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|Damien(Nightwalkers #4) by Jacquelyn Frank|
But it was fresh and clean and bracing as she breathed deeply of it with pleasure. At the same time, she folded her arms tight and close around her middle to conserve the warmth of her body. She was wearing a sheath dress knit of cashmere that was held up only by her bare shoulders and barely reached her knees. She wore a simple slip-on shoe, inappropriate for trudging through snow.
She was part animal, however, and designed to withstand those sorts of hardships. It would not bother her as easily as it would a human or even some of the other Nightwalkers.
She was in forestland, half of the trees standing stark and bare on the dark landscape, the other half hulking shadows of pine and other trees that kept their hearty foliage year-round. She began to walk, the crunching of her steps the only sound around her. Beneath that, of course, were the natural life sounds of the forest. However, even that would become quiet soon. In spite of her affinity to animals, she was still an apex predator, something to be feared more than harmonized with. In shapechange, she was only an apparent threat to smaller animals.
She was tempted to discard her clothes and become the falcon. She so enjoyed free-flying in the clear night sky. But she was supposed to carry out certain responsibilities on this first evening of the opening of the Library. It was bad enough that she had wandered off. She would allow herself a short, refreshing walk in the snow and then she would return. The purpose was to gain a clear head, to readjust her perspective. Nature in and of itself was a meditative process, so she was hoping she would find a calmer center for herself. She could not afford the mood with which she had greeted the Vampire Prince. It was her duty, in fact, to be just the opposite, to be cordial and diplomatic to all other Nightwalkers who did not threaten her.
Because there was no way, in practice, to put politics aside in these matters. An insult to any person, whether of the type of power Damien weighted or just the simplest citizen in the Nightwalker world, could have far-reaching implications that had the potential to begin wars.
Syreena moved forward slowly through the dark night. There was no moon in the sky, at least not one that could be seen through the heavy veil of dark clouds that hung low near the treetops.
She honestly needed to figure out what was wrong with her. It was as if she had reverted to the confused, volatile child she had been just before she had been sent to The Pride. But she was not a child. She was one hundred eight years old, well trained, highly intellectual, and emotionally centered.
She knew that the effects of peace outweighed the effects of war. She knew that contention and surliness bred itself, just as softness of the voice and approach bred respect in return.
Syreena stopped suddenly when she thought she heard a sound behind her. She abruptly turned, her keen eyes divining and identifying all the objects in the dark. There was nothing there to be seen. Not even an animal. They were all sitting still and hidden until her intrusion passed.
She dismissed it as a random echo or a trick of her mind. If it were anything else, she would have sensed it.
She shivered with serious chill, but ignored the discomfort. Truly, her human form was the one she felt most exposed in. She spent a great deal of her time as the falcon. She would choose the dolphin more often if there were a ready source of deep enough water outside of the occasional cavern lake. At least in those forms she could guard or self-regulate against this type of temperature extreme.
Again she heard a telling sound to her rear. This time she whirled around and into an instinctive crouch. She balanced herself with a bracing hand in the snow as she peered into the darkness. Still, she saw nothing. However, this time, she could not dismiss it. She suddenly realized that she was not the only thing making the night forest feel unnaturally still and silent.
Syreena felt a sudden eddy of displaced air, the gentle puff of it stirring her hair from behind. As she turned back with violent speed, she realized she had been tricked. Tricked into turning her back to the actual approach.
And that it was very much a trick of the mind.
She narrowed harlequin eyes on the woman who had suddenly appeared in the darkness. She had only a heartbeat of time to note the familiar blond hair and the bright blue eyes that shivered with rage and madness.
"Let us play, Princess," the wicked female invited her with a soft hiss of breath.
Identifying the name of the Demon traitor who had turned to evil, joining with the black humans who toyed with corrupt magics they knew very little about, was the only thing Syreena had time for before the creature grabbed for her.
The Princess dodged, thinking on the run. She could not let Ruth touch her. If she did, the female Demon of the Mind would be able to teleport Syreena away from the familiarity and potential support of her homeland in the blink of an eye.
