Illusions paranormal sha.., p.19

Illusions: Paranormal Shapeshifter Romance (The Seekers Book 1), page 19

 

Illusions: Paranormal Shapeshifter Romance (The Seekers Book 1)
 


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  “You are of more use to me alive than dead. And you may have noticed that your sister has forsaken you. She has moved on to greener pastures. They say that she’s found two mates and no doubt she’s bonding with them as we speak, performing all the delicious deviant sexual acts forbidden to the members of the Sisterhood.”

  “Deviant acts such as you perform, Melina?”

  “But of course. I have never been a fan of the Crones’ rules and regulations. We women were not meant to isolate ourselves; we were made for breeding, after all.”

  “If you say so.” Circe’s head drooped down as though she’d given up any attempt at argument.

  “You are fortunate,” said Melina, her index finger under Circe’s chin, lifting it to force the young woman to look at her. “I have selected two of our finest for you. And as a bonus you’ll be able to look into their eyes as they make love to you, to see their handsome faces. Try getting that deal from the Crones.”

  Circe turned her head and looked at the men, something approaching a sneer on her face as Obsidian cawed above her.

  “You have always shown great promise of impressive elemental powers, Circe. You and your sister both. With this ceremony, you will find yourself more powerful than the Crones. Than that wretched Hedy, as she wilts with age. You will find your life lengthened, as well. For many, many years you will enjoy the time with these men that I’m so generously providing you.”

  Hateful bastards, thought Rohan. Hardly an appealing fate.

  “Lay her down,” Melina said, now addressing the guards, who gently set Circe on her back. Whether due to her exhaustion or a lack of will, the young woman didn’t resist.

  “She’s all yours.” Melina looked at the two men to whom she was offering Serafina’s sister, and as though about to pounce on a meal each advanced, their large frames looming over the horizontal victim.

  With her words, Melina turned and left them there, her mates and the guards accompanying her. They headed north down another path, back to the residence that they shared. Melina had no interest in witnessing this Ritual; only in the final results. And Circe was not going to be a threat against two large men. All was going even better than the Sorceress had hoped.

  Kort bent down first, unceremoniously grabbing Circe’s long skirt and yanking it upwards, baring her legs. That was enough for Rohan, who took a step forward. But before he’d made it into the clearing, a voice stopped him.

  * * *

  “Get your hands off her.”

  Serafina had emerged from the woods, Nyx at her side, his sleek black panther form moving around the men. He was small, but no doubt would give his life to protect either his Magistress or her kin. Obsidian flew in quick circles above, still panicked, still helpless.

  Kort turned to her and snarled, leaving Circe alone for a moment as he stood, revealing his enormous frame. He really was huge—in all likelihood his déor would be the size of a bear, or larger, even. The other man came around Circe’s other side, both moving towards Serafina.

  In that instant she saw that neither man knew who she was and that neither felt threatened. As they were prepared to take her sister for themselves, they were prepared to kill her.

  But she had other plans.

  “Who do you think you are?” she asked. “Circe is not for you. She never was.”

  On the ground, her sister struggled to come to, her head turning from side to side as she tried to orient herself.

  “She was given to us by the Sorceress,” said the man. “A gift. She is ours now.”

  “The Sorceress, is it?” laughed Sera, stalling for time. “You think she deserves that title? She deserted the Sisterhood; she’s a mutineer, if anything.”

  “I don’t give a squirrel’s ass what you call her,” he replied. “She’s in charge here, not you.”

  Sera noted a flicker of movement to her right: Paxx’s ghostly form, skulking behind the other man, ready to leap.

  She backed away a little, pulling the men farther from her sister and forcing their backs to turn her way. Nyx crouched next to Circe protectively, keeping an eye out for new threats.

  “I am my sister’s guardian,” said Serafina. “And as such, I am in charge of her well-being.”

  “Are you now?” said Kort. “Well, her well-being is in my trousers, so perhaps you’d like a taste before we give it to your sister?”

