Autumn Whispers (Page 1)

Chapter 1

I stood at the top of the ravine overlooking the waterfront below. Nestled on the front of Lake Sammamish, my destination was a sprawling behemoth of a house—like many in the greater Seattle metropolitan area, jokingly referred to as McMansions. Cookie-cutter design like its neighbors, the monster was a tribute to the high wages and high cost of living that came with this area.

Only tonight, all the money and success in the world wouldn’t help the owner of the palatial estate. Tonight, the man who owned this house was going to die—and he was going to die the final death.

Behind me, in a sheer flowing robe that mirrored the twilight sky, stood Greta, my mentor, the leader of the Death Maidens. Petite, with hair the color of burnished copper, Greta and I bore the same tattoos, only hers were far older and more brilliant.

Emblazoned on our foreheads were onyx crescents, hers burning with a vivid flame. Mine sparkled a glistening black most of the time. An intricate lacework of black and orange leaves wound up our forearms. Hers were vivid. Mine had started as a pale shadow but now were nearing a similar intensity.

Patiently standing a few steps behind me, Greta waited as I contemplated the house. I was dressed in a flowing robe similar to hers, though mine wasn’t sheer. I absently toyed with the tasseled belt girding my waist as I gauged the timing. This would be my fifth kill in the past month—or oblition, as it was called in Haseofon—and this time, I was on my own. Greta was merely supervising.

I’d been on a fast track the past eight weeks, spending a lot of time in Haseofon, the temple of the Death Maidens, learning to fight on the astral where we worked. And I’d been taking a high dose of the panteris phir, or Panther’s Fang, to gain better control over my shifting into the black panther side of myself.

I was surprised the latter had been working so well, considering how little control I still had over shifting into my Tabby self. Greta told me that since Panther was a gift from the Autumn Lord rather than something I was born with, my half-human heritage wasn’t a stumbling block to controlling the ability.

Now, I closed my eyes, listening for that internal sensor that would tell me the exact moment in which to move in. A pause . . . I lowered myself below my conscious thoughts, deep into my subconscious. And then I heard it.

Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . . There it was, echoing in the corner of my mind. The gentle chiming of a clock as it counted down the last moments of Gerald Hanson’s life. The clock—or sensor—was my guide, urging me on, directing me when to move in, at what precise moment to grapple with Gerald’s soul and send it spinning into oblivion.

The only thing I knew about Gerald at this moment was that he was a lawyer, and his life was forfeit to keep the balance. Grandmother Coyote had called in a favor from the Autumn Lord, and Hi’ran had specifically directed that I be the one to take care of this. For whatever reason, I was to be the Death Maiden who attended his departure.

I glanced back at Greta. She remained impassive, waiting for my move, so I set out for the ravine and she followed me. We raced through the etheric winds as if we were meteors, shooting through the sky.

Movement on the astral still confused me, although I’d been here a number of times, but I was slowly getting used to it. And here it was that the Death Maidens paid their victims their last visits—on a tiny sliver of one of the astral planes reserved for our work and our work alone.

We were the last people our victims would ever see, the last faces they would know. Some, we escorted to glory and to great rewards for their courage and bravery. For others, we were the harbingers of doom, the final hand of judgment. And we could not be denied. We sent the latter into the churning pool of primal force, where their souls were cleansed, purged, and reborn as pure energy ready for use.

Gerald Hanson would be among the latter.

As the clock ticked down the last minutes of Gerald’s life, I walked through the walls of his house, followed by Greta, until I was standing beside him. He wouldn’t see me until it was too late.

Technically, I wasn’t the one who would kill him. Oh, to the outer world, it would appear that Gerald Hanson had died of a sudden, massive stroke. In reality, the Hags of Fate would cut his cord that they had spun since his birth and that severing blow would trigger the stroke. Whatever sins Gerald had committed, they were great enough to earn him a one-way ticket into oblivion. His soul was so tainted that it could not be allowed to continue on the eternal cycle.

