Iris frowned. "I have a spell that might work," she said. "But I need a feather from a scavenger bird and a bit of spiderweb."
"I have the spiderweb," Camille said. "What kind of feather are you talking about?"
"Crow, raven, something along that line." Iris folded the dish towel. "I'll go get my wand."
As she disappeared into the room off the back of the kitchen, I looked at Camille. "Iris is coming in more and more handy. I'm glad she's here."
"Me, too," Camille said grimly. "I wonder how many of those things are in my car. I'm not too sure that I want to drive all the way out to Smoky's in it. Who knows what else they have hidden in there?"
"The Hunters Moon Clan must have spies planted all over the Puma Pride compound, and I'll bet they wanted to find out what was going on with us being there, so they planted the bug last night while we were searching the land. Thank the gods we kept our mouths shut on our way home."
I frowned, looking at the ceiling. My skin crawled, and even though I knew it was psychosomatic, I scratched my arm, thinking about the eight-legged creeps. "And you have to wonder, if they've traced us back here, are they planting spies in our house right now? I'm getting the heebie-jeebies big time, Camille."
She wrapped her arm around me. "It's okay. Everything will be okay," she whispered. "The wards haven't been set off." She paused. "That's odd. The wards didn't trip when we came onto the land last night, and those spiders are enemy enough to set them off. I wonder what happened?"
"I dunno, but I'm liking the Hunters Moon Clan less and less the more we find out about them."
"When Trillian gets back, we'll ask his advice," Camille said. "He's good with dark magic. I have a feeling that the werespiders are into some pretty nasty stuff." With a sigh, she let her arm drop and picked up the phone. "I'll call Morio and ask him to bring his SUV. Chances are it's clean, but leave me the crystal so I can check it out. Meanwhile, why don't you go run it around your Jeep and Menolly's Jag? Safe is better than sorry. I'll go get the feather and spiderweb for Iris."
Once again, I clattered down the porch steps, and this time went through the routine again with the crystal and my Jeep, and then Menolly's Jaguar. So far, so good. Nothing. I glanced back at the house just in time to see Camille and Iris appear. Iris was wearing a thin green robe that showed off her curves. She might be old enough to be our aunt and a good deal shorter than we were, but she was still as sexy as a maid on a summer morning.
As they headed down the porch steps, I tossed Iris the keys. She caught them and quickly unlocked the trunk, then lobbed them back to me. Camille handed Iris the spiderweb, which the house sprite immediately ate, and then the feather, which she held up to the winds. Without fanfare or pomp, it vanished as Iris mumbled something I couldn't catch.
And then she leaned forward and blew into the trunk in the direction of the spiders and the bug. A shower of frost shot forth with her breath, freezing everything in sight and startling me so much that I almost fell on my butt. The inside of the trunk looked like it had been through an ice storm. The spiders were frozen in place. Iris held out a quart jar and, using the end of her wand, tapped them into it and shut the lid.
She walked over to where Camille and I were watching, both of us thoroughly impressed, and held up the jar. The spiders were frozen, but I had the feeling they weren't dead. "Got them! Now, take care of that bug while I give these fellows a one-way trip to the Underworld. Then I'll just tidy up and dress for our shopping trip."
As she climbed the porch steps, I shook my head. "She's a wonder. What did we ever do without her? I bet the OIA is paying her substandard wages, too. They always shortchange the sprites and their kin."
Camille frowned. "Yeah, and I know that she's absolutely refused to go to Otherworld to stay. Of course, she's a member of the Earthside Fae. She loves it here." She kissed me on the cheek. "Thanks for finding that bug."
I gave her a quick hug and walked over to my Jeep, where I swung into the driver's seat and stared at the dashboard.
Camille followed me and climbed in the passenger side to wait. "What's going on? You have something on your mind?"
"No, not really," I said, staring through the windshield. "I guess this whole mess just has me shook up. I'm worried about Father and Aunt Rythwar. And I'm attracted to Zach, yet he makes me nervous. The whole Puma Pride makes me nervous. They're hiding something, Camille, but I can't put my finger on what it is. It's something big, though."
