Smoky snorted. "What can I say? You know Camille."
Suddenly, I missed having Chase with us. Missed the usual comfort of our relationship. I bit my lip. Every couple went through hard times; I'd learned that by watching Camille and her lovers. But right now, I envied her easy ways and confidence. I had no idea what I was doing. I tried my best, but being part of a couple was still new to me.
Hell, I was still new to me. Since our visit to the Autumn Lord, everything in my world had gone topsy-turvy, and it seemed like the rules changed every time I turned around. One thing was for sure, though. Chase and I were going to have a long talk after this mess with the venidemons was over, and that included him telling me about Erika.
Shaking off my frustration, I turned to the others. "Are we ready?" Everybody nodded. "Then let's get a move on."
Vanzir pushed the iron door open, holding it wide. After we all filed through, he slowly eased it shut behind us and caught up to the front.
The corridor through which we crept was dark, but thanks to Morio and his fox fire, we could see to the end where the passage turned to the right. I soon realized this wasn't just a basement. It looked like a network of tunnels and had probably been added long after the main house was built. Which meant that one of Shadow Wing's scouts probably bought this place and turned it into a hideout for his network of spies to use for . . . well . . . whatever they were up to.
The walls of the passage were damp and slick with mildew. While the tunnel itself wasn't heated, I could sense a heat source emanating from somewhere up ahead. As we neared the end of the passage, I motioned for everyone to stop and crept forward to the edge, where I peeked around the corner.
About fifteen feet farther, the tunnel came to an end. Directly at the end was a door, this one iron, too, and that's where the heat was emanating from. I swung around the corner and led them down the hall.
Vanzir placed his hand on the iron. I winced, but he seemed okay with it. "Behind that door-the venidemons are there."
"Roz, you're going to have to get us through that door. And when we meet up with the specter or whatever's guarding them, be on the alert. A run-of-the-mill ghost wouldn't bother us, so it's got to be something worse. And with that portal to the Netherworld, you know it's going to be nasty. The hellhound could have come from either the Subterranean Realms or the Netherworld, so . . ."
Roz glanced at Smoky. "There's one way we can get the jump on them. But I don't know if Smoky's willing to do it. I'll give it a go-but then again, we have no way of knowing what we'd be getting into."
"What do you mean?" I glanced around at the dragon, confused. "What's he talking about?"
Smoky eyed Roz with a cool stare. "Surely you jest. Without knowing what's on the other end, we could be dropping them into a lake of molten lava, or a nest of larvae where they'd be immediately attacked."
Camille let out a little gasp. "So that's how you get around so fast," she said to Roz. "I knew about Smoky but . . . how can you . . ."
Smoky cut her off. "Enough. We're not attempting it, so let it drop for now." I was about to say something, but he shook his head at me. "Save your questions for later. Rozurial, attend to the door. If you don't, then I'll remove the impediment."
Roz gave him a shake of the head. "You're too full of yourself. Never mind!" He held up his hands when Smoky took a step forward. "I'll take care of the door. No problem. No worry." He pulled out his vials of myocian powder and alostar compound.
"You've been holding out on me," I whispered to Camille. "You care to dish it up later? That is, if you can tear yourself away from Moe and Curly here."
"Sure thing. It just never came up until now." She winced, clutching her hand again. "Shit, this hurts. I just want to take care of those bugs and get the hell out of here."
I glanced at Roz, who was backing up, his extendable rod in hand. "I think you're about to get your wish. Battle order: Smoky and me, Roz and Vanzir, Morio and Camille."
Just then an explosion rocked the hallway.
"Stand to the side," Smoky ordered, throwing the door wide. By the force in his voice, I knew he meant business. We all jumped to the side as a huge gust of wind came rattling down the hall from behind us, following him into the room. There was a loud screech, and then the smell of ozone filled the air and I saw snowflakes swirling out the door.
