Blood dripped onto the sand, settling down some of the dust kicked up by the two wolves currently trying to best one another. Nathan sat when what he really wanted to do was jump up and run to Marcus’ side. He wouldn’t, of course. Nathan never let his worry show, although maintaining a calm look was one of the most difficult things he’d ever done. He’d worked hard over the years to project that air of stoic faith when his mate Marcus, the Alpha Anax of North America, was challenged by another wolf for a chance at Marcus’ position. It never ended the way the challengers thought it would, with them howling their victory over Marcus’ dead body. Nathan prayed to the gods that it never would, either. He couldn’t lose Marcus.
This particular wolf shouldn’t have been much of a challenge for Marcus, if one were to judge merely on size and power. But the wolf, called Drake, had something else on his side—a steely, unfaltering determination to live. Too bad he had broken a shifter law that wouldn’t allow him such a luxury. Even if he survived the challenge to Marcus’ authority, the pack could, by rights, tear him apart.
Nathan for damn sure would.
"You’re seething," Aidan murmured beside him. Nathan cut him a glance before focusing back on Marcus. There was no need for him to comment. Aidan knew him well. "Marcus won’t lose," Aidan continued. "I know my brother well. He is holding back, but he won’t for much longer if Drake doesn’t submit."
"There’s no point in him submitting," said Zane, Aidan’s mate, who sat on the other side of Aidan. "Drake has changed humans to shifters without their permission. He’s endangered shifters as a whole, and left Marcus with reluctant, and angry, shifters who would never have wanted what Drake did to them. Someone will have to kill him. That will be Marcus."
"I don’t see why he has to be killed. Why can’t he just be monitored or imprisoned?"
That question from Gabe finally got Nathan to speak, though he didn’t look away from the battle in front of him. "You see so many shifter prisons. I’m afraid they’re all full right now."
"Ass," Gabe muttered. "So make a fuckin’ prison. We don’t have to be so…so brutal."
"A little late for that now." Nathan went back to concentrating on his mate, sending Marcus soothing thoughts of encouragement and support. Gabe was a good enough guy, a friend of his and Marcus’ for some time now, as was Gabe’s mate, Mika, but Gabe still had more human instincts than wolf. Part of being a human first, Nathan supposed. Gabe had been changed, not born a shifter. He was a bit…softer, when it came to certain things. Like killing.
Nathan hadn’t been raised by shifters, but he’d been born one, and the man who’d claimed him as his son was a tough, unforgiving human being. Nathan didn’t know what would have happened to him if Rick hadn’t taken him in and cared for him after Nathan’s mother had been killed. Possibly he’d have been raised by the pack she’d been a member of. Or maybe his genetic father, who’d gone into a jealous rage and murdered Nathan’s mom, would have murdered him, too.
Thinking on the past was no help, but Nathan did spare a look for Rick, a warmth spreading through his chest that he recognised as love for the old man. Rick gave him a crooked smile from where he sat beside Nathan, then they both resumed watching the battle.
Marcus was uninjured so far, but the same wasn’t so for Drake. Blood oozed from a dozen shallow wounds, places where he’d spun away from Marcus before real damage could be done. The smaller wolf was actually a pretty shade of pale grey, shadowed with darker patterns tracing around his ribs and the tip of his tail and ears. It was too bad he’d made such soulless decisions, drugging and essentially raping his victims, turning them into beasts they’d never even known existed.
Nathan couldn’t imagine the horror of waking up from a drugged stupor and finding yourself to be a wolf shifter—and led by Drake, who seemed to have no morals or qualms at all. As pretty as he was on the outside, in man or wolf form, Drake was wretched and vile to his core.
Mika was murmuring to Gabe, explaining again about their nature. Nathan knew Gabe got it on some level. Regardless, seeing death occur was never easy for Gabe even if he understood the necessity for it. Gabe always saved things—people, dogs and he was even building a cat sanctuary to take in rescued felines. He simply had the biggest heart, and Nathan didn’t know why the hell Mika had let him come to watch this battle that would end only in death.
Then again, no one told Gabe what to do, any more than they’d tell Nathan what to do.
Nathan’s musing screeched to a halt as Drake leapt impossibly high into the air and came down on Marcus’ back. Fear shot through him, numbing his fingers and toes as Drake latched on, digging sharp, deadly teeth into Marcus’ nape. The scent of Marcus’ blood reached him and he went dizzy with the odour, his heart slamming abnormally fast against his ribs. "Marcus!"
With a bone-rattling shake, Marcus sent Drake flying. There was blood on Marcus’ fur, too much, Nathan thought, but he was still standing, steady on his feet as he sprinted after Drake the instant he was flung off. Marcus reached the smaller wolf a split second after Drake hit the ground with a sickening thud.
“Jesus, ouch. I hope Marcus finishes him off quick,” Gabe mumbled, apparently no longer feeling sympathy for Drake.
Drake rolled and tried to get to his paws, but Marcus was on him, using his weight to pin the smaller wolf down. He growled and snarled, just as Drake did, the two of them trying to get to one another’s throat. Drake was quick, ferocious, but there was a reason Marcus was the leader of all North American wolf shifters—he had the power inside him, the power to rule and dominate.
