Nick turned at the edge of the hot spring to see Peach striding towards him from the direction of camp. He’d kept busy all day trying to distract himself and had hoped the lithium-infused waters would soothe his aching muscles and calm the anxiety still roiling inside him.
“Why?” Nick squinted at the pool beneath the swirling steam. “Did somethig die in there?”
Peach shook her head. “Cap’n wants to see you.”
Nick’s shoulders slumped. “About what?” Not that it mattered. He stomped to the boulder where he’d left his clothes. When the Captain called, you answered.
“Damn, Nick.” Peach ran a slow look down his naked form. “Why weren’t you this cut when we were together?”
“Same reason your blow jobs got better.” Nick shoved his legs into his boxers and reached for his pants. “Daily workouts.”
Peach sputtered as Nick grabbed his shirt and stalked past her. The strapping six-foot tall Master Corporal had served under Alpha Captain Thomas Grayson almost as long as Nick had. After a brief fling early on, they’d settled into an easy working friendship.
Peach recovered quickly and caught up to him, her long-legged strides nearly matching his own.
“You want to be rude, fine.” She dodged an elbow to her face as Nick pulled his shirt on. “I guess I won’t tell you who’s with him then.”
“Who’s with him?” Nick asked in surprise. He hadn’t heard of anyone visiting camp today.
“Not telling.” Peach lifted her chin and looked away with a sniff. She might be a battle-hardened warrior and an Amazon by even shifter standards, but she was still a woman. Nick rolled his eyes.
“Fine. Don’t.” Nick shrugged in a way he knew would annoy her. It was probably just a runner from one of the outposts or one of the local pack leaders whose territories the camp was straddling.
The afternoon sun was bright as they stepped out of the forest surrounding the bustling camp. Nick turned toward the officers’ tents without a word.
“You’re a dick, you know that?” Peach shouted after him.
“Oh, he knows,” quipped a passing warrior, laughing as Nick raised his middle finger high.
Buttoning his shirt as he went, Nick wondered about the mystery guest and hoped it was no one he needed to impress. Nick struggled with diplomacy at the best of times and today, with acid burn of some unknown betrayal still smouldering in his gut, was not the best of times.
He paused outside the door to tuck in his shirt before knocking on the tent frame peremptorily. “Peach said you wanted to see me?” Nick said as he stepped inside.
“Yes, yes.” Tom waved him forward. “Come in.”
Nick obeyed, his eyes widening as they settled on the man standing by the map on the far wall of the tent. This was no runner or local pack leader. He looked more like a mage with dark red hair and silver eyes that stood out startlingly against the high collar of his long black coat. His slim form emanted an unmistakable aura of power.
“Nick, this is Minister of Intelligence Rael Tennyson from the High Council.” Tom flashed Nick a warning look: He’s important. Watch yourself. “Minister Rael, this is Lieutenant Nick Durban, my second in command.”
Nick couldn’t hide his surprise as he bared his neck to Tom’s illustrious guest. The High Council spymaster was probably the most powerful wolf in the Empire next to Hirate himself. Literally and politically. He was over two hundred years old and it was said he could mindlink any shifter in the Empire and compel even the most powerful Alphas as easily as he would a human.
“Lieutenant.” The Minster nodded graciously, his creepy silver eyes scanning Nick’s face like he could see right through him. Who knows, maybe he could. “Thank you for joining us.”
Nick managed a polite nod, then ruined it by adding: “Not like I had a choice.”
Tom shot him a repressive look. Minister Rael looked amused.
“Point taken.” He tilted his head in acknowledgement. “Your captain tells me you’ve just returned from a reconnaissance mission of a rogue community outside Eldorado.” He paused for Nick’s nod. “You reported that the leader and his entourage were preparing to travel to the coast for the Rogue King’s wedding?”
“That’s correct.” Nick slid into debriefing mode smoothly and with relief. This was him, not the angsty, emotional mess he’d been all day. “It was all anyone could talk about. What a surprise it was, what an honour for Pierson to be invited and so on.”
