"It's kill or be killed."
Throttle's deadly warning played on a loop all night long inside my head.
As I rolled to face the opposite side of the bed, the mattress creaked like an old rickety chair swing. The sunlight had only just started to seep through the curtains, a daunting sign that it was time for me to get up.
Jaxton was still snoring like a hippo with asthma. There was a nightstand separating his bed from mine, leaving a two and a half foot gap between us. Despite the intolerable noise, I had barely slept a wink, drowning in turmoil about today's fight. The clinking sound of crockery told me that Jenna was downstairs fixing breakfast. My stomach was way too anxious to contemplate food, but the fuel was vital. No one ever won a fight on an empty stomach. Those were my poppa's wise words. I could really use his counsel right about now.
"Jax, are you awake," I asked, knowing full well that he wasn't, but it was either wake him or press a pillow against his face.
Jax started to stir, mashing his dry lips together.
"Sup?" he responded, in a groggy slur.
"I've been doing some thinking about what your dad said to me last night," I mentioned, recalling the brief conversation in the kitchen.
Throttle presented me with a vital life-line. One that I'd be an idiot to pass up. I could either walk into the cage as an independent fighter, someone with no representation or sponsor, or I could swear an oath to the Blood Moon Bears Motorcycle Club. The way I see it is: better the devil you know than the devil you don't. These guys have had my back since day one. It was like the closest thing to having a family. Somewhere a guy like me could belong.
This sparked Jaxton's interest and he leaned up on one elbow. "Oh yeah?"
I released a steady exhale, having made up my mind. "I'm in."
Jaxton scrambled to sit up, his bare feet hitting the carpet with a thump. "Are you serious?" he spluttered, his face lighting up with boyish glee.
"Deadly," I responded, harboring a double-meaning.
It was 'do' or 'die' and I was not ready to die today.
I ate breakfast in silence. Jenna and Throttle attempted to ease the tension by making small talk. Even Jax was disinterested with his scrambled eggs, keen for us to get going to the clubhouse. We each washed up our own dish, then headed out to Throttle's beat-up truck.
The clubhouse was nothing more than a rundown shack, surrounded by herringbone fencing. An ocean of motorcycles littered the parking lot, guarded by a couple of prospects. They were mean-looking guys who were itching to make their colors as a respectable part of the crew. They eyed Throttle as the second coming of Christ, all about ready to bow down and kiss his dusty boots. As I walked by, I found myself dragged into a head-lock and a set of knuckles rubbed against the top of my scalp.
"I knew you'd come around," Ace, one of the prospects, cited, blowing his blond jaw-length hair out of his face, his blue eyes dancing with glee.
He was a year older than me, having joined the club to follow in his father's footsteps. The dark-haired guy standing next to him was called Blade: dark-haired, silver eyes, and deadly with a knife. Hence the name.
"Let him be," Jenna berated them, casting them a humored scowl.
Throttle's demeanor was as cool as ice. "Get back to business," he muttered, "or else I'll have you, boys, cleaning out the urinal with your tongues."
Jax grimaced. Ace shook his head, vigorously. Blade held his palms up as if to apologize.
"You got it, Alpha," they both spoke in unison.
A bear clan held no such title as 'Alpha'. We were all governed by a council of elders. But in all tense and purposes, Throttle was the Alpha of the Blood Moon Bears MC. The president. The bear in charge.
"Y'all know why you're here. If you don't, then you shouldn't be here so get the fuck out," Throttle drawled, as strolled through the clubhouse.
All the hang arounds, pass arounds, old ladies, Jenna included, all strolled through to the bar area. This was club business, and only solid members we're permitted to sit in on the meeting—initiation—or whatever the hell Throttle was planning on cooking up.
My gut clenched at the thought, having heard some of the horror stories from Jaxton.
