Autumn Whispers (Page 2)

Greta nodded. “Did you want to come back to Haseofon to visit Arial?”

I thought about it. It would be good to see my sister—my twin who had died at birth—but then I thought about Camille and Menolly. They were waiting for me to return. And the promise of a mug of hot milk and some chocolate chip cookies was enough to make my decision for me.

“Not tonight, but tell her I love her and I’ll see her soon.” I paused. “Greta, do you know why the Autumn Lord asked for me specifically? To annihilate Gerald?”

She shook her head. “No, I truly don’t. But he was very insistent. He said it had to be you, and he said that Grandmother Coyote had come to him personally to request it. The Harvestmen, they bow to the whims of the Hags of Fate. As does every creature.”

Pulling away, she reached up and stroked my face. “Your crescent—it burns with the fires of Haseofon tonight. You made your first totally assigned kill without any assistance. And so your crescent has shifted and now the Autumn Lord’s fires will forever burn brightly within it.”

I reached up to finger the tattoo. I couldn’t feel much change, but then again, I was used to wearing Hi’ran’s sigil on my forehead. But once again, a fierce sense of pride swept through me.

“Thank you, Greta. For your help and your friendship.”

She laughed, sounding like a schoolgirl rather than the ancient and fiercesome force that she was. And then, without another word, she vanished, and I willed myself home, and opened my eyes to find myself curled in my cat bed.

• • •

Blinking, I realized that I’d gone out of body while still in my tabby form. I yawned, arching my back up into Halloween-cat pose. I was in my favorite bed. Shaped like a tiger, with a striped tiger face and tail, the cushion was soft and warm. Iris had bought it for me.

From my vantage on the living room floor, I could see her sitting in the rocking chair, looking like an angry beached whale. Iris was two weeks overdue, pregnant with twins, and we were all tiptoeing around her. Roz was sitting next to her, trying to make her smile.

Camille was curled up on the sofa, next to Trillian, her alpha husband, and behind them, Smoky—yet another husband (out of three) leaned over their shoulders. They were poring intently through the pages of one of those huge coffee-table books, arousing my curiosity. But in cat form, I couldn’t read the title.

Vanzir was huddled over the controls to the Xbox, and other than that, the room was empty. Menolly was off at work, I knew that much, but didn’t have a clue as to where Morio, Hanna, Nerissa, Bruce, or my fiancé Shade was.

I crept out of my bed, stretched again, and flipped my tail high into the air. I loved the luxuriousness of being cat. My fur was long and silky, golden with faint stripes running through it, and when I shifted form, my clothes transformed into the blue collar around my neck. Iris had hung a bell on it, which annoyed the hell out of me and put an end to my bird chasing. Well, bird catching. I still chased. I couldn’t help it, it was my nature.

I stopped in front of the fire to lick one of my paws, then shook my head and stepped delicately away from the nearest chair, giving myself room to transform. As I shifted, paws lengthening into arms, back arching, shifting, changing, transforming back to my two-legged state, I became aware of an ache in my lower back where I’d been training hard during the week. And the bruises throbbed where I’d tripped over a log in the forest while out on a run with Shade. I took my natural form, slowly rising to my feet.

“Welcome back, Delilah.” Iris gave me a weary smile.

“Did you have a good nap, Kitten?” Camille asked, setting the book aside. Now I could see that it was a compendium of photographs from Finland, one that Iris had received as a wedding present back in February.

I yawned, then sat on one of the ottomans, pulling my legs up to wrap my arms around my shins. Leaning my chin on my knees, I frowned. “I didn’t exactly nap. Greta came for me.”

“That’s right—you mentioned she might be summoning you again.” Camille perked up. “That’s five times in the past two weeks. Did you get to see Arial?”

I shook my head. “No, I decided to come back here instead. Tonight, I was assigned a target on my own. Greta supervised, but this time it was all up to me.”

I glanced at her. If anybody understood, it would be Camille. She’d been through hell over the past year, and she’d been delving deeply into Death Magic with her other husband, Morio. She’d been playing in the dark a lot lately.

