Autumn Whispers (Page 3)

“Yes, you.” She waited while the guys silently cleared out of the room. They knew better than to argue with one of the Hags of Fate.

When they were gone, she continued. “While this matter will concern all of you, Delilah, you are the one who stands at the fulcrum this time—you will be the key to unraveling what you need to know when it is time. A balance has been upset and must be righted.”

As she paused, a scratching sounded at the front door.

“What the fuck—” Camille moved toward the foyer but Grandmother Coyote stopped her.

“Halt. I brought visitors. They are here on my summons. You will meet them in a few moments.” She paused again, then yawned. Her teeth were steely, cold and metallic, sharp as blades, looking like they could gnash bone into shrapnel. And I had no doubt they could—and perhaps they had.

A chill ran down my spine. I had the feeling that my work with Greta tonight had something to do with what Grandmother Coyote was talking about.

“What do you need me for?”

Grandmother Coyote touched her nose. “This cannot be discussed without me introducing my comrades. But you are correct in your silent surmise. This matter relates to your training as a Death Maiden—I cannot tell you how, yet, but know that it does. Secondly, this matter involves daemonic energies in the city not connected with Shadow Wing.” At that, she nodded to the hallway. “Go now, let in my pets.”

Daemonic . . . that wasn’t good. But at least, daemons and demons didn’t get along so well and were rarely on the same side. Which meant this might not have to do with Shadow Wing, the Demon Lord we were fighting.

I moved to the door, wondering who was waiting outside. It could be a troll or a goblin or a centaur or—just about anything. Knowing Grandmother Coyote, anybody could be on the other side. My stomach lurching, I yanked open the door.

There, on the porch, like stone statues come to life, stood two gargoyles. And they didn’t look happy.

Chapter 2

I stared at the gargoyles. It had been a long, long time since I’d seen an adult gargoyle who wasn’t in stasis. Back in Otherworld, they roamed free, unless they’d been captured. Since certain governments and individuals enslaved them to use them as spies, the gargoyles tended to steer clear of cities.

Woodland gargoyles—like our little Maggie—were seldom captured for this purpose, both because of their coloration and because they took refuge in the forest, hiding from those who would enslave them. Maggie would never be able to freeze into statue form—her race didn’t have that ability.

But these gargoyles were of a different breed. Known as granticular gargoyles, they were able to enter stasis for centuries at a time, during which they would observe what was going on and feed that information to their masters. That they resented most of their slavers was well-known, but I had no clue how they felt about working for the Hags of Fate.

Large Cryptos, when they were full-grown they stood the size of a burro, with wings stretching out a good six to seven feet each side of their body. Like a dragon’s wings, they were strong, though flight was magically powered. But they weren’t ornamental—both dragons and gargoyles used them to steer and steady themselves in the air.

I stood back, allowing them room to enter. Folding their wings back, they maneuvered through the door, jockeying through the opening. They weren’t exactly bipedal, but walked like gorillas on their back feet while they balanced with their front knuckles. As they silently passed by me, one of them looked up, into my eyes, and I fell into the dark brown depths. There was age there, and wisdom, and a long hint of sadness that touched me to the core.

I reached out, lightly running my fingers over the muscular shoulder that resembled moving stone. The gargoyle’s gray skin was smooth, almost like velvet, but beneath the surface rippled flesh strong enough to break necks and bend bars and tear apart small trees. One of them gazed at me for just a moment, and let out a soft “hmm” before following his companion into the living room. A moment later, I joined them.

Grandmother Coyote stood waiting and the gargoyles moved to flank her sides. She draped a light hand on either back, and was speaking in a low, guttural tongue that I did not recognize. One of the gargoyles—the one I’d connected with—nodded to her.

She looked around the room. “What do you know about the granticular gargoyles?”

