Along the road, other houses dotted the land. Some were small affairs—cottages really—while others were full double-decker farmhouses. How long had the Puma Pride made their home here? No doubt the cougars around the area found it a safe haven away from hunters and poachers.
Ahead, the road wound up a slope and to the right onto a dirt driveway, where several cars and trucks were parked. Camille eased into an open spot, and we turned our attention to the house that loomed over us. Three stories high, it was huge, a mansion really, and looked like it had been crafted by artisans rather than construction workers. The newel posts and railings leading up to the porch were hand-worked and freshly oiled. The door and walls were solid hardwood. As we sat there, staring at what seemed a palace totally out of place, Camille sucked in a deep breath.
"There are wards embedded in those walls," she said. "Magical protection. Somebody here knows their spell work."
We slipped out of the car and started for the steps just as the door opened. Zachary came running out to meet us, his face a mask of care and concern. He put his hands on my shoulders and stared at me, his eyes blurring with tears.
"Delilah, I'm so glad you came. We lost another member. Shawn, one of my cousins. You have to help us find this psycho."
Zachary leaned against the porch railing as three men followed him out of the house. Fear emanated off of them like heat waves in summer.
All the men had a similar look, which made me wonder just how far inbreeding had worked its way through the Puma Pride. With golden hair and eyes the color of topaz, all the men had broad noses and were tall and muscled. The others appeared older than Zachary, and one had a nasty limp. I shivered, wondering what was setting me on edge, and then I realized that my body was responding to being near a pack of male Weres. They might be puma, and I might be tabby, but we were all felines, and like recognizes like.
Camille, Menolly, and Morio stepped up to shield my back. I locked Zachary's gaze, then nodded over my shoulders at the others. "My sisters, Camille and Menolly. And Morio. He's a good friend of ours."
Zachary composed himself and shook his head. "Thank you for coming."
"I'm sorry about your cousin," I said, my words thin comfort in the cold and snowy night. The storm had settled in, and we had several inches on the ground by now.
Camille reached out her hand, and Zachary hesitantly took it. "It's a shame, meeting under these circumstances. Is your cousin… is he still where you found him?"
Zach nodded and dashed his hand across his eyes. "Yes, I persuaded the Council to leave him there until you arrived. I thought maybe you might notice something we overlooked."
"Why don't you take us there?" I said.
He motioned for us to follow him around the side of the house. The three men who had followed him out of the house swung in behind us, taking up the rear. One gave a little hiss at Menolly, who merely shot him a long, studied look. He closed his mouth and stared at the ground the rest of the way.
The mansion was huge, and we walked for several minutes before it vanished from sight. Zach led us along a trail that entered a widespread copse of trees. As we passed into the forest, he trekked on a few yards ahead of the rest of us. I caught up to him.
"I wish we could have arrived sooner, but we had to wait until sunset. I wanted Menolly to be able to join us. She has incredibly acute senses."
"She's a vampire, isn't she?" he asked, staring at the snow-lined trail. The moon would be up in another hour, but by the looks of the weather, she would be obscured by clouds. The light from the snow reflected off the cloud cover, and the sky flickered with that shimmering light that always presaged a snowfall. With everyone in the group being a Supe of one sort or another, we were able to make our way by only the twilight glow that illuminated the night.
I let out a long sigh. "Menolly's still considered a newborn vamp; she was turned twelve Earthside years ago, but she's undergone rigorous training in order to control her urges. She's safe to be around unless you piss her off bad enough, or unless you're a pervert. Camille and I have her back, by the way, so make your men aware of our feelings, especially if you think there might be a need. Any upraised hand against Menolly will net the offender a hole in the ground."
Even though Zachary sparked off a hidden flame inside me, my loyalty and oaths to my family always won out.
"Understood," he said. "No one will bother her, though I'll tell you now that Tyler doesn't like vamps. He'll behave himself, though." As we came to the edge of the wood, he raised his hand, gesturing for us to pause. "We'll be back in just a moment," he said, motioning for his friends to join him off to one side.
