Owen was having the dream again.
He’d expected to lay awake all night. Fucking the pups had energized him rather than exhausting him as it had Victor and Gerardo, and as they lay curled up against him on other side, nuzzling against his flanks in their sated sleep, pleasantly warm in the cool room thanks to a steamy second shower and their innately hotter-than-human wolf blood, Owen stared up at the motel ceiling, his heart thumping a steady rhythm as his mind raced in curves and twists, like a hundred cab drivers trying to find their way out of a complicated and suddenly exitless airport.
God, the fucking. It had been beyond intense. The best part was how it was so completely different from his eager bottoming for Max and Glenn up on the mountain. Back then, that had been about… well, it had been about a lot of things, not least the feeling of Max’s thick, hard, club of a cock inside him, and Glenn’s even larger monster, pounding into him tirelessly, sometimes one after the other. But what Owen had cherished even more than that, more than anything, was the excitement and gratitude of Max and Glenn tenderly gifting him—him, Owen, this hairy, wisecracking, muscled-up boytoy who’d butted into their lives (hah, “butted in”) and basically demanded they share their seemingly limitless sperm with him—with actual control over the power they had over him. He’d never understood what topping was until he’d been topped by Max and Glenn. They didn’t take, they gave, and Owen had reveled in it, his heart swelling with lust and admiration for the two men.
Bottoming for Max and Glenn had been euphoria, falling into his own world that was full of joy. Topping the werewolf brothers, though… To Owen it felt as if he had discovered some related and yet completely different kind of activity. There was getting fucked, and then there was fucking, and they were as different as working out and riding his motorcycle. Both were a rush, and thrilled him in every muscle of his body, but they were worlds apart. And yet—like pounding iron and eating up road on his Ducati, fucking and getting fucked were both unequivocally him.
He’d started with Gerardo, because he figured Victor would get off watching his brother get drilled, and that Gerardo would love getting picked first. It didn’t matter much to Owen. They were both sexy as fuck. Their warm skin, browner than his Mediterranean olive, turned him on, as did their deep, penetrating brown eyes and thick, soft near-black hair—not just the long locks they kept pushing back, but the heavy stubble and Victor’s dark little beard, and all the silky black hair that covered their chests and trickled down their flat, washboard abs to their randy groins. Best of all, they were lithe and limber and yet packed with muscle, the way Owen was increasingly coming to appreciate deep in his heavy, tight balls.
He’d always loved muscle, of course, especially the awesome way it had started to accrue on him inch upon inch and pound after pound from an early age. He’d relished working out since before puberty, not only for the rush it gave him, but also because the gym was a world of muscle. Working out around other muscly, sweaty, straining guys had been one of his real-life heavens for as long as he could remember, more fun than the exhilarating but stressful hours on the gridiron itself and almost as awesome (once he discovered it) as sex. The more Max had led him incrementally toward a slightly surprised yet inevitable understanding that he really wasn’t a regular hetero guy (in lots of ways, apparently), the more Owen understood that the hours he’d spent intensively appreciating heavy pecs and thick, hard upper arms and wide, bulging shoulders and carved, tree-trunk legs hadn’t just been about “fitness aesthetics” and props for the hard work that had gone into building those impressive evocations of masculine power. He loved staring at muscle, caressing muscle, licking muscle, and being held by muscle as his partner’s eyes and hands and tongue and mouth communicated his own praise for Owen’s own hairy body and his growing, dense, huge and beautiful somehow-more-than-human physique.
They’d stood there by the bed, the three of them, naked and rock hard, the two brothers looking up at him with a crazy amount of desire in their eyes. Their hands twitched from wanting to touch him, but they didn’t dare do so without permission. He could feel a hint of trepidation from them, especially Victor, and Owen guessed it came from being a little unnerved at how completely and unequivocally their physical forms submitted to him. It was like their bodies had given Owen complete license over them without consulting their rational minds, and it was up to Owen to give them reassurance along with pleasure. They stood before him side by side, staring up at him with lust-dark eyes and looking more alike than any brothers Owen had ever seen that weren’t actually identical twins. Owen stared down at each of them in turn, using both hands to stroke their flanks, and they drew in silent breaths as the looked up at him, waiting, their three cocks bumping damply together between them.
He glanced down at their twitching, reddened boners. Owen’s playful, cut, torpedo-thick cock had been minutely expanding over the past few weeks, which was proof enough to Owen that something supernatural was going on even without the insta-beard he could grow during the full moon and all the rest of what he’d seen and felt. He’d spent most of his life growing his muscles the usual way, and in a way it wasn’t too surprising they’d started growing on their own—he could almost believe, with a wry smirk, that he’d trained them enough they’d finally gotten the idea of what they were supposed to do and didn’t have to be told any more with long hours at the gym. It went without saying that nothing in all those years had ever grown his dick, though when he was twelve he’d had a blast pretending that dick growth (length and, especially, girth) was a most excellent side-effect of doing hundreds of sit-ups and crunches, and Owen had kept up a hard six pack (more of an eight pack, these days) ever since. Now his fat, heavy, rock-hard and leaking tool was pretty much the biggest he’d ever seen, on par with Max’s and not that much smaller than Glenn’s, and even soft (not that it ever got completely soft these days) it was bigger than any hard-on he’d ever seen in the locker room or online pornos. The brothers’ boners were impressive on that scale, ten inches easy and more girthy than most—perfect mouth size, Owen realized with a warm shiver of excitement—and that fact that his was as big as both of theirs put together and considerably longer was definitely not about them being small. It was about him being abnormally, gargantually huge, and only faith in whatever supernatural forces were transforming him allowed him to feel confident that he could give them pleasure without tearing them open with his giant, monster dick.
He looked up and met Victor’s eyes. “On your back,” he said, and though it was a command he said it tenderly. Victor’s eyes lit, and Owen’s lips curved in amusement as he held back a smile. Whatever concerns Victor had about the uncanniness of their instant spiritual rapport, he wanted it. Don’t worry, pup, Owen thought, you’ll get it. He nodded toward the bed, and Victor moved instantly. Before he was in position Owen turned to the younger brother, whose expression told him he was a little miffed that he might have to wait his turn. Owen simply said, “Hands and knees.” Gerardo’s eyes widened comically, and a big, uncomplicated grin burst across his face as he realized what Owen had done. He turned instantly to obey, and Owen swatted his firm, hard ass as he did so, chuckling as Gerardo climbed onto the bed and positioned himself smugly over his disappointed brother, their long cocks fencing between them and dripping clear precum onto Victor’s amber-brown lower abdomen.
Owen stared at them, a powerful craving for them both welling up in his chest. They were extremely alluring positioned like this, staring into each other’s eyes with their long, limber, brawny bodies and equally long cocks on full display, the younger hunk-pup looming cockily over the older, and Owen had to fight a sudden and powerful urge to stand there and stroke himself to quick release just from the sight of them. Instead he said huskily, “Tell me where your lube is.” There was no question they had some, though how they played when strange more-than-werebears weren’t around, wither singly or together or maybe with someone else between them, was something he could sketch in with his imagination some other time.
“Toiletry kit,” they said together. Gerardo snickered, and Victor smiled and shook his head slightly, though their eyes remained locked on each other’s. Gerardo was shifting very slightly forward and back, sliding his precum-slicked cock against Victor’s, and Owen could sense even from a couple feet away just how much low-level pleasure this simple action was giving them both.
Owen’s arousal jumped. He was pretty sure he wasn’t going to last at this rate. His hands juddered, once again wanting to grip his supersensitive ship’s mast of a cock and drive himself to a blasting orgasm, but instead he cleared his throat and said, “You can kiss if you want” before turning and heading for the bathroom where the boys’ shared toiletry kit was.
In the bathroom he found the large, square, black leather zipped travel kit the brothers used for toiletries, and sure enough there was a large, half used tube of slick in there, clearly as relevant to the brothers’ daily routine as their combs and toothpaste. Interesting. Owen glanced around the bathroom, half expecting to see Bandit glowering at him at the impure things he was thinking about the dog’s charges. He’d let the dog out before they’d started their showers, not wanting an audience for what came next and trusting the young metacanine to take care of himself, but he could still smell him in here, and it made Owen grin all over again to think of the protector-dog acting all stoic and responsible after revealing himself to Owen, playful crouch, waggly tail, woofs and all. He grabbed up the lube and a couple towels in one hand, experiencing a flurry of excited anticipation as he turned to go back. This was going to be unlike anything he’d had before.
He returned to the room to find the two brothers engaged in a slow, languid make-out while they waited for him, their cocks batting at each other in the space between their tight, beautiful torsos. Victor was stroking Gerardo’s sides as his brother crouched over him, ass in the air, and Owen could feel the heat coming off them in waves like he was plugged into their arousal at a level beyond the usual, mundane senses. His cock surged and his balls drew tight, and his whole body felt like he was liable to erupt any minute, uncontrollably and without warning, before he’d even gotten his massive dick inside his pup’s hot, tight hole.
This time he did grip his dick, though only with one hand—the other was still holding the towels and the brothers’ well-used tube of extra-slick lubricant. He didn’t dare stroke his big, stiff prick, though, and his grasp was more like a steadying hold, urging it to wait, to hold back, so that they could all enjoy a true and incomparable release. “We’re going to have to do this a few times tonight,” he growled as a he stalked toward them. They broke their kiss and turned their heads to stare at him, their dark brown eyes drinking in his almost giant-sized form and tree-trunk cock as it bore down on them, and their own cocks jerked at the sight. “I’m not going to last long,” he admitted as he reached the bed and stood next to it, sweat already dappling his hairy, round delts as he looked down at them, the mere sight of the lanky fuck brothers now threatening pushing him toward the edge. “And one go is barely going to take the edge off,” he added, offering them a rakish smile. He wasn’t even sure why he was saying all of this. Maybe he just needed to give them one last out before he drilled them both into the mattress.
The brothers seemed to understand. Gerardo wrested his eyes away from Owen’s face to take in the massive dick that was about to be pushed into him, but when he looked back up at Owen there was no apprehension, only awe and need. “Please,” he pleaded, lifting his ass subtly, making it clear he was willingly offering himself to someone whose power over them none of them understood. He licked his lips, like he could almost feel what it was going to be like, and he had to have it.
Owen’s gaze flicked to Victor. His expression was more complicated, but he had already given himself to Owen, just as Gerardo had, and Victor was not the kind of man to back down or turn back on anything. He met Owen’s gaze steadily. “Please, Owen,” he said, and Owen’s heart stuttered. Oh, to hear his name on those lips. Whoever had said there was power in names knew what he was talking about.
“Sure thing… pup,” he replied with a crooked grin, deliberately not reciprocating. Victor sighed slightly, though without looking away from him. Owen knew there would be a moment, very soon, when he said Victor’s name with the power of orgasm behind it, and Victor knew it, too.
“Bastard,” Victor huffed. Owen laughed a little as he climbed onto the bed behind where Gerardo’s knees splayed on either side of Victor’s faintly tan-lined hips, placing his own broad knees between Victor’s thighs and Gerardo’s splayed, hair-dusted calves. Setting the lube and towels down to one side, he started things off with a slow, easy caress along the long, dark slope of Gerardo’s back, and Gerardo moaned plaintively, transparently eager to experience the sensation of Owen being on top of him, surrounding him and penetrating him, with his hairy, hard-muscled, randy-as-fuck brother below him at the same time. Victor stroked his sides in concert with Owen’s caress and drew his nose along Gerardo’s, their heated breaths buffeting across each other’s lips and bearded chins, and Gerardo jerked his mouth down into a sudden, fierce kiss that his brother unhesitatingly reciprocated.
They continued kissing as Owen slicked up his right hand, then used his index finger to explore Gerardo’s crease until he found the tight pucker between them. Gerardo hummed into the kiss in satisfaction, them moaned loudly into Victor’s mouth as Owen pushed his finger through the ring of muscle and shoved slowly in, inch after inch, until he was all the way in to the knuckle. Gerardo broke the kiss at last and lifted his head back to release a long “Aaaaaa-aaaa-ahhh!!” that was as much impatient craving for more as satisfaction. Owen wiggled his finger then pulled back and pushed in again, eliciting another cry from Gerardo. “Put it in me,” Gerardo begged. “I’m not a fucking virgin! Put it in me, Owen!”
“You’re a virgin for a cock as big as mine,” Owen warned. He pulled his finger out and pushed two in, and Gerardo groaned in pleasure. Owen grinned at him, taking in the simple joy on his face. Then to his alarm Owen notice hair creeping subtly up the younger man’s cheeks, and canines just starting to descend.
Victor saw it too. “Ger,” he said. “Stay with us!”
Owen stilled his fingers and laid his free hand firmly on Gerardo’s hip, as if he might communicate his will directly into the man’s body through though. He could almost feel the change in him, hovering just on the edge of being triggered, as though the very cells of his skin were vibrating with the possibility of transformation. He remembered what he’d told the brothers about control and said in a firm voice, “Don’t shift.”
Gerardo froze too. His eyes met his brother’s, though they seemed slightly dazed. A line of concern formed between his brows. Owen was worried, too. Something about their connection was so powerful, thanks to some unknown aspect of Owen’s nature, that it had an overwhelming effect on these closely connected werewolf brothers, especially the younger one. This was all on him, and he didn’t even fully understand what it was. “Gerardo, listen to me,” he said in a strong, resolute tone that seemed, to his irreverent mind, a little incongruous with the two fingers he had still inside the man. He used the thumb of his other hand to slowly stroke Gerardo’s butt-cheek, and he let a little more humor creep into his voice as he continued. “I only fuck men,” he admonished wryly, “not wolves. If you want to get fucked, you’ve got to stay a man, okay?”
“Just… put it… in!” Gerardo gritted out. He was sweaty and flushed across his shoulders, his damp hair clinging to his neck, but there was no sign of any fur there. Watching him closely, Owen saw with some relief that the whiskers had stopped advancing on Gerardo’s cheeks, and the fangs had halted in mid-descent, through they hadn’t fully retracted either. Owen stared, amused and aroused. There was something kind of awesome about a guy wanting his dick so bad he started losing control over his hidden animal nature.
Owen had read a bit of werewolf fiction, and there was always talk about how the man and the wolf were two separate natures. The man was always talking about “his wolf” and what it wanted, which always had to do with instinctual needs like hunting and fucking. It sure looked like Gerardo’s wolf really, really wanted Gerardo to be fucked hard and deep by Owen. Maybe Owen could ask the big silver-black wolf the next time Gerardo shifted.
Hey, did that mean he had a bear—”his bear”? Or… something?
Not the time to think about it. He patted Gerardo’s ass and said, “If you insist.” He continued with his prep nonetheless, twisting his fingers and scissoring them in Gerardo’s hot, very tight hole, and Gerardo moaned softly and whispered more indistinct begging. “Fuck, you’re a bossier bottom than I ever was,” Owen chuckled. He wanted to comply with Gerardo’s demand that he “put it in”—his own need was ramping up so high he might come the second he got his cock into the man—but he was a little unnerved at just how big his dick had gotten lately, and he wanted to be sure he’d done as much as he could. He pulled out the two fingers and forced three back in, slowly but relentlessly driving them deep inside him as far as he could.
Victor was staring up at him, concern subsided so that all that was visible in his expression was love and arousal. “He isn’t usually,” Victor said distractedly as he took in his brother’s needy face, and it took Owen a second to understand this was in response to his remark about Gerardo being a bossy bottom.
Owen grinned as he made one last press with his three fingers. “What about you?” he teased Victor.
There eyes met, and Owen saw amusement there. “I… don’t usually have to beg for anything,” he said drolly. Owen laughed. He was almost tempted to flip roles and let Gerardo fuck him—it sounded like that would be pretty wild. He’d have to settle for imagining the brothers going at it, at least for now. He pulled out his fingers at last and straightened up, squeezing lube onto his dick in a long, fat line down the wide, flat surface of his dick. Fuck, it looked like an aircraft carrier from this angle.
“Owennnn…” Gerardo begged, and the name coursed through him like a thousand little explosions. He quickly finished slicking up his cock as thoroughly as he could, then dropped the lube next to Victor’s hand, meeting the older brother’s gaze.
“Stroke your dicks together,” Owen instructed. “Like I said—I won’t be long. And all three of us are going to blow together this time. Got it?”
“Fuck, Owen,” Victor said shakily, like the command had shoved him hard toward the brink of his own release. “Who the fuck are you?” he added with a wondering half-smile, picking up the lube and slicking both hands with it.
“I,” Owen said, pausing as he positioned the head of his mighty cock against Gerardo’s hole, unable to resist such an obvious set-up line, “am the best fuck either of you pups will ever have.” He wiggled his eyebrows at Victor, who snorted a laugh and muttered something incredulous in Spanish. Then Owen pushed his cock-head into Gerardo’s tight, hot hole at the same moment that Victor clasped his fists around their long, thick, nuzzling cocks.
Gerardo tossed his head up and let out an “Oh, yes!” that was just loud enough for Owen to suddenly remember they were in a motel room. He had no idea of there were any neighbors on either side of him, and he normally wasn’t one to care, but from the moment Gerardo had started to shift Owen had felt a powerful sense of responsibility for the two pups, and that included protecting their secret as well as his own. With this in mind, he put his clean hand on the back of Gerardo’s head and guided it downward, and the brothers took the hint and embarked into some heated, sloppy making out that drove Owen nuts to watch. Fuck, he had to get inside this fucker before it was too late.
Loosely holding onto Gerardo’s hips from both sides, he began driving his oversized, steel-hard, more-than-eager cock inside Gerardo’s furnace-hot, impossibly tight hole, inch by inch. Gerardo cried and moaned into Victor’s mouth but didn’t stop their frantic kissing, and Victor kept up the steady two-handed fist-pistoning on their two big, hard wangs.
Owen’s larger form gave him the perfect angle to dominate Gerardo’s ass. The sensations of what they were all experienced flooded through him, a vast, hot torrent of turning, melding pleasure as their very centers somehow twisted and twined around each other, tightening their connection. Owen kept shoving his too-big cock into Gerardo, blinded by lust but feeling every inch of both of the smaller, sexy men below him. Some dim corner of his mind was hoping he would sense it if it got to be too much, too big, but the more he pushed into Gerardo the more unbearably right it felt… It was like this, this, was the way to his becoming. It was like an alignment of the universe, a slotting of things into the way they were supposed to be. Him being inside Gerardo—except—
Why did it feel like he was inside both of them?!
Victor moaned loudly into the kiss. It couldn’t be, but he was moaning—they were both moaning. Their hums and groans were winding and resonating through all of them, curling around Owen’s eager, blunt cock, and the brothers’ long, heated, crazy-sensitive pricks too. Victor’s strokes on his and his brother’s cocks were getting faster, his rhythm uneven. They were close. They were both close.
Owen was fucking them both. He was feeling their passion, their arousal and their pleasure coursing through him like he was on the surface of the sun and all its radiation was pouring through him. And it was both of them, spinning slowly through his own radiance. It was ecstasy and it was unendurable pleasure. He was going to blow. He had to get all the way in, at least, only, fuck, he was all the way in. He was fucking, gently but steadily, in a few inches, then back, in, then back, then in all the fucking way so that his billiard-ball buts were smacking against Gerardo’s ass. But inside, he could feel both of their pleasures from being fucked hard by his gigantic dick, and the knowledge that he was sharing this with these two hot-as-fuck muscle pups finally triggered him into a supernova climax. He exploded into them, his cock releasing spurt after spurt of hot cum deep inside them as they released with him, covering their chests and shoulders and bearded chins with long, hot sprays of spunk. They were still kissing, gasping for breath around each other’s mouths as they kept at it, and it was Owen that was yelling their release, and he definitely didn’t give a fuck.
They’d lain there for ages, Owen and Gerardo straightening out their legs so that Owen and Victor were sandwiching Gerardo between them. Owen knew he was too heavy with dense muscle these days to lie on top of both brothers for long, so he’d rolled the three of them on their sides and they’d cuddled there, sticky and half-dozing, until they’d accumulated enough energy to find the shower and rinse of, this time Owen going in first with Gerardo, then Victor taking his place, and he’d kissed them both languorously as they’d washed all the jizz down the drain. The brothers had barely stayed awake long enough to climb back into the bed and under the covers, and Owen paused only long enough to let a wryly amused Bandit back into the room before climbing into the bed between them, leaving the other, unused bed to the brothers’ canine protector. Despite the satiation of afterglow Owen hadn’t expected sleep to find him with all the strange thoughts spinning through his head, and he was a little surprised when he fell into blackness and the dream came for him.
Owen had always dreamt vividly. He remembered most of his dreams, not only the content but the way they’d seemed uncomplicatedly real no matter how bizarre their narrative. When he was six he’d dreamt that he was a fire truck—not a fireman riding a fire truck but the actual fire truck itself. He’d never forgotten what it had felt like to be a long, metal, sun-baked machine with such an important job, speeding down the streets and chivvying ordinary cars and pickups and bicycle-riders out of the way with his siren so his humans could get to their fire and save the town. He’d giggled as the happy firemen had washed him with rags and buckets of sloshing suds and powerful sprays of warm water all over his shiny red chassis. He even remembered how he’d worried about his humans in their dangerous job, and the pride he felt in how he helped them save people and stay safe with his speed and strength and the water and hoses and ladders he shared with them.
This one felt real, too, but he knew from the start he was in a dream. He was standing at the edge of a pristine lake he’d never seen before, its crystal waters perfectly reflecting a vivid blue sky marked by sparse, cotton-ball clouds and a bright yellow sun high overhead. The long, oval lake occupied the center of an enclosed valley; it was surrounded on all sides by tall deciduous forests of oak, ash, and maple rising up dark, wooded ridges that, while not tall, still hemmed in the lake and its little valley. The forests basked in the gleaming sunlight, the shadows of clouds passing along them in stark relief as a chilly wind wafted them into and then out of the lake’s purview. It was a calm and peaceful place—preternaturally peaceful, maybe, though the place was full of sounds as vibrant as its colors, from the songs and chatter of birds and squirrels to the lapping of the lake as the odd, autumnal gust caught the water’s smooth surface. The air even tasted good, brisk and clean, with a hint of oncoming winter still comfortably far away. It seemed to Owen that there was a hint of unreality to what he saw, as though the mundane world of men no longer contained this idyllic place. His heart swelled that it was still preserved, somehow, and he had found his way here to experience it.
He looked down and saw his own form reflected in the of the water. The lake was deep here, the banks dropping off rapidly not far from where he stood, and the mirrored surface only showed the sky and Owen himself as he stooped to look down at his own form, and nothing of what coursed below. It did not surprise him to see that what looked back at him was a massive, black-furred bear. Scale was hard to judge, but Owen somehow knew that he was larger than any real bear, maybe eight feet tall even on all fours and weighing well past half a ton. Owen grinned, his bear face easily displaying his glee in the reflection. He loved that how big he was as a man carried over into what he’d be like as a bear, and in spades. The same cool wind that scudded the clouds past overhead now playfully ruffled his thick, dark fur, and Owen laughed a gentle, ursine laugh as he bent to drink from the lake’s pure, clean water.
Rustling in the undergrowth behind him made him turn to see a pair of large, young wolves emerging from the woods near the lake and loping in his direction, unafraid, of course, of the massive predator before them. One was black and silver, and the other was a darker gray close to charcoal with strands of black that seemed almost midnight blue in this bright light. Owen could tell that, like him, they were easily half again the size they should have been if they’d been mere, ordinary animals, though their impressive size was, of course, dwarfed by Owen’s colossal form. They were smiling as they trotted up to them.
Owen found he could reach out to them with his mind—this seemed normal to him, in the dream, and he later remembered the mental and psychic abilities Max had gained as he’d undergone his monthlong transformation and the mental connection he’d gained with Glenn. Hey, pups, he sent to them happily. His tone was cocky and smirking, of course. Even here, they objected to being called “pups”—they were, after all, full-fledged adults in both their human and animal forms—but he also knew they cherished the way Owen teased them and played with them just as much as Owen did.
Shut up, Victor sent back blandly, pretending to ignore him as he bent to lap at the cool lake water, though the spot he chose to do so happened to be only a foot or so away from Owen’s mighty paws.
Yeah, shut up, Gerardo chimed in, though he’d paused in the act of bending to drink from a spot just the other side of Owen to stare up at him, and Owen caught indistinct ripples of emotion through their connection. Awe, he thought, and raging desire—Gerardo was addicted to the incredible fucking they enjoyed in their human forms—and, to Owen’s astonishment, love. Could that be right?
He knew instinctively, and in this place had known for a long time, that Victor and Gerardo would be his mates if they were bears, but… they weren’t bears. They could not be mates, not really. But that thought felt wrong to him.
He put the problem away to think about later. What did the elders say? he asked them. Owen had asked for them to reach out to other packs for stories and lore that might tell him who he was and why this place was undeniably home to him, since the tales of the brothers’ own pack had told him little.
Gerardo bent to drink at last. Owen felt a tinge of frustration from him as he replied, They were no help.
They’re afraid of you, Victor supplied. The elder of the two brothers was better at containing his emotions when they communicated, but Owen could still sense concern from him. There were legends in these lands of bear shifters and wolf shifters once having been at each other’s throats, literally when they were in their animal forms, and though it had been long ago the wolf shifters remembered, and no one talked about how there were no bear shifters around, or indeed anywhere between here and the White Mountains where some lived among men and others shunned all humans.
I guess I don’t blame them, Owen thought to both his pups. He bent to drink again, though he wasn’t thirsty now. He was a little scared himself, when he let himself think about it: the bits and pieces he was discovering about himself didn’t all fit neatly into the box labeled “bear shifter”. Even in the days of legend, for one thing, a werebear couldn’t make a werewolf shift involuntarily, between full moons. Victor had said so from the beginning, and the pack elders had confirmed it, reacting—so the pups said—with horror when they’d heard Owen had done just that to Gerardo. Owen wished they’d never told them.
They might… Victor started to tell him. Owen looked up. Victor was looking at him, his golden eyes bright. They don’t like that you’re here, Victor tried again. I think they are discussing driving you out.
Owen felt a flood of worry come from Gerardo—worry for Owen, but also for the pack. An echo of similar concerns came from Victor. Owen wanted to growl, to say “let them try”, because this was his home now—this was where he belonged. Max had his mountain, and here—these endless forests, rife with flora and fauna, and these hills and this lake—he could feel its energies knitting with his own, slowly rebuilding what was lost in him when he was left among the humans and unlinked from his birthlands. He wanted to defend, with tooth and claw and all the strength of a colossal werebear, his need to be here and to create a future here with these two men who belonged with him. But even Owen the bear wasn’t violent or destructive like that. He’d never take that path.
Maybe it was enough to know this place existed.
He shook his head and looked up at the sky. No storms loomed there, no thunderclouds gathered ominously along the tumbling, woody ridgeline. The sky remained bright and blue, and the puffs of clouds wandering past overhead seemed like friendly visitors.
It won’t come to that, he told his pups. I promise. Now, he went on, with a sidelong glance at both of them, who’s up for a swim?
Victor gave him a skeptical look. Gerardo glanced up in shock with a What?? Sure enough, Victor was distracted enough by his brother’s reaction and his instinctive need to protect him that he was caught off guard when Owen suddenly shifted his weight and shoved Victor right out into the cold, deep water. He came up sputtering and cursing mentally at him in Spanish, and Gerardo was laughing out loud, his wolfy laugh something Owen found incredibly endearing. Owen thought about sending the other pup into the water too, but instead he stepped backward from the edge until he had a good run-up to the lake.
Victor saw what he was doing and called out, No! Don’t you dare!, but Owen was already galloping fast toward the water’s edge. As the two wolves watched he leapt up with a happy roar, soaring out and over where Victor was treading water a few feet from shore, and arced hard down into the water with a belly flop. The result was a splash so massive that it seemed to inundate the whole valley and drench his entire dream, dropping Owen straight out of unconsciousness and back into the calm, unadorned midnight of the cheap motel where the silent darkness was disturbed only by the fitful rumbling of the heater under the window and the snores of two human lovers and one pert dog.
Breakfast was at the Denny’s that stood, improbably, about a thousand feet down the otherwise uncommercialized highway from the motel. There had been a moment of drama getting ready head out, when Owen had come out of the steamy bathroom buck naked to find Gerardo staring down in distress at his too-small tee shirt, a well-worn, brick-red “I heart NY” number that was straining across his chest and hugging his shoulders so tightly the cotton fabric seemed to be under the misapprehension that it was really Lycra. Victor stood to one side frowning at him, his own shirt, a white button-down with a wavy, mesh-like navy blue pattern, hanging open over his hard, hairy pecs and tight, bumpy abs, the white fabric providing a compelling contrast with the dark tan of his skin. His dark jeans looked tight, too. So did Gerardo’s.
Owen leaned against the wall, crossing his arms over his much larger chest. “Why did you pack a shirt that was too small?” he asked.
“I didn’t!” Gerardo protested.
“It didn’t shrink in the laundry, either,” Victor added before Owen could ask. “He wore it two days ago and it was fine. Snug, but not—this,” he finished, gesturing.
Owen admired Gerardo for a moment, then realized Victor was giving him a shrewd, penetrating look. “What?” he asked, genuinely confused, but Victor just raised an eyebrow.
Then it clicked. Owen felt a slow, wicked smile blooming across his face. Gerardo caught Victor’s expression first, then Owen’s, and froze. He looked at Owen doubtfully. “What are you doing to us?” Gerardo asked, and Owen could already detect an edge of excitement in his voice along with the concern.
Owen grinned wider. “Heck if I know,” he said honestly. “But I can’t wait to find out.”
They found a dark blue button-down for Gerardo to wear over his tee and, once Owen was dressed—with Owen noting silently to himself that his clothes seemed a little tight, too—they’d tromped down the highway shoulder to the lonely-looking Denny’s in the midst of nothing but farmland, Bandit trotting sedately behind them, even though when they got there he elected to wait outside. Why he hadn’t just waited at the motel, Owen didn’t know.
There were, surprisingly, plenty of cars in the parking lot and a fair quantity of people inside, including a number of families who seemed to come here periodically. The waiter, a tall, skinny guy with a lot of wavy, blond hair he kept having to comb back with his hand, even knew the two brothers. “Hey, Ger,” he said amiably. “You’re looking good. You too, Vic,” he added, a little less genially. Then he fixed his eyes on Owen and actually gave his lips a long, slow lick. Owen couldn’t decide if he’d done it unintentionally, or if he’d known exactly what he was doing. “So,” the blond said, staring hard, “who’s this?”
Owen gave him a feral grin. “Trouble,” he answered.
“Mike, this is our friend Owen,” Victor said in a cautioning tone. From how close they were sitting on either side of him in the U-shaped booth Owen was sure it wasn’t hard to guess what kind of friend. “Can we get coffees first?” Victor added.
“Sure thing,” Mike said distractedly, before reluctantly tearing his eyes away from Owen to go fetch the coffee carafes.
“Buddy of yours?” Owen asked Victor pointedly.
Victor rolled his eyes. “He’s Ger’s ex,” he explained.
“He’s not my—” Gerardo started to say, sounding exasperated, before starting over. “We dated for a while, but he… wasn’t a lot of fun. You know… sexually.”
“He was bad in bed,” Owen translated with a smirk. He knew he didn’t have that problem.
Gerardo blushed a little. “Yeah. Plus he wanted to be exclusive. And, well, the pack…” He trailed off.
“He’s not one of us,” Victor explained in an undertone. “You can fuck around outside the community, but you’re not supposed to get serious with anyone.”
“Uh huh,” Owen said, scratching his beard. He looked at the brothers in turn. “So,” he said, “is me being around going to be causing problems for you guys?”
To his surprise, Victor’s grin was as big as Gerardo’s. “Fuck yeah,” he said. Under the table, he squeezed Owen’s mostly dormant dick through his faded jeans, and Owen suppressed a yelp.
“We’re not letting you go,” Gerardo added, and in his eyes Owen saw that he meant those words absolutely.
“Not ever,” Victor agreed. He sounded almost fierce about it.
It was Owen’s turn to blush a little.
“What are we talking about?” Mike asked cheerily as he returned, turning up the carafe to pour steaming coffee into Owen’s waiting mug.
“Fucking,” Owen answered. Mike’s hand jerked, splashing coffee onto the table in front of Owen.
“And other stuff,” Gerardo added. He glanced cautiously toward Owen from under his lashes.
Owen’s heart pounded at the sight of Gerardo giving him a look that was so furtive and yet brazenly hopeful. He gave him a soft smile. “Yeah,” he agreed. “And other stuff.” Victor’s hand gave his dick another squeeze, then moved to Owen’s meaty thigh and rested there.
Yeah. And other stuff.
There was a beat as the three of them sat there together, pondering possibilities. “Let me just get a rag real quick,” Mike said dejectedly after a moment. He set down the carafe and disappeared.
“So what I guess I don’t understand,” Owen said after a moment, pouring them each coffee, “is—if you two are local, why are you staying at the motel?”
“We were sent here,” Gerardo said with a shrug that strained his shirts. He started pouring sugars into his coffee, two packets at a time. “The three of us were. I guess for you, but we didn’t know it at the time. We were just told there would be something strange out here, and maybe dangerous.”
Sent here? By the pack, Owen guessed, watching the sweetening continue with amusement. Strange, and maybe dangerous. His lips quirked at the description.
He turned to Victor, who confirmed, “One of our pack elders has dreams, and he—”
“You mean, like the one last night? At the lake?” Owen blurted out, without thinking. He was about to retract this statement—of course, the brothers wouldn’t know anything about what he’d dreamed last night—but then Gerardo gasped, and Victor paused, frowning at him.
“You… were at the lake?” Gerardo said, amazed.
“With you two,” Owen agreed, turning to him. He leaned forward conspiratorially. “I threw your brother in.”
Gerardo’s eyes widened, and he snorted a laugh. From his other side Victor said, “I knew it!” When Owen turned to look at him, though, Victor was smiling. “You are nothing but trouble,” the wolf shifter said, but he said it fondly, like that was one of the things he was starting to appreciate about Owen. The hand on his thigh felt to Owen like Victor was trying to make sure Owen stayed there and didn’t take his trouble over the horizon anytime soon.
Owen nodded unrepentantly. “I am,” he said. Then he bit his lip. “Then, that stuff in the dream—was that… real?”
Victor sobered. “Sort of,” he answered. He wrinkled his nose, like it wasn’t something that was meant to be explained or understood. “It’s like an echo, and it’s like an abstract painting of something real, and it’s like ‘yes’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘not yet’. It’s true, but it’s…” He foundered.
“It’s the wolf dream,” Gerardo said, sipping his coffee with another small shrug. “It just is.” Owen looked at him, thinking Gerardo probably navigated the dream a lot more intuitively than his brother. Gerardo added, “Elder Sam, though—he sees more in the dream than we do.”
Gerardo seemed to think that this Elder Sam saw things Gerardo didn’t particularly want to see. Owen started to ask if he was really going to cause a lot of problems for the brothers and their pack. But just then Mike returned, trying very hard to be all business, and Owen didn’t let himself ask after that. Instead he sat back and enjoyed breakfast with his men, Gerardo sitting close and Victor with his hand on his thigh whenever he didn’t need it for eating, and thought about the road ahead. Whether it was a dream or a reality or an alternate truth, he was going to try to find that lake again, and when he did he was bringing his pups with him.
They walked back from The Loneliest Denny’s with their bellies pleasantly stuffed with multiple servings of crispy bacon, thick buttery pancakes, sweet, pulpy o.j., and lots and lots of smooth diner coffee. Even Bandit was loping beside them in a contented food langor, Gerardo having brought a tall, syrupy stack of flapjacks out to the oversized dog where he was standing watch outside near the front door. He’d snarfed it down with gusto even faster than the wolf brothers had done their own first servings, licked the plate spotless, then looked up and grinned at Gerardo, much to the latter’s amusement.
As they walked, Owen strategized with them. Victor and Gerardo had only met with the elders in the wolf dream so far, so it was more a matter of impressions than anything concrete, but the brothers were sure of two things. Reaction to Owen’s presence in wolf-people territory was, to put it charitably, mixed; the brothers had sensed cautious curiosity from some, apathetic indifference from others, and teeth-bared hostility from the rest. And if they found out the depth and strength of the bond that had already formed between them, the elders’ reactions would only intensify.
Owen was not much put off by all the potential belligerence being aimed his way. He’d been drawn in to the shifter world through Max and Glenn and had seen their protectiveness of the mountain that was their world first hand. Glenn was a sexy and genial stud, but he was not the type to tolerate interlopers, especially powerful ones with their own agendas—and Owen was self-aware enough to see that the wolf-people’s leadership would see him as exactly that. Protectiveness, he could understand. He was feeling it himself, for the first time, and he found it suited him deeply.
From Victor and Gerardo he learned that there were three clans of wolf people loosely scattered through the lush, secluded Adirondack valley north and west of the lake, and each clan had a married pair of elders and a third elder to counterbalance the couple’s position. The shifters minded their own business and mostly lived apart from the humans; a few humans knew the score, but most of the local farmers and small businessmen were under the impression their tall, dark forests were inhabited by actual wolves, and there was even an occasional push, regularly put down by those in the know, to market the valley to tourists as New York’s own Northern Wolflands. As it was, the tourists were largely kept apart from the humans and wolves alike, congregating in the delineated camping and hiking patches up the eastern ridges, two very popular ski resorts (essentially dormant in the summer), and boating communities down by the lake. No other shifters had dwelt the valley woodlands in pack memory, which, Owen gathered, sank backward through the wolf dream a considerable ways—possibly, in some indistinct form, to the first settlement of these woodlands by the original wolf-people clan, long before the arrival of white folk like Owen and the other wolf folk that found their way here to join them.
