When the two moons of Thalazar cross orbits, the Warrior Pledge must be completed or the cat-shifting Mafdeti nation will face annihilation. There are four who can save the people and their land: the Silver Shining from Rock, the Great Heart Farseeing, the Changeling, and the Pure. They must find each other before time runs out.
Silver-eyed Checa is Captain of the Guard for the Mafdeti. Thanks to the friendship and loyalty of Heath, son of the Mafdeti Matriarch, Checa has survived and thrived after a childhood of horrific abuse. He knows Heath is his Bond-Mate but refuses to bond with the younger man because he feels he isn’t worthy. Nor does Heath’s mother approve of her son bonding with a lowborn warrior.
Together they face deadly wing-strikes from carnivorous birds, earthquake, betrayal, ambush, and an enemy invasion, only to be confronted with the possibility that the Warrior Pledge will bond Checa and Heath to others. If Checa is to complete the Warrior Pledge, he must overcome the belief that he doesn’t deserve Heath’s love, and fight for the one man who can make him whole.
1. Warrior Pledge
THE BREEZE dropped as the sun peeped between the mountain peaks on the other side of the valley. A shiver ran across Checa’s shoulders, and with a thought he deepened his slide from human to were and thickened the fur at his ruff. To the north the trees that followed the river were dry and brittle, more than half of them already dead. Radiating out from that line were patches of darkness and light, a camo pattern of toxic sludge and severe drought. Even this high up, he could smell the rot that had taken over the valley. The farms provided a patchwork of gray and brown, sliced unevenly by the sludge emanating from the river systems. Smoke curled from a few farmhouse chimneys, but most lay abandoned, their inhabitants having long given up trying to eke a living from the dying land.
To the east the sky grew dark as the norrgel took flight and headed south. Checa blinked to enhance his sight and watched the wings rise and fall, the deadly threads trailing from wings and tail, waving gracefully in the movement. Far below the first horn blew, its familiar sound picked up and echoed by other watchers throughout the valley.
Wings up. Time to find shelter or die.
Checa had never known a time when a norrgel watch wasn’t needed.
A parrot squawked. He closed his eyes against the growing light, and deep in his soul, the two moons, Makai and Nayeli, moved inexorably closer in their ages-old battle for supremacy. Another sign the prophecy was coming true.
Checa refused to be part of it. No matter what, he wasn’t going to be the hero who would save the world. He wouldn’t let his star rise on the back of another’s death.
His be-damned eyes had turned bright silver when he was sixteen, the moment he’d killed the Bastard. The judge had found out, proclaimed Checa the Silver Shining from Rock, overturned his conviction, taken him to the palace, and put him with the guards for training. None of his fellow trainees had believed he was the one. Checa was a gutter rat from the slums, a murderer. He knew how to fight, though, so that’s what he did. Every time another guard challenged him.
In the ravine below, a flock of parrots took flight. Checa shook his head and huffed in irritation. Even with fifteen years training behind him, Heath could never move anywhere quietly. Checa checked the norrgel, but they were still flying south, their screeches rising every time they found something to hunt.
Checa had killed for the second time when he was eighteen. It was an accident while training in the field, but his eyes had changed to silver again. No one challenged him to a fight after that, except when forced to for training. For a long time, no one spoke to him. Except Heath.
His name carried in the still air, and an involuntary smile overtook him at the joy in Heath’s voice. Checa’s muscles twitched, wanting to move, to go down and meet him, see the morning light grow as it reached Heath’s features. Just that one sight would be enough to make Checa’s day complete, even if it hadn’t yet really begun.
He returned to his human form and counted his breaths to ensure he remained in place, sitting cross-legged on the platform. There’d been an unusual vibration in the air during the night, an unsteadiness growing louder the closer the moons moved, and even though he wasn’t a Seer, he had to determine what it meant. As Captain of the Guard, it was his duty to keep his people safe. Whether they liked or trusted him made no difference.
Heath was closer now, the sound of him crashing through the brush a rhythmic counterpoint to his steady footfalls on the leaf-strewn ground. Checa allowed his posture to relax and straightened his legs. He shifted forward so his balance would be stronger, wiped the new smile from his face, and waited.
