Autumn Whispers (Page 22)

“You said war is upon us. Do you mean Telazhar’s army actually has breached the gates?” I frowned, trying to figure out how the hell we were going to get out of this one. First, we had to survive the storm. Then we had to make our way through the city to the portals, hoping they were still intact. That was, providing there weren’t sorcerers and their army running wild through the streets.

“As I said, we lost track with Darynal and his group a few weeks ago. We were getting ready to send out new scouts, and we called you in to tell you what was going on. But . . . it’s obviously too late.” He glanced up at us. “But I forget myself. You have loved ones who were in the palace. We cannot go outside again until the storm withdraws, but the moment it has passed, we will begin searching.”

A thought occurred to me. A horrible, terrible thought. “Menolly—if the storm does not pass before dawn . . .”

Camille gasped. “We have to get over there, storm or no storm. We have to find her. We can’t sit safe in here while she’s out there. While Chase and Sharah are in danger.”

Trenyth let out a slow breath. He took her hands, but his voice was clear and cool. “Don’t hold too much hope. We’ll scour the grounds, but you saw what happened to the palace.”

“We have to hold hope. It’s the only fucking thing we’ve got.” Camille shook him off and crossed to the well, where she got a drink of water. “The storm. If the sorcerers following Telazhar raised it, where the hell did they find it? Is that thing a creature that they invoked from a different plane? Or did they just decide, ‘Hey, let’s build a magical construct—a monstrosity of a storm. Boy, the fun we could have with that!’ How the hell can we fight it if we don’t know what it is?”

Tensions were strong. Trenyth had slipped into a quiet place, where he had locked his emotions in a box. And Camille’s temper was rising. Not a good mix. And me? I was caught in the middle. I tried to sort through what we were facing. We had to find the others. We had to find Queen Asteria. We had to make certain Menolly was protected when dawn broke. Which brought up another question.

“What time is it?”

Camille whipped out her iPhone and I groaned. I hadn’t even thought about doing that. But then she let out a growl. “Totally fucked. Won’t work. It should at least tell me the time but the storm fried it, I think.”

I checked mine. Blank, dark screen. “Yeah, same here. Trenyth, how close are we to midnight?”

He shook his head. “Believe it or not, it’s barely eleven, Earthside time. You came across around seven. The storm came in at . . . eight?”

Only three hours had passed? It felt like a lifetime. “That gives us some time with regards to Menolly. She was with Trillian, Shade, Chase, and Sharah. They were all together in the seers’ living quarters. How hard is it to find? And just how far below ground was it?”

Given a question he could tackle, Trenyth let go some of his dour demeanor and a bit of the elf we’d come to know peered through the gloom. “It’s not difficult, at least when the palace was standing. But it’s probably the equivalent to three stories below ground. Who knows if the hallways accessing the lower levels are still standing?”

“They were when we escaped.” Camille frowned. “But . . . that was before the strike on the palace.”

Trenyth let out a huff. “I apologize, by the way. I was wrong to be short with you. I’m just worried . . .”

“You don’t know where the Queen is. And she is your first duty.” I didn’t say, “And your love . . .” but I was thinking it. He loved her. And even though he could never have her, he couldn’t imagine her not being in his world.

He nodded. “Yes. It is my duty to protect her at all times. And I failed.”

“But you can’t be with her at every moment. No one can ever be there 24/7. It isn’t physically possible, nor emotionally healthy. She has bodyguards. Surely they will help her.” The edge had gone out of Camille’s voice. Now, she just looked tired.

When Trenyth didn’t answer, but looked to the side, she pulled out the unicorn horn to examine it. “Wow. I guess busting us out of that room discharged all the energy. I couldn’t have turned this loose on the storm even if I’d tried. I’m going to have to recharge it before I can use this again.”

“Put that away,” Trenyth said sharply. “Even though we’re protected here, who knows what magic the sorcerers have at their disposal? They may be able to sense powerful artifacts, and even when the horn isn’t charged up, the essence it contains is ancient and magnetic.”