I raced in after him. Smoky must have cast some sort of freeze spell, because the minute I entered the room, I saw a layer of snow and frost dusting what looked to be a dozen nests across the floor, all filled with venidemons in various stages of growth. Some were wriggling larvae, like giant tube worms from the ocean's depths. Others were full-grown blowflies, and I saw that, indeed, they were as big as my head. They all moved sluggishly, though, and I saw a couple try to go airborne, but they couldn't seem to flutter their wings fast enough to gain any height.
A deep chill ran through my body as if I'd just walked into a freezer. Smoky's spell must have dropped the temperature to thirty degrees, and it had managed to slow the venidemons. How long it would last, I didn't know. I suspected we were on borrowed time, but for now, it gave us the advantage.
A glance told me the chamber we were in was large and built of solid steel. It was lit by the glow from a granite slab that rested in the center of the floor. The rock was glowing orange, and I knew without a doubt that if I touched it, I'd burn my hand to a crisp. The slab wasn't molten, but looked well on its way. The chill had overcome it for now, though, and the heat was sputtering, trying to melt the frost surrounding it.
A shallow pit had been dug next to the granite, and inside the pit was a jumbled mishmash of remains. Remains of what-or rather, who-I didn't know, but a tennis shoe rested near a pile of bones that were still covered with all too juicy bits of flesh and muscle still attached. There were other tattered remnants of clothing, and other bones-some cleaned to a high sheen, others still ripe-and I fought back my urge to empty my queasy stomach.
"There goes my appetite," I muttered.
A shift in the light caught my attention, and I turned, dagger raised. The silhouette of a man was headed our way. He was almost invisible, and would be if he turned sideways. In the flickering of Morio's fox fire, I spied the barest glimmer of a face in the inky depths of the shadow. Skeletal, it was frozen in a steady stare aimed directly at me.
"Great Mother Bast. It's a revenant!" I whispered a quick prayer to the Mother of all Catkind for protection as I backed up, bumping into Roz, who was standing right behind me.
Smoky let out a long breath. "The cold won't stop him. He'll just find the frost a nice change."
Rare entities, revenants tended to inhabit the Netherworld and Earthside haunts more than Otherworld ruins, but I knew what they were and what havoc they could wreak
. A single touch from one was enough to give an FBH a heart attack. While they didn't have the same effect on the Fae, they were capable of doing significant damage.
Camille glanced at me, then at the shadow. "What can we do?" she whispered, her voice raspy with fear. She glanced at Morio.
He grabbed her good hand. "Reverente destal a Mordenta."
She nodded and placed her feet square, sliding her injured hand inside the pocket of her skirt. I wondered if she was looking for the unicorn horn, but when Morio began a low incantation and she fell in sync with him, I knew they were up to some sort of death magic.
Smoky looked ready to pull her away, and I grabbed the sleeve of his jacket. He swung on me, his eyes narrowing, but I pointed toward the shade. "We need all the help we can get. Do something-anything! I've got nothing. I'm no good against these things."
Roz was frantically pawing through his duster. Vanzir pushed his way between the revenant, which was headed my way, and me. "It can't really hurt me that much," he said over his shoulder. "Stay behind me."
I let out a long breath, hoping that we could dispatch the spirit before the venidemons cleared the frost out of their brains. Fighting both at once would be a disaster.
Smoky glanced at me as I pointed toward the nests. One of the flies had shaken off the snow and was almost aloft. He shook his head. "I can't use that spell again for a while. Weather magic is taxing, especially in my human form. I'll attack it if it comes this way."
He was nervous. The thought that something might actually frighten the dragon hadn't occurred to me before, but one look at his face told me his fear was for us, not himself. And that made me downright terrified.
Just then Vanzir whirled and shoved me back, sending me careening across the room. I blinked. What the fuck? And then I saw that the revenant had attacked him, trying to reach around to grab hold of me. As he grappled with the shadow, his arms went through it, and the spirit darted around him and once again was heading my way.
