Bad Panther

Alien Guardians of Earth #1


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Sugar has a problem and Bad Panther has the purr-fect solution.

Dr. Sugar Jennings is an Archaeologist and an Ancient Earth Historian. She’s also the host of a very old, very ancient artifact of enormous power. Everyone wants Sugar dead because of it. They want the power she possesses, but she can’t let them get it. Desperation drives her to seek help but no one is willing to risk their own lives in the job of protecting hers. Or no one did until a mercenary Panther Shifter decided she might be worth the trouble. Now all she has to do is convince the ancient artifact she carries not to kill Axel for trying to help her.

Axel Rodu is a rogue Panther Shifter and heir to Lyran throne on Earth. His work for the agency is special contract only but even their toughest problems barely keep his boredom at bay. Has he earned the name Bad Panther? Depends on who you ask so long as you don’t ask his newest client. Ironically though, Axel has no intentions of using Dr. Sugar Jennings to worsen his reputation. He has one job to do concerning the archaeologist and one job only. By order of his queen, whatever it takes, he must make sure Dr. Jennings stays alive until the artifact is done with her.

CHAPTER 1

Somewhere in the wilds of North Dakota…

Dr. Sugar Lee Jennings was so far into the wilderness that even her GPS wasn’t registering her location. When she’d bought her expensive hiking watch, she’d paid extra for that feature and it was supposed to work everywhere. Well, screw that—and obviously her too because in the end finding the cave had been nothing but sheer luck and trusting her intuition.

Now that she was actually facing the cave’s not-breached-in-centuries entrance, Sugar decided it was a toss-up as to whether she found the place creepy or heard it beckoning her to come discover its secrets. The weirdness of such thoughts was enough to have her lecturing herself aloud.

“Sugar Lee, get a grip. You really didn’t have to come all the way out here in nowhere land to prove your dead daddy was right about your lack of common sense.”

Pulling up her mental panties, she walked into the cave and vowed to toss out all her Indiana Jones movies when this hair-brained adventure was over. Such movies had made her boring childhood more tolerable, and inspired her current career, but they’d also made her think hiking into the wilderness of North Dakota alone wasn’t a completely insane thing to do to prove a damn theory.

“This is not insane,” Sugar said to the dank walls. “This is my journey to fame and fortune. I am here to find it.”

Sugar didn’t know why no one before her had bothered to track down the Third Cave Of The Beringians. If she was right about the cave having been trapped in a glacier for ages—and Sugar was reasonably sure she was—her footsteps were the first to disturb the ancient dust on the cave floor in tens of thousands of years. Excitement over that fact didn’t make the cave any less creepy though, but it did give Sugar the motivation needed to press on.

She’d drawn the map to the cave herself from clues she’d found in about a hundred different books. One of Athena the Ancient’s blades was hidden here—she just knew it was. Her instincts were singing.

Not that she had managed to unearth any conclusive evidence. Tales of Athena’s existence read like Homer’s stories of the mythical Ulysses. Athena was a legendary metal-smith from Earth’s ancient pre-history who had allegedly merged organic matter with metallic substances to bestow some sort of sentience in the weapon.

Why had a technological genius focused on such a thing?

Honestly, Sugar had no idea. Only a computer geek living in his mother’s basement would find the whole “sentient blade” thing as fascinating as she did. There was no way to explain Athena the Ancient without the story sounding like science fiction instead of actual history.

Maybe she was crazy for coming alone, but she practically could hear the Smithsonian-worthy artifact calling to her inside her head. “Sugar,” it whispered. “Come find me.” She’d definitely come too far to back out.

Yes, she knew hearing the artifact speaking in her head was utter nonsense. Maybe her energy was dipping low after her four-mile-hike to get to the cave. Sugar stopped walking and wondered if she should eat the protein bar in her coat pocket before continuing.

She tucked her flashlight under her arm to free her hands which ended up tilting the beam down to the dirt floor. Her action made the top of cave darker… and that’s when she saw it. Up ahead, a soft light glowed in the cave’s stark blackness.

Was she having a hallucination?

There was always the possibility that she was sniffing some underground chemical seeping into the cave. Maybe she was getting high on chemical fumes… or ancient carbon dioxide.

A few more steps forward took her far enough into the interior to totally lose the light from the cave opening behind her. Squinting at something ahead in the dark, Sugar fought the sudden apprehension she felt and bravely turned off her flashlight.

Her heartbeat picked up speed when the cave ceiling glowed golden.

What else could be glowing in the cave? It had to be the artifact.

Flipping on her flashlight again, Sugar inched forward following the beam now.

Sugar.”

The artifact whispered her name… and then did it a second time.

Cold chills covered her arms even through all the layers of clothing she’d worn for her hike.

Standing next to her discovery now, Sugar could see the outline of a box. The cover was definitely emitting light of some sort.

She turned her flashlight off again and bent to carefully set it on the cave floor. She also slipped her heavy hiking pack off and did the same with it.

Sugar.”

This time her name vibrated in the air. Her imagination had suddenly developed a deep voice and had obviously gone native on her.

Absolutely nothing Sugar had studied for either of her degrees had covered any of this. A talking artifact who recognized her was way too strange for her to take seriously.

It had to be the result of bad air in the cave.

Next time she went artifact hunting, she was bringing an oxygen tank and a breathing mask.

“Ignore the voices. Keep to the plan,” Sugar ordered herself.

Channeling Indiana Jones and his fictional bravery once more, she inspected the resting place of the glowing box. For a brief moment, she wished she was back in the cheap motel she’d rented yesterday. Unfortunately, the motel was a four-hour hike out the forest and then an additional sixty-mile drive away from the location of the cave.

Leaving when she’d come so far didn’t make sense and her logical mind insisted that being afraid was totally ridiculous. After all, couldn’t she just retrieve her flashlight and hiking pack and leave if her concerns grew too large?

Who would know about her cowardice but her?

The answer to her internal debate ended up being a resounding ‘no’ to leaving for any reason because something in her stubborn, too-curious DNA wouldn’t let her.

This was the best chance she’d ever have to prove her theories. It might be her only chance.

And God, she loved being right.

Wouldn’t she enjoy all her peers knowing she’d found something to prove Earth’s pre-history was more advanced than most believe?

