Illusions: Paranormal Shapeshifter Romance (The Seekers Book 1), page 18
“I’m all right,” he insisted. “A little nauseated, that’s all.”
“It’s happening,” said Rohan. “That’s good. Once you’ve changed, you’ll feel better.”
“That’s reassuring,” laughed Paxx weakly. “And seeing as Nyx took it so well, I figure that I should keep my chin up.”
“That’s the spirit. Listen, are you well enough to hear what’s happening at the Guild?”
“Of course,” said Paxx.
Rohan explained what he’d seen: the conversation between Melina and her mates, the demand that Circe be brought to her.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” said Serafina. “I wonder what she was talking about, saying the Sisterhood had pulled a veil over our eyes.”
“I assume that she was referring to the Ritual,” said Rohan. “She feels, I think, that you were deprived of a certain amount of power by being limited to the Bonding.”
Their conversation was interrupted by Paxx, whose body seized for a moment.
“Are you all right?” asked Phist, taking his brother’s arm.
“Fine,” he said, his fingers digging into Phist’s hand. “Fine. I just need a little air.” He stood and walked to the door. Phist followed, keeping an eye on him.
Serafina leaned towards Nyx’s face and spoke softly, then the ferret scampered out the door after the two men.
“Are you keeping an eye on him?” asked Rohan.
Serafina nodded. “Rohan,” she said. “What are you to gain from this Ritual?”
“I don’t know yet, honestly. Perhaps nothing; that is, if you don’t include getting to be with the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known and having an honourable, dependable man at our side. But in all likelihood I will derive some skills from each of you. What they are remains to be seen. These things can take days, weeks, years to develop.”
“Well, I hope for your sake that you gain strength.”
“I already have.”
* * *
Outside, Paxx wandered aimlessly, his stride uneven as he went. His brother watched, frightened, though he’d seen this before among Guild members. There were those among their numbers who had been through the Ritual, who had exhibited similar symptoms; usually as their first shift was approaching.
He didn’t speak, but watched his brother even as Nyx perched on a stump and observed.
After a moment Phist stepped forward, running to his brother, who seemed to be…disappearing. For seconds at a time, Phist could see the outlines of trees through his very body, as though Paxx had gone transparent. But then he would return to opacity, as though it were only a trick of the light.
“What’s happening?” asked Phist, but there was no reply.
Serafina and Rohan ran outside to witness it, and they saw it too: Paxx, flashing off and on, the forest visible through his outline.
“It can’t be,” said Sera.
“What is it? I’ve not seen anything like this,” said Rohan. “Dragons and gryphons, yes. But this?”
Then Paxx was gone, the pale white outline of a large wolf in his place. He too seemed translucent, to be made up of light, reflecting all the shades of the forest. Only when he moved could they read his outline.
And a second later he was bounding around, having regained stability. His form had become more opaque, more visible, and he seemed to control his level of visibility.
“His déor is that of a ghost wolf. The rarest of creatures,” said Serafina. Paxx’s eyes glowed light blue as his head turned to them. “They can hide from sight as easily as your mouse form. Stealthy, quick creatures. They’re considered to be infused with white magic.”
“This comes from you,” said Rohan, smiling.
“This comes from us.” She took his hand in hers and squeezed.
The wolf approached them and sat, its light eyes staring up at theirs before he shifted.
“Instinct,” laughed Rohan. “A shifter comes into his own, sometimes, like a newborn foal stands on all four legs.”
Paxx laughed. “I suppose you’re right. That felt remarkably…natural.”
“That was amazing,” said Phist, who’d been watching in silence. “Could you feel what you looked like?”
“Not exactly,” his brother replied. “But somehow I knew when I was visible and not. As though I were masking myself from view when I didn’t want to be seen.”
“Cloaking,” said Serafina. “It’s a property of the ghost wolf. As though your fur takes on the traits of everything around it, so that you camouflage yourself perfectly.”
“This could be handy,” said Paxx. “And here I thought that I was useless.”
“Not at all,” Rohan assured him. “And we’ll be needing your skills later, I think. We need to get Circe back.”
Serafina turned his way. “What about me?” she said. “What’s my part in this?”
“You and Onyx are one being,” said Rohan. “That’s nothing new. He’s always been part of you. But you need to use your skills and his today. We’ll need everything we have to deal with Melina and her partners in crime. No doubt they will have the Guild’s guardians on high alert, but we must go to them and liberate your sister. You cast that rune spell yesterday—how long do you suppose it might have lasted?”
“If I did well, she might still be unconscious.”
“Then we must get to her before she comes to. They will jump on the chance to initiate her.”
“She’s still sleeping, Lady Melina,” said Bahn, one of the Guild’s initiated men, a coyote shifter.
“Well, wake her, for the love of the goddess.”
“We’ve tried everything: cold spring water, poking her with sticks. Some spell has been cast, perhaps.”
