Camille didn't look like she minded at all. In fact, she was blushing, and I had the feeling my sister was looking forward to the encounter. Knowing Smoky, he'd make sure she'd enjoy their liaison.
Trillian let out a growl. Menolly flashed him an exasperated look. "Oh for the sake of the gods, will you just deal with it? You don't care if he hurts her, you're just worried she'll like his package of goodies better than yours. And frankly, I think that, even in human form, you can count on Smoky having some pretty elaborate-and impressive-equipment. So you'd better prepare for some hard competition."
"I don't recall asking for your opinion, O Fangstress. Why don't you go stake yourself?" He sighed as he accepted the sandwich I'd made for him. Menolly hissed at him but kept her ground.
I shook my head. "Stop fighting, all of you. We have to do this. There's no other choice, and since Camille holds the key, that's simply the way things are. Do you think we should take Chase with us?"
Camille shook her head. "No, Smoky was specific about who he wanted there. But he did insist Zach come along-said something about since it's his people being slaughtered, he owed it to them to play his part in this journey."
That brought me right back to Cromwell and the threat. "Before we decide anything about who else is going, there's something you have to know. Did Iris tell you already? When we got home today-"
"She told us about the cat and the note," Morio said. His eyes were glistening. "I'm sorry about Cromwell," he added.
"Thank the gods Maggie was downstairs with Menolly," Camille whispered, giving me something new to worry about. "We need to make sure we never leave her unattended, even if it means she spends some of her days down in Menolly's lair or with Iris at the shop."
"So what do we do next? Tell Zachary he's expected to go along with us?" Menolly looked at Camille, then me. "Is there anything else we need to know about you traipsing off to meet the Autumn Lord?"
Camille frowned. "I'll ask the Moon Mother. I'll be back in a moment." She headed outside. As one, Morio and Trillian rose to go after her. Before they could reach the door, Menolly shoved them back into their seats.
"I'll make sure she's safe," she said, slipping out to the foyer as they glared after her. They weren't stupid enough to try anything, thank the gods.
The phone rang while we were waiting, and I picked up to find Chase on the other end. I quickly filled him in on what we'd discovered. He wasn't thrilled with the idea of us including Zachary on the trip out to Smoky's and leaving him behind, but he was trying to play it cool. Honestly, I thought. Men were more trouble than they were worth sometimes, be they FBH, Svartan, dragon, or Earthside Supe.
"I'll contact you as soon as we know more. Meanwhile, don't bother contacting the OIA for a while. It's a mess back in OW right now. If we need help from home, we'll contact Queen Asteria."
"Who?" he asked.
"The Elfin Queen. I told you, remember?" I made a kissing sound and hung up as Menolly and Camille returned to the living room.
Camille paced the length of the room. "The Moon Mother isn't talking, but I know this is the right thing to do. There's something to be learned… and something to be gained, but I can't tell what."
I closed my own eyes, searching the depths of my psyche. And there it was: the same whisper on the wind. We had to go. I had to go. This might be Zachary's story, but for better or worse, we were part of it.
"You're right," I said. "I'll call Zach." I picked up the phone.
"Wait," she said, "there's something else."
I set the receiver down.
"The wards around the land were broken by whoever it was that killed Cromwell. I was too preoccupied to notice when I first got home, but now I can sense that they were negated. Not triggered but eliminated, which accounts for the lack of immediate warning. Whoever was here has strong magic behind them. After midnight, when the moon is strongest, I'll reset them and see if I can find out anything more."
"Negated? That means a butt load of trouble."
For someone to deactivate Camille's wards meant they wielded strong magic indeed. She might have her ups and downs with her spell crafting, but if there was one thing she was good at, it was warding the house and land. I flashed back to Zachary's first visit to my office. He'd mentioned that his shaman couldn't negate the wards, so whoever had deactivated them had to be stronger than Venus. Which meant big trouble for us, since Venus's magic seemed pretty damned potent.
