A maniacal smile enhanced the eeriness of the man clutching a knife in his right hand. Blood crusted the blade. Quain’s blood. “Let’s see what it takes to make you scream.”
Quain Ilves jerked awake, a shout strangling his throat. Sweat beaded his forehead and trickled down his spine in a sticky anemic river. He rubbed his hands up and down his arms, trying to combat the unnatural chill skating across his body.
I’m not there anymore. I’m not there anymore. He chanted in his head until the words created an impenetrable ward against his terrifying dreams.
If only his nightmares weren’t regurgitated memories, they would be easier to battle. Recently, they had grown bolder, making his waking and vision worlds bleed together until he jumped at looming shadows and his lover’s touch. Without quality sleep, he had become like a narcoleptic, falling unconscious throughout the day with a little warning. It didn’t help that car rides made him drowsy. For most of the road trip, this unexpected bonding time with Peter, Quain had faded in and out of consciousness.
“Are you all right?”
He jerked out of his half daze to meet Peter’s worried stare. The concern and care in Peter Woods’ blue-green eyes never failed to loosen the tight knot in Quain’s chest. Past romantic interludes had been cold, rushed one-offs with barely a name exchanged between them. This new constant attention from a dedicated lover took some getting used to. A task he embraced with both glee and puzzlement.
He adored his sweet, kind mate—who needed to look where the fuck he was driving.
“Pay attention to the road!” Quain shouted as they whipped down the highway at seventy miles per hour. While he appreciated the concern, he preferred living.
“Sorry.” Peter snapped his head back around and wrapped his long, beautiful fingers tighter around the wheel.
Quain sighed when memories of the amazing things Peter did with those fingers drifted through his semi-awake mind. He rubbed at his now burning cheeks. “No, I’m sorry. I had a bad dream. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I haven’t been sleeping well lately,” he confessed. Each time he closed his eyes he relived his days of torture. Eventually, the memories would fade, but in the short term, his hands trembled and he couldn’t manage more than a few hours of rest at a time. Although his physical wounds had healed, emotional damage thrived in his subconscious mind. His mental trauma had left dragon-claw-worthy scars across his psyche.
“Can I do anything to help?” Peter’s rich, calming voice broke through Quain’s tortured thoughts.
“No. I-I’ll be fine.” Eventually. If he didn’t go mad first. He rubbed at the uneven weave of denim covering his right knee, idly planning a shopping trip once they were done saving the mountain lions. He snatched a full water bottle from the drink holder, then chugged half as if he could drown the images in his head while soothing his burning throat. The cold liquid tugged him the rest of the way into wakefulness. An uneasy silence fell between them until Quain finally broke the quiet bubble with more than a little trepidation.
His stomach churned as he spoke the words he never thought he’d say. “I’m going to call that therapist Anthony recommended when we get back home. I thought I could handle this, but I can’t.”
It hurt to admit to his own personal failure. He spent most of his life controlling his emotions, and the jumble of pain and horror dancing around his brain while he slept was beyond his usual amazing coping abilities. Shame burned his cheeks. Even with his family’s help over the years, Quain had always considered himself a quiet island in the storm of his loud family. An island that could handle the terrors and visions smashing across its shores. Now his fragile ecosystem had been shattered, and he couldn’t find his previous emotional steadiness. Maybe this doctor could help him fix this new gaping hole in his psyche.
“Good. I’m glad you’re willing to get help, but if you just need to talk, you can always talk to me.” Peter didn’t ask any probing questions or interrogate Quain further about his problems. Instead, he kept his focus on the road and his curiosity to himself.
Quain had never loved Peter more. He wiggled around until he settled his seat belt in a more satisfactory spot before blurting out the question he feared to hear an honest answer to. “Do you think I’m weak?” He winced at the broken quiver in his voice.
“Why would I think that?” Peter’s honest confusion convinced Quain more than any sweet words Peter could’ve uttered.
Turning his attention to the empty road in front of him, he confessed his inner shame. “I can’t get over my captivity.”
Peter pulled the car to the side of the road, then engaged the parking brake.
“Why are we stopping?” Quain curled his right hand around the panic bar while his skittering gaze calculated the odds of a quick escape from both this conversation and the car. Why had he started blabbing out his weaknesses? No one wanted a damaged mate. He should have kept up the illusion that he was a strong and capable life partner. Was this where Peter finally had enough and decided to unload his useless mate?
