BAYON Chapter 1
The Wildlands deep in the bayous of Louisiana would never be considered a place of peace.
The magical land of the Pantera was filled with puma shape shifters who had all the aggression of their animal nature plus the usual volatile emotions of their human nature. It was a combination that encouraged plenty of passion and conflict. Which meant that more than a little blood had been shed over the centuries.
But never before had there been enemies capable of slipping past the Wildlands' borders to directly attack the Pantera.
The shockwaves were still rippling through the gathered Pantera as Bayon raced to the edge of their territory. He couldn't help Raphael, who remained with his pregnant mate, Ashe. He had no talent for healing or for combating the mystic evil that was trying to destroy the babe she carried.
Bayon was a Hunter. A tall, golden haired man with eyes that fluctuated from leaf green to deep gold when he was aroused, and the solid muscles of a warrior. His talent was tracking down the bastards who dared to come into his homeland, and destroying them.
Well, first he intended to torture them.
Slowly. Painfully. He needed to know who they were and if they were actually disciples of Shakpi, the Pantera's ancient enemy.
First, however, he had to complete his current mission for Raphael.
He slowed his blinding speed as he neared the private house that was practically hidden among the weeping willows.
Most Pantera preferred to live in the main community with their various factions. There were the Diplomats who dealt with all things political, including their network of spies, as well as the Geeks who performed their magic with computers. There were the Nurturers who had built one of the world's finest medical facilities as they searched for the reason the Pantera had lost the ability to procreate. There were the elders who were the ultimate rulers of the magical race of puma shifters, and their spiritual leaders.
And then there were the Hunters.
The warriors who protected their people with a ruthless efficiency.
There were, however, a few Pantera who sought isolation.
Parish, the leader of the Hunters, had lived in the caves at the far side of the Wildlands after his sister had been killed by humans. Everyone had understood his need to mourn in private.
Bayon didn't know what had driven Jean-Baptiste, one of their finest Healers, to shut himself off from his family and live so far from everyone else, and he had no intention of asking.
Pantera might live as a tight-knit community, but that only meant they had to have firm boundaries when it came to privacy. Shoving your nose in someone's business was a good way to get it snapped off.
Vaulting onto the wraparound porch of Jean-Baptiste's cabin, Bayon slammed his fist against the heavy wooden door, frowning when no one answered.
Dammit. He knew Jean-Baptiste was inside.
So why the hell was he ignoring him?
"Jean-Baptiste," he growled, his voice edged with impatience. He didn't have time for this shit. "I know you're in there. Open the fucking door." A string of ugly curses reverberated through the cabin before the door was yanked open to reveal a six foot plus, male Pantera with dark brown hair that hit below his jawline, and eyes a peculiar shade of amber. He was dressed like Bayon in faded jeans and shit-kickers with a white T-shirt pulled over his leanly muscled torso. But unlike Bayon, he was wearing a heavy leather jacket that covered the numerous tats that Bayon had only glimpsed from a distance. Oh, and he had the sort of piercings that made him look like he should be in a motorcycle gang, not walking the halls of a hospital.
"What the hell?" Jean-Baptiste snarled.
The amber eyes narrowed. "Why?" Bayon's hands clenched, the raw fury still pulsing through him. "Raphael's mate was attacked."
It was obvious the news hadn't yet reached the Healer. "Where?"
"Here. In the Wildlands."
Jean-Baptiste jerked in shock at Bayon's blunt explanation, the air prickling with his angry disbelief.
Jean-Baptiste was right. It should have been impossible.
Which only pissed off Bayon more.
"Yeah well, tell her that," he said.
There was a long silence as Jean-Baptiste struggled to wrap his brain around the unprecedented event.
"When did it happen?"
"During the hunt."
Stepping onto the porch, Jean-Baptiste paced the wooden planks with a grim expression, his thoughts obviously dark.
"Who would dare to enter the Wildlands?"
Bayon peeled back his lips, revealing his elongated canines. "That's what I intend to find out. But first, Raphael wants you at the infirmary."
Jean-Baptiste came to a sharp halt, his jaw clenched. "In case it escaped your notice, mon ami, I'm not on duty."
"Too bad," Bayon said, in no mood to tiptoe around his friend's feelings.
Whatever shit was going on with this male was going to have to be put on the back-fucking-burner. Nothing was more important than saving Ashe and her baby. "You're needed."
The amber eyes glowed with the power of his cat. "No."
