Treading the Labyrinth

Rae Morgan

Chapter 1

A labyrinth or maze was often used in ancient times to prepare a shaman for his journey to other worlds.

In the mountains near Bear Hollow, Tennessee

The August full moon cast an eerie glow over the densely wooded slopes around Igor Petrov’s Smokey Mountain retreat. He inhaled the scents of pine, wild flowers, and mountain grasses on the cool night breeze. An owl hooted somewhere in the deep woods, followed closely by the dying screech of the bird’s prey. Two wolves serenaded one another from the next valley. A wildcat growled from deeper within the forest, something having disturbed his hunt.

The summer night called to Gor—and everything wild in him couldn’t help but respond. He sprang from the porch, shifting in mid-air to his wolfhound animé, then hit the ground, running. He had no destination. No goals. Nothing other than to enjoy the solitude and the wild beauty of the mountainous area surrounding his refuge. He howled his appreciation of the night and his freedom to relish it to the silvery orb lighting his way.

An answering howl floated on the night air. It wasn’t one of the wolves, but sounded like a dog, probably a wild one since there were no humans to own a domesticated pet this far from town.

Gor howled again. The answering howl came from the direction of Bear Hollow. Gor switched direction and headed that way. If the dog was wild, it could be rabid. The best thing would be to put the animal out of its misery before it found its way to civilization and bit a child or someone’s much loved pet.

Tearing through the trees, Gor forged his own path, leaping fallen limbs, climbing over rock falls, and jumping small streams. Finally, he paused at the edge of a ridge to catch his breath. Inhaling deeply, he scented a human. He took a deeper breath, this time almost tasting the aroma. It was ripe, luscious—and female. She was close by—and alone.

Another cry from the wild creature floated on the breeze. It was a challenge, a warning to stay away from his chosen prey. Deep in his gut, Gor knew the woman was the wild dog’s chosen victim. He had to protect her.

He tore down the promontory, leaping from rock to rock, until he found himself on flat land in a large mountain meadow. He ran through the tall grasses and wild flowers, following the woman’s scent, praying to the gods that he would beat the wild dog to her location. He only ceased his mad dash when he reached a densely thick hedgerow. It was a cultivated boxwood hedge and so totally out of place in this wild area that he blinked to make sure he wasn’t imagining its presence.

A deep tasting of the air confirmed that the female was somewhere on the other side of the neatly trimmed hedge. Gor followed the enclosure until he came to an opening. He entered and realized the shrubbery formed a maze. As he chose a path, a chilling cry rent the night air. The other dog was getting closer. Gor had to hurry. The woman was in mortal danger.

The rapid thrumming of Gor’s heart punctuated his race to find the path to the center. He followed first one, then another of the white-graveled paths until he noticed an emerging pattern. Some of the stone paths glowed solidly white under the bright moonlight. Others had veins of dark stone running down the center. The paths glowing only white led to dead-ends; the paths with the dark vein running through them must lead to the center. The maze’s puzzle solved, Gor quickly found his way to the labyrinth’s core.

There, amongst a garden of pale, fragrant night-blooming flowers, was the woman. Alone and safe—for now. Gor silently padded his way toward her as she knelt motionlessly on the ground, in some sort of meditation.

Gor’s gaze swept her body from the top of her head to the ground, lingering on spots in between. She was perfection itself. Her skin had an unearthly luminescence. Her dark, flowing hair glistened like a raven’s wing under the silver light of the full moon. A sheer dress covered, no, caressed her petite body so closely that he could trace every curve with his eyes.

A gentle summer breeze from the west teased her clothing, pressing it more fully against her gentle curves. Her breasts, though small, were full, and her nipples budded from the cooling night air. His loins tightened and his heart beat faster. She was a sensual angel of the night, an earthly Siren. And for the first time since he’d lost Brenna Lindsay to Ty Buchanan, he lusted after a woman.

Tearing his eyes from the vision his night angel made, he scanned the surrounding area. No sign of the wild dog, yet, but Gor knew he was out there. It was close enough that he could smell the creature’s foulness.

Turning his regard back to his night angel, he noted she was so deeply into a trance that his presence did not impact upon any of her senses. He moved closer so that he could protect her from the attack to come. Next to her, incense burned in an ornamental holder. A ceremonial cauldron sat nearby. Long-buried remnants of a class on shamanic rituals taught by Betsy, Keir Bettencourt’s wife, tickled his consciousness. He looked for and found a small woven basket with a lid in his angel’s hand. A soul catcher. That last bit of information informed him that she was on a trip to the Underworld to retrieve a lost soul part. He briefly touched her mind. He found her on the path to the Underworld—with no guide. His night angel was either suicidal—or desperate.

