The Catalyst (Chapter Ten)
He didn't say another word as he helped her get her things together. He slung a few of the satchels over his shoulder and loaded Fiona down with the others. He helped her down the side of the rock, gave her his helmet, and took her back to her place.
This is why I don't sleep with virgins. Of course it would end like this. Sex was too big of a deal to them. No matter what they said, they couldn't just fuck and move on. It had to be a big deal. It had to be romance and relationships and confrontations.
What was he supposed to do about the pup? How was he supposed to find him? Maybe he should have put some kind of tracker on the little guy, but that was water under the bridge now. Whatever he should have done had no bearing on what he had done or where they were now. All he wanted was to disentangle himself from all of it and get back to being a normal panther.
He was relieved it was the family's problem now, instead of his. Z could sleep without guilt, without having to be further involved in any of it. And that suited him just fine. Who was more motivated and better equipped to find the missing pup? Him with his unpracticed witch, or the parents, one of whom was a demon and knew a powerful sorcerer?
And now that Fiona had gone nuclear, he didn't have to worry about what he was going to do with her, either.
He could get rid of that stupid cage and all the toys from the bachelor cave. He could sleep through the damned night. He could go out whenever he wanted and sleep with whomever he wanted and go back to who he'd been before this domestic interruption. Life was good again.
But it was hard to convince himself of that when he could smell Fiona's tears and feel the warmth from her body as she held onto him on the back of the motorcycle. His protective urges wouldn't shut up around her. Didn't she need him? No, that was stalking, he was pretty sure. Yeah, he'd kidnapped her, but that was a one-time event. Continuing to impose himself in her life was a whole other level of psycho he wasn't prepared to embody.
She's drama. You're better off without her.
When they stopped in front of the cottage, everything looked secure. Stan had been by to fix the window like Z had requested. Fiona hopped off the back of the motorcycle like her ass was on fire and marched straight up to the house without looking back. Z followed with the rest of her bags.
He put the bags down beside her front door and slunk back toward his ride. She could keep the helmet. He didn't need it anyway, and the sooner he put space between them, the happier he'd be.
Her voice stopped him cold. "You know, I might die alone because of my fears, but so will you. Think about that when you've run through the available female population."
Ouch. Some nasty part of him wanted to call her a bitch, but she wasn't a bitch. She was right. They would both end up alone. But that didn't mean he was good for her.
"What?" Her voice was guarded, as if she expected him to say something vicious, and maybe that had been the plan before he'd seen that stark look in her eyes. Now he couldn't remember what he'd been about to say.
The anger drained out of him. "You deserve somebody better than me. There's nothing wrong with you. You're amazing. I'm just… not that guy. I don't know how to be that guy. I still don't feel good about leaving you alone here…"
"They got what they came for. They aren't coming back. Just go. Leave me alone so I can start forgetting I met you."
Z nodded. "Okay."
When he got back to the cave, he couldn't help noticing how quiet it was. How had he lived in so much quiet before?
The place still smelled like her. He'd been tired, but now sleep was the last thing he wanted. A scrap of purple fabric peeked out from under the bed. She'd left one of her T-shirts. For a moment, he had the idea to go back to her cottage on the pretext of returning the shirt, but he couldn't bring himself to. He wadded it up and threw it in the garbage can under the kitchen sink.
He opened the cabinet and stared. Several coffee mugs lined in a perfect row from largest to smallest stared back at him. Z took the cups out one by one and hurled them across the cave to smash against the mantle of the fireplace. The crash and shattering of ceramic was cathartic until it was over. Then it was just a mess.
He swept up the pieces, along with the crumpled piece of paper with the werewolf's cell phone number and threw it all in the trash. Speaking of cell phones… he wondered if Fiona still had his phone. Maybe he could call her tomorrow, just to make sure she was okay.
He shook his head. No. She'd been very clear. He'd already made a big enough mess. He could at least respect this one request.
