Over a decade had passed since he’d last experienced the overly-full feeling, so Hugh Langley didn’t immediately identify the cause. He continued thrusting, enjoying the warm bodies, hungry grunts, and musky scents of the lion shifters around him, when suddenly, the pressure in his head and chest swelled and nearly knocked him unconscious. That was when he realized what was happening.
“Where’s the Siphon?” he asked breathlessly as he pushed himself to a kneeling position and darted his gaze around his large bedroom. This was worse, so much worse than it’d ever been. He could barely breathe, barely think, barely move. “The Siphon?” he gasped.
“Hugh?” said Mara Terrence, the shifter who’d been writhing beneath him. “What’s wrong?”
“Premier?” Dennis Jones untangled himself from Percy Milroy and both men approached him. “What’s… Oh, fuck! Mara, hold onto him before he falls.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Mara cried as she balanced Hugh’s considerable weight and lowered him to the floor.
“What’s going on?” Lorena Mansfield said as she rushed out of the bathroom, where she’d been cleaning up before heading home to make dinner for the dozen cubs living in her house.
“The Siphon,” Hugh bit out as he clutched both sides of his head. “Find the Siphon.”
“He isn’t in here.”
“The Siphon can’t be far from the Premier,” Percy pointed out. “Look in his room!”
Within seconds, the door connecting Hugh’s bedroom to the Siphon’s slammed open.
“Oh shit!” Dennis screamed. “I need help! Mara, Lorena, Percy, someone get in here. Hurry! Before he hurts our Premier.”
“What… Dennis! Hugh’s seizing,” Percy said. He cupped Hugh’s cheeks with his clammy, trembling hands and begged. “Hugh. Premier. Please don’t die. We need you. Please don’t die.”
One moment, Hugh had no control over his twitching limbs and useless lungs, and the next, he felt an opening into the tunnel that connected him to the Siphon. With the last of his energy, he shoved his power through it, and finally, blessedly, relieved the disabling pressure tearing him apart from within.
“Hugh?” Percy said, his voice trembling. “Can you see me?”
The darkness cleared from Hugh’s vision and he blinked as he sucked in air.
Percy was crouched over him, his normally tan skin, milky white and his brown eyes huge. “Premier?”
“I’m okay.” Hugh coughed and sat up. He patted Percy’s shoulder, his black hands wildly contrasting with Percy’s unusually pale body. “Everything’s fine.”
“Hugh?” Mara, Lorena, and Dennis rushed over and dropped to their knees beside him.”
A rare Premier lion, Hugh’s power and energy put his pride members at peace and made them strong and confident, which allowed for success in all facets of their lives. The pride adored and revered him, so the sight of him so near death left them shaken.
“I’m okay. I pushed my power into the Siphon.” Hugh looked around. “Where is he?”
“In his room,” Dennis said, his lips curled up in disgust. “How could he do that to you? To our pride?”
“What did he do?” Hugh asked.
A Premier’s life spanned centuries, his strength and power growing with every cycle of the sun until, eventually, he could no longer contain the force, leading to a painful death for him and devastation to the pride. But a Siphon siphoned off a Premier’s energy. Though he couldn’t use it himself, the Siphon provided storage for the power while keeping it available for the Premier’s use. A Siphoned Premier was nearly indestructible. Nearly because the death of the Siphon would eliminate the energy storage source, leaving the Premier overrun with power until he imploded.
“Don’t worry. We cut him down and used the rope to secure his wrists and ankles.” Mara glared at the connecting doorway. “He won’t be able to hurt you now.”
Hugh had been leading the Berk pride for over seventy years when his steadily increasing power had become too large to contain within his own body. Under his guidance and leadership, the Berk pride and its lions had blossomed. A decade earlier, the small, weak Westgate pride had offered him a Siphon who had just come of age in exchange for taking them all into his prosperous Premier Pride. Hugh’s agreement had saved the Westgate lions from near certain death.
“Hanged himself?” Hugh repeated in surprise. “Why would he do that?”
The blank stares around him indicated that nobody had considered the question let alone determined the answer. Physically drained and more than a little shaken by how close he had come to death and how vulnerable he had been in front of his lions, Hugh needed to regroup and then investigate the situation with the Siphon so he could make sure it never happened again.
“You said he’s secure now?”
Not wanting anybody to view him as weak, Hugh determinedly climbed to his feet and straightened his broad shoulders. Like all Premiers, his skin, hair, and eyes were black in both human and lion forms. And because his body grew along with his power as he aged, at over a century old, he was seven feet tall and weighed three hundred pounds. That size helped him appear stronger and more in control than he felt at that moment.
