"It's a good thing they didn't use that lash low enough to open me up there," he said, his eyes sparkling with tears.
"So that's the seal?" Zachary eased his way into the kitchen, still looking shaky. "I wondered where you got that limp," he told Venus. "I guess all of our shamans had a limp, then?"
Venus nodded. "It was always thought to be one of our traits—a trade for accepting our powers. I guess, in a way, it was."
I laughed then, suddenly feeling like a burden had lifted. "We'd better use the Whispering Mirror and call Trenyth to warn them we're on the way."
Camille and I headed upstairs to put in our call. The mirror worked like a charm, and we found ourselves facing not Trenyth, but Queen Asteria herself.
"I'll send someone to get the demons and the seal," she said. "In fact, I'll dispatch them as we speak." She turned and said something over her shoulder, and we heard Trenyth acknowledge the order. "You have to be careful coming back to Elqaneve right now," she continued. "It's not safe for you."
"We know about Lethesanar's death threat—" I started to say.
She cut me off. "It's not that. Although that alone is reason enough to take care. No, something else has happened."
Camille glanced at me. I could feel it, too; bad news rode ahead of itself on the wind, and whatever this was, it was bad. I swallowed my instinct to turn tail and run. "What is it?"
The Queen looked like she'd rather be doing anything but having this conversation. "There's no easy way to tell you this, so I'll just come out with it. Wisteria escaped. We don't know how—she must have had help—but she managed to kill her guards and escape from her cell."
"Well, hell. She's probably going to try to contact Shadow Wing." I looked over at Camille. "Looks like we don't have much of a reprieve this time."
"It's worse than that," Queen Asteria said. "Informants tell us that she's joined up with the Elwing Blood Clan."
"Holy crap, that's the clan that—"
"Yes, that tortured your sister Menolly and turned her into a vampire." The Queen took a long, shuddering breath. "Until we find her, or find out for sure that she's left the city, you shouldn't come here. Instead, travel to Aladril through Pentangle's portal. Go to the City of Seers and look for a man named Jareth. He knows the history of the Elwing Blood Clan and might be able to provide you with some useful information. For now, though, meet us on your end at Grandmother Coyote's portal."
"The City of Seers? Jareth? Who is he?" I asked.
Queen Asteria stared at my face for a moment, and when she spoke, it was only to say, "I see you are now walking a dangerous path, child. The Elemental Lords are not for the weak of heart. But I doubt you chose this journey. Go now, and bring the bodies to our meeting point. We'll take it from there."
Trenyth, Ronyl, and several hefty guards met us outside Grandmother Coyote's grove. They took the seal and bodies away. Camille and I watched as they disappeared back through the portal.
"What are we going to tell Menolly?" Camille asked, shaking her head. "That her old enemies are aligning themselves with Shadow Wing? That the creatures who tortured her and turned her into a vampire may be next on our list to hunt down and destroy?"
"I don't know if she'd mind that so much," I said. "She's always wanted revenge, and I don't blame her."
We wandered back to the car where Trillian was waiting. Chase had opted to go home to rest, and I hadn't had a chance to talk to him before he left. Morio was on his way toward Mount Rainier, driving Zach and Venus back to their home. They were taking Rhonda home for the last time.
We'd been invited to the burial ceremony, which would be held in a few days. Of course we'd go, although our hearts ached at the thought. Rhonda had laid down her life for us.
We wouldn't miss the chance to say one last thank-you and good-bye.
"It's hard to believe that tonight is Yuletide. Midwinter, already. And tomorrow night is Sassy Branson's party. I don't really feel like going." Camille brushed past a low-hanging branch, and the snow slid off, showering us with a sudden flurry.
"We promised," I said. "Besides, I think we need some cheering up. We need to contact Cleo about the computer position with our new-and-improved OIA. He'll be a blast to work with." I hesitated, then gingerly proposed a thought that had been running around in my head since we'd talked to Asteria. "Say, what do you think if we hold off on telling Menolly about the Elwing Blood Clan until after Sassy's party? We deserve a couple nights away from worry."
Camille stared at me. "I think she'll kick your butt. Menolly, that is."
At my pleading look, she let out a long sigh.