Sugar ran her fingers lightly over the glowing box and wiped away several inches of dust and dirt. Two glowing white handprints were on the lid. They were both outlined in tiny blue tubes filled with what appeared to be a circulating liquid of some sort.

“Are you someone’s practical joke or an honest-to-god ancient artifact?” Sugar asked the box. Her surprise at its modern appearance was precisely why ancient people ended up believing in gods.

Wanting the full experience of whatever secrets the box held for her, Sugar pressed her sweaty palms into the handprints. A warm heat stroked across them and made her chuckle. “Gee, that feels nice… and a bit strange. What in the world are you?”

Genetics validated. Host accepted.

The cryptic statement echoed loudly inside her brain… and also made her laugh.

It was like she was starring in her own science fiction movie. A grin spread across her lips.

Accepted? You accept me? That’s awfully polite of you.”

Sugar giggled about responding back as her hands slid off the handprints and ran possessively over the entire golden surface of her find.

“Well, I accept you too, pretty gold box, because you are going to make me a very rich and famous woman. But just to be clear here, we both know the whole talking-to-me thing is just a carbon dioxide hallucination I’m having.”

As she stared at it, the lid retracted—or disappeared altogether—Sugar couldn’t be sure which.

Before she could investigate the mechanism supporting such a surprising action, she glanced inside and noticed a long golden dagger glowing up at her from the bottom of the box.

Her fisted hands went into the air as Sugar excitedly hopped around in the dark.

Yes! Yes! Yes! I knew it! There really is a blade. It has to be one of Athena the Ancient’s blades. Give the woman her million dollar finder’s fee, people. Move over, Indiana Jones, Dr. Sugar Lee Jennings is a freaking archaeological  genius.”

Once she was in control of herself once more, Sugar was vastly relieved when the box didn’t respond to her happy dance over her discovery. The silence in her head hopefully meant her brains cells weren’t dying from poisoned air at a galactic rate after all.

Elation to see an actual blade resting in the box pushed her earlier fears aside. Sugar grinned as she lifted the golden blade from its home. Rather than looking like an actual weapon, the glowing golden dagger instead resembled a ritual athame. There were no edges on the blade sharp enough for cutting. But there was a strange vibration against her hand as the lights on it pulsed in the darkness.

Sugar brought the artifact closer to inspect it. In the light of its soft glow, she could see strange markings covered nearly every inch of the gleaming metal surface.

Was it truly gold? It certainly looked like it. But what if it was a new type of metal—an ancient alloy of some sort?

Rather than take time to retrieve her flashlight from the floor to get a better look, Sugar decided to return the blade to the box and head outside with her treasure.

“Lord, I can’t wait to carbon date you,” she told the gleaming object in her hand.

Still gripping the blade’s handle, she ran a free finger over what seemed to be a symbolic language etched in the surface. Her action must have triggered something because the light being emitted from the marks suddenly changed from a soft glowing gold to a pulsating, iridescent green.

What had to be a million tiny lights began to dance under the top layer of what looked like transparent gold to Sugar’s eyes. The artifact was an absolutely fascinating form of ancient metallurgy. This discovery would definitely count as an archaeological, career-making find.

“Physical evaluation completed. No impediments detected. Merge protocol activated.”

Great, Sugar thought, looking around her in the dark. She was back to hearing the talking in her head. Oxygen—she obviously needed oxygen.

When her palms started to sweat again, Sugar laughed at the strange statements.

Merge protocol? Where the hell had that craziness come from?

She’d just made the freaking archaeological find of a lifetime. She refused to be afraid of her own hallucinations.

Narrowing her eyes, she glared at the blade. “Listen here, artifact. Nobody merges with Sugar Jennings unless she damn well wants them to.”

As the significance of her words hit her, Sugar rolled her eyes in the dark.

“Oh, for goodness sake, I can’t even believe I’m actually talking to a… a thing. That’s definitely enough carbon monoxide sniffing for me. I have got to get out of here while I still have some brain cells left. Back you go into your pretty little box.”

Sugar was trying unsuccessfully to return the blade to its former resting place when strange utterances began rapidly coming from the blade itself.

She brought it close again. What the hell? Did it have a speaker in it? Was this thing some clever geek’s idea of a joke?

But wait… the voice in her head had been communicating in English. She sure wasn’t hearing English now.

She lifted the blade to her ear and listened as closely as she could. The artifact was definitely making sounds that seemed like language of some sort.

The words sounded like… what?  Sugar couldn’t decide.

The utterances were rhythmic, spaced equally apart, and…

“Holy shit. Are you doing some sort of a countdown?”

Sugar warily held the blade at arm’s length as survival panic hit her full force. Her instincts took over and excitement over her find fled. For all she knew, what she’d found could be some sort of homemade bomb.

She needed to get out of the cave. She needed to do it now.

Sugar tried once more to return the blade to the golden box—only the freaking thing no longer fit. Was the box shrinking? How could that be possible?

She was still pondering things when the blade suddenly ceased its uttering and switched to emitting a loud, steady hum that seemed to be increasing in resonance.

“Okay. I’m fucking done with this shit. Money and fame are not worth getting blown up,” Sugar yelled as she glared at the blade.

Before she could put the artifact down on the stones and make her escape, the damn thing exploded in her hand and sent out blinding white light in all directions. The impact of the explosion knocked her to her knees.

Sugar glanced around the dark cave but couldn’t see where the blade had gone. Her palm where it had been was on fire. She suspected a burn but there was no light now to check.

Then an excruciating pain in her chest made itself known and shut out all other thoughts and concerns.

“Merge initiated. Symbiosis now in progress.”

Unclear about what she heard, Sugar wanted to ask the voice in her head to repeat what it had said. Only a pain-filled gasp actually escaped her burning throat when she tried to talk.

She must have fallen after the explosion. Her entire body felt like she’d been punctured with hundreds of flaming needles. Everything hurt.

The darkness of the cave soon descended on Sugar’s mind, but as she went under she could have sworn she heard the blade speaking more of its strange language.

CHAPTER 2

Six hours later…

With her head throbbing from some sort of fall that had left her lying on the dirty cave floor in total darkness, Sugar fought to push her still aching body upright but didn’t get far. She groaned loudly with the struggle. Her hand swept out across the floor and luckily found the flashlight she’d brought with her.

Sugar flicked it on and spun the light around to see where she was. She found she was lying at the bottom of a large pile of carefully stacked stones.