Heath burst into the clearing like a new spring bloom and launched himself at Checa. Checa braced his legs against the edge of the platform, opened his arms, and caught the younger man as he flew to him. They landed flat on the platform, the bare skin of their chests fusing, Heath’s sweat soaking into Checa’s chest hair and becoming his own. Checa oomphed as his head hit the stone and Heath’s landing knocked the air from his lungs, but he didn’t release his hold, and his smile broke free again.
Some days this was all he had. This was the best of everything he had.
He wrapped his arms around Heath more securely.
“Sorry,” whispered Heath as he snuggled his head under Checa’s collarbone.
Checa ran his fingers through Heath’s long, tangled hair, relishing the touch of smooth skin at the back of his neck. “You’ve been running,” he said as he loosened another knot. He lifted the now-smooth strand and released it. It fell like a waterfall of gold and bronze, copper and chocolate in the strengthening light.
“I had to.” Heath pressed his lips against Checa’s chest and inhaled before relaxing in a boneless heap. “It’s faster.”
“And you just had to race up here to snuggle?”
Heath nodded, then chuckled. “I don’t think I’ll get any more time alone today. And snuggling with you is always worth racing for.”
“So what had you in such a tearing rush?” Checa continued gently smoothing Heath’s hair, not in any hurry to break the contact he craved, but Heath bounced up to sit squarely over Checa’s groin. Checa groaned at the change in pressure and punched his hips up. Their loincloths prevented direct contact, but Heath’s every ridge and bulge pressed against Checa and raised his interest.
Heath grinned. “Yeah, that too, but you’ve got to hear this. It’s happening, Checa! It’s finally happening.” Heath bounced in his excitement.
Checa grabbed Heath’s hips and lifted him off, ignoring the pouting scowl he got in return. Once they were seated on the platform, with dawn washing its gentle light over them and the soft breeze returning, he raised an eyebrow and waited.
“Stop it.” Heath slapped Checa’s arm. “I’m not some test animal. You don’t have to experiment to see how long I stay silent.”
“Clearly not long. So tell me what’s happening.”
Heath leaned forward and pressed his lips to Checa’s neck. Checa groaned at the light suction. Unable to resist he dragged Heath back on top of him and gripped his asscheeks, pulling him tight against him. Heath groaned. They wouldn’t be doing any more talking for a while.
Times like this, when they were alone with little likelihood of anyone discovering them together, were rare. Checa slipped his hand between them and pushed their loincloths out of the way. Heath’s solid, hot cock pressed against his stomach. As Checa wriggled his hand, Heath lifted just enough to align their cocks, then pressed down again.
Checa wrapped his arms around Heath, not letting him slip or slide just yet. “Let me feel you,” he whispered.
“If I could, I’d brand you.”
Heath huffed an irritated sigh. “I know you won’t bond with me, Checa. I know my mother would never give her approval. But none of that changes the fact that I would do so in a minute. I’d have you wear my brand so everyone would know you’re mine.”
As Heath spoke, Checa writhed, unable to remain still at the possessive note in Heath’s voice or the picture he painted of the two of them bound forever. He slipped his hand between them again and grasped their cocks together, squeezing before setting up a rhythm that would bring them both to the brink.
Heath lifted up until he was sitting on Checa’s thighs again, his hands between them, slipping in the precome as he fisted Checa’s cock hand over hand. They stroked together, in tandem, their gasping breaths loud in the quiet of the early morning.
“Come for me, Checa. Let me see your eyes when you come,” rasped Heath.
The words were enough to set Checa off. With effort he forced his eyes to stay open as he shot stream after stream of milky liquid on his chest and stomach.
“Yes,” hissed Heath as he leaned forward, his gaze locked on Checa’s as he convulsed in the throes of pleasure. After a few frozen seconds, Heath collapsed, boneless, on top of Checa and snuggled his face in the crook of his neck.
“I think this is your favorite position,” said Checa once his breathing began to even out.
