Hamish overcame his shock almost immediately, throwing his massive bulk into Ian and knocking him off Sawyer’s crumpling form. But it was too late. Sawyer’s head was hanging obscenely from a bloody thread and Ian was spitting out pieces of his throat.
Hamish may have been twice Ian’s size in human form, but Ian’s wolf was almost as big as Conrad’s and Hamish shifted slowly, giving Ian time to spring on him, going for the vulnerable human throat again.
Hamish moved fast. Ian managed a glancing blow at the crook of his shoulder before Hamish gave him a huge shove and rolled away to finish shifting. As soon as he did, Ian would be at a disadvantage; larger human forms usually mean larger wolves. Ian had to handicap Hamish right now.
Hamish grunted as Ian’s jaws clamped around his lower leg, snapping the more delicate wolf-bones as he shifted. Hamish twisted to take a large bite out of Ian’s side. Ian yelped and Hamish yanked back his leg.
Hamish was all wolf now and he faced Ian down, his broken back leg dangling awkwardly from his powerful flank. Any random guest or Church member could turn the corner and see them right now, but Ian’s wolf didn’t care and neither did Ian.
Conrad’s voice floated though Ian’s head. Whatever your opponent is expecting, don’t do that. What had always seemed like a useless, typically vague piece of adult advice like ‘stay out of trouble’ and ‘use your head’ suddenly had new meaning.
Ian’s muscles bunched and flexed under Hamish’s assessing gaze. He saw the moment Hamish concluded he was about to attack. Hamish was good, Ian would give him that, but Conrad’s training had made Ian better. The bigger wolf leapt forward at the same moment Ian did—then sailed past him into the garden when Ian feinted to the side.
Before Hamish could shake it off, Ian was on him, aiming for a front leg this time. Hamish recovered quickly and they fought in a cloud of dust, blood, and fur until Ian managed to knock him out with the help of a bronze toddler-sized statue of Serafina at the edge of the garden.
Hamish’s head bounced off it—twice—and his massive body slumped to the ground. Ian’s heart pounded as he eyed him cautiously. Serafina! he mindlinked her when Hamish didn’t move. Are you still in the sunroom?
It was almost dark now. Ian held his breath for her answer. Yes, still here.
Good. Stay there, okay? I’m on my way.
Battered and bloody, Ian allowed himself a brief moment of triumph before he limped out of the garden, staying close to the wall in the darkening shadows.
Serafina, he prodded when she didn’t reply. Answer me.
Yes. Okay. I’ll stay here. She sounded distracted. Had King told her what was going on? And how much had he told her? Any of it would be enough to shock her. No matter what she thought about the Elders, Ian knew their betrayal was going to hurt. And when she found out King planned to separate them she’d be devastated.
At the end of the building Ian paused. He couldn’t just stroll up to the front of the Church in wolf form, but he couldn’t walk out naked either. His clothes were back on the ground somewhere lying in tatters. His mind racing, he crouched down near the ground and peered around the corner.
The front of the Church was quiet. The lamp posts along the driveway glowed yellow in the dimming light. A Church member named Oscar was acting as valet for a late arrival couple and a few knots of guests stood smoking near the entrance.
Ian’s heart leapt as he saw Conrad, now standing by the main doors. Without thinking twice Ian quietly yelped, sticking his muzzle out further around the corner. The second time, Conrad turned in his direction and the third time, Conrad found him.
Ian had the satisfaction of seeing Conrad’s eyes widen in surprise. His trainer looked around before striding briskly towards Ian, forcing him to back up as Conrad rounded the corner and faced him.
“What the fuck are you—?” Conrad broke off as he took in Ian’s limp and bloodied form. Hamish had torn more than a few pieces out of him. “Shit. All right. Shift.”
Ian obeyed the command without hesitation, relieved to hand over control to his trainer for the next few minutes at least. Conrad stripped his jacket off, shaking his head at the wounds and bruises covering Ian’s human face and form.
“Where’s the body?” Conrad rapped out as he started on his pants. Like he just assumed that for Ian to look this bad, there had to be a body somewhere. Ian felt a stab of pride.
“By the garden door.” Ian caught the pants Conrad tossed him and put them on. They were too big and he had to roll the waistband to keep them from sliding down his narrow hips. “There’s two of them, but only one’s dead.”
Conrad dipped his head, impressed. “Who are they?”
He had unbuttoned his dress shirt but instead of giving it to Ian, he pulled off the t-shirt he wore underneath and tossed it to Ian instead. “This shirt was expensive,” he muttered as he slid his arms back into the sleeves. He tipped his chin toward Ian. “I have five more of those at home.”
Ian didn’t flinch at the smell of sweat and Conrad’s deodorant clinging to the tee. “King sent them to keep me away from Serafina,” he said as pulled it over his head. “He’s going to marry her.”
