Bayon Jean-Baptiste (Page 7)

Bayon crouched down, wrapping his arms around his mate's trembling body.

“Keira, are you hurt?”

With an obvious effort, she lifted her head to reveal her too-pale face and golden eyes dark with some inner torment.

“Pantera,” she managed to rasp.

“What?”

“There was another human here with Sean,” she said, shivering as she struggled to share the memory that had clearly traumatized her. “And two Pantera.”

Bayon frowned. “They were being held hostage?”

She slowly shook her head. “No.”

“They weren't…” He grimaced.

“Dead?”

“They were alive,” she assured him.

There was a pause before she managed to spit out the words. “And working for the humans.”

Bayon sucked in a startled breath, his cat roaring in protest. For over fifty years the Pantera had been battling an unseen enemy, but never once had they considered the possibility that the rot might be coming from within the Wildlands.

“Shit.”

“It was the Pantera who overpowered me,” Keira said, her eyes as dull and bleak as when he'd first found her in the cage.

“Traitors,” he growled in disgust, inwardly promising to destroy the bastards who'd been willing to torture one of their own people for personal gain. “Did you recognize them?”

“Vincent and his mate, Savoy.” It took a second for Bayon to place the names. Then he made a sound of surprise as he recalled that the two Pantera had worked with his mother.

“They're both Nurturers, aren't they?” Her jaw tightened. “Yes.”

“This makes no sense,” he muttered.

The two were gentle creatures who'd devoted their lives to caring for the Pantera young. “Why would they join with our enemies?”

With a sudden surge, Keira

straightened and turned toward the door.

“I intend to ask them.”

He grabbed her arm. “Wait, Keira.” She glared at him in frustration. “I've waited twenty-five years.”

“I know, honey,” he soothed, his fingers brushing her pale cheek. “But if they see you then they're going to bolt.

We need to have Parish arrange enough Hunters to take them into custody without the chance of them escaping.” His expression hardened. “Or hurting someone else.”

She blew out an exasperated sigh.

“You're right.”

Her immediate ability to put her personal lust for vengeance aside for the benefit of protecting her people was only one of the reasons that this female had been such an effective leader.

“I'll have to reveal that you're alive,” Bayon warned, pulling his cell phone from his front pocket? “Are you ready?” There was only a brief hesitation before she was giving a firm nod of her head. “It's time.”

“Okay.”

He punched the number on his speed dial, but before Parish could answer Keira was gently taking the phone from his hand, a rueful smile curving her lips.

“Let me.”

He lifted a startled brow. “You know how to use it?”

She shrugged. “I've seen my idiot captors using them. How hard can it be?”

“I'm not going to fight you for the privilege,” he assured her. They both knew that Parish was going to kick his ass for not immediately informing him that his beloved sister was alive.

“Wait here.”

She left the cabin and was halfway down the path when Bayon heard Parish answer his phone. He grimaced as the male Pantera's tone transformed from impatience to shocked disbelief to a joy so pure it made Bayon's heart twist with regret that he'd forced the male to suffer even one second longer than necessary.

“Christ, he's going to fucking kill me,” he muttered, watching as Keira ended the call and then gestured for him to join her.

“Let's go,” she urged, her earlier anguish replaced by a fierce impatience to confront her kidnappers.

He was swiftly at her side. They jogged down the overgrown path and leaped over the fallen gate.

“He's going to capture the traitors?”

“He's already on the hunt. He'll meet us at the Den,” she said.

Bayon was momentarily puzzled before he realized that Parish wouldn't want anyone to know they'd discovered traitors among the Pantera, at least not until they could be certain there weren't any others.

And there was the added benefit that the prisoners couldn't shift while away from the Wildlands. They were far less dangerous in human form than in puma.

They headed directly for La Pierre, skirting the edges of the Wildlands.

Bayon kept a careful watch on their surroundings, prepared to attack anything or anyone who lurked in the shadows.

For the moment, he had to assume everyone was an enemy.

Even a Pantera.

It was a realization that wounded the heart of his cat.

“At least a couple questions have been answered,” he muttered.

Keira ducked beneath a low-hanging branch before glancing in his direction.

“What are you talking about?”

“I now know how the enemy entered the Wildlands undetected, and how they found Ashe so easily.”

“And why my mind was so reluctant to remember what happened,” she snarled. “I could accept the treachery of humans, but not Pantera.”

Bayon shook his head, hating the knowledge that they would have to eventually reveal the betrayal of Vincent and Savoy to the rest of their people. A damned shame. It was destined to destroy the trust they'd always had in one another. At least until the danger had passed.

Whether it could ever be rebuilt was something that was in the hands of fate.