The stench of sweat and testosterone clung to the stuffy air. Dirty denim and leather-clad muscles stood shoulder to shoulder around the dingy pool room, all eying me with interest. Jax flashed a shit-eating grin as if he knew what was coming. Throttle's poker-face remained as stoic as always as he circled on the spot. He delivered a brief speech about welcoming a new addition to the family. There wasn't any doubt about whether I'd be an asset to the club; my reputation in the cage had proceeded me. The guys greeted me with open arms. I had to start from the bottom like all new recruits, but at least I had a purpose. Throttle handed me a faded leather cut that had 'prospect' emblazoned on the back. I half expected the golden shower to commence the second I put it on, but the guys had something nastier planned for me instead.
"You're kidding, right?" I murmured to Throttle, who was looking as serious as a heart attack.
"Did I stutter?" He jibed, "Think of this as a joining gift. You got a big night ahead of you. It'll do you good to go and blow off some steam."
"In Bessie The Ballbreaker?" I winced my eyes, pleadingly.
Not that. Anything but that. Even one of the pass around's whores was more appealing than the three-hundred-pound sow. I was rather fond of my dick. Big Bessie could snap a tree trunk in half. I did not fancy my chances.
"Think what you want about the old gal, but she knows how to give a killer blow job," one of the guys chortled.
Throttle slapped his hand against my shoulder, nudging me forward. "Come back when you've busted a nut and we'll talk s' more 'bout tonight."
R.I.P dick. I'd rather shove it inside a blender.
All my blood drained south alright, but it was as if it rushed to my feet, making my steps heavy and lumbered. Jax was clutching his sides in laughter and it took everything I had not to sock him in the gut as I passed. I shot him an admonishing look, promising to get him back for this.
"It's just pussy, Kian. Shut your eyes and think of that cheerleader chick," he teased.
I left behind the sound of raucous laughter as I trundled off to be scarred for life.
Before long it was almost time to enter the cage. News of my deathmatch had pulled in the punters. The rambunctious crowd all placing bets on which one of us would win.
"The reaper is here," Jaxton announced, muscling his way through the changing room.
His brows we're fixed onto an anxious frown. I let out a long exhale.
I figured as much.
If the reaper was here then Lexi wouldn't be. Chance would have to get some other broad to come and shave my head. I missed talking with Lexi. I was the only other person besides Chance who knew that her real surname was Grayson.
Jax rubbed the back of his neck with an awkward look on his face. "That's not all. Your phone has been going off like crazy."
He held out the device for me to take. I swiped the home screen and saw who had been blowing it up with calls.
If he was desperate to talk to me then it was likely to be more bad news. Maybe that was the kind of hate fire I needed to fuel my rage. My thumb hovered over the call back button before I finally pressed 'call'.
After the fourth ring, Charlie's mournful tone told me all that I needed to know.
"Hey, Kian..." His sigh rattled down the line.
I cleared my throat before responding. "Hi, Charlie. How's my girl doing?" I asked, feeling my heart start to hurt my chest with a slow, torturous thump.
"She passed away peacefully an hour ago," Charlie informed, his voice breaking with grief.
Moisture distorted my vision and I was nodding my head, despite him not being able to see me. "She's gone," I managed to croak, my voice sounding strained.
"Yeah..." Charlie's defeated tone brought me no comfort at all.
A moment of silence passed between us as we were shared the agony.
"I'll talk to you some more about the funeral arrangements. I was thinking that maybe you'd like to give a eulogy," he offered, respectfully.
For all I knew, I'd be joining her before the night was over. But at this moment, all that I could think about was doing right by her: my Mrs. B.
"Thank you for thinking of me. I'd be honored to, Charlie."
We ended the call and I just stared at the screen until it faded back to black. The bittersweet promise that I made to her was null and void now that she was no longer with us. Those bastards took the ring that she gave to me. A ring that I was supposed to give to my mate. Right now, that seemed like the only promise that mattered, and I was hell-bent on getting it back.
