Fox’s nerves were frayed tight hours after being safe back at the Academy. The pain throbbing through his body might have something to do with it. Dr. Rob was hopeful about his ears but apparently the slashes from Malek’s claws were another story. Poison, of course. Everything about that demon seemed to sink in and destroy even once he was gone. Justin was still unconscious, and the wound on his chest was far more complicated than first thought. Leo was injured so badly he was currently stuck in his lion form. As for Forest, well, although he was physically unharmed, he was an absolute mess on a level Fox didn’t even know how to help him with.
Plus, there was the screaming.
The small hospital side room was warded to keep sound from escaping but it did nothing to stop the vibrations from shaking through the door and wall. If there was anything left on the other side of the door where Vincent was being kept, he doubted it would last for long.
Fox sat on Justin’s bed instead of the one put aside for him. Dr. Rob wanted to spell him to sleep but he refused. It might help him heal faster but he wanted to be awake. He wanted to make sure he didn’t lose any friends the moment his eyes closed.
All the patients were huddled around Justin and Leo’s individual hospital beds. Will and Christopher had brought Dante to the hospital the moment they heard who was injured. Dante was huddle at the foot of Leo’s bed, his eyes downcast as he watched the bandaged lion’s chest rise and fall. Wylie stood next to him offering silent support. Dorian was on a bed next to them all, separated by choice. His head was ducked and breath full of controlled sighs to keep from needing a null-collar for his power.
The atmosphere was unsettling; a heavy storm of worry, fear, agitation and dread flowed through the group of patients while Dr. Rob and the other masters stepped back and forth around them. Mr. McPherson dropped in long enough to see how everyone was before he left to call Leo and Justin’s families. Dr. Rob was currently mixing a potion for Justin in his office now everyone who needed bandaging was wrapped up. The silence stretched without the adults, interrupted only by Fox’s unconscious hisses of pain and the strained breathing of Justin and Leo on their hospital beds. There didn’t seem to be much worth saying; it was either voice the worry and fear, or let it hover above.
“He’s going to be fine,” Forest whispered hollowly to himself. His eyes were fixed unblinking on Justin’s too pale face. Justin looked lost among the colorful poultices. Most were centered on the brutal magical burns on his chest which refused to heal. Fox was sporting a similar mixture of magenta pink smeared down his left arm and side. His thin hospital gown was already stained with the poison absorbing potion.
Fox could scent the guilt rolling off of Forest. It didn’t matter what he said to try and make him feel better, Forest didn’t want to hear him. It was probably going to take Justin being awake and forgiving him personally for Forest to realize it really wasn’t his fault any of this happened.
Another vibration came from Vincent’s room and they all stilled with heads ducked down.
“So, what happened?” Jake asked Dorian quietly. Jake and Antonio arrived only after Master Thane found them hovering at the entrance of the alley. They held back, half afraid to get in trouble for wandering off. They didn’t even know anyone was hurt until they were through the portal into the Academy and realized everyone else was in the hospital.
Dorian continued to glare solemnly at his bent knees so Fox spoke up. “They were hunters. I think for slaving. They caught Raider in some sort of trap and we went looking for him. When we found him, well, shit got real super fast.”
Usually he loved to tell stories. Usually he was the one who couldn’t wait to exaggerate and relive and make everything seem better by being amazing. This time he didn’t have it in him. There were too many consequences and he wasn’t sure if they were going to disappear in a wave of magic like before. Every time Fox thought back, he just wished none of that messed up fight even happened.
“One was a shifter. The fucker was an actual shifter,” Forest snarled in disbelief. The noise sounded half a sob once it was out. “He tried to recruit Leo. You know, like to see if he’d turn on his us like that stupid ox shifter turned on his own.”
“It was probably easier for him,” Fox muttered after a moment. “To know Leo wouldn’t be hurt if he agreed. Those guys were going to kill all of us.”
Forest just hissed. Anger was bright in his eyes, only enhanced by the shine of tears. “Fuck. Fuck them all. Frost should have killed the fuckers.”
Fox silently agreed. He sought out Justin’s hand and twined his fingers with his motionless digits. It would have been a lot easier to deal with his friends being hurt if he knew those evil fuckers weren’t out there hunting down shifters.
The quiet of the hospital room was shattered when Michael pushed through the door that led to the hallway. He was talking loudly into a phone, his face pinched in worry. He quickly pulled the cellphone from his ear and covered it with his hand as he looked at the group. “Guys, any tattoos or uniforms? Is there anything at all that might have distinguished them as part of a group?”
Fox and Forest exchanged glances; Forest’s yellow eyes were haunted and Fox knew he wasn’t going to say anything even if he did remember something. “They were dressed alike, you know, like they had money,” Fox said. “The demon was definitely running the show. And they… well, they offered Leo a job, so someone was actually paying them. But they never gave a name of their master or anything, so…” he shrugged, uncertain. Raider didn’t seem to have anything to add; he was hunched so far into the chair at the edge of the group, Fox was pretty sure he was trying to hide.
Michael’s eyes hardened for a moment when he realized there was no information to be had. He went to sweep out of the room, only to be stopped by Dorian’s voice.
“The demon shifter. The runes used to bind him will reflect the sorcerer’s style.” Dorian raised his head and met Michael’s waiting gaze. “You know how this goes. Demons are damn rare and this one is being bound by ancient means. There won’t be many sorcerers out there with the capability.”
“It’s not something anyone is gong to announce, though,” Antonio added, his expression grim. “I mean, really, anyone who has a demon isn’t going to tell a soul, not even their family. Demon slaving is so dangerous and totally illegal.”
Michael nodded in agreement but his expression lightened slightly. “Yes, but Dorian has a good point. If we can get some spell samples of local magic users, we might find the one who cast those runes.” He turned back to his phone, speaking excitedly to the person on the other end. The glass door to the hallway swung shut as Michael slipped outside again.
“If they’re even local.” Forest’s voice was soft and full of defeat. “It was a city hub. For all we know, they were passing through. They could do it every day; target what they can find and run immediately after.”
“Fuck. Do you think they already caught a shifter today?” Fox sat up on the mattress. Now the idea trickled into his mind, he couldn’t shake it. What if they weren’t the first that day? What if some shifter was captured by those psychos only minutes before they came after them? What if they were out there, terrified and…
“Don’t,” Forest whimpered. He buried his face against Justin’s side. “Don’t make me wonder if there are more. That we failed someone else. God.”
Fox stilled and stared down at Forest’s hunched form. It felt like every word was capable of breaking him right now. He reached out and gently rubbed his slumped shoulder, grateful when Forest didn’t pull away.
Raider, unfortunately, thought it was time to add his perspective on things. “If so, any shifter would have been screwed if Frost killed those guys. For all you know, they could have been tied up and left to starve or some shit. And really, if Frost did kill them, what would have kept him from killing all of us right after?”
Again. Again, right back to this fucked up topic. Fox bristled but tried to breathe out calmly. He was fucked up; he knew Raider was fucked up. Still, he just couldn’t let it slide. This was the same shit said about shifters that got them all tagged and registered, and had people looking to kill them. Just in case the fears were true.
“How did they catch you?” Fox turned his head and met his gaze, only to have Raider look away. “You had something in your hand. Did they come after you or did you just chase after some useless, shiny trinket.” His voice raised by the end, his words full of anger. All Raider did was blame everyone else while he never wondered how he contributed to the fucking messes he ended up in.
“It was made for a dragon,” Raider said defensively. “It was made to capture someone like Doe who’s used to fighting the shiny pull.”
“Yeah, but you’re the one who go caught.” Forest didn’t bother to look up, his voice strangely hollow. “There was no scent, no sign of those guys at the store or on that street. There was nothing to make us suspect they were there. The only clue we had was your scent leading down that alley.”
Raider pursed his lips nervously. “What are you saying? That I intentionally led you into a trap?”
Forest shook his head. “I’m not saying shit. I just want to know how it went down. What were you doing wandering from the pack when you’re so scared of everything? It’s weird.”
Raider huffed and glanced to where Wylie was standing. His hand came up and he ran fingers roughly through his short, dark hair. “I wasn’t wandering, I just, I didn’t want to go into that butcher with all the dead animals. It’s not a fucking crime. The sorcerers left, so why couldn’t I just walk down the street?”
“Were you running again?” Fox asked bluntly, a dark spark in his eyes. “Were you hoping to find some fucking hole to hide in until we all went back to the Academy and left you there?”
Raider stood abruptly from his chair, his teeth and fists clenched tight. “No, I was too fucking scared to run, not that it’s any of your business. I don’t know what happened. The moment I saw the damn shiny thing, everything else blacked out. At least when I lose my shit I don’t have to worry about murdering everyone like your psycho boyfriend!”
“Fucker!” Fox didn’t feel the pain of his wounds as he bounded up with claws and fangs extended aggressively. Raider held his ground, his face red with anger.
“Stop it,” Dorian snapped. Raider and Fox were flung back into their previous seats and an invisible pressure held them in place. He gave them a hard, long stare, then waved his hand. The magic abated but their tempers didn’t.
“All you fucking predators do is kill. You do it so much, you don’t know how to handle a normal situation. You just think everything leads to killing.” Raider gripped the arms of his chair tight, too pissed off to be afraid of the obvious magic used against him. His entire focus was on Fox, who looked moments from leaping across the room again. “So why the fuck would Frost be any different? How many people has he killed where he can walk into that alley and not even fucking hesitate? You know I’m right. You know he’s just as bad as the monsters who were trying to kill you.”
Fox snarled warningly. “If all we do is kill, you fucking moron, then why the hell are you still alive! With a mouth like yours, any predator with a fucking brain would have snapped your neck just to shut you up!”
Wylie sighed heavily and ran his palm down his face. “Guys, if you’re going to do this, do it elsewhere.”
Raider turned his glare Wylie’s way. “Why, so you can hide it all? Pretend you aren’t all killing every day in this place?”
“For fuck—because two of my pack are wounded from saving your damn life,” Wylie snarled back. “And all you want to do is bitch about the guy who saved you.”
Raider’s expression turned furious. “He didn’t!”
“Yes, he fucking did.” Dorian looked far calmer than the rest of them but it was clear this particular topic of conversation was wearing on his nerves. “You see the wounds on your pack? You see the bruises and slashes all over Fox? Do you not realize they’d be dead right now if we hadn’t shown up?
Dorian shook his head and exhaled in frustration when Raider just glared back defiantly. “You want to complain about predator instinct or whatever; what the hell do you think it takes to stop a predator who has no conscience and just kills for the fuck of it? You need warriors who aren’t afraid to get hurt so people like you, people who are afraid, can keep living their naive lives thinking they have a choice. If your pack died, if Vincent failed, if Theo didn’t show and no one was able to stop those sick fucks, you would know exactly how little a choice you have when you’re not willing to fight back for your right to live.”
Dorian tugged at his bangs in agitation, his mouth twisted in a grim frown. Dante was quick to come up beside him and sit on the bed. “You have to fight,” Dante said quietly. “Even if you lose, at least you lost by your terms.”
Raider just scowled, his eyes glued to the floor, hands twisted in his hair. “That doesn’t make it okay.”
Dr. Rob’s office door swung open and the man popped his head into the room for a moment. Everyone immediately fell silent as his calming voice filled the room. “Guys, can we keep things quiet, please? Rest is very important for healing.”
“I’m leaving.” Raider pushed himself up from the chair. “If you want to justify murdering people when you know how fucking much it sucks to die, have at it. I know it’s still wrong.”
“It’s nice to have the privilege to make that choice when you’re alive,” Wylie said flatly. “Will you be calling Justin and Leo murderers if they ever wake up? Or is that just reserved for the sorcerers you obviously hate so much?”
Raider paused mid stride but didn’t say anything. He left in silence, his glare molten.
“Fuck him,” Fox muttered as he grasped his wounded side. “The motherfucking ass is always causing trouble. He’d say the sky is purple just to piss people off. Like anyone gives a fuck about the life of those assholes when for all we know those freaks have a room full of shifters they’re selling for parts?”
“He’s scared,” Will said soothingly. “For someone like Raider, who can’t walk down a street without feeling like a victim, it’s very easy to be angry at everything. Give him time to calm down. Justin and Leo need rest. You do too, Fox,” he added with a worried look.
Fox growled dismissively. He was tired of having to bend all of his emotions to Raider’s bitchy moods. He was tired of having to hear his friends and pack were a bunch of murderers just because they ate meat. Raider literally condemned them for protecting him to the death when the stupid raccoon was terrified of dying. The guy was insane. Raider was so irrational, it was exhausting.