  “You’re a vile pig, aren’t you? And you wonder why women don’t want to be anywhere near your damned Guild.”

  “Oh, I think you want to be very near,” said the man, loosening his waistband, preparing to unleash whatever other disgusting display lay between his legs. “I think you want what I’m offering.”

  In that instant Rohan and Paxx’s wolf forms sprinted forward. Serafina quickly brushed finger-strokes in the air. The shapes that she’d crafted glowed red, floating towards the man’s face like plumes of smoke. Softly, silently, they branded themselves into his flesh; thin lines of red and orange.

  The man, only inches in front of her face now, froze. And then his body turned grey, his very flesh seeming to harden into the surface of a marble statue.

  “Stàn,” said Sera. “The rune of stone.” She turned to the other man. “Are you interested in seeing what I have to offer?”

  He moved away then, darting towards the trail that Melina and the others had taken through the woods. Paxx pursued him, the nearly-invisible wolf disappearing into the forest behind him.

  Sera breathed a brief sigh of relief before turning back to her sister. But on the ground she saw only the blanket and a confused Nyx. Looking to the sky, she realized that Obsidian was gone as well.

  And there was no sign of Rohan.

  * * *

  “Roh!”

  Lily was the first to see him. In Dundurn’s courtyard, she had been walking about, showing Kiron various aspects of the castle’s structure, explaining their uses.

  For all her mind-reading abilities, the last thing she’d expected was to see her twin.

  But Rohan wasn’t alone; his arm was around a young woman who looked vaguely ill, her eyes moving about in confusion. And what was even stranger was the raven who’d appeared above them and was now lighting on the woman’s arm.

  “Lily,” he said, unable to resist a smile. “Am I glad to see you.”

  “What’s going on?” his sister asked, rushing to offer support, Kiron on one arm as she took the young woman’s left elbow in the other hand.

  “Long, long story; too long to tell right now. This is Circe. She needs protection for a little.”

  “She’s not a shifter,” said Lily, eyeing the dark-haired woman. By now, various members of the household had taken note that Lord Rohan had returned and they were running about, notifying the higher-ups. Within minutes, Conor and Graeme had found them and were helping to escort Circe to a bed.

  When Rohan had his entire family assembled a few minutes later, he addressed them. “Look, I don’t have time to fill you in on every detail just now. But I have found my mate.”

  He hardly needed to tell them that Circe was not her; everyone present knew it already. “This is her sister, Circe. There are people—shifters—attempting to hurt her and many others. Performing Rituals without the consent of women.”

  From Gwynne, Lily and the men came a communal gasp. The thought of it was akin to murder, as far as they were concerned. It broke every sacred trust of their kind.

  “I am doing my best to bring them down,” said Rohan. “Alongside my two mates,whom you will meet, I hope, before too long. But for now, please look after Circe. I want her far from all of it.”

  “Of course,” said Gwynne, approaching. Her belly had swollen since Rohan had last seen her, and he knew that the baby would come soon. “But will you be back here before long?”

  “I hope so. I need to return, though. Her sister will be worried.”

  “Rohan,” said Graeme. The brothers-in-law were good friends and allies. “What can we do? Do you need help?”
>
  “Not just yet,” he said. “Lily will let you know when—if—the time comes.”

  “Fair enough. Good luck to you, and be careful.”

  With that Rohan was gone once again, leaving behind a young, dark-haired woman and her raven.

  * * *

  “I’m sorry if I frightened you,” Rohan said as soon as he saw Sera’s face. “She’s safe. I took her to my family.”

  “I knew, somehow,” she said. “Whether through my bond with her or with you, or both, I knew.” She embraced him. “Thank you.”

  “Where’s Paxx?” he asked, noting also the sudden appearance of a statue in the clearing: a man whose trousers were partially undone, his face twisted into a look of horror.

  His question was answered a moment later when the wolf emerged from the cover of forest, more visible now than he had been. As he walked, he changed, the man wiping a trickle of blood from his chin.

