The second time Jo woke in the Beyond it was to the chime of bells floating up from the valley floor. Quinn had curled around her while they slept, molding himself against her back. She turned in his arms to face him and he pulled her to him until they were was pressed against one another, their legs tangled together.
This is real, she thought, amazed. Jo wound her arms around his waist. Quinn was warm and pliant against her, radiating lazy arousal. It was as if his thoughts and emotions had been transformed into sound, his inner voice a sonorous melody. His plump cock rested against her thigh and she snaked a hand between them, letting her fingers glide, feather-light, along his shaft, delighting in the way the music in her mind quickened.
“That’s nice,” he said and thrust into her hand.
The beast within had been satisfied from their earlier coupling and she was not driven to chase her release. Desire flowed through her like honey, thick and sweet, allowing for a slower exploration. Quinn rolled them over, hovering above her, his hard prick brushing against the tight curls between her thighs. She spread her legs wider and Quinn rocked his hips until his cock slid between the folds of her sex, spreading her slick and caressing her clit. He rose up onto his elbows and stared into Jo’s eyes. His expression was open, awestruck, with a hint of sadness.
Thoughts coalesced in her mind, like clouds gathering. Images of a boy raised among many, a part of a greater world, and yet always held separate, until waiting had become a cornerstone of his nature.
“Is this you?” she asked, her eyes widening as the strength of Quinn’s memories grew. Quinn nodded, ghosting his lips over hers. Jo trailed her fingers along his hairline, his eyebrows, and his lips, “You’ve been so alone.”
“No. Not anymore.” She arched into him, loving the press of his weight. Jo licked into Quinn’s mouth, moaning when he sucked on her tongue. He began a journey downward, laying gentle nips and kisses on her neck and her shoulders. There was no hurry in the path he took as he worshipped her body, taking first one nipple and then the other in his mouth. He scraped his teeth over the hardened nubs and licked away the delicious spark of pain.
Jo raked her fingers through his hair and Quinn lifted his head, the corners of his mouth curled into a content smile. Jo heard the resonant joy coming from within him, a symphony born from their shared pleasure.
“I can feel you beneath my skin,” Quinn said, resting his forehead on her stomach, “When I close my eyes I see your happiness. It’s like a cyclone of color.”
“You’re like music in my mind,” she whispered, tucking a lock of his Quinn’s hair behind his hear, “Is this normal? Do you all experience each other this way?”
“Yes and no,” a wide smile lit his face, “It’s something that usually doesn’t happen until–”
A knock interrupted him and he started to call out, but Jo slapped a palm over his mouth. “Be quiet, maybe they’ll go away.”
“That’s not exactly how it works around here.” Quinn kissed her belly just below her naval and stood, pulling on his tunic. A chiton, Jo thought, remembering what he had called it when she had asked why everyone was dressed like an extra from Clash of the Titans. The loose fabric did little to hide his engorged cock and Jo started to laugh.
Quinn shrugged. “It’s not like it’s never happened before.”
He held out her own loose linen dress and she slipped it over her head just as a second knock came, accompanied by Vera’s voice, “Jo?”
“Just a sec,” Jo called out, propping herself up against the headboard and smoothing out the blankets. She waved a hand at Quinn to open the door. A flicker of trepidation emanated from him. It fluttered in her chest like the vibrato of a held note.
The door clicked open and Vera, Sam, and Evander stepped into the room. Vera went straight to Jo’s bedside. Her eyes raced over her body, searching for injury, a complicated jumble of relief, ire, and grief raced across her expression.
Jo squirmed beneath the attention. “Do you want to check my teeth, too?”
A fissure appeared in the intensity of Vera’s gaze. “Is it strange that I find your unshakable sass comforting?”
“Not as strange as waking up in another dimension.”
Vera smiled, continuing to study Jo for a few more moments before gathering her in her arms. “I’m sorry you were hurt, little sister.”
Jo heard the regret and the acceptance of responsibility in Vera’s voice and shook her head. “It’s not your fault. Unless you were under all that fur.”
Ruthlessness flared in Vera’s eyes. Jo had known Vera long enough to see her frustrated, but she had never seen her angry. It sent a trill of fear down Jo’s spine, but was comforting all the same, because she did not doubt Vera would do anything to keep her safe.