“Only what they taught us in school,” Camille said. She did not mention Maggie, our baby calico woodland gargoyle. We kept her our secret as best as we could. We had too many enemies to let news of her trickle out. And while Grandmother Coyote knew about Maggie, we weren’t sure what the granticular gargoyles would do if they realized we were keeping a baby at our house. Cryptos didn’t always get along with each other and we weren’t about to let anybody try to hurt her, or to take her away from us.

“Then you know the story that Y’Elestrial officials spoon-feed their subjects to keep the truth silent. Actually, it’s not just your home city-state’s doing. Only in Dahnsburg and some of the darker forests in Otherworld will you find the facts openly discussed. However, due to various treaties, King Uppala-Dahns has kept speculation to a minimum, even though it compromises the granticulars’ lives. Politics.” The word rolled off Grandmother Coyote’s tongue with a sneer.

“So what don’t we know?” I had the feeling we were about to find out something we didn’t want to know, but since that was par for the course in our lives, why should this time be any different?

“Over the eons, the governments over in Otherworld have embarked on a clandestine operation to systematically enslave the gargoyle race by suppressing the truth about their lineage and natures.” Grandmother Coyote’s eyes were dark and deep, shifting with flecks of the magic. When I looked at her long enough, I began to see through the age, through the body, into the immensity that lay beyond the surface.

She turned to the gargoyle on her left. “This is Mithra. He was born a prince in his world, until Lethesanar enslaved him.”

Lethesanar had been the queen of Y’Elestrial until her sister Tanaquar deposed her. She had been ethically devoid, an opium addict, a slave to her whims and emotions. Tanaquar was marginally better.

Camille curtseyed and I bowed to the gargoyle. We’d been raised to show respect to authority. Mithra looked surprised.

“You do not have to do that,” he said, and his voice—guttural in his own language—was surprisingly soft in ours. “You are under no obligation to recognize our heritage. When we were captured, we lost the keys to our kingdom, to use a human expression.”

“We choose to honor your birthright.” Camille frowned, looking confused.

I knew what she was thinking. We’d been taught that gargoyles didn’t have a strongly developed sense of intellect—that the Cryptos were, instead, like extremely smart animals who could talk. But Mithra’s cadence, his very nature, spoke of a high acumen.

Grandmother Coyote cleared her throat. “Everything you were taught—at least about the intelligence level of gargoyles—is a lie. It was devised to allow the governments to keep control over the race, and to use them for their own ends.”

I glanced at Mithra. He and his companion nodded. “But why hasn’t this come out before? Why are the lies perpetuated?”

“Think of all the intelligence that the gargoyle race has gathered for the various governments back in Otherworld over the years. And what you do not realize—not till now, that is—is that there are secret societies over here, Earthside, who also know this and who also make use of it. They’ve had contracts in place with OW emissaries to buy gargoyles for their own uses.”

“Why doesn’t your race rebel?” Camille turned to Mithra. “Why allow this to go on?”

Mithra let out what sounded like a long sigh, but it came in a flutter of wings, the sound of wind howling through a stone arch. “We are too few. All gargoyles—combined species—do not make up a tenth of Y’Elestrial’s population. We are rare. While we live long lives, as long as the Fae, we breed at a much slower rate. We are born ten males to every female, and a female may have one litter during her life, if she’s lucky. Unless she’s captive, used as a breeding machine.”

Maggie’s mother sprang to mind. She’d been held in the Subterranean Realms, as far as we knew, used to breed babies like our Maggie for demon food.

Gesturing to his friend, Mithra said, “This is my companion, Astralis. He and I were on a scouting mission for our father when we were captured. He is my brother, although I was the heir to the throne.”

I considered what he said. It made sense—when you belonged to a race whose existence hinged on a small number of females, and when the population of your race was limited, it didn’t make sense to wage war on your oppressors if you weren’t systematically being destroyed.

“So you do your best to evade your captors, and to preserve your race.” I met Mithra’s gaze again and he nodded.

