Changeling (Otherworld/Sisters of the Moon #2)

3,226
05.03.2019

A sudden movement in the webs to our right alerted me, and I held up my hand. "Shush." As I leaned forward, I saw something scuttle off through the strands. I jumped up. "Let's go. Bring the body with us, and let's get the fuck out of here."

"Spiders?" Camille whispered. I nodded. Menolly picked up the body, and we hurried toward the front of the cave. On the way, I caught my heel on something and went sprawling.

"Shit." I sat up, rubbing my shin, pretty sure I'd roughed up the front of my leg. Camille offered me the flashlight. I'd tripped over a shield woven of bones that were tied together using leather strips. I grimaced and picked it up. "I think we'd better take this along with us," I said. "We might be able to learn something from it."

Camille nodded, grabbing it from me. She was less squeamish than I. "You're right," she said, making a face. "Let's get the hell out of here now. I don't want to end up like… well, whoever this poor fellow was."

Once we were back on the ledge, we faced the problem of getting down, but down is always easier than up. At least it's quicker. Camille slung the shield over her shoulder and clasped her arms around Menolly's waist.

"I hate heights," she muttered, closing her eyes, but there was no room for argument. We didn't know who—or what—had been in that cave besides us. There could be a pack of spiderlings on the way to shut us up right now.

"Tallyho and all that crap," Menolly said. Holding the corpse at arm's length, she stepped off the cliff, dragging Camille with her. Camille let out a little shriek, but the three of them floated down, albeit a little faster than if it had been Menolly alone. Watching Camille's pained expression, I found myself relieved that we hadn't brought Chase along. He handled our quirks better than most FBHs would be able to, but this little adventure might have been a bit much, even for him. It was almost too much for me.

Menolly guided them to the ground safely, however, and laid the body out. Her strength was growing, I thought as I skittered down behind them, half sliding, half rolling down the embankment. With every month she grew just a little bit stronger, a little bit edgier.

When we reached the bottom, we found Zachary and Morio . waiting for us. Venus, Ajax, and Tyler had taken Shawn's body back to the enclave.

"We need to talk," I said to Zach, nodding toward the path. "Let's get the hell out of here and into somewhere that's protected and light. You've got a real problem on your hands."

Zach was staring at the body that Menolly was holding. "Another one?" He swayed and reached to steady himself on a nearby boulder.

"Looks that way. You have any idea of anybody who might be missing? Somebody who hasn't already turned up dead?" Camille asked.

He shook his head, lips pressed together. "No. Let's get back to the main lodge." He offered to take the body from Menolly, but she waved him off.

"I can carry him… her… whoever it was, but Delilah's right. We need to get out of here now. It's not safe, even with all of us together." She set off toward the path, and we hurried behind her.

By the time we got back to the lodge, the snow was really piling up. I had the feeling that we were in for one hell of a winter. That in itself was curious. The weather around here was wet but not usually all that cold, and with all the global warming going on, winters should be getting milder, not worse. I hoped to high heaven we weren't in for some cockeyed version of Ragnarok.

Pushing thoughts of the weather aside, I focused on the task at hand as we hurried up the stairs and through the doors, into the warm light that shone down from the chandelier in the hallway.

The foyer was spacious, with brown marbled tiling that ran throughout the hallway. A large staircase of wide, smooth steps led up to a second, third, and fourth story. The railing was glossy white and trimmed with gold leaf. For all of their rough exterior, I had the feeling that the Puma Pride was an old moneyed clan. Towering fig trees graced both sides of the staircase, nestled in gigantic stoneware urns. A hall to the left and one to the right both led to sets of heavy double doors.

"Bring the body this way," Zach said. "Just be quiet. I don't want anybody knowing about this yet. We'll examine it in the den."

Menolly hurried behind him, carrying the dried shell. Camille, Morio, and I scurried behind, as Zach led us down the hall to the left set of doors. He peeked inside, then gestured for us to pass through. We found ourselves in another hallway.

