Zehr hated clan gatherings. Always had, always would, no matter what changed.
Which made his coronation as the Fireheart’s alpha laughable.
Zehr hadn’t laughed since the old alpha’s murder. Guess things went that way when the old alpha was his father. He shifted, hands clasped in front of him, eyes darting to his sister, who glared at him. They were, after all, being read to from the most sacred of all shifter lore. And he was the incoming alpha of the Fireheart clan, a pack which had kept the old ways even when the rest of the clans picked, disregarded, and twisted the lore to suit their needs.
Zehr should be soaking up every last word the cleric, a grizzled bear shifter from the north, read to him. It was just impossible to care about words when his heart felt cold. There was no joy in him. He knew Zara wanted him to be happy. But old habits died hard, and the most Zehr could manage was to dial his scowl back to a 15 on a 1 to 10 scale, because he knew this was not how his coronation should have happened. His father should have been here, by his side, guiding him forward. Instead, he was dead and in a hole, probably fertilizing a tree that housed pixie nests.
He frowned at the thought. He fucking hated pixies.
As if summoned by the thought, a small pixie flitted by, earning Zehr’s attention and his scowl. A neon glittery trail of light followed the tiny winged figure. Even if he hated the flying pests, Zehr’s eyes followed it in earnest. The mischievous creatures were still considerably more interesting than the cleric’s droning.
Noticing his audience’s shift in attention, the cleric gave Zehr a sidelong look and then snapped the book closed with a long-suffering sigh. Startled, the pixie shot off with a titter into the forest.
“Shall we continue this when you…” He tilted his head to the side and pinned Zehr with a cold stare. “When you are in a more social mood?”
Zehr watched as the last of the neon trail left by the pixie sputtered out into nothing, and he grunted but stayed silent. He was glad to be free from the reading and didn’t dare risk the cleric deciding to continue.
He could hate himself in two days when the actual event of his coronation took place. But that wasn’t now, and Zehr had little patience to care about the particulars of texts, reciting history and pedigrees from memory, or being drilled on which families he needed to pay his respects to after the ceremony.
The alpha shifted, looking down at the ring on his finger. He lifted up his left hand and stared at the work of silver. It was a thickly-wrought ring with a single raw ruby embedded in the band’s center. Intricate scrollwork and etchings surrounded the stone, lending a delicate beauty to an otherwise clunky piece of jewelry.
The ring had been wrought countless years ago in a forge by the fae folk, who found humor in the rumors that silver guarded against or wounded them, for it was a favorite material of the fae. The ring was a work of art, made specifically for the Fireheart alpha, for a hand accustomed to battle, blood, and getting dirty in defense of the good of the pack and the whole shifter nation.
It had been his father’s ring, and his grandfather’s and his great-grandfather’s, and so on for as long as anyone could remember, and now the heavy, glinting circle of metal and its oddly delicate details sat on the pointer finger of his left hand. The fae had built the ring to endure, to last.
He frowned at the thought. His father hadn’t been able to last.
Zehr swallowed hard and lowered his hand, already walking out of the circle after giving the cleric a perfunctory nod of thanks. His thoughts were too dark for even an attempt at niceties. Likewise, the bear shifter grunted at him, but nodded back. Zehr knew the old-timer thought he should be more focused on his coronation ceremony rites, but he wasn’t of the same opinion.
There had been a time that all Zehr had dreamed of was ascending as the Fireheart alpha. The singular event had consumed his thoughts like an incessant tune that played on repeat and eventually drove everyone mad—well, everyone but Zehr. He was just a cub then, a wet-behind-the-ears child who couldn’t fathom that life could be anything but full of magic and adventure.
Now he knew better.
Grief worked that way. It was a sobering thing.
There was precious little that could elicit a feeling of wonder for Zehr anymore, a feat considering the array of shifters, vampires, sprites, fae, witches, warlocks, and their assorted magical possessions and entourages. Hell, Zehr even knew of some giants out west, though he had never seen them up close.
Wonder permeated every hour of Zehr’s day, but all of it seemed hollow now without his father filling up the space. He could still hear his father’s booming voice and his warm laughter, feel his hand on his shoulder as they walked.
Death was an accepted part of shifter life. Everything had a season, all of it occurring within the cycles of life. All shifters were taught to not only accept but to embrace death. It was the normal progression of things. Zehr supposed he may have been more inclined to accept his father’s absence if it had been his time, but there was nothing natural about a murder. There was nothing cyclical or reasonable about it.