At least, she hoped that was the case. Ruth was an aberration now, a Demon who had used black magic. No one had ever done such a thing before, and Ruth had already proven to be capable of extraordinary power and ruthlessness.
"Let us see how much your sister loves that murderer she calls her husband when she realizes he is responsible for her beloved sister's death," Ruth threatened coldly.
Syreena felt a sudden and overwhelming panic, too sudden and too alien to be natural. The Demon was seeping into her mind, toying with it and altering her perception and her center of balance. Syreena stumbled as nausea overwhelmed her. Instinctively, she tossed her head to one side, exposing all of the brown of her hair.
But Ruth was a Mind Demon, and she anticipated the instinct even before Syreena could recognize she had put it into thought. Like a flash of lightning, she teleported herself onto the Princess's back, her sudden weight driving Syreena down face first into the snow. Syreena felt Ruth's gripping fingers sinking into her hair. Ruth's hands fisted, binding the living appendage that was her tresses so tightly that Syreena was forced to scream from the suffocating pain.
Once a Lycanthrope's hair was caught or bound, they could not change. The entrapment was a Lycanthrope's worst nightmare. On top of it, Ruth now had the contact she clearly needed to steal Syreena from the Russian forest. Battling her fear, the Princess knew her only recourse would be to disrupt the Demon's ability to concentrate. In spite of her skill, Ruth still needed to focus to perform the escape. The Princess reached back past her shoulder and raked out with outstretched nails, scoring the other woman nastily across her cheek and throat.
The physics of the fight called for a reaction to follow the action. Syreena was rewarded for her strike with a scream, but punished for it by the sudden wrenching of her head as the Demon woman clutching her hair reared back.
The pain was phenomenal as roots of her hair gave way to the stress of Ruth's amazing strength. She tore out so much of it that one of her hands pulled free in the process. Syreena fell back with Ruth's momentum as she was yanked over from front to back. They landed in the snow, and the Queen's sister felt the warm rush of her own blood pouring back into her hair. The saturation was so fast and so thorough that even the snow was pooling it in a swiftly melting hollow by the time Ruth regrouped enough to grab her around the throat with her now free hand. The hold was enough to remind Syreena that the woman had once been a warrior. A very good one, at that. One who had served in the three hundred year war between the Demons and the Lycanthropes. She knew all their weaknesses and, obviously, how to exploit them.
And Syreena had thought herself up to this challenge?
Ruth was cutting off her air supply, all the while forcing fear into her mind until her thoughts were so hazed over that she was paralyzed and could not think of a way to counterattack. The Princess suddenly realized that what made a remarkable fighter by her own people's standards was significant only when brought up in a cloistered setting. She had never fought a Demon hand to hand before.
It was clear why the Demons had so often been victorious in battle against them. Her father had truly been a madman to perpetuate such a war, madder still to think he could ever have won it. It was only now, seeing Demon power at its harshest intensity that she began to appreciate the restraint Noah's people had used all of those years.
That was her last thought before the world went black.
Damien stepped out of the cavern exit he had traced the Princess to, his foot obliterating her smaller print in the snow. The cold hit him harshly, but he ignored it and closed his eyes. His head tilted as he reached out for her with better senses. She was a creature of both nature and power. It would make her easy to sense if she was not too far away. She might have taken flight for all he knew, in which case tracking her would become a much more complex project.
He opened his eyes and moved forward into the darkness, taking note of the deadly quiet around him. Special membranes flicked over his eyes without even a thought and, some distance away, a smear of pink residual heat stood out like a neon beacon. Damien could tell that there was no living being there, but one had been, so he continued his tracking.
Why he felt so compelled to tender an apology for what was probably a mostly imagined slight, Damien did not know. He had learned to obey his instincts, however, through a long lifetime that had taught him it was more often better to do so than not. As Damien neared the fading pink blur, he became aware of faint shapes to it. The least pronounced was a handprint in the snow. Then there was a sweeping flare of patterns he could not determine an origin from.