Bayon stepped forward, one of the few not afraid to get into this male's grill. "Look, I don't know what bug crawled up your ass-"
"There are other healers who are better suited to treat a human," Jean-Baptiste snapped.
Bayon refused to back down.
"Raphael doesn't want your healing abilities."
His companion stilled. "Then what?"
"They sense something is trying to possess Ashe. Or the baby," he revealed. "They need you to travel to New Orleans to find a gris-gris to hold off the evil until we can determine the source of the attack."
"Shit." With a grimace, the Healer shoved a hand through his hair, knowing this wasn't a duty he could decline.
Their very future might depend on saving the babe. "Tell him I'll-"
"You tell him. I'm a Hunter, not a damned messenger," Bayon growled, already heading toward the edge of the porch and leaping over the thicket of yellow cow lily.
By the time he touched the ground he'd already shifted into his cat form, the surge of magic jolting through him with heart-pounding pleasure.
His roar echoed through the thick, humid air. Mere de dieu. There was nothing as intoxicating as releasing his animal to hunt. His lips stretched over his massive teeth, as his cat reminded him there was one thing more
Hot, balls-deep sex that made a woman scream with pleasure.
No. Not just a woman.
The right woman.
Something denied to him for far too long.
With an impatient shake of his head, he dismissed the painful thought. Now wasn't the time.
Running lightly over the marshy ground, he used his acute senses to search for any trace of the intruders, finding nothing until he reached the narrow river where Ashe had been attacked. He growled low in his throat as he caught the sour scent of the intruders and followed the stench to the edge of their territory.
The intruders had either been the luckiest bastards in the world to have entered the Wildlands and stumbled across the very person they wanted to kill-or they had a way to track her.
Magic? Or a more mundane human technology?
He made a mental note to have Ashe searched for a tracking device small enough to have been hidden beneath her skin. Raphael said she'd been to a doctor just before the strangers tried to attack her the first time.
The medic could easily have tagged her without her knowing.
Sensing Parish's approach, Bayon reluctantly returned to his human form, straightening to watch the glossy slate gray cat prowl forward. With a shimmer of magic, Parish shifted to human form revealing a man over six feet tall with broad shoulders and long, inky black hair. His face was angular, speaking of a predatory nature emphasized by the two healed scars near his right ear and mouth.
"They crossed here," Parish snarled, looking more feral than usual. Together they studied the opening between the cypress trees where the attackers had entered the Wildlands. "Goddammit. I should have done a more thorough search. We have sensed a growing danger for years."
Bayon shook his head. The leader of the Hunters was as hard on himself as he was on his warriors.
Parish had never quite forgiven himself for his sister's death.
Maybe now that he'd finally mated he could find some peace.
"Yes, sensed, but we had no tangible proof until recently," Bayon pointed out.
"There's nothing we could have done, Parish."
"I cannot change the past, but I can the future." Parish jerked his head toward two large pumas who slid silently through the tangled foliage. "The guards will be doubled until further notice." Bayon squatted down, absorbing the sour scent of the intruders. It made the hair stand up on his nape.
"How did they get through the magic?" Bayon demanded.
"That is what you will discover." It was, indeed. Bayon had no intention of returning until he had some answers.
"I'll need my weapons."
Parish nodded. "Do you want to take backup with you? I can send Talon." Bayon narrowed his eyes. "Are you trying to piss me off?"
"We cannot judge the level of danger," Parish reminded him, his features carved from granite. "If this is truly the work of the ancient evil we fear, we cannot afford for anyone to take chances."
All Pantera grew up with the legend of the twin sisters who created the Wildlands. Opela was the ultimate mother of the Pantera, while her sister, Shakpi, had grown jealous of Opela's love for her children and tried to destroy the Pantera by using human disciples who'd been twisted by her evil.
Eventually, Opela had no choice but to imprison her sister.
Was it possible that Shakpi was actually still alive? That she was trying to break out of her mystical prison?
Perhaps even touching the world with her evil?
His thoughts shied from the
possibility. He had to focus on finding the bastards responsible for hurting Ashe and her baby.
He'd leave the potential threat of a malevolent goddess seeking revenge in the hands of the elders.
"I won't take any chances," he muttered, raising his hands as Parish eyeballed him with a stern expression. "I swear."
"Fine. Keep in contact."
"Aye, aye, Captain." Bayon turned to head back to the rooms he shared with his fellow Hunters, but before he could take off, Parish was standing in front of him.
"I know you enjoy testing the limits of my patience by doing your own thing," the Pantera warned. "If I do not hear from you I will come hunting your ass."