Why in the hell hadn’t her freaking flashlight been on the whole time? Without it, she must have run into the stone cairn in the dark and knocked herself the hell out.

Sugar pushed the rest of the way to her knees and felt her aching body wobble with the effort. Her head felt like it was going to roll off her shoulders.

Then… wow… she put a hand to her forehead as she suddenly recalled a dream she’d had about finding the artifact.

There had been a glowing box with handprints. There had been a golden blade that talked to her in a language she hadn’t understood.

Feeling like a true idiot now for letting her imagination run wild, Sugar groaned in mortification as she knelt on the cold cave floor.

She really, really needed to get some fresh air into her lungs. There had to be carbon monoxide in the cave.

Poisoned air was the only way to explain her having such a vivid, colorful dream like that, especially when she’d obviously knocked herself out on the pile of rocks beside her.

Her disappointment over not finding any ancient artifact was keen, but the flashlight sweeping the cave walls confirmed her search was done. The cave ended abruptly just behind the tower of stacked stones.

Damn it all to hell.

There’d be no Indiana Jones glory for her today.

Sugar checked her watch to see how long she’d been unconscious, but it didn’t seem to be working correctly. The last time it showed was six hours ago. So much for buying a top of the line model. The watch must have broken from shock when she fell.

As Sugar stood on wobbly legs, she inspected the cairn and saw a clean spot on top. Had she touched it before she fell? She reached out her fingers to feel the smooth area. Her brain reached for a memory, but none came.

“Get some damn oxygen, Sugar,” she told herself sternly.

Head hurting, Sugar retrieved her hiking pack, pulled it onto her sore shoulders, and started the dirty trek back out of the cave. She walked head down while fighting hard not to feel super sorry for herself.

Coming into the cave, she’d been so sure that she was going to find something valuable—something that would make her career. Now? Well, now she’d be starting all over again. Failure hurt, but she’d survived that before.

At the cave entrance, Sugar stopped completely. Breathing fresh air, at last, was fantastic, but the sunlight did nothing to ease her pounding head.

Blinking several times to adjust to the brightness, Sugar suddenly felt her entire chest vibrating like it had turned into a giant cell phone.

There was pain too—pain she couldn’t identify. It went deep and radiated to all her bones.

Maybe she’d hit those rocks harder than she thought when she fell. She looked down at her clothes and was shocked to see her shirt was shredded in the front.

“Damn it, Sugar. What in the double-L hell happened to you in there?”

She spat the question as she searched her destroyed shirt for the source of the damage. Then she noticed a golden spear end pointing up to one shoulder. Touching it hurt, but the smooth vibrating metal beneath her exploring fingers told her it wasn’t any sort of tattoo.

She looked on the other side of her chest and found another metal spear-like point matching the first.

Peering down between her breasts, she saw there was one in the middle of her sternum as well, but it stopped midway between her generous cleavage that blocked the view of the rest of it.

It looked a bit like she’d fallen on Poseidon’s trident and accidentally pushed it into her chest. She couldn’t see it without a mirror but she felt some sort of metal band wrapped around her rib cage from front-to-back… and well… it was vibrating too.

Wanting to stop the pain any way she could, Sugar pulled her nearly destroyed shirt together and clenched it closed with her fist. Once all the trident was covered, the vibration immediately stopped, as did the incredible pain in her head. Whatever it was it didn’t like the light.

“What the ever-loving fuck happened in there?” Sugar demanded as a fresh panic of biblical proportions swept over her. She turned and glared behind her.

Holding her mangled shirt closed with one hand, Sugar ran all the way back to her rented vehicle, her anxiety growing with every footfall on the ground. It was only when she was driving back to her motel that she realized she’d just run the four-hour hike to the car in a little over thirty minutes without ever once getting tired or winded.

I’m officially changing careers. Screw having freaking adventures,” Sugar declared. A golden vibrating metal parasite was now taking up residence in her chest.

The science fiction stories she’d loved all her life had never come close to shit like this in reality. However, memories of every horror movie she’d ever watched were now playing non-stop in her mind.

She couldn’t recall anything about what had happened in the cave before she got knocked out, but for damn sure, she’d found something while in there.

Or something had found her.

Now what was it intending to do with her?

CHAPTER 3

In Axel of Rodu’s Catskill Mountain lair…

Like most felines he’d come across on the planet, Axel liked being where he wanted to be and only when he wanted to be there. After trying many places to live in his six hundred years of life, this private sanctuary hidden deep in a forest was the only location where he’d ever felt truly at peace with himself.

His current residence wasn’t his favorite jungle vacation spot or the desert lands his feline mother favored. The mountain base hideout he called home in the Catskill Mountains of New York was evergreen and blessedly free of most creatures he didn’t want to see.

“Max, fetch,” Axel demanded in a loud voice, throwing a limb he’d broken off of a nearby fallen tree.

When the wolf didn’t run as instructed, Axel looked down at the creature who huffed indignantly at his feet.

“We had a deal, Maxwell,” Axel said, pointing at where the stick had landed. “Do you want me to send you back to your pack and let them carry out your punishment? You know that staying here means you agree to be my pet for the duration.”

The unhappy wolf whined, hung his head, and stared at the ground. When his head lifted, the creature sent back a reply.

You may consider yourself a cat, Axel, but I do not consider myself a dog.

“The full moon arrives Thursday, Max. Fetch the stick for me like a good wolf, and perhaps I will allow you to shift to human then—for a few hours at least.”

The wolf’s head came up swiftly. Max took off running to where the stick had landed. Axel snorted as his reluctant detainee sent him a disgusted look before snatching up the piece of wood in his mouth.

Max started back toward him, glaring his wolf eyes, then suddenly dropped the stick and ran off with a whimper.

“Maxwell! We weren’t finished. Get back here with that stick,” Axel shouted.

“Axel, stop yelling at that poor creature you’re tormenting. Is that any way for a Lyran prince to act?”

Axel swung and stared at the ascended Lyran feline standing behind him. Great. How long had she been watching?

“Queen Nyomi,” he said, dropping to one knee and bowing his head. He knew he was in more trouble when she sighed loudly.

“Thirty hours of childbirth to bring you into this life and all I get from my son is normal deference? I get that from everyone. Stand up and hug me, Axel. Prove I chose your Earthling father well.”