I picked up the phone again. "Since Menolly's not going, we'll leave as soon as we can. When did Smoky say to come out?"
"He said to show up around three tomorrow," Camille said. "I'll go wake Iris and tell her she'll be watching the shop by herself. And she'd better take Maggie to work with her. If you could ask Chase to check in on them throughout the day, I'd appreciate it."
I nodded as I punched in Zach's number. The vision of Cromwell spread out in the web and sucked dry haunted me. Zachary's friends mattered, but I hadn't known them. But Cromwell, he was an innocent, caught in a dangerous game. Wrong place, wrong time. And I'd do everything I could to make sure that nobody-human, Were, or animal-ended up in that situation again.
* * *
The next morning as I came downstairs from a late start-and an even later shower-Zachary knocked at the door. He had a five o'clock shadow that wouldn't quit. The beard gave him a rugged look, and I couldn't pull my gaze away. I wasn't sure exactly how I felt about the man, but I had to admit that he was gorgeous in a lumberjack sort of way.
My pulse quickened as he brushed against me on his way into the living room. I held my breath. Zachary smelled like warm musk and vanilla and cinnamon, and I wanted to reach out and touch his arm, to spend a lazy morning inhaling his scent.
"I'm not sure what good I'll be," he said. "I've never even heard of the Northlands or the Autumn Lord." He took off his coat and slid into a chair. "You got any coffee?" he asked. "I'm sleepwalking here."
I sniffed the air. Sure enough, the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee drifted out from the kitchen. "I think Camille's making a pot. Cream and sugar?"
"Nah. As black as ink and as thick as mud. Thanks." As he stretched his arms overhead, his T-shirt clung to the muscles that spanned his chest, framing his narrow waist. I tried not to stare but found myself mesmerized. The scent of his sweat hit my nostrils, and I quivered, not sure what to say or do next.
He squinted at me. "You look different this morning," he said.
"How so?" I asked, blushing. His gaze was almost palpable, like warm fingers tiptoeing over my skin on a cold morning.
Zach let out a low laugh
. "I'm not sure. A little older. Alive and vibrant. Maybe I'm just tired, and everything seems vivid but… you just look…"
After an awkward moment, not knowing what to say or do, I forced myself to stammer out, "I'll be right back with your coffee. By the way," I added at the door, "the Northlands aren't on any map. They aren't in OW, either. They exist outside of both realms, through one of the sky portals. But that doesn't matter. We won't be going there. Smoky's invoking the Autumn Lord to come Earthside."
Leaving him to contemplate that, I headed into the kitchen.
Camille was standing near the stove, drinking her coffee. She'd dressed in a calf-length walking skirt, a plum cowl-necked sweater, and a pair of knee-high leather boots that had buckles on the side and a good tread for walking, even if the heels were three inches high. I never bothered to ask her how she could manage heels in the woods; it just seemed to come naturally to her. Meanwhile, I'd opted for my comfortable go-for-a-hike jeans, a turtleneck that was as turquoise as tropical water, and a pair of sneakers.
I leaned against the sink next to her, squeezing my eyes shut as I tried to figure out what to do about Zach. There was some sort of mutual attraction between us, that much was obvious, but I had no idea where to go from there. Or if I should go there at all.
"You okay?" Camille gave me a worried look.
"Yeah, I guess. Zach's here. He asked for some coffee."
Whether it was the hesitation in my voice or whether she was just observant, Camille set down her mug and faced me, a knowing smile on her lips. "You want him, don't you?"
I shrugged. "That's just it. I don't know. I wasn't sure at first whether it was just hormones or whether I was really attracted to him. I'm still not certain, but whatever it is, the feeling is getting stronger."
Camille sighed and poured him a mug of coffee. "He take cream and sugar?" I shook my head, and she continued. "I think you inherited a lot of your emotional reactions from Mother."
"Maybe, but it's not that I feel guilty because of Chase…" I stopped, searching my feelings. What I'd said was true, to a point, but there was something else there, something that made me hesitate.
