Illuminating His Bear by Charlie Richards
“I’m sorry.” Zhaul scowled at Tim, the alpha-mate of the shifter gang that had rescued him. Disbelief flooded him. “What did you just say?”
“Your mate is in the next room.”
Yup, that’s what I thought he’d said.
Rubbing one palm over his jeans-clad thigh, Zhaul used his other to scrub his short, neatly trimmed beard. It had felt so good to be able to shave. The asshole scientists who’d trapped him in animal form hadn’t allowed him any human decency.
And all because I wanted a fun night away from my sleuth.
Pushing those thoughts out of his mind, Zhaul nibbled his bottom lip for a moment, trying to make proper sense of Tim’s words. “But only I can recognize my mate,” he began slowly, parsing out what confused him the most. Meeting the male’s compassion-filled hazel eyes, Zhaul asked, “How could you possibly know my mate is in the next room?”
“I had a vision,” Tim answered simply. He glanced over his shoulder at Kontra—a massive grizzly shifter and the leader of the gang—and gave his man a tight smile before returning his attention to Zhaul. “But I don’t know which one in there is your mate, so you’ll have to let us know.” After another second of hesitation, Tim added, “And it’ll be interesting to see how he reacts.”
Zhaul felt more confused than ever. His mind reeled with the information dump Tim and Kontra had laid on him that day. He wasn’t entirely certain that, after everything that had happened, he was ready to meet his mate.
Except, finding my mate is a gift, no matter the rotten timing.
Besides, maybe this is Fate’s way of apologizing for giving me a shit family.
As much as Zhaul didn’t want to think about it, he couldn’t get everything to stop swirling through his head. He’d lain in that cage for almost six months—he’d learned that once he’d been rescued—thinking about what he could have possibly missed about the man who he’d followed into the alley for a quickie. Zhaul didn’t know what he’d done to give away the fact that he was a shifter or how the twink even knew about shifters, to begin with.
Zhaul supposed it didn’t matter. He’d been hit with a tranq dart before the door had even finished closing behind him. The twink had sneered at Zhaul as he’d fallen, calling him a freak. Then the blond had backed up and watched with a smug look on his face as men in black shirts and camo pants had carried him off. Zhaul had woken in animal form in a cage, and he’d been there until Kontra and his men had rescued him.
And now I know I wasn’t even reported missing by my sleuth. Bastards.
While Zhaul had known his family had been disappointed in him when he’d come out as gay, never would he have thought they would just ignore the fact that he was gone. Well, to be fair, he supposed he wouldn’t put it past his father and alpha. His mother and older brother, however, surely they would have gone around them to notify… someone?
Should I try to find them? Or leave it lie?
Yuma’s gentle voice murmuring his name pulled Zhaul out of his thoughts. He turned to stare at the little penguin shifter sitting on the bed beside him. The pretty man peered at him with worry in his big brown eyes.
Swallowing hard, Zhaul asked, “Why are you curious about how my mate reacts?” He would worry about family shit later—if at all. A thought flickered through his mind. “Has he already acted homophobic?”
Kontra’s entire gang—over two dozen men—was comprised of a bunch of mated gay couples. If one of the bear shifters in the next room had already expressed a bigoted opinion, then Zhaul hoped that man didn’t end up being his mate. Plus, why would they be in the house if they did have a problem with homosexuals?
Unless they’re rescued shifters like me…
Currently, the gang had set up their home base in the home of Olson Caynar. He’d volunteered the use of his home, and since it was deep in the bayou and easily defendable, Kontra had taken him up on his offer. Besides, it gave the guys something to do—fixing up the old place—while some of them strategized on how to infiltrate and take out other facilities. It also gave those rescued a chance to recover.
For a short while, Olson had been a guard at the facility where Zhaul had been held. The human had quit after seeing one-too-many questionable things. Zhaul had heard that Olson felt guilty for not reporting the place to the authorities, but Zhaul didn’t think that would have helped, anyway.
Since joining Kontra’s people, Zhaul had learned how the facilities were supposed to be a secret—an extension of a government conspiracy.
“No, they don’t say anything at all, actually,” Kontra told him, rubbing his fingers along the edge of his goatee. “There’s six of them in there. They’re in bear form, and they were be-spelled by a circle of witches.” Scowling, Kontra shook his head. “What is it with some people?”
“Power can corrupt,” Tim commented softly. Peering over his shoulder at Kontra, he murmured, “Not everyone can be as awesome as you, my mate.”
Kontra scoffed, his lips twitching. “Not awesome, but thanks, babe.”
Tim returned his focus to Zhaul and stage whispered, “He really is awesome.” As Kontra snorted while pinning a fond look Tim’s way, his mate continued, “Anyway, are you ready to go meet these guys? My vision showed a bear shifting, then you being held by a good-looking brown-skinned guy with a beard.” Rising to his feet, Tim shrugged. “I just can’t tell which bear it is, so let us know.”
Zhaul’s nerves flared as he rose to his feet. Anticipation mixed with uneasiness. His heart thundered in his chest, and he rubbed a hand over it absently.
“This is totally going to be a good thing,” Yuma encouraged with a grin, standing beside him and gripping his forearm in a supportive hold. “I bet meeting you will totally break the spell, and you’ll live happily ever after.”
Hunter—Yuma’s human mate—chuckled softly as he slung his arm around his lover’s waist. “I love your romantic heart, honey.”
Yuma beamed at Hunter, his love for his human shining in the depths of his eyes.
Zhaul glanced between the two mated pairs, knowing he wanted a love like they had.
There’s only one way to get it.
After taking a deep breath, Zhaul forced a smile and nodded. “Let’s see what happens.”