Axel rose and started toward her only to be stopped by a raised hand and twitching ears. “Not in your purely human form while we’re talking business. I can only handle your father in that condition.”

“Right,” Axel said automatically, shifting his human skin until his face more closely resembled hers. Now they both looked like they belonged to the feline branch of the Lyran race they were descended from. At his mother’s approving nod, Axel moved forward and embraced the female who’d given birth to him. “I am glad to see you, Mother. It’s been nearly a year since you visited me.”

“Yes, it’s been too long,” Nyomi agreed solemnly, hugging her eldest child of Rodu tightly before pushing him away. “I’ve been swamped with royal duties while you’ve been amusing yourself here in your lair. I wish this was a purely social visit, but I came today because I have another little matter I need you to take care of for me.”

“Another little matter?” Axel repeated the request with a snort, releasing her arms to laugh. “Your little matters are never little, Mother. I almost got decapitated solving your little matter last time.”

“I admit I underestimated Lord Garmin’s viciousness, but I could not allow my favorite human to be killed while regenerating. Your father helped me bring a true Lyran prince to this often barbaric, ungrateful world. Of all the humans walking his planet, your father deserves as many lives as my people can give him.”

Axel inclined his head once. “I honor the human male who helped create me which is precisely why I ended Lord Garmin’s life.”

Nyomi purred in pleasure. “Yes, my son is the most feared creature on both our planets…” She stopped and made a face. “Or at least you were until recently.”

Axel lifted a brow. “That’s an extraordinarily strange comment even for you, my queen. You made sure no one was trained better than me. Who is deadlier?”

Nyomi looked off, her small ears twitching again. “No one intentionally but I think someone has found one of Athena the Ancient’s sentient blades.”

Sentient blades?” Axel repeated in surprise. “Most believe they are a myth, especially the sentient part. You’re talking about advanced artificial intelligence. My sister’s advances in that area exceed any Earth human’s or Lyran’s. Not even Gina of Rodu has found a way to make that work. ”

Nyomi shook her regal head. “The sentient blades are not a myth, Axel. I don’t know how well your teachers covered those artifacts in your Ancient Earth History classes, but the blades are weapons from a time on Earth before the feline Lyran Guardians came here to live. Lyran records show evidence of some very sophisticated weaponry being developed long before Earth’s current history began being recorded.”

Axel nodded that he heard. “As I recall, Athena’s blades were developed for warriors. Why would one of them want to join with a mere archaeologist?”

Nyomi’s mouth lifted on one corner. “It’s true that Lyran records say the blades were only sentient after they were joined with the highest and noblest of warriors. However, Earth legends of the blades are not so clear on the matter. Maybe Athena’s creation was desperate to be joined to a host after twenty thousand years of dormancy.”

Axel rubbed his chin. “Do you wish me to subdue the blade and send it back into hibernation?”

Nyomi stared at her son and fought not to be impatient with the child who was supposed to be grooming himself to replace her. “Would you willingly return to a lifeless existence of never having been born?”

Since he had no wish to offend his mother… or his queen, Axel shook his head. “No, I suppose not,” he said.

Nyomi walked a short distance and glanced out into the trees. “I’m guessing neither will the blade now that it’s awake again. It’s a very powerful artifact—I fear much more powerful than even you. This situation must be handled very carefully. Current Earth may be primitive, but there is much about its technological past that we do not yet know.”

Axel nodded once in acknowledgment though he had trouble imagining anything or anyone alive on the planet being more powerful than he was. He told himself it wasn’t arrogance to feel that way. He just hadn’t seen any evidence that pointed away from his conclusion about his worth as a warrior.

“What would you like me to do about it then?” Axel finally asked.

Because the matter was so serious, Nyomi turned to look in her son’s eyes as she answered. “The archaeologist who found the blade is still finding out what comes with living with such power. Every greedy group on the planet is hunting the blade’s new host—both human and paranormal factions. The blade must remain where it is until its champion has either bonded with it completely or died trying to.”

Axel winced internally. Death from finding an ancient artifact? That would certainly be a tough break for a nosy archaeologist, he decided as he listened to his queen.

“I’m guessing you want me to be the human’s bodyguard until the human and the blade part company.”

Nyomi laughed. “So you do understand—thank the ancestors. Yes, Axel, I want you to guard the blade. More than that though, I was hoping you would attempt to train its human host to be a warrior. The initial joining is done. All we can do now is try to make the human at least a little worthy of the entity she carries.”

She?” Axel repeated it as a question, his mouth forming an ironic smile. “In my studies, they said the sentient blades were created for males.”

“No—they said they were created for warriors.”

“Which were primarily male,” Axel insisted.

“Your studies were based on general information about a very advanced Earth culture that disappeared thousands of years ago. What few records we’ve found are not enough to assume any one thing is right one hundred percent of the time, especially about gender roles.”

“Agreed,” Axel said with a reluctant shrug. “So who do you think Athena the Ancient was then? Was she a warrior?”

“From my studies, I have come to believe that Athena was not from Earth at all. Whatever her planetary origin, it’s likely that she was considered some sort of warrior by the Earth people of her time. But even if she was just an extremely advanced human, there are always exceptions. You are an exception among Lyrans.”

“But a woman warrior that powerful…” Axel began and then stopped to shake his head.

He had several sisters who were brilliant and fierce, but he didn’t think of them as warriors like himself. In fact—what did he think about women fighting? Undoubtedly, nothing his queen would approve of.

Sighing in frustration, Nyomi’s disappointed gaze slid over her mega-intelligent, but clueless son. “I see skepticism in your eyes and it makes me very angry at you. The Lyrans—our people, Axel—chose me to be Earth’s primary guardian, not any Lyran male. They chose me because I was an intelligent, fair-minded warrior who was willing to do whatever it took to see the humans of Earth progress in a way that fosters planetary peace in our shared galaxy.”

Axel lowered his gaze. “Forgive me, my queen. I meant no disrespect to you or your talents.”

Nyomi huffed. “I always do forgive you, but perhaps that is your problem. I should have insisted you mate Rian centuries ago. Living with a full Lyran female mate might have corrected that gender-biased selfishness you’ve developed from consorting with those weak-minded human females you favor.”

“Despite the genetics of my human father, my sexuality is Lyran. I prefer brief partners who serve a practical purpose when sharing my bed. I do not think my DNA includes the ability to love any female—Earthling or Lyran—the way a human male like my father is obviously capable of doing.”