“I’ll get to the bottom of it,” he said firmly, making sure his tone allowed for no argument. He walked to his open bedroom door, knowing his pride members would follow him, and said, “We’re done here for the night.”
All four lions said their goodnights and traipsed out of the house without a backward glance. He sighed, relieved his loss of control hadn’t made them doubt his abilities. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for his own thoughts.
He had never come that close to dying, not even before he’d had a Siphon. The upside to the incident was indisputable proof of how much his power had grown over the past decade. The downside, however, was how incredibly dependent he was on the Siphon. Exhausted, Hugh returned to his bedroom and collapsed on the mattress, not bothering to pull back the quilt. He would sleep, rejuvenate his body and his mind, and deal with the Siphon when he could think clearly.
Hugh woke up in a pitch-black room. He rolled to his side and squinted toward the huge picture window. By mid-morning, light inevitably seeped in from around the corners of the rich silk drapes, the sun-blocking liner unable to keep the rays completely at bay. Not an ounce of light came through, so it was either late Friday night or early Saturday morning.
Though he had healed from the physical effects of the Siphon’s action, his worry hadn’t abated. Whatever caused the lapse in judgment had to be addressed quickly and firmly. Needing to regain his emotional footing before dealing with the unexpected and unwelcome situation, Hugh headed toward the bathroom.
Once he was clean, dressed, and feeling more like himself, he marched into the adjoining room, flipped on the light switch, and said, “You need to explain yourself.”
Curled into a ball on the bed with his ankles and wrists bound together, the Siphon remained silent and still. Hugh would have thought he was dead but for the fact that his death would have meant Hugh’s own immediate demise.
When Hugh had taken in the starving Westgate lions and saved them from their fire-ravaged land, they had gained resources, homes, food, and a Premier. With a great deal of work and time on Hugh’s part, those lions had integrated with the Berk lions and they now made a cohesive pride that was even more successful than it had been before the merger. But the Siphon had almost destroyed all of that the previous night.
“Wake up,” Hugh said.
With a resigned sigh, the Siphon moved, seemingly trying to sit up. The bindings prevented him from succeeding.
“I’ll untie you.” Hugh was a foot taller and twice the Siphon’s weight, so releasing him wasn’t a risk. He stepped over, took the rope in both hands and tugged, snapping it with no effort. The display of strength eased the part of him still worried about an ongoing impact from his near-death experience. “Can you sit up?” he asked when he noticed the Siphon still having trouble.
“Yes,” the Siphon croaked and shakily rose to a sitting position. “Are we going somewhere?” He rubbed his trembling hand over his neck and began standing. “I’ll get my shoes.”
“No.” Hugh grasped the Siphon’s shoulder and held him in place. “I came here to talk to you.”
“You want to talk to me?” He blinked in confusion.
“Yes. We need to talk about what you tried to do to our pride.” Though based on that hoarse voice, Hugh doubted the Siphon could do much talking. “You need water.” He flicked his gaze around the room, which was a silly exercise because there was nothing in the space other than a bed, a nightstand, and a dresser, same as always. The only difference was a hole in the ceiling near the dresser, where Hugh presumed the Siphon had attached the rope. “Let’s go downstairs.”
“Oh.” The Siphon climbed to his feet and then swayed. Hugh waited for him to get his bearings and then slowly walked out of the room. Until he knew what had caused the Siphon’s erratic behavior, he needed to be on guard, so he carefully watched him as they made their way to the kitchen.
After getting a bottle of water from the gleaming stainless steel refrigerator, Hugh sat in one of the plush upholstered chairs in front of the magnolia wood kitchen table and waited for the Siphon to get his drink and join him. When the Siphon hadn’t spoken by the time Hugh had drained his bottle, he lost his patience and took the reins.
“We can’t have a repeat of yesterday. You endangered my pride.” Under normal circumstances, Hugh would have killed someone for committing that offense, but the Siphon’s death was exactly what he needed to prevent, so he had to come up with a different solution. “Tell me why you hanged yourself.”
The Siphon raised the bottle to his mouth, tipped it, and swallowed slowly.
Annoyed at the delay, Hugh considered beating the Siphon into submission, but he had no idea what weakening the Siphon physically would do to his ability to carry Hugh’s power. Only one in half a million lions was born a Siphon so there weren’t enough of them in the world to know much about them and Hugh couldn’t risk anything that would damage the person who stored his power.
