I glanced at Camille. She shook her head. "Chase is right. You're the one who was here in the dream state. You're in charge."
Shit. I'd been hoping she'd volunteer to take over. Camille was good at being in control. Me—not so much. But one look at her face told me she meant business. I sucked in a deep breath and looked around.
"We can't all charge at once; that would put us all in danger in case they've developed some sort of large-scale weapon—"
"Like an AK-47?" Chase said.
I glared at him. "Like an area spell that might catch us all in its effect. Menolly, you can't fly right now, but you're silent and you don't let off any heat. Why don't you creep through the edge of the woods and see if there's anyone hiding outside the cave? There were plenty of them when I was here in my dream."
"And if I find any?"
I gave her a hard stare. "Take them out as silently as you can."
"Right," she said, and took off.
I frowned. "Smoky, you're with me in front. Trillian, Chase, and Rhonda, fall in behind us. Morio, can you cast any invisibility spells? If so, you and Camille can sneak in ahead of us and scout around."
Morio scratched his head. "Yeah, I can pull that off. Come on, Camille, let's get out of the way so I can see if this works. Remember, we'll still make noise, so try to be quiet when we head over to the cave. It won't last long, but it should be enough to get us inside without a problem."
They stepped off to the side and as we watched, Morio muttered a few words. After a moment, he and Camille faded from sight. Relieved that something was working right, I waited a moment to give them time to get inside, then motioned to the others.
"All right, let's go," I said. "Don't ask questions. Don't take prisoners. We're looking to accomplish two things: rescue Venus the Moon Child and destroy Kyoka, Lianel, and the Jansshi demon."
Slowly, trying to make as little noise as possible, Smoky and I crept toward the cave. So far, nobody had showed up to stop us. I was beginning to get suspicious when we neared the mouth of the cleft, but a noise coming from within caught my attention, and I motioned for the others to stop.
Two men appeared at the mouth of the cave, both looking very von Spynne-ish. Tall, scrawny, and gangly seemed to be the trademark look among the Hunters Moon Clan.
They stopped, staring at us as if we were clowns at a black-tie formal or wearing fur coats to a PETA meeting. I decided that taking advantage of their surprise would be a good thing. Pulling out my long knife, I started to race forward, but Smoky was in front of me and with one grab, he caught both men around their necks and knocked their heads together.
He examined them quickly. "They're just unconscious. I suggest you finish the job."
Shivering, I stared down at them. Trillian seemed to sense my hesitation, because he shoved me aside and knelt down, quickly slicing their throats.
I stared at the spreading blood, at first in horror and then with fascination as the scent crept up to tweak my nostrils. A deep longing rose within me, a power that was as old and dark as the hills. Frightened, I hurried inside the cave and caught up with Smoky.
The entrance to the tunnel was large enough for three men to walk abreast, and rounded, like a tube. I flashed back to the specials I'd seen on Animal Planet about trap-door spiders.
Yep, it looked remarkably like that. Kyoka must have played demented geneticist as well as mad magician.
The passageway led far back, with openings along the way, both to the left and to the right. I could still smell the tang of blood from outside, but now other scents crowded in, flooding me with an intoxicating array of sensation. The pungent swirl of sweat and urine and feces made me cringe. Sex was in the air, too, and the smell of decay and food long gone bad. My stomach lurched as I reeled, trying to focus.
"Delilah? Are you okay?" Chase grabbed my elbow as I swayed.
"Yeah, I think so." I forced myself to concentrate. One step at a time as we entered the nest. We were almost to the first side tunnel when a shriek cut through the air. I clasped my hands to my head in pain, noticing that Rhonda was doing the same.
"What the fuck was that?" Trillian said, pushing by me as he raced ahead, Chase and Smoky right behind him. I started to follow, but something caught hold of my elbow, stopping me.
"Delilah? It's me," a disembodied voice whispered in my ear.
"Camille?" There was no answer, and I frowned. "If you're nodding, remember I can't see you."