“Because someone doesn’t like it when I take my eyes from the road and I think this is more important than driving.” Peter didn’t crack a grin, but his eyes danced with tender amusement.
Quain almost cracked a smile.
Peter unbuckled his seat belt before carefully unwrapping Quain’s clenched fingers from around the panic bar. He cupped both of Quain’s hands between his larger callused ones. “Listen to me, my beautiful mate. There is nothing wrong with you. You are a wonderful, sweet man who has had some very bad things happen to you. It wasn’t your fault you were kidnapped, and if you think it would be better to turn around and go back home, say the word and I will do that. Your needs come far above some random group of shifters, and if you’d rather go back and deal with your shit, then that is what we will do.”
“What about our assignment?” The pack was everything to a wolf shifter. Would Peter really go against them to make Quain happy?
Peter’s sexy mouth curled up into a small smile. “You are my mate. Nothing is as important to me. Silver understands that, and no Alpha worth his title would countermand one of his pack dropping everything for his mate. Now should we turn around or go forward?”
A comforting glow grew in Quain’s chest. Never before had anyone put him first. Sure, his parents had in the way of adults protecting their offspring, but no one ever had in the romantic sense.
He chose his words with care before pushing them through his emotionally roughened throat. “Thank you for that. I worry you’ll leave me once you learn what a mess I am, but maybe that is more my history of bad relationships than reality.” He blinked back the tears blurring his vision.
Peter squeezed Quain’s fingers, then placed a kiss on his forehead. “Everyone processes trauma differently. From what you’ve told me, you’re used to facing visions where the focus is on someone else. This time, you can’t really distance yourself from the actions because you know they are true and really happened. You went through a terrible ordeal. There is nothing wrong with seeking help with the memories. You’re the strongest person I know; never doubt that. Just let me be there for you. I can always provide a shoulder to cry on or a willing ear to listen. I might not know how to get over trauma like you’ve experienced, but I can offer comfort while you work things through.”
Quain threw himself into Peter’s arms, sobbing at the tight hug he received. Who knew the faint smell of grease could be as comforting as a bowl of chicken soup?
“I have the best mate,” he whispered.
A low rumble vibrated Peter’s chest in a reassuring manner. Peter’s wolf trying to send soothing vibes to his mate. “I could argue about that, but we should probably get back on the road before the cops come by to ask why I’m illegally parked.”
A gurgling laugh burst from his chest as he moved out of Peter’s comforting arms. Swiping his palms across his cheeks, he offered Peter a watery smile. “Thanks.”
“Any time, and I do mean that.”
“I know you do.” And he did. Peter’s honesty shone out of him. As much as Peter said he regretted his mutant past, he had kept the kernel of who he was throughout that horror and came out of it as the wonderful individual Quain happily called his mate.
“Now enough mush. Are we going forward or turning back?”
Quain took a deep, meditative breath before letting it out again. “Forward.”
“Are you sure?”
Quain nodded. “Positive.” He could do this. “I do appreciate your offer, though.”
Turning back now might get him to the therapist sooner, but it could negatively affect Peter’s standing in the pack. Silver and Anthony would probably say all the proper things about Quain’s mental health being more important than any mission and even mean it. That didn’t necessarily reflect the attitude of the rest of the pack. From what Peter told him about his past, Anthony had saved his life and never asked for anything except for information about the scientist who had been conducting the mutations. The Moon Pack had more than earned Peter’s loyalty and Quain didn’t want to become a liability to his mate.
Quain’s trauma needed to be buried beside the bodies of his torturers. He hadn’t bothered to ask Anthony if anyone had survived his kidnappers’ slaughter. His family wouldn’t have left loose ends or accidental evidence. He didn’t approve of murder, but he couldn’t deny the death of his captors helped his anxiety. Knowing that most of the people who kidnapped him were dead kept away a small fraction of the night terrors. It was the wizards who hadn’t been at the facility who were the problem now. Other cells were kidnapping shifters for experimentation and if they didn’t at least alert their future victims to their danger, they were no better than the wizards.
After checking for traffic, Peter pulled back onto the road. So far on this trip, they hadn’t run into any serious congestion and Quain hoped it remained that way. He didn’t really enjoy car trips. Oh, he didn’t get car sick. He just found them boring. Riding with his mate had changed his view a little, but didn’t completely take away the drowsiness car travel gave him. He had spent the first part of the trip drifting between sleeping and talking about their likes and dislikes. So far, he had learned Peter liked green, Quain, fast cars, Quain, and even though he disliked cats, he’d make an exception for Quain.