Queen Nyomi snarled in disbelief. “Really? What about the human female who runs that agency you align with? You felt something more than lust for her.”

Axel grunted and turned away. “It fluttered through my chest briefly and passed before I even recognized it was a genuine attraction. I do think it was a pity that she chose those two stone idiots as mates. What a waste of womanhood.”

“Gargoyles aren’t real stone,” she reminded him. “Remember that each gargoyle’s soul remains human regardless of the change to the original container. The ancient magic that created their bodies is to be respected just as much as the incredible power that forged the sentient blade you’re getting ready to encounter. Disrespect of such power is for ignorant humans. It is not something a Lyran Earth Guardian can indulge in, not even in jest.”

“I concede to your greater wisdom about ancient Earth magic, but I know my mind quite well when it comes to my sexual needs. I have no urge to mate permanently with any female and I find no fault with the way I have chosen to meet them,” Axel said, bowing his head.

“Oh, my dear boy, your sexual selfishness is nothing but male self-delusion. One day you will learn that truth. I hope it happens soon.”

“And I hope that it never happens at all,” Axel said calmly.

Tired of her and Axel’s debate, Nyomi pulled her mind back to the real reason she came to see her son. “We could argue your eventual epiphany for hours, but unfortunately, we have more important things to discuss today. That agency you pretend to work for is going to be calling you soon.”

“Are you for certain?”

Nyomi glared at her son. “Yes. The archaeologist who found the blade has gone to them for help. Take the assignment and bring the blade’s host here to your lair. But do not seek to sexually dominate the female host of the blade, Axel. If the blade sees you as its host’s enemy, it will likely not hesitate to end your life.”

“What happens if I fail to keep its female host alive? Will I have to fight the blade on her death?”

“I do not know what would happen in that instance. The ancient records say when a blade’s host expires, it returns to Athena’s original form for it. Now that so many know the archaeologist discovered something that gives its owner enormous power, hiding the blade will be next to impossible. The new host must be kept alive and trained if possible.”

“You say she’s still bonding with it though?”

“There are layers to the symbiosis process. She’s survived the first few so far. You must take special care of her until it completes.” Nyomi paced away and looked off. “If this seems too much to bother with your wolf-sitting schedule, I can have the female collected by your father. I am willing to train her myself if there’s a chance to align our people with the host of the blade.”

“There is no need for you to risk yourself, Mother. When have I ever refused a request from my queen?”

“Should we discuss Rian again?” Nyomi asked with a smirk.

Axel frowned and shook his head. “No, but I do have one other question. Why must we accept responsibility for the trouble this human has gotten herself into with her curiosity?”

Nyomi lifted a hand. “How can a naturally curious feline ask such a ridiculous question? That must come from your human side. This is an example of the exact selfishness I keep hoping you will one day outgrow.”

“I fail to see how preferring to mind my own business is selfish. I think it’s smart.”

Nyomi growled in displeasure. “We could easily turn our backs and leave the blade’s host to her fate, but do you want her being corrupted by those seeking to control the weapon? Do you want to fight the blade’s host as an enemy one day or fight at her side as her ally? She is no doubt frightened by what has happened to her. I promise you that someone will manage to get close to her if we do not.”

Axel nodded. “Again, I concede to your greater wisdom. Not being a fool, of course, I would prefer the host of the sentient blade to be an ally.”

“Good. I want you to at least try to befriend the woman. Teach her to save herself if you can. That sort of benefaction is not something a human will ever forget. If we are lucky, your friendship may align her with our more noble causes in protecting this planet.”

That hadn’t crossed his mind, but his mother was probably right. Axel bowed his head in respect. “I will do as you ask, my queen. I will train the woman if she agrees.”

“Of course, you will,” Nyomi purred.

She walked back to where her son stood stoically yet mildly annoyed with her still. She lifted a hand to his handsome feline face and watched it change under her fingers to its other natural form. It was nearly a mirror image of the only human male she’d ever managed to love in all her time on Earth. His father was also the single male of any race who’d ever held her heart.

“The other children of Rodu are not like you, Axel. Your siblings were born either feline or human, but not both. Your ability to morph among the two is a great gift. I was over a thousand years old before I could shift my form. I hope one day you understand just how blessed you are to have had the ability since birth.”

“If I am blessed, it is to be Queen Nyomi’s beloved son. That is all I need to appreciate my happy existence.”

She laughed as her hand dropped away.

“Oh, if only those words were true and not just something you incorrectly assume I want to hear. I wish you’d gotten a little more of your father’s irreverence.”

“Weren’t you chastising me for that very thing just moments ago?”

Nyomi chuckled. “When Rodu says anything to me, at least I know his words are completely sincere. To this day, I find his directness quite refreshing. Why do you think I keep insisting he extend his human life? Your father keeps saying humans aren’t meant to be so old, but it’s not like I leave him old. After regenerating, he looks as young as you.”

She smiled at her pleasant thoughts of Rodu as she moved away from her eldest child. “Guard the new Protector until she comes into her own, Axel. Doing so is a better use of your time than torturing that poor wolf.”

Axel nodded. “Minding the wolf is merely something to keep me from being bored. I trust your judgment about the blade’s host and will heed it. To the best of my ability, I will do what you have asked.”

Nyomi felt her face lift in joy at his words. “Thank you, my son. May happiness find you until we see each other again.”

“May happiness find you as well, Mother.”

Axel lifted a hand to wave as his mother created a ball of molecular energy around herself and lifted from the ground. Only fully ascended felines possessed the gift of transporting in that manner, but such power over the elements didn’t manifest until a Lyran was over three thousand years old.

As he watched her leave, it suddenly occurred to him that he actually didn’t know how old his mother was. He wondered if his father knew. Come to think of it, he didn’t know how old his human father was either. Their actual ages weren’t something he’d ever concerned himself with knowing. His parents were, well, just his parents.

The idea of being with one person for more than a week or two alarmed him. He couldn’t imagine spending several hundred years, much less a millennium, bedding only one female.

He looked down as something hit his foot. It was Max dropping the long-forgotten stick across his shoe. The wolf sat at his feet stoically with his large wolf eyes were full of concern.

Axel shrugged in answer before he spoke. “Looks like I have another human pain in the ass to babysit which means you do too, Maxwell. Come on. Let’s go collect her before those do-gooders at Psych Central get too involved.”

