Prologue

I-go-hi-da U-nv-da-tlv-i (Eternity Mountain)

Mid 20th Century

Dizzy and bleeding from the bullet wound in his side, Marcus decided the time had come to make a stand. He’d hoped to take shelter in one of the caves on the mountain but he knew he couldn’t make it that far; this thicket of spruce trees would have to do. He dragged his weary body beneath the drooping branches of the largest one. It wouldn’t provide much cover and the trail of blood he left on the snow-covered ground would lead the hunters straight to him, but that couldn’t be helped. If the vision he had continued to hold true, something even he couldn’t foretell, his brothers would show up before the hunters got to him and finished off the job they started earlier–killing him.

He couldn’t die in the strictest sense of the word, but his life force could dim, leaving him as good as dead. He had to have faith that the vision would continue to play out as he’d seen it and if it didn’t, that there’d be enough of his blood left for Jonathan to perform the re-embodiment ceremony. With only a few drops of blood, his brother could perform a miracle of sorts and bring Marc back to life.

As he sent out yet another telepathic call for help, hoping one of his brothers would pick up on it, he edged back until he bumped against the trunk of the tree then he sank down to await his fate. At least he’d drawn the hunters away from the mother cougar and her two cubs. They were safe for this night and hopefully would stay safe for years to come. The uncertain fate of his clan worried him and dictated his actions during these troubling times. Most people thought cougars had died out in the mountains of North Carolina long ago, but Marc managed to keep a few of them safe here on Eternity. He couldn’t fail them now.

Driven by a gust of cold wind, the branches shifted, showering him with snow before settling around him like a cold, wet blanket and he considered the possibility of shifting himself. What would the hunters do if they found a gut-shot, naked man instead of a wounded cougar? Surely they wouldn’t shoot him again, but if he shifted it would probably up his chances of dying–if the blood-loss didn’t get him, the cold would.

Rejecting the idea, he closed his eyes and opened them again a fraction of a second later when the ground beneath him trembled. He froze as the world changed and the vision skewed off course with a speed that left him dizzy and disoriented. Thunder rumbled through the sky and the wind changed direction, blowing from the south now, becoming warmer with each gust. The fresh scent of late spring on Eternity Mountain, a unique perfume he’d gotten to know intimately over the past years, hung in the air and the darkness around him brightened with late afternoon sunlight as if he’d somehow flipped into an alternate universe.

He shook his head. That couldn’t be–could it? No, surely the mottled sunlight peeking through the branches could be attributed to the blood loss. And the warmth to the onset of hypothermia. Hadn’t he once read that victims of extreme cold often felt warm before they passed out?

But where had the snow gone?

His heart raced when the impossible new world he found himself in offered up a new surprise, this one even more unbelievable than the disappearing snow.

A woman appeared out of nowhere as if he had conjured her out of thin air and desperation. She knelt beside him, studying his side, then sat back on her heels and took her shirt off, revealing a white sleeveless top underneath. Folding the pink fabric into a thick square, she pressed it against the wound. As she worked, she sang a song in a soft voice. He didn’t recognize the tune, had never heard it in all his years of life.

Her clothes, stylish but worn bell-bottom blue jeans and the white tank top, hugged a body that curved lusciously in all the right places. Her hair, a warm, tawny blonde, the color of the cougar kittens he’d just risked his life to save, fell down her back in a thick braid. When she leaned forward, it fell over her shoulder, brushing against his forearm, and he realized he’d shifted. He now lay on the ground before her as a man.

His nakedness didn’t seem to bother her–or interest her–she kept her attention focused on his wound as she continued to sing. The song sounded familiar now, but he didn’t know if that was because she kept singing the same verse over and over or if he had actually heard it somewhere before.

She lifted the shirt, turned it to a clean side then pressed it against his side again with the same gentle pressure. When he groaned, she stopped singing and turned her storm-gray eyes on him.

“Who…” His voice sounded strange, older, deeper, though barely audible even to him.

She shook her head, cupped his cheek in her hand then ran her thumb over his lips.

“I-tsu-la,” she whispered as she bent to brush her mouth over his. He jolted at the familiar taste and the warmth that seemed to spread throughout his entire body just from that simple touch of her lips to his.

When she lifted her head, he could see the concern shadowing her eyes.

Did she know his fate?

She caressed his cheek then stood up and spoke the curse the Shamans had issued against him and his brothers all those years ago.

The familiar words lulled him to sleep and stayed with him as he died…

As time goes by from sun to moon
An endless ever-changing rune
We must defend our way of life,
Protect the tribe, prevent all strife.

Your destiny will come to pass
A penance spun with threads of glass
These many years you will endure
This lonely spell without a cure

For countless years on anguish feast
Your form a mindless, savage beast
Until a hostile, dreadful force
Brings duty as your only course

The death of many in our tribe
A growing menace, spreading wide
A journey you can not prevent
Heart-broken, tearful souls relent

Your function then comes to the fore;
Care for your clan forevermore
When time is right, you find your mate
And fight to free your truest fate

Then deepest love will call to you
Go forth and meet it with its due
These final words ring ever clear
Who finds it first must hold it dear

For each must find the value true
Alone, with no well-meaning clue
If ‘tis not so, the turn reverse
No hope of mercy from this curse