Rhonda looked over at Zach. "Will he survive?"
I nodded. "We called the medics in time to neutralize the poison, but he can't move much for a few days. He's stuck here tonight, and there's no chance he can go with us."
"Have the boys filled you in?" Camille asked.
Rhonda nodded, her gaze flickering over to Trillian, who stared back at her, cool and aloof. After a moment, she looked away, blinking. I had the feeling Rhonda was used to being the center of the party, and tonight, not everybody was playing the way she had expected.
I stood up. "Okay, before we get moving, let's come up with a rough plan. Camille, since moon energy doesn't work so well on the werespiders, what are you going to use for a weapon?"
She patted the sheath on her belt. "Short sword. And I know a few spells that don't rely on the moon's energy. I might be able to summon up an Elemental to help us-perhaps a wind or an earth Elemental. Of course, if they're pissed, they may decide to help the spiders, so…"
"Let's leave that as a last resort," I said quickly. "I'll go in fighting, as usual. Chase, what are you bringing to the table?"
"I have my gun, of course, and nunchakus," he said, holding up the fighting sticks. "Silver bullets only work on lycanthropes, so I didn't bother bringing them."
"Good. Smoky, Trillian, Morio?"
Morio arched his eyebrows. "My repertoire includes a number of spells and illusions. And if all else fails, I can let loose my true form and have at them. I'm not such a pretty boy when I let the demon out to play." He said it so calmly that I had to smile until I remembered that none of us had ever seen Morio when he was in full demon mode.
Smoky snorted. "I'm a dragon. I'll do what I do best."
Trillian held up a serrated blade, then carefully sheathed it again. That was all he had to say.
"Well, if we're done, then let's get moving," Smoky said, standing up.
Iris entered the room. She carried a tray holding a bowl of chicken soup and a sandwich. Maggie was curled up on the end of the sofa by Zach's feet.
"You all be careful. I don't want to have to come rescue anybody," Iris said.
Camille gave her a hug. "We'll be back as soon as we can. Menolly will be back by sunrise, in any case. If something happens and you need help, use the Whispering Mirror to contact Trenyth."
Iris nodded as we herded out the door. "Understood. Please, girls, don't take any unnecessary chances. It only takes one mistake…" Her voice trailed off, and she waved as we clattered down the porch steps, our boots scrunching over the newly fallen snow.
We split into two groups. Chase, Rhonda, and Menolly rode with me in my Jeep, while Camille, Trillian, and Smoky rode with Morio in his Subaru Outback. Rhonda insisted on sitting next to me rather than Menolly, and I grudgingly agreed. I preferred having Menolly ride shotgun but didn't want to start a ruckus.
As I put my Jeep into gear and pulled out onto the road, I wondered if we'd all be alive by the end of the night. And would we be able to find Venus the Moon Child and the second seal before Shadow Wing got to it?
To get to Snoqualmie from Belles-Faire means driving over the 520 floating bridge, the world's longest pontoon bridge, which separates Seattle from the greater Eastside, then taking the 405 freeway to the exit leading to I-90 East. Once on I-90, it was a relatively short jaunt to reach the exit for the town of Snoqualmie.
By eight o'clock, rush hour had finally ended, and the roads were fairly clear, meaning plenty of traffic but not high volume. The ice and snow had slowed things down, but there were still a lot of drivers who assumed their SUVs gave them a free ticket to reckless winter driving, and twice we passed one of the big-ass cars that had skidded to the side of the road.
The snow fell steadily, muffling the world in a blanket of crystal. Something felt odd about this storm, almost magical. If we were still in one piece after our sojourn tonight, maybe I'd ask Camille to tune in and see what she could find out from the weather imps. The creatures usually ignored mortals of any kind, preferring to interact with only Elementals, but they made an exception for witches who could use weather magic.
I took the I-90 East exit and watched to make sure Morio followed me. As we curved under the overpass, I merged onto the freeway, and we were headed toward the Cascade Mountain Range. Of course, we'd stop long before we got to the top of Snoqualmie Pass, but even in the darkness I could feel the difference. We were headed toward still-active volcanoes and ancient mountains, towering peaks born from the heaving movements of great plates under the land. Earth's growing pains.