The mood in the hive was somber, like a funeral. And in a way it was. They all knew the odds of finding the pup alive were small. Thinking otherwise was kidding themselves. Therians born in their fur were stronger than those born the normal way. That was a lot of magic, and there were a lot of people who would want their hands on that magic.
Cole had locked himself away in the private den. Jane needed him if they were going to find their pup, because no matter the odds, there was still a chance – if he could pull it together. She had to believe that or she'd fall apart.
"He just needs some time," she said as Mara approached. It was her new reasonable-reassuring-Jane face.
"We almost lost him last time to the bottle. You have to talk to him, reason with him," Mara said.
"He wanted that pup, and now we can't have another one. We haven't talked about it in detail, but I know Cain won't let us have a kid – not with me being what I am now. It would make another pure blood vampire. He won't have that. Cole won't take that kind of micromanaging in our affairs well. Either way, even if we could have a baby, it wouldn't be a pup. It wouldn't shift and be like Cole. He's lost that forever."
The wolf put a hand on Jane's arm. "Hey. Look at me. You talk like the pup's dead. We don't know that. He could still be out there."
Jane shook her head. "I can't get in touch with Charlee, and I know Cole would be furious if I approached Dayne alone. Cain may have a connection, but I doubt it. Demons avoid magic users. They're our only true weakness in this world."
Blake walked up and handed her a slip of paper.
"It's the new code to Cole's private den."
The beta kept a copy in case of emergency.
"I can't use this. He wants to be alone."
Blake growled. "He's being a dumb ass, and you're losing time. He needs to pull himself together and go after his pup. And he needs you. Go to him."
"Thanks. You're a good beta."
"Yeah, well, I don't want to have to play substitute alpha again."
But they both knew that wasn't what motivated him.
Jane moved quickly through the tunnel that connected the main den to her and Cole's den and punched in the security code. She hadn't been inside since she'd been human and pregnant with the pup.
"Cole?" she said, when the metal door whooshed open. She was thankful he'd gotten rid of all the paintings of her bleeding to death.
A quiet whimper came from their bedroom. She wasn't surprised to find him in wolf form curled up on their bed, his nose between his paws. He just wanted to recede into the animal part of himself and not hurt so much.
Jane took her clothes off and shifted into the wolf form she'd assumed earlier in the demon dimension, back when Cole had been so excited and happy. It had only been a few hours ago. And now they were back to this. She curled up with him, unsure how long she could hold this form, but she'd hold it as long as she could to comfort him.
They stayed like that for what felt like forever until Cole growled and abruptly shifted.
Jane shifted back as well, tired and hungry from all the energy she'd used to show solidarity. "What is it?"
"I've got an idea."
Fiona sat in the living room with a half gallon of Chunky Monkey ice cream. She was going to be a chunky monkey if she couldn't put down the carton. The sun had just set, and she was watching a tearjerker on her computer and bawling her eyes out.
There was a knock on the front door. She looked down at her fuzzy pink bathrobe with spaghetti sauce stains. Her hair was a mess, and no doubt her face was all splotchy from crying.
"Just a minute!" she called out, sure it was Z. A part of her wanted to yell for him to leave, but the movie had made her all mushy inside. She'd kick herself if she let him get away again. Not that he was coming to swoop her off to some happily ever after. At best he just wanted to have sex again. How lame was she if she said yes?
Fiona scrambled to the kitchen to put the ice cream back in the freezer and raced to her room. She tore through three drawers of clothing before she found a pair of jeans that made her ass look great, a push-up bra, and just the right top. She ran a comb through her hair, thankful it was just messy and not dirty. She swiped a lip gloss wand across her lips, put powder on her forehead and nose, and some concealer under her eyes to cover the signs of crying, then she headed for the door.
She would have spritzed perfume on, but that would have been too much. She didn't want to look like she was trying too hard. Or at all. She just wanted to look natural, like she didn't need him. She opened the door, afraid he might have given up or changed his mind and gone home.