“If you change your mind at any time, even if it is right before we reach the mountain lions, I will turn around. I want you to be happy.”
“I am. I just need time to heal.” Quain rubbed a hand across the seat’s shiny red leather. Peter had worked hard over the past two weeks to ready his car for their road trip. Luckily, Peter knew a guy who painted cars and could do a rush job. “I’m glad we were able to take your car.”
“Me too.” Peter gave the dashboard an affectionate pat.
Quain leaned against the headrest. The car’s vibration sent him into a half-sleep trance. In a dreamlike state, the scenery flashed by in an unending flow of scraggly brush, old houses, and dilapidated barns. How much family history had been lost in those abandoned buildings? He could proudly trace his own heritage back five hundred years and mark where each generation birthed a seer. When he didn’t suffer from his sight, he enjoyed history. Maybe because his seer abilities focused on the future, he appreciated the solidity of things that had already happened. He floated in that state with only the car radio breaking the silence.
“Doing okay?” Peter’s deep voice pulled Quain’s attention from his unfocused pondering. A glance at the dashboard revealed an hour had already passed.
“Mmhm, I was wondering about the history of those barns. Who did they belong to? Why were they allowed to fall to ruin? I mean they’re still part of a farm and I don’t see a new barn, so what’s the story? Couldn’t they be salvaged?”
Peter made a humming thoughtful noise. “I’ve never thought about it. A lot of farms go out of business. They could’ve been sold and the new owner had no use for a barn. If they’re smart, they’ll sell the wood to one of those re-use companies. They will pay good money for reclaimed lumber.”
Quain sighed. “I guess so, but it seems like such a waste of a building.”
Peter shrugged. “Some things just aren’t meant to last. Are you missing your family?”
Was he? “Not really. We’ve only been gone a few hours. I’ve certainly been separated from them for much longer.”
“Do you think they’ll get into trouble?”
“Over the massacre?” Quain shrugged. “If there was going to be repercussions, they would’ve struck right away, I think. I can’t say I’m an expert about these things. Ilves are known for assassinations, not slaughters, and I can’t remember a time when anyone has ever been caught or sent to jail.” The Ilves had a reputation for a reason, and it wasn’t because anyone had ever found evidence against them.
“You haven’t participated in the family business?” Peter probed.
Quain let laughter bubble out of him. Genuine amusement washed away some of this recent angst. “No, seers aren’t encouraged to go on assassination sprees. Having a vision in the middle of a coup rarely works out well.”
“I can imagine,” Peter replied in a dry tone that set Quain chuckling again.
“Besides, my family rarely goes on killing sprees. This was to send a message as much as it was to take revenge on those who tortured me.”
It still amazed him that his family had decimated an entire group of wizards for him. He kept an ear out for any news over the hit but hadn’t heard anything yet. The wizards would retaliate, the only question was when.
“Are you enjoying the drive?” Peter’s new topic was a welcome change.
Quain was tired of talking about his family’s murderous tendencies. He wasn’t ashamed of them, but he didn’t want to think about it either.
“Yes. I’ve never been on a road trip before.” He didn’t like to admit he had never been anywhere. It wasn’t his family’s fault that he tended to fall into visionary fits when left alone for any length of time. Among regular humans, he always claimed epilepsy when he toppled to the floor in a public location.
“Oddly enough, neither have I,” Peter said. “Maybe next time we go on one, it can be a longer trip, just for us. I’d love to travel cross-country sometime.”
“That would be nice.” Quain smiled at the idea of planning future trips with his mate. “Where are we spending the night?”
“Anthony had his assistant set us up with a hotel. I have it marked on the map on my phone.”
“Great.” He didn’t really care where they spent the night as long as they got a room. He wiggled his butt to find a better position. He could only sit on his tailbone for so long before he needed to stand up and stretch. “Do you think we can find them?”
“A group of mountain lions who can make it snow? How hard could it be?” Peter’s dry tone made Quain grin.
“I just hope the wizards don’t capture them first.” Quain bit his fingernail as he stared blindly out the window. After his experience in the wizards’ tender clutches, he wouldn’t wish that fate on anyone. Silver hadn’t been able to find a phone number for the mountain lions. Although they had the group’s location, they didn’t have contact info. Surprisingly, none of Anthony’s contacts could find out anything either. It only proved how little connection the mountain lions had with the outside world.
