He scoffed. "I’m stronger than that."
Everyone had a weakness. Everyone. "Where is your arrogance coming from?" She didn’t understand it.
"The truth isn’t arrogance."
She gaped at him. "Who are you?"
"I’m the man you love."
And those words hurt her most of all. "Are you not the man who loves me?"
She shook her head in denial. "No, that’s not what you said. You put the order there that matters most to you. All you care about it is you."
"I did not say that."
"You don’t have to." Tears began to flood her eyes until her vision drowned in misery. "Your words betray your thoughts." She tried to leave him, but he stopped her. She tried to gain her release. "Let me go!"
"Not until you learn to be reasonable."
Learn? She was not some infant who needed lessons. She was a woman full grown. How dare he not see that. "I’m not the one who’s changing. There’s something dark inside you that wasn’t there before."
He scoffed. "You don’t know what you’re talking about."
But she did, and that knowledge beat painfully inside her.
He leaned down, his eyes glacial and foreign. "If you love me, you will tell him."
Why did she have to prove her love? Was it not enough that he saw it with his own vision?
She wrested her arm from his grasp. "I must go."
He didn’t speak as he watched her walk away.
A shadow unwrapped itself from his and peeled itself from the wall. As full figured as a man, it walked toward him to stand behind his shoulder and whisper in his ear. "I told you so, didn’t I? Women are ever fickle. There’s no man who can keep one forever satisfied."
"Butterfly is different. She is all things good."
"And you are not."
No, he wasn’t. He was a warrior, and his skin had been bathed in blood more times than he could count. It didn’t pay for him to show mercy or patience. He wasn’t supposed to.
At the right hand of his chief, he had slain innocents aplenty. It was his job. But now that they were at peace, he was lost.
Until he’d seen the Butterfly. She had tamed the savage inside him. Made it content to sit before hearth and watch her gentle ways. He didn’t understand it. But so long as she was with him, he had no desire to pick up knife or spear.
He wanted only to please her.
Abigail blinked as the vision faded. When it was gone completely, she realized she was still standing in front of the wall with Choo Co La Tah behind her.
"Now you know," he said quietly.
Baffled, she turned to meet his kind gaze. "Know what?"
"Who you really are. Who Jess is."
More images flashed in her mind like a short-circuiting strobe trying to drive her mad. They came so fast that she could barely see them, and yet somehow her mind registered it all. "I don’t understand."
He placed his hands on each of her arms. "You are the Butterfly, and Jess is the Buffalo. Peace and war. Two halves who were supposed to make one."
She shook her head in denial. "What have you been smoking or snorting or inhaling?"
"Do you not feel the connection here?"
Weirdly enough, she did. But that only freaked her out more.
Choo Co La Tah sighed as he realized she still wasn’t ready for the truth. For all these centuries, he’d hidden her and waited for her to find a way to free herself from the curse. And still she was bound.
What a pity.
Maybe in her next life …
"Come." He gestured toward the rock in the center of the room that lay like a bed beneath a cluster of shimmering stalactites. She was strong in this lifetime. Stronger than she’d ever been before. He saw the rebellion in her eyes that he’d waited a millennium for.
She squelched it and then went to obey. Even so, it was obvious that her submission grated against every part of her being. Her teeth thoroughly clenched, she climbed up and lay back against the cold stone slab.
Choo Co La Tah began chanting as he summoned the sacred breath to cleanse them both.
Abigail listened to his song, but she zoned out as she conjured an image of Jess in her mind. A smile spread across her face as she saw him in the car again. As she felt the memory of his touch on her body. She cupped his pocket watch in her hands and held it on her stomach.
"Choo Co La Tah?" She hated to interrupt his ceremony, but this needed to be done.
"Once I’m dead, would you please return Jess’s watch to him?"
She ran the pad of her thumb over the engraved scrollwork. "He loves it."
"Is his happiness all that matters to you?"
"No. But I don’t want him to have any regrets. Not about me."
He inclined his head to her, then went back to his chanting.
Abigail was patient at first, but as it dragged on and on, it began to wear on her nerves. Why couldn’t he kill her already? Was the torture part of it?
When he started on another chant with no letup in sight, she lost all semblance of manners.
"Choo? Really? Is all this necessary?"
He paused midsyllable. "You’re ready to die, then?"
Oh … there was that.
She turned her head to look at him. "May I have what’s behind door number two?"
He actually laughed. "You already chose."
"I know." She swallowed hard and closed her eyes. "I’m ready."
She felt Choo Co La Tah move to stand by her shoulder. The faintest whisper of metal scraping leather let her know he was drawing a knife. Bracing herself, she conjured Jess’s face and imagined herself in his arms.
No, on a beach. A little difficult, granted, since he couldn’t be in daylight without bursting into flames, but she’d loved the beach when she was a kid. And since the Apollites had the same spontaneous combustion issue with the silken sands, she hadn’t been on one since her mother took her there for her fourth birthday.
But she was there now. Jess in a Speedo.
Just kidding. That was too bold a look even for him. Maybe a …
Naked. Yeah, nak*d. She liked that best of all. The two of them lying in the surf like the old movie her mother had loved, From Here to Eternity.
Something cold and sharp touched her throat. Tensing, she braced herself for the cut that would end her life.
"Do you not want to fight me to live?"
Hold on to Jess. Naked. Beach. Naked.
"Answer me, Abigail. Do you want to live?"
"Of course I do." What kind of question was that?
"Then why don’t you fight me?"
Abigail didn’t answer. She had to hold on to Jess’s face or she would be fighting him with everything she had.
"Why don’t you fight?"