"You're on last," Chance announced, popping his head around the doorway.
Throttle nudged his way past him, accompanied by Jenna.
Jenna gave me that motherly look as she ruffled her fingers through my hair.
"Hand me those clippers, will you?" She muttered to Throttle. "I'll take care of this."
Throttle did as his wife asked then crouched down to look me in the eye.
"The club has your back, son. The reaper wants a word before you step into the cage. I want you to know that we'll be watching and waiting to step in if there's any foul play. You have my word," he promised.
Any other time, news of the reaper wanting a word meant the exact opposite. If he sought you out, that was usually to put a bullet in your skull. Now I was interested to find out what he wanted with me. What could a nobody from the slums of Bear Creek possibly have to offer the Reaper Cartel?
The noise from the hair clippers vibrated through my skull, stripping away piece after piece of the old Kian Jones. When Jenna was done, I rinsed my bristly scalp in the sink and lifted my gaze to the mottled mirror. I knew what I had to become and I was at peace with that.
The transition of man-to-beast is a natural process for a shifter. But succumbing to the nature of a beast only happens through a lifetime of trauma. That's when you know, you've embraced the darkness that has blackened your soul. It's where you become one with the demons that have tormented your thoughts since childhood. It's when your own name loses all significance, and the monster that is staring you back in the mirror looks through your own eyes and smiles.
"We'll be watching from the front row," Jaxton informed me, just as everyone piled out of the room.
I was left to my own thoughts for a fraction of a moment. The slow drag of boots scraping against the non-slip tiles lets me know that I'm no longer alone. My skin bristled, letting me know that I'm standing in the presence of an alpha. I crane my head to look, coming face to face with a green-eyed devil instead.
"Reaper," I acknowledged, courteously.
Manners cost nothing, but to me, they mean everything.
"Mr. Jones," he replied in a lazy Cajun drawl.
I wait for him to speak first, figuring he was here to say his piece. It's not until we're standing toe to toe that I see the silent analysis in his reptilian eyes. His black vertical slits flinched with intrigue, flooding my mind with paranoia.
"Ain't you an enigma?" He murmured, studying me intensely.
Was that a trick question intended to throw me off my guard?
"Why me?" I throw him a question as a counter-attack. "If you want a man dead you let your goons take care of it. Why choose me? Why an illegal fight in the cage?"
The gangster doesn't so much as flinch as he answers with, "Because you're the perfect cover. If I make a move on the leader of the Shadow Wolves, then that's classed as a challenge. I could take that rogue bastard off the map with a shake of my tail but it'll arouse the suspicion of Alpha Alec, and that's a battle that I'm saving for another day. I picked you because you reek of potential. When I look at you, I see past the slum cub nobody that Bear Creek has already written off. I see real rags to riches shit."
He bounced his gaze down to my clenched fists and back again. "I bet on you to win because I see your worth."
I scoffed at his comment, rolling my eyes. "Bullshit, you're just using me as a scapegoat. If I fight, I could die. If I don't fight, you'll see to it that I'm six-feet under. Either way, my only chance is in that cage. You orchestrated that when you set your sight on me. Don't act like you're doing me any favors."
The reaper rolled his tongue in his mouth as he deliberated his next move. My smart mouth has landed me in hot water many times before, but you don't poke a stick at a gator without risking getting your hand bitten off. Too bad that I was all out of fucks to give.
"You got fire in your belly, I'll give you that," he responded, somewhere halfway between a compliment and a warning. "But you're dead wrong. I'm handing you a golden opportunity. One that'll make it rain green for you and for that biker club you've pledged yourself to. You do this one little favor for me and I'll help you go pro. You can name any price you want. Name it and it's yours."
The serious glower on my face refused to budge through his whole speech. The reaper was offering me a shot as a professional fighter. Opportunities like that only came once in a lifetime. Dad was living proof of that. Besides, the club could really use the extra cash. Only a fool would snub the offer to make easy money. Dad always told me that. The guys at the club pitched in all that they could spare, which didn't amount to much. It just helped with running costs. We were by no means rolling in cash, we were as broke as the next man.