CHAPTER 4

Nine months after Sugar found the artifact…

“Dr. Jennings, I understand the gravity of your situation but…”

“If this is about money, I promise I can pay your fees. I don’t have a lot these days, but I’m willing to spend all I have left for help. Dead women can’t buy things anyway.”

Sugar stopped begging to bite her lip. Money promises were having no effect. What the hell was she supposed to offer? There had to be something that would appeal to them.

“Look, Eva… may I call you Eva?

“Of course,” Eva replied.

Sugar learned forward and assumed the most severe look she could. “I know my dilemma seems rather unbelievable when you first hear it, but I assure you every word I’ve said to you is absolutely the truth.”

Her potential savior, the woman who ran Psych Central, put her hands on her desk and peered at Sugar over them. Two large men stood behind Eva listening to her make her pitch. At least Sugar was reasonably sure they were men—or were men at some point in their paranormal life cycle.

Both gray-skinned creatures were massive and intimidating. Each one could pass for a building needing its own address. So far, they hadn’t blinked, responded, or even commented on her story, but Sugar could tell they listened carefully to every word she spoke while they stood guard.

She bet no one ever bothered those massive men or Eva. And they both so obviously adored her. Her mind ran off on a tangent as she wondered how in the world she could draw an adoring guard to her side.

Would the artifact allow her to have a relationship?

And what about sex? Sex was something she missed sorely, even the half-hearted kind she’d been indulging in with fellow archaeologists since her divorce. She definitely couldn’t scratch her sexual itch now until she had her artifact situation under far better control.

Eva cleared her throat and drew everyone’s attention to her. “So far, you’ve mentioned the PCA, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, Interpol, the British Marines, every Native American and aboriginal tribe across our planet, plus about a hundred other more secretive global security organizations whose names I’m afraid to say out loud a second time in my office. Is there anyone who’s not wanting to kidnap or kill you?”

Sighing in resignation, Sugar moved her head slowly from right to left and back to right again as she pondered the question.

“It’s not actually me they’re wanting, but it’s impossible to hand over the artifact to them, even if I wanted to. The last time I was captured, which was by a group calling themselves the Intergalactic Investigation Service, the artifact turned each of the scientists working on me into a pool of human liquid with eyeballs and other stray body parts floating in it. I can’t let this thing in me keep on killing people in such a gross manner, no matter how bad their intentions. All those gruesome deaths make me ill.”

“Yes, well, I’ve seen vampires and demons do some foul things to normal humans, but what I don’t see is how Psych Central can possibly help you with your problem. There’s no one on our payroll who could keep all your enemies away. I’m not even sure the combination of all our people could do it.”

“Eva, I’m here because I’m officially caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Eva snorted. “You should be so lucky, Dr. Jennings.”

Sugar smiled when the men behind Eva both chuckled in deep low voices. Though she’d never felt the need for more than one male at a time, the intimacy between the three people in the office was enviable.

She found the masculine laughter of Eva’s guards far better than their stony silence.

“So, you truly can’t produce your artifact for me to study?” Eva asked again.

“No,” Sugar said as she pulled the collar of her t-shirt down until the barest point of one golden trident tip showed.

A painful vibration started the moment light hit the golden object buried in her chest. It was the same vibration she’d felt in her hand the moment she’d lifted the blade from its resting place. Like some kind of living metal, the artifact appeared to have a life of its own. She had no idea why it needed her body to host it.

Sugar let the collar of her shirt fall back into place before the pain robbed her of mindfulness. What happened alongside the vibrations was too scary to risk happening here. She needed these people’s help. She certainly didn’t want to hurt them.

“The artifact hates the light. I don’t know why. When it joined with me, the blinding light is the last thing I remember. Hours after I found it, I woke up on a cave floor with my chest vibrating. Gold covers me like a shield that wraps across and around my rib cage and up between my breasts. The top of the design looks like Poseidon’s three-pronged trident. When I found the artifact, it was the size and shape of a witch’s athame and was lying in a box. The inscription on it was only in symbols. I should never have touched it, but it was incredibly beautiful in its original form.”

Sugar knew better than to say she’d gone looking for the damn thing—which she definitely had. The head of Psych Central probably wouldn’t bother to help her at all if she ever discovered that Sugar had planned on living off the fame and glory of such an incredible archaeological find.

“And you haven’t manifested any paranormal abilities from your joining with the artifact?”

“I’m able to run faster, but that’s all I know about myself,” Sugar explained. “It seems to make all defensive decisions totally without my input. When vibrations from it reach a certain level, I experience a mental blackout. Later when I come back to myself, I usually find several dead bodies littering the floor around me. I never remember the episode of killing them, but I have no doubt they die at the hands of the artifact working through me.”

“You’re right about that being hard to believe,” Eva said, leaning back in her seat. “So, I must ask this question again. What exactly do you think we can do to help you?”

Sugar sighed. “I originally thought maybe you could recommend a scientist or magical surgeon. When they found the three scientists dead who tried to separate it from me, the remaining scientists simply unlocked the operating room door and let me leave.”

“That’s rather odd behavior, don’t you think?” Eva said, thinking it was more than odd. It was unheard of.

Sugar shrugged. “It was actually through leaving that I discovered I’m not bulletproof. Someone shot me in the back as I left the grounds. While I didn’t die after being shot, I did have an extended blackout episode. When I came back to myself at that time, I realized it had taken the artifact nearly a week to push the incredibly large bullet out of my body. I don’t even know where I was while I was healing. I have no memory of that week.”

“So, it can choose to keep you from dying and from being aware as well,” Eva said thinking about it. “Do you know if its actions are offensive or just defensive? From what you’ve explained, it seems to me that it only wants to kill people trying to steal the artifact from you. That seems like self-defense in my opinion.”

Sugar pondered that particular truth. She hadn’t concluded anything herself. “My training as an archaeologist didn’t cover killing anything but bats, rats, and the occasional snake. I never went back to the facility where I’d been kept, so I have no idea what happened to my shooter, but the incident did show me that I won’t be able to die without someone putting some real effort into it. Hey, maybe one of your people can kill me paranormally before the bad guys manage to do it. Got anyone on your payroll who can throw a lightning bolt?”