"What's that all about?" Camille asked.
I gave her a veiled grin. "I think he's warning them to keep their paws off of us—all of us. I heard the hiss," I said, glancing apologetically at Menolly. "I reminded Zach that sneering wasn't considered a polite way to treat guests whom you've asked for help."
Menolly let out a snort. "As if those puny Weres could frighten me. But thank you, Kitten," she added softly. "You know I've got your back, too."
"You're growing up, babe." Camille sounded pleased.
"I told you, I'm not the little sister you think I am." I winked at her and then turned as Zachary returned with the three men.
"I forgot to introduce my colleagues. This is Tyler Nolan, Ajax Savanaugh, and Venus the Moon Child."
Venus was the one with a limp. I had the feeling he didn't go out in public much. He looked more feral than the others, more like an OW Were than an Earthside one. I could see the hint of fangs when he smiled. Earthside Weres had evolved so that their teeth changed when they did, during the full moon. OW Weres, like me, retained some of our animal aspects, even during the periods we weren't in Were-form.
Tyler, the one who had hissed at Menolly, gave us a guarded nod. Ajax followed suit. Venus, on the other hand, broke into a troubled smile.
"Welcome, Fair Folk, and we thank you for coming to our aid," he said, bowing. His gaze was fastened on Menolly, even though he spoke to all of us. "When Zachary first broached the idea of bringing you in, not all were in favor. Now, I think it's safe to say we welcome your help, if you're willing. Please, feel at home on our land."
As he stepped forward, the others backed away, including Zachary. Obviously Venus commanded some stature in the community. His authority was almost palpable. I wondered if he was the chief, or whatever they called their leader, but then I felt a sudden probing in my aura, a seeking of sorts, as he stared at me, and I knew what he was.
Venus the Moon Child was the leader of the Rainier Puma Pride, all right, even if he wasn't their king. He was their shaman, and he wove magic like Camille did, wrought from the moon like a silver arrow.
Camille sensed the same thing I did. She gently inclined her head as he approached her. "Old Father," she said, "you run with the Moon Mother, don't you?"
He broke into a crinkled smile and reached for her hand, which she gave without hesitation. "Yes, child, I run with the Moon, as do you. But your connections to her are bound within your soul. The Moon Mother has always been with you, since long before you were born."
"That's what my goddess-mother said at my birth, when the runes were cast for my life path," she said, a wondering look on her face.
Venus nodded. "See? Now me, my oaths are bound by Were blood and the magic I learned at my father's knee. The Moon allows me to carry her magic for the Pride, but I am not her son in the same way you are her daughter." He leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead; a faint glow remained where his lips had grazed her brow. "You are protected as a friend on our land unless you break that honor."
She nodded and curtseyed as Venus moved on to Morio. "Brother Fox, we are of different natures, and yet you are one of the shifting folk. You understand the nature of the change. Be our guest and friend as long as you abide by our customs." Once again, he leaned forward, this time placing a kiss on Morio's forehead. There was a shimmer of light that passed from his lips to the youkai-kitsune's skin.
"Old Father, I'll do my best to be worthy of the charge," Morio said, his usual nonplussed self. But his voice quaked just enough to tell me that he could feel Venus's power. And that Venus the Moon Child's magic could rival all of our abilities combined. Yet, that he couldn't solve the murders told me that we were in a heap of trouble.
Venus reached for Menolly's hands, and she hesitantly offered them. He turned her palms toward the sky, then pushed the sleeves of her turtleneck up to reveal the scars that had been embedded on her arms by the Elwing Blood Clan when they tortured her. They would never fade, having never had the chance to heal before she died. Her entire body was crisscrossed with the marks.
"Oh girl, what did they do to you?" Venus glanced up to meet her oddly patient expression. "You are a demon, and yet you are so much more. Fae, human, vampire… none of your titles fully carry your story, do they?"