“I'm not sure any of us will be able to accept that we could be betrayed by our own people,” Bayon muttered.

They slowed their pace as they reached the edge of the swamp and stepped onto the road that marked the edge of the town. Ahead of them the neon sign hung outside The Cougar's Den, but even as they stepped toward the wooden building built on heavy stilts, a dark-haired man was sprinting across the road and wrapping Keira in a smothering hug.

“Keira,” Parish breathed, glaring at Bayon over her shoulder. “You, I will deal with later.”

Keira smiled, despite the fact that she was being clenched hard enough to crush the breath from her lungs.

She was surrounded in the heat and scent of family, her cat purring in bone-deep satisfaction.

“Are you real?” Parish asked, his voice thick with emotion.

She rested her head on the solid width of his chest. “I'm real.”

“I've dreamed of this moment a thousand times only to wake and find that you were still gone. Goddamn, I've been so alone.”

“Not so alone anymore.” She lifted her head with a smile. “I hear you've mated.”

His bleak features abruptly softened with blatant adoration. Keira would never have believed it of her brother if she hadn't seen it for herself.

“My Julia. She completes me.”

“I get that,” Keira agreed, glancing toward Bayon, who had stepped away to give them privacy for their reunion. A low growl had her sharply turning back toward her brother. “Don't start,” she warned, her eyes narrowed.

Parish gave a bark of laughter as she slipped back into her role as older sister, unwilling to take shit from her brother even if he did have several inches and a hundred pounds on her.

“Keira,” he growled. “I've missed you.”

“Brother,” she breathed before forcing herself out of his arms and glancing toward Bayon.

Later they would have a proper reunion. Now they had to concentrate on protecting their people.

Moving to her side, Bayon regarded Parish with a grim expression. “Do you have the traitors?”

Parish jerked his head toward the building. “Inside.”

“Are they still alive?” Keira demanded.

A humorless smile stretched Parish's lips, the promise of death in his eyes.

“For now.”

“Good.” Keira headed for the back steps of the building, her murderous fury heating the air. “I want some answers.”

“Keira.”

She ignored her brother, taking the steps two at a time.

“You're wasting your breath,” Bayon murmured before he was jogging to catch up with her.

A portion of her tension eased as he lightly placed a hand at her lower back.

Just having Bayon near returned the courage she'd feared had been stripped from her twenty-five years ago. A steel door opened and a male Pantera offered her a slow nod of respect before escorting them into a secret chamber hidden behind the shelves of the storage room.

None of the humans drinking in the front bar had any idea there were meeting rooms, a high-tech surveillance room, and two large guest rooms for Pantera separated from them by a sound-proofed wall.

They found Vincent and Savoy on their knees, both stripped naked with iron shackles around their wrists and ankles.

The two Pantera were both older than Keira. Vincent was built on solid lines with brown hair and dark gold eyes while Savoy was a tiny female with reddish hair and eyes the color of spring grass.

Standing behind them, Talon held a gun toward the back of their heads, despite the prisoners' mutual appearance of utter resignation.

No one was taking chances.

Talon, who had still been in training when Keira had been kidnapped, straightened his shoulders and snapped a salute.

“Welcome home, commander.”

“Just Keira now,” she insisted, glancing toward her brother who entered the room to hold his loaded gun at the prisoners. “I'm absolutely confident that Parish has done a brilliant job and I intend to concentrate on tracking down the son of bitches who kidnapped me.” Her attention turned toward the kneeling Pantera. “Starting with these two.”

“They're all yours,” Talon murmured, taking a step back.

Vincent slowly lifted his head, his face gaunt and his eyes shadowed with guilt. “Please, forgive us.”

Parish made a sound of disgust, but Keira leaned forward, needing answers.

“I want to know why.”

“We didn't know-“

“Stop,” Keira snarled. “I don't want excuses, I want answers.”

Vincent licked his lips, glancing toward his cowering mate. “Savoy was one of the first females to fail in becoming pregnant. It was…” He halted to swallow the lump in his throat.

“Difficult.”

“I tried everything,” Savoy timidly offered, her once beautiful face lined with regret. “The old herbal remedies, human drugs, even artificial

insemination when it became available, but nothing worked. At last I went to see a voodoo priestess in New Orleans.” Keira narrowed her gaze. “And she told you to kidnap me?”

Savoy shook her head. “No. She promised she had a potion that could ensure my fertility, but only if we agreed to help her people.”

Bayon pulled a dagger from the sheath at his lower back, running a finger along the lethal edge.

“What people?” Bayon demanded.

Vincent curled his lips in disgust.

“They were humans.”

