Flight from mayhem, p.28
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       Flight from Mayhem, p.28

           Yasmine Galenorn
 

  “Is there validity to that fear?” Alex asked.

  I shrugged. “Perhaps, although most dragons prefer to eat livestock. In fact, there are a number of Northmen who make their earnings by farming livestock for the Dragonkin. It’s a mutually advantageous situation.” I paused. We were finally near the road that led to Stone Weaver’s house. Ralph, riding with the werewolves, was right behind us.

  As we edged into the forested drive, once again the mood in the car fell into an uneasy silence. Would we find Bette, alive? And was the diatrofymata keeping Gerta hostage as well? Would we really be able to stop this creature before it vanished only to pop up in another place, seeking other victims? As the Range Rover bumped along the gravel drive, all these questions and more raced through my mind.

  CHAPTER 18

  Alex pulled to the side as we entered the drive in front of the house. Ralph knew the way, so he and the werewolves took the front and we followed the narrow dirt road behind them. From what I remembered of the map, we were headed through the woods along an access road that led toward the hill bordering Stone Weaver’s property. Chances were, the diatrofymata wouldn’t have chosen a lair that was too remote. After all, it needed to get its treasure that it stole back to the hoard without having to trudge miles through the forest.

  I wondered where the thing had come from—doppelgängers were Germanic in origin, but the diatrofymata seemed an odd variant. Elemental creatures tended to congregate in areas that reminded them of their plane of origin. Very few djinn would ever be found in the Arctic or Antarctica. By the same token, Elemental creatures from the plane of Air tended to stick near mountaintops, and creatures from the Elemental plane of Water weren’t found inland. It made perfect sense that a creature from the Elemental plane of Earth would make its home in a cavern or even a cabin deep in the woods.

  As we followed Frank’s massive SUV, Tonya suddenly asked, “So you think the creature is planning to hold Bette for ransom?”

  For a moment, I thought Alex wasn’t going to answer, but then he said, “I cannot tell you what I know about Bette and her past, but if the diatrofymata found out the truth about what she is, yes, I think that’s likely. But we’re not the ones it would approach for ransom.”

  Once again, a sense of foreboding swept over me. Alex’s reticence was contagious and I felt myself shying away from the discussion, although in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but ask, What is she? What’s her secret?

  After another pause, Alex continued. “The good news is that if the creature does know what she is, she’s probably safe for the moment. I’m clinging to that hope.”

  We were deep into the woods, and the access road had become a road in name only. The dirt was bumpy with deep ruts running through it, and the rain had created puddles that accumulated in the tire tracks, forming muddy ruts.

  The road wasn’t big enough for logging trucks, but something big and heavy enough to create the ruts had been through here recently, and it made me wonder what Stone Weaver had been up to. This was still his property, but what reason would such a strong environmentalist have to bring in heavy machinery? Especially machinery heavy enough to leave deep impressions in the dirt road?

  Frank’s SUV made a sudden jog to the left and then eased off the road into a turnout. They turned off their headlights. We followed suit. Quietly, we slipped out of the Range Rover and joined Ralph and the four werewolves.

  Around us, the sounds of raindrops echoed in a soft, steady cadence, dropping the branches to the ground below. Mist rose around us, and overhead the clouds had pulled back to let the pale sliver of moonlight shine through. The light was faint but reflected off the rising fog, casting an eerie glow, as all around us the forest crackled and snapped with the sounds of the night. Small animals rustled through the undergrowth, through the fern and bracken and brambles that covered the ground. In the forests around here, there was no such thing as flat open ground. Detritus and moss spread in a thick blanket, and it was easy to trip over hidden roots, or twist an ankle on a buried rock, or sink to your knees in the mulch that covered the woodland floor.

  We spoke in hushed whispers. Voices echoed all too easily through the mist, and the last thing we wanted to do was to give away our presence to the diatrofymata.

  “The cavern we’re looking for is about a quarter mile through the woods here. It’s not very far, but the going won’t be easy. If it were daylight, we could look for the trail that the creature has most likely blazed. But since it’s night, I don’t think we should waste time looking for its path. We could be out here all night searching. It’s easier to just follow my GPS to the cavern itself.” Ralph turned and pointed into the forest. “This way. Be cautious, and if you need, find a stick now to balance yourself with. Tonya, I suggest that you stay here, but if you insist on coming with us, let’s find you a walking stick.”

  “I’m not staying behind. I promise to keep up the best I can.” She started looking around where we were standing for a branch. I spotted one behind me and, taking hold of it, finished breaking it off the fallen snag. About five feet tall, the branch was an inch and a half in diameter. To my relief, it felt solid. Wood rotted quickly in these forests.

  Tonya tested it, tapping it firmly against the ground several times. “This will work fine. Thank you, Shimmer.”

  Alex, Ralph, and I took the lead. Chai and Tonya came next, the djinn keeping an eye on her. Frank and his werewolves followed behind. As we entered the heart of the forest, I could feel creatures and beings watching us. And somehow, I didn’t think all of them were friendly. Stone Weaver had been an Elemental Fae, and he had no doubt some powerful and questionable company.