Victor and Gerardo belonged to the youngest and smallest clan, which had migrated up here by invitation of the two older clans after human development crowded them out of their ancestral Long Island territory. Unfortunately, that meant that even if Victor and Gerardo’s clan elders supported him—and Gerardo had the distinct sense that their Third at least, Elder Manuel, was one of the ones who’d be angling to drive Owen out—their clan’s junior status within the pack leadership might limit the help it could give him.
Still, their First, Elder Lucas, the brothers’ uncle, was probably their best bet as a starting point, they decided. He had a reputation for being reasonable and slow to anger, and had been kindly and supportive when Gerardo was dating Mike. Gaining one of the elders’ support to start out with seemed less daunting than facing them all at once, or waiting from them to decide to act; but Owen was sure there was rough road ahead no matter what.
“It’s going to be a big mess,” Victor sighed as they left the shoulder of the barren highway at last for the seamed and faded motel parking lot. He glanced up sidelong at Owen. “I mean, I wouldn’t blame you if you decided—”
“Not a chance,” Owen broke in with a growl before Victor could even finish his thought. Owen wasn’t going anywhere. It was now an unquestioned fact for him that this was where he belonged, with Victor and Gerardo. In a sudden, swift move he turned as they walked, grabbed the densely muscled young man up by the waist, and tossed him effortlessly over his shoulder. He then continued across the mostly empty parking lot toward the motel as though completely unburdened, while Victor squawked in protest.
“Hey!” Victor yelped, beating ineffectively on Owen’s broad back, though he was barely suppressing his own laughter. “Let me down, you Neanderthal!” Owen grinned wickedly down at Gerardo, who was staring up at him wide-eyed with a huge grin, while Bandit trotted delightedly around them in a circle, laughing.
Catching something in Gerardo’s dark eyes, Owen impulsively bent and scooped him up as well in a single fluid motion, hurling the younger brother over his other shoulder. Gerardo squealed as Owen resumed his tromp across the lot. “Hey!” he giggled. “Put us down, you brute!”
“Not even if you’re good,” Owen said smugly, wrapping his powerful arms tightly around them, making sure to cop a feel from their amazing muscle butts and strong, sleek thighs as he did do. “And you’d better not be good,” he added as he walked, making his steps extra bouncy just to torment them.
“Stop it!” Victor demanded unconvincingly through his laughter. “Bandit, do something!” The big dog, however, just continued trotting around them in happy circles, watching the three shifters with his tongue lolling out.
“Bandit knows who you belong to,” Owen said airily, jouncing them some more as he shifted their position. They were exceptionally heavy even for a pair of well muscled guys in their early twenties, though Owen’s own strength was barely even tested by their weight. “Holy smokes, how much did you guys eat?” he teased.
“Yeah, you won’t like it so much if I barfed down your back!” Gerardo shot back with a grin in his voice.
“Please,” Owen said, slapping Gerardo’s butt as he walked. “Your stomachs are probably empty already and bitching for more. I bet you could eat another stack of pancakes a foot high!”
“As if you couldn’t,” Victor snarked. He’d given up beating on Owen’s back and was now stroking the planes of muscle through Owen’s tight, straining tee shirt. Gerardo quickly started doing the same, as if Owen’s body was simply irresistible to them. Or maybe, Owen mused with a twisted grin, they thought that turning Owen on even more than he already was—the brothers had him on a constant, half-hard simmer of arousal just from the excitement of their presence—might somehow turn the situation to their advantage. Well, he’d show them exactly what turning him on could accomplish.
“Hey, is there bacon with that foot-high stack?” Gerardo put in, still stroking Owen’s back and no longer even pretending to be mad. “Cause I could totally go for more bacon.”
Owen barked a low, throaty laugh.
As they approached the motel building a pair of women in their early thirties was getting out of an old station-wagon crammed full of camping gear, parked a few spaces down from the brother’s room. The women stood frozen next to their car doors, watching slack-jawed as the huge, hairy, olive-skinned bear of a man strode insouciantly past them with a handsome, thick-muscled hunk slung over each shoulder, while an unusually large chocolate lab danced amusedly around them.
“Ladies,” Owen said as he passed. The gaping women said nothing, but one of them, a slim redhead in a kerchief, lifted up her phone almost as if in stunned, autonomic response to a social-media-worthy moment. Owen offered her a feral grin as he passed.
A moment later they were standing before the sloppily red-painted door of room 113. Fishing the room key out of his pocket with only a little jostling of his charges, Owen unlocked the door. He glanced down at the dog, but Bandit, clearly knowing better than to come into the room at a time like this, sat down on the concrete walkway outside the room, watching them intently.
“Okay, seriously, you can put us down now,” Victor said, adopting a long-suffering tone.
“Never!” Owen said grandly. He sidled through the open doorway shoulder-first, kicked the door closed with a loud slam, and then, defying his words, threw them both unceremoniously on the nearer of the two beds. The impact had them bouncing uncontrollably and they yelped and pretended to glare up at him, then shrieked in genuine alarm as Owen threw himself on top of them with a playful roar, clambering out of the way just in time and then piling on top of him the moment he hit the mushy mattress.
“Now you’ll get yours, caveman,” Victor said, pinning Owen’s massive shoulders hard against the bed as he straddled the larger man’s narrow waist. Gerardo climbed on behing him, bouncing on Owen’s butt.
Owen wanted to moan. He was now fully turned on with a raging erection, and he could sense equal heights of arousal from the brothers. His whole body felt wildly stimulated, as though the brothers’ feverish need for him was generating feedback throughout his powerful, muscle-swollen frame, making the very hairs on his body stand up in lush, heated stimulation. And he could tell, he was doing the same to them, the three of them stoking up each other’s arousal higher and higher with every passing second of contact. Fuck, and our clothes are still on, Owen thought as he writhed a little under the brothers’ very pleasant weight.
“So what are you going to do to me?” Owen said with a pretend sneer. He could probably throw the two of them off easily—although they were pretty strong, and getting stronger. They were definitely heavier than they looked. It didn’t matter—right now, Owen wanted them exactly where they were.
Victor bent close to his ear, his heated arousal seeming to come off him in intoxicating waves. Owen could smell everything about him—his hairy muscles, his need for Owen, and most of all his big, uncut, leaky, iron-hard boner. The long-haired, densely muscled Latino was clearly trying to regain the upper hand after being carried like a sexy sack over Owen’s shoulder, and Owen found that to be both kind of cute and incredibly hot.
Victor squeezed Owen’s brawny shoulders as he bent close. “Maybe you should be the one getting fucked for a change,” Victor whispered, his voice low and hungry.
Owen growled low in his throat.
“Yeah?” Victor responded in a rasp, correctly interpreting Owen’s reaction. He brought his lips even closer to Owen’s ear, so that his soft goatee brushed against Owen’s cheek. “You like that?” he whispered softly. He sounded a little surprised, but also eager to find out just what it would be like to top a brute like Owen.
Owen licked his lips. “I’d like it even better,” Owen said huskily, his heart pounding loud in his ears, “if you did me… while Ger does you.”
The words hung heavily in the arousal-scented room. Then he heard Gerardo mutter, “Fuck, Owen,” from where he sat on Owen’s hard, round ass, his torso automatically pressed tight against Victor’s back, one strong arm wrapped firmly around his brother’s waist.
“Yes,” Owen agreed. “Fuck Owen.” He twisted his head so he could meet Victor’s dark, lust-saturated gaze, then, over Victor’s shoulder, Gerardo’s, which was filled with more awed desire than seemed humanly possible. “Fuck Owen,” he repeated. “And then… Owen will fuck you right back.”
This time, it was the brothers that growled, and the sound of their unison rumbling went straight to Owen’s balls.
The plan to go see Elder Lucas right away—once the blinding imperative of sex and showers was seen to, of course—was temporarily derailed when one of the shoulder seams of Gerardo’s brick-red “I Heart New York” tee shirt suddenly ripped wide open as he was shrugging into it, exposing a broad expanse of meaty, dark amber deltoid underneath.
Gerardo looked sheepishly at his towel-clad brother, who paused in the act of blow-drying his long hair to stare at him the the mirror, and then at Owen, who was still shirtless and staring open-mouthed at the results Gerardo’s unintended shirt-busting. “Ooops,” he said.
Owen reached into his increasingly snug pants and straightened out his never far from hard dick. “Dios mío,” Victor swore under his breath. Clicking off the hair dryer he set it down and rounded on Owen, stepping toward him. Owen caught Victor’s look and raised his hands, palms out.
“You have to stop growing us,” Victor said.
“I don’t mind,” Gerardo said easily. Victor glanced back at him, frowning, as the younger of the two brothers started tugging experimentally at his skin-tight shirt on the other side just below the opposite seam while shifting and squaring his hefty shoulders. He’d hardly started before that seam suddenly tore open as well. It was just an inch at first, creating a quarter sized hole, but Gerardo kept wiggling his mighty shoulders, barely needing the extra encouragement his pulling at the fabric provided before the seam opened up completely, showing so much dark, faintly striated deltoid and trapezius muscle pushing through the ragged opening that it looked like Gerardo was literally bursting out of his clothes. Gerardo looked up and aimed a dark-eyed, salacious grin at his audience.
“Holy fuck,” Owen said reverently. He was all the way hard now. He was so hard right now, he thought wryly, he could made iron envious and stone weep from wanting to be like him—and this after cumming twice up two separate, super-tight wolf-brother asses.
Victor turned back to face him. Owen could see his cheeks were a little red as well, and his heavy cock was pushing out against his towel—he was just as turned on watching Gerardo bust out of his shirt as Owen was. Victor brushed his hair back impatiently, his upper arms bulging impressively. Owen stared at him. Victor was bigger all over, too. The effect was greater on Gerardo, but everywhere Victor’s dense, hairy muscles were harder, more cut, and all but emanating a deep, masculine potency. Even Victor’s lush, midnight-black hair had lengthened some since the day before, Owen realized—it was now falling fully onto Victor’s bulging bare shoulders where it had only been brushing them before, and it dropped into his face a bit in front as well. Gerardo’s hair had grown too, Owen saw, and both their swaths of dark stubble had bloomed overnight into three or four days’ growth of beard around Gerardo’s long sideburns and Victor’s increasingly ragged goatee. It was as if Owen’s “man juice” had made both of them more manly in every way possible. Why Victor would object to that, Owen didn’t know.
Victor was glaring at him, as if he were guessing Owen’s thoughts—more likely they were written on his face, as usual, he corrected himself. “Don’t you see?” Victor said, pushing his hair back again. “This is only going to make things worse.” At Owen’s knitted brows he added insistently, “This is our world. Right? Our pack. They’ll see you changing us as a threat.” Owen started to respond to this, then stopped, biting his lip. “Nothing,” Victor persisted, “will make them close ranks against you faster than you charging into our lands and just blithely making the two of us more like you.”
Owen considered this. He did understand, once Victor explained. He had a frame of reference, after all, and he’d seen first hand how Glenn had reacted when outsiders—or even other bear folk—expressed an interest in messing with what he saw as his. Owen had only gotten away with “messing” with Max because Max had accepted Owen as “his”, at least for a while, and so Glenn had too, even standing up for him as if he were part of Glenn’s family group. Owen thought of the “boytoy” exchange in the little jail in Stark and felt his lips quirk at the memory.
Victor eyed him narrowly. “What are you smiling at?” he asked.
“Vic, c’mon, lay off him,” Gerardo broke in worriedly, coming up behind him and laying a hand on his shoulder.
“This is serious,” Victor said, turning his head toward him while still facing Owen.
“If you boys think I’m not serious about you both,” Owen said, “you’re wrong.”
Victor met his eyes, and Owen saw all kinds of conflicting emotions there. “We know,” Victor said. “We’re serious too. That’s why you can’t just… grow us!”
Gerardo snorted suddenly. “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation,” he said, smiling brightly.
Owen smiled too. “So what do you want me to do?” he asked Victor. “Stop fucking you?” There were only inches between them now, and Owen could feel the heat cascading off both his men, and smell the sweet musk of their consuming arousal. He stared deep into Victor’s eyes. Victor started to say something, but Owen barreled on. “Because right now you’ve got a giant, roaring, juicy erection that I very much want to wrap my hot mouth around. And you want that too, because I can feel it. Just like I can feel how badly you’re aching to take my hard cock again all the way up your tight ass. Which, just so we’re clear,” he added with a fierce smile, “is very much mine.” He looked at Gerardo over Victor’s dark, brawny shoulder. “Both of them.”
“Fuuuck,” Gerardo breathed. “I think I just came a little.” His hand was gripping his brother’s shoulder now, hard.
Victor’s breathing was ragged, but his voice was steady. “I… can’t argue with that. Any of it. But—think, Owen,” he said. “You have power over us. You made Ger shift—both ways. No one can do that. You’re doing this, too. And—fuck, you said it yourself, when all this started. Control. Right? You have to control the power you have over us.”
Owen blinked at him. “Maybe that’s why I’m here,” he said slowly. “Maybe… that’s why we all met.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Victor agreed.
“I felt something like that in the wolf dream,” Gerardo said, resting his dark-bristled chin on Victor’s shoulder where the curve of the trapezius met the surging roundness of the deltoid. “I know there’s something here for you find, and it’s not just finding… you know, you.”
Owen nodded at both of them. “I’ll find what I need to find,” he said, because there was no point in not going forward. Owen just wasn’t that kind of guy. He smiled crookedly as he added, “I’m going to need some help, though.”
“We’ll help you,” Gerardo said instantly.
“We’ll always help you,” Victor said. “You know that.” Owen smile spread into a wide grin. “And not just with your monster-sized butt-hungry permaboner,” Victor added dryly, cocking a brow at him as if despairing of Owen ever not thinking about sex.
“Yeah, not just with that,” Gerardo said, also grinning.
“You’re so cute when you’re trying to be serious while you’re turned on,” Owen said, bending—a little less than he’d needed to yesterday—to plant a deep, sensuous kiss on Victor’s full lips. Then he turned his head and kissed Gerardo for a long time, the two of them playfully groping each other around Victor as if he weren’t there. All three of them were so aroused that they were soon exploding in yet another orgasm, spraying endless amounts of spunk all over Victor and each other, while Gerardo and Owen panted, red-faced, into each other’s gaping mouths and Victor clung to Owen’s colossal boy-beast body, huffing into Owen’s broad neck.
“We… just showered,” Victor got out, still shooting his last spatters of cum into the rough, white motel bath towel trapped between them.
Owen kissed his neck. “You complaining, pups?” he asked, holding both of their muscular bodies close to his own.
“Hell no,” Victor said.
“Not even a little,” Gerardo said, nuzzling Owen’s stubbly cheek.
“Good. Because Ger will definitely need to change that shirt now, if we want to be presentable for Elder Lucas and all.”
“But this was the last one,” Gerardo whined. “All of the others were even tighter on me.”
“I don’t think the blue shirt I was wearing before will fit me now, either,” Victor confessed quietly into Owen’s nape.
Owen squeezed them both tightly and then stepped back, eyeing them appraisingly. Then he shrugged. “I got a couple of extra shirts in my room,” he said. “They’ll be too big for you, at least for now,” he added with a wink. Victor gave him a look, as Owen had intended. “I gotta warn you, though,” he went on, “I haven’t had a chance to wash ’em, so they’ll smell like me. A lot. You won’t be able to keep your dicks down while you’re wearing ’em, I’m guessing. Might even cause a few spontaneous orgasms—you never know.”
“Fuck yeah,” Gerardo said, low and throaty.
“Maybe… the Walmart in Sweets Crossing is a better idea,” Victor said judiciously, though it sounded like his reason was warring with the same urge to be wrapped up in Owen-smelling Owen-shirts that Gerardo had embraced with gusto.
“Oh yeah?” Owen said. “They let you walk around all big, hairy, and shirtless in the Sweets Crossing Walmart?”
Victor shook his head, but he couldn’t hide a slight curve to his lips. “You’re enjoying this a little too much.”
“Nope,” Owen said, beaming. “I’m enjoying this just the right amount.” He turned and, snapping up the key to his room from the bureau, tossed a quick “Back in a jiff” over his shoulder before opening the door and heading out into the bright summer morning, huge, shoeless, and shirtless, like some primal form of the human male. He turned and disappeared past the still-open door, Bandit trotting curiously behind him.
“Shit, even the dog that hates everyone loves him,” Gerardo said. He was still holding Victor close to him, his half-hard cock rutting idly in the smeared mess of the release he’d sprayed all over Victor’s back.
“Imagine how smug he’ll be when he realizes just how much we love him,” Victor said sourly. “We’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Like he doesn’t already know,” Gerardo said. “It’s like we’re all already fucking mated or something.” He started kissing Victor’s neck. “Fuck, bro, I’m still so horny.”
Victor turned in his embrace, letting the cum-soaked towel drop away at last and clasping Gerardo to him with his powerful arms in a messy, cum-slicked hug. “Get used to it,” he said, and let his mouth cover Gerardo’s in a long, hungry kiss. Eventually they separated, and Victor added, “I feel like this is only the beginning.”
Gerardo met his brother’s eyes. “You scared? About that ‘power’ he has over us?” he asked.
Victor considered, then sighed. “I’m starting to realize something,” he said. “There may only be one way to deal with our Owen and all the crazy that happens around him.”
Gerardo’s dark brown eyes danced as they looked into Victor’s, as if anticipating what his brother might say next. “Yeah? What’s that?” he asked.
Victor smiled softly at his brother’s obvious happiness. “Roll with it,” he admitted. Gerardo grinned, and Victor kissed him lovingly, their tongues wrestling playfully as they held each other, their heavy, uncut, and apparently tireless cocks swelling and hardening all over again between them.
Sweets Crossing proved to be a surprisingly well-populated town about fifteen minutes’ drive from the motel. They decided to go ahead and check out, so Owen brought down his few belongings from his room, shared a couple of his spare shirts with the boys, dressed in jeans, his boots, and a fresh tee himself; then, once they were all squared away in the office, he packed his stuff away in his travel compartments, mounted his trusty Ducati, donned his helmet and shades, and followed the brothers’ scuffed, bottle-green Accord out of the lot and onto the lazily winding local roads through low foothills on the western side of the valley. He rode the whole way with a smile on his face, knowing that the brothers were wearing his scent and it was probably doing their heads in, not to mention swelling their balls and straining their hard cocks with every mile they drove. What Bandit thought of all this, lounging in the back seat of the Honda and wondering at his charges’ odd behavior, he couldn’t even guess.
Sure enough, the brothers were red-faced and agitated by the time they all pulled into adjoining spaces in the sprawling, half-empty Walmart parking lot, and, Owen couldn’t help observing as he turned off his motorcycle and watched them climbing out of their car, they were very obviously also sporting massive, tube-like bulges in their criminally snug jeans. What really struck him, though, was how huge they looked, even swimming in two of the loose extra shirts Owen had bought recently in response to his own swelling form. He pulled off his helmet and shades for a better look.
Owen had always been big and bulky, more so lately; but the brothers’ muscles were thick and hard, to match their tight, lanky frames. Their shoulders, pecs, arms, abs, asses, and legs all looked like they were packed with twice as much brawn per cubic inch as Owen’s; and as they clambered out of the Accord, fully revealed in the bright late-morning sun, it was breathtakingly clear that Owen’s recent growth-stimulation had only made them look more than ever like they’d been chiseled from fucking iron, just a lot more of it. The too-big tee shirts Owen had lent them, ruffled now by the gentle breeze wafting through the lot, did little to hide their concentrated, hard-packed physiques—all while simultaneously suggesting, in the way the thin cotton fabric hung over their pecs and clung to their delts and bis, that these Owen-sized shirts might not be too big for long.
Owen marveled at them, feeling like his dick was actually swelling a little just from taking in the sight of them as they slammed their car doors and stalked around to stand in front of him, each of them wearing comically identical scowls. He tried to make eye contact with Bandit, now sitting up in the back seat on the side nearest him by the half-lowered window, but the big dog was looking primly ahead out the windshield, wanting nothing to do with the shapeshifters and their sexual antics.
Owen tossed the brothers a cocky grin, which got him a rough-voiced “Fuck you” from Victor.
“Yeah… fuck you,” Gerardo said, crossing his powerful-looking arms over his bigger-than-yesterday chest. Owen held back a laugh—Gerardo had let a lot more of the double meaning of the phrase leak into his tone than Victor had.
“We’re never going to get your smell out of the car,” Victor said. “We’re going to be popping boners every goddamn time we get into that thing.”
“Your stink is pretty intense, man,” Gerardo seconded. A whiff of the scent in question seemed to catch him just then, whether from the chocolate-brown borrowed shirt he was wearing or from Owen himself, and Owen’s vision focused on Gerardo’s flaring nostrils and darkening pupils. Victor seemed to be exercising more self-control, but the plain cobalt-blue tee he was wearing was clearly affecting him just as strongly.
Owen looked them both over, amused at being confronted over his own capacity to arouse. They wanted to play? He could play.
“I can smell your hard dicks, right now,” he said, his voice low and clear.
They stilled, their attention riveted on them, and when Owen opened just enough to lightly moisten his lower lip they followed his tongue’s every move.
“I can smell the hot, musky precum you both just let seep into your boxer-briefs,” he continued relentlessly, staring them both in their dark, hungry eyes. “I can smell how much you want me, every second we’re together,” he said, “and I know it’s the same for you. That’s us now. My stink on you. Your stink on me.”
He let his smile widen into a carnal smirk. “It’s like foreplay we get to do all the time, until the moment comes when we can all fuck again.”
Gerardo was breathing a little heavily. “Now,” he blurted out darkly, loosening his folded arms and letting them fall as if freeing up his hands for imminent action. “The moment is now.” He tore his eyes away from Owen and started scanning the dense woods beyond the parking lot that reached around behind the Walmart, as if assessing whether their thin, noontime shadows could make a viable fuck venue.
“Mierda, Owen,” Victor gritted out, genuinely aggrieved under his towering arousal. “It’s too much. Can’t you… tone it down?”
Owen’s expression softened. He climbed off his motorcycle at last, letting them see the bulge from his own massive erection. Standing before them he placed a hand on both their shoulders, half-wondering his palms weren’t seared from the heat of their aching, molten-hot arousal.
“That’s not my power over you,” he said steadily, looking them both in their chocolate-brown eyes. “That’s… just how much you want me. It’s the same for all of us, Vee. Exactly the same.”
Victor responded to the nickname as if something within him was pulled in that much closer to Owen, but before he could say anything Gerardo spoke. “It’s hard to believe you want us as badly as I’m craving you right now,” he said. There was a bit of a quaver in his voice, as if he were worried by the intensity of his feelings.
“Believe it,” Owen said, staring him down. Gerardo stared back, eyebrows lifting like rising balloons, and Owen got the feeling he was sensing truth in Owen’s words.
Victor shook his head slightly. “Then, I guess… it’s not just you that needs to learn control,” Victor concluded reluctantly. He sounded as though he wasn’t sure he was up to the challenge.
Owen considered him. “Kiss me,” he commanded. Victor immediately moved toward him, helpless to resist, but Owen added, “Softly. Quietly.” Victor paused, and Owen met his darkened gaze. “Control it,” he insisted. “Less hurricane, more… ducks out for a swim.”
Victor huffed a laugh. “It’s not that simple,” he protested.
“Maybe not.” Owen shrugged and offered Victor an easy smile. “Give it a try.”
Victor hesitated, then leaned in. Their kiss was gentle and sweet though still passionate, but after it Victor whispered, “Need more.”
Owen just smiled at him and turned to Gerardo. He was crowding in close. “Now you,” he said. “Remember,” he added warningly, eyeing him.
“I know. Soft.” Gerardo snorted. “Like there’s anything soft about any of us right now.” But to Owen’s surprise Gerardo’s kiss was like his brother’s, slow and tender. They ended with a second, brief kiss, then Gerardo pulled back only an inch and echoed his brother. “Need more,” he all but growled, though he said it with a salacious grin.
There was a low woof. The surfaced quickly from their lust-haze and turned to look at Bandit. He was still staring out the front windshield, but he was now doing so with focused wariness. They turned to see what he was looking at, and frowned.
A couple of very seedy-looking locals, one with stringy hair and a stained black tee and the other in a flannel shirt with the sleeves ripped off, were standing the next row over, watching them with disgust. They seemed headed away from the store but had no shopping bags, making it look as though they’d interrupted their aimless wandering of the parking lot to stop and gawk at the homos. Flannel guy’s disgusted sneer revealed the ruined and missing teeth of a meth-head. The space between the two groups was empty—Victor had parked at the end of a line of cars, and the spaces opposite both the Accord and the Ducati were vacant—and with no one else around the scene felt to Owen a little like a bizarre showdown. Owen thought that was kind of funny. He wondered how many shootouts in the old west there’d been where one side was just a couple of total losers everyone hated.
The seedy locals started pelting them with verbal offal, demeaning them with every insult and swear word their stunted brains could conjure up.
No one talked to his pups that way.
Both brothers growled low in their throats, but Owen straightened and said, “I got this.”
He took a single step past the brothers, toward the two men. Instincts intruded on his thoughts, telling him to charge and maul, but instead he took one more step and… rose up. It felt to Owen like the way a massive bear might rear up on his hind legs, terrifying his prey into stillness. Only as Owen was already on his hind legs it was more that Owen’s shape expanded upward. Hair bristled. Muscle swelled. His massive back and shoulders rent his shirt open like tissue paper, and his jeans strained as his thighs thickened with size and strength.
The two bigots were gaping dumbstruck up at him, their eyes wide, round, and horrorstruck. Their faces were sheet-white. Owen took another long, heavy pace forward, looming over them despite the several feet still separating them. He craned his head down toward them.
“GO. FUCK. YOURSELVES,” he snarled, in a voice a good octave lower than normal, so that it seemed to shiver through the very asphalt around them.
No more words were necessary. The two men gaped at him for another second, then broke suddenly and hared off at a dead run down the parking lot. Owen watched them clamber into a dented white pickup that looked like it had already seen some unknown Apocalypse, and a moment later the miscreants were tearing recklessly out of the lot like a horde of Viking berserkers were after them, leaving a trail of unhealthy white exhaust behind them.
Then everything was quiet, and Owen was breathing loudly in his own ears. The sound of rushing blood seemed to engulf him.
He felt the brother’s hands on him. That was good. Calming. He didn’t need to be mad now. It was just his pups. The men he loved.
“It’s okay, O,” Gerardo was crooning softly in his ear as he stroked his arm. “It’s okay.”
“You can come back to us, babe,” he heart Victor say, and the worry in his voice made his heart ache.
He blinked hard, and again, and then he was standing between Gerardo and Victor as they slowly stroked his arms and shoulders. They were grouped together in the empty space in front of the Honda, Owen now exposing parts of his hairy chest and back thanks to the half-destroyed tee shirt he was wearing like he’d been after a doorbuster in a Black Friday brawl. He caught sight of Bandit, still watching attentively from the back of the Honda, but not looking alarmed or panicked. Well, that was a good sign, Owen thought. His own heart was racing and he was feeling a very slight sheen of panic himself, but the protector-dog’s equanimity and the brothers’ efforts at soothing him eased his mind and slowed his galloping pulse to a more normal level.
He gave the brothers a sheepish grin. “Sorry about that,” he said finally. “Uh… what just happened, exactly?”
“You half-shifted,” Gerardo said. He sounded a little awed.
“Giving those assholes something to remember for the rest of their lives, that’s for sure,” Victor added dryly.
“Us too,” Gerardo grinned. “Though for different reasons.”
Owen wished he could have seen it—he was filled with an abrupt, wistful desire to watch his own transformation. Maybe he’d get more of a sense of what it was like through his guys next time. They were still slowly stroking him, like there was a chance he wouldn’t stay normal without help. He thought he should tell them to stop, that he was okay, but he was still putting his thoughts together, and it felt nice. Instead he bit his lip and looked at them in turn from under his lashes. “I’ve… never actually shifted before,” he admitted shyly. “Not even half.”
The brothers exchanged a look, their hands slowing so that they were just holding his arms and shoulders in a firm, gentle grip. Then Gerardo’s face split in a huge grin.
“What?” Owen asked him, surprised.
“I cannot fucking wait for the full moon,” Gerardo replied. “You’re like nothing anyone around here’s ever seen before. You’re going to change everything.”
Owen looked at Victor. The older brother didn’t say anything, but Owen knew him well enough now to see the apprehension in his eyes Gerardo’s cavalier pronouncement had entailed. Owen, as usual, opted for breezy de-escalation.
“Starting with this tee shirt, it looks like,” he said ruefully. He aimed a smile at Gerardo. “You’re not the only one who can bust out of his shirts, huh, pup?”
“And how,” Gerardo said, still beaming.
Wrapping his massive, hairy arms around his boys, Owen turned them around and together they headed for the store entrance. He thought about the day ahead. Clothing, then food, then potentially hostile wolf elders. Just like on the football field, there was a way through most of the time, even if the gains were short. He could handle that. With his pups at his side, he was starting to think he could handle anything.
Milton glowered at the parking lot east security feed for a long moment, his mouth a hard line under his unimpressive mustache. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was he’d just witnessed, but he was damn sure what it wasn’t: local. Whatever it was that had chased away Clyde and Otis, and good riddance to them, it wasn’t any of the local animal stock, though it had two of the snouts with it. No, that… that was an outsider.
He stood up from his desk in the little office behind the service counter and spoke into his radio. “Lenny to the security office,” he barked. Someone else could watch the security feeds for a few minutes.
He had to make a call.
Elder Lucas Fisher and his wife lived a good hour’s drive to the southwest, which, Owen already knew, was exactly the wrong direction to get to anything like civilization in these parts. It seemed strange at first: if he were the head of a wolf clan, he thought, he’d set up shop in some kind of central location so that his people could find him when they needed him, and he could easily come to them.
But as he purred down the narrow, winding county road, his attention mostly keeping up with the brothers’ dusty green Accord (Gerardo, it turned out, had a bit of a leadfoot, especially on roads he knew well), he noticed the scattered farms giving way to knots of tall trees, then fragrant stands of verdant woods, then to acres and acres of lush, sprawling forestland, and Owen started to get the idea. He could like it out here, away from everything.
They came to a turnoff marked only by a simple metal-bar gate, with neat store-bought vinyl letters spelling out “No Trespassing” along the top bar. The unpaved track beyond this gate led them deep into what Owen later found out was a private, fifty-acre preserve that the clan held for the sole use of its own wolves, the occasional visiting wolf from one of the other two packs in the area, and unclassified invited guests like Owen. Or—he started to correct himself, sure that a visitation from someone like him would be unique. Would it, though? He suspected, or felt, that there was no one like him anywhere. But he had to have come from somewhere. Maybe his kind, if he had a “kind”, existed in the past, even if he were alone in the present.
Owen drew in a deep breath, casting off the stray thoughts. The warm summer air was rich with a hundred woodsy scents, and his usual smile surfaced again. An image came into his mind of Gerardo and Victor gamboling through these woods in wolf form, dodging around the boles of great, towering trees and playfully nipping at each other’s flanks as they plowed this way and that through the underbrush, and the smile bloomed into a huge grin across his bristly face. Just the thought of his wolf-lovers experiencing pure, uncomplicated happiness made his heart ache in that new way it had when he thought of them.
He was already sure that the brothers were not merely good to have around, but necessary to his soul, and he to theirs. It was a mating bond, whatever he’d felt in the wolf dream about the impossibility of such a link between bear and wolf. Fuck the rules, if there were any. The way the brothers’ energy dwelt in his heart and, he thought wryly, his balls as well, and in his very blood and sweat—that, he could not regret. But he realized now, as he wound slowly through the dappled, rolling forest of his lovers’ clan-home, that something in him chafed over the fact that his having set foot in this valley had complicated their lives. It bugged him, and he wanted to do something about it.
That was always his impulse. He acted. Most of time it worked out. It was a joke on the football field, that his gut was the smartest player on the field. Heck, it was how he’d started playing the the first place. He hadn’t sulked when his ex-footballer father called him useless: he’d gone up to a buddy down the street, a junior on the team named Davey, and demanded to learn the game. His tendency to act had worked out well in other areas, too. After all, he hadn’t just stared at Maxfield Sheridan’s mouth-watering lips and thick bulge, either: he’d cornered Max alone and made sure that a man’s mouth was what he wanted on his full lips and mighty cock. Even this “quest” he was on had been a weird, sudden urge that he’d followed without question. The characteristic confidence and exuberance everyone knew him for all derived from trusting his instincts to steer him where he needed to go.
Only now, his gut impulses had ramifications not only for himself but for Victor and Gerardo, too. And maybe for entire clans of wolves he’d never even met. Should he be worried about that? Max would, he figured, if it were him. But Max had been methodically transforming himself into someone who took burdens onto his broad shoulders with all kinds of stalwart, firm-jawed nerve. Just like his dad.
Owen snorted at the picture he had of the son and father on their mountain. Max and Glenn, they were serious dudes. Owen was just Owen. Good ol’ Owen. Part time quarterback, part-time boytoy, full-time—what? What was he, really?
They pulled up in front of a large, yellow two-story farm-house, parking at the nearer end of a grassy field that showed signs of regular vehicular use, next to a high-end pickup and a cyan SUV that Owen guessed belonged to the elders that lived here. To Owen there was a clear sense that this was where cars, trucks and bikes stopped, and all beyond was for foot and paw. Victor and Gerardo sensed his troubled mood, saying nothing as they got out of the Accord, let Bandit out of the back, and came around to him where he sat on his silenced bike, taking a moment to stare into the pristine beauty of the woodlands all around them. Bandit sat back a bit, watching the three of them. The moment was still and tense.
Gerardo reached up and gently stroked his upper arm, and Victor did the same. Owen closed his eyes and drew in a breath. Their scent filled his nostrils, and for a moment he felt a raw twinge of guilt at the deep, soul-mending pleasure he took from it. But the feeling passed, leaving him basking in contentment and reassurance—his own, and, he realized, the brothers’, too. He was sharing his strength with them even as they gave of themselves for him, only it had passed beyond giving and taking. Only in this moment did he fully grasp how their empathic connection now fell naturally and automatically into a beautiful, profound equilibrium, a wealth of comfort, confidence, and prowess that they three possessed as one.
He smiled at them, and they smiled back. His doubts were gone. He was ready to act.
They walked around to the front steps still in silence, the brothers to either side of him, Bandit trailing calmly behind. He was tempted to take the brothers’ hands in a defiant claim of possession, and let the clan snarl and wail if they didn’t like it; but there was no need. So strong was the bond between them that any wolf would see it just by looking at them. Any wolf, any shifter, any ordinary man would sense it. Even his father would pick up on in the moment he walked into the store, he thought wryly as he mounted the wooden steps to the broad front stoop.
Gerardo rang the doorbell, whistling tunelessly. Owen smiled at him. They waited, drinking in the loamy, leafy forest air. An American flag hung a foot to the left of the porch flapped gently in the light summer breeze.
Owen looked his men over, trying to see them as their packmates would. They were… big. Definitely big. And, more to the point, bigger. Though they still looked more like densely muscular, extra-hairy gymnasts than pro bodybuilders, there was no mistaking their having been visibly boosted in size and—what? something like potency—in the time since Owen had first met them in the motel parking lot. Everything about them was thicker, more potent and solid, but still graceful and somehow… vivid, like the world and everyone in it was this endless drab charcoal drawing and they were full-color, deft-lined, bright-eyed, master-class real, ready to leap off of the page at any moment.
And gloriosky, were they beautiful. More beautiful even than when he’d met them, at least to his eyes, and he’d been bowled over by how effortlessly hot Gerardo had been, walking up to Owen as he’d made friends with their guardian-dog, and again, like a second punch, by the dazzling, dishy handsomeness of his sweet, protective brother. Was his perceiving them as having become better looking just his own lust-goggles, or was it objective fact? No, it was the same as with their bodies, he was sure. They had been strong before, but now they were stronger; generously endowed before, but now they were truly, unnaturally hung; vibrant before, now radiant with life and energy; good-looking before, now beyond good-looking, passing captivating and headed for mesmerizing. They had talked about the power he had over them, but the transformations he had stoked in his lovers were slowly giving them an unstoppable power over Owen as well. Hell, when had his cock swollen to aching erection? When had theirs? This was not the time!
I want to kiss you, he thought, staring helplessly at them.
Gerardo blushed, ducking his head slightly while still keeping eye contact, and Victor smirked. Which one of us? Owen heard in his mind, and he wasn’t sure whether the question had come from Victor, Gerardo, or both.
Owen shook his head at them, his smile crooked. Of course, it would be like this between them. You know the answer to that, pups. It was both. The answer was always both. I want to take you somewhere. Beaches and blue skies forever. Mai tais and suntan oil.
Cabana boys? Gerardo teased.
Owen grinned. You two can be my cabana boys.