I stood beside him, waiting. There was no one else in the house except a little dog who was asleep on the sofa. The beagle would be well-cared for. I’d call Chase after I finished to make certain. This case—along with whatever notifications were necessary—would fall under the jurisdiction of the Faerie-Human Crime Scene Investigation (FH-CSI) unit. The FH-CSI would be involved because Gerald Hanson wasn’t human. He was part werewolf—a fourth, if you wanted to quibble, but still enough to earn him a spot on the rolls of the Supe Community registers.

As the final seconds ticked down, I stepped forward, standing in front of him. A pause, then three . . . two . . . one . . . and Gerald clutched his chest, looking confused. I waited until he spasmed again, then went limp. As his body slumped on the sofa, his spirit rose to stand in front of me. At first, he looked confused, but then he saw me and jumped back.

“Where . . . who are you? What . . .?” He glanced back at his body and a slow look of understanding crossed his face. As he turned back to me, I moved in.

I grabbed his arm, and we vanished into a place where there existed only the swirl of mist and fog, as a thin silver crescent hung high overhead against the backdrop of stars. There was nothing familiar here, at least not to Gerald. There was nothing to comfort, nor to soothe fear or offer hope. Here, there was merely the whisper of vapor that flowed around us, and the cold shimmer of the stars. We stood there, between the worlds, and before he could speak I clutched both of his shoulders. His memories began to flow into my own, and I saw through his eyes.

Flash . . . A long hall stretched out in front of Gerald. On either side stood rows of cells. Cages with iron bars. The hallway was dimly lit and smelled like urine and feces. The faint sound of whimpering echoed through the air, but the smile on Gerald’s face belied the blackness in his heart. As he started down the passage, a lovely Fae woman knelt in the center of one of the cells, her hands pressed over her face. As she heard Gerald’s footsteps, she looked up, a plea filling her luminous eyes, but he snorted, and moved on. The woman would fetch a pretty penny, and there were plenty more like her out there. And plenty of men waiting to buy them . . .

Flash . . . Gerald sat behind a desk—a large oak affair that dripped with money and prestige. He was fiddling with a brief, but as he looked out the window, his cell phone rang. A man’s voice on the other end of the line erupted in rough laughter.

“Number sixty-five needs a replacement. He broke his toy, again, and is willing to pay an extra fifty grand to find one who can take the wear and tear. You have one week.”

As Gerald pressed the End Call button, he stared out the window, a faint smile crossing his lips . . . he loved his work. He truly loved his work.

Flash . . . Two men climbed into the limo, taking the seat opposite Gerald. One of them looked sullen; the other, afraid. Gerald rolled up the privacy window, cutting off the driver, then offered them a drink. As the men accepted the glasses and sipped, he leaned forward, waiting.

After a moment, he spoke. “I told you to handle the entire family. You didn’t handle the entire family and now you’ve compromised our work.” His voice was steely.

The taller of the pair shifted uncomfortably. “We don’t do kids. I told you that in the beginning.”

“And I told you what was at stake. I had to send in someone to correct your mistake. That wasn’t a good way to conclude our business deal.”

The smaller man began to shake and dropped his drink as he collapsed. The other man looked at Gerald, frantically clutching his throat, but within seconds, he followed suit.

The limo stopped, and Gerald opened the window again to speak to the driver. “Take us to the Cove. We’ve got a delivery to make.” And with that, he settled back, opened a new bottle of bourbon, and carefully poured himself a glass as the car silently glided through the night.

I pulled myself out of his mind. The images were confusing, but the feeling behind them was a darkness driven by avarice. The desire for money, the desire for power. And the willingness to do anything to get it.

Repelled, I gazed into Gerald’s eyes. He was scum, worse than scum, and I’d seen enough to know he’d buy and sell people without a second thought.

Nervous, he looked over his shoulder. “Where am I? How do I wake up?”

Ah . . . so he still didn’t realize he was actually dead.

“You’re on a one-way trip, Gerald. Time to let it go, dude. Just consider me your angel of death.” Before he could do more than whimper, I laid my hands on him—holding him so firmly that he couldn’t get away.

He struggled, pleading, but his words fell useless. This was my mission, and whatever mercy or empathy I might possess vanished as my training kicked in. His spirit was no match for my strength.

