The next day dawned gray and cool, the green of the pines and the rough-hewn crags that ringed the valley, paled in the morning light. Sunlight struggled through the dense layer of clouds. Sam woke Vera and Evander with shepherd’s tea laced with honey and fresh bread from the Temple ovens.
“We managed to track her as far as Stemnitsa. I think she’s heading for the mountains to the north.” Sam said while he sat before the fireplace, warming his hands. His eyes were tired and there were dark smudges beneath them that told Vera he had searched longer and farther than any of the other Scouts.
“You need to rest,” Vera was overwhelmed by desire and went to Sam, pulling him from his chair. She guided him toward the bed, peeling off his clothes, until she pushed his naked body into Evander’s arms.
“There’s no time for this,” Sam argued, but the protestation was half-hearted while he found the girl on the best escort site in Malaysia.
“It’s just dawn,” Evander whispered in Sam’s ear, stroking his hands down his chest, “lie here with us for just a bit, then we’ll go after them together.”
“That’s the problem, Evy, we don’t even know who we’re following or where to start?” Sam struggled and Evander pulled him against his body, Sam’s back to his chest, while Vera blocked his escape from the front. She ran her hands over the planes of his muscles, stopping where she found scratches that he had earned running through brush and bramble as a hound. She kissed each hurt, murmuring words of healing. She blew gently on his injured skin until the ragged scrapes knitted themselves together, and faded to nothing.
Sam groaned with relief. Evander carded his hands through Sam’s hair, sweeping the long, ebony strands to the side, and pressing his lips to Sam’s neck.
“Let us take care of you; you stubborn idiot.” Evander’s voice was husky from sleep and full of affection.
“Yes.” Sam let the tension go and went boneless in Evander’s arms, whimpering as Vera pressed against him. His hardness brushed against the nest of curls between her legs and he arched against her.
“My sweet man,” Vera cooed. Sam watched as she ran her hands over her womanhood, dipping her fingers between the folds and coating them with the flood of her desire. She raised the hand to Sam’s lips.
“Taste her,” Evander trailed one hand down Sam’s chest and wrapped it around his thick cock. Sam opened his mouth, his pink tongue darting out to lap at Vera’s fingers.
“Did you feel us last night?” Vera asked. Sam groaned and Vera’s hand slipped down between her thighs again. She teased her clit watching as Evander caressed Sam, “Could you feel it when Evy was inside me?”
“Yes,” Sam was breathless with want.
Evander bit the juncture between Sam’s shoulder and his neck and groaned, “Do you want to feel her?”
Vera draped a leg over Sam’s hip and guided his length into her body. The feeling of fullness was magnificent and she opened her mind to her lovers, letting their need race through her, just as her pleasure fed their lust.
“Please,” Sam begged them, “I need–”
Words escaped him. He was alive with sensation, reveling in everything from the beads of sweat that gathered where his skin slipped against Evander’s and Vera’s, to the scent of musk and sex that permeated the room. The tight fist of pleasure that clenched in his gut unfurled and his orgasm struck, sparking along the surface of his skin like a lightning bolt. Vera and Evander felt Sam’s release in mind and body, and followed him over the edge.
The three lovers lay together, catching their breath. Vera began to roll toward the edge of the bed, and Sam grasped her hip. She looked over her shoulder and was overwhelmed by the love shining from the faces of the two people she cherished most in all the worlds.
“Stay?” Evander asked, meeting her gaze, the small world full of warmth. Vera nodded and settled back in, pulling a soft woolen blanket over their nude bodies. She closed her eyes and slept.
The cloud cover had burned away by the time Vera and her lovers were fully rested. They spent what was left of the morning planning their strategy. Sam filled them in on the prior night’s chase. The imposter’s trail had led toward Mainalo Mountain northeast of the Sanctuary. Evander proposed they go straight to the mountain using the Sacred Passage, insisting that cutting the imposter’s flight off would give them the element of surprise. Vera, much to Evander’s frustration, dismissed the idea out-of-hand.
“Sam, help me out here. You know getting out ahead of them makes the most sense,” Evander said.
“No. It doesn’t,” Vera sighed, taking a moment to organize her thoughts. “All we actually know is that whatever it is we’re chasing looked like it was heading for the mountains. What good would it do to go straight there, only to find out they’ve headed south or doubled back to the west? Besides, they’re working to take control of the Sacred Passage. They’re going to be expecting us to use it. I don’t think it will occur to them that we’d travel without using magic. I say we go the old-fashioned way and pick up their trail where Sam was forced to turn back last night.”
Sam nodded, “Sorry, Evy, I’m with Vera on this.”
“Sam, don’t you think for one second that agreeing with me gets you off the hook for dismissing the Scouts and going ahead alone. We’re going to talk about that colossal bout of stupidity when this whole mess is over.”
Sam had the decency to look somewhat abashed by the chiding. Vera called for the Sisters to ready three horses and supplies for a three-day ride. Evander fought to bring a garrison of Guardians with them, but once again, Vera refused.
“We’ll move faster and be less conspicuous with just the three of us. If we march out of here with a garrison, every being in the Beyond will have heard about it before we’ve left the valley.”
“This would be so much easier if this entire dimension weren’t technophobic,” Sam said.
“Right? My kingdom for a truck,” Evander groaned, packing the saddle bag that the Sisters from the temple had brought for them to use. “Do we even know who or what we’re chasing?”
Sam laughed, but the sound was mirthless, “I think I know, but neither of you are going to like it.”