“I’m sure they’ll be fine. They are large cat shifters. They aren’t completely helpless.”
“I know.” He pressed his forehead against the cold glass of the window. No matter how much he hoped the mountain lions were safe, he had to be prepared for disappointment. They had no way of knowing if someone had leaked the information before they could reach them. “If only we knew how the wizards were organized, we might have better information. I mean, do they work together, or is each cell independent?”
“Oliver didn’t know much,” Peter said.
“Are we sure we can trust him?”
“Yes.” Peter’s conviction came through his tone.
Quain nodded, then rubbed his forehead. “Okay.”
“Are you getting a vision?” Peter reached over to lightly squeeze Quain’s knee.
“No, just a little headache. I’ll be fine.”
Peter made a noncommittal noise. “Let me know if you need anything. Do you think visions are blending with your dreams now?” Peter’s concern lifted a bit of Quain’s depression.
“I’m not sure. Lately, I’ve been having restless dreams, and I don’t usually remember them when I wake up.” He didn’t tell Peter that he remembered enough bits and pieces to give him shivers from the flashes of memories, which were more disturbing than entire dreams.
“Is that normal?”
“No. I usually recall my dreams in excruciating detail.” This new nebulous dreaming was driving him insane.
“Hmm. If it continues, you might want to tell Anthony. I don’t know if he can do anything, but it wouldn’t hurt to get a second opinion. He’s good at the supernatural stuff.”
“Yeah, maybe.” He’d almost automatically rejected the idea out of hand, but the Alpha mate had access to gods. He’d be an idiot to ignore those kinds of resources. If Anthony didn’t know anything, Quain could consult the other family seers and see if they ever experienced the same thing. For all he knew, it could just be his powers developing. Sometimes after traumatic experiences, abilities changed.
Peter checked the time on the dashboard. “We have two more hours before we reach the hotel. Do you want me to pull over at the next rest stop?”
“I wouldn’t mind stretching my legs.” After several hours in the car, his back and legs ached. His inner lynx yowled for a good run, but his animal form wasn’t exactly indigenous to the area and would attract all the wrong kind of attention.
“Are you hungry? I saw a fast food sign for the next exit.”
“Not really.” He eyed the large cooler set on the floor between them. “You stocked enough snacks for the entire pack. I can wait until we stop for the night to get a proper meal.”
An attractive pink brightened Peter’s cheeks. “I didn’t want you going hungry.”
Quain held back the cooing sound building in his throat. “I don’t think anyone has a mate as attentive as you. I’m safe from starving to death for now.” Peter’s adorable mother-henning instincts always made Quain smile even if he overdid things sometimes. He would take every bit of cosseting over being ignored.
“Good.” A wealth of satisfaction lived in those words. If he were a cat shifter, Peter would’ve purred.
“The fates must have smiled on me the day they assigned you as my mate.” If karma was real, then Quain had earned this relationship.
Peter scowled. “I would’ve liked it better if you didn’t have to be tortured before we found each other.”
“I’d suffer through a lot more torture to find you.” Quain’s voice cracked beneath the weight of his emotions. He patted Peter’s muscular forearm before retreating back to his side of the car and turning his attention to the view of endless farmland.
Peter didn’t speak for the next mile but swiped at his eyes a few times. Ten minutes later, they pulled into a rest stop with the same generic look as the others they had passed on the way.
As soon as they rolled to a stop, Quain felt his bladder twinge a complaint. After a fast unbuckle, then a kiss to Peter’s cheek, he scampered out of the car, shouting, “Be back in a bit.”
“Are you talking to me?” A dangerously thin woman in a tattered dress swayed at the edge of the cement by the parking lot. Her dirty sneakers were neatly aligned to the curb as she teetered precariously back and forth. She aimed her unfocused violet eyes to the sky as she spoke.
“No, sorry.” Quain hurried past, pushing aside his natural compassion. Leaving a puddle on the sidewalk wouldn’t give a positive impression. He still wanted to remain sexy for Peter.
After a quick visit to use the facilities, a much happier Quain headed back to the car. As he passed the vending machines, the same woman blocked his path.
“I can help you.” Her eyes roamed everywhere but on Quain.
