Shifters Unlimited Prequels #1

Blood Oath Bonus Content  –  Fight Night


Find out how Deacon Black accepts his rightful place as alpha!


*This story occurs before Deacon Black accepts the challenge to rule his territory.


CHAPTER 1 – Invitations


1890 – Seattle, Washington

Main Street


The sunlight vanished, and a quick, bitter scent of chewing tobacco wafted in the air—Deacon’s only warning. He turned as sharp heat exploded from his left shoulder and, on instinct, punched his right palm upward. With a grinding crunch and a resounding low, dull gong, a cast-iron pipe landed safely beside the open construction pit intended to house the city’s new water system.

Blinking away the pain, Deacon glanced toward his coworker. The pipe had grazed Kincaid’s head. Solidly built and formidable from farm living, the man could take heavy punches without flinching. Their after-hours hobby in the fight rings proved as much. But no matter how resilient his body, Kincaid was only human. Blood trickled from a raw scrape over his eyebrow, a swelling lump already distorting his forehead. He sagged like a wet rag against the dirt wall.

Snapping his fingers before Kincaid’s face, Deacon tuned in to the canine frequency range of his hearing and listened for erratic heartbeats. Instead, a steady lub lub echoed against his eardrums. “Hey, wake up. Come on. Open those big cow eyes of yours.”

“Piss off, Deacon,” Kincaid muttered. He swiped at Deacon’s fingers, missing by six inches.

“You guys okay down there?” Two hazel eyes topped by a mop of brilliant ginger hair stared at them from the street level, twenty-two feet above. “I worried that might’ve flattened you both.”

“We’re still in one piece, Browning. Could use some water, though.” Deacon waited until the young man was out of sight, then shrugged his shoulder to gauge his own injuries. He bit back a curse. The damned pipe was an upgrade after the recent fire and guaranteed to withstand more than Seattle’s previous charred and useless wooden water pipes. A necessity, but even slow contact with several hundred pounds of moving iron packed a wallop. At least, he had some warning.

“How’s your vision?” he asked.

“Bad. There’s two of you. Like I needed to see more of your ugly mug.” Kincaid laughed and then groaned, grasping his head. “Just need a few minutes.”

“There’s gratitude for you,” Deacon responded as he squinted at the winch and pulley above. The loose ropes dangled from the crossbars. A-frame support systems ran the plumbing circuit’s length. Each segment held a chained section of pipe, except for the ones targeted for today’s installation. His gaze narrowed as he took in the ropes’ ends, no longer lashed through the winching mechanism. Several strands appeared frayed, but the rest bore a clean edge—no chance of an accident. With the weakened rope, severing the hold would have taken one quick swipe. Others would probably dispute his conjecture, but he didn’t intend to announce his suspicion or seek consensus.

A faint smudge of soot coated the pulley. A fingerprint? He inhaled deeply, certain he could identify the lingering tobacco scent if he came within several yards of the perpetrator.

The question was who and why? Everyone on the multiple projects around the harbor focused all their energy and time on rebuilding Seattle, not derailing the process.

He leaned back against the wooden supports and closed his eyes in the cool shadows. His bruised bone and torn muscle would heal in a day or two, thanks to his shifter strength and metabolism. Faster, if he had the luxury to release his inner wolf and absorb the energy of the surrounding woods tonight. But living among humans required discretion.

“Too close,” Kincaid added, staring at the pipe’s tip still visible over the edge of the pit. “Pipe could have taken out my head instead of just clipping it, Deacon. Not sure how you worked that, but thanks.”

“My body’s blessed with brawn over beauty.” His comment brought a chuckle, but the truth showed in the long scar down one side of his face. A scar earned with equal parts courage and cowardice, but dwelling in the past was a waste of time.

“I didn’t even see it coming,” Kincaid continued. He rubbed above his temple and winced, then eased his hand to the back of his head where he’d taken a hit against the support boards for the pit. “We don’t have many options in this tiny rabbit warren. I can’t believe you weren’t injured.”

“I got winged a bit too.” Deacon ran his gaze over Kincaid for any other indication of trauma as he puzzled over which of them was the intended target. Speed and a powerful response had saved their lives at the risk of revealing his shifter identity. Not an action he regretted. But the reconstruction effort hadn’t claimed a life yet, and he didn’t plan on himself or Kincaid being the first. “Since we’re all right, I can signal for the foreman to haul another pipe into place.”

A long, wailing blow of the shift whistle pierced the air.

Kincaid shrugged. “Not much sunlight left anyway. We’ll make it up tomorrow.”

“Deacon,” called Browning from above, two ladles dangling from one hand and the water bucket in the other.

Deacon took several long gulps as Kincaid drank from a second ladle. Then, grasping the edge of a rickety ladder, Deacon made his way to the makeshift sidewalk above. He pivoted and sat with his legs dangling. For a brief, peaceful moment, he hung his head and inhaled the sea air.

“Too tired for a match tonight, Black?”

He didn’t turn at the annoying nasally voice. For a human, Stromer radiated weasel qualities as if shifter-born with them. He also edged himself between Deacon and the ladder, pulling it up and away, leaving Kincaid stuck below.

“Same place?” asked Deacon. Not that the venue ever changed.

“The only tent in town with the action,” drawled Stromer.

“We’ll all be there,” chimed in a deep baritone behind them. Deacon restrained a smile as Stromer jumped at the softly spoken words.

Deceptively calm, the response issued more like a command than an acceptance. Vendrick Harbard reached an arm around Stromer, forcing him to retreat several steps, then lowered the ladder and squatted, offering Kincaid his hand. He hauled Kincaid from the pit as if he weighed no more than a feather. Granted, Vendrick stood several inches over Deacon’s six-foot-four height and carried added muscle. But Kincaid matched Deacon in muscle weight if not height. Lifting him was no small feat for a human or a shifter.

Deacon sniffed for a clear scent on Vendrick and frowned. Like all the other times he’d sought to isolate the man’s specific shifter species, he found only a strange absence of any scent. Not human, for certain, but if Vendrick did contain a beast beneath his human flesh, Deacon couldn’t decipher which one. Based on Vendrick’s strength and endurance, he carried a powerful animal within him.

Fortunately, he also lacked the vibration that signaled an oath bond to this territory’s alpha, Corbin King. For that reason alone, Deacon should have given him a wide berth. Unpledged shifters were considered rogue. But cowardice wasn’t Deacon’s way. He didn’t care who pledged to King since he hadn’t done so himself. He might be a rebel, but at least he wasn’t a hypocrite.

Vendrick kept his history to himself, offered a consistent if distant camaraderie, and picked on no one smaller than himself, which was just about everyone. Acceptable and respectable qualities.

“I’m counting on all of you.” Stromer shot a less than pleased expression Kincaid’s way but turned toward Deacon. “The boss already has a big payout for tonight’s fight, so eat well.”

“What, so we can lose our dinner in the ring?” Kincaid shook his head, his fists on his hips.

With a brisk nod and a satisfied smirk, Stromer added, “Mrs. Danger’s girls will be there as motivation for the winners.”

None of them responded. Browning frowned, turning away as Stromer sauntered to the next group of workers.

Kincaid nudged Browning’s shoulder. “You coming tonight, kid? I promise you’ll make your money on us. Maybe get something for your sweet girl.”

Blushing to his roots, Browning blinked and cast a quick look at Deacon. “She’s—it’s not like that. We haven’t—”

“Kid, he’s teasing. Though the pretty little blond at the end of the street is staring holes through your back,” said Deacon. He lurched backward as Browning whipped around to stare, the spray from the water bucket drenching them all. The young man didn’t stop for apologies, dropping the bucket as he strode, then trotted toward the smiling girl in question.

