Z was running on almost no sleep. From the moment the priest had told him they had Fiona, rest had been the last thing on his mind. He shouldn't have taken her back home. Let her whine and cry. He should have listened to his instincts and kept her in the cave.
But he'd been afraid it was less about her own safety and more about him. And that was a rabbit hole he didn't want to fall down. Being attached was bad. He was just starting to get his life back. He'd been so busy trying to get back to his status quo, he hadn't stopped to think about how empty that life had been.
Fiona was sweet and pretty, and he wanted to take care of her. Maybe months with the pup had domesticated him after all. Maybe it was only an illusion that he was still the hard drinking, man-whore panther he'd been before he'd stumbled upon the wolf.
Z couldn't help blaming himself for the mess everything was in. Fiona's life was in danger because he'd taken the pup, though he wouldn't have met her without the pup, either.
He expected to be on his way to Washington state by now, but he was tramping through desert in the middle of the night. Perfect weather, though. It was a demon dimension. His skin felt itchy with the entire Cary Town werewolf pack trudging along behind him. They each had bags and gear, but Z hadn't asked any questions. Being brought along for the trip was enough.
Ahead of him were two demons, Jane - who he'd met before - and a male named Cain. The panther wasn't up on the politics of the various preternatural factions, but if he had to guess, Cain ran this dimension. He moved through the place with the certainty of someone who knew everyone would cater to his whims or else.
"This is far enough from my people to not cause a disturbance. You can make camp here," Cain said.
"Thank you," Cole said, "We appreciate it."
The demon looked incredulous. "I'm sorry, were you dismissing me with that? This is my dimension, and if you all think you're living here until the danger is over, I'm going with you. I want you all back in the hive within the next forty-eight hours."
"W-we might have to tell Anthony the hive's location to get our pup back," Jane said. Unlike Cole, she was trying to appease the demon.
"No. You will not. My dimension is for my demons only. This is a safety precaution. We will be fighting. The day I bend to a vampire is the day time stops. Fucking half-breeds." The demon leader turned to Z. "Are you fighting with us?"
"Oh, hell yes," Z said. He wanted to make good on his threat to Anthony. He hoped the vampire wouldn't cooperate so he could.
The demon nodded. "So myself, Jane, Cole - I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."
"Just call me Z," Z said.
Cain ticked off numbers on his fingers as he said the names, "and... Just call me Z." He turned to the pack alpha. "Pick your five best fighters, and I'll pick my five best."
Cole seemed irritated about being given orders, but he let it go. It was Cain's dimension. Z figured it was a my dimension, my rules deal. If there had been any doubt over who the leader was here, there wasn't any more: Cain.
The demon disappeared down the path he'd led them down, Jane following behind him. The pack started unpacking their things and setting up their tents. Some of the younger pups cried while their mothers reassured them everything here was safe.
Cole looked out at the pack. "I don't know who is coming back from this, so I'm not going to force anybody. A lot of you have families, and I'm not asking you to stick your neck out for me and my pup. So I'll take five volunteers."
The unpacking stopped and silence fell, then murmurs and whispers. One of the wolves stepped forward. "Well, I'm the beta, and I'm single, so I'm going."
A couple of females stepped out of the line.
"Mara, Shelly, I'm not sure about..." Cole started.
Mara spoke up. "I know. It's just... neither of us has pups or a mate yet, so it makes sense. If you end up with more than five, we'll fall back if not needed."
Cole nodded. But it was doubtful there would be a large number of volunteers. They seemed to have read suicide mission from between the lines.
A young male that looked like alpha material stepped out of the ranks. "I'll go."
"No!" A female. Possibly his girl, but there was no mating mark on her.
"Lucy, stop it. I have to go. I'll come home."
"You don't know that."
He took her away from the group, and Z watched the two of them argue, too far away to make out their words. The male came back and joined the volunteers.
"I need one more," Cole said.
"I'm going." It was Lucy.
"You're staying," her boyfriend said.
"Oh, you're my father now? If you're going, I'm going. You've talked about breaking off and starting your own pack. If you're going to be an alpha, I have to be a leader, too."
"Lucy!" The male looked to Cole, scared. Shit, this pack was terrified of him.
"It's all right," Cole said, "I've known he was an alpha for a long time. His options eventually will be to fight me or break off and form his own pack, and I'd just as soon not kill him."