As he spoke, his words seemed to weave a tapestry of music around us. I could hear the thundering of dark clouds as they raced across fields and forests. The swirl of snow grew thick, coiling around us like a whirlwind of white dancers desperate for one last kiss before they melted into oblivion.
Menolly seemed caught off guard, but instead of saying something that would get us all blacklisted from the land—which I halfway expected her to do—she surprised me by remaining silent. Instead, she merely allowed Venus to kiss her forehead. Her nostrils flared, and I knew that she must smell his blood, hear his pulse, but she remained still, a porcelain statue as the snow clung to the chill of her flesh.
"Walk our lands as a guest and friend, Midnight's Daughter, but do not feed on our people or our animals, or we will have to stake you down. You understand this?" The shaman held her gaze, and she nodded, still silent.
Lastly, he came to me. As he took my hands in his, I felt a deep spark of recognition run through my body, grounding me. deep into the earth and then looping up again to meet and bond with his own aura. I had a sudden flash of Venus when he was younger, wandering through the hills, shifting from puma to man to puma again, searching for something so intangible there were no words for it. He had taken lovers where he would, both male and female, and danced naked through the Indian paintbrush that grew in thick patches along the mountain.
Wild and feral, he was part of the essence of Mount Rainier, belonging to the very land. I began to understand why the enclave had bought up so many acres and developed their own community. They belonged to the volcano, bound by ties born in the blood.
"Changeling, you are lost, aren't you? You have no true Pride. You have your family but no clan, no single place to call home." He wove his words in a soft cadence, catching me up in his whispers. "Don't be afraid of being a Windwalker."
I flinched. Windwalker… how I despised that name, and how I'd hated the children who had taunted us with it when we were young. Windwalkers walked the world, never settling down, always alone and roaming. The thought of becoming one of them had terrified me. When our mother died, I'd clung to Camille like white on snow, but no matter how much love she gave me, she could never take our mother's place.
Venus caught my hands, squeezing them gently. "Don't fear your path, sweetheart. Some are bound by fate to walk the winds, to serve the gods, to serve destiny. You and your sisters straddle two worlds… more, truth be told, but that we will save for later. Leave worry behind. For now, you are a friend of our Pride, and you may wander our land freely. And, if the urge takes you, you are welcome here when the Moon Mother is pregnant, to prowl the woods safely with our kind, even though you are but a kit compared to our size."
His lips brushed my forehead, and I felt a surge of power race through me. He winked and squeezed my hands again. "There is more to you than meets the eye, my tabby cat. I think you'll be surprised just what you find when you look deep within your soul."
Wondering what he meant but feeling that I'd find out sooner than I wanted to, I forced my attention back to the group. Everyone was waiting, and it was obvious that Zachary, Ajax, and Tyler had been witness to this sort of ritual before. They were standing at attention, solemn, with palms pressed together in front of them.
Venus stepped back. "We're ready. Let's take them to Shawn's body."
Zachary looked on the verge of breaking down, but being Were—and male at that—he had to maintain composure in front of the others. I had no idea if Ajax and Tyler belonged to the elders of the Pride, but it was obvious that Venus's commands went unquestioned.
I reached out to Zach and slowly took his hand. We walked forward in silence. Behind us, Camille and Venus were conversing in low whispers, and for once, I didn't bother to eavesdrop on the conversation. Menolly and Morio trailed behind them, followed by Ajax and Tyler.
The Douglas firs were thick with snow, their trunks overgrown with huckleberry and briar bushes, and they closed around us as we entered the copse. Life abounded in the woodlands at home, but Earthside forests made me nervous. They were secretive, never reaching out to touch those who passed by; primeval and chaotic compared to the forests in Otherworld—except for some of the darker thickets, which most of the city Fae avoided. The woodlands here existed on their own terms, considering humans unnecessary. The wood spirits and dryads were tolerated, but only the animals were ever truly safe.
Then again, perhaps these old sentinels had reason to be suspicious, to keep their secrets hidden within their trunks and rings. They were at war with big business, with developers committing genocide against the ancient giants. No wonder they had distanced themselves from the two-footed creatures of the world.