"Oh yeah, right!" She sounded flustered. "Listen, Morio and I are going up ahead to check out a room where we can smell cat magic coming from. You want to come with us?"
"I can't see to come with you," I said, but just then, a shadow disengaged itself from the wall. "Holy crap, what's that?"
"Hush, it's me," Menolly said, slipping into view. "I'll lead you. I can hear Camille and Morio walking. My ears are sharper than yours."
I looked over at Rhonda. "Come with?"
Her eyes were filled with fear, but all she said was, "I've got your back."
As Menolly hurried down the hall, leading us, shouts erupted from the passage into which Smoky, Trillian, and Chase had disappeared. An unfamiliar voice screamed for help, and all we could do was hope our boys were all right.
We passed two more passages before turning to the left. As we entered the narrow tunnel, I caught a fleeting glance of men racing down the hall. Probably in answer to their comrades' screams.
The passage we had entered led into a large room. The walls were rounded and had been chipped out by hand. They were solid rock, polished to a high sheen. The ceiling was at least twenty feet high, and as I peered into the darkened heights, the faint shape of spiderwebs draping one onto another formed a canopy across the entire room. I swallowed, trying not to think about what might be hiding up there. Several exits opened into what looked like yet more tunnels, leading far into the mountainside.
And then I noticed the dais in the center of the room. No wonder Morio had smelled cat magic. Next to what looked like a large egg on the dais, Venus the Moon Child hung cuffed by his wrists and ankles to a circular stone that stood upright. He was slumped over as far as his chains would allow, and he was naked. A latticework of bloody welts and burns crisscrossed his chest, ridged and still oozing. His nose had been broken, and both eyes were swollen and black. I swallowed hard, unable to look away.
Three men were standing around him. One wielded a whip. Another was heating a poker in a stone fire pit nearby. The third leaned against a stalagmite, looking bored.
Menolly let out a little growl. Her eyes took on a crimson glimmer as bloody tears leaked down her cheeks. She stared at Venus for a moment and then, without a word, launched herself at the man holding the poker.
I looked at Rhonda. "They know we're here, so let's get to work!"
She whipped out a wooden baton and raced in as I unsheathed my knife and followed her.
"What the fuck—" the dude with the poker said when he saw Menolly heading toward him. She was in kill mode, her teeth fully extended, and he whirled around, swinging the poker at her. Without missing a beat, she grabbed the branding iron by its glowing end and yanked it out of his hand, tossing it in the air so that it landed on the other side of the room.
"Holy shit!" He screamed, but she was on him before he could get out another sound, and within a second, his head lolled to the side, and she tossed him on the ground. Straight for the kill. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.
Meanwhile, Rhonda engaged Mr. Bored while I moved in on the one with the whip. He gave me the once-over and, leering, tossed the whip back and forth between his hands.
"Who's your daddy, little girl?" He smacked his lips. "Be good, and I might just give you a good fucking before I teach you not to meddle in the affairs of men."
A low growl emanated from my throat, rumbling through the room. What the hell? Where had that come from? My opponent looked a little disconcerted but raised the whip anyway.
"You like pain, pussycat?" he whispered. "Come play with the master."
"Big talk for somebody who's standing on the other side of a boulder." The perfect setup. Now, if he just stayed where he was.
I gathered myself and then raced forward and leapt onto the rock, using it as a springboard. A back flip in the air, and I landed directly behind him. Very Bruce Lee, I thought. Before he could whirl around, I thrust my blade into his left side, angling so that it struck through the heart. He had time enough to mutter something that sounded vaguely like "Fuck you" and then collapsed as I yanked my knife free.
"Thanks for the help," I said, wiping my blade on my jeans. Whatever I'd expected to feel, it wasn't the intense sense of satisfaction that swept over me. Taken aback, I glanced over at Rhonda, but she had managed to dispatch her opponent, too. Menolly was up on the dais, where she ripped Venus's manacles out of the rock wall. He slumped into her arms, and she carefully laid him down on the rock platform.
