Flight from mayhem fly b.., p.28
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       Flight from Mayhem (Fly by Night #2), p.28

           Yasmine Galenorn

  “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, and 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 lik
e 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 what 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.

  As it leaned over me, Frank and one of the other werewolves attacked, diverting its attention away from me. I scrambled to my feet again and, as I looked around, I saw Bette and Gerta tied up against one wall. They were sitting on the ground, their hands and feet duct-taped together.

  I darted through the fighting, dropping to my knees as I unsheathed my dagger. I sawed at the duct tape, glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one was behind me. Within seconds, I had freed Bette. As she struggled to her feet, she grimaced and I realized she had been in that position for far too long. Melusine or not, muscles were muscles.

  “Give me your dagger, and I’ll cut Gerta loose. You go help them.” Bette held out her hand and I slapped the dagger into her palm.

  I jumped up and turned around, trying to figure out where I could do the most good. Chai was still fighting with his werespider, trying to dodge the razor-sharp tips of its legs as it stabbed at him. Alex was on the back of another one, trying to get hold of its throat. Frank and José were fighting the diatrofymata. Thomas was curled up on the floor, down for the count. And George was being backed into a corner by the other werespider. I raced across the cavern floor to help him.

  I didn’t have any weapons, but the werespider didn’t see me coming. As I approached the bloated abdomen, I let loose with a punch that could have broken through a wall. My hand met its exoskeleton, and the reverberation almost knocked me back. The damn thing was as hard as armor. But I had made enough of an impact that it left off attacking George and turned toward me.

  Oh, hell. Now what was I supposed to do? Bette had my dagger. I was strong, but somehow I didn’t think I could pull off a Samwise Gamgee move. This wasn’t a movie, and the werespider wasn’t Shelob. As it closed in, I did the only thing I could think of. I turned and ran like hell. It followed me, which was what I was hoping it would do, giving George enough time to get out a weapon.

  “This is the last time I go into battle with just a dagger,” I shouted to no one in particular.

  Suddenly, a white wolf leaped past me. Oh hell, Ralph. I didn’t want him getting in the way because this creature could take us both on and come out unharmed. But Ralph growled, loudly, and drew the attention of the werespider away from me. Frantic to prevent him from getting hurt, I looked around for anything that I could use as a weapon.

  Over in the corner, I spotted a broken stalactite lying on the floor. It must have been two feet long, and it looked wicked sharp at the tip. I dashed over and grabbed it up, hefting the weight in my hands. It was solid and heavy enough to have a good knockback potential.

  I whirled around just in time to see the werespider looming down on Ralph. He was backing away, whimpering in fear. I took aim, targeting in on the werespider’s chest, hoping that its heart was in approximately the same place as a human’s.

  With a deep breath, I hurled the stalactite, sending it spinning toward the monster. The werespider didn’t notice the approaching missile until too late. As the stalactite drove itself through its chest, it let out a tremendous roar, arms flailing as it reared back. As I watched, it lurched to one side, scrabbling to pull the stalactite out of its chest.

  Ralph took the opportunity to get away, running toward Bette.

  Another roar echoed against the cavern walls. Alex had managed to slit the throat of the werespider he was riding. It tried to claw at him, but it couldn’t reach behind its neck, and Alex stabbed the eyes in the back of its head as a dark viscous blood began to spurt out of its severed jugular.

  Chai was making headway with his opponent. He had managed to sever several of its legs and it was leaning precariously to the left. The djinn had several long deep scra
tches along his arms, and I realized the creature had managed to attack him, but if it had venom, Chai didn’t seem to be affected.

  Frank was embroiled in a wrestling match with the diatrofymata. The creature was holding him down, clawing for his eyes with its long, bony fingers. I was close enough to join in, and I wrapped one arm around the diatrofymata’s neck, yanking hard to pull it away. We went sprawling to the ground, and the creature grabbed hold of my ankle and bit down, its needle-sharp teeth digging into my boot. I kicked it with my other foot as Frank came in behind, brandishing a wicked-looking dagger. He stabbed at the diatrofymata’s back, and I heard the impact as metal screeched against bone.

  The werespider I had been fighting staggered, finally crashing to the floor. Alex’s werespider followed suit. Alex leaped to Frank’s side and neatly brought Juanita across the diatrofymata’s throat as he grabbed hold of its head and yanked backward. Frank placed his hands against Alex’s and, together, they ripped the head clean away. No blood flowed, but the body fell to the floor, arms flailing, and then was still. Another moment, and it melted into a sludgelike goo, soaking into the dirt of the cavern floor.

  Chai finished off his werespider and propped his scimitar against the floor, point first. He leaned on the pommel. “We better get out of here because where there’s one werespider, I assume there are more. And I don’t want to be here when they arrive.”

  Silently, glancing over the carnage, I crossed to Bette and Gerta to make certain they were okay. Frank and José carried Thomas out of the cave. We had managed to finish what we had set out to do, but I couldn’t help but wonder what else lurked inside these mountains.

  * * *

  Tonya was waiting for us. When she saw Bette, she broke into a wide smile. “I take it everything is all right?”

  “Thomas is severely injured, but I think he’ll live. We all took our lumps and bruises,” I said. “But the diatrofymata is dead, along with three werespiders. Later on, I want a look at your bestiary to see if it talks about what they are.” I motioned to Bette. “Are you sure you’re okay? You’re not hurt?”

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