Stepping out of the tub, I dried off and shook my hair into place. After slipping into my favorite PJs, a terrycloth robe, and slippers, I padded down to the kitchen.
Iris and Chase were at the table. Chase nursed a cup of tea with Maggie sitting on his lap, while Iris was telling him stories about her life when she was bound to the Kuusi family in Finland. Chase liked Iris. Actually, most men did. She was witty and bright, pretty and friendly, and she had a way of making a guest feel welcome enough to take off his shoes, prop his feet up, and make himself right at home.
I poured myself a cup of tea and joined them, pulling Maggie into my arms. The gargoyle looked surprised, then wrapped her arms around my neck, gave me a nose lick, and rested her head on my shoulder, her downy fur tickling my chin.
Chase leaned his way past Maggie's head and pressed his lips against mine in a long, slow kiss. Not demanding, just welcoming. I shivered. How would I ever talk to him about Zachary? Did I even want to bother?
A burst of laughter from the hall told us Camille and Morio were on their way. Camille was wearing a purple peignoir set, and Morio was dressed in a calf-length blue smoking robe over a pair of dusky pajamas. They settled in at the table and poured their tea while Iris bustled about, heating up our dinner and quickly whipping together a batch of baking powder biscuits.
"Well, we have a lot to discuss," Camille said finally. "Tomorrow, I want to take a closer look at that shield. I'd like to know what the Hunters Moon Clan was doing with it. The thing's rife with demon energy."
"There are a lot of things we need to know," Chase said. "I called Sharah while you all were showering. The victim's name is Ben Jones. We lucked out. No immediate family to question where he's at. He worked for the Retro-Fit Plumbing Company, so we'll let them know that he won't be coming back. He was, as Morio suggested, drained dry of his innards, but his heart appears to have been removed first. Ripped out, you might say," Chase added softly. "This is a pretty gruesome case, guys. Do you think there's any chance the OIA will get involved? I know the Pumas are Earthside Supes, but…"
"But we could use all the help we can get," I said. "I have no idea if the OIA will be doing anything to help any of us. Trillian should have more information when he returns from his visit. When's he supposed to get back, Camille?"
She shrugged. "I thought today. Apparently I was wrong. But considering what Father told us the other day, I think we can count out any involvement on the agency's part."
"Why, though, is a Degath Squad picking on the Puma Pride? And why use the Hunter's Moon Clan to do their dirty work? Shadow Wing doesn't seem like one to stand in the shadows and play the puppet master." I leaned back in my chair, absently stroking Maggie's fur. "I still think the Autumn Lord is our best bet for information. We have to know everything we can about the Hunter's Moon Clan, and he's the one who can tell us."
Camille stared at the table. "I may not like it, but I think you're right. When demons are involved, we're involved. I'll talk to Smoky tomorrow night while you attend the V. A. meeting with Menolly. He's our best chance. I just hope he doesn't set the price so high we'll regret it."
* * *
By the time I woke up, the sun had already risen. Hell, I'd overslept. I pulled myself out of bed, grateful that it was Sunday and I didn't have to worry about going to the office or anything like that. Actually, since I made my own hours, I was a lot freer than either Camille, who was bound to the bookstore unless Iris helped her out, or Menolly, who was in charge of the Wayfarer. I could arrange my days as I chose. Of course, I made less money than either of them, but I didn't really care.
A peek out the window told me that the day was dry and chilly, though not freezing. The temperature hovered around the thirty-eight degree mark, and what snow we'd had was slowly melting off, turning to slush.
I ran through a series of stretches, arching my back, rolling my neck, then slipped into the shower for a quick rinse-and-go. Rooting through my closet, I found a pair of cozy black sweatpants and a cute T-shirt that said, Fae is the Way on the front over a picture of Tinkerbelle standing in a Betty Boop pose. Poor Tinkerbelle had suffered a setback once we started coming through the portals and people got a glimpse of what the Fae were really like.