"He'll live," she said grimly. "He's been trained to handle pain, but he's going to have some pretty nasty scars." There was a catch in her voice, and I suspected that she was reliving her own bout with torture. Some scars fade. Others never disappear, even if you can't see them. Menolly's—both her physical and emotional ones—were eternal.
Rhonda raced over to his side. "I'm a certified nurse's assistant. Let me have a look."
"Where did Camille and Morio go?" Menolly asked, looking around.
"I'm right here," Morio answered, now visible as he stepped out from one of two exits leading off to the left. "Camille and I split up to find out what was down these two passageways. There's a bunch of spiderwebs and egg sacs down this hallway. I think we should torch them," he added.
"So you just left us here with those maniacs?" I looked around, searching for any sign of Camille. I could smell her perfume, so she wasn't that far away.
"We figured you could take care of those goons by yourselves." He caught my gaze. "Delilah, where's Camille? Isn't she back yet?"
I shook my head. "No, and I'm starting to get worried." The sounds of fighting echoed from the main passageway. Apparently the boys had managed to start a full-scale skirmish. Among the shouts, one of the voices sounded like it belonged to Chase, and I prayed he was safe.
"Something's happened to her, I know it," Morio said.
"What about Venus?" Rhonda asked, frantic.
"We'll get him on the way back," Morio said. "Until then…" He leaned over the unconscious shaman and said a few words, then blew on his face. In another moment, it looked like Venus was a pile of rocks. "That illusion should hold till we get back." He ducked into the tunnel down which Camille had disappeared. With a glance back at the main hallway, the rest of us followed.
This tunnel was narrow and cramped, tall enough for Menolly to walk through unhampered, but I had to hunch down to make it without scraping the top of my head on the ceiling. We followed Morio and the faint scent of Camille's perfume, which was growing stronger, until the passage opened out into another chamber, this one half the size of the main room. Halfway across the room, the cave ended in a drop-off.
I peeked over the edge. Stone steps led down the cliff, cut into the side wall. Even with my heightened sight, I could barely see the bottom. There appeared to be an underground pond or river or creek down there.
I turned to Menolly. "Can you hear the sound of running water?"
She closed her eyes, and we kept as still as we could. After a moment, she nodded. "Sounds like a loud creek. I don't think it's big enough to be a river."
I sniffed the air. Yep, Camille had been here, but where was she now?
"Let's try down there," I started to say when a crash interrupted me. As we whirled around, three figures stood at the entryway. One of them was Geph von Spynne. The other was a Svartan, and he had his arm wrapped around Camille's waist, holding her so tight it looked like she was having trouble breathing. I'd thought Trillian looked dangerous, but this Svartan had a glint in his eye that made my blood run cold. Lianel.
Geph darted forward. "I know you," he said, waggling his finger at me. "I know you from somewhere!"
I raised my knife, but Lianel shook his head. "I wouldn't do that, not if you want to save your sister." He pressed his nose into her neck, and she struggled, but he tightened his grip, and she froze. "Oh, she's ripe, she's so ripe. I wish we were back in the temple at Svartalfheim. We'd have a high old time there, we would, my brothers and I." The longing in his voice oozed like the scent of a rose long decayed. Rotten through to the core.
Unsure what to do, I looked at Menolly for guidance.
She was fuming, so tense I could see the muscles in her neck tighten. "What do you want?"
Geph gave his companion a smug grin. "I believe they're ready to negotiate," he said. "Too bad they didn't try it first before launching this ridiculous attack on our nest."
Lianel was about to respond, but he had barely opened his mouth when Camille took advantage of his inattention. She launched herself backward, throwing him off balance and landing square on him as he toppled over. She was at the ready, thrusting her elbow hard into his stomach as she rolled off and came up crouching. Before he could move, she'd clasped her hands and brought her fists down square on his nose, putting a stop to his fighting for the moment. Geph leapt at her, a knife with a rusty blade at the ready.
"No!" Menolly shouted, but Rhonda was closer. She launched herself at him, and he whirled as she swung her wooden baton, connecting directly with his stomach. He doubled over with a loud groan.