Now Gerardo was smirking, too. Owen tried glowering at the younger of the two darkly handsome hunks. Did you have to wear that shirt? he asked, nodding down at one of their recent Walmart purchases. It was an XXL tee shirt in dark chocolate brown, with stark white lettering that read BEARS DO IT IN THE WOODS. The moment he’d seen it he’d immediately whipped off his borrowed, oversized Owen-scented tee shirt, taken one last whiff, and pulled on the new shirt right there in the store as if he intended never to take it off (all to the actual squees of a cluster of random teenage girls already gathered at the edge of the menswear section, drooling over the three of them as they shopped for tees, shirts, and jeans).
Unrepentant, Gerardo just smiled wickedly up at him, and the lust in his brown eyes was so intense they seemed almost to be sparking with it.
Owen glanced at Victor, who was wearing a perfect-fitting dark green tee that hugged his muscled physique so snugly it looked like part of a superhero outfit. At least your brother—he started, but at that moment there were noises from inside, and the front door finally opened.
Standing there regarding them with an imperious coolness was a tall, sturdy woman of indeterminate age: her hair was white but her face was unlined, and her hazel eyes were as clear as any he had ever seen. She took in the two wolves, then Owen, and her mouth was a hard line as she did so. Despite the warm afternoon she was dressed smartly in slim, dark trousers, low-heel walking boots, a white top, and a dark exercise-style jacket that matched the trousers.
This must be Elder Eirene, Lucas’s wife. Owen forced down his abashed reaction and gave her his most winning smile.
“Aunt Eirene—” Victor began, but the Elder cut him off.
“Who are you?” she demanded of Owen.
Owen’s stomach fluttered, as if signalling danger. He knew that Gerardo had “called ahead” in the wolf dream the previous night and Lucas had agreed to meet him and hear him out whenever he was ready. He just had to come over. There was no way Eirene didn’t know who he was, and Owen suspected that her question had a subtext more along the lines of “What are you?”, just as the brothers had demanded of him at their first meeting. Or perhaps it was “Who are you to come here?”, like he was trespassing on their very existence.
Or maybe it was “What kind of a pervert are you?” She was very pointedly making eye contact with him and not lowering her steely gaze, but he knew she must sense his (rapidly degrading) state of arousal, and the brothers’ as well.
He decided to answer the question asked. “My name is Owen, Elder,” he said. He hesitated only a second before adding the name his father had left for him on the breakfast table, on that morning long ago on the other side of the world. “Owen Burke.”
Owen might have missed the way Eirene flinched almost imperceptibly at the name had he not been watching her closely. She immediately composed herself as if she had made no reaction. Interesting, Owen thought. That name does mean something. The brothers were glancing at him curiously, too, in his peripheral vision. Did they know the name, or was it just that Owen hadn’t given one until now?
She watched him coldly for a moment, then stood aside in mute invitation. Owen, Victor, and Gerardo passed into the house, then she swiftly shut the door before Bandit could enter behind them. Owen heard the dog bark once and scratch at the door, but Eirene ignored his protests and conducted them from the small foyer into an airy living room with large windows, high ceilings, and a cozy-looking rust and red plaid sofa and love seat before a large stone fireplace in the center of the long interior wall. The floors were polished hardwood except for a large carpet with blue, tan, and brown abstract designs framing a conversation area bounded on two sides by the couch and love seat, a low coffee table at its center. A large archway beyond the fireplace opened onto a darkened dining room.
“Please sit,” she commanded. They sat gingerly on the couch, Owen in the middle, the three of them exchanging worried glanced. She remained standing, the stone mantel directly behind her as if to frame her cold expression and body language.
“Aunt Eirene where’s Uncle Lucas?” Victor asked.
“He said he would be here,” Gerardo added uncomfortably.
“Elder Lucas will not be joining us,” said a rough voice. “He was outvoted.”
Owen looked over toward the dining room with a start. While his attention had been on Eirene a well-built, silver-haired Latino man in a thin flannel shirt, jeans, and straw cowboy hat had appeared in the archway, pointing what was unmistakably a long-boled, air-fired tranquilizer rifle directly at Owen’s chest. Four more feathered darts stuck out of the man’s shirt pocket, he noticed, ready for instant reloading.
Owen rose to his feet, staring at the weapon. He felt the brothers stand also and sensed their fear and anger, but for the moment he was fixated on the rifle. He had no doubt that whatever it was loaded with, the payload had been calculated to take out an unusually large bear, not just a man.
“Sit down,” Eirene ordered them. Owen and the brothers ignored her.
“Where is Elder Lucas?” Victor demanded again. He was shocked and afraid, but the dominant emotion pouring off him was a defiance born of a fierce need to protect Owen and Gerardo. Owen approved.
“Why are you doing this?” Gerardo cried, his energy dark with cold fury, but Eirene shouted over him.
“Silence, outcasts!” she bellowed viciously. Stunned, the brothers stilled, staring at her, sliced open by the word cast at them, as no doubt had been her intent. Owen glanced over at her. She looked like she was done with the lot of them, her ageless face contorted in a rictus-like sneer.
“Outc—” Gerardo whispered. Eirene again spoke over him.
“You have brought an amaxo among us,” he said in a low, disgusted voice. “You have betrayed your people, and,” she added, looking them up and down, “you have betrayed yourselves. The pack must be protected.” She looked between the newly grown brothers with contempt. “Your mother would be ashamed.”
The brothers gaped at her, dumbstruck and horrified. Owen felt a strange smile curl one side of his lips. He liked it when people clarified how he should think of them. It was so much simpler, now, knowing he could despise this woman, clan leader or no, for treating his men like this.
Knowing he and the brothers had been insulted didn’t help him to understand, however. He reached out to the brothers with his thoughts. Amaxo?
It was a moment before Victor managed an answer. A legend. A Beast. An amaxo is… the legend is of an evil spirit in the form of a huge predator, like a bear or a large panther. It debauches members of the pack in order to gain power over it and destroy it.
It uses sex to take over the pack?
Gerardo broke in. It’s not real. They don’t really exist. This is… there’s no such thing as the Beast. There’s no such thing!
Victor must have been thinking ahead to what would happen next, because he added, According to the legends, an amaxo must be destroyed with… it must be destroyed with fire. Alive.
No—! Gerardo’s emotions were still of cold fury, but underneath that was raw, untamed anxiety, not for himself but for the man to whom he had already given his life and soul.
Owen would protect them. There was no other possibility. And himself, because, let’s face it, their days of world-class fucking were not going to be cut short by something like this.
Eirene was glaring at him, her malicious intent toward him clear. Owen stared right back at her, lips still curled in a half smile. So, they were going to march him at tranq-point to his own funeral pyre where he was to be—what? Burned alive? And with who knew what intent for the brothers? Yeah. Not happening.
Owen felt the moment come over him, as it had a hundred times before. His blood flowed fast and hot, but his mind was calm and cool, and his muscles loosed, ready to act. His feet took a step forward of their own accord, toward this women who had vilified his men. But motion to his right made him look quickly over to where Manuel had stepped aggressively into the room from the archway, the tranq rifle now raised high and pointed straight at Owen’s head. “Don’t,” he growled. Owen held his ground, his consciousness of his surroundings raised to hyper acuity, so that the room, the house, and the forest all seemed like a panorama around him, awaiting his next move.
Owen kept his eye on the pack’s Third Elder, who seemed to be trying to repress a nervous shiver as he kept his weapon trained on him. But he spoke to Eirene, his hands loosely at his sides. “You’ve got this all wrong,” he said calmly. “We don’t mean you any harm. We just came to talk.”
“I do not speak to evil,” she said with icy conviction. Then she added, “Or to the corrupted.”
Though his eyes were on Manuel, who was staring now at Owen as if he had never seen tall, massively muscled young man with a crooked smile before, he felt Eirene turn to the other Elder. They were about to end the parley phase of these proceedings. It was down to him.
Owen centered himself, drawing a deep breath. He knew what he had to do: get himself and the boys out of there safely, and Bandit too. That meant his first task was removing the tranq rifle from the equation.
Victor spoke, drawing Eirene’s attention. “This is not right, Elder,” he said hotly. “Under clan law I demand I hearing before the full—” Owen tuned him out, concentrating his thoughts on Manuel. The Elder shifted nervously. He might fire at any second, and the dosage would probably kill him. Owen had to get this exactly right, and he wasn’t even sure he could do it at all.
What do you need? asked Gerardo urgently. Victor was listening too.
Help me focus. It needs to be all at once.
Gerardo did not answer. He just took Owen’s hand. He probably did not need an actual physical connection, but it was a nice reinforcement of their shared bond together. Victor took his other hand at the same time.
Focus, he told them, while Eirene raved about how she would never subject the members of her clan to the Beast’s corruption. The pack must be protected! Owen felt his senses, his capability, his confidence and being melding with the two brothers, their strength intertwining and multiplying. The thought thrilled him, and though he roared inwardly with power, lust, and unslakable need, he pushed all that aside.
Eirene’s denunciations faltered. “What are you—?” she asked, from somewhere in the still otherness beyond Owen-Victor-Gerardo and their prey.
They stared hard at Manuel as one. The elder’s eyes widened in fear. Owen wasn’t intending to psych him out, but he wasn’t sorry. His heartbeat seemed to synchronize with the brothers’. Thump. Thump. Thump. He timed himself to the slamming of their single pulse, gathering their united strength.
“Manny!” Eirene was shouting. “Manny, now! Protect the pack!”
Thump … thump … thump
Lust and desire flooded Manuel. His fangs dropped, and then, all at once, he was a dark gray and black wolf in flannel, jeans, and boots. The rifle clattered noisily to the floor.
Go! Owen shouted mentally to the boys. From the front stoop, Bandit barked three times.
They released their hands as Victor, who was closest, turned and pelted for the front door. Eirene was still turning to gape at Manuel, Owen and Gerardo right behind him. As Victor ripped open the door, almost pulling it from its hinges in his haste, Owen spared a single glance back at the tableau in the living room. Manuel, the wolf, was staring up at Eirene, dismay in his dark gold eyes. Owen knew the two elders were having trouble wrapping their heads around it: an alpha, unwillingly turned, and not even by a stronger wolf, a mega-alpha, but by something else entirely. He also knew the shock wouldn’t last.
They’ll be on us in a minute, he told the brothers as they tore out of the foyer and through the door onto the small porch, Bandit bounding ahead down to the grass below. Gerardo pulled the door shut behind him with a slam and the three of them scampered down the steps toward their vehicles—and stopped short.
On the other side of the grassy clearing the clan used as a parking area was the gap though which the lane that led back to the road passed through the forest that surrounded them. A beat-up red pickup and an old black sedan were parked directly across the gap in the forest, barring their only way out. Two young, long-haired men, one a pony-tailed dishwater blond, the other mouse-brown with a goatee, were straightening up from where they’d been leaning against the pickup, casually sharing a joint, and were staring at them, wide-eyed. Goatee pinched the spliff and picketed it as they stared. Then their eyes narrowed, and the two of them started toward them at a dead run. Owen saw that Pony-tail had a gun in his waistband, and it didn’t look like a tranq. Fuck.
“Idiot! Go!” shouted Eirene from inside the house. The sound of boots clattering across the hardwood floors was joined by the skittering of paws, all of it getting closer. They’d be through the front door in seconds, and Owen had no doubt Eirene had not left the tranq rifle lying abandoned on the living room floor.
Fuck, they’d have to make a run for it in the forest. Could they shake a bunch of wolves on their own land—? Well, he’d had to dodge attackers on hostile turf before. Though this time if he made the wrong choices he was risking more than possession of a football.
Bandit barked again at them, then twice more. Owen turned and saw the big dark-chocolate lab a hundred feet away at the edge of the lush woods. He was eying them over his shoulder, urging them to follow him.
Easy call. “Go! That way!” Owen said aloud, pointing toward Bandit. The three of them took off at top speed, much faster than ordinary humans, the boys ahead, Owen behind them. Owen wanted to laugh. He could have used a bit of inhuman speed like this a couple times on the field. The door of the house burst open and Eirene screamed her mantra: “Protect the pack!”
They hit the treeline and threaded fluidly through the deciduous trunks without even slowing, trusting Bandit to lead the way. The woods were mostly clear of underbrush apart from the odd dropped branch, and there seemed to be relatively few jutting roots, so the three of them could run almost flat out around the trees. Owen took note of the gentle incline and tried to guess where they were, but he’d only glanced at the brothers’ maps before they’d headed out and didn’t know the area.
From behind them came shouting and curses as the others crashed into the forest, hot on their trail. Manny the wolf sent up a howl, and Owen wondered if there were other wolves roaming the preserve to heed the call and join the chase. He wondered if he should turn the brothers so they could run and fight as wolves. He wondered if he could turn himself.
He’d started to, in the Walmart parking lot. He’d felt that uncanny pleasure-pain rush, the wild sense of becoming. Muscles shifting, bones thickening, his very self twisting into something new and immensely potent and him… only, not him.
No, that wasn’t right. It was him, it wasn’t not him. Owen. An Owen. The Owen. Owen, un-Owen, ultimate-Owen, true-Owen. An Owen that was an entire universe, kept from engulfing him by a hard wall, by the merest, most gossamer membrane. He could fall in. He could become. He could be lost, or found, or both.
Maybe he’d backed down. Stepped back. Before, at the parking lot, he’d stepped back.
Maybe he shouldn’t do that next time.
Was he ready? It didn’t matter. He needed to know.
He heard the shouting behind them, close. Someone fired a pistol, and the concussive sound echoed loudly through the vast, quiet forest. Owen started as he ran, picking up his feet and trying to speed the boys ahead of him. Protect the pack? Fuck them if they didn’t think he was going to protect his own pack.
Maybe that next time was about to be now.
Ahead of then, Bandit took a sudden left toward a tall, wild-looking dark green holly hedge that seemed to appear from out of nowhere and which looked, to Owen’s eyes, weirdly out of place amongst the towering oaks and ashes. The big lab burst through the hedge and disappeared from view. The boys pelted after him, and Owen, forearms up to protect his face from leaves and branches, followed at a run—
—and slammed straight into Victor and Gerardo, who’d stopped for some reason directly in front of him almost as soon as they’d cleared the hedge like tourists gawping at Times Square. The impact sent all three of them crashing to the ground, Owen’s elbow jabbing into Victor’s back so hard he almost through he’d punched through his chest and out the other side.
“Owwww!” Victor cried out.
“Watch it, you big, hunky oaf!” Gerardo complained, spitting out a mouthful of sand.
“I’m not the ones who stopped in the middle of the road,” Owen said, disentangling his limbs from the brothers’ and trying to situate his knees on solid ground so he could get to his feet. “C’mon, get up,” he said, looking up, “they’re right—”
The trees were gone. The forest was gone, and all of upstate New York with it. Before him stretched what looked like an infinite curve of unspoiled, white Caribbean beach. The sky above was saturated cerulean, the sun high and bright, the blue-green ocean to his left rippling but placid. No angry wolf elders, no stoner reinforcements, no surly Denny’s waiters with a past claim on one of his guys, nada. Not a single soul was to be seen.
The surf sloshed rhythmically along the idyllic strand, its sound like the embodiment of calm reassurance.
Still on his knees, he twisted to look back from where they’d came. The vista was the same in the other direction. Jungle, beach, ocean, sky. No forest, no wolves—and no inexplicable man-high holly hedge.
“—behind us,” he finished distractedly. A cool ocean breeze wafted over them, riffling his lengthening hair.
Victor had stood already and was now pulling Gerardo to his feet, looking around as he did so. “I don’t recognize this place,” he said.
“I do,” Owen said. “Not this place specifically, but the idea of it.” He glanced around, confirming there were neither people nor habitations anywhere along the beach or inland toward what looked like a dense jungle. “Though where we’re going to get mai tais from—”
“Fuck,” Gerardo said, understanding. He met Owen’s eyes, then Victor’s. Then the brothers looked at Bandit, who was dancing around them in happy circles, leaving a ring of paw-prints around them in the fine white sand.
Owen tilted his head at the dog. The dog stopped and grinned at him. “C’mere,” he said. The dog trotted over. “You did this? You brought us here?” he asked.
The dog sat on his haunches and looked back at him, tail wagging in the sand behind him—smug as all hell, Owen thought. He was very, very tempted to say “Good boy,” just to wind the guardian-dog up a bit, but he was too genuinely grateful for what he’d done to protect his boys. Instead he offered a hand. Bandit stuck out his paw, and they shook. “Thank you, buddy,” Owen said.
He couldn’t resist needling the dog a little. “You can lick my face if you want,” he said, jutting his chin out as if offering his face for doggy-kisses. Bandit lowered his muzzle, stilling his tail and glowering at him. “Okay, fine, I’ll lick yours,” Owen said, leaning forward and lolling his wide tongue out as if to actually do so. Bandit jumped to his feet with a huff and scampered off. Owen chuckled.
“I didn’t know he could do something like this,” Gerardo said as Owen got to his feet, dusting sand off the knees of his jeans.
“We don’t know much about the guardians,” Victor agreed, watching Bandit gambol along the surf with a smile. “He’s been around the pack since we moved here, but I’ve never spent much time alone with him until Elder Lucas and Elder Sam from the north pack sent him with us to find you.” He looked at Owen. “They are not shifters. They have a kind of magic I’m not sure any of us understand.”
“And a sense of responsibility,” Owen said, and they turned back to look at Bandit playing with the frothy water’s edge as it rolled in and then sucked back. He remembered Tyrant, the guardian-dog from Max’s mountain, and how serious and dignified he was when it came to sorting out trouble for the “mountain folk”—shifters like Max and his dad, who’d belonged to that mountain land since the days of their ancestors.
“With great dog-power comes great dog-responsibility, I guess,” Gerardo said with a fond smile.
Owen was very aware of the intensely alluring young men standing before him, alone with him in a nowhere place of his own imagining. His large hands found their shoulders, then their backs, and they did they same, admiring Owen’s broadness with their hands even as they all watched Bandit’s antics along the surf. Their touches along his hard body tingled through him, begging for him to seek more contact, deeper intimacy, total union.
They were pretending they weren’t all getting aroused, and that sensing each other’s arousal wasn’t feeding off itself for each of them. The air was tense, waiting for something to transpire, as the tide splashed in slow cadence with the universe.
“So where are we, exactly, do you think?” Owen said musingly. “Is this like the wolf dream, or are we really here? Wherever ‘here’ is.”
Neither of the brothers spoke for a moment as the surf roared and the wind played with the brothers’ lush, shoulder-length hair. Owen was fully hard, his blunt, bigger-than-ever club of a cock pushing against his pants like it wanted to rip them open, and he could feel that the brothers were just as hard and just as turned on as he was, or more. “I think both,” Gerardo said at last, drawing out the words as if he weren’t quite sure. “This place feels… elsewhere, like the wolf dream, but—” He looked uncertainly at Victor.
Victor looked up at Owen. “We did not come here as we come to the dream,” he said, sounding sure. “We are not here only in spirit.”
“You mean, we just popped out of reality for a quick breather, and into whatever dreamspace one of us happened to be thinking about?” Owen said, his lips quirking.
Gerardo bit his lip (adorably). Victor shrugged and nodded. Owen grinned. “Good,” he said. He looked behind him to where the holly hedge wasn’t. “That’ll confuse ’em. Serves those fuckers right. Do you realize they shot at us?” Then, realizing he wasn’t being completely tactful, he turned back to them, ducking his head apologetically. “Uh, sorry. I know they’re your elders—”
To his surprise, Victor shook his head. “No,” he said flatly. “They stopped being our elders when they turned against us.”
“That’s right,” Gerardo growled. “What she did—what she was going to do—!”
“C’mon, she was right about one thing,” Owen said with a smirk, trying to defuse the tension and get back to the sexy stuff. He wiggled is eyebrows and added, “I did corrupt you, after all.”
Gerardo’s expression hardened into stony anger. He glared up at Owen. “That’s not funny!”
Owen sighed. He turned his caresses into a gentle hug, bringing them closer. Victor’s arms slid around Owen and Gerardo, while Gerardo drew his hands in, sliding them up Owen’s tight, granite abs through his shirt as the others held him. “No, it’s not,” Owen said, as he looked out into the dark, rippling ocean. “But it’s true. You heard her. What is an amaxo? Someone powerful who takes the form of a great bear, and uses sex magic to seduce—”
Victor pushed back from him to frown up at him. “You are not evil,” he said, adamant. “You are not the Beast.”
Owen met his gaze unflinchingly. “How do you know, Vic?” he said softly. “I took you from your pack, changed you. Corrupted—”
“Shut up!” Gerardo said suddenly. He hit Owen in the chest with his fist, hard. “Shut up!”
Gerardo rested his head on Owen’s thick-muscled chest, splaying his hand next to it across the other pec. “Don’t you get it?” he said. “You didn’t do anything to us. It was the three of us, together. We joined with you, because we’re soulmates. Because we love you.”
Owen’s heart was pounding. “But—you don’t know—” he protested.
Victor’s hand slid up Owen’s back to his nape, then he pulled Owen’s head down until their foreheads were resting against each other. “Listen to me,” Victor said, and Owen closed his eyes, letting the man’s warm, soothing baritone seep through him. Gerardo snaked his arms around their waists, holding them tight. “Ger’s right,” Victor said. “You joined with us, and we with you.” He took a steadying breath, and Owen joined him, feeling his resolution, and Gerardo’s too. Owen continued. “Even if you are an amaxo—if you are,” he emphasized, “all that means is that others of your kind might have once used their powers for evil. Whatever the truth of that, that is not you. That—is—not—you.” He pushed up and joined his lips to Owen’s, and Owen kissed him back gratefully, all worries that he might somehow hurt his men lifted. It was an impossibility, like the sun rising in the west, or Gerardo and Victor not turning him on so much he could blow a colossal load just watching them buy groceries or wash their beat-up old car.
Gerardo shifted his head and joined the kiss, which went on for quite a while. Then he pulled back and smiled at them. “I am so in love with both of you,” he said softly. Then his smile twisted into a leer as he added, “And? I am so fucking hard right now.”
“As opposed to other times,” Victor smirked, humping his own larger-than-yesterday boner against Owen’s leg through their jeans.
Owen grinned and took several steps back from the pair, looking them over from a good six feet away. Victor rolled his eyes, but he was clearly just as turned on as Gerardo, who was stroking his hairy melon pecs through his BEARS DO IT IN THE WOODS tee shirt and licking his lips in a parody of go-go-boy seduction. Both of them had huge erections in their pants, angling up along their hips—toward each other, as it happened, as if their cockheads wanted to nuzzle. The wind was picking up, as if the whole dreamscape were being excited by their need for each other. The surf throbbed noisily beyond them in relentless encouragement.
Owen suppressed an urge to grab his own tool and checked for Bandit’s position. Whether out of prudence or obliviousness, his surfplay had taken him far down the beach, so that he was a dog-shaped spot along the lapping ocean. “You know,” he said, “we should kill some time before going back.”
“No sense letting all this go to waste,” Gerardo agreed.
“Exactly,” Owen said. “And since this is my dreamscape, and the product of my imagination, I wonder…” He eyed the bear-fucking joke tee Gerardo was so proud of. “That shirt will have to go.” He concentrated, but nothing happened.
“Hah, just because you suggested this world doesn’t mean you have genie powers here!” Victor taunted.
“Says you,” Gerardo countered playfully, pulling off his shirt in one swift move and tossing it aside onto the sand. He exhibited his hairy, uncannily exquisite torso as proof of Owen’s abilities. “See? See?”
Owen took a moment to appreciate Gerardo’s densely powerful, perfectly athletic physique, then turned his leering grin on Victor. “Your shirt seems to have gone away, too,” he announced with calm assurance.
Victor huffed a laugh. “Fine,” he said, then whipped off his snug tee shirt. Rather than tossing it away, though, he made a point of folding it neatly and tucking it into his waistband behind him.
Gerardo scoffed. “Like you’re going to be wearing those for much longer either,” he said. The brothers moved toward each other automatically, as if it was simply instinctual that Owen should ogle them together. Owen was glad to oblige. They slid their arms around each other’s powerful backs, teasing him and inviting him all at once. Owen’s pulse sped up, and his club of a cock made a good, honest try at ripping open those pants.
He felt their next approaching orgasm building slowly between them, and vowed to make it wait. He was going to make this so good they’d all be soaring on the euphoria for days. Weeks. Songs would be sung about this orgasm, and epics penned, and terrible blockbuster summer movies made with so much domestic box-office they’d be able to buy this island in real life and fuck here 24/7.
They watched him, wanting it as much as he did.
He grinned, wide and feral. He started languidly toward them, their eyes fixed on him. “Ever fuck an amaxo on the beach before?” he asked, before pulling off his own shirt and letting the wind take it away.
Victor watched him move, pure lust in his gaze. Gerardo, though similarly unable to look away, was already unbuttoning his straining, cock-tented jeans. “Ask us again tomorrow,” he said.
We have to go back.
Victor voiced the thought only in his own head, not quite ready to speak it aloud. But Owen’s low, throaty growl and his brother’s muttered “Fuck you” were evidence enough they heard it anyway, even without the powerful sense of connection he could feel now at all times to them both, a psychic circle that bound the three of them as one. He could feel their love, their pride, their intense and unslakable desire, and, right now, their sullen annoyance that one of them had finally elected himself the voice of reality and reason.
Victor smiled. I love you guys too.
Night had fallen in their neverwhere island paradise. They were lying naked and momentarily sated on the still-warm sand under a moonless sky thick with a million stars. As he stared up at them they seemed as bright as tiny diamonds, undistorted by atmosphere or distance, as though they lay on a precipice overlooking the entire universe. Past his feet the waves churned endlessly in a constant rolling roar, and soft, salty ocean air gamboled lazily around them, an occasional cool breeze sliding over them like a thrill and raising a swath of gooseflesh. An afternoon of luxurious, nonstop fucking stretched behind them, and now, despite a constant, adamant need to touch, they sprawled a few feet apart on the empty strand, as though they were strangers sharing the beach by chance. Victor wasn’t sure whose idea it was. It felt like it had arisen in their minds all at once, an unconscious plan spread simultaneously across their shared connection. Perhaps they’d all been thinking it.
It was a simple test of their connection. Their physical craving for each other was so intense that touching, holding, pressing their bodies to each other was a aching, unrelenting imperative. But… did it have to involve literal touching? The raw, primal completeness of flesh on flesh, muscle on muscle, lips on lips, cock on cock—could they unleash it through their empathic bond alone?
He and Gerardo had naturally focused their combined attentions on Owen, using their minds to work their way up his hairy, tree-trunk legs, from his thick ankles to his hefty calves and then his powerful, granite thighs, and it hadn’t taken long for Owen to achieve a new, rock-solid new erection—this despite their tireless amaxo lover having blasted so many loads that day Victor could almost pretend the noisy ocean below them was made of Owen-jizz. Ger had then ghosted his mental attentions in a circuit around Owen’s heavy balls, which, Victor knew from personal experience, was his signature pre-blowjob move; but Victor had hauled him past Owen’s towering prick and along his furry, carved abs, slowly making their way up Owen’s body while leaving his cock ignored. Owen retaliated in his own typical fashion: he brought his mental attentions down hard on the brothers’ own rigid shafts, pleasuring them mercilessly with caresses far more intense than a mouth or hand could manage—and because of the link between them, Victor could feel Ger’s ecstatic enjoyment of this maneuver on top of his own.
When the brothers dawdled around Owen’s sensitive, pebbled nipples, Owen upped the ante, shoving his psychic love straight into their well-used asses while at the same time intensifying his work-over of their massive, leaking erections. Victor could feel Owen grinning as Gerardo started to lose control, tearing Victor down with him into a heated maestrom of desire and need. Abandoning all coyness they descended together on Owen’s cock and ass while somehow managing to mentally caress and stroke every inch of Owen’s extra-large muscle-beast body, while Owen fucked them and stroked them harder and harder until orgasm suddenly erupted over all of them all at once and they came again as if they hadn’t fuck at all that day, cumming and cumming and cumming until they were each covered in sweat and spunk, melted and spent against the sand without every having moved or touched.
The seagulls probably think we’re being fucked by ghosts, Gerardo had thought after the long, shared-contented calm that always followed their mutual release.
Or incubi, Owen had suggested, amused.
They’d stayed quiet for a while, enjoying the mild, salty wafting of night ocean air and the steady, undulating roar of the surf. Victor felt a brush of sensation on his lips. Gerardo was kissing him through their connection—no, he was kissing Victor and Owen both. Owen, stirring slightly from a half-trance, returned the kiss, and Victor could feel Gerardo and Owen kissing him at the same time, their mouths overlapping on his. And he could feel his brother’s pleasure too, and Owen’s, the joy of their languid, deepening kiss multiplied many times over by the recursive nature of their unifying bond. It felt so good Victor’s blood was heating and his pulse was quickening all over again, and then his extra-large cock was thumping against the sticky, drying cum coating his abs and filling the cuts between them. He felt Owen’s big, wide tongue slide into his mouth, then Gerardo’s long, hungry one joined it. Victor followed suit, feeling his own tongue in his brother’s hot mouth and in Owen’s too, almost like he was kissing himself while at the same time both of his partners were fervently kissing him. Suddenly Victor was cumming again, bring the others with him, and this time it was so soon after their big psychic fuck that the payload was only a few desperate squirts, and his balls screamed in protest.
Owwww! laughed Gerardo over their connection as he spit painful spurts over his own ripped abs. Victor was chuckling too. Owen seemed unaffected but amused. Maybe he really was insatiable.
Now they lay there quietly, still a little apart from each other, content to merely be together. He could still feel Gerardo gently kissing him, though. It occurred to Victor that Gerardo, having discovered this new method of making out—something he loved—without having to actually touch lips together, might just find himself unable to stop, and would be kissing him and Owen 24/7. That would be… interesting. His exhausted prick twitched at the thought as he let himself imagine the possibilities. They might be walking through a grocery store, picking up staples and talking about mundanities, or watching a movie or playing video games, even sleeping, and Ger would be kissing him the whole time. He’d switch it up, too, starting out slow and sultry, then shifting suddenly to deep and sloppy, or the brushing of soft, closed lips over his. Diving down occasionally to his bearded jaw, or that sensitive spot on his neck, before working back up to his eager mouth. Languid, passive kisses that suddenly heated as their pulses sped and their cocks responded to their need.
The idea was impossible—beautifully impossible—and Victor had to admit it was a big turn-on for him. Ger was an amazing kisser, passionate and playful and loving and uninhibited, and the idea of Gerardo kissing him literally all the time was the kind of fantasy he’d never even known he’d had before Owen had turned up in their little fold of the world and all this had started happening.
All this. All this meant meeting Owen, whom he and Ger loved infinitely and unconditionally. It was a completeness he’d never known was possible or necessary. All this meant a bond so powerful it changed them, growing him and Ger, strengthening them and their wolves, even as they unleashed the hidden beast that had lain dormant in Owen. All this meant the coming of Owen to their shifter perserve, and the horrifying, inexplicable reaction his arrival had spawned in his tribal elders.
We have to go back, he thought again. We have to find Elder Lucas. He might be—
In danger, I know, Gerardo responded sourly. Nonetheless Victor felt Gerardi’s psychic kissing intensify, as if he were trying to keep Victor from talking. Victor chuckled. You can’t shut me up with a kiss anymore, little brother, he thought back at him.
I could shut you up, Owen thought listlessly at him. He sensed Owen knew he was right about going back, but leaving utopia isn’t something you jump at.
Victor smiled. And I could make you forget all your words, lover-beast… again.
Owen gave him another little growl.
They lay there a while longer, drinking in their last moments in paradise, while Gerardo’s unseen lips gently kissed them both, as ceaseless as the rolling tide.
Owen smirked as he strode through the dense forest behind a very naked Victor and Gerardo, branches and even small trees snapping against their adamantine forms as they went. He’d never been more glad of his recently enhanced night vision, and not just for its help in finding their way back to their vehicles. The brothers were truly an impressive sight, especially from the back, their sun-warmed skin seeming almost to glow in the rich monochromes of the midnight world around them. Even with all the muscle they’d put on since meeting him they remained distinct in physique and bearing. Gerardo was muscled but still lean and lithe, like an aerialist who’d stoked his strength to uncanny levels by hurling himself from trapeze to trapeze; while Victor was packed with muscle so dense he looked stronger than any musclehead with twice his measurements, and carried himself like a man aware of his need to protect his partners. Both had dark hair that was down past their shoulders, Victor’s slightly straighter than his brother’s cascading locks, but while they’d both gotten a hairiness upgrade Ger was still the one with more body hair than Victor—though he was no match for Owen. For all they were a head shorter than Owen these days they seemed big and powerful, unstoppable even, and Owen’s heart swelled in lust and admiration. These were his men, and it wasn’t that he had grown them so much as that they had grown themselves for him.
Stop looking at our asses, Victor thought at him.
Shut up, bro. O, you can look at our asses all… you… want.
Owen’s smile widened. He could still feel Gerardo’s unending kiss like it was a new normal for them, and the thought inflamed his desire. He used their connection to cup the brothers’ hard, round muscle butts, then give them a little goose. Victor stumbled slightly and tossed a playful glare over his shoulder.
Watch out for poison ivy, Owen thought at them. I want to rub my hands all over your junk tonight, but not with Calamine lotion.
Gerardo smacked against a thick branch he hadn’t seen. It snapped off against the bole like it had been struck by a bulldozer.
Jeez, we must sound like an army of elephants stomping through here, Victor thought. I hope you’re right about everyone being gone, Ger.
After Bandit had led them out of Beachworld, Gerardo had volunteered to slip briefly into the wolf dream and see if he could surreptitiously gather news. He’d only closed his eyes for a few moments before he returned with the news that Elders Eirene and Manuel had called all the wolves of their pack to an urgent meeting in the bonfire glade, a large enclosed field that lay well to the south of the Fishers’ house. As Owen, Victor, and Gerardo had fled into the forest in the other direction, to the north, and they were returning the same way, there was every chance they could get back to the parking area by the house and collect their cars unseen. Assuming, Owen thought grimly, that Eirene and Manuel hadn’t slashed their tires, or left a few shotgun-toting guards lying in wait to “protect the pack” from Owen’s “evil”. He hadn’t forgotten the brothers’ outcast status, or the bullets that had whizzed past them as they’d torn through the trees to get away.
Owen was starting to warm to the idea of him being here to change things. It looked like a few things needed changing.
Only… wasn’t one definition of “evil” the use of power to bend reality as you, and you alone, saw fit? He was sure he’d read that somewhere.
You’re not alone, came Victor’s reminder in his mind.
And if you start agreeing with Elder Eirene about being evil, I’m going to punch you really hard, Gerardo added. In the nuts! He wasn’t kidding, either.
Duly noted, Owen thought with a grin.
They emerged abruptly from the woods, Bandit just ahead of them. A security flood was mounted on the side of the house, aimed in the general direction of the front stoop and the parking area, and though it wasn’t pointed directly their way Owen’s enhanced ability to see in the dark had grown so strong he had to stop and blink a few times before his eyes adjusted. The brothers had stopped too, and they took a moment and stared.
The parking area was now filled with all kinds of vehicles—pickups, dusty sedans, SUVs, vans—even a semi cab, though with no trailer attached. Victor’s trusty green Honda and Owen’s Ducati were parked at the end of the makeshift lot closest to them, farthest from the road out, and there was no lane through the cars and trucks parked pell-mell across the space. When they’d left, they’d been blocked in by a couple of greasy stoners with a truck and a rifle; the guards were gone now, but they were just as fucked. There was no sign of any people at all, and though many had been here recently there was no smell of wolves present nearby other than Victor and Gerardo, whose scents were as distinctive to Owen as their voices or their smiles.
It wasn’t just the logjam of random cars that had arrested the brothers, though.
After a moment the two wolves started forward again, cautiously, as if they weren’t quite believing what they were seeing, and Owen followed, feeling stunned. Around them crickets chirped in a cacophonic wash of noise, as if the creatures sought to fill the silence of the night.
Owen should have realized.
Bandit had returned to them on the beach shortly after they’d given in and finally made ready to leave, and had led them out of the starlit Beachworld and into the deep dark of the forest. Owen had thought the guardian-dog had tossed a few odd looks over his shoulder at them, but he hadn’t been sure. At the time he’d had a weird sense that he was really towering over the dog, though it was hard to tell as Bandit tended to run ahead. Owen had put it down to still not being used to the few inches he’d gained in height and size since he’d come back from Maxfield’s mountain. Then he’d let himself get distracted by the brothers’ very fine and fuckable muscle asses shifting before them as they made their way back from the transfer point.
Now, though, he realized just how off his perspective had been.
As he watched, the brothers approached their car, and the effect was like that unnerving dolly zoom that goes with James Stewart looking down the tower stairs or Frodo shouting for everyone to get off the road. With every step Victor and Gerardo took, their floodlit forms seemed to get bigger, and the old green Accord smaller; but Owen knew, he knew, that what he was really watching was the slow realignment of two different scales of reality. One involved a car that was the size cars always were, and the other, three men who’d grown and grown without the slightest awareness of having done so as they’d all unwound and fucked in a pocket universe of their very own, far beyond the mundane world.
Victor and Gerardo reached the car, looming over it. The scarred hood didn’t quite reach their navels.
It was, Owen had to admit, an awesome fucking tableau, one he’d never forget. If they weren’t in danger of getting shot at and/or burned alive, he’d be turned on as fuck.
