lani having to figure out how to get close enough to another Alpha to decide how to move the kingdoms forward? How scary for Larkin to go live in Caernen. Never how scary for Lani to take control of a kingdom with a failing stone and announce to the masses that she was going to ally with Caernen by marrying off her brother. Let’s teach Larkin everything we know about Caernen, but never even glance at Lani and ask if she wants to know too.

I was scared, forgotten, and nobody seemed to realize it. I supposed I could have said something. But, everything people said to Larkin was true. I had always been the optimistic one. Larkin was always my shadow. He was younger, shyer, and scared too. He needed the attention and the confidence. I felt like I could get by without it. It sucked. It was hard. But, I felt like Larkin needed it more than I did.

Going to school was letting me get away from that. If they weren’t going to be teaching me how to deal with Danica or the failing stones, then my tutors had nothing left to teach. Striking out alone was what I needed now. Both to grow and to get a chance to relax, for once.

When college was over, I was going to be months away from becoming Queen. It always seemed so far away, I always felt so ready. And now… it seemed like the closer the day came, the more unprepared I felt.

The doorknob rattled. My roommate – my human roommate – was unlocking it. I quickly tucked my claw back safely under my shirt and leaned casually against the windowsill.

~~~~

On to Chapter Two!

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