Quain came to an awkward stop. His instincts crackled like fire and insisted he give this woman his attention. “Can you?” Too many strange things happened in his life for him to immediately dismiss her. Once gods started popping into his visions, Quain’s insistent grip on reality, as he knew it, began to slip. “What do you think you can help me with?”
“Life, of course. If only you’d listen.” Her airy tone held a demanding impatience, like a toddler insisting her parents decipher her brilliant gibberish.
“And what do you know about my life?” His mental warning flags flapped frantically for attention.
“I see you in my dreams.”
“You have visions?” Quain would be the last person to refute a seer’s abilities.
“Yes. You’ll need to be careful. They won’t trust your warning. Take care of the frosted lion and leave the others to their fates.”
“They have secrets they don’t want outsiders to know. There is only one you can save from his fate, and he is the most important of them all, if you wish to survive this battle.”
Quain bit his lip as he considered his options. “Anything else you can tell me?”
She didn’t answer directly. Her eyes turned opaque before she spoke again. “Know this, Quain Ilves, you are on the precipice. Don’t fall.”
A shiver raced down his spine with the ferocity of a winter storm.
“Problem?” Peter pressed a hand to Quain’s back, grounding him and providing emotional support. A united front.
“This lady says we’ll only be able to save one of the cats.”
“What’s your name?” Peter swept a flickering glance over her unkempt appearance, but didn’t question Quain’s statement.
“You can call me Cassie,” she said with a thin smile.
“Is that your real name?” Quain refused to play word games when an entire group’s lives were at risk.
“It is for now. It changes.” She didn’t add anything else.
“What do you think?” Peter asked, rubbing his hand across Quain’s back.
Quain beamed. Peter always checked before making decisions affecting them both. He pressed a kiss to Peter’s cheek. “I think we should take her with us.”
“I can’t leave here,” Cassie interrupted. “I am only to warn, not to travel. I speak your fate. Listen or not.”
“Do you live here?” Quain asked. There were enough farms nearby, she could even be living in one of those shabby barns.
Cassie’s sad smile only added to her despair-inspiring appearance. “The trio will find you, but it is not them who you seek. They can lead you to the one you need. The others cannot be saved.”
“The one?” Peter asked the question burning on the tip of Quain’s tongue. “We didn’t come all this way to rescue one person.”
The more she talked, the less Quain understood.
“Give this coin to the isolated cat.” She pressed a heavy gold coin into Quain’s hand. “It will help him find his courage.”
Quain flipped the disk over to examine each side. One half had an impression of a Greek god with the word Apollo printed below and the other had a curled-up cat. The features appeared to be a mountain lion, but it was too small to confirm.
When Quain lifted his head to ask her about it, she was gone. A quick spin around showed no sign of her presence. “Huh, did you see her leave?” He wished he could say that was the strangest thing that had ever happened to him.
“No, I was looking at the coin too. Do you think she’s connected to Zeus?”
“Maybe.” Quain tapped the coin to his chin. “If she’s the original Cassandra, then she’s forced to tell people prophecies that no one will listen to.”
“But we listened,” Peter objected.
“Which means either she’s not the original Cassandra, or the story might not be true. Most of those old stories are meant as warnings. My family always took it as a sign that not listening to a seer could be your downfall.” The cold metal in the coin pressed against his hand. “I wonder how this will help us.”
“Something tells me we’ll learn soon enough. Let’s get back on the road. This place gives me the creeps.” Peter shuddered.
“Don’t like disappearing people?” Quain asked, grinning.
“Not really, and as much as I appreciate your visions, I don’t like receiving them from strangers, who won’t tell us their real name and then vanish. She could’ve been a ghost.”
“Maybe. Besides, we don’t know that Cassie isn’t really her name. She did give us information after all. There are probably a million girls named Cassandra that have never been prophets.”
“True, doesn’t make her any less creepy, though.”
Quain sniffed the air, but he couldn’t smell anything. “Whoever she was, she left no scent behind.”
Peter grimaced. “Yeah, I can’t smell anything either. Weird.”
“Very,” Quain agreed. “But after dealing with gods who vanish whenever they want, I’m not willing to rule her out entirely.”
“True,” Peter grimaced.
Their car’s tires squealed as they rushed away from the rest stop, but Quain didn’t complain. He shared Peter’s unease over the strange lady and hoped she wasn’t a bad omen to the success of their trip.