Illusions: Paranormal Shapeshifter Romance (The Seekers Book 1), page 5
“All right,” he laughed. “I just thought I’d ask. Is there some sort of inn, or…?”
“I know of a place that you could take,” she said. “It was recently vacated: a cabin in the woods. Secluded, not considered part of the village. But close enough that we could call on you, should we need you.”
“Perfect. That sounds just perfect.”
* * *
Sera happened to be looking out the window when the stranger disappeared from in front of Hedy’s place. Or perhaps more accurate would be to say that she’d hardly stopped looking out the window during his entire visit. It seemed as though the two had been speaking for hours.
When he was gone, she went to check on Circe in her room once again. “Will you be all right if I leave you for a little?”
“Please,” said her sister. “Leave. While you’re gone I’m going to repaint the house, and possibly build some new furniture.”
“You are feeling better, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Circe said as she drew her legs out of the bed. “Thanks to my sister.”
“What can I say? I’m a genius.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. Now go talk to Hedy about whatever it is that’s so important that it warrants the second visit in a day.”
Sera laughed. Like Hedy, her sister always knew more than she let on; always had. It was possible that she had a gift of mind-reading, though she’d never talked about it. To Sera it seemed that she was simply incredibly intuitive and empathetic, much as Nyx was. A human Familiar.
Sera walked once again down the path to their neighbour’s, Nyx on her shoulder. The ferret stood on his hind feet, his small front paws twined in strands of her golden hair. When she arrived, she found the door open, Hedy inside preparing tea. She’d already pulled two cups from the cupboard.
“How did you know that I’d be coming…” began Sera, stopping herself before finishing the stupid question. Of course she knew.
“The young man is intrigued by you and you by him. It hardly takes a Seer to realize such a thing. And you, being intrigued, would naturally want to come by and ask me what we’d been talking about.”
“And yet you are something of a Seer, so you probably know a thing or two.”
Hedy poured the tea and pulled out a chair. “My skills have waned over many years. There are far better Seers than me in the Sisterhood. Your sister, for instance. Now sit,” she commanded.
Sera sat down, Nyx sprinting off her arm and leaping to the floor, his small nose in search of crumbs.
“So, don’t keep me in suspense. What did he say?” she asked as the older woman took her seat.
“You know that I won’t tell you that, Serafina. Let’s call it Crone/man confidentiality. But I will say that he’s…well, he’s interesting. Not like the other men around here; he is intelligent and fearless, unthreatened by the world. Either he’s never been properly challenged by it or he’s more powerful that even I could read.”
“You think he’s powerful?”
Hedy looked at her reproachfully. “Tell me something: You met him. What do you think?”
Sera recalled the brief encounter during which she’d wanted nothing more than to push him away because if she didn’t, she might have to invite him in for a very long visit.
“I was a little afraid,” she admitted. “But not of him. I never had the impression that he wished me harm, even for the few seconds when he seemed aggressive.”
“You were afraid of your attraction to him. That’s natural; he’s a very handsome fellow, and when a man who looks like that sets his mind on you it’s easy to fall victim to his charms.”
“But you don’t think he’s affiliated with the Guild, or that he’s looking to hurt me?”
“On the contrary,” said Hedy. “I think that man would give his life for you.”
“But we just met.”
“It doesn’t matter. When a man like that finds the woman he thinks he’s meant to be with, he assigns himself the role of protector.”
“Well, whoever he is, I don’t want his protection,” insisted Sera. “I’m coming into my own. Just today I used a healing rune on Circe, and it seemed to work. No, it did work.”
“And you transferred your vision and saw through Nyx’s eyes,” said Hedy. “Yes, I know. And well done.”
“Well, that’s great. What’s the point in telling you anything at all, if you know it already?”
“I’m sorry,” laughed Hedy. “Force of habit. I should have the decency to pretend to know nothing at all. I was simply excited as my vision is clearer today than it has been of late.”
“Well, that’s good. But my point is that I’m coming into my powers, without bonding. Without any of it.”
“Let me ask you something, Sera: are you certain that it’s a mere coincidence that on the day when this man shows up on your doorstep, your powers seem to multiply?”
Sera hesitated before replying. “Yes. I am. It had nothing to do with him whatsoever. He’s just a man, after all.”
“Sera,” said Hedy, her tone serious. This was her mothering voice; the sound of a woman who may never have been a parent, yet had raised many a young girl over the decades. “You know that you must bond. If not for your good, then for us all. You cannot play around in this way.”
“I…” She thought of Circe, and of her weakness. If Sera went through with the ceremony, perhaps she would be pleasantly surprised at the results. And if Circe bonded when she came of age, she too would gain strength.
But Circe would never, could never, bond before her older sister. It was up to Sera to do it, and soon, to set the example and to encourage her sister to follow in her footsteps as soon as she was up for it. It might even save her from further illness if her partner were a particularly hardy man.
“Are you saying I should bond with the stranger, that man Rohan?” Sera asked, perhaps a little too hopefully.
