The battle had gone on too long, and he was bleeding too badly. His bear—one of the most powerful beasts on Mesa Diablo—was faltering.
More than its great strength, its great heart was failing.
This should never have happened. Two rex ursi—king bears—in their prime should never be facing each other, blood on their claws and death between their jaws. For hundreds of years, power had passed peacefully in the Four Corners bear shifter clan from one king bear to the next, the elder ceding his position as the younger came into his own, the essence of the rex ursi flowing from one to the other like the river flowing from Mesa Diablo.
But not this time.
This time, both bears were at their physical peak, and both men were filled with righteous fury, the great bear’s unleashed energy thundering between them in heavy crashes of flesh and flashing fangs. Thor faced the other male, his rage eclipsed only by the baffled confusion of his grief.
Why? he wanted to ask, even knowing that no words were possible, not from the man, certainly not from the beast. They circled each other warily. The rex ursi opposing him was the largest bear in generations, the massive hump of his shoulders barely counterbalancing the heavy weight of his skull and thick, curved arms. Maybe someday Thor would match him, pound for pound.
But it wasn’t this day. He felt the strain in his neck, not just where the other bear had savaged him, but from the instinctive urge to yield to the more dominant animal.
The king he always respected, and, more than that, loved.
But he knew, if he and his bear gave in, the bigger beast would tear them apart. And tear apart the clan too, not to mention the rest of the shifter community in Angels Rest. And, great bear forbid, maybe the whole country, even the world. Couldn’t let that happen, even if the law of the wild proved he was the weaker one.
Lift your head, he raged at his bear. Fight, dammit. Bite!
The beast roused sluggishly, sullenly. The bear wasn’t just his closest companion from his earliest memories; it spread through his soul, like a poet’s muse, like thunder with lightning, not always obvious, but always nearby.
Now it rumbled brokenly at him, a signal of surrender. Fight, he hissed, as if he wasn’t talking to himself. He was fighting himself as much as he was fighting two bears.
He didn’t want to kill his father.
So Thor would do as he’d been taught, what he knew was right, even if it killed them.
Lashing his beast with the power of hopeless last chances, he lunged. His claws ripped up long furrows in the dirt, each one like a shallow grave in the desert earth. He hit the larger bear dead-on, aiming his own massive shoulder at the beast’s snout. When the other male snorted in pain at the blow to its sensitive nose and shook its head, Thor used his lower position to dive for the exposed throat. His mouth filled with fur and blood and the sour musk of enraged boar bear. Fighting was a failure, his father had told him more than once. But sometimes every other option failed first.
This was his failure and folly. But he hung on grimly as the larger beast flopped him about as if he were a particularly fluffy winter scarf caught in the storm.
Desperate, he clamped his teeth down harder until he felt the click of his incisors connecting. Instead of throttling the bigger bear into submission, he’d merely bitten through the loose ruff around his sire’s throat.
With a gurgling roar, more enraged than injured, his father flung him aside. Thor landed in a puff of dust and a spray of scarlet. The elder bear sneezed. For a heartbeat, Thor thought it would halt its attack.
All over except the choking agony of life slowly leaving him. In another few heartbeats he’d be unconscious. A few slowing thuds after that, his father would end him. The betrayal and ostracism of his clan would be complete.
And let go.
The rex ursi’s teeth sank even deeper into Thor’s fragile, suddenly unfurred flesh. Long canines grated on his very human vertebrae.
But at the shock of his abrupt shift, the larger bear released its grip. Thor dropped to the sand on all fours—not four legs, two arms and two legs now, although he could barely prop himself up on one battered elbow. Blood sheeted down his bare chest and soaked the dry earth.
His body trembled, weaker than a newborn cub. His bear…
The place where it always was… Empty. He tensed, his fingers spasming in the dirt as if a part of him were digging for the missing half.
But it was gone.
And found only Thor in his lesser size.
He wanted to die. The humiliation of losing the fight wasn’t just ego; only the strongest should lead the clan. And that clearly wasn’t Thor. Killing his father or failing the clan had only ever been a bad option and a worse one.
With an effort that opened the wounds in his neck, gushing fresh blood, he lifted his head to meet the bear’s rage-blanked yellow eyes. “I know you did what you thought you had to do against the threat of the Kingdom Guard. And against me.” His throat tightened again, from the inside this time. “I know only one of us can walk away from this. But when the bear lets you go, I want you to remember that I understood and I forgave you. Tell Mom I just ran away, so she doesn’t know…” The blood in his mouth was bitter. “Tell her I love her. And I love you too.”
In the bloodlust of battle, he knew the other bear wouldn’t understand everything he said, but when his father took his upright shape again, he’d remember. Thor kept his gaze on the big bear, even knowing he was staring his death in the face. The shifter world was still dangerous and raw in ways the wider world told itself it wasn’t. But his whole life, he’d been raised to cherish the hard, wild truth of Mesa Diablo. In his death he could do no less. If this was the fated way for the clan, so be it.
But his sire didn’t strike for the kill. Its head low to the ground, the bear took another shambling step backward, opening more space between them. The grunt of its breath raised twin rooster tails of dust as it took a third step in retreat.
Thor watched him, his heartbeat stuttering in a confusion that sent more blood churning from his wounds. “Dad? Are you—?”
The big bear stumbled, one leg buckling for a moment before it straightened with a huff. Had he hurt it more than he knew? Maybe there was still a chance…
When the bear crouched back on its haunches, tensing, the fragile hope in Thor’s heart turned to ash. It was going to spring—
It sprang. Not at him, but away, toward the empty high desert.
Though the Four Corners plain was mostly short scrub with only a few dotted junipers of any decent size, the bear—like any wily wild animal—managed to disappear in a blink. Maybe down into the hidden maze of arroyos carved into the landscape during flashfloods, maybe just swallowed by the mirage of sun on glassy sand. Gone.
Leaving Thor to bleed and doubt.
Was the clan his now?