He flicked to normal vision and dropped to a single knee near the wide circle of disturbed snow. The only thing he could immediately determine in the darkness was that there were no footprints leading from the place, only Syreena's and his own leading to it.
He was about to give up, thinking she had obviously flown out of the spot, when he realized that the moisture soaking through the knee of his pants was not normal.
It was not cold.
It was warm.
The pungent tang of blood reached him a heartbeat after that thought.
The Vampire swore softly, cursing himself for his inattentiveness and carelessness as he scooped up a handful of the red-tinged snow.
Suddenly everything added up. All the pieces came together with dreadful clarity. Damien cursed again, realizing that his perceptions had been toyed with. There was no way he would ever miss a blood scent. Not even from a hundred yards away. His skills were beyond bountiful when it came to such things. He was the oldest and most powerful of his kind.
And he had been fooled by a simple little glamour.
He stood up, clenching his fist around the snow he held, letting it drip unheeded to the ground through tightened fingers as he extended every sense he had once more, this time circumventing the trick, pushing away the outside influence that had deceived his mind.
The scent and vibration of battle overwhelmed him instantly. There was fear and rage and desperation so intense that he could taste it right along with the flavor of blood that now rose up from all around him. Snow that had appeared white moments ago now showed the truth of the blood splattered into it. Residual energy and heat blanketed the area of the struggle.
He raised his hand to his mouth, breathing deeply of the scent of the blood he held gripped in his palm, familiarizing himself with the hormone and pheromone levels of it. It was Lycanthrope, clearly Syreena's. His fangs exploded behind his lips and he snarled softly.
That was when he realized he was clutching strands of gray hair between his fingers and palm along with the snow.
He threw down the compressed slush.
He had her blood scent, and now he could quickly and far more easily track her.
That was all that mattered.
Ruth took great pleasure in throwing the Lycanthrope Princess into a corner of the small stone room they had arrived in. All Syreena could do was protect her profusely bleeding head from striking the wall.
At least for the first moment.
The next moment she had her feet under her and was lunging with unexpected calculation at the Demon female. Ruth had forgotten that this Lycanthrope was not just some weakling little figurehead to a monarchy. Syreena was a Monk, and she had spent nearly her entire life with The Pride finding out what that made her capable of.
Her rigid bicep contacted Ruth's unprotected throat, knocking her right off her feet. The Demon hit the floor on her back. She got kudos for a quick comeback, however, as she swiftly used her position on the floor to kick Syreena's legs out from under her. The Princess lost her breath and saw stars as her back and head hit the stone floor. On top of the blood loss she was beginning to feel the effects of, it thoroughly disoriented her.
Disorientation was more than enough to give Ruth the advantage. The Demon shouted out a phrase Syreena did not comprehend, but a heartbeat later she understood it was a spell.
A Demon casting magic.
The Lycanthrope knew this was so because out of thin air she felt hands closing around her throat. All she could do was gasp for breath and claw at her own neck for something that was not even there. There was nothing to latch on to, nothing to struggle with, except for the slim gold and moonstone collar she wore that was the badge of her inheritance to the Lycanthrope throne.
Ruth took the opportunity to regroup, straightened her clothing, and kneeled down over her victim. Syreena watched with wide eyes as the Demon smiled with clear contentment.
"There now, that is much better," she said, her tone almost motherly and soothing as she reached to pat the Princess on her forehead.
Syreena's face was turning red, her feet kicking out violently for some kind of purchase.
"If you sit still, I will let go," Ruth told her gently.
Syreena did not believe her, and it was apparent in her defiant eyes. She might die at the madwoman's hands, but she would not do so submissively.
"Oh, have it your way, then," Ruth snapped at her, clapping her hands and releasing the spell.
Syreena gagged violently. She rolled over, turning away from the Demon as she struggled to recapture her breath. Tears ran down her face and she fought the nausea and the headache lancing behind her swollen eyes.