Jane's loyalties were split. Cain was her demon leader and Cole was her mate. How was she going to be a demon and the alpha female of the wolf pack? Those two things were hard to prioritize. It shouldn't be difficult with Cole being her mate, but Cain had that charismatic leader magnetism, and crossing him would be a mistake. The peace between her mate and the demon leader was tenuous at best. She had to be the bridge that kept everybody safe.
She hoped Cole didn't think she was picking a side against him. It just made sense to go with Cain for the demon selection. Her mate could handle the wolves.
Cain didn't speak as the empty desert slowly became a town. She loved it here and wished the pack could move here, but she knew Cain wasn't going to start sheltering everybody, even if it was the mate and pack of one of his demons.
Her thoughts turned to Anthony. She didn't want to believe he could be behind this. So much had changed. During the tournament for vampire king, she hadn't believed Anthony was all that bad - not as evil as Linus. She'd breathed a sigh of relief when he'd won, thinking he was the safer option.
He'd won more cool points when he'd allowed her to kill Paul, the vampire who'd abused her and kept her prisoner until Cole had rescued her. He'd said Paul was dying because of treason, but she'd always believed it was partly for her. She was friends with his mate after all.
Now that the vampire king had her child, it was hard to see how anything he did was for anyone but himself. She wiped an angry tear away - part anger at the vampire, part over her own gullibility and faith in him.
"Do not start crying," Cain said. "I need you strong for this. That bastard has your pup. Be angry, but do not cry. Do you understand me?"
"Yes." She wasn't about to challenge him. This wasn't his problem. He'd be justified in sitting this one out. "Thank you for helping us."
"Oh, believe me, it's entirely selfish. I don't want your ragtag band of wolves occupying my dimension forever."
He was never going to admit he cared and was invested in what happened to her. He took a strong interest in the safety and happiness of his demons, but going this far above and beyond was unheard of.
"What does my mate have on you?" she asked, finally.
The demon turned sharp eyes on her. "Excuse me?"
She took an involuntary step back. "Well, I mean... he said he helped you once, and sometimes there's tension between you two, so... what does he have on you? That's the only motivation I can figure."
"He has nothing on me."
She knew it was a lie. But it wasn't worth pushing the issue, so she let it drop.
Cain poked his head in a tent. "Daria. I need you."
"Oh, goody!" She popped out of the tent looking like Xena Joins A Harem.
Cain looked her up and down in that way men do. "Are you wearing that?"
"Oh yes. I will distract with my cleavage, then kick asses."
He chuckled. "Don't get too excited. Our intelligence says there are magic users in the group. That could mean some danger."
Daria shrugged. "So, we bring our own heat. Isn't Luc's girl a witch?"
"What? She's got all her memories. She could be useful. If she trapped Luc in that house for half a century then..."
"I don't have time to track them down. They could be anywhere," Cain said, obviously not keen on the plan.
"Well, they could be, but they're not. They've got a tent a few blocks over. They've been here the past three days."
"Why didn't I know about it?"
"They were laying low."
Cain growled. "Find two more strong fighters, older ones. I don't want anybody under a thousand, and I'll get my brother and his witch on board. And weapons. We need guns. Wooden bullets."
"If we're only going with older demons, we can throw fire at them." It was one of the few demon powers that didn't manifest until much later. Cain had explained it all to Jane during her shapeshifting training.
"Magic users. Remember?" he said. "Magic can block magic fire. Get guns."
He turned without waiting for agreement from Daria and headed in the direction she'd pointed. He was a big bundle of irritated energy, and only an idiot would cross him right now.
Jane followed to Luc's tent. "A witch on our side is a good thing," she said, trying to calm him down.
"A witch is never a good thing. Do not trust them, Jane. You'll end up trapped in some stupid fucking curse. A house. A bottle. Some awful cave. Stay away from the magically inclined. So help me, if you start befriending magic users..."
She thought Cain was taking the witch thing too far. If the witch was mated to another demon, she was on their side.
"We do know a pretty strong sorcerer, Dayne Wickham. He might help..."
"No! A sorcerer is worse."
"It was just a suggestion."
Cain ripped open the tent and Jane followed him inside. Luc looked up, startled, and the female looked scared. This was the witch the demon was so freaked out about?