The traffic was light. Most people were shopping for the holidays or cozying up at home. We had the road pretty much to ourselves as we sped along.
"So what's our objective again?" Rhonda asked.
"Pretty simple," I said. "Find and eradicate Kyoka and the werespiders. Save Venus the Moon Child."
"So you don't really have a concrete plan of action?" she said, sniffing.
I kept a firm grip on the steering wheel. Her tone grated on my nerves, but I had no intention of letting her disrupt my thoughts. "We're lucky we even found the nest at all. We don't know what we're going into, and there's no way of finding out till we get there, so we just go in and fly by the seat of our pants. If you have a better idea, I'd like to know about it, because, babe, your people are running out of time."
She shut up. I knew I'd offended her, but I didn't care. The closer we got to Snoqualmie, the more I could feel the web that the Hunters Moon Clan had spun around the area. It was like a shadow growing in the mists that would take hold and root deep if we didn't clear it out. My senses clicked into high alert.
Chase directed me to turn off on Parson's Creek Road. The road was two lanes, and as my Jeep sped over the ice-encrusted pavement, I let myself slide further into trance. Menolly had remained silent in the backseat, but she suddenly stiffened and leaned forward.
"Demon scent. I don't know how long ago, but a demon's passed this way," she said.
I glanced in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were shining red, and her fangs were extended. She gave me a feral smile and winked.
"Jansshi demon," she said. "They're scavengers. They'll eat whatever you throw at them. This squad of Hell Scouts is probably led by Kyoka. Both Lianel and he have to be smarter than the Jansshi, who's primarily a thug wrapped up in brimstone."
Rhonda coughed. "I've never faced a demon," she said, sounding less sure of herself than she had a few minutes before.
"We have." I gave her a quick smile. "They can be terrifying, but in this case, I think we face more danger from Lianel and Kyoka than from the Jansshi. And don't forget the spiderlings. When I saw Geph von Spynne in my dream, he wielded a tremendous amount of power, and he can see out onto the astral
. Of that I'm sure."
"The turn's a half mile up the road," Chase said. "Goldenrod Road."
My blood quickened, and I focused on driving. The scenery was looking familiar. I caught my breath. Shit, this was going to be bad.
"They're in a cave, mind you. We don't want to walk into a trap, but I doubt they'll welcome us at the door. We're going to have to go in after them. And that means danger."
Chase pulled out his cell phone and dialed. After a moment, he started speaking. When I glanced at him in the rearview mirror, he covered the mouthpiece and whispered, "It's Camille. Just coordinating."
I concentrated on driving. And there it was-just as I'd dreamed, a signpost that read Goldenrod Road. In my vision I'd been coming the other way, but that didn't matter now.
I took a shuddering deep breath and turned left, Morio right on my tail. As we bumped along over the rough drive, I tried to remember how far it had been before the turnout leading to the nest. The S-curves seemed more precarious now that I was driving, especially with the packed snow and ice clinging to the road. And then, before I was ready, there it was-the turnout. I pulled to the side and killed the motor.
"We're here," I said. "See that dark spot there between those two fir trees? That's our path." Reluctantly, I unbuckled my seat belt and climbed out of the car. The others followed suit, and Chase pulled out our supplies that we'd prepared before leaving. As I slid my backpack on and made sure my long knife was fastened firmly in my boot and that my wrist blades were secure, Camille pulled to a stop right behind my Jeep.
They tumbled out of the car, and we gathered by the edge of the road.
"Everybody have everything you need?" Camille asked. We all nodded. She glanced up at the clouds and closed her eyes. "Moon Mother, be with us. Great Mother, watch over us."
"Lady Bast, guide and protect us," I added my own prayer. "See us through the coming battle, strengthen our magic, and enchant our blades."