Curious as to the need for her perilous journey, Gor projected his astral body into the Underworld to join his intrepid little angel so that he might guard her there as well as in the real world.

She stood on a rapidly deteriorating path to the Underworld. Around her was the most repellent forest he’d ever seen in an astral journey. Her further passage was blocked by a thick, acrid fog—and the undefined presence of something that Gor could only name as evil.

The sound of running feet and labored breathing alerted him that something approached. From the shadowy darkness of the trees, glowing red eyes crept ever closer to his angel’s position.

Not waiting for whatever lurked in the foul woods to reach the path, Gor leapt in front of his little shaman, growled a warning at the evil creature that had threatened her, then pulled her into the light.

Her eyes flew open, and she gasped at the abruptness of leaving her shamanic state of consciousness for the ordinary. A tiny hand flew to her mouth in an age-old gesture of shock.

Gor regretted startling her, but danger tracked her on both planes of existence. He’d neither the time nor the inclination to observe the niceties of social or shamanic ritual. Silently still, his angel was extremely pale and obviously disoriented from her rough re-entry into the real world. Her wide-eyed gaze studied him, but he wasn’t sure she saw him. Seconds passed and still she said nothing.

Gor couldn’t afford the time needed for her recuperation from the hasty exit from the Otherworld. He needed to be closer to her in order to protect her from the very real danger in this world. The sounds of the approaching wild dog grew louder. The creature was close—too close.

Gor approached her cautiously. Afraid that if he moved too suddenly, she would vanish like smoke on the night wind. When he was less than a foot away, he stretched his front paws out before him in a low bow, an unthreatening posture of obeisance.

This close, he noted that she was even smaller than he’d first observed. Even on four legs he stood almost nose-to-nose with her as she knelt on the ground. He estimated her height at just over five feet. She was as tiny as a sprite and appeared so ethereal that he wasn’t even sure she was real.

“What a handsome fellow,” she finally said.

Her voice belied her airy appearance and evoked images of cool satin sheets and hot, sweaty sex. His earthly angel could seduce a saint with her voice—and the gods knew, he was no celibate monk.

Small, gentle fingers combed through the fur around his neck, obviously searching for a collar. Her simple touch set his libido aflame and burned all the way to his soul. Her innocent heat found the remnants of the icy shadows of pain from Brenna’s loss. He swore he could hear the vaporous hiss as the phantom pain dissipated into nothingness.

“No collar,” she whispered huskily. “Who would let a finely bred hound like you out without some form of identification? And how did you pull me from the Underworld? Or, did I imagine you there?” She shook her head. Her beautiful eyes narrowed in thought.

All the while she spoke, she stroked him with unexpectedly strong, massaging fingers. He shuddered with repressed ecstasy. Couldn’t she feel what she did to him?

The urge to shift to human form and take her on the quilt upon which she knelt was overwhelming, a primal urge to mark her as his territorial instincts beat ever-harder against his more civilized upbringing. Just as Gor was about to lose the battle with himself, several loud, snarling barks sounded close by, replacing the territorial imperative to claim a mate with the one to protect. The wild dog had finally found its way to the heart of the maze.

The large mixed-breed dog stood in an entrance behind his angel. Foam around the creature’s mouth and the wildness in its red eyes confirmed that it was rabid. It was also maddened with hunger—and pain. Its goal was Gor’s night angel whom the mad dog perceived as prey. The creature looked at Gor as an usurper.

The wild dog growled a challenge.

Gor answered with a warning and a challenge of his own as he moved to position himself between his angel and the wild dog.

“Oh blessed Goddess. The poor animal.” His angel stood up, facing the other dog. She placed her hand on Gor’s neck. “Come away with me. Slowly. He’s sick, poor dog.”

In calm tones, she urged him to back away from the rabid animal, but Gor knew that ploy wouldn’t work. The wild dog had both of them in his scent, and bloodlust blazed from the creature’s crazed eyes. It wouldn’t allow either of them to leave.

Gor dug in with all four paws and shook his shaggy head. Then he nudged her behind him, pushing her toward the other path leading out of the maze. He would stay behind to protect her retreat.