"Well, hello to you, brother. You know, we could have been in the middle of something," Luc said.
"Nothing I haven't seen," Cain shot back. "I need your help. And Anna's."
Luc's hand tightened on the woman's. "What do you need Anna for?"
"She's a witch."
"I'm not," she protested.
"Do you or do you not remember how to do magic?" Cain asked, losing patience.
"Then you're a witch. We need you."
Jane put a hand on Cain's arm. "Why don't I take her outside and talk to her, and you can talk with Luc." The woman looked like she was about to step out of her skin, and Jane, though also a demon, could pull off the nonthreatening vibe much better than Cain. The demon leader wasn't subtle.
Jane held out a hand, trying to look as encouraging as possible. Anna didn't take her hand, but she went with her, taking as wide a path around Cain to get out of the tent as she could.
When they were outside, Anna said, "I'm never going to feel safe around him. He says I'm one of you guys, but..."
Jane reached out to touch the woman's arm in a comforting gesture, ready to reassure her that Cain was just tense right now and probably meant her no harm, but her hand went right through the other woman. "What the..."
Anna looked down to see Jane's hand passing through. "Oh, yeah. This is one of the side effects of becoming mated to an incubus. Fun, fun."
Jane looked horrified. "So, you're a ghost forever? How do you and he..." she gestured wildly, trying not to say anything too crass. Sometimes it was a hard habit to break. Even after the way her life had changed, sometimes she was in pink-hair, punk-girl mode with all its attendant lack of tact.
"Oh, yeah. No, we're fine for that. I'm solid if he's touching me. And I'll be able to be solid on my own eventually. Over time, I'll absorb a lot of his powers."
"That is so fucked up."
"Yeah, well. What can you do?"
Jane took a deep breath and launched into her plea for help, telling Anna all about Anthony and how he had her pup. She ended with, "We'd be unstoppable if not for the fact that he has magic users." She couldn't imagine what Luc had done to make that woman lock him in a house for half a century. That was pretty hardcore, even in Jane's book. And she'd seen a lot of shit.
Anna bit her lip. "Well, I'm out of practice. I mean, I remember my time as a witch, but I'm not sure how useful it would be. Tam is who we need."
"Only the most badass super-witch I know. She's in Golatha Falls. I bet, if you explained your situation to her, she'd help."
Jane glanced toward the tent. Cain and Luc were in a heated argument. Should she mention Tam to him? She poked her head in.
"What?!" they both shouted in unison.
Okay, that would be a no. "Um, Anna's on board. I'm just taking her back to the camp. Meet you there?"
"Fine," Cain said. It was his new favorite word.
Jane hoped the demon leader wouldn't blow his top when she showed up with an extra witch, but they needed somebody strong, and this Tam chick seemed to fit the bill. He couldn't be too mad about it, could he?
Cain was sullen as he walked in uncomfortable silence next to Luc. At least his brother was helping. Cain had played the I took care of you for fifty years while you couldn't feed yourself card. He wasn't sure how much more mileage he was going to get out of it, but he'd use the card as long as it worked.
Luc hadn't wanted Anna involved, which he could understand, but this was war and they needed a witch. Anna was the closest thing they had.
"If I'd flat out refused, would you have imprisoned me in the cave?" Luc asked.
"What? No. Of course not. You're my brother. Why would I ever ...?"
"Oh, I don't know. You killed me that one time."
"That was eight thousand years ago when we were both human."
Cain was never going to be able to make it up to him. That single betrayal had cursed him. He'd thought the curse was only for his human life, then it would be over, but the Hebrew god had more in store for him, making him the first incubus and giving him this world to rule over.
Since then he'd been on a mission to prove he could be loyal to something or someone. Watching the god spit out all his rejects, turning them into demons, and leaving them without any means to understand their new state, Cain had taken it upon himself to protect them and make sure they had a good life. Inside his dimension, they'd created their own hedonistic paradise - their own sanctuary.
As far as Cain was concerned, it was better than heaven, which was a point of pride for him. But the soured relationship that had started it all still wasn't completely healed.
Luc rounded on him. "Don't call me that. If you think reminding me of that time makes any of this better..."
"It was so long ago, can't we just move on?"
"We could have moved on, until you fucked with Anna."