Growling in frustration, he said, “Answer me.”
“What do you want to know, Premier?” the Siphon asked tiredly. He fiddled with the label on the bottle.
“I want to know why you tried to kill me and destroy this pride.”
Faster than a normal lion’s eyes could track, Hugh grasped the Siphon’s throat. “These rope marks say otherwise,” he roared, his patience eviscerated. “How dare you lie to your Premier?”
Despite Hugh’s show of strength, loud voice, and clear superiority, the Siphon didn’t flinch.
“Answer me.” Hugh shook him.
“I did answer.” The Siphon’s voice was barely audible, both because he spoke quietly and because of the grip Hugh had on him.
“You wrapped a rope around your neck, tied it to the ceiling, and jumped off your dresser,” Hugh accused. The Siphon didn’t deny the statement, so Hugh continued. “That is an attack on me and this pride.” Again, the Siphon didn’t speak. Hugh shook him. “Do you deny it?”
For the first time since they had begun talking, the Siphon raised his gaze, laying his uniquely blue eyes on Hugh. “I don’t deny hanging myself, but I wasn’t attacking anyone.”
That answer made no sense.
“I’m over a century old. A Premier my age has too much power to exist without a Siphon.” Hugh tossed the Siphon away, making his chair tilt sideways. “You know this. Hell, any cub old enough to climb knows this.” He dragged his fingers over his close-cropped hair. “Right?”
After steadying his chair, the Siphon lowered his gaze and nodded.
“And yet you deny that your actions would have left me with no way to contain my energy?”
The Siphon shook his head.
Premiers were rare—one in five thousand lions were born with the black fur and skin marking them as the most powerful lions in existence. But there were a hundred Premiers for every Siphon, making the blue-eyed lions almost unheard of. There was nobody else who could siphon Hugh’s power, and on his own, he would implode from its force.
“No more games!” Hugh shouted as he shoved his chair back and jumped to his feet. He planted both hands on the table and loomed over the Siphon. “Berk is a Premier Pride. You could have hurt fourteen hundred full-grown lions and five hundred cubs with your actions. Did you think of that?”
Again, the Siphon shook his head.
“Aren’t you grateful?”
His eyebrows drawn together in confusion, the Siphon said, “Grateful for what?”
“For what?” Hugh roared. “Look around.” He waved his arm around the room blindly. “You are part of a Premier Pride. We have over four thousand acres of rich land. Our members are well-fed, financially secure, and close-knit. Our homes, businesses, and territory are the envy of most prides. What more do you want?”
“I don’t know.” The Siphon shrugged and hunched lower in his chair. “To live, I guess.”
“You’re a Siphon. You can live forever.”
Where regular lions lived and aged at the same pace as their human counterparts, Premiers stopped aging when they reached their peak condition and, instead, grew larger and more powerful. And a Siphon who carried a Premier’s power aged at the Premier’s pace.
“I’m not living.” The Siphon licked his lips. “But I’m not dead.” Sighing deeply, he whispered, “I want to be.”
The conflicting statements made no sense.
“You say you want to live but then say you want to die.” Hugh looked into the Siphon’s eyes, hoping to find an answer. When he couldn’t figure it out, he asked, “Why did you hang yourself?”
“I’m a Siphon. I can’t live.” The blue-eyed gaze dropped. “Dying’s the only way out.”
A foreboding chill ran down Hugh’s spine. The Siphon dying would mean Hugh’s own death. He wouldn’t allow it.
To carry a Premier’s power, a Siphon had to remain close to him at all times, so Hugh could monitor the Siphon most of the time. But Hugh slept, showered, fucked. He couldn’t watch the Siphon every second of every day. Bringing in pride members to guard him wasn’t an option because it would alert them to Hugh’s vulnerability, which would cause turmoil among the pride, and even worse, it would risk outsiders finding out about it, which would expose a vulnerability that could easily be exploited.
Eight decades of Hugh’s leadership and hard work had paid off—he hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d listed Berk’s attributes to the Siphon. Berk was a Premier Pride, meaning it was stronger, wealthier, and happier than most prides. It also meant other lions desperately wanted what they had, and if they smelled blood, they wouldn’t hesitate to mount an attack. Showing weakness would endanger the entire pride.
Since age twenty-three, Hugh had dedicated his life to protecting the Berk pride. If he didn’t get to the bottom of the Siphon’s issue, his life and the pride would be in jeopardy. He wouldn’t allow that to happen. But to fix the problem, Hugh first had to understand what it was.