Fox lay back on the bed with his arms raised about his head so he wouldn’t jostle Justin. He tried to calm his racing heart, anger still hot in his veins. With a shake of his head, he turned only to find Forest trying to hide his tears as he clutched to Justin. Fuck, another casualty Raider would never see because he was too fucking busy judging everyone. Fox reached his hand out and took Forest’s shaking one. He sighed when Forest whimpered and buried his face tighter to Justin’s shoulder.
Minutes passed, first awkward because no one knew what to say and Forest was definitely crying. Eventually the silence filled with softly spoken words. A door handle clicked and Fox jolted upright when Vincent’s door swung open. He met Master Theodore’s gaze, who deliberately shut the door behind him and used his body to block everyone’s view.
“He’s resting. Something I would hope all of you will do soon,” Theodore added with a pointed look to the group. “Dinner is ready in the lounge.”
“There’s no way I can eat,” Forest mumbled.
“Possibly, but I want you to try. Even if it’s just water.” Theodore looked to them all and his gaze lingered on Leo and Justin. His expression grew tired. “They’re going to take some time to heal. The demon shifter used magic in his physical attacks and it’s making the would healing difficult.”
“But they’re going to be okay, right?” Wylie asked.
Theodore nodded sharply. “We believe so. But they need rest.”
Fox, Forest, and Wylie exchanged glances; the determination in Theodore’s voice wasn’t lost on them.
“They’re pack,” Wylie finally said as he faced the master sorcerer. “They didn’t abandon anyone and we’re not going to abandon them.”
Theodore seemed understanding but also unwilling to budge. “I hardly think they’re going to feel abandoned if you go get some fresh air and put some food in your stomachs. You can always come back tonight and sleep on the cots if you insist.” His gaze turned to Fox and his violet eyes hardened. “Has Dr. Rob stressed how you shouldn’t be doing anything strenuous until your wounds fully heal? Being on your feet doesn’t mean you’re not moments from dropping.”
“Got it.” Fox brushed off his concern with a shrug. Knowing Theodore, the guy knew he was up and fighting with Raider minutes ago. “How is he?” he asked as he nodded toward Vincent’s door.
“Emotionally overwhelmed,” Theodore said simply. He walked toward the exit but paused as he opened the door out into the hallway. His expression was unreadable as he looked at Fox. “I think he might be open to company a little later. I’ll speak to Rob about it.”
Fox watched him leave. Did Vincent want to see him? Or did Theodore just think it might be good for him? He didn’t really care; he wanted to see Vincent. It was bullshit he was locked in a room all on his own when he was clearly suffering. Fox leaned back on the bed and Forest’s hand immediately sought his out again.
Vincent did everything right and he was tortured for it. There were no more vibrations of screaming but Vincent was rarely one for emotional displays. No, he ate his emotions, drowned in them like an internal wound that refused to heal. And still, Vincent tried. No matter how hard things got, Vincent never blamed, never diverted, he just kept pushing and trying. Fox wanted to be strong like that. He needed to ignore the shit Raider said and be strong the way Vincent was so he could help the people who needed him.
You know, just not go crazy at the same fucking time.
Fox’s heart twisted every time he remembered how Vincent’s eyes looked; they went from being full of determination and fire to have it all snuffed out in an instant. Before that, it was like he could finally see into the real Vincent. Someone who knew who he was, who wielded power just as easily as he did breath. Vince was a warrior, a protector. He came to life to save those who needed him. When he failed… like the way he failed that shifter in the past. When he failed, it was like Vincent disappeared inside himself and left only an echo of his real fire.
Fox sighed softly and covered his eyes with his free arm. Even now Vincent was locked away. No pack, no one to thank him or help him. At least Master Theodore was allowed to be there for him. Fox kinda assumed Dr. Rob or even Michael would be the one to go to Vincent, but no. When they first heard those crashes of desperation from the other side of the door, Master Theodore went to him readily with a null-collar wrapped around his neck.
It was a reminder how the masters at the Academy didn’t care if someone was a shifter or sorcerer or anything in between. They just cared. Every time Raider said shit, Fox needed to remember that. Raider’s perspective wasn’t reality. The masters cared. Everyone in this room cared that Justin and Leo were hurt.
“Are you sure he was a demon?” Wylie sat with Dorian on the hospital cot. Dante was curled up next to him so he could see Leo and Justin from his perch. “I didn’t think demons could shift. Well, at least, McPherson told me there was no such thing as a shifter who turned into a demon.”
Dorian, usually prone to sparks, was sullen as Wylie waited patiently for an answer. “He was a demon. One able to shapeshift… well, he should have been able to. Shifters can’t turn into demons but some demons can turn into animals.” Dorian’s expression grew stormy. “The thing is, I don’t think he could even do that. Vincent had him between spikes and if he could have gone small, he would have to escape. Fuck.”
Wylie sat back as Dorian suddenly stood. Dorian’s eyes were haunted and he started to pace the length of the bed. “If you had seen his face. When those runes went down from Theo’s spell… Fuck, I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Wylie gently grabbed Dorian’s arm and pulled him close. “Ri, it’s okay.”
“It’s not,” Dorian whispered harshly. “There is nothing okay about any of it. It could have been Dante.” He looked away as he fought tears. “I saw that trapped fucker and all I could think about was what might have happened if you hadn’t rescued D. No one would have known he was in that crate. No one even cared he was gone from his home. No one would have saved him if not for you, Wylie. He could have been used to kill, or steal, or anything terrible until one day someone stronger would finally fight back and kill him. Fuck, and they would be justified for it. He could have been a slave until he died and… fuck. It’s fucking shit to even think about.”
Fox huffed from his spot on Justin’s bed. He leaned on his arm to look over to where Wylie was holding Dorian’s hands. “What, so now you feel sorry for the guy who was trying to kill us?”
“I can give a fuck about another living being and still want us all to live,” Dorian snapped, but his voice was far from biting. “Didn’t you see his expression when Theo cast that spell? That demon was terrified. He begged when he realized the runes were going to turn back on. It was completely fucked up.”
It was, but Fox didn’t want to think about it. Out of all the people who could have died in that alley, he knew his choice.
“I don’t understand why he didn’t just kill you,” Forest muttered, his eyes downcast. “He was a demon. He probably could have killed us all easily. But he didn’t.”
“It’s because he was bound,” Christopher spoke up. The incubus was sitting away from the group to make sure his powers didn’t effect anyone’s healing. “When a sorcerer binds a demon’s power to him, he cripples many of the demon’s abilities.”
“Sorry, Chris.” Forest raised his head to look his way. “We didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It’s what happens.” Christopher’s expression was calm and his red eyes steady. “I’m not offended. Pretending these things don’t happen only allows them to continue.
Fox slowly sat up and sighed. He liked Chris and he didn’t want to be an asshole about demons just because one tried to kill them all. “Okay then. Why would a sorcerer cripple the power of a demon if he wanted to use that power?
Christopher raised a blue-tinted eyebrow. “It’s an unintended side effect. It’s very difficult to keep someone under another’s power without breaking him on some level.”
“Many masters use collars to keep a captured demon’s power from reducing, but the collars are much easier to break free from.” Dorian looked back at Fox to explain. “The runes are an older magic used on the most strong-willed of demons. That cat demon has been fighting from the beginning and was still fighting when Theodore set him free for that minute. You could tell every time the runes pulsed red. He doesn’t want to be trapped doing those things and when things got bad, he fought it even harder.”
Forest pushed up on his arms, his hands buried in his hair. “You’re telling me he’s enslaved? Like someone is literally taking over his body and mind? Fuck, this is all so crazy.”
“Yeah. Killing him would have harmed the sorcerer who controlled him,” Dorian added quietly. “Vincent knew. It might have even killed the master given the way he bonded to the demon. If Master Theo had been able to get a lock on the sorcerer while the demon was momentarily free, he might have been able to save him.”
Forest couldn’t seem to find the words. Fox watched, eyes narrowed, when his friend teased his hand behind him for a moment. He knew he still had Malek’s feather. It wasn’t good. Whatever hold the demon had on Forest should have left the moment he was out of sight and scent.
Dorian turned back to Wylie, their foreheads pressed together. “It’s hard to know if another chance like that can happen. Sorcerers who don’t want to be found rarely are. Not when they can control a being as powerful as a demon shifter.”
Agitation was brimming through Fox, a feeling he recognized all too well in Forest’s eyes. They were so busy thinking about stolen shifters, they failed to see the ones kidnapping them were just as victimized. Malek told him to run. Repeatedly. Instead of attacking, he told them to run away. It was hard to know how to feel. Hard to know who to be angry at.
No, that wasn’t fully true.
Fox was angry at the sorcerer who was pulling the strings. The one none of them saw but was the reason demons, shifters, and sorcerers were out there determined to capture a dragon and any other type of shifter who could be sold. There was a magic user out there who enslaved a demon and then used it to slave others. Who convinced an ox shifter to join his ranks of his own free will because it was better than being an unwilling slave.
It was very easy to want to hunt and destroy a monster like that. Given the glares around the room, he wasn’t the only one who thought so.
Dorian kept a sharp eye on Vincent while they were in the shop. Thankfully Tidal proved to be free of anything concerning, to the point he wasn’t even sure they would have what Jake needed. It was one of those new age magic shops. He assumed it would all be useless crap but apparently ‘new age’ was reappropriated to help take the dark taint out of what magic used to stand for.
Dorian hadn’t willingly been in a magic shop for years. The last time, he was with his grandfather and bored out of his mind. If he was honest, he kind of found a lot of things about magic boring. Old spells, old ingredients, old traditions and tons of bullshit. It was why he avoided these places like the plague. It was also why he found himself more than a little curious as he looked around. This was not the magic shops he’d grown up in. There was fun stuff here, ridiculous stuff, and maybe a few things that were actually functional while also not ancient as dirt.
He was impressed with the variety of herbs Tidal offered and that they used proper storage. They seemed to have everything; if Tidal ever gave up on magic they could totally run a seasoning company or something. If not that, maybe a quarry. Dorian had never seen so many different types of rocks in one place. He knew the use for some of them but it wasn’t one of those subjects he actually cared about enough to study. Antonio seemed thrilled with the larger pieces and had calmed a lot since they came in.
Dorian gave the crystals a cursory look and wondered if he could find something protective for Wylie. Wylie wasn’t into jewelry but he might keep something in his pocket if he convinced him to.
Dorian always got nervous when they were in the city. He knew Michael was with Wylie, he knew it wasn’t like those asshole gangsters would ever dare walk into a police station to fuck with him. Still, he couldn’t help but worry when Wylie was away. Outside of the Academy, the world felt so unsure and he hated it. He hated feeling dependant on a building, on all the people and the feeling of stability they created. Before the Academy, it had been his parents and his grandfather’s wealth and prestige. Now… now that Wylie had given him a taste of freedom, Dorian couldn’t help but fear it could be taken away.
He sighed heavily and drifted to display of wall ornaments meant to be hung. He paused when his gaze lit on a hand carved motif of a dragon, accented with whorls and flowers. He reached for it and ran his finger along the wooden edge, following each bump and groove.
“Don’t waste your money,” Vincent said from behind him.
“Why?” The design was beautiful and fierce. The intricate dragon made Dorian think of Wylie; a mix of peace and protectiveness. It was carved from a lightweight wood and stained a deep red. It would look nice on Wylie’s wall and mean something extra special if he imbued it with a spell.
“It’s fake.” Vincent came up beside him and ran his thumb along the serpentine tail. He pulled his hand back and held the digit up for Dorian to see. “No lacquer. It needs blood for it to work.”
Dorian started. “Blood?”
“Dragon blood.” Vincent’s eyes cut into his. “I thought you were morally against this. Do you really want to bring something back to the Academy meant to be coated in dragon blood?”
Dorian reared back from the carving as if burned. “Fucker.” He whirled on Vincent with a scowl. “Why do you know so much about this shit?”
Vincent scoffed and glanced away. “Why don’t you? I thought you were apprenticing with your grandfather. The old ones all know about this stuff.”
“I guess my grandfather was different than yours,” Dorian shot back. He glared at the ornate carving as his mind spun. He never would have assumed it was made for dragon’s blood, but now he thought about it, it did remind him of a drawing he saw in one of his grandfather’s old books.
“He wasn’t my grandfather,” Vincent said after a pause. “I have no family.”
Dorian clicked his mouth shut to stop from making another angry retort. He looked Vincent’s way and noticed how tight he was holding his shoulders. “Sorry. I didn’t know.”