“Any way I get to touch you is my favorite.” Heath huffed, relaxation slowing his words. “I love the way your eyes change when you come. They’re so bright and beautiful.”
Checa resumed rifling through Heath’s hair, sifting the soft strands over his shoulders and back. Only Heath thought his very ordinary green-gray was beautiful. “Tell me why you came tearing up here.”
Heath jumped off, fixed his loincloth, and bounced around the clearing. “You’ve been summoned by the Matriarch.”
Fuck. They’d been found out. Heath’s mother had made it clear that Checa wasn’t good enough for her only son. He was going to be banished, or worse. The roaring red pain flashed through him and he hunched his shoulders and allowed the Change to take him.
As fur grew across his shoulders and his muscles bulged underneath, his incisors lengthened and his hips and knees articulated. He could run on all fours like this, in his were form, or he could continue to full cat mode. He could run faster like that. Faster and longer.
Checa jumped off the platform and flexed his arms to prepare for the full shift, only to find Heath in front of him. Scowling. Angry.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Heath shoved hard at Checa’s chest, making him stumble backward. “Change back right now.”
Heath. His Heath. Checa deflated. As his breath left him in surrender, so too did his muscles reduce and his fur diminish. The sting of it popping back beneath his skin made him shiver. Heath was right. A leader, especially a military leader, couldn’t run when something went wrong. A good leader would stay and listen. A good soldier would stay and fight.
He crossed his arms across his chest and gifted Heath with a scowl of his own. “Why does your mother want to see me?”
Heath huffed out a frustrated breath and looked over the valley, his jaw tight. Finally he closed his eyes in a long blink and breathed deeply. When he opened them again, his temper was restored even if his eyes didn’t hold the same joy they had a few minutes before.
“The summons is from the Matriarch. If my mother found out about us, she wouldn’t hide behind her job. She’d scoop my balls out with a spoon and send you to the norrgel nests.”
Checa sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m just—”
“I know. Me too. But, Checa—” Heath’s eyes glowed with renewed excitement. “—it’s coming. The signs are all there. It’s time for the Warrior Pledge! The Matriarch has called the Seer to the city.”
That’s what that vibration was.
Checa jammed his fists onto his hips and looked out over the Analee Valley. The Descendants lived there now, those born of the aliens that had landed a millennium ago and taken what they wanted—but once it had been the hunting grounds for the Mafdeti. If the Warrior Pledge worked, it would be again, but Checa wouldn’t live to see it. The breeze dropped along with his hopes. If Heath was right and it truly was time for the Warrior Pledge, then he had to say good-bye. He’d studied the legends and knew only one of the four would survive. As Silver Shining from Rock, it probably wouldn’t be him.
“Checa, do you know what this means?” Heath was so close behind him, Checa could feel him vibrating with anticipation. He turned to look at the only man he would ever love. “You’re Silver Shining from Rock. You’re the only one who has the eyes, and now that it’s time, that means it’s you.” Heath reached up and cradled Checa’s face. “It’s you!”
Checa had endured the fascination with his eyes since he was sixteen. He preferred disbelief. No one else had silver eyes. Everyone else in every pride throughout the mountain ranges both north and south of the Analee Valley had yellow or green or, in the case of the ruling families, brown. Like Heath’s. Checa’s were a common green, as pale as sun-dried grass, except when he killed.
Checa ignored Heath as much as he could with him standing so close, his warmth seeping into his back. He continued to look out over the valley. “What signs have you seen?”
Heath sighed, a contented sound that let Checa know he’d been waiting to be asked. “The Chronicles detail a series of events that lead up to the Pledge. The norrgel are nesting earlier this year. Their numbers are double what they were five years ago. The Crystal River has dried up, releasing only a toxic sludge that’s threatening every life in the valley.” He grabbed Checa’s elbow and turned him away from a wisp of smoke at the far end of the valley. “I had a dream,” Heath said significantly. “Last night, I had a dream.”
“You’ve dreamed before. What was special about this one?”
“There were four in the dream, just as the Pledge describes.” He crossed his arms and lifted his chin smugly. “And when I woke, I was standing by the window.”