Zehr struggled with his grief because he felt the loss at a deeper level than just that of other pack members; they were distraught over losing their alpha, but it was a different sadness. The Fireheart pack members were comforted by the knowledge that Zehr would lead them, that he would become alpha and put their worries to bed.
Who would offer comfort to Zehr? Give him the strength to stand tall and strong against whatever awaited the pack?
Zara’s small hand slipping into his grounded him and he spared his sister a soft-eyed look as they left the clearing. She shared his grief, and for that she was more patient with Zehr’s tendency to withdraw into himself despite the excitement of his coronation.
All of the significant clans from all over the northern hemisphere had come together for the event: the lionesses of Proudheart, the Stoneclaw bears, the Moonwater wolves, and even the Goldfeather eagles from the Dakotas were in attendance, along with various other minor clans and families.
It was a feat as the First of all Clans barely deigned to consort with the rest of them on a daily basis. But the coronation of the Fireheart alpha demanded an audience, and that was what happened when their alpha was, without challenge, the shifter world’s most dominant alpha.
The Fireheart family bloodline was strong, able to be traced straight back to the All-Mother, an omega and the first shifter, and the touchstone of their society. Zehr’s coronation as alpha was as good and as holy to shifters as a bonafide visit from the All-Mother, which meant that the wooded encampment they had chosen for their week of fellowship and ceremony was packed with shifters of all stripes, spots, and sizes.
It wasn’t often that Zehr associated with shifters who didn’t hail from the major clans, and even with his grief gnawing at him he could admit that seeing such a gathering from all corners of the shifter world was refreshing.
Zara gave his hand a squeeze. “You should try and look happier.”
“I’m here. That should be enough,” Zehr grumbled, face going stony as he looked away from her. The siblings were walking along a path lined by everglow trees, the luminescent limbs gently lighting their way in a mix of soft blues and purples under the relative darkness of the tree canopy.
Zara rolled her eyes. The everglow light gave her the youthful and carefree appearance of the little girl Zehr could remember following him like a shadow when they were younger. She swung their joined hands with a little sigh.
“Always so stern. You’re acting too much like papa already.”
“This isn’t easy, Z.”
“I know.” She gave him a gentle smile, her expression growing somber, and let his hand go.
Up ahead a large pack of alphas moved their way. Zehr instantly stepped forward, maneuvering his sister to his other side, closer to the soft pastels of the everglows, his big body forming a barrier between her and the pheromone-jacked alphas.
All sharp and spicy, with a tinge of gunpowder that piqued his senses and instantly had him on alert. One of the more brash alphas at the front of the group made the mistake of locking eyes with Zara, a salacious smile on his face, but all it took was a warning growl from Zehr to send the alpha scrambling back with wide eyes.
“I—sorry, sorry,” he spluttered, while the others in the group ducked their heads in deference to Zehr. They knew exactly who he was, and while their biology lifted them higher on the shifter food chain than the betas, and omegas, they were leagues below THE alpha.
Zehr said nothing but stared down the alpha with unblinking eyes until the pack rounded the bend and disappeared from sight.
“He didn’t mean anything.” Zara huffed, crossing her arms.
“You have no idea what goes through an alpha’s mind. He did mean something by it.”
“But I’m safe when I’m with you.” She threaded an arm through her brother’s and smiled up at him, her eyes moving to look at the everglow limbs as they walked. A group of pixies burst out of the foliage overhead, sending glowing leaves every which way, and while Zehr glared at the chittering pixies, Zara outright cooed with delight at the little beasts.
“How pretty you all are!” She laughed, holding out a hand as one of the pixies flew closer to her, and if it hadn’t been for Zehr he was sure the damned thing would have settled on his sister’s palm.
“They can hear you, you know. They are sentient.”
“Then they know exactly why I hate them.” Zehr bared his teeth at the pixie, sending the small creature fleeing, but not before it offered him a rude gesture of its own.
“See?” Zehr told his sister unabashedly. “It knows.”
“You deserved it.”
Zehr smiled at her words but then cleared his throat, his mind back on more pressing matters. There were far too many alphas like the one he had just sent off with his tail between his legs. His sister was an innocent, as evidenced by her pleasure at the sight of pixies.
“You aren’t to go anywhere alone until all this is over.”
Zara’s mouth dropped open. “Zehr! I am not a child.”
“No, you’re not,” he said, and then gestured around the clearing they had just entered, which was packed full of shifters attending his coronation. “But you are an omega, and that’s just as bad with this crowd.”
