Phair sat on the long metal table, his fingers grasping its edge so hard that his knuckles had gone bone-white.
“Some Grizzly shifter you are,” he muttered to himself under his breath. “Terrified of a little anaesthetic. Scared of needles. You’re a sodding pussy, that’s what you are.”
In an attempt to distract himself from the pending unpleasantness, he looked around the room, noting the impossibly high book shelves that lined the walls and the seemingly infinite display of leather-bound tomes. Funny. He’d assumed that the procedure would take place in a Genetics lab. But instead, the shifter somehow found himself in the country estate of a Dire Wolf shifter.
Well, a library was more warm and welcoming than a sterile chamber in a sodding hospital, at least. If he died today, his corpse would be surrounded by the likes of Shakespeare and Flaubert. Surely that had to count for something.
“You don’t have to go under, you know,” said a voice from somewhere behind him. He turned to see Emma Danforth, dressed in her pristine lab coat, entering the room. “It’s your choice.”
Emma was the mate to the Trekilling Dire Wolf Pack’s two leaders, Roth and Laird. But perhaps even more importantly, she was the geneticist who was about to inject Phair with the daunting cocktail that he’d requested some days ago.
Roth stood in the library’s doorway, leaning against the left side of the frame. No doubt he’d followed Emma in order to protect her from the big bad Bear shifter.
“She’s right,” he said. “Of course, if you don’t choose sedation, I’ll need to summon a few other Dire Wolf shifters to keep an eye on my mate while we await the results of the procedure, just in case.”
Translation: You’re a scary fucker and I won’t risk having you kill my lover with your giant-bear claws, or bear teeth, or whatever the hell is about to burst out of you, you massive freak.
The geneticist, who didn’t seem afraid of Phair, now stood at the end of the metal table, hair pulled back, latex gloves on her hands. She held a mask in one hand—a mask that she’d use to knock him out in a minute, provided that he gave his blessing.
“Phair? Do you know what you want yet?” she asked, her tone slightly sheepish. No doubt she’d figured out how conflicted he felt about this whole thing and was reluctant to push him.
“I’ll do whatever you think is best, Emma,” he replied, fixing his eyes on hers in an attempt at sounding calm and relaxed. “If you think putting me under is a good idea, I’ll accept it—risks or not.”
“All right. Well, I do recommend it,” she said. “Given that we’ve never done this before, it seems foolish not to take all necessary precautions.”
“Of course. I get it.” Phair shot her a quick, nervous smile as he eyed the vial of red liquid that sat behind her on an antique desk. “Listen—tell me again what you’re injecting me with, and maybe I’ll feel better about the whole thing. I mean, I know I asked for it, but given that I’m in a bit of a panic right now, I sort of want to know what’s going to be swimming through my bloodstream.”
Emma laughed. “It’s a liberal dose of a genetically modified compound that I developed in my lab,” she said, turning to reach for the vial. “Nothing dangerous, I promise you. Just…a little unpredictable, perhaps. In layman’s terms, I’ve taken blood from two of the most powerful shifters in England, blended it, extracted its significant components, and am now giving it to you in the hopes of turning you into a demigod. Call it Amazing Juice or Awesome Sauce, if you like. That’s sort of what it is.”
“All right. Awesome Sauce. That sounds like something properly appealing,” said Phair, rubbing his hands together eagerly. He was still trying to convince himself that this wasn’t an insane idea. “Well, I’ve always wanted to be a demigod. Who knew it could be so easy?”
“It should be easy, I hope,” Emma replied. “The truth is, there’s no telling what might happen when the compound reaches your bloodstream. Given that you’re a shifter, your body might react violently. There’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll feel a little strange, at least. Probably a bit sore, as well. Again, it’s our first time. There are always little glitches to take into account.”
“So,” sighed Phair, “What you’re telling me is that I’m a massive, potentially dangerous guinea pig who has no real idea what he’s in for.”
“A massive guinea pig who might come back psychotic and physically aggressive, yeah,” said Roth, striding over to the table. “An Incredible Hulk with fangs and fur, if you will. But the plan is to have you come back as a very strong version of yourself, and your inner beast even more so. He will be a Béorn, like your ancestors were. The largest bears who ever lived on this planet.”