  As we made our way through the tangle of undergrowth, our journey took on a surreal sense. I had been in some odd places throughout my life, but trudging through a forest with a vampire, a djinn, a human, and a bunch of werewolves had to be one of the strangest adventures I’d had yet. As something slithered past my feet I jumped, then caught myself. Just a snake, disturbed by our passing. Probably a garter snake. Rattlesnakes were usually found east of the mountains, and most of the reptiles over here on the coastal side of the state were relatively harmless.

  Behind me, Tonya whispered something in a soft voice to Chai, and he answered her just as softly. I couldn’t quite catch what they were saying and I didn’t try. If it was something that we all needed to know about, they would tell us.

  Ralph moved ahead, consulting his phone. While the cell reception here wasn’t great, he had taken an image of the map and we were following directions from that. We continued uphill for about fifteen minutes, and then Ralph held up his hand for us to stop. He turned around and, finger to lips, pointed to the right of where we were standing. Then he turned off his phone and the pale light from the screen vanished, leaving us in the dark, our only illumination coming from the sliver of moon reflected through the clouds. If the sky closed in again and the rain returned, we would be left in the dark.

  Once more, Ralph began to forge on, this time toward the right. We followed, trying to keep our footsteps light. The werewolves and Alex were exceptionally good at walking silently, but Tonya, Chai, and I couldn’t help but make noise. Every time I stepped on a branch and it cracked, I held my breath, wondering if the diatrofymata would hear us. My heart was pounding, more from nerves than from fear.

  And then we were at the bottom of a ravine. Ralph pointed up the side to where a dark patch opened against the hill. The grade wasn’t terribly steep, but it would be tricky and I realized Tonya might have a hard time of it. But there was nothing we could do about that now. She would have to keep up as best as she could.

  Ralph began to ascend the side of the hill, and even though he moved as silent as the night, leaves and branches still scattered beneath his feet, creating a soft cadence of their own. I glanced over my shoulder to see that Chai was helping Tonya. She held her walking stick in her right hand, a
nd he was holding her left elbow, bracing her as they ascended the hill. Relieved, I returned my attention to my own footing. The leaves were slick with mold and mildew and raindrops, and it was easy to go sliding. I tripped over a hidden root once, landing on my knees, but scrambled back to my feet the next moment, unhurt and smelling of the forest floor.

  We were about five yards below the opening when I realized that we had reached a ledge. In fact, the ledge merged with a path that must have started somewhere below. If we had seen it, our jaunt would have been far easier, but we were here now, and we paused, spreading out along the trail to regroup.

  Ralph motioned to Alex to join him, then signaled for the rest of us to stay put. The two of them searched along the path until they found a narrow trail leading up to the opening of the cave. Alex held up his hand to Ralph, and then in the blink of an eye, he transformed into a bat and vanished into the cave.

  We waited, and I found myself staring intently at the cave, trying to fathom what was inside. I strained, listening for the sound of voices, but all I could hear was the continual drip, drip, drip as the raindrops fell from the tall fir trees. After what seemed like an interminable time, Alex reappeared and flew down, transforming back into himself. Ralph scrambled back down the trail to the main path.

  “The chamber is illuminated. I’m not sure by what, but there’s light in there. And yes, Bette is there,” Alex whispered. “And so is Gerta. They’re both tied up and off to one side. You are right on that. And what I assume is the diatrofymata is there, but it’s not alone. The creature has reinforcements and I’m not sure what they are.” He frowned, shaking his head. “They’re rather terrifying, actually. I saw three of them. They . . . well, take a giant spider and mush it together with a human torso . . .”

  “Werespiders! I really didn’t believe they existed. I didn’t want to believe they existed.” Horrified, Tonya leaned closer to Chai. “I read about them in my bestiary. I was hoping they were a myth, even though they have been rumored to inhabit the forests around this area.”

  The concept of a werespider turned my stomach. I wasn’t afraid of spiders, especially in the way many humans were. But the idea of an actual shapeshifter who could turn into a spider made me queasy. It was all sorts of wrong.

  The werewolves didn’t look too happy either.

  Frank let out a curse under his breath. “Are you positive?”

  “I know what I saw,” Alex said. “I only wish I hadn’t.”

  “Do you think they’re poisonous?” Again, the question made me feel queasy. I could handle the thought of just about any Were creature, but when it came to insects, again . . . just wrong.

  “I certainly hope not, but I’m not gonna bet on it.” Alex looked over at Chai. “You wouldn’t happen to have any thoughts on the subject, would you?”

  Chai shook his head. “I have seen many monsters in my life, some which make the thought of a werespider sound downright chummy. But I’ve never dealt with werespiders before. I guess we’ll find out what they’re like. I would recommend, however, that you, Shimmer, and I go first. We’re the most likely to be immune to any venom they might have.”

  “I hate to agree, but you make a good point. We’re going to have to take out those werespiders before we get to the diatrofymata.” Alex looked downright irritated at this point. “Whatever you do, keep Bette out of the crossfire. And try to keep Gerta from being hurt as well.” He paused, staring at the werewolves. “There’s something you need to know about Gerta. We believe she’s one of the Elder Fae. And she has a unique ability that might catch your notice. But the first person to lay hands on her will feel the point of my fangs. I won’t have her being abused.”

