Flash. I caught him across the chest, and he began to bleed as I raked, slashing through his flesh. The smell of blood set off a hunger so deep that I knew I could never quench it.
Flash. He grabbed for me, catching me around the throat as his hands formed a vise. He twisted my head, trying to break my neck.
Flash. I leaned back, then lunged, bringing my fangs down to rip at his face. The taste of blood filled my mouth, warm and sweet, and teasing me on.
Flash. He managed to reach up with one of his jointed legs. Pain lanced through my left back leg as he punctured it, and I let out a yowl. Furious, the fire of the Autumn Lord fueling my heart, I gathered my strength and bit once more. This time, my teeth went through his shoulder, into the soft flesh of his neck, and I snapped my jaws shut. The killing bite.
Kyoka shuddered as the room swirled.
I blinked and found myself in a field of mist, in my normal form. My left leg was bleeding, and I was standing in front of Kyoka's spirit, which hovered above his dead body.
As if I had done so a thousand times before, I held out my hand and touched the ghostly presence. Visions of fire and anger swirled through my thoughts. Men dying under torture, women being ravaged for use as breeders, children not true to the new form being offered to the young spiderlings as food.
All of these images passed through me like a silent movie, flickering in an abandoned theater. Kyoka's memories, they were of his life as a shaman when he had created the unnatural Weres and perfected their new form.
My stomach rolled, and I thought I was going to vomit, but a force stronger than my own will steeled me up, and I straightened my shoulders.
"Kyoka, in the name of the Autumn Lord, I charge you with the Death Maiden's curse: the final death. Go and be cleansed from this world and from all worlds. Return to oblivion. Return to the pool of fire and ice from whence we all emerge. Be no more." The words were unfamiliar to me, and yet they were mine to say. As I spoke, my core froze, and I aimed the icy line of frost directly into his spirit. Like a snowflake melting on the pavement, he vanished.
Kyoka was dead. Truly and forever dead, consigned to oblivion.
As the presence of the Autumn Lord began to fade, I heard him say, "You have done well. You will be the first of my living emissaries. My Daughter of the Grave." And then he, too, vanished, and I found myself standing in the middle of the room, and my friends were scrambling, shouting my name.
"Delilah? Where are you? Good gods, there she is!" Chase was closest to me and, as I collapsed, he caught me and lowered me to the ground. My leg burned like a son of a bitch. I blinked as they crowded around me.
"Are you all right?" Camille dropped to my side. "Delilah, say something. Where were you? What happened? Where's Kyoka?"
I glanced around. There was no sign of the shaman. His body had vanished. Smoky was awake again, guarding the door, though the rest of the spiderlings seemed to have beat a hasty retreat.
"How long have I been gone?" I managed to ask.
"A good fifteen minutes. Kyoka vanished when you did."
She looked at me closely. "Great Mother, the mark on your forehead!"
"What? What is it?"
Menolly joined her. The men hung back, more out of respect than lack of curiosity, I thought. "It's swirling—all gold and black and red."
I reached up and lightly skimmed it with my fingers. My brow tingled, and I could feel the presence of the Autumn Lord, barely out of reach. "I think what just happened activated its power."
"Tell us everything," Camille said, a worried look on her face.
And so I did.
"We have to get medical help for Venus," Camille finally said when I'd finished. "And we need to return Rhonda… Rhonda's body to her family."
I nodded, silent. Trillian went into the other room, and when he returned, he was carrying Rhonda over his shoulder. Smoky picked up Venus, gently like he might carry a child, and Menolly gathered the Jansshi demon and Lianel. We'd return their remains to Elqaneve, just as we had the first demons.
Morio and Camille torched the eggs and webs in the other passageway. I leaned on Chase's shoulder as we made our way out of the cave. Nobody bothered us. In fact, there was no sight or sound of a single living thing in the cavern, and I wondered where the rest of the enemy had scattered to. Perhaps the Autumn Lord had killed them. Perhaps they'd recognized defeat. Whatever the case, they were gone for now.