Hedy sat back, sighing. “No,” she said. “I’m not saying that. As you said, he’s a stranger. I need to further discuss with the Crones who your partner will be. And as you know, you won’t see his face during the ceremony; he will be anonymous. I am simply telling you to open your mind—that not all men are useless or bad. Even if you only ever use one this one time, it will enhance your entire life. As it did mine, when I was your age.”
Hedy had spent her years alone but had always seemed content, if not entirely happy. She was one of the most respected of the Crones, considered wise and fair by everyone in the Sisterhood. If Sera’s life could be half as fulfilling as hers had been, it would be something.
“I will try,” she said. “For Circe, for you, for the Sisterhood. And for me as well.”
“Good. I’ll speak to the Crones tomorrow. Tell me: how is Circe doing? You said that your healing rune worked?”
“Yes, she seems much better, thanks. She was talking about redoing the house’s interior. Next she’ll be threatening to move out.”
“Well, if she recovers well, someday soon she’ll be ready for her own ceremony.”
“Yes,” said Sera. “But not too soon, I hope.”
The next afternoon, having ensured that Circe was properly on the mend, Sera made her way into Salem for a community meeting. These were regular weekly events that no member of the Sisterhood particularly enjoyed, but to her they were especially worthy of dread. The town’s women, unwilling to accept that the Sisterhood wanted nothing more than to protect them, were beyond skeptical of the Aspirants.
As far as they were concerned, there was something terribly unnatural in women who would choose to live alone, to shun men and to concoct the sorts of brews that they did. Often the Aspirants were seen wandering nearby woods, collecting plants that no self-respecting woman would use in her cooking. It must be, they speculated, that the Sisterhood made potions for use in ceremonies to invoke the Devil, or worse.
And Serafina, considered a particular beauty by even the most grud
And yet it was the others, those poor, innocent young women, who were accused of witchcraft, while she and her Sisterhood roamed free. Such an injustice. There was nothing innocent about her, they insisted in their murmured conversations.
* * *
Sera made her way to the stone church in the town’s centre, which had been built in 1629. Nyx accompanied her, quietly tucked inside her small pack which was slung over one shoulder. His grunts of protest were soft and hesitant now; he knew the drill well enough. No chattering around the town’s women, or the men for that matter. And there would be both at this meeting, neither gender tolerant of small rodents.
Sera’s self-imposed mission on this particular day was to catch any news of the Guild’s whereabouts, their movements, to learn if they’d been further threatening the women of Salem.
The Sisterhood had a general hatred of men, for various reasons. Aside from the Crones’ assertions that most males were seducers who made women into slaves, cooks, cleaners and subjected them to all sorts of other ills, there was the fact that one had recently stolen one of the Aspirants from among their ranks.
As Sera eyed the locals, she recalled the circumstances surrounding Melina’s departure a year earlier. Like Sera, she had shown serious promise even as a young girl. Her skills included an ability to read the intentions of others, often before they knew them themselves. Her Familiar was a cat: an ornery calico beast called Heck. The cat, as if presaging Melina’s future, had always hated the women of the Sisterhood, scratching her way through life, hissing at their Familiars, even while Melina seemed all charm and smiles. She was, for a time, the golden child of the Sisterhood, though Sera had always gotten the impression that Hedy wasn’t overly fond of her. Perhaps she’d known something; seen the desertion before it happened.
When a particularly handsome man had approached Melina one day in town, she had quickly allowed herself to be swept up into his promises of a life better than any that the Sisterhood could offer, and she had left, surrendering her title of Aspirant and any affiliation with the Crones or the Sisterhood itself.
But well before any of that had occurred, she had performed the Bonding ceremony, as per the Crones’ wishes. It was the only such rite that Serafina had ever witnessed. And what she’d seen had changed her life.
Sera had been twenty at the time; old enough to bond herself. But she had asked for a delay since her sister was young and, she felt, in need of her older sibling’s care. The Crones had allowed her to delay indefinitely, and only recently had the pressure begun to increase.
In contrast, Melina’s Bonding had taken place as soon as the woman had come of age. Had she had her way, it would have occurred even sooner. Never had one of the Aspirants itched so much to come into her own; she was ambitious, even ruthless. Whether she was excited by the sexual pleasures that awaited her or the residual effects of the rite itself, no one had known.
Sera was the only one who had watched the event. Viewing was not generally allowed, but in her defence, it had occurred somewhat accidentally. She had been returning from a solo hunt when she’d come across the scene in the field outside of Ealdor: candles on tall stands. A bed, set up elegantly in the midst of grasses which surrounded it like a thick carpet, a canopy sweeping around it, translucent material allowing the couple to be seen from the outside by anyone with keen eyes.
Sera had stood behind a tree, too fascinated to turn away as she’d witnessed Melina welcome the man, her legs moving apart as she invited him into her. The masked man had taken her violently, groans emerging from his throat as he came closer to his climax. Melina’s head had fallen back, flexible, loose, as she cried out, accepting his hard thrusts, her arms wrapped around him, fingernails grating at his flesh, leaving long red marks.