“I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
“Don’t care,” Zehr bit out.
He turned and jerked his chin at one of their guardsmen. They were never alone, even when seemingly walking alone. Zara often forgot she was being watched from the crowd with protective eyes and most times Zehr was glad for it, but not now, not when he needed her guard up.
“I don’t trust these fuckers. One of them killed our father. Don’t for a second think his murderer isn’t in attendance. I won’t have them taking you from me.”
Zara shrank back, eyes morose at the mention of their father’s fate. “Zehr…”
“Give me some peace, Z. Even in the best of circumstances you are too tempting a prize to be walking around with this many keyed-up alphas. I can’t be everywhere at once. You want me to enjoy the festivities?” He raised an eyebrow at her and waited until she gave him a jerky nod. “Then stay with Liam, or any of the others from our clan. But you do not go anywhere alone.”
“I hate being an omega,” Zara whispered, eyes shining with tears. She let out a sniffle and the sound broke his heart, but he said nothing.
Zehr understood her frustrations. Omegas were at the bottom of society, at the mercy of the alphas around them, and Zara was luckier than most to have such a powerful and benevolent alpha in her corner.
There hadn’t been a thing their late father denied her, nor would Zehr, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t hard for Zara in their world. The only thing a good number of the shifter population responded to was force and strength. But existing as an omega, a being born with softness and submission in their code, meant that their life was rough. That was the reality for his sister, even though she enjoyed the full protection of himself and his clan.
The Fireheart clan honored their link to the All-Mother. There wasn’t an alpha or beta that would hesitate in protecting and honoring omegas for their designation. It could be a leftover inclination from their direct connection to the All-Mother, who was after all, an omega.
But punishment was all life held for many omegas who didn’t have the protection and freedoms afforded to Zara. Life for those omegas could be a living nightmare. Zehr grit his teeth at the thought and glanced over at his sister. She was glaring at her feet, looking thoroughly put out at having an escort for the duration of the coronation events. He had to bite back a sigh.
Zehr knew she thought it was unfair, but Zara didn’t know she had it so good with their clan, which was entirely the point. Zehr took great pride in being able to make such a place for his clan members, especially his sister. But now he wished that Zara comprehended just how vulnerable she was on her own. She was meant to live free, but sadly that freedom needing curbing in the company of so many unknown shifters. It wasn’t safe. There were alphas who wouldn’t hesitate to impose their will on an unbonded omega like his sister.
Zehr grimaced at the thought. He’d never been one for bullies. Never one for brute force. It hadn’t been how he was raised.
We don’t rule by might, his father had told him often as a boy, we rule because it is our right. Just because one had the power to make their will reality didn’t mean they were allowed to do so without concern for their pack, or for the lives their wishes affected.
Zehr grimaced at the thought and reached for her hand, but he paused and gave her a searching look as he held out his hand to her, palm up. Zara didn’t move as he held his hand out waiting. A tense moment passed between them before Zara sighed and placed her hand in her brother’s grip.
“Fine,” she sighed, looking at her feet as Liam, a young but proven alpha with a soft spot for Zara, arrived beside them. He was the youngest of the guard and would have no problem letting Zara enjoy herself.
Liam watched on as Zehr pressed his lips to his sister’s wrist, at her pulse point, effectively marking her with his scent. There wasn’t an alpha foolish enough to step where his mark could be scented. That Zara wasn’t thrilled mattered little in the grand scheme of ensuring her safety. He reached forward, tugging her gently toward him to rub his cheek against the top of her head. He slid his wrist across her neck for good measure, and when he stepped back Zara wrinkled her nose at him.
“I reek of you.” She turned to Liam. “I’m sorry. Now you have to smell him all day.”
Liam laughed lightly and gave her a small shrug. “It could be worse.” He leaned close to Zara. “Besides, now no one will have the guts to tell us no. We can have the absolute run of this place.”
Zehr groaned at the twinkle in Zara’s eyes. “No.” He held up a finger and shook it at them as if they were schoolchildren. “I mean it. I’m still hearing about what you two got up to at the last clan gathering.”
“I suppose he means it this time.” Zara sniffed, giving her brother another pouting look.
Zehr ran a frustrated hand through his hair and gave Liam a stern look. “Keep her out of trouble and do not let her run off. I want a member of the guard with her any time she leaves our tents.”
Liam nodded. “My word on it.”