Even as I spoke, I knew that's what had been nagging at me since we first set foot on their land. The Puma Pride was hiding a secret buried so deep that it would take a bulldozer to unearth it. A secret they were dying for.
"Do you think the Puma Pride's in league with the demons? With Shadow Wing?" Camille asked.
I thought about it for a moment. "No, it doesn't track. I don't think they're the bad guys. That shield wasn't from their clan. I think it's from the Hunters Moon Clan. And I think that they're after the Puma Pride, and we'd better find out why before the werespiders have killed everybody there." Trying to shake off my fear, I shook my head.
"The Were clans and tribes over here Earthside are a lot more territorial than the clans back home in Otherworld," Camille said. "Maybe this is all about revenge. Maybe this has nothing to do with our Degath Squad. Maybe the Degath Squad has nothing to do with us. Could the Hunters Moon Clan have summoned them to help them wage war against the Puma Pride for their own twisted reasons?"
I hadn't thought of that. "It's a possibility, I suppose. The clans at home seem to get along better. They can be dicey around the full moon, but they aren't so tightly wrapped up in their own little worlds as they are over here, Earthside. Of course, in OW they're accepted as normal members of society, so maybe they don't have to be so clannish."
Iris reappeared at the top of the stairs, dressed in a skirt and sweater set. She was carrying a velvet blazer and slipped it on as she hurried down to my Jeep.
"I dispatched the spiders. They weren't Weres, but they were magically enhanced hobo spiders. They're pretty much toast, so don't worry about them."
I had a sudden flash and glanced at her. "Uh, you didn't put them in the oven, did you?"
"I wouldn't do that," she said, shocked. "That would be cruel and unusual punishment. I nuked them."
Blinking, I stared at her. Camille opened her mouth to say something, then shut it again.
Iris shrugged. "What? Squashing won't work very well; they might be able to be reanimated later. I wanted them out of our way for good. Microwaves and magic don't mix all that well, so it seemed the perfect solution. I made sure they were in a bag first, though, so they didn't mess up the inside of the oven."
I admit that I ate the occasional mouse or rat or butterfly, but suddenly breakfast seemed a little too close to the surface. Camille had a look on her face that told me she felt the same way I did.
"Yes, well… thank you." Camille hopped out of the Jeep. "I'll make sure Maggie's downstairs with Menolly before Morio and I leave, if you're not back by then," she said, heading for the house.
I waved, then reached over to help Iris hop in, but she clambered into the Jeep without my help and fastened her seat belt. "Okay, let's roll. I want to hit the sales before it gets too late in the day," she said.
Thinking that I was very glad Iris was on our side, I pulled out of the driveway, and we took off for Belles-Faire Town Square, one of the bigger shopping districts in the area.
Two hours later, I coasted the car to a stop in front of the house. I glanced over at Iris, who was still glaring.
"Still not speaking to me?" I asked with a grin. "I told you I'm sorry."
Iris jumped down to the ground and yanked a handful of bags out of the Jeep. I scurried out behind her, trying to placate the furious sprite.
"I didn't mean to! It wasn't my fault," I said, trying to help her with the parcels. She tore one particularly shiny bag out of my hand.
"I can't believe you actually did that," she said as she stomped up the porch steps. I followed more slowly, carrying the bags she'd left behind.
"Listen, maybe someday I'll manage to gain better control over my nature, but until then, you're just going to have to accept that I'm not always in the driver's seat." I tried to keep pace with her. For such a short woman, she was surprisingly fast.
She dropped her bags on the porch and whirled. "And just how would we have explained it to those poor children if you'd killed that turkey? As it was, you practically scalped the poor thing. I may like a good roast bird for Thanksgiving or Yuletide, but at least I make sure mine's dead before I try to eat it! And look at you—you've got feathers all over your shirt. You look a mess." She slammed her way through the door.
Miserable, I glanced down at my shirt, where a few stray and bedraggled feathers clung to the fabric. Oops. I picked them off, sighing. It wasn't my fault that there had been a petting zoo in the middle of Gosford's Plaza. And it really wasn't my fault that the rather large turkey in the pen had been so appealing.