Cripes! I steadied myself and looked for a place to run. Why was it so interested in me, anyway? What the hell was so special about me? As it bore down, Smoky raced by and took a swipe at it, but his taloned hand just flew through the revenant, too. And then I was facing it-the creature from the Netherworld. As it reached out, I heard Camille scream, and everything began to grow fuzzy. Something was happening to me. The room went caving in as my body contorted, twisting in on itself, folding, melting, reforming into new bone and muscle and sinew.
And then I found myself on all fours-four big black feet, four silken furred legs-and my breath came thick and frozen in the chilled room.
And he was standing behind me, his jet hair streaming down his shoulders as a woven garland of burnished maple leaves flamed in a wreath around his head. His eyes were as I remembered them: twin diamonds in a black velvet tapestry. His cape-covered with a kaleidoscope of leaves and flame-fluttered around his black boots. Frost fell from his heels, and the scent of graveyard dust and old books and crackling bonfires embraced me. He tightened his grip on a silver chain that I now realized was attached to a collar. My collar.
The Autumn Lord turned to the revenant, who cowered in his presence. "Down, dog," he said, and his voice rocked the room. "My Death Maidens are not for the likes of you."
As the spirit backed away, I glanced up at my master, and he leaned down. "Delilah, my dear one. I have a task for you. And no specter from beyond the grave is going to interfere." With a rough laugh, the Autumn Lord waved his hand, and the shadow vanished in a shriek of twisting color.
A job? Through the heady scents that buffeted my senses, the words echoed in my ears. And then I felt myself begin to shift again. Within seconds, I was standing before the Autumn Lord in a cloud of mist and sparkling smoke. I couldn't see the others, but from experience, I knew they were there, that we'd just shifted into a slightly different dimension.
After I'd regrouped from the sudden shift into panther form and back, I looked up at the Autumn Lord. Elemental Lords were always tall, it seemed, always towering above even someone of my height.
I hadn't actually seen the Autumn Lord, except in dreams, since I'd faced down and defeated Kyoka, a thousand-year-old evil werespider shaman. I genuflected. After all, though not my own choice, the fact was the Lord of Autumn was my new master, and I bore a tattoo in the shape of a black scythe on my forehead that linked us, that would forever remind me of it. I owed him respect.
"I'm not sure what to call you," I said.
He gazed down at me, a strange light dancing over his face. From this angle, he was handsome, darkly enticing, and I felt my breath flutter in my lungs. Was this why his Death Maidens who served him after their deaths were also his wives? Charisma, he had, but it was entwined with such otherworldliness that I couldn't even consider whether he was handsome or not.
"No one knows my name, not a name such as you have, but I will give you one you may use. For your lips and my ears only." He leaned over, and his lips grazed my ear, sending a shiver of fear through me that almost verged on arousal. "You may call me Hi'ran," he said, then brushed his fingers across my lips.
I could barely breathe as the cold chill of his flesh sent sparks through my body. "Hi'ran," I repeated, mesmerized by the feel of his touch. I opened my mouth, just enough for his finger to graze the inside of my lip.
"Hush and listen. You will never speak my name to another living soul, nor to any who are dead or walking beyond the grave. It is your link to me and exists only between the two of us."
As he spoke, a mist drifted out from his fingers and entered my lips, and I felt it swirl in my mouth, the taste of cigar smoke and brandy and crackling hearth flames. I sucked it deep into my lungs, and the energy flowed through my body, heightening all of my senses. I wanted to fall into his arms, to feel his lips on mine. He was so alien and yet so seductive. And then the mist seeped into my throat and onto my tongue, and I knew I'd never be able to say his name aloud to anybody, nor write it down, nor transfer it in thought. It was our secret-and ours alone-and would remain hidden for the rest of my life.
And then he pulled away. I couldn't tell if he'd felt the same desire as I had, but he raked his gaze slowly over my body, then settled on my face again. "I have a task for you. You are to journey back to your homeland-to the forest of Darkynwyrd-and there you must search for the panther's fang."
Panther's fang? Darkynwyrd? I frowned. This wasn't sounding so much fun after all. Darkynwyrd was a feral woodland back in Otherworld, where not-so-nice creatures made their home. It wasn't on my list of must-see places.