Vincent shrugged. He appeared unaffected as he pointed to a small mirror with whorls carved into its wooden frame. “That would be a better choice.”
“What?” Dorian lifted his head and turned to look.
“For Doe. The protection spell is weaved into the glass with sunlight.” Vincent’s expression was wry. “Considering who your boyfriend is rooming with, he could probably use all the protection he can get.”
Dorian nodded silently and pretended to study the mirror. Out of the corner of his eye he watched as Vincent shrewdly took in the instruments and novelties around them with obvious knowledge. He scoffed at anything fake or that lacked the illegal means needed to make them potent for the spells they were created for. That those illegal means were usually the magic-soaked organs of shifters didn’t seem to bother Vincent much.
Dorian looked at his reflection in the mirror where his hazel eyes glared back. Vincent Frost was brilliant, a library of knowledge when it came to magic, and it was a wonder he was at the Academy. Any master with a brain would never let him live around shifters and grow a heart.
How had Vincent come to the Academy? He never talked about himself. Lately, he didn’t talk at all outside of yelling at Fox or answering the instructor’s questions in class. On the rare occasion Vincent did talk to the other patients, it was void of all his usual hateful shit that pushed everyone away.
Dorian still couldn’t understand what Vincent was doing in the last store. He had seemed half possessed with his need to buy the one fucking item he shouldn’t have ever wanted. The weird thing was, when he thought back to it, Vincent hadn’t fought him to destroy the item. Besides being pissed off from having it pulled from his hand, he hadn’t even looked upset. It didn’t make sense.
A lot about Vincent didn’t make sense.
Dorian turned to a shelf full of decorative, blank notebooks and let his fingers sift through the spines. “You thinking of getting anything?” he asked when Vincent paused a few feet away.
Vincent glanced his way and shook his head. “I don’t need anything.”
“And Fox?” Dorian raised an eyebrow.
Vincent’s expression grew stormy. He tossed his head back and his hair fanned around him in a sleek wave. “Why would I buy anything for that flea bag?”
If Vincent had a heart, Dorian was pretty sure it gave an extra beat when Fox was around, even if it was in violent protest. “Oh, I don’t know,” he drawled smoothly. “Maybe because most guys like it when they know you’re thinking about them.”
“I’m not thinking about him.” Vincent looked determined to convince the world. “I don’t ever think of him. Why would I think about that idiot?”
Dorian bit back a grin. Fuck, but it was too easy. It was funny enough to watch Fox rile Vincent up. Apparently just talking about the fox shifter had the same effect. He glanced Vincent’s way again before adding casually, “It’ll be weird when Fox gets you something and you don’t have anything to give back.”
“Get me?” Vincent froze and his brows drew down in thought. “Ridiculous.” His eyes were full of something new when he looked around the spacious shop again. After a long minute, he turned back to Dorian. “He wouldn’t like anything here.”
Dorian exhaled slowly to keep from shouting anything along the lines of ‘I knew it!’ Vincent still hadn’t actually admitted to liking Fox no matter all the fucking obvious signs he gave off. Dorian kept his voice cool as he asked, “How do you know he won’t like anything?”
“Because he’s a shifter and they hate anything to do with Applied Magic.” Vincent thought a moment and added in afterthought, “And he’s accident prone. He’d explode anything I gave him, the idiot.”
Dorian was pretty sure Fox would find a way to explode air if Vincent was around to be caught in the mess. The guy had a problem and it was connected to his dick more than anything to do with controlling his magic. “You can always get him food.”
Vincent glanced to the side and paused as he took in a display of colorful nail polish. The sign claimed each one was imbued with a different spell. Vincent peered closer and picked up a deep, vibrant blue.
Dorian smirked when he saw. “What, they have something there to make a person mute?”
“Clarity and focus,” Vincent whispered. He picked up a bottle of black that was supposed to protect against negativity and held it up to eye level. There were small little bits of glitter that caught the light as he stared.
“The blue looks good. Totally Fox’s color.” Dorian was trying really hard not to snicker. Vincent looked absolutely fascinated with the nail polish. There was no way Fox would say no. If Vincent gave him a gift, he would coat himself in the fucking thing to prove his gratitude.
Vincent looked at the blue nail polish again and a frown twisted his lips. “The spells are fake. There’s no magic in these bottles.”
“You can enchant it yourself,” Dorian said quickly. “Or.” He held his hand out expectantly and Vincent went to hand him the bottle. In a swift move, Dorian grabbed his wrist and spelled Vincent’s fingernails black. “It’s an easy glamor. I used to do it all the time with my friends.”
Vincent pulled his hand free and stared at his nails. “You have friends?”
“Had,” Dorian replied flatly. “Magic users fuck that shit up pretty quick.” He scowled to himself as he spelled his own nails black. Sorcerers were terrible friends on the best of days. At least, he was when he was younger. He wasn’t even sure how he would go about being a friend now. If not for Wylie and Dante, he’d still be avoiding everyone at the Academy. Sure, he wasn’t mean to people or anything… well, unless they pissed him off.
Dorian sighed. When he wiggled his fingers, his fingernails turned purple. Each time he flexed a finger, the nail changed color, one white, another red, a florescent green and a glittering gold. Vincent watched the display intently, his focus on the flow of magic. Dorian waved both his hands at once and his fingernails turned black and stayed this time.
Vincent put the bottle of nail polish down, stared at his hands and concentrated. With a few softly spoken words, he made it so his nails looked like transparent, black glass.
“Nice,” Dorian whistled, feeling slightly envious. With a glance to Vincent’s nails, he made his own a matte black in comparison. It was such a deep black, they looked like light absorbing shadows. Vincent grunted in approval.
Dorian couldn’t help but study his face a moment while Vincent was busy playing with his glamor. Vincent might not be a complete asshole. He had no idea what the fuck was wrong with the guy—there was clearly something wrong with him—but when Dorian thought about it, there was something wrong with everyone at the Academy. You didn’t end up there for being normal.
“You should get him the blue one.” Dorian nodded to the nail polish when Vincent looked his way.
“The spell doesn’t work.”
“So?” Dorian snorted. “Blue’s a good color on Fox. It’ll match his tattoos and shit. Trust me, he likes crazy color.”
Vincent considered the bottle again. He turned it sideways to watch the paint coat the glass. “Do you buy Doe things like this?”
Dorian glanced away, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. “When he lets me. He’s really weird about that kind of shit.”
“He doesn’t like gifts?”
“No, not that… Well. He’s weird.” It was a difficult subject for him to explain, mostly because Dorian was still trying to figure it out. “Things mean more to him. Simple things like clothes and stuff. Wylie feels like an asshole because he doesn’t have any money so he gets pissed off when I spend on him. Not like it’s my money either,” Dorian felt the need to add. “I mean, my parents just dump shit in my bank account. Not like I can work like this or anything.” That particular subject was even more difficult and Dorian was quick to jump away from it.
“Wylie has nothing, and he hates that he doesn’t have anything because he thinks it means he’s a failure or some shit. But he won’t let me give him anything either, even worthless stuff. He gets angry like I’m saying he can’t buy his own stuff. But he can’t!” Dorian growled in exasperation. “He’s not allowed to make a fucking cent until his five years are up. I never know if he’s going to be pissed off or happy when I get him something.”
Just talking about it stirred the frustrating feelings up. Dorian’s gut felt tight and for the life of him, he had no fucking clue why he was telling this to Vincent of all people.
“Pride,” Vincent said simply as he stared at the bottle of nail polish. He looked deep in thought, his gray eyes unfocused.
Dorian nodded sharply and relaxed a bit. He glanced Vincent’s way when the other didn’t say anything else. “Yeah, stupid ass pride. Dante is way…”
“What the?” Antonio gasped. Dorian was already turning to the window and the source of the magic.
“That’s Justin.” Vincent took two steps toward the windowed wall that faced the street, then turned slightly to the right with his head cocked. “That was definitely Justin. What spell would he be using that we can feel him this far away and through that barrier?”
“The barrier is only one way,” Dorian reminded. He was far more curious to know why Justin would be using a spell at all in the middle of the city. Justin’s magic came from his werewolf and the dark creature’s magical signature was distinct. Justin didn’t cast magic unless his wolf was involved and it was never a good thing.
Vincent stood in the doorway of the shop, outlined in the afternoon light. His face turned as another flare of magic reached their senses. There was no doubt it belonged to Justin. They were all familiar with his signature from sensing the beast during the full moon. Jake immediately brought his goods up to the other side of the room and laid them out on the counter to be rung up.
“We’re leaving. Now,” Dorian said to Antonio, who was holding a basket full of things.
Antonio gave an exaggerated sigh but started toward the check out. “Why do they always ruin everything? They’re probably harassing pigeons or some shit.”
Dorian highly doubted it. Justin was the most composed out of all the shifters; he was too aware of the consequences not to be. The thing was, he fought with his dark wolf all the time and when he lost, it rarely had such strong magical results. Dorian crossed his arms over his chest and waited impatiently. He tried not to think of just what would have Justin casting magic in the middle of downtown among a bunch of defenseless humans.
Vincent gasped loudly and grasped the door frame hard for balance. Dorian stumbled back from the sudden disorienting blast of power. “Shit! We’re going now.”
Vincent was already down the stairs when Dorian broke into a run. In the distance Justin’s power snuffed out completely and Fox’s power rose up and flared in an explosion.
It wasn’t difficult to find Wylie through the maze of towering shipping crates. The power radiating in the area was a beacon and any sorcerer in miles probably sensed it. Which made him wonder just what the fuck kind of idiot sorcerer would go through the trouble of protecting a crate and not mask his signature. It was just begging for a cocky bastard to come along and steal whatever was inside.
It wasn’t a sorcerer trying to get into the crate, Dorian soon discovered when he stepped up behind the gang of punks loaded down with weapons. No, it was some snot nosed amateur magic user and a bunch of gangsters, all of them human. They were camped out in front of the crate as if the thing was going to suddenly rear up and attack them. Seriously, what a bunch of idiots.
Although he wasn’t in a hurry to meet the arrogant sorcerer who spelled the canister, he sure as hell wasn’t going to let Wylie get caught up with the powerful stranger either. Any sorcerer who could raise such a spell would know the worth of a dragon shifter. It was dangerous shit.
Unfortunately, Wylie was in the crate and Dorian had to get past the idiots with guns first.
He pulled a cigarette free and lit it idly while taking in the formation of men. The weirdo in the green jumpsuit looked like he ran the show. Someone was bleeding, a guy about his own age, and a tougher guy stood over him with a gun. It seemed like a good place to start. Dorian walked forward without bothering to camouflage himself.
His choice was correct. Dorian picked up on Wylie’s scent the closer he got to the guy swaying on the ground. He turned his gaze towards the large metal crate and wondered what the hell was inside it. But people were shouting at him now and the sounds of hammers being cocked were surprisingly distracting.
“Who the fuck are you!” He dismissed the man covered in scars and tattoos, who was waving his gun like it was going to do shit. Dorian turned to the guy on the ground. He offered him a hand and helped him to his feet.
“You know Wylie?” Dorian finished his cigarette and dispersed it with a puff of smoke. That got the angry yelling to stop. The men around him grew tenser when they realized he wasn’t just some powerless teenager wandering in.
Beck nodded slowly in answer to his question. He watched as the beautiful stranger moved so he was between Beck and the many men with guns. Dorian touched his face and he jumped. Dorian just raised an eyebrow at his reaction and pressed fingers again to his cheek. Heat radiated from his touch and soothed away the pain throbbing in the bruises Diego gave him.
“He a friend of yours?” Dorian wanted to make sure he was helping the right guy. Probably. Beck was sweet looking and lacked the resolve to kill, unlike the hard-eyed men around them.
“Dating,” Beck muttered while he touched his face gingerly. When no pain came, he quickly wiped the remaining blood away. His hands were shaking, likely from having a gun at his head for so long.
“Ah.” Dorian didn’t know what to say to Wylie’s ex—or what, current? Had Wylie gone there just to get back together with the guy?
Dorian licked his teeth and tried to push the stab of jealousy away. There was a mini army of punks with guns and Wylie was in some crate with god only knew what. Now was not the time to start feeling sorry for himself.
“What’s in the box?” Dorian asked while inconspicuously studying Beck, who was pushing his hair from his face. He wasn’t bad looking beneath the bruises. He had a sweet face if not a bit innocent. Of course Wylie had been dating someone before he came to the Academy. Hell, maybe they were still dating. For all he knew, this guy was waiting patiently for Wylie to get his dragon form under control so the two could live happily ever after in their white-trash gangster ghetto.
