My body weary, I could feel Hi'ran watching me. His spirit rested on my shoulder, smiling with those brilliant white teeth, and his passion for the kill raced through my body like fingers tripping their way down my back, setting off sparks. Gasping, I dispatched the last wight near me, as the Autumn Lord's breath whispered heavy on my neck. He embraced me, and a shroud of tendriling mist seeped through my clothes, coiling in my belly like a snake waiting to strike.
I reeled, but he was there to catch me up, to wrap me in his arms as he drew me inside his swirling cape. His piercing diamond gaze drove itself into my soul. I tried to push away but couldn't move as his lips fastened to mine.
He sucked my breath away, and my knees buckled as the most intense orgasm I'd ever had exploded through my body. Unable to move or breathe, my heart fell silent, and I knew I
was dying. And then-when I thought my lungs would never work again, when I ready to step out of my body-Hi'ran gently exhaled into my mouth.
My life slowly returned to me, filtering in through my lips. As my chest rose and fell, sensation returned to my toes and fingers. My heart started to beat again, a staccato pulse, and I pushed away from him, staring with a terrible fear.
He laughed and stroked my face. "I told you, you're one of many brides-but you are my only living Death Maiden. You will be revered and honored for your position, and when the time comes, you will be the one to bear my heir." And then, before I could say a word, he vanished, leaving me whimpering as I sank to the floor slowly realizing just what his words meant.
"Delilah? Delilah!" Camille's voice echoed through the fog encasing my thoughts. I blinked, realizing that I was on my knees, curled over with my forehead against the floor, hands tucked over the back of my head.
The Autumn Lord's words rang in my ears as I looked around. The wights were all dead, scattered around the chamber like so much debris. Everybody-except Smoky, of course-was covered with blood and muck. I moaned gently as Camille and Menolly helped me up.
"Can you stand?" Menolly asked, her gaze locked on mine. She knew. Maybe not what had happened, but that something had happened. She always knew.
I nodded. No way in hell was I ready to talk about what had just happened. Not when we still had a shade to take care of and the seal to find.
"Yeah. I got overexcited, I guess." I shivered and pulled away. "Let's just finish this and go home. I need to sleep." What I needed was something to shake me out of my thoughts. Something to make me forget about the Autumn Lord and death and spirits and children conceived from Elemental Lords. My gaze landed on Zach. What I needed right now was a blond, gorgeous werepuma.
He blinked, returning my scrutiny, and slowly smiled. He could smell my arousal. I knew he could, because I could smell the same scent of desire emanating off of him. He wanted me as much as I wanted him.
Menolly glanced at Camille, and they both shrugged.
"Okay, if you're all right, let's get this over with." Camille motioned toward the back chamber. The seal was in there and, no doubt, the shade.
As we waded through the blood and bodies of the wights, the cavern began to feel like it was closing in on me. I didn't like underground spaces nor small rooms. Claustrophobia, Mother had called it, and she blamed it on my being a werecat. Cats didn't like to be locked in, though they may like cozy corners. Mother had always said, "Never trap a cat, or they'll scratch you to bits. Cats want the option to escape, even if they choose not to use it." I'd always believed she was referring to me with her gentle, chiding manner.
I'd never been good at being a daughter, at least not the kind Mother knew how to cope with. I'd always wanted to be wandering through the woods, wearing boy's clothing, chasing bugs, and climbing trees. A tomboy, that was what she called me, though she said it with love in her voice. I'd always wanted her approval, and I always felt like I could never measure up, even though she'd never once told me so.
Shaking thoughts of the past out of my head, I hurried to the front, where Roz and Vanzir waited.
"Has either of you faced a shade before?" I was hoping for a yes, but I'd settle for a No, but I know how to kill them. I didn't get either.
"Nope," Roz said. He shook his curly ponytail. "I've seen a lot of ghosts over the years, and dealt with a few spirits from the Netherworld, but shades-they play with the big boys. They're usually found outside of ancient ruins and old battle scenes."
Vanzir added his shake of the head. "Neither have I, though I've seen a few. They can be quite fierce, I understand. But I know that they hate light; they can't stand the sun, and are seldom seen or felt during the day."