I tried again. "Zachary's sexy and a Were and he seems like a good guy. I should be attracted to him. It makes sense. But I keep thinking, am I attracted to him because I think I'm supposed to be? What I have with Chase isn't logical. Chase isn't a Supe, he's possessive even though he tries to pretend he's not, he'll age and die a long time before I will. But… there's just something about him that I've grown comfortable with."
"Maybe you're more like Father than Mother," Camille said.
Letting out a long sigh, I jumped up to sit on the counter and swung my legs back and forth. "Zachary makes me feel awkward, like I'm not in control of myself. I don't feel very confident around him. And I don't know why."
"Want a little advice?" At my nod, Camille said, "Don't sweat it. Don't force it. Right now we have more important things to worry about, and I'd say just put the whole issue on the back burner for a while. If Zach and you are meant to come together as lovers, it will happen in its own time."
I stared at the coffee. The dark liquid was steaming, and a light froth of foam coiled on top. "I guess that's all I can do." As I reached for the mug, I noticed something on a paper plate near the microwave. "What's that?"
"Something important. I was going to tell you, but we got off track. This is another reason I suggest you wait to act on your feelings for Zach."
I glanced at the paper plate. It held a sticky pile of spiderweb, the web that had been Cromwell's final stand. "What's wrong?"
"I did some scrying on this web before dawn. I woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep, so I went out to make sure the new wards were holding. And then I checked the back porch-which I forgot to do last night in all the excitement." She paused, looking worried.
"And… of course I found spider energy on the web and porch. But there was something beneath it-as if there'd been two magicians here, not one. So I did some more scrying to find out who was with the spiderling."
I nodded. "What did you find? Demon energy? The Jansshi demon?"
"That's the tricky part," she said, shaking her head. "Not demon energy, Delilah, but werepuma. Cat magic."
I tried to comprehend what she was saying, and then it dawned on me. "You're kidding! Couldn't it be some residue from me or something?"
She shook her head, keeping her voice low. "No. And to make sure, I checked Cromwell's body. There was a strong vibration of cat magic on him."
"But how do you know? I buried him." She couldn't be right about this; it meant… it meant too many bad things to think about. "Maybe the werepuma was following Cromwell's killer? Maybe he tried to stop him?"
She frowned, leaning back against the counter. "After I sensed the cat magic energy on the porch, I exhumed Cromwell's body." She looked at me, pleading for understanding. "You have to believe me-I wouldn't have done so if I hadn't needed to, but we have to know. It was the only way I could trace the energy."
Stunned, I leaned back against the counter. She dug up Cromwell's grave? A werepuma in league with the spider clan? I jerked around, looking over my shoulder at the archway that led to the hall.
"Could it have been Zachary? Is he setting us up for some reason? Do you think he's in league with the spiders? Or the demons? Maybe this is all a trap?" I began to shake. What if this was all a setup? What if we were being herded right into Shadow Wing's plan?
But Camille rested her hand on my shoulder. "I don't think it was Zachary. Otherwise, Smoky wouldn't have suggested bringing him with us. When I reset the wards, I targeted them to trigger if those same energies returned, and they're quiet this morning, so Zach can't be the one."
"Maybe it's a Were from a rival puma clan," I said, thinking. "There are others, though the Rainier Pride is by far the most active and respected, as far as I can tell." I let out a long sigh, wondering how much deeper this mess was going to get. "Did you… is Cromwell still…"
"He's buried again, with a ring of flowers around his body, and coins on his eyes so the boatman will ferry him across the river to the western shore to rest with Lady Bast. Trust me, I said prayers for his soul, and he's safe back in the arms of the Cat Mother again." She paused, then added, "About Zachary… I'm pretty sure he's okay, but just in case he's being used, don't let down your guard. And don't mention the warning or Cromwell to him. We don't want to tip our hands, just to be on the safe side."