Nope, he was totally bitter as fuck. Damn it.
Beck stared warily at the large metal crate and gave a shrug full of uncertainty. “Not sure. Something worth a lot of money but it’s supposed to be dangerous. Wylie went in there over ten minutes ago and he hasn’t come out. I don’t… I hope he’s okay.”
“You should mind your own business.” Adam walked over to the two and met Dorian’s gaze challengingly.
“Fuck off, Adam,” Beck snapped. “Go lick Roth’s boots like the little bitch you are.”
Adam folded his arms over his chest and continued to glare at Dorian. The kid was short with mousy brown hair and wide, frightened eyes. He had power but it wasn’t flowing properly, which meant he had no clue about what the fuck he was doing. Hardly a threat to someone like him.
“I’m here for my boy, Wylie. I really don’t give a fuck what’s going on.” Dorian turned and took in the array of gangsters still pointing guns at him. “Except, seeing as you all seem to be ready to go on a shooting spree aimed where my friend is, I might have to step in just to prevent that.”
“Maybe we can help each other out,” Roth spoke up with a fake smile plastered on his face.
Dorian watched as the weirdo in the green tracksuit approached. For someone with absolutely no magical power, he managed to look confident. “Oh?”
“Yes. Doe has gotten himself trapped in that crate over there and we can’t get through the magic locking him in.” Roth looked him over with an assessing gaze. Dorian’s eyes narrowed in response. “But you seem to have some power, kid. Either that or you’re really fucking brave. If you get that barrier down, we’ll be able to set Wylie free and the two of you can be on your way.”
Dorian wasn’t an idiot. If there were men more manipulative and terrifying than his own grandfather and father, he had yet to meet them. The poorly dressed gangster wasn’t even close to their league. Dorian glanced at Adam’s closed expression and then to Beck’s wide, fearful eyes.
“Don’t,” Beck pleaded under his breath. “They’re gonna kill him.”
A spark jumped off of Dorian’s fingers. Beck stared at him in shock but he didn’t notice. Dorian’s magic was bubbling up in response to the sudden emotion rising in him.
They were going to kill Wylie? Fucking kill him?
“Fuck,” Dorian growled. Two more sparks shot free while he struggled for control.
“Are you—oh!” His eyes wide, Beck stumbled back when Dorian grabbed him. He hauled the shorter boy to the crate. Dorian sliced his hand down, tore a temporary hole in the barrier and shoved Beck through before he could protest.
“What are you doing?” Beck pressed uselessly at the invisible barrier.
“Stay here. It might keep you alive. Wylie can shield some magic.” The barrier plus Wylie’s abilities might be enough. Maybe, if anything was ever enough.
It was getting hard to think. Dorian felt the magic surge up and try to take him over. It wanted blood and he, well, he wouldn’t mind killing these stupid, arrogant fuckers who thought they could just take Wylie away.
Wylie had left the Academy for these freaks. Had left him. No, fuck that.
Beck blanched from the expression on Dorian’s face. Jolts of light sparked across the sorcerer’s body while Dorian’s eyes changed. His once expressive hazel orbs turned black along with the whites of his eyes. It was creepy as fuck, somehow more so because he was so beautiful. Beck held his breath and was relieved when Dorian finally turned away.
Dorian hazily took in the gang of men. The shipping crates were stacked high around them and formed a bizarre metal canyon. It might be enough to contain his power. It might be enough to keep him from taking out more than just the area and the fuckers around him.
His eyes fell on Adam, who was so small and scrawny among the bulked and muscular gangsters. He smiled and felt his lips stretch in a more than psychotic way. “Are you looking to kill my Wylie too?” His voice was deceptively calm as he stepped towards Adam and more sparks flared from his skin. “Are you planning on skinning him? Stealing his fucking magic for some shit dark spells?”
Adam shook his head wildly and stumbled away from Dorian. He cringed when he saw the blackness of his eyes. “N-Never. I’m self-taught. I don’t know anything about magic except what I learned on the web. I’d never kill someone for a spell.”
Dorian’s smile grew. “Then you better get the fuck out cuz once I get started, this whole place is going down.”
Adam licked his lips nervously and glanced at Roth. If the gangster let him go, it would be riddled with bullets. But Dorian had damn monstrous power. If he were to choose between guns or the sorcerer, it would be Dorian. Adam slipped around the sparking sorcerer and headed to the crate Beck and Wylie were in. He swiftly moved down the length and ducked behind the makeshift shield.
“Do I give you creeps the same choice?” Dorian’s voice was unfamiliar in his own ear. It sounded smooth and controlled as he stalked forward. “You’re pointing guns at my guy.”
“Chill the fuck out, kid.” Roth hardly looked impressed with his power even though Dorian’s clothes were smoking and flames just started to lick up his shirt. “You’re getting worked up over nothing. The guns are for what’s in the crate, not Doe.”
“Wylie’s in the fucking crate!”
“Stupid kid.” Roth sighed resignedly and looked over at Diego. Diego raised his gun, pointed it at Dorian’s chest, and three bullets exploded out in succinct explosions.
Dorian didn’t bother moving. The bullets didn’t hit, not that Diego’s aim was off. They hovered in midair in front of the now flaming sorcerer where they were suspended inches from his body. Moments later, they fell with a metallic clatter.
“You guys might want to start running like the little bitches you are.” Dorian’s teeth bared in an expression he couldn’t comprehend. He felt wrong, twisted. It was the first time his power hadn’t immediately exploded outward and he wasn’t himself.
Roth glared back at his men who were staring at the sorcerer like they were facing the devil. “Come on, you pussies. It’s just a fucking kid. He can block one gun, but there’s no way he can block us all. Fucking shoot him!”
Dorian glared when two dozen guns immediately clicked in preparation to fire. Wow, they were really fucking stupid. What did he have to do, start flying for them to take him seriously? Fucktards.
A vicious smile twisted his lips. Let them shoot. They had no idea who they were fucking with.
The shooting grew louder. Wylie gasped when he got another centimeter open on the chain now coated in his blood. It was nearly done. With a growl he gave a final pull. He roared triumphantly when the chain snapped apart in his hands.
“Did you…?” Dante blinked back tears and whimpered as Wylie moved to untangle him. It was overwhelmingly loud after so much silence. Metal struck metal as each freed loop landed on the floor of the crate. Dante sat up unsteadily with Wylie’s help. The chain was wrapped so many times around him Wylie swore under his breath.
“You’re like a fucking mummy.” Wylie hissed when metal burned into the cuts on his hands. The chain gave a final ear piercing clatter and fell flat on the ground in a heap.
Wylie licked his palms to heal his bloody cuts. He let Dante sway in his sitting position and get used to being unbound.
“You’re really strong,” Dante finally whispered. His rail-thin body shook uncontrollably. “Are all dragon shifters like you?”
“No clue.” He held his hands out and Dante fumbled for them the instant he made contact. “Try not to be scared when you see me, okay? I’m covered in black scales and I’m sure I look scary as hell. Can you stand?”
Dante tried. He clutched Wylie’s hands when his knees gave out.
“Damn.” Wylie’s anger grew to see how weak he was. “How long have you been in this crate?”
“I… I’m not sure,” Dante whispered. “It’s so dark. I couldn’t tell the time. I… I got sick…” he trailed off and blushed when his hand brushed over his damp pants.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not like they gave you a bathroom.” Wylie tugged his hand and Dante nearly fell again. “I’m going to carry you, okay? We might have to run really fast and I don’t want you to fall and get hurt.”
“Okay.” Dante let himself be lifted. He wrapped his arms around the back of Wylie’s neck as scaled arms engulfed him. “You’re really strong.”
Wylie couldn’t answer. His rage was too great. The kid was thin as a straw and weighed barely anything. Who the fuck would have chained a little boy up in the dark and thrown him in some fucking crate? He didn’t know but if he ever met the person, he was going to make sure they suffered even more than little Dante had.
“We’re going to get you home, Dante. First, I’ll take you to the place I live. There are lots of good people there, and they’ll protect you. Then we’re going to find your parents and get you home. Just remember, I’m not going to look like a normal guy when you first see me. I have lots of scales.”
“I know.” Dante’s breath was too cold against his neck. Wylie had a chilling fear that the kid might be losing the last of his energy while in his arms, even though he was now free of the chains. He quickened his pace and headed for the door to the container. Wylie stopped short when he caught sight of an arm framed in the narrow gap leading out. He breathed deep and his confusion only grew from the familiar scent.
Beck didn’t answer. He barely glanced at Wylie when he pushed his way out the door with Dante in his arms. “Holy fuck, Wy. Your new boyfriend is fucking awesome.”
“Boyfriend?” His gaze followed to where Beck was staring. Wylie almost dropped Dante when he saw Dorian. “What the hell? When did he get here?” Better yet, why was he there? After the bonfire incident, he could have sworn Dorian wanted nothing to do with him.
Wylie jerked when he realized the bursts of magic shooting off of Dorian were just powerful versions of the sparks he had a habit of letting loose around him. “Shit. B, I need you to watch Dante. Don’t let him out of your sight.”
He carefully lowered Dante to the ground. Dante was transfixed as he stared up at Wylie’s scaled form in wonder. “Who is he?” Beck asked when he finally noticed the kid.
“Roth’s fucking treasure,” Wylie growled bitterly. “Be gentle with him. He’s weak, and probably starving and thirsty. I need to help Dorian before he loses his shit.” Wylie went to leave but Dante’s hand suddenly clutched his.
“I don’t want you to go.”
Sighing, Wylie crouched down and smiled grimly. “Don’t be scared, okay? I’m going to be right back.”
“They have guns,” Dante whispered.
“It’s okay. I’m going to be fine. Beck’s a good guy and he’s going to watch you until I come back.”
Pursing his lips, Dante reluctantly released Wylie’s clawed hand. Beck held a hand out to the boy and smiled encouragingly until Dante tentatively took it and stepped closer.
Wylie could sense where Dorian previously sliced the barrier. He pushed through the thin tear faster and with much less pain than last time. Noise immediately roared around him when he crossed the threshold and Wylie was momentarily stunned. He hadn’t realized how the barrier muffled all the sound until on the other side.
Shaking himself, he headed towards the sorcerer alight with magic and fire. “Dorian! Stop!”
At the sound of his voice, Dorian whirled. “Wylie!”
Wylie couldn’t help but stop and stare. Dorian was backlit with orange and surrounded in flames. The wood around them had caught on fire from the sparks jumping off of his form. Peering closer, he found a pile of guns at his feet. Dorian had collected them one by one with simple flicks of his wrists.
He was fucking beautiful.
A smile lit his face and Wylie reached a hand out to Dorian. He’d taken on the entire fucking gang for him, and didn’t even break a sweat. Well, besides his burning clothes, anyways. Wylie’s dragon had stopped its aggressive stance just on seeing its mate’s amazing power.
“It’s not worth it, Dorian. They’re just a bunch of dumbass scum. Not worth the guilt you’ll feel if you lose control of your power. Not worth ending up in Daiker—”
Dorian’s eyes went wide. Gasping, Wylie stared down at his chest when he was pushed back a step. Two small, perfectly round holes dotted his flesh beneath shattered scales. Blood slowly trickled out of the wounds.
“Shit.” It didn’t hurt. Being shot was supposed to hurt. Wylie’s body shuddered and tilted sideways. Against his consent, he slammed down heavily to his knees. “Shit.” He lurched forward. His face hit the ground hard and everything went black.
Dorian couldn’t breathe. Wylie was bleeding out, with his blood thick and black as it poured down his beautiful scales. But for some reason he was the one who couldn’t breathe. He felt lightheaded and no longer attached to his body. All he could do was watch Wylie gasp for air on the ground.
There was an explosion as his magic reacted to another array of bullets. Dorian turned slowly and looked blankly at the men remaining. Twelve were left. Roth’s lime-green tracksuit was lost in the dark while his men formed a shield to keep him from being harmed. It didn’t matter. Once his magic finished its quickly spiraling climb, anyone within a mile would be dead.
The moment the thought hit, it was a dam breaking of the numb wall blocking his emotions. His shirt was char and the wind swept it away. Smoke billowed up with his power. Dorian raised his hands and spread them wide. He pulled his arms down in a sweeping motion and the men before him fell, pinned flat to the ground even as the fire continued to burn higher.
They could have been something. They could have been something amazing. It was why it was so fucking hard to let Wylie go. Wylie could have been his damn life if his fucking magic hadn’t gotten in the way of everything.