“Pierson is the leader of the Eldorado group,” the Minister interrupted to confirm. He nodded at Tom’s invitation to sit and settled into one of the wooden chairs at the foot of the desk.
Nick followed suit, angling himself to face both men. “Yes. It was the first we’d heard of Lucifer King in the area or any plans he had to get married.” It was big news. The Rogue King was a wolf of large appetites and that included females. Women across the Empire told stories of their encounters with King. Never had he been associated with any particular female of either species.
Who would he possibly be marrying? And why? It had to be political but to what end? Who was he allying himself with? The Rogue King didn’t share power, he took it. He was the ultimate rogue after all. He didn’t make alliances.
“No details about the bride, though,” Tom said, a half-question since Nick had already answered it in his report.
“No. Just that she was much younger.”
Tom gestured dismissively. “That could make her anything under eighty-five. You also mentioned in your report there was some question about her species?”
The Minister’s eyes sharpened with interest. Nick nodded, not missing the smug satisfation that flashed across Tom’s face that they had information the Minister didn’t.
“That’s right.” Nick shifted to face them both directly. “Pierson isn’t in the Rogue King’s inner circles, but his sister is married to one of the trainers at Garnet Range. According to the rumours over there, the bride may not be a shifter.”
“The Rogue King married a human?” Tom’s rugged features creased in bemusement.
A flicker of surprise crossed the Minister’s placid features. “There are other species besides humans and wolf shifters.”
“What, like bear and panther shifters? They’re a myth,” Nick scoffed unthinkingly. “And I don’t see the Rogue King fucking a vampire.”
“Nick.” Tom growled a warning. But again, the Minister only looked amused.
“Until now, neither did I. I won’t thank you for placing that particular image in my head.” His lips curved wryly.
Nick and Tom exchanged a look. Did the Minister just make a joke? He must have, because Tennyson’s face became even more serious as he continued.
“As it happens, there are other breeds of shifters in certain parts of the world.” The Minister’s hand fluttered in a dismissive gesture. “But that aside, you’re forgetting about witches. And elementals.”
A weighted silence fell over the desk as they absorbed the implications of either one of those beings in intimate union with the Rogue King. An elemental’s power was absorbed by their mate, giving them heightened strength and abilities. Strength and abilities the Rogue King would use to feed his limitless appetite for power.
As for witches...they weren’t just the Empire’s greatest enemies, they were enemies of the entire shifter race, with a bloody history that went back millennia. Surely not even Lucifer King was rogue enough to literally get in bed with witches.
The Minister was the first to shake off his thoughts. “Let’s not speculate on rumours. Did you follow Pierson to the wedding?”
Nick pulled a face. “I tried to, but they got pulled over for speeding on the I-5 an hour after they hit the road. A couple of them gave the CHiPs a hard time and the cops called for back-up.” Nick’s voice dripped with contempt and irritation. “Four of them, including Pierson are spending the weekend in the custody of human law enforcement for obstruction and resisting arrest. The other two turned the car around and headed home.”
“It may have saved their lives,” the Minister murmured cryptically.
Nick frowned. “How’s that?”
“You think they were attending the Rogue King’s wedding,” Tom said to the Minister.
“Who?” Nick looked from one of them to the other.
“It seems increasingly likely,” the Minister said. “Though we still don’t know how, or why.”
“How or why what?” Nick demanded, forgetting his place completely in his frustration. “What are you talking about?”
Tom flashed him another warning look. “Minister Rael travelled here from Sonora to discuss some news he received from down the coast.”
“Sonora’s not on the coast,” Nick said, confused.
“Down the coast from here,” Tom clarified. Annoyance crossed his face and disappeared. He obviously wasn’t pleased the Minister had received intelligence local to them before they did from hundreds of miles away.
“Shifter news?” Nick furrowed his brows. There weren’t any shifter communities between here and Sonora. Regular wolves had only started returning to the area after being hunted to extinction by humans some hundred years ago.
“Rogue shifter news.” Tom glanced at the Minister as if for permission to continue. “Over two dozen bodies were found dead on a beach just south of San Simeon at dawn this morning.”