On the other side of the door stood three men. Two she recognized as the sorcerers who had taken the pup. They wore black suits and looked like government agents. The other man was dressed like a priest. She shoved the door with everything she had, but they were too strong.
The sorcerers dragged her outside, kicking and screaming. She bit one of them in the arm and got smacked in the face for her trouble. How far away was Z? Was he out with a woman, or would he be in the woods or in his cave?
"Z!" she shouted. Would he come for her if she were in trouble? Once he'd washed his hands of the pup, he hadn't been concerned with the wolf's welfare. Why would it be any different with her?
The other sorcerer put a hand over her mouth to stifle her screams. "Don't think about biting me," he snarled.
The priest guy stepped forward then; his eyes glowed red and fangs peeked from between his lips. Fiona closed her eyes and resumed struggling.
"My name is Father Hadrian. We don't want to hurt you, we just need some leverage to broker a trade." His voice was hypnotic, and she wondered if he could control her mind with her eyes shut. Why, oh why hadn't she learned to use her magic?
A beat of silence and then he spoke again. "You think we can't make you open your eyes? You have no chance here. If you fight us, you'll end up getting hurt. If you scream, you'll end up getting hurt. I won't use thrall if you'll behave. Will you behave?"
Tears slipped down her cheeks, but she nodded and stopped fighting. The sorcerer took his hand from her mouth.
What else was she going to do? Three against one were terrible odds, especially when it was three males to one female: two strong sorcerers and a vampire against a novice witch. It was like taking a nuclear warhead to a minor playground spat between schoolchildren.
Fiona looked up, determined to avoid the vampire's gaze. It didn't matter because he'd turned and disappeared through a thick patch of trees. The sorcerers dragged her through the woods.
"Where are you taking me?"
"Don't speak," one of them said. "You know, we should kill you right now. Your stupid panther killed two of ours, but the boss says we have to keep you breathing."
Their grips were unnecessarily tight, but she didn't say anything else. She tried not to hyperventilate as they moved farther from the cottage. The fear over being outside and far from safety warred with the real fear – the legitimate fear. This was what the birds had warned about, and the catalyst had been helping the wolf that first day. She should have ignored the pup.
To hold onto the last threads of her sanity a bit longer, Fiona mentally rewound everything until she was back to that day. She counted the steps to the mailbox, pulled out her electric bill, and then counted the steps back. She heard the pup cry, and she ignored him and went back inside. Everything would be better if she'd taken that path instead.
The panther had been on his way. He could smell and track the pup. Her involvement hadn't been needed or helpful. It had only made things worse. She tried not to think about how intense Z had been about protecting the pup from her, how intense he'd been about protecting her in the clearing. If he didn't care, he wouldn't have done those things. He would have left the pup and left her. She'd been the one who'd started the fight and insisted on going home.
She'd been afraid that since Z didn't need her for anything anymore, he'd toss her out. So she'd beaten him to the punch.
"Speed up," one of them said. She'd been dragging her feet. Well, of course she was dragging her feet. She was being kidnapped. This wasn't a field trip to Disneyworld.
Birds flew from tree to tree overhead. I told you so. I told you so. I told you so. Their tones were self-righteous and shrill.
She couldn't take their taunting anymore. "Shut UP!" she screamed up at the sky.
The sorcerers stopped. They'd been carrying on their own conversation which she'd been trying to ignore, because it wasn't about her or where they were going or anything she could use to help her escape. They were too smart for that.
"What did you just say to us?"
Fiona froze. "I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to the birds. They were mocking me." It sounded insane, like she'd lost touch with reality. The forest did feel unreal.
The men exchanged a look like they were trying to determine if she was telling the truth or just crazy. "Your gift better not be an act," one of them said.
"It's not an act." It was the only thing Fiona had that counted as a magical talent.
The forest emptied into a gravel parking lot, empty except for a black sedan. Three guesses who that vehicle belonged to.
One of them let go of her arm to unlock the car. "Get in." The door stood open, like the jaws of a monster waiting to consume her.