Heath nodded. “The one that looks over the valley.” He grasped Checa’s hands and squeezed them. “I was in Pledge stance, Checa. Pledge stance. You know what that means, don’t you?”
If it was anyone else, Checa could ignore them. Not Heath. Heath came from a long line of rulers and Seers. If he told you he had a dream, you’d damn well better listen. He looked down the valley again. “So… the Warrior Pledge.”
“Yes! And I’m one of them.” Heath bounced on the balls of his feet in his excitement. “And so are you.”
“No, you’re not.” Checa gestured to his eyes. “I have to be, but you’re not going to be involved.”
The Farseeing dies.
“Bullshit. I’ve known since I met you that I’m the Great Heart Farseeing.”
“You were eight. You couldn’t know anything that young.” Checa increased the derisive tone in his voice. He had to get Heath to accept he couldn’t be part of this. He needed to speak to the Matriarch and get her to forbid Heath to go. “And why would you think you’re the Farseeing? Because you had a dream?”
Heath’s face changed so rapidly Checa couldn’t keep up with the emotions flitting across his features. Hurt, certainly—again—but also anger. He saw that one clearly a split second before Heath hauled back and let fly, his fist hitting squarely on Checa’s jaw. Blood flooded Checa’s mouth as he bit his tongue, and he staggered back several steps before he found his footing again.
“Fuck you, Checa,” panted Heath, his eyes glowing wetly in the bright morning light. “Fuck you,” he whispered.
Heath turned and trudged back down the mountain. Checa waited just long enough to acknowledge he was a bastard, then ran after him.
“Heath! Wait!” He stumbled over tree roots on his dash down the hill. Heath must have shifted as soon as he was out of sight to be so far ahead already. Checa crashed between some trees, back onto the rugged path they used to reach the top. In front of him was a large, growling cat, his tawny fur ruffled aggressively. “I’m sorry,” Checa panted. “I shouldn’t have said that. It’s not true.”
The air wavered and the cat’s features blurred and shortened as his body rose. Checa sighed in relief as Heath allowed his body to flow through the stages from cat to were to man. He smiled at the graceful Change. “I love watching you do that.”
Heath strode toward him, fists clenched. “Why do you always do that?”
The smile evaporated, and Checa took a step backward.
Heath shoved at Checa’s chest. “You’re my m—my best friend. Friends are supposed to support each other, not lie.”
“Shut up! What is it? It’s okay to spend every day with me but it’s not okay to acknowledge I might have a future outside this claustrophobic warren of caves? It’s okay to fuck me, but only if you make me feel worthless at every opportunity?”
“You’re not worthless.”
“Then why do you always tell me I am?”
“Heath.” Checa tried reason. “The Warrior Pledge is for warriors, not Seers.”
“I am a fucking warrior, Checa. You trained me yourself. Remember? There’s not one fucking soldier I can’t flatten if I want to, except maybe you. Don’t you dare try to tell me I’m not a fucking warrior.”
“You’re a Seer.”
“Yes, I’m a Seer. What the fuck do you think being a Seer means? It means I’m farseeing. I’m a fucking farseeing fucking warrior! How long since you recited the fucking Warrior Pledge, Checa? Or are you just going to ignore that because you don’t think I’m capable of being the Farseeing one?” He punched Checa’s shoulder. Checa rolled with it. “You think being a Seer is easy? I’ve worked fifteen years to get where I am: a Warrior Seer. All you had to do was kill the bastard who murdered your brother for your fucking silver eyes to come out, but I’m the one not good enough?” Heath’s voice wavered and tears welled in his eyes. “Fuck you, Checa.” He angrily brushed the tears away and reached to shove Checa again, but he didn’t make contact. The fight went out of him: his shoulders dropped, his hands unclenched, the breath left him in a rush. “Fuck you,” he whispered again.
Then he turned and ran down the path.