"Through the door at the end," Zach said, rushing us along the corridor. He slid past to open the door for us. After making sure the room was empty, he stood back and let us enter.

The den was a library in every sense of the word, with floor-to-ceiling shelves lining the walls, a gigantic desk, a leather sofa, and several scattered recliners and ottomans. The wood was heavy, cherry by the look of it, and the craftsmanship detailed. Morio sat down on one of the footstools next to Camille.

Menolly laid the body on the sofa, while Zachary locked the door. He turned up the lights, and as we made ourselves comfortable, he slowly approached the dead man. Kneeling beside the sofa, he took a long look at the face. After a moment, he shook his head and turned back to us.

"I have no idea who that is. He isn't from our enclave, that I can tell you straight up."

"Well, hell. Maybe he was just cutting across your property? Is he wearing a hunter's vest?" We hadn't found a gun near him, but whoever killed him could have made off with the weapon, if there was one.

"No, it's a Windbreaker, but you could mistake it for one," Zach said. "We used to be forever chasing hunters off our land. By now, only strangers make the mistake of climbing our fences. He doesn't look like any of our neighbors. Damn. I haven't got a clue who he is. Was." He scratched his head and sat down behind the desk. "So, what did you find up there? What's that thing on your back?"

Camille pulled the shield off her back and laid it on the desk so we could take a closer look. The bones looked humanoid, most likely leg and arm bones, and they were laid out in a pattern that formed some sort of sigil. The dried leather straps were a familiar color that set my stomach to churning, I had a feeling it had come from the same source as the bones.

Morio glanced at it and flinched. "Is that what I think it is?"

"I don't recognize the mark," I started to say, but Camille held up her hand.

"I do," she said. "The past couple of months, I've spent a lot of time rereading old magical texts." She gave me a worn-out look. "I figured they'd come in handy, so I had Iris pick up some titles for me on one of her trips back to OW."

Her face clouded with worry, she glanced at Zach. He was staring at the body. She lowered her voice and continued, "One of the texts has to do with the Demonkin. This sigil is the mark of a Degath Squad. Trenyth was right; we've got a new batch of Hell Scouts to contend with. And the stench of Demonkin is strong on this shield. Shadow Wing's hand is in this, and it's my guess he's connected himself to the werespiders."

"Who the hell is Shadow Wing, and what's a Degath Squad?" Zach paused, then looked at us sharply. Hell, his hearing was as good as mine. "You said werespiders? Are you talking about the Hunters Moon Clan?"

I tried to gauge how much we should tell him. "So you've heard of the group?"

His face went dark. "Yeah, all too much. You think they're behind this?"

"Yeah, we think so," I said slowly. "Listen to me. When was the last skirmish between the Hunters Moon Clan and the Puma Pride? And it would help if we knew why you guys are feuding."

He closed his eyes, thinking. After a moment, he said, "I don't really know. Last time there was an attack was… well, the last actual attack was when I was a boy. We routed them off our land when we found a small nest in the woods. But that was over twenty years ago. As to why we're enemies, I have no idea. Nobody ever mentions the Hunters Moon Clan unless absolutely necessary. We're taught from birth to listen and obey and to keep our mouths shut. I can try to find out for you, though, but it may take a little prodding."

"Do that. Meanwhile, maybe you should tell us why you were fighting with Geph von Spynne a couple years ago." I leaned forward, holding his gaze.

"You know about that?" His shoulders tensed. "We had a brawl, true, but it didn't lead to anything more than a few broken bones."

With a glance at Menolly and Camille, I nodded. "Yes, we know—and don't ask how. What happened?"

Zach winced. "He attacked one of our women, tried to rape her. I was assigned to administer punishment, but he was stronger than I thought. Wiry and thin, but strong. He knifed me, but I managed to get in some pretty nasty blows. He disappeared shortly after that. I thought maybe I'd managed to kill him." He gave the body on the sofa a sideways glance. "So you're saying that the Hunters Moon Clan is mixing it up with a bunch of demons?"

