The gleaming eyes of a hundred woodland creatures gazed at us from behind the dark bushes and deadfalls, and I could hear the faint cadence of a beating drum as we passed through the thicket. Up ahead, a babbling stream cut through the silence.
The faint outline of the arrastra sat in the middle of the stream. Stone mills driven by burro power, arrastras had been used to grind the ore in order to release the precious gold that fueled the hopes and dreams of the miners. Not that they would have found much in this area, I thought, but from what I understood, the hills had been rife with prospectors a hundred years back. Though the Fae valued silver more than gold, we understood the allure of precious metals.
Camille and Venus fell silent. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up; we must be approaching the scene of Shawn's murder.
Zachary nodded toward an opening in the forest. "We follow the stream into that glade ahead. That's where we found all of the bodies. We've laid traps, we've set up guards to watch. In fact, Shawn was on guard duty, and something surprised him."
"I thought Delilah said you were going to limit your guards to the front of the compound," Menolly said from behind us.
"We were," Venus said, answering for Zach. "But Shawn convinced us that he'd be safe if he took another man with him. Apparently Jesse had to take a piss, and while he was off in the bushes, the killer got poor Shawn. By the time Jesse found him, Shawn was dead."
Zach shook his head. "We've reached our wits' end. The Council has finally admitted that we can't handle this on our own. If it keeps up, there won't be a Rainier Puma Pride after a while. We're getting ready to send the women and children to the Blue Road Tribe up on Mount Baker until we've caught the whack job who's offing our people."
"Blue Road Tribe?" Camille asked. "Another werepuma group?"
"Bears, actually," Venus said. "A Native American group. We forged a formal alliance with them, just in case one of our mountains decides to blow. We learned the hard way when St. Helens erupted and decimated the Elk Herders."
"If we're going to do this, let's get it over with," Ajax said. "I want to take my son home and lay him to rest." His voice was rock steady, but in that moment I understood why the older man was so distant. If Shawn was Zachary's cousin, then Ajax must be Zach's uncle, and that was his son lying out in the snow, dead.
Camille started to say something but then shook her head as Zachary led us out into the glen that opened up near the stream. The water was still running, but the rocks near the banks were slippery with snow and ice. A large fire pit sat in the center of the glade, and the surrounding land had been smoothed out. Zach had mentioned that the newlywed couple had been camping. This area must be used for campouts and get-togethers.
A gust of wind blew past, and I could smell traces of blood. I looked over my shoulder at Camille and Menolly. It was obvious they could smell it, too. The look on Menolly's face was one of raw desire, and I was grateful she'd fed recently.
Near the stream, next to a large boulder, rested the body of a young man. Or what had been his body. Hair the color of wheat was splattered with dried blood, and his skin was the texture of old leather, parched as if he'd been mummified. His throat had been slashed, and his head lolled back. I winced and looked away, not wanting to see the terrified look frozen forever on his face.
A gust of wind sent a swirl of flakes into a frenzy, and then the clouds parted for an instant, and the moon shone through, gleaming down on the freshly fallen snow and the face of young Shawn. He and Zach looked a lot alike, but he couldn't have been more than a teenager. Now he would never grow up, never marry, father children, take a trade. I sucked in a deep breath and tried to keep my composure.
"Who could do this to him in such a short time? You say his partner was in the bushes, peeing? That shouldn't have taken more than a few minutes, and yet every ounce of moisture that was in his body seems to have been sucked out of his cells." Menolly knelt beside the body, shaking her head. "Not even a vampire can do this."
"All the victims have been like this. At first we thought maybe some odd natural process was at work, since we didn't find the first few for a while," Venus said. "You can see why we're so frightened. Whoever is doing this has the power to sneak in, drain their victims, rip out their hearts, and vanish before we can catch them. Or even catch a glimpse of them."
He sat on the ground, in the snow, and gently took one of Shawn's hands in his own. "I've tried dreaming the murderer, but I can't seem to get through a fogbank that always obscures my way. All the spells and magical traps I've set have been in vain. Nothing is working."
Ajax stood beside Menolly, staring blankly out at the rippling stream. "If you can find out anything-anything at all to help us-you'll have my undying gratitude," he said gruffly. "I'll pledge service to you and your sisters; I'll pay any cost. Just find out who murdered my son." The big man broke down then, and tears coursed down his cheeks as he silently wept under the glittering moon.
Camille squatted beside Venus and leaned close to Shawn's body, sniffing his shirt. "There's some sort of scent here that I don't recognize."
"We noticed that, too," Venus said. "I thought I knew the scent of most of the creatures around here, but this one is new to me. And yet, it strikes a warning bell. I keep thinking I should know where it's from."
I sat down beside Menolly, shivering as my butt hit the snowy ground.
"It's not the scent of any undead that I recognize," Menolly said after a moment. "As for demons… almost a hint, but not quite. What do you think, Camille?"
Camille leaned down and stared into Shawn's glassy eyes. "I wish Corpse Talkers worked on Weres, but unless he had Fae blood-even a few drops-it's no use to bring one in." She glanced up at Zach, who shook his head.
"No such luck. Pure Earthside Were."
"Thought so," she said, going back to examining Shawn's body. She traced his lips with her finger and held it up to her nose, inhaling deeply. "You're right, Menolly-a faint smell of Demonkin, but there's something more-something over the top of it. This is very strange."
I looked around at the clearing. My attention wavered, and I found myself wandering over to the bank where it dropped directly into the stream. The shore ended, but the curve of the bank led up a steep incline to a mesa above. Pinnacle Rock, overlooking the creek. An inner nudge pushed me to examine the embankment, and the moment I touched the rocky face-what had probably been an ancient alluvial deposit-I knew that I had to climb it.