Conrad focused on buttoning his shirt properly, like it mattered with no pants on. “I know.”
“You know?” Ian felt like he’d been punched in the gut. “You knew about this and didn’t tell me? She’s twelve years old for fuck’s sake!”
“He’s not a pedo. Nothing’s going to happen until she’s older,” Conrad said in the tone of something he’d repeated to himself many times.
Ian closed his eyes against a rush of relief so powerful, it almost hurt. The idea of Serafina...of King...Ian shuddered uncontrollably. But that just took one thing off the pile. One very big, very horrifying thing, but still only one of the reasons Ian needed to get Serafina away. They couldn’t trust anybody here anymore. Not King, not the Elders, not anyone who had gone along with this, by action or by silence.
“It’s still fucked up.” Ian opened his eyes and stared at his trainer. The man who for all intents and purposes had raised him. “Did you know King was planning to send me away? Separate us?”
Conrad nodded, once, reluctantly. “It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.” He held up his hand when Ian turned red with fury. “But that’s not why I didn’t tell you.”
Ian kept his wolf tamped down tightly as he waited for his trainer to continue. Conrad let out a long breath.
“Look, I was going to tell you about the wedding. I wasn’t worried about pissing Macklin off—once you’re gone, so am I. We both assumed you’d be going with her. I doubt Macklin would’ve gone along with him taking her otherwise.” Conrad shook his head slowly. “Then I get a call from Boone about tickets to a match...” He rolled his eyes. “...And he mentions some friend of his. A wolf who runs a training academy for rogues.”
“Hamish.” Ian tossed his thumb over his shoulder. “He’s the one who’s not dead.”
“First real battle and you’re taking down a Master. That’s my boy.” Ian’s chest expanded at the pride in his trainer’s voice before his brief smile faded. “Anyway, Boone starts saying what a big fan this guy is, and how pysched he is to have a student of mine at his school.” Conrad paused. “I only have one student.”
“You still should’ve—” Ian began hotly.
“I couldn’t.” Conrad cut him off. “Five minutes after I hung up with Boone I got another call. From King this time. He made it clear he didn’t want anyone knowing that you weren’t going to Montana with Serafina after the wedding. Not you, not her, not the Elders. So I kept my mouth shut.” Conrad met Ian’s gaze squarely. “I’m not proud of it, but he’s the Rogue King. I’m assuming you know that by now. If I told you, he would have killed me. And my friends. And anyone else he thought I might have talked to about it, just in case.”
Conrad looked miserable. Ian felt his outrage deflating. He wasn’t naive enough to think Conrad was exaggerating. Of course he didn’t want to be responsible for a trail of innocent bodies. Neither did Ian. There was no point in being angry with Conrad for a decision he should never have had to make in the first place. Especially when he was risking the Rogue King’s wrath by helping him now.
Ian nodded at the question in Conrad’s eyes: We’re good. Conrad’s shoulders relaxed in his perfectly buttoned shirt over red plaid boxers. His thick, hairy legs ended in black socks with dress shoes. Ian snickered. “You look like an extra from The Bachelor Party.”
Conrad shot him a dirty look. “Fuck you. I’m going to go take care of the bodies. You go do—” He paused, his expression changing as he scanned Ian’s face. “You go do what you got to do.” Bending to pick up his suit jacket, he shook his head. “I’m guessing that isn’t running for your fucking life right now after killing one of King’s friends.”
“Nope.” It struck Ian forcibly that this could be the last time they saw each other. He didn’t know where yet but Ian was taking Serafina far away from here, and knowing what he knew now, he wasn’t leaving a forwarding address with anybody. Not even Conrad.
The sky was almost dark. The service would begin soon. A fresh wave of urgency passed over Ian and his wolf was starting to pace again.
“He’ll still kill you for helping me,” Ian blurted. The thought made his stomach clench painfully.
“He can try.” Conrad seemed to grow in size, his expression hardening in a way that was familiar to shifter MMA fans across the Empire. “But if even he does, I’m the only one he’ll kill.”
Ian nodded, but hesitated. Could he really be responsible for Conrad’s death?
“Hey!” Conrad barked, reading his student’s thoughts perfectly. “None of that shit. I’ve risked my life for less. A shitload less.” It was his turn to hesitate before going on slowly. “You know I don’t go for all your Church and White Goddess shit. But there’s no denying Serafina’s no ordinary human. Whatever you want to call them, her abilities, her powers...look how strong they are now, and she’s just a kid. You told me she made it rain last week, for fuck’s sake. Who knows what she’ll be able to do when she’s eighteen or twenty-five.”
It dawned on Ian the moment the question left his lips. His wolf stopped pacing and stood stock still, nearly vibrating in alert. Something Hamish said passed through Ian’s mind. This is bigger than you. Bigger than all of us.
But Conrad was already answering. “And she, and all those powers, will be under control of the Rogue King.”
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