Illusions: Paranormal Shapeshifter Romance (The Seekers Book 1), page 9
Circe didn’t respond.
“Normally, we would tell you that you are here to engage in a ceremony that we call the Ritual, to give our men their powers. But in your case things are a little different from the usual.”
The Ritual? Was that like the Bonding ceremony of the sisters?
“Your sister, Serafina, is powerful, we hear.” The man paused as though awaiting confirmation. “We want her to come to us willingly, to join us. It is clear from observing her over time that she is strong-willed and stubborn. But also clear is that she will do whatever she needs to to protect you.”
“That’s true,” said Circe, unable to help herself.
“Good, good. You see, you, my dear, are a bargaining tool. In return for your life, we want your sister to mate with two of our men.”
The young woman bit her lip to stifle a laugh. Sera would never agree to such a thing; it was difficult enough to persuade her that one man was a good idea. The notion of two would drive her insane. She was not one to hand her body over as though it were a coin, to trade for goods and services.
“Our Ritual is a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Men and women alike have benefited from its results, gaining strength and powers that most can only dream of.”
“So tell me, sir, have your men always kidnapped women in order to rape them and then called it tradition?”
The unapologetic man took a step forward as though ready to strike Circe. In the distance, Obsidian let out a shrill cry.
“A woman performing her duty cannot be called the victim of rape,” said the older of the men. “As your sister will discover.”
“Well, good luck to you.” Circe rose at last and walked to the window. Obsidian was perched at the top of a tall tree about twenty feet away.
“Is that all you have to say?” asked the man.
“Almost. If you think that you can convince my sister to give her body to your men, you are sorely mistaken. She is not the sort who takes such things lightly.”
“We’ll see,” said the man before turning, his robe sweeping around him. He left quickly, the surly-looking man on his heels. Only the kind-looking young man stayed behind, waiting for his colleagues to leave before speaking.
“I understand your feelings,” he said quietly. “And I want you to know that I will do what I can to prevent all of this.”
Circe turned to him. “Who are you?” she asked.
“My name is Paxx. And I understand what it is to protect a sibling.” He glanced around to ensure that no one was within earshot. “My brother Phist and I were brought to the Guild against our will, years ago. We cannot leave. But there are others like us, tired of the abuse. They tell us that these are the old ways, but when I was a child my parents told us about the ancient Rituals. They were bonds of love, not forced intimacy. The Guild’s perception is skewed. Listen—I met your sister Serafina in town. I offered her my protection as I offer it to you now. I won’t let anything happen to you, and neither will my brother. If we can help, we will.”
“Thank you,” said Circe. “I will tell my sister that you’ve been kind, and that there are others like you. Now please, would you bring me a quill and a piece of paper?”
“I will,” said Paxx. He left her, returning a minute later with the items she’d requested.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling. Her demeanour was so calm compared to the other women he’d seen taken, as though Circe knew, somehow, that she would be all right.
“Now,” she added. “Please, go before it’s discovered that you’re helping me. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
“Let me know if you need anything,” he said. “Anything at all.”
Paxx left and Circe turned back to the window.
“Sidian,” she said, addressing the raven who flew towards her from the treetops. “You have a job to do.”
Rohan darted past the women into the bedroom, where he shifted and flung on some clothing: his leather pants and a sand-coloured tunic. He walked back into the main room.
“How do you know where I’m from?” he asked the group of women.
“Like your kind, we have our skills,” said the woman who appeared to be the leader. “We are known as the Crones. I believe you’ve already met Hedy, who is one of our senior members.”
For the first time, Rohan saw that each woman was accompanied by some sort of animal, most of whom skulked in corners: a black cat with piercing orange eyes. A bear cub. A dove. A small, quick lizard. Just like Serafina’s black ferret, these were Familiars; spirit companions.
“I am a Seer, an Oracle,” said one of the women, who was bent in half like a broken plank of wood. It appeared that hers was the dove Familiar, which landed on her sloped shoulder. “I know a good deal, and convey it to my sisters.”
“All right, since you know who I am, tell me what I can do for you. I’m in a bit of a hurry,” said Rohan.
“You are in a hurry to help the lady Circe,” the woman said. “In the hopes of making Serafina happy.”
“Yes, more or less.”
The last voice came from the doorway. “We need your help, Rohan.”
It was Hedy, standing with her badger, watching the conversation. “If you’re willing. It’s a matter, perhaps, of life and death.”
* * *
Sera spent most of the day pacing about the small house, awaiting Hedy’s return. What would the Crones decide? Who would they choose?
They had always been careful in their selection to avoid men with the characteristics of tyrants: ambition was fine in moderation, as long as the man wasn’t abusive. Pride was acceptable only in small doses. And greed was entirely unacceptable; the mate must be generous, to give rather than to take.
The man’s anonymity and the seriousness of the ceremony meant that the couple never exchanged words. But a man could not, under any circumstance, force a woman; it was her prerogative to say no if she felt the need. If a woman wished to leave, to forfeit the Bonding, it was her right. And yet no one had ever done so. Which either meant that the Crones chose well or that the women’s desire to come into their own was stronger than their fear of the physical exchange with a man.