Vendrick shook his head, a puzzled look on his face. “Got it bad, doesn’t he?”

“Might as well enjoy it while it lasts. Lust and love never killed anyone.” Kincaid wiped the water on his chest, flinging droplets from his fingers. “But I’m not sure the fights are a safe courting place for Browning’s girl. Stromer might take it into his mind she’s someone he could leverage.”

Deacon scrubbed at his face and exhaled. “Doubt Browning will let her get close enough for that. He’s smart enough not to trust Stromer. But with us there, her safety shouldn’t become an issue.”

“You never know. Stromer lives for drama,” said Vendrick. “Evidently, he doesn’t consider blood enough entertainment for the spectators. He likes everyone stirred up. Hungry.”

Then Stromer would be waiting a long time. Deacon’s survival instincts controlled his hunger, food and fight managed in precise balance by sharing command with his inner beast. No amount of Stromer’s riling would ruin Deacon’s fight. He’d eat just fine and win his fight tonight as he had those of the past few weeks. As fight headliners, he and Vendrick probably gained more attention than they needed. Still, money was money, and a good fight placated his beast.

Just a few more fights and he’d drop back into obscurity. A reputation wasn’t the reason he’d picked Seattle for his next job. After the next week or two, the city water lines would be finished and the new hydrants installed. Each individual property would handle its own plumbing needs from that point on.

He’d be long gone by then, finished with his reconnaissance of the local shifters and their loyalties and weaknesses. No need to bond or become memorable. He’d be better off in a new town with a new job, no ties, and secure with the knowledge that few people knew of his past and fewer still cared.

Which brought him back to Stromer’s unveiled offer of Amelia Danger’s working ladies as a prize.

The idea left a sour taste in his mouth. Oh, he patronized her establishment, as did most of the transient workers in town. But he only visited when he could ensure the blood lust didn’t crawl beneath his skin. Keeping his treatment of the ladies respectful and being mindful of their pleasure, he indulged only in those who approached him without fear. He didn’t consider their emotions of no consequence or their bodies as disposable property. They deserved fair treatment.

Life was hard, and he found the ladies good company, not that he’d ever slept with the same woman twice. Sexual urges seemed to affect humans differently but, despite his longer shifter lifespan, one satiating turn with a woman had always been enough to satisfy him and curb his beast.

“Stromer and Reichert aren’t doing the girls any favors by treating them like prizes. Doesn’t seem like a business tactic Amelia would endorse,” said Vendrick.

Kincaid kicked at a popped nail on the sidewalk. “Rumor has it Reichert owns the paper on Danger’s establishment. Bought it from the bank just before she was free and clear, and raised the interest.”

Deacon lifted a brow toward Vendrick. “A deceit harsh enough to make even the most gracious business woman mad enough to kill.”

Vendrick halfheartedly slugged him in the shoulder, almost ditching him back into the hole he’d worked in for the last ten hours. “She’s tough. She’ll stick it to him every chance she gets. Meet later as usual?”

“Grub from the canteen, then check out the docks,” Deacon confirmed as he rubbed his shoulder again and swept a look over the pockets of workers and militia now headed for dinner.

This morning, pallets had been stacked high with lumber, bricks, and supplies. They lay empty now, awaiting collection and refill for tomorrow.

The crews and their speed boasted a strong testament to the fortitude of the city’s founders and the compassion of its neighboring townships. The economy up and down the seaboard needed a thriving harbor and sister of enterprise for everyone to capitalize on the new frontier’s wealth. Deacon considered building western towns dependent on new railways for their commerce as much of a gambler’s game as prospecting for gold. But once the workers resurrected this city, the odds for victory increased exponentially.

To meddle with that strategy seemed pointless. But while today’s accident appeared random, Deacon’s instincts never failed him. The pipe dropping was deliberate.

He’d heard the accounts of nightly disturbances riling the migrant workers living in tents on the outskirts of town. Rumors abounded of vicious animal sightings where none should exist. People whispered of strange attacks when the moon was dark. Longevity provided him perspective—life held no coincidences. The longer you lived, the more patterns you saw. And someone was poking at the edges of Seattle’s rising success.

What didn’t make sense was why? Everyone stood to gain from the rebuild.

Deacon spent every night canvassing the neighborhood for signs of rogue shifters or even troublesome humans. Vendrick’s recent participation in the search made the job quick work. So far, whoever was causing the public hysteria remained behind the scenes. He glanced toward his sentinel partner. “Did you hear anything new regarding the troubles?”

“Wouldn’t matter, I was born for trouble. I expect it will find us.” Vendrick turned with a triumphant white grin, his eyes shining like brilliant blue ice chips dotted with silver. Deacon hoped he’d never be on the opposing end of that expression. “If my reading of Stromer’s poorly withheld excitement is any indication, I expect it will find us in the ring tonight and not on the docks.”


CHAPTER 2 – Place Your Bets


The first hit rapped Deacon’s jaw like a love tap.

The crowd roared, demanding retaliation.

Deacon smiled, jockeying from one foot to the other, flexing on the balls of his feet. The rush of sweat, blood, and testosterone swirled in a heady mix of eagerness and tension throughout his body. He raised his fist and thumbed his nose at the bricklayer, who topped him by fifty more muscled pounds. All the while, his wolf growled in anticipation. Bring it—I dare you.

A second quick snap to his jaw ended his egotistic, internal rhetoric and spurred his fists into action. He lunged forward, the crowd standing around his ring a gray blur as he struck.

One swift right punch. Two undercut jabs.

Pacing and rhythm drove him as he danced the man backward across the ring. Euphoria swelled along with the heat in his muscles and the ensuing cathartic energy release.

As always, the most difficult part of each fight involved restraining his potential and reminding himself that slow and easy met his needs. He had no intention of killing the human ignorant enough to step into the ring with a man born with more strength than Hercules and more baggage than Prometheus. Deacon believed a man’s desire for the final pot of winnings shouldn’t brand him as his victim. Though the idea of only using fists provided some humorous challenge to Deacon’s wolf.

Fist bones contacted with rib flesh in a quick, tight smack.

Deacon grinned harder and sidestepped a blow. Bring it.

Responding as if he heard the taunt, his opponent dodged the next hit and pranced forward with a flurry of flying fists.

Deacon forced himself to take another one on the jaw, the orientation spinning him toward the outside of the ring and into Stromer’s view. Then he pivoted back with a responding punch. His competitor landed on the sawdust floor on his knees. After a hard gasp and a wavering bob, the man collapsed.

One down. The bell rang to clear the ring for a new match, and Deacon checked the tent’s perimeter before slipping under the rope toward the partitioned fighters’ section. The crowd parted, the previous match forgotten in favor of new bets and fresh contenders. The highly charged atmosphere pulled in many from the day crews. Big men with hard jobs in need of excitement and release, even if they absorbed it vicariously. Many were here because they worked months without their families. Some needed an outlet aside from the services of Amelia’s local ladies. A few escorted women attended as well, those who gleaned as much enjoyment from an exhibition of brawn and blood as the wealthy patrons who brought them.

From the box containing his shirt, suspenders, and boots, he extricated a rag and wiped his face. His eyes narrowed as he scanned first the crowd and then the fighters straddling benches and chairs at the tent’s edge.

Browning was nowhere to be seen, and he rarely missed a fight.

More peculiar, not one shifter existed in the thick swarm of human bodies, a coincidence unusual enough it sent a chill down the back of his neck. Mature and seasoned shifters typically kept to themselves in discrete, small groups. But these fights enticed young shifters keen on sharpening their skills against human muscle. A few even sensed his beast and mistakenly targeted him for conquest. He’d engaged them briefly, long enough for them to understand how a tiger played with a mouse, and long enough for them to fear for their safety.