  “Is he…” began Sera.

  Paxx simply nodded. “Gone,” he said. “And good riddance. I knew those two, and they were no good. Melina’s choice for Circe wasn’t accidental. She chose to inflict a fate worse than death on her by selecting them, and I’m sure that it was for some sort of twisted form of revenge.”

  “I—we—need to find the Crones,” said Sera. Nyx had remained in his cat form, rubbing at her legs affectionately now that the temporary crisis was ended. “They won’t be safe. No one will. As soon as Melina finds out what’s happened…”

  “Let’s be off then,” said Rohan. “I would offer to carry you both, but it would be difficult to conceal our location if people spied a dragon flying in these parts.”

  “We’ll walk,” said Sera. “But we need to go now.”

  The men, unclothed, shifted once again, and alongside Nyx they accompanied Sera through back paths. For now, she appeared to be the queen of the shifters, a menagerie of creatures at her beck and call.

  But in her mind, she was still a lost child, wondering if her powers would be enough to take on the Witch Melina when the time came.

  It was the first time that the accursed W-word had seemed to fit any woman.

  Chapter 28

  More Surprises

  They made their way back to the cabin in the woods, where Rohan and Paxx could shift, put on some clothes and discuss with Phist what had occurred—and what was likely to come.

  “Let me find Hedy,” said Sera. “I have an idea where the Crones will be hiding the Aspirants, and it’s best that I not bring you with me at first.”

  The men had abided by her wishes for a number of reasons, but primarily out of respect for her and the Sisterhood. Much as neither wanted to let her go, Sera was proving more than capable of looking after herself; a truly worthy mate, not to mention a fantastic woman.

  Phist seemed to have been hit hard by the news that Circe had been taken far away.

  “When will I see her again?” he asked Rohan, only weakly masking the pain in his voice.

  “Soon, I think,” Rohan replied. “I have an idea that you might like, but we must wait for Serafina’s return before implementing anything. I do believe she’s in charge of things now.” He said the words with a smile, his voice filled with admiration.

  The three men strategized, discussing Melina’s mates and the Guild’s membership.

  “There are a few fully-fledged shifters,” said Paxx. “The ones who stick around to defend the place tend to be tough, fighters. But in general they haven’t had the good fortune to mate with a woman equal to Serafina or Melina; in some cases they’ve simply been paired up with regular humans, and so their powers are limited. Our best defence against them is simply brute force, I’m afraid. Some members will fight very little or not at all. They’re as reluctant as we were to support the Guild’s methods.”

  “I’m not too concerned about the weaker shifters, or those disloyal to the Guild. They will save themselves rather than attack. But what of Melina’s mates?”

  “Mace and Crow are a bear and a lion. Unfortunately I have yet to see them in action. They’re strong, but there’s more to them than that. I think Melina largely keeps them in check, but I suspect that they are quite powerful. She is an ambitious woman and intends to move up in the world, after robbing this territory of all its viable females. So she will be ensuring that her mates are prepared to fight anyone who threatens them.”

  “I wouldn’t underestimate them,” Phist added. “I’ve seen them punish Guild members viciously. But theirs is only a physical strength; nothing of Melina’s magic seems to have transferred in the Ritual.”

  “Well, then,” said Rohan. “We’ll do what we can.”

  * * *

  Sera approached the cliff face quietly, occasionally drawing a rune to help her along. These were unnecessary; runes of silence, of tranquility, of stealth. She wanted the practice; to hone her skills and increase the speed with which she could cast a rune-spell.

  Nyx rode on her shoulders, occasionally shifting—his own form of practice—before barrelling down her body and running along beside her. His many forms seemed to vary greatly in size, and occasionally when he shifted into a panther it came out as large as a bear. “You’re showing real potential,” said Sera, laughing as she watched him pace beside her. “What am I saying? You’re a miracle. I never knew that this was possible.”

