Vampire Queen 8 - Bound by the Vampire Queen - Joey W Hill, page 7
The woman opened the chocolate, sniffed it, then hid it in one of her pockets. She was continuing to mumble to herself unintelligibly.
“He crazy as Essie,” Pipe Guy said to his companion. That one nodded agreeably, propped on his spiked board, sipping the coffee. But Lyssa had seen the gaze they exchanged.
They know what you’re talking about, Jacob.
“I saw her,” Essie said abruptly. Leaning forward, she seized Jacob by the lapel of his jacket, peering into his face. The two men tensed, but Jacob lifted open hands, showing he wouldn’t react with violence.
“So long… younger then. More teeth.” She cackled, showing a mouth full of decay. Lyssa detected the odor at this distance, and knew Jacob was getting a direct blast. But he didn’t move, focused on Essie’s expressive face. “She ran. Ran like ballerina, so pretty. So graceful. Dancing through alley. Like girl with red shoes. Fairy tale. Tiny, delicate little butterfly wings, so she moved just over the ground, not very high. They were too small. They couldn’t carry her off and away, above their heads.
Bad men run after her.” She frowned then, her grip tightening. “Why you hurt her? What’s wrong with you?”
“It wasn’t me,” Jacob assured her. “If I was there, I would have helped. I would have protected her.”
“She protected herself,” Essie declared proudly, straightening. Her dog settled at her ankles, looking hopefully at the peanut butter crackers she still held in one fist. “She turns corner… boom, she gone.
She gone away. They don’t know where she go. Only a tree left in that place. A tree… And sometimes I see her in it. She sways in the wind, like you say. A beautiful, beautiful dancer… but so sad.” She spread her arms and rocked back and forth on her feet, swaying like the tree. When she overbalanced and Jacob reached out to steady her, she petted his jacket, the way she’d pet her dog.
“Pretty, pretty. Bad men come and go. But the tree, she there…”
“Where? Essie?” Jacob touched her face lightly, bringing her eyes to his intent ones. “Can you show me where?”
Getting Essie going in the right direction took a little time, since she wouldn’t go without her shopping cart, and she wouldn’t go in a car. Her two companions also insisted on going, marching at Jacob and Lyssa’s back, unlikely body guards for their eccentric friend. However, when Lyssa dropped back to join them, Jacob experienced his usual admiration for how easily his lady interacted with any strata of humanity. Though she had pointed out his intuitive gifts many times, her own natural perceptiveness was unparalleled. Males might respond to her beauty, but when she wished to do so, she could offer a warmth, a genuine interest, that disarmed them entirely.
In no time, Essie’s companions were telling her stories of their lives, despite the fact that Pete, having a bad stutter, had let Pipe Guy do his talking up to now. When she placed her hands on their elbows, as if she was letting herself be escorted by them, they were hooked. Disjointed and unlikely as some of the tales they relayed sounded, there were obvious wretched truths interwoven into them. Time and hard living had made the truth more difficult to recall… or they wanted it that way, preferring their imaginations.
Meanwhile, Essie kept up a running prattle between herself, her dog, and sometimes threw things at Jacob that didn’t seem to require response.
Which was good, because after her fairly lucid moment, her current commentary was as cryptic as Sanskrit. Their progress was slow, for sometimes she clung to his arm, then abruptly shoved him away and accused him of trying to take advantage of her.
After that, she might wander in circles around her cart for a few moments, shouting incomprehensibly and rummaging through her things. When she wound down, studying him with bewildered eyes, he would gently remind her of the tree, and she would resume their trek with a sense of purpose.
You are cutting it close to dawn, Sir Vagabond.
I’m all right. Though he could feel the sun’s approach. In addition to the occasional attack of bloodlust, he still had a fledgling’s increased vulnerability to the approaching daylight. Whereas Lyssa had been able to step into shelter a moment’s breath from dawn without any problem, it was near impossible for him to comfortably be above ground less than an hour before the sun’s rising. However, he’d deal with some discomfort. They were too close.