As Zhaul followed Yuma and Hunter from the room, Kontra patted him on the shoulder and stated, “Good man. Finding your mate is a gift, no matter the how, why, or where.”
Nodding once, Zhaul asked curiously, “How’d they end up here?”
“Death dropped them off,” Kontra replied.
“D-Death?” Zhaul paused in the hallway and peered at the other bear shifter in confusion—while Zhaul shared his psyche with a giant panda bear, Kontra was a grizzly shifter. The male’s natural dominance made it easy to defer to him, but he couldn’t contain his curiosity. “Death?”
Fortunately, Kontra didn’t seem to mind when people asked for clarification. “Yeah, Death as in one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” he told him with a grin. “Guess he and his brothers are clearing out witches dealing in blood magick.” Pointing at the door to Zhaul’s left, Kontra revealed with a growl in his voice, “Which is how these bear shifters were subjugated.”
Zhaul stared at Kontra in shock. “H-Horsemen of the A-Apocalypse?” He whispered the words. “Y-You’re on”—he gulped—”like, actual speaking terms with… them?”
Holy fucking shit!
Kontra rested his hand on Zhaul’s nape and massaged lightly. “They’re just paranormals like us,” he rumbled soothingly. “They do their job and live their lives, just like we do. There’s nothing to be scared of.”
Blowing out a breath, Zhaul leaned into the alpha bear’s touch, allowing it to soothe and ground him. The fact that Kontra didn’t seem to think anything of conversing with such powerful beings absolutely blew his mind. He’d heard tales of the paranormal creatures that controlled demons—fucking demons—and they were always cautionary.
You did not want to get on their radar… for any reason.
Yet, Kontra didn’t seem to view them in the same light.
Huh. Well, considering my sleuth didn’t bother reporting me missing, maybe I shouldn’t believe their views anymore.
Just as that thought drifted through his mind, a melodious tenor voice echoed through the hall.
“My brother said you had a unique view of us.”
A tall, slender, pale-featured male appeared ten feet away. His light-brown leather pants molded to his legs, as was his tan tunic, showcasing a muscular body. He stared at them with ice-blue eyes, and the tilt of his chin gave him a slightly haughty expression.
“You are a fascinating alpha.”
Narrowing his eyes, Kontra rumbled, “Well, I just think everyone should be judged on the merits of their character,” he began slowly. He tipped his head to the side just a smidge as he continued, “I apologize. I’m not certain if you’re Pestilence or Famine.”
In the blink of an eye, a small sheath of wheat appeared in the man’s hand.
Kontra nodded once. “Famine. I’m honored to make your acquaintance.”
Famine smirked at them. “It is an honor, isn’t it?”
“How’d you know he’s Famine?” Tim whispered, although, from the way the horseman’s brow twitched just a little, Zhaul would bet the guy had heard him.
Even as Zhaul wondered the same thing, his dry mouth and the tendrils of fear snaking through his system rendered him speechless.
Kontra didn’t have that problem. Pointing at the wheat, he stated, “Pestilence’s weapon of choice is a hunter’s bow.”
Dipping his head in confirmation, Famine stated, “Death told me you’re a very perceptive alpha. I’m pleased he spoke the truth.”
Releasing Zhaul’s nape, Kontra wrapped that arm around Tim’s waist, tucking him close to his side. “I also find that when a horseman shows up, it’s because they need or want something.” His smile turned rueful. “What can I do for you, Famine?”
Smiling faintly, Famine revealed, “Death told me he dropped off the bears to you.”
“He did,” Kontra confirmed, pointing toward the door. “Now that Zhaul is no longer stuck in his panda form, we’re going to introduce them.”
“Then you have experience with shifters stuck in their animal form?”
Kontra nodded. “Sadly, yes.”
Famine flicked his fingers, and the sheath of wheat disappeared. Then he crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, I find myself with five shifters in that very same situation,” Famine told them. “Would you be willing to take them on?” Lifting a hand, he waved toward the window near the end of the hall. “With how secluded this place is, I figure an elephant, a camel, or a capybara won’t be noticed until they can shift once more.”
With his brows shooting up, Kontra barked a laugh. “A capybara? Aren’t those the animals that sort of look like giant moles, but they’re semi-aquatic?”
Nodding, Famine replied, “The very same.” Again, he peered out the window. “With this place being in the swamp, I bet he’ll love it here.”
“Are they be-spelled, too?” Kontra asked.
Shaking his head, Famine told him, “I do not believe so. Had something injected into them or was fed something.”
“When Emmett was stuck in animal form, he was fed it in his grain,” Yuma revealed, referring to a white buffalo shifter. “Once he was no longer being fed it, he was able to shift again.”
Famine dipped his head in acknowledgment. “I do hope that will be the case for these animals.”
“You said five,” Kontra pointed out. “What are the other two animals?”
“A gray wolf and a coral snake,” Famine replied.
“All right,” Kontra agreed. “We’ll keep them safe if they don’t have a problem staying with a gay motorcycle gang.”
“Thank you.” Famine appeared relieved. “I will bring them post-haste.”
Kontra pointed toward the closed door. “Give us a few, huh? Zhaul still has to meet his mate.”
“Ah.” Famine’s brows shot up. “This, I’m interested in seeing.” Then he moved closer, as if it would be a show.
Zhaul sure as hell hoped not as he refocused on the door.
Kontra reached past him and opened it, then led the way inside.
After feeling Yuma give his arm another squeeze of encouragement, Zhaul followed the alpha. Immediately, his senses were swamped by the most amazing earthy scent. His blood fired in his veins, and his stomach tightened.
Yes, my mate is truly in here.
Sweeping his gaze over the six sitting brown bears, Zhaul just had to figure out which one.