Fear was good. He had no issue with instilling a healthy, life-saving measure of fear in a reckless young shifter.

Movement at the opposite end of the room caught Deacon’s attention. Arms crossed, Stromer stood before Vendrick. As the larger man turned away, Stromer poked him in the arm with his finger and leaned in closer. Deacon didn’t need to see Vendrick’s expression. The rigid bunch of muscle across his back said enough. Sun-bleached hair flying, Vendrick spun toward the ring. Storming like a conquering Dane, he shouldered his way through the crowd as he searched through the sea of faces.

A patron moved, offering Deacon a view of Kincaid. He stood motionless at center ring, blinking as if plagued by poor vision, the large bruise from his earlier impact with the water pipe now an angry red splotch above his temple.

Damn it. Deacon lunged forward, pushing through the tightening crowd.

Vendrick had a standing rule. He didn’t fight anyone less qualified. Period. He’d walked away from fights in similar circumstances before, which was why Stromer worked so hard finding qualified candidates. He’d located a formidable opponent in the South American strongman. The indentured servant from the South Pacific had matched Vendrick for several minutes as well. And the intense betting and huge dollar amounts wagered always made Stromer’s efforts worthwhile.

A win for Vendrick because he didn’t hold back in a fight, requiring a human opponent with exceptional strength and stature. A win for Stromer because Vendrick’s bouts paid ten times the profits of opening fights between even the fiercest human challengers.

So why match a midranked farm boy against one of his top-ranked fighters? That Vendrick didn’t quit the fight implied something more important than his rules was at stake. Deacon’s guess—Stromer threatened Kincaid if Vendrick left. But the combination of Kincaid’s earlier injury and Vendrick’s barely restrained fury spelled a tragic outcome.

“Move aside. Now.” The unmasked hostility in Deacon’s voice carved a path before him. Sliding beneath the ropes, he caught Vendrick’s frozen expression and Stromer’s annoyance. “If anyone takes on the farm boy, it’ll be me.”

“Wagers have been taken,” snapped Stromer.

“Wagers can be changed.” Deacon faced the crowd, his hands raised over his head. He turned until he located a familiar image: platinum curls, generous curves, an expensive satin gown, and unblinking attention. Mrs. Amelia Danger sat on the raised viewing stand beyond the first ring of bystanders. Her title of missus alluded to a husband no one had ever seen and most believed had never existed. She attended every fight with a younger male companion. With an eagerness for watching the combat, a detectable lust for blood and sweat, and a keen business sense for wager and risk, she energized the betting for her favorite fighters with a fervor that reached carnal intensity. No doubt she expected her winnings to buy her freedom from Reichert.

“Patrons, astute men of chance, distinguished guests. Do you want a show?” At their cheers, Deacon shouted to the crowd, “Parting with your money for this uneven match won’t satisfy your needs.”

More cheers echoed around the ring. He kept his gaze fixed on Amelia, relying on the excited gleam in her eyes to fuel the others into clinching his objective.

“Choose me to entertain you.” He tilted his head ever so slightly in invitation to the woman.

“I appreciate his offer.” She stood, her lips curving. “I, for one, need more than a fleeting second of entertainment.” As bawdy laughter swept the room, she raised her voice. “Let Deacon fight.”

Her broad-shouldered and immaculately dressed companion rose beside her and lifted his voice with the same demand.

The chant from those around her grew. By the count of ten, the air shook from the vibration of Deacon’s name.

Satisfied with derailing Stromer, Deacon didn’t turn as Vendrick brushed by him with a growl.

Stromer paused, leveling a surprisingly satisfied look, and muttered, “You think you’re so clever now, but you’ll regret this, Black.”

Not bloody likely, but Deacon didn’t have time for whatever petty retribution Stromer planned. Kincaid stood in his corner, a vacant look on his face, the muscles around his mouth strained and taut.

Deacon hadn’t worked beside the man for weeks to miss the one thing that mattered to Kincaid—hours measured by the dollars he needed to finally bring his family west to join him. So why take such a risk now?

Stromer excelled in aggravating emotional wounds and pressuring the weak, but pitting Kincaid against Vendrick was a death match. Hardly a result aligned with Stromer’s self-serving desire for wealth and power. A fatal outcome would steer the local militia’s attention to the fights, put a price on Vendrick’s head, and leave Kincaid’s family with only an epitaph. A death in the ring would send the high-stakes customers to safer, closed-door operations and bury the nightly fights.

With a cost so high, only Reichert could order Vendrick into a match with Kincaid. But why would the man pulling Stromer’s puppet strings end the lucrative venture in the fight tents?

Deacon retreated to his corner, rolling his shoulders and shaking his arms in a display of loosening muscle, ratcheting the crowd’s anticipation. Whatever Reichert’s reasoning, it didn’t matter right now. Only showmanship and grandstanding would get him through the next several minutes without harming his human coworker. Unfortunately, reassuring Kincaid was also out of the question. With everyone watching, Deacon spread his arms, leaned against the corner post, and gripped the ropes, intending to lock down his beast.

The bell sounded, and a rush of current surged beneath his skin, tightening his muscles. Deacon snapped his teeth as he spun toward the center of the ring. Damn bad time to have the wolf inside challenge for control. With a silent assurance, he coaxed his animal back. They never waged this internal struggle in true battle. But the distinction between actual threat and paid entertainment was lost on the wolf experiencing the attack. Wasting precious minutes, Deacon lifted his fists to shield his face and murmured a command. Both man and beast needed control to safely take Kincaid down. Too little of his shifter power, and the fight would draw on until one fighter or the other became exhausted.

From the strange light in Kincaid’s eyes, it seemed he didn’t intend to give in. But time wasn’t on his side. There were no time limits on the rounds, and exhaustion led to miscalculation and fatal choices. A highly questionable rule and one most fighters here understood. The point was to make money from your fight, not put your opponent in the ground.

Deacon continued muttering as he moved closer. The risk of delivering too much of his power posed the bigger threat. With one swipe, he could turn Kincaid’s head enough to rattle his brains and snap his neck.

Unaware of the danger of his situation, Kincaid opened with a blow to Deacon’s face.

Deacon sidestepped and crouched, avoiding the follow-up attempt.

Sweat already dripped down Kincaid’s face. His mouth pressed into a thin line as he shadowed Deacon’s movement and quickly countered with a glancing blow to Deacon’s injured shoulder.

The wolf inside snarled at the bite of pain. Deacon shrugged it off and moved backward in double time, avoiding Kincaid’s next punch. Determined to make a quick end of this mess, Deacon tucked down and pivoted, hammering a quick series of punches to Kincaid’s midsection. The resounding grunts echoed a successful delivery.

Now he just needed him off guard. He lunged forward, targeting the jaw. If he reined in his speed and power, the capping blow would take Kincaid to the floor without rendering his brain a mental bowl of mush.

Instead, heat, power, and pain smacked Deacon in the face, sending him staggering backward several paces. As if a third fighter had entered the ring, a fierce, alien grip of power scraped at Deacon’s skin, seeking entry.

Kincaid managed a quick shot, a fleabite compared to the hot, burning pressure against Deacon’s will and beast.

Wrestling for control, Deacon bent over, one hand braced on his knee as he sucked in air.

The crowd roared. Their rousing cries of Kincaid’s name signaled the betting shift toward the underdog.

Control barely regained, Deacon shook his head and reassessed Kincaid. His opponent hadn’t launched an illegal kidney shot as Deacon turned his back, but the desperate, glittering sheen in his eyes and his clenched posture remained unchanged. Fists, crouch, tight position of elbows—Kincaid aimed to take him out with a determination reeking of feral—a sour, desperate scent Deacon didn’t usually detect from his friends.