I ran a brush through my hair, washed my face, and brushed my teeth, then headed downstairs where the smells of breakfast floated through the air. Iris and Camille were filling the table with blueberry hotcakes hot off the griddle, maple sausage, a mess of scrambled eggs, and chilled applesauce with whipped cream. Iris had my milk all ready for me-warm with a dash of cinnamon and sugar sprinkled in it.
I licked my lips. "You two have been busy this morning. Feeling rather domestic?" Camille flashed me a pale smile, and the weight of last night's excursion encroached on my perky mood again.
"Thinking about last night?" Pulling up a chair, I tasted my milk, then, satisfied it was just right, chugged it down. Maybe I had lost a lot of my optimism and naive everything-will-be-okay attitude since we'd landed Earthside, but werespiders or not, nothing was going to come between me and my breakfast.
"That and the fact that I haven't heard from Trillian yet," she said.
I frowned. "Maybe the Svartan king kept him there. Maybe Tanaquar? I've never been quite sure just how Trillian's connected to the war, and he's never really explained it to me." I hadn't bothered to ask, but that was beside the point.
Camille deposited the last of the hotcakes on the table, and she and Iris settled in their chairs. We were alone-no boyfriends at the table-and Menolly was sleeping soundly in her lair. Maggie crawled around the floor, content to pound on a plastic bowl with a wooden spoon Iris had given her. She giggled as she drummed out a chaotic medley of beats.
Gargoyles were primarily bipedal, but when they were young, their wings unbalanced them, tiny as the appendages still were, and so they crawled like human children. We'd had one of the OIA medics examine her and, while he wasn't a specialist regarding Cryptos, he said he thought she was developing normally. Or as normally as she could, given her background.
"Trillian runs messages between Tanaquar and the Svartan King. I think the King's name is Vodox," Camille said. "When I thought Trillian had returned to Svartalfheim after I ran away from him, he was actually sneaking back and forth between his city and Y'Elestrial. Now that Svartalfheim has packed up and moved to Otherworld, it makes his job easier, although if Lethesanar catches him, he's as good as dead."
Iris shook her head. "He's a hard one, that boy, but he's true to his word. I wouldn't trust being within a hundred miles of him if I were his enemy, but as a friend? I want him by my side
." She glanced up at Camille. "I'm surprised the OIA has let you stay employed this long, considering your relationship."
"So am I, and it worries me," Camille said. "I keep waiting for the ax to fall. Anyway, back to Trillian's job. He has high connections, but they're all unofficial. He has no title, he's paid under the table, and very few realize just what he's doing."
That sounded about right. Trillian had the makings for a first-class spy. "What's on your schedule today?" I asked Camille.
She shrugged. "Wait for him to return, I suppose. Morio's coming over later this morning so we can examine the shield. Then we're going to drive out to see Smoky." She sobered. "We'll be gone all afternoon."
"I know he's going to demand a high price for his help, but there's really no other way that I can see to get there. Considering what we found last night…" I thought of the cave and the body of the plumber and shuddered.
She shook her head. "I know. The spiderlings sure did a number on that dude. I hate thinking about them creeping around. Can they also morph into larger sizes?"
I shrugged. "No idea, and I don't want to find out."
Camille frowned. "Neither do I, but since they can take the size of a regular spider, I'm not sure how safe I feel. I think I'll see if I can find an antipest spell."
"You could just use an insecticide," Iris said, glancing up, a twinkle in her eye. "It might be more reliable."
I repressed a snort.
Camille gave her a withering look, but both Iris and I saw the smile creeping around her frown. "The spray might hurt Maggie. And I know my magic's erratic, but Morio's doing his best to help me harness the wayward energy that plagues my spell work."
"You sure you don't want company-besides Morio-this afternoon?" I didn't really want to tag along and beg Smoky for a ride, but I'd go if Camille wanted me there.
To be honest, the dragon scared the hell out of me. Granted, he was gorgeous in human form, and awe-inspiring in dragon form, but he was also ancient enough to have more power than he knew what to do with. One step out of his good graces meant a chance of ending up on the dinner menu. Camille pushed his buttons, but he seemed to enjoy sparring with her. Anybody else try it, and he'd swallow them whole and burp later.