I let out a long sigh. "We aren't sure, but it's looking more and more like that might be the case. Don't tell anybody, though. Not yet. We don't want to cause a panic if we're wrong, and we've been known to be wrong a lot."

"Yeah, sure." Zach pressed his lips together, as if he were mulling over what we'd said. "It wouldn't surprise me if they are in cahoots with a bunch of demons. They're a freakish bunch. I was taught from the time I was little to be careful of them. I guess my father was right; they're up to no good."

"Well, don't go around stirring up trouble until we're certain of what we're dealing with, okay?"

"But why would the demons get involved with the Hunters Moon Clan?" he asked, looking confused. "Granted, they're a bunch of freaks and weirdos, but aren't demons rare? What could they possibly get from the Hunters Moon Clan to make it worth their while?"

"That's the million-dollar question," Menolly said.

I glanced at Camille. "Looks like you'll be talking to Smoky after all," I muttered. She jerked her head toward Zach, warning me not to say too much. She was right, I thought. We really didn't know enough about him and his people to fully place our trust in them. I gave her a slight nod, then turned back to Zach. "Listen, until we make sense of this whole, mess, I highly suggest that your people avoid the woodlands. Don't go out unless you're in groups of at least three, armed to the teeth. We'll see what we can find out and call you back." I stood up, brushing off my jeans.

Menolly drifted over to join us. "I suggest you summon your shaman and ask if he recognizes who this man might have been." She pointed to the body on the sofa.

Zachary brushed past me. After he'd left the room, Morio held his finger to his lips and sidled a look-see toward a corner in the room. We glanced over in the direction in which he had nodded. Sure enough, there behind a vase of flowers, I could barely make out a surveillance camera.

We kept quiet until Zach returned with Venus the Moon Child, who examined the body. After a moment, Venus stood up and began to pace back and forth. "This is the guy we hired to inspect the pumping station near the stream," he said.

"Where we pump the water from in order to irrigate the orchards."

"An FBH?" Camille said. "That complicates matters."

"That's the understatement of the century," I said. If it had been a Supe, we could have taken care of this quietly, without bringing anybody else into it. But a human had been killed, and that made everything problematic.

"We have to tell Chase," I said. "We can't cover this up. This man might have a family who's looking for him. If he had the compound's name or address written on his schedule, then the cops are going to come looking for him. I think you'd better let us contact the Faerie-Human CSI team."

"She's right. When did he arrive?" Morio asked.

From Venus's expression, it was clear he understood precisely what danger the Puma Pride was facing. Exposure, for certain. Possibly worse. "He was scheduled to arrive around three this afternoon. I showed him the main orchard, but I never dreamed he'd wander off the path. He must have followed the pipes to the stream. I thought he'd finished his inspection and left."

Camille did a quick calculation. "So you have a couple more hours, one night at best, before the cops come knocking at your door. And even if you say he never showed, you know they'll come back. Do you really want this getting out to the population at large?"

She could be persuasive, that was for sure.

With a shake of the head, Venus said, "Call in whoever you need to. We can't have it spread around the community that a human was killed on our land. More importantly, we can't have it get out that we're Weres. Especially considering the shape he's in. Damn it, this mess is hip deep in shit and getting worse. I wish we'd called for help when Sheila died," he added.

Zachary grunted. "If you had backed me up in Council, we would have, and everybody else might still be alive. Including my sister and my cousin."

"Stop squabbling," I said. "It's too late for that now."

Camille nodded. "She's right. Delilah, call Chase. Unless you want me to do it?"

I let out a long sigh. "No, I will." But when I pulled out my cell, there was no available signal. Call it a hunch, but I had the feeling that they'd rigged it so all communication to the outside was limited to a strictly as-needed policy.

"I need access to a telephone, please," I said, shoving my cell back in my pocket.