I looked up. It was time. "All right, let's go." The second seal hung in the balance. We couldn't wait any longer. I swung onto the path, slipping between the fir trees that towered over us. As a gust of wind billowed past, setting the trees to creaking, the mark on my forehead tingled. My blood surged and, like a river raging in its banks, a current of fire rolled through my veins. Shaken but feeling stronger than I'd ever felt in my life, I straightened my shoulders. Somebody had heard our prayers, it seemed, but a little part of myself wondered just who had decided to answer.
"Okay, boys and girls, here we go," I said, and plunged into the brush, the others following in a silent line behind me.
* * *
As we headed into the bush, my vision shifted, and I found myself seeing everything as clearly as if I were wearing night-vision goggles. Startled, I stumbled, and Camille, who was right behind me, braced me from falling.
"Are you okay?" she asked, keeping her voice low.
I blinked. Sure enough, I could see almost as clearly as if it were daylight, in an odd, colorless sort of way. "I don't know," I said, quickly filling her in on what was going on with my eyesight. "At least whatever this is seems to be in my favor. Where's Menolly?" I added, looking around.
"Look. Up there, see her?" Camille pointed to a low-flying bat. Menolly was slowly but surely learning to use her own powers to shift, although she couldn't stay aloft for long.
"Wow, she's starting to get the hang of it," I said. "Though she won't be able to stay up for long. I don't think she's managed a transformation for more than ten minutes yet."
"Well, at least she's trying, and this is a good place to give it a shot. She might be able to hide in a tree when we get to the cave. She could be our surprise element." Camille did her best to sound lighthearted, but her expression told me she was anything but that. She knew as well as I did that a lot was riding on what happened in the next few hours.
As we hiked along the inclining path, we came out into the patch looking down into the ravine. Just as I'd dreamed it. Peering over the edge, Camille and I stared into the raging water as it poured along the channel.
"I wouldn't want to get caught in those blackberry bushes," she said, pointing to the thorny mass covering the side of the dirt slope.
"What's up this hill?" Chase asked from the other side of the road. "Did you have a chance to explore at all?"
We crossed the path to join him. Smoky was staring at the hillside, frowning. He shook his head and said, "I don't think it's a good idea for any of you to go up there. I could without worrying, but I won't."
"What is it? What do you know?" I asked.
"This area was inhabited by Native Americans. They called themselves the people of the moon, and I think they have sacred burial grounds near here. I can feel spirits moving," Smoky said.
"My guide! He said something about his people being the people of the moon." As I spoke, there was a flutter on the wind, and a hush settled over the area. A translucent figure took shape in front of us, his aura gleaming in the night. It was the spirit I'd met in my dream. He looked quizzically at Smoky, Morio, and Trillian.
I bowed, hoping that was the proper way to show respect to a land guardian. "We meet again." Great, I sounded like some melodrama out of the forties.
He cocked his head to one side. "Have we met?" he asked,. and then a smile flooded over his face. "Oh yes, I remember you. But you were your animal self that night."
I nodded, not wanting to admit that I wasn't sure just what animal I'd transformed into. "We've come to clean out the werespiders. Will you help us?"
With a shake of the head, he said, "I can't leave this place. But go, my friends, and may the spirits be with you." And with that, he faded out of sight.
"What do you make of that?" Rhonda asked.
"I don't," I said. "I've learned not to bother trying, because it's just a waste of time. Come on, we've got to get in there."
As I led them through the undergrowth toward the cleft in the hillside below, the snow picked up, and the wind howled down from the other side of the hill to sweep past us. Menolly landed nearby, abruptly shifting back into herself.
"Winds are too high for me to fly in bat form, and I can't hover up there either," she said. "I'm not going to be much use when it comes to aerial tricks. Give me a good solid wall, and I can climb it, though."
"Well, it was worth a shot," I said. "I don't see anybody around, do you?"
"We could shine a light in the forest and see if any eyes reflect, but that would give us away." Chase scooted up next to me, squatting as we hunkered down behind the huckleberry bushes that had grown wild through the area. "It's your call, Delilah. What do we do?"