She shook her head. "Thanks, but since Smoky seems to respond most to me, I'll go. Why don't you help Iris around here? Take a little time to relax. I have a feeling we're all going to be praying for some downtime soon enough."
Relieved, I decided to offer an olive branch to Iris. "Sounds good. Iris, why don't you let me take you out shopping this afternoon? I owe you big for all the broken ornaments."
Iris perked up. "Shopping? Did you say shopping? Just promise me you'll hold on to your tail and not change in the middle of the mall?"
Blushing, I nodded. "I'll do my best. Can't make you any guarantees, but forewarned is forearmed. I'll keep up my guard around the decorations."
Iris sniffed. "You mean it's up to me to keep you distracted? Rather like keeping a child's attention occupied while strolling through the toy section."
"Yeah, kind of." I glanced up at Camille. "Okay, I'm done with breakfast; I'll go look through your car." I shrugged on my jacket and stepped out into the mind-numbing chill of the day.
The yard was barren, but come spring it would be ablaze with dizzying color. Iris had been out and about, spreading garden spells and planting bulbs and flowers that would spring to life next year. Yet, even amid the frozen slush that muddied the parking area and turned the front and side yards into wading ponds, our land had a feral beauty to it. We'd never manage manicured gardens and well-formed hedges-those were the province of elves and humans-but the Fae were known for their wild places. And we had enough of our father's blood in us to bring out that aspect in any place we lived.
I glanced at the woods down by the edge of the expansive lawn. The path to Birchwater Pond beckoned to me, but I had work to do, much as I wanted to go wandering. I wasn't an alley cat, happy to prowl the city streets. No, I preferred the country, and I'd rather be scampering down the back roads, whether in two-legged or four-legged form. I pushed aside the craving for a quiet walk and turned my attention to Camille's car.
The Lexus was a beauty, and she kept it in pristine condition, much to the consternation of her bank account. At least she put her ability to charm the pants off just about any human male to good use. She always managed to get a discount on services and parts, and both Menolly and I took her along when we needed work done on our own vehicles.
I pulled out the crystal Queen Asteria's messenger had given us and closed my eyes as I grasped it in my hand. The magic pulsated, a steady rhythm warming my skin. I wasn't a witch, but the energy had an oddly familiar cadence to it.
Elfin magic went back far before that of most wizards. Camille was tied to the Moon Mother, and her magic had roots extending far into the haze of history, but the elves… their magic was that of tree and wood, and deep dark caverns, and ancient rivers running wild through the land. They walked the paths of the forests, and even Elqaneve, their city, was grounded firmly in the soil of Otherworld, though it had first taken hold in the body of the Earth Mother.
Slowly, with an even pace, I circled Camille's car, watching the crystal carefully. It flickered softly, pale blue, frost white, and then, as I reached the trunk, a blush of rose began to form inside the sunburst. Bingo. I popped her trunk, and the crystal flared. And then I paused. I don't know what stopped me-instinct perhaps, or perhaps a gut feeling-but I pulled my hand out of the trunk and turned on the flashlight that I'd been carrying in my pocket. I flicked it on, and what I saw made me grateful I hadn't reached into the dark.
Toward the back, a metal disk the size of a quarter was fastened to the floor of the trunk. A bug, no doubt. But guarding the disk were two brown spiders with jointed brown legs. They could have been house spiders, but I knew they weren't. They might have been Weres, but again, I knew they weren't. They were guardians, magically enhanced to withstand the cold weather. Sentinels. And they would have bitten me if I'd reached in without looking.
I slowly withdrew my hand, not wanting to alarm them. If they scuttled off behind the liner in the trunk, there'd be no finding them. They'd have the advantage, and their target would most likely be Camille. I shut the trunk gently and bolted back up the stairs into the kitchen, where Camille and Iris were putting away the dishes out of the dishwasher.
"There's a bug, all right," I said, "and two guards to make sure it's not disturbed. I think they've been enchanted, which means insecticide probably won't work on them. We need to catch them or kill them. We can't let them get away."