Then everything went to hell.
Geph managed to recover as Rhonda raised her baton for another blow, leaving her chest open and vulnerable. Lightning fast, he plunged his knife deep into her left side. She screamed, and the baton dropped from her hand to land with a ringing thud on the floor.
Menolly and I raced to help her, but before we could get there, the light in her eyes faded, and she fell backward, his knife stuck in her side.
Morio started forward but stopped when Camille swung around toward Geph, her hands held high, a look of fury on her face that I'd only seen once before, when she'd been fighting Bad Ass Luke.
"Mordentant, mordentant, mordentant," she yelled, and a faint beam of light shot from her fingertips.
This wasn't moon magic. Even I could feel the difference. No, this was something else, older and darker and far more dangerous.
Morio leapt to her side, and the energy from their hands merged, hitting Geph square in the chest. A look of surprise washed across his face-one that said, But this wasn't supposed to happen, and he let go of his knife and collapsed.
Morio broke off the attack and gave Camille a quick smack across the face. Startled, she dropped her hands. "You can't take him to the finish," he said hoarsely, and I wondered what the hell they were talking about. "It's not safe. You don't know how to retreat from it yet."
Lianel was struggling to pull himself along the ground. He had barely made it three feet when Menolly put a quick stop to his not-so-hasty retreat. He slumped and was still.
I knelt beside Rhonda's side and felt for a pulse. Nothing. There was no breath, no sign of life in her eyes. She'd gone out like a light turned off at the end of the day. I stared at her for a moment. Zach had loved her and, at one time, he'd wanted to marry her. When he'd asked for her help, she'd given it willingly, walking into a dangerous situation with people she didn't know. And now she was gone. All my petty jealousy flew out the window as I whispered the prayer for the dead.
"What was life has crumbled. What was form now falls away. Mortal chains unbind, and the soul is lifted free. May you find your way to the ancestors. May you find your path to the gods. May your bravery and courage be remembered in song and story. May your parents be proud, and may your children carry your birthright. Sleep, and wander no more."
Soft voices joined me, and I looked up to see Camille and Menolly standing by my side, praying along with me. After we finished, I stood and brushed past them to where Morio was keeping watch over Geph. He looked on his last legs. Whatever spell Camille and Morio had cast, it had mortally injured him.
I motioned for Morio to move aside and leaned down to stare Geph in the face. "You've taken too many lives."
His eyes grew wide. Feeling colder than I'd ever felt before, I felt something within me struggling to shift, struggling to get out. I was transforming, and yet it was different than usual. As I arched my back, trying to free whatever it was that wanted loose, Geph gurgled, and his head lolled to the side. I let out a roar, loud enough to vibrate against the walls, and then the pressure died away.
Menolly raced to my side. "Kitten, are you okay?"
I shook my head. "I don't know. But we don't have time to muck around figuring out what's happening to me. We'll come back for Rhonda's body, but right now we have to find the others and make sure they're okay."
My thoughts turned to Chase; he was an FBH, the easiest target by far. Gripped by sudden fear that he'd become another victim of Kyoka's insane clan, I raced toward the tunnel. We reached the main room again just in time to see Trillian, Smoky, and Chase race in from the main hallway. Smoky looked pissed. Chase and Trillian just looked terrified.
"What? What is it?" I asked.
"About two dozen members of the Hunters Moon Clan are on our heels!" Chase added, panting. He skidded to a halt by the dais. "What the hell?"
Morio waved his hand, and the illusion hiding Venus broke. "We found him. He's been terribly hurt, but he'll live."
"Well, that's good, but I'm not sure we'll be able to say the same for us in a few minutes," Smoky said. "I can't change underground. There's just not enough room, although maybe… in this chamber…"
Trillian looked around. "Where's the girl? The puma?"
I let out a long shudder. "Dead. As are Lianel and von Spynne. They tried to take Camille hostage."
Trillian strode over to Camille's side. "Did that motherfucker put his hands on you?"
She shook her head. "He managed to catch me but didn't have a chance to do anything to me."