Marcus slapped Drake’s muzzle aside with a hit that had to have broken something in Drake’s jaw. The smaller wolf yelped but didn’t still, didn’t submit, still snapping and snarling like a rabid thing driven to insanity. Marcus growled a low, rumbling warning and had Drake’s throat in his maw shortly thereafter. The growling didn’t cease, Marcus waiting before striking the final blow, giving Drake the chance to submit.
Drake got a back paw beneath Marcus’ belly and raked. Nathan felt the pain through the link he shared with Marcus, hot brands of fire scoring his stomach. He felt it, too, when Marcus bit, felt everything Marcus usually shielded him from in these situations—a sharp pang of regret quickly buried under the responsibilities of his position, anger at Drake for having forced Marcus to take his life, sadness at losing another shifter. More emotions that had Nathan’s eyes burning as he struggled to hold back tears. He forced himself to remain still and seated as everyone watching the challenge did the same.
The only sounds were the gurgles that Drake released, the scrape and drag of his claws on the sand, the twitching of that one leg beneath Marcus, where Drake’s paw still pressed against his belly. Then Drake was still and all sounds ceased until Marcus released Drake’s throat and stepped back.
And wobbled precariously.
Nathan was up and shoving people out of his way. “Move, goddamn it,” he yelled to friend and acquaintance alike. Everyone knew better than to interfere between mates when one of them was wounded. His long braid flapped against his back like a warning, spurring him to run faster.
Pain that was not his own sliced into Nathan as he cleared the barrier erected around the challenge ring. Marcus was hurting, badly. He tried not to look at Drake’s body, but he couldn’t avoid it completely. Man or wolf form, it still made him feel ill even though he was glad it was Drake who was dead, not Marcus. Never Marcus.
Nathan skidded to a halt on his knees, reaching for Marcus as he started to collapse. “Shift,” Nathan snapped, barely able to keep Marcus upright. Marcus had him by several inches in height and, now that Marcus had regained the weight he’d lost long ago, he also had over seventy pounds of muscle on Nathan. And Nathan, despite his short height, was pretty well defined himself, although gymnastics kept him more lean and agile.
Marcus’ eyes rolled wildly as he shifted. The moan was only in Nathan’s head, Marcus refusing to let it out and have the pack members hear it.
“Shania!” Nathan screamed loud enough that the pack doctor could have heard it inside the compound itself, but Nathan knew she was there, had been watching the challenge.
Blood poured too quickly from Marcus’ stomach. There were three deep gashes, and Nathan was afraid he was seeing parts of his mate’s innards. “No. No, no, no,” he whispered to Marcus, to himself, he didn’t know or care. He wasn’t going to lose Marcus, that was all.
“Apply pressure,” someone said beside him and he recognised the voice as belonging to Rick. “Do it, son.”
Nathan hoped he wasn’t making it worse for Marcus. He put his hands over the wounds and Rick did, too. Together they tried to staunch the blood flow.
Marcus’ face was white, too pale by far, and his eyes had a glazed, distant look to them. “Marcus! Look at me,” Nathan demanded, not trying to be gentle at all. That wasn’t what Marcus needed of him. “Stop drifting and listen to your mate, goddamn it!”
Marcus blinked slowly, as if it took more energy than he could muster. Shania dropped down on his other side. She held a familiar-looking capsule in hand.
“Now seems the best time for this,” she said gruffly as she tried to prise Marcus’ mouth open. “Stop fighting me, Alpha Anax. You know what this is. You know it will help.”
Nathan knew what it was, too. The remains of the first shifter, or so the story went. There were only a few dozen of the capsules, but they were powerful things. Powerful enough to keep Marcus from bleeding to death in front of him.
“Open your mouth,” Nathan yelled, out loud and mentally, trying to make Marcus do as he was told. “Please, please, baby. Don’t do this,” Nathan finally begged, tears streaking his cheeks and plopping onto his hands, onto Marcus’ bloody torso.
Marcus opened then, a gasp loosed from his lips. Shania shoved the pill in and poured water right after it. Marcus sputtered and agony shot white-hot from his belly, Nathan experiencing it too. Then Marcus swallowed, and almost instantly, a change began.
Nathan noticed it as a steadily increasing warmth, not the heat of pain but of healing, calmness spreading through Marcus and also into him. Though he wasn’t injured, their link allowed him to experience what his mate was going through, and so Nathan knew that already inside Marcus, veins were knitting back together, tissues that had been torn were mending. The bleeding became sluggish as Marcus’ breathing began to regulate from shaky, far-spaced breaths to slower, steadier ones. Between his natural ability to heal quickly as an Alpha Anax and Shania’s doctoring, Marcus was rapidly leaving the edge of death he’d hovered on.
“Okay, so I’m glad that little shit’s dead after all,” Nathan overheard Gabe tell someone, almost certainly Mika.
Nathan almost laughed, but he was still filled with the terror of having almost lost his reason for living. Some shifters didn’t survive the loss of their mates. Nathan knew he wouldn’t.