Bayon continued to stroke his finger along the dagger's blade. “What help did they demand?”

Sweat beaded Vincent's face. “They wanted to study the Wildlands.” Keira scowled. “What?”

Vincent grimaced. “They said that they were ecologists who were afraid that there was some disease that was attacking our homelands. They were certain they could help if they had access to study the places where the magic was still strong.”

Bayon snorted. “And you believed them?”

“Yes,” Savoy breathed, tears in her eyes.

Keira folded her arms over her chest, in no mood to offer sympathy. Maybe they'd been driven to desperation at their inability to conceive. Nurturers had an inbred need to care for others. But unlike Bayon's mother, who'd devoted herself to human children who needed her love, they'd thought of no one but themselves.

She didn't believe for a minute that they hadn't been well aware they were putting the Wildlands at risk.

“Then why keep it a secret?” she snapped.

Vincent flinched. “They said they'd approached the elders with an offer of assistance only to be denied because of the elders' belief that humans are inferior to Pantera.”

Bayon's low growl vibrated through the air. “So you brought them through the borders and allowed them access to our deepest secrets and vulnerabilities?”

“We thought they wanted to help,” Savoy said.

Keira grabbed the woman's chin, forcing Savoy to meet her gaze that burned with the memory of twenty-five years of hell.

“No,” she ground out. “You allowed your own selfish desire for a child to blind you to your betrayal.”

Tears streamed down the female's pale face. “I'm so sorry.”

Abruptly dropping her hand, Keira straightened. Beating them to a bloody pulp wouldn't give them the answers they needed.

Unfortunately.

“What else did you do for the bastards?” she demanded.

“Nothing. I swear,” Vincent said, clearly trying to draw her attention away from his sobbing mate. “When we didn't conceive we were determined to break our agreement with the priestess. She sent us a message to meet with her at the cabin, but there were human males there who threatened to expose us if we didn't keep our promise. Then-“

“Then Keira appeared and we

panicked,” Savoy finished for him.

“We only meant to disable you long enough for us to escape.” Vincent held Keira's gaze, silently pleading for her understanding. Yeah. When hell froze over. “But the humans put a metal collar around your neck and told us that they'd kill you if we didn't continue to bring them into the Wildlands.”

Parish stepped forward, his anger a tangible force in the air. “You should have come to me.”

“We couldn't,” Vincent insisted.

“They swore that as long as we did as we were told that Keira wouldn't be hurt. Otherwise-“

Keira made a sound of disgust. “And you just trusted their word?”

“Of course not.” Savoy licked her dry lips. “They sent us pictures of you each week. They claimed it was to prove you were still alive, but we always understood that it was a warning that you were still in their clutches and that your life depended on us fulfilling our end of the bargain.”

There was an explosion of curses from Bayon and Parish, but Keira kept her attention focused like a laser on the traitors.

“Even if you knew I was alive, you couldn't have possibly known they weren't torturing me.”

Vincent cleared his throat. “The collar.”

Keira scowled at him in confusion.

“What about it?”

“I had a chance to study it while we were in the cabin,” he admitted in a strained voice. “It was made of an unfamiliar metal alloy, but I could detect a magically-enhanced toxin coating the inside of the collar.”

Shit. Bayon's suspicions had been right. There was something about the collar that had been poisoning her.

“That doesn't explain why you assumed I wasn't being abused.”

“The toxin was potent enough to cripple you, which meant it would be lethal to a human. Even touching your skin would have made them extremely ill.”

Keira grimaced. Now she understood why they'd gone to such trouble to avoid all physical contact. Even when they took her to the bathroom, they'd kept their distance, using the electrical shocks to warn her of the dangers of trying to escape.

And, of course, they couldn't risk removing the collar. Not when they couldn't know for certain how swiftly her strength would return.

Not until they were ready to kill her.

She shied away from the thought that the nasty Roger might have been contemplating raping her dead body.

She shuddered. She had no

forgiveness for the two traitors. Not when they'd left her at the mercy of those animals.

“They might not have raped me, or beat me with their fists, but they tortured me every day I was in that cage.” Vincent lowered his gaze. “I'm sorry.”

Feeling her tremble, Bayon stepped close enough to wrap her in the comforting scent of his cat.

“Did you ever watch to see what they were doing?” he demanded of the two.

Vincent gave a slow shake of his head, his shoulders slumped in defeat.

“They claimed they were taking samples, but I fear they were performing some dark ritual.”

“They have to be the ones causing our homelands to rot,” Parish growled, his gun pointed directly between Vincent's eyes. At that short distance it would be a lethal shot. “Did you tell them of Ashe's pregnancy?”

