Unnerved by the whole afternoon, I asked, "Should we stop off at the Puma Pride before heading home? It's on the way."
Zach let out a loud sigh. "Shit, I want to go home, but what if we walk into a trap?"
"Did you tell anybody where you were going?" Camille closed her eyes; I could tell she was praying he'd kept his mouth shut.
He let out a long sigh. "Yeah, I told Venus the Moon Child. That's all."
"We may still have a chance then," Morio said. "Venus is no traitor."
"He isn't one of the newcomers to the tribe, is he?" I asked.
Zachary shook his head. "Nope. He couldn't be, not and be our shaman. But we've had three come in, and they all arrived during the past six weeks. Shannon and Dodge, from the Oregon Cascade Clan. They started out with the Puma Pride, then migrated south some years back, so we know they're safe. And then… Tyler."
Tyler? Something rang a bell, and I didn't like the sound of it. "Where did he say he was from? Who gave him references?"
"He came in from the south, from New Mexico. He says he was with the Desert Runners Band, and he did have a letter of introduction. But… I'm not sure who checked out the references. I can nose around, try to find out," he said. "So, do you want to stop by the compound first? Or take me back to your house? My truck's still there."
Camille shook her head. "Let's go back to our house. We don't want to tip off Tyler by showing up with you, just in case he's our man. Anyway, we need to figure out what our next step should be."
Morio concurred and slid into the driver's seat. Smoky opened the back door and motioned to Camille, who had moved to sit in front with Morio.
"Get in the back with me. Zachary can sit in front." His voice took on a preemptive tone, and she gave him a dirty look, but he leaned close and whispered something in her ear, and she quickly obeyed. Morio glanced at him through the rearview mirror, but Smoky merely gave him a smug smile, and no more was said.
He draped his arm around Camille's shoulder, and she settled into his embrace. I couldn't tell if she was interested or irritated. Knowing her, probably both. I decided the best way to deal with an imperious dragon was to ignore his arrogance and focus on the matter at hand.
"Okay, it looks like we're ready then," I said. "Homeward bound, Morio, and don't spare the gas pedal."
Morio started up the engine, and we headed out for the two-hour drive home. Three, if traffic was bad. Nobody spoke. It was as if we were all lost in our own worlds.
Zach had to be in shock, and with good reason. I couldn't imagine finding out someone I trusted was turning out to be my clan's worst enemy returned from the dead. Camille looked worn out and in need of a good back rub. And Morio just kept his eyes on the road as he navigated rush-hour traffic. As for me? My thoughts slipped back to the brand on my forehead and what it might signify.
I felt different, but exactly how, I wasn't sure. Now that we were in the car, I rooted around in my purse and brought out my compact, flipping it open. Frozen, I stared at the mark on my forehead. A black scythe, much like a crescent moon, glittered in the middle of my brow, shimmering as if a PVC tattoo had melted into my skin. Gently, I reached up and ran my fingers over the brand.
A shiver of fingers ran up my back, and I caught my breath as I was swept back into the cloak of the Autumn Lord's energy. A voice echoed in the back of my head, a hint of laughter flickering through the words. "You belong to me, now. My time is your time."
"What? What do you mean?" I tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come out, and I found myself staring into his eyes again, twin obsidian flames. Lost in those ever-burning flames, I let him take my hand. The tang of freshly turned soil bit deep into my senses. I was standing on the edge of the abyss, ready to leap over the side and fall forever. Suddenly realizing what was happening, I struggled, trying to break away.
He ran his hand over my forehead, then tipped my chin up. With a dark laugh, he said, "Go then, Changeling. You'll return to me. All of my chosen eventually find their way home. Until then, every time you look in the mirror, watch for me. Every time you see a whisper of smoke, you'll remember the smell and touch of autumn, because I am your destination."
And then he was gone, and I was staring at my reflection in my compact. Over my left shoulder, he watched. Faint, a ghost in my memory, but definitely there. I jumped and yanked my fingers away from the mark on my brow.
Camille was staring at me. "What's going on? Delilah, are you okay?" We weren't sisters for nothing—she knew something was up.