"I'll see his soul in hell, all the same." Trillian shook his head and turned back to our approaching adversaries. "Let's hope they don't all attack at once. Too bad the opening is so accessible."
That gave me an idea. "It doesn't have to be! Smoky, if you change in here, there will be just enough room. You won't be able to fight, but you'll fill up the space, and they won't all be able to fit in at once."
"Oh, delightful. You want me to become a giant paperweight. All right," he said. "Stand back. I'll try not to hurt anybody, but no promises."
As we fell back, the sounds of our enemies grew louder. Before they could make it through the door, a haze of glittering mist rose around Smoky. I covered my eyes and backed away, Chase by my side. The sound of breaking rock echoed in the room, then more crashes, and when I finally peeked, there was Smoky in all of his dragonly glory. And just in time. Three men popped through the door, but they took one look at the dragon and screamed, retreating as quickly as they'd come.
I was about to let out a sigh of relief when another movement caught my eye, this time from behind. Whirling around, I was just in time to see Tyler-turned-Kyoka enter the room from the cave where we'd left Rhonda's body, with the Jansshi demon right behind him. We were in for it now.
* * *
Kyoka's eyes were glowing like a rabid dog caught in headlights. He glanced up at Smoky, then back at the Jansshi demon. "He can't hurt us without hurting his friends."
The Jansshi demon nodded. Tall and spindly, he had a bloated stomach and looked like a caricature of a human, with greenish skin and long claws that dripped with what I could only assume was venom. When he opened his mouth, I could see the gleam of his sharp, serrated teeth. He moved with a lurching gait, his knees bent. No wonder the werespiders liked him-he was one of their homeboys.
I caught my breath. The Jansshi actually worried me less than Kyoka. A thousand years hanging out in the Sub Realms must have given him a whole new perspective on how to make life miserable. His powers had probably grown during that time, and he hadn't been keeping the best of company. No doubt Lianel had given him a number of pointers.
Camille, Trillian, and Morio were closest to the Jansshi, and they formed a semicircle, waiting for it to make a move, while Chase, Menolly, and I reluctantly faced Kyoka. Smoky kept watch on the entrance to the hall. There were a lot of spiderlings out there, but they knew what a dragon could do to them, and they kept out of his reach, which meant that he kept us out of their reach
In every battle comes that one moment of quiet calm. It only lasts a fraction of a second as force assesses force, estimations are made. Then the flag falls, and the journey into hell begins. And so we stood poised on the brink, waiting for that indecipherable moment when the muse whispers, "Go."
Kyoka raised his arms and, as if waking from a long dream, I lunged forward, sword out. To my left, Chase whipped out his gun and fired, but it was useless. Kyoka inhabited the body of a man already dead. There was no heartbeat to stop. When he saw that nothing happened, Chase went for his nunchakus.
To my right, Menolly sprang into action. Kyoka spun toward her and muttered something. She froze in midstep, paralyzed as if she were porcelain. Cripes, he knew spells that worked on the undead! I lashed out with my blade, catching him across the upper arm, but he just laughed and spun into a dropkick, landing a blow in my stomach that propelled me back a good three yards. I landed hard, scrambling to my feet just in time to see Chase move in.
Camille and Morio were conjuring some force together, their hands joined as they focused on the Jansshi. The demon was trying to engage Trillian, but he danced back, pulling out some shooting stars and firing them quickly. One of them caught the beast in the forehead. The Jansshi let out a loud yowl and yanked the star out of its brow, tossing it on the ground. Camille and Morio took that moment to fire off whatever it was they were conjuring, and a shower of sparks flew from their hands, daggers of light aimed directly at the Jansshi. It screamed, rubbing its eyes as it stumbled around.
"It's blind!" Morio shouted. Trillian whipped out his blade, dashed in, and gutted the creature, ripping it from stomach to throat. A grotesque pile of intestines flopped out as the demon flailed and toppled over backward.
Back on our side of the battle, Chase had moved in on Kyoka, expertly whirling his nunchakus. If we hadn't been in the middle of a life-or-death fight, I would have stopped to watch.