"The curse was her fault!" Cain growled in frustration, then took a breath. "I know I have no right to ask for either of your help. I know none of this is your fight, but I care about my people. Jane is one of mine now. Her problems are our problems."
"I said I'd help. I just don't want you to think this means I'm finished being mad. Anna is terrified of you."
Cain shrugged. "I don't trust her. She's a witch."
"Was a witch."
"Whatever. I still don't trust her."
They were getting close to the camp of werewolves now, and Luc stopped walking. "And how will that turn out for her?"
"I'm not going to hurt her."
"You do and we are done. I don't care if you're the leader or what power you have to lock me up. Are we clear?"
"Crystal," Cain said.
They started walking again, and as they got closer, his eyes narrowed at the new and unexpected addition.
Tam smiled brightly at him. "Hi Cain, long time, no kicking your ass. I've missed it."
The growl rumbled out from deep within his chest. It was the only warning he was giving her. So she'd thrown that one energy ball at him. Big deal. Anybody could be caught off guard once. He still wasn't sure why he'd just left after that. He could have retaliated with fire, but he'd wanted out of that house.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"She can help us," Jane said. "She's a strong witch. If we're getting my pup back, we need a strong witch."
Tam moved closer to Luc, lowering her voice. "I need to do a small spell with you."
"No," Cain said.
She shot him a dirty look. "I wasn't talking to you."
"What do you need?" Luc asked, ignoring his brother.
"I want to make Anna solid temporarily. I need to be able to do what you do with her. If we're going to be able to chant and shield you guys while you fight, I'll need her solid."
"How are you going to do that?" He sounded intrigued.
Cain wanted to throttle him. This was why Luc got trapped in houses.
"I'm going to borrow a tiny part of your essence so the bond thinks I'm you."
"I forbid it," Cain said.
"Okay," Luc said, "whatever you need."
Tam shot Cain an annoyed look, and just for that, he sent her a naughty image of the two of them together: both naked in his tent, him taking her from behind, his hand wrapping around her throat in a darkly possessive manner. He was betting with her focus split so many different ways, she wasn't shielding from demon mojo right now. He bet right.
Her face flushed, and she grabbed onto Luc's arm to steady herself. Cain felt how hot the suggestion made her, and in spite of himself, in spite of the illusory nature of the whole thing, for a moment, he did want her. Until she fought through the hypnosis and produced a glowing ball of purple energy.
Cain sailed backward several yards and landed on his ass. If he hadn't been so wrapped up in the fantasy himself, he would have remembered to go noncorporeal.
"Don't ever do that again," Tam said. There was another energy ball ready in her hand. He'd never met a witch who could regroup that fast. It shouldn't be possible.
He stood, glowering at her as he brushed himself off. That was it. He didn't have time to break out the fire power now, but when this was over, he was killing her. This was the second time she'd dropped him like a baby demon.
"Whoa," Jane said, impressed.
Cain glared at her. It wasn't just Jane or the pack or the panther who had seen it. It was Daria, and the two demons she'd brought on board: Jackson and Mace. Though Jackson had already seen this show the first time Tam had done it back at Luc and Anna's house.
Rather than look weak again, he said, "This is why we don't associate with magic users. Is the threat real enough for you all now?"
There was a mumble of assent from his people and a lot of eye contact avoidance.
Cain gave Tam a look that promised death, but she smiled sweetly in reply. He moved the rescue party away from the rest of the pack. Those who weren't going didn't need to hear all of this. Cole stood to the side, looking like he was itching to lead. Tough. The demon had to regain control of things now that Tam had started throwing magic at him.
"Go do your ritual with Luc. I'll brief everyone else, and then Jane can fill you guys in on the way."
He expected her to resist him, but the witch nodded and took Luc away from the group to do her magic. Cain shook his head, unable to believe his brother would trust another witch, or that he was mated to one. Cain was just glad it wasn't him.
The demon turned back to the assembled warriors. Daria had gotten plenty of guns with wooden bullets and was busy passing them out.
"Okay, here's the plan. All the demons are going in invisible. Nobody goes visible until I say. That includes you, Jane. We have no reason to think Anthony knows you're alive. Only the witches and the therians will be visible. The witches are going to protect us from magic so we can ride through on brute force. We will not be telling Anthony the location of the hive. We will fight until we win."