If we have to do so, we can come back tomorrow, Jacob. We’ll find her again.
But Essie might not remember the tree tomorrow.
“Here, here.” Essie clamped down on his arm. Her pace increased as she dragged him down a narrow, pitch-dark alleys that smell ed of offal and several rat carcasses, remains left by feline alleys scavengers.
Sometimes, if impressions were strong enough, his precog senses worked in reverse, calling up past images.
This place was overrun with lingering impressions of violence.
Needles discarded, a man kicked almost to death. He’d dragged himself a few feet¸ only to die in a pile of garbage. There was still a scrap of police tape in that pile. A hooker had been gang raped, beaten.
Others had brought johns here, let themselves be pounded against the wall. One had knelt in garbage to suck her clients off for just a few dollars, whatever she could get for her next cocaine fix.
He’d stopped, reeling from all the images. It was a place that had seen so much evil, it collected it, made a barrier of it.
“Jacob.” Lyssa was at his elbow, touching him.
“Where?” He spoke in a hoarse voice, trying not to sound threatening. “Where is the tree?” Essie’s eyes were round, pale green pools in the darkness, but she pointed. “Back there. This is terrible, terrible place. But sometimes we’re brave.
Sometimes we come, when it’s daylight. We don’t come at night, but you’re here.” She caught Jacob’s arm abruptly, fingers digging in. “Don’t disappear. I brought you here, like you said. Don’t leave me and my friends here.”
“No.” He shook his head. “I won’t.”
Glancing down at Lyssa, he nodded, reassurance that he was alright. Because she was here. Her eyes warmed, her hand closing around his. They moved forward together.
The end of the alleys opened up into a barren area, once a parking lot for the clump of abandoned businesses that formed a square around it. The pavement was broken pieces and gravel. A scattering of strawlike grass and weeds pushed through the cracks. More garbage and syringes.
Because taller office buildings shadowed the area, Jacob could see there was little room for sunlight, but meager shards would get through.
It was like a well. The evil pushing in behind them and the buildings and fencing before them made it claustrophobic. A cheerless steel and concrete cage for a beautiful, exotic creature.
Dear Goddess. No wonder she couldn’t get back home.
Jacob nodded again, but he couldn’t take his gaze from the one feature that obviously didn’t belong, what had drawn Essie and her companions here during daylight hours, despite the horrid nature of the place. Now that they’d found her, he wondered that they’d even gotten out of the car to check the other trees. Though his and Lyssa’s senses were far more advanced than humans’, he marveled that no one other than a trio of homeless people had called out the unique quality of the will ow that had survived here.
The roots had gone into that broken pavement, taken hold. During their trek here, Essie had mumbled “starlight, starbright” several times, and now he knew she wasn’t aimlessly reciting a nursery rhyme. With those advanced senses, he could see the tree’s aura. Blue and green fire sparkled in the darkness, limning the slender layers of leaves that rustled in the scrap of wind that found its way into this dank funnel of existence. The will ow was perhaps fifteen feet tall, the trunk ironically the diameter of a shapely woman’s waist, such that he could easily put his arms around it. Even in this soulless place, the tree had attracted life. Birds nestled up in those branches, giving quiet cheeps. Crickets sawed among the leaves.
There seemed to be less tr
Being a former vampire hunter, he considered himself reasonably exposed to paranormal things.
Then he’d met Keldwyn. The first time he’d seen the Fae lord in the deep forest, Jacob had been focused on Lyssa’s protection, on his need to find her. Even so, some part of him had registered the wonder of being in the presence of a creature connected so deeply to Nature’s magic.
Keldwyn had said the Fae withdrew from the mortal world when humans began taking it over with their buildings and fences, with their need for order and control. In the stark contrast between what Jacob saw before him and the dark landscape around it, he saw why their two worlds would never reunite in the same way. It was a gift they’d all lost, that would never be theirs again. It made his throat thicken and tears sting his eyes.