“No.” Eva snorted with laughter over the request. “We don’t kill humans, Dr. Jennings. In fact, I’ve never turned away a human with a paranormal problem though you might become my first. Curses I can handle. Shifter turnings can sometimes be undone. At the very least, I can refer humans to someone who will help them adjust to their altered life. But separating a magical artifact from its host? I’m afraid that’s outside Psych Central’s skillset.”

Sugar nodded. She understood the woman’s reluctance even to try. How could she not?

But in case she came up dead one day, at least one other person should know the origin of the artifact’s existence. If she was correct in her research, there were three other blades somewhere in the world. One day those blades would probably call someone like her to them as well. Or at least that’s what she’d come to believe every time the artifact activated itself and took over her body. They needed a host to live.

Sugar stared back at the woman staring at her. “The artifact’s not magical. It’s ancient technology. I’m sure when its creator walked this earth, there was a process by which the artifact and its host were matched. After having it in me for several months now, I feel like it was meant to be something only the most talented of warriors received. I have no scientific proof of that—just a gut feeling.”

“Do you think the artifact might possibly be alien in origin?”

Sugar shook her head. This debate was familiar ground for her. She could talk about this all day. “Not really—although the ancient alien theory does try to explain advanced technology when it shows up in caves and other places. Given the ornate box I recall the blade stored in, which disappeared during the fusion process, and the cave where I located it being inside a glacier for ten thousand years, it’s far more likely that someone from one of Earth’s own ancient civilizations created it. Modern research into the discoveries at locations like Gobekli Tepe is backing that up these days.”

“Earth’s ancient civilizations? Are you talking about Atlantis?” Eva asked with a short laugh.

Sugar sighed. It was always so hard to explain to those not in the field. “I’m actually talking about a highly technological time in Earth’s pre-history which is at least twenty thousand years before historians started keeping track of our current time. It predates the global flood.”

Eva snickered. “I have heard of the flood. Do I get points for that?”

Sugar wanted to roll her eyes but didn’t. “The unexplainable technology we find carbon dating back that far seems based on organics rather than manufactured materials. There is little evidence pointing to wars back then, but some evidence points to the Earth being attacked from forces greater than humanity.”

“Forces greater than humans were attacking us?”

“Yes. Now I am referring to aliens, but not just little green men. I’m not convinced, but some think there are a vast number of friendly alien cultures visiting the Earth and getting involved with us. One theory is this is how humanity survived the global flood.”

“Hmm…” Eva said, pondering the possibility of alien involvement in Earth’s past. “I’ve read some ancient archaeology.”

“But more about ancient magic, I would wager.” Sugar glanced over Eva’s shoulder and nodded with her chin. “My theory is that it’s all the same in intent. A process created your living stone guards that few know about today, so people tend to think of it as ‘magic’ rather than science. You and I were born from human mating which is its own miraculous process. I don’t see any difference between those two. That’s why I delved so deeply into Ancient History instead of just studying magic.”

“Dr. Jennings, I…”

But Sugar was on a roll now and wanted to get the whole thing said. “Werewolves didn’t evolve without someone’s creative intervention between humans and wolves. Perhaps one could explain dragons as being natural like dinosaurs, but what of vampires? Demons? Other creatures of the night? Darwin’s theory of evolution only answers about ten percent of most people’s questions. Yet here we all are living alongside each other despite those who wish to argue that paranormals don’t exist.”

Eva nodded in agreement. “If what you say is true about the artifact’s ancient origin, what happened to the people who created it? With such great power at their disposal, why didn’t they survive?”

“Modern human technology is based in alchemy and metallurgy. The idea of starting with those processes most likely came from whatever left-over scientific-minded genes got passed down through human mating after the last ice age finally passed. And why do we believe only certain humans and a few species of animals survived the ice age? That’s bullshit thinking because lots of creatures survived the ice age. Dragons have survived every age.”

“How can you say that with such certainty? Do you actually know any dragons?” Eva asked with a smirk.

“No. I didn’t believe in the paranormal at all before finding the artifact. Since joining with it, I’ve become aware of many things. I see the true origins of people I pass on the street.” Sugar waved over Eva’s head again. “Just as I see what your companions are at a molecular level. Do I understand their existence or how they came to be? Of course not. Do I believe they are as real as you or me? I believe my eyes which see them standing there listening to us. They might not be completely human anymore, but they do have sentience and a soul. I think the artifact I carry does as well.”

Eva cleared her throat. “I’m sorry I interrupted your theory about Ancient Earth. Please finish what you were saying about that.”

“You asked me what happened to the creators of the artifact. As for the demise of those ancient people, it was the same as what will no doubt be the ultimate end of us one day. I’m talking paranormal, human, hybrids—every creature you can name. Mother Nature, Gaia, or whatever term you give the unstoppable force of this planet will one day wipe us all away just as she did Earth’s highly technological ancestors outside the ones that survived to propagate us. It’s also likely that some future society will one day find all the inventions current humans leave behind just as I found the sentient blade. Hell, they may even find the blade. I just don’t want them to find me still connected to it.”

“Sounds like you have a death wish,” Eva observed.

“You make that possible solution to my problem sound like a crazy woman’s thinking, but I promise you I have several degrees that prove my intelligence. It’s quite reasonable to want to live a normal life and experience a normal death like everyone else. However, I no longer think that’s possible for me. I can’t rule out extremes.”

“Dr. Jennings, we are not death dealers or suicide assistants here.”

“I know. Don’t worry. The artifact—that’s how I think of it—well, it won’t let me commit suicide. I tried that already.”

“I see.” But she didn’t really. Eva glanced over her shoulder. “I’m at a loss here, guys.”

“Give her to Prince Axel of Rodu,” Levi suggested.

“Bad Panther?” Jax asked in surprise, turning to his brother. “Don’t we still hate him?”

Levi shrugged. “Yes. I think we still do.”

Sugar watched the two men grinning at each other before leering possessively at Eva. Her gaze returned to the woman. “Who is Bad Panther?”

“Ignore them,” Eva ordered before she turned to glare at her guys. “No, we can’t turn Dr. Jennings over to him. Axel’s a rogue. Guarding her isn’t the kind of work he needs to be doing.”

“Watching over Maxwell is not real work. Your bad kitty for hire is practically on vacation,” Jax offered.