"Wonderful," I muttered. "We're in a cavern, in the middle of the night. Perfect time and place for them to play spook central."
Camille and Morio caught up to us. "Hey, we have an idea that just might work," Morio said. "If they hate light, let's fire up the sun. Camille has the unicorn horn; she can use it to heighten her powers with fire and lightning. If we send a shock wave of light through the cavern, it might give us the time we need to grab the spirit seal and run."
Menolly cleared her throat. "You mean leave the spirit . . . well . . . alive? Not attempt to send it back to Hell-"
"Technically, we wouldn't send it back to Hel anyway," Smoky said. "Shades are usually from the Netherworld. Hel rules over the icy depths of the Underworld."
"I wasn't speaking of the goddess, you fire-breathing lizard." Menolly shot him a withering look. "I was speaking literally, as in, Hell. You know, the place where the fiery dudes in red tights dance on the skulls of their enemies."
I snorted. "Yeah, right. You know as well as I do that Lucifer is a god, not a devil, and that most spirits have nothing to do with the Sub Realms. Besides which, Shadow Wing is far more dangerous than any entity any mortal could think up. Let's get serious here. If we can get out of this without a fight, so much the better. The shade isn't causing problems, not that we know of. It's probably bound to this spot. How many people do you think are going to come visiting? I, for one, just want to get the heck out of here, go home, and take a long bath."
"Might be, probably not . . . there aren't guarantees. The shade also might follow us, looking for the seal," Menolly said. "Who's to say it wasn't sent here to protect the seal and to track anybody who manages to steal it? The spirits can't speak. What do we do if it comes after us? Tell it we're sorry, but we gave the seal away?"
"Well, yeah, I suppose you might be right. If you think you can dispel it, great, but I don't want to get caught in a one-sided battle with it." I frowned.
"Ladies, we don't have time to quibble," Roz said, interrupting us. He pointed toward the chamber door, where a shadowy figure had emerged.
The spirit was a black silhouette, a lot like the revenant we'd fought earlier, except it had glowing eyes
. Red, of course. These things always seemed to have glowing red eyes. As it stared in our direction, it unleashed a wave of malevolent energy that rolled at us like a tsunami heading toward shore.
"Crap, it's using some sort of energy drain," Menolly said, racing toward it. I tried to stop her but could barely open my mouth.
As she swiped at it, her hand went clean through as if she was batting at mist. Startled, she stumbled back. The shade ignored her. Hands on her hips, Menolly contemplated the creature. I struggled to keep my thoughts clear, but that was about all I could do, the focused hatred coming our way was so strong.
Menolly motioned to Smoky as the shade slowly began to move forward. "You got anything? Apparently, I'm not a threat."
Smoky frowned, gesturing for Zach, Roz, Camille, and me to move behind him. "I don't know," he said darkly. "I'll try, but I've never held much keep with spirits." He pressed his fingertips together and formed a triangle with his thumbs. "Spirit, oh spirit, the balefire burning, I call upon my forefathers. Dracon, dracon, dracon, send this creature cowering back to the Netherworld! Remove this spirit from my sight!"
As a blast of silver light burst from between Smoky's hands to beam directly at the shade, the spirit recoiled for a moment, then straightened itself. I stared. Not even Smoky could trip the thing up. Shit. A cold sweat began to form on my back as it hovered right in front of the dragon. Could it hurt him? Could he protect us from it?
Just then, Morio and Camille linked hands and stepped to the side where they would have a clear shot. They had already begun to incant, and the power they were building scared the crap out of me.
A low rumble echoed from beneath their feet, as a bluish mist rose from the ground to swirl around them. Camille had hold of the Black Unicorn horn in her right hand, and her left was linked with Morio's. In his left hand, he held an Oreosized silver medallion I'd never before seen.
Smoky stared at them for a moment, then pushed Zach and me out of the way as he backed up. Menolly dove for cover, along with Roz and Vanzir. Apparently, everybody could feel the rising energy. I was relieved-and a little embarrassed-to see that I wasn't the only one who had no desire to get in the way. I peeked out from behind Smoky's long white trench to see what was going on.