“Heath,” Checa whispered. “It’s not you who isn’t good enough.” The gusty sigh that left him as Heath disappeared into the forest took most of the joy he’d been feeling just a few minutes before. Killing Warden wasn’t the only thing the Bastard had done. It wasn’t the only reason Checa had spilled the man’s guts over the basement floor. After what the Bastard had done to Checa, Checa would never be good enough for Heath. But he’d do whatever it took to protect him, both from the knowledge of what Checa had done and from the dangers inherent in the Warrior Pledge.
He followed Heath down the mountain, slowly, no longer interested in watching the new day’s light awaken the lands.
A few months before
JUN PUSHED farther back between the rocks as the men in the tan uniforms walked by. Imperial soldiers on patrol. That wasn’t unusual, but this was the fourth patrol in this area this week. At least Fan was with them. He grinned at the thought of what he’d do to his lover when he finally got him away from his unit.
The soldiers clung to the thin shadows around the rocky outcropping. Like twists of dust, they slipped between the tall columns of stone into the only shelter from the unforgiving sun.
As the heel of the last soldier disappeared around the outcropping of boulders, a shadow caught Jun’s attention. He moved his head slightly, not enough to let the hidden man know he’d noticed him. An Exile, the detritus of the land, criminals and madmen the lot of them. When the man stopped and slipped between two nearby boulders, Jun edged closer, glad he was in were form. A thick black wedge of fur ran from the back of his neck to the crack between his buttocks, thinned and faded to gray as it wrapped around to his stomach. The fur darkened and thickened again on forearms and shins before thinning to nothing over his large square hands and feet. It helped him blend with the landscape. With luck, Jun would be able to move past the man’s hiding place and follow the soldiers without being seen.
Then the fool moved and Jun knew the man had spotted him. There was nothing for it now but to engage and see if he could get some answers as to why he was there, following an Imperial patrol.
Jun sidled up against the rock, keeping to the slim midday shadows, his focus partly on the soldiers ahead and partly on the sky, watching for norrgel.
As he approached the crevice where the Exile was hiding, the man grabbed his arm and dragged him into the gap between the boulders. Jun reacted, swinging the Exile around and pressing his forearm hard against the man’s throat. The Exile gripped Jun’s arm, his breathing harsh in the confined space.
“What the fuck are you doing? Imperial soldiers kill people like you,” the Exile croaked through the pressure against his throat.
Jun tensed. Why would the Exile be concerned about a Mafdeti? At least he was smart enough not to try to fight. Jun, like most Mafdeti, was a massive, heavyset man, his body rippling muscle and strength. He fought to win or die, and he fought dirty. The Exile didn’t stand a chance.
Jun relaxed his muscles so that all the Exile would feel under his fingertips was warm, soft fur. He waited while the man sucked in a tight, relieved breath.
“The patrol has been here since dawn.” The man tilted his head so he could see around the edge of the rock and out to the desert beyond. Jun knew there wasn’t much to see, just white and charcoal on black, the dark shapes shimmering in the heat, the landscape stripped of color in the noonday sun.
“That’s not a regular patrol,” Jun murmured as he crowded behind the Exile.
“I know. They’re searching for something. Or someone.”
Jun cursed and released the man, stepping farther back into the shadows. Had they found out about his visits? It was the only explanation he could think of, though he always approached the city from a different direction and never stayed in one spot long enough to be detected.
“Shit. How could they have found out?” the Exile cursed.
Every molecule in Jun’s body jumped to high alert. “They’re after you?”
“Because you’re an Exile or…?” He left the question hanging. He couldn’t think of any reason a lone Exile would be in this area, unless…. “Are there others out there?” Drett. Was he going to have to spend the entire day rescuing careless bloody Exiles?
“No.” The man offered no further explanation.
Jun pushed farther back between the rocks. It would be relatively easy for the soldiers to find them. It wasn’t as if there were a lot of hiding places out there in the desert. Not on the surface anyway, but Jun had another agenda. Something more urgent. “Are you going to stay squashed in here all day?” His voice rumbled through the black hair hanging down the Exile’s neck.
The man shivered and took a small step forward, putting space between their bodies. He turned his head and whispered, “If we’re going to be that intimate, you’d better know my name. I’m Fisher.”