We silently trudged through the snow, back to the road. As we passed through the firs guarding the path, the spirit guardian stood at attention, nodding silently as we filed by. I glanced at him, and his face crinkled into a knowing smile, but he didn't speak.
Back at the cars, we piled in, putting the demon in one trunk and the body of Lianel in the other. Rhonda, we covered with a blanket, and I sat next to her while Chase drove. Smoky and Trillian sat in the back of Morio's SUV, Venus spread across their laps. When we were ready, we headed out into the icy night.
I gazed down at Rhonda's body. What was I going to tell Zach? At this point, I was so numb that I couldn't even think. I leaned back and closed my eyes, drifting as we headed down toward the freeway. After all we'd been through, after all we'd seen and done, there was nothing left to say.
By the time we arrived home, Venus had come around. His wounds were nasty, but he'd live. Smoky carried him into the bathroom.
"Chase, would you and Morio help Venus? Clean him up and tend to his wounds?" I asked. They nodded and followed Smoky.
Menolly unloaded the demon and Lianel and put them on the back porch for the time being, while Camille and Trillian made the rounds to check on the land and wards. My leg had stopped bleeding. It would need a good cleansing and some rest, but if Kyoka had tried to envenomate me, it hadn't worked. I'd be okay.
I joined Zach in the parlor, closing the door behind me. He was resting. I sat beside him and took his hand in mine. "I have to tell you something," I said, not knowing how to start. "We found Venus. He's hurt, but he'll live. But the fighting got rough. There was a death…"
Zach looked up at me, his eyes full. "Rhonda?"
I nodded, feeling like I'd just stabbed him in the gut. "She died trying to save Camille. She was a true warrior to the end. We brought her body back so that you can take her home."
His face crumpled. Desperate to wipe away the pain—there had been so much pain—I leaned down and kissed him lightly on the lips. He slid his arms around me and pulled me close, and I let him. He'd suffered so much over the past weeks, I couldn't pull myself away.
"She was good… too good for me. We just weren't ready to get married, but I never stopped loving her," he said, his voice breaking.
I wanted to ease his pain, wanted to put to rest the confusion and fear in my own heart. So much had happened, so much was happening. It would take a long time to sort everything out, and I wasn't sure we had that time. The second seal was still at large, and we had to find it before Shadow Wing did.
Zach shifted and reached under my blouse, fumbling for my breast.
"I'm grimy, I'm covered in blood," I whispered, but he shook away my protests. Unwilling to reject him, I let him unzip my jeans and slide them down over my hips. He rolled me over, easing himself between my legs.
"You have to be gentle with yourself," I whispered, but he just kept shaking his head, and finally, I opened myself up to him as he covered me in kisses. Desperate to find a touch of life in the midst of so much death, I shivered gently as he plunged inside me, driving deeper with each stroke, pushing away thought and memory and dark visions.
"Delilah, I need you," he whispered. "You're the first woman I've wanted since I broke up with Rhonda. Love me. Make love to me."
I held on, my hips moving against his hips, my breasts aching with a need so deep I thought I'd explode. He leaned down, took one nipple in his mouth, and sucked, the fire of his tongue driving me toward the edge. Everywhere I looked, there was fire and ice, flame and glaciers, passion and death.
"I can't love you," I said, gasping as I matched his rhythm. "As much as I like you, I can't give you my love." As I spoke, I finally broke through and heard what my heart was whispering. Somehow, beyond all sense, I'd fallen for Chase. I felt safe with him. I felt home. My body didn't care at this moment who wiped away the ache and pain, but my heart belonged with the FBH who had given me some sort of roots, as fragile as they might be.
"Then give me this," Zach said. "This one night." And with one final thrust, he drove home to my core, pushing me to the edge. I hovered for an instant, then let go, giving in to the passion, giving in to the feral energy that rose between us—puma and panther, puma and housecat, Were and Fae. Biting back a scream, I arched as I came, a shower of sparks racing along my body leading me to blessed release.