Fine. Exhaling through his anger, Deacon searched for his beast—and found emptiness. As unsettled by his alter ego’s absence as he was by the intense power still assaulting him, Deacon stepped back. He didn’t expect his wolf would consider Kincaid a threat, but an internal attack warranted attention and perhaps rage. Instead, his wolf retreated.

Deacon shook his head again, wincing from the throbbing behind his eyes. Kincaid hadn’t hurt him. So, what the f—

Throwing his shoulders back, he advanced.

Kincaid danced in fast, his fists a flurry but lacking a coordinated attack. Brief hits glanced off Deacon’s arm, by his chin, and near his stomach as if Kincaid were undergoing a seizure, not executing any strategy. Deacon turned sideways, prepared for his own final assault.

Power flashed again, thousands of pinpricks teasing, then puncturing his skin, contracting in a tight, strong pulse that threatened to rip his flesh from his bones. His wolf finally growled, less like a challenge than a question. The internal battle cost him precious minutes.

Kincaid stepped in and landed a knuckle crunch against his jaw.

Deacon held his ground, blinking. But the energy ties beating at his brain didn’t release, as if bent on taking control. His muscles trembled and twitched. The more he resisted, the tighter the power gripped, yet he couldn’t allow release or submission. Gasping for breath, he called for his wolf and received a wild growl back. No transformation took hold. But the bristling anger between man and wolf would have Deacon’s eyes glittering red. Hopefully a sign Kincaid would heed.

His opponent’s eyes widened. The first familiar reaction Deacon recognized.

Kincaid back-stepped several times as he seemed to reconsider his attack. Then his eyes narrowed, his lips pressed tighter, and he came at Deacon full tilt. No feint or slippery side assault, instead he dove in, his pummeling fists a blur.

Good timing—for Kincaid.

Deacon fended off what should have been Kincaid’s useless attempts as he strained against the energy gripping him by the throat and balls. Ducking his chin and avoiding an uppercut, he took the jab to his temple. Shiny black spots swam before his eyes, and he dropped to his hands and knees, grappling to remain conscious.

A solid rush of air pressed inside his eardrums before the tempest crashing at the edges of his sanity retreated. The power’s withdrawal left him alone, his wolf silent, his years of control and training shaken. Slowly blinking as the wheat-colored sawdust shavings beneath his hands took shape again, he noticed a sterile silence.

“Finish him.”

“He’s on the ground. I won’t kill him.” Kincaid’s voice broke before a loud, wet smack ripped the air. Deacon felt the air stir around him as Kincaid’s body landed with a heavy thud beside him with a faint heartbeat and no sign of fresh blood. At least he was still alive.


CHAPTER 3 – Bad to Worse


Deacon drew a slow breath. The power eased enough for him to wrestle back control over his muscles, though the fog before his eyes didn’t dissipate.

“Took you long enough.” Stromer crouched before him with a sneer. Two guards behind him trained weapons at Deacon’s head. The stands were empty, the crowds gone. How long had he been out?

Sitting back on his haunches, Deacon glanced slowly around. Kincaid wasn’t on the ground or in the ring. Stromer, backed by his personal security team of armed men and several others bearing Seattle militia uniforms, stood uneasily around him. Each man bore the same rigid composure and bright alertness in their eyes, but now, with Deacon’s return to normality, he could smell their collective fear. Several individuals held their weapons with twitching fingers, the desire to pull the trigger obvious. Not one shifter existed in the bunch, though that didn’t guarantee an opportunity for escape.

A swift kick against his boot focused him. “Get up. Now.”

Prepared to pound Stromer into the dirt where he belonged, Deacon stood, then turned and halted as the guards parted. What caught his attention was Vendrick, standing docile as a house cat, a seeming hostage in the center of several more aimed weapons and guards. Deacon followed the quick flicker of Vendrick’s gaze toward the far side of the tent.

Another of Stromer’s men waited near the exit, Browning slung over his shoulder like a sack of grain, a dark, solid circle of blood staining the back of the young man’s shirt.

“He’s still alive,” added Stromer. “But whether he remains that way depends on how fast you follow my orders.”

Deacon cast one more glance toward Vendrick. A brief flare of red sparked but was quickly doused, confirming obedience would last only as long as it took to gain the advantage.

Then blood would rain.


CHAPTER 4 – Mortal Combat


Deacon would have preferred walking. The ride offered no relief from the fight’s adrenaline rush still flooding his system, nor did he appreciate a hand shoving him into the back of a wagon with more guards eager for an excuse to shoot. The whiff of chewing tobacco clinging to one of them answered his earlier questions about coincidences and intent. Why Reichert had orchestrated the pipe mishap remained a mystery.

Browning’s unceremonious dumping into Deacon’s wagon at least allowed him to listen for the young man’s weak heartbeat and reassure himself that Browning was still alive. A second wound sat high on his chest. The blood, now black in the weak moonlight, smelled several hours old, if Deacon’s nose was fully functional again. A knife wound, most likely, since a gun would have roused the attention of patrons attending the fight.

One of the guards confirmed to Stromer that the patrons were all far enough away not to be a concern, thereby clearing up Deacon’s second question about what had happened during his brief lapse from reality. A paid visit from the militia had scattered the crowd to other venues and caused them to abandon the fight.

Kincaid was still missing.

The guards watched him through each rut and bump of the several mile trip, but he caught a glimpse of Vendrick inside the back of another wagon, with no better accommodations. Deacon also detected an unseasonal floral scent that swept the winds from the woods toward him every time they rumbled around another set of turns. Whoever was following them kept a safe but steady distance.

A sudden lurch signaled their halt. Deacon swayed with the abrupt change. All the wagons stood side by side and surrounded by a half dozen horses and riders, the small army Stromer considered necessary to restrain two shifters. For Deacon had no doubt Stromer knew their secret, and had known all along.

The militia had disappeared during the wagons’ departure, evidently no longer needed for the next adventure.

With his wrists still tied behind his back, Deacon jumped from the wagon before his guards had a chance to push him. He braced himself against the authoritative shove from behind and refused to march until a guard hauled Browning over his shoulder. They headed toward the gaping entrance of the abandoned railway tunnel. If he recalled correctly, this old path for the railroad access didn’t accommodate the later plans for economic expansion to the south and east and been abandoned. Glancing behind him toward the city, he could glimpse lights twinkling. No one would hear whatever Stromer had planned in the bowels of the rocky tunnel.

Snarls and cries reached Deacon, though they produced no reaction from his guards. Vendrick, however, stumbled to a halt beside him with a low growl.

A hard crunch echoed. “Get moving, you hell beast.”

Vendrick turned on his guard, towering over the man. Deacon didn’t catch the interchange, but the guard backed up quickly and lifted his weapon. Vendrick turned back, muttering under his breath. “All hell shall stir for this.”

“What is your point here, Stromer?” yelled Deacon. The distraction didn’t ease the tension around Vendrick, but at least the group started moving forward again without any shots fired.

Stromer passed him briskly and entered the tunnel without so much as a passing glance. “Reichert will explain.”

Light expanded around the next turn of the tunnel, illuminating rock and railroad ties. Several steps farther, the tunnel opened into a wide, high cavern. Row upon row of cages broke the clear view of the walls. Some cages appeared connected end on end across the dirt floor, with all eventually linked to a center arena.

Creatures prowled inside the majority of the cages, but not nature’s bounty. These beings were his kind, shifters with his lineage. He recognized several from the fights Stromer organized. Hardly a coincidence. He silently wagered they’d been hunted like animals.

