I felt my breath go shallow, and my pulse began to race. The room shimmered as I began to shift. "Then I'm going to die?"
"No, that's not what I mean!" She rushed over and knelt beside me, taking my hands. "Stay with us, Delilah, don't change—it's not like that!"
I struggled to focus on her words, struggled to keep my form, but the cat magic called me. But this time, something was different. My body felt oddly heavy as I slid into a vortex, the nexus where self met self and exchanged places.
The scent of tropical flowers rose heady and thick. All around me, I could see vines and tendrils and trees that grew so high they obscured the night sky. And I was there, crouched on a tree limb, watching below for prey. Something on the path below caught my attention.
A feral pig wandered along the leaf-strewn trail. As I watched the creature, a hunger rose up in me so great I couldn't resist. I stood, all ten fuzzy pounds of me, but within seconds I shifted again. Now my paws were enormous, jet black and gleaming, and a rush of power raced through my body as I leapt out of the tree to land next to the pig. It let out a squeal and began to run. I gave chase, the exhilaration of the hunt coursing through my blood.
A low growl rumbled out of my throat, and I coiled myself to spring, but then a voice intruded, breaking through the haze that clouded my senses. I tried to shake the noise off, tried to focus on the pig, but the voice was so insistent that I finally turned, intent on showering my frustration on whoever had interrupted me.
There, in the glow of the moonlight, stood a golden puma.
"Delilah, come back to us. You have to come back to us. This isn't you, Delilah, not right now—it's not time. Come back," he said, his voice imperative. I wanted to ignore him, to run after the pig, but I couldn't. The puma smelled like an alpha, and I had to listen. Reluctantly, I began to follow him through the jungle.
As my bloodlust died down, my head began to pound, and I swayed, unable to keep my focus. Where was I? What was happening? I started to call out for help but couldn't get the words out of my mouth. The next thing I knew, everything went swirling into blackness.
"Great Mother Bast, what the hell happened to me?" I asked, sitting up, not sure if I'd actually shifted form. I remembered something about blood and a pig and…
Iris knelt beside me. When I tried to get to my feet, I lurched, my balance dangerously off. She forced me to slow down, helping me to stand and then move over to the sofa.
I looked around, a frantic feeling rising in my chest. "Zach? Where's Zachary? Is he okay?" Why I was worried, I didn't know, but the fear that something had happened to him was there.
"He's right over there," Iris said as she went bustling out of the room toward the kitchen. At that moment, a large puma came padding out from behind the tree. I swallowed. Hard. It was Zach. He walked over to the sofa, sniffed me, then turned and followed Iris.
Morio followed him. "I'll go with him, just in case he needs any help when he changes back," he said.
Dizzy and unsure just what the hell had happened, I leaned against the seat cushion, rubbing my temples. Chase joined me, his hand on my shoulder, a look of concern filling his face. Grateful for his support, I let him tuck a throw pillow behind my head and closed my eyes as he entwined his fingers with mine, anchoring me to my body. Menolly sat next to him, going so far as to give him a firm nod of approval.
"Here, let's get this on your forehead, my dear." Iris hurried back into the room with a wet cloth in her hand. She pressed it against my brow, and the soothing chill calmed me, clearing my head a little.
"Drink." Camille shoved her water bottle into my hand.
"Finish it off. You're probably dehydrated, and the water will do you good."
I took a sip, grateful the bottle turned out to be filled with Talking Rain berry-flavored sparkling water. Trying to shake myself fully awake, I felt as though I'd entered a fog bank and that the mists had arisen from nowhere to obscure my vision.
Smoky and Trillian were standing near the fireplace, both watching me. Smoky's expression was unreadable; Trillian looked vaguely concerned. Finally, I was able to breathe normally again, and the room quit spinning. I straightened up, trying to make sense of the whole thing.
Just then Morio returned with Zach, who had a wild gleam in his eye. He had changed back into his human form without looking much worse for wear, but the scent of his musk hung thick in the air, and I tensed. Chase glanced at me, then at Zach, but said nothing.