Savoy made a low sound of distress.

“No, they already knew.”

“But you told them where she would be?” the Hunter persisted.

Vincent gave a jerk of his head.

“Yes.”

“Fuck.”

Keira lightly grabbed Parish's wrist, keeping him from squeezing the trigger.

They were all battling against the primal lust for revenge. For now they had to put the welfare of the Pantera ahead of vengeance.

She held Vincent's wary gaze. “How many other traitors are there?” The older Pantera frowned at the question. “None that I know of.” Talon slapped the back of his head.

“The truth.”

“That is the truth,” Vincent rasped, a spark of gold smoldering in his dull eyes. His cat might be cowed, but it wasn't dead. “We never spoke of our bargain with any other Pantera.”

“Shit.” Bayon exchanged a frustrated glance with Keira. “There could be a dozen and we would never know.”

“There's a way,” Savoy said in soft tones.

“Tell me,” Keira commanded.

“The priestess demanded that we be marked to prove our loyalty,” the older female admitted.

Keira lifted her brows. “What mark?”

“The soles of our feet.”

Together Keira, Bayon and Parish moved to stand beside Talon, all of them studying the outline of a raven that had been branded onto the meaty flesh of their heels.

Keira shuddered. It wasn't the full Mark of Shakpi, but Vincent and Savoy should have suspected that it represented their ancient enemy.

Parish sent her a questioning glance, clearly asking permission to take control. She gave a discrete nod. She hadn't just been trying to avoid confusion among the Hunters as to who was their leader when she said she was happy to let Parish remain in his position of authority.

It would take her time to fully recover from her years of being held captive by the humans. And just as importantly, she was determined to track down every bastard who'd been responsible for attacking their homeland and make them suffer.

“Talon, you need to find a way to begin searching for that mark without letting anyone know what you're doing,” Parish commanded the younger male Pantera.

“Are you shitting me?” Talon

protested. “I can't start randomly inspecting people for a brand without making them suspicious.”

“Just do it.”

“Christ.”

Talon rolled his eyes, but obediently headed toward the doors. Keira was one of the very few who'd ever been a match for Parish when he was in full commando-mode.

Vincent cautiously reached out to take his mate's hand. “What will you do to us?”

Parish nodded a head in her direction.

“Keira, it's your choice.”

She shrugged, the brutal need for revenge fading beneath the sight of Savoy's cowering body.

The two would have to be punished; maybe they would even be condemned to death. But that was something that would be decided after the danger to the Pantera had been effectively destroyed.

“Take them to the elders,” she ordered.

Parish arched a dark brow. “No one would blame you if you want to-“

“No.” She leaned against Bayon, absorbing his strength as her knees threatened to collapse. It was going to take a few days for her to fully regain her strength. Until then, she had utter faith she could depend on her mate. It was a knowledge that banished the last of her bitterness. The past was the past.

It was her future with Bayon, and the future of her people, that mattered. “Just before Bayon arrived, one of my captors let slip the fact that my time in the cage was coming to an end. He believed that whatever they were plotting was about to happen. And that they were going to succeed.”

Bayon rubbed a comforting hand on her lower back. “They never gave a hint what that plot might entail?”

“No.” She pointed toward the traitors.

“But they might have information we need.”

“Fine.” Parish gave a grudging nod, his lust for blood still lurking in his golden eyes. Shoving the gun into the holster at his waist, he reached to grab the two kneeling traitors by their hair and jerked them to their feet. “Let's go.” She watched as her brother hauled Vincent and Savoy from the room before snuggling against Bayon's chest, breathing deeply of his familiar scent.

“Are you all right?” he asked, wrapping his arms around her as he laid his cheek on top of her head.

She smiled, kissing the strong column of his neck. “I will be, once we have answers.”

“We will,” he said without hesitation.

“The Pantera are nothing if not stubborn creatures.”

“True,” she agreed.

For now, a shadow continued to hang over the Wildlands, but she fiercely held onto the belief that someday soon they would defeat their mysterious enemies and the magic would once again heal their land.

And their people.

Bayon rubbed his cheek against her hair. “Can we go home now?”

She planted another kiss on his neck, needing to be alone with her mate. “The caves?”

“Actually I thought you might stay with me.” He lifted his head to study her weary face. “At least until we can decide where we want to live.” Her hand pressed against his cheek, her gaze drinking in his male beauty.

She'd been an idiot to ever doubt her ability to be with an alpha male. Bayon didn't threaten her independence.

He only made her stronger.

“I don't care where we go as long as we're together.”

His eyes held a love she felt to the very depths of her soul.

“For all of eternity, honey.”