"I'll call." Bayon rolled his eyes.
"Cross my heart and hope to die."
Keira didn't know how long she'd been locked in the cage hidden in the suffocating attic.
In the beginning of her captivity, she'd used a rock to scratch the passing days on the floor. She'd needed some way to maintain her sanity.
But the days became weeks, and then months, and then endless years, making it impossible to keep track of the time that was slipping away from her.
She knew this wasn't her first prison.
She had a vague memory of waking up surrounded by gray cement blocks that had held her beneath the ground. After that had been a cramped space that she'd assumed was a storage shed, followed by a root cellar that had smelled of damp earth and rotting potatoes.
There were others, but her memories were so muddled she couldn't sort through them.
They were like her. Broken.
Fractured. Some of them shattered beyond repair.
Most days she knew her name. Keira.
Keira Montreuil. She repeated it over and over, desperate to cling to her previous life.
And she knew she was a Pantera, despite the fact that she couldn't reach her cat no matter how desperately she tried.
But beyond that, her world was a blur punctuated only by occasional visits by her captors to bring her food.
And speaking of the devil...
She smelled him before he ever climbed the steps to the attic.
The rank, sour stench that assaulted her senses and made her gag in disgust.
With an effort she forced herself to her feet. She felt constantly lethargic, no matter how much she ate or rested, convincing her that she was somehow being weakened. Her guess would be the metal collar she wore around her neck.
Her captors used it to send an electrical jolt through her when they wanted to punish her. But she suspected there was something in the composition of the collar that kept her debilitated.
How else could they keep her
A cage, no matter how well-built, would never hold her prisoner. Not if she was at her full strength.
And it wasn't as if the attic could contain her.
The window that overlooked a small backyard was narrow, but she could easily squirm through it. And if nothing else, she could climb onto the stack of dusty boxes in the corner to bust through the rotting timbers of the roof.
But she wasn't at her full strength.
That had been stolen from her, just as the comfort of her cat had been stolen.
And it didn't matter if was the result of the metal collar or poison or some magical curse. The end result was that she felt so exposed and embarrassingly vulnerable she wanted to curl in a corner and hide.
Instead, she was standing in the center of the cell when a human male crossed the warped floorboards and shoved a tray of mush that passed as food through a small slot in the door. Keira grimly moved to catch the tray before it fell.
The shit tasted bad enough without having to eat it off the floor.
The man smirked, his brown hair greasy and his narrow face in need of a shave. He wore jeans and a flannel shirt that always looked like it needed to be washed. There was a cunning
intelligence, however, in the mud-brown eyes and a sadistic hunger in his gaze as it slid slowly down her slender body.
Thanks to the old-fashioned cheval mirror in one corner of the attic she knew precisely what he was seeing.
Sleek black hair that was pulled into a braid hung halfway down her back. Eyes that looked a dull yellow. Delicately carved features. Skin that was pale from a lack of sunlight. And a sleek, too-thin body that was covered by a pair of spandex exercise pants and matching sports bra.
"How's my pretty kitty today?" the man taunted. She didn't know his name.
Why would she? He was just one of a long line of tormentors she'd endured.
But she'd privately named him the
'Ferret'. "Are you ready to purr for daddy?"
Setting the tray on the narrow cot that was the only furniture in the cell beyond the small TV, she turned back to the man with a mocking smile. She didn't know why she found it so important to remain defiant in front of her guards. She was trapped like a rat. Helpless. Abandoned.
And closer to the edge of insanity with every passing day.
What was the point?
But some stubborn, rebellious part of her refused to accept defeat.
She would spit in the face of fate until the madness consumed her.
"Come and get it, fucker," she taunted.
He deliberately licked his lips.
It was a constant threat, but so far the guards hadn't sexually attacked her.
Keira didn't know why they hadn't.
They'd humiliated, shamed, and taunted her in every other way. But if sexual assault was coming, she desperately hoped her luck held until she was too insane to know what was happening.
"Yeah, and someday I'll rip your heart out and eat it with special sauce on a sesame seed bun," she retorted.
"Naughty kitty." The bastard touched the band strapped around his wrist, sending a jolt of electricity through the collar around Keira's neck. She hissed, her heart missing a painful beat. "But don't worry. You won't be in your cage for much longer."
Keira frowned. "Why?"
"The word has started to filter down the ranks. Our time is finally here."
"Your time? You sound like a cheesy super villain."
The Ferret stepped forward, his eyes glittering with a fevered lust. "You won't be nearly so funny when we don't need you anymore. I'm going to fuck you to death."