“We cannot change the thinking of an entire world without proving the governments who instill that mind-set wrong. And that task is, I’m afraid, more than we have the ability to tackle. As it is, we do our best to keep the entrance to our city warded so strongly that no one may enter.” The look on his face spoke volumes.

“Has Y’Elestrial—or any other government—threatened to invade you before? To enslave all of your people?” Camille asked. While we knew the Court and Crown was corrupt, this was more than disconcerting. “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already, given what you’re telling us.”

Astralis shook his head. “If they were to do so, our actual natures might come to attention and they would not be able to keep the status quo. So they capture us, here and there, promising to leave the females alone. In return, our father looks the other way when they harvest.”

Camille and I glanced at each other. This was hard to swallow, but given the nature of politics, I wasn’t surprised. Saddened, but no longer surprised. Yeah, the naïve little girl was gone.

“Mithra and Astralis were harvested by Lethesanar years ago and pressed into service. King Virgil, their father, protested but the Opium Eater threatened to kill off the queen if he spoke too loudly. Since there were other children in the litter, he relented.” Grandmother Coyote’s lip twitched. “I approached her sometime back with an offer she dared not refuse. I freed them from her tyranny, but asked them to stay for a few years working for me, because I sensed a disturbance and wanted someone to watch over the matter.”

“And now, Grandmother Coyote has freed us to return to our homeland after we tell you what we’ve discovered.” The stone-solid countenance on Mithra’s face softened and I thought I could detect a smile. “We have not seen our family, or our city, in over eight hundred years. We were first set to watch over Europe, then brought to this land a hundred years ago.”

“Lethesanar wanted eyes in the new world, and she wanted them over here in this city.” Astralis let out a soft huff. “We were her most reliable. If we didn’t fall in line, she threatened to wipe out the royal family. Now, she is gone, and we are free. Once we reach our city, neither of us will ever set foot outside the boundaries again.”

“Will you be able to reach home without a problem?” The thought that they might be caught on their way home set my stomach to churning, but I could see it happening, all too easily.

Grandmother Coyote eased my worries. “Never you concern yourself, young cat. I will make certain they return home without incident. Now, before I ask them to tell you what they have discovered, let me set the background of this tale for you.”

Grandmother Coyote motioned for us to make ourselves comfortable. As we settled into our seats, the gargoyles leaned back, squatting on their haunches like I’d seen Maggie do a hundred times. Their wings were delicately tucked back, folded to be out of the way, and when they stood still, they looked made of the same stone of the buildings over which they watched.

“Over one hundred years ago, a man named Michael Farantino arrived in Seattle. He came from Italy, and he was human. He was also rich. And he knew about Weres, vamps, and other creatures. He also knew how to contact demons and other creatures from the Sub-Realms. He did so for his own gain, selling his services to the highest bidder. There are many things humans can do to benefit Demonkin. Eventually, he built what is now one of the oldest buildings in Seattle. The Farantino Building. Once a brick walk-up, now it’s been modernized and turned into office space. I felt it needed watching over.”

“So I went to Lethesanar. Your former queen was deep in the throes of her addiction and not amenable to my visit, but as I said, she dared not refuse me.” Here, Grandmother Coyote smiled, sending chills down my spine. Her steel teeth gleamed and I couldn’t imagine anybody standing up to her. The Opium Eater must have been stoned out of her mind.

Apparently Grandmother Coyote thought so, too, for she laughed and shook her head. “She only protested for a little time. It did not take me long to convince her of the wisdom of bowing to my demands. I insisted she give me control over Mithra and Astralis. I chose them because I knew that eventually, they would need to return to their home in order for the balance in their city-state to return to normal. In the end, the Opium Eater had no choice. She did not like it, but her whims were not—and are not—my concern. By the by, remember, Lethesanar still lives. Never forget that—for she has a long memory for those who helped cross her.”

A sly smile crept across her face and I caught sight of the predator that lurked within her. Not predator . . . no. Instigator. Judge, jury, and executioner. Grandmother Coyote was not afraid of her power.