Okay, forget that. Even stunned and a little scared by the magnitude of how huge they’d gotten, the sight of his hairy, handsome, and horny muscle-packed wolf-partners towering comically over their car, buck naked, their thick, furry pecs casting harsh shadows on their sweet, taut abs below in the garish light, was making him flushed with arousal.
Owen looked beyond the brothers’ car to his beloved Ducati, still beautiful even when it was being lit like a scene from Cops. It looked… ridiculously small, even from where he stood, a good thirty or forty feet away. All he could think right then was that between his current size and his abnormal strength he could probably hoist the thing up on his shoulder and tote it around like a giant boom box. Hell, he felt so big and strong now, could probably go through this excuse for a parking lot and lift a few cars and trucks enough out of the way to make a path.
Owen couldn’t ignore the ramifications of what he was seeing. As hot as the brothers were, looming over the vehicles like they’d been composited in via green-screen magic, and as hot as it felt to be even bigger than they were, Owen knew that their situation was now considerably worse than before. As far as he knew, they were miles from anywhere: they needed the car and the bike to get out of there. No wheels meant no ready exit. And with the pack was aiming bullets their way, all things considered giants were probably a lot easier to shoot, being bigger targets and all that.
Giants. Giant werewolf boyfriends. Crazy-hot, hairy, muscle-stud shifter boyfriends that were suddenly too tall and too thick with hard, heavy, supremely lickable beef for their little green Honda. He snorted a disbelieving laugh, and the brothers looked over at him.
“Sorry,” he said aloud. There was a bit of comfort in the normality of ordinary speech, and Owen took it. “I’m sorry I did this to you guys. To us.”
Gerardo frowned at him. “This stopped being all you a ways back,” he said angrily. “Don’t you get that? This is us, all three of us. We did this, not just you.”
Victor rubbed his beard thoughtfully as he appraised the car in relation to himself and his brother. “The question is, can ‘we’ undo it?” he said. “Because I don’t think we’re fitting in there like this.”
“Huh. Not to mention you’re totally going to crush your little bike, O,” Gerardo added as he looked between the Ducati and Owen, who was even taller and heavier than the now-giant brothers.
Owen came over at last and stood next to them, trying to think through this, though the situation was, well, intrinsically distracting. The car… yeah. It seemed ridiculously small to him, from his present vantage-point, for him especially. Even if he rode on the hood, his current weight would probably crumple the thing. He remembered his early obsession with gaining muscle weight when he’d first started playing football, partly to improve his throw but mostly so the opposing team wouldn’t run him over like a herd of charging buffalo. Football would be a very different proposition now. Though it would be kind of interesting to play with a bunch of other guys as big as he was, if there were any.
“This growth thing… it isn’t one way,” he said eventually. “I’ve sensed that, I think, from the beginning. I’ve just been so into the idea of bigger, stronger, harder, even to the point…” He trailed off, embarrassed to finish the thought, but Gerardo did it for him.
“Even to the point of being a little too big,” the younger wolf said, and he was grinning as he said it. “And I know you know that wasn’t just you either.”
“Yeah, I’ll say,” Victor snarked, shaking his head as if supremely disappointed in his sibling. “That my sweet and innocent little brother should turn out to be such a total slut for—” He gestured at Gerardo’s beautiful, extra-large muscle bod. “—all this.”
“Like you aren’t.”
The brothers looked each other over, and Victor, either consciously or unconsciously, licked his lips.
As much as he loved watching his guys perv on each other, Owen thought he should get them all back on track. “We need to scale this back,” he said, then huffed. “Literally.” The brothers smiled up at him, and he shook his head and started over. “We need get back to something close to normal,” he said.
The brothers nodded, though with obvious reluctance. Being half again the size of a man—or more, in Owen’s case—was sexy as fuck but not practical. At least, not in their current state of crisis.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Owen went on. “I’ve—” He glanced at Gerardo and amended himself. “—okay, we’ve been doing this mostly instinctively. Unconsciously, even. This… would need to be deliberate. And, if we’re being honest, against our inclinations.”
Victor nodded. “We need a place,” he said thoughtfully. “Like a safe house. Somewhere we can hole up while we try to figure out the size thing. And maybe get some news about Elder Lucas.”
Owen looked at the brothers as they exchanged glances. He didn’t know these parts at all, so unless he suggested Maxfield’s mountain in New Hampshire this was down to them. He looked slowly around the mess of vehicles crammed into the small expanse in front of the Fishers’ dark and empty house, his brows drawing together. Something wasn’t quite right here. He tried peering into the woods beyond the car-packed clearing, but the blaring light of the security halogen defeated his night vision. His other senses were sharper then ever, though, and he was sure he’d caught a whiff of… he wasn’t sure what. Not woods, and not animal. Not wolf, either. Something that didn’t belong.
He gave up trying to see into the woods. Instead he glanced up, wondering what time it was and how long they’d been away. The stars overhead glimmered against the inky black, less dazzling than the deep carpet of stars they’d enjoyed back on the neverwhere beach but firmer, somehow. Real. This was reality. A strange reality, he thought wryly, but reality nonetheless. His fate these last days seemed to be in constant flux, and yet… it was clear he had an end-purpose here, beyond meeting the brothers. He hoped he’d figure out what it was before it was too late.
He scanned across the night sky, looking for constellations he recognized from Cub Scout camping trips and after-practice beers under the night sky with his buds on the team. It was all much the same up there as back home, he thought, but somehow when he was lying on the grassy hills behind the football field, staring up at the stars with his friends while they drank pilfered PBR and talked about how the scorability of various cheerleaders, he’d never felt connected to the stars, like they shone down on him. He’d never drawn in the scent of oak and pine and earth before and felt like it was a part of him.
It hit him suddenly that for all this deep-forested vale of werewolves and supernatural creatures was a new and unknown world for him, he hadn’t once felt homesick for Vermont, for his old town or the gridiron glory days he’d enjoyed for the simple rush of skill-brought success, even if he hadn’t trained and played out of a personal need to be a great quarterback. Thinking back on those days was like remembering a TV show he’d used to watch and felt no need to see again.
This was where he belonged. This place, and these men. The warm comfort of that profound certainty made him smile.
Gerardo’s mental voice intruded on his thoughts. You know who else lives out this way, the younger wolf thought tentatively, as though he didn’t quite want to speak the idea aloud. Owen drew his attention back to the brothers.
Victor met Gerardo’s gaze and seemed to understand. Shit, he thought back. You’re right. His place is, like, a mile and a half from here. Victor considered. And he’s outside the pack, he added.
Owen nodded. There was no telling if anyone in the brothers’ pack could be trusted, now that two of the Elders had turned against them and branded them outcasts. A human ally might be a prudent choice, especially if it was someone unexpected and under the radar. Who? he asked them.
Gerardo looked up at him with a glum smile. Mike, he answered.
Mike? Owen blinked at him. Who had he met here named—?
Then he remembered. Mike, the skinny blond from the Denny’s.
Owen was taken aback, but only for a moment. Then a big grin blossomed on his face. Mr. Bad-in-Bed had thought he still had a chance with Gerardo. And if he saw Gerardo like this… Sitting on the sidelines while the three of them demonstrated how real fuckers took care of their partners while they made love, probably over and over again, sounded like a great plan for any guy who thought he had a shot at one of his men.
Milton watched the giant and his two snouts intently from his spot high up a sturdy poplar a few feet into the shadowed woods at the far side of the clearing, astride a convenient leg-thick branch close to the bole. Blacked up in face paint and night gear, utterly still from long years of training, Milton knew that even the stranger couldn’t possibly see him. A whole pack of wolves had passed right by him not thirty feet away, headed for their little bonfire, and not a single one of them had so much as looked up.
So predictable. The snouts saw only ever what they were looking for.
He adjusted his high-tech binoculars, trying to get a closer view. He’d been right to let Gardner monitor the pack meeting while he took his station here. His gut had told him the stranger and his acolytes would be back for their vehicles while the snouts were all fulminating away at their clan meeting, and there they were. Milton always listened to his gut.
He focused more closely on the stranger. His binoculars were recording video, but he took a still anyway.
On the security feed he’d actually seen the stranger blow up with size and muscle. Instantly and massively, like no shifter he’d ever observed before. The video had been too low-res and too far away to be sure, but Milton had gotten the distinct impression that the stranger hadn’t even fully shifted. The Reyes brothers had seemed to pull him back before he could finish, but… even in a cruddy video feed he had seen it and tasted it. There had been so much potency there. So much radiant potential, locked away within him, waiting for release.
His whole life Milton had watched shifters from the shadows, coveting their raw, unnatural, pulse-quickening inner power. This… this was far beyond anything he had ever witnessed. It was beyond anything he had ever dreamed.
And that was the security video. Now, staring at him at close range and in high definition, there could be no doubt what he was seeing. Down there in that clearing, with too-small cars strewn before them like the unwitting metal victims of a mad scientist’s shrink ray, stood three unshifted men, all larger than any human could ever be.
The stranger—Banks, the sweaty motel clerk had told him, once he had the point of Milton’s fat-bladed pigsticker under his chin—was definitely, unequivocally bigger now than he’d been at the Walmart. Huge. Even the brothers would tower over Milton now, like they towered now over their little POS. And Banks overshadowed them like a coming storm.
They were all bigger, and not just bigger than they were yesterday. They were each bigger than they had been only a few hours before, when the snouts had chased Banks and his boys into the woods with guns and teeth.
Milton pursed his thin lips. An animal war. That might please the others. He was no fan of bloodshed. Still, it would be intriguing to watch how it played out.
The three of them seemed to be regrouping, trying to sort out their next move. That was fine. Milton let his gaze wander down the stranger’s powerful form, his cut-from-stone muscles profiled in garish whites and blacks from the snout-alphas’ security lamp. The brothers might be in his thrall, seeing in him only what they wanted to see—god? deliverer?—but Milton perceived him as he truly was. Inhuman. It was in every part of him, every limb, every expanse. Those bulging shoulders, impossibly wide. Thick pecs so protruding, he could almost shield a child from a downpour. Legs like tree trunks. A cock like a weapon—even with it flaccid Milton could feel its deadly pull. Rippling arms that looked like he could pick up that out-of-state motorcycle of his and hurl it at Milton’s hidden position all the way across the clearing. A hard, unforgettable face, cold and beautiful, seemingly carved from rock like the rest of him despite a dark, living beard and glinting eyes.
A little thrill of fear trickled over him. That thing, that creature—Banks—he could do anything to him. Anything he wanted.
He adjusted his rigid erection with annoyance. He didn’t have time for that now.
Finally, the three started to move, and the snouts’ so-called guardian dog trotted back to rejoin them from its exploration of the various vehicles in the makeshift lot. Here was another unexplained curiosity. Milton was very curious to know how the stranger had swayed it to his side. It could not have been the erotic power he had used to bewitch the two brothers. Loyalty to the brothers, perhaps—but the guardian dogs protected clans, not men, or so said all of Demetrius’s lore. Fear? Betrayal? Ambition? Supernatural insight? He had no idea. He wished he could interrogate the cur. The intelligence and perspective would be both useful and fascinating.
They paused by the bike—Banks seemed to be considering rolling it out of there, or maybe just hoisting it up under his arm and hauling it out, but they seemed to think better of the idea. Wise, Milton thought. Don’t tell the snouts you were here.
Milton made a mental note. He would need to make sure they did not underestimate the stranger, or his boys.
The three brutes, naked and covered in dark hair like the animals they were, their uncanny muscles proclaiming their savage power, moved on, creeping silently around the tangle of cars and trucks that filled the clearing, the dog loping ahead. They soon slipped into the shadows near the woods’ edge, and Milton flipped on his binoculars’ night vision. In green thermal imaging they looked even more surreal, standing out from their surroundings like intruders into the realm of men.
He watched them go. He would have to wait before he could risk leaving his position—he couldn’t be heard, smelled, or spotted. The trackers he’d placed on the brothers’ car and on the Vermont-plated motorcycle were useless now, but it didn’t matter. He could still hunt. He was the best hunter out of all their group, and those brutes were his kind of game.
He waited motionlessly for long minutes as the night stilled, with only the sound of the crickets for company. He didn’t hear them. He stared after where his three targets had vanished into the dark woods, his thoughts reaching ahead, plotting what was to come.
For now, they were observing. The order would be given soon. Perhaps he would not wait for the order. He hungered to command the power Banks possessed, and he was not sure it was in him to share.
“The legends are true, as so many legends have proven to be. The Beast has come. The Amaxo is here.”
Aaron stared up at the white-haired Elder with wide, round eyes. Standing on a box, ringed around by her clan with the shifting light of a small bonfire playing over her, she had the eyes and ears of every man and woman present. She did shout or cry out, or harangue them with blistering rhetoric. She did not have to.
Her voice was as cold as steel.
“It has taken my nephews. Corrupted them with sex and sorcery. I have spoken to them and they are… they are gone. My nephews are gone. They belong to him now. They have become his creatures.”
There was some murmuring from the other young men around him, men who knew Victor and Gerardo. Aaron felt sick. Those beautiful young men, dark and suave, so unlike his own pale, swimmer’s form. He could see them easily in his mind. Victor, with his penetrating brown eyes, eyes that stirred something powerful in Aaron that he didn’t understand. And Gerardo, with his wicked smile. They always smelled of strength, and man, and the primal power of the first wolves. What kind of vile creature would cut such strong, amazing, mesmerizing men out of their beloved pack?
“It has taken Elder Lucas.”
More muttering followed this news. Aaron had wondered why only Eirene had risen and stood before them alone, against all tradition. This Beast had not started from the outside, picking off the weaker members and building an antipack of its own, as all the legends said. It was going for the jugular. Disgusting to think of something bad had befallen Elder Lucas. He was easily the kindest man Aaron had ever known. And a damned good pharmacist before he retired to the woods, always taking the time to talk with nana and discuss the side-effects of her medications.
The Elder’s tone became more ominous.
“And Elder Manuel, you ask? Elder Manuel, who has been with you on every step of your long journey?” She gestured abruptly to her right, into the dark woods. “See what the Beast has done!”
Out of the shadows stepped a brawny black and charcoal wolf, its dark gold eyes glinting in the firelight. Gasps erupted through the crowd. The wolf lowered its head. Aaron stared. What was the Elder telling them? Had this creature really—?
“The Beast force-shifted an alpha.” Aaron’s eyes snapped up to the Elder, aghast. She seemed to hold his gaze, then that of every member of the pack. There was no muttering now, no gasps, no sound at all but the cracking of burning wood and the creaking of uncounted crickets.
“The Beast force-shifted Manuel and he cannot shift back.”
Growling. Angry growling, low in a hundred throats.
The Elder waited, then spoke again.
“It laughs at us. It challenges us. It takes us, one by one. Even the guardian has been taken, leaving us vulnerable to forces of the world only he knows and understands.”
The Elder raised her chin slightly to one of her men, who handed her up a bough from the bonfire. It was aflame at one end. She did not raise it aloft, or shake it dramatically at them. It was enough that she held it. They all understood. Many were nodding.
“You know what must be done. You know what fate must befall such a Beast.”
“Protect the pack,” someone said. It was not shouted. It was snarled.
The call was taken up around the crowd, at first raggedly, then as a single chant. Protect the pack. Protect the pack. Aaron chanted with them. Protect the pack.
He would be the one, he decided fiercely, his inner wolf baring its teeth and demanding to be let loose. He would be the one to bring down this monster and watch it burn.
And he would save Victor and Gerardo. Somehow, he would save them.
It was pleasant, walking along the winding back road together. It didn’t seem to matter that they were naked and barefoot, and had had to leave the car and bike behind. There were only a few homes here and there out this way; right now all he could see was forest and road and sky. The tall trees shot up high around them toward the stars like protectors, and the scent of leaves and earth and his lovers filled him with peace and reassurance. The thought came to him again that he was at home here. He belonged to these lands, these forests… and these men.
Shall we shift? he asked them.
Victor and Gerardo both stopped and turn to look up at him in surprise, their eyes bright with excitement. Bandit, a little ways ahead, looked over his shoulder at them. When he saw that they were stopped, he turned and sat on his haunches, panting a little, waiting patiently.
Can you? Victor asked. I mean—are you sure you’re ready?
Owen bent and kissed him, tasting Victor’s ready lips over Gerardo’s ceaseless ghost-kiss. Then he kissed the other brother, and his giddy self-satisfaction at kissing Owen twice over riffled through their bond.
Owen straightened, hands on their powerful shoulders, and the brothers drew close, sliding their arms around each other’s broad backs. I’ve never been more ready for anything, he told them truthfully, looking at each brother in turn. I want to become more than I am. I want us to become more than we are.
Victor considered, exchanging a look with Gerardo. We are naked already, he thought reasonably. And it’s a nice run from here to Mike’s.
Gerardo grinned. Change us first!
Victor sighed. It’s night and there’s a quarter moon, hermano. We can shift ourselves.
Gerardo shook his head stubbornly. I want O to do it.
Owen smiled and shook both of them slightly. How much more could he love these two? We’re past all that, remember? Me changing you, me shifting you.
Gerardo didn’t give up that easily. He narrowed his eyes slightly at Owen and thought, You could shift us if you wanted.
Owen’s smile went lopsided. You could shift me if you wanted.
Gerardo’s eyes widened. No way. Even his ghost-kiss stuttered, though only for a moment.
Owen glanced over at Victor. You feel it, right? You both feel it.
Victor swallowed. He felt it. Both of them did. But, Victor thought uncertainly, you’re so much stronger—
We are strong. We. Owen smiled at his men. All of this was new to him, and so much was still hidden. But this much was painfully clear. The three of them were more than connected. The idea thrilled him, and he was eager to run with them—to become with them.
Gerardo and Owen both looked at Victor, who broke suddenly into a wide smile. Let’s do it, then. Let’s run under the stars.
They closed their eyes.
Owen felt something open within him. He’d felt this before, a taste of it, like a gust of warm air from a door slightly ajar. Now, he was entering a room filled with luxurious warmth, and everything was in vivid colors—blues and violets and indigos mostly, but reds and oranges too. And the room was infinite, and the door was gone, and he was not alone. His men were there—they were the reds and oranges, the fire and gold of the wolves, and it all strengthened and mixed and swirled together, swath upon swath of bear-Owen and wolf-Victor and wolf-Gerardo, woven and winding and intensifying, more powerful together then they could ever be alone.
He opened his eyes.
Two sleek, immense, gigantic wolves peered up at him, golden eyes filled with love and awe at what they were all feeling—shared energy beyond their imagining. Their tails wafted in uncontained excitement.
You’re beautiful, Victor thought.
Owen glanced down at his paws, which were huge compared to the wolves’. He had to be the biggest bear ever to prowl these woods, or any woods anywhere. He looked back up at the wolf brothers. He loomed over them in this form even more than he had as a giant human, but it didn’t matter. Everything that they were, all of the dark and bright fire that came with what Owen was and what the brothers were, flowed through all of them like a roaring river. They were brimming with it, overflowing. He—they—had to move. They had to act.
They had to run.
Bandit was on his feet. He barked once, tail flipping feverishly at them.
Bandit wants to run, too, Owen thought happily to the brothers.
Gerardo was dancing where he stood. Let’s go!
Owen leapt forward, the two wolves at either side. Bandit raced ahead, and the trees flowed past in a blur while the stars slid across the midnight sky.
Mike sat up in his bed, setting aside his e-reader, and frowned across his darkened bedroom at the heavy curtains hiding the window looking out onto the side yard. There were no trees near that window, and not much wind outside to be smacking nonexistent branches against its panes, and yet—
Something was out there.
Something that had no trouble rapping its knuckles on his second-story window. Or maybe it wasn’t knuckles. It could be claws, or talons, or fangs…
There were lots of things that went bump in the night in these parts. None of them knew much about the other, and some days Mike wished he didn’t know about any of them.
Cautiously, Mike climbed out of bed and padded slowly toward the side window. He briefly considered pulling on a shirt and sweats, but whatever it was could deal with him in his boxer-briefs. He checked his loose sleep braid as he moved, making sure his hair wouldn’t get in the way at an awkward moment.
He thought about picking up a weapon, too, but unlike everyone in the movies and on TV he did not have a baseball bat ready at hand to snatch up in case of prowlers. He’d just have to make do with what he had.
Mike pulled open the thick curtains, revealing pretty much the last thing he might have expected to see at his upstairs window in the middle of the night: Gerardo Reyes, aglow with happiness under the full moon and looking like he’d eaten a half-dozen hairy fitness models and absorbed all their muscle and beauty. He was leaning his forearms on the outer sill and smiling through the glass at Mike. There was no ladder in sight.
Mike froze, staring at Gerardo. Gerardo stared back, still smiling.
Belatedly, Mike realized that just gaping at each other through the window wasn’t getting them anywhere. He slid up the sash, letting in the warm night air and the sounds of the deep, living forest that surrounded his old family sanctuary, now his alone. There was pine on the light breeze, and peat. Ginseng, from the old ex-ginseng farm over the rise. And wolves—always wolves. Many wolves gathered in anger not far away; and this wolf, more potent-smelling than any wolf he’d ever known. Him and his brother, very close, and… the Other. The one they’d been with at breakfast. The amaxo.
A shiver went through him at the thought. So much could change, and very soon. So much needed to change.
But Mike wasn’t supposed to know all that, or about anything really past the mere existence of werewolves and that Gerardo was one—which was as much as Gerardo himself had divulged during their brief relationship six months back. So he put on his ‘ignorant muggle’ persona and said, “Hey, Ger! Uh… what’s up?” in his best approximation of what he imagined an ordinary guy finding his at-least-partially-if-not-completely-naked hunky larger-than-he-should-be ex outside his upstairs window in the middle of a forest at two o’clock in the morning might sound like.
“Hey, Mikey,” Gerardo said genially. He cast his eyes up and down Mike’s body. Anyone else would not have been able to see much in the unlit room, but Mike already knew wolves had excellent night vision, Gerardo more than most. “You’re looking fit. Very tight. Still doing the running thing?”
“Every morning,” Mike said, a little nonplussed. Dude, if you think I’m going to bat back a comment about how you look like you’ve been sized up by a morphing ray since I saw you yesterday at breakfast, you’re crazy-go-nuts, he scoffed inwardly. Even Gerardo’s hair was longer, for Pete’s sake, flowing well past his shoulders now and still looking silky-smooth despite running around in the woods in the middle of the night. Was that a shifter thing? Did you automatically come out of the shift with salon-beautiful hair, unlike the rest of us who have spend actual money on conditioner every month? Fucker.
Gerardo’s eyes were twinkling under his dark eyebrows, as if he could guess at some of what Mike was thinking, and just then Mike realized, a little too late, that Gerardo was teasing him over the way he’d greeted him at Denny’s the other morning. Back then the already visible changes in Gerardo had taken him by surprise, but he had better control of himself now. Instead of taking the bait he asked, “So, should I ask how you’re…?” He nodded with his chin in the general direction of “down”.
Gerardo seemed to realize it was obvious he was not on any kind of ladder. “Oh! I’m, uh, standing on someone’s shoulders, actually.”
Mike pictured the outside of his house, with its brown shaker shingles and its large windows set well apart vertically owing to old-fashioned high ceilings. “Uh huh,” Mike said. “So he’s, what, ten feet tall?”
Gerardo grinned. “Something like that. You’re by yourself here, right? ‘Cuz if anyone looked out your downstairs window right now, they’d get a hell of a—” He shifted unexpectedly, as though he were on the suddenly pitching deck of a ship at sea. He quickly looked down as if to remonstrate with whoever was underneath him, but he didn’t actually say anything. Not aloud, anyway.
“Ger,” Mike began.
“Here’s the thing,” Gerardo said, looking up and meeting Mike’s gaze abruptly, his expression now sober. “Vic and I, we’re kind of… we’re in trouble. There’s a, well, a conflict in the pack, and it’s gotten real messy, real fast. People are taking sides and… You don’t want to know. What we need right now is a place for us to hole up for a night or two and figure out what direction to jump in next. Maybe your barn? We need someplace big, because, well, reasons. The four of us, I mean. Me, Vic, Bandit, and—well, you met Owen.” Gerardo was increasingly uncertain the face of Mike’s lack of response, his brows drawing together like magnets. “So, does that seem possible? I—I mean, I realize, we—”
“Ger,” Mike interrupted. Gerardo stopped talking and just looked at him pleadingly. Mike’s expression fell into a crooked smile. He reached out and squeezed Gerardo’s traps (which were evidently steel-banded, now). “All you had to say was, ‘I’m in trouble.’”
Gerardo beamed at him in relief. “I knew we could count on you,” he said. “We—” He looked down, seemingly having a silent conversation with one or both of his companions. Maybe all three—why the fuck knew what the guardian dogs were capable of, anyways? After a few seconds Gerardo looked up again, his mien serious again. “Come down,” he said. “There’s more they—we—ought to tell you. You should know what we’re mixing you up in.” He didn’t seem happy about this last part, though he clearly had conceded the truth of it, to himself as well as the others.
What you’re mixing me up in, he thought. Maybe someday I’ll tell you what I’ve mixed you up in. “In a minute,” he said. He paused, then asked pointedly, “Are they hunting you?”
Gerardo hesitated, his shoulders shifting uneasily, but after what he’d just said he knew he had to be open about the dangers involved. “Yes,” he said, then added, “Guns and claws.”
Mike nodded, knowing he meant that when they came for Owen and the brothers, they’d be using every skill and weapon available to them as humans and as wolves. “Go ahead into the barn,” he said. “You should take shelter before the storm hits. Have you eaten?”
Gerardo was frowning up at the starry sky overhead. “Huh? No. Uh, we should get out of sight, for sure, buuut… I don’t think there’s a storm coming, bro.”
“Oh, there is,” Mike assured him. “Fast-moving front, heard about it on the radio. Wind’s picking up already. You want take-out from the Denny’s?”
Again, he caught Gerardo on a two-second lag as the sexy wolf processed the bit about the storm and the sudden gust that riffled his salon-beautiful hair. Then he caught up with the rest of what Mike had said. “What? Hell no!”
Mike grinned, and Gerardo copied him. “Get out to the barn, then, Fido,” he said, letting his grin skew crookedly to sone side. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll bring out some raw steaks for you all to snarf down.”
“Don’t forget the big bones to gnaw on afterward,” Gerardo added with a wink. Then all at once he disappeared, having jumped down from whatever brawny perch he’d been balancing on to the ground below without a second thought.
Mike was tempted to stick his head out the window and scope out the three of them in all their slowly transforming glory, but he had no doubt he would be getting an eye-full soon enough. Instead, he closed his eyes and sent his mind out into the endless heavens. He picked up the little wind he’d blown over Gerardo and built on it, creating the storm he’d promised and concentrating its strength and potency. Thick droplets started pattering against the house and the surrounding forest. Brisk wind and cold rain blow in through the open window, invigorating him. He focused the storm on the forest and the pack lands to the south, paying special attention to scouring the roads and paths between him and the wolflands with stiff winds and heavy rain. No one would track his friends, neither with the gifts of man nor the gifts of beast. Not tonight, or any night—not if he had a say about it.
Mike let the storm swirl majestically around him, feeling bone-deep relief and a new sense of purpose. All his life he’d drifted, unable to see what the secret son of a little-known sky-god could possibly have to do with the mundane and frequently petty world of mortals or the insular lives of the animal folk that dwelt cautiously among them. Now, at long last, he finally had an answer.
Milton knelt by the side of the road, examining the sandy shoulder. Most of the way so far the verges along the paved county road that wound south past the wolves’ territory had been rocks or springy grass that hadn’t shown much but the recent passage of several… somethings. Here, though, was a real clue.
He duckwalked along the short run of prints once, then back, then a third time, poring over them first under the moonlight, then with brief, indirect bursts from his flashlight (though he didn’t dare leave it on for long, not wanting even his own group to know what he was up to, yet), then with his image-intensifying night-vision viewer. Each pass told him the same thing. Four animals had run past here recently, at impressive speed—racing away from the pack territory, and not toward town. His instincts, which had told him to hunt in this direction when everyone else would have guessed the other way, had served him well yet again.
Four animals. Two were wolves, though the paws on these particular snouts were nearly half again the size they should have been. The Reyes brothers had shifted into above-average-sized wolves before, but when they’d come out of the woods in human form they’d loomed over their car like hairy, overmuscled giants. They had to be eight feet tall now if they were an inch, Milton guessed, and these fleeing paw-prints told him their wolves had increased in size in proportion to their human forms.
The third was ordinary-sized but still canine, and it took him a second to remember the young guardian Banks and the snouts had suborned to their group. Milton was disappointed in himself for having forgotten the dog. He was becoming fixated, which was good for lending determination in the face of all obstacles; but there was fixation, and then there was tunnel-vision. Tunnel-vision made you underestimate your enemies and fail to anticipate the unexpected.
Four animals. Two oversized wolves, a self-important puppy, and—what?
He crept back along the little run of tracks a fourth time, though the moonlight was fading rapidly and the smell of rain was suddenly in the air. Milton was annoyed but not surprised—the weather around these parts was volatile, to say the least. His dead brother used to joke that the skies got bored being any kind of weather for too long, and though he despised such whimsy Milton had never heard a better explanation.
There were only a few of the fourth print. Monitoring the increasing wind, he took out his personal phone—the one the others didn’t know about—from an inner zip pocket and took two quick pictures, as clear as he could make them, one with and one without flash. Then he put his phone away and stood. He’d study the images later, but it would be mainly for completeness and detail. He was no zoologist, but he could already tell two important things about these prints.
First: they belonged to a creature much, much larger the others, maybe larger than the others combined. Now, from what he’d seen on the motel CCTV he’d taken from the terrified clerk, Banks had already been about a head taller than the brothers when he’d arrived. When they’d come out of the forest tonight, though, all of them naked, massive, and unnervingly masculine, Banks had been sized up even compared to the snouts. If the brothers were eight feet now, the Banks creature had to be ten at least. A monster and a brute, even before he shifted.
Second: whatever these gigantic prints belonged to, it was most definitely not a wolf.
Though the parking lot footage hadn’t shown a full shift Milton had been sure the outsider was not a wolf, though he’d ignored the wild, superstitious, and generally irrational speculation of his other group members and the snouts themselves. Here, though, was concrete proof.
The wind gusted over him, and fat raindrops started pelting Milton and the road and sandy shoulder in front of him. The tracks were quickly disturbed and misshapen even before the rain started in earnest and began diligently washing them away until they were completely lost. It didn’t matter. He’d seen what he needed to see. Whatever Banks was—bear was his guess, but given his size and uniqueness he could be some kind of Sasquatch or shifter chimera for all he knew—he had what Milton required, and that was all that concerned him.
Milton started walking along the winding road, headed stolidly in the same direction as the tracks. The wind picked up and the rain intensified, battering him from all sides, soaking his infiltration clothes and seeping even into his boots. It didn’t matter. Milton had walked through storm and hail and wind before. He had walked through death and brimstone and living hell on earth before. He, Milton Skeet, would possess the power and strength and potency those inhuman monsters did not deserve. A little damp was not going to stop him.
Aaron rolled up his window in disgust. He thought he’d caught a whiff of Victor’s dark, manly scent near the edge of the clearing they’d all parked in, but it was taking forever to get out onto the road, and all he could smell now was rain.
“Just honk at ’em,” his cousin Caleb suggested unhelpfully from where he slouched against the passenger door.
Aaron shook his head. Caleb was the kind of guy that might get on your nerves, but Aaron was fond of him anyway. He wasn’t sure why. Possibly it was his easygoing nature, which Aaron envied, or the way he effortlessly got along with everyone—a skill Aaron yearned to have for himself. It certainly wasn’t the fact that Caleb possessed easily the biggest, fattest cock Aaron had ever seen, a blue-ribbon winner for size and allure both in its soft and hard states, with a pair of plum-sized balls to match. Or the fact that Caleb habitually wore only overalls and work boots, nothing else, as if easy access to that hefty, oversized sausage was his main, and indeed only, determiner in choosing what to wear. Caleb was even sitting in a way that casually brought attention to it—back against the door, one leg bent up on the seat, and a big, indistinct bulge low and center. Now that the window was closed he could even smell it, above and complementary to Caleb’s distinctive, personal scent.
Aaron’s own cock plumped in his heavy khakis, to his mild annoyance. He was sure he wasn’t actually gay, but when he pictured Victor and Gerardo alone in his bed at night, dark-skinned and strong, playfully undressing for him… or Caleb, with his handsome face, fit body, and peerlessly huge prick, a saucy smile playing at his lips…
With a grunt he peeled suddenly around the beat-up Duster in front of him waiting to turn left toward town. Rumbling over a bit of rocky shoulder he got them onto the highway and quickly turned right, just as the rain started pouring down. He increased the speed of his wipers, but it wasn’t doing much good, and he reluctantly slowed the pickup to a cautious crawl as the road south started to curve away from the wolflands.
“What’re we goin’ this way for?” Caleb asked. Most of the clan, Aaron and Caleb included, lived either between the Fisher lands and town or out to the west or east along the main roads to the north. “Ain’t nothin’ this way but a few ordinary-folk houses, and then zippo until you get to Banner Point.”
Aaron focused on the road and said nothing.
Caleb was incredulous. “Banner Point? You believe that stuff?”
Pack tradition held the craggy peak well south of their lands to be sacred to the shifters of the whole region. Legend said that if you went up there under a round moon with two true companions you could catch the scent-trail of anyone you sought. No one believed it much these days. In fact most would probably react like Caleb, who sounded like he was thinking that high-minded, gullible Aaron was wasting their time on a wild goose chase.
“I’ve done it before,” Aaron replied stiffly, almost inaudibly over the drumming of the rain on the long roof of the truck’s king cab.
“You found a scent up on Banner Point?” Caleb said disbelievingly. “Whose?”
Aaron smiled, though he still didn’t dare look away from the road. “Yours,” he said.
Caleb said nothing, shocked. Everyone had always put down Aaron finding Caleb in the woods that time five years back when he’d fallen in a hole and broken his leg to luck, or diligence, or even the power of family. Aaron himself had never told anyone about bringing his two younger brothers up to the flat summit of Banner Point in desperation, and had sworn the two of them to secrecy as well.
He didn’t think it would really work this time, not in the rain, and not with only one companion. But then again, the moon was tonight, which had to be some kind of sign. The storm would probably blow through as abruptly as it had arrived. And if it did work, he’d save the pack, and he’d save the noble and handsome Gerardo and Victor, too, from their horrible ensorcellment. He could just imagine their grateful smiles when he found them miles from anywhere in the deep, dark woods, shirtless and ready to be rescued…
After a while, as if following the lines of Aaron’s thoughts, Caleb drawled, “I gotta say, you’re kinda cute when you’re being all steely-eyed and determined like this.”
Aaron snorted. He wanted to adjust his half-swollen cock, but that would be too much of a give-away.
“If you want,” his cousin continued relentlessly, “we can fool around some later. I’ll even let you suck it again, if—”
“Hey, is that a hiker?” Aaron broke in, nodding toward a dark shape up the road to the left, barely distinguishable in the rain.
They pulled up alongside the figure, who was trudging as implacably as a Terminator through the howling storm despite being thoroughly soaked. Aaron crept alongside him, turning on the map light so the stranger could see they were ordinary folks, more or less. “Hey, Mister,” he said. “Need a ride somewhere?”
The slogging figure looked over at him, and Aaron though he almost sneered. But then he turned and moved toward the truck, and Aaron rolled to a stop.
The stranger peered in at them, as if examining them for their utility. He seemed utterly nondescript, a few years older than him and Caleb, with loose, fleshy features, a Roman nose, and a thin, scraggly moustache he must have been told he’d look better without.
“You hunting?” the stranger asked.
It was an odd question in the middle of a downpour, and Aaron deduced from this that the stranger might truly be on the same mission he was. Not a wolf, but the Elders had been known to hire humans for certain jobs, and in this case as many skilled trackers as possible were needed to save the pack and rescue the brothers. If that was the case, then they should be working together. Aaron nodded, waiting to hear what the other man would say next.
“Two wolves… and a beast,” the stranger suggested.
Aaron smiled in relief. Definitely on the same mission. “That’s right.”
The stranger tilted his head at them. The wind had lessened momentarily, so that the rain was slamming straight down on them, plastering the stranger’s thinning hair to his scalp this way and that. “You look like you have an idea where to look,” he said shrewdly.
Behind him, Caleb scoffed, but Aaron nodded again, sure now that this was the right path to find the brothers and the creature. Coming across a third hunter like this, ensuring they’d have the requisite three for the moon ritual, had to be a sign. “Truth is, we could use your help, Mister—?”
The stranger smiled, though in the midst of the storm, with streams of water trickling down his face, the effect was oddly more creepy than reassuring. “Call me Milton,” the stranger said.
Mike got the whole story from them in the mostly empty barn over frozen pizzas and a six-pack of cold longnecks, while the storm raged and spent itself outside. He was glad now he’d seen the three-for-one deal on the frozen pies the last time he’d been to the megastore, though in truth the large meat-lovers DiGiornio that Owen took for himself looked more like a snack than a meal.
An amaxo. He still couldn’t quite believe Gerardo had ended up with an amaxo. And a complete neophyte, if their inability to control their united abilities, as shown by their ridiculous size and muscles, was any indication. Owen seemed to have some prior knowledge of shifters but no real understanding at all of what he was, or the responsibilities he now shared with the men he’d joined with. Even Victor and Gerardo seemed to have only an inkling of what lay ahead.