Bobcats, leopards, and lynx comprised the rarest of the collection. Several hissed his way. Wolves in large numbers paced in their cells and snarled as they tried to hold his gaze. Few succeeded for long. Many lay in their cages, their eyes closed and ears flat. None maintained their human forms, struggling to utilize all the survival strength their beasts could lend them. The smells of blood, sweat, and urine permeated the makeshift prison, mixed with the thick fog of fear. Several animals lay unmoving along the walls, free of their cages, their fatal wounds visible. The guards patrolling the perimeter stepped clear of their bodies, though they were no longer a threat.

At the farthest edges of the cavern, other tunnels branched deeper into the earth. Cages there housed small huddles. Bile rose in Deacon’s throat as he made out the still forms of women and children. A horror, and, if possible, worse than any he’d ever witnessed.

Lanterns cast shadows like wraiths along the walls, adding to the haunting atmosphere. A walking platform ran above the cages, a catwalk spanning from one cavern wall to the next. And in a chair at the far end of the platform—Reichert. Deacon had seen him only once, and then from a fair distance, but there wasn’t any doubt in his mind.

“Well, if it isn’t the two headliners from my fight circus.” Short with sagging skin, rheumy eyes, and a lazy man’s paunch, Reichert held the distinction as the only full-blooded shifter Deacon had ever hated on sight. He carried the stench of covetousness and greed, traits Deacon suspected were ingrained in his psyche. Those scents drifted through the cavern amidst the terror.

In a few cases, Deacon detected scents of anticipatory aggression. Shifters eager for the kill. So be it. He’d hunted and destroyed the hot-blooded killers of his own species before. Sadly, tonight would be more of the same. Deacon knew darkness and temptation firsthand. He understood anger and violence originating from want, neglect, and abuse. Humans and shifters shared more of an emotional similarity than any other two species on the planet.

None of those situations explained Reichert’s objective. Given the sweet satisfaction radiating from Reichert, Deacon credited him with taking pleasure in each death he commanded and reveling in the fear he fostered. The clear signature of his animal’s scent permeated the cavern—wolverine.

“What do you want with us, Reichert?”

Leaning forward, Reichert waved for two cage doors to open. Deacon avoided the shove between his shoulder blades and scrutinized Browning’s position at the far side of the array of cages. His own cage numbered three from the main arena. Vendrick’s guards forced him at gunpoint into another corridor of cages, two from the fight arena.

“I’m leveling the playing field, Deacon Black. Or should I call you Deacon King?” Several animals raised their heads and sniffed. Reichert chuckled in a sound lacking mirth. “I hear you refused your father’s name, the alpha ruler of a territory large enough to please even Santa Anna, in sympathy for the Indian whore of a mother who spawned you.”

A harsh, loud rumble erupted from Deacon’s chest, one he didn’t bother to staunch. He cared nothing for the guards’ opinions. The shifters could make whatever they wanted of his heritage.

“My sources tell me the alpha’s death provides opportunity for an heir.” Reichert rubbed his palms together.

What? Deacon froze. Then he dug deep for his wolf and any connection he could reach to those pledged to his father in blood. Emptiness rang back as loud in its silence as the confusion running through him. How could his father be dead? He’d sworn no allegiance to the bastard, but still, blood was blood. He should have known.

Reichert picked something from a bowl beside him and flung it into one of the cages. A small, bony wolf crawled to the morsel and sniffed, then laid its head back down. Evidently, starvation wasn’t enough of an incentive to eat poisoned meat. “Or at least that’s what these twisted excuses for mixed-up biology believe. They need the lie that someone will save them.”

Deacon’s blood boiled. He dipped his head, hiding his emotions as he scoured the cages around him. At the plodding footsteps overhead, he looked up. Reichert knelt above his cage.

“I don’t really care about old Indian tales. Or believe them.” Scrubbing at his ample chin, Reichert looked out over the vast array of cages. “One thing I do know is how to leverage opportunities. I know how to break a strong man until he accepts rule.”

Fury built beneath Deacon’s skin, anger ready to lash out in claws and fangs. “We’ll never become your slaves.”

“The strongest are dying protecting the weak.” Again, the wet chuckle bubbled up. Reichert licked his lips and wiped at his sweaty pate with a yellowed cloth, then stuffed it into his coat pocket. “Without them, only the psychopaths and children will be left. One I can shoot. The other I can train into submission.”

Training wouldn’t include daylight, nurturing, and a future for any shifter child under the man’s control. Deacon knew that, but his thoughts raced double-time, cataloging the shifters he could see and formulating a plan for freeing so many innocent people with too little time.

“But my plans aren’t your concern, Deacon Black. Sadly, Kincaid failed in his mission to kill you. But despite your prowess, even you can’t fight all my best and…survive.” He rose, flipped a mocking salute, then sauntered along the catwalk to his chair. “I’ll give you a similar incentive to the one I gave your human friend. Seemed he needed more than money to bring you down. Laughably, he thought he was saving your life.” Reichert snorted. “If you win all your fights, then perhaps you’ll make it in time to save the young shifter.”

So, he’d threatened Kincaid as Deacon suspected. He looked toward Browning in the farthest cage. Deacon had even odds of making his way through the fiercest competitors. Sheer numbers weren’t the problem; speed was. Surprise and outsmarting his opponents offered him the best weapons, which meant retaining his human form as long as possible.

Predictably, the gate between him and the next cage opened. With a heavy exhale, he headed toward the long-clawed creature rising on its hind feet and hissing at him. With shifter DNA, the creature rose to three times the normal animal’s size but was still diminutive. Thick-bodied, with long, silver fur, a distinctive white stripe from nose to tail, and black badges on the cheeks, the badger blinked. A rare shifter species, and, although good fighters, they were more homebodies than frontline warriors.

Worse, Deacon smelled blood from its wounds. And desperation.

Without a second thought, he rushed forward, clasping the creature by the neck. His own beast enabled him to avoid the claws and razor teeth as he slammed the shifter against the bars, squeezing with a precision he’d perfected over years. He continued, despite the grating sound of the side gate rising. Once the badger’s eyes rolled back in its head—a good version of dead, if not an accurate one—Deacon made a pretense of slinging away his would-be attacker and sidestepping toward the newest exit. A red wolf crouched in the opening, baring his fangs, black flashing in his eyes with the conviction of his future victory.

Dropping into his own crouch, Deacon readied for combat.

The red wolf took him off guard, leaping around him instead of at him. In one vicious crunch, wolf jaws snapped around the throat of the unconscious badger. Then it turned with an openmouthed growl, fresh blood on its muzzle.

Deacon’s claws tipped through the edges of his fingertips as his canines elongated. He couldn’t hold the rage or his beast back for long. Needless death didn’t befit the honor of his people. Especially the death of those he tried to save. Reichert had evidently seeded a few simpleminded shifters who valued privilege and rank over honor to cull the prisoners.

Void of pity, he growled and received the oncoming wolf with open arms. Whether it expected a defenseless shifter or one weakened rogue, its eyes opened wider as Deacon grabbed it by both jaws and wrestled it to the ground. Grappling for dominance, the wolf twisted left and right, trying to shake free from the grip on its jaws. The bright black gleam in its eyes dimmed as the pupils dilated and fear took hold.

Too late to plead for mercy as far as Deacon was concerned. He ripped the lower jaw from its hinges and twisted the neck. Rolling from his back to his knees, he caught the gate rising in the next cage. One more gate and he’d reach the arena, most likely to fight all the remaining shifters. The exception being the man shackled in the arena against the wall near Browning’s cage.

Deacon inhaled as the gate opened behind him. He couldn’t get a clear read on the captive, but the faint scent indicated bear.

Glancing over his shoulder, he froze. Vendrick stood in the open gate, the tall, Nordic blond gone, replaced by a larger, furred beast walking upright with unnatural haunches and torso, as well as elongated muzzle, teeth, and claws. The beast didn’t classify as a wolf or any shifter Deacon had ever seen.

