Illusions: Paranormal Shapeshifter Romance (The Seekers Book 1), page 7
But the Sorceress had grown bored with that whole pursuit: it was the Sisterhood that she wanted now. They sat on their high horses in their cozy little village, feeling invincible against threat, she said. But they were unguarded. Most were still Aspirants, and no match for her men. And besides, when they discovered what she planned for them, they would thank her for it a million times. A life of sexual pleasure: two men for each woman. Not to mention enhanced powers beyond their wildest dreams. What could be better?
As for her Guild, when their powers had fully developed, the males would become unstoppable. An army which could advance unfettered westward, north and south, taking land as they went. They would form an empire unrivalled since the Romans had spread their impressive strength throughout millions of square miles.
“Ah, there you are, Paxx,” said Crow as the tall man entered the room at last, bending to make his way through the door. “How went the meeting?”
“It was fairly dull,” Paxx replied, masking his true thoughts as best he could. He knew how the Sorceress functioned; he knew that she could read the Guild’s members like books. And so he kept a veil over his mind to the best of his abilities, doing everything possible not to think of the lovely woman he’d spoken to outside the church.
As he spoke, his mind cycled deliberately through memories of every aspect of the meeting but Serafina. “The assembly was largely uninteresting. The town essentially approves of our actions. They’re convinced that it’s right to take women as we do. It’s as though we’re the governors of all things moral, and they’re just as happy not to have to deal with it.”
“Good,” said the Sorceress. “So we can continue without worry that they’ll resist. Then I say that we move immediately to Ealdor’s borders and start taking the Sisterhood. The women of Salem have nothing to offer us; no powers or skills. But the Aspirants would be a great boon to our men.”
“I’m not sure that’s a brilliant idea,” said Paxx, his concern about his new acquaintance renewed.
“And why is that?” asked the Sorceress, her voice harsh. He’d never questioned her before, and she wasn’t keen on insubordination. What had he seen that he wasn’t telling her?
“They—the Crones—can be powerful. You’ve said so yourself. While some of our men are fully developed shifters, others such as me are not. How will we take them?”
“The Crones are fading these days, like leaves that wilt and fall from the trees. Their power is waning, Paxx, whether they choose to admit it or not. And so we will take their Aspirants, one at a time,” said the Sorceress. “And we’ll begin tomorrow, with the weakest of them: a woman called Circe. She will be the key to our success.”
A Cabin in the Woods
An aroma of pine and softened earth filled the woods and set a sort of calm through Rohan as he walked on the delicate cushion that was the forest’s floor. Enclosed, private and dark, the trees offered him a place to retreat from the eyes of the Ealdor residents. He would stay away—mostly, anyhow—out of respect, but his invitation to help Hedy with her windows would offer him a chance to visit and perhaps to lay eyes once again on Serafina. Maybe even to talk to her once again, to convince her that he was not a threat.
His connection to the young woman had hit him hard—particularly the abrupt realization that she hadn’t felt it as he had. But perhaps that was for the best. Much as his body had reacted to her, they had not yet formed a solid emotional connection; they weren’t friends, or even acquaintances, really. And her rejection didn’t stop him wanting to watch over the village.
Hedy’s news of the men who had been taking women was disturbing, to say the very least, and so he would do his duty and protect them, whether they wanted his protection or not. After all, he didn’t have any pressing matters to attend anywhere else in the universe; Lily was raising her child, and their parents were occupied with the pending birth. More dragonkin to add to the clan, to nurture and raise. It seemed that Rohan was the only one not raising children in the entire family.
A wooded path led his way, worn earth exposed underfoot which branched on occasion to various points like tendrils painted on the ground, leading to every corner of the vast forest. He didn’t exactly know what he was looking for—but he would find it when the time came. Hedy had offered enough description of the cabin that he felt he could almost smell it on the air.
As he went, Rohan thought about why he had remained without a mate for this long, even while his twin was settled. It was more than simply not having met the right woman; he’d met plenty of attractive ones, many of whom even possessed the blood of his kind. Though none had stirred in him what Serafina had in that first moment when he’d laid eyes on her.
But there was more. It was, he admitted, the Ritual itself that was unappealing in some ways. Oh, for Lily it had been great: finding two attractive males with whom she’d share a bed. If Rohan’s duty were to seek out two delightfully buxom women the job might have been simple. But the rule was one woman, two men.
And that was where he fell short. His closest male friend lately had been Graeme, one of Lily’s mates. The two had a good deal in common and enjoyed flying the coast of Cornwall in dragon form, soaring about the waves playfully like children.
That was the trouble with men, of course: childhood was always an element of their personalities. Even when he’d spoken to Serafina he’d been aware of a maturity in her. A sort of responsibility, as though she knew that one day she would take the place of one of the Crones. While he was simply wandering, lost, looking around for a place to rest his head and perhaps other body parts.
He admired that in women. And in some men as well. But never had Rohan fully embraced the idea that one day he would share a bed with one of each. Relationships were complicated enough when they involved only two people. Three would be a nightmare.