Your Irish is showing, my love. But though she saw and felt it differently with her vast years, she understood. Her hand gripped his.
They moved forward again. Sensing something unexpected might be about to happen, Essie and her friends held back.
“You know…” Lyssa spoke in a low voice. “We were so focused on finding her, I didn’t consider what to do once we actually free her.”
“I’m not sure there’s a section on the Internet about how to feed, water and care for your liberated dryad.” Jacob grimaced. “We'll figure it out. Let’s just see if your touch works its magic this time.” As they reached the tree, he held a curtain of slender branches to the side, allowing Lyssa to step beneath the canopy. That aural energy shimmered over his arm. Glancing up, he saw a tiny cadre of moonlit-colored moths dance upward to a higher elevation to avoid the intruders. They moved toward the sliver of fading moonlight partially obscured by the silhouettes of the leaves. His eyesight was good enough to see a spider web the size and shape of a perfectly round quarter. The occupant was so small that it took Jacob’s vampire eyes to detect the pencil-tip-sized body, the eight, tiny threadlike legs.
As they reached the trunk, he dropped to his heels, holding Lyssa’s one hand as she reached out with the other. She laid it on a curve in the trunk that was reminiscent of a woman’s shoulder, the shallow dip above it the swanlike curve of neck. When she paused, Jacob saw her attention directed inward, as if she were listening to a whispered voice. Dipping into her head, he sensed an oscillating surge of energy, the taste of her Fae magic as it was stirred by the presence of this tree like a spoon dipped into slow flowing honey.
A vibration of response shuddered through the tree, down through the roots under his feet. Distress, like a sleeper woken from a nightmare. Terror, and all of it female. Reacting without thought, he laid his palm below Lyssa’s, adding to the calm energy she was pouring into the tree, since she of course was detecting the same thing he was.
The vibration got denser, implosive, and then everything went still . The crickets were silent, the moths gone. Jacob heard the tiny peep of one bird, a question, followed by more silence. He met Lyssa’s eyes, and so he saw them widen before he felt the touch.
The bark shimmered over his hand. It distorted, smoothed, then became slim long fingers that overlapped his, testing. When the root beneath his boot twitched, he moved it. The trunk quivered, a cambered section becoming a bare leg. The visible root edge sculpted into the tiny, delicate foot.
Jacob rose, turning his hand over so the dryad’s fingers rested in his palm. Gently—as gently as if he held one of those moths, afraid to dust their wings with his flesh and take away their ability to fly—he closed his fingers on hers. Lyssa was gripping the other hand. In sync, they backed up, drawing the fairy out of the trunk’s hold like Excalibur from the stone, with all the same awe.
As she came out, the trunk twisted and molded back into a closed shape, one far smoother than when it had held her body in its embrace. Jacob looked into large, almond-shaped eyes the color of gray-green moss. A tiny pink mouth underscored features that at first seemed too smooth and delicate to be real, but then he realized just the opposite was true. She was as real as leaf or stream, a cloud in a blue sky.
When she collapsed, he and Lyssa caught her together. Her head fell on Lyssa’s shoulder, while her hand remained locked in Jacob’s sure grip.
“That’s a crazy girl for sure,” Pipe Guy affirmed.
“Can’t no one live in a tree. She crazier than Essie.”
“HERE.” Pete poked Jacob’s shoulder. He was holding the long, tattered jacket he’d been wearing.
“N-n-aked girl b-b-be cold out here. And attract b-b-b-bad things. Don’t s-s-ssmell so clean, but it'll still w-w-w-work.”
The two men worked in tandem to wrap the girl up in the coat and Lyssa helped fasten the buttons on the old duster. As she did, she noted that Jacob was sweating. The strain of staying out this close to dawn was starting to tell. They had about an hour before the sun’s rays would spear through the city skyline, and by that time Jacob would be extremely uncomfortable.