"You got yourself a deal," I agreed, holding out my hand and sealed it with a handshake.
The reaper's lips curled up over his teeth in a crocodile smile. I expected to see a graveyard of nicotine colored rocks; instead, he dazzled me with a set of pearly whites.
"Another thing," I mentioned, grasping his fingers like a vise. "One of your henchmen took something that belongs to me, and I want it back. As soon as I'm done with the shadow fucker, I'm coming for him."
The reaper's lips were downturned as if he thought that was fair enough. "Fair's fair," he muttered with a shrug.
I pulled back, straightening my posture.
"I'm gonna go take a ringside seat and enjoy the show." He tapped my shoulder in passing. "Knock 'em dead," he chuckled at his parting words.
A few minutes pass by then the end of the round bell starts to ring in my ears. That's my cue to drag my anxious ass out of the locker room and greet my opponent. I do so with a confident swagger, putting on a show for all the cheering fans. The crowd grows wild as my robe drops to the ground and I begin the routine warm-up at the foot of the cage. Mad Dog eyes me from the other side like a rabid animal, hell-bent on coming out of here the victor. I spot the reaper’s goons from across the room; the acrid green lighting makes them all look like a bunch of frogs standing next to a mountain of muscle. The guy is huge, even from a distance. He gives me a nod, a signal from him to me that he’s rooting for my corner. That’s reassuring. I for one didn’t think that I stood a chance until this morning. It feels as if the ghosts of my past are all watching over me, ready to push me back through the veil if I fall through to the other side. I can hear my momma yelling to me that it isn’t my time yet, my poppa growling words of encouragement, and Mrs. B. harping on about brains being better than brawn.
“Don’t you worry,” I muttered under my breath. “I ain’t ready to meet my maker just yet.”
Ricochet hollered for us to step on up, and I duck and dive my way into the center of the ring. Mad Dog beat his fists at me, which was fighter's talk for ‘You’re going down!’ He had some front, I’d give him that. The way he was spewing off like that, rallying up the crowd, he’d tire himself out before the first bell sounded.
“All bets are closed!” Chance called out through the crowd.
Some late straddlers started voicing their protest, but it was too late. Once he raised the red flag high in the air, it was done and dusted.
“In the right corner, from the boundary of our beloved town,” Ricochet proceeded with the announcements, “we have Mad Dog, the alpha of the Shadow Wolves.” Raucous cheers erupted through the underground club and rattled around the room. The bloodthirsty crowd all wanted to see some guts spilled, no matter whose they were. “And in the left corner, from the mountain range of Bear Creek, we have the son of Razor, and member of The Blood Moon Bears, Kian Jones!” The name didn’t seem to fit the raging demon inside me. It felt as if Kian Jones was some guy I knew from another lifetime.
The reaper met my gaze and it was like staring into the eyes of the devil. A dark fog spread from my heart and filled up every inch of my body. Consumed by hatred, hurt, and anger, I unleashed the horror that manifested inside me. That was the day that Kian Jones died.
"One day, they'll chant your name from the crowd." My father's voice filtered its way through my memory bank.
"Jeez, I hope not," I remembered my childish response.
“Don’t you wanna do something more useful with your time?” Mom’s old attitude towards my schooling came back to me like a flashback.
“Kian, use your noodle. The power of the mind is infinite, while the power of brawn is limited.” Mrs. B’s wise words were like an eerie echo.
I waited for the red mist to clear from my vision, my chest heaving with deep, ragged pants. That’s when I could taste it rolling down my esophagus, the thick, coppery taste of blood. My eyes bulged, and I staggered back a step, feeling my feet slide on the wet ground. Mad Dog lay at my feet, a hand clamped down over the gaping hole where his throat used to be. Camera flashes blinded me from every angle. The background sounds blending together to form a high-pitched frequency. It happened before I had even realized what was happening. Punches had been raining down from both sides. The violence escalated to a partial shift, and that’s when the beast unleashed his fury for all to see.