He came to a small clearing in the woods. In front of him stood a diminutive wooden house, painted dark grey, seemingly to conceal it within the surrounding leaves and pine needles. It was tiny; a shed, really. Its walls and roof were covered in ivy as though it had been built and left for the forest to claim as its own. Its setting was idyllic, and he imagined himself quite content between its walls, at least for the time being. Each morning he would wake in anticipation of seeing that pretty face again.
He approached slowly, speaking in soft tones. “Hello?” he said. “Is anyone here?”
No sound emerged from the house and so he pressed his hand to the door and pushed inwards. The door swung, the ivy causing it to resist only a little.
Inside was a small kitchen, complete with a table and two chairs. Rohan could see a bedroom in the back.
The house looked as though it had been abandoned fairly quickly, as a couple of dirty dishes were tidily stacked by a wash basin. Sheets lay folded on the table and a dress hung over the back of one of the chairs. Hedy had said that the place belonged to one of the women who’d been taken, though Rohan saw no sign of struggle.
He pulled out the food that the Crone had given him and laid it on the table, after giving the wooden surface a quick wipe with the sleeve of his tunic. Right, so this was it: his temporary home.
Looking around, he couldn’t help but enjoy the sun filtering through the vine-covered window and the trees surrounding the back of the house, standing like sentinels on guard. It was only too bad that they hadn’t managed to guard whoever had lived there.
That night, tucked away within the walls of his new home, he slept well, because he had no idea what the next day would hold.
* * *
When Sera awoke in the morning, she found Circe up and about, Obsidian fluttering around the house happily as if to announce that his Magistress was on the mend at last.
“You’re looking splendid,” laughed Sera, inspecting her sister for signs of her illness.
“I’m feeling it too. Here,” said Circe, extracting something from her apron pocket. “This is yours.” She handed Sera the rune stone
“Are you sure you don’t want to keep it?”
“I’m sure. I don’t need it anymore, Sera. You’re more gifted than you know.”
“If you insist. You alway seem to know more than I do, so I must take your word for it.”
As Circe laid down a bowl of porridge for her sibling, she noted that Sera didn’t seem as happy as she should be.
“What is it?” she said. “You look…troubled.”
“I am. Sort of.”
“Tell me what’s on your mind.”
Nyx was curled around Sera’s neck in his protective stance, also sensing her worry.
“The Guild has been coming closer, threatening Salem. And no doubt they’ll hit Ealdor within days. Hedy wants me to bond, to come into my gifts to give us a chance at fighting them off. And soon.”
“Well, that makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? You will gain skills. That will strengthen the whole village and help us guard against the threats.”
Sera smiled weakly. “Yes. It will.”
“So why are you upset?”
Circe sat down at the table opposite her sister as Obsidian perched on the back of her chair. She offered Sera her hands.
“I don’t know. Isn’t that ridiculous? I’ve always known it was coming, but I’m not prepared. I just can’t digest the whole concept of giving my body over to a stranger.”
“But you’ve known all your life—we all have—“
“Yes, of course. But this isn’t me being rational; this is me being an emotional woman who’s facing the reality of it all. Bonding should be done through the soul, the spirit as well as the body. Not through simple physical touch. And yet that’s all it is. Touch, contact with a man I’ve never met.”
“Are you saying that you’d rather marry, like one of the normal, simple women, and lead a domestic life?” The question was sincere, though Circe already knew the answer.
“Of course not. That’s my idea of hell.”
“Well then, it’s simple. You bond and you separate. No commitment, no confusion. He walks away and so do you.”
“I know. I know. It’s for the best. It’s just frightening, I suppose. A woman doesn’t dream that her first and only time will be with a stranger in a mask.” She found her mind drifting to the men Rohan and Paxx, whose faces she now knew and whose eyes she trusted. To make love with a man like that, whose features she could read. That would be something.
“If it helps any, it frightens me too,” said Circe, “Though not nearly so much as the idea of losing my sister to a life of married misery.”
“Well then, it’s settled. Hedy’s speaking to the Crones today about their choice, and I’m sure they’ll waste no time in giving me my answer. It’s to them to find my temporary partner, and I’m sure they’ll do fine, as always.”
“Eligible men for the Bonding are becoming more and more scarce, I should think,” said Circe. “It’s not only women who are being influenced by fear-mongering these days. You know that the local men see the ceremony as synonymous with witchcraft, regardless of how much they may drool at the notion of sex with a young woman.”
“We need to avoid the word ‘witch,’” said Sera as Sidian cawed. “Don’t let it pass your lips if you can help it, at least if you speak to anyone outside of Ealdor.”
“Of course. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be—we all slip. Listen, I’m going to go for a wander with Nyx and clear my head. Will you be all right here alone for a little?”
“Does a deer use the woods as an outhouse?”
“Yes. Much as we do, dear.”
“Then I’ll be fine.”