Zara pouted more, knowing Liam would never break his word, but the alphas paid her no mind. The safety of a pack member was their most pressing concern. The alphas clasped hands, and Liam nodded at the crowd of shifters bustling around them. There were vendors, stages with music, the smell of meats grilling, and laughter filling the air. It was perfect under the warm shining sun of the Tennessee mountains. It was August and there was no sign of fall in the air. Absolutely perfect.
“Go enjoy yourself.”
“I may,” Zehr said, doing his best to sound flippant, and Zara rolled her eyes at him.
“I demand that you least have some fun if you’re packing me off with Liam.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “I won’t hear of you brooding alone while you assign someone to babysit me. I want you to go get into trouble.”
“Babysit? Is that really what you think?” Liam blew out a long-suffering sigh and gave Zara a sidelong look while he offered his arm, though she only gave the pair of alphas a questioning look.
“What? What did I say?”
“I thought we were friends,” Liam huffed.
Zehr laughed at the picture in front of him: Liam appeared thoroughly put out while Zara continued to look confused. He nodded at the other alpha, who now cracked a smile at Zara as he steered her off and into the crowd, Zara chattering away. A moment later the pair vanished into the crowd.
As soon as he lost sight of the pair, Zehr turned on his heel and headed in the opposite direction, away from the hustle and bustle of the clearing. His sister was right to order him not to brood. It was exactly what he was going to do with so much on his mind. All he wanted, longed for even, was the solace of the forest.
Stepping off the path, he took a deep breath of the mountain air. It was already significantly quieter just steps off the path, and Zehr pushed forward, chasing that calming stillness of the trees with each step. Twigs snapped underfoot and branches tickled at his skin as he walked on. After a few more minutes of walking, he felt his heart soar at the calm that settled around him now that he was deep in the forest.
There were things to fear here, for sure. All shifters knew this. The fae were still far from even-tempered, though they were allies, and one couldn’t set foot in the wild without falling over some witch or warlock intent on magicing them all into an alternate universe.
Magic users were the most discontent beings he had met. No wonder there was little trust or love between the shifter world and the other denizens of the magical realm.
But worry over fae folk or temperamental witches was of little concern for Zehr. The forest was only dangerous for those without teeth, and Zehr had plenty of those.
It was perfect.
Peaceful. Restorative, even.
Or at least it was until Zehr caught a scent on the wind. Sugary sweet and cinnamon.
“All-Mother,” he swore, inhaling deeply. The omega was in their early heat, not quite in that place where a knot and teeth were their world. Ruts and heats were a primal experience for alphas and omegas alike. Zehr had always been uncomfortable with it, feeling unsettled by the thought of losing his control.
He took another deep breath and almost groaned. This omega was like a bowl of candied fruit being offered up to him after only having bland oatmeal for a decade. The scent was tempting enough to make Zehr reconsider his restraint.
All-Mother, if he could come home to an omega that smelled like that…
He licked his lips at the thought. How did they smell so delicious this early in their cycle? The omega would be impossible to resist once they had reached their peak. Before Zehr could process what was happening his feet were moving him toward the tantalizing aroma.
How could an omega smell like everything he never knew he needed?
An omega as sweet smelling as this required protecting, and if he had scented them he could only imagine what other alphas might be on the move. Isolated and alone in the woods was a vulnerable and scary place for an omega in heat.
His lip curled in disgust at the thought of another alpha’s hands on this particular omega. There was no way in hell he would allow it...unless, of course, the omega wished it.
Zehr gave himself a stern mental shake. There was no scenario that he wouldn’t honor the omega’s wishes.
Whatever they chose, or whomever they chose, he would help them. It was his sworn duty as a direct descendant of the All-Mother.
He would, he was...sure of it…
Swallowing hard against the mounting indecision, Zehr focused on moving quickly and silently. The last thing he wanted to do was spook the omega.
A breeze rustled the leaves overhead, and a fresh wave of the omega’s pre-heat scent nearly knocked Zehr on his ass. He had never experienced anything like it, and for a moment he felt drunk. Staggering slightly, he shook his head, trying to clear his mind. It was just the omega pheromones muddling his instincts, making his world spin, and urging him to fall into his heat haze where his wolf ruled.
He took another step and swayed slightly. This was normal, he told himself with a heavy step.
He just had to see the omega. That would, his hindbrain whispered, make it better. Allow him to feel steadier.
Just one look.
Suddenly, a flash of blue exploded overhead and illuminated the shadowy forest so brightly Zehr had to close his eyes and wait for it to retreat. For a split second he was stunned, and some primal part of his brain screamed for him to find cover.