“On your own? How did it go?” Her violet eyes were flecked with silver and I realized they’d been that way a lot lately, the further she dipped into the magic, and into her training as a priestess of the Moon Mother.

“I did what I needed to. But there was something odd. I don’t understand yet, but I think you guys should know.” And so I told them how I’d been specifically assigned Gerald’s kill, and what I had seen when I looked into his mind.

“That’s disturbing, but I don’t see how it affects us, to be honest. We don’t know where all of this happened, or who the woman is, or even what the hell is going on.” She paused. “File it away for future reference. Meanwhile, Father called us through the Whispering Mirror. We’ve been summoned back to Otherworld tomorrow night for a war meeting. We leave here as soon as Menolly wakes up. And we’re to bring Chase with us. And Sharah.”

I frowned. “Why can’t they just tell us what they need to through the Whispering Mirror?”

“Because something’s up. I can always tell. Father gets those little pursed lines around his lips. No, we have to go and they want all five of us there. Shade said he’d come, and Trillian. The others will stay here to guard the house.” Camille frowned.

“We really have to do something about the security situation here.” It had become problematic, especially as our enemies grew more powerful.

“I agree. It’s fine to leave some of the guys at home but we need to be able to head out in full force, especially now that Iris is about ready to pop.” Even though Camille said it affectionately, Iris flashed her an irritated look.

“Girl, if I don’t give birth to this pair soon, I’ll be ballistic enough to rain terror over the entire city. I swear, these children are already plaguing me, still in the womb.” Iris rubbed her stomach, letting out an exasperated sigh. “I’m two weeks overdue and these young ones are kicking up a storm. If they don’t birth themselves soon, I’m going to forcibly evict them.”

I stifled a laugh. During Iris’s pregnancy, she had become a volatile bundle of hormones. Everybody was crossing fingers it would be over and done with soon, but I suspected Bruce suffered the most.

Their house was snug as a bug, a two-story, four-bedroom cottage with plenty of room for the children—and others—when they started to grow. The guys had put the finishing touches on during the late summer months, and it was a hop and a skip away from ours. Iris and Bruce were firmly ensconced within it, but several times a week, they—or sometimes just Iris when Bruce was preparing for a lecture the next day—would join us for the evening.

I kissed her on the forehead. “It won’t be much longer.”

“And just what do you know about babies? How many have you had?”

Oh, she was grumpy, all right. I backtracked, fast. “You’re right. I just hope for all our sakes that they make an appearance soon.”

That brought a smile to her lips, and she ducked her head.

“Bruce has taken to hiding in the study after dinner, so I know he’s feeling my temper, too.” She let out a long sigh. “It will be over soon. Then I’ll have two babies to raise and I’ll get irate about other things.” With a rueful smile, she leaned back in the rocker and closed her eyes.

I reached out and brushed the hair from her face. “Would you like me to brush your hair?” When I was in tabby form, I loved having my fur brushed. It was relaxing and I had the feeling, with the amount of hair our sprite had, she might just like it, too.

Iris gave me a quizzical look, then nodded. “Thank you. I’d like that.”

Camille fished through her purse and handed me a brush as I gently removed the numerous pins and clips holding Iris’s ankle-length golden hair in the coils that wrapped around her head.

“Sit, little mama.” I pointed to the ottoman. She settled herself, with a little help from Camille, and I sat in the chair behind her and softly began to brush the long strands. After a moment, Iris let out a long, slow breath and her shoulders slumped gratefully. I took my time, sleeking over the glimmering tresses, thinking about my own hair. It had been long once, down to the middle of my back.

Should I grow it out again? But I’d changed so much, and my new style—short and spiky—fit the new me. No, long hair would be reserved for when I was in tabby form, and my tail plumed out in a delightful puff. Content, I returned my focus to Iris, and gave her a little scalp and shoulder massage in addition to the brushing. After about fifteen minutes, I gathered her hair back in a ponytail, looping it up so that it wouldn’t trip her when she walked. She sighed, leaning back with a grateful smile and I hugged her.