The s-word irritated the woman more than she would ever have admitted. Goddamned spells. How could Serafina possibly have cast any spell that she couldn’t cancel? It made no sense whatsoever, unless some other power were at work.
But they would have to wait this out. And after that, the Ritual would occur, come hell or high water.
“I’d been reserving two specimens for Serafina,” she’d told her mates about Circe’s prospective partners, “But she’s a lost cause, I fear. So, I will throw them to her sister: Circe will mate with a hawk and a cheetah shifter. They will grant her all manner of skills, and when she comes into them, she will thank me; you mark my words.”
The men had nodded silently, as they’d learned to do. This woman had sucked all of their inner will, somehow, whether through charm or black magic.
But in truth, neither Crow nor Mace was fit to lead the Guild; it was only their association with the Sorceress that gave them any real authority. That and the fact that the initiated members seldom stayed around long, moving off to begin lives elsewhere. They spread like wildfire, populating lands to the west.
And Melina was at the head of all of it. This would be her war to lose.
“But if lady Circe disagrees…” began Crow.
“If Lady Circe disagrees, she will find that her mates have a few things to say to her,” said Melina. “These men are no weaklings, and she is frail. They will not permit her to speak up.”
The conversation had ended there, and now, at noon, Melina still waited for Circe to come out of her prolonged slumber. A guardian was to fetch her in case of any change.
Melina had assigned every man of the Guild the role of guard duty for the day, and so no entrance to the compound had fewer than four men surrounding it. Patrols moved along the woods, watching the rooftop and the barred windows for birds, but the only one that they’d seen thus far was Circe’s Familiar, Obsidian, who appeared more sleepy than usual, no doubt affected by his Magistress’s unconsciousness.
Rohan arrived on the scene in the form of a squirrel, the most unthreatening creature he could imagine. It always amused him that he could be a rodent one moment, a drake the next, but now he found himself envying Paxx’s gift of stealth.
Rohan could see that the men on guard duty were scouting the windows and sky for any sort of flyer, and so he searched the woods for Obsidian. As soon as he saw him, his face turned towards the same cell where Circe had been kept the previous day. He knew now that she was still there.
He dashed back to the others, shifting when he came to them.
“She’s still inside,” he said. “But they won’t want to bring the Ritual to her. To engage in it in prison would be unseemly, even in an emergency. I imagine that they’ll bring her outside, once they feel secure that no one is around to threaten them.”
“We should keep an eye on Obsidian, then,” said Sera. “When he moves, we’ll know that she’s also on the move.”
And so they waited, watching from a distance through row upon row of trees, Rohan and Nyx occasionally climbing to get a better look.
Serafina was getting more skilled by the minute at transference, monitoring the guardians through her Familiar’s eyes even as her own scoped the woods.
And Nyx occasionally shifted into cat form, prowling about under the cover of his dark fur and soft paws.
“I wonder if Melina’s calico can shift,” Sera said. “She’s a nasty piece of work; I can imagine that she’d be a force to reckon with.”
“This is new territory for me, so I couldn’t say,” Rohan said. “It’s possible that she can change, or that she can get up to all sorts of other mayhem. That’s both the beauty and the peril of the Ritual; you never know what you’ll get in the end. I remember my mother telling us about the day she came into her powers.”
“Oh?” said Sera, Paxx listening intently at her side.
“She is a dragon shifter. But she didn’t know that at the time. Naturally, she was terrified when it happened. She’d grown up in a world where our kind remained secret. Not to mention the time when she shot herself through time and space without a clue as to how she’d done it.”
“I can’t imagine,” said Sera.
“I’m afraid that you will be able to one day soon,” said Rohan. “There are things that you will discover in yourself, my beautiful lady.”
“You don’t think I’ll shift, surely?”
“No. I don’t. I don’t think that you Aspirants have it in you. But there is something ancient in your blood that I don’t yet understand. Something that I believe Melina knows.”
“Do you think that’s why she hates the Sisterhood?”
“It’s hard to say. I suspect that a woman like her hates for the sake of hating.”
Serafina let out a chuckle, quickly covering her mouth.
“What is it?” asked Paxx, who was standing by, naked as he had been for most of the last twelve or so hours.
“I’m unaccustomed to hanging about the woods with two incredibly handsome, nude men,” she said. “This is new territory for me as well.”
Rohan looked down at his bare body. “You’ve cast a spell of invisible clothing!” he said. “The Craft is strong in you.”
“That would be one impressive spell. I’d cast it every hour of every day, around you two.”
“Next thing you know, she’ll find a cock-hardening rune,” said Paxx, grinning at Rohan.
“I’m pretty sure that one’s in her mouth,” replied Rohan.
“All right, you two males. Focus,” said Sera. “Let’s check on Sidian again.”
Rohan found the raven circling the compound, just above its dark roof. He appeared more alert than he had a few minutes before. This, Rohan knew, meant that Circe had come to and was likely on the move inside the building. Whether she was pacing in her cell or being escorted by guards was another question; one that was quickly answered when the south door opened, and two men stepped out, each holding the young woman by an arm.