She kept her smile in place even as a sick dread clenched her gut. There was a smug cockiness in his voice that warned her it wasn't yet another empty bluff.
He was truly confident he was soon going to get his hands on her.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
"With that miniscule dick?" She tilted her chin, refusing to let him see her fear.
"If I'm going to be screwed, at least send a man to do it."
He pressed his finger onto the switch that sent the electrical pulses out of the collar. But this time he continued to hold it down, sending jolt after jolt through her body. Keira's teeth ground together as she fell to her knees. Holy shit. She'd gone too far. The bastard was going to kill her.
Her head was bowed and her mind going dark when the sound of a male voice floated from the doorway at the bottom of the stairs.
Roger? Her lips twisted despite the agony searing through her rigid muscles.
His name was Roger?
Ferret fit him better.
Abruptly the pain stopped as the Ferret muttered a curse. "What?"
"Another one?" the Ferret shouted.
"What the hell is this one about?"
"I didn't call it," his companion groused. "We leave in ten minutes." The Ferret moved to stand near the bars of Keira's cell, his stench only adding to her misery.
"Maybe it's good news. Maybe we're going public and I can finally have you flat on your back where you belong." With a laugh, he turned and left the attic, allowing Keira to take a deep, cleansing breath as she struggled to clear the fog from her mind.
"Be careful what you wish for, asshole," she muttered, pressing her fingers to her temples that throbbed from the massive amount of electricity that had scorched through her.
Remaining on her knees she waited for the nausea to pass, surviving the time by picturing the various ways she could kill the Ferret if he was stupid enough to unlock her cell.
Snapping his neck would be the most efficient, but it was far too clean a death for the loathsome creature. She wanted something slow. Something that would cause maximum pain.
An hour passed. Then two. Darkness slowly filled the attic as she wearily curled into a tiny ball on the floor. Later she would try to choke down the sludge they called food. For now, she was alone with no need to act brave.
"Keira. My name is Keira," she murmured. "I'm strong. I'm brave. And those bastards aren't going to break me." Softly chanting the words over and over, Keira nearly missed the faint sound of footsteps that crept up the stairs. She frowned, a strange fear clenching her heart. Those steps were too light, too graceful for a mere human.
What was coming?
She remained curled on the floor, lost in the shadows as she glanced warily through the gathering gloom.
A large, male form appeared, but with obvious caution, he circled the entire room, searching for hidden enemies before at last turning his attention to the cage in the center of the floor.
Only then did he suck in a horrified breath as he caught sight of her cowering form.
"What the hell?"
The man stepped forward and Keira's heart missed a beat as she took in his golden male beauty. He disturbed her.
Not like the ferret-man. Or his various human partners. This was...different.
Somehow more personal.
"Is this a trick?" he breathed.
She scowled. "I don't understand what you're asking."
His stark words sliced through the muddle in her mind. She blinked, struggling to process them. Dead.
Bizarrely, the thought didn't frighten her.
Actually, it explained so much.
"So this is hell?" She gave a short, near hysterical laugh. "I hope I earned a spot here by partying my ass off.
Laissez les bons temps rouler." There was a short, nerve-scraping silence before a soft word floated on the air.
A startled hiss was wrenched from her throat. Her name. It was the one thing that she'd been able to cling to from her past. It had kept her grounded when her captors did everything in their power to crush her will. Or when her mind threatened to become lost in the dark depths of despair.
And through it all she'd kept it protected.
No one knew that secret, precious name.
No one but her.
"Don't," she breathed, her voice humiliatingly weak. "That's mine. Only mine."
"Holy shit." The man took another step forward. "Is it really you?" Keira scrambled backward, her defiance forgotten as she caught the warm, male scent. Pantera. He was like her.
"Who are you?" she rasped.
With a graceful leap, he was standing directly in front of the cell door, his beautiful leaf green eyes serrated with gold, glowing with a stunned joy.
"Oh my god."
"No." She held up a hand, her heart racing. She didn't know what was bothering her. On some level she knew she should be fiercely relieved. This man was one of her people. But there was a part of her that was terrified by his scent. "Stay back."
He frowned, watching her with a searching gaze. "Keira, it's me. Bayon." Bayon. She silently tested the name. It was...familiar. He was familiar.
But the confusion in her mind was too tangled to pull out the memory.
"Stay back," she repeated, her voice harsh. She didn't understand what was happening, and that was as terrifying as any torture.