A ten-foot-tall amaxo. Mike took a swig from his beer as he watched Gerardo smile up at the guy. He was sitting between the giant’s legs and leaning against his furry, impossibly muscled torso—seriously, the guy looked like he could rip Mike’s ancestral house apart with a few deft swipes—and looking almost normal by comparison, though Mike knew that even at 5’11” and naturally fit he was a toothpick next to the brothers, let alone Owen. Bandit, also fed and watered, was curled up against Owen’s thigh, snoozing quietly.
Victor was sitting on the steps that led up to the second level where his mortal mother’s woodworking workshop was gathering dust, close to where Owen leaned against a (fortunately very stout) supporting beam, and Gerardo leaned against Owen. Mike sat on an old chair more or less opposite them, acutely aware he was the only one in the room whose weight it would support. He was also very self-consciously the only one with clothes on, having thrown on jeans and an old white tee shirt after he’d made the storm so he as to be a proper host. His guests, on the other hand, were all casually naked, every enlarged and perfected muscle on display, their cocks and balls huge beyond the dreams of carnal avarice.
Victor had related the story so far in a measured, orderly fashion, with occasional interjections from Gerardo; now, in the silence that followed, he was observing Mike closely as he ate. “You’re taking all this pretty well,” he remarked after his last slice. To Mike he sounded a little skeptical.
Mike snorted. “Am I?” he asked, taking another pull from his beer. The irony was, he’d spent his whole time with Gerardo struggling to hold himself back, having discovered to his dismay that truly passionate sex surfaced his meteorological powers. He didn’t exactly want their assignations to be flooded out or struck by lightning; more importantly, he could not afford to get outed as the son of a sky god, such revelations being strictly forbidden on pain of some very ancient and draconian punishments. Consequently he’d had to forcibly suppress himself and bind himself up emotionally during intercourse, which… had led to a series of rather unsatisfying encounters before Gerardo had pulled the plug.
He looked at Owen and the power practically cascading from him and shook his head. All that time he’d held back his semi-divine nature, and it turned out Gerardo’s type was the ultimate shifter demigod. The fact that Gerardo obviously loved Owen—that the three of them all deeply loved each other—didn’t help him quite as much as he thought it should have. Which, he considered, was pretty fucked up of him. He chided himself for being petty, and for holding onto his feelings for Gerardo long enough to be jealous.
Maybe it was the finding love part he was jealous of. But that wasn’t what he should be thinking of, either. Now that they had come to him, he knew who he was, and he knew what he had to do.
Gerardo had been watching him, too. He pursed his lips. “We’ll be gone in the morning,” Gerardo said. “But we are grateful—”
“Don’t be stupid,” Mike said, cutting him off. He finished his beer with a long drag, set the bottle by his chair, and stood up, facing them. He was practically eye to eye with Owen even with him standing and the giant sitting down. He put his hands on his hips and spoke sternly, so there would be no misunderstanding. “This is your base of operations now, for as long as you need it to be. We’ll find your missing Elder and sort out how to heal the crisis that others have created.” He looked the three of them over—they were all looking at him with various degrees of surprise. Well, they’d come to him as an ex they were asking a favor from, and they hadn’t expected more.
“I think it’s clear,” he went on, looking at each of them in turn, “that you three together are the fulcrum on which this entire community will turn. You need more than a safe space: you need a trusted friend who’ll have your back while you learn your path.” He paused, finally releasing a genuine smile. “Guys,” he said, “that friend is me.”
No sooner had he said the words than Gerardo leapt to his feet and swallowed him up in a huge, naked hug, lifting him off his feet so that he was in contact with nothing but Gerardo’s uncannily muscled body and his hefty soft cock, which brushed like a miniature punching bag against his leg as Gerardo squeezed him breathless. After a moment he felt a double-helping as Victor joined the hug from behind him. Despite himself Mike was starting to feel turned on, but then the brothers set him on his feet again and beamed down at him, with Owen standing behind them like a mountain behind a pair of hills.
“Thank you, Mike,” Gerardo said. “Thank you so much. I could kiss you, I’m so grateful.”
“Fuck, don’t tease the poor guy,” Victor admonished.
Gerardo winced. “I mean,” he said, “I could hug you—again—!” He smiled sheepishly, and Mike laughed.
“Just so it’s out of the way,” he said, looking up at Gerardo and meeting his eyes, “I am happy for you, Ger. Honest. I’m happy for the three of you.”
“Thanks,” Victor said. “We’re… pretty happy for us too.”
They were looking at each other now, their eyes darkening and their hefty cocks starting to thicken. Mike slipped hastily out from between them. “Okay, well,” he said, “you have the blankets I brought out, right there in that pile, there, so, I’m just going to—” He thumbed behind himself towards the barn door, but he was already superfluous to the scene. He quickly turned and loped silently across the floor as quick as he could. Moments later he was out the door and closing it behind him. There was going to be some seriously awesome fucking going on in there. He was almost tempted to stay and watch the fireworks, but he knew that, bottom line, what they had was too intimate to share.
He shook his head. Sexual compatibility like that was one thing, but their mutual love was a gift. If he could find love like that, he thought, he’d be one lucky demigod.
He scoffed, tempted to roll his eyes that the thought had even occurred to him. Without the ability to reveal himself, to be honest with his partner, he could never truly know that kind of love.
Though, maybe he could practice fucking. A good fuck might take the edge off a loveless eternity, he told himself with a smirk.
Taking a deep, cleansing breath of the storm-charged air, Mike squared his shoulders and headed back through the rain toward his house, not a single drop hitting him the whole way back.
Ohkwáho’s mind stirred as he sensed the three mortals trudging up the narrow, twisting path through fierce wind and rain toward the flat, erosion-rippled expanse of bare white rock folks now called Banner Point, hundreds of feet above the bristling wolflands. It was not quite an awakening. He did not sleep, not exactly, but his thoughts rested in the long stretches between calls for his aid. The intervals were increasing, more and more each time. Once his guidance had been sought season upon season by synods of reverent elders. Sometimes entire clans would visit, seeking his aid. But months became years, and years decades, and Ohkwáho was tired and forgotten, a once-strong river attenuated over eons to a slow trickle, soon to dry completely to bare rocks and an empty channel shaped like the past.
He had not wanted to be a mountain-soul. His wolf-tribe, feared and shunned by the other Mohawk, had not even known of the ancient magic that bound the spirit to the bones of any man or woman interred in wolf form on high ground under stone. He had died from an enemy’s poisoned dart that left him too weak to shift to his human form, and his father and siblings had buried him here, under a narrow gap near the center of the field of white stone, simply because this hill was his favorite place to watch the stars. Perhaps other wolves knew of the magic and invoked it deliberately to give themselves a guide and protector, but Ohkwáho’s living spirit was discovered by chance: he had helped a trio of brothers trapped here by snow and ice to find food and shelter, and from that the tale of the mountain-soul had spread. Some came alone, pleading for his help under the black, starry sky, but Ohkwáho found he could not give it. There was a rule wound through the magic that he could not set aside. Three must come, his bones told him, and for a need that embraced them all, not one alone.
As the supplicants left the relative cover of the forest for the long, oblong stretch of exposed rock that crowned the modest summit of Banner Point, bracing themselves against the strange storm that had erupted so suddenly from a dark and quiet night, their flashlight beams lancing out ineffectively before them, Ohkwáho recognized the mind and body of the young man who’d brought them here. He had come here once before. He was earnest and strong, determined to do good, Ohkwáho judged, but his idealism left him naive and vulnerable. Well, such was an ailment of the young from which strong-willed pups like him might well recover, sooner or later.
With him were two others. One was another brash and cocky young wolf, this one more given to indolence and diversion than his kinsman, though Ohkwáho sensed in him nonetheless a discerning mind that was more troubled by recent events, and more aware of the dark forces at work in his own clan, than he chose to let on. And the other…
Ohkwáho bristled. This, this was a predator of humans and wolf-folk alike, a lonely creature who despised the wolf-people for possessing a power that he himself coveted, with an intensity Ohkwáho found painful to touch.
The predator paused, standing frozen as the wind howled around him, lashing him with rain. Did he sense Ohkwáho brushing against his soul? Did he feel his disgust and fear? Why had the pups brought someone like this to his demesne? What need could they all share as one?
The earnest one looked back at the predator over his shoulder. “Come on!” he bellowed over the squall. The predator reluctantly resumed his hike, following the others carefully up the rough, slow incline to the center of the stony crown.
The leader of the three soon atop at the highest part of the stone clearing, not far from the little hollow of exposed earth where Ohkwáho had once been buried, many centuries before. He faced the other two, the three of them together forming a triangle atop the low mountain summit. Raising his face defiantly against the storm he cried, “Spirit! We ask your help. My people face a monster. An amaxo has come to destroy us! Already he twists my friends to his foul needs. Help us to find the creature, that our packs may live free and safe again!”
Ohkwáho listened in shock to the pup’s appeal. An amaxo? A champion demigod? How far had the wolf-folk fallen, if they deemed their savior a monster and an enemy?
His own people had possessed many legends of the amaxo, even if they had not been aware of other, more arcane magics, like that of the mountain-soul. More had been revealed to Ohkwáho in death. For an amaxo to have awoken there must be a coming peril great enough to call forth a warrior-protector. And the packs of these days were either so starved for lore, or so corrupted by their own desires, that they had fixated on the protector himself as the true threat to their existence and status quo.
The earnest one stood proudly atop Ohkwáho’s stony resting place, chin raised, waiting for Ohkwáho’s spirit to join his and bring him the boon he asked—the scent of the amaxo. Even in a storm like this, it was within Ohkwáho’s power. He and the land were one. He had only to send tendrils of his mind through the dark soil and stone of the lands around, and he would have the scent no mortal nose could find. He could show this pup the way. But if he did so, would the earnest one lead the corrupted elders to the amaxo so that he could be destroyed with fire, leaving all the wolf-peoples of these lands exposed to the true cataclysm that lay ahead?
Wisdom is not achieved by one man alone, his grandmother had often said. As a boy Ohkwáho had been sure that this was a sly comment on the impulsiveness of men, which required leavening by the shrewdness of women; but the saying, as he later found out, was an ancient one among his people, and was the origin and explanation for the clans being led by tribunals of elders rather than by a single chieftain. It was even woven into the supernatural magic that kept Ohkwáho tethered to his burial-spot as a mountain-soul fated to save his own distant descendants, as he now saw. Three must come. Three had come, united in their need, but not in their desires.
The indolent pup stood watching the leader, frowning at him thoughtfully as rain spattered his face and body. He desired to find the amaxo, not to save the tribe from the monster his lying elders had painted him to be but to learn his true nature, so that he might decide for himself to join with the amaxo or with the elders against him. Ohkwáho appreciated this approach. Despite his irreverent and carnal demeanor this one might be the key to what was to happen amongst the three of them, whether Ohkwáho chose to act or not.
The predator’s soul was twisted, less open to Ohkwáho’s questing mind than the others. But one thing was clear: he desired to find the amaxo because he had a plan, or thought he had a plan, to take its magic and its power, and even that of all the wolf-people. Ohkwáho knew he must be stopped. He steeled himself, recognizing that choice was behind him now. The true purpose of his existence had come to him tonight without warning or premonition, as tempests raged and the future lay suddenly, horrifyingly, in precarious balance.
It would not be enough merely to join with the supplicant, guiding his senses as he had a hundred times before, as he once had done when the earnest one had sought to find his young cousin—the very boy, now a man, who had joined him to stand before the mountain-soul, skeptical but curious, and loyal to his friend and to his people. Ohkwáho needed to do more. Much more.
Lightning crashed suddenly into a soaring tree not far from the clearing, and the mortals looked around, concerned, as the deafening thunder rolled over them. The somber atmosphere of their trio was broken, and they were exposed and afraid. Their shared determination might break and send them running at any moment. Ohkwáho needed to act. He gathered all his strength, drawing not only from what he was but from what he had been. He was a trickle that was once a river, and it was the river on which he now drew, concentrating all his force and potency, his very being, into a single unprecedented act.
The air around them seemed to surge into pure luminescence, as if lightning had struck the very ground at their feet, and the mortals squeezed their eyes closed at the sudden brilliance, shivering in fear.
Ohkwáho roared within himself, channeling his need. With all his will he wrested himself from his ancient hilltop tomb and forcibly invested himself into a living man, mercilessly pushing down his soul into a place of impotence and taking total control of his life, body and spirit.
He opened the predator’s eyes and found that the others were staring at him. The dazzling light was gone, and in its place was an charged ominousness even the pups could feel, of something coming more terrible than a mere storm.
“Follow me,” said Ohkwáho.
“I have never seen so many waffles scarfed down in my entire life,” Mike said, not sure whether to be impressed or disgusted. They were sitting around a heavy-duty work-table he’d repurposed as a dining room table for the barn, figuring it was easier for now than trying to get the giant indoors. It was current strewn with the detritus of their early-morning meal: syrup-smeared dishes, coffee mugs, cutlery, wadded napkins, and very little food. The dog had already eaten and was out running around in the wet, post-storm woods, though whether he was doing guardian stuff or dog stuff Mike had no idea. “And,” he added for emphasis, “that includes the time an entire biker gang stopped at the Denny’s and ordered two of everything.” He made a mental note to place a delivery order from the Hannaford’s when they opened for enough food to feed an amaxo and two ravenous mega-wolves.
He looked his guests over, a little stunned by how oversized the eight-foot brothers looked compared to him, and even more by the hairy, handsome muscle-giant who made the brothers look normal by comparison. Fuck, they were hot. Sex as fuck, and full of sex. Made of horny. He was horny just looking at them.
Everyone was naked except for Mike, which at the moment was the main thing that was helping him feel normal.
Of course, with him being the secret son of a sky god, doomed by the need to hide his powers to be thought of as a bad lay, “normal” was something that could be safely said to have left the building, and probably the county.
“Speaking of which…” Gerardo said. He paused, trying to get at a smudge of syrup on his cheek with an impressively long tongue. After a moment a smirking Victor leaned over and helped him with this, and their tongues worked at the syrup together. Mike and Owen watched, fascinated.
Gerardo seemed to remember his train of thought. “Oh, right,” he said. “Speaking of which, aren’t you working this morning? Do you need to head out?”
Mike shook his head. “I got Frances to cover my shifts this week,” he said. “They’ve been shorting her hours anyway, so she was thrilled to get the time.”
“There’s a reason they’ve been shorting Frances’s hours,” Gerardo murmured into his coffee mug. With him drinking from it it looked like a tea cup from a kid’s play set.
“She can’t stop staring at boobs,” Victor explained to Owen, snickering. “She’ll be taking a woman’s order and then they realize she’s just staring at their breasts. She doesn’t even realize she’s doing it half the time.”
Owen seemed amused. “She ever do that to you, V?” he said with a wink.
Victor looked down at his massive, thickly-haired pecs, considering their bulk from above. “I was never this big before,” he mused. He popped his pecs experimentally, then gasped when they suddenly jumped up a size. He swiveled to glare at Owen. “Hey! Stop that!”
Owen feigned innocence. “Hey, it’s not me growing us, it’s us, remember?”
Victor gave him a narrow look. “It’s one thing how we grow ourself when we’re all consumed with lust and can’t control it,” he said. “But—”
“I’m always consumed with lust,” Owen growled. His eyes were twinkling, but he also sounded like he meant it. Then he bent and gave Victor a passionate kiss, and a moment later something thumped hard against the underside of the table, making Victor’s empty plate jump and rattle.
“Fuck, yeah,” Gerardo breathed, from where he sat on Owen’s other side.
Mike closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Guys, control yourselves,” he pleaded. His hard-on strained at his pants, clearly wanting them to do anything but control themselves, but he ignored it as aggressively as he could.
“In a minute,” he heard Victor mumble around Owen’s bearded lips.
Abruptly it was ten degrees colder in the barn. “Fuck,” Owen said, pulling free and reaching for one of the blankets. To Mike’s surprise he draped it around Gerardo and not himself, but both brothers snuggled close against Owen anyway. Okay, Mike thought, making it colder only got them to nuzzle together more. He considered whether he should try sweltering heat next time instead. Or maybe a hurricane to blow them apart, except even then they’d probably cling to each other as tightly as they were now.
Three men, one gestalt being, he remembered. Or they will be, if they can get their shit together.
“Man, somebody leave the barn door open?” Victor joked, shivering slightly and looking around for the source of the gust of frigid air.
Mike blew out a breath and mentally started the ambient temperature slowly rising back toward where it was before. He raised his head and looked at the three men, offering them an embarrassed smile. “Sorry, it can be a little drafty out here,” he said, trying to sound ashamed of his failings as a host. “I’ll see if I can get it better weatherproofed while you’re here.”
“That’s okay,” Gerardo said unselfconsciously, cuddling in under Owen’s tree-trunk arm and looking up at his massive lover with love and passion written all over his face. “We know how to keep warm.”
Mike bit his lip. Good thing I’m not the jealous type, he thought sourly. Aloud, he said, “Victor has a point.”
Victor pried his attention away from Owen and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the scarred surface of the old work table. Mike tried not to be distracted by how this pose managed to accentuate the bulk and heft of his suddenly enlarged pecs. “Yeah?” Victor said.
Mike organized his thoughts, trying to phrase them objectively. “So far,” he told the three of them, “you’ve been impacted by the unconscious growth you’ve managed to tie to sexual arousal and intercourse.”
“Say ‘fucking’,” Owen interrupted, clearly wanting to play with his host.
“Shut up, I want to hear this,” Victor said, leaning forward a little.
“I’m sure it’s a lot more than just ‘fucking’,” Mike said, glancing at Owen. He looked like he agreed, a fond smile coming over his face. Gerardo looked vindicated, like he’d been saying this for ages. “My point is, you’ve been doing the unconscious sex-growth thing this whole time, and because you all love it it’s only gotten more and more intense.”
“Are you saying we should stop making love, Mike?” Victor asked seriously. He was frowning, but he, at least, looked rational enough to consider such a proposal if it were the solution to their current situation. The others not so much: Gerardo looked angrily defiant at the very idea, and Owen looked obstinate and hostile.
“Obviously not,” Mike said dryly. “I might as well suggest the sun not rise tomorrow morning.”
Owen hmphed, and Gerardo nodded fiercely. Victor’s mouth twisted to one side, acknowledging the truth of what Mike had said. “What, then?” he asked.
“I’m not an expert on the powers and abilities of amaxo gestalts,” he said truthfully. This amused the boys, as he had intended, and he continued. “But it seems clear to me that you have some conscious control over your abilities—Owen just proved it. I think if you focus and train those abilities, you’ll not only be able to control your size, making you less of a target, but… you might find that you can use your abilities for more than just making yourselves hotter.”
Owen grinned. “But that’s the best part of having a growth-power,” he said. He looked down at Gerardo, and Mike watched as the other brother’s hairy pecs ratcheted up a size, too.
“Whoa,” Gerardo said, running a hand over them.
Mike tried to ignore this, though his own cock was throbbing in his jeans. “That’s the thing,” he said. “Don’t think of it as your ‘growth power’. You’re all focused on how awesome it is to grow and grow and keep growing yourselves and each other, but I think it’s much more than that.”
“What do you mean?” Gerardo said.
“It’s like our shifting power,” Victor said, catching on. “We’re not growing, we’re changing shape. Changing the configuration of the human form we become.”
Mike nodded. “And your animal form, too,” he said. “I think that’s what it is. When a shifter goes from one form to another, it normally seems predetermined what the end form is either way, but it’s still you transforming from one shape to another. Thanks to Owen’s latent abilities, I think part of your shared ability is that you have gained control over what those shapes are. So far it’s been mostly unconscious, driven by lust and fantasy. But if you train it—control it—”
“We’ll be able to completely control our shapes in either form,” Owen said slowly, as though he were turning the idea over in his head, weighing the implications.
“I think that’s the start of it,” Mike said. “A power that strong won’t be limited to just the three of you.”
The three shifters exchanged glances. Mike decided they had shown him enough that they could start turning some of these words into action. “C’mon,” he said, standing up and moving around the table, heading for the open area at the center of the barn. He tried to be subtle about adjusting his cock as he did so, but he saw Owen’s smirk as the others stood and followed him.
Mike took a deep breath as the hairy, muscular shifters settled into a power stance facing him, towering over him—pallid, undersized runt of the group at six-foot-one. It was like some kind of Photoshop morphing exercise involving growing a bunch of swarthy hunks to different relative sizes… only it was real, alive. They were flesh and (hot) blood, inches away. He had only to reach out a hand and touch these literally larger-than-life men, their bodies enhanced into the realm of dreams, half-hard cocks hanging in front of thick thighs and hefty balls.
It hadn’t been that long ago Gerardo had danced with him in this very barn to a classic rock playlist, and he’d been the tall one then. Now, he was looking right at Gerardo’s heavy, protruding pecs, surrounded by massive shoulders, flaring lats, rippling abs, tree-felling arms… and his brother was the same, only even stronger, with denser, tighter muscles and even thicker body hair. And behind them was a ten-foot stranger, a demigod of flesh and muscle that Mike was looking at not in the pecs but in the fucking navel. Mike’s cock throbbed—it wanted to watch them go at it, right now. He’d felt aroused by men before, Gerardo among them, but now he was felling the constant impact of three men who were literally making him hot and hard. Were they actually giving off sex vibes that were making him hornier and hornier? Or were they just that impossibly, irresistibly, heart-stoppingly beautiful?
As if to emphasize their threesomeness, Owen rested his powerful hands on each of the brothers’ bulging shoulders, the size of his huge man-paws stressing just how scaled up he was compared to them—and they were five sizes bigger than him.
Okay. Focus. That was what he was trying to get them to do, after all. He looked deliberately up into Owen’s crystal-blue eyes. Yeah, that guy was definitely amused. He liked what they were doing to their newest friend.
Mike cleared his throat. “All right,” he said to Owen, holding the other man’s gaze. “What I want you to do is to try consciously using your reshaping power—remember, it’s not a growth power, it’s a reshaping power—to make yourself shorter than me.”
Mike held his stare, and after a moment he saw that their perspectives were indeed shifting. Then he felt a sudden, sharp discomfort at his inseam, which seemed to be digging into his balls. He glanced down, alarmed, and saw that his basic blue pocket tee had already pulled out of his jeans and had exposed a good two or three inches of his pale, flat belly, with a similar stretch of white, hairless ankle showing between his cuffs and the tennies he was wearing without socks.
He looked up at the shifters with an exasperated frown. “Not by growing me, you asshole,” he griped, pointing a finger at Owen. “Bad amaxo! Bad!”
Owen just grinned.
“Hey, since when can he grow other people?” Gerardo said. He sounded jealous, like he wanted Owen to be only growing him and his brother.
“You mean, since when can we grow other people,” Victor corrected him. He was watching Mike’s slow growth with a clinical interest. “Those clothes are going to get too tight in a minute,” he observed. “Can we…?”
“Listen, you shifter dickheads—!” Mike interjected, but they weren’t listening to him. The brothers exchanged glances with each other, then with Owen, then all three of them stared hard at Mike. Suddenly his clothes were gone, and he was standing in front of them, fit, pale, and ragingly erect.
He was about to berate them, but a new pain in his feet made him wince and look down again. “Oops,” Gerardo said with a grin. “We forgot the shoes.” In the blink of an eye these vanished too. This time he thought he could feel a bit of the effect they were having on him, but indirectly, like a charge in the air that raised the hair on your arms. He wished he were an expert on gestalt amaxo powers. How were they working this? Was Owen directing their joined access to shifter magic, or was there some kind of deeper connection, a union they might not even be fully conscious of?
Mike stared at his big, bare feet. Well, he’d been right about one thing. The three of them possessed a transformation power that wasn’t limited to each other, capable of being consciously focused to reshape themselves and others, too. His stomach fluttered, and he couldn’t help but wonder what exactly he had unleashed.
He lifted his gaze slowly to look at Owen—and found he was staring him right in the eyes. They were the same height now. The two brothers were proportionately shorter compared to Owen, and so, therefore, also to Mike, which made Mike feel very, very strange. Out of habit he reached up and combed his hand through his floppy hair, only to find there was more of that, too. A lot more, like his hair had gone from a thick, wavy Thor-era Chris Hemsworth to a Charlie’s Angels-era Farrah Fawcett cascade in the space between one heartbeat and the next. Unsettled, he quickly checked his body again. Despite the outpouring of hair up top there was no more body hair than usual, it looked like, just the brush of blond between his pecs and another line down from his navel to his well-trimmed pubes. He stared at his painfully hard, slightly red cock jutting out straight in front of him with a slight curve to the left, his pulse loud in his ears. Was it bigger? Obviously it had grown proportionately to his new size, but… had they given the thing an extra push? What else had they changed about him?
Feeling a little disoriented, he tried looking around him for some kind of concrete reference to latch onto. Before, standing, Owen’s shoulders had been the same height as the second level of the barn. Now, his and Owen’s heads were both below it, roughly where the brothers’ heads had been before. If that was true, that meant he and Owen were about eight feet tall, like the brothers had been, and the brothers themselves were proportionately smaller, like six-foot-five, though both of them looked like they had the mass and power (and hair) of any two normal people that height. And given Mike’s own lanky, defined but not muscular physique, the enormously muscled Owen definitely looked like he possessed the strength and body weight of at least two of Mike.
Like a reflex, Mike’s inner snark took over, grounding him a little. So… Owen and the boys really had shrunk themselves. But they’d grown Mike, too, so they didn’t have to shrink themselves too far. The fuckers. “Guys,” he drawled, trying to ignore the way his bucking cock gave away how much he liked this, “this is fun and all, but… you might want to change me back. I mean,” he continued, spreading his hands a little to emphasize his new configuration, “clearly I can’t go to work like this.”
“Right, but you’re taking the next few days off,” Gerardo observed, in an “aha, gotcha” tone of voice.
Victor was looking up at him as if being shorter than not one but two giants, with very different proportions, was giving him (so to speak) a whole new perspective… one he didn’t seem mind at all. “So really, there’s no rush,” he agreed with his brother, giving Mike’s trim, fit, towering body and jutting cock a not-unappreciative once-over.
The mood shifted. Owen stepped forward silently, bringing their faces were close, the brothers shifting to stand on either side of them. The two taller men looked each other in the eye for a moment. Owen’s expression was serious now, and his eyes were clear and resolute. What had just happened was not a joke, they seemed to be saying. Or, it was not only a joke.
“I wanted you to feel it,” Owen said finally. “To understand it.” He cocked his head and gave him a small smile. “Think of it as an initiation into our pack,” he added.
Mike watched him and said nothing at first, fighting back a sense of being overwhelmed. Owen had made himself just slightly shorter than Mike—an interesting concession, and a meaningful one for an alpha like Owen. But neither of them was fooled. Mike might be a half-inch taller, but Owen’s broad, impossibly brawny frame and his primal, power-exuding presence dwarfed him in every way.
He decided he could only accept Owen’s words as respectfully as Owen had meant them. “In that case,” he said quietly, “I am honored.”
Owen leaned forward and kissed him. It was no ceremonial kiss, but a thorough, dirty, toe-curling snog that very nearly made Mike rocket from incredibly turned on straight into an explosive, Owen-painting orgasm. Owen stepped back, smiling but not in a smug way, just pleased to have made this deep connection with Mike. Mike was vaguely aware of the brothers bantering below them—“Fuck, look at his face” and “I wonder who else we can initiate like this!”—but at the moment, Mike only saw Owen. Then, too late, he saw that he had, truly, become part of Owen’s pack, and that he was bound to them more irrevocably than mere words and promises had done. He couldn’t object too much. It had always been his intent to help Owen, Victor, and Gerardo to the limit of his abilities, even to the death if necessary—what they represented was that important. Now, however, he would be doing so because he belonged to Owen, and Owen belonged to him.
He looked into those mesmerizing blue eyes and realized with concern that he could see what looked like fatigue there. It had been a serious exertion for him and the brothers, focusing their abilities like this for the first time. “If you guys want to take a nap—” he began gently.
Owen smiled and shook his head. “We need to run,” Gerardo said.
Mike considered this. It made sense, if his theories were right. The most direct access point to the unlimited, metaphysical power of the amaxo, as with any shifter, seemed to lay at the transition between forms. This was why a tired or wounded wolf usually shifted into a healed and rested human, or vice versa.
Mike nodded and gave them all a crooked grin. “Will you… you will change me back, right? When you’re done running through the trees for a while?”
The now-shorter Gerardo pulled him down into a full-on kiss. Before this could get too awkward, he then passed Mike to his brother, who gave him the same deep, ardent kiss. A pack-brothers kiss. It was pretty nice. Lots of tongue in a pack-brothers kiss, he mused, finding his arousal once again being spiked almost to its limits.
“We’ll change you back… eventually,” Gerardo teased. Then, before Mike could even draw in a breath, he was a big, beautiful, silver and black wolf, bigger than any wolf Mike had ever seen. His brother shifted with him, becoming an equally massive wolf with fur a deep charcoal gray.
Then, while Mike was still admiring these beautiful animals, Owen shifted, and an enormous, silky-pelted black bear stood where a man had been a moment before.
Mike met the bear’s eyes—brown now, but still with a hint of blue—and reached up. Owen-the-bear lowered his head, and Mike rubbed the ends of his fingers along his muzzle and around his ears, smiling affectionately. The wolves danced excitedly around their feet, eager to run. “Be careful,” Mike said. Owen gave a huff and butted him with his muzzle. Mike went and opened the rear barn door that faced the still-dark forest, noticing Bandit in the tall grass near the treeline, watching him, waiting for his friends to come out. How much do you know about all this? Mike wondered, eyeing the dog. He was a mess of wet fur and muddy paws, and Mike thought with a wry smile that the dog, at least, would need a bath when they got back.
The shifters scampered past him into the wild, Bandit turning and loping swiftly after them. The barn seemed suddenly quiet and empty. Fuck, he missed them already. And he had a hard-on that felt like it would need at least two rounds of double-fisted servicing to take care of.
Mike closed the barn door and turned back to the table, gathering up the dishes to take back into the house. They all seemed weirdly small now, like he’d served breakfast with hobbit crockery instead of his own. He sighed, resigning himself with a smile to at least a few days of crouching under doorways and no clothes that fit before the boys got around to changing him back.
He gathered the dirty dishes into the same tub he’d brought everything out in and headed for the house. One thing was for sure, he thought with a smirk. Frances had better not flake on the shifts he’d traded with her, or he’d have a hell of a lot of explaining to do at Denny’s.
Aaron lagged a few steps behind Caleb and… their companion as they cautiously descended the trail down from Banner Point to the service road where Aaron had parked his truck. The storm seemed to be abating, though as the transition seemed to involve transforming the pelting assault of an hour ago into a steady, soaking downpour that seemed to be trying to drown him through his skin he was not too grateful. The post-midnight sky was still so thick with clouds that he could see little even with his wolf-enhanced night vision. The flashlights he and Caleb carried were as much a hindrance as a help, the beams serving mostly to bleed detail from whatever they were shined on.
Caleb, on the other hand, seemed to be having no trouble, barely looking at where he set his booted feet. His whole demeanor managed to make relaxed cockiness and an impudent grin seem like a useful tool in navigating life’s challenges, and in Caleb’s case there wasn’t a lot of evidence to the contrary. He could just make out the shape of his cousin’s bulging, bare shoulders, round with firm, farm-hewn muscle, and the sodden overalls that plastered to his back and indecently shifting ass, but it was easier still to pick up his scent even through the downpour—more intoxicating to Aaron than his manly silhouette. His mind lingered guiltily on Caleb’s cross-sensory impression for a moment. Then the wind shifted and the scent of the hunter brushed his senses, and Aaron frowned.
The hunter’s scent had changed in a complex and unsettling way. It was not completely new, like a steak swapped for venison; but he no longer smelled only like a nonshifter man who had been in the woods for a few days. That scent was muted, and with it, or against it, was something…
Aaron could not describe it exactly. Earth, and the harsh tang of lightning-split air, and old bones. He’d caught that same unique scent only before once, faintly and as if over a great distance, when he’d first come to seek the help of the spirit of Banner Point. Now it was with them, as full and vivid and present as any wolf, man, or game Aaron had ever encountered. The mountain-spirit had come among them, not as an ethereal guide but as a physical being. Aaron wanted to be awed, but he was too shocked by what the spirit had done. He wondered what the hunter was feeling now, forced to become the vessel of a wolf-spirit. If he could feel at all. If he still lived.
Aaron’s stomach twisted. This had been a mistake. He had expected the spirit to merely guide them to the scent they needed, disembodied and ethereal, as it had done for him when he was just a terrified pup worried for his lost cousin. It had been the purest form of faith trusting the spirit to do as it had done before, crafted as it was from direct experience. But the spirit had betrayed his trust and taken one of them without warning—or consent, as far as Aaron could tell. Certainly the hunter had looked shocked and terrified before his face had stilled, taking on the stony mask he now wore.
Was it possible the spirit was evil after all? Perhaps spirits were beyond the constraints of human morality and did as they pleased, like the animistic gods of his clan’s oldest folk-tales. Such beings might smite or bless on a whim, or according to some opaque plan beyond the concerns of such as he.
Humans had rules, shifters and nonshifters alike. Even the wild had rules, and true wolves, like shifter-wolves, tended to obey the need to protect life and soul and family more diligently than ordinary mortals. A mountain-spirit was unshackled from both town and wild. Like the amaxo and other such nightmare creatures, it lived in the limitless beyond.
Aaron shivered as a new thought struck him. Could the spirit be in league with the amaxo, plotting destruction for the pack? If he was, Aaron would have to fight him. But—how? He knew what killed an amaxo. Every wolf did. But how did one fight, much less kill, a mountain-spirit such as this? Burn his bones? And how would he know if taking down the mountain-spirit was truly what he had to do? The spirit had helped Aaron and Caleb once before, and Aaron could not set that aside. Its possessing the hunter did not cancel that out. The spirit’s measure could not be reduced to a bar tally, with one hash mark each under “good” and “bad”.
He clenched his flashlight. He would have to trust that he or his wolf would know when the time came.
His eyes flicked back to the other shape ahead of him on the trail, suppressing a twinge of annoyance as he did so at the pleasure the dark outline of those wet, naked shoulders gave him. He wished he knew his cousin better these days. Did he care about anything now beyond self-gratification? It was mostly an act, Aaron was pretty sure, but what he really thought about anything was a mystery Aaron needed to crack before it was too late. When push came to shove, would Caleb stand with him? That was what he needed to find out. Of course, Caleb had already suggested a path to greater intimacy between them, but Aaron a little alarmed by just how inviting that path was to him, and the way his heart and his balls both seemed to be in a fool’s alliance, urging him to abandon all resistance and submit to Caleb’s dissolute allure.
Aaron swallowed and averted his eyes from both the disturbing stranger and his dangerously seductive cousin. It was better to watch the trail, anyway. They were nearing the service road, and if he remembered correctly they’d encountered a steep, slippery bit not far from the road when they’d come up. Suddenly he felt exhausted. Maybe Caleb should drive when they got to the truck. He seemed to be developing a rapport with their silent guide, which was not surprising; Caleb could befriend an angry rhino given half a chance.
Aaron needed to be alone with his thoughts for a while, anyway. The solution would come to him if he didn’t dwell on his problems and instead turned his mind to mundane things and mechanics of physical existence. Letting instinct guide him had worked for him before, though it was not lost on him that his last unconscious impulse had sent them turning the wrong way out of the pack meeting, away from town and toward the stormy, lonesome heights of Banner Point.
Caleb smoothed back his wet hair and cast a curious glance at the man walking stolidly beside him. He’d never known that someone could keep the same face and yet look like a completely different person. He decided to break the silence, since that was one of the things he was good at.
“What do we call you?” he asked, as they turned through a stand of firs and the trail widened slightly, making it easier for the two of them to walk abreast. “You’re obviously not Milton anymore.”
They walked for several paces without any response, the stranger’s face remaining stony and impassive. Caleb was not worried. He had learned that patience yielded results, especially when it came to other people succumbing to his charms, so he sent out his most calming vibes and kept walking. Their immediate situation wasn’t stressing him as much as it apparently was Aaron—no surprise there, and he was happy to let Aaron worry for both of them. Caleb trusted his gut, and they seemed to be on the right track, so to speak. Gaining the help of a mountain-spirit told him that the crisis they were mixed up in was exactly as important as the pack meeting had made it out to be—and that what he and Aaron were doing was relevant and significant. Even the rain felt like a good sign—not only was it clean and refreshing, but the storm having washed away the spoor meant that he and Aaron, guided as they were by the mountain-spirit, had the best chance of finding the amaxo before anyone else. What the future would reveal about the natures and intent of the amaxo and of the mountain-spirit Caleb did not know, but he didn’t doubt anymore that he would find out, probably sooner rather than later, though either worked for him. Caleb was sure he could outwait anyone, from mythical cryptids and cryptic mountain spirits to (he smiled inwardly) lusty cousins who were stubbornly mistrustful of their own desires.
As if in validation of Caleb’s self-lionization, the stranger spoke. “I was called Ohkwáho,” he admitted. His voice, like his face, was the same… and yet different. Milton, the nonshifter they’d picked “hunting” in the pouring rain, had sounded slippery to Caleb in a way that came across as either reckless or deliberate—like he didn’t care whether people pegged him as devious or not. Now, the same voice sounded flat and determined, like the speaker had given himself a job to do that was more important than himself, and nothing would stop him from doing it.