God, he hated it! Years a slave to his grandfather’s ideals just because he was born with magic. And once he found a way free—at the sacrifice of Alastor’s life—he allowed himself to forget. He chose his terrible, cursed magic over a real future. He picked power like his heartless family would have instead of the one he loved.
Now the option was gone. He had chosen wrong and there was no do-over.
“Just so you know, you’re all going to die.” Dorian’s voice was hoarse from the smoke. He stepped forward and stood over the closest of the men who struggled and failed to move. It was the one covered with tattoos who threatened to kill Wylie’s friend. No, Wylie’s boyfriend.
Sparks flew from his body. Dorian embraced the feeling of jealousy. It was easier to focus on than the hollowness threatening to consume his heart. Ever since the accident with Alastor, he did everything to keep his emotions in check. Now he was doing everything to let them flow free. He wanted them to die. He wanted to see everyone die and there was more than enough pain inside to make it happen.
Raider spent the first ten minutes in Michael’s office hunched forward in a leather chair hiding behind his hands. It was just easier. He could barely comprehend what the fuck he nearly did with the two feline shifters never mind face the man who stopped it.
Michael’s office was surprising. For a murderous sorcerer hellbent on killing shifters and gaining power, Michael surrounded himself with a lot of plants. Like, a crazy amount. Not just decorative plants either. No, between the large blooms of hydrangeas, roses, orchids, and an array of flowers and pretty leaves Raider couldn’t ever hope to name were vegetables, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini and others hidden in nooks like jewels among the greenery. There were even a few citrus plants in the corners of the large room which reached up to splay leaves on the ceiling. Plus one, he was fairly certain, squat pineapple plant in a huge pot. The walls and ceilings were dripping with vines. As Raider’s breath warmed his palms, he could hear insects and the ruffle of birds coming from all around.
The place was a cross between swanky and an overrun green house. It was large, the furniture beneath all the plants and pots sleek and refined with a modern flair. On the walls were a few unique displays of different cultural oddities Michael collected throughout his journeys. Behind his desk, windows took up the entire wall and looked out at the back of the Academy. The blinds were twisted to only let a small amount of the orange glow of the fading sunset in between the strands of vines which clung to the panes.
Michael’s desk fit in just as confusingly with the garden. It was chocolate sleek wood that collected piles of paperwork among to the phone, laptop and lamps. Small little colorful cacti dotted the surface in hand glazed pots. He had one of those bubbling rock garden fountains, but while Raider only knew them to be bowl sized, Michael’s spilled from his desk down to the side where there was a large stone basin with small, darting fish that glittered among the rocks and surrounding leaves.
It was surreal, beautiful and the combination of green, scents and the constant burble of water calming. At any other time, it would have been a place he’d want to explore. Instead he tried to get his breathing under control in the dark of his palms while a stray fern tickled his ankles. If Leo and Forest were impressed by Michael’s office, he couldn’t tell. Michael insisted they all sit there until they calmed down enough to be collared. The arguing had yet to stop.
“You know the rules,” Michael said calmly but the edge to his voice was clear. “Twenty-four hours. This is non-negotiable.”
Leo’s angry growl said he was more than ready to fight for as long as it took. Forest rolled his eyes and readily took the null-collar when handed to him.
“I’ll take a collar over a trip to Daiker any day,” Forest muttered as he snapped the metal band in place around his neck. He slumped moments after and exhaled heavily. “Shit… Shit, I seriously fucked up.”
Michael didn’t comment. His stern gaze was locked with Leo’s defiant glare when he refused to take the collar before him. “Leonard.”
“Stop acting like it’s some fucking crime,” Leo growled. “He was giving off the scent. Stop trying to humanize animal mating behavior.”
“Bullshit,” Forest interrupted. “You fucking know that’s bullshit. Just because our inner animals want to do shit doesn’t justify our actions. That’s the whole fucking point. Otherwise you could justify a fucking killing spree and… Fuck.” He broke off and stood from his chair agitatedly. “I am seriously sorry, Valdez. I’m not going to let it happen again.”
Forest turned to Michael and ignored Leo’s angry scowl. “Can I get a new room? I’ve been really messed up this last week and it’s only gotten worse since…” he glanced Raider’s way a moment, then ducked his head. “Please. I just can’t handle this kind of pressure on top of everything else.”
Raider tilted his head up enough so he could see Forest through his fingers. He looked defeated as he leaned on Michael’s desk and it made him wonder just what ‘everything else’ was he was talking about. For the most part, Forest seemed pretty normal outside of his excessive mating heat. Raider was even starting to get used to the idea of sharing a room with a leopard shifter if only because after all his time there, Forest hadn’t shown any signs of wanting to kill him. The idea of not having Forest as a roommate was somehow a little more terrifying than having him in his room.
Everything was a fucking mess in his head lately.
“I think it would be best if Raider had a room of his own for the time being,” Michael agreed after a pause. “I can talk to Justin and see if he’s ready for a roommate yet.”
“You’re sure as fuck not sleeping in my room,” Leo said gruffly.
“Yeah, I’m crying over it, jackass.” Forest straightened and flashed Michael a relieved, if not half hearted smile. “Thanks. Can I just…?” He jabbed his thumb toward the doorway. “I want to talk to Bear before he’s gone for the night.”
Michael nodded solemnly. “We will talk again, Forest. Just the two of us.”
Forest nodded as he gnawed at his bottom lip. He ducked away, his hands buried in his pockets. He paused when he reached Raider’s chair, his eyes lingering on him.
Raider tensed the moment he felt Forest’s close proximity. He didn’t dare look at him. He had no interest in engaging after the fucking mess in the hallway.
“I’ll get my shit tomorrow, okay? Or now, you know, while you’re not there.”
Damn it, he was going to have to actually say something. “It’s fine. I’m not angry at you.” He wasn’t. He was freaked out but it wasn’t Forest he was freaked out at.
Forest huffed, but Raider still couldn’t bring himself to look at him to read what he was thinking. “I’ll get my stuff now.” He was out the door before Raider could think of something proper to say. And really, what were you supposed to say after something like this? Sorry your sex scent made me want to fuck you? Just because he knew it was all fucked up didn’t make any of it easier to explain or comprehend.
“Fucker. This is total shit, Whiteheart!”
Raider cracked his eyes open to see if he’d have to dodge if Leo started throwing things. Michael was unphased. His gaze was level and jaw squared as he stared Leo down like the guy wasn’t capable of transforming into a huge beast who could tear his throat out.
“If you were a shifter, you would understand!” Leo insisted, frustration clear in his voice. “If you could scent him, you wouldn’t have dared interfered.”
“You know the rules,” Michael said evenly. “If you want to have an actual conversation about the ethics of me making you stop and cool off, that conversation can happen a few hours from now after we’ve all had some time to think and process. I will be happy to hear your thoughts on the situation when your lion is not so intent on his goal.”
“Damn it. You’re such a fucking hypocrite. You all let Doe do whatever the fuck he wants.” Leo’s hand slammed down on the desk when he grabbed the collar. His claws tore into the dark wood in a show of defiant aggression. Still Leo hesitated and glared at the collar as he slowly pulled it towards his body. With a scowl, he jerked it around his neck and snapped the metal shut before he could think better.
Raider watched from beneath his lashes, morbidly curious as to just what this collar was supposed to do. On the outside, Leo didn’t look any different. He was still mountain tall with his fuzzy lion ears and sinuous tail. While Leo sat and his expression turned from angry to sullen, Raider couldn’t help but notice his scent changed. Much of the lion’s unique properties faded from the air.
“You’re dismissed for the night.” Michael reached out and covered over the gouges in his desk Leo made. When his hand pulled away, the surface was repaired. “I’ll be happy to talk to you about this tomorrow, Leonard. I expect it, actually.”
“Whatever.” Leo stood with a glare.
Raider watched him warily. Leo still looked normal, his stance confidently and tall, if not just a little less tense. When he stepped his way, Raider held his breath, all his senses on high alert. He didn’t dare turn away like he did with Forest, which was why he caught the way Leo looked at him in passing. The heat was gone from his golden eyes. When his gaze did fall on him, he only tilted his head for a moment and then shrugged, disinterested.
Raider stared after him while Leo left the office, his brows scrunched as he tried to understand.
“Did you want some coffee?”
Raider jolted at the sound of Michael’s voice. He turned back quickly to find him standing. “No. Caffeine messes me up.”
“I have some herbal tea,” Michael offered after a moment. “Caffeine free.” He patted the chair Leo just vacated, indicating Raider should sit there.
Raider shrugged noncommittally as he got up from his seat and cautiously sat in the chair across from Michael’s large desk. His dark eyes were ever watching as Michael moved to the side of the room where among the many plants, was a tabletop with a coffee maker, mugs, a bottle of water and a tin of tea bags. Raider was suddenly hyper aware the two of them were alone in his office. Goosebumps prickled on his skin, and he tried not to think about his shirt shredded and left on the hallway floor. Moments ago, Forest and Leo were danger. Now Raider realized the two were perfectly fine buffers between him and the sorcerer with enough power to bluff Leo out of a mating brawl.
He heard Michael whisper under his breath followed by the scent of magic. The water he poured into the cup boiled merrily as he placed a tea bag in it. Raider stared at the mug when Michael stepped up and placed it on his side of the desk. The scent of chamomile floated in the air.
“Aren’t you going to, uh, put me in a collar?” Raider asked as he stared warily at the tea.
“Eventually.” Michael sat down on his side of the desk with a mug of his own. His movements were unhurried as he cleared a spot by moving folders and pieces of paper to the side. “We have a rule for the patients here. When either our magic or inner beast loses control, everyone involved is collared for 24 hours to give them time to cool off.” Michael twined his fingers and studied his hands for a thoughtful moment. “I think it’s important your raccoon first learns to come down from such a situation instead of just knocking it out. It’s important the two of you have a chance to understand what happened and see this isn’t a punishment but a time to observe and understand.”
Raider was pretty sure the less he thought about what happened in the hallway, the better. His gaze slid up, drawn to Michael’s unguarded face. His expression was still stern. He wasn’t sure if Michael was angry at him, or was just angry about what might have happened to him. The silence stretched on and Raider gave in and reached for the drink. The mug was hot in his hand and he breathed in the steam with a sigh. He hated the cold. Everything was so cold since moving there and he really wished he owned some long-sleeve clothes.
“What we can do to prevent this is limited,” Michael finally spoke. Raider dragged his attention from the mug reluctantly. “I can’t in good conscience have the three of you walking around in null-collars your entire time here. Chaining your inner animal can’t be a permanent solution.”
He should have left. He could still leave. Things were bad enough when Leo and Forest showed an interest in him, but to have his raccoon respond? Fuck, he didn’t want anything to do with that. He’d jump the gate and hide in the surrounding area. There wasn’t much, just a lot of open wilderness. He wasn’t sure if the Academy would look for him, seeing as he was officially an adult. If Joseph was there it would be a different story. His uncle would hunt him down out of a stupid sense of duty.
Raider glared into his cup and at his watery reflection. Would Michael find him like he did today? Was that intentional? Did he seek him out to make sure he was okay after he didn’t come back for the nightly check in? Did he fight Leo just to protect him?
Did he want that?
“Raider.” Michael leaned forward and his stern expression cracked. “Are you okay?”
Staring into Michael’s blue eyes full of concern, Raider truly had no idea. He wasn’t hurt. He wasn’t afraid like he should be. No, just being in the same room with Michael calmed him. But he was terrified of the person he turned into when Leo kissed him. When Forest touched him…
“I never felt like that before.” Raider wrapped his hands tighter around the mug and let the heat seep into his body. “It’s like something took me over. I don’t know why. I was afraid but I still…” He shook his head agitatedly when he couldn’t find the right words. “I’m not like that. I don’t like them like that. So I don’t understand why I… why I liked it.”
Admitting it made Raider blush. He tried not to squirm in his seat under Michael’s stare. It was true; he liked it.
Michael nodded slowly. “I think this particular topic is better suited for Master Theodore.”
He wasn’t in a rush to talk to a dragon shifter about any of this. He wasn’t in a rush to talk to anyone, really, but at least Michael saw it happen. It’s not like he’d have to explain shit to him. “Can’t you just? I mean, if you know.”
“I’m not a shifter,” Michael reminded. “I know far less about this. Dr. Rob would also know more.”
“Yeah, but you knew enough to get angry, right?” Raider bit his lip and glanced at Michael before down at his mug. “You masters don’t care about Doe and Black but you stepped in the second you saw this… so… yeah. You knew it wasn’t…” He shrugged. It was impossible to find the right words. As much as he might have liked how it felt, he hadn’t actually wanted to be in that situation. It didn’t matter what Leo growled about scents and protecting him. If his body listened to him, he would have walked away the moment Leo came up to him.