"Look, I'll make it right with the store," I said, hurrying in behind her. "I'll call them and tell them it wasn't your fault and that you shouldn't be banned from there because of me. Okay?"
"That's another thing! Gosford's is my favorite place to shop. Being forcibly evicted from there is just not an option." Iris let out a little huff and set her purchases down on the kitchen counter. "Whatever. Just… oh just nothing…"
I saw a tiny crack of a smile trying to break through her frown. "You have to admit," I said, "it was pretty funny."
"Not for that damned bird," she said and then let out a stifled laugh. "Oh, all right. It was funny, but there aren't enough laughs in the world that will make up for getting me expelled from shopping Nirvana."
"Hey, you yourself said we managed to get everything you wanted. And I paid for it all, so you shouldn't be so pissed at me," I mumbled as I poked through the refrigerator. I wanted poultry, and I wanted it now. A container on the top shelf held some leftover KFC, and I grinned as I pulled it out and dug in. "Want a piece?" I asked, offering her a drumstick.
"I do not, thank you very much!" Iris snorted and went to work unpacking our loot. At least she was smiling again. She spread out the decorations and candles, then folded the bags and carried them out to the back porch to put them away. The next thing I knew, she let out a piercing shriek. I dropped the chicken leg and raced to the door.
Iris was standing frozen, gazing at a large web strung across the porch. It was thick and ropy, unlike any spiderweb I'd ever seen. In the center, held by strands as strong as steel, was a grumpy old tomcat who prowled the backwoods. My friend, Cromwell. And he'd been drained dry, a folded paper tucked between a rubber band and his neck.
I shuddered and stepped forward, a slow burn building in my heart. I quietly disengaged the cat, carrying him over to the counter where Iris kept her gardening supplies, and removed the paper from beneath the band, wanting to kill whoever put it on him.
Cromwell was a stray who'd been through a lot of fights in his life. We'd chatted several times when I'd been out prowling under the full moon. He'd been on his own since he was a kitten and didn't much like people, but he made his way from house to house. Most of the neighbors left out a handful of food for him every night. Sometimes the raccoons got it before he could, but then he'd just move on to the next house and eat there.
He was old, and he was sick and probably dying, but he'd stubbornly clung to life, fueled by the will to survive, to fight against the odds.
"He didn't deserve this," I said, fighting back tears. I clenched my fists as I stood over his body, wanting to teach whoever had murdered him just how it felt to be sucked dry of both life and dignity.
Iris came up behind me and gently rubbed my lower back. "I'm so sorry. I've seen him around the neighborhood. He was a buddy of yours, wasn't he?"
I glanced down at her, wondering how much she knew about my life as a cat. Nodding, I reached for a burlap sack to cover him up, but she stayed my hand and said, "I'll be back in a minute. You stand guard over him."
While I waited, I unfolded the paper. In looping Spenserian script—thin and spidery and written with precision—it said: "Curiosity killed the cat. Keep away from the Rainier Puma Pride, or you and your sisters might end up joining your friend."
Iris reappeared with a silk pillowcase embroidered with tulips and daisies. I recognized it as one of her own and gave her a grateful look.
Quietly, I slipped the note into my pocket, then picked up Cromwell and slid him gently into the waiting folds of his silken shroud. Iris tied the end of the pillowcase shut with a purple velvet ribbon and looked at me, waiting for my lead.
I turned back to the web and let out a loud hiss. Iris pushed me out of the way. With a flicker of her hands the web froze and crashed to the floor, breaking into shards as it fell. I picked up the shovel and motioned for her to follow with Cromwell. We carried him out to the backyard and there, beneath a young oak, I dug a hole.
Iris laid him in. "Do you want to say a few words?"
I thought about it but then shook my head. Cromwell wasn't one for ceremonies. He wasn't a lap cat. He'd been a fighter, a true tom. If he had been human, he would have been a soldier or warrior. Cromwell wouldn't have wanted pretty words or flowery good-byes. I just pressed my fingers to my lips and blew him a kiss. "May Lady Bast take you into her arms, my sweet friend," I whispered before filling in the grave.