“Putting it away isn’t going to help, since it means just stuffing it back in my skirt. But yeah, probably best not to make access too easy. Though, if any sorcerer wanted it, all they have to do is fry me to a crisp. And considering the nature of that storm, I doubt they’d have much difficulty.” She tucked the horn back in the secret pocket she’d had Iris sew into most of her traveling skirts.

Trenyth motioned for us to stay put, as he left the room. When he was gone, I turned to Camille.

“What the fuck do we do, then? Sit here?”

“I don’t like it any more than you do, but he’s right. When you think about it, if we go out there while the storm is still rampaging, we’re going to probably die. I doubt if we could even make it to one of the portals without chancing being caught in the destruction. I suppose . . . we can’t do anything else but stay here.” She toyed with the hem of her skirt. “I could, however, attempt to go out on the astral to contact Smoky.”

I felt the blood run from my face. “What if that storm is on the astral? You don’t dare do that.”

She gave me a look that I was all too used to seeing. “I know that. But do I have a choice? Our sister is out there, in that rubble. And Chase. And Sharah—who is about to have a baby. And . . . Trillian. I don’t want to lose any of them.”

“Not a good choice. Camille, for once, listen to me. I’m not even risking going out to find Greta. It’s too dangerous.” I stressed my words, hoping that this time she wouldn’t think of me as her little sister, but instead that she’d take me seriously.

As she was about to reply, Trenyth returned. The look on his face told us everything, and my heart sunk.

“The storm is still raging. There’s nothing left. As far as I can see, only rubble. I can hear the screams of people who are trapped, but there’s no way to get to them. Utter carnage.” He looked so shaken that I slipped out of my seat and went over to guide him to the table.

Camille took his hand, helped him sit down while I brought him a drink of water. Then, I peeked in the cabinets. Rations, food that stored well. I found a cured ham and sliced off several pieces, as well as a loaf of hard bread, not stale but baked for keeping long periods. I made a makeshift sandwich and pushed it into Trenyth’s hand, then went back to make more for Camille and me. Though my stomach was in knots, I realized I was starving. And having channeled the power of the horn, Camille had to be as well.

We ate silently. The meat was too salty, the bread too hard, but it was food and we needed the energy. Trenyth finally wiped his lips on the hem of his robe. He looked at us.

“You girls should rest. Sleep now and I’ll wake you up in a couple hours. There’s nothing more either of you can do until the storm starts to clear.”

As we stood, the floor rolled again and Camille stumbled. I caught her, and we rode out the quake. Trenyth wanted to show us to the bedchamber, but I nixed that.

“I have no desire to get caught in a back room. I don’t care how safe you say this place is. We’ll sleep on the floor out here.” I turned to Camille. “You agree?”

She nodded. “Yeah. I want to be within inches of the door, to be blunt.”

Trenyth pointed to the door at the other side of the room. “At least bring in some blankets to cushion and cover you. The floor is not comfortable, but with a thick quilt, you should be okay.”

There were two bedrooms, a storeroom, and another room that seemed to be a makeshift bathing chamber with a toilet. Camille washed her face and I followed suit. We cleaned up as best as we could, then headed into the first bedroom we came to. We were too tired to pay much attention to the rest of the room except the bed, but I did notice that the door contained arrow slits and slid into the wall instead of opening the usual way. There were heavy latches that could be thrown. A glance over my shoulder told me the room was expensively furnished. Probably the Queen’s chamber for emergencies.

And she’s not here now. Which could mean very bad things for the Elfin race. I brushed away the thought, trying to stay focused. Camille grabbed several pillows while I took hold of the comforter and we returned to the main chamber.

There, we spread out the quilt and pillows. Without a word, we laid down and, under Trenyth’s watchful eye, fell into uneasy slumber.

• • •

I stretched out, steam rising from my nostrils. My body ached, but the blood rolled through my veins, and my fur rippled as I yawned and snuffled. More and more, I found my panther form comfortable. I was used to the strength of my muscles, the heavy thickness of my paws, the hunger to hunt that never quite left me. As I inhaled deeply, the astral breeze filling my lungs, a song lured me from somewhere in the mists. I cocked my head, listening to catch the direction.