Vendrick stalked toward Deacon, and for the first time in his life, he wasn’t certain he’d survive the next round. What the hell is he?

I’ll tell you that and much more. Just stop your goddamn search for knowledge and accept your reign.

Deacon blinked. Vendrick was talking in his head? He glanced away for a moment, keeping his eyes averted. Perhaps they knew each other well enough to detect thoughts? But not actual speech. He glanced back. I wasn’t born to assume my father’s life.

Then tear down his kingdom and create your own.

Vendrick’s words hissed painfully in Deacon’s mind. He winced and tried to block the volume, but it was no use.

Finally, there is a generation with the respect for life who can wield their power for your kind. But unless you accept your birthright now, I will wipe all of you from the earth and start again with a more intelligent breed of shifters.

Vendrick turned his back on Deacon and gazed across the shifters at the far end of the cage. Then, with a quick glance toward Browning, he slid his gaze back. I should start by putting the worthless little fox out of his misery.

Deacon didn’t credit Vendrick with following through, but the biting sarcasm crashed through his brain like a sledgehammer. The power chose then to beat down on him again. “A weak threat. Even from you.”

“Yes,” acknowledged Vendrick, rolling one shoulder. “It would make the mate who followed Browning cry. I do hate listening to human females whine.” Rough and gravelly, the words poured forth despite the snout and teeth.

Deacon refused to glance toward the stack of crates behind Browning’s cage. He’d deciphered the faint rosewater scent of Browning’s love interest after entering the cavern. But his first priority was the shifters, not their reckless mates. “What makes you think I have a choice?”

“Did you think it was a blasted sickness you’ve been fighting all night?”

Deacon swallowed hard. Even in death, his father sent destiny to claim him. The power, still vying for access beneath his flesh, surged as if responding to Vendrick’s comment, and he ground his teeth. It took a second for the loud grating sound filling the air to register. Several more gates rose in the cages surrounding the arena.

“Accept your responsibility and save your people now. Or walk away. Choose.”

No choice. At least not for Deacon. Despite his nomadic lifestyle, he’d give his life for any of the shifters he’d encountered in his father’s territory—with the exception of Reichert and his psychopaths.

Throwing his head back with a hoarse roar, Deacon stopped resisting the invasion within his body. His wolf howled a fierce, exalted cry. Flash fire ripped through him. Muscle, tissue, and gray matter gave way for the assault, torn and rebuilt by what he realized wasn’t one entity claiming him, but thousands. Blood surged as the thick, heady power of the sentient swarm demanded entry. They settled into his molecules in a rich, vibrant chorus.

“Take him down,” shouted Reichert from the podium, a sheen of virulent anticipation brightening his features into a demonic mask. “Destroy the offspring of our dead alpha, and join me to battle in Black Haven for this territory. Then we will own Seattle and more.”

Not in this lifetime. Deacon glared through the red haze of his transformation. Reichert would pit one against the next until they’d accomplished his agenda and weakened themselves for an easy takeover. Vendrick’s morphing had frozen the stage, but the possibility of Deacon’s death held everyone’s attention.

Five shifters vaulted into the inner arena. Three more breached the entry of the cage he occupied with Vendrick.

Not waiting for a final confirmation of his new status, Deacon raised his head and growled, still holding on to his human form. The echo shook the catwalk above, and responding answers flowed from cages around the cavern. Transition overpowered his will. His bones snapped, muscle doubling and stretching. In a swift churn, his organs shifted and responded.

Wolf released, he stood several feet taller than those around him and bared his teeth.

Sharp and vicious, the jagged swipe from Vendrick’s paw took him by surprise and sent him flying into the bars at the far edge. The metal bowed and, with a long creak, gave way.

“Finish this, Black.” Vendrick then turned toward two wolves and one panther with what could only be described as glee as he sprang toward them delivering a bloodcurdling cry.

Deacon vaulted through the air, splitting through two of the shifters taking turns taunting the chained bear shifter. The hiss and spit behind him made little impact as he landed with a heavy weight on the shackled prisoner.

Ursidae. Grizzly. Even though the man refused to shift, the underlying odor of his beast’s fur assaulted Deacon’s nostrils. He nuzzled at the shackles binding the man’s neck to his chains and opened his mouth. With a crunch, he snapped the metal and slid back to the floor, holding the man’s gaze. Black eyes bored into his as Deacon lowered his jaw to the chains holding the thick wrists. With a whip of his head, Deacon’s canines ripped at the links, sending them flying. The chains clattered to the bare ground.

Slumped against the bars, the man continued his hooded glare from his bloodied, swollen face.

“Get up and fight,” Deacon rasped, despite his wolf form.

One eyelid opened wider. An iris of endless black fixed on him as a sneer lifted the edge of the man’s mouth. “Why? So my next alpha can command me again for his amusement?”

Fury, not surprise, engulfed Deacon. “If you don’t fight for your life, nothing will change your circumstance. Or did your previous alpha rip your balls from you as well?”

“Weapons of words instead of fists. It makes you no different from your father.”

“Don’t waste my time with self-pity.” Deacon lunged for the man’s neck, his teeth penetrating just enough for pressure but shy of spilling blood.

The man held still, but the beast within him rumbled as he faked submission.

Well, at least the grizzly had some pride to go with that big chip on his shoulder. Deacon pulled back, his upper lip still raised, his teeth ready as he lifted his muzzle toward the cage holding Browning. “Go check on him.”

The man shifted, long limbs and straggly beard disappearing beneath a heavy pelt of brown fur and dinner-plate-size paws. Brandishing his claws, he opened his mouth. A long, rolling growl echoed. Then, with a speed surprising for its girth, the grizzly swiped one paw, its claws detaching an oncoming panther’s head from its body. With a shake of his massive body, the bear paced slowly toward Browning’s cage, glancing pointedly over his shoulder at the guard shifters. He waited as they edged their way toward the far confines of the arena, then he stood, bowed before the top of the cage, and ripped the bars open with his paws.

A bit heavy on the drama, but effective. Deacon turned to cut through the remaining wolf guards. Two turned tail and ran for the entrance. The third bolted toward an open tunnel. Deacon eyed their retreat and turned his attention to the catwalk thirty-some odd feet above. Time for an end to this farce.

Deacon crouched and took aim. One good launch placed him solidly on the structure almost above Browning’s cage. He withheld a chuckle as he contemplated the stupidity of not covering the arena. The few shifter guards paced at the walk’s end, shielding Reichert from Deacon’s direct view.

Head lowered and shoulders bunched, Deacon stalked toward them. He flashed his teeth as his growl shook the wooden slats beneath his feet. Two cougars stopped in midturn, their eyes narrowing as their claws audibly scraped into the wooden slats for stability. One glanced toward Reichert with a hiss and bailed to the ceiling of the cage below, tail tucked and ears flat as it raced for freedom.

Two wolf guards, their ears plastered to their skulls, crouched before Reichert’s hunched figure and glared at Deacon. From behind his protective shield of guards, Reichert’s wolverine’s image rippled beneath his pasty, transparent skin, striving to break free and failing miserably. Every wolverine within five hundred miles should be ashamed to have a genetic link to Reichert.

The creature hunkered behind his guards, his teeth showing points and his fingers gripping his armrest with elongated claws.

Deacon stalked forward, his human consciousness battling to maintain equal ground with his beast, but neither wasted sympathy for the creator of this twisted circus of death. Whether age and poor training robbed Reichert of the brave fighter spirit promised by his species, Deacon’s wolf smelled only fear—and threat. He’d challenged Deacon for the role of alpha and taken the lives of innocent pack members.