The man had been wearing a mask that resembled the face of a wild cat—a little too close to the calico Familiar for Sera’s liking—and he had grunted with his own pleasure as he’d released inside her, Melina holding him there as though forcing him, overpowering the man despite his enormous size.
When he’d finished, she had demanded of him that he get on his knees and pleasure her. This, as far as Sera understood, was not typically a part of the ceremony. Many women took what the man had to give and then sent him off. But Melina milked it, the man burying his face between her legs as she sat up and watched his mouth work her sex, eating her, delighting in the flavours of her flesh and his.
As Sera stared, she was certain that the other woman knew that she was there, witnessing the event, and that Melina could somehow sense Sera’s arousal, even from a distance.
And aroused she was; she couldn’t help but imagine what it must feel like to be so devoured, to have a man devote himself, even for a few minutes, to one’s complete pleasure.
To eat her after, he’d come inside her. Something in it was wildly erotic, dirty, even. And Sera found herself wanting to move into Melina’s body, to feel that mouth on her, to have a man lick her until she came.
But it was Melina’s strength that affected her most. The woman had no fear. Willing to demand that a stranger submit in this way—and the man had done just that. It seemed as though he would have done anything that she’d commanded and then some.
And after Melina had sent him away she’d lain back on the bed, laughing gently, her hand draped across her breasts. Never did she address Sera verbally, but she turned her head slowly and stared at her, partially hidden behind that tree, and smiled. It was the expression of a woman who was saying, “Just you wait. You’ll love every second of it.”
Melina’s powers had grown, as expected. But then she’d left, never to be heard from again. And Hedy claimed not to know where she’d ended up, though Sera had always had difficulty believing it. The Crone’s powers might have been fading, but it was difficult to imagine that she could lose sight of one of the most promising Aspirants they’d ever had.
When Sera had asked about her once, Hedy had seemed hurt, as though the subject were too painful to discuss. And so she’d dropped it.
The other subject that Hedy seemed to avoid was the Guild itself; its men and why it was that they seemed so different from other males. There was something in them that puzzled Sera. She’d heard from other Aspirants that they were large and strong, much like the the handsome stranger who’d made an appearance in their small village the previous day.
But it was another strength, as well, that aroused her curiosity: a power within them that seemed never to emerge. And if she had to guess, she’d have said that their secret power—whatever it was—frightened the Crones a little.
* * *
There was no sign of a Guild leader at the meeting. No great surprise there; they would no doubt send their underlings to do the menial jobs, to mingle with the dull townspeople.
But Sera was relieved. Something about the thought sent a chill down her spine. There was a nastiness in the very concept of the group that was indefinable, as though they possessed an evil gene that wasn’t discussed among the masses. Anyone who was a member of an organization bent on kidnapping young women couldn’t be all kindness and light.
With Nyx concealed in the bag at her side, she took a seat at the back of the church. Observing was her task for the evening, and she would try her best to do so quietly, though it would be difficult. Already she watched the town’s women file in, taking note of her seat and avoiding her as they passed by. She could feel icy stares penetrate her skin like freezing rain.
Only one person chose to sit in the back row as she had: a tall man, light-haired, with a strong, stubble-coated jawline. He was handsome and built very much like Rohan: broad shoulders, muscular arms and a chiseled jaw, all of which told Sera that in all likelihood he was a Guild membe
His eyes were bright blue, piercing, as though trying to assess her, and Sera found herself entranced for a moment, staring at him briefly before focusing her own eyes on the front of the room. She raised her chin as though in defiance: I’m not your friend, however perfectly structured your cheekbones may be, she seemed to say. Go away.
But he wasn’t going anywhere. Not until he got a chance to speak to her.
* * *
Paxx had sat on the wooden pew near one of the church’s windows, as far back as he could get from the Salem residents. But he had another motive for choosing his seat: across the aisle from him sat a woman he’d noticed as he’d come in, her long blond hair falling in waves down her back. Her cheeks were flushed from a long walk, and as soon as he’d entered the building he’d taken in her scent: a mixture of spices and something else which seemed to send blood moving more rapidly through him than he was used to.
Her clothes were different from those that the other women wore; the ones who covered themselves from head to toe in thick fabric, concealing any tempting bits of flesh. Instead, she seemed unconcerned, exposing her forearms, ankles and even the top of her chest to both prying eyes and the elements. And in this moment it was her appealing chest that made Paxx’s heart race in his own, not to mention what occurred between his legs as he beheld the roundness of her sun-kissed breasts.
He had suspected for months that his time was nearing, and staring at her only confirmed it. Paxx was of the ancient blood, his family tree going back to the shifters of old. His own parents had not bred for shifting; they’d had a conventional marriage, intending to raise their sons to do the same, to leave their bloodlines in the past and forget about the capacity to change into strange creatures. They had wanted a “normal” life for their sons, but their death had meant that the two boys could be claimed by the Guild, who recognized their potential.
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