“I won’t leave you.” Her hand stroked his back; stubbornness etched her rigid posture.

Gor chuffed his exasperation. Without turning his back on the other animal and escorting her out of the maze—a stupid, not to mention suicidal, move—he could do nothing to make her leave. His only option was to stay between her and the other dog—and make a quick kill of the mad creature.

The wild dog attacked just as Gor moved once more to place his body in front of his recalcitrant angel. Gor sensed the animal’s movement a split second before the dog took to the air. He returned the challenge, meeting the other animal in mid-air, with teeth bared and claws out.

The wild dog fell to the ground, squealing with pain and frustration at being so easily thwarted. It backed off, limping slightly. It must have landed awkwardly on a forepaw. Gor took advantage of the other animal’s injury and attacked again as the other animal retreated to regroup. He nipped at the wild dog’s neck and nose, inflicting as much pain as he could so that the animal would turn tail and run. Gor could always hunt it down later in human form and put it permanently out of its misery.

Yet, the other dog wouldn’t give up. It turned on Gor, snarling and snapping—fighting for its life.

Gor managed to stay out of the range of the dog’s sharp teeth. As he backed up, watching and waiting for an opening to tear out the rabid dog’s throat, a large object whizzed past his body.

A rock hit the rabid dog on the head. It yelped with pain and fear. His petite angel had the arm of a major league pitcher. Another rock shot past him. Another direct hit—this time on the dog’s snout. Sorely injured, the dog limped out of the maze, whining and yelping all the way.

Gor heaved a doggy sigh, full of frustration at not eliminating the animal once and for all. He panted rapidly to cool down. His sharp gaze followed the dog’s retreat. His ears twitched, his body on alert for the possibility of the dog circling back for another try. He didn’t relax his stance until he could no longer detect the wounded dog’s cries, no longer smell the animal’s foul scent.

“Are you hurt, sweet boy?” Her hands deftly traced over his body, searching for wounds. “No blood, thank the Goddess. That dog was rabid. I was so afraid for you.” She knelt by his side and nuzzled the top of his head, hugging him to her trembling body. “You are such a brave dog. My hero.”

By the gods, her feminine courage both pleased—and alarmed—him. She’d obviously been scared, but had stayed to back him up, managing to lessen the threat to the both of them with two accurately thrown rocks. Yet, he would have been much happier had she not been there at all. He would have his hands full protecting such a foolishly brave angel.

Gor turned his head and licked the hand that stroked his neck and ears. Gods save him, she tasted sweet—honey and cream. He inhaled her unique womanly scent—a powdery mixture of musk, flowers, and vanilla with a hint of something exotic, something strong and sexy.

The danger gone, Gor turned his mind to learning more about his angel so that he would be better able to seek her out and woo her in his human form. As she petted and praised him, he reached with his psi abilities to learn more about her.

Her name was Selena Jones. And as he’d surmised, she was a healer, more specifically, a Celtic shaman. She belonged to no man, but was not untouched. Violence at the hands of a man had visited her in the recent past. The memories of this were buried behind a wall so strong that even he couldn’t penetrate it. She had ancestral ties to Bear Hollow, but had only recently moved here. She owned a small business in town. This would be where he could find her, enabling him to meet her casually.

As Gor skimmed her subconscious, it was as if a piece of a complicated puzzle had clicked into place, completing a picture of his life that he’d never suspected existed. Selena didn’t realize it yet, but she was his destiny and he, hers. The wheel of fate may have whisked away one woman, but it now gave back.

Gor silently offered thanks to the gods and Selena’s Goddess for leading him to this place, in this time, and allowing him to find the one woman who would truly make him whole.

He’d planned to return to Chicago, to his twin Boris, and to his job with Drake, Ltd, but now knew that wasn’t viable. He couldn’t leave without Selena.

The biggest roadblock for his plans to win her for his own was the latent fear of anything male that he’d glimpsed in Selena’s mind. Anger roiled in his gut at the thought of the man who had hurt his woman so much that she yet carried the mark of terror in her mind. But he could handle those fears and whatever else arose, because he wouldn’t allow anything—or anyone—to come between them.

Nuzzling her with his nose, he rubbed his head against her full breasts as she stroked his back then scratched his stomach.

Tomorrow, he would seek her out in his human form and begin his courtship. But until then, he would take advantage of her affection—and lack of fear—for his canine form. After all, all was fair in love and war.