Iris gave us all a long look. "I think I'd better make some tea and haul out the cookies," she said, heading back to the kitchen.
Rather embarrassed now that I almost felt normal again, I coughed and stared at the floor. "I'm sorry about all this," I muttered. "Did I… did I change into my Were-form? I can't remember."
Menolly shook her head, her voice serious as she said, "No, Kitten, you didn't change shape, but you did go into convulsions. Do you remember what happened? Do you feel sick?"
Convulsions? That was news to me, and not welcome news, either. I tried to assess how I felt, but the only answer that came to mind was that I felt conspicuous and embarrassed. My stomach was a little queasy, and the back of my head felt like I'd smacked it a good one on the floor, but other than that, nothing else seemed out of kilter. Nothing except for the fact that I had absolutely no memory of the past half hour. I shrugged.
"Don't think so," I said. I drew in a deep breath, held it, and then exhaled slowly. Nope, nothing. In fact, oddly enough, I felt stronger than before… before whatever had happened.
I blinked. "Zachary, what made you shift?"
Zachary looked unhappy as he let out a loud sigh. "I don't know why I changed. I remember you fell on the floor, and there was so much cat magic drifting through the room that I started getting dizzy… and then I can't remember anything else until I found myself on the kitchen floor, with Morio standing there over me. I don't like this. I've never lost time when in Were-form."
"I don't like it, either," I said, frowning. "Did I say anything or do anything before I went into seizure?"
Camille glanced at Menolly, then they both looked at me. "Menolly was telling you about the mark on your forehead. About how it marks you as a Death Maiden."
Shit! I let go of Chase and rested my head in my hands. "I forgot about that. I must have had a panic attack or something." While I wasn't prone to hysteria, I felt perfectly justified in losing it over news of this sort. Turning to Menolly, I said, "I probably asked this already, but I don't remember. Does that mean he put a bounty on my head? Am I going to die?"
"I tried to tell you before you phased out. The Death Maidens are mostly Fae, though there are a few FBHs among his harem. Think non-Norse Valkyries. They gather the souls that the Autumn Lord harvests on Samhain Eve and take them to the underworld. The Death Maidens belong to the Autumn Lord, acting as both wives and comrades."
What the fuck? She had to be kidding. "I refuse. I won't do it. I'm not about to let myself be married off to that scary-ass dude, Elemental Lord or not." I stopped, a nasty thought crossing my mind. "Uh… just what do you think he can do to me if I don't obey?"
"I'm not sure I want to find out," she said. "From what I know, you have to die first before he can take you into his realm, though I could be wrong. But he's not going to kill you. He just marked you. But for now, I wouldn't let it worry me. We have plenty of time to figure out how to get him to release you from service."
Oh great. So when I died, I wouldn't join my ancestors.
Instead, I'd be handed over like a prize to the Autumn Lord. Spending eternity in his service didn't sound like a load of laughs to me.
"You can tell me not to worry all you like," I said, snorting. "You aren't going to die. At least not again."
She shrugged. "We have bigger problems to worry about right now. We will free you from the mark. I promise."
I grumbled but sat down. Camille gave me that look she saved for when she had no clue what to do. I frowned back at her. "All right, but I want this taken care of as soon as possible. What if I have some freak accident? What if one of the Degath Squad demons hits his mark? What do I do then?"
Zachary stood up and cleared his throat. "I hate to cut out on this—it's been one hell of a ride so far, but I have to get home and see what's going on. I'll do some digging on Tyler's background and what he's been up to and let you know what I find out." He headed for the door.
I wasn't sure whether to be offended or not. After all, I'd just learned that I was promised in marriage to one of the biggest bad boys of all—a minion of Death. That should rate more than a blink and a see-you-later from somebody who professed to be in lust with me. But then again, the man hadn't yet fully processed everything that had happened. Boy, was he in for a shock once he realized just what he'd gotten himself mixed up in.