"Tell you later," I said, not wanting to talk about it in front of the others. "Listen, have you guys noticed anything that might be the result of our visit to the Autumn Lord? Any… visions, or anything?"
Camille gave me a sharp-eyed look and shook her head. "You're right. Those kinds of thoughts are for later when we're safe behind our wards."
"Listen, could you guys keep it down? It's starting to snow hard, traffic's a bitch, and I'm trying to concentrate," Morio said, scowling in the rearview mirror. But his focus wasn't on the traffic behind us. He was staring at Smoky's hand as it looped around Camille's shoulders. So, it was possible to goad the impervious fox demon after all.
When we finally reached the house, we tumbled out of the car like foam snakes out of one of those joke cans. As I glanced around the yard, I saw that Iris had been busy. The front porch was covered with strings of twinkling lights, and a gigantic wreath was hanging on the wall next to the front door. Bound with red ribbons and sparkling gold beads, the evergreen boughs smelled fragrant enough to eat, even from where I was standing.
As we trooped up the stairs, I tried to focus on what the Autumn Lord had said about the Hunters Moon Clan.
Past a city to the east, where the water falls over rocks, back in the foothills.
The city to the east was most likely one of Seattle's bedroom communities that sprawled across the east side of Lake Washington. A single stretch of urban living, one city blended into the next, their economies fueled by Microsoft and Nintendo and dozens of other high-tech software companies. As for the waterfall, I wasn't so sure. We hadn't had time to explore all the natural wonders that made me grateful we'd been posted here and not some desert where water and trees were distant memories. Frowning, I decided to call Chase and ask his opinion.
As we entered the house, Iris hurried out to greet us. She had Maggie with her, and the worried look on her face began to ease as she saw that we were all in one piece.
"Thank the gods you're back safely. We've been so worried about you."
"We?" I glanced around, realizing Chase's car was in the driveway. "Chase is here?"
"Yes, he is, and he's frothing at the mouth for word of your return. He came over as soon as he got off work. Oh, and Trillian's back. It's been an interesting evening, I'll tell you that." The look on her face was worth a thousand words, and I had the feeling that Chase and Trillian had been more than a handful.
"I can imagine the conversation," I said, then stopped. "Is something wrong, Iris?"
"Yes, well, several things have happened this evening." By her tone, the news wasn't good. She stared at me for a moment, then tilted her head to one side. "Delilah, what's on your forehead?"
"More news… and I'm not sure if it's good or bad." I pointed to the living room. "Are Trillian and Chase in there?"
She nodded. "I'll hustle into the kitchen and fix you something to eat. Go in and sit down. And don't start without me!" And with that, we were dismissed.
We filed into the living room, and it occurred to me that at least I wouldn't have to call Chase about the waterfall question. It also occurred to me that I'd kissed Zachary and probably should tell Chase. I didn't want to, but I owed him that much. My spirits sinking, I looked around the room for him.
To my surprise, he and Trillian were sitting at the game table, playing a round of chess. Trillian was playing black, Chase, white, which seemed fitting, and they were both so intent on the game that neither one noticed us enter.
Camille gave me a snarky look and started to sneak up on them, but she must have made some noise, because Trillian suddenly jumped out of his chair and grabbed her before she could startle them. He pulled her into his arms and, with a defiant look at Smoky, gave her a long, dark kiss.
"Good to have you home where you belong," he said, loud enough for everyone to hear. "Right by my side." He looked directly at Smoky and gave him a What are you going to do about it? look.
Smoky didn't rise to the bait, merely moved to the sofa, where he sat, crossing his legs. Morio gave Trillian and Chase a nod and dropped onto one of the ottomans, letting out a long sigh. Zach was staring at Chase. If we didn't do something soon, we'd be in the middle of an all-out testosterone war.
Chase held out his arms. "Baby, I'm so relieved you made it home safe."
What the hell was I going to do? Camille knew how to handle this sort of situation, and her lovers knew they were sharing her attentions. But I didn't.