For the first offense, he deserved to be put in his place. For the last, he would die.

Deacon snarled again. Lifting his head, he angled his bared teeth toward the guards and finished with a quick snap. “Submit or die.”

It was a simple choice. However, Reichert hadn’t chosen his bodyguards for their intelligence. They advanced in a solid line.

Deacon’s blood hummed and his muscles expanded as an alpha power surge flooded his body again. Larger now, he curled one paw, breaking the wooden slat while planning the fastest trajectory through the battle line. It would be messy but quick.

The shifters before him froze, their unease a detectable scent tinged with a sour sweat. Their pupils grew as their gazes swung right and then left, but they didn’t back down. He planted a paw with a resounding thud and hunched deeper, ready for a lunge.

Justice required a swift delivery. The families in this arena needed strength and retribution. With those brief agreements between man and beast, he let go and gave his wolf free rein.

The large cat flew at him, jaws wide, aiming for Deacon’s neck. A high-pitched snarl erupted from the creature as Deacon rose on his hind legs and dug his claws from sternum to groin through the cat’s soft belly. Before the body dropped, a sharp, deep pain radiated from Deacon’s right flank. He twisted and fell, planting his full weight on the wolf guard beneath him. Twice the size of a normal shifted creature, Deacon crushed the guard into an unnatural pretzel shape beneath him.

In a quick flip, he spun to a crouch. The final guard, anticipating an opening, had charged and ricocheted off Deacon’s back as he turned.

The guard shook his head and shifted into his human form, perched at the catwalk’s edge. He lifted one hand, palm out. “A deal—”

Like an earthquake tremor, a gunshot ripped through the cavern, and a spot of red blossomed in the guard’s throat. He fell lax to the catwalk.

Deacon sprang into the air, punching one handrail with his paws as he closed the distance between himself and Reichert. The smoking gun lay discharged at the side of the chair, but a second rose his way. He twisted in midair, spinning, and struck Reichert’s head with his hind feet.

The hand with the gun flailed.

My clan. One swift slash of Deacon’s claws severed Reichert’s head from his shoulders. Mine.

Deacon shifted back into human form, breathing hard. A disorienting sense of euphoria tingled through his body like sleeping nerves suddenly awakened. He stood upright and surveyed the carnage. Disgust swept away his satisfaction in a nauseating wave, his alpha urge to kill driven deep and locked tight. Faces stared up at him from cages around the room. His people crouched in the corners, tucking their children to them as they waited on his next move.

Reichert had much to answer for, and a quick death seemed too kind. But his people deserved better than witnessing such bloodshed. And those before him were his people, the ones he’d traveled among for the last several decades, even those he’d left at home. The brief insight justified his acceptance of Vendrick’s ultimatum. Deacon had waited too long for his father to pass on his mantle.

Luckily, lineage, not age, had decided the bid for the alpha power.

A baby’s cry caught his attention, pulling him from his thoughts and refocusing his efforts. He strode to the far wall, grasped the ends of several long chains connected to the gates below, and heaved. “Keep clear of the gates until they’re secured.”

He dragged length upon length of the chains into a loop at his feet until finally, the cages stood open. He secured the ends to a hook beside Reichert’s former chair and squinted toward the far side of the arena and the remaining closed cages, likely housing the fathers and husbands of the women and children below. Those confined animals threw themselves at the gates with surprising fury given their gaunt and undernourished states. Families crowded around the outside, reaching through the bars for any contact. Attempts to free their mates proved unsuccessful, and they cast worried looks over their shoulders to keep an eye on Deacon.

Despite having rid them of their captor, his role as hero versus new dictator remained uncertain.

With their loved ones still caged, he couldn’t blame them. And while he didn’t strive to be anyone’s hero, he scoured the wall beside Reichert’s chair for the keys to the prisons. He patted along the wide, thick armrests until a soft pressure released a secret compartment. Lifting the ring of keys high, he caught two of the women’s attention. “Take your families home. Bury your dead and tend to your wounded, but wipe this horror from your future. Do not let Reichert rule your happiness from beyond the grave.”

He tossed the keys so they landed just shy of one woman’s skirts. Tentatively, she scooped up the thick ring and rushed to the cages. As the first gate swung free, a cheer rose. A soft din at first, then a chorus of howls and children’s cries.

He avoided staring at the desperate reunions and looked down. Browning was still in the same position as when Deacon assumed the catwalk. The grizzly squatted in human, albeit naked, form downwind of Browning. Forearms braced over his knees, the grizzly shifter shook his head at Deacon. “Having a little problem with the fox’s mate.”

Deacon dropped to the dirt floor and slowly strode closer. Both the young man and his beloved appeared pale, trembling, and in shock. The pistol in the young woman’s hand shook, her weariness apparent.

“Don’t hurt Jenny. Please.” Wet and garbled, Browning’s speech evidently took the breath he needed. With a painful hacking, he drew into a ball.

Deacon had to give the kid credit—he was determined to use his last efforts to save his love. “No one’s going to hurt your—lady.”

“—will do whatever you want.” Browning gasped and spurted. Bloody spittle covered his lips. Jenny dabbed at it as she kept her eyes averted from the naked grizzly shifter.

Deacon tapped the grizzly’s shoulder. A swift layer of pants and a shirt materialized and covered his body. The grizzly jumped to his feet and shuffled farther away, swiping at the clothes. “Stop helping me. I’m not going to pledge to you or anyone else.”

One strong growl was all it took from Deacon, and the shifter flinched. Disgust, anger, and bitter rage all poured off the man in rolling waves, but he held his tongue.

“I don’t care what you do,” said Deacon calmly.

The man’s lip lifted. “No less than I expected.”

“Make sure there are no hostages hidden away, and then find me the location of the rest of Reichert’s men.”

“Then what?”

“Just find them. Nothing else. What began here tonight, I will end now.”

“And you’ll just take down a few shifters before heading back to hole yourself up in the Stronghold like a newly crowned prince!”

Deacon raised a brow. First Vendrick, and now this big ox. Did everyone think he needed instruction and guidance? “Find me the location of those men.”

He turned his back on the grizzly shifter and crouched, unable to ignore the young couple any longer, or the waning vital signs from Browning’s pulse and heartbeat. Jenny struggled with the pistol in one hand and a wad of cloth she held to Browning’s chest in the other. Given the pale blue embroidery, she’d probably torn apart her entire undergarment.

“I need to tend to you, Browning,” Deacon said quietly.

However, Browning’s soft mutters were all for his lady. And despite his weakness his voice, rang clear. “It will be alright. I’m not leaving you, Jen.”

“But he—you saw what he did. This is insane.”

“He saved us.”

“Doesn’t mean you owe him.”

“I do.”

She blew at a stray strand of hair over her face and closed her eyes for a second. “Then if we owe him, we stay.”

“Jen, you don’t understand.” Browning’s coughing stopped him.

“I understand. New life. New experiences. Do you think I didn’t see what all these people can do?” She snapped a quick glance Deacon’s way and then leaned closer to Browning. “I’m staying with you.”

“I couldn’t shake you, could I?” A weak grin took hold on the pale face.

“No.” Her breath hitched.

“What I love most about you…so strong.”

“One more time. So I can tell our children exactly how their father proposed.”

His eyes glowed, and despite the gaping wound in his chest, he reached for her, and Deacon turned his back on them for a second. Unfortunately, he could still hear them all too clearly. “They’ll all be like me, Jen.”

“Thank goodness. With all the strangeness in this world, your blood will make them strong enough to survive.”

Deacon closed his eyes, trying to fade into the background, but time was wasting. When he turned back, she straightened her shoulders, gingerly put the gun on the ground, and pointed a finger his way. “Don’t you dare hurt him.”