She opened her eyes to glare at him. "Don’t you understand? I am saving my life."
"I don’t follow. You’re doing this to save the world?"
She shook her head. "I’m doing this to save Jess."
"For him I can cut your throat?" He laid the knife across her neck. So close, she couldn’t swallow without cutting herself. She kept her eyes open this time.
Screw it. If he was going to kill her, he could do it looking at her.
His gaze softened immediately as a slow smile spread across his face. "That’s the right answer." He pulled the knife away.
Completely confused, she scowled at him. "What are you doing?"
"You made your sacrifice. You can get up now."
She still didn’t understand. "I have to die. Don’t I?"
"Not all sacrifices involve death, child. As the Enapay used to say, the noblest sacrifice of all is to open your heart up completely to another person and give them the dagger with which to slay you…. You were willing to die for Jess. Bravely. You proved it. That’s enough for the Spirit to see and be appeased."
Incredulous, she gaped at him. "Get out." Could it really be that easy?
"No getting out, I’m afraid, my dear. All we need to do now is make your offering and then locate those jars to protect them."
She bolted upright. "I really don’t have to die?"
"Are we going to be doing this all night? Should I book us a reservation at Redundancy?"
She laughed. Until her gaze went past his shoulder to …
It took a moment for her eyes to see it again and then to realize what it was….
That familiar shadow she’d seen on her wall as a child. The one that had whispered to Buffalo.
And before she could make a single sound of warning, it attacked.
Jess paced back and forth like a caged cougar on steroids. Every time he started to go after Abigail, Ren grabbed his arm and stopped him.
The bastard was about to get a boot kicked so far up his ass, he’d be burping shoe leather for the rest of his immortal life.
Jess started for the cave again.
Ren cut him off. "You can’t."
"Bull. Shit. What I can’t do is leave her. Don’t you understand?"
Ren laughed bitterly. "Yeah, I understand better than you can ever imagine. I know exactly what it’s like to want something so bad, you can taste it and to have to watch as it voluntarily goes to someone else and then wish them both the best and try to mean it. I know the bitter taste of gall as they sit down at your table and you have to smile while inside you die every time they touch or exchange love-saturated glances. Don’t talk to me about torment, Jess. I wrote the f**king book on it."
Now, that was something Ren had never shared with him before. He had no idea his friend had been through an experience like that. Ren never talked about his past. Hell, Jess didn’t even know why Ren was a Dark-Hunter.
Because of his own past, he’d never wanted to pry into someone else’s. He figured they’d tell him what they wanted him to know, and if they didn’t volunteer it, then there was probably a real good reason why.
Far be it from him to stick his nose in it.
Jess inclined his head respectfully. "I’m sorry, Ren."
Ren wore an expression that said, You have no idea.
From up the hill where the cavern was, a fierce battle cry rang out. One that sounded like Choo Co La Tah’s. Jess’s heart seized as a bad feeling tore through him.
Please let me be wrong.
As fast as he could, he ran up the red-soiled hill while Ren turned into a bird to fly and Sasha took his wolf form.
By the time Jess reached Choo Co La Tah’s private cave, Sasha, still in wolf form, was fighting a coyote and Ren was nowhere to be seen.
Neither was Abigail.
That didn’t make him happy at all. Was she dead?
He ground his teeth as agony poured through him. It was the same aching, desolate feeling he’d had the night he sold his soul to Artemis.
Abigail was gone.
Please don’t be dead.
"Jess?" Choo Co La Tah’s voice pulled him back to their present situation. They were in the middle of an attack, and he had to focus if they were to survive. Six bodies of coyotes lay nearby as a gruesome reminder of everything at stake. Blood was splattered on the walls and pooled on the floor, under the bodies.
Choo Co La Tah took a step toward him, then slipped and fell on the blood-drenched ground.
He didn’t get back up.
Jess sprinted toward the elder, who lay in a small crevice on his side. A quick visual skim of his injuries said that it was a miracle he was still alive.
Coyote had been playing for keeps. But by the looks of it, so had Choo Co La Tah.
Jess reached down to gently roll him over so that he could see the extent of his injuries. And they were extensive. The coyotes had torn him up badly. "What happened?"
He swallowed hard. "They jumped us."
Choo Co La Tah cleared his throat. "They took Abigail before I could complete the ritual. We have to make the offering by dawn … or else."
Hell would rain down on them in biblical proportions. Boy, would his snooty neighbors be pissed. They didn’t like him on his best day anyway. Not that he cared.
"Do you know where they took her?"
Choo Co La Tah rubbed at his bleeding forehead while Jess tried to tend the wound. "Most likely, Coyote’s den … and you can’t kill him there, Jess. We have to get him here in the Valley."
Jess glanced around to see Sasha defeating his playmate. "Where’s Ren?"
"He went after Coyote and Abigail. You have to find them, Jess. Bring them back."
"Don’t worry. I won’t fail."
* * *
Abigail fought hard against the ropes that bound her hands and feet together, but there was no give with them. As Jess would say, she was bound up and dressed like a Christmas goose.
And in total darkness. If only she knew where she was.
Then she heard a deep voice from the other side of whatever she was in.
"I’ll deal with him later," a man growled in a voice that was familiar, yet she couldn’t identify it.
A second later, the door opened and relief poured through her at the sight of a friendly face. And here she’d thought she was in danger.
She smiled at him. "Ren. It’s so good to see you. You won’t believe what happened."
He curled his lip at her, silencing her happy greeting. "Do I look like that piece of shit?"
Okay … Obviously he equated Ren with something bad. Which was strange, since they were virtually identical. Same black hair, dark eyes. Refined features. But now that he mentioned it, there was a difference.