I sucked in a deep breath and walked over to Chase, giving him a warm, happy-to-be-here kiss. He wrapped his arms around me, a sense of security and safety washing through my frazzled nerves. But were safety and security enough?
As Iris entered the room with a tray of cold cuts, cheeses, spreads, and bread, I motioned for everyone to take a seat. "Where's Menolly?" I asked, glancing at the clock. Dusk had fallen over two hours ago. Where was she?
"Right here," came a familiar voice from the door. I whirled around, and there stood Menolly. "You made it back safe," she said, then did a double take. "Kitten, come here," she said. It wasn't a request. I hurried over to her side, and she motioned for me to bend down. After a moment, her fingers barely touching the outlines of the mark on my forehead, she hissed and moved back. "Who did this to you?"
"The Autumn Lord," I whispered. "Why? What are you sensing?"
Her irises had turned brick red, and when she spoke, I could see her fangs were fully extended. "He's marked you. Territory. What the hell did you do? Promise yourself to him? You're wearing the mark of a Death Maiden, Kitten. And there's no way I know of to get rid of it."
"May the gods have mercy," Iris whispered.
"No," I whispered. "That's not possible. I didn't agree to anything like that. He said he'd exact payment from me, but he wouldn't tell me what it was."
But in my heart, I knew I was screwed. Iris was right: the Elemental Lords were terrifying and lived far apart from human or Sidhe. They played by their own rules, making them up as they went.
Chase shot to his feet. "What the hell is going on? What are you saying? Delilah would never make such a promise!"
Menolly gave him a cool look. "Of course she wouldn't. But understand this, Chase, and listen carefully so I don't have to repeat myself. The Elemental Lords don't care what humans think. They don't care what the Fae think. Extensions of the very essence of both Earth and Otherworld, the Elemental Lords are encapsulations of primal power. They are who they are, and neither your rules nor ours apply to them. They have the power to bind anyone they choose to their will, and none but the gods can interfere."
Pale, looking almost stricken, Chase slowly took his seat again. "Good God, what's going to happen to you?"
I glanced at Menolly. "I don't know, but whatever it is, I'll do my best to stop it. I think… let's start from the beginning. We found out our enemy is a lot more than just a bunch of werespiders under the thumb of a Degath Squad."
Camille silently fixed two sandwiches. She handed one to me, then walked over and hopped up on the desk, dangling her feet over the edge. Menolly floated up to sit on the top of the ladder by the tree. I glanced at the sparkling ornaments but couldn't bring myself to go near them. Iris's spell must be working. I polished off my dinner without tasting a bite, I was so worn out.
With a glance at Camille, I said, "Let's dive in. I don't know how much longer I can hold out before I fall asleep."
She nodded. "I was thinking the same thing." With a quick look at Trillian, she added, "As much as I want to know what's going on at home right now, we'll start with our trip so that Zachary can take off."
Between the five of us, we filled Chase, Trillian, and Iris in on what had happened. I left out the kiss with Zach, as did everybody else, thankfully, but when I came to my vision of the Autumn Lord in the car, Camille gasped and looked over at Menolly, who merely nodded.
"That clinches it. He's claimed you."
"Would you kindly inform me as to just what a Death Maiden is?" My sandwich had become a lump on its journey to my stomach. I'd better hit the antacids before I slept, or I'd wake up with one hell of a bellyache.
"You aren't going to like it," she said.
"Thank you, Ms. Obvious. I already don't like it, and I don't even know what we're talking about. Just tell me, so I can start dealing with whatever mess I've landed myself in." Testy, I wiped my hands on my napkin and folded my legs into the lotus position, a massive headache threatening to join the fray of aches and pains working their way through my body.
Menolly slowly lowered herself to the floor, her face impassive. But her eyes were bright with blood tears, and I knew that whatever had happened to me, it wasn't good.
"Kitten, the Autumn Lord isn't just any Elemental Lord—he's also one of the Harvestmen. I did a little more research while the five of you were off traipsing through the ether this evening. The Autumn Lord collects souls in his palace, and he's served by a contingent of women called Death Maidens. They're similar to Valkyries, and on Samhain Eve, they harvest the souls he's marked for death."