Silent for long moments, Michael tapped the side of his mug with his finger. The contents stirred with a touch of magic. When he did speak, it was hesitant, like he was searching for the right words. “When Dr. Rob treated you for the flu, he was able to identify certain traits in your raccoon unique to the shifter population. These traits are what most shifters refer to as a submissive. Have you heard this term before?”
Raider shook his head no. His stomach twisted as again he remembered Justin’s words his first night there.
“These traits are more likely to be found in prey shifters, but no exclusively. There’s a theory every type of shifter has some level of submissive. It’s just appears to be more pronounced in prey type shifters such as yourself.”
His throat was dry. “And that is?”
Michael paused and sipped his drink as he again sought the right words. “Submissives have a scent known to attract the strongest of a pack. Alphas, in particular. It’s a scent which helps him survive. Certain behavior traits go along with this survival instinct, many of them sexual.”
Raider hunched deeper into his chair. He wanted to disappear but was too desperate to hear just what the hell it all meant.
“Many submissives are receptive to sexual advances from alphas because of this instinct. The alpha personality can be very overwhelming in a pack, but a submissive helps alleviate the problem by giving the alpha a welcoming outlet for his aggression. Because of this, the submissive is usually protected by everyone in the pack. When interacting, the alpha personality is more likely to be drawn out when around a submissive because of his instinctual need to protect a mate. In the same way, a submissive’s traits take over to help him deal with the alpha’s personality.”
He was so fucked. Raider shakily placed his mug on the desk and folded forward so he could hug his knees. His hands flashed as he twirled the ring on his forefinger.
“Submissives are mates for alphas?”
“Some. There isn’t a law out there that if you’re attracted to someone you have to act on it.” Michael had a deeper swallow of his tea.
Raider groaned. His life was over. “I’m not attracted to them. I’m not.”
“Okay.” Michael raised an eyebrow as Raider continued to clutch at his knees. With his head ducked, the tattooed vines on his shoulders could be seen leading down his back toward more black roses tattoos. “You still don’t have to mate anyone.”
Sure, try telling that to someone like Leo. Maybe Michael could take him on in a fight, but he sure as fuck couldn’t. And it wasn’t just Leo, was it? Forest wasn’t an alpha, but it hadn’t stopped him. What if every shifter he met suddenly wanted to, well, mate with him?
“This scent only works on shifters, right?”
“It shouldn’t effect normal humans.”
Raider bit his lip and peeked his head up. “Sorcerers?”
Michael looked uncertain. “That would depend on the sorcerer. You’re not without magic, which you’d learn if you participated in Theo’s class. Your scent could potentially have magical properties.”
Raider quickly ducked his head again. He was suddenly filled with a consuming curiosity to know if Michael could be effected by his scent. Probably not. He was really strong. Probably nothing got to him.
He shook his head fiercely at his stupid thoughts. He needed to find a way out. “The collar. Will that, uh, make me stop being like this?”
“There’s nothing wrong with being a submissive,” Michael responded quickly. “Some humans lean toward certain proclivities and it’s widely accepted. With shifters it just appears more extreme because of the effect of the scent.”
“Nothing wrong? I’m a raccoon. Prey,” Raider snapped. He sat up, arms resting on thighs so his glare could reach Michael. “Do you not get how easy it is for a predator to kill me? Do you really think this will help my chances of surviving when alphas are fighting over me? I’m going to end up dead.”
First the fucking sparkle and now this. Another trap. Another lack of escape. It was like the world was working to capture him and keep him weak. He should have listened to his first instinct and run the moment the truck pulled through the gates.
Michael flexed his eyebrows and Raider narrowed in the expression. “What? Just spit it out,” he demanded.
“Well.” Michael tilted his head and a weak smile quirked at his lips. “Before I showed up, the three of you seemed to be getting along fine enough. I don’t think you have to worry about either of them killing you. I’m actually impressed those two can share.”
Raider blinked rapidly. He ducked his head to hide his face as heat flushed through him. Just how long was Michael standing there before he broke them up? What exactly did he see? Maybe he fought Leo just so he could… Raider ran fingers through his short hair and tried to stop the quick, hot spiral his thoughts were spinning toward. Michael was a sorcerer. He shouldn’t be thinking weird shit about a sorcerer.
“Raider, I want to be clear. I will not let you be pressured into something while at the Academy.”
Raider shook his head and scoffed in frustration. “And when you’re not around? What then? Are you going to stalk me all fucking day or some shit?”
Michael sighed but didn’t look away from his glare. “As I said, we have limited options when it comes to solutions. You seem to respond well to my natural magic. Your raccoon calms around me even when…”
Raider jumped to his feet with a furious yelp. “I knew it! You are spelling me!”
Michael braced himself on the desk. His hand came up to rub his temple a moment and when he spoke, he sounded tired. “Some people have unique abilities they have little control over. For Master Theo, it’s allure. Myself, I have a level of charisma. Although the both of us do our best to avoid any impropriety with these abilities, we cannot shut them off completely. They are a part of what makes us who we are.”
Michael looked up, his eyes clear in contrast to Raider’s cloudy expression. “In the same way, you have a scent. Another shifter might see your scent as a weapon you use to confuse and distract, maybe even lure into a trap. You and I both know that isn’t the case. I can’t stop you from thinking I’m trying to harm or trick you because of my natural magic. All I can do is assure you I have always been, and will continue to be, professional with everyone who attends the Academy.”
Raider’s lips pursed as Michael’s words sank in and insisted on making sense. Fuck. With a sigh, he sat back down in his seat and stared sullenly at the floor.
A weapon? Did Leo think he led him on with a scent he couldn’t even control? He kind of said as much; that as long as he was giving off the scent it meant he liked it. Fuck, not only had his scent put him in that fucked up situation, but it might have put Leo and Forest into it as well. Leo barely looked twice at him when he left and all Forest did was apologize once the collar was on. Shit. Shit, what if Forest thought he did this whole thing just to get a room of his own?
Groaning, Raider again folded forward, his arms wrapped around his head to hide him from the world. “Is there a way to, you know, stop my scent?”
“There’s nothing wrong with your scent,” Michael said determinedly. “Being a submissive isn’t something to be ashamed of.”
Raider sighed and wished he could believe him. He sat back up and ruffled his hair. “Yeah, but, I can’t even share a room with someone. It’s gotta be pretty bad, right? Will I need separate classes or some shit?”
“Or you can learn control. I’m not a hundred percent certain about the mechanism of the scent. I can find out, if you want my help. Or we can talk to Dr. Rob, Bear, Theo; all very good authorities on shifter sexuality.”
Peering up through his lashes, Raider couldn’t help but note a hint of unease coming from Michael. He looked closer, trying to read his face while the man stared at his hands. He still wasn’t sure which version was real; the charming Michael who greeted him his first day or this fierce, chiseled protector. Raider’s gaze lingered on the way a curl of golden hair was spilled across one of Michael’s stunning blue eyes.
He looked away. “It’s probably awkward for you, right?”
“No, it’s, uh…” Michael coughed and straightened in his seat. “Boundaries are important in these situations. It’s my job to offer help without having to worry you’ll become attached. We have multiple people working here to make sure patients get the help they need. I’m concerned my viewpoint is limited for the help this problem requires.”
“Oh.” Right. Attached. Raider wet his lips. “I could, um, try to talk to those other guys. The masters. I don’t really feel, well, safe around them.”
Michael nodded. “We know. You appear to have a severe anxiety disorder. Something your uncle wasn’t aware of when he contacted us.”
Raider blinked and stared back down at his hands. Anxiety. What a superficial word, so empty of the terror that gripped him every second his raccoon was awake. Raider clutched at his hand, the smooth contour of his rings barely comforting as his mind spun. Bear said he was making his raccoon more afraid than it needed to be. That somehow he was making it worse.
“So, you charisma thing… that can calm me? Er, my raccoon?” Raider’s face heated up. “Is that an option?” Michael seemed even more hesitant and he was quick to backpedal. “Or we could do the collar thing. I mean…”
“No, it’s not…” Michael stopped and tried again more carefully. “I want to help you, Angel. I want you to be able to trust me. There’s just a careful line to walk when you’re someone in my position. Touch can be powerful and it’s important to go about things in an appropriate way.”
Raider’s gaze strayed to Michael’s hand on the desk. It wasn’t just fear swirling in his stomach. There was a strange anticipation welling and he wasn’t sure if it was from him or his raccoon.
“It couldn’t hurt anything, right?” Raider swallowed. “I mean, it’s just a touch.”
“I would never intentionally hurt you.”
Again, those very careful words. Michael kept being so careful to make sure he didn’t say something he’d interpret as a lie. Raider felt a twinge of guilt. Michael had to watch every word he said because otherwise he’d accuse him of spelling him.
But he was spelling him. Sort of.
“Do you want to try?” Michael asked, pulling Raider from his thoughts.
Raider nodded with lips pursed. His stared as Michael reached his hand out, palm up on the desk.
“Just like a handshake.”
Raider glanced up, his cheeks flushed from the memory. “Why does it do that? Do the other shifters calm when you touch them?”
Michael’s lips twitched. “Leo sure doesn’t.”
Raider snorted and ducked his head to hide his smile. When he glanced up, doubt again crept in as he reached for Michael’s hand. “So maybe it’s a submissive thing?”
“Or a raccoon thing,” Michael supplied lightly. “Or maybe just your raccoon. We’re all unique in our own special ways.”
Raider didn’t fully hear him when his hand fell into Michael’s open palm. Now he knew to expect it, he wasn’t surprised when his raccoon gave an immediate sigh and settled down. Raider’s eyes fluttered shut. His breath evened out as he sank into the feeling of calm thrumming through him. Michael’s hand was warm beneath his touch. Solid, firm but yielding.
“Are you alright?”
Raider nodded and a sigh escaped his lips from the sound of Michael’s voice. He had a nice voice. Strong. Masculine. Just hearing it made him feel safe, like he would take care of everything.
“I think you’re purring.”
Raider’s lashes flickered open and his hazy gaze was immediately caught in Michael’s.
“It’s not very audible, but I can feel it.” Michael’s fingers tightened around his and Raider’s eyes drifted down to watch.
It sent a spark through him to feel Michael’s flesh slide against his. There was something about the roughness of his palm and the strength so carefully restrained in his hold. It reminded him of how fierce the master sorcerer was when facing Leo down. How Michael didn’t raise his voice or lose his temper and still proved he was superior to the alpha lion.
It really was the sexiest thing ever.
“You’re not a shifter, right?”
Michael’s head tilted at the question. “Do I smell like a shifter?”
“No.” It was one of those strange, careful answers. Raider looked at him again and tried not to get lost in his entrancing eyes. “In the hallway earlier…”
“I’ve picked up a few trick to prevent conflict among the shifters here,” Michael explained while he just as carefully read Raider’s expression. “I do have a shadow form. Sometimes certain shifters, ones with magical abilities, notice it. I really think you should give Theo’s class a try.”
Heat was a slow, honey drip through his entire body. Raider’s eyelids felt heavy as he blinked up at Michael. “You shift?”
“Of a sorts. Unlike a shifter who has an inner animal wake up, I found my spirit animal later on in life. The relationship is very different. We aren’t joined souls, but found friends.” Michael’s fingers scraped ever so lightly against his. Tingles shot all the way down to Raider’s toes. “You seem much calmer.”
Michael really did have the most beautiful eyes. And smile. Lips… he had very nice lips.
Raider’s fingers curled slightly as he tried to repeat the curiosity of their flesh sparking. It was so intense and very addictive. Like lips brushing hot on his palm. Michael’s lips…
“There’s that purr again,” Michael remarked with a small smile. “I’ve never heard a raccoon purr before.”
Raider wasn’t used to his raccoon purring or the confusing heat filling him. “What do you turn into?”
“Borrow,” Michael clarified. “It might appear like a transformation but I’m only sharing the spiritual echoes of an animal compatible with me. Depending on the sorcerer’s ability, a spirit form can be solid, even malleable.”
“But what?” Raider insisted, slightly breathless. “What is your spirit animal?”
Michael hesitated and his gaze slid away for a moment. “I don’t want to frighten your raccoon. He’s been purring. I have a feeling he doesn’t purr much.”