I walked him to the door. Outside, on the front porch, I tucked my hands under my arms, trying to keep warm. The rain had turned to snow again, and the temperature was dropping steadily. The air was so crisp it hurt my nose.
"Zachary, will you be okay?" I asked.
He shrugged. "I don't know. I won't be okay until we track down Kyoka and stop him. I'm still not clear about all this spirit seal stuff and the demons, but I understand it's dangerous. Yes, I'm a Supe, but I'm still earthbound, and I realize now that I view the world through an all-too-human frame of reference."
After a pause, he said, "What a different world you and your sisters come from. A world of demons and warring states and kings and queens…" Stopping abruptly, he studied the ground.
I moved in a step. He still smelled like puma, and the scent of cat magic set off a longing so deep that I was having trouble ignoring it. I studied him from the feet up, but that was a mistake, too, as my gaze drifted up his legs, which filled out the pair of form-fitting jeans all too well. As his broad shoulders came into view, I let out a little mew. And then, the lion's mane of hair, and those golden topaz eyes.
My pulse was racing as I forced myself to answer him. "Zach, we aren't all that strange. Well, maybe we are, but we want the same thing so many humans and Earthside Supes do. Love, friends, family, peace, to lead our lives without interference. That isn't so very different, is it?"
Maybe I was pleading for him not to push us aside as freaks, or maybe I was trying to convince myself that I wasn't a Windwalker, that I was normal and had a family and friends like everybody else. Whatever the case, Zachary heard me and reached out. I walked into his arms, knowing that now wasn't the right time or place but not giving a damn.
"I don't know what happened in there when I shifted," he whispered, "but I do know that when I returned to my normal self, I had a hard-on you wouldn't believe."
Pressing his lips against my hair, he murmured, "Delilah, I want you. I don't care if you're not a Were by blood. I don't care if you're half Fae, or half zebra. I don't care what my clansmen say. I just want you… under me, in my bed, in my arms. I want to see your face when you come, to know that I was the one who brought you to passion. I'm going to leave it up to you when—or if—anything happens between us. But don't wait too long."
And then his lips met mine, and I lost myself in the kiss. He pushed me against the wall, filling every nook of my body with his own. I could feel how much he wanted me; he was rigid and hard and demanding. And yet—and yet, I knew he'd stop in a heartbeat if I only whispered the word. So why wasn't I whispering?
The sound of the door startled us out of our embrace.
I turned to find Chase standing there. I couldn't read his expression, and I wasn't sure I wanted to, but the look of betrayal on his face stabbed me in the heart, and my mother's blood hit home. I stumbled away from Zach as, without a word, he strode down the stairs and over to his truck. As he climbed in the cab, I turned back to Chase.
"Chase… we have to talk," I said. "Nothing happened—"
"You call that nothing? Wow, different dictionary than I use." Frowning, he tried to shrug it off. "I should have known better. First time I play straight with a woman, and she screws me over."
His self-righteous tone set me on edge. "Excuse me? We've never talked about having an exclusive relationship. As for Zachary, I kissed him. Yes. Twice, if you want to know. But that's it."
"Am I supposed to applaud now? Clap my hands that you've only been toying with the guy?" He grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me into his arms. "Delilah, he can't give you what I can. That guy's trouble, and he doesn't know you like I know you."
I had no desire to deal with this now, especially with all the demon and werespider warfare going on.
"That's enough," I said, shaking him off. "You're right. You do know me. You know all about my background and heritage and what it means. And you damned well better know me enough to realize I don't sleep with every man who crosses my path. There's just something about Zachary… I can't explain it."
Chase glared at me, then let out a long sigh. "Yeah, I know. I know, but that doesn't mean I have to like it."
I gave him a long look and took a stab in the dark. "What about you? Are you usually exclusive with your girlfriends? Have you ever cheated on a girl?"
He blinked and looked away.
"You have, haven't you? You might tell them you're playing square, but I'm guessing that you've messed around plenty of times."