“I suspect you have some questions,” Vera said.
“That’s an understatement.” A sudden, uncomfortable screeching in Jo’s mind caused her to wince. It was followed by the sound of raised voices on the far side of the room.
“Be reasonable,” Quinn said.
“What were you thinking?” Sam hissed and stalked over to the bed. He turned back to Quinn, his hand sliced through the air like a blade, cutting the other man off before he could reply. “Just save it. Great Gaia, I can’t believe you. Jo, we need to have a word in private with Quinn,” Sam said, and motioned for Vera and Evander to follow.
“We’ll be right back,” Vera said. Her confusion was clear. Quinn stood in the corner, his face blank, his true emotions betrayed by the jangling noise inside Jo’s head. Sam and Quinn stared each other down before Quinn shook his head and walked toward the door.
“No,” the word was out of Jo’s mouth before she had made the conscious decision to speak, “If this has to do with me, I want to hear it. I have a right to hear it.”
Sam stepped forward. “There’s a lot going on here that you don’t understand.”
“You don’t think I know that?”
“Sam, what’s going on?” Evander asked.
“I don’t think we should talk about it here.”
“Why?” Vera was looking between Quinn and Jo. Jo saw the moment that Vera’s eyes caught on the vivid bruise peeking out from the neckline of Quinn’s tunic. They widened and her mouth opened into a shocked “oh.”
Quinn’s hand rose to cover the bite mark and Jo reached out and tangled their fingers together. “Don’t cover it up, I’m not ashamed of it, you shouldn’t be either.”
“Do you even know what it means?” Sam sniped.
“I think she has some idea,” Vera said, “Regardless, Jo’s right. If we’re going to talk about what’s happening to her, she has a right to hear it.”
Jo nodded. “Thank you.” She stepped into Sam’s space and chased his eyes with hers, “Please don’t be mad at Quinn. If anyone’s guilty of leaping without looking, it’s me.”
“Can we rewind a bit for those of us who are still in the dark?” Evander asked.
“Let’s start with what you know,” Vera said to Jo, guiding her back to the bed and motioning for Quinn to sit at her side. Jo told Vera what that had transpired since she woke, what Quinn had told her about the Were-curse, and what she had guessed on her own.
“I’m a werewolf; when I say it out loud it sounds twelve kinds of crazy,” Jo said.
“Not as crazy as you think,” Evander turned to Sam, “But none of this is news to anyone, what’s got you all riled?”
Sam pointed toward Quinn and Jo. “Talking isn’t the only thing they did when Jo woke up.”
Evander shrugged. “So?”
Jo buried her face in her hands. “Why do I feel like I’m about to get grounded?”
“Because that’s what happens to kids who act without thinking,” Sam barked.
Vera interrupted the argument, “Sam, what happened between Jo and Quinn is their business,” Sam grunted. “At the same time, Jo, there is a lot you don’t know about our world. Sam’s just worried you’re flying blind, he doesn’t want to see you hurt more than you already have been.”
“So, tell me what I’m missing.”
Vera studied Jo and then nodded. “Alright, but I need a quick peek at your consciousness. I want to make sure it’s the Were-curse we’re up against.”
“Will it hurt?”
“No, but I need your permission to look into your mind.”
“Do whatever you need to do, if you think it will help.”
Vera placed one of her palms in the center of Jo’s forehead and the other on her chest between her breasts. The touch was soothing, like the way a mother might hold an injured child. It made Jo squirm with a peculiar combination of discomfort and longing.
Vera’s voice was soft. “Relax and close your eyes.”
Jo let her eyelids drop. At first, there was nothing but the low hum of Quinn’s anxiety and her own trepidation. A deepening pressure banded around her chest and she fought back, afraid that she might suffocate beneath its weight. She pushed hard against it with her mind and both women gasped as they sprung apart.
“Interesting,” Vera stared at Jo with undisguised surprise, her hands hovering above where she had placed them, “You’re not in any danger. When you feel me push, it’s okay to let me in. I promise I won’t hurt you,” she said and returned her hands to their positions. The pressure came again and Jo relaxed, allowing it to pass through her.
Good, Jo was startled when she heard Vera’s voice inside her mind.
Can you hear me, too? She asked.
Yup, you’re a natural. Vera’s approval was like sunlight. See if you can find me; follow my voice.