Don’t worry for me, my lady. I’m fine. Though she and Jacob both possessed more than enough strength to carry her, he was the one who lifted the dryad. A man his size carrying a female would attract less attention than a woman of her stature. Beyond that, the girl, even in her unconscious state, would draw a sense of safety from his embrace. Lyssa wasn’t at all surprised that, while her touch had freed the girl, Jacob’s had given her the bravery to reach out, accept the rescue. His effect on women, particularly damsels in distress, could by turns intensely irritate or quietly delight her. Today’s response was mixed—she didn’t want to see him turned to a pile of foolishly chivalrous ash by the rising sun.
As they moved away from the tree that had sheltered the Fae for so long, Lyssa sensed something amiss. Pausing at the entry point between the two buildings, she looked back.
At the same moment she spoke, Essie’s cry of distress split the air.
Willow trees, with the long strands of leaves like thick tresses, and the trunk shape like the curving female form, had long been considered a sacred Goddess symbol. Now it was as if the Maiden aspect was becoming Crone, but not in the gradual way nature intended. The leaves were browning, dropping away, the trunk thickening and gnarling, hunching in on itself. The roots split the ground, as if the tree was going to pul itself out of the earth and fall over.
Even Jacob almost missed the whisper. Looking down, they saw the dryad’s eyes were open. She reached out of the coat, her fingers trembling.
Jacob glanced at Lyssa. She’s so weak she’s shaking. Whatever she’s planning to do, she doesn’t have the strength to do it. She could go right back in there. Or die outright. We have to help her, my lady.
Essie’s mouth was crumpled in anguish. She’d scurried back to the tree and fallen to her knees inside its canopy. As she keened and rocked herself, her little dog whined at her side. The two men helplessly flanked her, looking up at the dying tree.
“Go… touch.” The dryad’s voice was weaker, but more plaintive. It was hurting her, seeing the tree suffering.
Lyssa frowned. You’re right. She doesn’t have the strength to do it. Not alone. And I suppose you’ll refuse to move until she’s at ease. Stubborn ass.
As they ducked back under that curtain of leaves, Pete touched Essie’s shoulder, drawing her attention to what they were doing, Thankfully, it reduced her wails to quiet whimpers. When they approached the trunk, the dryad reached out again.
Her arm was quivering harder, but this time Lyssa clasped her hand, not allowing her to make direct contact with the trunk. Instead, she lifted her other palm and laid it there. “Use me,” the vampire queen said.
At Mason’s, Lyssa’s groundswell of energy had been like the tremor
Everything stopped, every muscle locked as if time itself paused.
Jacob smell ed subterranean earth, green leaves and… flowers.
Time lurched back into motion. The trunk was straightening again, new leaf buds replacing those that had fallen. But more than the tree was changing.
The brown scraps of leaves on the ground were being shifted aside by blades of grass poking through the earth and human debris. The garbage disappeared under a carpet of grass and a multihued tapestry of wildflowers, spiky, defiant oranges and red-browns. Plants that could survive adversity and look good while doing it.
Lyssa had a distant, unfocused expression as she tapped the well of magic and gave it free rein. He sensed her willing her consciousness out of the way so that the dryad and other forces could direct the power she yet understood so little. However, when she at last returned to herself and saw what the power had wrought, a rare look of complete serenity crossed her lovely features. Brief as it was, he thought of a baby connected to its umbilical cord, that maternal connection providing all the unspoken answers. Then she drew away from the tree.
As she met Jacob’s eyes, he leaned forward and kissed her. He held it a long moment, the dryad between them. When he broke the contact between them at last, she still held the dryad’s hand. Lyssa tucked the girl’s cold fingers tenderly inside the coat.
Jacob had been the recipient of his lady’s merciless side more than once, enough to never underestimate how brutal she could be. However, despite her earlier impatience on his behalf, he also knew she had a limitless compassion for those deserving of it. Though neither of them knew the motives of Keldwyn or the Fae queen regarding this dryad, it was clear to them both she was a young female in need of their help.