“Dead from what? How do you know they’re rogues? Who found them? There’s been no news of fighting in the area.”
Minister Rael raised his brows at Nick’s rapid-fire questions. “A local human photographer was operating a drone over the area just after six this morning when he saw them.” His voice became grave. “One of our operatives was among the early responders and scented them immediately. We’re extremely fortunate she was able to arrange for the bodies to be replaced with human corpses before they reached the coronor for examination.”
Nick didn’t ask where the Minister’s operative had gotten two dozen dead humans in such a short space of time. “Why? Shifters die in human form and get autopsied by authorities all the time.”
“True,” the Minister conceded placidly. “There are few differences between a human body and a shifter’s body in human form, and they are invariably dismissed as anomalies. But almost thirty bodies with identical anomalies ? That would have led to more in-depth investigation.”
That made sense. Nick nodded slowly. “So I assume you have your own doctors? Did they tell you how they died?”
“You assume correctly. Further examination is ongoing, but the immediate cause of death is apparent. They jumped from the cliffs above.”
And anyone who doesn’t like it can jump off the cliff. The words flashed through Nicks’s mind in the girlish voice from his dream with a visceral memory of clinging to his dream-friend’s back under a full moon and surrounded by hostile shifters.
Not a cliff. The cliff, Nick noted for the first time. Wherever his dream had taken place last night, there was a cliff nearby. And then this morning, a pile of bodies found on the beach in real life.
Nick swallowed hard. “Jumped, not fell?”
Minister Rael nodded. “The positions and injuries on their bodies are consistent with a strong, forward-facing leap from the edge.”
“If they were being driven off a cliff by some unknown entity, they would have fallen off backwards or sideways,” Tom mumured as if he was picturing it. “Close to the rockface.”
“Why would they jump off a cliff?” Nick asked, struggling to absorb what he was hearing. What he was putting together.
“Good fucking question,” Tom said grimly. “These were strong shifters. Rogue leaders and their top security. Human investigators are treating it like some kind of suicide pact. Apparently there’s a local church-slash-cult close to the cliffs where they fell. There was some kind of big event there last night, which we now think—”
“Was the Rogue King’s wedding,” Nick murmured distractedly. The giant shifter in his dream. The only one unaffected by whatever had turned the others into a zombie horde and powerful enough to override it for one of them at least, the slightly less huge man who’d been chasing them. Was the giant in his dream the Rogue King? What did it mean?
Tom nodded. “We know the Rogue King has the power to compel any rogue to do anything.” His expression became bemused. “But why kill off rogue leaders? They all answered to him.”
Unless it wasn’t him that compelled them. Nick pushed aside the irrational thought. “Maybe he got wind of some kind of coup?”
Tom pulled a thoughtful face. “Possible, I suppose.”
“But that’s not what you believe, is it Lieutenant?” Minister Rael’s eyes narrowed on Nick’s face. “You know something.”
Nick forced himself not to squirm under the Minister’s penetrating gaze. “No. Not really.”
“Not really?” Tom’s brows flew up. “What does that mean?”
Should he tell them about his dream? Should he not? Did he even have a choice? Nick let out a hard breath. “It means...nothing. It’s silly. Just...I had a dream last night.”
Braced for their mockery, Nick found himself under even closer examination than before. A deep ‘V’ appeared between the Minister’s brows.
“One of those dreams?” Tom was the only person Nick had told. “Nick has been having recurring lucid dreams for about ten years now,” he explained in an aside to the Minister. “So what happened in this one?”
“Well...” Nick began reluctantly. He could feel the fear and sadness creep back into his chest as he told them about his dream last night. “...Then he shifted mid-jump and we ran. Well, he did. I just held on.” It was humiliating to remember, even in a dream.
“Fuck me to the moon and back.” Tom shook his head in disbelief. “The last one was nothing like that.”
“No,” Nick agreed, absently rubbing his chest.
The Minister’s face was unreadable. “The young girl...the one whose eyes you see through in your dreams.” He said it like it was obvious, which Nick supposed it was. He’d just never realized it before tonight. “Do you know who she is?”
