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|Damien(Nightwalkers #4) by Jacquelyn Frank|
Elijah walked around the little cell of stone slowly, his keen eyes in search of any clue that would explain what he was seeing. He glanced at his temporary partner, who was crouched near a corner full of dark stains of blood.
"This is where they were keeping the Princess, of that there is no doubt," Jasmine murmured, her voice distant as she sorted through her sensory information. Elijah had already divined that from the evidence himself. He was waiting for her to tell him something he did not already know. "Magic-users, hunters…a Demon." Her dark gaze flicked up to him questioningly.
"Ruth. A traitor."
"Ah yes. Her." Damien had shared the story with Jasmine, as well as his insights and speculations on the matter. "Well, they have all abandoned this place rather quickly. They have several hours' head start, since we had to stop for the daylight."
"I will worry about them later," Elijah told her, reminding her his interests lay elsewhere.
"The damage is from Damien, of that I have no doubt. From this point I have no sense of his trail whatsoever. But I expect that is because he is now purposely hiding it in order to throw off pursuers. What is not hidden as easily is the spoor of the Princess's blood. She was clearly bleeding with profusion."
Jasmine did not point out the obvious. The warrior had eyes in his head. They both could see the remains of the massive loss of the precious fluid that had pooled and sprayed all about them. Neither of them could see how she would ever survive such a depletion, no matter how quickly Damien might find aid for her.
"Wherever she is," Jasmine said, "whatever her state, she is with Damien. We can be assured of that much."
"We're in Mistral lands," Elijah noted as he walked out of the room and into the loft leading around the storage room below. "They have been here for a while," he observed when he saw the cots, supplies, and all the evidence of their inhabitance.
"It does not look as though these others were prepared for leaving," Jasmine said as she followed in his footsteps. "They were mid-mealtime when Damien arrived," she added, looking down at the long tables full of half-empty plates and upended mugs. "I do not understand. Why would an enemy take a leisurely meal when so dangerous a prisoner was being kept just above their heads?"
"Perhaps they did not know there even was a prisoner," Elijah said. "I have a feeling Ruth was acting on her own agenda, and as usual left these fools in the dark."
"I would have to agree. You are right. She is quite deranged. Only manic persons make these kinds of impulsive choices."
"It certainly is not the way I taught her to think," Elijah said grimly. "Not what I know her to be capable of." He turned to the Vampire. "We better continue on after Damien and Syreena. As much as I would like to, I can't afford to chase these necromancers down until I am certain they are safe."
"Agreed," Jasmine said, admiring his logic and his ability to circumvent the very powerful emotional instinct to seek out his enemy. It was what made the difference between a warrior, and a leader of warriors. It was why Jasmine was certain Elijah would catch up to Ruth in the end. Ruth was a poor leader, wasting her energy and her resources to satisfy her emotional needs, rather than satisfying a proper strategy.
Assuring herself in this way, this time she followed the warrior as he took off to track Syreena's trail.
Damien stood out in the cold darkness, letting the night wind blow over his body. It rippled through his freshly laundered clothing, snapping back his retwisted braid.
He was in need of a feed.
He pushed the need aside easily, however. He could not in good conscience leave the cottage and those within it for any amount of time. Windsong and Lyric had put themselves at great risk for his benefit, and he would not leave them to their own devices when he had potentially led enemies straight to their doorstep. Windsong's protection songs were quite impressive, but they would not work forever, nor would they keep out someone like Ruth who had no doubt become largely immune to such manipulations.
Frankly, he was surprised she had not already come.
It was a logical move to let her prisoner slip away at this point, because if one Nightwalker had been able to track her, there were likely others in his wake. If it were Damien, he would have concentrated on misdirection and other tools to mislead anyone trying to find them as they escaped their discovered stronghold.
But logic was rarely a part of the thought processes of a woman driven in the way Ruth was. It would be very like her to ignore wise tactics for the sake of personal gratification.
At least, it was at this point.
It was clear that Ruth had discarded all sense of self-preservation for the present. If only her lackeys would come to realize that, maybe they would stop following her commands so easily. If they were eliminated from the equation, it would make her capture much more likely. Magic was such a nonquantifiable resource. There were no set guidelines. The outline of possibility changed with the variables. Until now, for instance, no one had known it was possible for a Nightwalker to even use magic.
What a frightening prospect that was. Black magic had one true universal: it corrupted unanimously. It was why magic-users smelled so vile to Nightwalkers, this corruption that went soul-deep. It was…
It was the antithesis to the love of soul mates.
Elijah and Siena were soul mates. Theirs was a love that had transcended cultural taboo, their personal independence of spirit, and had managed to defy every written rule of the Nightwalker world. While magic could accomplish these things as well, the effects were the telling point.
Siena and her mate were now a synchronous being. They had come into harmony to create a unified force that was impressive and powerful. It was rapidly destroying walls of prejudice and suspicion; it was eliminating the possibility of any future wars between their two disparate societies. It was building a prospect for those in the present, and their children of the future.
Magic only created discord. It hurt, it harmed, it tore carefully sewn seams to shreds. Nature became unbalanced and suffered under its poison. An example in the starkest sense would be the magical act of a Demon Summoning. It stole the named Demon out of his or her life, entrapped them in a poisonous pentagram, forcing them under magic's sway. It mutated them into monsters without souls, without conscience, the ultimate insult to a member of a species who were normally so moral and conscious of their behaviors.
Magic had its ways of hurting Vampires as well. He had seen them murdered with it, eviscerated, decapitated, and paralyzed, left on the ground until the dawn came.