Sera hadn’t eaten much of Circe’s porridge, but nor was she particularly hungry. And she supposed that her empty stomach might eventually lead to clear-headedness, if she got lucky. All she really wanted was a sign, some sort of indication from the goddess that she was doing the right thing by agreeing to the Bonding.
After all, as they’d discussed, this would mean a ceremony without the complications of commitment. A simple mating, which might even be pleasant. But it would end quickly and she would return to a life devoted to magic, to the Sisterhood, to her future among them. She would help to protect her fellow women from harm, and be better equipped after the sexual encounter.
As she walked, she looked up at the trees to the sky beyond. “Tell me, goddess: am I doing this right?”
A single cloud moved into her field of vision, reshaping itself as it went. At first, Sera told herself that the goddess was drawing a picture with the vaporous entity. But no. In every manifestation it remained a cloud, a simple puff of white. At the most it slightly resembled a sheep or a pillow. Never the word “yes.”
Perhaps she was more capable of reworking the landscape from where she stood. She stopped for a moment, staring at two trees ahead of her: one a pine, the other a birch.
Nyx chirped inquisitively as he felt his Magistress focus, curious as to what she hoped to accomplish. As his shining eyes stared at the trees, the two switched places, their roots as firmly planted as ever, deep in the earth.
“Transmutation,” Sera said as her eyes opened. “You see, Nyx? I’m coming into my powers. I don’t see why I need a silly little ceremony with a horny man to prove it.”
The ferret squeaked his approval, no more keen than she was at the idea of a man entering their personal space.
She laughed softly and continued her walk, easing deeper into the woods. Sera had known these trails since she could first walk, running through them with Circe in the years after their parents had died, pretending that this was their kingdom, or queendom, rather. The domain over which the two small girls ruled. One day, they’d always said, they would be strong and powerful wizards of the woods. Never did they refer to themselves as witches; that remained a dirty word for low magic users and the panicked public.
One young woman accused of the Craft had been Lucy Goodacre, a lovely, brown-haired, shy girl of eighteen who had lived alone in a small cabin ever since her elderly father had died. One day she’d stopped coming to the village and the Sisterhood had suspected another abduction. They’d left her cabin as it stood, a symbol for the others; a warning of things to come.
And now Sera was approaching it, wondering if somehow within she might find a clue as to the Guild’s intentions. She hadn’t been by since the woman’s disappearance, though a few of the Crones had said that Lucy was likely gone for good.
The cabin’s door was wide open when she arrived. She supposed that the wind had blown it, but caution ordered her to check.
“Nyx,” she whispered. “Go see what’s up.”
The ferret bounced from her shoulder down her arm until he reached her hand and then, dangling only for an instant, leapt to the ground.
Sera perched behind a thick tree, shutting her eyes and transferring her sight to his. Eventually, she hoped to find her powers kicking in without having to shut out the world around her, but for now the temporary blindness helped her to focus on her task.
A moment later she felt as though she was bounding along the ground towards the dark doorway, small black feet leaping out ahead of her.
Nyx slowed only when he came to the doorway itself, and then he poked his head around, staring into the space.
He skulked ahead, his head bobbing to and fro as he took in the room. There was no evidence that anyone had been there, unless you counted the loaf of bread…
That looked like Hedy’s bread.
“Keep going, Nyx,” Sera urged. There was a bedroom at the back, she knew. Once, Lucy had invited her in for tea and shown her the place.
As the ferret moved silently they heard a stirring, like the sound of something sloshing in water.
Nyx peeked into the bedroom.
A tall, broad man stood naked, his back to the door, hands dipping into a bowl of water as he washed himself.
Sera heard the sound of sniffing, as an animal would. At first she attributed it to the ferret, supposing that he was trying to identify the man. But as the stranger turned around, she could see that it was he who was making the sound; he who had smelled the ferret. But what sort of man had such a keen sense of smell?
Sera’s vision revealed that it was the man, Rohan. The one who’d knocked on her door the previous day. And now his nude body was in plain sight, her eyes fixed on it from below, from only inches off the floor. Dear goddess, he was…impressive. His chest was broad, his muscles defined. His stomach could have been used to wash laundry, and below that was something that made Sera’s mouth water. She—rather, the ferret—was staring.
Sera’s eyes popped open and she began to sprint through the woods away from the cabin and back towards home, knowing that the Familiar would catch her up in no time.
As she dashed she couldn’t help but laugh: a mix of embarrassment, awe, amusement and utter confusion.
She made it back to the main trail in one piece and slowed to a walk, concluding that no sane naked man would go chasing after women and ferrets through the woods. Nyx joined her a moment later, scaling her body and perching, his own body shaking.
“You poor thing,” she said. “I’ve traumatized you.”
He squeaked again, seeming to disagree.
“Oh, so you’re telling me it wasn’t as bad as all that?” Sera said. “No. You’re going further and telling me that I enjoyed it. Well, I’m not going to lie to you, Nyx.”
So I just won’t say anything at all.
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