Sera was glad that she wouldn’t see his face, that he would be some stranger plucked from the outside world, one whom she’d never see again. That would make it easier. Living as she did in a small all-female society, she seldom interacted with men, and so there was no risk of running into the stranger on the street in an awkward moment.
This would mark Sera’s coming of age, her growing into her powers, and now, after years of dread, she felt that it couldn’t come too soon.
The door opened with a resistant creak upon Hedy’s arrival; her spells had been so powerful that even she had difficulty breaking into her own house.
“There you are, my dear,” Hedy said, advancing and laying a kind hand on Sera’s shoulder. “Are you faring all right?”
“I’m surviving,” Sera said. “I’ve been worried about Circe, of course. I keep considering using runes again, but I’m concerned that in my state I’d screw something up.”
“I will help you with that. But for now, I think you should bathe. Some of the Elders are heating water now, and will bring it over.”
“So you’ve made the selection,” said Sera. “It will happen?”
“Tonight,” said Hedy. “The Bonding will occur tonight.”
Sera slouched down on the couch, Nyx licking her hand in sympathy.
“Are you all right?” asked Hedy.
“Yes. I am, surprisingly. I don’t know what will happen, but for once I don’t feel that I need to control every little thing. I will give myself over and let it occur. For my sister.”
Hedy sat down next to her and took her hand. “You need to do it for yourself as well, my friend.”
Sera looked into her eyes; those eyes she’d known for years, but that had always seemed to come from another place, so fille
“Tell me about your Bonding,” Sera said.
Hedy let out a deep sigh, but one that seemed as much filled with pleasure as anything else.
“I came of age a little more quietly,” she said. “But then, I was an obedient thing. I’d always simply accepted it as a part of my growing up. And so when the day came I was bathed, clothed and blindfolded. Brought to the location where the ceremony was to take place.”
“They took me to a small clearing, to a bed that lay on the grass, surrounded by flowers and tall candlesticks. It was very beautiful, really, once they’d pulled the blindfold from my eyes. And they laid me down on my back, so that I could look up at the sky as I waited.
“It wasn’t long before he arrived: the man I was to couple with. He wore no shirt; only trousers. But he had a mask on, which looked like the face of a bear. It was fashioned of leather, and actually quite elegant. I could see his dark eyes through the holes, but never knew what his face looked like.”
Sera found her heart racing at the thought; it was oddly exciting. “And so?” she said.
“He was very gentle. The Elders had instructed him as to what he was to do and he guided me.”
“Did people watch?”
“No. They left the two of us alone…” Hedy seemed to drift off then, her mind wandering.
“It was something,” she said, a smile on her lips. “I know that it’s frightening, Sera, but give yourself to him, to the night, to nature. Give your body over and you will discover pleasures you never imagined. And I promise you that you will not regret it.”
“And, for a few minutes at least, try and forget what’s happened with Circe. In the end all will come right.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s a lot, all of this—to be hit with all at once.”
“Of course it is, dear.” Hedy seemed to have come back down to earth. “Use the Bonding as an escape, because that’s what it is: an escape from life as you’ve known it. It will change you in all sorts of ways.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the delicate sound of a beak hitting glass. Outside, Obsidian stood perched on a windowsill, signalling the two women of his presence.
Serafina opened the front door and the raven flew in, landing on the back of a wooden chair; his favourite perching spot. He lifted a thin leg, displaying the sheet of paper that had been folded and wrapped around it.
“Thank you, Sidian,” said Sera, removing the paper and delicately stroking the bird’s head. He took off once again, flying out and disappearing into the distance.
Sera read the note that Circe had written aloud to Hedy:
I’m fine, my dear Sister. And you will be as well. Do not worry about me, but enjoy what is to come soon. I will see you before long. I know it. There is a man named Paxx looking out for me. He is trustworthy and kind. Know that I am in good hands.
“Paxx,” Sera said quietly, a quick smile forming. She turned to Hedy. “Do you think she means it about being fine?”
“That sister of yours means everything she’s ever said. She’s strong, remember. And clever. And I’ve always suspected that she knows far more than she lets on; this only confirms it.”
“You think she’s like you?”
“A Seer? That and then some,” she said. “Though the only one who truly knows is Circe herself. For now, it’s sufficient to know that she’s well, and that you must find a way to take your mind off her, even for a little. It will be for the best.”
“I’ll try, Hedy,” said Serafina. “For her.”
* * *
It wasn’t unusual for Paxx or the other Guild members to spend time outside of their domain, to go on missions, walks, to observe the goings on within Salem and its surroundings.
But for a member to wander into the territory of the Sisterhood alone was unheard of. It was dangerous, for one thing. But for another, it was widely considered a sign of alliance. Guild members fraternizing with Ealdor’s women was a no-no.