Vera talked to Jo about mundane things like the shop and her plans for a garden in the spring. It distracted Jo from the peculiar vertigo that accompanied the experience of being suspended in total darkness. Unseen currents rippled along her skin, reverberations that matched the rise and fall of Vera’s voice. She let them guide her downward, moving within her own consciousness like a diver swimming towards the ocean floor. A light glimmered far off in the black and Jo knew that was where she would find Vera. Jo propelled herself forward, picking up speed with a thought, eager to find her. The limitless darkness was unnerving.
Jo found Vera beside a fire, like one that burns on the head of a torch, but this one danced, disembodied in the black. It glowed bright and warm, with flickers of cooler violets and blues curling in its depths.
Is that my consciousness? Jo asked.
Yes. Vera touched the fire with reverence, coaxing apart the colors until she held a tongue of golden flame in one hand and the small figure of a wolf in the other. Its eyes a shimmering amethyst that sparked with power. Vera allowed the two images to spill from her hands like water, with the flame and the wolf dissolving into one again, the fiery reds and oranges flickering against the darkness with glimmers of violet and azure at the core.
Jo opened her eyes. Her cheeks were streaked with tears.
“It’s as we thought,” Vera said.
Jo’s breath caught in her throat. “Am I going to die?”
Vera’s answer was immediate and certain. “No.”
“Curses aren’t supposed to kill you,” Sam said. “At least not right away,”
“The whole point of a curse is to make the cursed suffer,” Quinn added.
“This curse is nasty, but it tends to put the folks around the cursed at higher risk,” Vera explained, “It goes back to the time of the Olympians. Vengeance was an art form to the gods and goddesses back then, like sculpting or poetry. Zeus was a gifted artisan.”
“How bad did someone have to be to warrant being turned into a monster?”
Quinn and Sam snorted. Evander sighed, resignation apparent in the slope of his shoulders. “It didn’t take much, but in this case the offense was wretched.”
“The king of Arcadia was a proud man. He had sired fifty sons, each one more arrogant than the last,” Vera began.
“He was an asshole,” Sam said.
“His kids were worse,” Evander added. Sam nodded in agreement.
Vera continued, ignoring the interruption, “Back then Zeus liked to wander around, appear to mortals in disguise, and test their hospitality.”
“Or get them pregnant. What? I figured I’d mention it, you know, as long as we’re talking about dick moves,” Quinn growled and then held up a placating hand, “Sorry, Vera.”
Vera rolled her eyes, “Anyway, Zeus showed up at Lycaon’s court in disguise, but the King’s sons saw through it and decided to teach him a lesson. They killed their youngest brother and served him up to the god at dinner, but Zeus figured it out, and cursed Lycaon and his sons by turning them into wolves.”
“The guy who attacked me had the same curse?”
“Without question. It’s passed through a bite. Those who survive an attack suffer the same way Lycaon and his sons did meaning Lycaon’s name and legacy were ruined in perpetuity.”
Connections formed in Jo’s mind, one thing spilling into another, circumstance after circumstance that had led to this moment. The ferociousness of a wolf attack that should have killed her. The dual consciousness that was growing within her mind. The wolf of violet flame that Vera had drawn out of her soul. The ferocity with which she and Quinn had made love.
“Fuck, Quinn. You let me bite you. Are you cursed now, too?” No wonder Sam is furious, she thought. Jo was horrified that her thoughtlessness might have passed the curse on to Quinn, and all the while, the beast inside her was whispering at least you know he’ll always be yours. She was disgusted by the possessiveness and ferocity of the wolf and vibrated with anxiety, pacing back and forth.
Quinn blocked her path, forcing her to a halt. “I’m not susceptible to the curse. I’m a natural shapeshifter; Zeus’ magic doesn’t affect us the same way. Watch.” He started to quake, the movement fast enough that his body was a blur. Jo heard a crack, like the sound of a rock splitting. The scent of rosewood and honey hung heavy in the air.
A wolf stood where Quinn had been. It was at least a meter and a half from paw to shoulder and Jo leapt backward with a yelp.
“It’s just Quinn, he won’t hurt you,” Evander said, his voice tender.