"Is it a trap?" He tilted his head to the side, sniffing the air. "Keira, honey, will I trigger an alarm?"
She shook her head, her mouth dry.
"You have to go."
He studied her pale, frightened expression, then without warning he grabbed the bars and ripped the door off the cell.
Keira vaulted onto the cot, her palm pressed to her thundering heart as he ruthlessly moved toward her. He reached out a hand, but rather than grabbing her as she half expected, he ran his fingers over the collar around her neck.
With a hiss he yanked his hand from the metal.
"Shit. There's something toxic in the metal." He gave a shake of his head. "I have to find a key. I'll be back." She watched in silence as he ran lightly back down the stairs, leaving her alone.
Mutely she studied the mangled door of her cell, a voice in the back of her head urging her to make a run for it. She could slip out one of the windows, drop from the roof and take off down the road before the...before Bayon ever realized she was gone.
Her limbs, however, refused to move.
They felt as if they'd been locked into place by a compulsion she couldn't understand.
Instead she remained crouched on the cot, her breath a loud rasp as she heard the sounds of Bayon moving through the house. There was a tense wait before he was jogging back up the stairs and returning to the cell.
She hissed as the warm musk of him filled her senses, reminding her of...
Something her mind wasn't ready to accept.
She trembled, shaking her head as he slowly crossed the cell and perched on the edge of the cot.
"Just hold still, Keira," he urged softly, his gaze never leaving her face as he reached to unlock the collar and remove it. With a grimace he tossed it aside.
Then, his fingers returned to her throat to lightly soothe the flesh that had been rubbed raw by the metal. Instantly she was pulling away, her heart slamming against her ribs at the odd sensations that streaked through her at his soft caress.
"No." She surged off the cot and pressed against the bars of the cell, hating herself for acting like a fucking mouse, but unable to halt her violent reactions. "Don't touch me."
"Okay." Rising to his feet, he held up his hands in a gesture of peace. "We have to get out of here."
"Out?" She licked her dry lips.
"Where are you taking me?"
"Back to the Wildlands."
The rising panic flooded through her, closing her throat until she struggled to draw air into her lungs. "No. I can't." Bayon frowned, his fingers twitching as if he was battling the urge to physically force her from the cell.
"Keira, we can't stay here," he at last managed to murmur in soothing tones.
"Will you come with me? Please." Keira glanced toward the door. She wanted out. Desperately. And some part of her understood that this man wouldn't hurt her.
Still, it took every ounce of her willpower to give a jerky shake of her head. "All right. Just...don't touch."
"Okay." He backed out of the cell, watching her with a carefully controlled expression. "Whatever you need, honey, just tell me."
"I need space."
"You got it," he promised without hesitation. "Follow me."
She did. But it was at a cautious distance as they crept silently down the stairs and then out a small kitchen with cracked linoleum floors and a pile of filthy dishes on the counters.
Once in the backyard he paused, searching the darkness for any hint of a trap. Behind him Keira trembled, her dulled senses tingling to painful life.
Christ, was this real?
The brush of a warm breeze on her cheek. The grass beneath her feet. The distant sound of a child laughing.
Over the years she'd too often dreamed she was free, only to wake and discovered she was still trapped in her cage.
She couldn't bear to discover this was just another hallucination.
At last convinced they were alone, Bayon led her toward a gate that had been left unlatched and into a narrow alley that smelled of rotting trash and human feces.
She slapped a hand over her sensitive nose, grimly concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other. Nope. This was no dream. Her imagination wasn't capable of producing such a foul odor.
Relief surged through her even as her weakness increased with every step.
Grimly she refused to slow her pace.
She didn't care if she had to crawl.
Nothing would make her return to that prison.
They reached the end of the alley when the Pantera male halted, motioning her to stay behind him as he peered into the window of a derelict garage.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, nervously glancing over her shoulder.
Dammit. Why was he hesitating? Her guards wouldn't be gone forever.
"We can travel faster in a car," he muttered.
"No." She shook her head, a painful flash of memory searing through her confusion. She was hogtied with a hood over her head as rough hands stuffed her into the trunk of a car. There were male voices that sliced through her with the pain of a dagger. "I can't," she muttered.
Bayon glanced over his shoulder, his expression concerned. "Why?"
"It's a cage," she muttered.
A stark, brutal regret darkened his eyes before he gave a sharp nod. "Then we run."
The wind in her hair. The earth pounding beneath her feet.
The stench of the humans fading from her senses.
"Yes," she breathed. "God, yes."
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