Rohan, now in his wolf form, dashed back to Sera.
“Where’s Paxx?” he asked after shifting.
“He’s gone to look. I think you passed him,” she said.
“He’s good. Listen, they’re bringing Circe out. This is our best chance to get her.”
“All right,” said Sera. But she stood frozen, unsure of what to do.
“Are you okay?”
“I feel helpless,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
“You’re being hit with a lot at once. Leave it to us.” With that he transformed into an eagle, taking off for the treetops to keep an eye on Circe’s route.
Down below, the stealthy ghost wolf trotted soundlessly through the woods, his eyes fixed on the guards who were pulling Circe to the side of the compound and into the woods to the west.
“Where the hell are they taking her?” he wondered. As he followed, he saw that they led her down a new, narrow path carved in the woods. So, they were going to perform the Ritual outdoors.
He followed, spying the raven in the sky above, who kept a watchful eye on his Magistress. At one point Obsidian cried out and Circe’s head turned sleepily up to him. She seemed out of it, as though drugged, and Paxx wasn’t sure if this was Sera’s work or Melina’s.
From the north came Melina, following the others down the path. The Sorceress wanted to be sure, Paxx supposed, that the Ritual would take place in a location clear of enemies. And then came two men: the prospective mates, it seemed.
Paxx recognized them as Kort and Schaff, two strong shifters and loyal Guild members. Each was powerful, brutish and unafraid to treat women poorly. They would make awful mates for any woman.
Rohan soared high in the sky above, preparing to dart down when necessary. Occasionally he was able to spot flashes of Paxx’s form, and then only because he was looking for it. The man had managed his concealment well, particularly for a newly initiated shifter.
Sera would follow on her own time. She’d appeared stunned, disoriented; no doubt overwhelmed by everything. But there wasn’t time to tend to her, not now. Within minutes, the men could overtake her sister and ruin her life forever. He and Paxx had to get to Circe.
The narrow path led to a small clearing where a blanket had been lain upon the ground. Nothing particularly romantic, but then these people seemed to think that romance was a waste of energy. They were essentially about to take advantage of a young woman who was completely devoid of strength; they may as well have been assaulting a lifeless doll. The thought of all of it disgusted Rohan; he was angry to think that these were his people, his species. The Guild was once again putting his own kind to shame.
When the figures reached the clearing, the guards led Circe to the blanket. Obsidian circled above, crying out in protest, but there was nothing that a small raven could do against such injustice. And like his Magistress, he seemed disoriented, his flight uneven.
Rohan landed silently in the woods, shifting immediately into his déor, the winged wolf form that had been unique to him since his youth. The wings remained tight at his sides, rarely used except in moments of true need. But the body, mind and strength of the wolf’s body were where he felt most settled, most strong.
He stood within the shelter of the woods, hoping that the assortment of scents from the other Guild members would conceal his own. It wouldn’t be long before he needed to make his move.
On the opposite side of the clearing stood Paxx, hidden away, ready to pounce, though untrained, unaccustomed to this new body. There was no plan, but then there was no real point in a plan. This fight would be about speed and strength, and he and Rohan had the advantage of surprise on their side, if nothing else.
Serafina had remained in place, her hand reaching into her bag for her stones. It was time.
But as she’d watched Rohan fly away, she’d cursed herself. In all the excitement of the Ritu
“Dammit,” she muttered. The runes were the one thing she was certain would work, and now she was helpless.
Nyx licked her cheek, as always supportive and affectionate.
“Not now, Nyx,” she said, her frustration heightened by his distracting tongue.
But a moment later she understood. His strokes, rather than a series of vertical ones, seemed to be moving in every direction. It took Sera a moment to realize what was happening.
“Are you spelling something out?” she asked him, stroking his back. As though in response, he licked once more. “Runes,” she said. “You’re writing runes on my cheek, clever thing.”
She extended a hand before herself, drawing shapes in the air: a vertical line, a diagonal one crossing it downwards. Nyd, the rune of need.
The air itself lit then, a thin, fiery line spelling out the rune, as occurred on the stones themselves.
“I can write on air,” she said. “Rohan was right. I am coming into powers that I never foresaw.”
She ran then, following in the direction that her mates had gone. Nyx scampered down onto the ground and sprinted ahead of her, shifting into the black fox, sniffing the ground as he went. He was tracking Circe, leading his Magistress to her.
She could only hope that they wouldn’t be too late.
Circe still appeared disoriented when Melina addressed her.
“You know who I am, yes?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Circe weakly, the guardians supporting her by holding her upper arms. “I know all too well, Melina.”
“And no doubt you know why you’re here.”
“Obviously not for a hanging,” Circe replied, laughing a little. “Your scaffold is charcoal, I hear.”
The back of Melina’s hand hit Circe’s face hard, and Rohan bristled with anger, hoping that Serafina wasn’t witnessing this.
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