“Again, I like the sound of that,” Phair said, swinging his legs up onto the table and lying down, trying to relax his back into the hard stainless steel. “Well then, do your worst, Doctor Danforth.” He turned his head to face Emma. “You know what? I nearly forgot—I do have one last request.”
“What’s that?” she asked, leaning forward to look into his eyes.
He reached into his right jeans pocket and pulled out a folded note, which he handed to her. “Let’s just say that I want you—both of you—to have my pre-emptive forgiveness,” he said, moving his eyes towards Roth. “If I should die, give this to a Grizzly shifter—someone you trust at least a little bit. As you know, my kind has been frequenting the Underground Club lately, now that the task force is disbanded. They’ll be easy to spot.”
“Not that you’re likely to die,” Roth said solemnly, “but what does the note say?”
“It’s my sworn statement that this whole procedure was performed at my request. That I know the risks, that I don’t blame anyone in the Pack if it goes awry and turns me inside out, or mad, or just dead—and neither should any Grizzly shifter. It states that the Guild and the Dire Wolves are my allies, and allies to all shifters. Basically it’s my way of saying Can’t we all just get along?”
“It’s very kind of you to give this to us,” Emma said, eyeing the folded note. “But I have to ask, how will they know it’s from you? Grizzlies don’t exactly trust us as far as they can throw us, and the feeling is generally mutual, as you know. They’d probably accuse us of making it up.”
“Don’t worry. I’m too cynical not to have taken precautions. Unfold it. Take a look.”
Emma did as Phair suggested, letting out a laugh when she saw what he’d done. When she’d read it, she held the paper up for Roth to see.
Phair knew perfectly well what she found so amusing. Not only had he hand-scrawled the note in its entirety; he’d signed the page with an inked paw print from his Grizzly.
“Took me hours to get the ink off my paw,” he said.
“I’ll bet. Well, it’s a good job that you did it when you had the chance,” Emma replied. “Soon your paw prints will likely be bigger than most sheets of paper. Larger than any creature’s on the planet, in fact. Unless you count elephants’ feet as paws, which I don’t.”
Phair grinned, knowing that she was right about his potential size. If all went well, he would mark the return of an extinct species, one that had once ruled Britain alongside the Dragons and the great Wolves of legend. He would be the only Béorn in existence. It was a great honour, to be sure. He’d be a walking throwback to another time, another place. A relic of history. A living legend.
If all went well.
“It’s a pretty huge deal,” he said, pressing his head back and waiting while the geneticist secured his wrists and ankles with buckled leather straps. “I want you both to know that I don’t take this privilege for granted. I appreciate what you’re doing for me.”
“I’m glad. But for now, all I want is for you to relax,” Emma said, leaning over him again, a reassuring smile on her face that seemed to say I’m precisely 78% sure that this will work. “We’re just about to start.”
“Wait,” said Roth, drawing Phair’s gaze before Emma had a chance to set the procedure in motion. He pressed one hand to the table, the other to Phair’s shoulder. It was a strangely intimate act; the Alpha wasn’t exactly the touchy-feely sort. “Look, I know now’s not the best time for this, Phair, but on behalf of the Trekilling Pack and the service you’ve rendered us on more than one occasion, I want to invite you to join.”
“Join your Dire Wolf Pack?” he replied. “Are you serious? You do know that I’m a Grizzly, don’t you?”
“Not a mere Grizzly for long,” Roth replied, smiling. “It would be an honour to have you.”
“I imagine this is a largely symbolic gesture.”
“Symbolic, yes. But I take it seriously.”
“In that case, I accept.”
“Well, that’s wonderful and all,” said Emma, steering herself around the table so that she stood at the top of Phair’s head. “But if you two will forgive me, I’m going to get moving. I’m eager to turn this man into a terrifying behemoth.”
The last thing Phair remembered was the mask making its way over his face as her voice guided him towards slumber. Emma was still speaking, her words tumbling through his mind, but none of them stuck. She could have been telling him to count sheep, to say the alphabet backwards, to tell her his name, but he had no clue. The Grizzly shifter’s mind had already become a thick fog of tangled dreams, hopes and fears.
The last thought that went through his head was of Emma, Roth, and their other mate, Laird. Of what it must be like for two men to take one woman as their lover. “Three of you, you’re all in one relationship,” he murmured. “The Ritual…the Ritual…someday, maybe I’ll find my own…”
With that, the last breath of consciousness left him.