  In her mind, she prepared herself for the conversations to come, particularly with Hedy. Now that Sera would be kicked out of the Sisterhood she had to be a little careful not to step on the toes of its leaders. They would be looking to other Aspirants now to protect the group’s future.

  The cave was concealed behind tall shrubs, no doubt conjured into existence by some spell or other. For decades it had been used as a hiding spot for the Crones, and Sera had only known because she’d been out hunting one day and spied Guilana, one of the Elders, entering quietly. Days later she’d returned and discovered that the cave’s interior was stocked with all manner of potions, dried foods and even some straw beds. It was as though they knew this day would come.

  As Sera approached, Hedy emerged; no doubt she’d seen the young woman coming in her mind’s eye, in spite of her weakened Sight.

  “Nice to see you in one piece, Sera,” she said, smiling warmly. Karab was at her side, snuffling about on the ground.

  “Are all the Sisters with you?” asked Sera. “Safe?”

  “Yes. Even the young ones.”

  “Good.”

  “Would you like to come in?”

  “No. I want to speak to you alone for a moment. Would you walk with me a little?”

  Hedy nodded and approached, and the two strolled into the woods.

  “No doubt you know what I’m going to ask,” said Sera.

  “I don’t, actually. My Sight is weakening by the day. Oh, I haven’t told the others, but it looks very much like my time is coming.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “We all die at some point, Sera. I have lived a long life—longer than you know. And it has to end. If I’m to be honest, that was why I had such hopes for you: I needed to know that someone would be able to replace me.”

  “I could never replace you,” Sera replied, her voice tight in her throat. “No one could.”

  “And yet you are more like me now than you ever were.”

  Nyx was cantering about in front of them in the form of a miniature horse, amusing himself.

  “How do you mean?” she asked. “I’ve participated in the Ritual now; I would have thought I’m quite different from you.”

  “Which reminds me, Sera: it’s my duty to expel you from the Sisterhood.”

  “I know. I don’t fit in, now that I have mates.”

  “Well, it’s a silly rule, anyhow. You wouldn’t be the first Aspirant who has engaged in the Ritual. You wouldn’t be the first to go through that change.”

  “Of course. But Melina had already deserted when she performed it.”

  “I’m not talking about Melina,” said Hedy.
I’m talking about myself.”

  Chapter 29

  Secrets and Lies

  “You?” said Sera, stunned.

  Hedy stopped and turned to her, her still bright eyes sad.

  “Karab,” she said to her Familiar, who always seemed devoid of energy. “You can do it now.”

  The badger shifted into a jackal then; sleek, intelligent, angular. And a moment later he was back to his pudgy self.

  “How are you still a Crone if you’re…one of us?” Sera wasn’t sure what to call herself.

  “I’m not. Not really, not anymore,” she said. “It was a long, long time ago. A lapse in judgment, perhaps, or something else. Love. Whatever it is that overwhelms us and attaches us to others. But I don’t regret it, to this day.”

  “What happened? Where are your mates? I know enough now to understand that the Ritual bonds three people together for life.”

  “My mates died long ago,” she said. “In a conflict between their kind. Both taken at once, as well as our only son.”

  “Hedy, I’m so sorry. I had no idea you’d been through such a thing.”

  “Thank you. It nearly killed me, I must tell you. I felt the life being drained from me. I feel sometimes that it’s only my bond with Karab that has kept me going. And I realize that you feel deceived by me and by the others—yes, the other Crones know of the Rituals, and of the strength that they can give. But long ago I pleaded with them to keep all of it secret. For your protection, and that of the Sisterhood. Solitude is far less agonizing than what I went through.”

  Sera was silent for a moment, filled with sorrow. But she was hurt, as well.

  “It should have been our decision to make,” she said. “I hate that you were so badly hurt. But I can’t tell you what it is that I feel now. I would rather experience this sort of—love—yes, love—than a lifetime of solitude, of fighting against the notion of attachment, when attachment has proven so beautiful.”

 
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