"Oh, all right, but it's on your head if she gets pissed. All I know is that I've had enough of spiders to last me a lifetime. There's the car! Come on, Iris will be waiting. She wants us to hurry back for a holiday brunch." Camille ran forward and threw herself into Trillian's arms. He blinked, but he picked her up and whirled her around, kissing her soundly before we headed for home.
Late that night after we'd rested, my sisters and I followed Iris as she led the way down to Birchwater Pond. The path through the woods had been lined with luminarias, the candle flames flickering softly from within their ivory holders. Trillian, Chase, Morio, and Smoky followed a respectful distance behind. They were our family now, and we wanted them to celebrate with us.
We'd dressed up in our holiday clothes that we'd worn to the winter festival last year, back in Y'Elestrial. Woven from the finest spider-silk, the gowns were as warm as they were beautiful. That had been our last holiday at home; we'd come Earthside a month or so after that.
Camille's gown mirrored the color of the moon, silver and shimmering, faceted quartz beads shifting color with every step she took. And mine reflected the sun, golden and warm. A belt of topaz and citrine rode low on my hips. Menolly was clad in night-sky black. Intricate cabochons of onyx and obsidian dangled from her ears, and her lips were bloodred.
Iris was also dressed to the hilt in a silk gown as blue as glacial ice, and she wore a cloak trimmed with wolf fur. It was the outfit I'd picked up from Pike Place Market for her. Maggie snuggled asleep in the crook of her arm.
The men were also in their finest, although Chase looked a little uncomfortable in the leggings and tunic that Trillian had loaned him. But they were both in a good mood. Trillian's bid on a house had come through, and he'd be moving within a few days, with a mortgage to die for.
All of us, even our calico wonder, were wearing wreaths around our heads, woven with white roses and red carnations, interspersed with baby's breath and soft fern fronds.
We glided through the falling snow, following the path to the water's edge. The pond had frozen over, and we gathered at the edge.
"The winter's colder than it should be," Iris whispered. "There's something behind this weather, but I'm not going to even try to guess what."
Camille nodded. "You're right. It's not natural." She looked around. "Shall we get started? Menolly, you've got the best voice. Will you lead us?"
Menolly threw her head back as a swirl of snow danced around her, and she caught a flake on her tongue. She let out a low laugh. "Of course."
As we began the tradition that stretched back a thousand years and a thousand more, her voice rose into the icy night, a chime of quicksilver on the wind. Camille, Trillian, and I joined in the familiar chant, echoing her in a call-and-response. We sang for our ancestors, we sang for our homeland, and we sang for our mother's world as well.
When we segued into the invocations to honor the Holly King and the Snow Queen, my thoughts began to drift. I glanced over at Chase. He looked radiant, thrilled to be included, even though he wasn't sure just what was going on. What was I going to tell him? He meant so much to me. Would he run when I told him about Zachary? Would he be angry? And what would he think if I spilled my secrets and told him what was really hiding in the corner of my heart? Yet, surely it was far too soon to tell him that I thought I loved him? Hell, I wasn't even sure I knew what love was.
So much had changed. Everything in my world was shifting, and I didn't know who I was anymore. I might have a twin sister who died. I was now a Death Maiden for the Autumn Lord. I needed to explore what was happening to me before I invited anybody else to share my life.
I shuddered, trying to keep my thoughts away from those final moments with Kyoka when I'd turned into the panther, but they crept up to haunt me and, with a little cry, I dropped my candle in the snow as the world shifted again.
A vortex of color and a blink of the eye later, I was sitting on the ground, staring up at my sisters and Iris. My golden fur quivered in the wind. Comforted, I let Camille pick me up and rest me on her shoulder. Her scent was familiar, and I snuggled into her hair, purring, happy to be where I was.
Maybe we were trying to keep the floodgates to Hell closed, but in the meanwhile, we'd live to the fullest. After all, a life spent in fear was no life at all. Whatever dark shadows lay in our path, there had to be sunny days ahead, too. And nights as crystalline and pure as this one.
I brought my attention back to the ritual, and eventually, when I'd calmed down enough, I returned to my normal form, no worse for the wear. The hours wore on as we wove the magic of our father's ancestors. For one perfect evening, everything was brilliant and beautiful and shining as we stood sentinel through the longest night of the year, waiting to greet the reborn sun.