"Where does this lead?" I called back over my shoulder. Zachary and Tyler joined me, Menolly close behind them
. Venus, Camille, and Morio were preparing Shawn's body for transport back to the enclave. Ajax just continued to stare at the endless currents flowing by.
Zach looked up. "I don't know. I don't think I've ever been up there."
"What about you, Tyler?" I asked.
Tyler shook his head. "I don't think you should bother."
"Well, I think otherwise," I said. "There's something up there."
Menolly stepped forward. "Let me go with you, Kitten." she said. She immediately started to climb, and it was like watching the old Menolly, before she'd been killed and changed. She lithely scampered up the bank, digging in with nails to find the barest of handholds.
I took a deep breath. I was athletic; I should be able to make it. "Okay, here goes nothing," I said.
"Are you sure you want to try that? You'll most likely end up in the drink," Tyler said. "Why not let me go get some gear and go up first, to make sure you aren't hurt?"
"No need. I'll be careful. I don't like water, but I love heights." I followed Menolly's path, feeling my way up, using my instincts to guide my feet and hands. The smell of frozen earth loomed rich in my nose, and I pressed my body against the embankment. One foot at a time, one hand at a time. Feel for a handhold. Here, a rock. And there, a slight indentation. Scramble for any foothold, a branch, a stone, a small twig poking out on which to rest my heel as I used sheer muscle to keep my body pressed against the mountainside.
As the snow began to fall in earnest, all I could see were flakes of white and the dirt beneath. I glanced up, but Menolly was nowhere to be seen; she was one with the embankment. She could have easily floated to the top, but she chose instead to take the harder route-to test herself, to cling to the person she'd been in life rather than the vampire she was now. No angst, just a choice.
We all made choices, I thought as I scrambled for a moment until my foot found an outcropping on which to rest. We all made decisions and lived with them. Aunt Rythwar had made a decision to turn her back on Lethesanar. Father was making a choice to stand by the Crown, not by the Queen. And my sisters and I had made the choice to stay Earthside and protect both this world and our own as best we could.
"I found a ledge." Menolly's voice cut into my thoughts.
"How much farther?" I called.
"Another three yards, and you're home free," she said.
And she was good to her word. A couple of minutes later, I reached over the stone ledge, and she grasped my wrist. With one heave, she pulled me up and over the edge.
Panting, I sprawled on the ledge and looked around, trying to figure out where we were. A good ten feet wide, the lip of the outcropping extended only a few inches from the embankment. Standing below, it would be almost impossible to see that there was a ledge up here, even during the day. The stone shelf continued back a few feet to the side of the mountain, which was covered with vines and brambles. I peered closer. There, beneath the snow-covered foliage, gaped the mouth of a cavern.
"A cave?" I asked.
"By the look of things, the opening's been covered for years by vegetation," Menolly said. "But see, here the brambles have been moved. And there," she added, pointing to a small opening. "Something's definitely tampered with it. We should take a look inside."
She brushed the snow away from the leaves, and we slowly pulled aside the branches blocking the way. A few came willingly, and I could see that she was right. Their stems had already been bent and broken.
I peered inside. "I wish we had a light. I can see to some degree, and so can you, but it would be nice to know if we're missing anything."
"Stay here and don't go in without me," she said and lightly stepped over the edge. Like a kite caught in the wind, she was buoyed up by a gust and then began to fall like a feather in the breeze. Menolly couldn't really fly, not unless she was trying to turn into a bat, but she hadn't mastered that part of vampirism to any great use, yet. However, she could float and hover.
Unless she was startled, she would drift slowly to the ground. There were limitations to the ability, and she was still learning how to use it, but it came in handy. Like when she anchored the Yule tree to the ceiling, or when I climbed the curtains and she had to haul me down by the scruff of my neck, no less.
A few moments later, she reappeared with Camille holding on for dear life, her arms wrapped tightly around Menolly's waist. They landed with a soft thud in the accumulating snow.
Camille turned on her flashlight and pointed it toward the cave. "What have we got?"
"I'm not sure," I said. "Let's see what we find."
And with that, I ripped back the branches and stepped into the cave.
Something sticky landed against my face, and I jumped, startling Camille, who was right behind me.
"What happened? Are you okay?" she asked.
I brushed my hand over my face. It was covered with silken strands. Shit.
"Yeah, but I don't like this," I said, stepping fully into the room.
Camille followed, her light flickering around the room, and Menolly brought up the rear. The cavern glistened in the beam from the flashlight, shimmering under the weight of a thousand spiderwebs. Pristine, crystalline in color, they'd been woven into a frenzy of patterns, a chaotic vision in silk. There was no symmetry here, only a kaleidoscope of beauty gone mad.
"Spiders," Camille whispered. "Are these…"
Menolly slid through the webs, brushing them off like she might brush away a gnat. In the center of the cave, she leaned down to look at something, then motioned for us to join her. I found a stick to bring down the webs as Camille and I made our way over to Menolly's side. She was kneeling beside what looked like a dried husk, only it was far too big for corn or any other vegetable.
"You'd better ask Zachary if they've had any other members of the pride go missing lately, ones who haven't been accounted for," she said.
"Uh," I didn't want to ask but I had to. "Is it-"
"Yes, it's another body, like the others. I think we can safely say that we're looking for the Hunters Moon Clan, and that they're turning the Puma Pride enclave into their private feeding grounds."
* * *
I stared at Menolly, trying to comprehend what she was saying. And then it all flashed together. The Hunters Moon Clan members were feeding on Zachary's people. What better way to conquer your rivals?
"Oh Great Mother, that's demented." I shuddered, quickly looking around the cave. But we were alone, at least as far as I could see.
"A good way to take care of your enemies-very old-world tribal. Not exactly cannibalistic, but damned close," Camille said. "The question is, what set them off? And why now?"