Caleb nodded. “Mohawk, right? You’ve been watching your wolf-brothers for a long time.”
“Yes.” Even the curt, one-word response sounded like a different man. He wondered again what Milton had really been up to when they’d stopped to pick him up. Aaron surely must have picked up on the man’s dubious demeanor as easily as Caleb had, but then Aaron, knowing the mountaintop rite required three supplicants, would have considered coming across a stray human who was also tracking the amaxo positively providential. Maybe it had been. Maybe they were fated to temporarily join forces with the kind of stranger a mountain-spirit might feel it appropriate to possess in order to meet the need that he and Aaron had brought it. This wasn’t the first sign he’d seen that larger forces were at work in all of this than wolves, humans, amaxos, and the occasional body-snatching Mohawk-ghost.
He remembered he’d learned in the truck about his cousin’s previous encounter with the spirit. “By the way,” he said, “Aaron told me you helped him save me when I was a kid, so, thanks for that. I don’t know how often anyone trudges back up the hill to express their gratitude or anything,” he added, glancing over at Ohkwáho with a smile, “but that’s one at least.”
Ohkwáho continued looking straight ahead, but Caleb could hear a faint echo of amusement when he answered. “That is four,” he clarified.
“Only four, huh? Man, that sucks,” Caleb said genially. “When I help a guy out, he’s always sure to thank me.”
This time Ohkwáho looked at him, and, though his expression did not change much, the barest hint of a curve to his lips told him that the ancient spirit had not missed his meaning at all. Caleb returned his most shameless grin, now certain at least that their new friend had not completely lost track of his humanity. Good to know. He wondered just how closely Ohkwáho had been watching his wolf-brothers for all these years. Even mountain-spirits needed a bit of distraction now and then, he bet.
They rounded another curve and the truck suddenly came into view through the trees, below them and to the right. Its silver color made it easy to pick out even at night in a storm, and the steady patter of hard rain against metal was now as loud as anything else they could hear. With only a little bit of slipping down the last incline they made it onto the gravel service road a few yards down from the truck.
He looked back over at Ohkwáho as they approached the vehicle. “You want to drive?” he asked with a smile. Partly he was offering because Ohkwáho was their guide, but mostly it was sheer curiosity over whether a however-old mountain-spirit would be able to manage something so modern and mundane. Could he tap Milton’s memories and motor-skills? Assuming Milton knew how to drive, that is. Or perhaps Ohkwáho had watched a few driver’s ed classes at the regional high school, when he had nothing better to do up there on the mountain.
Ohkwáho met his gaze steadily. “My people did not have pickup trucks,” he said dryly. He definitely had Caleb’s number, and Caleb was delighted. It occurred to him that Ohkwáho might be willing to play around with him a bit after whatever they were caught up in the middle of was over. Milton would hate that, which could be reason enough to give it a try. Aaron would probably have a pretty funny reaction too.
He glanced over at his cousin. Sure enough, he was watching them with a frown, as if he were trying to figure out whether they were flirting and none too happy about the possibility. Wordlessly, Aaron dug into his rain-saturated jeans and pulled out the keys for the truck, which he tossed to Caleb. Caleb caught them effortlessly and turned to Ohkwáho. “Let’s go, Spirit Man,” he said.
An hour’s drive down unpaved roads and forgotten logging routes ended abruptly in the midst of a forest Aaron had never known or run through, deep into wild country well to the north of the packlands. A massive log lay across their path, as if not only this road but the concept of roads at all ended at this point. Abandoning the truck they traveled another hour north on foot, retaining their human forms—their spirit companion, Aaron guessed, could not shift while he possessed the wolfless hunter. Fortunately the rain had finally subsided as they’d ridden north and the clouds had even started clearing, enough that as they crested a small rise Aaron was surprised to catch a glimpse of dawn’s rosy glow just beginning to tint the blue-black expanse of the eastern sky: it was now the morning after the pack meeting, though it seemed to Aaron like mere moments before and, at the same time, like a month or more had passed.
The steady wind from the northwest driving the clouds away was clean but cold, making Aaron shiver in his wet clothes. He wished he could shift, but Aaron was not so adept at shifting as some of the others. With the full moon now a week gone it would take a lot of effort for him to wolf out, and their guide’s stone-faced urgency told him time was of the essence. He pushed down a prickle of wistful envy toward the Reyes brothers. Their outlander clan seemed to shift more easily than the rest of them, Victor and Gerardo particularly. He remembered a secret new-moon night run a couple years back with some of the boys his age where Gerardo had half-shifted in mid-race just to show off. He hadn’t even used it to win, just wolfing out for the sheer fun of it. Aaron remembered a gush of inexplicable lust for the sexy half-wolf as they’d all piled on him in play-torment under the moonless midnight sky. The memory of what he’d felt confused him whenever he thought about it afterward. Had he coveted Gerardo’s easy strength and superior abilities, or the hairy young man himself?
No wonder a guardian had started watching over them. Just a pup, but still. Not that Bandit had been able to protect them in the end, or himself. They have become his creatures. He remembered his vow to rescue these dark, beautiful, primal brothers and steeled himself, quickening his silent steps behind his cousin and the enigmatic spirit guiding them through pathless woods to places unknown. He would fight anyone to save the pack—the amaxo, the beasts of darkdream, even Ohkwáho himself if he had to.
A sense of portent grew in Aaron as they walked. Their quarry must lay before them, he thought. A short while later Ohkwáho stopped them on the edge of a clearing. They crouched low, and in the budding light Aaron saw that they were not alone—but, for some reason, it was not the amaxo and the brothers that Ohkwáho had brought them to, though the dark emanations of the place truly unsettled him. Aaron almost felt betrayed—hadn’t he summoned Ohkwáho to bring them to the danger that threatened to destroy their pack? But he buried that thought and focused on making sense of what he was looking at.
In the center of a small clearing was a large, thumb-shaped pink-granite rock surrounded by three shadowed figures, their backs to the new arrivals. The one in the middle, a tall, solidly built woman with silver hair, was easy to recognize: Elder Eirene. She was dressed as she had been at the bonfire rally, in dark trousers and a pale-white blouse; but now she held a crowbar loosely in her right hand, hook end down, as if prepared for trouble. Next to her cowered a large wolf, its coloring dark gray and black. That had to be Elder Manuel, forced permanently into wolf form by the amaxo, or so Eirene had said.
The third figure was a good-looking, well-proportioned man in the prime of late middle-age with russet hair and a matching well-trimmed beard. He was on his knees and appeared to be bound with rope around the arms, wrists, and ankles. A white cloth had been forced between his teeth and tied behind his head. Aaron drew in a shocked breath. That was Elder Lucas! Hadn’t Elder Eirene said that the pharmacist alpha had been “taken” along with the Reyes brothers? But if that was true, what was he doing here, far from the packlands, trussed up like boar and glaring daggers at his beloved wife?
Aaron swiveled to Ohkwáho, almost breaking their cover to ask what was going on, but Ohkwáho placed a finger over his own lips without removing his gaze from the tableau in the little clearing. Caleb had turned to look at Ohkwáho too and was now making a series of gestures, pointing first to the figures in the clearing, then to his own nose, then to the three of them. Won’t they smell us?
Ohkwáho, still not looking at either of his companions, replied in kind, pointing to himself, then miming a wall in front of them with the flats of his hands. I have blocked our scent.
Useful, Aaron thought, turning his gaze back to the clearing. It made sense that the mountain-spirit would have mastery over scents and scent-trails. He wondered what Ohkwáho’s limits were, and if he were more or less powerful now that he had taken physical form.
Eirene spoke suddenly. Her voice was clear and strong, as if she were addressing someone far away. “Come now,” she intoned. “Three come before you. Come now! Three call upon you. Come now! Our people beseech you. Come now before us, Paikon, last hope of the people of the wolf!”
Ohkwáho sucked in a sharp breath between his teeth at the name she uttered. Paikon. Aaron did not know its significance, yet the name filled him with dread. Caleb, seemingly responding to some similar instinct, made as if to burst forward into the clearing, but Ohkwáho held him back.
In the clearing, Lucas was roaring through his gag at Eirene in fury and alarm, but she ignored him and repeated her invocation. Why didn’t Lucas shift? Aaron wondered. An alpha could shift at will. But looking closer he saw there were purple flowers on long vines wound through the ropes that bound him. Wolfsbane. Eirene had rendered her husband helpless, while she called upon some dread force to save the pack from the monster that had come among them. But if Lucas had not been “taken”, as she had said… was there even a monster at all for this Paikon to destroy?
Eirene’s incantation strengthened is power and intensity. The ground churned as some depth under the surface, as though some Leviathan turned in its slumber far under the earth. Even wolf-Manuel was staring balefully up at Eirene, looking as worried and frightened as Aaron felt. Lucas was screaming, though the sounds of his protests were drowned out by Eirene’s third turn through the summoning spell and the rumbling of the very earth beneath them.
Suddenly, and with devastating horror, Aaron understood what was happening and what he was seeing. Wolf elders had power over the shifting of their pack members, but this gift was part of a broader ability to govern the gateways between worlds that made shifting possible. Only elders and guardians had the power to pass physically into the wolfdream—and to other places like it, each accessed through different, fixed juncture points in the real world. This clearing must be one, for Eirene to have traveled so far from the packlands.
Some of the dreamlands, or so the tales said, were idyllic places where a wolf might rest, alone and content. Others, however, were painted as dark and dangerous, full of creatures that would freeze the blood of any who saw them. Creatures dwelt there that craved only the blood and flesh of werewolves and shifters, hunting them unstoppably until entire packs were destroyed or scattered. Some legends said the amaxo came from such a realm, though most denied this and had the amaxo as a counterpart and cousin to the wolves of the true world.
“We have to stop her,” Aaron hissed to Ohkwáho, his doubts about the mountain-spirit returning. There was little danger of being heard now—the rumbling and shouting and screaming made it hard for Aaron to hear his own voice.
Ohkwáho shook his head. “It is too late,” he said. “Once she came to this place and began the ritual, the gate was opened.”
“Can you close it?” Caleb asked.
Ohkwáho shook his head again, eyes still fixed on the figures in the clearing. “Only an elder can command the dreamland paths,” he said.
That meant Lucas. With Manuel stuck in wolf form, only Lucas could seal the rupture Eirene had rent between worlds. Aaron stood. Ohkwáho made to stop him as he had Caleb, as if he saw his duty as protecting them, but Aaron stepped out of reach, glaring at him. Caleb, meeting Aaron’s gaze in solidarity, rose as well, looking strong and ready. Ohkwáho, his face grim, finally followed suit. They turned and, shoulder to shoulder, charged into the clearing together.
Eirene was almost through the third incantation. Manuel’s growls had joined Lucas’s screams—the wolf elder was now facing Eirene with bared teeth. Eirene ignored them both, fixated on this solution above any dissent.
Manuel gathered himself and leapt.
Just then, however, the earth heaved, throwing Eirene and Aaron’s group to the ground. Manuel missed Eirene, sailing over her and collapsing awkwardly onto the ground in a heap, whimpering in pain. Lucas fell to his side, struggling with his bonds. Aaron tried climbing to his feet, but the ground moved again, unbalancing him, and he dropped to his hands and knees.
Suddenly a lightning bolt seemed to strike the thumb-like granite stone, or maybe it erupted from it—either way the stone burst asunder with a flash and a deafening crack. The cloven halves fell aside with a crash like fallen sentinels, revealing beyond it, through the smoke, a monstrously large black jaguar, its yellow eyes aglow with murderous rage. For a moment it stood erect, then it lowered its head and began creeping forward, tail twitching behind it, its burning, malevolent eyes on the puny creatures arrayed before it, driving their feet into the very ground.
Aaron almost quailed in terror, but having decided that everything depended on Lucas he could not keep himself from what he had set out to do. He stood and, skirting Eirene, who was already struggling to her feet and eyeing the newly summoned beast with shaky determination, he dashed toward where Lucas lay to one side, watching the beast with round, terrified eyes as he urgently tried to free himself.
Eirene raised her hands into the air in supplication. “Mighty Paikon!” she cried in a quavering voice. “Hear me, your summoner!”
Aaron reached Lucas and found the others were right behind him. Aaron looked to Caleb, palm outstretched, and Caleb’s long-bladed folding knife slapped into it almost before he’d finished moving. Caleb unfolded the lockblade knife and started cutting through the ropes on Lucas’s wrists, torso, and ankles while Caleb unknotted the elder’s gag.
Eirene redoubled her efforts to command the beast she had brought into the world, though the terror in her voice was impossible to miss. “An evil has come upon our pack!” she called to it. “I call upon you to destroy it, and all who stand with it! Hear me, mighty Paikon, and obey!” The gigantic jaguar reached the broken stone, its pelt sleek in the growing light. Its lips parted as it crept forward, revealing lethal-looking fangs. Manuel tied getting to his feet, but his left foreleg appeared to be broken and he crumpled to the ground again, watching the beast move toward them in an agony of fear.
Eirene’s voice rose to a shriek. “Hear me and obey! You must obey! You must—”
Paikon pounced, and Aaron looked away, unable to watch. Eirene screamed and fell silent.
Aaron pulled off the last of Lucas’s bonds with shaking hands and got him unsteadily to his feet. Getting out. That was what mattered. Getting all of them out. If they had to run, he might have to carry Lucas. Or Caleb would, since he was stronger. Fleeing from a twice-normal-sized jaguar from the darkdream might be futile—even running from a normal hunting cat was a death sentence, as all who lived in mountain lion country knew. Their only advantage might end up being the beast’s monstrous size: the trees in this forest were many and close, and the beast would have a hard time plowing through them. He heard the whining screech of a wolf being attacked, and then that, too, ended. Aaron looked at Lucas, who wore an expression of infinite sadness.
“Can you stop it?” Aaron asked him. “The beast?”
Lucas shook his head. “You saw. Even an elder can’t stand again a creature like that. Maybe the three, united—”
That was not going to happen now, Aaron thought, with the other two elders dead. He still refused to look, though for all he knew the creature was bearing down on that at that moment. Ohkwáho, who had not looked away from the carnage, interrupted Lucas. “You must first seal the gateway,” he said urgently. “Before other dark beasts come through.”
Lucas turned to look at Ohkwáho, registering him for the first time. His russet brows lifted. Despite his seeming unimpressive and very human appearance, Lucas seemed to recognize him. He nodded solemnly.
Then they turned toward the beast. Caleb did too. Aaron gathered his courage. If they could face death with chins held high, so could he.
The jaguar stood near the broken stone. Its head was turned toward them and it was eyeing them, but doubtfully, as if it were not sure what they were. There was no sign of Eirene or Manuel, disturbingly. The two elders were simply gone without a trace.
The wind shifted, and the jaguar abruptly looked behind itself. It turned and began stalking back in the direction it had come from. For a moment Aaron held a wild hope that it would return through the unseen breach, but instead it loped into a break in the far side of the clearing, as if following a trail, its tail twitching behind it. A moment later it was gone.
Ohkwáho looked defeated. “I sent it after prey that was not there,” he said, when Aaron looked at him in confusion. “I hoped I could send it though the breach, but I have no power there.”
Lucas slumped against Aaron, and Aaron caught him and held him up at the waist. “Are you all right, Elder Lucas?”
Lucas nodded and straightened again. He took a step forward, peering into the empty clearing beyond the stones as though probing what he saw or felt there. He swallowed. “I’m not strong enough, I think,” he admitted.
“Use us,” Aaron said. He glanced at Caleb, who nodded, moving to stand beside him. To Lucas, Aaron repeated, “Use us. Use our strength.”
Lucas turned to them. He seemed to take heart from the cousins’ courage. He squared his shoulders and looked between them. “I will need to draw from you as one,” he said. “May I do that?”
Aaron and Caleb exchanged another look. To his amazement, Caleb’s lips seemed to curl slightly at the suggestion. Of all the times—! He turned back to Lucas. “Of course,” he said.
“Hurry,” Ohkwáho said. He was watching the space where the breach must be. “More are coming.”
Lucas, however, did not turn back to the clearing. Instead he moved forward and placed a hand on each of their shoulders, closing his eyes. Aaron did so too. A moment later Aaron felt something stir and twist inside him. He felt his own energy, with the blue tint he always imagined it having when he called upon it to shift, and he felt another’s, too. Bright and strong, like yellow-orange sun Aaron could bask under on a grassy hillside. His energy and the other drew close, dancing around each other, and then suddenly they merged, fused into a single, blinding ball of green-tinged light and seemingly inexhaustible power. Aaron heard a rumbling in his own throat, matched by an identical sound coming from Caleb.
The world seemed to slowly straighten out around them, as though they were all drawn on a crumpled piece of paper that was now being smoothed and made right again. He felt a wound in the land around them healing until it was as if it had not been. Everything seemed to settle and still, and then…
Lucas’s hands left their shoulders, and Aaron opened his eyes. He blinked at the elder, who was smiling gently at them. Aaron was not sure he understood. Was it over? He still felt the limitless green ball of energy—if the breach was healed and Lucas was done calling on them, why did he still—?
He looked down at where he was holding tightly onto Caleb’s hand, their fingers laced together. When had they done that? He thought he should let go, but he really did not want to. He lifted his gaze upward, over the familiar muscles of Caleb’s bare, glistening shoulders and arms—they looked heavy and thick in the morning light. His dark-golden beard was coming out, too, more thickly than expected. He met Caleb’s brilliant green eyes and his heart stumbled over itself. More alarmingly, he could feel Caleb’s smug satisfaction at Aaron’s discombobulation—and, underneath that, a latent, fathomless need that matched Aaron’s own. Or that was Aaron’s own.
Embarrassed, Aaron brusquely forced his mind to more urgent matters, and he felt Caleb do so too, not without a hint of chagrin. Later, they would… well, that would be later.
Lucas and Ohkwáho had walked to the center of the clearing by the broken halves of the granite thumb-stone, the only detritus now visible of the calamity the two dead elders had created. Aaron and Caleb followed them, still holding hands.
“What do we do now?” he asked Lucas quietly. That thing was still out there, and it had a taste for wolfblood. Sooner or later it would leave the wilds and come hunting for the pack.
Lucas looked at his companions in turn, as if sizing up his team: a pair of newly bonded young wolves, earnest and cocky, and a slippery nonshifter possessed by an ancient cryptic mountain-spirit. The three men watched him, waiting for the words they all knew were coming.
“We must find the amaxo,” Lucas said at last. “They are, as they were always fated to be, our only hope.”
Owen ran. The ground thundered under his paws. Small trees bent and broke before him. Birds scurried from their nests and perches into the gloomy sky. Owen, the great black bear, the mightiest creature these woods had ever seen, reveled in his inordinate strength and power. A sun burned within him, feeding him muscle and bone, making possible anything Owen-amaxo desired.
Owen ran, massive and tireless, the wet forest giving way to him in primordial deference as he pounded past. Desire. His desire. That was what mattered now. With all the limitless might and energy at his disposal, his desire subsumed all other considerations. Desire. What did he desire? Mere weeks ago he had been an ordinary human, his only desire to know who he was—what he was. That desire had been satisfied a hundredfold.
The ground under his paws began sloping upward, and Owen imagined himself downshifting like he might on his beloved Ducati, pouring more power into his front and hind legs to pull himself effortlessly up the rise. The forest seemed to thicken, oaks and maples left behind as the towering pines seemed to close ranks around him; but Owen always found a way, rounding the larger boles and plowing right through the smaller ones if he had to, the crashes sloshing in waves through the silent woods. To run. Running itself was elation, regeneration, the epitome of what he was. He was not merely amaxo, werebear, an unstoppable creature of the eternal wild. He was correr, tesaráhtat, to run. He ran, potent and proud, and the world gave way before him.
His power. His desire. Owen’s desire was what mattered.
He did not even need to bring his two wolf-lovers to mind. They were always with him, the weight of their beings unfailingly, irrevocably present in his heart, their feelings and thoughts intertwined with his own, even as they ran their own path, scampering playfully through the lower woods, two sleek, powerful, truly enormous young wolves tripping and wrestling each other in the rain-washed grass while the grinning guardian-pup, Bandit, danced happily around them. He could feel the two beautiful, passionate, and unstoppably exuberant brothers no matter where they were; they were as connected to him as his own muscles and his own mind. What he felt for Gerardo and Victor was beyond desire, though his lust for them was as boundless as his capacity to charge endlessly through wood and glen. Their energy was one: the blazing sun within him was the union of their strength and capability, a single, open portal into the otherwhere that made shifting possible. As a man, Owen had only been only dimly aware of this truth; but as a shifted creature, as Owen-amaxo, everything about his, and their, true nature seemed now laid bare to him.
Desire? What did he desire? What could he desire?
The trees gave way to a jutting hump of bulky stone that seemed to have shoved out of the earth to sun itself atop this modest hill. Not there would be much rock-basking today. The rain had died, at least for now, but dark clouds still loomed overhead, and though they were scudding slowly to the east there was no sign of blue relief in the western sky. Owen-amaxo eyed the small crag, rising maybe a hundred feet over his twitching ears, and decided it would be interesting to climb it. The sloping sides were rough and uneven, giving him plenty of paw-holds as he easily hauled himself up its nearest face, and before long he stood majestically atop the rocky height, looking out over the long tree-pelted valley below him. Even in the gray light of a rainy afternoon the world he saw coursed with the primeval power of the living wild. The habitations of men, even the town to the north that bustled like a sprawling beehive, seemed subordinate to the living force of nature thrilling through the verdant vista of ridges, flats, and hollows.
There was a dynamic force threaded through this living world—Owen could sense it. Looking out over the valley with a new eye, Owen could perceive what he had felt. Wolves lived here. They belonged to this place, and the place to this, since time beyond measure. Old clans, new clans, birth and death. They mixed among trees and humans, half-hidden from the clueless nonshifters like wizards among muggles. Most of them lived ordinary lives, the mundane tribulations of human existence—email spam, credit cards, in-laws, office politics—intertwined with the primal, unforsakable needs of wolf and clan.
He felt his own clan, his own pack, most strongly, like glittering cut diamonds among the countless living sparks of uncut carbonado. Gerardo and Victor were not far away, cavorting in a clearing below, aware of Owen and what he was up to but for the moment choosing to focus on mindless play like kids who’d been cooped up in the house for days. He sensed Mike, too, as easily as he could the brothers. Owen had been half joking when he’d claimed their kiss was an induction into Owen’s pack, but the powerful mutual connection he—or they, since Gerardo and Victor felt it too, as the two remaining aspects of the amaxo—felt to Mike could only be that of alpha to pack member.
The idea fascinated Owen. Mike was not a wolf, yet he was the first member of the amaxo pack. As he pondered this, a sudden, surprising thought occurred to him. Since first coming to this valley and meeting hairy, happy, hunky Gerardo in the motel parking lot, Owen had felt a growing need to protect those who dwelt here. He’d been sure that need was to protect the wolves of this land specifically, but perhaps the duty of the amaxo was not merely to the wolf-shifters who needed him. Mike was not a wolf, but… He frowned mentally, considering the distinct spark he discerned below, moving around his isolated house nestled well in the rolling woods, well apart from wolves and humans alike. He focused, trying as best he could to make sense of what it was he was perceiving. Mike was not a wolf, but he was also not a mundane. Was he a different kind of shifter? If there were bears and wolves there might be any kind of werecreatures—deer, rabbit, hippopotamus—but the essence he sensed from Mike seemed fundamentally different from the wolves, or himself. It was the energy-cores he perceived, he guessed, pale shadows of the sun-like power he, Gerardo, and Victor now shared. Mundanes had barely a flicker, while shifters had gleaming cores fed by inner connections to the limitless power of otherwhere. Mike had something like that, but his connection was not like a shifter’s otherwhere-link at all. It was almost like his otherwhere was this world—like he had a deep connection to the forces of the very air and sky.
The memory of the sudden chill in the barn that morning came unbidden to Owen’s mind. No way! he thought. There was that sudden storm, too, that had very conveniently arisen just when he and the brothers had needed to hide and regroup. Was it possible? He grinned, exposing his ursine teeth as he considered the spark pottering around his suddenly-too-small house below. It would be hell of a lot of fun teasing Mike into revealing his true nature, and Owen couldn’t wait.
But Mike was not the only being in the range of his perception that was neither wolf-shifter nor mundane, he realized. Something else was out there in that wooded valley.
Troubled, Owen cast his mind over the hundreds of sparks spread over the town and wilds. All were ordinary, except… There was a knot of four men alone in the deep woods on the far side of the valley, beyond the lands claimed by the three clans. All were wolf-shifters, but each of them felt faintly anomalous as his mind brushed over them.
Owen concentrated. Two were young wolves bonded together, sharing a single blazing core like Owen, Gerardo, and Victor. That was interesting. Owen wondered how common such a union of souls was among the wolves. He was eager to ask them; and the group was moving, headed slowly his way in a tight cluster (in a vehicle, he guessed), so maybe he would have the chance. With them was an elder, his heightened power evident to Owen’s senses, though he could not tell who or from which clan. And…
The fourth spirit Owen did not understand. It was ancient, old in itself and part of something as old as wolves. What was this shifter spirit? Owen burned to know. He must meet this being and ask him… everything. His true nature was something Owen had been puzzling out by trial and error, but this deathless shifter might know real truths that Owen could only guess at.
Something shifted in the distant, untamed forest beyond them. Owen’s attention shifted off the four anomalous wolves to something alone, potent and virulent, prowling the lands on the furthest fringe of the wolf-valley. Owen’s mind caught sight of it and he shivered violently, a cold trickle of fear sliding down his spine. This—this was the thing that was wrong. It was an actual, genuine monster, an eldritch spirit of powerful, violent destruction whose essence burned with pure hatred of this unpleasant world and everything in it—especially wolves. Owen didn’t know why, but it was angry at being here, and that anger was focused on the shifters. Whatever the reasons for it, he felt its implacable fury and raw malevolent power like a caustic burn on his senses. This thing, this creature, would destroy all the wolves of the wolf-lands, bathing the valley in shifter blood, not even to feed but out of simple, implacable malice toward an entire race of beings.
He cast his perception back over the dimly-glowing population of wolves below him, like a starscape occluded by thin clouds. His heart faltered at their chances against the danger coming for them. They were divided and vulnerable, some of them mere prey to creature such as that. Most of their lives were lived as mundanes, and seldom did they fight or even hunt as wolves. Their strongest were isolated and no match for the beast in single combat. But… with the amaxo’s power coursing through them, the wolves of this valley could come together and together tear down this otherworldly predator. He saw his task clearly now: to protect these wolves, he must reforge as many as he could as a single pack—his pack, united and strong against a would-be destroyer. The amaxo would do what had been foretold: he must break their world as it had been in order to save them for a world that could be.
He remembered he had been asking himself as he ran what it was he desired. Owen knew now what that was. His desire was the safety and freedom from fear of all those in his new domain. Of course, Owen knew that this was the unalterable destiny of an amaxo; his desire was not his own but had been breathed into him by fate. Another man might have rebelled. But Owen had been craving a purpose since his first realizations that football could not be everything to him, as his father and friends had wanted it to be. His time with Max and his dad had only intensified that need. Now that he had been supplied with such a purpose, filling the corners of his shifter soul so that it was steeped into every aspect of his being, Owen could feel only excitement and gratitude.
He leaped down from the rock in a few quick bounds and began coursing through the forest toward Gerardo and Victor, hoping to join their play for a little while, before the preparations for the coming storm began.
“Gardner to Skeet, report,”
“Damn it, Milton, answer the coms. Where the fuck are you?”
“Trouble with your pet, Herr Kaiser?” sneered one of the men leaning against the Land Rover.
Armin let go of the compact military-grade shoulder-mounted radio and glared at the man, who grinned as he took a swig from his canteen. He wished it had never gotten out that despite his modest name he was kin to the Hohenzollern, heirs to the long-deposed emperor-kings of Prussia. But someone from a previous job had heard him talking about it two-thirds of the way through a drunken pub-crawl in Prague a few seasons back, and word had sifted so effectively through the tight-knit community of mercs that at times like this he wished he could find a way to go back in time and prevent his grandmother from dating that nice young Geoffrey fellow.
Probably smarter to go back to Prague and punch myself in the face as I walked into the Cobra with my mates, he thought. It didn’t help that he more or less looked like someone’s idea of a hale young emperor of the continental north, being dark-blond, blue-eyed, coldly handsome, and imposing enough at 6’3” in his stocking feet even without the muscle he’d put on over ten years of relentless training. The thin scar on his jaw from an old ricochet might even pass for a dueling souvenir.
He considered the half-dozen hand-picked mercs, black-clad and bare-armed like himself, gossiping mindlessly with each other, all a decade younger than him and, for all their skills, with little to drive them beyond fighting and fucking. Maybe this life wasn’t what he was meant for. Not for the first time he pondered a change in career. There had to be other jobs where he got to use his strength and training while surrounded by brawny, ultra-masculine men. Bouncer, maybe. Private security. Bodyguard. Personal trainer. Firefighter, in a city where the arsonists defended their fires and you had to take them down first, MMA style, before you could start working on the blaze.
He stalked slowly down the muddy dirt road a ways, past the men and the two vehicles, and stared up rain-heavy clouds sliding silently across the sky overhead. Milton Skeet had always been a net liability, however valuable he was as an asset. He’d told his employers the man had his own agenda and couldn’t be trusted, but they hadn’t listened. No one understood the shifters like Skeet, they said. His insight and instincts would be invaluable, they said. Well, Skeet was almost a day out of radio contact, and Armin was sure he could now finally write off those “insights and instincts” to the same place his ex-husband had buggered off to never to be heard from again, and good riddance to bad rubbish. He had a mission to fulfill, and now he could do it his way, without interference from the self-proclaimed expert. The men hadn’t liked him either—really it was the “pet” Koenig had been sneering at, not Armin. They’d been riding him for having been stuck with the weasel since the mission kicked off a month back.
Not that Milton hadn’t been useful. It had been a shrewd ploy to plant himself at the Walmart where everyone and their dog showed up sooner or later; and the tip about the bonfire meeting where that crazy Elder lady had declared war on a mythical beast had come from Skeet, too. But he’d held back more, Armin was certain. He’d claimed to have been unable to track down any useful information about the shifter outsiders he’d spotted on the Walmart security feed, for one, and that was almost certainly a lie to mask his own nightmarish schemes, whatever they might be. Skeet had had his moments, but Armin had picked up a few things about shifters himself over the years. He didn’t need the creepy little man to do his job, get paid, and fuck the hell off out of these woods to wherever the winds took him next.
He walked back to the Land Rovers, checking the cages installed in the back of each vehicle. As he did so he went over the faces he’d memorized from the bonfire meeting—the faces of men and women he knew to be wolf-shifters and, therefore, potential donors of the special blood and DNA Armin and his team had been commissioned to retrieve at all costs. All he had to do was track the vehicles from the rally and match occupants to faces. He pulled his compact tablet out of its pocket and checked the tracker app. A dozen red beads popped up on the local map. Most were stationary, but one was on the move—ideal. One or more shifters in a car or truck, away from home and any chance to dig in and fight or shift and disappear.
The other mercs watched him, sensing that the boss’s thinking time was over.
Armin looked up from his tablet and made eye contact with each of them. They were all ready—spoiling for a fight, even. There were so many ways this could go wrong, but he gave the order anyway. He had a job to do, and it was time to do it and get it done.
“Check your tranq rifles,” he commanded them, his tone cold and flat. “We’re going hunting.”
The men cheered, and Armin wished he was anything but what he was.
Aaron couldn’t stop staring at the interlaced fingers of his and Caleb’s hands between them. He and Caleb sat in the cramped back seat of the pickup’s king cab, with a worn but recovered Lucas driving and Ohkwáho/Milton sitting stone-faced in the passenger seat. For his part, Aaron was glad the Elder was up to piloting the truck through the neglected back roads of the forests beyond the wolf-lands—his own head was spinning, and he was finding it hard to focus on anything but Caleb’s sun-kissed, slightly darker fingers woven so naturally with his own.
“You okay?” Caleb asked, just loud enough for Aaron to hear him over the rumbling of the truck over the uneven road.
Aaron didn’t look up, his eyes still on their hands. “I… don’t want to let go,” he said wonderingly, the same way he might have said “I just grew a third nipple” or “I can taste the color blue.” It was a new truth, and one he didn’t feel like he could quite grasp the way he should be able to.
“You could, though,” Caleb drawled. “Or I could.”
Aaron looked up at this, eyes wide in alarm. Caleb was smiling. “It wouldn’t matter, Aar. We would still be connected.” He licked his lips, his green eyes seeming almost alight in the darkened cab. “Bound.”
Aaron nodded slowly. It wasn’t like he didn’t understand what had happened to them. Their shifter hearts, the cores that accessed the energy of the otherwhere, had been merged, giving them both access to greater power than either of them had had separately. Lucas, in a moment of need, had bound Aaron and Caleb together the same way Elders linked their own cores to each other to gain greater access to the dreamworlds and other abilities. He knew instinctively that with this shared, enhanced core he and Caleb could shift faster, run farther, hunt better. They would heal more quickly and have greater control over their transformations. They were physically stronger, in their wolf and human forms—Caleb, already distractingly hard-bodied and buff before, was perceptibly bigger all over and seemed to radiate energy, his bare, bulging, lightly hairy torso under his overalls inviting the caress of eyes and hands and tongues. Aaron felt stronger, too, like he could wrestle and fuck tirelessly for weeks without end—and there was no doubt whom he’d be fucking and getting fucked by all that time. His mate, his other half, his Caleb. The man he still couldn’t quite admit he and his hard cock needed more than air itself. He wasn’t gay, exactly. He just wanted Caleb.
Aaron knew what had happened to him. It was the “how” and the “why” and the “now what” he was still a bit muddled over. Bonding wasn’t supposed to have an effect this intense. This… intimate.
Caleb’s smile turned crooked, as if he knew what Aaron was struggling with and found it sweet and endearing. Aaron might almost have thought Caleb was making light of his confusion, and might at any time slide into his usual shallow come-ons; he could smell Caleb’s raging hardon as easily as he could see it under the overalls, after all, and the thing certainly never seemed far from Caleb’s thoughts. But Caleb only watched Aaron fondly, waiting to hear what he would say next—and that made Aaron feel bad, like maybe he was the shallow one, thinking Aaron’s admiration of Caleb’s cock was all Caleb had wanted from him.
When Aaron finally did speak, it was to say, “Please be patient with me.” By then the words seemed almost redundant.
“Always,” Caleb answered softly—so softly it was as much an impression of his moving lips as it was a spoken word.
Aaron nodded, offering Caleb a small smile. He glanced at the front seat to see if anyone had observed their intimacy, but Ohkwáho’s face had not moved, and Lucas seemed sad but determined, like he was facing the new path his life had taken with simple strength and awareness of moral necessity. Aaron immediately regretted his myopic attention to his feelings for Caleb in the wake of their bonding. Lucas had had to witness his wife and best friend betraying their pack, delivering all their kin to the unstoppable monster Eirene had invoked from some dark, forsaken dimension—then he’d watched in horror as both were devoured by the very creature they had summoned. He still didn’t know if Eirene was crazy, or evil, or truly thought she was doing what had to be done to protect their clan; but the results were the same. It hurt, almost physically, that he had listened to Elder Eirene and believed her words; how much greater the agony must have been, he thought, for Lucas to be her victim after a lifetime as her mate.
“Ohkwáho,” he said, raising his voice to be heard in the front, “was everything Eirene told us really a lie?”
Ohkwáho did not speak for a moment. “I did not hear her words to you,” the mountain spirit said at last. “But if she spoke evil of the amaxo, that is bad lore. The amaxo comes in time of crisis, to protect and save the wolf.”
Aaron remembered Eirene’s passionate speech at the bonfire. If Ohkwáho was right, though, it didn’t make any sense for her to have acted the way she did. “Then why would she have feared it?” he demanded. “And why would she have demonized it to us like she did?”
It was Lucas that answered. “The legends say that no pack survives the coming of the amaxo,” he said soberly. “There is no pack but his. That is how he saves us.”
They were all silent then as the truck rumbled onto one of the gravel roads that fed onto the lone paved county highway through the unsettled back end of the valley. Aaron was baffled. How could she think she was protecting the pack, while sacrificing the wolves that made it up? Had she feared the “other” so much that all the implications of the amaxo’s presence were shunted aside? Or had Eirene and Manuel been thinking only of their own position, of the power and status that would be lost when the amaxo came? Maybe they would never know. Even Lucas sounded resigned when he spoke of the ending of his pack, he mused. Perhaps such responsibility was painful to lay aside, even for a good man conscious of the greater good.
They came at last to the paved road, and Lucas, consulting briefly with Ohkwáho, turned left. Almost immediately they saw headlights coming toward them—unexpected on such a little-traveled road, though of course not impossible. They seemed bright in the gloomy, overcast afternoon. Caleb, half facing toward Aaron as usual, turned and frowned out the back window. Aaron looked back and saw a matching pair of headlights moving toward them from the other direction, almost like they were being intentionally boxed in. Aaron felt the spike of apprehension coming from Caleb even before he spoke.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Caleb growled.
