Jareth Grimclaw sets out on a quest: to end the blight of The Dread Barrens spilling into his territory, The Green Sea—a beautiful lush jungle region. As the Alpha of his panther shifter pride, the task falls to him to do something before it’s too late, and the damage is irreversible.
Venturing into The Dread Barrens, Jareth has no choice but to confront the warlock, Bane Umbra. When Bane speaks to Jareth using mindspeech, Jareth feels the immediate spark of the sacred Fated mate bond. He can’t believe it—he’s Fated to the enemy!
Be Warned: m/m sex
The soil feels dead and dry beneath my paws as I slink across the landscape. It is no more than black dust, like ashes. Above, the sky is in a state of permanent maelstrom. Lightning crackles, black clouds roil, and darkness covers the land like a sickness. If I’m not successful in my quest, all panther shifters will fall prey to this enveloping gloom. I cannot fail.
So, what’s the plan, Jareth? I ask myself. But the truth is … I don’t know. I know what must happen. I just don’t know how to make it so. Do I threaten the warlock? That could spell not only my death, but the demise of The Green Sea and all its inhabitants. I’m as physically fit and lethal as any alpha panther could hope to be, but at the end of the day … I have no magic of my own. I can’t fight fire with fire.
My only hope is to take him completely by surprise. It’s the sole way I’ll have a chance at getting close enough to launch a killing strike. But would killing him even fix the problem? Who or what would contain the virulent darkness once he’s dead? Would it dissipate and crawl back into the bowels of the Nether from whence it came? Or would it spread, unchecked, and unstoppable?
The magnitude of my burden weighs heavily upon me, and I find my mood souring the deeper into enemy territory I venture. It’s like the very air poisons the mind, turning hope into despair! Weaker souls might be tempted to turn back, but not I. The burden of alphahood is a heavy crown that few can bear, but I will wear it with honor and strength for as long as I live. I’ve been challenged all of three times in my hundred years, and yet, here I still stand, while my challengers lie cold in the ground, no more than food for the worms. Mercy is a price a true alpha cannot afford.
Skulking between strange, lurid green-veined rock formations, past elusive, intangible shadow beasts, and beneath the boughs of the odd, gnarled tree, it takes several hours to reach the foothold of The Spire—the warlock’s tower. A great circular mote of liquid shadow protects Bane’s refuge from all those who might dare to enter, like a dark ring of intangible death. With due caution and no small amount of courage, I approach the black waters.
Drawing nearer, I take an involuntary step backward, one paw poised, half-cocked in the air. There are faces in the writhing shadows! Gaunt and pained, their mouths forever torn by eternal screams that warp and twist as they meld into one another, only to re-appear moments later. A shiver runs through me and my hackles rise. The torment! Sweet Goddess. What crimes did these souls commit to end up bound in agony for all of time, guarding Bane’s blasted tower? Nothing about this forsaken place is natural. What once was—what life this land may have ever nurtured—is a distant memory. Every inch of me itches and yearns to be away from this cesspool of malevolence. But I must press on. My pride is depending on me.
Staking out The Spire, I circle its immense girth, seeking a point of entrance or an area of weakness. To my dismay it seems truly impenetrable. Have I wasted my time? I wonder, sitting back on my haunches, my heavy brow creased in consternation. There must be a way in, but how? There appears to be no windows for a hundred levels, at least. There are no handholds or crevices by which to gain purchase—it’s entirely, perfectly smooth—so even climbing the behemoth structure is out of the question.
If I want to maintain the element of surprise, I can’t declare myself or risk challenging him. And Bane is no fool, I sigh, shaking my head. He will have ensured that every possibility and every weakness has been accounted for tenfold. This is his home, his fort, and his seat of power in Avalar. He will have made sure that no one could possibly catch him unawares. Frustrated, I wrinkle my nose, twitching my whiskers. Think! I compel myself.
I know for certain that warlocks are born without access to the innate magic of their witch mothers. They attain their powers through study and learning. Countless years of their long lives are spent poring over ancient tomes, holed up in dusty libraries, perfecting their craft with minds that know no fatigue. As solitary and distrustful as they are by nature, they value knowledge above all else, and so The Guild of Warlocks was formed—so that they might share their secrets and rituals with one another.
I’ve heard stories over the years that would give even the bravest of souls nightmares. The Guild is a most underhanded and dark company of individuals with no discernible moral code beyond their own boundless ambitions. And to get on the wrong side of them is paramount to asking for damnation. Warlocks don’t just kill their enemies. No. Warlocks are known for their dark, depraved, and petty hearts…
I catch myself mid-thought. And yet, who am I to cast judgment? Panthers are notoriously cruel. As wild cats we hunt our prey, tormenting and playing with them, often offering some semblance of hope for escape, only to snatch it away and seal the kill with heinous brutality. With claws like curved daggers, teeth like honed blades, and eyes that see flawlessly in the dark, we are amongst the most lethal hunters in all of Avalar.
Blinking, I snap myself back to the present, to the mote of horrors and the impenetrable tower before me. Even if I managed to cross the mote, not even a cat could climb such sheer rock… And so, only one option remains, I realize. The one I had hoped against hope to avoid. I must declare myself to the warlock. I must give up the element of surprise and confront Bane face to face, man to man. Returning home is not an option.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, I shift into my mortal form and prepare myself for whatever comes next. “Bane!” I shout his name at the top of my lungs. “I demand an audience!” The sky above seems to thunder louder in response. The lightning flashes, illuminating the darkness and striking The Spire, its sizzling power dissipating into the reflective black stone.
“Who dares challenge Bane Umbra?”
The words boom in my mind, shaking the very core of me. My eyes grow wide and my breath hitches in my throat as a sensation like fire whispers through me, setting every nerve in its path alight. My heart races, and I frown in disbelief as much as shock. There is no mistaking the feeling that now ravages my mind, body, and soul. It’s the kind you experience only once in a lifetime—if you’re lucky. It’s the Fated mate bond. Goddess be merciful, I swear. I’m Fated to the fucking enemy!