Quinn’s amusement rang within her like a pizzicato being played on the violin, but beneath it was the faint, plaintive call of a single note in a minor key. She heard the fear of rejection in that sound and dropped to her knees, stretching out her hand, and running her fingers through his fur. The top layer was silver, tipped with black. It was coarse, like it had weathered many a winter. His undercoat was softer and warm, with streaks of white and tawny-gold.
“You’re gorgeous,” she whispered, stroking his head. His fear dissolved and the music in Jo’s mind was happy once again. He nuzzled closer and she looped her arms around him, burying her face in his coat and holding the wild fragrance of him in her lungs.
“I didn’t hurt him, then?”
Quinn shifted back to his human-form and took her hands in his. “The only thing you did was make me yours. That’s why Sam was upset.”
Jo spun around to face Sam. “I don’t understand?”
“Wolves mate for life,” Vera answered, “A bond like yours, between two magical creatures, it’s sacred. Unbreakable. Sam was afraid that Quinn allowed things to go too far without you knowing what you were getting into.”
“But. Wait. We’re,” Jo gaped at Quinn. A broad, bright smile bloomed on her face, “So we’re wolf-married? That’s what has your panties in a twist, Sam?”
“It’s more than marriage, Jo; you’re bonded. He’s made you a part of this world for the rest of your life, without you knowing what that means,” Sam argued.
Jo shrugged. “As far as I’m concerned, the guy who attacked me is the one you want to blame for making me part of this world,” she leaned in and kissed Quinn, a chaste, but loving press of lips, “The wolf is a part of me. I think it has always been,” Jo stopped to consider her next words, “When I woke up and saw Quinn, the first thought the wolf had was he’s mine. When he asked me to mark him, the human part of me didn’t know what that meant; but the animal part of me, the wolf, knew.”
She finished speaking and looked up. Evander beamed at her. His eyes sparked like he was seeing Jo for the first time and was proud to have had the chance. Vera was thoughtful, looking between Jo and Quinn as if she was reading the strength of their connection.
Sam looked chastised. He shuffled up to Quinn, his head down, kicking at the toe of Quinn’s boot, “I’m sorry, I lost it a little when I saw that bonding mark.”
Quinn wrapped his arms around Sam and pulled him close. “I get it. I probably would have done the same thing.”
“Probably?” Sam took a playful swipe at Quinn’s shoulder, “If I recall you lost it on Evander when you found out we were together.”
Evander rubbed his jaw like he was massaging an old ache. “Asshole, you know my jaw still hurts when it rains.”
“I wish I had been there to see that,” Vera laughed, “But we can reminisce later. There’s a lot we need to talk about before the moon moves into her full phase tomorrow night.”
“Is that when I get to learn how to change?” Silence flowed into the room like the tide, drowning their laughter, “What?”
“Changing for the cursed is different,” Sam said, happiness draining from his expression, “It’s painful, for one thing.”
“I’ve never talked to a were-cursed; but we saw Lycaon and his sons change. It sounded like they were being torn apart,” Evander said.
“Is that what it’s like for you?” Jo asked Quinn and Sam.
“Shifting is part of our nature,” Quinn paused, obvious that he was searching for gentle words, “Our bodies and our consciousness are integrated.”
“The Were-cursed are different. They have had duality forced upon them,” Vera said, “It’s why I was able to separate the wolf from your human consciousness. When you change, we know that you’ll maintain some of your human thoughts, but we don’t know how much of your behavior will be under your control; for all intents and purposes your animal-mind will be running the show.”
“It’s why so many of the accursed live far afield or in packs with others who suffer from the same type of curse. They don’t want to take the chance of hurting someone or passing it on when the animal takes over.”
“You’ll transform for the first-time tomorrow night, when the moon is full,” Quinn ducked his head to catch Jo’s gaze, “but you won’t be alone. I’ll be there, and Sam, Evander, and Vera will be close by.”
“And that’s only if Vera can’t talk sense into Zeus,” Evander chimed in, hopeful.
“Zeus?” Jo gaped.
“Yes, we’ve an audience with Zeus tomorrow morning. I’m hoping that once he learns Lycaon and his idiot sons are gone, he’ll lift the curse.”
“And this Lycaon, you know for sure that he’s dead?”
“We should,” Evander said, his voice pitiless, “We killed him.”
Anne Stagg's 'Mound of Gaia' series is a Bellesa exclusive.