Armin was the last of his men to pile out of the Land Rovers and rush the gleaming silver king-cab pickup, its engine still purring quietly as the rough-looking mercs surrounded it. The others had menacing-looking tranq rifles designed to look like genuine in-field assault weapons, but as he stalked toward the barricaded truck Armin drew his Sig Sauer M17 pistol aimed it squarely through the windshield at the old man behind the wheel with the russet hair and neatly-trimmed beard. His attention, however, was riveted on the young bucks sitting close together in the back seat with the wide eyes and the bulging muscles. Armin’s personal crowd-memorization technique involved tagging every face with a nickname, and despite the difference in time of day and context he had no doubt the shifter pups he’d cornered, one shocked, one glaring, were the ones from the bonfire rally he’d captioned Good Boy and Cock Hound in his own mental database.
He felt a thrill of excitement at his unexpected good luck. Out of all the wolves he could have captured, these two were absolutely the ideal specimens, exactly what he’d been commissioned to acquire. The end of this accursed mission was finally in sight.
Fuck, these shifters produce some truly beautiful men, he thought. Under other circumstances, he told them wistfully in his mind, our meeting might have been quite different…
He was so focused on the eye-grabbing young wolf-hunks in the back of the cab that for a moment he didn’t notice who was riding shotgun. When he did he grinned wide. Keeping his weapon trained on the driver he called out to his men, “Hey, boys, look who it is! Did you bring us a present, Skeet?”
The men snorted, chuckled, or cursed according to temperament. Skeet, however, only watched him through the windshield with cold, fathomless eyes. Armin nodded to the merc nearest the passenger door. “LeBeau, pull him out,” he ordered. “Make sure to zip his wrists.”
The merc complied, opening the passenger door and yanking the two-timing asset straight out of the cab and onto the asphalt, then bending zip-tie his arms behind his back. Skeet did not struggle. Another merc moved in to aim his tranq rifle directly into the cab, its muzzle trained on the older man. Armin nodded toward the other doors, and the rest of the team flung the remaining doors open and aimed their weapons at the occupants, while LeBeau hauled Skeet to his feet and propelled him around the front of the truck to where Armin stood, one pace ahead of the truck’s left headlamp. Satisfied the others were sufficiently covered for the moment, Armin stowed his Sig for the moment and turned to face his erstwhile asset. “What are you doing out here, Skeet?”
The man looked way from Armin for a moment, seeming to peer deep into the rolling woods to the east. His nostrils flared subtly, too, as if he were catching the trace of a scent. His lips curved slightly as he looked back up at Armin. “You will find out soon,” he said.
Armin frowned and took a few moments to look Skeet over. There was something fundamentally different about him, he realized. The clothes were disheveled, showing signs of having been soaked and then partly dried on top of being mud-spattered and generally neglected; but Armin had long experience judging people by their stance and demeanor and by the set of their features, and by those measures Skeet almost seemed like someone else from the man he’d seemed to be only two days prior. The thin, stupid moustache was the same, the too-strong Roman nose was as before, but the walnut-brown eyes and the set of his shoulders spoke now of old determination, steadiness, strength of purpose, and a sense of ingrained duty to match any career jarhead Armin had ever served with. He felt sick and chagrined that he’d ever trusted this man, however grudgingly. “Finally, we see you for who you really are,” Armin bit out.
An eerie recognition passed over his flesh, raising the hairs on his bared, corded forearms. He peered closer, eyes narrowed. He didn’t trust it completely, not yet, but he was starting to believe he could sense when he was in the presence of a shifter, no matter how fully they’d masked themselves. The impression came to him now, stronger than ever before. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?” he said, almost without meaning to.
Skeet smiled humorlessly, baring his teeth, and Armin watched with a feeling of cold dread as the man’s worn, unimpressive incisors lengthened and sharpened into deadly, flesh-tearing wolf fangs. It took a considerable effort of training and willpower for Armin to remain still and not jam the muzzle of his Sig directly into Skeet’s sternum.
Instead, he glared at the man. “I should kill you right now for betraying us,” he ground out, his eyes fixed on Skeet’s.
Skeet, for his part, seemed unaffected. “Too late,” he said, still smiling. “Wolves die only once, and I died long ago.”
Unnerved, confused, and utterly disgusted, Armin was suddenly done with this man. He aimed a final sneer at his two-faced asset and then turned to his men. “Tranq the two stud-muffins and cage ’em,” he barked. He glanced at the bearded driver, who seemed to be staring through his own dashboard. “Nail the old man if he so much as twitches an eyebrow.” To LeBeau, who still had his meaty paw clamped around Skeet’s upper arm, he added, “Go help secure the prisoners. I’ve got this one.”
LeBeau, who’d also seen Skeet reveal his fangs, raised his brows but complied, trotting to the back to assist with the two wolf-hunks. Without looking at Skeet he muttered, “You’re going to wish you had never—”
Suddenly black smoke was pouring out from under the pickup’s hood. The engine revs ran rapidly higher. “What the—Bates!” he shouted urgently at the merc covering the driver. “Get that engine—”
All at once there was a loud POOM as the pickup’s engine exploded in a huge fireball, nearly knocking Armin on his ass and spreading pandemonium through the whole scene. Armin glared through the smoke to see three wolves—rust-red in the front seat, snow-white and caramel in the back—almost instantly replace the men he’d been trying to seize. He barely had time to register the transformations before all became motion. In a blur they were out the open cab doors and attacking the discombobulated mercs. At least a couple of them were screaming as the wolves roared and bared their fangs to rip away their guns and press down on their chests. Ignoring the smoke curling around them Armin swiveled to cover Skeet with his side-arm, but Skeet had not shifted. Instead he was staring avidly across the road toward the woods… the same direction he’d been looking before.
Armin turned abruptly, weapon ready, in time to see an enormous black bear the size of a GMC truck leap out of the trees, two massive, ferocious wolves at its side, one black and silver and the other hues of charcoal. All of three of the beasts were roaring so deafeningly that Armin’s insides seemed to turn to paste. This time Armin did take a step back, utterly terrified. While the two superwolves went for his men, vicious fangs bared in fury, the bear bounded onto the nearest Land Rover, crushing the top in like a junkyard car-compactor, and screamed down directly at Armin.
Armin nearly soiled himself. Looking back later, he was almost as proud of that fact—that “nearly”—as he was of what he did next, which was to raise his trembling arm and aim his Sig at the nightmare beast looming over him.
The rest of the world seemed to drop away. For Armin, there was only him, his weapon, the half-crushed transport vehicle, and the bear that was far, far too big and powerful to be a bear. They stared at each other for a moment, and Armin’s terror wavered. “What are you?” he cried up at the beast, lowering his weapon only slightly.
The bear considered him, like it was sizing him up for something. It jumped again, more gracefully than its bulk should have allowed, but even before it hit the ground it was not a bear anymore but an enormous, hairy, incredibly muscled man. He landed in a perfect three-point stance on knee, foot, and hand, then slowly rose to his full height—which had to be at least eight feet tall.
Armin gaped. Everything about this man spoke of strength and masculinity. He was impossibly handsome in a square-jawed, fierce-eyed kind of way, an unexpectedly well-groomed nearly-black beard covering the lower half of his face from neck to cheekbones. His chest was massive and dense enough to project outward despite its mass. Thick shoulders and heavy, hard-sculpted arms looked powerful enough to demolish a house bare-handed. Tree-trunk legs conveyed the same strength and power, like he might shove an oak down with the shove of one foot or leap into the air to tear an eagle from the sky. His olive skin seemed to invite the touch of a man. His virility was magnified by the coat of thick, dark hair covering every inch of his heavy chest, his shoulders, arms, deep-carved abs, and long, mighty legs. And then there was the cock, an enormous fat organ hanging over a scrotum as big as the giant’s fist. Armin was sure he could smell how beyond-masculine he was, as though his manliness overflowed sight into the adjacent senses. This man, this bear shifter, was… Armin didn’t even know how to put it to himself. It wasn’t that he was an ideal man, because that implied a standard to which he conformed. But this man conformed to nothing. He was what he was: beautiful, masculine, compelling, and necessary.
The two gray wolves joined him on either side. Armin was startled to see their muzzles and fangs were not smeared with the blood of his men. He chanced a look past them to see that their intended captives from the truck—the two studs and the bearded man—had reverted to human form and were busy securing his men with their own zip-ties. They were two short, but Armin could see both of them a considerable distance down the road running as fast as their feet would take them. He blinked. He’d assumed these predators would leave them a pile of gnawed bones and torn flesh, but that was not the case at all.
When he looked back at the bear-man-giant and the two huge wolves, Armin saw that the wolves had shifted, too, and the eight-foot avatar of masculinity was now flanked by two unbearably gorgeous, extremely muscular Latino men. They were both about six feet tall, though they looked like they outweighed the slightly taller Armin by a hundred pounds at least, and similar enough to each other to be recognizable as brothers—but their mass, brawn, hairiness, and palpable potency was so of a kind with the massive man between them that they seemed almost as one despite their differences in size, appearance, and shifter forms.
The world seemed silent, waiting for what happened next. “What are you?” he breathed, barely voicing the words. This time the question was aimed at all three of the inhuman men before him.
“We are amaxo,” the younger of the brothers said.
“We are Owen, Gerardo, Victor,” the other brother continued.
“The nonmundanes of this valley are under our protection,” the bear-shifter finished, his voice like steel and with a none-too-subtle threat to any who intended harm to the beings under his care.
Armin realized he was still stiff-arming his Sig right at the giant, though they’d all been ignoring it as though it was of no consequence. He lowered the weapon and holstered it, then took a strangely significant-feeling step toward the three men who called themselves “amaxo”. “What now?” he asked.
The other three shifters now stood silently behind them, he noticed, looking small by comparison but stalwart and immovable. Whatever they had been before, they were now already a part of whatever the “amaxo” three were doing. Skeet, meanwhile, stood to one side, somehow free of his restraints and watching the three massive men with studied admiration. Armin wondered if it was significant that he did not stand behind them like the others. It was as though he were his own kind of thing, and had his own duties to see through to the end.
The giant took a step toward Armin, closing the distance between them, and knelt so that they were face to face. He saw now that his eyes were blue, a darker shade than his own, and so alluring he wanted to lose himself staring into them. Despite everything, Armin was rock-hard, and with a flood of heat coursing through him he realized he wanted the others, the shifters, to be hard, too. Only the unwelcome recollection of where they were and his men trussed up and watching him from their prone positions on the ground beyond prevented him from giving in to his overpowering lust and reaching for that meaty, impressive shoulder before him.
The giant quirked his lips, as if guessing what Armin was thinking, but when he spoke his words were serious. “There is a true monster loose in this valley,” he told him. “One that does not protect, only destroys. Its power is beyond any of us, even us three alone. It threatens everyone who lives here, both shifter and nonshifter. It needs to be stopped.” The blue eyes boring into his seemed to intensify. “Will you join us?” he asked.
Somehow, Armin knew the answer was not a word. Before he knew it his hand was sliding along that mighty jaw, and his mouth was moving toward that brilliant, bearded smile. Then they kissed, slow and deep, and Armin knew deep down what it was to be pack. His concerns, his mission, everything fell away, and as he felt the man’s—Owen’s—huge and delicious tongue probe deep within his hot and hungry mouth, his strength seemed to bloom throughout his entire being. Armin felt as though he were becoming something else—a new Armin, glad to leave the old one behind, and ready to use his training and stubbornness to take on any hell-beast that dared threatened his amaxo and his brother-wolves.
Aaron stood with his arms crossed over his swimmer’s chest near the tailgate of his dad’s once-gleaming, now-mud-smeared silver king cab pickup, frowning at the spectacle taking place a few feet away, between his truck and the half-crushed black SUV belonging to their would-be captors. Thin strands of ugly black smoke still rolled freely out of the destroyed engine, curling up toward the ominous, iron-gray sky, but at this point Aaron wasn’t even registering the catastrophic destruction of the beautiful ride his dad had “lent” him when the family had upgraded to the higher-capacity model for their feed-hauling business. Nor was he clocking the Reyes brothers happily greeting the young guardian dog Bandit, who’d arrived, wet, muddy, and grinning, not long after the others, nor the bound mercs gossiping with each other on the ground a few feet away about how they “grew ’em big in these parts.” Instead, Aaron’s attention was focused entirely on the massive, eight-foot-tall bear shifter who’d saved them all from these human monsters—only to crouch down in front of their cold-eyed leader in the middle of the damned county road and start passionately making out with him! He didn’t know whether to be miffed, or incredibly turned on.
Not that his body was giving him much choice when it came to the “turned on” part. The cozy warmth of easy arousal was sliding through him in wide, lapping waves, and his cock was straining against his battered jeans, as hard as an iron rod and seemingly ready to tear through the weathered denim to get to this beautiful beast of a man. He wanted to blame this on the torrents of sex-magic that seemed to radiate off the man, infusing raw, undeniable lust in all who stood near… but Aaron knew he would be turned on by the sight of the two men kissing even if the eight-foot-tall sex god weren’t a tactical fuck-nuke that was in a state on constant, never-ending explosion.
He shifted his weight, uncomfortable with his own arousal. “What is he doing?” he grumbled to Caleb. His partner and soul-merger mate was standing close by him, as Aaron knew he always would, and he could feel the smirk on Caleb’s handsome face without even looking.
“Makin’ friends, looks like,” Caleb drawled approvingly, the smirk Aaron had felt audible in his voice as well. Aaron made a tiny growl in the back of his throat. Caleb wasn’t bothering to fight his physical response to the sight of the hairy, naked, muscle-packed, hugely-hung behemoth, enough so that the unstoppable libido Caleb had been infamous for even before the leveling-up in power and strength he and Aaron had received on being joined sloshed excitedly through Aaron as well. It fed his own instinctive need to fuck, now, and keep fucking until the moon rose and he could howl his orgasms into it, one after another.
He wanted Caleb in him, he knew. Caleb had the biggest, most beautiful boner he had ever seen: long and fat and succulent, always incredibly hard and intensely inviting to the mouth… and not just the mouth. He no longer hid his from his own desires—all that had been stripped away. He knew that Caleb making love to him was the ultimate expression of their soul-union, and his need for it was so great that even as he stood there (with more important things to worry about) he was half-fantasizing Caleb pushing that amazing, gorgeous erection with tantalizing deliberation deeper and deeper into his hot, tight, virginal ass, inch by delirious inch, until, finally, Caleb was all the way inside him—and then just never pulling out, always in him, always joined, as Caleb held him from behind in his strong, sun-darkened arms and kissed his neck and whispered silly, snarky, sexy comments in his ear as they made love their whole lives and beyond…
Aaron felt a sudden, uncontrollable shiver, roiling through his balls and forcing his own long, hard dick to flex in longing, a dollop of wetness pulsing through his shaft and smearing against his skin under his jeans. Aaron thought he might just have experienced a tiny micro-orgasm just from vividly imagining Caleb being inside him like that. Probably not for the last time, either. Probably not for the last time today, in fact.
“Soon, baby,” Caleb purred, low and rough. He was closer to him now, the heated skin of his bare shoulder—shirtless under his overalls, as always—just behind him and scant millimeters away from Aaron’s own. He was amused, Aaron knew, but it was as much as anything at how strongly Aaron’s desire for Caleb mirrored his own intense need for Aaron. “So soon,” Caleb whispered now, his lips next to Aaron’s ear. His breath was so evocative, effectively reconjuring Aaron’s little fantasy of Caleb behind him and in him from a moment before, that he almost micro-orgasmed again.
Instead he cleared his throat, trying to force his attention to focus on anything other than the sex-nuke that was the bear-shifter making out with his newest conquest, or his own personal sex-nuke next to him. His eyes fell on Gerardo, or, rather, the massively muscled, supremely gorgeous beast that looked like a Gerardo that had been leveled up six or seven times in some video game that was all about hairy, sweaty muscle and huge, manly cocks. That wicked smile was Gerardo all over, though, as the naked, young Latino stud watched the bear shifter work, his huge, pendulous cock twitching and chubbing at the sight. Beside Gerardo, bowling-ball shoulders brushing his brother’s, was the more sober older Reyes brother Victor, watching the show with eyes intense and brow clear. They had no issues with their bear-shifter alpha befriending the bad guys.
Or—no, it was clear that all three of them were alphas. For that matter, if the way Gerardo had said “they” were amaxo meant anything, maybe it made more sense to think of them as one alpha. That’s certainly what it felt like, the read he got from them through his wolf-sense.
He scoffed mentally. So much for the lame thoughts he’d had of “saving” them back at the rally—thoughts he now knew had been grounded in a deep attraction to the Reyes brothers he’d never before let himself acknowledge. The brothers hadn’t been “taken” by the amaxo; they, the three of them, were the amaxo. A single force, forging the pack they needed, all former associations rendered meaningless with their coming. Eirene had been right about that, at least.
Aaron cringed, thinking of how his Elder had taken him in so completely, only to betray the whole pack by summoning an otherwhere beast so frightful he wasn’t sure even the immensely powerful amaxo could subdue it. He berated himself mercilessly. How had he been so gullible? And the worst part—the absolute worst—was knowing, without any doubt whatsoever, that if he had not seen Eirene do what she had done and call forth the beast, he would not have believed anyone who’d told him.
Caleb’s hand found Aaron’s shoulder, and Aaron drew in a long breath. He uncrossed his arms and left them fall. Caleb dropped his as well, and their hands came together as naturally as supermagnets pulled into a seamless join. He twined his fingers gratefully with Caleb’s, letting himself draw on his cousin’s endless strength and love.
Elder Lucas, who had been checking over the other SUV that had boxed them in from behind for lurking parasoldiers and other dangers, now rejoined them. Maybe it was because Lucas had used his own power to join him and Caleb, but Aaron felt a connection with Lucas—one that was not without physical attraction, he realized with surprise, the weathered but still good-looking Elder being younger than Aaron’s own (admitted aged) father and very, very fit. Fuck, how horny was he? he wondered—belying his own awareness that it wasn’t just horniness. Okay, that was something to think about later. Much later.
Lucas himself seemed to be studiously ignoring their state of extreme and obvious arousal, thankfully, and Aaron realized with a guilty flutter that that would be something people would have to get used to doing, seeing as there was no way he and Caleb were ever not going to be boned for each other most of the time. He would have expected to be embarrassed by the idea, but what he mostly felt was pride—pride that Caleb would want him so much he couldn’t hide his hunger for him any more than Aaron could hide his own for Caleb, and pride at being a strong young wolf, stronger than he’d been, no longer the one to mix invisibly into crowds and let others do his thinking for him. He would never be that kind of wolf again, not ever.
The three of them watched as the bear shifter rose to his full height, the paramilitary leader now looking up at him with obvious admiration and fierce loyalty. That was some kiss, Aaron thought. The bear shifter said something in his deep, bear-like voice about bringing his men before him, then, as the other man nodded and strode off, he turned to study Ohkwáho, the ancient mountain wolf-spirit now possessing the erstwhile shifter-hunter, Milton. They stared at each other for several long moments, as if planning out the conversation they would have when they found themselves alone together, while the merc leader moved among his men, freeing them from their bonds and talking quietly with each of them before bringing them to stand before the bear shifter.
Aaron glanced over at Lucas, noting the complex of emotions suggested by the Elder’s sad eyes and the tight line of his mouth, some of which flowed through the tendril of connection between them. He remembered that Lucas had just seen his own wife and fellow Elder betray the pack and then in turn be violently killed. And Elder Manuel, too, had died. He knew Lucas and Manuel had been more rivals than friends, both of them courting Eirene as teens and often fighting over pack business in later years, but with their lives wound around each other for so many years his death would still have been a shock. He placed his free hand on Lucas’s shoulder, just as Caleb had comforted Aaron a moment before. To his surprise, Lucas lifted a hand and grasped the back of Aaron’s with his own, giving it a light squeeze. “I’m okay, boys,” he said without looking back at them, as though he were riveted by the sight of the remaining four parasoldiers arrayed before the huge bear shifter and looking up at him with varying expressions of defiance, curiosity, or, in at least one case, naked lust.
“You sure?” Caleb asked the Elder gently, before Aaron could. They almost said the words together.
Lucas nodded slowly once, then again, more firmly. Aaron felt the firm shoulder he was gripping square itself, as though Lucas were readying himself again to face what was to come. “It’s the end of a time,” the Elder said, as two of mercs tromped off silently, passing by the three wolf shifters without a glance toward the SUV behind them. As it started up and drove off, the bear shifter knelt again and, grinning widely, grasped one of the remaining pair of mercs by the neck—the skinny ginger one who’d been gazing up him with clear desire, and who was now smiling right back at him. A moment later the wiry redhead was happily joining his lips with the bear shifter’s in what Aaron was already thinking of as the pack initiation kiss.
Beside him, Lucas sighed, and with it he seemed to release both his anxieties and his burdens. There is no pack but his, Aaron remembered Lucas telling them. The coming of the amaxo meant an end to the pack as they had known it, as much as the deaths of Eirene and Manuel had.
“The end of a time,” Lucas repeated, more resolutely, his wistfulness replaced by determination. “And,” he added, “if we can defeat the monster that would destroy us… the beginning of another.”
Owen liked being a hairy eight-foot-plus muscle beast shifter, no question. He wasn’t the kind of guy to worry about getting off on being bigger and stronger. Other guys—guys like that meathead Brewster back home, to name a particular egregious example—used their size to make other people feel bad. Those guys? Those guys were tools. Owen used his size and unstoppable potency to make other guys feel good. Connected, protected, and loved, sure, but being the Owen he was now meant making other guys feel hot and randy and full of cum, too.
Owen definitely liked his way better.
One thing Owen hadn’t expected to appreciate about being colossal was this moment where he knelt down in front of a guy—two guys, in this case: the two soul-connected wolf studs Elder Lucas had brought with him—and looked them right in the eyes. That one gesture always produced the same results, their overwhelmed awe and arousal leavened by appreciation and an understanding of mutual respect. Owen and his two partners might have a lot of supernatural power, but at root their strength and authority came from the shifter link they all shared. The safety that was Owen’s duty to forge for the whole community came, he knew instinctively, from this simple exchange of pure respect and understanding. That, and the fact that it came with rushing blood and hard-ons only made it stronger, Owen thought with a barely suppressed grin.
He looked the two studs over, trying to remember if he’d been told their names. Gerardo’s presence in their overlapping mind spoke, sounding amused, even though the brothers were presently ratifying Owen’s induction of Armin, LeBeau, and Koenig with deep, sloppy pack kisses of their own. The nice one’s Aaron, he heard Gerardo tell him, and the horndog is Caleb.
Thanks, Owen sent back drily. He looked over the two men. It wasn’t tough to tell which was which. One, paler and tight-muscled, was watching him earnestly, his brain obviously working overtime to reassess his and the pack’s future under the very creature Eirene had warned them would be their undoing. The other, darker and thicker-muscled but extremely lean, was wearing worn denim overalls with nothing under them, and he was eyeing Owen saucily with a crooked smile, like the long-awaited joyous holiday of Fuckmas was finally upon them. Both of them were obviously very hard, Aaron’s making a long, straight tube under his beat-up jeans, Caleb sporting one of the biggest erections under his overalls Owen had ever seen outside of himself, Victor, and Gerardo. The two were holding hands like it was their default position, and as Owen looked closer he recognized that these two men had a lot more in common with each other a casual glance would reveal, more even than the soul-connection they’d so recently acquired. Recent events had seasoned them in unexpected ways, and he could see in their eyes that they were already leaving boyhood behind and facing this new world together. Owen approved. He hoped he got the chance to see what these men would make of themselves a decade or two down the road.
“Aaron, Caleb,” Owen said, watching them register surprise both at him knowing their names and at the lush pleasure that came from the sound of his powerful voice sifting through their bodies and minds. Owen wasn’t the kind of guy to worry too much about the suppression of volition his very voice and presence induced in those around him, any more than he worried about his size and strength. He knew instinctively that if he ever tried making someone do something they truly did not want to do, his own soul, the link that bound him to the shifter universe, would rebel against him. But again, more than that, the Owen he was now knew more certainly than he knew anything that he wasn’t a tool.
He smiled at the two men. They’d seen what had happened before and obviously knew what was about to take place—Caleb was even licking his lips, the randy fucker—but Owen wanted things to be clear. “We’ve got work to do,” he told them, “and I need your help. Are you in?”
“Fuck yeah,” Caleb said immediately, his face splitting in a huge grin as his giant cock jumped against his overalls. What was unexpected, though, was that Aaron said it with him, and his smile, though softer, was just as heartfelt. The two men were linked, like Owen and the brothers, but like Owen and the brothers they still thought for themselves, and Owen knew they had their own reasons for agreeing.
Owen looked between them, subtly wiggling his eyebrows. “You know what to do, then,” he teased.
Caleb exchanged a cunning look with Aaron. “Together?” he suggested. Aaron blinked, then his smile widened. He nodded. Then, as if time skipped a beat, their three mouths came together, and Owen felt a rush of pleasure at the physical contact, amping up their shared arousal beyond the building lust that had been swirling between them. Caleb offered his practiced tongue to both Owen’s larger mouth and Aaron’s hotter one—it seemed as generously proportioned as his cock, almost matching Owen’s. Aaron’s tongue seemed cautious at first, then the enthusiasm of the moment bled through and all three of them lost themselves in an extremely satisfying triple snog. Owen had to fight to keep himself from getting more than half-hard. The way he felt right now, with all the pent-up orgasms he had in him, if he let himself get completely boned and gave in to his libido everyone present would be lost for hours in nonstop fucking.
There would be time for that… later.
He broke the kiss reluctantly and pulled back just enough to look at their faces. Aaron had his eyes closed and looked blissed out—Owen thought he might have cum from the delicious potency of the kiss, though the man was still hard and flushed with arousal. Caleb’s saucy smile and dark, piercing eyes screamed “More!” as loudly as any theater patron or strip club habitué. Owen thought this was pretty funny, given what he’d just been thinking about tamping down his own volcanic lust. Later, Owen told them through their newly-forged pack bond. It was not a word but an emotion, the kind of feeling all wolves could share with each other whenever they needed to communicate while shifted.
Caleb’s smile expended, showing a hint of fang, and Aaron gasped, opening his eyes to stare at Owen. The connection had surprised him, and Owen knew Aaron was instinctively feeling an edge of concern creeping back into his thoughts. Owen looked him in the eyes and reassured him. Protect the pack. Fight together. Emotions and vague ideas only, but Aaron nodded. He looked determined. Fight together, Aaron’s wolf agreed.
Owen stood. He saw that Lucas was no longer next to the two men, and it was a moment before he spotted him: he’d shifted, and was now a large, beautiful, wise-looking rust-red wolf standing a few yards down the road. Alone and in full view of all, he noted: the last elder of his pack-clan, awaiting the coming of the amaxo.
Owen shifted as well, and the brothers, instantly aware of Owen’s intent, did likewise. Owen-the-bear padded toward the wolf elder, reveling as always in the amplified sensations and feelings that came with resuming his massive animal form. This was the real him, in many ways.
He stood before Lucas, the brothers at his sides. The forest held its breath. A moment passed. Lucas looked up at him, then, with great dignity, turned his head, exposing his throat to Owen.
Owen growled lightly, without even meaning to. Even in the swim of powerful animal sensations he knew what Lucas was doing. He offered not only himself to Owen, but his eldership and his pack.
Instead, Owen knelt his gigantic bear-form low so that he was in reach, and, surprising Lucas and everyone watching, he turned his own head and offered his neck to Lucas.
Lucas, tentative at first but understanding Owen’s intent, reached up and sank his teeth lightly into the side of Owen’s huge, furry throat. Then Owen did the same, biting gently into the side of Lucas’s neck, Owen having to hold back nearly all of his strength lest he maim or kill the kindly beast.
The exchange was repeated with Gerardo and Victor, then Lucas shifted, standing before them as a hale and handsome, red-headed and red-bearded man again. Owen shifted as well, smiling fondly down at the newest member of his pack and its only Elder, at least for now. “You didn’t want the kiss?” Owen asked with a grin. The brothers chuckled.
Lucas smiled knowingly up at him. “Now when did I say that?” he shot back with a wink. Owen laughed and knelt before the Elder in time for them to share a truly dirty make-out session that went on a bit longer than any of the others had. Fuck, Owen thought, impressed. Caleb might have some experience, but Lucas was a man who definitely knew how to kiss.
Mike stared out the garret window of his long-dead mother’s ancestral home, his mind troubled as he leaned low against the casing, bending down to observe what he could of the brooding forests to the west. Something was out there—he could feel it, like it was pulling at the hairs on his forearms. What that something was he didn’t know, but it was stranger and more disturbing than the shattering of the status-quo that came with the rising of a triune amaxo. Them he could feel clearly, their presence in the woods easier to sense now that Owen and the brothers had bonded with him through that searing, sweet pack kiss.
What that was out there, it wasn’t amaxo, or shifter, or even god. It was something else, something dangerous… horrific… destructive…
He frowned, unable to get a handle on what his half-divine sensitivities were telling him. He itched his hefty balls absently through the clingy, super-tight brick-red gym shorts he was wearing, the only clothing in the house that came even remotely close to fitting him. He was finding he didn’t much mind being four-thirds the size of an ordinary man, and he was pretty sure Owen and the brothers had thrown in a few extra adjustments just for laughs. Fortunately his house had extra high ceilings and tall windows, as if to safeguard against just such an eventuality; so he wasn’t as inconvenienced as (say) his buddy Frances from the Denny’s would’ve been. Her apartment was so small and piled high with clutter he’d felt cramped moving through it even when he was only normal-Mike tall.
Owen could have at least left him some pants he could wear, though, he thought with a sigh. Or maybe he should blame Gerardo. He was always the grinning troublemaker, the playful pup in the body of a full-grown wolf. Every pack had one.
Mike squinted, stooping closer to the upper pane of the window, trying to concentrate. He’d only ever played with his powers, no one ever having seen a likelihood that he would have to act as a real sky god someday, or in any other supernatural capacity on the pantheonic plane. Half-breeds like him didn’t usually get that kind of gig, even at the regional level.
And it wasn’t like his immortal dad was going to retire anytime soon. Or ever.
“Son,” intoned a deep voice from behind him, and Mike tried not to jump. Fuck! That was the trouble with being the scion of an actual god. You never knew for sure if him showing up was just coincidence, or if thinking about him had actually conjured him up.
He turned slowly and beheld a misty, man-shaped figure standing near the center of the garret room he’d made into a library ages ago. Strands of clouds seemed to waft lazily over the surface of the figure, forming the familiarly stern features of his august father: Taran, god and master of the Appalachian skies from Tennessee to New Brunswick, Canada.
“Son,” Taran said again hollowly, as if he were peering through an uncertain video-chat connection. Bright, azure-blue eyes blinked myopically at him through the slow-billowing mists.
Mike leaned back against the old-fashion wallpaper by the window, scowling at his dad. “In or out,” he said gruffly.
The figure solidified, and the mystical weight of Taran’s physical presence filled the space. It was like that with gods. Owen too, Mike thought unexpectedly. Were amaxos actually gods, then? No, he decided quickly, they couldn’t be. Not his kind of god, anyway. The shifters’ connection to the otherworlds was unique to them, and the amaxo’s power came from that, not from the elemental powers of this world like him and his dad.
The heft of his father’s presence might have seemed to a stranger like compensation for Taran’s unassuming appearance. That random stranger, offered an opportunity to guess the tall, weedy, slightly balding man’s daily vocation, was likely to guess something slightly derisive like “bookkeeper” or “librarian”… though perhaps acknowledging that for a probable office drone he was reasonably handsome, in a Paul Newman sort of way, and obviously kept himself extremely fit. A good-looking, bookkeeping triathlete, maybe, Mike imagined this rando saying. Or a sky god. It was a toss-up.
As usual, Taran appeared preoccupied, his mind on ten atmospheric imbalances at once while he spared a rare moment to talk to the son he’d never planned on having and still didn’t seem to quite acknowledge as a regular presence in his divine life, even after a hundred and fifty-eight years. Taran seemed reasonably fond of Mike but remote at the same time, and Mike didn’t see him often. “Son,” he said a third time. “How… are you?”
The question was almost perfunctory, and Mike didn’t bother answering. Instead he said, “What’s up, dad?” This was his own little joke—Taran was a sky god? His whole job was “up”?—but his high-minded and often distracted father never got it.
Taran seemed about to speak, then frowned suddenly, his eyes focusing on Mike and his surroundings as if for the first time. “How are you a giant?” he asked, more confused than demanding.
“I got bored,” Mike deadpanned. “Why are you here?”
Taran frowned harder at this, as if trying to sort out where his half-mortal son might have gotten body-morphic powers from, but after a beat he moved on reluctantly. “The shifters,” Taran said. “You must go to the shifters.”
Mike narrowed his eyes at his father, not moving from where he leaned against the garret wall. This can’t be a coincidence, he thought. “Why?” he asked.
Taran gritted his teeth briefly. “They have released a monster from one of the hell worlds,” he said darkly. “A Leviathan that is beyond their power to destroy.”
Mike let out a breath. An otherwhere creature! That must be what he’d been sensing before. “They have an amaxo,” he informed his father.
Taran hesitated, considering. “Then their odds are better,” he admitted. “But not decisive. Disaster and death still threaten.”
“Uh huh. Why aren’t you doing something about it, then? You and your god buddies?”
Taran gave him a flinty look. “You know well that the gods may not be seen to interfere with the people of the shift,” he said sternly. “It is a treaty as old as humankind.”
“Then why am I being—oh,” he interrupted himself sarcastically. “That’s right. I’m not one of you.”
Taran held his gaze, his blue eyes clear and hard, and Mike instantly regretted his petulance. Really, he should be over it by now. It wasn’t like he even really wanted to be a god—it looked awful, frankly. Even worse than a bad week at Denny’s. “Sorry,” he said.
Taran kept his eyes locked on Mike’s. “You may not be one of us,” the sky god declaimed portentously in his deepest baritone. “But… you are one of me.”
Mike stared back at him for a long moment. Then they both burst out laughing. “I love you too, Dad,” Mike managed after a minute, still chuckling.
“Go,” Taran said grinning, making a shooing motion as if Mike might open the window he was leaning next to and sail out that way. Then, with a billowing of mists, Taran himself was gone.
Mike rolled on his shoulder and peered out the window one last time, wondering what the heck was going on out there. Then he straightened with a sigh and padded across the room to the stairs at a trot. He’d have to go like this—eight feet tall, barefoot and three-quarters-naked in his now-skimpy, extra-clingy gym shorts. He really wished Owen and the brothers had grown his clothes and shoes with him instead of just vanishing them.
Then again, he thought with a small smile as he reached the stairs and started hurrying down them, right now he was probably wearing a lot more than Owen was.
“You sure you dropped your baggie out here, man?” Jerome asked. He scratched his untidy goatee as they kicked around the trampled, tire-marked grass and soil at their feet. Several feet away, at the edge of the clearing, Jerome’s old red pickup pinged and knocked fitfully, not so quick to settle down after a drive as it used to be.
“Had to’ve,” Orem answered tersely, rubbing the nape of his neck under his greasy ponytail. “Ain’t in the truck, is it?”
Jerome looked out appraisingly over the open field in front of the Fisher’s two-story farmhouse that the pack tended to use as a parking lot whenever there was a gathering out here, like at the previous night’s bonfire rally with all the crazy talk about monsters and childhood amaxo demons. Now, with everyone long gone, the expanse looked like an abandoned fairground, complete with random litter mixed in with the tufts of flattened unmown grass twisted this way and that by all the cars like kids’ cowlicks. It was “a most unattractive prospect,” as his pap liked to say. Only an old, scratched-up green Accord and a sweet-looking motorbike were left parked off in the far corner, like their owners had wandered off into the adjacent woods that night and never returned.
Jerome cast a quick frown upward at the lowering sky. Those gray clouds sure weren’t helping the look of the place any. There was some kind of unpleasant noise in the distance, too, like thunder only not, coming from the deep woods to the north.
“C’mon, help me look,” Orem prodded as he shuffled around the general area they’d been parked the night before near the entrance where Eirene had told them to keep watch for the Reyes kids and that outsider they had with them. Jerome sighed and started investigating the opposite direction, his steps small and his eyes on the abused ground by his work boots. He really wished his brother-in-law would keep better track of his weed. But then if he did that he’d have more to smoke, and then he’d be even more forgetful. Ha! A vicious cycle.
A hideous screech rent the air, and the two men froze. It was horrible to listen to, like a car being ripped apart by impossibly powerful machines, only a hundred times louder. With it came the crash of trees being destroyed by something more powerful than any oak or fir, plowing through them with reckless fury.
Jerome felt his chin quivering, and he wasn’t sure his bowels might not be next. “Orem—” he said nervously.
Suddenly a massive creature the size of a house hove violently into view at the far end of the field, the trees shattering around it in to kindling as it muscled its way clear. Jerome gaped at it, not sure he could believe what his eyes were telling him. The thing looked like nothing so much as a monstrously huge mountain lion with silky black fur under which shifted immensely powerful muscles he had no doubt could crush him and his truck without even noticing. Even “big as a house” didn’t quite describe it adequately, he realized, as its mighty shoulders actually managed to just overreach the low shingled roof of the Fishers’ quaint yellow homestead. The creature was glaring down at it like it could smell its worst enemy cowering inside, its incandescent gold eyes blazing with animal rage, lips torn wide in a hideous sneer.
“Get in the truck,” Orem urged without moving his lips. Almost involuntarily Jerome started backing toward the pickup, unable to tear his eyes away from the nightmare beast.