“Fires of the void, come forth to do my bidding. Cleanse this soul and pass it through your center.” The rite was second nature now—the ritual engrained in the core of my being. Greta had taken me through the rites again and again, and this time, I was doing it on my own, without any help from her.

Gerald let out a sharp scream. “Please, don’t—I don’t understand.”

I let out a sigh. This was the part that confounded me. They never understood—the ones who had been horrendous and brutal. They never understood the nature of cause and effect—that actions brought consequences. How they couldn’t see this escaped me, but then again, if I had no conscience, perhaps I wouldn’t understand it either.

“Gerald Hanson, you sealed your destiny by your actions. The Hags of Fate have made their decree. The Harvestmen have agreed. Prepare to face the darkness of the abyss.”

I closed my eyes, summoning the karmic fire. A purple flame washed over us, raging through his soul, crackling through the mist and fog to electrify his energy. A wisp of ash flew up from his aura, and then another, and then—with a loud chatter of static, the flames raced through his spirit, reducing it to harmless dust. Another moment, and Gerald Hanson ceased to exist, forever obliterated. His soul had been consigned to the final death. Only a fine layer of ash remained poised for a second, then it, too, blew away into the night.

I watched the astral wind sweep away the remnants of everything Gerald had ever been, throughout all of his lives, all of his cycles. The only thing left was a harmless, benign energy. No trace remained of the person he’d been, no sign of the lives he’d lived. And then, with a final, silent whoosh, the lingering energy spiraled up and then returned to the central pool from which all things sprang.

As always, I felt oddly hollow, like a reed in the wind, bending but not breaking. Mournful, plaintive, but accepting of my place in this world.

I closed my eyes, willing Gerald’s memories to fade, although I knew I would never be able to forget them. Death Maidens never forgot any of their kills, Greta told me, even when they numbered into the thousands. Everyone we took out remained as part of our own memories. We were historians, of a sort.

While his thoughts didn’t make much sense to me at this point, I knew there was some reason the Autumn Lord had commanded me to be Gerald’s doom. I wasn’t sure what it was yet, but I had the uneasy feeling that, soon enough, I’d find out.

For now, I was stick-a-fork-in-me done. Turning my back on the ever-present mist and fog of this realm, I leaped back to where Greta waited. I hoped to hell we were done for the night.

• • •

Greta slipped her arm through mine as we journeyed back to Haseofon, the abode of the Death Maidens. She was so much shorter than me that it gave us a Mutt-and-Jeff look, but there, any resemblance ceased.

“You did very well. You’ve adapted quickly.” She smiled up at me and I felt a tinge of pride. “Next time, I won’t need to go with you. You’re graduating, Delilah, although I’ll always be here if you need me.”

“I’ve tried.” I pressed my lips together.

“You’ve done better than I hoped you would, and you’ve learned quickly. I’m proud of you.”

At first, I’d freaked out when I realized that I’d been conscripted into the Autumn Lord’s rule as one of his Death Maidens. But over the past couple of years my naïveté had slipped away little by little. Oh, I’d stubbornly clung to my eternal optimism, to the little girl/kitty cat who didn’t want to grow up. But when Shade, my fiancé, had come into the picture, things began to shift. Half shadow dragon, half Stradolan—shadow walker—Shade existed in the realms of spirits and ghosts. Through being with him, I’d finally grown used to the energy.

And over the past few months, I’d decided to embrace the woman I was becoming, rather than long for the woman I’d been.

Truth was: I felt proud to be pledged to the Autumn Lord. I was his only living Death Maiden, and I was destined to bear his child one day, through Shade as the proxy father. I could never again be the Delilah who first came over from Otherworld. And that was okay. I didn’t have to give up believing in people, I didn’t have to give up simple joys and happiness or Cheetos or my undying fan-girl love of Jerry Springer.

Instead, I fell into a comfortable balance.

“Are we done for the night?” I glanced at the cityscape that unfolded in front of us. Though we were traveling on the astral, we were close to my own world—the streets of Seattle. Both realms were superimposed on one another. I’d gotten used to that, too, and could see them both when I didn’t get too caught up in trying to figure out the logic of it.