There, off to my left. I turned and began to jog through the jungle. By now, I knew that I was on the etheric plane where my panther roamed. I had no clue as to why I always landed in a jungle when I was in panther form, but my astral jaunts were far different than when I was in two-legged stance. And when I went out as a Death Maiden, I found myself in a different dimension as well. The number of layers making up the universe never ceased to amaze me.

I raced through the jungle, the smell of moisture thick in my nose as I loped through the undergrowth. Even though I knew I was out of body, I could still feel the air rushing through my lungs; intensely oxygenated from the towering trees and rich, lush undergrowth. A trickle of water sounded somewhere near, a waterfall by the sound of it, blending with the voice that lured me on.

On I ran, through the trees that scraped the sky, through the vibrant ferns and flowers spilling over onto the narrow pathway. When I was out here, it felt as though I could run forever, prowl forever, hunt forever.

I turned off to the right as the path forked, and soon found myself at the edge of a cliff overlooking a river that raged below. White water churning, the rapids were thick, promising to sweep away anyone who dared enter their territory. A long tree trunk stretched across the river, a yard wide, forming the only bridge to the other side.

I slowed, cautiously making my way out onto the tenuous bridge. The trunk seemed firmly set, and in cat or panther form, I was sure-footed and confident. I didn’t look down. I’d learned the hard way in tabby form when I was leaping from cupboard to cupboard that looking down? So not a good idea. When I made it to the other side, I turned back, looking downriver. The forest ran on and on, and each time I came here, I found myself in a new part of it. I had no clue where here was, and when I had asked Greta about it, she had refused to answer.

Still, the song lured me forward. The unending rainforest was humid, but here, near the ground, the heat stayed around eighty degrees, and the air was still. Heat rises. Up in the treetops, the temps could soar well into triple digits, with hot winds gliding through to sweep the perfumes of the jungle into a heady, intoxicating whirl.

The song grew louder, and then, I was through into a clearing and I knew where I was. I’d been here before, and the sight before me scared the fuck out of me, because I knew what it meant.

There, before me, rested a dais—a circle built in bronze, jutting out of the ground—and covered in glyphs and runes. Surrounded by the jungle, this place was sacred to the Death Maidens. This was where we brought heroes to die.

And there, on the other side of the circle, stood Greta. She waited, watching a figure who was kneeling in the center of the dais. I found myself shifting back into two-legged form, dressed in my robe. Flowing to the ground, loose and lovely, the material of my gown was the color of twilight.

I sucked in a deep breath, not wanting to look closer at the dais. I knew what was coming—but not who. Inside, a horrible feeling began to rise. I knew this person, though I had no sense of his or her name yet. I knew this person, and it would be my job to kill them. I knew this person, and I would be facing my worst nightmare when I turned to look them in the face. I had dreaded this day since I first began to understand my nature as a Death Maiden. The day I’d be required to take out someone dear to me.

I slowly walked up to the dais and the first thing I noticed was that my victim was a woman, but she was wearing a long gown, and a veil covered her face. Please don’t let it be Sharah. Please don’t let Chase lose the woman who has captured his heart. The refrain echoed over and over in my heart.

As I set foot on the bronze circle, a reverberation echoed through me and I knew that this would be no angry death. There would be honor here. This was why she had come—to be honored, revered, to walk through death’s doorway and escorted to the halls of the valiant.

I stood in front of the figure, as the sky overhead echoed an aurora of brilliant blues and greens. Glowing orbs rose up around us and I recognized them as will o’ the wisps, as a thousand voices joined in a lament so ancient that the language had been lost in the veils of time.

I stood tall, facing her, weariness dropping away as a surge of energy flooded through me. The smoke of bonfires lighting the hills, the drumbeat of time, the flutter of autumn leaves on the wind, the flurry of storms on the horizon . . . it was the harvest come to bear. The light touch on my shoulder told me Hi’ran was standing behind me, but I steadied myself, continuing to look at my quarry.