The creature lifted one paw high and, with fierce deliberation, brought it down hard onto the house. The roof and walls crushed under the creature’s strength like the place was made of balsa. Beams, siding, and broken furniture scattered in all directions.
“Get. In. The. Truck!” Orem hissed again, still without moving his lips.
Jerome needed no further prompting. He turned and tore back to the pickup, clambering into the driver’s seat and flooring it out of the clearing before Orem had even pulled his door closed. As he barreled out the field’s narrow exit toward the paved road to town he checked the rear-view mirror, and felt his heart freeze as he saw the creature’s glowing, furious eyes looking right back at him. A moment later the land started shaking behind them, and he didn’t have to turn and look to know the creature had found new prey to crush and kill.
He hit the turnoff onto the road almost at top speed, barely managing to make the turn onto the asphalt without rolling the truck. Once he was properly aimed down the county road again he pushed the gas down as far as it would go, then pushed down harder. Behind them, the shuddering earth told him his little red pickup was still the mouse about to be devoured by the most cruel and terrifying rage-driven predator-cat anyone had ever imagined.
He glanced over hectically at Orem and saw he had retrieved their shotguns from behind the seats and was calmly loading them both. “Elder was right after all,” his unflappable brother-in-law was muttering as he loaded red 12-gauge shells into Jerome’s trusty Remington 870. “Damned amaxo, callin’ out the demon beasts from hell on us all.”
He snapped the gun closed and gave Jerome a surprisingly fierce look, his muddy brown eyes looking unexpectedly clear. “One thing I know,” Orem said. “I’m gonna fell that amaxo traitor before we’re all et, and that’s a promise.”
Jerome looked back at the road in time to notice he was taking an S-curve way too fast. Tires squealing as he fought to keep them on the road. Maybe not being “et” should be their first priority, he thought, but gainsaying Orem when he was in a mood never worked out well for anyone. He kept driving, desperately hoping something would happen to keep them from having to face either dreaded amaxos or demon monsters from hell.
Lucas watched Owen stalk proudly over to his nephews with a wry smile. For all that it had completely changed his life and that of everyone in his pack, that was one kiss he would never regret.
He’d admired his sister’s sons’ confidence and level-headedness before—he’d been the one to suggest Victor and Gerardo be the ones to feel out the area around the motel for the shifter-stranger Elder Sam from the northern clan had portended in the wolf-dream, especially as the young guardian Bandit was already affectionate with them and vice versa—but as he tracked the naked, bearded and hairy almost to the point of furry, impossibly muscled, literally-larger-than-life bear of a bear-shifter in his walk back to the half-crushed SUV and his partners in love, sex, and accidental heroism, the two looking up at him with shining eyes, Lucas found himself envying the randy young brothers on top of respecting them. If Lucas had a type…
Well, this was perhaps not the time to explore his latent same-sex affinities. Deeper than he already had in more foolhardy days before he became a husband and Elder, anyway. He looked around at their little group, stroking his own still-russet beard. Everyone seemed to be conversing in small clusters. Nearest him, at the back of the silver pickup the engine of which he’d managed to very usefully blow up, Aaron and Caleb were talking in quiet whispers about how the hell creature could be fought, their hands still clasped as if this were now automatic for them. Further ahead, Owen was joining Victor and Gerardo’s conversation with Armin and his two remaining men, who seemed to be discussing what weaponry they’d brought that could now be pressed into service on behalf of their new allegiance. Only Ohkwáho stood apart near the front of the pickup, as he had before, except now the expression on his borrowed face had changed. Before, the mountain spirit had been consistently stolid and placid, but now his features seemed slightly contorted, as if he were struggling with feelings he did not like or understand.
On impulse, Lucas started toward him, watching him closely as he did so. The man was staring hard at Owen, seemingly unaware of anything or anyone else. His stance was rigid and utterly unmoving, as if he were rooted to the spot.
The closer Lucas got to that unhappy face, the more uneasy he felt.
He rounded the front of the pickup slowly, stopping a few feet away. Still Ohkwáho did not acknowledge him, his eyes fixed on Owen. Lucas decided to try nonchalance, just to see what kind of response he got.
“Ohkwáho,” he began calmly. “I was wondering if there was any more you could tell us about—”
“Ohkwáho is dead.” It was a high, cold voice, and an icy shiver rippled up Lucas’s spine. It was what he’d been afraid of.
Owen and the others turned at this, and Lucas felt the cousins move closer to stand behind the Elder, suspecting the worst. “Is that you, Milton?” Aaron jeered.
Still the beady eyes did not look away from the over-large, dominating young man at the center of their group. Nor did the hunter’s body move a muscle; but his lips curled in a sneer. “I will not be stopped,” he said, his voice freezing with scorn.
Owen was watching him, though he showed no sign of alarm. “Stopped from what?” he asked blandly.
If anything, Milton’s sneer deepened, turning even more derisive. “You do not deserve your powers,” he said. Finally he ripped his eyes from Owen and looked around at his audience. “Snouts, all of you,” he spat. His eyes fell on Armin and his men, who were eyeing him with cold disgust. “Snouts and snout wannabes,” he added. He started back up at Owen with contempt. “And you, the worst snout of all. A snout by choice, traitor to the humans who—”
Owen shook his head. Lucas felt himself growing hot at Milton’s insults, and he could feel the cousins behind them practically radiating their mounting irritation. But Owen didn’t seem angry at all, his face as calm as a man who secure in the knowledge that insults from assholes meant nothing. Victor was actually smiling slightly as he leaned an arm on Gerardo’s massive, boulder-like shoulder, as though Milton were putting on an impromptu show for them.
The calmness of the amaxo three only seemed to kindle the hunter’s rage, however. Though still unmoving, as though his shoes were nailed to the road surface where he stood, his face grew even more contorted and red with fury. “—The humans who should have your strength and power, not snouts like you!” he continued louder, as if shouting over Owen. “I will wrest your powers from you! I have equipment you don’t even know about. I will take it all from you, and then—”
Owen sighed, as though he’d been interested before, but had grown bored. “That’s enough,” he said patiently.
“—When I’m done,” Milton screeched even louder, now purple with fury, “I’ll take what’s left of you and squash you like a bug! I’ll—”
Owen’s eyes kindled. “That’s enough,” he said again. Though he did not raise his voice, everyone could feel all his attention suddenly focused on Milton like a weapon.
All at once Milton’s tirade stopped and his expression became instantly distressed, like his words were stuck in his throat and he were literally choking on them. He gasped helplessly for a second, then his eyes widened suddenly in alarm and he emitted a feeble “No!” Them, in the next instant and with breathtaking swiftness, Milton was gone and in his place was a large, beautiful, silver-blue wolf. Though its body was strong its red-gold eyes were patently ancient, and they looked up at Owen with the grave respect of one who was normally wont to receive it.
“Ohkwáho,” Lucas breathed, and the wolf looked over at him and nodded its greeting, wolf spirit to Elder. Owen knelt in front of him and ruffled the fur on the wolf’s head with a smile. Lucas just stared. He wasn’t sure how what he had just seen was possible—Ohkwáho was a wolf spirit, but Milton was no shifter. Or hadn’t been, anyway… until just now, when the amaxo had used his power over the wolf-link to force-shift him, thereby also freeing Ohkwáho’s wolf to take physical form in exchange for the first time in, Lucas guessed, centuries.
Lucas wasn’t the only one who was confused. “So wait—if that’s not Skeet where is he now?” Armin asked with a frown, though Lucas noticed that he did seem to be admiring the sturdy, well-formed wolf that had replaced his treacherous former associate as he spoke. Armin must have at least studied the ways of shifters to have been entrusted with the scheme his employers had set him, Lucas figured, but this was a bit beyond Werewolf 101.
Owen did not look up but went on petting the mountain spirit’s new wolf form. “He’s in the wolf dream,” he said softly.
At Armin’s furrowed brow Victor added, “It’s where our wolves go when they’re not with us.”
Lucas sucked in a breath. He was fairly sure the wolves there would not abide Milton’s presence for long.
Abruptly Owen stood and turned to look sharply down the road to the south, toward Lucas’s own house, as if he sensed something in that direction. Gerardo and Victor did the same.
“It’s coming,” Owen announced.
He’d barely spoken the words before the sound of a motorcycle reached them coming from the other direction, from the north. They all turned to see a comical sight: another naked (or nearly naked) giant, though much leaner and considerably less hairy than Owen, speeding toward them on what looked, in comparison, like a toy version of a lightweight, low-slung Kawasaki, his longish, wavy blond hair whipping back behind him in the breeze. As the figure got closer, all eyes riveted on him, Lucas was surprised to realize that he recognized him: it was, of all people, Gerardo’s ex-boyfriend, Mike, joining them for their last stand against the hell-beast destroyer. What he was doing here, and why he was suddenly a couple feet taller and impressively bigger all over than he remembered him being, Lucas had no idea.
Lucas looked back at Gerardo to catch his reaction, but he and Victor merely seemed pleased to him. Owen was positively grinning. Lucas hmphed to himself. He guessed he’d missed a good deal of the amaxo’s story while he’d been busy being held captive by the other Elders. Observing the others’ reactions to all this, Lucas couldn’t help noting that that Armin had taken Owen’s place kneeling next to Ohkwáho and was scratching the mountain-spirit wolf being his silvery blue ears. Ohkwáho, for his part, withstood the muscular merc’s attentions with quiet dignity.
Lucas looked back to see that Mike had pulled up by the derelict pickup and switched off his tiny-looking bike, and was now stepping off it to reveal he was not, in fact naked: he was, however, wearing only extremely tight and clingy red gym shorts on his massive, Michelangelo’s David body, and the fact that these shorts hid exactly nothing when it came to Mike’s startlingly-hefty and shifting junk started Lucas thinking that he might have more than one type after all.
“Sorry I’m late,” the newcomer said with a quick glance around at Lucas and the others, before offering Owen and the brothers a lewdly intimate smile.
“You’re just in time,” Owen said, meeting him for a hug that, perhaps unsurprisingly, turned into a swift but deep smooch. That wasn’t their first kiss, not if Lucas was any judge. He’d definitely missed some of the juicy bits. Maybe he would ask Owen about it all later. Or Mike. Or both.
The kiss ended and Owen stepped back, grasping his equally-overtall friend by his bulging but much-less-titanic shoulders. “In fact,” the hairy bear shifter continued cheerfully, “given the idea someone just handed me… your timing could not be more perfect.”
Armin crouched in the brush by the side of the road, still and invisible, as he had a hundred times before in every kind of cover and conditions. He spread his senses as he had been trained to do, watching and waiting.
Just to the north of his position, approximately twenty meters ahead and to the left, two vehicles formed a makeshift barrier across the narrow two-lane road: his own team’s black reinforced SUV with the partly caved-in roof and the half-burned-out hulk of the wolf cousins’ silver king-cab, both of which Owen, Victor, and Gerardo had casually lifted up from the ends and shifted into place as easily as if they were cardboard models and not multiton working vehicles. LeBeau and Koenig’s jaws had dropped as they’d stared at the cool display of power with obvious awe, and Armin had been only saved from very nearly creaming his pants by his rigidly controlled temperament, reinforced by half a lifetime of training.
The shifters in question now stood a good seventy meters beyond the barrier, as still as the rest of the tableau even in their beast forms. He glanced over of them, confirming their position: a huge black bear, flanked by wolves in charcoal gray and black threaded with silver, all of them twice the size you’d expect and as motionless and ready as elite soldiers. The wind had picked up under the threatening iron sky and was busily wiffling their pelts, but their gazes remained unwavering fixed on the road to the south, ears tall and alert, stances defiant like they were avatars of strength and protection.
Armin wanted to check the south himself, but first he looked across the roadway and met LeBeau’s steel-gray eyes. He and Koenig were in position, hidden, weapons ready, waiting for Armin’s signal. Satisfied, he looked to the south.
Armin knew there was nothing he could do about the hell beast coming for them. That was the amaxo’s job, and he was honestly relieved his little team hadn’t been tasked with making a last, hopeless, guns-blazing stand in defense of humanity like in some schlocky sci-fi horror rip-off movie. Owen and them would take care of the hell beast, and they were welcome to it. But Owen and the red-bearded Elder had sensed something else coming their way: two members of the pack in a vehicle racing toward them like death itself, with the hell beast on their heels. Armin and his team were to do whatever was in their power to get those shifters out of the way and to safety so that Owen and the others could fight the beast without obstruction.
Armin let his senses spread again. His sight and hearing had always been acute, but today, with so much at stake and his adrenaline high, they seemed especially sharp, and it wasn’t long before he heard what he was listening for: the sound of a truck engine at high rev, with the low thrum of tires eating the road underneath. But there was also something else: the footfalls of a giant creature thudding through the ground as it ran, as much felt through earth as heard, distant booms pounding relentlessly toward them that seemed to go straight to Armin’s heart.
Armin steeled himself, shutting down all emotion and everything outside this moment, this scenario. He’d never had quite this kind of fight before, and yet… he had, time and time again. His first mentor had shouted the same thing at him and his secret army inductees every day, every week. Every fight was down to two things: being trained and being ready. There was no doubt about Armin’s training, and the other half of the equation wasn’t in question, either. Armin was ready.
“You feel that, Orem?” Jerome asked worriedly as he took another curve in the county road at pretty much exactly the wrong speed. He wanted to clutch at his heart where he’d felt the twinge, but taking either hand off the wheel right now was not an option. He felt/heard the thudding of the house-sized creature chasing them. Though they’d miraculously gained a few hundred feet of gap as they’d wound through the woods, there was no question of actually escaping the thing.
“I don’t feel nothin’,” Orem said bluntly, not taking his eyes off the road ahead. He was clasping his shotgun at half-ready, like he might have to shoot a deer through the passenger window at any moment. Jerome’s own gun lay below across his brother-in-law’s lap, likewise loaded and ready.
“No, just now,” Jerome persisted, coming out of the curve. “Through the wolf link. Like we got another Elder, or—”
“Look!” Orem broke in, tensing. “There it is! The demon!”
For a second, Jerome couldn’t make sense of this—Orem was staring dead ahead still, and surely the demon was behind them?—but then he saw that the road was blocked a hundred feet ahead by two large but damaged-looking vehicles positioned deliberately across the roadway—and beyond it loomed the second most terrifying sight he’d seen today: a colossal, furious-looking black bear, with two wolves the size of regular bears on either side of it. “Shit!!” he squealed, automatically jamming all his weight down on the brake, and the old pickup started to fishtail slightly in protest.
“Look at ’em!” Orem screamed over the noise, tightening his grip on his shotgun. “Waiting to see we’re et! It’s a goddamned trap!”
Jerome somehow knew this was wrong—something wordless and primal was pulling him toward the bear and its strength and protection—but in that moment all his attention was focused on not crashing. He managed to bring the truck to a stop in a shriek of rubber, shaking violently on its springs, only a few feet shy of the improvised barrier and at an angle, like he’d have slammed into the vehicles with the side of his pickup with a little less control. Orem already had his door open and was standing on the step, his gun aimed right at the enormous bear.
“Orem! No!” Jerome shouted, reaching for him. Orem was shouting at the giant werebear, but his words were drowned out as it raised its muzzle and released a forest-shaking roar.
Covering his ears, Jerome looked back and saw that the hell beast had stopped in the road behind them, barely fifty feet behind so that he could only see its powerful, midnight-black legs and haunches through the back window as it crouched, ready to pounce.
Fuck, he thought uselessly, I am so dead.
There was an ear-splitting blam! as Orem fired his shotgun, but not at the hell beast about to eat them. True to his word, his stubborn brother-in-law was resolved to kill the amaxo as final gesture of contempt and hatred before they were all destroyed. It was only now, as a thousand thoughts flooded his brain in the space of a split second, did Jerome realize that the man was an idiot. Didn’t everyone know the legend? You can’t kill amaxos with guns, only—
No sooner had Orem fired off his shot than he was studded across his face and neck with three feathery, potent-looking tranq darts. Orem had a second of consciousness—enough to scream inarticulately and fire his weapon again with another loud blam!—before he crumpled senseless to the road below.
In that same second, Jerome’s door was yanked open and strong hands were pulling him out of the truck. Before he knew it he was hauled right off the roadway and into the shallow brush-filled ditch between the road and the surrounding woods. He had a quick glimpse under the pickup of an unconscious Orem being likewise yanked out of sight on the other side by two more dark-clad (and oddly sleeveless) soldier-ninjas before his head was shoved into the dirt. “Stay down!” a masculine voice hissed, the hand moving to press against his back as it he would be kept down by force if necessary. Jerome didn’t need convincing.
Even as that was happening he heard another roar of challenge from the giant bear, and Jerome was unaccountably relieved to note that it did not sound wounded, only defiant. This time the infuriated hell beast roared back, the noise it made unbearably loud and unpleasant—it was that agonizing, metal-twisting squeal he’d heard before at the Fishers’ house, now even closer and so unnatural it felt like it the very sound of it was trying to tear his organs apart. There was a loud thud and the unmistakable sound of vehicles being violently crushed, and the bear roared a third time. Jerome looked up in time to see the hell beast standing atop all three vehicles, each of them flattened under its immense paws, as it snarled down at the bear and the two wolves. The bear and the wolves snarled back at the creature, then turned and galloped off into the woods at terrific speed, the hell beast right behind them soon afterwards in hot, infuriated pursuit.
Jerome looked over at his rescuer, his heart seemingly pounding in his throat, but the handsome, dark-blond mercenary looked unperturbed, eyes still on the place where the amaxo and the hell beast had disappeared, leaving a path of splintered and destroyed trees in their wake. Perhaps he saw things like this every day.
“It’s up to them now,” the merc said, half to himself. Then he turned his grim, piercing blue eyes on Jerome. He quailed, shrinking back a little despite the hand still pressing him flat to the ground, but the merc smiled reassuringly. “C’mon,” he said with professional-sounding amiability, “let’s go check on your friend.”
Jerome scoffed. Some friend, he thought, as the clean-cut, distractingly-hunky merc helped him easily to his feet. His brother-in-law might be a reliable source of pot and decent company on a boring Saturday night when there wasn’t a game on, but he was clearly nuts, and none too bright either. By the time they’d made it across the roadway, skirting the flattened wreckage of the three vehicles, Jerome had already decided he’d be getting his weed somewhere else from now on.
Gerardo took the lead as they ran, excitement coursing through him. Once they’d seen where they were when they intercepted Armin’s mercs, he’d known exactly where the best spot for the confrontation with the hell best would be: an isolated little dandelion-strewn, bowl-shaped depression not far into the dense, rolling woods just to the west. The spot lay between two steepish slopes, and though the flanking hills weren’t that high the terrain essentially offered two exits: out either end, or up the thickly wooded inclines to either side. It had been one of his favorite places to get away from everyone and play with his shift as a young teen, and later it was a nicely secluded spot for long make-out sessions with little chance of being discovered or interrupted. Mike knew the spot too—Gerardo had taken him there a few times for nature-fucks and general canoodling—and when he’d mentioned it to his ex-boyfriend-slash-amaxo-trainer he’d nodded thoughtfully.
The hell beast chased them, its fury seeming to build with every minute it spent in their dimension. Though it was much bigger and orders of magnitude more powerful, its size was to some extent a disadvantage: he and Victor, and even Owen, could run between the thick-boled, towering oaks and pines that grew close and strong in this part of the woods, though the big bear did have to choose his paths a little more carefully. But the hell beast was having to crash through them like a blind bull, sending trees, and dirt and debris, flying all around in a tornado of destruction, and though the effort was minimal on the beast’s part it still cost him headway—enough so, Gerardo knew, for the threesome to stay well ahead of it and draw him, as they must do, right into the net.
The bowl was minutes away. Gerardo ran with quiet exhilaration. He didn’t even send chatter in his mind to Owen and Victor the way he loved to do when they tore through the forest or rolled around together in the grass. He didn’t need to. The emotions passing between them through their bond were all the same. Fight… protect… together… win.
Then they rounded the little knot of maples Gerardo remembered from all his previous visits as a kind of landmark, and—yes, there it was, an open, yellow-dotted bowl in the midst of the woods like a gladiators’ ring. There were even spectators already present waiting for the show-down to come, though not on the stadium-like slopes to either side. Instead, what Gerardo saw was the heart-gladdening sight of all six of the remaining pre-amaxo Elders from the other two clans of the Great Valley, arrayed in their wolf forms across the far exit of the defile like teeth-baring, furry archons determined to cast the unwanted visitor from the lupine polis forever. At their head was no wolf shifter, but the implacable, dark-chocolate figure of their brave companion and shameless cuddle-whore, the mystical guardian dog of the pack known to all as Bandit.
When Bandit saw them racing toward the bowl he let out a very serious-sounding woof of greeting across the depression, like a sergeant reporting the readiness of his team. But he couldn’t help grinning like the big doofus of a puppy he still was, and Gerardo, not a big fan of needless maturity himself, grinned right back at him.
They entered the bowl with the hell beast crashing through the forest only a hundred feet or so behind. As planned, Owen split off to the left, taking a position at the foot of the slope on one side of the open space, and he and Victor turned the opposite way and almost rolled to a stop on just opposite him on the other side. As he found his footing and caught his breath, panting lightly, Gerardo looked up quickly at the top of the hill behind him. Sure enough, Mike was in position atop the crest looking down on them, his adorably tiny shorts the only spot of red in a sea of muted green and yellow. Behind him, the threatening stormclouds looked almost black with portent, though so far no rain had fallen. Before today, Gerardo might have been confused as to what role Mike could possibly play in a fight like this; thanks to his link with Owen, however, who’d figured out Mike’s secret (to Mike’s brief dismay, as no one was supposed to ever know), everything that had puzzled him about his sweet but inexplicably-tame-in-bed ex was now much, much clearer. Now that he knew he was looking forward to giving Mike another try—with Victor and Owen’s help, of course.
He looked over at the assembled Elders behind Bandit. He could sense them gathering their power, pooling it into a single will. Across the bowl, Owen roared and shifted back to human form. Gerardo and Victor did likewise. The Elders retained as wolves, the better to gather the power of the wolf link against their enemy.
All this took the merest second, a single heartbeat. By the time he’d looked back the way they’d come, the hell beast was upon them.
It barreled into the open space of the bowl-like depression and slowed, screaming its soul-rending banshee wail at the wolves standing before it where the quarry it had been chasing should have been. It crouched again, seemingly intent on plowing through them like a hound through a herd of ducks, but as it sensed their hostile energy it crept a wary step back from them, baring its hideous fangs and letting out another blood-curdling screech.
Then the creature’s tail whipped up in alarm, and it spun angrily as if attacked from behind. There, blocking the other entrance to the dandelion arena, stood Aaron, Lucas, and Caleb, Lucas marshaling the limitless power of the two young, link-merged wolves along with his own to ensure unfriendly Elder-power was pressing the beast from both directions. With them stood Ohkwáho, the blue-gray wolf using his own spirit energy to strengthen the repulsive force Lucas was creating.
Now at bay from two sides, the cornered beast protested, screaming, and made ready to attack. “Now!” screamed Owen.
The signal was partly for Mike, but mostly for the other wolves. Just in time Gerardo turned and hid his face, his brother doing the same. A split-second later there was a deafening CRACK! as though the entire world had been rent asunder. His copious body hair seemed to stand on end and his skin crawled as the air around him filled with energy and the stench of burning flesh.
His ears ringing, spots dancing over his eyes in spite of his having turned to protect them, Gerardo turned back to see the house-sized jaguar beast writhing in pain, its back legs twisted and charred by the lightning-strike called down by the god above—more specifically, by the demigod known as Mike, son of storms, wielder of winds, and master of waffles.
But the hell beast was not yet finished, as they’d known it would not be, and though his wolf-senses were disrupted by the fractured air now permeating the dell Gerardo was sure he could sense pricks of otherwhere energy sparking here and there in the mangled flesh and bone of the beast’s behind. Was it trying to heal itself? That they couldn’t afford to let it do.
Now! Owen said again, this time through the unique bond they three of them shared between them. Gerardo was ready.
They brought their minds and wills together, uniting their volition in common purpose that seemed almost second nature to them now. All of their focus, all of their will, was on the physical body of the leviathanic monster that crouched shrieking and wounded between them.
Gerardo grinned, or all of them did. They, the one being that they were, grinned. It was working.
The hell beast shrank, its body folding it on itself.
The beast swiveled its head around in alarm, looking for what was attacking it. But no creature was afflicting its flesh, compressing its muscles and cracking its bones as it diminished—slowly at first, then more rapidly, as if the process fed on itself. The creature screamed again, this time in pathetic desperation, as it crushed down smaller and smaller with relentless, merciless force. Then suddenly it stopped, dropping its head to the ground, its heaving, compressed body reduced to a size no larger than a housecat’s.
“Again!” Owen shouted to the sky.
Gerardo turned away quickly, as did the others, and another crack came down, filling the world with deadly light and sound as the creature was put out of if its misery, once and for all. When Gerardo turned back, blinking and wool-eared, all that was left of the beast his aunt had called down on him and his lovers was a charred, flattened blob of black, featureless slag. As before it had taken almost all of the lightning’s destructive force and energy into it, with the paradoxical result that it now seemed to possess no energy at all. It wasn’t even steaming—it was just there. To all appearances and senses it was completely inert, as though it were just an odd, blue-black rock that happened to be here, a mundane feature of this mundane forest glen.
Gerardo let his shoulders slump in relief as he stared dumbly at it, not quite able to believe it was over. He felt spent. Beside him, Victor snaked an arm around his wide back, and Gerardo, glad to be reminded of the simple pleasure of male contact, happily emulated him.
Everyone else seemed a little dazed, too. Only Bandit seemed capable of motion: he was the one, at any rate, who walked out into the center of the depression where the hunk of black slag sat to investigate what had become of their monster. After a few minutes of moving around it and sniffing it from different angles, the rest of the crowd watching in silent curiosity, he abruptly bent and took up the hardened slag between his teeth, turned, and trotted right out of the clearing past the Elders, disappearing into the woods to the north. With that the mood broke and there were smiles and scattered chuckles at last. Gerardo guessed most of them were thinking what he was thinking: while he himself was pretty sure the guardian dog was taking the remains to fling them through some nearby entrance into an otherworld he knew of, it had certainly looked like the pup was taking the thing off to bury it somewhere like it was a soup bone or someone’s purloined hairbrush.
Thus freed from the horrors of the past few minutes, the onlookers started moving toward each other into the center of the hollow, Mike scrabbling down the hill to join them, and there were smiles and hugs and murmured thanks all around. Gerardo folded his uncle into a tight embrace, then followed suit with his two soul-joined protégés; Aaron, whom Gerardo had pegged ages ago as a closet case with a crush on him and his brother, seemed momentarily abashed by the attention. The other clan Elders had shifted to human form, so he was able to hug them too, the prophetic Elder Sam giving him a knowing smile and a very keen look afterwards that Gerardo tried to ignore the significance of.
He and Victor were treated sort of as Elders themselves and thanked for saving the clans as if it were the kind of thing the brothers normally did. Owen, however, they handled like a sort of visiting god, some responding to him with garrulous questions about what he had done and where he had come from (“Vermont? Really?”), others with a kind of mute awe that they tried to hold onto even as the giant naked beast-man was hugging the stuffing out of them. Gerardo, knowing as he did that they had an actual god among them (despite the skimpy red shorts he was wearing), found that pretty funny. But then, everyone had attributed the lightning strikes to Owen, apparently, and the Elders all seemed to think Mike was there because eight-foot-tall amaxos must need to have eight-foot-tall sculpted fuck-buddies on tap, or something. One of the female elders recognized Mike from the Denny’s and, observing that he looked different than usual, asked him if he had cut his hair. She might have been joking—they’d actually made Mike’s wavy blond hair a lot longer when they’d sized him up, and she did seem to have the ghost of smile—but Gerardo wasn’t quite sure, and he sensed Mike wasn’t either.
Ohkwáho remained as a blue-gray wolf, having no human form now to return to; but in his case the Elders could sense exactly who and what he was, and he was given all the hugs and nuzzles a lonely but beloved ancestor could ever want. After a while they were joined by Armin, who’d followed the path of devastation to check on them all and make sure everyone was okay; with him came LeBeau, Koenig, and a goateed wolf shifter named Jerome whom Gerardo remembered having seen around but didn’t know well. His buddy, a semi-notorious, bad-tempered stoner named Orem, was sleeping off an encounter with tranq darts, it seemed. LeBeau, more chatty than the blank-faced Armin, moved easily through the crowd, telling the story of the encounter at the barricade to anyone who would listen. Soon more stories were being told, of the smack-down in the dell, Lucas’s captivity and the summoning of the beast, Aaron’s appeal to Ohkwáho, how Bandit had warned the other Elders of the coming battle, children caught fighting over whether amaxos were demons or good guys, and so on.
Amidst the happy burble Gerardo, Victor, Owen, and Mike found themselves in a little knot together, arms around each other’s shoulders. They were dirty and tired, but alive, strong, and smiling, together at the end.
Owen looked between them, eyes glinting. “So… pancakes first, or fucking?” he asked with a wide grin.
“Pancakes!” Mike, Gerardo, and Victor said together, as if there could be no question, and they all chuckled.
“Pancakes,” Owen agreed, and they all walked off arm in arm, leaving the other wolves to weave the strange new legends that would one day be passed down to future generations of wolf shifters in all the lands around, of the coming of the amaxo and his naked wrath—or, at least, that was how Gerardo hoped the legends would be told.
“Sure you don’t want to come with?” Gerardo was asking the red-bearded Lucas, one Herculean arm resting out the open passenger window of the finally reclaimed bottle-green Accord. He was beaming up at the young-looking Elder, his playful wink unmistakable despite the blue-tinted shades he was wearing. Geez, did this boy ever stop?
Not that Mike, packed into the back seat behind him, wasn’t feeling more randy than he knew what to do with. Last night with the three shifter-amaxos should have exhausted him, but instead he felt primed, like he’d watched the opening credits and now he was ready for the actual show. Fuck, just looking up front at the two brothers, their bulging bare shoulders looking twice as wide as any normal, reasonably fit young man, even their delts and traps dusted with dark, touch-inviting body hair—just that prospect alone made him want to spring a boner, and only the control the guys had taught him over his own body kept him from springing the massive wood he definitely could be right now. That, and the need not to destroy the minuscule red shorts that were now, apparently, his uniform and the only clothing the brothers would ever let him wear ever again. They’d have to revisit that at some point, but he was going with it for now. Truth was, the idea turned him on almost as much as it did the brothers.
Not that, as noted, he was having trouble finding things to turn him on lately. He looked out his open widow at Lucas and noted that even he looked like a horny gay teen’s wet dream to him right now, with that blackish-green tee shirt clinging to his athletically defined torso, and those snug pants showing off his—okay, hang on a minute. Elder Lucas had not looked this much like a hard-and-hairy ginger gymnast dad before, and he was pretty sure the guy hadn’t been a rangy 6 and a half footer, either. Fuck, being this horny was going to be hard enough (so to speak) without the three shifters growing and hottifying all the guys they met from here to Timbuktu.
He looked past the Hunk Elder to Aaron and Caleb, holding hands as ever behind him, and fuck, they were even taller, and so perfectly, beautifully built Mike almost conjured a little whirlwind just to pull their clothes off them. They looked like they were having the same problem as Mike, too—fresh from lots of sex that only made them hungry for more. Heck, if that boner Caleb’s overalls weren’t doing a very good job of hiding got any bigger it was going to pop out and say hello any minute.
Lucas was giving Gerardo an indulgent smile. “I got work to do here,” he answered easily. “Got these two Elders-elect to train, for one,” he added blandly, jerking a thumb behind him.
“What?” Aaron said, startled.
“He’s joshing,” Caleb assured him. Then, to Lucas: “You’re joshing, right, Luke?”
“See? Lot of work to do,” Lucas said to Gerardo, completely deadpan.
Gerardo was nodding. “Uh huh, I bet,” he said, grinning.
There was too much of a sex undertow going on between Gerardo and the trio outside the car, but when Mike forced himself to look away his eyes instead caught on Victor’s smoldering gaze in the rear-view mirror, and that was no better. Mike’s history was with Gerardo, but last night, when Victor had been slowly, teasingly sucking Mike’s too-big cock (it really was ridiculously larger now, and they kept making it bigger—seriously, guys?) while Owen drilled Lucas so deep and wide he felt like he was a goddamned tight-assed virgin again after a hundred and forty years, all as Gerardo fucked his brother while his eyes stayed riveted on Victor’s mouthplay on Mike’s gargantuan cock… well, Mike was pretty sure Victor had developed a low-grade addiction to Mike’s monster boner and how it tasted in his mouth last night, and from the look he saw now in the serious older brother’s eyes Mike could tell Victor was going to make sure he had his lips around Mike’s dick again as soon as humanly (or amaxoly) possible.
Mike shivered and closed his eyes, literally begging his cock not to stiffen instantly to full mast. It strained at his urgings, and Mike was sure it would’ve whined if it could, but in the end and after a considerable expenditure of effort it dutifully stayed at half-chubbed.
He drew in a breath, refocusing himself, and found again he was not quite alone with his feelings. Now that he was “pack” he was starting to pick up on the emotions of the other three through their shared connection with Owen. It wasn’t anything like what he’d feel if he were a real shifter, but he knew that was amusement coming off Victor, mixed in with the arousal and desire that flooded off all three of them twenty-four/seven. “Fuck you, Vic,” he said in a low growl, his eyes still closed.
Victor laughed softly. “We’ll see,” he teased. “I think O wants another go first.”
Almost involuntarily, Mike opened one eye and looked out the other window to where Owen stood astride his beloved Ducati once again. He didn’t look quite as silly as Mike had, riding into battle on his tiny-looking Kawasaki two days before. The three amaxo had… done something with all their sizes. He and Owen were still normally eight feet tall—Mike was actually a couple inches taller than Owen now—and the brothers had been bumped up to just over seven and a half for now, reinforcing the sense of the four of them as a unit. Whenever one of them got in a car or Owen climbed on his bike, though, they shrank just enough to make it work. Right now, if he had to guess, he and the brothers were seven feet max, maybe less; the brothers’ widths were doing more to fill the car at this point than their heights. Then, the moment Mike got out of the car he’d pop right back up to eight feet and change.
It was fucking weird. Hot, and weird. And that was saying something. As the son of a pagan weather god, he’d seen weird. Or at least, he thought he had.
Even sized down a peg or two for transport, Owen looked almost literally mesmerizing, from his beautiful, bearded face to his furry boulder pecs and tight, stone-carved abs to his bull-strong, thick-sculpted legs. As a sop to the mixing with the ordinary public he’d borrowed a pair of gray sweats that Lucas had found for him in the rubble of his half-destroyed house. They fit him like capri pants, riding halfway up his calves and doing as little to hide his junk as Mike’s shorts did on him, but Owen made it work.
He opened his eyes fully to better drink in Owen, the sight of him hitting Mike hard despite the imperfect view he had through the driver’s side windows. Owen looked utterly relaxed and genuinely happy, a fact that Mike found oddly grounding. The bear shifter/amaxo had found himself at last, and the joy he got from being what he was came not the indulgence of power, or even all the inhumanly great sex, but the simple serenity of a man in full possession of his own identity. This impromptu trip to the so-called “shifter homeland” Gerardo had dreamed about up in the wilds of western Québec—deep, forgotten woods where none but shifters had ever trod before—was a new quest, a next adventure; but Owen had nothing left to prove, to himself or anyone else, and the strength that that gave him as a man made Mike love him, just a little.
As if sensing Mike’s thoughts—or, more likely, Victor’s more salacious ones—Owen bent to look right at him through his smoke-tinted Wayfarers with a wide, lascivious grin. Mike felt a pull on his fattening cock and gasped. “Damn it!” he burst out without thinking. “Can’t you three leave my dick alone for five minutes?”
The shifters all laughed, and Mike, realizing what he’d said, buried his face in his hands.
“I think it means they like you,” Lucas said sagely. Mike glanced up at him, noting that he looked a little flushed himself.
“Yeah, well, I’ll find a way to get ’em back,” he said. “Take good care of my house, okay? It’s yours for as long as you want it, like I said, but you might find it has a few… oddities.”
“Oddities,” Lucas repeated flatly, one eyebrow quirked.
“You’ll see. Oh, and if my dad shows up,” Mike added dryly, “tell him I’ll look him up in a century or so.”
Lucas just nodded as Victor turned the ignition on the Accord, and Owen started up the Ducati. Over the purr of the bike Lucas said, “You kids take care tow. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”
The shifters smiled back him in a way that Mike couldn’t help but think of as “wolfish”. “Back atcha,” Gerardo teased with a wink at Lucas’s young apprentices. Lucas waved him off and the three stepped back as Victor reversed out of the spot into the grassy, overturned field, arcing back toward the damaged house, then shifted into drive and pulled out across the clearing toward the road. Owen made a tight arc on his bike and drew up beside them, and together they headed for the world beyond their little shifter valley.
Mike settled into his seat, ready to enjoy the ride. After revealing himself it felt right to get away and let people around these parts forget about him, not that anyone had really noticed him even when he was fucking Zeusing that hell beast terror into a bit of charged sludge for the dog to carry off. The truth was he needed to get away and see the world. More than that, he needed to be with Owen, Gerardo, and Victor. And he was starting to suspect that that was a feeling that wasn’t ever going to go away.