It would never be truly eradicated, the Prince realized, until every spell book, every scroll full of those cursed words, was burned into nothingness, and then those who had such things in their memories were also destroyed.
It was an impossible prospect. The discovery of spell compendiums in the hidden Library had shown him that. For 100 years magic had been quelled, but its recent resurgence made it all too clear it could not be eradicated.
Damien turned sharply, surprised to realize he had been so deep in thought that he had not heard the approach from behind.
Then again, she was hardly a threat.
After a fashion.
"Syreena, you should be resting."
"I can't sleep," she said with a shrug.
She had wrapped herself in her quilt to keep herself warm. He saw the flash of a powder blue skirt around her knees. Apparently Windsong had lent her a dress to replace her torn and soiled one. Her feet were bare, and just the sight of them on the cold ground was enough to give him a chill down his neck.
"Come here," he commanded gently, beckoning her forward.
She obeyed without argument, a testament to how vulnerable she still was and still felt. He reached around her slight figure, scooping her feet off the ground and raising her up into the seat of a boulder that was just beside him. With the quilt beneath her to protect her from the cold of the stone, it was an improvement, if not much of one.
The rock situated her just above the level of his waist. He did not join her because there was not enough room on the slightly slanted surface. Instead, he leaned his hip against it near her knees, facing her as he gave her a good study from head to toe.
"I have only been sick once before in all of my life," she mentioned quietly as she turned her face up to the pronounced stars above her.
"This is not a sickness," he reminded her gently.
"It feels the same. If not worse."
"I can imagine."
"It was when this happened," she noted, her fingers sweeping through the brown strands of her hair first, and then what remained of the thinned gray.
"What color was it originally?" he asked out of honest curiosity.
"Hmm. I actually don't remember. It was so long ago. I think I asked Siena that question in a letter once and she conveniently ignored it."
"Perhaps so she would not allow you to bias yourself against half of yourself."
"I agree," she said with a nod. "It was very hard to accept being so different in the beginning. I imagine I was a bit of a nasty thing to be around at the time. It is strange how things that are so important to us when we are younger become so impossible to remember later on."
"I don't remember much of my first one hundred years," he said. "It was all something of a blur." His half-smile of mischief reached his eyes, making a liar of him.
"I see. Caused a bit of trouble, did you?"
"A bit," he chuckled. "Too much. Too much fun. When we are young, we do not understand that such a thing is possible. Not until we hit the downside of the mountain." His smile faded as he looked up at her. "I fell into torpor shortly after that. My disenchantment was by far the worst thing I had ever felt before or since. I literally found myself a hole and curled up for one hundred twenty-one years. When I woke, I made a pact with myself to be more gentle and appreciative of my time and my amusements. I have not needed to sulk in that way since then."
"Which is why you have accumulated the power and wisdom to become Prince of your peoples."
"I suppose so." He studied her features for a long moment. "Do you never resent the fact that all the course your life has taken has been decided by someone else?"
"I do. Resent may be too strong a word, though. Resentment is for childhood. Adults are merely frustrated."
Damien understood her distinction all too clearly. Her position did not allow her the luxury of a good old-fashioned temper tantrum.
"Perhaps one day you will have the opportunity to go your own way."
"Perhaps. Perhaps after Siena begins her family, securing the line of the throne. Even then, I am her most trusted and essential advisor. I am logic when her emotion is harmful. She needs me."
"And what do you need, Syreena?" he asked her softly.
"I need to be needed," she said at first, assuring herself that it might be enough to satisfy her. However, they both knew that was not the entire truth. "Why do you ask me this?"
"The question should be 'why don't you ask yourself this?'" he remarked.
"I see. You suddenly know me so well?" Her tone was mean and clipped, defense mechanisms so obvious they were like a neon sign saying KEEP OUT!
"I know what it means to have responsibilities and to be the focus of everyone else's expectations of me. I know what it means to be royalty, Syreena. I am the closest thing you will ever know to yourself besides your sister."
He had too valid a point, Syreena realized angrily. He read her too well, for all he was a stranger. It made her feel even more vulnerable, a feeling that she would always despise in herself. She hated being weak in the face of anything.
But why not? she thought bitterly. She had proven herself to be nothing short of weak in the past twenty-four hours.
Damien knew her confidence had been shaken. He had known it from the moment he had found her huddled in the corner like a sick and frightened puppy, beaten and bleeding and terribly defeated. She had nothing to be ashamed of, she just did not understand that. She did not realize that Ruth could have done just as much damage to any one of them-Noah, Siena, and himself included.
"Syreena, do not blame yourself for being victimized," he said quietly.
"What do you know of what my blame and my feelings are?" she snapped with sudden acrimony. She leapt from the rock in her anger, stumbling as her feet hit the ground. He instinctively reached to balance her with a helping hand, but she struck him away. "Stop trying to help me! The rescue is over. Your duty to my sister is fulfilled. You do not have to be so nice to me any longer!"
She stalked off, but he quickly followed at her heels.
"I do not recall your sister ever entering my mind when I decided to come after you," he shot at her back.
The remark made her come to a halt. She whirled around to face him, her bicolored eyes narrowing with suspicion and rage.
"Don't you dare patronize me!"
"I was not aware that I was."
"Why are you doing this? Why are you still here? Why are you following me yet?"
"Because you apparently need to be followed. You need to be protected. And, as you said yourself, you need to be needed."
Damien could understand her sudden expression of surprise. He did not know where that last item had come from.
"In what way could you possible have a need for me?"
The multitude of answers that flooded Damien had the power to make even a Vampire blush. Where it came from, again he had no idea, but it was there all the same, bright and bold and piercingly sharp. It was an instinct, and he had lived by them too long to start ignoring them now.