Jun looked closely at Fisher. At first he thought the man wore camouflage makeup but then realized it was the pigmentation of his skin that made him look mottled with patches of smooth ivory and darkest chocolate.
Fisher moved forward a little more to look out at the desert, then back to Jun. “I’d rather be stuck here all day than dead.”
Jun smiled, just the corners of his lips lifting, and leaned back against the wedge of rock behind him. “So, what are we going to do to pass the time?”
Fisher scowled and slid down the rock to squat in the sand. There was something not quite right about the Exile, but Jun couldn’t work it out. Why would he be this close to the city and alone, unless he was looking for something… or someone? Fisher had been following the patrol, not trying to avoid it. Jun didn’t need to know. He had an appointment to keep, and he needed to warn Fan they were being followed. He just had to make sure that he and his lover weren’t caught in the cross fire, whatever it was.
Fisher looked up at him and smiled a smile that would fool Jun’s mother. “I don’t know what you have planned, but I’m going to sleep for a while, then leave.” He lowered his buttocks onto the sand but kept his feet under him, like a soldier, ready to rise quickly. Then he closed his eyes and ignored Jun.
After several minutes, Fisher’s breathing slowed and the muscles in his neck and back relaxed. His head dropped forward, cheeks landing on his knees. The pressure forced his mouth open and saliva dribbled out. Time passed and Fisher settled more comfortably into position. Jun wasn’t fooled Fisher was asleep, but he was almost impossible to track once he was out of sight, so he moved past slowly, barely brushing Fisher’s hair, thanking the Elders he could move so quickly and silently.
Within seconds he was back in the scorching sun, following the patrol. He kept his steps deliberate and silent as he closed the distance between himself and the last man in the Imperial patrol.
The slip and crunch of a sandy body sliding against rock was the only warning Jun had before a tan-clothed arm shot out between boulders and dragged him into a small area. As Jun scented his mate, he swiftly changed to fully human form.
“Thank the Elders you managed to get away. I’ve been waiting all day.” Jun grabbed Fan’s sandy brown hair and kissed him roughly.
“We’re on extended patrol.” Fan was panting, whether from his flight to Jun or from arousal, Jun didn’t care. He was there and that was all that mattered. “There’ve been intruders spotted.” Jun fumbled at Fan’s belt; the buckle clinked as it released. A low groan from Fan covered the sounds. “We can’t…. The others.”
“I’m so desperate for you it’ll be over before they notice you’re not right behind them.” Jun dropped to his knees, nuzzling Fan’s groin as he tugged his clothing out of the way. Within seconds his mouth closed around the warm, silky skin of Fan’s cock. Jun sucked in a deep breath as he tasted him. It was like coming home. There was no fragrance, no taste that brought more peace to him or that he craved more.
Fan groaned, the sound muffled as he shoved his hand over his mouth. Jun sucked harder, fondled Fan’s balls, and tugged gently.
“Jun, wait, it’s too much. I’m going to….”
Jun moved his fingers behind Fan’s balls to the delicate skin beyond. Frantic thrusts jammed against the back of his throat as warm liquid flooded his mouth. Above him, Fan keened like an animal in pain.
“Yes,” Jun hissed around Fan’s cock.
Behind the cry sand slid against sand. Jun stilled, listening closely, his own need to come forgotten at the threat of discovery.
“What is it?”
He rose to his feet and drew his mate into a quick hug. “Nothing. It’s fine. You’d better get back before they miss you.”
“Two days?” Fan’s smooth tenor sounded gravelly and breathless.
“I’ll be here.” Jun dragged him into his arms, relishing any time he could get with him, wishing things were different and they could be together all the time. He pressed closer, letting his gentle kisses tell Fan what he needed to know. “Watch out for a tail.”
Fan’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded his understanding. He righted his clothing and walked away, sand crunching against rock as he headed through the maze of boulders and back to his unit. Jun watched him go, leaning back against the rock, waiting to make sure they hadn’t been discovered by Fan’s teammates and listening for the man on the other side of the boulder.
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