“Melo...dramatic...” Marcus teased him gently through their mate-bond.
“Only the truth,” Nathan said out loud. If anyone was bothered by it, they could go to hell. He loved Marcus with a strength he’d never have believed possible had he not actually experienced it.
“Now would sure be a shit time for someone to challenge him.”
Nathan wasn’t the only one who growled and turned to glare at Ryder Johansen, one of the unwillingly created shifters Drake had made.
Ryder, big, burly and more powerful than Nathan was comfortable with, shrugged and tucked his thumbs into his front pockets. “What? I’m just sayin’, if someone stepped up and challenged Marcus now, even with a day for him to recover, he’d still probably not be up to snuff.”
“Shut the fuck up, Ryder,” Aidan said in a deadly soft voice. “I’d kill whoever dared try to take advantage before the challenge could occur. Care to try me?”
The tension that filled the air was almost palpable as Aidan and Ryder glared at each other. Ryder was a very strong alpha, but Aidan was too, and he’d be defending his brother. Aidan had pulled a stint as Alpha Anax when Marcus had been abducted years ago. Killing wasn’t new to Aidan.
Ryder finally averted his gaze and crossed his arms over his chest. “I was just pointing out a flaw in the shifter rules. Might want to make it a law or whatever that any other challengers have to wait for a certain amount of time to come forth after the Alpha Anax fights. Gods know I plan on implementing something like that if I ever get to South America and take over the Alpha Anax position there.”
It was a good idea, Nathan had to admit. So was getting Ryder out of their pack. He needed his own to rule, or there’d likely be trouble of the violent sort. If not between Marcus and Ryder, then probably there’d be contention between Aidan and Ryder as they were both strong alphas. The idea to give Ryder a crash course in what it meant to be a shifter and an alpha was looking less and less likely to run its full course.
“Maybe by then you’ll learn when to shut up,” Aidan said, sounding no less angry than before. “Pointing out something like that at this particular time doesn’t gain you any favours in my eyes.”
Ryder stiffened up, rolling his shoulders back as he dropped his hands to his sides. “Who the fuck said I wanted to do you any favours?”
“Both of you, shut up!” Gabe stomped one foot. “I swear to...to whatever the hell there is up there in the sky, if you two don’t stop this chest-thumping bullshit, I will hurt you.” He moved to stand between the two bigger men. “And I won’t do it fair and square. I’ll swap your lube out with unscented arthritis cream or something. I will find a way to get you both, because right now isn’t about either one of you dumbasses.”
Aidan inhaled sharply and Ryder rolled his eyes, but the two of them backed away from their anger.
“What did I do to you to deserve that threat?” Zane asked Gabe. “Swapping out Aidan’s lube means swapping out my lube, and, uh, ow.”
Gabe smacked Zane on the arm. “You turned out to be his mate. You get what you deserve.” Gabe huffed and went back to standing beside Mika. “Idiots.”
Mika grunted and looked a little wary, Nathan thought. Wise man, considering Gabe would follow through on any threat he made.
“Ryder, why do you always stir up trouble?” asked Harley, Ryder’s brother. Nathan ignored the rest of that conversation and brushed a chunk of sweat-soaked curly blond hair from Marcus’ brow.
Marcus’ dark brown eyes still held the vestiges of pain, but he had recovered enough to keep the feeling from crossing over to Nathan through their link. The wounds to his belly weren’t bleeding at all, though they were still open. Nathan stared hard at them. They weren’t as open as they had been. Shania was cleaning Marcus’ stomach off with wet clothes, the tang of medicinal chemicals in the air telling Nathan it was all antibacterial stuff she was swiping around.
“The other wound isn’t nearly as bad,” Shania said moments later after she’d checked Marcus over. “We need to get him to the medical centre. Where is Keegan with that damned stretcher?”
“Here, ma’am,” Keegan said from behind Shania. “I’ve been waiting—”
Shania rolled her eyes and snapped, “Well, next time speak up. I was kind of busy and we could have already moved him.”
Keegan blinked even as he bent to help lift Marcus. “But you were kind of busy—”
“Shut up.” Shania wasn’t one to be argued with. Keegan shut up.
Nathan held Marcus’ hand, finding comfort in the strength of his grip. “That was too close, Marcus. Too close. I can’t lose you.”
“I was careless. I didn’t want to kill him. He didn’t have a pack to guide him, anyone to teach him our ways. He just didn’t give me any choice.”
Marcus sounded so sad, so tired, it pained Nathan. He leant down and kissed Marcus’ cheek before helping to lift the stretcher and carry Marcus inside. Maybe they should invest in a stretcher with wheels.
Marcus snorted softly then hissed. “Remind me not to do that until I’m healed up fully,” he rasped. “Jesus.”
Aidan said something about taking care of the clean-up and Nathan nodded. Whatever, he just wanted Marcus better. He didn’t let go of Marcus’ hand even as he helped carry the stretcher. Nathan wasn’t letting go of Marcus until the man was able to get up and walk without wobbling.