Eva rolled her eyes. “He’s not on vacation. Axel is doing a job for Max’s pack. Stop being so judgmental. I told you both that I never slept with him.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” Levi asked, ignoring Jax’s smirk. “Though I do like to hear you admit it.”

Eva rolled her eyes as she turned back to face the client she couldn’t help. “Dr. Jennings…”

“You know all my secrets now. Call me Sugar.”

Eva snorted. “Okay, Sugar. Look, you don’t want Prince Axel of Rodu’s help. Axel works for puss… uh… he doesn’t accept money in exchange for his services. He says wealth is a trap and that he has too much already. When he helps a woman, Axel requires her to service him as his female for the duration of the time he’s her champion. After he resolves the woman’s situation, he turns his back and forgets she ever existed. Sometimes he doesn’t even wait until the contract period is up.”

Sugar sighed. “Since I’ve always found a barter system to be an excellent means of doing business, I wouldn’t mind working out some sort of compensation with this Bad Panther guy. Is he truly so ugly though that he has to coerce desperate women into sleeping with him?”

“Yes. Hideously ugly,” Levi declared loudly, grinning hard when Jax laughed at him for interrupting.

“Seriously, just ignore them,” Eva ordered again. “Axel’s not ugly. He’s nearly seven feet tall as a human and has a well-defined body. He’s light brown-skinned, black-haired, and has green eyes in a face a woman would probably never get tired of looking at across the table. The man is gorgeous. In cat form, he’s more massive than either of the idiots behind me who I tolerate despite their idiotic jealousy.”

Sugar tried to imagine what a giant panther would look like. “Good looking you say?”

“Very good looking,” Eva said.

“Hmm…” Sugar tapped her chin with her finger as she thought. “That doesn’t sound like the kind of man who needs to take sexual advantage of unwilling women.”

“Oh, he doesn’t. Axel just thinks differently than most. He professes to be from an advanced feline shifter species from another planet who are now residing here on Earth. He also professes to be descended feline royalty, but he refuses to explain much else. And he offers absolutely no proof whatsoever.”

“Not true. We have all the proof we need that Axel is a royal pain-in-the-ass,” Jax proclaimed.

“Jax…” Eva said in warning.

Jax grinned at Sugar. “Axel is far more than just a bad kitty.”

“You mean Bad Panther,” Levi corrected his brother, grinning at Jax’s nodding head.

Jax chuckled. “Axel could be the ringleader of the Bad Kitty Brigade. I’m sure his royal mother is very proud of him.”

Their juvenile taunts and chuckling about the male Eva was describing fascinated Sugar, though she thought the alien part was a bit much.

“I think a mercenary guardian descended from shifter royalty sounds quite intriguing,” she told her potential benefactress.

Eva stared hard at the craziest client to ever walk through her door. “While Jax and Levi like to make fun of the few personal tidbits Axel’s shared with us, the truth is that he’s ruthless and seems to have no kindness in his soul for any creature. Trust me, Axel is not one of your archeological mysteries that need solving. Axel is a dangerous and heartless predator that no one quite understands.”

“Do you think this Bad Panther person can stop me from being dissected?” Sugar asked.

“No. In all honesty, I don’t think anyone can save you for long. You’re outnumbered and not equipped to fight off the legions coming after you. I’m sorry, but it’s best you prepare for the inevitable,” Eva said flatly.

Sugar sighed deeply and blew out a frustrated breath at the statement. She heard a mirror sigh from Eva, but her hopes were dropping by the minute.

“Look…” Eva said as she leaned over her desk, “if Axel did agree to take you on, I know he would die before he’d let you be harmed. However, his reasons might be just his desire to best your attackers. Once he realizes the odds are not in his favor?” Eva stopped and shrugged. “My level of trust in Axel sticking things out for the long haul is very, very low.”

Sugar blew out a long, tortured breath. “You know, my daddy used to say that having something go your way was better than having nothing do so. The artifact has turned me into a dangerous woman, Eva. If I can get the thing in me to accept Bad Panther as my guardian, I will agree to pretty much any terms he makes in exchange for his protection. Please make my willingness to meet his terms known to him.”

When Eva caved, her decision was in her resigned gaze. Sugar shrugged, her weird sense of humor taking over. “I promise if your Bad Panther guy declines to help me, I’ll chalk it up to fate and none of you will ever see me again.”

“Okay,” Eva said in defeat. “I’ll send word to him. But don’t get your hopes up.”

Sugar noticed Eva’s guys had nothing to say after she’d decided to become the panther’s bartered concubine for awhile. Her head swiveled as the door opened behind them. The most attractive male she’d ever seen walked into the room. His mane of black hair highlighted a pair of intensely green eyes that glittered when he glared in her direction.

At his side was the biggest wolf Sugar had ever laid eyes on in a zoo or the wild. But why in the world was the wolf wearing a therapy dog vest? How ridiculous.

Sugar laughed and reached out a hand instinctively. “You poor thing. Shame on whoever is making you masquerade as a dog,” she said. The wolf trotted right up to her and let her pet his head.

Eva raised an eyebrow. “Axel, do you have my office bugged?”

Axel ignored the question and the gargoyles glaring at him. He looked instead at the woman seated in front of Eva’s desk. The woman was plain to the point of being ordinary and would be easily forgettable. He wouldn’t have been tempted to bed this one anyway, so he should have no trouble honoring his mother’s requests concerning her.

He walked over and stood by Max as he stared down at the woman’s curious face.

“Hi. I’m Dr. Sugar Jennings,” Sugar said, holding out her hand for him to shake.

“Come with me if you want to live,” Axel ordered.

Sugar burst out laughing at the dramatic statement delivered in an incredibly sexy voice. “Oh, you’re a Schwarzenegger fan. Me too. I loved that movie.”

Her eyes widened as Axel ignored her teasing and turned on his heel. He walked away from her without commenting or touching her in any way.

Sugar shook her head over Bad Panther’s bad manners as her offered hand fell limply to her lap. The wolf at her feet yipped once and darted after her obviously reluctant guardian. The wolf stopped in the doorway and yipped a second time while looking back at her.

Rude or not—what choice did she have except to do as the infamous Bad Panther commanded?

Sugar turned back to Eva as she stood. Another yip sounded from the door and made her chuckle. “Guess I need to hurry. Thanks for all of your help, Eva.”

From behind her, she heard Eva sighing in resignation while her guys grumbled about needing to check the room for hidden microphones.

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