He didn’t. Raider’s raccoon never purred. Licking suddenly dry lips, Raider leaned forward so he could promise his raccoon would obviously still like him. There really wasn’t an animal alive or dead more scary than a sorcerer after all and Michael was already that. As he leaned on the desk, his fingers inadvertently twined with Michael’s and he stilled and stared at their joined hands.
“Is this weird?” Raider couldn’t actually bring himself to let go of Michael’s hand no matter how much he was certain it was very weird.
“Weird is subjective,” Michael said reasonably, his eyes also glued to their hands. “You do seem much calmer.”
Calm wasn’t even close to what he felt. Drugged. At peace. Impossibly curious. “What do you turn into?”
Michael glanced up and answered hesitantly. “An eagle. A large one. He’s not a vegetarian, I’m afraid to say.”
“A predator,” Raider echoed back. He wet his lips again. A killer. A defender.
It wasn’t fear that shuddered through him, although it felt just as intense as his raccoon tried to make him melt and get hard at the same time. It was almost exactly what he felt in the hallway and he had no idea how to protect against it.
“I think I need to let go of your hand,” Raider whispered hoarsely. Before he did something stupid. Leo-sized stupid. Sorcerer-sized stupid.
“I’m sorry I upset you.” Michael’s eyes scoured his face. “I would never harm you. My shadow form is controlled. I would never endanger the patients here.”
Raider couldn’t speak. How could Michael totally miss how desperate he was to have him kiss him, touch him, show him how capable he was at protecting him? What did he have to do, get down on his knees to make things more clear? If he revealed he wasn’t afraid, it would only force him to explain what he was feeling. There was no way in fuck he was doing that. Never.
“Could you just?” Raider nodded to their joined hands. “I can’t. It’s like you’re shiny,” he said shakily. “I can’t let go.”
His eyes followed and Michael blinked and straightened in his seat. His other hand covered the back of Raider’s for one long, breathless eternity before he gently pulled him free.
“A bit magnetic, hmm?” Michael joked but his voice sounded rough to Raider’s dazed senses.
Raider slowly pulled his hand to the edge of the desk. He held the side and stared at his fingers blankly. His raccoon was still purring. It was still interested Michael was in the room with them and had something deadly and powerful lurking beneath his protective surface.
It should be frightened. Hell, the damn thing was afraid of Leo even when they were making out. It should be terrified of Michael too, but it wasn’t. No, the stupid thing wouldn’t stop purring. It wouldn’t stop thinking it was safe.
“While your raccoon is still calm, I think now would be a good time to have you put the collar on.”
Raider looked up and watched as Michael pulled another metal band out from a desk drawer and placed it before him. It had a glimmer but the surface wasn’t remotely shiny enough to make him reach for the strange collar. “It won’t hurt, right?”
“It doesn’t hurt,” Michael assured. He looked at the wariness on Raider’s face and beckoned for him to stand as he got to his feet. He picked the collar up and held it before Raider’s face. “See, nothing sharp or pointy. There’s a bit of weight to it but it won’t weigh you down. Some might get a crick in their neck when they sleep in it, but as long as you sleep on your side, it should be fine.”
Raider held the edge of the desk when Michael beckoned him closer. He kept his head down but was consumed by Michael’s unique scent and the heat of his body as he leaned over to place the collar around his neck.
“When you put it on like this, you won’t have to worry about your skin being pinched,” Michael said as he clicked the metal edges together. Raider held his breath when Michael’s hold lingered for a heart beat. Fingertips brushed his throat when he pulled away. Raider watched him from beneath heavy lashes as he held onto the scent of him as long as possible.
The purring stopped. Raider frowned and clutched the center of his chest when his raccoon’s presence began to fade. “What?”
“Null-collars have a unique ability to nullify the effects of magic on the wearer,” Michael explained calmly. “This suppresses the natural magic of a shifter and forces the inner animal into a state of stasis. Think of it like a very deep sleep for your raccoon while you remain awake.”
Raider nodded, his attention focused inward as he tried to understand it all. This was why Leo scent changed. It must mean his scent was gone too. “It’s strange. I thought I’d be more afraid.”
He wasn’t unafraid, just not on the blind panic level his raccoon usually created when they lost control. No, Raider was more afraid of not having his raccoon there than anything else. What was he going to do without having its judgment? Its companionship or heightened senses to warn him when danger could strike? Not feeling afraid was somehow frightening him.
“Just sit and let it sink in for a moment. It’s always disorienting the first few times,” Michael assured as he returned to his seat and drained the rest of his tea.
Raider slowly sank into his chair. His fingers traced the edge of metal around his throat as he tried to adapt to life without his raccoon’s mind to filter. His gaze eventually strayed to Michael, whose expression was quiet, his lashes lowered and hair shining. On impulse, Raider reached forward and touched down on the back of his hand.
There was no raccoon to purr, no want to sink into the sorcerer’s magic but the feeling of safety Michael brought with him was still there. As was the heat that tingled through Raider when Michael’s eyes met his.
“I need to go.” Raider stood abruptly. He was beyond confused. Sorcerer. Michael was a sorcerer. He didn’t need his raccoon there to remind him sorcerers killed shifters. He was in a collar for the next 24 hours and was completely vulnerable to any attack, magical or fangs. How could he possibly feel safe? How could he feel anything like that for a sorcerer?
“Are you well?” Michael stood as well and Raider avoided his eye. “The collar can be disorienting. Being cut off from your inner animal is never an easy experience.”
“I just want to be alone,” Raider said without focus. He turned toward the door and crossed the room, blind to the greenery and scents of flowers. When he got to the handle, he turned and stepped out before he could change his mind. In the hallway, things felt so much worse away from Michael.
All the more reason to never see the guy again. Raider forced his legs to move down the hall. He absentmindedly hoped he was going in the right direction. Sorcerer. Sorcerer and a predator. There was nothing worse and Michael Whiteheart was both.
Raider wasn’t sure how the hell it happened, but he was lost. In his fear to not be found by any stray killer shifter or sorcerer, he ended up losing all sense of landmarks. He was still messed up, confused, and the time away did little to bring clarity to the feelings of before.
He wanted to kiss Forest. More than kiss. He wanted to strip and grind up against him until the crazy heat pounding inside stopped. He didn’t even know Forest. He didn’t even like Forest like that. Forest was a leopard shifter and scared the life out of him.
Raider swallowed hard. He would have kissed him if Forest so much as leaned over. He never had a sex scent do that to him before.
Actually, he never faced so many sex scents before. There was the occasional scent here and there but it was usually watered down in a breeze or lost in a crowd. The few times it was a shifter scent, the one in question quickly dismissed himself and it wasn’t really worth remembering.
The more he thought of it, the more Raider realized how inexperience he was when it came to this problem. It was kind of weird considering all the shifters in his life. Cat shifters weren’t the only ones to experience a type of heat. Most shifters’ heat just didn’t reach the same high intensity or frequency as the feline types. He never dealt with sex scents like these.
There was no escaping whatever the fuck the dragon shifter did to his not so quiet sorcerer mate. Doe had no interest in being subtle. No, his dragon’s kink increased depending on how many people were aware he was claiming his mate at the time. In theory, the idea of having someone fuck their boyfriend in front of him sounded messed up. In practice… well. It might be really hot.
Raider covered his face with his hands, his fingertips dark from his raccoon pattern. He didn’t like Wylie. Or Dorian. Or Forest. Fuck, what the hell was happening to him?
He groaned and stopped in front of another unfamiliar door. At least he was on the same floor. He didn’t end up in the basement with the dragon teacher. There would be no saving him if his raccoon started to fixate on hidden treasure on top of this new weirdness.
Why was his raccoon so weird? Why couldn’t it just be normal and quiet and not mess up his entire fucking life? If it was normal, Fox wouldn’t hate him over everything. If it would calm down for five seconds, maybe he could figure out how to make friends in the pack so no one would try to eat him. But it couldn’t. The stupid beast was too scared to do anything but freak out and run.
The door handle was locked and Raider sighed in defeat. There was no place to hide. He desperately needed to find the lounge and his room but he wasn’t sure he could do it without running into the shifters or sorcerers he was doing everything to avoid.
Again, he thought about running. Every time he tried with Fox, his friend found reasons to pull away even more. He couldn’t figure out how he was fucking it up. Fox wasn’t the type to hold a grudge. He was fucking up something and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could stay in this horrible Academy.
Raider thought he recognized the next hallway. There was something about the arrangement of paintings on the otherwise white walls that looked familiar. The Academy wasn’t cold and corporate even though it was easy to get lost in. The art was all different everywhere he went. Not that he had the ability to appreciate any of it. Not with the strange scents and warnings of magic all over the place. His steps slowed and he dared to stop and look at a painting of a young lady dressed in green. A chill breezed through the air right before he heard a door click down the hall.
Raider wrapped his arms around him to fend off the sudden cold. He really needed to get a jacket or something. He looked down the hall and stilled when he saw Leo standing in the doorway, highlighted by the setting sun outside. Leo didn’t seem to care about the cold, his muscles hard against his thin, long sleeve shirt. His hair was longer, a dark mess with his half shift. His lion ears did little to keep him from looking intimidating as he stepped in and let the door shut behind him. Raider’s eyes slipped down involuntarily and focused on how thick the muscles of Leo’s thighs were in his jeans.
The scent of cigarette smoke filtered in. Raider glanced back up and swallowed hard when he met Leo’s stare. He held his breath. Leo’s grin was dangerous as he took slow, measured steps to where Raider was standing. Soon all Raider could smell and see was the lion shifter. Leo’s gold eyes were full of heat as he came up and blatantly looked him over.
Raider wasn’t sure why he couldn’t move. His heart was slamming in his chest but his feet were being dumb and refused to run. Leo ignored all levels of personal space, his eyes burning as he stepped forward and backed Raider against the wall.
“Hey,” Leo rumbled, his eyes fixed on his downturned face.
“H-Hi,” Raider managed to get out. His cheeks flushed as he looked anywhere but at Leo. It was impossible to ignore him. He was inches away, his scent surrounding him, a wall of muscle and roaring heat. Raider’s blood pounded in his ears. He closed his eyes as he felt his dick swell and body tense. He wasn’t that attracted to Leo, he was pretty sure, but he was getting hard no matter how much he shook.
“I could smell you all the way outside.” Leo leaned closer and inhaled deeply. “And now. How much you want it.”
Raider breathed out unsteadily. Leo’s fingers traced lightly down his cheek to his throat, and he did his best not to tremble. “I… uh…”
Leo’s words were soft, slow as he brushed his thumb across one of Raider’s thorned vine tattoos. “I know this scent. I could do anything to you and you’ll just beg for more, won’t you?”
Raider was unbalanced by the comment, confused how a part of him responded when it didn’t even make sense. He tried to speak but his voice definitely wasn’t working. His throat was too tight and he just couldn’t seem to put two words together as long as Leo was standing so close. It was hard to notice anything else but Leo’s scent, his presence, the heat coming off his flesh and the dark purr of his voice.
Leo’s knuckles slowly stroked down his cheek and jaw. It was electric. Raider fought a whimper and his sight dimmed for a moment. Leo’s mouth brushed his hair and the edge of his ear. The heat from his breath left him dazed.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” Leo pulled Raider’s hand into his and led it to his chest. “I know what kind of shifter you are and I’d never hurt a sexy thing like you.”
Raider dared to peek up, only to quickly look away when Leo’s sharp, gold eyes caught his for a frozen moment. Leo pushed Raider’s palm against his chest and held him there. Raider stared at his hand pinned against Leo’s shirt. Beneath his fingers he could feel his heartbeat. Steady. Strong.
“You’re loyal, right, Valdez? You know your alpha.” Leo hissed as he slowly pushed Raider’s hand down the front of his body. “You want to make your alpha happy, right?”
Raider’s eyes closed and his breath came out in a rough exhale as he felt the raw strength in Leo’s rippling abs beneath the fabric of his shirt. Leo led him lower and Raider’s fingertips caught on his waistband, found the roughness of his jeans and the cool, smooth metal button of his zipper.
“You want to help me out?” Leo’s gaze slid down his heaving chest. A satisfied growl escaped him when he saw Raider’s jeans were tented. “I can protect you like you need, Valdez.”
Raider glanced up through his lashes. Leo intense glare was too much to meet for long. He wet dry lips. “What… what do you mean?”
“You’re scared.” Leo chuckled when Raider immediately denied it. “We can all smell it, Valdez. It’s okay. Some guys, they’re just not strong. They’re not fighters. Not everyone is an alpha.” He leaned down until their faces were nearly level. “It’s okay, hottie.”