When it was over, I paused for a moment, then gently pushed him away. "I need to get up, Zach. I need to get dressed." I quickly stood and adjusted my clothing, desperate to collect myself before Chase stumbled in on us.
"It's your detective, isn't it?" Zach asked, leaning back, his hands behind his head. "You've fallen for him, and you're afraid he won't understand."
Startled by his insight, I nodded. "We've talked about it before, but when push comes to shove, I'm not sure if he can handle me being with anybody else. Please, don't say anything. I'll tell him, but… but let me do it in my own way."
Zachary nodded. "Whatever you like. But Delilah," he said, "don't think you can manage a relationship with him. Don't even hope. It won't work in the long run. You need more than he can give you, even if you don't believe that now. I may not be the one you need, but it's not him. Trust me."
I wiped my mouth and winced as the wound on my leg opened again. "I'm hurt. I've got to go tend to my leg," was all I said.
As I closed the door behind me, I dreaded the coming days when everything was sorted out and when I'd have to tell Chase what I'd done.
Menolly, Camille, and Trillian were sitting at the kitchen table, hot tea in hand. Iris held Maggie, her eyes wide as Camille filled her in on what had happened. I dropped down beside them.
"Zach knows about Rhonda," I said, looking up to find Camille staring at me. She didn't say a word, but I knew we'd be having a long talk later on. I glanced at the clock. It was almost seven. The sun would be rising soon, and Menolly had made her way to bed.
"When should we contact Queen Asteria—" Camille started to say when Morio, Smoky, and Chase returned with Venus in tow. The shaman looked pretty beat up, but he definitely looked better than he had when we first found him. They helped him into a chair.
"We thought you'd want to hear this," Morio said.
Venus leaned forward, gratefully accepting the mug of tea that Iris pressed into his hands. "I'll thank you all for saving me in a bit, but first, we have more important matters to discuss." He wrapped his hands around the warm mug and shuddered, then took a long sip of the tea. "That's good, so good," he said, shuddering again. "Listen, I know what you're after. The same thing the demons are after. I can tell you where to find it."
"The second spirit seal?" I whispered.
He nodded. "Yes. It's been a symbol of our clan down through the ages since Einarr the Iron Hand found it."
"He didn't find it," I spoke up. "The seal was given to him by the Autumn Lord as a reward for destroying Kyoka the first time."
Venus looked at me and blinked, staring at my forehead.
"Oh my girl," he whispered. "You know him, then." He stretched out his fingers and barely grazed the swirling scythe on my forehead. "During my training as a shaman, I underwent a ritual of death and rebirth. During that journey, I met a man who walks in flames and frost. I never knew his name, but he touched my soul, and that's when I came into my power."
I nodded. "We'll talk more when the sun shines and the seasons turn and death isn't in the air. But for now, where's the seal? We have to take it away from this world, to hide it from the demons before they gain control of it."
"When the old shaman died and passed his staff to me, he gave me the seal." Venus pushed his chair back from the table. He held out his leg, the one with the limp. "He told me how to hide it. All these centuries it's been passed down in the same manner, and the tribe has been left unaware of its existence. The shaman has been the only one who knows about the seal, and it's from where we gather most of our power. This is the only way we could ensure its protection: When I give it to you, we will be left open and vulnerable. Perhaps it's time we stood on our own."
Before we could say anything, he pulled up his pants leg and ran his hand over his calf. An incision opened up, raw and bleeding, but clean. Inside, a small cabochon sparkled with red and gold set in bronze. He motioned to me, and I gingerly reached into the open wound and pulled out the fire opal. Venus the Moon Child ran his hand over the cut, and it sealed again, leaving a ridged scar.
I stared at the glowing gem. The pulse of energy washed through me like a cleansing wave, and my pain and anger fell away. I let out a long sigh and looked up to see the others do the same. Venus closed his eyes and turned his head. All these years he'd possessed the gem but never directly used it. He'd been its home and protector, as had his master before him, and so on back through the veils of time.
"The Degath Squad could probably sense you'd been around the jewel, but they never realized it was right inside you," I said.