“Beyond some character my subconscious conjured up?” Nick shook his head and shrugged. “Just circumstantial stuff. She’s human. Young. She lives by a beach. She likes to paint. She’s some kind of performer I think...and she has some kind of illness. The giant shifter called her Serafina.”
The Minister’s silver eyes flickered like a hard drive, processing Nick’s words and who knows what conclusions. “This giant shifter...he was the only one unaffected by the girl’s command.”
“Well, it wasn’t really a command,” Nick mumbled. More like a hysterical fit.
“Oh, it was a command,” Minister Rael corrected him softly. “Though she may not have been aware of it. The giant shifter—can you describe him for me?”
Nick nodded slowly. He knew what the Minister was thinking—the same thing Nick had been thinking a few minutes ago. “He was huge. Wearing a suit. Dark hair, a full beard. Black eyes.”
“You saw his eyes from a dozen feet away in the dark?” Tom said.
“No...I just knew. I don’t know how. I—I knew him. In the dream. I wasn’t afraid of him. I was...” Nick let out a breath of air. “I was sad. I felt...betrayed. Then angry.” He felt ridiculous discussing his feelings with Tom and the Emperor’s Minister of Intelligence, but he felt compelled to continue. By Minister Rael, no doubt.
Nick was too practical to resent it. The Minister was more powerful than him, it was as simple as that. Nick might be insubordinate at times and have serious issues with authority, but he recognized and respected the natural hierarchy of power.
“She was so angry. Hurt and angry.” The young girl’s furious words floated through his mind. “I’m not a goddess or a queen and I don’t want to be.” Nick was barely aware he had quoted the words out loud.
The Minister tilted his head. “Do you know what she meant by that?”
“Not the goddess part, but...” Nick trailed off, frowning as the rest of that scene played out in his mind.
“But?” Tom prompted, leaning forward in his chair.
Minister Rael watched him closely. Nick had the feeling he knew what he was going to say.
“The ‘queen’ part...” Nick raised his eyes to meet Tom’s as he recalled something else. “The giant shifter called the one chasing us Boone.” Boone was the name of Lucifer King’s logtime second in command. “I think the giant shifter in my dream was the Rogue King.”
“And the young girl...” Tom frowned. “You think she was King’s bride? His queen?”
“I—she was wearing a long dress. It kept getting in the way,” Nick murmured, remembering the endless yards of fabric swishing around his—her legs. “But she’s not real.” She couldn’t be. Nick was a lot of things, but psychic wasn’t one of them.
“I believe she is.” The Minister’s voice cut through Nick’s silent denials. “I believe you dreamed the events of last night in real time. Did you happen to see the moon?”
Nick nodded, trying to wrap his brain around the implications. “It was full. Just like...”
“Just like last night.” The Minister completed his thought. “And it’s position?”
“Barely over the horizon,” Nick replied slowly, still grappling with the idea that he had been dreaming someone else’s life through their own eyes.
Did she know it was happening? Did she—Nick’s heart stuttered at a sudden thought. Did she have dreams about his life as well? The idea sent a shockwave rippling through him. The invasion of privacy—by a little girl, no less—was creepy as fuck. And his life wasn’t exactly G-rated.
“In this area, this time of year, that would make it about seven-thirty, eight o’clock,” Tom said, interrupting Nick’s thoughts. His expression was thoughtful as he turned to Minister Rael. “If the events in Nick’s dream are real, the bride escaped. That means the Rogue King’s wedding never actually took place.”
“We have to find them before he does,” Nick blurted, ignoring Tom’s look of surprise at his ferocity.
Minister Rael nodded slowly, his silver gaze shifting thoughtfully to the map on the wall. “Every rogue within a two-hundred mile radius by now is looking for a lightening shifter and a human female in a wedding dress.”
Tom frowned. Only mates and members of the same pack could mindlink. By definition rogues had no pack: they had leaders, not Alphas.
“The Rogue King can mindlink with his followers?” If it was true, Tom would have to re-evaluate every single one of his strategies.
The Minister shook his head. “Twitter.”
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