Raider gasped and held himself still as Leo caged him back. The wall was cool and unyielding behind him and Leo’s muscular, heat drenched form blocked him from all sides when he raised his arms. Raider stared blankly at the floor, his lower lip caught between his teeth as Leo scented boldly up his neck.
“Fuck, you smell so hot for it.” A purr rumbled in his chest and Leo pressed forward to brush lips to Raider’s gasping mouth. “I can be your alpha. Take care of you. You won’t ever have to be afraid around me.” Leo’s lips pressed again, more solidly this time. His thumb came up to tug Raider by the chin and bring him closer. “You want that, Valdez. I can smell it on you. You want a pack and a pack leader to protect you.”
Did he want that? Raider’s head was swimming. His knees were weak and his dick throbbed for release. Did he? Hadn’t he wanted to get as far away from this dangerous lion shifter as possible? Hadn’t he wanted to jump that horrible magic fence and never see another flesh eater or magic user again?
Leo’s heavy palm found his shoulder. His fingers were strong as he moved down and rubbed Raider’s chest with sure, confident strokes. Raider’s eyes closed and the tension drained from him. He leaned his weight against the wall to keep from falling.
“That’s it, you sexy prey bitch.” Leo breathed in again, his nostrils flared as Raider submitted to his touch. “I’ll be gentle with you. Give you everything you need. Show me what you like and I’ll take care of you.” His body shifted forward. Raider breath hitched when he felt Leo’s erection, hard and long, press against his hip.
Raider had no idea what he was doing. He couldn’t figure out just why he was so hard for this or why he wasn’t telling Leo to stop. He could barely understand this strange deal Leo was offering. Protect him? Leo was the type of shifter he needed to be protected from. Right? It was hard to think with his alpha lion scent so strong in the air. Leo’s hand kept massaging the muscles of his shoulders and chest, each touch dizzying and claiming.
The door down the hall pushed open. Forest brushed snowflakes from his hair as he stepped inside, only to stop cold when he looked their way. “Leo, back the fuck off, man.”
Raider’s eyes cracked open. His head was heavy on the wall and he looked up in confusion. Leo was staring down at him, so much a predator as he drank in his dark eyes and wet lips in ownership. Raider felt a strange thrill of power to have someone like Leo look at him that way.
“Do you want me to stop?” Leo smirked when he didn’t answer. He teased fingertips over the elaborate mandala tattoo on Raider’s throat. “That’s what I thought. Your alpha knows what you want.”
“Leo, I will call the fucking masters. Leave him the fuck alone!”
Leo growled at the threat. His expression sharpened and fangs elongated when Forest stomped up and slammed his hand on the wall beside Raider. Raider knew Forest wasn’t crazy enough to actually challenge Leo. Just the flexing of the lion shifter’s muscles reinforced how large and strong he was.
“Mind your own fucking business, VanWilder,” Leo snarled warningly.
Forest’s glare increased. His claws came out and triangular ears flattened to the side of his head. “You know the line you’re crossing.”
Leo scoffed. “He likes it. Wants it. If you don’t like it, then fuck off.”
“He’s a fucking sub! You know they can’t differentiate…” Forest was cut off when Leo snarled and grabbed him by the back of the neck.
Raider watched from outside himself, unable to move. A part of him was terrified he was going to see Forest torn to pieces. But Leo didn’t take a swing at him or even bare his fangs. He shoved Forest up against Raider and pushed his face right into his armpit.
“Scent him, dumbass,” Leo growled. “Tell me he’s not fucking begging for this.”
Forest’s angry hiss transformed into a low moan. Raider shuddered at the hungry sound. Leo released Forest and when the leopard shifter looked up, his pupils were blown wide, the yellow of his eyes nearly lost in a haze of lust.
“Fuck… Holy fuck, that scent,” Forest whispered unsteadily and gripped the wall for balance.
“Scent?” Raider stared in confusion. It only got worse when Forest’s sex scent flared and hit him fully to combine with Leo’s. A wave of heat flooded him. Raider’s sight dimmed for a moment, fuzzing out the view of Forest looking him up and down with interest. He whimpered and closed his eyes when Forest ducked down and began to press a line of hungry kisses to Raider’s throat and collarbone.
Leo grinned, his teeth sharp. “Now we’re in agreement.” Another purr rumbled through his chest and he grabbed Raider by the jaw and turned his face toward him. His grip was surprisingly gentle when he leaned down and claimed him in a kiss. Raider moaned, his lips parting to the slide of Leo’s tongue. “Good… Be good for us, sexy.” Leo threaded fingers through Raider’s dark hair, massaging his scalp as he tilted his head to meet his kisses. “Show us what you like.”
Leo’s words were a buzz in the back of his mind, his focus lost in the hot, wet touch of lips moving over his skin, his mouth, hands gripping. Raider gasped when Leo’s mouth left him and Forest roughly pushed his shirt up. Cold air and then roaring heat hit him in waves as Forest pressed against him and sealed his mouth to the center of his chest.
“Watch it,” Leo said with a displeased grumble. He shoved Forest’s shoulder out of the way and claimed Raider’s lips again, his tongue stroking into his mouth. Forest was undeterred. His kissed a wandering path with wet slides of his tongue over Raider’s toned chest. He found his nipple beneath the tattoo of roses and thorns and teased the beaded nub with hot licks.
Leo’s large hand gripped Raider’s neck and moved down the front of his throat. It was possessive yet yielding as he soothed with each touch and consumed every soft cry Raider released. Raider felt half devoured. Leo’s tongue explored every plane of his mouth. His teeth nipped at his lips, sinking in and opening him up. He was lost in the scent, the heat, the pulse of the two hard bodies touching, tasting and pulling at him until he was nothing more than the wild sensations and desperate throb of need.
“Clothes, Valdez. You’re wearing too much.” Leo’s hand pushed up under Raider’s shirt when it tried to fall back down.
“Way too much,” Forest agreed hazily. He gripped the t shirt and tugged. The material shredded around his claws and Leo helped pull the remains off of Raider’s torso. Forest’s gaze lit on his face and lingered on Raider’s kiss swollen lips. He looked down, taking in his bare, caramel toned chest covered in a black ink swirl of roses and thorned vines. His hand pressed to Raider’s six-pack abs and fingers spread wide to slide up to his chest.
Raider’s gaze followed, drifting down his bare torso to Forest’s compact, toned frame tight with restrained need. He couldn’t help but wonder what he looked like under his shirt, what his bare flesh would feel like against his.
“Kiss him,” Leo said in Raider’s ear. The quiet order sent a fresh wave of desire through him. He didn’t want to think about why it got him so hard, why he knew he was going to obey. Raider’s breath came out in fast pants as he tentatively leaned forward and reached for Forest’s dark lips. Forest surged forward, pushed him hard against the wall and kissed him fiercely.
Raider exhaled heavily through his nose, his mouth yielding to Forest’s demanding kiss. His lips moved over Raider’s flesh hungrily, wetting his lips, then his chin and throat. Raider yelped softly when teeth sank into his neck for a moment. The pain went straight to his cock. His jeans were unbearably tight, and only grew more so when Leo’s hand gripped down his side and sought first his hip and then his ass. He squeezed the firm flesh and pulled Raider closer so he could claim his mouth again.
“W-What?” Raider mumbled as a terrible chill his hit bare flesh and grew colder. His lashes fluttered open and he immediately squeezed his eyes shut as impossibly bright light assaulted his senses.
“Fucker. Motherfucker!” Leo pulled away with an outraged snarl. The noise he was making could only be described as murderous.
Raider fought to see what he could through his fingers but the light was too intense. Forest was cursing softly but didn’t sound like he was about to kill them all like Leo was. Which could only mean the alpha was under attack. If Leo fell, he would surely be killed next.
“My office. The three of you. Now.”
It took Raider a moment to recognize Michael with anger distorting his voice. Raider abruptly stopped struggling and his face heated up. He didn’t want to face the master sorcerer like this. Not after he just caught him…
“Oh fuck.” Raider covered his face with his hands and fell back against the wall. Reality started to sink in as the heat faded from the air. “Oh my fuck.”
“Whiteheart!” Leo’s roar shook the wall. Raider gasped and snapped his eyes open to find torrents of icy water dripping from Leo’s furious form.
“Damn it, Leo, keep it the fuck together,” Forest muttered. He was in a similar drenched state while crouched on the floor. “Remember where you are.”
Leo was too enraged. His features twisted as his halfshift tried to turn full lion with the loss of his control. “He’s mine to claim. Mine!”
Michael didn’t say a word as Leo’s voice echoed down the hall. Raider couldn’t help but look, wondering if the sorcerer was frightened. He found Michael standing twenty feet away, his eye blazing power as he calmly stared Leo down.
“You have no right!”
“Shit.” Forest’s wet sneakers slipped across the floor as he tried to get away when Michael took one silent, deliberate step toward the three of them. Leo’s roars were more distorted and lion-like by the second but Raider knew it wasn’t him Forest was running from. No, it was Michael. The air around him was unearthly still, as if time decided to stop in show of the sorcerer’s ability.
Michael tilted his head down, his eyes full of challenge. “Leonard, must I remind you of just what you are allowed to own in this Academy?” Leo’s ears folded back at the sound of his voice. Power filled Michael’s every being. The air around them began to change and grow hotter as his magic snapped in aggression.
“You can’t interfere in my claim. It’s my right!” Leo whirled as he shouted.
Raider froze as Leo’s bulking form and razor sharp teeth consumed his vision. This was when he died, he realized fleetingly. He lost his fucking mind, got involved in some alpha bullshit, and his raccoon was absolutely right in being terrified because Leo was going to kill him.
Raider tensed, his eyes squeezed shut in preparation for the killing blow. Only to yelp when Leo’s large palm suddenly cupped his flagging erection through his jeans and held tight.
“You’re mine, Valdez. You know you’re mine.” Leo inhaled heavily and scented down Raider’s form. He deliberately used his mass to block anyone from getting to Raider.
Raider held impossibly still even as he felt his body respond. His cock hardened and muscles loosened as his raccoon tried to take over and give in to Leo. His mind was racing just as fast as his heart. He didn’t know if it was because Leo seemed more beast than man at the moment, or maybe because he was dripping wet and far from comfortable, but Raider wasn’t feeling anything like he had a minute ago. There was no drugged haze from the intense scent surrounding him. He was alert, aware, and certain Leo was seconds from getting his ass beat if he didn’t move.
Raider kept his eyes trained on the floor and tried to keep his breath even. For some reason, the idea of Michael fighting Leo was absolutely exhilarating.
“Leo, stop letting your lion’s dick take over your fucking mind!” Forest shouted from a safe distance away.
Leo looked his way with a snarl, only to turn fully and release Raider when Michael appeared behind him. The sorcerer didn’t say anything or lift his hands in attack. He didn’t have to. Normally easy going and smiling, Michael looked larger and more muscular than before. He was beyond intimidating as he towered over Leo, their eyes locked in a death match. No words were required for an alpha shifter to understand. Leo might be brawn and fighter spirit but he was no equal to the raw power Michael raised up just by standing there.
Raider saw it in Leo’s body language before he backed down. His tail gave an angry twitch and Leo’s shoulders flexed an instant before he snarled and stepped away.
“Fuck!” Leo screamed as he punched the wall. His roar echoed down the hall full of rage and defeat. Raider barely heard it, caught when he found himself suddenly face to face with Michael.
Michael was barely recognizable. There was an animalistic fierceness to his features which hadn’t been there previously. His power was magnetic as it snapped unseen around him in a hot fire. “Office. Now.” His blue eyes blazed as Michael started down the hall. He stopped feet away to make sure he was followed.
Raider didn’t know he was holding his breath until Michael turned away. Air rushed back into his lungs with a gasp. Shame and want hit him in equal proportions as the world again crashed down into startling focus.
What was wrong with him? Why was he like this?
Raider forced his shaking legs to move when Forest stepped up to where Michael was waiting. He didn’t want to be stuck alone in the hallway with Leo. Fuck, Michael had seen him… Raider couldn’t put words to what he did with Leo and Forest. His gaze strayed towards Michael’s shoes, so unable was he to face him.
He was disgusted, right? Or was he challenging Leo because…?
No, that was fucking crazy. Michael was just doing what needed to be done to get a sex crazed alpha to back the fuck down. The guy was a human using magic to act like a shifter to manipulate the situation.
Raider took a steadying breath. That was how shifters were killed by sorcerers. They were tricked, hunted, and their own strength used against them. He knew that. He fucking knew.
Sorcerer. Whiteheart was a sorcerer and far more dangerous than the most aggressive alpha at the Academy.