Done with the convoluted pleas and demands, Deacon pushed Jenny’s hand back down to Browning’s chest. “Keep applying pressure to the wound.”

Her lips tightened, but she complied, still hovering over most of Browning’s body.

Stubborn woman. Deacon hoped she had as much staying power after she delivered a small brood of shifter children. Then he leaned forward and gripped Browning’s jaw with his palm. “Keep holding the bandage tightly, and don’t get in my way.”

Browning struggled, his eyes glassy, sweat dotting his forehead.

Deacon pressed his other palm over Browning’s shoulder. “Save talking and confessions for later. Get ready to shift.”


Nose to nose with the young man, Deacon stared him down. “Are you refusing your alpha?”

“Never, Deacon.” His eyes drifted closed with a sigh.

The young man’s confidence and commitment constricted Deacon’s throat in a way few gestures had in the last few years. But he didn’t hesitate. “On the count of three, be prepared for his body to change size.” Deacon slid a gaze Jen’s way. “And don’t release the bandage until he’s back in his human form.”

Eyes wide and pupils constricted to pinpoints, she dipped her chin a fraction in acknowledgment and squeezed her beau’s hand tighter.

Bowing his head to Browning’s, Deacon let loose the newest beasts in his body, the ones tenuously held in his wolf’s grip. He exhaled, and like tentacles, the alpha power attached itself to his life essence and spun toward Browning, brushing over the human skin and seeking contact with the shifter beneath. A long, low growl reverberated with pulses of warmth and light, coaxing sounds from the few pack members lingering in the shadows.

Jen’s gasp confirmed the mutation, but sight wasn’t needed to feel the coarse strands of hair beneath his hands as flesh and bone shrank to leaner, smaller furred-and-muscled limbs.

A light breath from Browning escaped as a faint yip. The fox struggled only once, and at Jen’s soft sob, settled.

The three of them held still, the ties between them steady but fragile currents.

As Browning’s heartbeat pulsed stronger and his lungs lost the faint rattle of fluids, Deacon eased off and pulled back his power. He opened his eyes and settled onto his haunches, still gripping Browning’s shoulder.

Russet fur wavered, shimmering in the torchlight as flesh reconstituted into Browning’s long limbs and torso. Deacon quickly brushed his hand down the last of the fur, issuing a command for nature’s fibers to form clothes to cover the naked shifter. Eyes striated with brown and green met his as Browning looked up.

“You didn’t take my blood yet,” the fox shifter whispered as he angled his head back, exposing his neck in offering.

“No one’s taking blood in this clan unless they need a transfusion. Not that you have any extra to offer, boy.” Deacon patted his shoulder and rose, leaving Browning to embrace his sobbing Jen.

Putting as much distance between himself and the young lovers as possible, Deacon gave one last glance across the now empty cages and headed into the tunnel toward the exit.


CHAPTER 5 – Choices


The grizzly shifter stood several yards from the entrance, his arms crossed over his chest and a deep frown carving creases into his face. “Didn’t need to go far to find troublemakers. The few idiots with any fight left intended to ambush us at the entrance.”

“Did you see Reichert’s man Stromer?”

A tiny twitch started at the side of the shifter’s mouth. “I hope you didn’t need anything from the rat-bastard human. He tried to bribe me and then had the gall to pull a gun on me.”

Not surprising after what Deacon had just endured. “You killed him.”

“He put up a decent fight. A satisfying experience, if I might add. Though I left him in one piece.”

Deacon glanced at the young lovers making slow progress from the cave’s exit as they headed toward town. “He targeted our people. He deserved much worse. Any others?”

“I’ve convinced the rest that becoming a nameless pile of bones from challenging us was stupid. But they might have a few stupider friends somewhere around. Did find one human pretty badly beaten. Another of the shifters called him Kincaid and I helped him limp away.”

Deacon cocked a brow as he glanced around for one final check before following in Browning and his future wife’s wake. “Us?”

“I’ve done what you asked after you released me. I can finish with you to buy my freedom.” The shifter’s scowl said he felt anything but gratitude for his release, but evidently his pride required some payback.

“Consider your debt paid.” Deacon rolled his shoulder for a second and tested the muscle. No residual pain lingered from either the pipe incident or the fights. Alpha power delivered a fast recovery time. He glanced out toward the dark purple turning pink on the horizon, and still, the bear shifter followed him. “Are you really looking for more fights, or do you have a death wish?”

“I’ve come this far. I might as well finish tonight’s business.”

Stubborn son of a bitch. But a shifter with his size and strength would come in almost as handy as having Vendrick at his back. As long as the grizzly left his grudge behind. “Then you might as well give me a name I can put on your tombstone.”

“Grizzwald Amos Franklin Bartholomew Halstead.”

Deacon halted and glanced over his shoulder. “Hell, you know the masons charge by the letter. You’ll just have to live, Grizz. If you see any unarmed stupid shifters hiding behind the rocks, leave them to their own penance.”

Grizz hesitated and glanced back toward the hole in the mountain. “Several of the support beams are rigged to blow in a few minutes. This won’t become anyone’s hell again, though…”

“No problem. Everyone’s out.”

“I—it’s the alpha thing, right? Because I checked, and all the families accounted for the survivors—and their dead. However you can’t know for certain.”

But Deacon could. Every shifter’s heartbeat in the mine, and the souls since departed, all registered somewhere deep inside Deacon. He wasn’t willing to call it his soul. And it wasn’t anywhere near his heart. More like he carried a cataloged universe of those who now belonged to him. A sobering thought.

“So if you aren’t going to massacre all the ones who slunk away, where are you going now?” Lacking a subtle step, the grizzly stomped beside him.

Deacon laughed. For someone who didn’t want anything to do with an alpha, Grizz seemed determined to follow along like a lost dog. “I’m heading back to Black Haven to hole myself up in the Stronghold. Wasn’t that your prediction?”

With a frown, Grizz averted his stare. “Rumor has it there are at least a dozen there who will challenge any newcomer for the alpha position.”

Deacon waited until the other man met his gaze. “I’m not a newcomer. But half of those will feel compelled to challenge me in order to save face in front of their families. Of the remaining, some only need to test the strength of the alpha before they concede.”

“And the ones left will need to be put down because they won’t stop until you and anyone supporting you is dead.”

A small dusty pack lay at the side of the road. Deacon picked it up and slung the strap around his neck. Wherever Vendrick had disappeared to, he’d had the forethought to grab their gear. Deacon’s meager belongings fit inside the pouch smaller than a pair of work gloves. And while material goods had never meant much, a few items held sentimental value. It was unlikely he’d meet Vendrick anywhere near this town again, but meet they would. Deacon had been promised answers.

He headed toward the woodlands in the distance. “I know how to handle a dirty fight. If tonight’s test was any indication, I have a few new skills to hone as well.”

“You’ll need someone at your back.”

An interesting sign of support from a man determined to remain free of an alpha’s control. “I’m not looking for pledges.”

“I’m not offering blood.”

“And I wouldn’t take yours.” Deacon turned slowly. “Or that of any other shifter in my territories.”

“Hard to level an alpha claim without a blood exchange.”

Pursing his lips and finally annoyed by the tension in Grizz’s body, Deacon stalked up to him, leaning in close enough to see every whisker on his face. “I’ve learned a thing or two over the years. Not every old rule has value. And if I wanted easy, I’d walk away now. Not seek out a job that will doubtlessly cause me headaches for centuries to come.”

Grizz nodded slowly, never breaking his stare. “Then I guess you could use some help.”

“Guess I could.” Deacon hid his smile and turned back toward the dawn lighting his path. The last color he saw from the corner of his eye as his body shimmered, dissolving into his wolf, was the dark chocolate bulk of the grizzly at his side.