As he made his way down and into the tunnels, he could hear the whispers of the Rats. They were scurrying away, leaving their leader to deal with the predator who had invaded their home. Clay knew he was in no danger of being attacked - DarkRiver kept an eye on the denizens of Down Below and, for the most part, the Rats were nothing more than human misfits who had made a ragtag pack of their own. The name - Rats - was a misnomer. Only three of the Down Below residents were actually changeling.
Now, one of those three stepped out of the darkness. "You don't have permission to pass this way. Leave." A flash of razor-sharp canines.
"Cut the theatrics, Teijan." Clay folded his arms and leaned against the tunnel wall.
"Clay?" Teijan stepped closer. "I didn't recognize you - your scent's got human all over it."
Rats had a superior sense of smell, so Clay didn't doubt Teijan's assessment. But it was a surprise. For a man to be branded that deep with a woman's scent, it generally required a sexual relationship. But then again, he and Tally had belonged to each other since childhood. The leopard wasn't fussed - it liked the idea of having her so close. "How's your domain?"
Teijan's near-black eyes darted away and back, an act that would have denoted deceit Above. In the tunnels it was a far more nuanced action. "Don't you mean, 'How's the domain I keep on Lucas's sufferance?'"
Clay shrugged. "Your status is transitory because you choose not to swear full allegiance to DarkRiver." The world of predatory changelings was an unforgiving one. There were allies and enemies. Lines of gray were few and far between.
Teijan shifted his body in jerky movements reminiscent of his animal form. "You know why we're hesitating - if we give full allegiance to DarkRiver, we become linked to the wolves through your blood bond with them. And both DarkRiver and SnowDancer have a way of pinning bit fat targets on their backs."
"We don't use nonpredatories or humans as cannon fodder," Clay responded, sensing a change in Teijan's previous stance.
"Rats aren't exactly nonpredatory." He bared his teeth.
"But you're not strong enough to control San Francisco, even if you had a whole colony." A simple fact dictated by the physical attributes of their different beasts and the natural food chain. "We're locking this city down, Teijan. You have another four weeks to make your decision. Ally with us or leave."
Before the devastating attack orchestrated by the Psy Council on another one of DarkRiver's allies - a deer herd - the Rats had been too weak to bother with. Now they were a possible strength and a current weakness - the tunnels needed to be watched in case this cold war with the Psy escalated into a very real one. But unless the Rats swore allegiance, their word couldn't be trusted.
"We ruled here before DarkRiver," Teijan snapped.
"No, you cowered Below while Psy walked Above," Clay returned, pitiless. "You're no match for us." A human might have read his words as a humiliation but changelings understood dominance.
"If," Teijan now ventured, "we were to swear allegiance, we'd have to come to your aid if called? And to the wolves'?"
"Yes. We'd come to yours in turn."
A pause. "A cat will protect a mouse?"
Clay grinned. "Unless the mouse tries to bite the cat." Betrayal would not be tolerated.
The other changeling's eyes gleamed. "Then perhaps, I should talk to Lucas."
"I'll tell him." Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a copy of Jonquil's picture. "Right now, I need a favor. Show this photo around to your folks - ask if anyone saw anything."
Teijan took it in an inhuman burst of movement. "A favor? Not an order?"
"A favor." Clay pushed off the wall. "One predator to another."
A sharp smile, full of teeth. That was the problem with the Rats - they lived too much Down Below, forgetting their humanity. It was why there were only three of their kind left in the city. The others had been hunted down after going rogue.
Last year, Clay recalled, Dahlia had succeeded in killing seven residents of Down Below before Teijan had tracked down and slit his former lover's throat. It was a chilling reminder of the road Clay had almost taken. Almost. Now he had Tally's kiss and no way in hell was he giving that up. He smiled, wondering what she'd made of their parting this morning. He could still taste her on his lips - a hint of coffee, spice, and pure female heat.
"I'll ask," Teijan finally said. "You swear that if we ally ourselves with you, our home is safe?"
"Hell, Teijan, these tunnels are shot with cracks - but we won't do anything to push you out." The alliance would establish hierarchy once and for all, allowing coexistence. Without that agreement, once the grace period ran out, the Rats were dead. No arguments. No second chances. A harsh law, but it kept peace in the volatile world of predatory changelings.
The only reason the Rats weren't already dead was that Lucas had better control over the blood hunger of his beast than most alphas and he thought decades in advance - ten years ago, when DarkRiver had first begun flexing its muscle, he'd seen potential in the odd dwellers of Down Below.
"The tunnels are sound." Teijan's pride was in his voice. "We keep them repaired."
"Then you'll be fine. We don't want to move in."
A pause, then, "Something's happening. We're everywhere under the city - basements, garages, tunnels, house foundations - and there are times when we hear whispers we shouldn't be hearing."
Like Clay had thought - Lucas was f**king smart. "Any details?"
"An assassination. Psy target," he added when Clay went leopard-still. "Definitely one of them. Someone high up. I can't tell you who's planning the hit but things are shakier with that cold-blooded lot than it looks like from the outside."