But, unaware that Circe’s raven had delivered a reassuring note, Paxx wanted to tell Serafina that her sister was in good hands. That he and his brother would protect her.
And, admittedly, he wanted to see her. The woman who was apparently so powerful that they would steal her only sibling to get to her. He wanted to know what it was that they hoped to gain from her.
And he wanted to help.
But when he arrived in the early evening at her house he found it still abandoned, its door rendered all but useless by Mace’s fierce hands. Serafina must have been elsewhere, under the protection of the others, which he supposed meant that he should head back, avoiding discovery. He looked around for signs of life, but there were few; the village was quiet, but Paxx could see that next door a candle flickered in the window.
He shielded himself within Serafina’s house and watched out the window as the neighbour’s front door opened, an older woman guiding a younger one, blindfolded, out and down a few wooden steps. She wore a long, flowing robe and her blond hair danced in ribbons along her back. Serafina.
The women turned away, walking down the village’s main thoroughfare. As they went, other women with tall candle-holders joined them, processing away from where Paxx stood, towards a field beyond the houses in the distance.
He followed, keeping well behind them lest he should be seen. He’d always been good at concealment, at least, so that if anyone turned, he could quickly hide as though shifting into stealth mode like a chameleon.
The women sang softly as they guided Serafina, who was the tallest among them. She was dressed in what looked like red silk, trailing on the ground behind her.
On the air Paxx caught her scent: that sweet feminine aroma of arousal. This woman was going to bond with a man on this night, to give her purity over to him.
Paxx found himself smiling. Perhaps the Bonding would give her enough power to fight off the Guild members; maybe she would be safe, after all. And so would her sister.
Eventually the procession stopped, and only one woman led Serafina towards the center of the field, where a soft bed had been created for her atop the grasses, surrounded by brightly-glowing candles.
The woman helped Sera lay herself down and walked away. Paxx concealed himself in a patch of nearby trees, observing as the Elders and Aspirants moved back towards the village.
A minute later, a man emerged from the other side of the field, away from the houses, wearing a mask depicting a grey wolf’s face. The man was enormous: muscular, tall. A fighter of some sort, no doubt. He could have been a Guild member but if so, he was no one Paxx had ever seen.
As Serafina lay quietly, she pulled open the robe, revealing her naked body to the sky above. Paxx had never seen such a beautiful sight: soft, white flesh. Nipples like ripe fruit, puckering under the chill of the evening air.
Her knees were bent, her feet together in a self-conscious gesture, pulled up onto the thin mattress. And as the man approached her she looked up at him, her face a perfect expression of calm, peace, her self-consciousness fading away.
At last she offered herself to him, her knees parting, and a pang of envy hit Paxx’s chest as the stranger stroked Serafina’s calves, taking in the softness, the perfection of them. Savouring her slowly.
So the Bonding was much like their Rituals, only the math was evenly laid out: one man, one woman. She had power over him; he could see her beautiful face, while he was simply hidden; a male body for her to take.
Little did she know that a second man stood aroused, witness to the entire ceremony. That he wished the entire time to slip inside her as the anonymous male was about to do.
That he had finally seen the woman he wanted most in the world, and that she was being taken before his eyes.
* * *
Sera was fearless now—numb, perhaps, to her anxiety. For many years she’d feared this very moment, when a man she didn’t know wou
But as she lay, her robe open, her eyes fixed on the square jaw and full lips, the only part of his face that she could see, the broad chest, the arms roped with muscle, she felt nothing but arousal.
He was splendid: broad, strong, his waist tight. Deep breaths heaved in his broad chest.
He reached for her, caressing her skin, as though to tell her not to worry; that his touch would be nothing but gentle. But she’d already known that he would be kind. Something in his movements felt right to her, familiar, safe.
As he stood by her bent knees she let them fall apart, revealing herself to him, and she knew that his sharp intake of breath was a compliment. That he was aroused by her body, by witnessing her own arousal, her desire for him, her flesh shining under the moonlight, glistening with want for him.
His fingers moved to his trousers, which he undid, letting them slip to the ground and revealing his engorged sex to her eager eyes. It, like him, was enormous: thick, hard, throbbing with want.
She half-expected him to plunge it into her directly, to behave in an unceremonious manly way and to be done with her in minutes, but it seemed that he, like her, was in it to savour the moment. He was hungry, and she his feast.
He walked around her, a hand slipping gently over her white skin, fingers following her curves until he stood by her left shoulder, looking down at her. In the darkness she couldn’t see his eyes; their colour and even their shape remained mysterious. But she could see his mouth, his chin. His lips were succulent, his jaw set, determined.
He leaned forwards, pinning her arms at her sides, which she resisted only for a moment—again, he was gentle—until he leaned down to kiss her lips. His own were tender, soft, a probing tongue seeking hers as her back arched under her, her core beginning to ache with her need.
The mask constricted him a little, preventing him from delving into her every curve, but he laid soft kisses on her nipples as he grasped her arms, stiffening the pink flesh under his touch as she watched.
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