  Frank nodded. “I take it this . . . ability . . . is enticing in some way?”

  Alex rubbed his chin. “You can say that. And if the diatrofymata was telling the truth, Gerta has poison skin. I suggest you let me untie her. The passage into the chamber is short, but the cavern is far larger than I thought it would be. I didn’t go all the way to the back—the actual cave tunnels deep into the hill. I’m not sure what’s back there, so be prepared in case there are other horrors waiting for us.”

  “Right.” Frank glanced at his men. “You getting all this?”

  They nodded.

  “All right,” Alex continued, “so here’s what we do. Chai, you immediately blast a light in the cave. Even though there’s dim illumination, a bright flash will give us an edge.”

  “Got it. Everybody needs to be prepared to close their eyes, though, because it will be sunlight bright for a second.”

  Alex glanced around. “Everybody got that? All right, after the flash, Chai and I will take on the werespiders. Shimmer, you free Bette. Ralph, transform into your werewolf shape. You know why. Attack whatever you can. Frank, you and your men go after the diatrofymata. It appears to be a tall, lanky creature, bipedal and muscular. Its muscles look like gnarled wood. In some ways it looks like a walking skeleton with a thin layer of skin stretched over it, but don’t let that fool you. The energy coming off that thing? So strong I could feel it radiating like a beacon. And since it is from the Elemental plane of Earth, my guess is that its magic will be Earth-based. Which brings to mind a potential scenario. It might just be able to cause an earthquake. If it does, get the hell out. We can’t afford to be trapped inside there. Any other thoughts?”

  “What do you want me to do?” Tonya asked.

  “You stay here. No arguments. There’s nothing you can do in there to help and we’d probably end up having to rescue you, which would dilute our focus. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but you have to wait here. If for some reason we don’t return in twenty minutes, or if one of the other creatures comes out, get the hell out of here. If you have to hide in the woods, hide until morning and then get back to the Range Rover. There’s a spare key beneath the front left tire well.”

  Tonya was about to protest, then stopped. “I understand.”

  Ralph transformed into his werewolf shape, and once again I marveled at the beautiful white wolf. We shifted positions, Chai and I moving up front with Alex, and Ralph falling back with the werewolves. We were as ready as we were going to get. It was time to go rescue our friend.

  * * *

  The entrance to the cave was narrow; there was only room for two of us to walk side by side. Alex had told us that it would widen out into the main chamber only a few yards in.

  Alex and Chai went first and I followed directly after, Ralph padding at my side. Next came Frank and José, and then George and Thomas. Tonya fretted but did as Alex requested and stayed outside.

  It was difficult to see, but true to what Alex had said, a faint light filtering in from up ahead dimly illuminated the passage. But even though we moved as quietly as we could and didn’t have a light source, chances were good that they knew we were here. Creatures like werespiders and other Supes tended to have an uncanny sense when something was trying to sneak up on them.

  Suddenly, Alex held up his hand.

  He had been correct about the passage being short. The opening loomed ahead, leading to the main chamber. Alex counted down from five using his fingers. Five, four, three, two, one.

  As we swung into the room Chai let out an incantation, his voice booming through the silence. As his words crackled in the air I closed my eyes, guarding against the intense flash of light that shimmered through the chamber. I sucked in a deep breath and opened my eyes.

  It was as if the sunlight had found its way into the depths of the earth. Suddenly worried, I glanced over at Alex, but he seemed unaffected and I realized that, as bright as the light was, there was no heat coming from it and it wasn’t a captured sunbeam.

  The werespiders were shading their eyes, trying to avoid the light. They were hideous creatures—huge and bloated, looking for all the world like giant black widows with male torsos attached to them. Their legs ended in wha
t looked like razor-sharp points, and protruding fangs glistened from their mouths. They had arms like men, but their heads were more spiderlike, with multiple eyes encircling them, and no hair to speak of.

  I have seen some hideous things in my life, but these felt like a freakish mockery of both spider and man.

  “They’re constructs,” Chai said. As he raced toward them, his scimitar appeared in his hand.

  “What do you mean?” Alex called as he followed, holding Juanita—his wickedly sharp bowie knife.

  “They are magical creatures; they aren’t natural.” Chai was already taking on the nearest one. As he swept the scimitar down, the creature lunged forward toward him and they were engaged in battle.

  I forced myself to turn away from the fight and turned to look for Bette, but instead, I found myself staring into the face of the diatrofymata.

  Alex was right. The thing reminded me of a walking skeleton with a thin, stretched sheet of skin clinging to the bones. Its eyes were pinpoints of light glowing within deep black sockets. The mouth was round, and razor-sharp teeth glistened like tiny needles encircling the orifice. It was standing right over me, a good eight feet tall, and before I realized what was happening, it swept one arm forward, connecting with my shoulder to knock me off balance. I went sprawling back on my butt, unprepared for the attack.

 
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