“That felt marvelous. Thank you, Kitten. I really appreciate it.”

I took a moment to put in a quick call to Chase about Gerald’s dog. He wasn’t there, so I left a message. As I hung up, the doorbell rang.

Camille answered. When she returned, she had a strange look on her face. Behind her followed a cowled woman in a long gray cloak. My blood chilled. Grandmother Coyote. And this time, she had come to us.

The Hags of Fate wove destiny, and they unraveled it. They measured out the cords and they cut them. They balanced good with evil, evil with good, order with chaos, and chaos with order. And, along with the Elemental Lords and the Harvestmen, they were the only true Immortals. They had existed long before the world had begun, and they would exist long after it ended.

That she appeared elderly was an understatement. Grandmother Coyote was both ancient and timeless. Her face mirrored a topography of ridges and lines, wrinkles on wrinkles, and yet she was beyond the scope of time, emerging from the very void to which the Death Maidens sent souls to be renewed and reused. Age was a misnomer, having no bearing on Grandmother Coyote because she was one of the few true Immortals. Though she looked like an old woman, she was so far from human that there was no comparison.

Iris paused, a hint of fear in her eyes. “Grandmother Coyote—what brings you here?” The fear was palpable in her voice.

Grandmother Coyote knelt down to gaze into Iris’s eyes. “Be not afraid, young Talon-haltija. I am not here on your account. You have nothing to fear from me. Run now, to your home, and rest. The destinies of those who lie within your womb are only beginning, and you must have the strength and energy to run after them as they grow. There is greatness within you, and you, yourself, are as yet unrealized as to your place in the world. Be at peace.”

A look of relief washed over Iris’s face and she curtseyed, then glanced at Camille and mouthed “Later” before waddling out of the living room.

Camille motioned to a chair. “Won’t you sit down?”

Grandmother Coyote lowered herself into the chair, leaning her walking stick against the arm. “I will not bother myself with chatter.” A crinkle in her face substituted for a smile. “But I will accept a cup of tea. Camille, fetch me one.”

Camille curtseyed, then hurried to the kitchen. I heard her fumbling around with the china and realized she was as nervous as I was. Grandmother Coyote never paid social calls, so whatever brought her to us had to be serious.

“Where is my grandson—so to speak?”

“Morio’s off training,” Smoky said.

I remained silent. The Hags of Fate spoke on their own time, according to their own agendas. It would do us no good to ask why she was here and I knew it. Like all cats, I could be patient when needed.

Smoky also seemed alert, on his guard. Trillian stood near the door, waiting for instructions. Vanzir put down the game controller and pushed himself off the floor, dusting his hands on his pants as he leaned against the arm of the sofa and nodded to Grandmother Coyote.

As Camille brought the tea in, Trillian took the tray from her and set it on the coffee table. He poured, as we gathered around. Grandmother Coyote accepted the cup and sipped the steaming liquid. Then, with a deep breath, she inhaled the fragrance. Finally, she set the tea cup on a coaster on the table next to the chair and looked around the room, her gaze falling on Camille.

“You cannot get rid of Rodney, my girl, as much as you want to. He’s important. I know how much you hate him, but you have no choice. Unleash him at the right moment and he may save your life.”

Camille gulped. I knew how much she hated the freakazoid bone golem that thought of himself as the love child between Rodney Dangerfield and Howard Stern—we all did—but she said nothing, merely nodding.

Another moment, and Grandmother Coyote cocked her head, turning slowly to look at the others. “Clear out. I need to talk to Camille and Delilah. Alone.”

Oh joy. Just what we wanted to hear. “Are you sure they can’t stay? You know they’ll just find out later anyway.”

“Of course they will, and you will be the ones to tell them. But for now, men, retire to the kitchen and do not return till you are summoned. And do not answer the door. I need to talk to Delilah, especially.”

“Me?” Oh, lovely. Usually, when Grandmother Coyote had something to say, it was to Camille, but apparently she’d said all she had to say to my sister with the warning about Rodney. At least for the night.