"Beast! Beast! Beast!" The crowd began to chant like some bloodthirsty mantra.
Ricochet and Chance dove into the arena, but it seemed as if they were moving in slow motion. By the time they got to Mad Dog, he was already dead. His hand fell limp on the ground and his head rolled to the side, his eyes empty and soulless.
“Beast! Beast! Beast!” the crowd kept on mouthing, like something out of a silent movie. Then the end bell dragged me back into reality, and all of the sounds came flooding right back.
“Kian!” Jaxton hollered, banging his palm against the cage.
My gaze snapped to his, and I saw the fearful loot that was branded across his face.
I spat away out the obstruction in my mouth as Ricochet snatched my wrist and held it above our heads. Blood ran down my arm and trickled into my armpit, meeting with hair and sweat. My injuries had already begun to mend; the purple abrasions fading to the color of my skin, the lacerations knitting together, all the punctured teeth marks vanishing into nothing. All that was left was the blood and the pound of flesh that I spat onto the ground.
“We have a winner! The Beast from Bear Creek!” Ricochet celebrated, and the crowd went wild.
It’s true what they say: a name is something that you’re given or you’ve earned. I had been given the name Beast, and I supposedly earned it all the same. But could I honestly say that I was proud of how I obtained it? It is my pride that stops me from sharing that with you today. All that I can say is that nothing in this life comes for free. It generally costs something, and today I can honestly say that I paid the ultimate price.
Ricochet let my arm drop loose and I stalked forward to grip the rusty herringbone metal. My eyes homed in on my prize: the diamond ring that was hanging from a silver chain around the henchman’s neck. If he valued his life, he would hand it over rather than force me to come and retrieve it. The reaper nudged his goon and muttered something, languidly. I watched the wolf shifter’s eyes flinch as he unclasped the chain, dallying as if he would rather gouge out his own eyeballs than look at me. Grudgingly, he sauntered his way towards me and met me at the open gate. I saw the bob in his throat as he pressed the item of jewelry into my palm.
“I was just holding onto this for you,” he mumbled, not even brave enough to make eye contact.
Or maybe it was because I really did look like something that had crawled out of the fiery pits of hell. Using my free hand, I grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt and pulled his face close to mine.
“If you or your boss so much as think about crossing me again, it’ll take more than the Reaper Cartel to save you. Now you go back and tell him that he better make good on his promise. The Blood Moon Bears prefer to work with cash, you got that?”
His brown eyes trembled from side to side as they darted between mine, then he nodded. “Loud and clear.”
The reaper scowled as he struggled to read the situation. There was too much noise going on in here for him to tune into the conversation, and it was just as well. The guy wasn’t a force to be fucked with. I spared the curious mob boss a curt nod before I left to collect my winnings. The cash sum would come in handy to clear up some of my family's debt until the sale of the house goes through. Any leftovers had to go straight to the club. That’s just how they run things.
Jaxton was waiting beside Throttle and the rest of the guys. Jenna was struggling to scrub off the tear tracks of mascara from her cheeks.
“Come here, you!” she blubbed as she flung her arms out at me.
Throttle scruffed his palm against my buzzed scalp. “You had me hanging onto the seat of my pants, boy!”
The troubled expression had faded from Jaxton’s face, leaving behind the look of relief. “Wasn’t ready to bury you, bro,” he spoke, soberly. “I always knew that you could do it.”
“What you got there?” Jenna asked, flicking her eyes to the silver chain that protruded through my fist.
I opened my palm to show her the ring. “A promise that I intend to keep this time.”
She hiccoughed as she pulled me into another motherly embrace. "Whoever she is, she's a lucky girl."
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