Kyoka frowned and raised his hands. He was getting ready to try another spell. I grabbed a rock and lobbed it at him, hitting him square in the shoulder. That was all it took to break his concentration, and startled, he jerked around. Whatever he'd been planning on doing went out the window, because Chase seized the opportunity and let fly with a blow that hit him in the head.
The shaman lurched backward, but then a noise caught our attention, and we all turned toward the dais where Smoky sat. The egg that rested behind him began to crack, and before we could stop him, Kyoka raced toward it and jumped, landing next to it as it broke open in a cloud of dust and smoke. With a loud screech, he slowly fell to the ground, his body decaying before our eyes like time-elapsed footage on some forensics show.
What the hell? Was he dead? It couldn't be that easy, could it?
And then, as the dust cleared, a creature stepped out of the remains of the stone egg. A nightmare straight out of my dream. With the torso of a man and the body of a spider, he was gloriously terrifying. Hair as black as night drifted down his shoulders, and his eyes glittered, but the rest of his body was bloated and huge, with jointed legs that ended in sharpened points. His laughter reverberated off the ceiling, and a crazed light filled his eyes. Kyoka had truly returned in all his former glory. And more.
"Shit, they grew a new body for him!" I stumbled back, terrified and yet knowing that we couldn't stop yet.
Smoky let out a roar as the mad shaman looked at him and said something I couldn't catch. Within seconds, Smoky shifted back into human form and collapsed. Shit! Kyoka had the power to dispel a dragon?
"Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," Chase muttered. I glanced back at Menolly, who had managed to come out from under the statue spell. She took one look at Kyoka and backed away. We quickly joined her.
Camille whispered something to Morio, who shook his head. "It's our only chance," she said. "Just do it. We have no choice."
They clasped hands again and began the chant Camille had been using against Lianel. "Mordentant, mordentant, mordentant, mordentant…"
Trillian and Menolly stepped in front of them in order to deflect Kyoka's attacks while they built up their energy. A chill raced down my spine. Now I knew what kind of spell they were casting: death magic, one of the most ancient and dangerous kinds of magic to use. Slowly, as the energy built, Kyoka moved forward, an impassive look on his face. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that his warriors-the werespiders-were now in the form he had taken. They were edging into the room. We had to do something, and we had to do it now.
A wave of dizziness rushed over me, rising from the depths of my soul. An ancient stirring began to awaken. It had tried to waken before, only this time there was nothing to stop it. I let go and surrendered to the transformation, only it wasn't my tabby self I was changing into. Whatever this new form was, she was huge and fierce and imbued with a power beyond the natural world.
My head dropped back, my neck rolling as bones shifted and skin stretched, fur sprouting from every pore. I dropped to all fours, arms growing as legs shortened. Hands and feet became paws, huge and black with pads that were thick from running in the jungle. A sharp, painful tug, and my spine lengthened. Claws and teeth grew, sprouting long and sharp, and my already heightened sense of smell intensified.
The mark on my forehead blazed, and I could feel him nearby. He was standing there, in a cloud of smoke and fire, the wreath of leaves around his head burning like Lucia's candles. His cloak swept his feet, and with every step, he left a trail of frost and flame.
I glanced up and saw myself reflected in his eyes, a massive black panther, sleek and muscled, with eyes as emerald as the shimmering forest.
The Autumn Lord leaned down and touched my head. "Complete the task I set forth for you," he said. "Destroy the shaman and send him and his children to the grave for good. I give you the power to act with this form."
And then I was back in the room again, but the only other person there was Kyoka. Everyone else had vanished. Kyoka moved toward me.
"So, he's sent you to do his dirty work?" Kyoka said. "The first time he sent a Viking, and now he sends a panther? Come then, my pretty pussy. Let's play." He motioned for me to bring it on.
I let out a roar that shook the room, then hunkered down and sprang.
Kyoka shot a stream of energy directly at me. It hit my side but passed through as if it were nothing more than vapor. Startled, he let out a cry. "What the hell-why didn't you-"
Before he could finish, I was on him, trying to avoid those sharp daggers he used for feet. I let loose with a swipe from my claws. Kyoka lurched and fell onto his side. It was as easy as dropping a shoe on a spider.