Vera was cramming an extra blanket into one of the panniers and stopped to blow a stray lock of hair out of her eyes, “I can hardly wait.”
“Who or whatever was masquerading as Kata left a trail of residual magic, all shifters do. It’s one of the ways we can tell those who came by their animal-form naturally and who either bought or was cursed with their ability. She had to have known that once she shifted, I’d be able to follow her.”
“Who the hell would want to be a bat? Bats. Suck.” Evander exclaimed, catching a rolled pair of socks that Sam threw at him.
“After last night, I’m pretty sure every Sister, Guardian, and Familiar in the Mound knows that you hate bats, sweetheart,” Vera chided.
“Rats with wings,” Evander muttered and stuffed the pair of socks in with his other clothes.
Sam pinched the bridge of his nose and counted to ten under his breath, “Our friend didn’t choose to be a bat, she was cursed. It got me to thinking: who do we know with the juice to turn someone into a shifter?”
“Daemons,” Vera said.
“A Titan or an Olympian. Vera might be able to do it, if she channeled enough power,” Evander said.
Sam nodded, “The point goes to Vera.”
Her face paled, “Shit.”
“Yeah, shit.” Sam said.
“What? Shit? Why? Why is this all of a sudden bad?” Evander looked from Vera to Sam.
“You were always crap at history,” Vera cracked her knuckles, “A long time ago, Dionysus got really irritated with King Minyas’ three daughters because they refused to go to one of his orgies.”
“Was there ever a time when men weren’t rapey assholes?” Sam said, exasperated.
“I don’t think so, love,” Evander pressed his chest against Sam’s back, pulling him flush against his body. He hooked his chin on Sam’s shoulder.
Sam relaxed in Evander’s embrace, “Let me guess, Dionysus was a douche-nozzle about it?” He asked.
“You’ve met him. Of course, he was. He drove them insane and made them draw lots to see which of their sons would get sacrificed. After they’d ripped the poor kid apart, he turned the women into bats.”
“Ah, the good old days,” Evander words dripped with sarcasm. “So now they’re after control of the Sacred Passage, for what?” Evander asked, giving Sam once last squeeze before her returned to packing.
“Revenge,” Sam and Vera answered together.
The sun was at its zenith when the three rode out together from the Villa, making for the forest where the Sam had lost the imposter’s trail. News came in from the healers that Delphina and Alessandra were beginning to stir and should make a full recovery. It allowed the triune to leave the temple with lighter hearts.
If they were right, then it stood to reason that Dionysus was also in danger. The Daemons were immortals. They remained so by drawing power from the elements beneath their charge. Dionysus would be crippled if the sisters succeeded. Not to mention the havoc the elementals under his control would wreak on the uninitiated world. She guessed their plan had a certain logic to it, but Vera could not shake the feeling that she was missing something. It hovered just beyond the border of her conscious mind, like the melody to a forgotten song.
The chill of the morning faded as their horses picked their way over the climbing terrain. Copses of evergreens and scrubby little bushes dotted the hills, the air was alive with birdsong and fragrant with the scent of cedar. It was a pleasant day to ride and soon Evander, Sam, and Vera had shaken off the sense of dread that had descended when they began to untangle the web of deceit and vengeance that the daughters of Minyas had wrought on the Beyond.
Night was falling when they reached the edge of the forest. There was an abandoned stone cottage that squatted at the head of a path leading into the darkness beneath the trees. Sam and Evander scoped it out and declared it free of wildlife, void of magical beasties, and fit for sleeping. Vera was able to whisk the cobwebs and an empty squirrel’s nest out of the chimney with a gust of elemental magic that she justified as necessary to Sam before he had a chance to scold her.
“Technically, we’re engaging in pursuit, so one might look at the use of power as aiding in our search,” Vera said as she went about building a fire in the hearth.
“You keep telling yourself that,” Sam chuckled.
Evander came back in with an armful of kindling and a few larger branches, “It’s a good thing we found this place, the wind’s starting to pick up out there.”
They ate after Vera got the fire going and by the time the night had pulled her star-dusted mantle across the sky, the three lovers were lost in their own thoughts. Sam’s head was resting in Vera’s lap while she played with his hair and Evander was leaning against the empty door frame, staring out into the dark. A log in the fire shifted with a soft whump and Vera heard the pop and sizzle of pine sap.
Deep within the forest, a wolf howled.
Sam bolted upright and tipped his head to the side. Vera thought he looked like a little boy straining to eavesdrop on the secret whispers of adults.
Another yowl broke through the trees. Sam’s lips pulled downward into a frown and Vera chuckled, drawing her thumb over his cheek, “You’ve spent too much time in the city.”
“Did you ward the area?” Sam asked, the twist in his lips and the furrow in his brow intensifying.
“Yes, of course,” Vera said and turned to Evander. His posture was rigid as he scanned the tree line.
A round of shrieks came, answering the call of the wolves. Vera was on her feet and moving, her hands stirring the air. She chanted until her eyes flashed, their normal color obscured by a sheet of luminous white. The light from the fire made her wince and she turned away. She took Evander’s place at the door. Her enchanted vision made every pebble and branch stand out in sharp relief. Sam shifted to his hound-form and joined Evander and Vera at the door, his hackles raised, a snarled rumbling in the wide barrel of his chest.
“What do you see?” Evander whispered, unsheathing two daggers, the vicious edge of their sharpened blades glinting in the firelight.
“There’s movement along the path and in the trees,” Vera answered, keeping her voice low. It had just occurred to her that whispering would make no difference to the predators lurking in the dark when a cacophony of sound erupted around them.