"Reverente destal a Mordenta, reverente destal a Mordenta, reverente destal a Mordenta . . ." Chanting in unison, Morio and Camille stood strong, with wild, feral expressions on their faces. Their voices resonated as they punctuated each stanza with a tangible infusion of power. The mist surrounding them began to spin as Camille thrust the unicorn horn into the air. Sparks flew off the tip of it, gathering up the vapors that were rising from the floor into one giant vortex, a thundercloud hanging low over their heads.
The shade let out a shriek and moved toward them, then paused as Camille dropped out of the chant to say, "Don't you dare. Get out of here, sucker, or we'll make sure you're so much smoke and ashes."
Her voice was caught up by a sudden breeze. I wasn't sure where the gust originated, but the currents of air swept through, howling like a bean Sidhe, rushing in on some invisible freight train. The cloud over her head let out a low rumble-thunder. The tip of the crystal unicorn horn was glowing now.
The shade moved forward again, eyes glaring out of the dark shroud of its body.
"Reverente destal a Mordenta!" Morio shouted as Camille dropped her head back.
"Cover your eyes!" she screamed, and we barely had time to look away when their spell crystallized into a lightning bolt that came scorching out of the point of the unicorn horn. It plowed through the spirit like a jagged pitchfork, and the brilliance lit up the chamber. For a moment, all I could see were spots, and then the flare died away as quickly as it had come. The shade vanished.
Menolly moaned, and I raced over to her, where she was cowering behind a rock. She had a few scorch marks, but the singed bits of flesh-mainly under her eyes and the tips of her fingers-were already healing. I helped her up.
"Are you okay?" I asked needlessly. Obviously, she'd made it through relatively unscathed.
"Yeah," she said. "Thank the gods she used lightning instead of invoking fire, or I might be a pile of ashes now."
Camille rushed over, her eyes round and wide. "Oh Great Mother, I'm so sorry! Are you okay? I had no idea it was going to be that powerful," she whispered, staring at the horn in her hand. "Guess it's going to take some practice before I learn how to control it. Then again, I did stop a lightning bolt in its tracks when Eriskel tested me."
Eriskel was the jindasel of the horn, a guardian spirit, not unlike a djinn but not as powerful nor as nasty. The jindasel watched over the Elementals sequestered within the spiraling crystal horn. I didn't fully understand everything Camille had tried to tell us about it, but what I did know was that the horn was a powerful weapon. A hunch told me she had no idea just how powerful. Yet.
"Guess it's going to take you some practice. Just make sure I'm not in target range!" Menolly huffed, then stomped over to where the revenant had been. There was no sign of the spirit. As good as gone.
We all looked at each other, and I saw Vanzir eyeing the door of the chamber. A nasty and thoroughly uncharitable thought occurred to me. I raced into the back chamber.
There, on a pedestal made of granite, lay an open box, hand carved out of crystal. In the box was a pendant. A ruby, set in bronze. I slowly picked up the heavy talisman, and the light within the gem swirled, taking my breath away. The fourth spirit seal.
As I glanced over at the door, Vanzir stood there, staring at me. He was leaning against the arch, and when his gaze dropped to the spirit seal, I immediately reached for my dagger. He snorted.
"If I wanted to take the seal from you, your dagger wouldn't stop me," he said, a contemptuous tone fueling his words. "Trust me, nothing would stand in my way, werecat." For a moment, he seemed to tower, his eyes luminous and glowing. And then he faded and relaxed.
"I gave you my word. I've bound myself in the Ritual of Subjugation. There's little more I can do save slit my throat for you to believe me. But I'll try once more. I do not desire the seal. Nor do I desire for Shadow Wing to possess it. You seem to believe otherwise, but my kind's existence relies on humanity making it through unscathed. We have a very powerful motive in helping you."
With that, he turned and left the chamber.
I watched him go, wondering what he meant. I almost felt guilty for doubting him. But then Menolly's and Camille's voices as they approached the entrance shored me up. I let go of the guilt. We were in a war. I had to be suspicious. Even if Vanzir couldn't understand our concerns, he'd just have to learn to live with them.