If they were normal men, she might have tried to break free and run or scream, hoping for a passerby. But though they had no guns on them, they were armed. Every magic user past a certain point in their training was perpetually armed with fireballs, energy balls, or whatever else they could conjure on the fly. Stomping on somebody's foot and running wasn't an option.
She tried to stall, instead. "What about Father Hadrian?"
"He went to talk to your bodyguard. You should have stayed with the panther. We were surprised to find your magic trail led back to the cottage. Did you two have a lovers' quarrel?"
Fiona blushed but didn't answer. The more important part of that equation was magic trail. She had a magic trail? She'd thought it was only if she did magic. It was one of the reasons she'd been scared to try to learn anything, afraid someone would catch her magical signature and bring harm to her.
What a joke. Most of her spells blew up in her face, but she'd left a trail just by going about her day.
Wherever they were going, they didn't care about her knowing the location, because they didn't bother to blindfold her. Maybe they didn't plan on her surviving. Fiona tried not to think about that and stared out the dark-tinted windows to distract herself. She had vague memories of the town from before her gift had started to show, before the birds had warned her.
The town hadn't changed at all. It was as if the place were frozen in time, but she was sure places changed. Each year new television shows displayed the changing fads and fashions. But not Golatha Falls.
Fiona did a double take when they went through the historic district. One of the old antebellum houses had burned to the ground. Charred remains of the foundation was all that was left of the place. She tried to remember what the house had looked like. It had been large with columns in the front. When she'd been in school, she remembered going past the place, trying not to look at the windows for fear someone might be looking back out at her. That was one of the times the place had been for sale. It was always for sale. Everybody knew it was haunted.
They were getting closer to the interstate. Fiona's knuckles turned white as she gripped the edge of the seat. Her breath came too fast and she couldn't slow it down. She wasn't getting air. Her chest was tight, and then she was crying, which didn't help the breathing situation at all.
One of the sorcerers had a glowing red ball in his hand. "I will set you on fire if you don't shut the fuck up." He tossed an empty fast food bag into the back seat at her. "Breathe into that."
She closed her eyes and breathed into the bag until everything returned to normal, except for her pounding heartbeat. Maybe she should have let the vampire thrall her, then she wouldn't be so scared.
A couple of streets before the on-ramp, the sedan turned left. The road started out nice with the occasional peach tree, though the fruit was long gone since it was November. The air was starting to get that brisk bite to it. It didn't get very cold in Golatha Falls, even out in the woods where there wasn't much sun peeking through the trees.
The road went from paved to gravel, and then from gravel to dirt. They're taking you to the middle of nowhere to kill you. But that didn't make sense.
The trees gave way to open, flat land where the dark, clear sky rolled on forever like it might swallow her up into a sea of twinkling and never ending stars. Fiona gasped at the sight. It had been years since she'd seen this much sky in one place before. She'd only seen the tiny bits through the trees. There was the day in the clearing with the pup, but the space hadn't been this big.
This wasn't safe. It was too open. Fiona wasn't sure why her brain still glitched on this, but in her head, small, dark spaces were safe and hidden. This was open, and though beautiful, terrifying. Her mind had trouble with the idea that the magical thugs who had taken her were a greater danger than being out of her comfort zone in the cottage or the cave.
When the sedan rolled to a stop, she noticed the plane. There was no way she was getting on that thing. Before the sorcerers could get out, Fiona opened her door and bolted for the cover of the trees. She was almost there when a wall of fire stopped her. She turned to find the fire circling around her, trapping her in the middle.
The two men jogged up to the outside of the fire ring.
"You shouldn't waste your energy." One said to the other.
"She's driving me batshit. I'm putting her to sleep."
"But the boss may want to talk to her."
"Then he can wake her up."
The other sorcerer shrugged, and they both began to chant. Fiona wasn't sure if they'd put the fire out, but she felt cooler as she tumbled into blackness.